Unsupervised Apprentices is a simple little game I made where you play sorcerous apprentices who can’t quite control your magic. When your wizardly mentor disappears, you probably should find him or her. Or you could just goof off and do all those things you couldn’t get away with while the archmage was around. Either way, the use of magic tends to be entertaining and create interesting complications.
Game Chef ingredients are up, and I’ve been thinking about them for a while. ( http://game-chef.com/ ) I had an idea for a game about druids writing a reality-altering book, but I’m not really very enthused by it. I may return to it later, but right now my brain is more interested in this potential game:
Psychics struggling to maintain control over their personalities.
You were all subjects doing clinical drug trials for an experimental new medicine. But the drug has an unintended side effect: you gain psychic powers. And then the game is all about how the new found psychic cope with their bizarre new powers, while the drug company tries to exploit them. Inspiration here would be Akira and Scanners and Psi-Run and the like. Stories about people who gain new powers and abilities but can’t quite control them.
This plays most strongly off of Absorb and Wild. Your character is made up of a bunch of personality traits and desires and skills and stuff printed on cards. As a psychic, you can move those cards around and change yourself or others. You can absorb someone else’s thoughts or memories. If you push someone’s personality too far, they can go into a wild frenzy and then their psychic powers are going to destroy a bunch of stuff. So characters and personalities are fluid and the character you play at the end probably isn’t the same as when you started. Which parts of your character are their core, that they are unwilling to sacrifice, and which are they willing to change?
Probably the drug was intended to treat sickle-cell anemia (I’ll have to read up on that). There is no book works in the fiction, because there is no available material to deal with the drug’s side effects. Nobody understands the drug or its effects, especially once the psychic powers start to manifest. (In terms of mechanics and presentation, probably the game is made on a few pamphlets made to look like a brochure for a drug company, and a deck of cards for character traits.)
At this point, I’m looking at a GMless game with adversarial PCs, a drafting mechanic for character creation, and GM-like duties and authorities distributed as part of the draft. Probably a randomizerless system, to boot. I’m a bit worried that’s all just my brain being lazy, though. That’s pretty similar to lots of other games I’ve made recently. I might want to change up the mechanical back end there some, just for kicks.
Here’s a thing that I tried in The Devil, John Moulton and Medical Bay Three. Creating a character works like card drafting in 7 Wonders or a booster draft Magic: The Gathering tournament. Each player gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background information on it and some mechanical effect for the game. You look at your hand, choose one card and pass the rest to your left. Then you look at the hand that was handed to you from the right and choose another. Thus, each PC acquires details and information as you go in a semi-random manner. (When you choose between the last two cards, you discard the one you didn’t pick. That way you never are forced to take a card you didn’t choose.)
Why do this? Because it has a few advantages, some of which are obvious and some of which are more subtle.
It solves the blank page problem by providing obvious fictional prompts. You can sit down at the table with no character idea and start receiving cards. As you proceed, you learn about the PC bit by bit and construct an image of him or her in your head. One playtester noted that he rejected later cards based on fictional ideas he had forming based on earlier cards.
It creates characters that are guaranteed to have specific aspects, but are still surprising and interesting. If you put specific details on cards, you can be pretty sure that someone will pick that card sooner or later. If you want a group of noble knight who struggle with temptation, then you might make a quarter of the deck temptations that the knights have to face. And you know that those character elements will appear in the game, but you don’t know for sure what the combinations will be. Characters are made unique by taking two or more cards and explaining how those pieces fit together. The player’s imagination finds ways to fill in the gap between the cards, making each character unique even if each piece of the character isn’t.
Card sets can be manipulated and customized. A GM could reject a card and pull it from the deck if they don’t like it. Good for them. Or an expansion/supplement might add new cards in character creation. Or you could replace the character creation deck with a separate deck entirely to completely rework the game’s initial starting point.
You can control how many people do one particular thing. This could be mechanical matters, such as being the most skilled in swordplay or something. Or it might be a fictional matter: if you only want one heretic cast out from the church in the party, then you only put one such card in the deck. In a superhero game, you could guarantee that each hero has a unique set of powers rather than having two players step on each other’s toes. Or you could have a character aspect be really common: maybe there are seven dwarf cards, and only one exiled princess card.
Cards can hold a bunch of information. Cards in The Devil, John Moulton have a piece of background, a leading question for the player to answer, a suit and a mechanical effect. You could probably increase the information on there if you wanted without problem. Or you might divide the card up between opposing bits of information that you have to choose between by how you orient the card. This much text would be clumsy to work with for dice and lookup tables (Though Fiasco does so pretty well.)
Establishing tone and genre expectations. If you want a very specific kind of background or ability, you can define it on the cards. For The Devil John Moulton, I had a pretty specific idea for what abilities the demons grant the PCs. And a few of the cards provide example of demonic pacts that illustrate the tone and style. Now, even when the players don’t choose the card, they still read it and internalize a bit of what it gets across. If acts as an example of what I’m going for, but in a quiet, seamless manner. After drafting cards, players have to author their own demonic ability, and so far the players have created new abilities that fit the creepy weird vibe the examples showed them. Yet I didn’t have to describe that style or tone to them directly at all.
Secrets are interesting here. If I get a card with a bit of secret information and pass it on, then I’ve still read it. And I know that a PC is likely to have that secret, but not guaranteed (the card might have wound up discarded). So I’ll be looking for the PC who is actually looking to betray us, or being blackmailed or what have you. If you’re making a game about players secrets, then this could be a really interesting and fruitful technique.
You have many options to control how drafting works. Different drafting mechanics will have impacts on the decisions your players have to make. I’ve been working with individual hands for players and hidden decisions. But you could also have all the cards visible to everyone and choices made in public, so that players can use that information to influence their own choices. This could be important if, say, you have a superhero team and want a spread of abilities. You could have specific suits or kinds of cards and demand that each player choose at least one of each. Or not let a player choose more than X number of one kind of card. Or let each player choose one card from the entire deck before drafting begins. Daniel Solis suggests a card game drafting mechanic where each suit of cards is shuffled into a separate deck, which could easily work for games where each suit is race, class, background, superpower, etc. http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/2014/02/solving-design-problems-by-reducing-not.html
Randomness, then player choice, rather than vice versa. The random aspects for the player to make a meaningful choice, instead of the random aspects decreasing the player’s interesting choices.
Scalability. By having a larger or smaller starting hand, you can control the amount of detail a character gets. A simpler, more cartoony game might start with a small hand and broad archetypes on each card. A more finely detailed game might have a much larger hand, and each card gives you a specific skill, feat or special power. My current project ties the cards into Cthulhu Dark based death spirals and die sizes, so the hand size determines campaign length as well.
Players act simultaneously so this phase of character creation goes pretty quickly.
Specific to the game I’m working on, it reinforces themes about difficult choices that you may not ever be happy with. You have to choose one of the cards in your hand, but you don’t get control over what cards are there. So you might have to pick something you wouldn’t go for otherwise. Your character, ultimately, is the result both of choices you controlled and outside forces that you didn’t. Just like real human beings, you don’t decide the hand that life dealt you, but you do get to make some choices about how you deal with that hand. (This may or may not fit the theme of other games, of course.)
Any mechanic or game dynamic will have some limitations and drawbacks, of course. In this case, the system can cause some problems for a player who already has a character concept in mind. Similarly, the thematics of the decision making might not fit a game where it isn’t about making difficult choices in reaction to a world you didn’t create. For certain kinds of power fantasy, the difficult choices might not work well. Also, I haven’t figured out yet a use for the deck once play begins, which is a bit of a flaw. The cards are full of information that only relates during character creation. Possibly if they were labeled with playing card ranks and suits, or Tarot style art then you could reuse them. And selling a roleplaying game with custom cards is probably more difficult than selling a game that just uses regular cards or your standard gamer dice.
I’m sure that there are a host of other problems that other people can see in this idea that I’m failing to notice right now.
One thing I was trying to do when making Medical Bay Three was to make it a game where the player didn’t have to know anything about being a doctor to play a doctor in the game. Everything you need to know is on the patient’s chart: it lists a variety of diseases common to that alien species, and connects them to symptoms. But most symptoms connect to multiple diseases, so you have to investigate and rule out possibilities and try stuff to figure out what is actually going on.
This is largely inspired by the brilliant Quade diagram used in Robin Laws’s underrated game Mutant City Blues. In that game, you’re cops in a world full of X-men style mutants. So to solve a crime, you have to know a lot about how superpowers work in the setting. And the game externalizes that into the Quade diagram, which connects superpowers (and a few other details about the mutant) in a systematic way. So a superpower might be linked to genetic albinoism. So if you find evidence of that superpower in a crime scene, then you start looking for albinos in the supporting cast, as they’re more likely to be the culprit. Or if you see evidence of two powers on the opposite sides of the diagram, you’re more likely dealing with two perps than one.
Both of these diagrams let the player explore a series of interconnected abstract ideas, and make meaningful decisions about them, all in a controlled fashion. For Medical Bay Three, my players were looking at symptoms and identifying them and crossing them off and trying to isolate the disease’s cause to specific parts of the chart. The organizations meant that they could make meaningful, informed decisions about the subject matter. If they hadn’t had the chart, the information would have been loose and harder for them to integrate into knowledge that they could use to make meaningful decisions.
By ‘meaningful decisions’ I mean that the player has a choice that they can make, which has observable consequences and that they can predict some (but not necessarily all) of the consequences of the decisions. Ideally, your game provides the player with meaningful decisions rather than meaningless ones. (A meaningless decision would either have no notable consequences, or the consequences are completely unknowable. These aren’t really fun to have in play.)
Relationship maps can facilitate meaningful decisions as well, letting a player know at a glance how PCs and NPCs relate to one another and therefore what the consequences of an interpersonal interaction might be. Neel Krishnaswami (one of the smartest guys I’ve ever gamed with) wrote a really good article a decade ago about using causality diagrams to model science fiction technology. (See it here: web.archive.org/web/20040715080350/http://www.chimera.info/daedalus/downloads/daedalus-winter2004.pdf#86 ) I’ve used that technique in the past in larps to let people interact with and sabotage science fiction technologies with semi-predictable results. Once again, these diagrams clarify the cause and effect relationships in a system so that the player can (at least partially) predict outcomes of their decisions. The diagrams help the player make meaningful decisions.
Ultimately, well designed dungeons work like this as well. The idea of a dungeon, after all, is to take this whole complicated, messy fantasy genre and condense it down to a series of concrete, discrete and meaningful decisions. Do you sneak past the goblin guards (and risk being surrounded on all sides when the alarm is raised) or do you kill them (and risk the noise of battle alerting the other monsters)? Do you head down the stairs covered in slime (which suggests a nasty tentacled monster below) or into the hall full of statues (Medusa? Gargoyles? Basilisk? Golems?)? Do you keep pressing into the dungeon, or retreat to camp outside or risk camping out inside an apparently safe room? The dungeon setup of corridors and rooms and monster encounters and such allows the player to make meaningful decisions about exploration and logistics and such. (This is, incidentally, why I think dungeon crawls are better if the PCs get a map of the dungeon ahead of time. Preferably an incomplete or untrustworthy map. More meaningful decisions that way.) Battlemats do the same for combat situations: the idea is to make the amorphous, ambiguous imaginary fight scene into a place where players can make meaningful decisions about positioning and tactics.
Having a diagram lets you make similar sorts of decisions, but about less concrete matters. A diagram might link together symptoms and diseases, or clues relating to the perpetrator, or how a machine operates, or any number of other bits of knowledge. And by laying it out there in front of the players, they can take those connections and relations and make more meaningful decisions about it.
“Four years of pre-med, four years of medical school, one year of residency, years of professional experience back on Earth and all the memory downloads about extraterrestrial culture have all taught you this: you don’t know anything about what you’re doing. Not here, anyway. On the Sphere, everything is weird and different.
The Sphere is one of the wonders of the galaxy, an enormous construct of unknown material, built centuries ago by an unknown race to draw power from the black hole V616 Monocerotis. No one knows what the Sphere does with all the energy is draws from the hole, but sentients have managed to syphon off some for their own use on the surface of the Sphere. Now, sentient spacefaring races use it as neutral territory, a place where sentients of all species can meet as equals and trade ideas and goods and negotiate contracts and treaties. The sphere swarms with more races than you can count, each stranger than the last.
Each race with a major presence on the Sphere handles its own medical care, but many races from further away have only a minor foothold on the Sphere. For these races, they have to go to what doctors they can. Which is where you come in: you’re a doctor in Medical Bay Three, the insane ward. Medical Bays One and Two are ﬁlled with humans from the human contingent to the Sphere. Bay Three handles all the nonhumans that enter the human areas, seeking medical assistance. Every week, you’re treating some new species that you’ve never heard of. You have to ﬁ gure out what is normal for this race, what is wrong with this speciﬁc patient and how to treat them. Treating these patients is as much about being a detective as it is about being a doctor.”
I wound up writing a game for Game Chef 2003, only 11 years late. It’s a science fiction medical drama game, inspired by Gumshoe, wherein you investigate an extraterrestrial’s biology to try to figure out how they are supposed to work, what is wrong and how to treat them without killing them or provoking an interstellar war.
I wanted to play Over the Edge, but I can’t stop tinkering with the mechanics of the game. So I combined Over the Edge and World of Dungeons to make my quick and dirty Over the Edge/World of Dungeons hack. It works like this:
PCs have the same traits as normal a normal Over the Edge character, with one central trait and two side traits and a flaw and such. But instead of multiple d6s, traits give you larger sized dice to roll. A superior trait gives you a d10, any regular trait gives you a d8. Narrow traits bump those dice up, giving you a d12 if superior or a d10 if not.
When you roll, you’re rolling against the standard AW derived 2d6 bell curve: 1-6 fail, 7-9 partial success, 10-11 full success and 12+ Critical success system as in WoDu. If one or more traits are applicable, you can replace one or both your 2d6 with the die listed on the trait. So if you have ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ at 1d8 and someone attacks you, you roll 1d6+1d8 and check them against the results table. If you’re also fighting a demon in human form, you could use ‘Parapsychology Student’ and ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ both to roll 1d8+1d8. Your flaw turns a full success into partial success: you can succeed, but it will never be clean or pretty.
Any failure gets you an experience token. Experience tokens can be traded in to add +1 to your roll after seeing the results. A critical success also gives an experience token.
When you’re hurt, you cross off your top (critical) result first. So thereafter, all critical die results are treated as a normal success. Later injuries continue to remove your highest available level of success (regular successes become partial successes, eventually partial successes are failures… or maybe just partial failures?) Particularly deadly harm might cause multiple injuries at once, though I’d let a PC roll some trait like ‘Sturdy as a House’ to reduce that damage. Medical care care restore some or all of that with a decent first aid roll and/or bed care, depending on the injury.
See some pregen characters as well. I’me most pleased with the house that took human form and the voodoo economist.
I made an update to my old nameless horror game. In the process, I expanded the rules several times over. But it plays much better now!
I haven’t substantially changed the oracle deck, so that’s still cool to use.