Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Game Orders

I'm sure everyone is on the edge of their seats waiting for me to report on all of those games I ordered a while back. Yes, they all came in, all within about 5 days of placing the order, so great service. A quick note: I don't represent any of these games through IPR, but I might at some point, and I have actually talked to a couple of these publishers about the games. Take what I say with grains of salt to taste. I will go into each one in detail in seperate posts, but here is just a bit about very first impressions:

Breaking the Ice: I got this one first, about two days after I ordered it (Emily must have dropped it in the mail pretty much the same day). The game is a half-size booklet, staple bound, of roughly 30-odd pages. It has a cardstock cover, with color, and some clip-art looking pieces inside. There is also an illustrated pair of players, depicted consistently throughout the book, and on the cover, all by the same artist. This is pretty cool, it visually ties the book together, and lets you put faces to the sample players in the examples. I thought it was very interesting that the artwork featured the players, rather than some hypothetical characters in the game.

Under the Bed: This one blew my mind, just from the basic layout. It is a little booklet, about four inches wide and two inches tall. It runs maybe 20 pages. The rest of the game is a set of cards that are used when you play. These rules are no longer than the ones you find in a typical board game. Awesome! It's all black and white, even the cover, which was glossy cardstock, and there is only clip art inside. Still, this is a really cool looking little game. It really doesn't look like an RPG.

Primetime Adventures: I got this one next, with a note on the envelope letting me know that Bulldogs Rules. :) This game has a half-size format, with a pretty crude perfect bind. I'm not too confident that the binding will last through sustained use, but pretty much all of my game books fall apart, so not really a big deal. This has a two-color cover with an old TV picture tube on it. The art inside is much more typical RPG art, with depictions of characters and scenes from the game. Since this game is about role-playing a fictional TV show, it makes sense to show the various characters.

With Great Power... : The packaging I received this in made me laugh. The game came bagged in a polyurethane comic bag, with a strip of scotch tape holding it closed, just like a graphic novel fished out of a comic store back issue bin. Very cool. That really sets the tone for the game. Interestingly, it doesn't have an awful lot of art in it, considering its a comic-themed game, but what there was was pretty good. There is even a rules example section laid out graphically, like a comic, which was a very nice touch I thought.

Coming later, actual reviews of the content. I haven't been able to play any of these yet, but I hope to get a game in for at least one before the reviews start coming out.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Thoughts in Tandem [Mortal Coil]

For those of you not in the know, yesterday was my wedding anniversary (conveniently placed on National Talk Like a Pirate Day, to help me remember). Krista and I have been married for 13 years. What might this have to do with gaming, and Mortal Coil, you ask? Well, when you have been together with a person for as long as we have, sometimes your mental energy just links up.

As I was driving home from work last night, I was going over some things in my head regarding Mortal Coil. I am working on the design for this game, as I have been for many years now. It has been a real struggle lately, and the design work I am doing has drifted, rudderless, for a bit now. I was trying to figure out what to do about this as I drove, and came to the conclusion that I needed to determine the focus of the game in order to focus the mechanics (more on this in a bit).

But what should happen at dinnertime? Krista, unprompted, turns to me and says, "What is Mortal Coil about? What is the point of Mortal Coil?" I hadn't mentioned that I had been thinking about that very topic as I came home, it just popped into her head roughly the same time it had done so in mine. Who says telepathy doesn't exist? (And who knows which one of us thought about Mortal Coil first!)

So, what is Mortal Coil about? Like mentioned in my previous post, Dead Drop and Focused Design, the very first step in game design really needs to be an answer to this question. Mortal Coil had its origin (original working title Darklands) as a home-brew alternative to the classic Vampire: The Masquerade. Our group had grown a bit disenchanted with the White Wolf system, and I developed a supernatural game using The Legend of Yore system. As the years went by, I tweaked and mangled the system for Mortal Coil until it no longer resembled its original form in almost any respect. The basic problem I was having with it was that there was no focus. It was a combat/magic/everything else system. I needed to decide what sort of game I wanted Mortal Coil to produce, and design for that.

Here is the new focus for Mortal Coil:

Mortal Coil is a game of emotional drama with a supernatural theme.

The key to getting the game there lies in the newish mechanic called Passions. To get the play where I want, these Passions need to be the central mechanic. Here are some non-tested notes for the Passion mechanic:
  • Everyone has a set of Passions, rated between 1-5. There will be a total of 5 points distributed among these Passions, in any way the player sees fit (1-1-1-1-1, 1-2-2, 2-3, 1-4, 5, etc.). Passions of rank 5 are obsessions, not too emotionally healthy for the character. 4 is borderline.
  • Characters have a set of Passion tokens per session equal to the number of Passions they possess (the above examples would have 5, 3, 2, 2, and 1 respectively). These tokens can be spent in play to add the Passion rank to an action. Players can choose which Passion to spend the token on (you could spend it on your 4-point Passion twice, for example, rather than having to spend it on the 1-point Passion and the 4-point Passion).
  • If you spend more than one token on the same Passion in a session, it will rise one rank. Since you may only have a total of 5 points in Passions, another Passion must go down.
Obviously, this gives a mechanical advantage for bringing a character's emotions into play. The GM will be able to call on Passions occasionally, too, if he feels it relevant for the Passion to oppose a player's action. This system also gives the control of this key mechanic to the player.

I will need to see how this works practically, but it is a start, and I think it moves Mortal Coil in the right direction.

Friday, September 16, 2005

This was posted on The Forge by Albert of Feh:

I have to say, I really like the explicit mechanical success == narration rights paradigm. In more traditional RPGs, I (as the GM) have always felt like I was some sort of black box responsible for the state of the SIS. With the exception of the most basic and isolated character actions, all input had to go through me. While I could hand full control over to a player for spotlight moments, there were never any guidelines for when to do it, what the scope of that narration could be, or anything else. It was really tiring to be that black box.

I've found that, with InSpectres and tMW, I get to open that box and let all the players muck around inside along with me. And suddenly I have effective guides for how to pass around the tools inside and let everyone have a go. Instead of pulling it all along by myself and ending every session utterly out of energy, everyone is putting work in, and so I end up with more energy after three hours of play than I had when I began!

You know, I think there's no going back.

I am totally there. One of the things "traditional" RPGs demand is a lot of GM preparation. I just don't have the time or inclination to do this any more. I generally figure out one or two plot points and drive the action that way, but mostly play herd over the players' desires and actions for direction. It is really refreshing to play a game where the rules take some (or all) of that burden off of you as a GM.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Game-Buying Spree!

I just went on a major game-buying spree (I am using my Galileo Games account in the name of research). I just picked up Breaking the Ice, Primetime Adventures, Under the Bed, and With Great Power. I have heard a lot about all of these games, and I probably would have picked them all up at GenCon if I had been able to go this year. I will give reviews when they come in!


I have had a bit of a breakthrough on The Fifth World, my Shadow of Yesterday-based game rules that I am working on. I was having trouble with one of the core concepts, called Outside points. The main barrier I was having here was that the consequences of using these points was too dire. No one would ever want to transgress because of the negative effects. I finally had an epiphany for these, and that is to use the pre-existing pool system in TSoY.

Now, characters in The Fifth World will have three pools, as follows:

Inside: The inside pool represents the character's connection to his community and clan. This pool is refreshed by engaging in community-building: chatting, helping your neighbor, doing maintenance around the village, etc.
Outside: The outside pool represents the character's alienation from the People. The more transgressive acts (crimes) the character commits, the higher this pool grows. These dice can be used in conflicts, but they will have later negative consequences when used. This pool is refreshed by isolating oneself, spurning neighbors or family, and generally acting antisocial.
Renown: The renown pool represents the character's fame. This will be important for increasing ranks in kiva societies, and is refreshed by bragging about one's exploits. Renown is neither outside nor inside, but can lead in either direction.

These are not entirely fleshed out yet, but this is a good start on where I want to go with this game.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dead Drop and Focused Design

One of the games that is percolating in my head is called Dead Drop, a Cold War-era spy game. I've definitely had a bit of a block about this game for a while. I know what I want to do, but I haven't had any great ideas to solve the problems. I just read Ben Lehman's post in his blog, and his contention about focused design got the gears grinding.

Here is what I see as the main challenge in Dead Drop: determining what the final theme and shape of play will be, and creating a strong design that supports that theme every time. Reading and playing games like Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life With Master, Inspectres, and The Mountain Witch has really opened my eyes to this type of design, and one of the features these games share is a very focused nature of play. Rather than "here is how to make your character, now go and do whatever you like," these games say, "here is how to make your character and here is the scenario you will be going through every time." Variation occurs in play as the players deal with the same or very similar situation with different characters and different takes on the material. I think this style of play would be really good for a spy game of the sort I am trying to develop, and that will help me constrain the general scope of play as well.

This is a pretty fundamental design philosophy. Choosing to take Dead Drop in this direction will have a huge impact on the ultimate play experience. I do think I can make a really intense, immersive spy game this way. The key questions of Dead Drop are how far will you go, and at what point do your actions begin to cheapen your very goals. A tightly focused design can really bring these to the forefront.