More about that Planarch Codex game

(Here’s an overview of the game in question: “Wandering Through Dis”. Here’s a link to my materials, including the opening “love letter”.)

My opening pitch explaining the full lineage of the game by throwing every physical book I had on the table in a stack – D&D, Dungeon World (DW), World of Dungeons (WoD), the Planarch Codex, Invisible Cities –  upon a table that was already burgeoning and over-full with dice, a noteboard, markers, dice, character sheets, and index cards. It was quite a sight.

I then explained the concept of Dis – how it was an extraplanar city consuming all planes of existence – gave them a sense that this would be rather improvisational anthropunk fantasy, and shared the letter to the freebooters (page 1 from the materials above). I emphasized about how I had no idea what most of the bolded terms meant exactly.

I decided to go with World of Dungeons, augmented with DW basic moves (but incorporating my “HR Manual of the Planes” project). The character creation process was:

1. Roll your level and stats as normal. (I offered 10 XP if they rolled their stats in order. Everyone took it.)

2. Pick your heritage, using one or more monsters as a base. I offered the one-shot list of monsters, but also offered to provide a random monster if asked from DW (hence the mammodon and nirvana wasp).

3. I told them to ignore skills, and dealt out my careers from “HR Manuals of the Planes” (page 4 of my materials). Everyone got two classes and chose 1. They then picked two of the WoD Special Abilities.

4. They went shopping and did everything else for character creation.
4a. (we had a very difficult time with hit points and hit dice and shall say no more of the matter)

In addition to the initial “love letter”, I had some pre-gen jobs from someone else’s blog, and started the players by asking which of 4 jobs did they first take to get in trouble with the Wanderers in the first place. We did some rough jump cuts through that first job (perhaps too rough? but it worked out). I think my letter was framing things too hard, because it turned out they didn’t quite have debt with the Wanderers after all, and merely in a contract with them. The subsequent job was done more or less normally, scene-to-scene, and that worked great. We didn’t end up leaving Dis unfortunately – I should push more jobs out onto the planes.

I took the “everything is a dungeon” prompt as a direction to use these pseudomorph dice to generate a map of the spaces they enter, but then this created a moment where we neated to stop and draw out any map. But that’s fine? I think there’s a good question of whether it’s better to keep things narrated, or to seize upon tokens + a drawn map. I feel like having the time wizard’s dorm be a weird cave formation was funky, but also nicely unique.

I did what I often do when MCing games like Dungeon World, which is slipping into raw improv/response instead of a pure agenda/principles/moves mode. The game’s high-improv nature was a bit exhausting. I’m interested in playing a slower-paced non-one-shot game, and perhaps getting better at leveraging the agenda/principles/moves more. (I totally need to make myself a DM Screen to put all the relevant agenda/principles/moves in one spot.)

I’m interested in “HR Manuals of the Planes” as a concept – it just makes more sense to me that there are weird careers across the planes? – and people liked the ones I handed out. I wonder how to better unify the “3 character abilities” that were part of character creation. Some ideas:

  • Perhaps these should work as simply as Heritage Moves, rather than being their own class-style moves?
  • Will having 3 moves be too many?
  • Can I reuse spell as a kind of alternate character moves?
  • Do I want to keep some common “adventurer” moves, like the ones in World of Dungeons? This implies that people have moved on from their past experiences to accommodate life as a Freebooter of Dis.

I’m also wondering if I prefer the WoD or DW part of the spectrum. There seems to be a lot of fluidity around the WoD moves and options (by design?), but I might prefer some of the abstraction and concreteness around the DW approach. If I pick one, then I can make XP be a bit more coherent.

Planarch Codex at Dreamation 2014: Wandering Through Dis

I wanted to talk about my great Dreamation 2014 Planarch Codex game, which was just excellent. (Context: Planarch Codex is a setting-hack for planar exploration, designed for use with Dungeon World or its lightweight/retro spinoff, World of Dungeons. Planarch Codex tries to push some boundaries of weirdness while being inspired by Calvino and globalization and other stuff.)

Dear shameless freebooter scum: The Wanderers are after you! Perhaps you can lose them in the Silverscream Heights or West Hollowtown, or find valued assets in the Tetraphylactery of Mirths, or obscure weapons left upon the Nightforge, or find a helpful post-deity at Jakabi’s Gilded Echohall, or perhaps just pay them the thousand pounds of debt (half in crystal, half in fleshbone) that you owe them in the first place.

This band of freebooters was: mammodon, ratfolk-doppleganger, djinn-doppleganger, djinn-vampire, nirvana wasp, and this human (SO WEIRD) with an embedded demoneye (oh ok). It was determined that their first, troublesome job was attempting to destroy an artifact in an arcane wizard’s tower. We handled that job with some quick cutting (through the setup, an early phase, and a critical moment), and then handled the next job in a more organic way.

The players were fantastic! I don’t think any of them are in my G+ circles but I hope they’ll find this post so that I can thank them again! A few folks had specific Dungeon World / World of Dungeons experience, which helped greatly, and everyone helped roll with the improvisational nature of things. At the end of four hours of hard and raucous improvisation, I was utterly exhausted and quite pleased.

Instead of a full recap, I’ll provide just a few moments:

– the ratfolk frustratedly bargaining with Arcane Rats of the arcane tower, who tend to talk kinda like historical re-enactors
– the wanderers: creepy slendermen who appear from shadows with contracts and just want friends
– (a helpful player who knew when to jump up and a sign contract (in character) to keep the plot going forward. thanks!)
– using a mammodon move – TRAMPLE – bust through the wall on the fourth floor, tumbling to the water below. At least it’s an escape?
– forlorn dolphins that just got assimilated into dis, and needed to fast-evolve legs to find work
– oops, both your exes look identical and one of them is the waiter at this bar
– nirvana wasp dream venom + djinn dream power = see almost any place, but at a cost
– Caul the nervous, untrained mammodon time wizard whose only AMAZING ABILITIES were the ability to determine the time and the ability to determine the age of a given object in its current form
– otherwise he was SOL because he was being hunted by other time wizards using time-travel-hax to repeatedly kill him
– wait did you just give the wanderers a time wizard

Seriously, the time wizard nonsense is too good to not reuse.

In my next post, I’ll go into more fiddly details how the session came together procedurally.

The technique of the leading question

So there’s a technique to a kind of leading question (is there another word for it?) which pushes for certain and asymmetrical outcomes. By accepting the question at all, some things have been decided; it’s the imbalance of this question lets you apply a lot of leverage to the rest of the world.

An example, from the latest draft of Companions’ Tale (by Little Octopus Games). The questions that build your world are not “What is the tech level?” Instead, here’s one: “Who in this society has traditionally been wealthy, and who has recently supplanted them?” As we came up with questions like these, we realized there was a nuance to it so that it’s not merely dictating an outcome. It says: the world is not quite what you imagined, but tell us what you now imagine instead.

There is a similar technique where a GM let’s a player answer half a question: “You see a familiar figure standing at the other side of the bridge. Who is it?” I also feel that Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts are filled with these questions, both from the players moves and the MCs reactions.

A lack of symmetry is key, but hard to describe. It’s really easy to go for excessive “symmetry” in a game setting or rules. Like: “there are four stats, and four characters who are the best at their stat”. Or: “there are 5 clans, and each has an important domain and a 5th of the power”.

In some of my favorite Monsterhearts playbooks, there’s an asymmetry in your choices, both at character creation and in MC moves. Stuff like: “You’ve fought someone and drawn blood. Who is it? Take a String on them.” Or: “Choose an all-consuming hunger: blood, adrenaline, lust, honest praise.”

(Maybe not just leading questions, but: questions with leverage?)

Firefly: some Agenda/Principles for play

I was running a Firefly game a few weeks ago, and I wrote some Agenda/Principles to guide my GMing. (I’m roughly borrowing these phrases as they’re used in Apocalypse World; here’s a good overview of how Agenda and Principles guide the MC.) Hopefully this can be useful in your own game!


Offer kinship, and weigh it with burdens.
Offer liberty, and threaten with power.
Offer independence, and attach strings.
Separate them, surround them, outgun them, but leave them hope.


(These are heavily influenced by my previous posts about revisitng Firefly.)

Fill the Verse with a diverse cast of characters.
Reflect a bilingual/bicultural Verse, with many other cultures and languages besides.
Apply Chinese cultural markers sparingly, and make them count.
Question: power dynamics, resources and control.
Refresh: stories, histories, parallels, narratives.
Reveal: different people end up in similar circumstances and problems.
Avoid: orientalism and other weird old problematic emergent tropes.

Reading: Human Contact

I picked up a copy of Human Contact recently, actually a few years after it came out. It’s built upon the same engine as Shock:, which is to say, a system that excels at building speculative fiction about societies.

Human Contact describes a far-future, post-scarcity star-faring civilization. “With powers of reason and democracy forged in the fires of a brutal sectarian past, the Academy has become a peaceful, powerfully inquisitive people, sending Contactors full of black ops anthropologists and other scientists to meet cultures and forge a new, synthetic culture from that meeting — for better or worse.”

Firstly: the physical product is one of the best-designed physical tabletop books I’ve ever seen. The use of space and the typographical choices and and the attention to detail really build up the setting as much as any of the prose.

Something that surprised me: while I expected the game to espouse a naive kind of “science/reason fixes everything” philosophy, the game text seems to be more neutral about the nature of the Academy’s society. Their culture is a bit more nuanced than my initial interpretation, and the emergent flaws of their utopian society are definitely hinted at.

Relatedly, I think the game setting presents an interesting way to discuss colonialism/imperialism, if you’re so inclined. (I know I am!) The worlds the Academy visits are called “Colonies”. The Academy’s kind of imperialism – benevolently interfering with another civilization in order to absorb knowledge – does not consist of the gross excesses of history/modernity; and so players must grapple with a gray area where their well-intentioned quasi-imperial project is still going to have very messy outcomes – for the colonial society and their own. I should add that the game forces players between both Academic and Colonial perspectives, and repeatedly enforces that all humans in this drama are people. (“Everyone calls their home planet Earth.”)

The system is built on Shock:, and my experience with that game is that it created interesting outcomes, but tone could vary wildly, especially because players were building a world from scratch in a single session. Here, there is additional structure, setting material, and the extra time you get from a longer campaign, so I expect a much smoother and contemplative tone. The base resolution system pushes some forethought up front – all conflicts require figuring out orthogonal/parallel stakes up front, which is a bit challenging – but I’d like to see how this changes in longer play. The game also has some procedures for building the cultures that will be explored in play.

Some misc thoughts on getting this played:

– I’d like to get my hands on the con demo, to give it a bit of a test before committing to a longer campaign.

– It should adapt well to the KristaCon/longcon format. I also want to figure out how to best facilitate online play.

– Soundtrack: I think Academy scenes should have a cool/frosty chipmusic soundtrack, while, while Colony scenes should feature music that feels nostalgic yet familiar (without dipping into exotification), so perhaps: some Appalachia/Americana/bluegrass/folk?

– Since I’ll be playing with a few game hackers/designers in all likelihood, I can definitely imagine a “game design” minigame, where we create prototypes of the games that were mentioned in game. It’s happened already, with the game of kodrek.

Sword Excellence RPG

I am writing this one for Chris, who appreciates a realistic and historical approach to martial arts and martial weaponry.

So I am pulling from my knowledge of the field. I’ve definitely watched some combat sequences in a few different shows (both animes and animes) and I’ve wiedled both boffer and plastic swords, so I’ve got this.

By default, conflicts are worked through by freeform negotiation unless a Fighter activates their Sword Moves. Here are some sample sword moves:

Sunder the Lesser Brother When you use your sword against a non-sword weapon, choose any two from the list: you destroy that weapon; you hold them at bladepoint; you can act before they can. Thin rapiers and other weird swords count as non-swords when compared to real swords.

Speed of Sword When you lock eyes and you both desire to act first, a Duel of Motive comes into play. Each side blindly picks a motivation and reveals it at the same time. Initiative wins out as thus: Youthful Zeal goes before Veteran Experience goes before Passionate Wrath goes before Grim Confidence goes before Youthful Zeal.

Clashing Defense When you use your sword to block the sword of another, they clash. Take turns rolling dice to see who wins momentum, as they attempt to best the other. Once one side wins momentum three times in a row, the victor chooses one: the loser is knocked backwards, the loser loses their sword, you can immediately make a Finishing Blow.

Clashing Encounter When you confront another combatant head on, you immediately challenge each other by hitting your blades against each other repeatedly to build up momentum. Take turns rolling dice to see who wins control; the winner of the 7th roll to make an immediate Charging Blade attack.

Charging Blade When you cross a great distance while holding your blade before you, you get 3 Momentum points. Spend them 1-for-1 for any of the following: move through obstacles or people without doing harm; move through obstacles or people while doing harm; double the amount of harm you do on this turn.

Finishing Blow When you raise your sword high, firmly gripped with both hands, you bring forth terrible momentum and power when you finally lower it. For each round that you hold your sword high and in view of all, you double the potential damage from the next attack you make.

Exotic Arts If you use a weird sword from a far off place like a cutlass or a epee or a gunsword, you mystify your foes. You have 3 Mystery that you can spend to cancel the effect of any Moves used against you. If you speak before you’ve used up your Mystery, you lose all points, however, because the other guy figures out how to beat your one weird trick.

[firefly] Random NPC Reaction Table

When you meet someone new in the Verse, roll a d20 on this table for their reaction to you:

11 or higher: They respond to you like normal people. (Whether hostile or politely is up to the GM.
9-10: They will quote something witty that a friend of theirs said this one time in a somewhat related situation.
7-8: They will reference a witty quote as above without explaining it entirely.
6: “The faux-Western aesthetic of the Rim is so cool!”
5: “Space is rugged and rustic, and feels really lived in!”
4: “You really have to treat your ship like a member of the family.”
3: “The conflict between the Rim and the Core is so dramatic!”
2: Their faux-Western accent is double-strength. Roll again. (This effect stacks.)
1: This NPC is a Dissenter. If any character enacts one of the above traits, they will corner them and start arguing with why it is stupid.

If you display or feign agreement with their displayed trait, they will have a 75% of normalizing their behavior as if they rolled 11 or higher.

If you express a lack of understanding to their displayed trait, they will have a 50% chance of entering frenzy, a state in which they will be fixated on explaining their position to you.

If you quote part of a quote their know of, they will have a 25% of entering trance, a state in which they will start enacting the scene in their memory to completion.

(With love to Firefly fans. We’re usually rolling on a d12, despite their best intentions.)

The Glory Of Spreadsheet Games

I was thinking about which game genres I really loved, which gaming moments I really want to capture in my own design, and I think I haven’t spent enough time on spreadsheets. Here I sing: in defense and praise of spreadsheets.
Stars! was a 4X turn-based game of interstellar expansion, industry and war. There was one panel featuring colored disks and small triangles and lines, but otherwise you were treated to a glorious interface of numbers and columns as you built fleets, set waypoints, tweaked %s and queued up industrial production.
This was a favorite in my high school geek circle, and we tried in many different ways to work out a proper multiplayer system for play, though ultimately we settled for comparing our solo exploits.
Master Of Orion 3 has particular nostalgia as another 4X turn-based strategy game, again of interstellar stomping, and while there were many more graphical aspects of gameplay, the height of mastery was, indeed, delegating as much as possible to awkwardly intelligent governors, and overseeing the production queues of your planets from a high-level spreadsheet. As I recall, zooming in provided a more lush interface, but was for chumps.
MOO3 is the object of some nostalgia from my college days; we spent a good deal of time, again, finding enough machines to create a good multiplayer experience.
Two other 4X games – Galactic Civilizations and Alpha Centauri – had more of an interface to each of them, but they both did have powerful spreadsheets from which you could control the destiny of worlds and civilizations.

I think that a cold spreadsheet, initially, is off-putting and a terrible way to interface with a world, but once you’ve grown your world outwards – once each row on that table references a world you’ve spent hours with previously – suddenly this high-level view is the only way you can keep your grip on a sprawling empire, and the best way to dive headlong into the tedious, finicky, amazing, blissful productive work as you  make choice after iterative, addictive choice.

Some thoughts, to take away from this:
* I clearly love “space” as a theme, and the popular space opera imagination creates some material to work with, both in terms of genre conventions and in the kinds of fictional conceits that let you continue this sort of gameplay.
* I never really did have success with multiplayer for 4X turn-based strategy, but then again, I didn’t put in the kind of time or logistics into it that it required. Some modern turn-based games are smarter about making multiplayer work – so if anyone wants to try that with me (perhaps some XBLA-based Civilization Revolution), comment below.
* I’m thinking about how to make a good spreadsheet-only strategy game.
(Edit: “blissful productivity” taken from my recollection of Jane McGonigal’s book.)
(note: x-posted to G+)