"Solo: A Star Wars Story" and the Expanded Universe
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Before we get too far: This is not a review of Solo, and there will absolutely be spoilers ahead. I'll see how far I can get before they come up, and there will be a clear indication for when they're about to start, but you should know that they absolutely will be here.

What follows is kind of a rant, and I apologize in advance.  


Solo, much like Rogue One before it, is an ambitious attempt at smoothing the harsh cut between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Both movies come in the still-undulating wake of Disney cutting ties to all "unofficial" Star Wars content, and replacing it with their own. Rather than allowing the public (and a good helping of professional writers, artists, developers, and filmmakers) fill in the gaps left by the main Saga, Disney opted to do the work themselves, seizing empiric control over what's known as the "Star Wars Expanded Universe". Everything created before that point was de-canonized, and rebranded as "Star Wars Legends", which is a polite way of saying that it was taken out back and shot. Star Wars fans have plenty of feelings about that move, and I won't go into detail about them here. Largely, the consensus is that "Star Wars is over" and the series has been thoroughly ruined by corporate greed. 

I... only sort of agree with that. 

Star Wars is kind of a tough nut to crack. The “main” story (which I consider to be episodes 4 through 6) adheres so strictly to the Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s quest, that its ending does feel pretty complete. The evil is vanquished, the student has become the master, the scamp gets the girl, and so forth. There isn’t much left to tell there that wouldn’t somehow re-trod that same ground. As a result of this, everything that has been added to the “main” saga has felt relatively tacked-on. 

And I don’t mean offense by that— The Force Awakens is a wonderful movie, and even The Phantom Menace still has a place in my heart. But, realistically, they don’t do much to affect the universe set by the original trilogy. The thing that makes these additions interesting is how they introduce settings, and fill them with characters and details that bring the world to life. 

As a young teen, some of my favorite books were the Star Wars Encyclopedias, a Scholastic Books product that tried its best to make the franchise feel educational somehow. There was an encyclopedia for each movie, and they went into the smallest details about every character, prop, and concept contained therein. I would spend hours learning about the various lightsaber stances taught by the Jedi, the ingredients of a death stick, the different species of flora and fauna native to Naboo, and so forth. It was the density of these details that brought the universe to life for me, and kept me interested despite the lackluster story of the prequel trilogy.

It's the same density of detail that interested hundreds and thousands of authors to write their own stories set in the universe, adding all sorts of flavor to the existing universe. This is how we got stories like the daily lives of Stormtroopers, the interpersonal drama of moisture farmers, the last thoughts of a Rebel pilot. This is also how we got Admiral Thrawn, who I guess is coming back into the canon now, which I'll have to learn more about.

These stories, while they often referenced events of the original trilogy, existed firmly outside of them. They added detail and filled in the gaps and allowed us to better imagine ourselves in the world where the force is real, beat-up X-wings zip across sandy dunes, and we really can be anything we want to be. The main story and characters were still there, and we could appreciate them from a distance, but these stories preferred to get lost in the weeds and explore on their own. 

It's understandable why so many people are angry about Disney deeming these stories as "non-canon". They were, for lack of a better analogy, the New Testament for Star Wars fans-- a message meant for everyone, inviting each person to a galaxy far, far away. Then, to add insult to injury, they've started creating their own offshoots and expanded universe content? Of course fans are angry, I think that's natural. 

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But I don't think that this means that Star Wars is over.  

For starters, they can never take my Expanded Universe from me. I will cherish every moment spent imagining alternative Jedi weaponry, or the obscure games played in back-alley casinos. I personally triple-dog-dare George Lucas to come to my house and take my copy of the Christmas Special. Also there is nothing anyone can do to erase my battle droid fan fiction. Nothing

But more than that, this effort to re-do the Expanded Universe reflects, I think, a recognition that people want to see what's at the edges of this world. As a Disney subsidiary, Lucasfilm gets to create these side-stories with an actual budget, and we get to vote with our dollars regarding what we do and don't want to see more of.

It also means that the side-stories are all managed from one place. While this can contribute to the feeling of corporatization that so many complain about, it also means that these stories exist in the same universe in a more tangible way, which is where Solo really shines.

If you want my opinion, this isn't the end of Star Wars. This is the start of something new.


OKAY, SPOILERS FOR SOLO AHEAD. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK, YOU SCRUFFY-LOOKING NERF HERDERS. 


I'll start with the one thing I thought was weird: the dice. So prominently were they featured in the first act of the movie, I think Lucasfilm realized that no one knew what the hell they were in The Last Jedi, and had Ron Howard film them from every conceivable angle. 

Okay, now for what I liked:

Qi'ra

Qi'ra

But not for the reasons you think. Sure, it was nice that we get to see Han in a relationship before Leia (because of course he was), but more important: we get to see what Han could have become. Qi'ra, a fellow runaway indentured to Lady Proxima, moves from position of servitude to position of servitude, patiently biding her time until an opportunity presents itself. When she finally gets out from under Dryden Vos' thumb, she absolutely could have gone with Han and maybe have been happy leading that life. But she knows too much, and she knows that going with Han is not the safe play here. No matter where she goes, she knows that she will continue to be either beholden to someone, or hunted by them. "Everyone serves someone", she tells Han early on, and she lives by that. She knows that the safe play here is to lean into the Crimson Dawn, and usurp Vos as an information broker. While she's still serving someone (who I'll talk about later), this position affords her a degree of security. For Mass Effect fans, this gave me similar vibes to the Shadow Broker storyline, which I loved. 

I also love that storyline because it gives us a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of Star Wars that actually does something. In A New Hope we see Mos Eisley, the wretched hive of scum and villainy, but nobody there is doing anything particularly scummy or villainous. Save for an infamous blaster duel, the cantina reads very similarly to an Elks lodge, and doesn't pose the same threat that the setup tries to give it. It's refreshing to know that crime is a real industry in this world, and has real teeth to watch out for. 

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L3-37

A lot of people will list L3 among the best characters of the year, and with good reason. She's funny, poignant, and introduces the idea of human/droid sex into the Star Wars universe.

But she also raises questions that are important to the Star Wars universe, specifically about robot sentience. This is something that is in the cultural zeitgeist lately, with shows like Westworld and games like Detroit: Become Human and Nier: Automata taking center stage. Up until now in the Star Wars universe, while droids have often been a favorite character, they have been firmly placed in an "other" category. "We don't serve their kind here," is a line that rings true with too many people, and not much is done to rectify it. Rather than stand up for his friends who changed (and effectively saved) his life, Luke asks C-3PO and R2-D2 to wait outside. 

In Solo, L3 serves as the droid Spartacus, and in addition to actually leading a droid rebellion, shows us in a mechanical sense how many of the beings that we see in the background are being controlled. She demonstrates several times that when that control is removed, many droids would rather be doing something else. As a series that is finally starting to put women and people of color into positions of power, it's good to see this equality begin to extend to all sentience. 

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Enfys Nest

The thing that I appreciate most about Enfys Nest is that not much is explained. We get bits and pieces of backstory (their mother wore the mask previously, for example), and a demonstration of what the so-called marauders are capable of, but the film doesn't go too deep into any one thing. We could have gotten so many things-- the origin of the mask, the location of their home planet, the technology powering their unique hover-cycles, and so forth. But we don't, because it's not important. 

What is important is what Enfys Nest represents. At the end of the film, Enfys tries to recruit Han to join... something. Something new, something big, something that doesn't have a name yet. It's a chance, a hope, a rebellion. While that last word they use will either delight or frustrate you, it reminds us that there is an optimism in this world still. After a whole movie where actions are motivated by a need for survival, and each success is met with a betrayal, this optimism is a welcome presence. It reminds us that in the face of hardship, we do not always need to become cold or harsh, or attempt to run away from our problems. We can always choose to lean in, to run towards danger with a smile on our face and our friends at our side.

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The Name

This is a quick one: I love how they named him Solo. It brings up so many more questions about the naming schemes in the Empire. Is this a John Snow situation, where all nameless bastards are given a common last name? Are there other Solos out there? If Han had a twin, would he be Han Duo?

 
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Darth Maul

This is the last one, both because I've written a lot (too much?) already, and this is my main point: the introduction of Darth Maul at the end of the movie represents Disney/Lucasfilms commitment to the promise that they are creating their own Extended Universe. 

While I haven't yet watched Star Wars Rebels, I'm sure as hell going to now. In animated the series, now the only canonical TV show in the Star Wars universe, it's revealed that Darth Maul survived his fight with Obi-wan in The Phantom Menace. He returns, a bit worse for wear, with robot legs and a new lightsaber, fashioned from the parts of new weaponry introduced in the show. 

That same Maul, those same legs, that same saber, appear in Solo. The events of a television show, which existed pretty much entirely outside of the main arc of the Star Wars saga, have directly affected a plot point in a Star Wars motion picture. Whether or not they'll go anywhere with it, I guess that remains to be seen. I hope they do, even in small ways. Maybe Qi'ra makes an appearance in Rebels? Again, I haven't seen the show yet, I'm not sure. But what this proves is that the relationship of Star Wars movies to other media is no longer a one-way street, and what happens in the other properties can (and should) have an effect on what we see on the big screen. 

Up until now, we've only seen shows, comic books, video games, and so forth, based on the Star Wars movies. Solo represents a significant change in the other direction. Moving forward, who knows what we'll see? Movies based on the video games? The conclusions of plot points started in the comic books? 

If Solo works-- not just for us, but also financially for Lucasfilm and Disney-- it can represent a huge opportunity for the franchise, and for the creators who love it. The Expanded Universe may be dead, but its spirit lives on in this gesture. Ideas can come from anywhere, and the canon has more than enough room to expand.

Star Wars isn't over. Star Wars is just getting started. 

Fixing Low-Level Combat in D&D

Edit (May 2, 2019): Nearly a year later, this is somehow the most popular thing I’ve ever written. If you use this method in your game, can you do me a favor and drop a comment below to let me know how it went?


The 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very up-front about what it is.

The game rests, as it states in the first chapter of the Player’s Handbook, on three pillars of gameplay: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. This simplicity helps keep the game and its players focused, aligned, and (for the most part) friendly. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that one of the pillars— Combat— is terrible.

I say this fully cognisant that it may be an unpopular opinion, so let me qualify it a bit: combat beyond 5th level, or Combat between player characters, can be incredibly rewarding. It’s at those points in the game where you can most accurately weigh the pros and cons of each action, and there is enough variety of available actions to provide actual depth and choice to each round. It’s the getting to that point that I can’t stand.

For example: most new parties of first or first-ish level will likely be introduced to fifth edition through a pre-written campaign like Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This is a perfectly fine set of adventures, and was my own introduction into the new rule set. The first set of combat encounters here primarily involve kobolds, which players will recognise as the bread and butter of the dungeon crawl.

For the uninitiated: kobolds are small, lizard-like creatures, famous for their cowardice and lack of combat prowess. Dungeon masters throw them at players like pretzels on the route from first to third level.

In the fiction, kobolds make a great choice for the start of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. They create an interesting plot that leads players on the path towards a cult of Tiamat-worshippers and a veritable sample platter of tasks that are typical for an adventuring party. I’m not here to complain specifically about kobolds.

But, since you insisted, I will.


Brief tangent warning!

Kobolds are the prime example of low-level combat that sets a false expectation for players and Dungeon Masters alike, specifically for maths reasons. This is supremely uninteresting to anyone but me. To begin, standard Monster Manual kobolds have an Armour Class of 12, and their winged cousins have 13. For the standard first-level adventurer with a Strength or Dexterity modifier between 1 and 3, you would need to roll an average of 10 or better to land a hit. On a 20-sided die, this gives players about a 50/50 chance to hit one kobold per round.

Then, consider the basic attacks given to kobolds in the Monster Manual: unless the DM decides to change something, they are given a dagger that does 1d4 + 2 damage, with a +4 bonus to hit.

+4!

Unless a DM hands out the more expensive armour at first level, the average player’s Armour Class sits at around 14. This puts the odds of a kobold hitting a player dead even with the odds of being hit themselves. While this may sound completely fair at first, let’s move finally to the kobold’s Challenge Rating. A challenge rating tells the Dungeon Master how difficult a particular monster is, and typically you’ll want to match the CR to the average level of the party (the book assumes four players in a party). The kobold has a CR of 1/8, meaning that an appropriate number of kobolds to throw at a party of first-level adventurers is EIGHT.


From that, let’s build a scenario: a first-level fighter, rogue, wizard, and cleric, walk into a tavern. For some inexplicable reason, the only other occupants of the tavern are eight hungry kobolds. Everyone rolls for initiative, and each adventurer squares off against two kobolds.

The Kobold Dilemma

The fighter goes first, and thanks to the 50/50 chance I mentioned earlier, they all but flip a coin to see if they can hit one of their two opponents.

For the sake of argument (and as a demonstration of how my luck goes), let’s assume they miss. The two kobolds then each take a swing at the fighter, again with the coin flip’s odds. The kobolds now have twice as many chances to hit the fighter as the fighter did to hit them. It doesn’t even matter at this point whether they hit or not, because until one of them is eliminated, the statistical imbalance remains.

This pattern continues with the rest of the party, though the others may not fair as well. The wizard, while she may be able to keep a distance at first and fire off a Magic Missile, will suffer from a lower AC than the fighter, further tipping the odds in the kobolds’ favour. 

Of all of the players in this scenario, the cleric may actually fair the best; they have access to decent AC, average strength, and healing spells. However, having only one action per turn, they would have to completely sacrifice their chance at hitting a kobold in order to heal members of their party. Even incredibly kind DMs wouldn’t pass up that opportunity to have the kobolds gang up on a party member (remember kids, always kill the healer first).

Finally, after all of the players and their respective kobolds have taken a turn, we circle back around to the fighter, who has not yet done anything useful in this combat. For anyone who has twiddled their thumbs for fifteen minutes while seven characters take their sweet time failing to hit each other, you know this feeling.

This brings me out of my first point:

I really hate kobolds

and onto my second:

Missing in combat feels bad, and it shouldn’t.

As it stands, missing in combat is essentially your cue to get up, get a snack, maybe use the restroom, and browse twitter for a bit. When you roll to swing your sword, preparing for the ecstasy of seeing a monster cleft in twain, missing that roll completely ceases the flow of combat. It is literally saying, “nothing happens, and your turn is now over.”

If you got into D&D to experience the escapist fantasy of being a capable adventurer in a high-fantasy world, this mechanic quickly whittles away at that ideal. I already have a hard enough time liking myself despite my stupid mistakes, I certainly don’t want to find myself feeling that way about a half-orc barbarian pirate that I’m trying to personify. Remember, Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be a fun activity. I don’t know about you, but I would rather try and avoid that kind of existential dilemma if at all possible.

My main issue with missing attacks in low-level combat is that it fully breaks the illusion, and feels neither fair to the player, nor true to the fiction. This is not to say that missing an attack does not happen in combat— it certainly does! However, the context of that miss is important.


Tricks vs. Skill

In high school, I was part of a fencing club. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible either.

Largely, I attribute not being terrible to being left-handed, which gives you a sort of built-in advantage unless your opponent has a lot of experience fencing lefties, or is also left-handed, creating a sort of reverse-Princess Bride scenario.

My level of actual skill with the sword was fairly median, and once you figured out the one or two tricks I had in my back pocket, I became a middling-to-low-level opponent. Experienced fencers could not only pick up on this tricks, but had significantly more of their own. While they still fence within the rules of of the sport, the patterns that experienced fencers follow vary such that it becomes increasingly difficult to predict their line of attack, making each one more difficult to avoid.

At higher levels of D&D, combat can be very well suited to match that feeling, and missing a roll can play an important part in the fiction: though your aim may be true, your opponent is able to parry it away at the last second. Though you have prepared for the worst, they outsmarted you for a moment, but you can get them next time. It can feel very much like a real sword fight, with a back-and-forth leading to a worthwhile conclusion.

By contrast, Kobolds don’t even know what a parry is, much less how to perform one consistently.

So how do we fix this?

Using my narrow scope of frustration, one might be tempted to say “let’s just nerf kobolds”. But the problem extends beyond a singular monster. The root of this issue, the reason why missing an attack roll feels bad, is this:

What are we meant to gain from combat?

At early levels, the goal of combat against low-level creatures (such as kobolds, but also goblins or simple beasts) is simply to gain experience. With experience, you’ll level up, and eventually this will get interesting.

The trouble with this is that it takes time for experience to accumulate, and early levels may not give you the benefits necessary to ease the pain of missing an attack roll in combat. At best, you have something like the Fighter, which gains Action Surge at second level. This gives you one extra attack, once per rest, which... kind of helps? It feels like a waste to spend that move on a kobold, and waiting for a rest can feel like forever.

Plus, second level requires 300 experience points. That’s twelve kobolds that a character would have to take down by themselves, unless the DM gives out lots of non-combat experience. That’s like flipping a coin once every fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, until twelve of them come up heads. All for a reward that lets you flip twice one of those times.

What we want here is a way to reward the intelligence, experience, and dynamics of the character, relative to that of the monster they are fighting. While it’s appropriate for a fighter to square off against a bandit or lizardfolk of similar intelligence, it just doesn’t make sense for them to have the same experience when facing off against a lowly kobold or a goblin, at least after the first encounter or two.

My proposal to fix this requires a bit of dedication, and is best started at first level. If you’ve made it this far, I think you’ll be okay.


Combat Intelligence

On the back of your character sheet, write down your Intelligence score.

Below that, make a simple two-column table. Label the left column “Name” and the right column “Experience”.

When you encounter a creature in combat, add its name to the “Name” column, if it’s not there already. When you declare an attack against that creature— regardless of the attack’s success— mark a tally in the “Experience” column next the the creature’s name. The represents what you have learned about this creature’s fighting style, strengths and weaknesses, and general patterns.

If your Intelligence score plus your Experience with a creature exceeds that creature’s Intelligence score, you do not need to roll when declaring an attack. Thanks to your experience and careful study of the creature, you have learned how to consistently defeat it in fair combat.

Using this mechanic, every attack, even a miss, represents a tiny bit of progress. Even for that fighter who missed the first attack, and now has to wait twenty minutes for their turn again, that miss didn’t make them completely useless, and they’ll come back stronger for it.

While for some players and some creatures, this means that after one attack (even a miss!) you will be able to land hits each time, that makes sense in the fiction for some characters.

Are you a highly intelligent rogue or ranger who has spent time studying the combat styles of a particular creature? It makes sense that you would quickly find a way to counter that style.

Conversely, if you’re a big, low-INT barbarian stomping around, it may take you a bit longer to really get the feel for fighting some monsters, but your brute strength will get you there eventually.

Additionally, as you face higher-level monsters with higher intelligence scores, this will become a steadily more difficult feat to accomplish. While you may learn a little about how a vampire fights in a couple rounds of combat, it’s a safe bet that they won’t stick around long enough for you to learn all of their tricks in one fight.

As your characters advance in levels, the combat experience stays with them. When they return to fighting kobolds and goblins on the way to the next adventure not only because they are stronger and have magical weapons, but because in true Sun Tzu fashion, they have come to know their enemy.

Help Me Finish This Game
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A while ago, I was sent this Tumblr post, which many of you will likely have seen: 

God help me, I started working out what this might look like. These sat in my Notes app for a bit, and have lingered long enough. Please, for the love of all that is good: Help me fill in the blanks and finish game.


Critically Acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival: The Tabletop Role-Playing Game

Congratulations, your film made it to Sundance, and critics say they're looking forward to it! Only problem is, you haven't written it yet. You're more of an avant-garde director, you tell people, and let the characters write themselves.

This game is about being the characters in a witty, hipster-y, rom-com-y feature film that's sure to do well at Sundance, and will make waves at Tribeca. 

1. Character Creation

Attributes

Assign -1, 0, 0, +1, +2, +3 as you like to the following:

  • Gumption
  • Chutzpah
  • Moxy
  • Childlike Wonder
  • The Cut of my Gib
  • A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

2. Basic Moves

Get out of Uncomfortable Situation

Roll+Gumption
10+ you successfully escape the uncomfortable situation without causing offense
7-9 the Narrator is going to give you a worse outcome, hard choice, or price to pay
On a miss, things get weird

Help Out

When you help another player with a move they are making, roll +Moxy
On a 10+, your help grants them +1 to their roll.
On a 7-9 your help grants them +1 to their roll, but you also open yourself up to an awkward situation
On a miss, you walk right into an awkward situation without helping
Note that bonuses don’t stack. If two players successfully help out, the target character only gets +1 to their roll.

Read the room

When you try to get a feel for a situation, roll +Childlike Wonder
On a 10+ hold 3
On a 7-9 hold 1
While you are in this room or situation, you may spend hold 1-for-1 to ask the Narrator a question from the following list:

- What happened here?
- What are people trying to hide?
- What is the biggest threat?
- What’s my best way out of this?
- What should I look out for?
- What’s going to happen next?
- Are things going to get worse before they get better?

On a miss, you reveal some information to the room or someone you’re talking to. The Narrator may ask you some questions, which you will have to answer.

Witty Banter

When you exchange biting words with someone, roll +The Cut Of My Gib.
On a 7+, you and whoever you’re talking to become engaged in verbal repartee, and inflict embarrassment on each other. The usually means that you inflict embarrassment equal to the interpersonal skills you have equipped, and the other person deals embarrassment to you.

When taking embarrassment, you subtract the amount taken from your Self-Confidence. If you are lowered to 0 self-confidence, you proceed to a "Second-Act Montage".

If you roll a 10+, choose one extra effect:

- You gain the upper-hand: take +1 forward, or give +1 forward to another player.
- You are especially witty today (deal +1 embarrassment)
- The other person gets tongue-tied (take -1 embarrassment)
- You put them exactly where you want them

On a miss, you suffer embarrassment, and do not deal any embarrassment to the other person.

Manipulate Someone

This move is used when getting someone to do something they don’t want to do. To get them to do what you’re asking, you’ll need a good reason, or some kind of leverage.
Once you have given them a reason, tell them what you want them to do and roll +A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi.

For a normal person:
10+: They’ll do it for the reason you gave them. If you asked too much, they’ll tell you the minimum it would take for them to do it (or if there’s really no way).
7-9: They’ll do it, but only if you do something for them first, to show that you really mean it. If you asked too much, they’ll tell you what (if anything) it would take for them to do it.
On a miss, your approach is totally wrong: they’ll take offense or get angry.

For another player:
10+: if they do what you want, they mark experience and get +1 forward
7-9: they mark experience if they do what you ask
On a miss, they decide how angry or annoyed they are at you. They mark experience if they choose not to do what you asked.

To The Rescue

When another player is about to suffer embarrassment and you swoop in to protect them, roll +Gumption.
7+: You protect them, but you’ll suffer some or all of the embarrassment meant for them
10+, choose an extra:

- You suffer less embarrassment (-1 embarrassment)
- All eyes are now on you
- You inflict embarrassment back
- You hold the other person back
- On a miss, you make things worse

Movie Magic

At the end of the day, you’re still living a movie, so a lot of weird stuff is possible. When you want to accomplish something that isn’t necessarily possible in real life, roll +A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi.
10+: the improbable movie magic comes through without issue. Choose 1 effect from the list below.
7-9: it works... imperfectly. Choose 1 effect and 1 glitch.

On a miss, it’s out of your control. This isn’t going to end well. The narrator picks 1 effect that happens immediately, but does not expose you to immediate embarrassment or awkward situations. They may also choose one glitch that could change that.

Effects:

- Inflict 1 embarrassment on a target
- Confidence Boost (Your interpersonal skill gains +1 Embarrassment and +magic)
- Do one thing beyond human limitations
- Prevent a single person from finding something out
- Remove a person or bad influence from a place
- Introduce a new character
- Communicate with someone you do not share a language with
- Learn a secret about someone
- Heal one point of self-confidence

Glitches:

- The effect is weakened
- The effect is of a short duration
- You take 1 embarrassment
- You draw immediate, unwelcome attention


The blanks still to be filled:

  • What roles would players actually play as? What unique moves would they use?
  • What would a typical session set inside a hipster rom-com look like? 
  • How will you know when it ends? 
  • What tools can we give the Narrator for creating a plot-line and propelling the characters forward?
Storytelling game for Teenagers With Attitude!

A few weeks back, I wrote into one of my favorite podcasts, Teenagers With Attitude. It's a wonderful weekly Power Rangers recap podcast, which some people may recognize as one of the inspirations for You Activated My Podcast!. I wrote in because I'd finally made good on a promise that I thought I had made a year ago-- turns out, I'd written to them nearly two years ago to the day, commenting on the announcement of Rita Repulsa's wardrobe for the then-upcoming Power Rangers reboot movie. At the end of my email way back when, I'd mentioned that I was working up a since-abandoned role-playing game called "SPEEDPUNKS", based on a since-abandoned inside joke in the show. 

"SPEEDPUNKS", which was going to be a Rangers-inspired mess of kicking and driving and monsters and rolling far more dice than can be held in two hands, was put on hold after a time as the Power Rangers Hyperforce RPG and Hyper RPG Twitch streams were announced last year. It didn't seem to me that there was really a need for two Power Rangers role-playing games to exist in the world at one time.

Then about a month ago I was going through some old files, and realized that that was fucking bullshit, and I could do whatever I wanted. And I'll be damned if these weird folks didn't deserve a game that represented their (in their words) unique brand of bullshit. So I made one, and sent it to them, and I'm really proud of it. 

The game is aptly titled "Teenagers With Attitude", and it's a pseudo-role-playing, story-telling game for 3-6 players, in which you collaboratively create and tell a new episode of Power Rangers. You can listen to the podcast episode where they talk about it here, and download the 3-page PDF of the rules here. While it does help to be a fan of the podcast before playing the game, it should be fun even if you're just a fan of Mighty Morphin'. 

I hope you enjoy! Please go listen to the podcast, and may the Power protect you, always. 

Procedural Tabletop Game Creation... Game.

A few weeks back, Lauren and I got to teach a few friends how to play 5th Edition D&D. While the whole thing has been streamlined by Wizards and clearly leans towards new players, we were hard-pressed to find ways to explain rules without referring back to previous versions of them. While things like proficiency bonuses or hit dice calculation should be easy enough to explain on their own, the context of what these rules used to be helped us shape a narrative for the gameplay itself. 

For those of us who have played most of the versions of long-running games like Dungeons & Dragons, or many variations of a game like the Powered by the Apocalypse suite, one of the ways that we help make sense of rule systems is by comparing them to each other. The similarities and differences help us create a shorthand that helps us get internalize the mechanics and dive further into the real meat of the game.

So then I had this dumb idea. 

What if there was a game where an underlying structure of the game was to create more of the game? 

Imagine a game in the Powered by the Apocalypse style, but instead of players selecting roles and backstories and such right off the bat, we begin with only a set of basic moves and a general character description. The GM defines the general setting (fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, etc.) and play begins. 

As the characters act in the world and begin to make rolls (with the usual 2d6 used by the system), they keep track of their rolls both below 7 and above 9. For every roll below a 7, the player marks a "New Rule" counter. For every roll above 9, they mark a "New Move" counter. Once one of the counters reaches its limit, the player gets to add something new to the game, and the counter resets.

If the "New Rule" counter reaches 5, the player may add a new rule to the game that must affect all players. Ideally, these should be kept simple, and the GM is allowed to veto where necessary. For example, a new rule could be "Short swords deal 6 damage" or "The last person who bought food for the group gets to go first" or "Making a good speech in real life gives you a +1 bonus to diplomacy". You can also elect to remove a previously-made rule, however there must be a majority agreement of the players present to do so. If a rule is removed this way, keep a record of the rule and the date that it was removed (and optionally who it was removed by). 

If the "New Move" counter reaches 3, the player may create a new move for themselves, which their character will have access to going forward. This move must conform to the standard rules, and have a specific trigger, success result, and mixed success result. Optionally, it may have a failure result as well. The GM has veto power for new moves, and you cannot create a move that matches an already-existing move. For example, a player who wants to be stealthy can create a move like this:
 

When you sneak up behind someone, roll +Cool. On a 7-9 hold 1, on a 10+ hold 2. You may spend hold one-for-one to achieve an effect from this list:
  - Deal your weapon's damage
  - Steal 1 gold
  - Steal a loose object
  - Plant a small item on their person


Once a player has made two moves this way, they may define a role for themselves. The player's two moves are now that role's basic moves. If a new player joins the game (or if someone has to make a new character) and there is no one else currently playing as this role, they may select this role and automatically receive the basic moves. Any new moves created by player who created this role are now the role's advanced moves. New characters who select this role after it has advanced moves may select one advanced move in addition to the basic moves.

In the event that a character selects an existing role at character creation, then creates a new move as they play the game, they are now multi-classing. Keep track of the new moves, and once the player has created two of them, they create a new role, following the same rules as before. On this player's character sheet, list both the original role and the new role that the player has created. The new role can also be selected by new players. 

Once all of the players present have created one new rule and two new moves, you have reached a new "edition" of the game. Write down all of the new rules and moves and keep track of the date. After the first edition, every time all of the players have created one new rule or one new move, that is a new edition. Continue to keep track of the changes and dates, potentially in a group document using Google Drive or Dropbox. 

Because the GM never rolls, their job becomes more about improvising with the characters, and introducing obstacles that fit the direction that the players want to go-- both in story, and mechanics. 


Again, this is probably a bad idea and no good at all, but I'd like to try it. 

Hell or High Water Basic Moves

In my most recent post, I outlined some of the roles that players will take on in Hell or High Water, and some of the unique moves that are available to them. While those role-specific moves help set the character apart from the others, they're far from a complete list of what the character is capable of. Here, I'll be outlining how players can attempt to do... anything else. 

Action vs. Purpose

Remember that Hell or High Water is about the dynamic between two kinds of intent. On one side: Hell, representing malice, hunger for power, force for force's sake. On the other: High Water, representing self-preservation, fear, survival. If all you are doing as a player is describing the action that you intend to take, you're only doing half the job. Basic Moves is a set of example actions, and examples of what using each action with various intents looks like. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the players should work together to determine what kind of roll is necessary for a given action, as well as the end result of a success or failure. 

Basic Moves

Force a Hand

Usually considered a Hell roll, forcing a hand involves placing pressure on another party so that they reveal their position, their secrets, or a weakness. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on the situation, but is generally a physical action, such as firing a gun, releasing an air lock, pulling the proverbial plug, and so forth. It can be a High Water roll if this is done in self defense, or in the defense of others. For example, forcing the hand of someone who has taken hostages may be a Hell roll if made by an outside party, but a High Water roll if made by one of the hostages. 

 

Withstanding the Odds

When beset upon by outside forces, a player may roll to resist them and their effects; think of this as the inverse of the Force a Hand move. When done successfully, the player moves the story forward by maintaining the status quo against adversity. Usually, this is seen as a High Water roll, as it is done primarily in self-defense, however it can be construed as a Hell roll if the move is done with the intent of harming others. For example, flying through an asteroid field may warrant a High Water roll, but flying through that same field with the intent of outmaneuvering the ships behind you and watching as they explode against the rocks, may be a Hell roll. 

 

Read the Situation

In many cases, it is impossible to know which move is the correct one to take without first getting a feel for the room. In such cases, a player may want to attempt a roll to learn about the people, the set pieces, or the potentially dangers of the scene around them. The answers provided by a success are up to the specific questions asked and the Narrator's discretion, however this kind of roll is useful in determining your character's awareness, and the willingness of the scene to share its secrets. Typically, this is a High Water roll, as there is not an explicit offensive angle in most situations. However, if the question being asked is along the lines of "What is this person's weak point?" then the roll can just as easily be considered Hell
 

Help or Hinder Another Character

One of the things that I love most about the gritty space-faring setting of Hell or High Water is that the narrative works best with a crew. While it's certainly possible to tell the story of a lone spacer traveling the length and breadth of the Reach without the moral obligations of teamwork, it's more interesting narratively and mechanically to have others along for the ride. When another character is in a bad spot, it is useful to try rolling to see if your character can get them out of it. This is typically a High Water roll if your intent is to work together. However, if your intent is to get the character out of the proverbial frying pan only so you can extort money or information from them, then it is likely a Hell roll instead. 

 

Convince and Persuade

Over the course of play in Hell or High Water, you will likely need things that other characters don't want to give you. In these cases, rolling to convince them otherwise will quickly become necessary. The way that you roll will depend a little bit on the request, but a lot on how you ask it. Are you willing to cooperate with the target, meet them half-way, or appeal to the target's humanity? That's likely a High Water roll. Are you threatening them? That's a Hell roll every time. 

 

Experimenting with Instagram Story RPGs

Over the last few days, I've been experimenting with using the new-ish Poll and Type features in Instagram Stories to create a loose choose-your-own-adventure format story. The story was called "VOID COUPON // CYBERPUNK JANITOR", and if you're on a mobile device, you can see it in the highlighted stories here: https://instagram.com/tylerdotgames

The story centered around a character named Void Coupon, whose only skills in life are being a Cyberpunk and being a Janitor. As the story progressed, Void would reach a point where the audience could vote on which aspect they should take action with: Cyberpunk or Janitor. I'd then write the next chunk of the story with the winning aspect in mind. Here's a small sampling of what some of those turning points looked like:

For the most part, I think the experiment paid off really well! I got lots of good feedback from my friends who read it, and maintained a fairly consistent reader base throughout the story. With a little more prep next time, I'm excited to come back to this idea in the future. 

Pros: Instant feedback, fun surprises, and an excuse to write a cyberpunk game for my friends. It's a great way to force myself to write something relatively interesting every day. 

Cons: Had to write something new and interesting each day, which apparently I’m not accustomed to yet. We’ll get there. Also, “Cyberpunk” didn’t quite fit in the allotted space for polls, so I shortened it to “cybrpunk”. For future reference: Instagram Polls have eight-character lines.

It also provided a great excuse to release a micro-RPG I've written called CYBERPUNK DAY JOB. The is game based in the same world as the Cyberpunk Janitor story, and fits on a single 8.5-by-11-inch page. You can read about it and download the free PDF here:

Roles in Hell or High Water

To survive in the Reach, you'll need a good crew behind you. It's one thing to talk a good game, but without someone to pilot, repair, or protect your ship, you won't get anywhere fast. When the job goes wrong, you'll need someone to patch you up, and someone else to reel in the next client. 

As we saw in my last post for Hell or High Water, the core mechanic of the game is fairly simple. This is done on purpose, as my ultimate goal here is for this game to be something that can be learned quickly, and manipulated over time. To achieve this, the main differences between the roles will be in the ways that they can make use of (or completely change) their own Guideline, and mechanically reward good role-play.

Listed below are the current list of roles, a brief description of each, and an initial sampling of their Role-Specific Moves. At the start of the game, or at periods of rest, a player may spend 1 Coin to gain one of their role-specific moves. This coin represents several days of training and practice to begin mastering a particular skill. They may also spend 3 Coin to learn a move from a different role, though they may only do this twice over the course of a character's career. 


The Mercenary

Guideline Shmideline
At the start of each new job, re-draw your Guideline on any number between 2 and 9. 

Favored Weapon
Describe your favorite weapon. When using that weapon, subtract 2 from your roll. 

Blow the Doors Off
When using force to change the setting, can opt to roll either Hell or High Water.

 

The Consultant

A Little Extra
When negotiating the terms of a job, roll High Water. On a success, you get paid a little extra. On a failure, you can get a little extra if you do a little extra. 

Nothing to See Here
When you get caught somewhere you're not supposed to be, roll High Water. On a success, you can get out if you move quick. On a failure, you accidentally draw more attention. 


Silver Tongue
When using wit and charm to diffuse a situation, add two to your roll. 

 

The Pilot

Leaf on the Wind
When piloting a vehicle of any sort, add two to High Water rolls.


Get the Lead Out
When throwing a vehicle into high gear to escape a situation, roll the die (this is neither a Hell or High Water roll). If you roll at your Guideline, you make it out without a scratch. If you roll on the Hell side of the Guideline, the vehicle loses something valuable. If you roll on the High Water side of the Guideline, the vehicle takes damage.


Got it Where it Counts
Vehicles have one extra point of health while you're driving them. 

 

Mechanic

Keep It Flying
When the ship has dropped below its maximum health and you're working to keep it together, roll High Water. On a success, the ship regains 1 health. On a miss, you get yourself into an awkward spot. 


Discerning Customer
During a period of rest, you can spend coin to purchase new parts for the ship. Each part is either a Weapon (+1 Ship Attack) or Armor (+1 Maximum Ship Health), and costs 2 Coins. Declare what you'd like to buy and roll the die. If the roll matches your Guideline, reduce cost of item by 2 Coins. If you roll on the Hell side, reduce the cost of a Weapons purchase by 1 Coin. If you roll on the High Water side, reduce the cost of an Armor purchase by 1 Coin. 


It's My Baby
When working with a vehicle that you have installed parts on, add two to your rolls. 
 

Captain

Protector
When you risk something to protect your ship and crew, add two to your roll. 

Friends in Low Places
Once per job, you can call upon a contact from your past. Name the contact, and roll the die. If the roll matches your Guideline, they were expecting your call, and are happy to help. If your roll is on the Hell side of the Guideline, they have what you need, but you'll need to make up for screwing them over last time. Roll on the High Water side, and they're happy to help, but don't have what you need. 


 

Dice Mechanics in Norumbega

One of the big thoughts that I’ve been bouncing around during the production of Norumbega is that I want the central dice mechanic to mirror the thoughts, feelings, and belief structures of the characters. 

I’ve written briefly in the past about my thoughts on dice mechanics matching the character actions, and I’m a big believer in the idea that the mechanics should serve the setting. In a setting that’s emphasizing harsh environments, trudging through snow, negotiating with hostile nations, contrasted by peaceful interludes, a standard D20 feels inappropriate. 

I’ve already decided that I’d like for it to be a variant on the Powered by the Apocalypse system, as that’s a system that I’m really enjoying lately. And I say “variant on” in that there are two six-sided dice, role-specific moves, and a fixed set of results (6 or less is a failure, 7-9 is a mixed result, 10+ is a success). The latter of which is the most interesting to me, as I feel that it’s important for season explorers to know approximately how difficult any giving action will be. I feel like it’s more interesting for characters to have to weigh the pros and cons of an action while knowing all of the variables, rather than fearing that I’ve kept something secret. This also allows me to set up one of the main mechanics for the game:  

In Norumbega, the way you roll the dice varies based on your beliefs. 

The Viking Age was a really tumultuous time religiously for Scandinavia, and I feel hard pressed to try and make a game about any portion of that time that doesn’t at least touch on it. Especially if you focus in on the 10th and 11th centuries, you see a sharp turn from wide-spread paganism and polytheism to a hybrid monotheism, to devout Catholicism. This kind of change in a society would impact a person over the course of their life, especially if that life is spent ensuring the safety of that society. I want this game to represent that impact mechanically.


Attributes

Throughout the game, all characters will have the same set of attributes, which help dictate their effectiveness at certain actions. While I haven't nailed down the names of them, here is the gist:

  • Flame: Ferocity, physical action, brutality. 
  • River: Speed, dexterity, agility. 
  • Root: Defense, self-preservation, healing. 
  • Hearth: Inter-personal aptitude, self-confidence, charisma.
  • Mist: The unknowable, the weird, the mysterious.

Characters will be able to assign bonuses to these attributes between -1 and +2 at the start of play, based on the Roles that they choose, which I'll discuss in a later post. While the attributes themselves will not change, the way that players roll the dice and add them will.


The Old Ways

Every character will start with the belief in The Old Ways. This is a purposefully vague stand-in for early pagan rituals, and the players are invited to interpret what it means specifically on an individual basis (each role with have a description of what each faith means to them). When a follower of The Old Ways starts a new day, they Cast Runes.

Cast Runes:
For each attribute, roll 1d6. Keep a note of that roll, or keep the die next to the attribute on your sheet (if you have enough dice). These are your runes. For the remainder of the day, any time that the Narrator asks for a roll, only roll 1d6. Add that roll to the rune of the appropriate attribute, as well as any inherent bonuses your character may have for that attribute, to get your final result. 

The Old Ways are all about looking ahead-- while the results may be tumultuous, and often not what the player wants, it gives them a unique glimpse into the future to play off of. For example, if a strength-focused character rolls a 1 on Flame and a 6 on Mist at the start of the day, they may cater their actions to fit their fortunes, rather than the usual strengths of their role. 

The unknowable quality of The Old Ways also primes them for being affected by moves that the characters make, as their actions affect the fortunes that guide them. 


Advancement

When a character fails a roll or completes one of their personal missions, they mark one point of experience. After six points, the player may advance their character. There will be a lot of options for advancement, such as improving an attribute or gaining a new move, however one of the options will be to Change Your Belief. This represents a major change in the way the character approaches the world, and the way they operate mechanically within the game. When changing your belief, the character progresses to the next form of faith. Once a character has changed to a belief system, they cannot select that faith again later on. 

If a character advances through each faith, their next advancement option must be retirement, which is a separate feature that I'll write about eventually. As the theme of this game requires the passage of time, I want there to be a mechanic for easily moving to a new character, and potentially passing on some of the aspects of the previous one, if desired. 

The following will be a rough outline of the remaining faiths available. The names aren't finalized, and there may be more down the road, but this represents the mechanical shift that can be undergone by each character throughout the game.


Ancestral

On taking this belief, roll for each attribute as per The Old Ways, but these numbers do not change daily, and cannot be changed by moves. Once per long period of rest within the settlement, a character may select one attribute to re-roll, and keep either the new or old result. 

Monotheism

Rather than rolling runes for attributes, assign 3 to each, representing faith. These numbers can be modified by any move that would modify runes. 

Atheism

You have abandoned the gods, and so too have they abandoned you. Erase all rune numbers from your sheet, leaving only your character's innate attribute bonuses. Continue to only roll 1d6 when asked for a roll. 

The Narrow Path

As with Monotheism, assign 3 to each attribute. When you make a roll, after calculating and acting on the result of the roll, add one to the rolled attribute, and subtract one from another attribute. 


I feel as though I may add more, or potentially take one away. In addition to beliefs, characters will have other important choices available at advancement. This will include things like their place in society, or acceptance of new technology and discoveries in the world. My hope is that there will be many opportunities for rules to interact in unique ways because of this. 

What do you think? Is this interesting, or too mechanically heavy?

NorumbegaTylerComment
What is Norumbega?

When you look at early maps of the American north-east, right up until we started calling them colonies, there is a tiny marking along the coast called "Norumbega". To this day, nobody knows for certain what it is, but the rumor is that when the vikings first came to Newfoundland, they found the harsh environment of Baffin Island ("Helluland") untenable, and traveled south through deep woods ("Markland"), until they reached the promised "Vinland". There, they established Norumbega, a great city with halls of gold and fertile earth and an overwhelming sense of peace. It's a city that vanished after colonisation, either through war, or natural disaster, or (more likely) cultural assimilation.

The idea of Norumbega was an understandably enticing one towards the middle and end of the Viking Age. In Vinland, they could work the soil more easily, catch fish from the shore without danger. The hills and valleys formed natural fortresses, and there could be long stretches of time without the need for violence. Like all pilgrimages, those who sought out Vinland were truly hoping to make a change. Around this time in the 11th and 12th centuries, Christianity was spreading through Norse culture, and the old guard found themselves dying out, traditions kept on only in little bits and pieces. The search for Vinland, for Norumbega, represented a chance to start fresh for some, and to bring the old way to a place where it would not be touched. 

Norumbega is also a tabletop role-playing game that I'm writing about that search, and I'll be keeping track of what I'm writing right here.  

In the game, players will take on the role of the leaders of a settlement, trekking from the icy Helluland towards the promise of Vinland in the south. They act as scouts, trailblazers, and protectors as they find a path towards their new home. This journey may take years, but the knowledge that finding this land will keep their families safe is what makes it worth taking.

As players progress through the lands in Norumbega, from the icy Helluland, to the wooded Markland, to the open fields of green in Vinland, the world around them will change dramatically. They'll have to make choices about how they react to it. As they head south, the needs of the settlers will change, religions will take rise, they'll meet colonisers and the native skraeling, and each of the characters will be forced to grapple with question: is hanging onto the old ways really worth it?

 

NorumbegaTylerComment
One-Shot Games in Long Campaigns

Recently I had the privilege of running a Monster of the Week one-shot for my partner Lauren and co-host Jimmy, and it had me thinking about the nature of the quick "one-shot" gaming sessions, and their place in the role-playing community. 

While role-playing has come to the fore in the last few years, thanks to media paragons like Critical Role or The Adventure Zone, it's remains difficult to really bring new fans into the fold. Take, for example, one of my favorite podcasts Friends at the Table, which I've been trying to get Lauren into for over a year now. Because the show has been going on for years now, the emotional beats rely on at least being generally aware of the history of the characters (some of which have been a part of the story for years).

The hosts do a good job ensuring that enough of the relevant plot points are known even to new listeners, but there's something missing there when you just hop in mid-story. Not to mention each episode is at least an hour/hour-and-a-half long, which is reasonably restrictive for a podcast where you're coming into what's effectively the middle of a years-long conversation. This is similar to the reason I haven't truly started watching Critical Role on a regular basis-- why am I going to settle into watching a 4-hour video, just for it to be mostly in-jokes that I don't get?

Conversely, we run into the opposite issues with media focus on one-shot games. While it's easier to see the start and end of the story, getting the "in" on the in-jokes or character arcs, the brevity restricts how close we can become to the players and their characters. While the lows of a one-shot adventure are much higher, the highs are much lower. You see this in podcasts like Party of One, the latest mini-arcs of The Adventure Zone, or the aptly-named One Shot Podcast. While moment-for-moment these pieces give a decent overview of a game's mechanics, and all are produced to a level of quality that deserves attention, they lose the emotional impact provided by longer-running campaigns.

For example, things like player banter, character deaths, or plot resolution tend to have more weight behind them when you are given the time to really flesh out the characters, the world, and the relationships. The same is true while actually playing the game. Longer campaigns, while more difficult to start and maintain, provide more opportunities for moments of genuine celebration or mourning. There seems to be an inverse relationship between length of a campaign and its lasting emotional impact, and if there's a sweet spot somewhere between the two, I don't know that I've found it yet. 

So, back to the game I ran the other night: as a group, we fell into what seems like a decent compromise between campaign length and emotional depth. For the last few sessions of Monster of the Week, Lauren has been running a larger adventure for Jimmy and myself, which had just wrapped up for the RPG equivalent of a mid-season hiatus. We decided that we wanted to play something, but didn't want to go through the trouble of establishing whole new characters and a new universe to romp around in. We wanted to know what we were dealing with off the jump, and make it mean something. 

We decided to keep the universe of Lauren's original campaign (which, due to a good roll and a few poor choices, we have coined "The Agents of DIPSHIT (Department for Internal and Public Safety and Health: Inspect Taskforce)"), and Jimmy continued to play his current character Deke, the over-paranoid conspiracy theorist. Rather than continuing the current story, we reverted to a flashback, exploring some more of Deke's earlier life and time with his mentor, a character named "Sunshine" that Lauren rolled up on the fly. 

Thanks to making it a flashback, we were able to do a lot of things that ultimately didn't affect the world at large (Guy Fieri is a Flavor Vampire, for instance), but allowed us as a group to set up some fun things that happened in our regular game. For instance, Jimmy failing a big magic roll at the end gave me a space to introduce my main character, the ghost of a K-Pop star named Donny Spektre. 

The whole thing only took about three hours of total playtime, and by the end of it we all felt pretty good about our contribution (while some of it was admittedly just silliness for silliness' sake). 

Perhaps there's something there, running one-shots in a single Marvel Cinematic-style connected universe? What do you think? Are there any podcasts or video streams that do this that I should get into? Should we make one together? Let me know. 

Development Log - The System

In creating Hell or High Water, I wanted a system that would reflect the grit of the world that I want to tell stories in, without the granular details that would deter new players. If possible, I prefer to have a central dice mechanic that is simple to understand, yet leaves room for fine-tuning and manipulation by more seasoned players. 

While first writing the HoHW concept, I had been reading through entrants of the “200-Word RPG Contest”, which invited various gaming microsystems to be detailed in 200 words or less. Given the restriction this poses against listing out lots of granular detail, many games proposed a simple “over/under” method, which I’m copping for the bare bones of this gritty space game. 

One of my favorite examples of this system was “Witchfeels” (https://200wordrpg.github.io/2017/rpg/2017/04/16/WITCHFEELS.html), which has each character select a number between two and five. With each action that involves risk, roll a number of D6. Each result above the chosen number represents a benevolent side of the character, while roll under represents theor malevolent side instead. 

In Hell or High Water, there are only two attributes: Hell, and High Water (I know, i’m so clever). “Hell” represents acting with force, malice, self-interest or aggression, while “High Water” represents self-preservation, fear, of desperation. Note that these do not speak to any particular acts, but instead the motivations behind them.

At character creation, each player will select a “Guideline”, a sort of moral compass, between 1 and 10. When asked to roll for a action, the player will roll a D10. Depending on the intent behind the action, the player will want to roll either above or below the guideline to succeed, depending on the motivations for their action. At or below the guideline, it’s a successful “Hell” roll, while at or above is a successful “High Water” roll. 

For example, say the players are organizing a deal with a local militia— meds for creds. Working to convince the militia to sell them the meds at a discount might be a “High Water” roll if you’re low on creds, while it might be a “Hell” roll if the rest of the crew is setting up an ambush. 

Of course, the guideline should be malleable. In a world where alliances are shifting, it should be possible to not only make Hell rolls more likely (oddly enough by subtracting from the roll), and equally possible for an injured soldier to move their guideline and make High Water rolls more likely. 

Next, we’ll talk about how roles, moves, and abilities make that possible.  

Hacking together a Batman RPG

One of the things that many of us realize after growing up playing role-playing games is this: we’ve grown up. We have job(s), obligations, bills, significant others, and so on. We get home and we’re tired, and there are dishes to do.

But we still want to play games. 

For some people, keeping a role-playing group together is very much a part of their lives that they’ve made room for. My partner and I recently joined in on a friend’s Dungeons & Dragons group, and the DM explained that she was running three games because it was a form of therapy for her (which is a thing that I’d love to write about at a later date). For some people, that really works, and I love that. 

The problem is that I’m not one of those people. I get home and I cook dinner and do the dishes and maybe get in some laundry if I’m lucky, and then just about all I have energy for is watching The Chase on Netflix (I don’t even have energy for new shows some days). This pattern repeats until the weekend, when we occasionally get in a game of Pathfinder, provided our group (of adults in similar situations) is available. What I want, what I feel I need, is something that scratches the tabletop itch, but that my partner and I can put together on any evening, without a lot of prep, and play just the two of us.

Trying to find a solution to this, I came across Jeff Stormer’s fantastic podcast Party of One. Stormer, also the co-host of All My Fantasy Children, is an avid role-playing game enthusiast and writer, and the Party of One podcast explores games that require only one player and one (or fewer) game runner. Together with a guest, Stormer explores games that were built for two players, or works to hack a game into a two-player setting. The show, in addition to being entertaining (and relatively short for an actual-play podcast), is an informative look at what a tabletop role-playing game actually is at its core. 

For the show’s 100th episode, Jeff’s friend and “Writer of Adventure” Jared Axelrod ran a Powered by the Apocalypse hack that she’d written for the occasion. Rather than being a focus on the end times or a fantasy romp (both of which have featured prominently in older episodes with PbtA games), Jared turned the attention to Jeff’s favorite super hero: Superman.

For the two of you who might be reading this and aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, they are a loose family of tabletop role-playing games that share a common set of simple rules. Essentially: players have certain “moves” that only they can do. When they do them, they roll two six-sided dice (and typically add a number from their character sheet). A result of 10 or more is a success, 7 to 9 is a mixed success (you do the thing, but a thing is done to you), and a 6 or less is a failure. 

And that’s pretty much it. While the rest of us might be sitting around trying to calculate a spell-save DC (or THAC0, or what have you), PbtA games offer a decently simple set of mechanical expectations. The key here is that each design has to move the story forward— failing a roll does not, and should not, equate to ceasing action. 

To help foster that kind of story-first game feel, most PbtA games also contain a set of principles for the Game Runner to follow, which outline in simple terms what the person running the game should look to do. This both helps curb “evil” DMs, and encourage newer DMs to take full advantage of what their role entails. A few of my favorite principles, as an example:

  • Draw maps, leave blanks
  • Ask questions and use the answers
  • Be a fan of the characters

That last one lends itself particularly well to a super-heroic setting, because it’s pretty likely that everyone involved is already a fan of the character. Nobody wants to see the good guy lose in the end, even if normally the DM would slaughter a full adventuring party without batting an eye. Baked into the PbtA system is not only something that is mechanically flexible, but invites everyone involved to help the character just feel plain cool.

So now my problem is that I don’t much like Superman. 

By now, you’ve gone back and re-read the title and know that I’m not great at suspense. Of course we decided on making a Batman game. 

Other than simply liking him the best, we picked the Dark Knight for a handful of reasons. For starters, Batman encompasses something like four separate archetypes: The brawler, the ninja, the world’s greatest detective, and the billionaire playboy. In terms of gameplay, this provides the player and narrator with a lot of unique storytelling opportunities, and can quickly vacillate between them. The fiction supports this as well, with Batman’s adventures ranging from inter-dimensional romps to corporate intrigue, and everything in-between. Rather than needing one player to play four characters (another solo adventure strategy I’ve heard of), that person’s single character can feasibly see the possibilities that would otherwise be reserved for a full party. 

Selfishly, this versatility also allows me to improv a bit in our games, which I enjoy as a narrator. In Batman’s world, nothing is unheard of, and nothing is too weird. One day he can be fighting crime in Gotham, the next he’ll be a sheriff in the Old West, and the next still he’s helping take down Darkseid in another dimension. Throughout them all, he’s still Batman, and that gives us a lot of freedom here.

Once we decided that we wanted a Batman game that used the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, I started looking for a game to hack. There are stacks and stacks of PbtA games out there, at least one for each genre, and this may have been the hardest part of the process. Many of the first games I considered seemed to adhere really well to a specific part of Batman:

  • Spirit of ‘77 fits the whimsy and “BAM!” “BIFF!” of Batman ‘66
  • The Veil fits the sci-fi edge of Batman Beyond, or the latest Nolan films
  • Masks is literally a game about superheroes 

Then I read The Sprawl, which is what I’ve chosen to hack for this game. The Sprawl is, ostensibly, a game about a city: a dark, hazy, neon-lit city. Fueled by the slow oozing passage of cred, and meat, and bullets. It’s my favorite kind of cyberpunk, and with a bit of tweaking, can reflect Gotham in every period: The Art Deco, neo-Bauhaus movement of the Animated Series, the dark gritty underbelly of the Nolan trilogy, and the weird, boundless oddity of Burton and Schumacher.

The Sprawl fixes one of the conversations that I feared the most: “So which Batman do you want to play as?” And it fixes it in a wonderful and weird way: it allows me to say, “It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re in Gotham.

Using the Sprawl as a starting place, I combined moves from a bunch of different roles and brought them together. Initially, I split them into two parts, “Batman”, and “Bruce Wayne”. The thinking there being that I wanted to explore the duality of Batman, and invite the player to use Batman moves while acting as Bruce Wayne, and vice versa. This resulted in there not being very many interesting Bruce Wayne moves, so I’ve replaced that idea with the “I’m Batman” move up top:

Batman Moves

I’m Batman
When donning or doffing your Batman costume, roll Cool. On a 7+, pick 1 from the list below. On a 10+, pick 1 more:

  • Your costume change is concealed from those who might be watching
  • Alfred has something ready for you. Gain [gear] if donning costume, gain [intel] if doffing.
  • It goes quickly, and everything works as it should
  • Your ride is here, sir. +1 forward to The Bat-Signal or Student of Shadows

On a miss, the Narrator may make a move. This is up to them, but can include someone noticing, advancing a clock, or taking up time. 

When donning the Batsuit, gain access to the cyberware that you have added to it. When doffing then Batsuit, lose that access. This does not apply to access to vehicles like the Batmobile.

 

Nice Car
When you’re driving the Batmobile in a high-pressure situation, roll Edge. 10+: gain 3 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. You may spend hold one-for-one to do one of the following:

  • Avoid one external danger (a rocket, a burst of gunfire, a collision, etc)
  • Escape one pursuing vehicle
  • Maintain control of the vehicle
  • Impress, dismay or frighten someone

 

Nice... Jet? Plane? Boat?
You have two additional vehicles (build each using the custom vehicle rules from the Driver playbook). 

 

To the Bat-Computer
When you gather evidence and take it to the Batcave for examination, gain [intel] and roll research with Edge instead of Mind

 

Eye for Detail
You are a master at tailing people and stalking out locations. When you perform surveillance on a person or a place, gain [intel] and roll assess.

 

On the Trail
When you want to find someone or something, name your target. When you gain [intel], you may note that it concerns your target. When you spend three such [intel], the MC will describe where your target is; you say how the clues led you to that knowledge and how you have your target or its defenses at a disadvantage.

 

Covert entry
When you attempt to infiltrate a secure area alone, roll Cool. 10+: gain 3 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. As the MC describes the infiltration and the security measures you must overcome, you may spend hold one-for-one to describe how you overcome the obstacle and:

  • Bypass a security system or guard
  • Disable a security system you have bypassed
  • Disable a guard
  • Escape notice

 

Psychological warfare 
When you attempt to influence the morale of your enemies by leaving evidence of violence while remaining undetected, roll Edge.

7+: your enemies are impressed and overly cautious, scare and demoralized, or angry and careless (MC’s choice).
10+: You choose. 

 

Stealth Operative
You have an intuitive sense of how to blend in with the rhythms of a secure area and can take actions that make its security forces feel at ease. When you assess while undetected and roll a 12+, you may spend one hold to lower the Action Clock by one segment.

 

Student of Shadows
When shit hits the fan and you have to get out, name your escape route and roll Cool.

10+: Sweet, you’re gone
7-9: You can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you; in either case, the MC will tell you what
6-: You’re caught in a vulnerable position, half in and half out. The MC will make a move

 

The Dark Knight
When you enter a charged situation, roll Style. 10+: gain 2 hold, 7-9: gain 1 hold. Spend hold one-for-one to make eye contact with an NPC present, who freezes or flinches and can’t act until you break it off. Roll 6-: your enemies identify you immediately as their foremost threat.

 

Trained Eye
When you evaluate a person, vehicle, drone or gang, roll Cool.

7+: ask the target “How are you vulnerable to me?” Take +1 forward when acting on the answer
10+: gain 1 ongoing when acting against that target

 

The Brave and the Bold 
Once per mission you may introduce a new Contact. Name the contact, say what they do, then roll Style.

10+: You’ve worked with the contact before; they have what you need. Write them down as a Contact.
7-9: You’ve never met them before, they’re an unknown quantity.
6-: You know them all right. Tell the MC why they dislike you.

After you’ve rolled, describe how you contact them. The MC will ask some questions.

 

World’s Greatest Detective
You’re a master of making connections between seemingly unrelated events. At the start of a mission, roll Edge.

10+: gain 3 hold
7-9: gain 1 hold

As you put everything together during the mission, spend 1 hold at any time to ask a question from the research list. 

 

Face
You specialize in infiltrating by appearing to belong in places you do not, hiding in plain sight. During your infiltration, you will have opportunity to see or overhear information which might be relevant later. After you have spent all your covert entry hold infiltrating a secure area through charm and social graces, gain [intel]. 

 

Corporate secrets
When you research a corporation, you may always ask a follow up question. On a 10+, take an additional [intel].

 

Blend in
When you’re about to be caught somewhere you shouldn’t be, but look and act like you belong there, roll Cool. 

10+: no one thinks twice about your presence until you do something to attract attention
7-9: you’ll be fine as long as you leave right now, but if you do anything else, your presence will arouse suspicion

 

What’s your superpower, again?
You’re rich. Choose another piece of cyberware to add to your Batsuit at character creation or downtime.

 

Cyberware

Rules-wise this works very similarly to the book, but rather than cyberware being built into the person themselves, it’s built into the bat-suit. As such, this means that you can’t use it without the suit. 

Choose one to start with: 

  • Cybereyes
  • Cyber ears
  • Cybercoms
  • Augmented Strength
  • Armor plating

 

Gear

Like the best boy scout, Batman always comes prepared with some gear:

  • Batarangs (2 damage hand +numerous +quick)
  • Smoke bombs (s-harm near area reload gas)
  • Batsuit (2-armor upgradeable)

 

I’ve also opted to make minor changes to Basic Moves that don’t quite fit in the Batman world. For example, “Getting the job.” Batman doesn’t get jobs, even mild-mannered Bruce Wayne doesn’t get jobs. Batman gets called in:

The Bat-Signal
When called into action, roll Edge. 10+: choose 3 from the list below. 7-9: choose 2 from the list below.

  • Something else alerts you to the situation, gain [intel]
  • Instinctively grab the right tools and gain [gear]
  • You arrive just in time
  • The villain is identifiable
  • You arrive without attracting attention

I want to write a Batman version of the “Getting the job” move’s counterpart “Getting paid”, but I can’t find a decent way to make it work yet. It may just be something that has to come out in play, which is fine. 


Wrapping Up

How do these changes look to you? Would you do anything better/differently? Let me know! We'll be recording a podcast mini-series soon with a couple one-off adventures, as a way to playtest this and play around in The Sprawl's version of Gotham city. Stay tuned!

HacksTyler RobertsonComment
Intro / The World

HELL OR HIGH WATER

SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

 

THE WORLD

When man first traveled to new planets, most folk went with one of four groups, those being the ones with funding and knowledge for at least a modicum of terraforming. At last check, those were the Prime Coalition of Equals, the Ket-Avet, Marko Veroni’s Ashes, and the Foundation of Planetary Rejuvenation. Those who chose to not align themselves with a larger group became farmers or miners on the outskirts of civilization, or float the Frontier as nomads. 

Breaking new ground is never easy, and less so on a new planet that doesn’t want it. Though many had reason to leave mother Terran— overpopulation, political unrest, endless war— those who did finally leave had particular reason, each different. 

For the Prime Coalition of Equals, it was the hope of a fresh start, a chance to do things the right way. Their way. Though their coda and propaganda claim the equal distribution of all things, their rule is absolute over their subjects. Those who travel the Frontier would do well to avoid their Enforcers and Agents of Assurance. The PCE settled first on the planet Incalo, named for their founder. A high-gravity planet, the ores of Incalo are dense and almost completely pure, making PCE metals highly sought-after across the Frontier. The PCE’s people are of a single mind, and work tirelessly to improve the things around them: For the People, for the Coalition, for Ever. 

The Ket-Avet was more loosely based, and as a result of which is less technologically advanced than the other groups that made it across the Void. At the beginning, they were just a group of people with a vision: a massive key, casting a shadow over all of the planets, turning an endless lock, opening an edgeless door. Behind the door, no one knows. Many say there is light, a beacon. Others say there is nothing, just more void. Others still wield more obtuse conjectures, like “hope”, “freedom”, or “purpose.” Who knows. The Ket-Avet were fortunate in two regards: first, that a relatively small, quasi-religious sect was the first to ascertain inter-planetary travel. It wasn’t quite Near-Light, and we’re still not certain if they can reach that even now, but it was enough. It got them out their first, and they laid claim to one of the few planets already hospitable for human life. They call it “Avell”, and in the language they’ve developed since settling there, we mostly figure it translates to “home.” It’s a lush, jungle-like country, with tall trees and strange creatures. The Ket-Avet live amongst the nature, waiting for the day their visions reach fruition. 

Then there’s Marko Veroni’s Ashes, that’s where I come from. Veroni was a soldier. No one remembers who he fought for, even fewer remember who he fought against. We know he was a man, and we assume he was a good one, because that makes us feel better. What we do know is that he was loved. When he died— shot up in a war he had no stake in— his ashes returned home to a small village. He was the last of their soldiers, the last of the men who could wield weapons and wage wars in the ways of the Old People. In response, we retaliated, instead playing the game by new rules. Our means of space travel were stolen from wherever we could find them, our first bits of terraforming kit were mix-matched from ransacked ships and planetary outposts. We peeled ourselves away from mother Terran as quick as we could, desperate to make it out alive. Unsavory, yes, perhaps even immoral by most folks’ standards. You wouldn’t be wrong to say that. But we earned freedom, and don’t answer to anyone anymore, and we took Marko Veroni’s Ashes with us into the stars. Mostly, we live in the more habitable expanses on Keldoon, a place we’re still trying to make better for ourselves. We spread ourselves out, though, we aren’t afraid of it. Anywhere in the System, if you walk into the most run-down dive bar you can find, you’re likely to find a Shipper, a Skiff-rider, even an Enforcer, who still pays attention to the name Marko Veroni. 

No one knows what happened to the Foundation of Planetary Rejuvenation. Mostly, folks figure they failed. They weren’t the last to leave mother Terran, nor were they the first, by far, but they sure did make the most fuss about it. “We’re going to save you,” they said. “We’re going to save all of you.” We’re still waiting to be saved. 

Though each group has claimed a planet to be more or less solely theirs by this point, that doesn’t mean there are the only planets out there, not by a Frontier mile. There’s countless bits of rock, untouched oases, or calamitous death traps still waiting out there. Some of them we’ve settled, and others we’ve stayed away from with reason. It was rumored at one point that someone had tried making a map of all of them, but I’ve never seen it. Maybe that’s something you can work on, while you’re looking for the next job. 

Those who didn’t join a group? Well, like I said, they’re still out there. Some work as miners for PCE, others make a meager living as farmers, shipping goods to whoever needs them. Others buy a Near-Light ship and trade with the civilized folk, which I hear you may have done for a spell. The rest just float, scrounging up whatever they can, making ships out of whatever parts they can get. They’re the nomads, floating wherever the void winds may take them. Time to time, I hear rumors of them. I hear rumors of whole cities of them out there, huge ships of scrap metal with barely enough life support and never enough room. Whether there’s any truth to those is anyone’s guess. I suppose you’ll have to find out for me. 

Interplanetary travel, though it certainly started a grip of different ways, is mostly done by means of a piece of kit called Near-Light. Near-Light engines are common enough that they can get fixed most places and purchased for cheap enough, plus they’re fast enough to hop from one planet to the next in a couple of days or so. You’ve just got to make sure your pilot’s good with numbers before flipping the switch— you never know what you’re going to find out there. Or what’s going to find you, for that matter.

Sure, we’ve fought wars in space. Most ships have some form of gun on ‘em or other. Lords know the PCE ships sure do. But nowadays those are just for insurance, we’ve had our fill of war. Like a good side-arm, a ship’s guns are just a guarantee that you won’t be messed with much while floating the Void. That is, unless the other guy’s are bigger.

Sonnenwind Overview

Sonnenwind is a micro-RPG based on the Cosmic Ordering concept developed by Bärbel Mohr in 1995, and first outlined in a German magazine also called Sonnenwind. The game proposes that instead of outline numbered attributes or assigning dice to actions that a character may take, we should instead ask the characters what they want. The more they want something, the more likely they are to achieve it. 

The game is currently in a "Playtesting" phase, and while the rules for play are fairly fleshed out for players, my hope is to add much more documentation for running the game before calling it a full release. The PDF of the current iteration of the game's rules can be downloaded here:

PDF Download

If you play the game and have thoughts, I invite you to leave a comment here, or fill out the feedback form on the main Sonnenwind page:

Leave feedback!

THE REBEL FLEET & Dice-less Mechanics

Been considering lately how little I enjoy d20 mechanics when it comes to large-scale encounters. While rolling a d20 and adding Dexterity is a decent fit for getting your dwarven fighter across a pit trap set deep into the mine, it rings somewhat hollow when applied to commanding legions across the field of battle. 

In a Star Wars game, for example: while it is exciting to roll dice and follow standard mechanics from the perspective of a single fighter pilot, it is somewhat less exciting to play the role of a general using the same mechanics. 

As an alternative, consider the following:


The Rebel Fleet

A game for 3+ players. Requires a long hallway or open space, and a stack of standard letter-sized paper.

One player takes the role of the Narrator. The other players are ace pilots in The Rebel Fleet. The Rebel Fleet can be any aerial force– be it World War II, outer space, or an alternate universe where lizardfolk ride tamed pteradons.

To create your vehicles (effectively your characters), each player should use one piece of paper to make a paper airplane. There are no rules for the shape that this plane must take, only that it must consist of a single piece of paper (8.5" x 11" if you’re American, A4 if otherwise). As an optional benefit, you can use a staple or paperclip to weigh down the nose of your craft.

The Narrator sets the scene. First, they should make one paper airplane for each major aircraft in the enemy fleet. For small squads, make one plane to represent a group of 5 or 10 (so you don’t waste all that paper). While making their planes, the Narrator describes the powerful regime that has ruined everything, which the Rebel Fleet is fighting against. Describe the battle that is taking place, and the broad strokes of the rebel fleet’s goals. Then, they ask what the players would like to do to achieve that goal.

Depending on how the players respond, the Narrator can engage the players in a series of challenges, using any and all relevant paper planes. These challenges can take place in two forms, or a combination/derivation of the two:

Race: The players and Narrator all stand on the same side of the space, and at the same time throw their planes in the same direction. The plane that makes it the farthest is the victor. This is used to represent outmaneuvering other planes, making it to destinations quickly, or rapidly closing on a target.

Battle: The players stand on the opposite side of the space from the Narrator, and then simultaneously the two sides throw their planes at each other. Make note of the planes that collide. If a plane crashes its nose into an enemy ship, it deals damage to it. Most enemy ships can only withstand one damage, while named ships (the players, or important enemies) can withstand five. Repeat until all named enemy ships are defeated, or until the players are defeated, or until the players opt to try a different approach.

At the end of each challenge, take a moment to discuss as a group how that maneuver took place, and describe how it moves the battle along. Continue until the players have achieved the goal stated at the beginning of the game.

 

GamesTyler RobertsonComment
Cancer in Fantasy Games

In October, my dad passed away after a four-year battle with cancer. As he was the one that introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons, as well as role-playing games as a medium, here's something I've been thinking about a lot:

If real life were like Dungeons & Dragons:

People across the land are dying of a mysterious disease. Following an ancient prophesy, four heroes travel the lengths and breadth of the land, fighting their way through deserts and mysterious jungles. In the deepest forest, after beating back swarms of mysterious beasts, the adventurers come to a clearing, revealing the entrance to an ancient tomb. In that tomb, they are welcomed by the mad wizard Malcero,  who stands at a pedestal before a summoning circle that spews black smoke. Into the air, he released the foul disease Cancer, which brings forth the demon Klemnallannon with every soul it claims. In an arduous battle, the tale of which shall be told for centuries, the heroes defeat Malcero, sending Klemnallannon and his Cancer plummeting back to the seven hells. The lands have been purified once more. 

 

If D&D were like real life: 

People across the land are dying of a mysterious disease. You go to your job waiting tables at the local tavern, hearing every now and then about the wizards who seek to study and understand the disease. Many say that it is impossible, that this swarm of death is just the way of things. You shrug, largely ignoring it as it does not affect your daily life. When a loved one succumbs to that disease, you find yourself giving a copper piece from each payment to one of the wizards,  in the hopes that it may combine with the copper pieces of others to become an amount sufficient for the wizard to give their cure to the masses. One day the land may be purified. In the meantime, you go back to waiting tables. 

 

 

BlogTylerComment
The 15-Step Powered by the Apocalypse Hack

Recently, I’ve put a hold on a few personal projects— partially due to life events, though mostly due to good, old-fashioned New Year’s self-doubt and writer’s block. I’ve realized over the last few months that I kept trying to perfect the system of the games I was making (more on those forthcoming) without paying enough mind to how much fun I was having while making them. If I didn’t enjoy making the game, I realized, I probably won’t have much fun playing it. So, fair warning, the next few things I post will probably be broken or buggy or what-have-you, but I’m okay with that for now. 

As a writing exercise to break myself out of that slump, I wanted to jot down a simple system for everyone’s favorite hack: the Powered by the Apocalypse game. Several of my favorite games right now are PbtA hacks (The Sprawl and Monster of the Week, for example), and while each one can be radically different in tone and scope, the core principles remain basically the same. Here, in 15 steps or less, I’ll walk you through the basics of designing a hack of your own:

  1. Pick a theme, and stick to it: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Gym Class, Anthropomorphized Turtles, whatever
  2. Write down one thing that players in that world can’t live without. Things like “health” or “oxygen” or “pizza” or “self-respect”.
  3. Write down five attributes that fit into the template. They can be called whatever, but fit the following general theme:
    1. What keeps the player’s “health” and helps them take it away from others in a very direct way. Examples: Strength, Meat, Brawn, Muscle, Grit
    2. What helps the player avoid danger, and create danger for others in an indirect way. Examples: Dexterity, Swift, Cool
    3. What helps the player know things that can be learned through traditional means. Examples: Intelligence, Savvy, Smarts, Edge
    4. What helps the player interact with other characters. Examples: Charisma, Style, Moxy
    5. What helps the character interact with the thing that embodies the spirit of the theme that you picked in step one. Examples: Weird, Wyrd, Synth, Qi, Spirit
  4. Players get bonuses to those attributes between -1 and +3. Usually the spread looks about like this at the start: -1 / 0 / 0 / +1 / +2
  5. Write some basic moves, using the standard PbtA system of rolling two six-sided dice, and adding the relevant attribute. Remember, a total of 6 or less is typically failure (though you can gain 1 "experience"), a 7-9 is a mixed success, and a 10+ is a no-questions-asked absolute success. Again, these moves can be whatever you need for your game. Typically, they will follow along this general theme:
    1. Attempt to take “health” from another character, roll + “Strength”. 10+ you do it, and maybe a little extra. 7-9 you do it, but “health” is taken from you as well. 6- “health” is only taken from you.
    2. Attempt to find things out about the world, roll + “Intelligence”. 10+ ask 3 questions from the list. 7-9 ask two. 6- answer a question about your character, in-character. (Write down a list of 5 questions that a normal person from your theme would ask if the line at Starbucks is taking too long.)
    3. Withstanding bad circumstances, roll + relevant attribute (decided by narrator). 10+ you did it, 7-9 you did it but have a lingering cost (usually cosmetic), 6- you don’t do it, and you suffer a mechanical cost (such as subtracting one from a relevant attribute).
    4. Help or hinder another character. 7+ they take +1 or -2 forward, your choice. 7-9 you expose yourself to danger. 
    5. Convince someone else to do something they don’t want to do. 10+ they do it, 7-9 they do it in exchange for something, 6- it’s up to them. 
  6. Copy and reword those moves as necessary, changing the specifics. Usually, this means changing the “select one” lists from gaining a positive thing to avoiding a negative thing. For example, create a copy of move 2 where instead of picking questions that get answers, you pick how you avoid detection, and don’t get screwed over. 
  7. Write down five-ish unique names for character roles. What are there only ONE of in this world? For example, in a western game, there is typically only one Sheriff. 
  8. For each job, pick the attribute that they best reflect. 
  9. For each job, rewrite the two or three of the basic moves, keeping the job’s main attribute in mind. Make it easy to be good at the thing they’re good at. For example, the Gunslinger may make moves similar to taking health, but rolls a dexterity attribute instead, and opt to take no damage on a success. The Documentary Filmmaker may have a move that lets them ask one extra question when following a story. These moves are the job’s standard moves. 
  10. Write four more moves for each job. Make them weird, and don’t worry about game balance. Make a move that makes the job look like the most that job can be. These are the advanced moves, available only after the character has reached a certain amount of experience (usually between 5 and 10 points). 
  11. Write ten single-sentence bad things that happen all the time in this world. Be general. Things like “the shit hits the fan”, “you have a bad day”, “your least favorite song comes on the radio”. These are the basis for your moves as the narrator. Keep them handy for reference.
  12. Create obstacles for the players to come across. These can be traps, environments, or characters. Write down a list of ways that these things can negatively affect the players if they fail a roll. Things like: 
    1. deal a little damage to the player’s “health”
    2. deal a lot of damage to the player’s “health”
    3. enact one of the bad things from step 11
    4. make the player vulnerable to another obstacle
    5. inhibit the player from using an item
    6. prevent the player from using an ability of theirs. 
      Rank the difficult of these obstacles: easy, medium, difficult, boss. Easy obstacles select only one of the items from the list, medium items select two, and so on.
  13. Have each player write down the ways in which their character is connected to two other characters. Call these something appropriate to the theme, such as “bonds”, “owed favors”, or “beliefs”. At the end of a session, if a player acted especially well on these connections (ie, good role-playing), grant them experience. 
  14. State a thing that the players should want to accomplish: save the world, save the girl, save some money, build a barn, what-have-you. Place obstacles in between the players and those goals.
  15. Ask “what do you do?”

Alright, there it is. Not perfect, certainly not complete by any means, but there you have it. Let’s try it out:

Let’s say that I want to make a game based on Downton Abbey. I only need this to be a one-off, so I’m going to come up with attributes, basic moves, roles, and two standard moves for each role. 

In this world, the thing that players can’t live without is STATUS, which each character begins with 6 of. Their five attributes are:

  • RHETORIC
  • WIT
  • EDUCATION
  • FASHION
  • SNOBBERY

Players may assign the following numbers to their attributes in any order: -1 / 0 / 0 / +1 / +2

Basic Moves:

  • Comment. Roll +RHETORIC. 10+ target loses 1 STATUS. 7-9 you and target each lose 1 STATUS. 6- you lose 1 STATUS. 
  • Query. Roll +EDUCATION. 10+ ask 3 from list below. 7-9 ask 2. 6- reveal a secret. Take +1 forward when acting on the answers.
    • Who has the most STATUS here?
    • What is the history of this place?
    • What is the history of _________’s family?
    • How is ____________ vulnerable?
    • What is ____________ hiding?
  • Excuse Yourself. Roll + Relevant Attribute (Narrator’s choice). 10+ you excuse yourself politely. 7-9 you excuse yourself, but at the expense of STATUS or an item (your choice). 6- you make things worse for yourself somehow.
  • Embolden or Embarrass. Roll +SNOBBERY. 7+ target takes +1 or -2 forward, your choice. 7-9 you become involved in the situation. 
  • Convince. Roll +FASHION. 10+ the target does what you want them to do without question. 7-9 they ask something in exchange. 6- it’s up to them.

Roles:

The COUNTESS

  • Scold. When you make a Comment, on a 10+ you may select two from the list below. 7-9, you may select one:
    • Target loses 1 more STATUS
    • You lose no STATUS
    • Target takes -2 forward
    • Another player takes +1 forward
  • Not Dead Yet. When you see a character lose STATUS due to another player’s actions, roll +SNOBBERY. 7+ gain 1 STATUS. 10+ give a character -1 forward. 6- the narrator may make you vulnerable to an uncomfortable situation.

The BUTLER

  • Ahem. When making a Comment, roll +SNOBBERY instead.
  • Keeper of the House. When using Query, also ask “Who does _______ belong to?”

The VETERAN

  • Rousing Speech. When aiding another player, on a roll of 10+ give the target +2 forward.
  • Years of Service. When excusing yourself, you may always opt to roll +SNOBBERY.

The DOCTOR

  • I was there when you were born. When you successfully embarrass a target, they take -1 ongoing against you. 
  • Medical expertise. When using Query, you may also observe the target’s physical behavior to learn about their health. Take +1 forward when acting on what you learn. 

The HEIR

  • Alluring. On a failed Convince roll, you may make it a mixed success, at the cost of a more difficult request from the target. 
  • Well-read. When making a Comment roll, you may opt to roll +EDUCATION instead. 

The setup and obstacles: your family has come into a large sum of money, and the relatives are coming over. Entertain them with dinners, tours of the town, grand celebrations, whatever you like. Most importantly: make them go away. There’s a knock at the door, what do you do?


And, there we have it. Not quite finished yet, as we need to create some Narrator moves and specifics about the obstacles, however I would need to brush up on Downtown Abbey to fill that in more completely. Things like, “introduce a new family member that no one’s heard of” or “propose marriage” would be conceivable in this setting. 

Hopefully, using just a few general rules, this has helped inspire some of you to start making the game you’ve always wanted to play. Remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even all that good. You just need to have fun doing it. 

BlogTyler RobertsonComment
My first published Chrome extension!

Dealing with some downtime today, I decided to finally go through the process of publishing a Google Chrome extension, just to go through the steps. A half-hour later, behold! The fruits of my labor:

Inspired by the Do By Friday podcast, I made a new-tab extension that gives you a new challenge each week, on top of your own to-do list. It's simple, but, I like that. 

A few notes about the publishing process:

1. There are a bunch of things that you can add to your extension's manifest, and I didn't have a lot of the ones I ended up wanting (like "author", for instance). I recommend reading through the full list here: https://developer.chrome.com/apps/manifest

2. First-time app uploads cost $5.00, then you can upload 20 apps or extensions. Not super surprising, but something to keep in mind. I can definitely see the argument where one or two in-app purchases help pay off the initial cost (and then some).

3. I'm really bad at creating promo images for things I code! Everything there, including the logo, is a screenshot of the screen. Next up on my list of things to do should be working on simple logo design (in general, not just for this project). 

If you use Tab By Friday, let me know!

 

BlogTyler RobertsonComment