A Stitch in Time – Indigo Prime

Indigo Prime Logo VERTICALWhilst rummaging through old papers looking for contract documents (don’t ask) I stumbled across a practically prehistoric RPG of Indigo Prime I had written back in 1990-1991 or so on an Apricot and printed on faded dot matrix paper with the little punch holes in the side..

Like a lot of early scribblings it is horribly naive and derivative but its also amazingly prescient in a number of ways and a time capsule into the kinds of influences that were being shared across multiple media at the time.

I can see why I abandoned the game despite playing it a few times. In 1993 Mage the Ascension was published which goes over a lot of the same conceptual ground and would have made a good Indigo Prime game in and of itself with just a little bit of work.

From a modern gaming point of view, what was interesting was that consensual reality was there, as was warping what was and wasn’t real and how the world works through powers which – while having 20 levels – were very similar to spheres.  I’d also worked into the game a mind/body separation which I don’t believe has particularly been done – at least not as something integral to a game – until Eclipse Phase.

Maybe I should copy it up as a curiosity, if there’s any interest.

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Bioshock: Infinite Possibilities

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Bioshock Infinite

I’ve been watching the missus playing Bioshock: Infinite, the indirect but sort of direct sequel to Bioshock and Bioshock 2. As you may or may not know I made an RPG resource for Bioshock which can be found HERE.

Without getting too spoilerific, Infinite lives up to its name and potentially opens up the role-playing possibilities and opportunities in a whole variety of worlds, not just the ones that are presented or hinted at in the Bioshock series so far.

Bioshock, as a game, has great hooks and gets its hooks into you, but it does follow a sort of a formula. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. A formula or structure can help channel creativity and doesn’t (obviously!) indicate any paucity of imagination.

The Bioshock Formula

Extreme Ideology

Each Bioshock game taps into a form of ideology and dials it up to eleven. While the setting and expression of that ideology may be extreme and twisted it is something we do find or have had in history.

The first Bioshock presents a ‘Galt’s Gulch’, a Libertarian extreme. Bioshock Infinite presents a nightmarish extreme of American exceptionalism, theocratic tyranny and constitutional worship of the founding fathers that can still be seem in aspects of modern American politics.

Counterculture

A strong ideological culture tends to create a strong counterculture and Bioshock tries – not always especially convincingly – to present the flipside as being as bad in its own way as the dominant culture. The counterculture may exist in multiple forms. Some more extreme, some a genuine counterpoint, some wanting to take over and claim power for themselves.

Singular Genius

Each Bioshock world is centred around a cult of personality, a singular force of will that creates and/or guides the society. The counterculture also, often, has a particular voice as a counterpoint to this leader. A reaction as forceful in its own way.

Unfettered Technology

The more obvious technological aspect in Bioshock is in the form of the special powers that characters can access, giving them superhuman abilities (though at what cost). There are other technologies of course – some retaining their mystery – but consistently each Bioshock society is technologically ahead of the outside world around it by a significant degree.

How these developments came about isn’t necessarily clear but in Bioshock it is likely that many of the great leaps came at intense human cost through experimentation not unlike that carried out by the Nazis in death camps during WW2.

Isolation

The Bioshock societies are isolated – through choice – from the rest of the world in some way. In the existing Bioshocks this is a physical separation – in the air or beneath the waves – but there are plenty of other options for ways to separate one society from another. Rapture is self-sufficient it seems, while Columbia must engage in trade but despite this both maintain separation from the world at large.

Crisis Point

The Bioshock games take place at the culmination of events, where the society comes to a crux point of change and goes into a crisis – seemingly, essentially a violent one. Things shift, the society changes and is either destroyed or changed forever. The crisis point gives you your hook for any adventurers to dig in.

Example

storming_heavenBioshock: City of Love
Ideology: After the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 San Francisco was shattered and turned into an archipelago of ruined islands which were left to rot for decades until they were eventually settled by revolutionary, counterculture hippies moving into the sixties. The islands have since become a ‘free state’ under control of ‘The Guru’ and his acolytes dedicated to peace, love, drugs and freedom.

Counterculture: The dominant culture is pacifistic and insular, setting themselves aside from the ‘squares’. They believe that their way of life will naturally take over the world. The counterculture thinks that the Age of Aquarius needs a little impetus and wants to take on the world outside directly and violently as it believes is necessary. The revolution needs to begin at home by sweeping away the existing order though. The outside world is paranoid in the extreme about the islands and the strange stories coming from them and constantly tries to get their own agents to the islands.

Genius: Dr Jim is ‘The Guru’, the leader of the City of Love. A powerful, psychedelic ‘magician’ he is the visionary who opened the doors of perception and synthesized the drug derivatives, ‘tabs’, which give the denizens of Love so many of their advantages and powers. Monroe opposes him, his opposite. An intensely political individual who wants to ‘deploy’ Love’s power to end the Vietnam war and bring on the Age of Aquarius by force. Both have their problems, The Guru’s pacifist internalism leaves the world to rot and is self indulgent while Monroe seeks to impose his utopia.

Technology: ‘Tabs’ unlock metaphysical powers which can then be powered by neurotransmitters and chemicals released in the mind by sleep and drug use. Some have greater reaction to Tabs, giving them flashes of inspiration that have allowed them to create new tech that protects the islands. Weather machines, orgone collectors, new materials, imagination-shaped substances and alternative energy sources all on an artisinal scale and an economy that doesn’t work on money.

Isolation: The islands are protected by reefs and rocks, fog and the powers and technological wonders that the islanders have created. Its still in sight though and a constant ‘threat’ to mainland America.

Crisis Point: Monroe and his followers are read to take independent action to end the Vietnam War. They’ve been inventing and using more war-like tabs and technology and intend to interpose themselves between the two sides and beat them into submission. This will provoke the US into action and they have been conducting their own drug experiments on a unit of battle-hardened Marines, intending to assassinate the key leaders and open the islands up to reconquest.

What are your ideas?

Examining Games

Theory-RealityComputer games are big business and because they’re big business they attract serious study without anyone feeling that they’re being silly for doing do. Tabletop RPGs attract less money and attention but they’re no less worthy of study in their own way and the same revelations and improvements in craft that computer games have gained in this way can – perhaps – be applied to roleplaying games.

Computer games studies such as this are a good starting point, though there’s a lot about computer games that simply doesn’t apply or that is made more complicated by the fact that between the producer and consumer there is the additional filter of the Games Master.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that RPGs run the gamut from tightly focussed games that target a single experience and mode of play to toolkits that are virtually devoid of narrative or worldbuilding content.

We have had GNS Theory, which has been the only theory to really gain any traction, despite being superseded by The Big Model. The problem with most of these approaches is that they are conspicuously ideological and, tellingly have not produced any knock-out, successful games as of yet. At least not commercially successful. Artistically successful is always arguable but the two need not be mutually exclusive. In the computer gaming world many of the most successful and impactful games are also those that have treated the audience as having intelligence and desire for good story alongside the game aspect.

I think we need a more objective, non-partisan, examination of RPG theory and practice and I’m not sure I’m the best person to do it, but somehow around work I’ll give it a try. Can anyone reference me to some more design models and approaches covered on a teaching/academic basis in computer games so that I can piggyback on their studies a little?

Munchkin: They Killed Me & Took My Stuff

cover_lgApparently Munchkin is going onto Xbox and maybe other computery game platforms too.

I have tried for a long time to be sanguine about what happened with Munchkin. Me and Steve Mortimer wrote The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming and from that came the d20 stuff and, eventually, the card game. Both the d20 material and the original card game contain a huge amount of material taken from or inspired by the book – but just not quite enough to trip the clause in the contract where they’d need to give us more money.

By and large my relationship with SJG is pretty good. They pay up on time and e23 does well for me – second only to RPGNOW – but at this point, with Munchkin seemingly keeping the company afloat and making them money hand-over-fist it seems… ungrateful not to have involved us again or even acknowledged us, let alone cut us in for any amount of the fortune ensuing from our humour.

Furthermore it has become clear to us recently, via another slap in the face, that our role in this gaming phenomenon is not only being ignored but actively being written out.

SJG gave us our first break in writing and essentially launched my career as a gaming professional. Perhaps it is churlish of me to feel this way but I do feel that our contribution is worth greater acknowledgement and that, perhaps, it might have been nice to do a tenth anniversary recap or to have brought us back to do a supplement.

It was even me that wanted John Kovalic to illustrate the original book, though he couldn’t do much then due to other commitments.

I’m torn on this. I feel ungrateful to be so bloody angry about this but every time we’re left out, another add on comes out or it conquers another medium its a stab in the gut and a sharp reminder of being cut out.

I don’t know what to do with how I feel about this any more. I use to just joke about it, but it’s no longer funny.

Interview at Roleplayer’s Chronicle

Me and Daniel (Camelot Cosmos) had a chat with Roleplayer’s Chronicle and you can read it HERE

4e – Dharvi

goblin_thief_by_paulabrams-d3c8ahvSo I’m running another 4e game – weirdly – for a few people over G+.

They’re kinda-sorta n00bs, which is good because it means there are very few preconceptions and I can fuck with the rules as need be without anyone rules-lawyering me.

We have a half-elf thief with an untapped sorcerer bloodline that gives her a little wild/chaos magic and a mean streak.

We have a half-wild Eladrin ranger who isn’t quite at home in the city.

We have a huge dragonborn with an even huger warhammer and a stereotypical tendency to apply violence as a universal solution.

We also have a crippled, grossly fat dwarven warlock who is conveyed around on her giant beetle mount.

Dharvi – the world I’ve made up for this – is a chaotic world, a patchwork of chaos and weirdness that survives after an apocalyptic magical war over the last century. The walled cities and other defended settlements are islands of security enforced by a powerful Church dedicated to order – not that there aren’t other religions, it’s just that a religion of order and security has obvious appeal in a world overrun by monsters.

Previously only vaguely aware of each other our ‘heroes’ were called together by Grik, the goblin crimelord of the southern part of the city of Marat’s literal and figurative underworld. Marat is ruled strictly by the church but the poor and the unsavoury hide from their gaze in the upper levels of the mines that riddle the desert badlands in which Marat sits.

Grik had been double crossed by Silk, a smuggler and another crimelord who had promised to cut him in on a deal and had reneged. What happened? Well…

***

Silk, the lizardman smuggler who runs much of the northern section of Marat’s subterranean slums, suffered a massive setback as one of his main stashes of alchemical supplies and trading goods were destroyed after the warehouse was broken into and two of his guards were mercilessly slaughtered – one with unnatural magicks.

In completely unrelated news a swarm of acid-drooling rats burst out of a sewerage tunnel in the same area and devoured a dozen homeless and beggars before they were incinerated by an enterprising lamp-oil salesman.

Silk has placed a 500gp bounty on the people who did this to him but witnesses could only describe a _’fat, deformed little witch riding a beetle’_.

This must surely stand out.

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Machinations of the Space Princess: Art Preview

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They grow big out here.

Machinations of the Space Princess: Art Preview

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Character progression, MotSP style.

OSR Weird Monster: The Encyclopede

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Pic from HERE

The ancient Magus Wars – though they go by many other names – have left many scars on the landscape. From enchanted ruins to luminous swamps, from gibbering aberrations to floating islands. During the wars the squabbling wizards created many servants, from the Brass Soldiers of Ludum Quat to the Invisible Hornets of Chung the Impeccable. Not every servant was built for war though and servants were made as cooks, handymen, workers, even curators.

The Encyclopedes were born in the laboratories of Dakram Findspell, more librarian and alchemist than true wizard. Obsessed by the gathering and collation – rather than the use – of knowledge he created the Encyclopedes to maintain and order his vast library.

After his death the Encyclopedes took on a life of their own and continue to gather information – especially spells – wherever they can. They create caches of knowledge and magic and devote their entire existence to it, to the point where they will happily suck the knowledge from a man’s skull to add to their own.

Encyclopedes knows almost everything and deep in their holdings they maintain a magical book of stupendous size. Each colony has one and – magically – it shares knowledge with all the other books and Encylcopedes throughout the world and the other planes of existence.

Encyclopedes gain an almost sexual degree of pleasure from correcting someone of their false information. They are insufferably smug, gigantic – the size of three people – and painfully arrogant.

It is said you can read their tome, after a fashion, their language is not discernible to any other being, but in the act of trying to read it you can gain the truthful answer to any single, answerable question. Reason enough for people to seek to Encyclopede’s out for trade – or theft.

Armour Class: 16
Hit Dice: 6d8 (Hp 27)
Movement: 180′, Encyclopedes can move at this speed on walls and ceilings as well as floors.
Attacks: 1 (+6 attack, 1d4 damage + Poison)
Damage: 1d4 + Poison that causes 1 permanent points of Intelligence loss.
Morale: 7
Special Abilities:
Can climb walls and ceilings automatically with no loss of speed.
Bite requires a Save Vs Poison or the victim loses 1 point of Intelligence permanently.
Encyclopedes can cast Bookspeak, Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Identify, Mending and Read Magic at will, as though a 6th level Magic User.
Encyclopedes can use scrolls.

Dry, Boring, Designer Musings

brilliant_mind_cs2I’m settling into my new role at Chronicle City and wrapping up old projects which means I’m in a bit of a lull before the Chronicle City work really kicks in and I have to adjust to a whole new set of management and interpersonal skills. This has given me downtime (welcome, due to a terrible bout of depression) and the opportunity to think, ponder and ruminate on game design. Being at Chronicle City is going to give me a lot of opportunities and as a chap who is somewhere halfway between the Traditional Gaming camp and the Story Games camp (and thus loathed by both) I’ll be in a relatively good position to smuggle some new concepts and ideas into games as we develop licences and new IP. Provided of course, that these ideas actually work.

I rarely ‘talk shop’ – per se – from a design point of view, so hopefully you’ll forgive this indulgence. I am painfully aware that I will sound super, super cereal and more than a little pretentious.

The Nostalgia Train (a lot of it in the form of the Old School Renaissance) is in full swing as it rarely has been since the heady days of D&D3 brought a bunch of old gamers out of retirement. Some of these games are shamelessly just trying to recreate the old experiences while others are using it as a ‘back to basics’ approach that allows them to reinvent the wheel from first principles without the baggage of thirty years of development. This mirrors some of what we’ve seen in computer games with a division between sprawling A-list titles and casual, simple games with great hooks and addictive play that draw something from that simplicity and the constrictions it puts upon what you can do. Something you also get with the limitations of tablets and mobiles as compared to desktop machines or consoles.

Part of the problem with RPG design is that we don’t have a common set of terminology, despite best efforts on the part of Dr Bat-Dong and his nefarious allies. Rather we each develop our own thoughts and ideas and express them in our own ways and then stare at each other cross-eyed as we try to understand it. I’ve developed my own inner lexicon and set of thoughts on gaming innovation and progress and while I can’t talk about specifics or predict which – if any – of these ideas will see fruit in any games I’m prepared to share them in hopes of starting a conversation with other ‘makers and doers’.

Defining Roleplaying Games

Within the context of what would traditionally be called a ‘tabletop roleplaying game’ (more on this later) I would currently define a roleplaying game as:

A mediated conversation that results in a narrative.

That is an extremely broad definition and it encompasses everything from kids playing soldiers in the woods, through games like Once Upon a Time through to D&D. It includes traditional RPGs, murder mystery games, LARP, story games and even GMless games like Fiasco which some people seem to find it difficult to accept as an RPG.

Let’s examine this definition a little more closely.

Mediated: What I mean by mediated is that there is a filter of some kind that the conversation passes through. This might be a Games Master, referee, the consensus decision of the other players, who can shout the loudest, mum or dad, or ‘the rules’. It can also be some combination of all of these.

Conversation: Our games take place through the transfer of information from one party to another (or several others) and back again. One participant describes an action, another reacts to it, that is – in turn – reacted to and so we continue.

Narrative: I’d say ‘story’ but when role-playing you’re not ‘telling’ a story, rather a story is emergent from the conversation and the interactions involved in play. An RPG – of whatever kind – is not like a novel or even a computer game. It is not (necessarily) set or bounded and many gaming narratives that are engaging and wonderful in play would make terribly boring books, films or other media narratives.

I regard this as the quintessential core of what a roleplaying game is and while these elements may be found in or emerge from other games that are not explicitly RPGs they’re key to roleplaying as a conceptual design framework. You may disagree, please do! Poke holes in my thesis and shake it around to find the weak parts!

Anything else? That’s up for grabs.

Playing around a table? Playing in the same room? Playing face to face? Playing at the same time? Rules? A Games Master? Everything else is free to be examined, eliminated, confirmed, toyed with, messed with, spun about and shot out of a cannon at The Moon. With that in mind, here are some design concepts that are currently bobbing around in the soupy mass of oatmeal that passes for my brain.

Alternative Platform Design: Gaming takes place in a lot of different venues now. With VOIP, Google Hangouts and services such as Infrno, combined with scheduling issues, an aging gamer population, families, travel costs and so many other things a lot of gaming is taking place away from the table. This isn’t a new phenomenon, gaming has taken place on forums, IRC, chatrooms and elsewhere since the internet became a ‘thing’ but the relative convenience and accessibility of these mods of play is now at a tipping point of convenience and no longer requires ‘leet skillz’. While this kind of stuff has gone on for a long time we haven’t really had any games properly try to address and tailor themselves to playing via conference call, chatroom, email, forum or other means that aren’t face to face. Yes there’s a couple of well known exceptions, but not really at the mid or upper tier publisher level.

Asynchronous Gaming: Which is a posh, long-winded way of saying ‘playing at different times’. Again, we have been at this a long time with forum and email play (and play by post if you want to get really stone-age) but again there’s almost no games that cater to this form of play. Which is odd, given that its probably one of the most convenient and low-impact ways to play.

Experience Commonality: This is something gaming used to have but which has slipped away. People have it in MMORPGs and other computer games, ironically as a result of the limitations of those games. Story, adventure, dungeons, locations, all have to get reused in these games and the experiences of them are not individual. They’re a point of contact for people because they share the experience of fighting that boss or overcoming that obstacle. They build a community around sharing solutions, clues, tips and optimisations. We did have that in tabletop RPGs once upon a time (everyone failed to rescue Alt Cunningham or explored Keep on the Borderlands) but that has gone away. I don’t know how to reintroduce this aspect without lots of problems, but it’s on my mind.

Generational Gaming: The best and most successful way to hook new gamers is by example. Unlike many things that parents do, which become automatically ‘lame’, roleplaying does seem to manage to transfer from parents to children (and grandchildren!) with relative success. When I say generational gaming I mean that both literally and figuratively. I want (and we need as a community) to provide tools to make gaming accessible to children, easy to pick up for ‘noobs’ and exciting and demonstrative to a new generation of gamers who don’t have parents or peers to induct them. We also need to understand that our passion is not for everyone and its OK for people to like other things. As part of this I also think we need to concentrate on the strengths that roleplaying has, the things that differentiate it and set it apart, rather than trying to chase the same itches that MMOs etc scratch. This was, I think, the failing of 4e.

Non-Statistical Gaming: Are there other ways to describe characters, capabilities, worlds? Can we move outside of the dice to using cards, pictures, colours, music, words? There are means other than numbers – I think – to describe the world and I’ve explored this some in Neverwhere and ImagiNation, I think there’s further to go though and experiments to test. This is probably one of the more challenging ideas rolling around in my noggin and everything I have thought of so far still includes some numerical aspect, but its an avenue worth exploring.

Numerical-Spread: With computers, smartphones, even calculators all capable of generating random numbers between ANY values, why are we still stuck on polyhedrals? That’s inherently limiting isn’t it? True, there’s something visceral and delightful about handling dice and they become near-spiritual fetish objects for a lot of gamers but they can produce some odd statistical anomalies. Why should an Ubersword of Ming do 4d6 (4-24) damage when it could be doing a 1-25, allowing for everything from a tiny graze to a full on hit?

One-Play Sagas: What if we didn’t play our own characters and what if the adventures we played in were more… set? There’s been some tinkering along this line with the new Marvel game and with examples like Lady Blackbird but what if we told a story through group play in a way more similar to, say, Final Fantasy, J Random Fantasy Epic or the old Choose Your Own Adventure books like Lone Wolf.

Pick-Up-And-Play: ‘That looks cool!’ ‘Lets play it!’ ‘OK’ – and they gamed happily ever after. It will never be QUITE that simple, but we can TRY damn it.

Player Products: From a purely economic point of view games companies are selling books and materials to, perhaps, 1/6th to 1/4 of their potential audience. The person who – normally – buys all the books is the Games Master for that particular game. There must be a way to create materials that players would want and would use that aren’t ‘splatbooks’ which, again, fragment the audience for them. I don’t know what – yet – character journals have been tried a few times and never really taken off that well but there must be things to try.

Parachute Gaming: Dropping in on one game or another without it being a huge hassle, without characters being too far apart in capability and without it ruining anyone’s campaign. Flailsnails baked in to the game at the concept stage.

Transferable Game Engines: Deleria tried to do this. We often found ourselves playing Vampire using the old MET rules (because while you may not have dice, you always have hands). A game engine that can be used in tabletop, LARP, online and any which way (but loose) has some advantages. The compatibility between the new Iron Kingdoms RPG and the skirmish games of the same world (Warmachine/Hordes) is a good example of this working really well.