Sellsword

Let’s try and clean up that brainstorming session into something more coherent.

The heart and soul of this RPG is inventing new solutions to difficult problems through cooperation. That’s the main skill that I’m trying to impart to my 5th graders in general, so finding a way to do that in an RPG would be perfect.

The premise of the game is clear and straightforwards: players play a company of mercenaries, or sellswords, looking to do dangerous work in exchange for food, supplies, and fame. They’re a bit more professional than murderhobos but still only barely qualified. As they become more influential and better-equipped, their goals might change, but lets leave that for later.

The game should be simple and intuitive, so pretty much everything they need should be on their sheets. No magic, no classes, no restrictions on what they can try to do. It’s all about creative solutions, right? Character creation uses an array of scores that are assigned randomly to different stats. Everyone starts at the same level, but with plenty of variety in where their talents lie.

Challenges are group-participation efforts, where players come up with a plan, and then all roll at once to see if it works. The GM gives them bonuses for good plans, or can negate rolling altogether. The challenges are like a puzzle game where they have to figure out the best way to overcome things, with roleplaying in between. I’m aiming to find a way to achieve a degree of flow in an RPG. There’s probably going to be a phase structure, similar to Torchbearer or Mouse Guard.

Poor planning results in deaths. Flip over dead characters, write their tombstone, and add them to the graveyard. Success results in more fame, influence, and more options during challenges. The trick is to present a type of challenge and then re-present it several times over the course of a session with new twists, in order to keep players focused on what they’ve learned so far.

OSR-style, Simplified

I’ve been reading about the appeal of OSR (Old-School Renaissance) games over at Storygames. (For a brief primer on what sets OSR games apart from other RPGs, look here.) Since I usually run games for 5th graders in a fairly constrained time-frame, I’m always looking for ways to adapt RPG ideas to fit that mold. Here’s a brainstorming session. I’ll try and refine it later.

  • Focus on the tough, tactical choices.
  • Make the game ridiculously lethal so players are forced to be cautious and think creatively.
  • Character creation is quick and easy.
  • Everything you need to know is on your character sheet.
  • You can begin playing with very little rules explanations. The barrier for entry into RPGs is much to high. Break it down.
  • No character powers that require any reading.
  • Consequently, no spell lists. Perhaps this means no magic, perhaps it means a more free-form system.
  • No hit points. They’re too abstract. If players are injured they should know how that effects them.
  • You have a CON score, but you roll it to see how bad a wound is. You have light and mortal wound boxes, which have different penalties.
  • Character toughness does not increase significantly. You’re always close to death unless you think carefully.
  • Success is measured in power and fame within the setting. A high-level character never becomes superhuman in his abilities, but does gain property and influence.
  • Social Circles is a stat.
  • No classes. Players are all nobodies at the start. It doesn’t make sense for them to be specialized.
  • Careful tactical play is further rewarded by not rolling dice. If you are creative enough to set things up so that failure is extremely unlikely, then you simply succeed.
  • Creative solutions are key, so random tables to provide unexpected and inconvenient situations are a must.
  • Success in the game should feel earned by the players, because when players don’t work hard to earn success, they usually die. Dice are brutal, so find ways to avoid rolling.
  • Fleeing is a valid option, and recklessness is punished ruthlessly.
  • Character generation is random, but still fair. It’s hard to get 5th graders excited about playing a character who’s the worst at everything. The same array of opening modifiers gets randomly distributed among the stats. Keep it vast and unpredictable.
  • Everyone has a niche that they’re good at, and lots of stuff that they’re terrible at.
  • Players must cover each other’s weaknesses in devising plans to overcome obstacles.
  • Players are allowed to take short breaks to consult with each other before committing to a plan, even when they are surprised. Again, the focus is on rewarding intelligent, cooperative survival.
  • Combat runs in rounds where one side acts simultaneously in a coordinated attack. Affected targets can respond, one at a time.
  • Character sheets should have a tombstone on the back where you write how they died.
  • Campaigns should have a persistent graveyard where dead characters go. The death-happens aspect should be normalized.
  • You have to have a memorial service when someone dies.
  • Armor locks wounds, but degrades each time.
  • Everything wears out.
  • Detailed maps with simple crawling and encounter procedures.
  • The PC’s company has a fame stat.
  • Players are mercenaries and bounty hunters, pure and simple. There’s nothing noble about what they do, at least at first.
  • The players name their company. If all PCs die at once, the company has to start over. Otherwise, its legacy lives on.

Random Numbers Without Dice

If you want to generate random numbers but don’t have any dice, all you need is two people (with at least one hand each.) Since you’ll usually want to do this in a RPG setting, we’ll call one the player, and one the GM.

First Method

On the count of three, both people hold up one to five fingers. The player then counts up from his number to the GM’s number. If the GM’s number is smaller than the player’s number, the players counts up to 5, then back around to 1 and then continues counting up. The count between the two numbers is the result. If players both choose the same number, the result is the maximum number of fingers, in this case 5. So, for example:

Player: 1, GM: 4, Result: 3

Player: 4, GM: 3, Result 4

Player: 2, GM: 2, Result 5

This should make every result from 1 to 5 equally likely.

Change the number of fingers, and you can simulate any die on the fly.  Don’t have a d13? Well now you do! With dice bigger than a d10, I recommend both people shouting out the number at the same time. Not as clean, but it will work in a pinch.

This has some fun applications. If you use it to simulate a d6 twice, for example, you can add them together and generate the 2d6 bell curve. Play Apocalypse World without dice!

Second Method

If you want 1s to be easy and 5s to be hard, do this: Each player holds up one to five fingers. Subtract the smaller number from the larger number to produce your result. If the numbers are equal, the result is that number. For example:

Player: 2, GM: 4, Result: 2

Player: 5, GM: 1, Result: 4

Player: 3, GM: 3, Result: 3

Using this method, there’s only one way to produce a 5, three ways to produce a 4, five ways to produce a 3, seven ways to produce a 2 and nine ways to produce a 1.

Ramifications

There’s some interesting things going on with this method, assuming that the player wants a high number and the GM wants a low number. For example, if the GM always showed a 3, then he could prevent the player from ever getting a 4 or 5 result. Once the player caught on to this, he might also start showing 3, which would leave them producing a result of 3 forever.

So what if we disrupt this balance by making a 3 result slightly better for the player? Let’s take a page from Apocalypse World and say that a 4+ result means a complete success for the player, a 3 means success at a cost, and a 1 or a 2 means failure. Now, if the GM always shows 3, and the player also starts showing 3, then the player will always succeed at a cost. If the GM wants to open up the possibility for failure, he’s going to have to also open up the possibility for complete success.

This might cause too much of a headache, though. I’d say Method One is more promising.

Winter’s Breath

Over on Storygames, I found this beautiful summary of a Burning Wheel campaign, by Bret_Gillan.

My character Brutus began the game as a three lifepath ditch digger. He has since then swore an oath to a Fairy Queen to bring blood and fire to the world, became bonded to the throne of the shapeshifting ancestors of his people, and worshipped the corrupted cannibal wolf god of winter (Winter’s Breath) and became a shapeshifter himself. His friends helped him to realize what he was turning into, not a hero but a monster, and so he went to confront the wolf god where he lived in a place called the wolf dreams. He told Winter’s Breath a story of the god he used to be before his corruption, running through green grass and dark wood. Winter’s Breath moved to strike him down but as Brutus told the story the corruption reversed and Winter’s Breath’s coat turned from white to sable, and he became the wolf god of the woods again.

The Hunting Grounds

The Hunting Grounds is a setting concept I’ve been mulling over for a few months. There isn’t much to it yet, but it’s about to time to start putting it in writing.

The world is a nearly pristine wilderness of dense, deep forests (called the Weald), sheer mountains, and roaring rivers. Think a kind of romanticized vision of barbarian Germania and Helvetia. Mankind’s cities are essentially fortresses, either lodged up in mountains passes, perched on fortified hills, or in some other strongly defensible position. It’s not a distopia; the cities are thriving in their own way and they’ve all adapted to the world in one way or another, but there’s a strong dichotomy between being enclosed within a settlement, and being outside, in the wild.

The world is beautiful and deadly, filled with sound, life, and ancient, slumbering awareness. The mountainous landscape is carved with valleys and ravines, sheer cliffs and sudden swarths of bracken. The forests alone can spell the doom of an untrained traveler, but the ruined settlements and lost relics of the old kingdoms buried in its heart often prove too much a temptation.

The reason mankind has barricaded its towns is not for fear of war. Although the cultures of the various cities have put them at political odds with one another, a true war has not broken out in living memory. The walls are there because mankind is not alone.

Within the forests and mountains roam hundreds of creatures, each one unique, each powerful enough to level a farmhouse and devour its owners before they’d have time to draw a weapon. These aren’t eldrich abominations. They are monsters, yes, but they are also as magnificent as they are terrible, imbued with the wild, untamable power of nature itself. Mankind would long ago have been destroyed by these creatures had it not been for the Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt are gods. They appear human, but stand twice the height of a man, have antlers of various shapes growing from their brows, ride steeds made of sunlight and moonlight, and live for nothing but the chase. They rarely interact with mankind, and seem more puzzled by their existence than anything else. Sometimes at night men can hear the unearthly sound of their horns, drifting over the Weald. Sometimes by day men find the site of their battles, soaked in the blood of gods and monsters.

That’s about it for now. One thing I like about this setting is that it immediately presents a number of questions.

Why are the gods on an eternal hunt?

What happens to the gods if they are slain?

What value might humanity place upon the blood or organs of a monster?

How were the old kingdoms lost? What secrets do they hold?

What is humanity doing in this world?

What kind of training is necessary to explore this world?

What are the cultures of the different cities like, and how do they answer the above questions?

Are there any gods who have taken an interest in humanity?

Darwinian Villainy

The Alexandrian posted a great article a few weeks back with a great piece of GM advice: Create lots of villains – develop the ones who survive.

This ends up solving a number of common RPG problems. It’s often tempting to make the villain invincible until the final battle in order to keep the story going, or to play up the evilness of a villain to a party that just doesn’t care much about him.

However, if you add a host of villains and let the heroes dispatch them where ever they can, you won’t get attached to them. You’ll keep player agency intact. Most importantly, as certain villains continue to survive, grow stronger, and really meddle with the player’s goals, their hatred of him will be natural and all the more satisfying.

There’s a connection here to Dungeon World concept of Fronts, but that’s another post.

The City of Bastion

Format Image

I created this city for a new Pathfinder campaign I’m starting with Andrew over at Dawnforgedcast. It’s my first attempt to create a city map, and I’m pretty happy with the results.

 

 

Explaining Boardgame Rules

Shut Up and Sit Down, quite possibly the best boardgaming site out there, just put out a video covering tips for rules explanations. I thought their points were dead on, but I felt that I should add my two cents.

Wholes Versus Parts

Most of us have probably played at least a few games so many times that they feel like clockwork to us. We no longer see particular rules, we see a coherent whole, and we’re able to manipulate the game mechanics to try and nudge our overarching strategies towards a victory, if all goes well. On the other hand, new players are often unable to see the grand design. Instead they see only a handful (or in some cases, dozens) of individual systems, little islands of rules with only tenuous connections between them. A new player knows that there is a complete engine in there somewhere, but he can’t keep it in his head all at once.

The difference here is that experienced players have an understanding of the causal relationship between the different elements of the game. They have grasped the “why” of the mechanics. Beginners may understand how this or that subsystem works on its own, but they don’t understand the usefulness of that system as regards the other subsystems or its effect on the final objective.

Understanding the “why” of every mechanic in the game is essential to playing a game well. Without it, a player’s actions become random (“I’ll try this and see what happens”) or short-sighted. Games are goal-oriented activities, so if players don’t know how an action advances their position then they often end up irritated or bewildered. Of course, when most of us teach boardgames to new players, we do try to explain the purpose of each of the rules and how they fit together, but inevitably our explanations are a bit scatter-shot and incomplete. We’re always backtracking, re-clarifying, correcting ourselves, jumping ahead etc.

After teaching a couple boardgames over a dozen times, I had the realization that the best way to teach an activity like a boardgame was to do it in reverse.

Why-First Explanations

In SU&SD’s video, Quinns points out that the first step in teaching a boardgame is to A.) Give them their components to play with and B.) Explain who they are, how they win, and why it’s going to be fun. I echo this advice completely.

However, after explaining the goal of the game, continue backwards from there, explaining firstly the actions that allow the players to win the game, then what actions enable them to take those actions, and so on. The principle here is that you should never at any point be explaining a rule if you haven’t already explained why it matters. Go from the why to the how, not from the how to the why.

This is the opposite of how most players (and rule books for that matter) go about it. I usually conceive of a game’s rules in tiers, with the goal of the game at the top and with levels of increasingly specific rules below it. The why of each rule is found above it, and its how is below it. The  game’s objective is its own why. When teaching a game, the standard method is to begin with the game’s objective, and then jump back to the lower level rules and try to build up to the objective from there.

The problem with this approach is that after each rule is explained, the teacher has to constantly jump ahead to why it’s important, and the beginners end up feeling lost and ungrounded, because they don’t understand what the ultimate purpose of all these rules is. They know that the lower level rules relate somehow to the objective, and trust that they are working towards it, but they remain in the dark until the end of the explanation, when everything is pulled together. By that point the teacher often has to begin again, because the beginners start asking clarifying questions, trying to grasp the game as a whole.

In contrast, by starting with the game objective and working down through the hows, beginners are always grounded in the purpose of each rule and what the system looks like as a whole. In my experience, this greatly reduces instruction time and helps players to come up with long-term strategies right out of the gate.

Difficulties

Some games are easier to teach this way than others, due to highly interconnected rules or unorthodox structures. In cases like that I just do the best I can, and try to adhere to the principle of “why first.” With that in mind you can’t go too far off. You’ll want to be saying “Here’s how you’re able to do that…” a lot, rather than, “Here’s why you want to do that…”

Another difficulty is that rule books definitely do not help you out here. Rare is the rule book that give you any kind of strategic advice or explanation as to why you should take a particular action. Most rule books are organized chronologically, which is the direction in which we play, but not the direction in which we learn. This really grinds my gears, and I’ve been thinking about making some videos that explain rules in the proper order.

Let me know what you think. Are there any other methods you’ve found to be useful?