roleplaying games

Real games being actually planned

I wrote in the past about all the games I wanted to play, provided I had enough time. Now, I’m starting to figure out a plan for what games I’m actually running in the future.

First, I wrote up a “mid-sized” hexcrawl for Cyberpunk 2020. Now, figuring out when I’m actually running it with the online group is proving to be a slight logistical challenge, but I’ve proposed it and have a slot to run it while one of our core GMs is out for a couple months. I’ve distributed the character creation rules to everyone, and have enough material for a solid handful of sessions.

My in-person game of Victoriana is on the rocks with exactly no sessions under our belt, so at this point I plan to retool and shift the group so we have more regular players. Though nothing is set in stone, I’m considering some hexcrawl-y goodness here as well, possibly even running Burning Wheel since in-person is my only real chance.

I’m also looking out into the future with regards to running my post-apocalyptic fantasy game, and if I’m feeling ambitious this could also be used for the in-person group. After much hemming and hawing, I decided the best game to run the sort of game I was looking for is likely Reign, even if it means I need to do some history writing, worldbuilding, and some paths/disciplines and magic rules. The one-roll spells tool is a pretty neat way to populate the world with hidden lore and relics, though I’d need to figure out how best to treat mage-type characters at character creation. There’s a built-in storyline about ancient hidden lore, but I’m not sure how people would feel about starting with no spells.

Beyond that, The Sprawl is still sitting in the future as a game for the online group. It should be a good one, and it keeps getting informed by my continued consumption of science fiction. Hopefully it’s a long runner, though we’ll see what the characters do and how interesting they are.


The Urban Beater rides

With a few brake cable stays and a water bottle cage, I finished my single-speed bicycle build last Friday. I was able to ride around town a bit that day, and then took a slightly longer ride out on the Minuteman Bike Trail on Sunday.

The bike is just…breezy. It’s stable at speed but easy to turn in, it rolls nicely, and is just generally fun. I do feel how skinny the tires are, but they noticeably reduce the effort from stops. And low effort from stops is important, because there are no gears. Speaking of no gears, the bike is also kind of slow. It’s not very slow, but right now with the 44/15 gearing, I’ve got almost 3:1 reduction. In comparison, the 39/13 or 39/12 gearing which I usually end up with on the Bianchi (either the highest or second highest rear gear and the middle chainring) is either exactly 3 or 3.25:1. So doing the math out the difference isn’t huge, but both the presence of lower gears and the little gearing advantage at the top makes the Bianchi feel faster.

Speaking of the Bianchi. I rode to work yesterday and today, and riding the bikes back to back was interesting. For the first time, I really felt the difference in the amount of tire I had with the Bianchi. This is notable mostly because the Bianchi wears 32c road tires, not skinny but not exactly fat either. Still, the difference between 25 and 32 was a noticeable reduction in jarring and better maintaining speed over uneven pavement. The generally higher cadence I was able to maintain on the Bianchi made it feel a lot faster, though that’s likely due to the reduction in effort rather than the actual gearing difference discussed above. The Bianchi is heavier than the Motobecane, but while riding it’s pretty hard to feel the difference. The Bianchi carries the weight of the panniers well also. The one place the Motobecane’s weight was a major advantage was in multi-modal riding; I can throw it on my shoulder and carry it up and down stairs easily, something that is painful with the Bianchi and impossible when I have panniers on it.

The Motobecane is fulfilling its role as an urban beater well, and will be even better once I figure out how to ride it with as little baggage as possible (I rode with a backpack which was OK, but riding it without a pack was much better). There is one small upgrade in the works…after feeling out how the bike rides I’m probably going to change to bar-end brake levers, just simple ones like Tektro 4.1s. It’ll clean up the front end and make me feel more comfortable in a crouch on this bike, which right now leaves me without brake coverage. Unfortunately, this change would require new cables (longer than the current ones to cover lever position), new bar tape, and the levers themselves, so I’m probably going to leave it alone until I feel like ripping into the bike again.

Overall, my first build was a successful one. A few tweaks and this bike should serve me well for some time.

roleplaying games

The problem with constraints

I’ve been listening through the backlog of the System Mastery podcast. Not only are Jon and Jef hilarious, but in some ways I feel like they’re kindred spirits in gaming style. These guys have basically said that some of their favorite games mechanically are Fate and D&D 4e, and they see no inherent contradiction to that. In other RPG communities, most notably RPGnet, “rules-light” or “rules-heavy” is seen as a binary choice for many if not most people. Someone like me whose favorite systems of the moment are probably GURPS and Apocalypse World (at the same time) is seen as kind of an oddity.

When I was last listening, the two of them were answering listener questions and someone wrote in asking for a D&D adventure idea. Based partially on some jokes that had come before, they gave an answer that boiled down to “play 1920s bootleggers, except in a D&D world, and also there are blimps.” Through riffing off this, the two of them ended up telling the listener that the idea was too good, he couldn’t have it, and they were going to run it instead.

And you know what? It was a good idea, complete with a few interesting hooks and some great puns (the big bad was going to be “The Fuzz”, except instead of the police it would be sentient mold). And it dramatically violated expectations of what a typical D&D campaign setting looks like. I realize that, in thinking about how that world would look, that I have been sitting in my own box of “typical” settings and not really pushing the envelope in any way.

When I first started gaming in middle and high school, worldbuilding was one of my favorite parts. I’d write lengthy descriptions, make maps, and generally spend a lot of time intensely planning out these worlds. I’ve shifted away from this recently, and I think I’ve done so in a way that I didn’t think through and that hasn’t helped me. I think my instinct to push for player input is largely a good one…but using that to substitute for doing my own planning and worldbuilding has not worked out.

I keep thinking through ideas for new games and broad strokes concepts, but other than a bit of my planning for The Sprawl coming up with settings hasn’t been exciting me recently. I think I need to do more of the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that gets you “1920s bootleggers in a D&D world” rather than falling back on established setting tropes. And while system does matter insofar as the style of game you want goes, it doesn’t restrict you nearly as much as you think it does. I need to keep remembering that.

roleplaying games

The Novelty Treadmill

No gaming group is going to be perfect, and that’s not a surprise. Sometimes, though, general dissatisfaction mixes with otherwise minor personality clashes and leaves a game feeling frustrating. You want something different, something new.

For me, I’ve noticed that the statement “I want something different” is much easier to justify than “I want *X*”. Wanting something different comes about because whatever you have isn’t doing it for you, but wanting something specific requires a lot more justification.

My online group has spent a good chunk of its time throwing games at the wall to see what would stick. Generally every game play has at least one element that’s appealing, and at least one flaw that makes a chunk of the group dislike it. Fate ran fast and was fun, but seemed vague and “same-y”. Exalted had a remarkable world and backstory, but the mechanics are nigh-unusable. Star Wars has a good rules-medium system, but the world is the same one everyone knows and the game suffers mightily from splatbook syndrome. Not everyone is ever happy, even if we generally have fun.

Going forward, I’m trying to think about how to articulate what I want, rather than what I don’t want. As I think about gaming ideas I want to try, it’s very difficult to separate my system ideas into games I think would work well and provide what I want, and games that merely seem new and interesting. Part of this, of course, relates to something I wrote recently for Cannibal Halfling, looking at trying to define what players seek out of games. I need to follow my own advice and articulate what I need out of a game, and that ultimately is going to be more important than what system we’re using.

So first. I want to GM again. This I’ve known, this does not surprise me. I’m interested in long games, I’m interested in games with some level of mechanical intensity, but I’m interested mostly in games where the characters grow into people with some level of depth and personality. And I realize here that this is what I’m interested in for pretty much every game, whether I am running it or not. Equipment lists and power/ability menus are a waste of time if they don’t tell you something about the character and how the character is changing…for the same reason, finding a magic sword in D&D can be a great springboard for storytelling while finding the fifteenth magic sword with incrementally better stats is just a waste of time for everyone involved.

So how do I get to something mechanically and tactically involved while not devolving into large bouts of unnecessary ability lookups and shopping? I’m not sure. This may be the root cause of my system shopping, a desire to find something that is both mechanically detailed but also doesn’t encourage the sort of meta-mastery that plagues a lot of rules-heavy games. But then again, why do I want something mechanically detailed? What is it that I’m trying to do?

I think it goes back to what I said before…I’m looking for a way to run a game where interesting characters evolve, and my gut feeling is that you do want some level of detail to depict these characters and differentiate them. Although this probably isn’t a system problem, systems provide a crutch by which you define your character by their stats and abilities rather than developing a story and personality for them.

So I may need to put my money where my mouth is. Instead of looking for new systems that may magically solve the issues I see, I should double down on the systems that I know will work. PbtA is a good framework, as is Fate. While I have been hesitant to use Fate as a base for any of my exploration game ideas, that may be exactly what makes them work. Keep using the principles of hexcrawling and exploration to generate the game background and challenges, and then use Fate to resolve them. It will of course require some rules hacking, but I think I’ve always known it could work and work well. Now all I have to do is convince others to play the game once I’ve written it.

Fiction Writing, roleplaying games, Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Aliens

In perhaps a sign that my gaming ideas have gone even further off the reservation than usual, I have begun thinking about ideas that would let me set a future RPG campaign on an alien planet. The most significant of these ideas is of a native and sapient alien species the characters would interact with. Aliens are something that shows up in science fiction all the time, but most of the legacy of popular depictions of aliens is rather poor, ranging from exaggerated cultural stereotypes (Star Trek) to under-considered biology (Star Trek) to a lack of consideration of external elements (also Star Trek). In writing something new I want to avoid this, while also bringing something to my game that would not exist if the inhabitants were just humans.

Perhaps one of the best depictions of alien life in my own recent memory comes from the PC game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The two dominant forms of life on the planet are a red fungus and psionic worms. While the aliens are not thought to be sapient at first, you discover through the game that these flora and fauna form a planet-wide neural net, taking the Gaia hypothesis to its logical extreme. Why Alpha Centauri succeeds so well with this is that these aliens are both believable and also utterly, truly alien. This also made the introduction of a more run of the mill bipedal species in the game’s expansion somewhat underwhelming.

The Alpha Centauri example shows that you can make truly new and weird aliens, but you have to remember that the sort of interactions that your characters will have with these aliens will not represent communication or diplomacy in the conventional sense. If you want to create alien life that organizes itself like humans do (and are not, say, a fungus), you run into more limitations. The key is to slot in somewhere between “psionic fungus” and “humans with latex head ridges.”.

Let’s assume that you want to include intelligent aliens. Intelligence evolves in a set of narrow circumstances, so while “humans with latex head ridges” is an unrealistic paradigm, giant insects or lizard people are not necessarily better. This is the one failing in the Alpha Centauri example…it’s not clear why the worms and fungus evolved psionic abilities. The worms make a bit of sense, as they produce terror in their prey…but it’s still odd. The focus on these more interesting flora and fauna also left the planet devoid of an ecosystem that let you understand exactly what the worms were either eating or defending themselves against.

Ecosystems imply the setting against which intelligence develops, so thinking about set and setting of your alien world helps establish what your species will look like. Human evolutionary biology, likewise, provides some key examples of what circumstances make intelligence beneficial, and therefore will help a species evolve to become sapient. Now, humans evolved from an ape-like species that were opportunistic feeders. Tool use came from many theorized places, including the ability to break the bones of kills picked clean and eat bone marrow. This kind of scattershot diet helps explain why intelligence was a favored trait, because advanced memory and the capacity for logic would help pre-humans find food that they couldn’t compete for with either predators (who were larger and stronger) or scavengers (who were faster and sometimes could fly). Feeding isn’t the only reason intelligence would be a favored trait, but it’s a strong one in a relatively short list. When you consider the number of behaviors that do not require sapience, the only things likely to make it an evolutionary benefit require actual thinking about a large number of discrete scenarios, specifically ones which instincts are unlikely to prepare you for. In general, situations of stress (food or water scarcity, intelligent and/or large predators, rapidly shifting or dangerous weather) are more likely to favor intelligence. Once again, though, it’s important that the threat is a dynamic one…if the main threat is and always will be a lion, evolving the ability to run really fast is more likely than evolving intelligence.

So after self-awareness comes language. Once again, while many animals have the ability to communicate, language is, whether written, spoken, or something else entirely, a construct that can expand to fit emergent concepts as they come up. As such, I honestly believe it goes hand in hand with sapience, along with other interpretive media like visual and sculptural art. Of course, how this actually works is likely to change a lot in differing environments. You want to make things really weird, look at ancient sculpture and note what parts are exaggerated. Think of what an alien would look like and think about what they’d exaggerate in their sculpture. This is the point where we start to leave evolution and get into anthropology, and this is where it gets interesting.

So form follows function when talking about the body. Humans developed cooking as their primary way to prepare food because it saved a lot of time…prior to the presence of fire as a common technology, humans chewed. A lot. This constant chewing made eating a much more involved and significant activity than it is now. That said, cooking doesn’t have to be the primary mode of food preparation. Imagine a species who prepared their food with acid…basically an entire culinary framework built on ceviche, if that helps make it more logical. They’d likely be from a biome where fire is less important (i.e. where it’s warmer), and they’d likely have significantly more gut bacteria, as acid-denaturing food doesn’t kill as much bacteria as cooking it. This would be truly odd from a human perspective, but based on what cooking actually got us (less time chewing), it could have happened and may happen on another planet.

Then, let’s mess with a few other things. Let’s say the two eyes are arranged vertically on the species’ head, and that sexual attraction is based on scent instead of sight. In both of these cases, the changes would result in something quite alien, but they don’t stray too far from normal biology for good reasons. In the case of eyes, there’s likely not that much of an advantage for more than two eyes, and interesting organs like insectoid segmented eyes would be very difficult in a human-sized form (and the aliens would likely be a similar size if they’re also evolving from opportunistic predecessors…too small and they’d be vulnerable and have small brains, too large and the square-cube law makes it hard to get enough blood to a proportionally necessary brain). Similarly, sexual reproduction can nearly be assumed, as sporing or other asexual means are unlikely to produce the genetic variation necessary for sapience to arise. Also, despite the number of times it shows up in science fiction novels, more than two biological sexes are highly unlikely simply because each additional sex reduces the probability of a successful mating significantly.

So there are constraints. An alien race is likely to be a similar size as us, reproduce sexually and have a varied diet. That said, they may not be symmetrical in the same way we are, their physical manipulators could be quite different, and the presence and attitude towards hair or even chitin could be varied. And it’s worth noting these assumptions all stem from a planet which humans could colonize… there may be intelligent aliens on a world with an atmosphere that’s 15% ammonia, but if humans can never go there it makes this exercise a tad less necessary.

Ultimately, alien species introduce interesting story opportunities when they get to clash with humans. On a planet that can support both, another species could be competitor or collaborator. And knowing how humans have treated each other in the past, it could get quite nasty. But all of this makes for some great story potential.

roleplaying games

Interesting Characters

I’ve been listening through the backlog of the System Mastery podcast, and recently listened to an episode of Afterthought where the hosts were asked which character written by the other host was their favorite. The characters they listed were great, with memorable personalities and quirks. Seeing that in someone else’s group always makes me consider how best to encourage that within my own games.

Don’t get me wrong, my group is actually quite creative. There’s been a good history of interesting characters among our ranks, though some of the players are certainly a bit typecast with regard to their concepts. I am worried, however, about how much world detail is needed to draw out interesting characters and give enough leeway for a variety of concepts. In planning for a potential future post-apocalyptic fantasy game, I’m trying to figure out how best to provide character hooks…building the world bottom-up makes it somewhat difficult.

This may also be just inherent anxiety from operating without a template…the three systems I’d likely use for this future game are Mythras, GURPS, or Fate, none of which have strong class/concept gating. We as a group have played so many games filled with Force powers and cybernetics and psionics that the relatively staid starting abilities in this proposed game make me worry about character differentiation. With six players and only mundane skills, will everyone be satisfied with how unique their own characters are?

I’ve started looking at different hex-crawl ideas that may inject that level of weird which would make the game more interesting. I also have returned to looking at The Burning Wheel as a possible system to run for such a fantasy game, as it provides a huge amount of character creation detail through its lifepath system. Even if I don’t actually run Burning Wheel (I’d really like to, but both its complexity and lack of PDFs make it a very difficult proposition), the lifepaths can help me figure out how much breadth I need to consider with character options.

Ultimately, it’s just a matter of how many options I’m giving players for character design. This is one of my first times going out into running fantasy without the character class backstop of D&D to lean upon. Though I definitely liked Mythras when I read it, sticking with a system with some latitude, like GURPS or Fate, may make me more comfortable. I’m not fully decided yet, and that’s just as well…this is still not my next campaign, so I have plenty of time to decide and investigate.

roleplaying games

Behind the Blog: PbtA Cyberpunk

Yesterday I posted a fairly well-read post over at Cannibal Halfling comparing The Sprawl and The Veil as the two current standard bearers of Cyberpunk in Powered by the Apocalypse. Though the post was partially because I thought people would read it (and indeed, the post got in two days more hits than this blog receives in a month), it was also borne out of trying to work through my own gaming desires through writing, much in the same way that I did when I wrote about hexcrawls, of all things.

First, an apology to Mark Richardson. Mark Richardson is the author of Headspace, another excellent PbtA Cyberpunk game. The reason Headspace was not included was fairly simple: the conceit of Headspace is remarkably specific and fairly narrow. For those who don’t know, characters in Headspace are a team of operatives that share a mental headspace, much like in the TV show Sense8. It takes place in a Cyberpunk setting and is an extremely cool idea, but it is what it is. I’m not knocking the game (I kickstarted it), merely viewing it as an avenue to explore a particular idea rather than a range of broad Cyberpunk themes.

Second, I’ll share here my goals for talking about the two games I did beyond the desire to explore the current offerings in Cyberpunk and get clicks from those who wanted the same. It’s simple, really: I’m going to run a PbtA Cyberpunk game as my next long-running campaign. I had decided on The Sprawl before I read The Veil, then I read The Veil and became a lot less sure. Now after having reread and reviewed both, I have no idea.

You can read my other post for the full details, but long story short, the games are quite different and designed for telling different stories. As I am quite the Cyberpunk aficionado, the whole range of stories interests me. The basic rundown is this: The Sprawl gives me the mechanics to extend a style of Cyberpunk campaign I’ve been running since 2010 or so, if not even earlier, with Cyberpunk 2020. The Sprawl is in some ways the perfect PbtA reimagining of games like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun, where the characters are assumed to be operatives working in the grey triangle between law enforcement, corporations who act above the law, and criminals who deliberately break it. As far as running what people imagine to be a “Cyberpunk game”, The Sprawl does very well.

Problem is, exploration of Cyberpunk as a genre, transhumanism as a broader genre or idea, and the wider gamut of literary ideas, is hard to do but yet desirable. When I first ran a Cyberpunk game in GURPS, my players created characters that were incredibly interesting and sat outside of the class archetypes in Cyberpunk 2020. Those characters also, maybe not coincidentally, align with some of the playbooks in The Veil, now that I reflect on it. Stepping outside the abovementioned “operative” framework is kind of difficult, and it’s one thing I feel like Interface Zero really tried to do and yet failed at. The Veil presents a number of themes that are exactly the ones that other Cyberpunk games have difficulty supporting with their rules, and appears to execute on them.

When I think about what I want to run going forward, The Veil comes to mind first because it is doing something new and something I’ve wanted to do in some form or another. I also think it plays on the relationship mechanics in a way that my players would like, based on the time I’ve spent running Apocalypse World. That said, The Sprawl is also thematically aligned to what I want to do, and presents some mechanical elements that I really want to play with…the clocks gamify PbtA in a way most other systems don’t, and I have a desire to use that as I write. Beyond that, having each player write a corporation and having them all in the center of the setting is making my intrigue brain go nuts…there’s so much potential with that.

Every time I think I’m leaning towards one system or the other, some feature of the other system comes to mind, and I’m unsure again. I may just have to poll my players, ultimately, and I’m not sure what result that will produce. What I want more than anything else is a game that the maximum number of my players will engage with, that will produce a fun campaign that I can also write about. I’m not worried about one choice or the other…I just want to play both. Once a slot begins to open up for me with my online group to run at all, I will explore this in more depth.