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.

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+)

[firefly] More Than Gray

This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.

In the Western genre, beyond the tension between the West and East, you have the backdrop of the aftermath of the Civil War. A frequent Western trope is an embittered Confederate veteran who suffers as a consequence of the war, and seeks out the frontier.

Firefly, as a Space Western, aligns with this. We have an embittered veteran from a rural society who failed in resisting a conquering force, and resigns himself to the frontier and the nobility of self-governance.

But: is this what you want? If we’re supposed to (generally) root for motley rogues against the might of the Alliance, what does this mean for the players? If your Browncoats are nothing more than Confederate analogues, many players are going to have trouble with that. What can we do differently?

Problem: In The Shadow of Old Stories

Here’s the premise of the Unification War: the Core wanted to expand its civilized (and cumbersome) reach to the Rim Worlds, who resisted because they wanted to govern themselves without the meddling of a strong-willed government. One problem with that is this aligns to a narrative as old as the Civil War (sometimes called the “Lost Cause” lore), pitting it as a battle between a strong federal government against scattered states about the right to live a way of life.

This is, of course, not the only narrative or even the dominant one regarding the Civil War; economic, governance and human rights issues are more traditionally at the fore. If we follow the analogue: the lore of Firefly can awkwardly seem to enshrine one peculiar and ideological view point.

If we don’t want to replay old stories, we need to make new ones.

Solution 1: Questions of Power

Let’s revisit the premise of the Unification War, adding more causes (beyond the romantic vision that loyalists would tend towards). By doing so, we can do more present alternate metaphors, and establish that the Core/Rim conflict is not necessarily a rehash of an American Civil War.

Let’s use a more modern notion of war: instead of abstract causes, a political body will only fight if given concrete reasons. Let’s breaks down into two things:

  • Resources (economic base / economic constraints)
  • Control (extending influence / preventing chaos)

When depicting a world, think about which side they picked in the war, and show how a conflict over Resources and Control defines the Rim/Core relationship.

Example: The crew are visiting the settlement of Veldt Canyon. The Resources at stake here are a rare kind of berry that had a high rate of return elsewhere; they resisted Unification in order to resist trade liberalization and protect the monopoly at the heart of its economy. Their resource constraints are a lack of spacefaring infrastructure; they remain dependent on beneficial deals with spacers.

The Control at stake was preventing two older families – both with bloodlines dating back to the first arks – from continuing a bloody vendetta (fought through proxy warlords and mercenaries) which has dominated Veldt power dynamics. In the wake of Unification, the Amir family was installed as Lords and oversaw a trade agreement with Londinium; the Gao family was exiled. (Plot hooks: the crew seek to broker a trade relationship on behalf of the Trader’s Guild, but are competing with the newly returned Gao brothers.)

Solution 2: Many Histories

There is no shortage of revolutions and insurrections in history. Give the Browncoats them grounding in something else: the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War or the attempted coup in Moscow in the 1990s. Don’t create a pure analogue or proxy to a past example; but use the inspiration to create some alternate models that defy expectations.

If you broaden the Browncoat narrative, you can establish that this is not a mere proxy nor a historical analogue. Instead, each different Browncoat (and each different Alliance loyalist) is a new chance to ask the question: what is the definition of “liberty” or “order” that they seek, and what made them willing to kill for it?

Example: The redsash brigade are one of many Browncoat factions that joined from the Veldt Lowlands – each connoting their ideological bent with their faction’s sash over their standard dusters. The redsash in particular were tied to lowlands religious communes that were once a counterpoint to the larger enterprises in the canyon.

The redsash brigade was quickly decimated in an early encounter with the Alliance. (Some partisans allege that the Gao family of Veldt Canyon coordinated this to remove problematic elements from their joint forces.) What you don’t yet know is that your engineer, Lucille, was once betrothed to one of the doomed redsash fighters.

Alternative Solution: Dig Deeper

While I talked about breaking genre patterns, there’s also the idea of using the lore to dig deeper into the issues. (Credit to Jon Walton for the ideas/brainstorming.) Consider:

The Browncoats originated as a private security force on the frontier of the Verse, usually in the employ of the Lords or Mining Corps that ran the Rim worlds. At their best, they were known for a quick and effective kind of “frontier justice” that responded to problems, but in reality, they were known for a great deal of corruption and brutality in their ranks, enforcing a rule by a wealthy elite. You can quickly see how this escalated into misgovernance of the Rim worlds, and why the Alliance would have clashed with the Browncoats. You can also see how there are differing definitions of “freedom” at play, depending on who you ask.

You can make both sides of the conflict more complicated, and echo the fundamental issues that were at play. However, in any case where you’re setting up a metaphor, you need to consider the consequences of that metaphor, and what the meaning you’re creating.

P.S. Cool off with some music

Your uncles are buried and at peace, but the stories they told you won’t be so easily forgotten or forgiven. You’re on a boat out to the Rim, and you’re telling yourself that you should be here to start over. You don’t want any trouble, and you want find any trouble; that is what you’re telling yourself, and the boat begins to descend.

Emancipator – Old Devil

Wooden Sky – Wooden Sky

(Emancipator’s albums, and especially the Safe in Steep Cliffs album, are amazingly appropriate, and pretty great.)

[firefly] more on cultural borrowing

In my last post on the use of Chinese culture in Firefly, I threw out a plot hook about a wedding tradition I read about.

Upon some further conversation, it’s possible that I may have misborrowed in my case, due to my cursory read at first. In my case, maybe me read of a “red envelope” tradition was out of alignment with it’s cultural reality, which is basically a common thing: gifting of money for weddings. I’ll try harder next time! That’s what an iterative design loop is all about.

A smart comment from Jon Walton

People tend to represent foreign cultures by emphasizing the differences, which I don’t think is always the best way to go. Sometimes its better to emphasize how different people end up in similar circumstances or have similar problems. That kind of thing humanizes people from other backgrounds rather than making them seen really alien and strange. Even if their norms and practices are different, the issues and problems and needs are often the same.

Check out his book, Planarch Codex, “a planar supplement for Dungeon World” (and a smart text about broadening the scope of your fiction).