Sunday, September 13, 2015

Research & Dragons: Fate Accelerated

Last night I ran the first game of a new project of mine - a series of RPG experiments where I take a new system, a new style, and run it in a method I have never done before. This session began after mid-day, and went until midnight, with teaching the rules, planning the game, character creation, and finally play all occurring at once. This is Research & Dragons.

For the first session of Research & Dragons, I chose the following variables to test:
  1.  System: Fate Accelerated.
  2. Style: Period Political Intrigue.
  3. Method: Zero Preparation; Player’s Create the Setting (at the table).

Needless to say, I was terrified, but in a good way!

So how this is going to work is I will outline how the session went, and then I will break it down into an analysis of these three variables and discuss my findings. At the end is the Verdict, where I trace out my findings and advice. If you don’t have time to go through everything, at least read those three short paragraphs!

Session Rundown

We began play at 3:00 PM on Saturday 12th, September 2015. The idea for this particular experiment was born in the car heading back from a camping trip, and immediately after a short Facebook conversation about some themes, and organisation. We came to the idea of running a no-magic “medieval” courtly intrigue game with no direct combat. All ‘combat’ would be social intrigue. We had some ideas for the setting - such as a warmer planet with 2 suns, a culture of veiling yourself in public, and some ideas pertaining to noble title passing by right of virtue rather than familiar bloodline.

Then came game day. The limit of my preparation was to print out character sheets, the game creation sheet for Fate Core, and a list of names for males, females, and places (I chose Babylonian names, as I haven’t used them much before). With our materials gathered, myself and four players - Alex, Amelia, Felicity, and Genevieve - sat down to discuss the game.

I quickly sketched out the core rules of Fate Accelerated. In brief, you roll 4d6 (we used normal dice instead of Fate Dice, and substituted 1-2 for a Minus, 3-4 for a Blank, and 5-6 for a Plus) and add your Approach (a score from +0 to +3) to beat a target number or an opposed roll. You have Aspects, which can be words or phrases that describe a factor about your character. You can invoke Aspects to gain +2 to a roll, or to reroll your dice, but this costs a Fate Point. You regain Fate Points by having your Aspects be Compelled by the GM or other players to make something bad happen to your character as a consequence of their nature. Done. Rules sorted.

Next was setting creation. I began by prompting my players with a few questions, but very quickly they began riffing off each other’s answers, and I had to madly take notes. They developed in full steam ahead of me, with me throwing in suggestions here and there to liven up the tension. Using the Fate Core Game Creation Sheet I was able to guide this a little better, and asked them for the major movers and shakers, as well as the centres of conflict, and the current issue and incoming issue of the world.

In the end we got some truly unique results. In addition to the features I mentioned above during our Facebook back-and-forth, we developed that the world was in a pre-Dark Ages, Iron Age level of technology, with a political landscape similar to that of the Roman Empire, the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and in some ways the tribal nature of Dark Ages Scotland.

We discovered that there is pseudo-religious tension between those who worship the suns and walk freely beneath them, and the aristocracy which believes in veiling themselves from the sun and living nocturnal lives in veneration of the moon. We learned of the divided nature between ‘puritan’ aristocrats who believed in more traditional monogamous and insular (read: almost inbred) families, and the ‘liberal’ aristocratic movements where a matriarch and a patriarch of a noble house have countless suitors and mates, and the children of an entire house belong to everyone.

We discovered two guilds: The Guild of Roses, for female courtesans who traded their skills for the fruits of their own wombs (taking in children to use as wards and playing pieces in foreign courts), and The Guild of Thorns, for male courtesans, who trade in information garnered from their attentions. We learned of the strict laws that forbid the two from consorting with each other for fear of the power they would wield.

We also learned of a curious custom where nobles have “Senses” or “Censers” (the richer you are, the more you have) - servants who act as an extension of your body for that given sense. So a noble could have an Eye who is expected to observe and tell their master everything they see, or an Ear who listens to another noble’s Mouth, or even Feet who carry you on palanquins, and Hands who give and receive gifts and signs of affection. The play of veils, and the use (and ignoring/recognition of a Censer) becoming the main dance of these ridiculous nobles.

And the beauty of all of this? I did very little. I sat back, and watched as my players became not only engrossed in the world they created, but deeply invested and engaged - plotting and planning openly.

It was, therefore, time to move to character creation. We began with High Concept Aspects, and then Troubles, which were easy to determine given the nature of my players’ engagement. Next came, in a similar style of Fate Core a process of each player dictating a situation in their past for which they gained another Aspect. Another player would then jump in and dictate how they made it more complicated or helped, and in turn gained an Aspect and determined a familiar bond between characters.

By game start, we had a well fleshed and interesting setting, with 4 characters who were ripe for political intrigue. What we didn’t have, however, was a starting point. This was quite difficult for me, as the players and I knew the issues at hand, but the characters didn’t. I was faced with the weird job of cleverly and interestingly informing players about things they already knew. Luckily, my players were willing to just banter at each other, and the awkwardness I felt in my ability to deliver the beginning was quickly overridden.

We played for several hours, during which the characters learned of several interlinked plots to overthrown the Queen, a mysterious southern continent that was at the centre of this web, and also learned of the major players. We didn’t, however, have time to finish the session with anything remotely close to a satisfying ending, and perhaps this one-shot will need to be extended out to a mini-campaign (or more, depending).

My Findings

The System: Fate Accelerated

The Fate Accelerated system, augmented with bits and pieces from Fate Core, is truly wonderful. Whilst it required a little bit of explaining up front, the mechanics were simple enough that players were experimenting with them right out of the gate and having a lot of fun even during character creation!

The flexibility of the Aspect, Stunt, and Stress systems allow for exactly this sort of game. However, I am wary of the advancement mechanics and the utility of the system for anything more tactical.

Fate Accelerated seems entirely suited to political intrigue and social combat, with the Actions and Stress system making immediate and perfect sense. You try to butter up the Queen? That’s Creating an Advantage. You’re discrediting an opponent? Attack them with your Clever!

Interestingly enough, and this was proved through play, the mechanics work best as a player-vs-player system, which was incredibly enjoyable. Combat took some time to do, but it was mostly because we were working through heavy intrigue. Even still, everyone was keenly engaged during the play experience.

Perhaps my favourite facet of the system is the transparency of the game. There is no illusion that the GM is the authority, and that the other players are the audience for the GM’s story. In truth, I was a casual observer for much of play, and merely stepped in to provide rulings (and even then, it was a discussion at some points). This is a wonderful thing because, without prior rules knowledge, within a single session players (who themselves have never GMed before) were able to grasp and adapt the rules to the situation.

There is one thing I will say about the system, though. You cannot play Fate Accelerated, or Core I presume, and think to win. This is a standard of all roleplaying games, but in Fate it is painstakingly obvious. If you want to see your player characters succeed over and over, then find another system. Fate is about exciting and dramatic tales involving exciting and dramatic characters - and drama means things go wrong!

The Style: Period Political Intrigue

Political intrigue is hard. I was terrified that it wouldn’t work, and am entirely indebted to my players for it working. Without them as strong and motivated characters (and players), the game simply would have fallen flat and been an utter disaster.

However, there were a few key things I noticed that I can impart:

Fewer NPCs who have greater weight between them is good. If there are too many NPCs, it becomes confusing to follow, but if you have a powerful few then it flow a lot smoother.

Allow the PCs to drive the fiction. No matter what you as the GM may feel is interesting, the players are the ones who will engage and give you your greatest resources, so listen intently and throw back everything they do. For instance, one of the greatest points of tension came about because a player failed a Careful test in their scheming, and a powerful NPC just happened to be there. This was emergent - I had no intention of the Queen being near the discourse, but it was the most exciting and dramatic thing that could occur at the time, so I made it so!

I will definitely be running more political intrigue games in the future, and this single session has given me so much fodder and experience already.

The Method: Zero-Prep, Player Setting

This was terrifying. Honestly, don’t do this if you’re inexperienced. I’ve been GMing for 17+ years, and I found it stressful at times.

However, it was also amazingly liberating. This game was the first game where I truly felt that they players owned the fiction as much as I did. I don’t think anyone left last night thinking that I did a good job running it, but rather than we all ran it together amazingly!

Despite this, I feel there are steps to take to prepare oneself better for this kind of session. A list of questions to ask the players would be ideal, rather than a flat open expanse of nothing to come with. Whilst I was lucky enough to have the players run away with the idea and build it themselves, it could easily have led to Blank White Paper Syndrome, in which case a few ideas to bring it back on topic would have been useful.

I would also suggest reading appropriate fiction beforehand. I have been reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I found myself more than once falling back on ideas and assumptions about how to improvise from the way the characters within the story act and improvise. Because the book is largely political intrigue, it enabled me to well picture how a session should run, and the outlines of the objectives:

Someone wants something for some reason. They can’t use violence to get it. They must convince, coerce, connive, and mostly corrupt to get it. Go from there.

The Verdict

 Fate Accelerated is an amazing game that can be taught in minutes, and can be extended out to infinite settings. It does seem, however, to be limited in the play styles it supports. If you’re looking for crunch or tactics, look somewhere else. You will not find that here. This is a system about flexibility without forsaking depth.

Fate Accelerated can be downloaded for pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat Productions.

Political intrigue is a tricky style to play, and requires deep player engagement. Do not attempt to use it with guile - ironically - because it won’t work. Be up front to your players that intrigue is the state of play and that there is no room for shooting/stabbing first. You can’t do that. It won’t work. But that isn’t to say you can’t defeat people. Political intrigue is all about rising to the top, and you can only do that by stepping on the people below you!

Zero preparation, in addition to letting the players create the setting on the day of the game is a scary but rewarding experience, and will allow you to grow as a GM. It isn’t for the inexperienced, but is something I feel every GM should try at some point. Lastly, even though it is zero preparation, prepare to be unprepared. Read what you can, know the rules well, and know your players. They are your setting, your cast, and your entire game. Play them.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Here's Another Gift: The Blue Knight

Once again, I've come bearing gifts from Ameshirel!

Here is the stat block for a monster I used the other night: the Blue Knight, a fae warrior who is able to bend the planes around himself.

(If you want to download it as a PDF, go here.)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Here's a Gift: Triskell's Tower

Hey, it's been a while.

I have a lot to discuss, but not enough time to discuss it all. So, I am going to give it all in dot points for possible later discussion!

  • My group finished Marienburg: Sold Down the River. It was awesome, and I intend to let you know more about it. It involved a prison break, a fight with undead elves, summoning a dragon, and a whole lot of death.
  • I started another game, called Ameshirel: A World Undone, which is currently being run live in a Hexcrawlly sort of way. Check it out on Obsidian Portal (as I've actually managed to convince my players to update it!) It is using Dungeons & Dragons 5e, which is a new and strange experience for me.
  • I'm now running a game using Fragged Empire, an indie RPG in development that was successfully Kickstartered a little while back. It is being posted up in Vod form on Another Dungeon, so check it out!
  • I got a new job! I now work for EA Firemonkeys in Melbourne, and am an actual paid Game Designer in full now. No more split titles here, no sir! I'm having a lot of fun, and working on Real Racing 3 for iOS and Android. You should check it out, because it is one of the best racing games on mobile.
  • I'm still planning Verum Arbitus, and it should be launching in a few weeks. Very excited!
  • I've been playing in lots of games, recently, including a Cthulhu Horror game using a hacked homebrew system, and a Terry Pratchett meets The Office meets Better Off Ted style game. Very odd, but loving it.
  • I've been watching a crap load of itmeJP's YouTube channel, especially Steven Lumpkin's West Marches and Adam Koebel's Swan Song. Check them out.
Anyway, because I have been neglecting you all so much, I decided to wrap up a present for you early and release it here!

This is an adventure / dungeon I wrote for Ameshirel, but it can easily be transported into any DnD5e game, or really any game, so long as you're willing to hack it a little. So enjoy the Mad Wizard Triskell's Tower!

(PLAYERS OF AMESHIREL PLEASE READ! Do not look at the PDF above. It will spoil the adventure. I mean, go ahead and read it if you want, but Triskell will know... And he'll get you.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Game Design Document Template

Greetings everyone,

I just re-uploaded, in a better format, the Game Design Template that I use for my projects.

You can find it here.

Please feel free to use it without credit, or anything like that. Just make awesome games, and tell me about them if you feel like it!

Friday, March 20, 2015

New Campaign: Dark Heresy, Verum Arbitus

Recently I came to a decision to begin winding up my Marienburg: Sold Down the River campaign, and I will do a full post on that one in the future, as I believe the campaign deserves a true post-mortem.

Whilst this is sad, it means I have a chance to create something new. *cue rubbing hands together*

For a bloody long time now I have wanted to run a campaign set in the 41st Millennium of Warhammer 40k.  A long while back, I did just that, but it never got very far due to my moving away from the group. I have since grown considerably as a GM, and I am ready to step back into the fray.

Last year I designed a campaign called Into the Expanse, but unfortunately that wont really work with where I am now. I am no longer a student, and don't have as much time to put towards planning as I once did. Further, many of the questions asked with Into the Expanse were answered by Marienburg: Sold Down the River (but not all!)

Therefore, I need something new. Enter Verum Arbitus.
DISCLAIMER: This is not indicative of the coming campaign.
But I had you there for a minute.
Or do I still have you? Is this all a lie?

Verum Arbitus

Just to be straight, this is an episodic Dark Heresy campaign, where each 'episode' mission has 3 parts, played over 3 sessions. As a usual Dark Heresy campaign goes, the PCs will be Throne Agents... But there is a twist.

I first had inspiration for Verum Arbitus after I watched True Detective (the pseudo-Latin inclined among you will note that "verum arbitus" very loosely translates as "true detective"). I wanted to create a campaign where the players are, loosely, "the law", yet they are bound in near-mythic events and stumbling through. The players should feel competent - this is their job, after all - but the situation seems strange and unlike anything they have seen before. To put it into metaphor, they hold a well worn deck of cards, yet manage to draw one they've never seen before.

The second round of inspiration for Verum Arbitus, and what prompted me to write the first session was, strangely, the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. This was strange for me, but it hammered home the idea that inspiration can strike you from any source. And at any time. Because, as it happens, I was wasted at the time and dancing in my living room with a group of friends to very loud music...

Don't look at me like that.

Anyway, I got to writing, and I sorted out my thoughts. So let me present the Grand Concept Document for Verum Arbitus.

Campaign Name: I've already covered this, but Verum Arbitus

This name gives the needed "fake Latin" feel which is essential to Warhammer, reinforces the strange arcane nature of the campaign, and identifies that the players will take an Arbitrator role during the game. Great stuff.

Campaign Tag-Line: When you know your enemy, you know your ally.

This tag-line is a bit of a riddle, and I wont answer it here as my players are likely reading (and so they should!) However, think about this one. Really think about it. It should give you a few ideas on the sorts of games I'll be running.

What is the Campaign Question?: Who do the PCs trust when their bosses are worse than their foes?

This question is a pretty standard one for 40k, however when mixed with some of the other points in this GCD it should get the players thinking. Just what kind of scum will their employers be?! If we know that their employer is an Inquisitor, as the PCs are Throne Agents, then what does that say about the campaign scope? Is it a Radical or Renegade Inquisitor? Or a truly Puritan Inquisitor? Or neither? Maybe they are 'fake' Throne Agents! Who knows...

(I do.)

Who are the PCs?: Those in the wrong place at the right time. Those that survived. Those that can be manipulated.

The PCs will be forced into servitude, quite literally at the barrel of a gun. But then again, they are Throne Agents. They aren't just bilge scum scrapped up to service. They are competent agents, able to deal with situations that come their way. But they didn't CHOOSE this life, that is the main point.

What are the Doing?: Get a Mission, Infiltrate the Situations, Cut off the Head, Burn Everything.

The PCs will mostly spend their time clandestinely operating behind enemy lines. They will be performing things that, should they be discovered, they will be disavowed, disowned, and destroyed for. They will be doing the "thankless duties the Emperor needs them to do". And they will be doing it in bad company... Or is it better company than those who sent them into these hell holes?

Looking forward to talking more about Verum Arbitus in the future! Viva la Dark Heresy!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Announcing New Contributor: Myself!

Greetings all,

Just a bit of a management update for now. I've finally tethered my proper email address to versamus, so from now on I will be posting from this account.

What does this mean? Well, not much, really. Not much content-wise, at least. Except that it is now far less of a hassle for me to post, so that should mean I post more often!

So that this post wasn't a waste of time for you to read, I will share a map of Rijker's Isle - the fortress prison in Marienburg - that I made this week using Campaign Cartographer 3.

Looking forward to chatting again soon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

If It Ain't Broke, Make It Better

Hey everyone, please excuse the lack of posts recently. I've been writing for a website called Another Dungeon, and doing lots of projects on the side, so versamus has fallen somewhat by the wayside. But no longer! I have a few articles I plan to post in the near future, so that should be grand.

There is a very old and very wise saying that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This sounds like good advice: if your chair works, then don’t go fiddling around with it. Your meddling might break it to begin with, but either way you’ll be wasting time.

This piece of advice is, of course, terrible for a games designer. Simply terrible.

When it comes to game design, I am a little bit Derridean - that is, I believe that pretty much every idea has already been done before at some point in time, and attempting to come up with something 100% original is pointless and impossible. Everything we think is based on our experience, so it isn’t possible to think of something that isn’t in some way referential to something that has come before.

This must therefore also apply to mechanics, story, and every facet of every genre of game design. So where does the creativity come in? By smashing those old, tired, and generic ideas together. Not only that, but by constantly questioning the choices that we make ourselves.

Now, let me be clear, this doesn’t mean reinvent the wheel - another very old and very wise saying. However, take those wheels, pull them off the monster truck, and jam them onto the tricycle.

Let me give you an example: Carcassonne.

Carcassonne is a great, classic Euro board game which is enjoyed by people worldwide. It has a sleek elegant design which makes it a quick game to learn, to play, and to enjoy. It is very fun-efficient, suitable for all ages, and has a nice combination of luck and strategy that make it a near-flow game.

However, Carcassonne isn’t perfect. No game ever is.

So I decided to change that. Now I’m not pretending I was the first person to do this - I have never seen it before, but it is such a simple change that I am certain someone else has done it before - but I decided to change the random draw of tiles at the beginning of a round of Carcassonne with a random hand of three drawn at the beginning of a round, which is replenished after each tile is played individually.

Simple change. I didn’t invent anything whilst doing it. I didn’t invent Carcassonne. I didn’t invent the concept of hands in a game. But I did cram one invention into another. But doing so does not a designer make. Game design isn’t about posturing. It is about playtesting. No idea is ever good until you play it and have fun - better yet, no idea is ever good until you play it and have more fun than you had before the idea.

So we gave Franken-Carcassonne a spin, and it turned out great! The addition of a hand allows for higher strategy, and faster gameplay. It removes the shambling randomness and incomplete feelings that some games of Carcassonne can create when the deck is shuffled particularly badly. It also allows for some rather spectacular back-stabbing and fiero moments when you execute an amazing play over a few turns.

The variant doesn’t unbalance the game, because all players have the same ‘advantage’, and are equally able to plan ahead. Yes, each players’ hands can still come out badly, but the hand size is big enough to allow for forethought and clever planning, whilst not big enough for a single player to monopolise all of a single tile-type.

This is just one example. And not a very good example. The change was small, and not very original. But it worked! It made for a different experience, if not certainly a better one (though I prefer it, personally), and got everyone at the table thinking about the game in a different way.

If you need any more proof that constant iteration on games is a great thing, just look at the amount of mods Skyrim has. That should convince you.

So the next time you pick up a board game, card game, or video game, consider the rules you are playing, ask yourself why those rules are in place, and then ask what you could do to change them. Yeah, some of the changes will suck. But some will be awesome. You won’t know until you try them out, and before you’ve realised it you’re a game designer.