A Quick Playtest Update

So, the online playtest has kicked off and been going strong for a little over a week, and I thought I'd give a progress report. We're still in the clan creation phase, but it's working out well. I was afraid that the online format might kill some of the collaborative goodness of the group setting crafting, but so far we've had lots of that nonetheless, which is really encouraging. Everybody's different ideas are inspiring and spinning off everybody else's, so I couldn't be happier so far.

In a similar vein, Google Wave is really useful for online RPGs. I'm totally sold. In addition to running this playtest, I'm playing in a friend's Big Eyes Small Mouth game, and it's going along swimmingly, even with jumping right into a combat scene. It tailors nicely to a variety of time frames for update availability, and easily supports people jumping in with contributions to different portions (the 'nested reply' option, which allows you to reply directly to a specific message in a wave, is particularly good for this).

After some more experience with both games, I'll probably post my thoughts on using Wave for online games, with some recommendations and such like, but for now, I say go for it if you have any desire to play traditional RPGs online.

A Quick Update

So, the "Book of Threes" playtest is getting rolling, and I'm pretty excited about the opportunities Google Wave is offering for online pencil and paper roleplaying. But since it hasn't gotten very far yet, no commentary so far on the game, and my energies towards it are more focused on getting this game running than on doing more tweaking until I see where it's going.

That being said, I have still been thinking about this whole starter RPG concept, and right now I'm leaning towards a core resolution that looks a lot like the "Otherkind Dice" I talked about a few posts back, with the inclusion of something similar to the "Secrets" and "Keys" seen in Lady Blackbird and The Shadow of Yesterday. But I want to go a little different than that, otherwise I'd really be better off just running Lady Blackbird straight, I think. The key is that I want the rules to be darn simple, but still evocative. So, I'm tossing that stuff around. Let me know if you have thoughts.

Online Playtest

So, with the revised conflict resolution rules settled as a starting point, I think it's time to take the leap and start playtesting. But my current environment is barren not only in water, but also gamers.

So I'm going to give Google Wave a try for an online playtest of "The Book of Threes". If you're interested in participating, comment here or email me, and I'll set you up with a Wave account invite. I'm hoping to get the clan and character creation process kicked off sometime next week, depending on how quickly I can get together 4 or 5 folks.

If you have any questions about what would be involved, how the online thing would work, or whatever, let me know.

Revised Conflict Resolution

Well, after thinking about the issues raised in Conflict Resolution Conflict, I've come to what I think is a workable starting point for moving forward with the core resolution rules for "The Book of Threes".

I decided to go with letting both sides put forward a set number of dice, and for that number to be equal to the leader's current Wealth score. This gives wealth something to do as a static value, and ties it directly into conflict resolution, so now all three resources have something to do in conflict.

You can find the revised conflict resolution rules here: Revised Conflict Resolution

ed: the main playtest document now contains this updated section in place of the old one. It was crap anyway. But I've left this separate document up for easier reference of the first major change since posting the rules.


It's done! I wrote a quick little hack for "Agon" to play in a Norse flavor called "Ragonarok" (see what I did there?). The rules changes are available as text here on the blog or as part of a PDF that includes custom character and reference sheets, and a pretty neat little picture of Odin I whipped up. Let me know what you think! Even if you haven't played Agon, I'd love to hear what you think of the layout.

Ragonarok Page with PDF

Otherkind Dice

Okay, all my thinking about conflict resolution in the prior post is, as I said, tied into reading about really cool conflict resolution systems that do require addressing the fiction and do push the players into directions they wouldn't necessarily have taken their character themselves, but in a satisfying way. One dirt simple but totally awesome way of doing that is Otherkind Dice.

The link above is really short, it takes like 2 minutes to read, and if you don't check them out, the rest of this entry will be pretty vague and possibly confusing. Just a caveat.

So anyhow, these rules are really cool. I dig them a lot, and I'd love to use them at some point. But I don't think they're necessarily right for "The Book of Threes" for a couple reasons. First of all, they don't emphasize teamwork or leaders/allies at all, which is a huge part of TBoT, obviously. Secondly, I want the game rules to reflect somewhat the 'sort' of character you have. I didn't go for an out and out description of everything your character is or can attempt to accomplish, as with more traditional games like D&D, because, frankly, if it makes sense at all and would be cool, I want you to be able to give it a shot. But I did want the rules to reflect whether you have a smart guy, a buff guy, or a spirited guy (or whatever) to a degree, not for that to be only decided moment to moment during play.

Now, let's talk about what makes them awesome, with an eye towards how that can influence my designs ("The Book of Threes" and whatever else). First off, they're wicked simple. You can play an exciting and engaging RPG with 3d6, some friends, and some imagination. Next, they give the player a lot of control over what shape the narrative takes, but without just being 'say what you want to happen'. Within that control are some interesting decisions to make. This gets right to my pet concept of 'opportunity cost'. Sure, you have the chance to just out and out get what you want the way you want (as you should have a chance of doing), but when the dice don't come up perfect, you have to make tough choices about what's really important to you (and your character). This is the joy of tactical decision making married to character/story-focused play! Hurrah! Also, by separating accomplishment of the action and suffering negative consequences for it, you get a much more interesting range of accomplishment than just success/failure. You get everything from 'you fail and it sucks a lot' to 'you succeed and its awesome', but most importantly, you get the in-between stuff of 'you fail but don't get messed up' or 'you succeed but pay for it' with some degrees of separation there too.

This is an awesome example of elegance in design. You have a simple, easy mechanic that produces complex, fun results. I would love to bring this quality to my designs. I'm currently pondering how this and some other resolution mechanics can color my ideas for the rules I've written. There might be some big changes coming, but I'm at a wall right now. Play would probably suggest some good ways to go.

Return of Conflict Resolution

So, in an earlier post I talked about some sticking points with conflict resolution as it currently stands in "The Book of Threes". Right now, I'm having some more fundamental questions about the system than just the number of dice that should be put forward by participants in a round. I'm wondering how much the current conflict resolution rules contribute to what I want the game to be and how players will actually, you know, play the game.

I have a couple concerns in this area, which I want to discuss, and then I'm going to outline what I do like about the rules as they stand. I would love to get comments both on the rules as written, and any suggestions for ways to better achieve my aims.

So, first off, "The Book of Threes" is supposed to be about creating story. That is the main goal of the rules. I don't want a tactical game that might happen to produce story, or a simulation of fictional physics that also might happen to come up with stories. If you play the rules as written, you should get fun, compelling stories that hit issues the players are interested in and put their characters into situations that provoke thought and emotional response from the players.

A word about what I mean when I say "story" since it is a marvelously vague word. I don't just mean "a sequence of events logically connected", nor do I mean something that can or necessarily should be transcribed into fiction. There's no point in trying to out-fiction fiction with a game. Any player could just write a short story or a novel to scratch that particular itch.

I discuss what I mean by "story" in the "Running the Game" chapter (which I'm afraid might be a horrible mess right now). I'm using a theory of story from Lajos Egri via various game designers, primarily Ron Edwards (Sorceror, Trollbabe, and more) and Vincent Baker (Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, Poison'd, et cetera). As defined by these guys, story has three elements: fit characters, dynamic situations, and premise.

Fit characters are characters that can and will cope with the situations they come into in ways that address the premise. It's not much of a story to have a peasant wander around and get stomped on by a dragon. A peasant trying to fight a dragon, discovering he's in no way fit to do that, then pursuing various goals to become able to fight that dragon, though, would be a story.

Dynamic situations are situations that by their nature have to change. They're not stable. When the characters are introduced to them, they will have to make choices and/or come into conflict. The peasant knowing there's a dragon out there somewhere isn't a dynamic situation, necessarily. Learning that the dragon is working his way from village to village towards the peasant's home village probably would be, though.

Finally, you have premise, which ties the other two together and gives them their meaning. In the sense I'm using it here, premise is the parent of theme. Theme is what you get when premise is addressed. So, if a theme is a statement of some sort of judgement or value (like, say, "ordinary people will do extraordinary things in the face of great danger"), a premise is a pointed question that leads to such statements ("what will ordinary people do when faced with great danger?"). Theme is what you want to work with in a solo work, cos you make all the decisions that will illustrate that theme. In a collaborative work like an RPG, though, part of the fun is not knowing for sure what conclusions you will come to about the story your characters are involved in. But you can select a premise that forces you and your characters to drive towards some kind of answer. As an example, in "Dogs in the Vineyard" the premise encouraged by the rules is "when is violence an appropriate solution to moral issues?", and the whole game is set up to put the characters in situations where they can do violence to try to sort out moral issues, but to throw up complications that make that question interesting.

So, I went through this little overview here to frame my current concerns about the game. I wrote the rules with the intention of pushing the characters (the creation of which should make them fit) to come up with difficult questions (premises) regarding loyalty, duty, and friendship, and to strongly encourage the GM and players to put them into difficult spots that require making tough choices (dynamic situation). I pulled a lot of what I've learned from reading some really impressive games together to try to arrive at these goals.

Right now, though, as I mentioned above, I'm afraid that the conflict resolution rules as such don't push these goals specifically enough. I like the way that oaths, grudges, and loyalty points give incentives to work with other people, and how the personal interests, family interests, and clan interests create unstable situations that generate conflict, and how the acquisition of glory points is an incentive to get into trouble with other people. But as for the actual conflict resolution rules, do they do enough to force you to make difficult choices and to be used to address the kind of conflicts that the other rules encourage. The tension between getting what you want and risking injury is good, I think, but I worry that the conflict rules themselves are just something that are there because I felt like I should have them.

Ideally, I don't want the rules just to be something that doesn't get in the way of fun, exciting play, but rather something that *creates* fun, exciting play. I want them to push the players in directions they might not go on their own, because if they don't, you might as well just be doing group improv.

Related to this is an issue that Vincent Baker talks about a lot on his blog anyway a lot, which is the rules meaningfully addressing the shared fiction of the game. The canonical example is "+1 bonus for height advantage". The only way this rule makes any sense at all is if the players around the table have a clear picture in their head which characters could be said to be 'on the high ground', which you only really get when everybody is communicating and paying attention. In this instance, the fictional situation that everybody is imagining actually has bearing on the game rules, rather than it only going the other way (you rolled a 19, so that orc just got hit with your sword).

I worry that my rules as written don't do enough to reinforce a connection with the in-game fiction. Sure, the traits are supposed to be used based on how your character is doing something, and abilities based on what specifically he's doing, but if a player can just go "I'll use D8s since I want to get glory vs his D12s, and my ability 'Expert Swordsman' because it has the highest rating" and then just roll the dice and not pay attention to what the actions in the fiction are, then I haven't done my job. The rule that each rounds described events are decided and done at the end of the round is an attempt to force the players to have some idea of what's going on fictionally before rolling into the next round, but a rule that just says "do this" without anything else depending on you doing it isn't very helpful.

So, if you take a look at the rules, or already have done so, I would like to hear back two main points: do the conflict resolution rules as written (or with tweaks major or minor) a) contribute to addressing premise and otherwise creating an engaging story, and b) require the players to be paying attention to the fictional environment and actions of the characters? If not, please tell me why so I can fix them!

Conflict Resolution

Okay, so, I've been posting some stuff about the game over at this thread on the Forge, both to try to target some hard-core design oriented folks and to draw traffic towards the blog and game :) At any rate, a commenter over there pointed out a glaring deficiency with the conflict resolution rules as written, and then proposed a great solution for one part of it, and some potential solutions for the other, that I wanted to hash out here.

Okay, so first off, the easy part. It was brought to my attention that the 'aggressor' despite his name, actually usually gets little to do in the conflict, and has little effect on the direction of the conflict unless his roll is super good. Which is lame. So, I probably need to change the whole 'only put forward your highest die' thing. That's the hard part I'm gonna get onto next. But whatever change I make to that, there's a simpler and I think better way to handle 'the aggressor'. Usually, a conflict is gonna have one party or another who says "okay, let's do this! No more pussy footing around, I want to force the issue!" That guy's gonna be the aggressor. I might need to put in something for if two guys both simultaneously say they want to go for it, but I think that's gonna be pretty rare. So the aggressor is whoever initiates the conflict in round one, and thereafter whoever scores a partial success is the aggressor in the next round. Easy, and it makes sense. It also keeps the 'back and forth' feel I wanted to get.

Now the hard part. So, as alluded to above, right now it sucks to be the aggressor. Rolling the highest die, especially against an opponent with a dice pool of any size, makes it really easy to get hosed. So, I think the aggressor needs to have the option to a) put forward more than 1 die, and b) decide which dice go out there. I don't want it to just be 'as many dice as you want' as it currently is with the responder, because then an aggressor with larger dice can just decide the contest in round one by putting forward gobs of high dice. I also think that the current responder rules prioritize super committing in round one to get a decisive outcome, rather than the tactical use of dice over multiple rounds like I want to have.

So, I see three (heh) options here right now. I would love to hear more if y'all have some suggestions.

  • First, assign an arbitrary value of dice you can use per round (3 is tempting)

  • Second, you can assign 1 die per person on your side

  • Third, some value based on a characteristic. I'm leaning towards your current 'wealth' value to give it some in-game use as a static value

Okay, with the arbitrary value, this muzzles large groups somewhat, and I think would give more power to larger dice size than currently exists (3d12 are usually going to be higher than 3d8). This might fit the 'uphill fight' against stronger traits that I want to have, but it also might make using lower traits darn near impossible to actually gain anything.

With 1 die per person, we have the opposite effect. Larger groups of minimally skilled guys become more effective than small groups of skilled guys. Which might be okay, but I don't know. It would also mess with my 'minion' rules where you just have a named NPC and his goons represented as 'an ability'. It would, however, emphasize the role of allies somewhat more, which is a core concept for the design.

Finally, with a characteristic, this adds a bit more 'crunch' to the character traits/resources/abilities/whatever. Loyalty and glory both have something to do in conflicts, and I kind of wanted Wealth to have a more direct effect than just buying abilities. This would also give your wealth sitting there on your sheet something to do besides bribe other characters and save up for ability purchasing at the end of the chapter. It doesn't really have any flavor justification at all (all of the armbands and rings I have make me super effective!) but from a resource-interaction standpoint, it has some appeal.

Finally, d4s might just be totally worthless. That same commenter pointed out that a d4 is half a d8, but a d8 is two thirds of a d12, so there's an uneven spread there. On the other hand, d6 might be too close. Curse you Euclidean space for not allowing a d9!

So, I end this post with a question: which method makes sense to you? Or do you have a better suggestion?

Do the Wave

So, in a comment to a previous entry, Joon Phil mentioned this article. It highlights the uses of Google Wave as an online roleplaying venue. I've applied for an invitation to start using wave, because I want to check it out. If anyone else is interested, you can request an invite here. I'm considering using it to playtest "The Book of Threes" down the road a bit, and I'm always hungry for as much roleplaying as I can get my hands on, so I think this might help.

Name Day

It's decided!

I'm going to go ahead and go with Tyler's suggestion of "The Book of Threes" until it dies or I find a better one. So feel free to throw down with any suggestions or to tell me that's crap, but "The Book of Threes" is the new working title.
Beats the Annuvin out of "Celto-Germania".

These are Neat

Okay, real quick post here. I just added The Mighty Atom to my blogroll. It's the blog for John Harper, author of that Agon game I reviewed earlier. His blog has some good posts on gaming, but what I want to point out here are the games in the left side bar. In addition to Agon, which you can buy as a PDF or regular book (and I highly recommend you do), you can also get three quick, clever little games for free. That's right, free. They're called "Lady Blackbird", "Ghost/Echo", and "The Mustang" in descending order of complexity (and "Lady Blackbird Weighs in at a hefty 16 pages, 13 of which are character sheets).

The idea behind all of these is that they give you a very specific starting scenario, very simple rules, and more or less pre-defined characters and you go with it, and they go in cool directions. The very brevity is inspiring, and the elegance is pretty neat. I can't wait to give them a try, and I've been thinking about them pretty intently since I read them last night. Check em out!

Insert Title Here

No really, this post is about titles :)

So, as mentioned before, I have no idea what to name this bad boy as yet. I've been engaging in some correspondence with my friend Tyler who's pointed me in some good directions, and I thought I'd share the stuff that's working for me, and see if anyone else can take it in a better direction than I can.

So, my goals for the title are for it to be simple and evocative of the milieu, without locking in any really specific flavor elements (so, while "The Crow Father's Children" has a cool ring to it, I don't want to lock in the Crow Father as one of the gods your group has to use or assume is real). Likewise "In the House of Winter" sounds awesome, but doesn't have much to do with the game as it stands.

A "list" sort of name, particularly one that features three elements (if you hadn't noticed "three" is a theme throughout the rules) might be good. Something like "Bronze, Bone, and Birch" or "Oak and Bronze, Ash and Iron". Especially since lists feature so prominently in the clan creation rules. If I could come up with better names for "Loyalty, Wealth, and Glory" then those would be prime candidates for the title.

I keep wanting to steal the name "The Book of Three" from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, but that might be too obvious/stealing-y.

So, thoughts on names?

Initial Design Thoughts

So, I wanted to keep these thoughts separate from the announcement post so that it didn't get overwhelmed with the information here. I just wanted to lay out a few of the thoughts I had while designing the rules, with the hope that this will open up more avenues of approach for improving the rules (like "you wanted this rule to do what? You're way off base!).

First off, the ideas that got me going on this game were notions of conflicting loyalties, and the idea of loyalty impairing your ability to act independently. I wanted to create a game where your character was likely to be torn between a variety of groups (family, friends, associations, himself) on how to act. But I also wanted to leave all the actual decisions in the hands of the player (so no "if you fail this roll you have to do what your family says!) so I tried to set up a system of incentives to act in various ways. I think the 'three resources' are more the core of the game than the resolution rules themselves, but I tried to get them to interact in interesting ways, giving each resource something to do with conflict resolution, as well as a way to gain them through conflicts. The one thing I didn't quite achieve was tying each of the three resources directly into relationships with the clans.

Speaking of the three resources, my guiding principle there was opportunity cost. I wanted every resource to have multiple viable uses and compelling alternatives, so that it's painful to miss out on one for another, but not so painful that you get paralyzed. Since they haven't been playtested yet, I don't know if I achieved that or not!

I'm also pretty pleased conceptually with Oaths and Grudges, but they might be super broken. Guess we'll see.

The conflict resolution rules are essentially a mishmash of every game by Vincent Baker. I tried to make them distinct, but his thinking on what conflict resolution is and how it should be handled was super super influential on my design. Even still, in my desire not to outright copy him, I'm afraid  I created something awkward and inelegant. I have a feeling the core resolution is going to change a lot in playtesting (it usually does, if my wargames design experience is any indicator).

Another area where I was influenced by Mr. Baker and others was in concepts of player ownership of the fiction. The whole notion of creating the world as a group and as you go was stolen wholesale from In a Wicked Age (I was this close to straight up using an oracle system), and the extensive use of lists was another Bakerism. Much of the clan creation rules were inspired by/stolen from Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes by Greg Stafford and Jeff Richard, and the 'demographics' were lifted with extremely little modification, since they jived with what I know about Anglo-Saxon society from college.

But what I meant by 'player ownership of fiction' is that in addition to everyone in the group participating in the world and the story building, I wanted to stress the collaborative nature of the game, and make explicit the way that everyone has something of a 'hold' on everyone else's character. If I say something about my character, but every other player flat out refuses to acknowledge it or accept it into the game's fiction, then it's not really true for the game. That's where stuff like other players defining your family and clan interests came in (I also thought that was a quick and easy way to make sure they're at odds with personal interests!)

Speaking of which, interests/ambitions were another steal from "In a Wicked Age". The basic concept behind abilities is awful similar to how they work in Heroquest, along with the idea of "impaired" and "injured".

The magic rules are all mine. Once I got the conflict rules into a workable shape, the answer just suggested itself. I suspect it might be bah-roken, though, so again, playtesting.

Speaking of conflict resolution, that went through a whole hell of a lot of conceptual phases. At one point it was based on drawing runes instead of rolling dice! I think that would have been neat, but I couldn't get the group/ally rules I wanted and figure out the probabilities. Plus, asking players to make/find some runes is probably a little much. As it is, I'm already asking for largish pools of the most uncommon die types. Take that D10, D6, and D20!

Finally, I'm afraid that the current "running the game" chapter is crap. Actually running the game will probably help with this, but I tried to convey what I have in mind the rules supporting, as well as some great GMing advice I've been exposed to recently, but it was near the end of the writing, and my brain was turning to  mush.

So, if you've read through the rules, or even run through some examples with the rules, please post your thoughts, questions, observations, et cetera here or on the game page. Also post if you have any requests for clarifications, examples to try out, or anything of the sort.

That Will Remain Nameless at this Time

It's here! Well, actually it's right here, but I mean it's done. And by done, I mean ready  to start the process of becoming a real game.

Why the vague "its" all over the place? Because I still don't have a good name! I'm totally stumped. I keep trying to think of one, trying to put it out of my head hoping an answer will pop up unexpected, trying to steal other people's good names, but none are working so far. I hoped maybe the full game would suggest a name for itself, but it remains quiet. So I'm stuck with the extremely unsatisfying working title of "Celto-Germania", which is my vague term for the region in which my mish-mash culture would live. So, if you have suggestions for names, post them here! Next up, some design notes on what I'm up to with this game.