What's a Paradigm? And why is it shifting?

Okay, so, despite the continuing blog silence, I have been thinking very hard about The Book of Threes for the past couple weeks, and doing lots of "research" (in other words, reading RPGs that I'd love to get to play, and actually getting some gaming in for once!).

I can tell you right now that the rules as they currently exist are not long for this world. Well, that's not true. I'll keep them up as a painful reminder of my first awkward foray into full game design, and in case anyone finds some ideas to milk out of it. I do really like the complex interactions of the three resources and their values as static and dynamic values and that each has multiple game mechanical consequences. I think there's some interesting "game" there. Hell, they might end up in the Roman social-oriented game I was considering when I first came up with the seed of an idea for three resources as the core of a game.


I am working on a near-complete revision. Like, I'm gonna completely rewrite because the changes will be so significant. Here's a rundown of what I plan to keep, and what I plan to change, with some cues to the directions I'm going in (as of right now! This is all still nebulous!)

  • Stuff I'm keeping

  1. The core concept. This will still be a mythic-heroic game inspired by Celtic and Germanic myth predominantly revolving around a clan with lots of setting creation/customization

  2. Grudges. For sure. They may function differently, but you will gain mechanical bonuses against people that have shamed/defeated/otherwise besmirched you

  3. Oaths. Again, they may work differently, but this is a fundamental concept.

  4. Conflicting goals between your family, clan, and yourself

  • Stuff I'm changing

  1. The core resolution. Like, totally and completely different. Probably moving to a single die dice pool thing, very likely based on counting 4+'s as 'hits' and 3-'s as 'misses'

  2. Related to the above, the way characters are created, what their attributes are, et cetera

  3. The three resources. Some of the elements here will remain, there may even still be 3 when I'm done, but they will be very different, and link into whatever the new resolution mechanic is

  4. Clan creation is getting rolled up into character creation, and the whole process will be waaaaay briefer and more focused on interesting starting situation

  5. The awful, terrible GM advice will be rewritten as actual rules and procedure for the GM

If you are interested in getting some ideas of where I'm going and what's influencing me at the moment, check out Lady Blackbird, Burning Wheel, and Apocalypse World, in roughly descending order of importance to what I think the new conflict resolution will look like. Check out the Smallville RPG for a big influence on my current thoughts on character creation (with a healthy dose of Lady Blackbird and Burning Wheel as well).

I plan to have the conflict resolution thing in a workable, tweakable format this week, maybe by the end of this weekend, with everything else up in the air until I figure out ways to make it interact with that.

Book of Threes Revision Sneak Preview

Well, it's amazing how much having a real, face-to-face conversation can do for a design. Despite my lack of discernible activity here on the bloog, the gears they are a-churnin, I'm doing thinking and reading and what not that are all informing where I'm going.

But! To keep this from being a totally content free "don't go away!" sort of post, here's a sneak preview of what I'm thinking about right now. I really like the three resources and their interactions. I really like grudges and their interaction with loyalty points. I really like how teamwork focused the conflict resolution is. On the other hand, I do *not* currently really like the conflict resolution rules themselves. I think they need a massive overhaul of some sort. For one thing, they were written when I was all high on In a Wicked Age and Dogs in the Vineyard, without realizing a) exactly why and how they worked the way they did, b) Vincent Baker has since said he's not totally happy with In a Wicked Age's mechanics, and c) that these games are no longer the "state of the art" in RPG design. So, I'm fitting these influences into a wider context, and also re-examining the rules with a better and deeper understanding of what I want them to do.

The main issue, as I see it, is one discussed by Vincent Baker in a recent interview and also on his blog (over there in the sidebar, "anyway."). That issue is when the rules and the fiction fail to interlock properly. Now, roleplayers have a long history of compensating for imperfect reinforcement of rules by fiction and vice versa, but I've become convinced that a well designed game will make those elements necessarily interact, not just so that they can interact. I took some steps to do this in my first draft of the conflict resolution rules, but I think I'll be able to do it better now. I'm not sure how, yet, so suggestions are welcome, but that's what I'm working on in my brain and notebooks.

Book of Threes Best Interests

So, I had a brainwave on how to make "Best Interests" have a little more teeth (and only after writing it down did I realize it's a solution pretty close to the Burning Wheel system I'm finally getting around to reading).

Not only will it give the best interests more mechanical weight, it will (hopefully) increase the tension of choosing between differing interests. Here's my thought: you've got three best interests (individual, family, and clan) and three resources. So completing interests gives you points in a resource!

The run down (until testing makes me decide to do otherwise) is that fulfilling a clan best interest gives you a wealth point, fulfilling a family interest gives you a loyalty point from one of your family members, and fulfilling an individual best interest gives you a glory point. I'm afraid that the family interest may be getting the short end of the stick here, as the loyalty points with your family members will only come up if you try to get them to help you out in conflicts, but hopefully that will come up in play.

I'm also not positive on how to judge interests "fulfilled" but since all interests are player generated, I'm thinking the GM decides when they're fulfilled. This is part of a general swing back towards more GM authority that I'm thinking will happen having considered the game  more recently, since I was all high on hippie authority sharing as a brand new concept to me when I wrote the first draft of the game.

I need to give the whole system a good once over before I get the chance to do some real live, in person playtesting sometime in the next month. I am very excite.

Book of Threes Alpha Test Recap

Okay, sorry this was a bit later than forecasted, but I wanted to collect some thoughts from the first playtest of "The Book of Threes" done on Google Wave.

First off, it taught me a lot about Google Wave, and while I think it's far superior to a standard forum for RPGs, it still has some shortcomings compared to 'the real thing' of sitting at a table with your friends and talking it out in person. That being said, I'm currently participating in 3 Google Wave RPGs, so I would still recommend it if you're hungry for gaming and the internet is your only outlet.

In the case of Bo3s though, it created some issues with the clan creation section (the only part we did). Turn taking is awkward in an ansynchronous environment where 'order' is arbitrary. Also, different people updating at different speeds created a disparity of expectations in how quickly to post. But I'd say the big thing that hurt the clan creation process is that a lot of the back and forth collaborative stuff that would be happening in person was constrained in the online format, making each person's contribution more self-contained and final, rather than being malleable to fit in with the overall creative vision, which is what the clan creation process was supposed to foster.

On that note, the clan creation rules are too lengthy. I got so caught up in worrying that there would be enough material for a compelling situation off the bat that I forgot my whole inspiration of "In a Wicked Age" and my desire for the setting to come out in play. I think what I will do is make a *much* shorter clan creation process as the standard, and then offer an optional detailed clan creation process for people who really want to flesh out the world before they step into it or to refer to when things come up in play (for example: "I dunno guys, what is the neighboring clan like? You tell me, or roll on this table here").

Another point about the creation rules that my friend Adam pointed out is that certain aspects of it (like one player naming a type of community and another player fleshing it out) made the whole collaborative process be *too* collaborative. Individual players didn't feel like they had 'ownership' of anything, and maybe other players took what would have been an idea that got them fired up and went in a totally different direction. My goal was to force the players to accommodate each other's points of interest and to create a world that everyone had buy in with, but I think that I shared out the ownership too much.

One solution to that problem can be gleaned from Archipelago II by Matthjis Holter. This is a great game that I'd love to give playing a try, but reading through it really opened my eyes to some different ways to approach RPG design. And you can get it for free at that link! Seriously worth checking out. At any rate, in it there is the concept of 'ownership' since there is not a traditional GM. One player is given authority over an aspect of the game world (like 'geography' or 'religion' - typically things the group decides will be important to the game) and anybody can suggest things about the world, but the player with ownership can veto ideas relating to his domain.

So, let's say you have authority over 'geography' and I'm like "Man, there are these giant floating mountains, with like plants and stuff growing between them". You could go "Floating mountains? I don't think so, all of the terrain has been really harsh and mundane, so let's not do that. How about some normal jungle mountains that go up really high?"

I think a few areas of ownership, or at least the concept that certain things are 'owned' by certain players might go a long way towards supporting buy-in to the collaborative creative process. So, maybe each player gets final say over details about their family members (even if the GM gets to control their actions in play) and one guy gets to detail the religion of teh clan, and another guy gets to have authority over the crafts (or whatever). I'm gonna poke around with these ideas and streamline the clan creation process in a lot of other ways. I'll probably look at character creation again, since I realized taht most of the 'initial situation' generation happens from the Character creation already, so I may fine tune that and make the clan creation a subtle background.

I Tought I Taw a Puddy Tat

Yes, a tweety bird joke because I have grown week and gotten a twitter account. I mostly got it to play Echo Bazaar, a browser based game set in a surreal and fantastic Victorian London, for which Mr. Vincent Baker and Mr. John Harper are working on an Apocalypse World Hack, the snippets of which were tantalizing. At any rate, I'll probably also use it to post quick thoughts and updates regarding the site and game design and such. Probably picking up in traffic after I get back to America and have a cell phone again.

Sagas of the Icelanders

Colloquially known as "Ragnarok World" is a hack of Apocalypse World by Gregor Vuga, and it's really, really good. If you looked at Ragonarok and thought "I want a more realistic, serious Viking game" then go here to get the current draft of the rules in development.

He was kind enough to mention Ragonarok in his 'ludography', but I'd be pointing you towards it anyway, because it's really exciting to me and does some really clever design stuff. Check it out.

Apocalypse Now!

I just wanted to let everybody know that Vincent Baker's new game, Apocalypse World, is available to preorder now (you get the PDF now and the book will ship on August 1st). It's available through the unstore.

In case you're not familiar, Vincent Baker is the author of a few of the games I reviewed on here (In a Wicked Age, Dogs in the Vineyard) and is a pretty big deal in the indie RPG scene, because his games are flipping awesome. There's already a lot of buzz about this game, and with good reason: it's really, really good.

In addition to being a great ready to go game, it's also supremely hackable. A number of really interesting hacks are already being developed (and have been before the final rules even released!). You can follow them at the Apocalypse World forums.

I've currently got a bee in my bonnet to work on a Dark Heresy (Warhammer 40k roleplaying) hack for it, as I love a lot of the expanded setting material in Dark Heresy and Rogue trader, but I have no desire to ever play the system that comes in the game.

But don't worry, my Necro redo and the Book of Threes are continuing to get some lovin, I expect to have a post about some feedback from the alpha test of the Book of Threes in the next couple of days.

Shootin' Stuff

So, the first topic I'd like to address here with regard to my skirmish rules is of central importance to a modern/sci-fi wargame: shooting stuff. I'm going to start out a little theoretical and then move into some practicalities as they relate to those theories.

So, the way I see it, in a skirmish wargame, shooting has two main intentions: to control movement and to remove enemy fighters. The second is fairly obvious, but there are some implications to it I want to discuss, so I'll start with "controlling movement".

In traditional Necromunda, you have something called "pinning" when a figure is hit, but not wounded. A pinned fighter misses a turn unless he has buddies around to egg him on and he passes a test. In the previously mentioned WWII game, we modified this a bit to make it a little easier to test to get up, mostly because we made pinning a much larger part of the game by forcing characters shot at to test to avoid pinning on a miss. Pinning, then, achieves the aim of controlling movement, and our system had a pretty cool emergent effect of creating "fire and maneuver" set ups very in keeping with the WWII flavor.

The point for this post being I like the game-play implications of pinning, and I think I like pinning even on missed shots to be a possibility, so I'll probably keep that. Any other thoughts on how shooting can control opponent movements would be welcome in the comments.

Now, the more direct aim of shooting: killing and maiming enemies. In pretty much every GW game, you roll to hit, then roll to wound, and then Armor may or may not come in to negate the wound. Since each step is a simple D6  roll, and you do them all the time, they get to be pretty quick and natural. I'm pretty sure the reason for the separate hit, wound, and armor rolls is to allow for a high level of distinction between different match ups: you can be more or less accurate, shooting with a more or less powerful weapon against a more or less tough foe, and his armor can be better or worse. That allows for a wide variety of characters on each end of the role, and even more possible match ups.

That being said, the intent of shooting is to remove a threat, and so there's no inherent reason that roll should be split up into three steps. So, in the interest of trying to figure out if there's something better, I've been considering some other options. One that has caught my fancy is something to do with multiple dice, possibly of different colors (thanks to a discussion over at Praxis).

Here's the rough idea I have: a shooting character looks at his shooting skill ("Ballistic Skill" in the Games Workshop parlance) and at the stats of the weapon he's firing. Both give a number of dice to roll, which he adds together. Perhaps different colored dice can be specified which "hit" at different probabilities (e.g. something like whites hit on a 6, blues on a 5 or 6, and reds on a 4, 5, 6).  He rolls these and totals the number of hits/successes he's rolled.

Now, the target looks at his toughness and his armor, which also grant dice (again, possibly of different colors). He rolls that number of dice, and any hits/successes he scores negate hits scored by the attacker. If any hits are left, the attacker then assigns them to the target. I'm thinking that the target has a number of boxes that can be checked off in order, going something like "pinned, -1 die on rolls, -2 dice on rolls, out of action" or something like that, with effects being cumulative, and you can't skip a step.

Cover would probably be represented as a number of hits scored in the defender's favor, but possibly as fewer dice to roll for the attacker or more armor dice for the defender.

The notion here is that a character's accuracy stat would probably always be or start out as white dice, with more meaning more accurate (which might translate into hitting a more vital area, if those dice get you enough hits to wound seriously). The kind of weapon and how powerful it is would also be represented by number and color of dice: automatic weapons would have more white dice, powerful weapons would have more red dice.

Of course, another option would be to have a fixed target number (say, a 6) and then different die types (d6s, d8s, d10s, et cetera). This might allow more variability in weapon power.

So, how does this sound? Would it be too many dice per shooting action? Are the opposed rolls too funky?

Necromunda Skirmish Redux

So, awhile back I started on the somewhat ambitious project of coming up with some miniature skirmish rules that would be extremely customizable but still balanced for competitive play. I started with the notion of wanting to play "Necromunda" but with more individuality and perhaps a heavier story focus.

So, a few months back, I went through the Necromunda, Mordheim, and Inquisitor rules and looked for ideas to modify, incorporating ideas from a WWII skirmish game my friend Lance and I developed a few years back (initially based on Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings game, but since modified beyond recognition). I got the basic battle rules worked out, but never got into the nitty gritty of the point-buy character and warband creation.

Along the way, I think I succumbed to feature bloat and ended up with a bunch of cruft that the game doesn't benefit from. So now, I'm starting "from the ground up" trying to come up with rules from base principles of what I want to happen in the game, consciously working to avoid falling back on old GW based habits.

Once I finish this, I figure I'll compare the two rulesets and take the best of both worlds. That's the theory at least. So, some high level design goals:

  • Ideally suited for forces of 6-15 guys per side, but hopefully allowing for simplified rules to run larger battles

  • Quick, smooth play that doesn't bog things down in endless rolling or rules look ups or the like

  • At the same time, enough detail to make each individual fighter interesting and individual

  • Again, aimed at doing games set in the 40k setting, but hopefully applicable to any modern/sci-fi setting

The main pitfalls I'm worried about are falling into extreme and over detailing of options. I have a tendency to do this, as has recently been pointed out with the clan creation rules in The Book of Threes and from my prior experience with modifying wargames rules. One of the solutions to this I plan on is intense modularity: give a simple, basic set of rules with a number of layers of optional add ons that provide more and more detail, and can be used or discarded by individual groups of players as they like. This is also how I intend to tackle different "levels" of game play, such as campaigns and individual battles, play with a game master or without, and so forth.

Going forward, I'd appreciate any insight into these or other pitfalls I may be blindly stumbling into.


So, as previously mentioned, I got excited about making a Ninja Burger + InSpectres hack, and after noodling around with it, discovered it didn't take much to do at all!

So here it is.

Let me know what you think (this is as yet unplaytested, but considering it comes from two games that work fine and are playtested, I assume it'll be fine. I may make changes once I get the chance to play it some).

Smash it up, Smash it up!

So, a recent trend I've been reading about at the cool kid forums is a sort of game where you say "need book X to play". Basically people put out more or less detailed conversion notes for using one set of rules with material from another game (whether just the fluff or some of the actual rules). Shadowrun is a popular target, as it's a pretty universally loved world, with a pretty poorly regarded system. Another popular thing is to take Old Skool D&D and mash it up with a more modern rulesset, like the upcoming Apocalypse World (that one dubbed "Apocalypse D&D"). Basically, this notion excites me, as I've been discovering recently that a) a lot of the rules I've "grown up with" are pretty dumb, but b) I still love the worlds that they're made for.

So, right now I've got two main ideas for my own approach to this trend. The first one involves an old favorite and a new discovery: Ninja Burger and InSpectres. For those that don't know, Ninja Burger is a wacky little game available as an RPG or a card game by Steve Jackson games that revolves around, well, Ninjas delivering hamburgers. Anywhere. Anytime. In 30 minutes or less, or we commit suppuku! Inspectres is a Ghostbusters flavored game that uses both wacky paranormal activity and start up company stereotypes to good and humorous effect.

I picked up the Ninja Burger RPG rules and gave them a read through, and, well, I was less than thrilled. I haven't had a chance to play them, so maybe they're more fun than they look, or maybe right now I just have too much of a bug up my ass about hippy-dippy new fangled games, but reading through them they seemed to be rules for serious simulation of fighting and infiltration and such for a supremely silly game. They don't seem to fit!

On the other hand, Inspectres has a franchise and mission based structure, good but flexible rules that support humor, and very little 'overhead' or prep for running it. So I was struck by the idea of running Ninja Burger with the Inspectres rules. I'm going to make sure it's okay to post such a conversion from the publishers before I pursue it too far, though. But it's something I'd love to play sometime.

The other idea I have is to run a dark horror/madness type game (like Call of Cthulhu or Dark Heresy) using the Otherkind Dice rules I posted below. Dark Heresy has loads of evocative source material, and I think does an excellent job of expanding the 40k universe into its dark corners and really playing up the madness and horror of confronting Chaos and demons and aliens and what not. But the rules do a few things I don't like.

For one, percentile systems rub me the wrong way for some reason. Sure, they're imminently logical, and easy to tune, but they just seem so dry and boring. Secondly, your goal is to roll under your score (which makes sense), and rolling low to do well just strikes me as counter-intuitive. That's mostly silly, but still real.

More seriously, the game is, well, super crunchy. It has very detailed stats and combat systems and you keep track of your rounds of ammunition and take a half action to reload and yadda yadda yadda. If I want tactical combat in the 40k universe with characters I care about, I'll play Necromunda! (or the alternate rules I'm working on that allow more 'roleplaying' like elements). I feel like all of that stuff will tend to detract from the focus on investigation and horror and madness.

So right now I'm debating between two ways to make the Otherkind system work with such a setting. I have some reservations, fearing that perhaps the inherent control of the narrative that this system gives players will take away from some of the horror, but I do like how *very* story focused it is.

At any rate, the two ways. One would be to allow "dangers" that you risk with a roll to be discrete things like a phobia or "going insane" or whatever. Unfortunately, this would take away the "death spiral" that you get with lowering insanity making your more likely to lose sanity, and it might take away the gradual erosion of sanity.

The other way would be to just import the sanity/corruption tracks from those games and their effects, and make it a 'danger' associated with rolls to lose X number of points. The main downside here is that you lose the feedback from the sanity/corruption points into the main rules, since the resolution mechanic would still function separately from these things. One of the cool things in Call of Cthulhu is that the more "Cthulhu Mythos" you know, the less sane you are, but the more effective at battling monsters. So there's an incentive to do stuff that drives your character mad. One feature/issue of Otherkind dice is that "character effectiveness" can't really be reflected manually, at least not with any degree of precision (basically you either get to roll an extra die or you don't).

At any rate, my goal with any sort of mash up like this is to find a set of rules that not only don't get in the way of the world you're playing in, but actually expose new things about it and make it more fun to play. I'm pretty confident InSpectres will do that for Ninja Burger, less so for Otherkind dice playing CoC or Dark Heresy.

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.

A Tale that Grows in the Telling

So, that first draft of the game rules I promised? It's progressing nicely. A little too nicely. What I intended to be a barebones mechanics document is quickly turning into the first draft of the complete rules. I just can't stop writing!
So, new ETA for the first draft is May 1st (T minus 5 days).


Exciting News!

That last game project that I mentioned, with the reading list? I've been scribbling away notes on the rules, and I'm ready to begin typing up the very rough, totally beta, untested at all draft. I would prefer to do some personal playtesting before releasing it into the wilds of the internet, but I'm not going to be in a position to do that for awhile, so I will post it for review and solicit recommendations once it's typed.

I'm taking this bad boy to publication, but it might take a while to get it all the way where it needs to be. Tentatively, I expect it to be ready for 'real' playtesting  by other people by January, and hopefully it'll be done and ready to publish by this time next year, at the latest.

I'll post a teaser soon, and the rules after that.

A New Direction for Now

I'm going to be taking a bit of a break from my starter RPG project for two main reasons. First off, I've found a wealth of games I'd really enjoy to run, some of which I think would make good introductions to what roleplaying is for adult, non-gamer type people. But secondly, I still take the starter RPG notion seriously, but I realized that paradoxically, an RPG designed for beginning players should not be my first full-fledged RPG design. I should maybe know what I'm doing before I tackle that.


I had an idea for another game that is now consuming every ounce of my game design juices (okay, a few ounces are spared for stray thoughts). I am channeling the bad shit, here. I've filled out a whole notebook, and I take it's replacement everywhere I go. I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. Talking about it at this point would probably solidify some things that are still better off nebulous as I work them together, though. That being said, as a "sneak preview", here's a recommended reading list for the setting/color:

(In roughly descending order of relevance)

  • Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

  • Beowulf

  • The Poetic and Prose Eddas

  • The Mabinogion

  • The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer

  • A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

  • Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

  • The Volsunga Saga trans. by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • The Lord of the Rings

  • Various Irish Myths and Legends

Hopefully that gives you a pretty good idea of the 'flavor' I'm going for, but I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised by what I come up with for rules.

What has Come Before

So, I've been a bit quiet this past week, but not because I haven't been thinking about game design. Actually rather the opposite. Instead, as I linked in a past post, I've been checking out the design theory over at The Forge, specifically the articles (still trying to wade into the forum, which is daunting) and at anyway.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this shit has blown my mind. Seriously, though, some theory that I originally met with skepticism, on full read through has totally altered how I think about RPGs, what my design goals are, and how to achieve them. I look back at what I've posted over the last couple months, and I'm slightly embarrassed, as it seems to be hopelessly amateurish dilettante work at its worst, trying to address issues from what I now see as a constricted and unaware viewpoint.

That being said, I am currently at an awkward place. This new theory has made me look at what I was talking about and go "yuck" because it's ground that has already been covered better and in more detail by people who've thought harder about it than me. On the other hand, I am not yet comfortable enough with said new theory to really address it as someone who "gets it". I am still learning.

But, as I said, it has so fundamentally altered my perception of RPG theory and the notion of design that to try to continue without incorporating it would be stultifying and frustrating.

So, as a warning to anyone who's been following along so far: from this point forward, I will be discussing RPG design theory using terms from "The Big Model" as presented in the essays by Ron Edwards on the Forge website (see especially, "GNS and other matters of RPG Theory", Simulationism: The Right to Dream, Gamism: Step on Up, and Narrativism: Story Now. I'd recommend reading as many of the 'articles' on that website as possible, but those four are what I consider the most essential, with the first as practically required reading).

I will be happy to clarify any terms I use or what have you, but please understand that it will be as someone still learning - this stuff isn't mine, I just found it thoroughly convincing. Also, if you want to debate the conclusions drawn, that's cool too, but bear in mind that gobs of people have done so to death on the Forge, like, 5 or 6 years ago. So, what you're looking at when you read those articles is something that was pretty heartily discussed, challenged, and refined, and from what I can tell, has continued to be largely useful to designers since then.

At first it may seem like annoying intellectualism or elitism or whatever, but it's already doing wonders for my creative process, and I look forward to what the tools and methods of thought presented will help me come up with, and I hope everyone enjoys the ride.

Social Contract

Today I want to talk about something I touched upon in my review of the rules of "In a Wicked Age", the "social contract" of roleplaying games. This is an idea that has come up a lot in my recent reading at anyway and the articles at The Forge. This is a topic that is so obvious that it is usually ignored or taken for granted, like the sky or the ground. Basically, what I mean by "social contract" is the understanding, usually implicit, that everyone participating in an RPG has regarding what it is they're getting together to do. The trouble with it staying implicit and taken for granted is that different people may interpret it in very different ways, and that can lead to real-life conflict and hurt feelings and the dissolution of a game group. So, I thought I'd talk about the social contract in very vague terms, and then address some specific issues. As a side note, a lot of what I'm producing here may be going over ground others have covered, or amateurish, or what have you. I'm in the process of reading up on the field of RPG design, but I'm still stuck in the late 90's/early 00's in terms of what I've been covering recently (having decided to start with the start at the afore mentioned sites, so that I'm not lost when I get to the current stuff). So, basically, be aware that I may change my mind on stuff I post up here or look back at it and be embarrassed or such, and hopefully I'll keep the same awareness and continue to improve.

So, this social contract business, what is it? It is something that exists regardless of the rules system you use, but can involve the rules system directly or indirectly. For example, if everyone you know who roleplays just loves (D&D/Call of Cthulhu/Fuzion/Whatevs), then it might be explicit that y'all are getting together to play that particular game. Or it could be more subtle, like you're playing D&D, but everybody involves just kind of knows that D&D as is doesn't address what they want out of a game, so they are okay with the game master changing rules or they suggest changes and so forth. But it's relationship to the rules system is probably not it's most significant feature. Like I said, a lot of time the social contract is entirely implicit, and everybody ends up with slightly different ideas of what it entails in their heads, and when this happens, problems can arise.

Let's cut to an analogy for a moment, because I'm fond of analogies. In searching my imagination for an adequate analogy to the social contract of roleplaying, I realized that there's no direct correspondence, which makes sense, I suppose, for such a specialized form of entertainment. But, being social in nature, and being associated with the use of rules, it does share similarities with some other, better known social situations. I think that roleplaying, socially speaking, is somewhere between a dance (as in, the event, like a prom, or a ball, or a hoe down, or whatever) and a sporting event. I actually think that the social contract of most RPGs differs quite markedly from board games or strategy games, despite the overlapping interest and sometimes overlapping methods. For one, most board games and strategy games of all sorts have much better defined rules that restrict what choices players can make, and everybody knows what they are going into the game. Usually, there's very little notion that those rules can or should be bent to serve other ends, and also usually, the rules presented adequately address whatever can come up in such a game. So, let's get back to my analogy. Like a sporting event (and like those board games and wargames mentioned), there is in fact a set of rules used to decide what can and can't happen, and how to play and so forth. Unlike sporting events, however, it is usually less well defined what actions (by people, not characters. Remember, this whole essay is about the actual physical players participating in a game) explicitly violate what you all came there to do. In a soccer game, picking up the ball and running around knocking people over is very clearly not what everyone came there to do. That one guy may enjoy the attention, or being wild, or whatever, but everyone else will be pretty pissed off that he is preventing them from doing the activity they came together to do. In roleplaying games, there are definitely things people can do that have similar effects, but unfortunately, they're usually less obvious, and a lot of times people put up with it thinking it's the only way they can continue to roleplay. So if everyone is really digging on rescuing a princess from a dragon, but one dude says he hauls off and stabs the king  and runs around the court with his head knocking people over, that player, by deciding his character will do that, has made it impossible for the other players to do what they came there to do, forcing them to react to his actions or bicker about whether that 'could' happen or not, or stop playing. The trouble is, kingslayer there may not have realized that he was pissing in their porridge when he did that. He might have thought that going in an unexpected direction, or staying true to his wild, unpredictable character was what he was there to do, and assumed that everybody else felt like that was what he was there for too.

I think that hockey provides an interesting example of this gray area in sporting events. FIghting technically isn't allowed in the rules, but it's an accepted part of the game. Everyone participating in a professional hockey game expects some fighting and has some idea what amount will be allowed by the refs, what penalties it's okay to take for doing it, and how to use it within the context of the game. The reason I stress this is to show that in other forms of social leisure activity, there is also a distinction between the 'official rules' and the socially understood guidelines for what the event will be. Now, I said that I didn't think that sports were a perfect metaphor for roleplaying, and that's because in sports, the relationship between what is socially agreed upon when you get together to play, and what is printed in the official rules, is usually very close. The baseline assumption for most sports is 'we will show up and follow these exact rules. Not following them is cheating and will get you penalized.' So, I want to bring the other half of my analogy, a dance. Like roleplaying, dances are social events with varying levels of formality, and even at the most formal of balls, there is usually a distinct difference between the 'official' purpose and guidelines for behavior and the socially understood aims and allowable behavior. Also like roleplaying games, there can be a wide range of variations in the stated aims of a dance, and different people will show up with different expectations of what's socially acceptable (though, being more mainstream, the social contract of these events, though implicit, tends to be better understood by everyone involved). So, a prom is going to have different 'rules' than a military ball, just as a hoe down will have different rules from a cotillion event.

Imagine, if you will, someone who thought that all dances were proms. He would show up to a hoe down in a tux, expect to hear a mix of nostalgic music and modern dance music, and would want to focus on dancing alone with his date. When he encountered jeans and cowboy hats, country music and fiddle playing, and complicated group dances, he would think they were doing it wrong, not have a good time, and most likely spoil it for other people there. The shame of it is that he would have a great time at a prom, he would do it right, and everyone there would enjoy, or at least tolerate, his presence.

So, what in the hell does all this talk of hockey and hoe downs have to do with roleplaying? I think that since the idea of the social expectations of a roleplaying game are so rarely discussed or thought of explicitly, you end up with the equivalent of people showing up expecting one kind of dance and getting another. But it's usually so subtle, and even worse, a lot of times, despite a game claiming to be one kind of dance, it might actually be another, that nobody realizes that's the source of the dissatisfaction and bad feeling. Further, if you go to the prom and your best friend took the girl you wanted to bring, you and everybody else knows that's why there's tension between you two at the prom. But at a roleplaying game, the focus is so much on the rules and the imaginary world of the game, that people like to convince themselves that real-life interpersonal tensions don't enter into it. So, when the two best friends go to play their weekly RPG a few days after that same prom, people might not realize, or at least not acknowledge, that the game is going poorly because there is still tension between them over a real-life social issue.

What do I make of all this? I think that it is a healthy and useful step for a roleplaying group to all explicitly lay out, before play, what they're doing and what they want to accomplish. And I think this needs to go a little deeper than "we're here to play D&D, and our goal is to have fun". I think even the densest of socially challenged folks is going to get that you're there to play the advertised game and the overall goal is to have fun. But what makes a game fun varies from group to group and person to person, and I think an enhanced awareness of what that is will help out a lot. I'm riffing pretty hard here off of things I've been reading in those Forge articles. In those articles, they go into different approaches to rpgs and what sort of abstract things different people pursue and enjoy in a game, but I'm not going to go into that here. But in general terms, I think the group should make a few things clear (as in, actually talk these things out and hear everyone out on them, then come to a decision. Maybe even write it down for reference later) before they start gaming, and here are some suggestions of mine:

How active does each player want to be in making deciding what dramatic things happen to their characters?
How much detail do you want to explore of the game's setting?
How comfortable is each player with in-character conflict?
Are there any topics or issues that you are uncomfortable addressing in play?
How concerned are you with your character's success as measured in some objective way (missions completed, xp earned, et cetera)?

If you're playing with people new to roleplaying, they might not know the answers to some of these things, and I think a good solution is for the GM, or whoever is organizing the game (presumably with more gaming experience) to put forward as honestly and in as much detail as possible what his goals are and how he intends to address the game. So, if you are the GM, and you want your players to have a good deal of active narrative control, tell them! If you have a finely crafted world with lots of detail, and you are expecting them to want to explore it and work within it's fictional parameters, be clear about that. If you think it'd be fun to have the players compete for who can kill the most kobolds, or gain the most levels the fastest, or survive the longest without going insane, let them know. But be prepared to listen to their reactions to these things. If everyone in your group says "whoah, I don't care about levels and stuff, man, I want to do whatever would bring my character into the most dramatic situations for an exciting story", then pay attention. If everyone has a different idea of what would be fun, or nobody much is interested in what you're pushing, you might need to find a new game or a new group. Finally, an important point stressed in the essays I've been reading about different play styles and what different people want out of their games, is that no one way is "better" or "more fun" objectively. It's largely a matter of personal taste. Some people will have the most fun ever cleverly avoiding traps and slaughtering monsters to steal their treasure with no real concern for dramatic tension or addressing ethical or moral issues. Other people will really get into accurately working within a detailed feudal system and maneuvering in a complex social network of lords and families and churches. But still others might have the most fun playing characters who do nothing but come up against agonizing conflict and make decisions to set up the next agonizing conflict. All of these approaches, and more, are great and can be fun. But they're not necessarily all compatible in the same game. So, do your best to figure out what everyone is showing up for, and try to stick with it, and your games will be a lot more fun and more likely to work well.

The Secret Ingredient

Is love, dammit.

And love I have in spades. Love of games, love of game design, love of theorizing and pontificating. But it in all seriousness, I worry that I lack a no less crucial secret ingredient for my design plans: actual play. I've been reading through the archive at anyway, the blog of D. Vincent Baker, author of "Dogs in the Vineyard" and "In a Wicked Age", and he points out, correctly I think, that without real game play to ground your theories in, it's all too easy to build sand castles of wonderful intricacy but no lasting substance or usefulness. I haven't played in an actual, live on going RPG for ten years now! Ten years! Oof. I'm getting some good online play, and I've played in various one-off games or abortive attempts at starting up a game over the years, not since I moved away from my adolescent gaming group have I played RPGs as often as I'd like. So, what to do about this? I have in mind three potential solutions to not only enjoy my favorite hobby, but also to get the gaming experience I need to solidly frame my designs with things that actually come up in real game play. So here they are:

Technology: Through the power of the vast and multifarious internets, all kinds of communication options exist that never did before. I have maintained friendships over vast distances through frequent communication, and perhaps gaming is another application of this connectivity. I am currently playing in such a game, and it's been going smoothly and enjoyably for a good 6 months or so now. But, at least as played, it is a different creature from roleplaying at the table, and doesn't wholly satisfy my inclinations. For one, being forum based, it takes place somewhat 'in slow motion', with GM and player interaction usually being via private messages, which are then clumped together in 'scenes' posted for everyone to read. The GM is excellent, so it's making for some creative story and character moments, but thus far there's quite limited character/player interaction. That would be easier with scheduled 'live' chats, and perhaps even better would be some sort of audio and/or video live chat. I don't have the capability for that just now, but I will in the near future, and that might bear looking into. That being said, there's something to gathering in one physical place, eating the same snacks, seeing each other's faces, and shooting the breeze before and after that even the most advanced online options lack.

Converts: Here, my idea is to take my friends and bring them into the hobby. Obviously, this is a huge motivation for my whole 'Starter RPG' project. The benefits here are pretty obvious: not only do I get to roleplay in person and increase the number of roleplayers I know, I already know that I like them and get along with them and will want to spend valuable social time with them. Unfortunately, the negatives are almost as obvious: roleplaying is not for everyone, no matter how amazing a group/game/rules/gamemaster/etc you introduce them to, many of my friends that would be interested in trying RPGs are scattered across vast geographical distances (the same issue with my friends that already do game), and even if they do find they like it, it will have to compete with all of their other social plans to become something that happens regularly. They might see it as a fun once in a while thing, but not something you spend a few hours at every week. So, I'm going to pursue this plan, but not count on making any huge strides in my mission work.

The Hobby: Finally, I'm going to discuss what many might consider the most obvious plan, but one that I'm a bit leery of. There is a local game store where I live (better than some, but worse than others) that hosts gaming of all sorts every weekend and is generally a meeting place for hobbyists in the town. So, the plus sides are that these are people who are already invested in roleplaying and may be just as interested in a chance to game more than me, I might meet new, cool people that I otherwise would not, and those people I do find are most likely to be interested in playing regularly and perhaps even in playtesting rules of my design or such like. The down sides are a little more subtle. I'm growing curmudgeonly, and though I've made some great friends in my life through gaming, for some reason, at this point in my life, I'm not enthused about the idea of meeting people via gaming. I'd rather play games with people I already know and like otherwise. But alas, that's not working out satisfactorily so far. The trouble is twofold. For one, despite my firm belief that there is nothing inherently awkward, nerdy, or weird about roleplaying, a lot of roleplayers are in fact, well, awkward, nerdy, or weird. I have a pretty high tolerance for all of these qualities, but it makes it harder to weave new friends into my existing social life and so forth. Secondly, while there are certain personality and character traits that tend to go with people who enjoy roleplaying, the single fact of a strong shared interest does not necessarily make for compatible people. Obviously, this is part of the benefit of having shared interests: it exposes you to people different from yourself and your friends, sometimes to create new friendships, but it can also lead to getting stuck with someone you don't really want to spend time with, but you keep around because without him you won't have a group. And that's not a situation I'm eager to try again. All that as it is, I think I'm going to have to bite the bullet and start hanging around the game store more and try to find some new gamer buddies.

Does anybody have any recommendations that I've missed out on?

Magic and Obligations

Okay, as I said last time, I'm now going to take a break from reviews for a while (I'm out of games to read, for one) and start talking about my own game. It is still fragmentary and hazy, but I've come to a few decisions that will help guide the process from here. First off, I think I have decided that the genre will be "sword and sorcery" in a setting of my own devising. It's a setting I began generating as a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but I realized that I was making so many fundamental changes that it would probably benefit rather than be harmed by separating it from the venerable system. As discussed in "A Question of Genre", I believe that a fantasy setting is fairly accessible, and it also has the benefit of being 'expected' as what an RPG is about, due to the whole D&D thing. Also, most of the rules ideas I've had recently seem to mesh with a fantasy setting better than something else. That being said, I'm open to being swayed by arguments for a different milieu.

Now, when I said that I'd been having rules ideas suited to a fantasy setting, I had two in mind, primarily. The first is rather vague at this point, and that is magic. I've always loved magic in games, and recently I've read some very creative uses of magic in stories, and this has inspired me to want to design a new, different, and elegant magical system for my game. I've been doing research on various real world and fantasy traditions of magic so that whatever I come up with will have an 'authentic' feel about it, but at its core, I want the system to simple and elegant, having complexity through a combination of simple factors rather than complexity through sheer exhaustiveness. What I would like to avoid is the 'magic as super powers' kind of effect that seems to me to be the dominant paradigm these days. By this I mean you have mages (or sorcerors or warlocks or whatever) who are "magic" and so they can do magic things from list A) a set number of times based on the day or magic points or whatever. Sure, most games try to distinguish flavor wise between people who study arcane secrets, or those who make pacts with otherworldly forces, or those who pray for their magic, but especially in 4th edition D&D, the mechanics are basically identical, with only the specific effects of each spell differing. I want to represent magic as a force that exists, that some people figure out how to manipulate (perhaps through multiple ways, such as rituals, pacts, prayers, or what have you) rather than an inherent trait that some people have and some don't. Obviously, I haven't yet come to any concrete decisions on how to make this happen, so I'm looking for suggestions and ideas.

Secondly, I have a rather better developed mechanic in mind that popped into my head almost fully formed while watching HBO's "Rome" series and reading "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R.R. Martin, in addition to various medieval/fantasy influences. I started thinking about how in the historical ancient world and middle ages, family was hugely important. The idea of individual rights and privileges was somewhat foreign, and most people accepted that your family took care of you, so you had duties to them, and that anybody without kin to back them up was facing a hostile, dangerous world. This got me to the idea that a fantasy setting ought to have inter- and intra-family relationships play a bigger role in game. And like aspects in "Spirit of the Century", I decided that family would best be represented by a trait that could both help and complicate things, and that made me think of other similar double edged resources that would be relevant, and for a sense of wholeness, I came up with three that I think work nicely. These are Family, Wealth, and Authority. Here's how I envision these three traits working. Every character at creation will have a set number of points to distribute between those three categories. Family represents how strongly your family supports you and how much it expects from you. Wealth represents your ties to the commercial world and how much your character can personally accomplish with coin. Authority represents your character's position in a hierarchical system of some sort, be that governmental, official, illegal, or informal. The point is that the higher the number, the more each category can help you out, but the more is expected of your character in return. With family and authority, a higher number can mean a more influential family or a higher position in a large organization, or it might not. I think I will leave such decisions to the player to decide. What's important here is the level to which it helps/complicates your life. So, someone with high family might be the heir to a powerful political family expected to marry as he's told and rule over his holdings responsibly and so forth, or it could be a low-born person with a truly massive family that has representatives in every village and holdfast throughout the land. Both can expect large amounts of help (in different ways), but both also have enormous responsibilities in exchange. Likewise with wealth (commercial contracts, debts, social obligations to support the kingdom or the poor or whatever) and with authority (duties and responsibilities, people who depend on you, ability to be ordered by superiors). I haven't quite worked out how it will work mechanically yet (I think that will depend a lot on how the rest of the game works mechanically) but the goal is get a good balance of benefit and complication whatever level you take in each category. The catch is that you can't opt to not put the full number of points into the categories: your character has to have help and obligations to somebody or something, but what it is is your choice.

So, that's what I have so far, besides what I've mentioned in the prior reviews. My end goal is a fluid, action-packed game with simple rules and engaging play (hah, not asking much here). I'll discuss further rules ideas as they come to me, and probably start elaborating on my setting a bit if there's any interest, but it's strongly influenced by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, and H. Rider Haggard, with dashes of mythology, history, and folklore for good measure.

Spirit of the Century

For my last Indie game review for a while, I'm going to talk about "Spirit of the Century" from Evil Hat Productions. I've saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one, despite some creative and innovative mechanics and approaches, of the games I've reviewed, I'd say it's the most traditional: PCs each have a character, they all cooperate in an adventure the GM comes up with and controls, and their characters have skills and stunts and gadgets that work much like any other RPG. The other reason I've saved this one for last, though, is that it is very close to what I'm shooting for already. It bills itself as a 'pick up RPG', designed to be great for one-off adventures, new players, and on the fly gaming. As a matter of fact, it does this job so well, and in a setting near and dear to my hear (20's pulp action!), that I was sorely tempted to just make this game my default 'starter RPG' and be done with all of this design nonsense. Alas, the game design bug has me but good, and not only do I want to design a game of my own, I also feel like SoTC is just a touch more suited to a one-off game full of experienced roleplayers than it is to people new to the hobby.

Before I get into discussing how the game itself works, I want to point something out that I read in a review before purchasing the game. The rules of "Spirit of the Century" are chock a block full of great GMing advice. There's a whole chapter on GM craft, but tidbits are scattered throughout the entire book. This GM advice is better and more comprehensive than 90% of 'how to GM' chapters I've ever read in various RPGs. It is geared towards running an exciting Pulp flavored game, but I think that most of the advice that is good for that is good for other games. Sure, you could be running a serious, dramatic game full of intrigue and politics, but advice on keeping things moving and compelling is just as useful in that milieu as it is in a rip-roaring aerial dogfight. As I said, all of the GMing advice is good, but there are a few key take-aways I want to highlight. The single best piece of advice is in regard to situations where the characters attempt an action with a roll. Simply put, make sure there are interesting consequences for success or failure. Obviously, "interesting" isn't always good for the characters, but it is always good for the players. This simple guideline guides all sorts of decisions, like avoiding 'make this roll or die' situations. Dying because of a failed roll is not interesting, it's cheap and sucks. Character death happens, but it should be more meaningful and interesting than just that. Second is the advice on information management. This applies to any way the GM gives information to the characters. Too little, and they don't have any idea what to do. Too much and they get overloaded and stop paying attention to details. Beyond that advice, though, these rules recommend that you aren't stingy with things like clues and important plot information. The whole point of such information, after all, is to drive the characters towards further action. Sitting around not acting is boring, so give them what they need to make decisions! What makes the game interesting is the decisions players make for their characters, not the tension of knowing or not knowing. I think that the tendency for GMs to want to 'keep secrets' comes from other entertainment media where that is a dramatic and interesting effect, like movies and mystery novels and such. The trouble with applying this particular technique to RPGs is that the characters don't have a script to follow. In a movie or book, the main characters are guaranteed to eventually stumble across what is necessary to make the plot go forward or have an exciting reveal of previously secret information, but RPG characters have no such guarantee, unless you railroad them in the most horrible and boring way. So, sure, mysteries are fun and exciting and a great thing to introduce into RPGs, but rather than making the drama come from whether or not the characters find the clues, make the drama and tension come from putting the clues together. Give them as many clues as they need, then let them figure out what they mean. Finally, in the spirit of a pick up game with limited play time, SoTC advises that "dead air" time where nothing significant is happening is just a plain waste of game time, and gives a whole raft of ideas on combatting such boring down time. Things like keeping an in-game 'clock' element so that the adventure is a race against time and ensuring that action is a viable solution to the ills of the characters. And perhaps my favorite specific example of how to cure downtime is an old GM-favorite: send in the ninjas. Players totally off course? Have a squad of thugs break in and start shooting. At the end of the fight, one gets captured and interrogated, or runs off, leading the players to their secret base, or whatever. Action scenes pick up the pace, and if you plan them right, they can provide a way to gently nudge the characters back on the right track to taking further action. But you gotta be careful with this, because it might get obvious if you do it too much.

So, to reiterate, the GMing advice of SoTC is worth the price of admission alone. If you have any interest in running RPGs at all, and you haven't read it, I highly recommend you pick it up and at minimum give the 'tips and tricks' chapter a read. Besides the general advice I mentioned above, it gives three different ways to come up with an adventure (a pre-plotted story, a cluster of decisions based on the characters' main interests and traits, and a web of conflicting interests that will cause action and drama no matter how they turn out, or best of all, a combination of all three). For as good as the advice on crafting adventures is, I was actually pretty disappointed with the sample scenario included in the rulebook. To my mind, it seemed to not follow the advice given in the preceding chapter, giving a fairly straight and narrow plot line, not enough information to guarantee the players can act properly, and little focus on the characters as the stars of the show. That being said, it did have some pretty creative pulp elements and a decent initial situation.

Now, to actually discuss the rules, the core mechanic was one of my least favorite parts of the rules to start with, but it grew on me a bit. First off, it's based on special "fudge dice", which is irritating to me. The good news is that "fudge dice" are nothing but specially marked D6's that can be reproduced using normal-person D6's, which rather than being a pain in the ass to get, are in fact the most common dice on this island earth. Basically, 1-2 equals a -1, 3-4 equals a 0, and 5-6 equals a +1. So, skills are rated on a 'ladder' of -2 to +8, with a corresponding adjective (0 is 'Mediocre', +8 is Legendary and so forth). Difficulties are also set at some level on the ladder. To attempt a challenge, you roll 4 dice, add up the results, add that to your relevant skill, and compare against the difficulty.

So, for example, let's say that Two-Fist Bob is trying punch out a disrespectful young man for an insult to his girl. Two-Fist Bob is a local amateur boxing champion, so he has a rating of "Great" (+4) in Fists. The GM decides that the drunk and lecherous fellow with a rude mouth isn't going to take much to go down, but he's a little tougher than a random schmoe, so he sets the difficulty at "Average" (+1). Two-Fist Bob's player rolls his four dice getting a -1, -1, 0, +1. Add those together, and you get a net -1, which you add to his +4 from his skill, for a total of +3. He handily knocks the guy out with two "shifts" (each level over the required level for success is a 'shift', which comes into effect for some combat mechanics and the like).

Since characters are heroic paragons of their age, any skill they don't specifically take is rated at 'Mediocre' (+0), and they take a 'skill pyramid': 1 skill at 'Superb' (+5), 2 skills at 'Great' (+4), 3 skills at 'Good'(+3), 4 skills at 'Fair' (+2), and 5 skills at 'Average' (+1). No 'stats', just skills, but their use is intentionally pretty broad. The way the skills shake out, it is at once hard to be super specialized or an extremely broad 'jack of all trades', since every character will have the same number of skills at each level of competence. It's fairly balanced, and allows characters to still have a strong main area of interest while being useful in a broad range of situations, but like I said, it's hard to make a hyper-specialized character or one specialized in not being specialized.

The character creation system given is actually a pretty cool process. After coming up with your skills and a broad concept, you go through the phases of your life - initial background, the Great War, and then 3 pulp novels about your character's adventures. In each novel, you choose a 'co-star' from among the other Player Characters, and you thus come up with a background of helping each other out and interacting. There are also mechanics associated with this background, but more on that in a minute. As with the challenges in "Agon" and the best interests in "In a Wicked Age", I'm a big fan of having a mechanical process at character creation that binds the characters together and gives them a reason to interact in play. It beats the hell out of "An old man speaks to each of you in a tavern. . ."

Now, that mechanical feature I talked about is perhaps the coolest and most striking trait of the SoTC rules, and that is "Aspects". Aspects interact with another mechanic called 'fate points' that on their surface look pretty familiar: a bonus point to get you a reroll or add to an existing roll when you really need to succeed. But those are just the boring uses of fate points. Where their real coolness comes in, your character can spend a fate point to do things like declare that their happens to be a convenient fire escape in this alley, so he can follow the high-jumping villain. Or for your academic to announce that he's come across this tribe in his studies and that the proper way to show respect to them is a feat of strength. In other words, players can inject a bit of narrative control. The GM can still overrule such things, but a good GM will go with it if it's cool and let the player spend his fate point. So what about these aspects I mentioned, and what makes them so cool?

So, Aspects are the way that players can use fate points or gain them back. At first glance they look a lot like perks and flaws, but they're actually much broader than that. They can be a tagline, a significant person, a prop, or just traits about the character. Anything from "Sworn enemy of the Secret Brotherhood of the Flame" to "Unspoken Love (Sally)" to "Ancient Family Sword" to "Fiery Latin Temper". Players have total leeway in picking their aspects, but the rules give some great advice on what's good to pick and what's not. More on that in a sec. Mechanically, if a player wants to use his aspect to help him out, he can spend a fate point, and then either reroll the relevant dice, or add 2 to his result. So, in a fight with minions of the Secret Brotherhood of Fire, a 'sworn enemy' might "invoke" his aspect, spend a fate point, and rain down righteous fury. On the other hand, the GM can "compel" an aspect, in which case he makes something happen to the character with the aspect, but pays him a fate point for the trouble. So, the "Sworn Enemy" notices a ring on the hand of an important politician that denotes his membership in the brotherhood, and the GM compels him to act against the politician and pays him a fate point. A player can choose to 'buy out' of such a compel. An interesting twist is that a player can even ask a GM for a compel - in other words, he says he'll act in a complicating/negative way in accordance with one of his aspects, but he wants a fate point for it.

The rules also cover temporary aspects (like "dizzy" for someone who just got hit in the head in a fight), environmental aspects for scenes (like "shadowy") and so forth, and there are some neat mechanical ways they come into play, but it's as a character trait that I find them most interesting and most useful. This is one of the best ways I think I've ever seen to handle 'perks' and 'flaws', as well as just general character information. One issue with traditional 'flaws' that give character points for a negative effect is that many are on the player to incorporate, or at most the GM can be like "well, you did take unfriendly, so I'm not going to let you make a charm roll here". And when those flaw points are used to buy extremely useful in-game abilities (like a one-eyed, one-legged, stinky, drunk, midget combat monster) munchkinism is born. The beauty of the aspects system is that it gives in-play uses to aspects to both player and GM, and it mechanically rewards 'double sided' aspects the most. With aspects that are occasionally useful and occasionally trouble, you can both spend and regain fate points using them. If you have nothing but out and out useful ones like "Lucky" or "Great Shot", you'll never get fate points back.

Aspects are also a great way for players to let the GM know what kind of things they want their character to do, what kind of situations they want to be in. If a character has aspects like "In the Nick of Time", "Dramatic Entrance", and "Not this time, Dr. Zambago!" he probably doesn't want to research ancient scrolls in the library or mingle in high society balls. Even better, with those aspects, the GM has both story and mechanical back up for making those things happen! And when characters have aspects that involve each other, it creates an even tighter bond between the play group. The GMing chapter recommends one method of adventure creation where you look at your PC's aspects and use those to come up with "decision points" involving those aspects, and then just see where the players go from one decision to the next, or if you are doing a more scripted adventure, to keep aspects in mind as you write what sort of conflict and drama will be going on. In short, aspects permeate every facet of this game, and I think are a delightfully subtle yet powerful tool for integrating story and mechanics, and as with the rest of the rules, the advice on their use is top-knotch character creation and play advice, even when applied to a system without 'aspects'.

After gushing so much about this system, I feel like I should mention some of the reasons I did not choose it as my go-to starter RPG game, in addition to those I mentioned in the introduction. First off, as much as I do love early 20th century pulp adventure with Action! Science! and Action Science! it is not everybody's cup of tea. I also find the core mechanic to be just a bit awkward. After fully reading through the rules, it makes a lot more sense than when first presented, and I feel that it would play fairly smoothly, but I also get the impression that adequately explaining it to new players would be a bit of a challenge. Likewise, the way things like sidekicks, gadgets, and other 'stunts' are handled is flexible, but not my favorite ever. With the fairly limited 'skill' options, stunts are the main directly mechanical way you distinguish your character from others, and for all that they felt somewhat limited. Perhaps most importantly, however, the game strongly discourages character advancement, and with good reason for what it is, but still. The philosophy put forth is that a 'pick up game' is one that you play when and how you can, without necessarily having the same players or characters present every time. To provide in-game rewards based on amount of play time effectively punishes players for having other things going on in their life. So, that makes sense. On the other hand, though, I feel like character advancement is the most rewarding and 'hooking' part of roleplaying, and not allowing new players to enjoy it would rob them of an experience that would likely help cement their enjoyment of the hobby. So, as with all the other games I've reviewed here, I will shelve this as a game I'd love to play sometime, and in the meanwhile, ruthlessly pillage it for good design ideas to include in my own project.

Starting next time, I'll finally begin the development process of my actual game! It's exciting that it's starting to take shape, bits and pieces at a time, and I plan to make the process as open as possible via this blog, both as a record for myself, and as an opportunity for input from readers to shape the game as it develops. Once again, any comments are a welcome source of discussion.