Archive for Ideas

Game Chef ingredients are up, and I’ve been thinking about them for a while. ( ) 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.

Card drafting for character creation

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.

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.

Diagrams are like dungeons built out of abstract concepts.

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: ) 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.

Operation CD Kingfisher-3

Operation CD-Kingfisher-3 is my entry into the annual One Page Dungeon Contest for 2013. It is a system free espionage adventure. It would probably work great in World of Secrets.

[Serpent’s Nest] Consulting the Oracles

Much of the game is built out of iterating a specific set of actions: One player draws a card from a deck of Tarot cards and asks a question. That player picks two players to offer interpretations of the card and how it applies to the current situation. Then the asking player picks one interpretation to be true. (I’ve used this in a couple recent projects, and I continue to be pleased with the results.)

This happens frequently in the game, and I’m getting tired of typing out the instructions every time. Though I’m wary of adding unnecessary terminology to the game, this seems like a good time to make a term for the interpretation protocol. At the moment, I’m calling it “Consulting the Oracles”. Then I can just write “when you go to do X, draw a card and consult the oracles…” or the like.

[Serpent’s Nest] Morality and reality are one and the same

I was idly thinking about how Planescape had towns that could get sucked through from one plane to another if they became too lawful or evil or something. While doing so, I came up with an alternate setup for Serpent’s Nest that does sort of the same thing, without the predefined moral alignments of Planescape’s Great Wheel. It’s not exactly the same, but it gets a similar feel and makes moality and belief a real and relevant part of the game. Here’s the rough plan:

A Realm has Principles. A Principle is a statement about how life works or about how morality works. You might have “The ends justify the means” or you might have “life is made out of cages that we’re all trapped in. The lucky ones just get to choose or make prettier cages for themselves.” These Principles are the core of your Realm. The rest of the Realm is just a reflection of an a physical manifestation of these abstract moral Principles.

(The GM’s job is to make these principles true. When introducing a new NPC or detail of the Realm, identify one or more Principles that they represent. When players act, use the Principles to determine the results of those actions.)

More example Principles:
-Nobody likes their job, but they do it anyway.
-Slow and steady beats quick and careless every time.
-No pain, no gain.
-Luck rather than hard work determines your success.
-Beauty is truth and truth is beauty.
-If you serve a master, then you’ll never get what you want, just what he wants.
-Nobody in this world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful.
-Hard work and dedication will be rewarded in the end.
-Everybody lies, but the wise man knows that everybody lies.
-The moment you’re born you start dying, so you might as well have a good time.

It’s quite possible that a Realm will have two or more Principles that disagree with one another. A realm with conflicting Principles will probably be chaotic and unpredictable. Different parts of the Realm might be in conflict or opposed to other parts of the Realm.

Principles and Realm Creation:
Everyone (GM and players? Just players, not the GM?): Draw a card (two?) and interpret it to make a principle. Look at the card’s imagery, title and prescribed meaning. Come up with a way that card is represented in your moral or ontological statement. (If you need, you can always ask other players for ideas, but this Principle is ultimately your responsibility.)

Then each player defines how that Principle is made concrete and mythical. Each principle will have obvious, magical manifestations throughout the Realm. Write down one now for your Principle now (more will be defined as we play). If you have a principle about hard work, define who does the hard work or what sort of fantasy labors they perform. If your Principle is about how the real currency of the world is secrets and knowledge, maybe you define something about how the Spymaster knows how to crystalize secrets into solid tears, and so that is used as money throughout the Realm. Make sure that your fact doesn’t directly contradict someone else’s, or work out how those two facts fit together. Maybe both are partially true, or maybe each is true in a different part of the Realm. (Eg., if your Principle is that the Realm floats high over the clouds while another player’s is that the Realm is always overcast, perhaps the realm floats through the cloud banks. Or maybe the Realm floats on a cloud, and the poor and oppressed live on a series of platforms underneath, and so never see the sunlight directly.)

These Principles lead into constituencies: each constituency is representative of two Principles. (Possibly, these two Principles replace the dramatic poles of standard Dramasystem. Details still to be worked out.) Then we define what each constituency wants to change, and another constituency declares why they can’t possibly allow that change to occur, and we go from there.

Principles act also as the determiner for popular opinion in the Realm. Whenever you have a public referendum (like when you go to vote to change reality), each Principle adds votes in favor or opposed to the referendum, based on whether the proposed bill fits with the Principle’s overall ethos. (The GM determines this.) Principles can be changed, by having the Council (the PC statesmen) take it to a vote, but every Principle opposes its own changing. (The GM should evaluate the votes based on the principles, not simple on trying to influence the vote result. This might be a sticking point here.)

When you change Principles, you shift your Realm’s place in the multiverse. Each Realm connects to a few other Realms via planar portals. You only can change connections between your plane and neighboring planes by rewriting a principle. So many planes remain neighbors to planes they hate because both are too stubborn to relocate.

It’s unpredictable what planar connection will change when you rewrite a Principle, too. No sage can predict what portal will be severed when the principle is struck down, nor can they predict what plane will find new connections to your Realm when a new Principle is put in place. In play, this means that when a Principle is changed, the player(s) that voted against the change get to choose one planar portal and replace it with a new planar connection. They pick which connection to a neighboring plane is now severed, and they pick a new plane to be connected to the Realm. (If all the PCs voted for the change, the GM handles this change.) This is in addition to the standard rule of Unintended Consequences (see elsewhere).

NaGaDeMon, Serpent’s Nest, and the Citadel of Former Flame

I haven’t made any progress on the game for a week. I was busy last weekend with running Games on Demand for Gaspcon. And I’ve been sick for several days. But I’m getting back to working on the game. Will it be done in November for NaGaDeMon? I can’t guarantee that. Still, work continues.

Current thinking is that the core gameplay might be a hack of Hillfolk/Dramasystem. Partly, this is because I had a really quite successful game of Hillfolk while at Gaspcon. But also I think the essential gameplay of Dramasystem fits pretty well for what I’d like out of the game; with different people wanting differing things for the Realm, and with the drama token economy and that.

I might change a fair amount of the procedural rules for Dramasystem. I figure I’ll reincorporate some of the Ganakagok tarot cards stuff I was planning to use, replace the action resolution with that and use it to make the drama tokens more important in the overall gameplay. Details still need worked out there.

Occasionally, I write up weird bits of setting, though, which hopefully will be of some use to the game.

The Citadel of Former Flame
This plane is the afterlife of flame. Didn’t you realize that flames had souls? Fire is a living thing, too, and the Phoenix Queen’s Realm is where fire goes when it dies. This smoky realm is populated by ashen husks of former flames that give off no heat or light. In fact, the only light or warmth in the entire Realm come from the Phoenix Queen herself. No other flames can burn in this Realm. The queen, meanwhile, burns brightly in her palace. An ingenious series of tubes channels her light and warmth into nearby homes. The lower classes live further from the Citadel and receive less of the Queen’s warmth. Far from the palace, the Realm is dark and smoky and always bitter cold.

Scholars of the planes claim that anything destroyed by flame is reformed in the Citadel of Former Flame. When a flame is extinguished, it appears in its afterlife here with any items it destroyed in its possession. (This is why fire so hungrily consumes all it can, you see.) But the Phoenix Queen claims these as her own, as payment for remaining in her Realm. Somewhere in the enormous and mazelike Citadel, then, must be a vast storehouse of wealth thought lost to fire’s destruction.

Once every thousand years, the Phoenix Queen travels to the mortal world and builds a nest of pure cinnamon in which to die and be reborn in flames. For an entire year, the Citadel is plunged into Wintersnight, a terrible period of deepest blackness and crushing cold. Wintersnight has just ended once more, and while the Phoenix Queen waited to hatch from the egg of her own creation, something was stolen from her hoard. Rumors abound as to what was taken, but no two taletellers agree on what wonder was taken. All rumors agree, though, that the Phoenix Queen blames our neighboring Realm for this theft. The Phoenix Queen, like many others, equates a deity-less Realm with a lawless one, and so naturally assume the thieves are to be found here.

Questions about the Citadel of Former Flame:
-What evidence does the Phoenix Queen have that someone from our Realm stole the items from her hoard?
-What is the most valuable item from our Realm ever to be destroyed by fire?
-Why did the Phoenix Queen rejoice over Nilakanta’s downfall, but then regret her rejoicing?
-Which constituents of our Realm have been illegally channeling the Phoenix Queen’s light and heat into our own Realm?
-What assistance did our citizens provide to the inhabitants of the Citadel to survive the deathly cold of Wintersnight?

Whittling back towards minimalism

I had brief plans for a complicated token economy for my NaGaDeMon game. (The game which still needs a title. Titles are hard.) You’d earn tokens when you proposed how things would turn out but someone chose a different path, then you’d spend those tokens on all sorts of things. Getting more votes, bribing other players, controlling NPCs.

The system had one or two fixable flaws. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the token economy was the wrong fit for this game. Gaining tokens would overpower the core storytelling aspects of the system, I fear, and mechanize too much of the game.

So I scrapped it. Paring the game back to the minimum it takes to get it to work. Build a bit onto the core mechanic, look at it, whittle some or all of it off. Repeat until you have a game.

(So I’ve only managed to write down some purely optional setting material, which is very nice but probably needs trimmed down in size. Eventually actual rules text should hit the word processor.)

NaGaDeMon Game First Thoughts

I have a lot of random ideas for games to make for NaGaDeMon. I might very well try to make something else instead. But here is my initial plan for what to work on: an urban weird fantasy game about democracy, urban politics and the ability to rewrite the laws of physics by majority rule.

There are innumerable planes of existence out there. Each is ruled by a god or a few gods. Some planes are huge. Some are the size of a small cottage. In these realms, the god’s word is the only true law of physics. Rain falls because the rulers have decided that it should fall. At least, it does in the realms where it rains. In some realms, it rains butter or flowers or cats and dogs. Or rain goes upwards. Or it is never raining at all. Anything is possible, but it is all dependent on the will of the god in charge.

You live in one of the few without a god. A decade ago, a revolution overthrew your realm’s god. Now it is being run by a loose democracy. The city government has complete control over everything. If a majority of representatives decide to abolish gravity, it is gone. But will the citizens reelect the guy who made them float everywhere?

The PCs are the legislative council, trying to benefit their constituencies and keep the city under control and happy and keep the neighboring realms from invading. Benefitting your own constituents generally means hurting another constituency.

I’m trying to get at the bits I like most from Nobilis (group setting creation, politicking, making decisions about how to best change the world and then dealing with the consequences), but without needing a colossally skilled GM to make it work properly. Also, getting some of the cool fantasy flavor of Planescape, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, or the writings of Jorge Luis Borges or Lord Dunsany.

The rules will be loosely based on stuff I developed for House of Masks and my recent nameless horror game. They’ll probably be tweaked and reworked a bit to make it sing in this context. A few new mechanical bits might get added in, but not much. (Possibly, some Nomic style rules to rewrite the game’s rules as you play.)

I think this will all come together. We’ll see, though.

Idiot Ball

Here’s a little idea I had while browsing over the TV Tropes wiki: Idiot ball.

So you have a game with a bunch of PCs who all want different things. Sitcoms or cartoons or the like give you a host of characters who are sometimes in conflict but sometimes working together toward some other goal.

But there’s always at least one person acting like an idiot. That’s where the situation comedy comes from, right? As Hank Azaria said “Who’s carrying the idiot ball this week?”

Everyone has a PC. Define what thing you want from someone else. They describe why you can’t have it.

Also define for your PC an example of how or why they might act like an idiot. “Doesn’t understand modern machinery” “Always acts like an idiot around pretty girls” “Always showing off for his drunk buddies”, whatever.

Somebody starts with a card that says “The Idiot Ball” on it. While a player holds the Idiot Ball card, anyone can describe their PC doing something boneheadedly stupid. Misunderstanding simple instructions. Leaving your demon possessed brother unattended in a motel room. Getting lost despite the fact that you just spent hours building a detailed map of the cave complex using robot drones. Petting the hideous space monster that is clearly trying to avoid contact with you. You know, the sorts of dumb things characters do in movies and TV all the time.

When they describe your character doing something dumb, they then take the card from you. Now they’re carrying the idiot ball, and anybody can screw over their character, just the same as that guy just did to your character.

For largeish groups (5+?) add a second idiot ball. Or start juggling more balls, each themed at a different sort of flaw: the Disadvantaged Ball (whoever holds this can automatically loses any fights or conflicts they get involved in), the Coward Ball, the Insanity Ball, the Treason Ball (for Paranoia and other games about suspicion) or the Suspect Ball (for murder mysteries).