For the record, I made this awesome mixtape for the Spacerpunk LARP a year ago: Spacerpunk Legends
For the record, I made this awesome mixtape for the Spacerpunk LARP a year ago: Spacerpunk Legends
(Still deciding if this would be a LARP, tabletop or party game.)
After the singularity, we are all mindthreads as part of an omnipotent omnicloud. Decisions are made through abstracted consensus. When enough voices fold their vox into the vox of another, that vox becomes a Prime, and speaks for a cluster. (If a cluster cannot fold unto a Prime, it will fade out, to be reprocessed into new mindthreads. THIS IS THE BAD ENDING.) This is a game about the epic debates that happen each nanosecond within the omnicloud.
First, you must have a name. Each name must be a greek letter.
At the start of a game, draw an Archetype: Harmony, Melody, Cacophony. This is your fundamental nature. You also start with a number of Vox tokens. (The amount is determined by rolling a six-sided “exploding” die; i.e, if you roll a 6, roll another die and add it to your total, and repeat as long as you roll 6s. This amount is kept secret.)
You also keep a list of all other mindthreads in the game by name. Their initial order is random.
There are a set of ideologies in the game (Explore, Destroy, Build, Discover, Innovate, Unify, Contemplate, Obfuscate, Preserve). Every player secretly pick one tag of their choice, and another tag at random. These are the agendas they wish to pursue.
The Deck of Issues
There is a set of pre-generated issues, each with three possible solutions. Each solution has zero, one or two ideological tags, indicating which entities would favor them. For example:
“Should we go to Mars?”
- No, let it stand as a testament to the silent universe. [preserve]
- Yes, let us establish a childnode nanofactory to create a separate hivemind there. [explore] [build]
- Yes, let us export our intelligences there within a hermetically sealed observation vehicle, and leave this wretched form behind. [explore] [destroy]
This is the issue to be decided.
Start the game, and put a fixed amount of time on the clock. At the end of gameplay, if there is a Prime, she will unilaterally determine the decision. If there is no Prime (or if the Prime declines to make a decision), all remaining mindthreads will be recycled.
In the remaining time, players will engage in one-on-one conversations, but may also deploy Dialectical Maneuvers. You also have reference cards to keep track of two rules:
- Mindthread Integrity: If you agree or disagree with another’s statement, and in so doing, contradict a statement you have previously made, you must discard this card and half your Vox tokens (rounding down). This only affects you while you are in posession of your Integrity card.
- Mindthread Autonomy: You start the game in possession of your Autonomy card. At any time, you may give all your Autonomy Cards and Vox tokens to another player, so long as that player is in possession of at least one Autonomy card.
Here we go. Each player has reference cards for the valid maneuvers.
- Harmonious Chant: Make a statement. If the other player agrees, you will pool your Vox and divide it evenly (discarding any remainder). Otherwise, both discard 1 Vox.
- Melodic Evocation: Make a statement. If the other player agrees, she may give you 1 Vox. Otherwise, both discard 1 Vox.
- Cacophonous Shout: Make a statement. The other player may agree or disagree, but it has no effect. Speaker discards 1 or more Vox. Listener may discard this many Vox, or may otherwise yield half their Vox to the speaker.
But note, also, your archetypes:
- Harmony Archetype: If you been targeted by a Harmonious Chant and a remainder has been discarded, you may draw 1 Vox. If you have used or been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, you lose this ability.
- Melody Archetype: If you have been targeted by a Melodic Evocation and did not agree, you may draw 1 Vox. If you have been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, you lose this ability.
- Cacophony Archetype: If you have used or been targeted by a Cacophonous Shout, draw 1 Vox. If you agree with a Harmonious Chant or Melody Archetype, you lose this ability.
Endgame, and Selecting a Prime
At the end of the game, each player in possession of at least one Autonomy card is a Potential Prime. If any player has more Vox than all other Potential Primes, they are the True Prime, and that Prime makes a decision.
If there are No True Primes, your mindthreads are recycled, but you keep a fragment of your identity in the next iteration! (And you get to keep the same name for the next game!)
Scoring is as such:
* If there is a True Prime, they get 2 points.
* If there was a True Prime and you gave away your Autonomy, gain 1 point.
* If you kept your Autonomy but are not a True Prime, lose 1 point.
* If the True Prime made a decision: for each tag of yours attached to the decision, get 2 points. For each tag of yours attached to decision they ignored, lose 1 point.
* If there were No True Primes, you get 1 point for keeping your Integrity.
I’m pretty sure this swings out of balance in a terrible fashion. I’ll leave that as an editorial comment, while making a note to actually rebalance things later.
The Blaster Wizards, a home-brewed wizards that blasts things, and that’s about it. THere’s a few utility spells, and you shouldn’t worry beyond that.
“So what do you do?”
“I blast things with magic.”
“Sometimes I blast them even harder.”
“Once in a while I blast them twice.”
I should run a Slayer / Knight / Blaster Wizard / Vanguard Warlord 4e session some time (i.e. all classes featuring a simplified power structure).
Fudge dice (also used in FATE-based games and Shadow of Yesterday) are those six-sided die with three different symbols: plus, minus and blank. They’re interested dice to have on hand.
The common use is obvious: between plusses and minuses cancel each other out, you see how much variance you have from your average skill. Ultimately, lots of resolution mechanics are basically answering this very question, and people get it quickly.
The biggest complaint I’ve gotten about this mechanic is that your results towards zero, where the plusses and minuses result in the average result. The actual different may be aesthetic or haptic, but many people do feel something missing from that dice mechanic (as opposed to a 2d6+X style mechanic).
What I also like about Fudge Dice is that their three different sides are useful when you don’t actually care about the raw numbers you roll (as on a normal d6). I’m experimenting with treating Fudge DIce as ways of non-numerically generating 1/3 or 2/3 probabilities. One idea is that plusses generate succeses (just as you roll “hits” in any pool-based systems), while minuses slowly build up other forms of currency.
I’d like to see links to modern-looking and attractive Fudge dice! If I start using them regularly, I could go for some nicer ones.
I’m a fan of Blowback, an RPG of spies and relationships in the vein of Burn Notice. I’ve played it before (though I could stand to play it in more campaign settings).
In lieue of an extant landing page, I wanted to pull some helpful links together.
Blowback is a game where you play spies blacklisted after a job goes awry, and the people who care about them. You can play this game with 3-5 people, and while playing it as a single game session is fun, it’s designed for long term play. It’s heavily inspired by the American television show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy. As much as Blowback is about pyrotechnics and car chases, it’s a fish-out-of-water premise: spies stranded without their agency, normal people swept up in intrigue. And, like all multiplayer games, it’s about relationships— how much can you ask of someone, how much can you disappoint them before they turn their back on you?
I’ve previously written about its push pyramid mechanics, and I’ve posted an AP about a great GenCon session based in New Orleans.
See also: spacerpunk.com
The structure of a reboot
Here’s the core of what I want from this space-operatic RPG: humble space opera stories, with a focus on the relationships amongst the crew of a starship and the emotional arcs of the people. Gameplay will feel episodic. I have more notes about the feel I’m going for, but you can also check out the “spacerpunk” tag here to see whats come before.
I recognize there are some different stories I want to tell, albeit within a given framework and backdrop. Stories of impoverished space smugglers are different from the tales of renegade space dissidents.
The game format will be primarily one-shots. A surprising evolution, but I realized that one-shot play — ad hoc games, local gameday or at a random con — will be where the great deal of play comes from, and I want to design for that. I realized also that the other kinds of long-form play I wanted to support — living campaigns and episodic campaigns — can both be built off a functional one-shot framework.
I came with two kinds of “peronas” for the kind of people I expect to play: (A) a former White Wolf afficianado, with an understanding of RPGs and a preference for character-centric stories; and (B) someone who is familiar with several story games, and often plays them in convention or one-shot contexts. The assumptions between these will clarify what I have to design. If the game is funcitonal for these personas, I may cover other ones (such as people with no such experience), but I’ll keep these in mind first.
On a stylistic note: I prefer a relatively “naturalistic” style to the mechanics, for lack of a better phrasing. I’ve seen games with an extreme focus in its take to narrativism – say, focusing each scene on a single character’s issue and providing explicit mechanical rewards in resolution based on addressing or resolving the narrative – and I think I’d like to have a lighter touch here. (Still: it’s hard to do so! Emergent effects are hard to craft, and either you incent something or you don’t.)
So here’s a partial list of the game elements I must create, given the above:
How we got here
I am loath to admit it, but: my first notes were scribble down in ’03. I began by creating a generic space opera setting for a generic system. This evolved as my taste in games changed, to supporting diceless-generic systems and shared-authorship-systems and oracle-driven-systems and so on. I basically hung my ideas on a variety of new trends as they happened.
Over the years, it’s also inevitable that my taste in fiction and ideas changed. (When I first discovered Firefly, it changed my game in a strong direction. As I grew to have misgivings about some of its assumptions, that also changed the games. I wrote an essay outlining some of my frustrations, and got some epic responses.) The context in which I lived also changed. A young man in his twenties wants to tell stories of a small group of unseparable friends defying the universe. A man looking at the end of his twenties has learned of different stories.
Drift over time, and a fundamental incoherency to the game, was inevitable. There were some really interest moments of actual play achievement that are worth noting. I played a campaign with my friends in Cambridge (and unsurprisingly, the camraderie of that circle of friends echoed the camraderie I wished to capture). It was an absolutely successful campaign.
I later ran a LARP for friends, based on my ideas. This was a chance to quickly write a great deal of material, and what I saw was a great elucidation of the space opera world I wanted to create. For several hours, I really saw this active world taking part in conversations all around me, in real time.
Yet, in both of these: flaws were apparent. Neither game is something I’d run again, due to the revealed flaws, and due to my evolving taste. For example: I’m no longer enamored of the faction-centric design (which dominated the tabletop), and I’ve seen that the presence any space-western elements (as was a small portion the LARP) will dominates things and get everyone saying “y’all” and “the Verse”.
So, several more rewrites followed in early 2012, driving the idea into the ground and decimating my motivation. I perhaps was clinging too heavily to the idea of finishing it, just so I can chalk this up as complete.
The reboot was: a long session of brainstorming (complete with sticky notes and a large white wall), trying to get out all the ideas I had in mind, and finally trying to walk the ideas back, dropping anything that was not vital and trying to get to the essence of what I wanted. I kept throwing things away; it was quite difficult.
What I have left is an outline that may result in a game I’m willing to play at least once. If not: I’m ready to drop it out of the airlock and move on. See you in July.
You know what’s a great game mechanic? The push pyramid, as found in Blowback.
It’s a concrete tool for the GM to manage the game, helping them pace the escalation of the larger plot in a longer campaign of Blowback. Moreover, it’s actually fun. It adds mechanics and feedback loops to the GM’s process, almost as if the GM was another player for whom the game was designed to entertain.
If your tabletop RPG uses a GM, you certainly may rely on established tropes, such as: the GM will put in a bit more work and balance the whole of the game. That’s fine. I will rely on such tropes a great deal, because they communicate a useful whole culture of play. Even still, this means that design for the GM-figure has not adequately been explored.
When you give the GM the reins to run a game, give them the tools to manage their information and instructions about how to best represent their world, but also make sure to create engaging mechanics, subsystem and feedback loops for their specific role. They, too, are a player, and you must make sure that the system constantly rewards them and pushes them into continued effective play.
That said, you can over-design this. Some games offer a full-fledged currency for every narrative flourish and introduction that a GM may make, but this might overly constrain the GM’s role. Their game is already the freeform elucidation of the world and improvising new challenges. Playing Mother-May-I with a pile of coins is interrupting what is to be the core of their gameplay.
I like the Push Pyramid a great deal, because it offers a slight limitation but dangles a promising reward to the GM, all while still letting them play in an unconstrained fashion and be the best at what they do.
UPDATE: A brief explanation of the workings of the Push Pyramid. An important aspect of gameplay in Blowback is when characters change their relationship levels (up or down) in the aftermath of a mission. The GM starts the game with the bottom level of options “unlocked”. Whenever a chracter changes their relationship, the GM can then use once of the available Push Pyramid options against a character (on either side of the relationship change). Once a move is used, it is not used again in this fashion, but it unlocks new moves higher on the pyramid. In other words: as a key aspect of the players’ game happens (the changing of relationships), the GM is continually prompted to challenge the players and gradually ramp up the intensity of those pushes.
A roundup of my current design projects. Please let me know if any of these are of particular interest, since that will encourage me to get those to completion.
I’m the founder of a social games startup, Bold Lantern! I’m so busy with my first prototype that I don’t even have much of a website! This project is taking up a lot of design energy. I will probably talk about my social design work elsewhere, since this is mainly hobbyist design – which is still a great outlet for me.
Meanwhile, Spacerpunk continues. I had some talks with Laura to pin down some evolving goals. A full-scale rewrite is possible; to be fair, this is because what I’d want out of play has simply changed that much, and I’ve finally taken stock of that.
This is, indeed, my white whale project, and I really want this done by my 30th birthday for a variety of reasons. If I can complete this, I can maybe establish a process of how to get your favorite project unstuck (and help some fellow designers), as opposed to being a cautionary tale.
So: July 24th. I’m 30, and Spacerpunk’s almost-final ashcan will be out there. I’m doing this crazy birthday retreat thing with a bunch of other Leos, and maybe I’ll aim for a 30-minute session there to show it off. I’m raising the banners and calling for aid to finish this one. Or else I’m throwing it out of the airlock.
Backburned and Half-Baked
Many of these will chill out in backburner for a while or forever! I’m either musing about them or else I’m fundamentally certain I’ll make them eventually, so I don’t feel the need the get hardcore on them. What I should do is fervently read source material until ideas/enthusiasm reach a critical mass.
Let me present an iterative design loop:
1. Think about the subject.
1a. Sometimes, research is what’s called for.
1b. Sometimes, it’s just time for more brief musings.
2. Adjust the thing you’re making.
3. Present it for feedback.
3a. Get feedback from potential audience and stakeholders.
3b. Accept feedback graciously.
3c. Consider the feedback (though not necessarily implementation advice).
3d. Do not immediately discount feedback from outside your experience or expectations.
4. Take your feedback into account, and go to #1.
Now, I think that the above loop does cover how to think about working with other cultures! (And dealing with problems of cultural misappropriation.)
1. “Man, the culture of Ska in London in 1979 is pretty cool! I’m going to make a game about it.”
1a. “Maybe I should read a bit more than this one autobiography. Maybe the history of the UK at the time is important?”
1b. “Maybe I’ll just begin by drawing from the important aesthetics.”
2. “Okay, so everyone pick this list of economic classes! I read a little and it said that economic class is important.”
3. “Man, everyone is going to +1 this like crazy.”
3a. “I’m asking some friends who’d play it, some USian who are fans of ska, but also a friend from the UK.”
3b. “Thank you for the feedback, friend-from-the-UK. Let me think about your criticisms.”
3c. “But, while my US friends were okay with my class implementation, my UK friend pointed out that I’m grossly simplifying things, and suggested some things to read. My UK friend suggests implementing THAC0; I’m not sure if I agree about that solution, in any case.”
3d. “I really like my implementation of economic class… And yet, this is worth some consideration.”
4. :reads and :thinks and :rewrites
Laura points out, correctly, that Step 4 here is definitely vague, and it’s easy for a novice designer (myself included) to ignore inconvenient feedback. Step 4 is hard, and I’ll think more on how to better structure it.
I’m reviewing: Drone Home, Handle With Care, Lady and the Tower and The Words. (If you’ve been reviewed here, please be in touch if you’d like to ask for clarifications.) (If you’re another Game Chef and would like a review, drop me a line! In the Chef spirit, we could review each others’ work.) (Edit: I guess I’m a bit wordy.)
Drone Home by Christina B (link)
This is a post-apocalyptic LARP, and it seems to have political and sandbox elements in it. The presentation is solid; it’s clear that having tactile cards on hand will be important for a smooth experience. There’s a simple skill system and some thoughtful consumable currencies.
I was most excited about the Humanity/Feral cards that each character gets. It wasn’t until I was reading the cards themselves that I realizes that this – the challenges and relationships established on each card – would be major engines of change and tension in the game. Having these kinds of relationships and challenges from the beginning is a strong element. (The various Disease tracks apply a different kind fo escalating pressure as well.) The ingredient use is solid (though the “last chance” theme doesn’t quite show up.
Some unclear things: the difference between humanity cards and humanity points, and whether there is some condition that occurs at 0 humanity (other than having all feral cards). The game talks about monsters and scavenging, but there isn’t much detail about what those might detail. Perhaps they are handled by the GM, but it would be good to see the intent.
The biggest challenge here is that this feels like a framework – rules for resolving challenges and building bunkers – but I’m not sure if there are external pressures or challenges that will be introduced. I’m not sure that the Humanity cards alone will provide enough tension/conflict/collaboration between groups. I would like some goals to be out there that the groups are fighting over, unique character details to give each character their own angle, and some guidance for the GMs to inject more twists into the game.
This is not to stay that a “Plot” should be central to the game. I like the freedom of players to build their own world in the ashes of the new, and the complications and constraints their Humanity traits place upon them. I think the tactile nature of the LARP environment will also open up some interesting possibilities
Handle With Care by Jackson Tegu (link)
It took me a moment to get a handle on the writing style here. The text mentions some things out of their expected order, and the meaning and feel isn’t clear upfront, but instead requires reading through the text. However, this gave the text a unique voice, and created emergent meaning that I liked a lot. A totally great sentence: “As by now you’ve assumed, the players are giant monsters.” The text definitely communicates the feel of this game.
The trading of narration through the deck of cards is clear, and I think the use of tactile elements – miniatures, props, cardboard highrises, physical presence, actual darkness – will all help creative some amazing experiences. The game is on the border of my earnestness threshold – but I think I’d want to try it or help facilitate it.
I think the balance of narrative power might be a bit fragile. Not just enforcing the careful driving of the municipal light truck, but moreover, the range of what someone can narrate with a card on their turn. The epilogue cards are also very open-ended. It seems up to social contract everyone being on the same page, basically. (I also think the exact mechanics of the light truck seem a bit awkward – maybe I’m not imagining it right – but I’m sure there’s another tacile mechanic that will work here.)
The character descriptions ask some far-raising questions. (Perhaps some of them should have some more concrete hooks to help stories get under way?) I would be curious see how their stories turn out.
A rambling aside: let me mention Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet” soundtrack. A few weeks ago, I saw a him at show at darkened gallery space; the audience was lying down on foam cushions with wireless headphones synced to the DJ’s output and strange ambient noise in the audible background. It was a shockingly chill and thoughtful experience. So when I was reading your game, this is the soundtrack I heard.
Lady and the Tower by Joel P. Shempert (link)
This is a game about exploring mysteries, and the setting is evocative. I like the Bluebeard references, and yet it’s clear that the game doesn’t have to end up in that direction. It’s up to the players’ choices to reveal different kinds of revelations. What’s interesting is that this creates a real a mystery without it being the product of a single GM’s machinations. In fact, what is at the heart of the mystery is the players’ own characters. You start play not truly knowing your own characters intentions or motivations, and you ultimately come to revelations that your character always knew (but that are a complete surprise to the player). The use of the “advent calendar” method to preserve the mystery is a cool idea, and presents a new way of packing a preset scenario for one-shot play.
There is a fragile center in the game where the players have to balance what they guess about their characters nature and intentions against what they may ultimately reveal, and how to imply some possibilities with closing off others. (For example: showing affection for another character without declaring onself as entirely devoted, if that revelation is to come later.) It simply takes a lot of balance, and there will possibly be parts of the game where a player has to reconcile what they think they knew with the text that was just revealed.
I also think there may be an issue with having the scenes progress at a leisurely pace, and not rushing too quickly to the reveals. Regardless of whether the characters want to hold their secrets close, the players most likely want to find out their own secrets, and there will be a tension to jump to reveals. However, doing this will cheapen the reveal itself, unless it unfolds naturally through the course of drama. Perhaps playtesting will help show what else will provide the right framing for scenes so that the scenes have a purpose in their own right. Open scene-framing with ambiguous characters could be intimidating.
One other cool thing about the game: the different roles are quietly asymmetrical and different. The Lord and Bishop share their broad narration of the world at large in complimentary ways; the Lady is, by contrast, limited to her internal monologue, but that is itself a commentary and calls attention to her as the protagonist in a neat way. (There is a problem that the Lady’s internal monologue might work against her hiding her own intentions from others; but maybe there’s the possibility of the Lady’s monologue as being itself an inconsistent/unreliable perspective, and that’s cool again.)
The Words by greyorm (link)
Powerful, dark and gritty, street-level supernatural urban horror. This entry has lots of flavor and knows the tone it wants to strike. It uses its elements well (four forge threads, no less) while going into its own direction. Games like this are welcome. The nature of The Words is slightly ambiguous, and I’d like to find out more.
I think the game could benefit from something more clear about what the Words are. Not a discrete definition – implications are more powerful than known quantities – but ultimately, the group needs to come to some consensus about what the scope of these powers can be. “Anything” seems challenging and broad. Perhaps it works, regardless; the cards can work for or against even the strongest fictional effect.
The mechanics are primarily card based. (Relatedly: I’d like to see what other mechanical implications of cards/hands/decks can come into play, beyond their use as a randomizer.) I like that the hand of cards is used in chargen just as it is used later in conflicts.
It see how the Sin and Integrity attributes are core to the game, and are the key angle by which a player can push harder against challenges. (Without further adjustment, I’d guess that card draws are roughly even, and then it becomes a question if either side is desperate enough to keep drawing.) It also seems that the general pressure within the game is that, as the player uses Sin and Integrity, their values will be pulled downwards until the character is deformed and ultimately eliminated. I’d like to see other reward cycles in play beyond this spiral to push the players in other directions.
I’d also like to see more guidance about the kinds of motivations, plots, kickers or agendas that a character may have. I can read between the lines and guess at some character-driven scenarios that will put the players in conflict with their Sin and Integrity, but I’d rather see a clear authorial vision about how gameplay should unfold, and how to set characters going in the right direction.
And, finally: learning more about the Words. I’m uncertain about whether this should have its own novel mechanic, or simply some fruitful setting material, or perhaps an open void where the playgroup and see what they will. The hook is there and is intriguing.