Independent role-playing games—what does this mean in a market that is dominated by publishers with very few full time employees? To me, independent role-playing games are simply the games that are left when you discount the big ones:
No D&D, no Pathfinder, no Shadowrun, no Warhammer, no Old School Renaissance, no Das Schwarze Auge.
The other day we played Darkening Skies, an unofficial Lady Blackbird sequel. It went very well. My prep was minimal (a few minutes at most), the rules were easy to understand, the setting quick to get into. Rules, plot and setting borrow so heavily from current sensibilities, it’s incredibly easy to digest. Everybody at the table sees within the material the things they like: Firefly, Star Wars, The City of Lost Children, Solar System, Apocalypse World, Fate, Mouse Guard, it can all be there if you start looking for it.
One thing to look out for is the additional freedoms built into the setup. Lady Blackbird had characters with diverging goals, but they were all going to a particular destination on a ship. So even if the stories diverged on the way, characters always returned to the ship an proceeded on to the next chapter. In Darkening Skies, the characters all have a reason to come to the ship, but they have different reasons for leaving the ship.
As soon as Jezebel had found her target, for example, she was ready to leave the ship. After contacting all the factions on board, the remaining party soon decided that they needed to split up. Half of them were going to blow up the bridge while the other half was going to find a lander. The bridge fight was going very, very badly. The two characters ended up “presumed dead”.
Should I run it again, I’ll have to push harder in order for the party to feel the need to stick together. Perhaps I was to lax in the beginning and when players realized how deep the shit was they were getting themselves into, it was too late. No more refreshment scenes, no more helping dice, no more group efforts. I think players where surprised to see this happy Hackbird go into survival horror mode.
I loved it, 4/5 stars.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Isotope is a 4-page post-apocalyptic RPG. When I read it, it looked like a simpler Apocalypse World to me. Easier to create characters, none of the playbooks, moves, and all that extra. I was reminded of Vincent Baker’s 2011 blog post Concentric Game Design. There, Vincent says that Apocalypse World has 4 layers of rules. The first layer has a few stats and uses 2d6: “On a 10+, the best happens. On a 7-9, it’s good but complicated. On a miss, it’s never nothing, it’s always something worse.” That’s basically what Isotope does.
There are four classes, human, mutant, wolfling and troll. Assign -1, 0, 1 and 2 to the four classes, get some perks, mutations and some equipment, go. It has an optional list of character names. We played for about 2½h. After the game, players said that they really enjoyed character creation. It was short and the two pages of classes, names, mutations and equipment provided all the setting information they needed and just enough complexity to have them pondering their choices without getting bogged down.
The rules being so short we ran into two issues. One player really wondered about gaining levels and hit-points. You basically have between seven and twelve hit-points. Roll a d6 for every level you have and pick the highest result, add six. You optionally reroll whenever you get to eat, drink and sleep and you reroll when you gain a level. I think I get it but something about how this was worded confused one of us, as I said.
The thing that confused me was how combat works if a creature has multiple attacks. The way I see it, combat means rolling 2d6 and adding appropriate numbers. On a 10+, you deal damage as per weapon. On a 7-9, you deal damage and you take damage, I guess? Not sure about this one. On a miss, you take damage. But then the rules say that monsters should have one to three attacks. How does that work? Just triple damage? Wow! Perhaps I should check Apocalypse World or Dungeon World.
The sample adventure provided was interesting but light on stats. As I said in another blog post, I like to believe in the independent existence of my game world. This means that I don’t like improvising monsters, traps and rewards on the spot. If I do, I feel like it’s me against the players instead of me acting as the impartial referee between the game world and the players. Improvising in this context often means adjusting the difficulty, being tempted by an imaginary arc of excitement, reducing player agency.
⚠ Spoilers! ⚠
This is where I made a misake. I started with a few notes:
As the game went on, I added more:
It was quick to do, no problem. It just felt a bit weird to write these things down on the fly.
Figuring out which rooms contained useful loot was a similar problem. Was the big loot in the flooded room at the bottom? If so, what did it contain? What would be the big reward for successfully launching the rocket? Should I run it again, I would have to better prepare a few end scenarios so that I can push players towards one of these endings with appropriate closure as time starts running out. As it stands, the end was a bit flat.
So, next time: More prep!
As far as plot goes: the party got split towards the end. One managed to have the shadow dragon open the sarcophagus and so the character went exploring and found some valuable power tools to sell. The other characters found the map room and managed to set the intercontinental missile targeting system on a few cities by accident, but I decided that more was required to actually launch the rocket. We didn’t have the time, however, so we broke off saying that the delvers camping around the titan sarcophagus had finally caught up to what was happening and would start exploring the structure soon enough. The power tools where the only loot recovered.
We spent half an hour after the game talking about it, comparing it to Apocalypse World (which was deemed longer and harder to get into for little benefit), Lady Blackbird (which was deemed to promise better character development via keys and locked tags) and Traveller (which was deemed to similar in that character development basically meant the accumulation of gear and allies instead of powers).
I said I’d run a Lady Blackbird hack in two weeks time. Perhaps The Bugs of Venus? Then again, I like the original Lady Blackbird characters, I like the romantic angle, and I don’t have much experience in the military fiction genre, didn’t like Starship Troopers too much, don’t know whether I can recreate the Alien feel… We’ll see!
Today we played two and a half hours of Torchbearer. We had three players and started out with me playing the warrior, Johannes playing the halfling and Harald playing the dwarf. Pascal was running the game for us. It involved a kid disappearing into a tomb. We crawled into the tomb, got up, advanced down the corridor and met four skeletons. We went for a kill conflict and started with a disposition of 10 vs. 5 but by the second volley we were down to four and we just barely managed to avoid a total party kill. My warrior escaped, badly wounded, got lost in a swamp, was led astray by green flames dancing in the distance and nearly drowned.
We wound two replacement characters (the cleric and the magic user) and then we went there again. We realized that going for a kill was dangerous and tried a trick conflict. Again, we started with a disposition of 9 vs. a lot less, and within a few volleys we had lost. We were driven off by the skeletons never to return…
And that was that. We liked some ideas in theory. We liked the grind. We liked the light rules. We liked how enumbrance worked. But as soon as the conflict started, we got disconnected from the fiction. Attack, Defend, Feint and Maneuver—it was dry, hard to picture, very abstract, and we lost. And then we started noticing that the other systems didn’t seem to make a difference or didn’t result in a play experience more entertaining compared to using classic D&D.
We’ll be playing something different next indie night.
A while ago Harald posted on Google+ and wasn’t too sure about the system. We had talked about the Solar System RPG before and so I asked him what had made him change his mind. After all, he had done the German translation of the system. Harald turned the question around and asked me instead: Looking back at the game I ran from character generation to transcendence, what had worked well and what had not?
I want to preserve what I said back then on my blog instead of loosing it in the depths of Google+:
Without thinking about it too long, it seems to me that the system is not quirky enough for me. If the rules are too simple, to unified, then results end up being predictable. With results I’m referring to the game experience at the table. With D&D and other traditional systems, it’s hard to figure out how your game play will change. There are weird spells, weird monsters, all of them with little extra rules that cover their specialty. In their totality, the systems are not rules-light, even if some of them such as the old school D&D variants have simple character generation.
I think this is also related to Changing Gameplay Over Time.
I don’t have much D&D 4E experience, but I’ve seen people complain online about the perfect progression of character’s abilities and monster’s abilities. Old versions had asymmetries over time such as attack bonuses growing faster than armor class, save or die effects eventually dominating hit points.
Furthermore, non-quirkiness promotes abstraction. Abstract combat, abstract conflict resolution, and I’m wondering whether as a gamer, I might prefer more grounding. I’ve heard the same argument from other people, too. Sometimes it is also discussed under the label of Dissociated Mechanics. I end up not liking the abstraction of chess and prefer the speculations at the table that come with such questions as “what do you see when invisible people walk through water” or “can the fire reach me around the corner?” If you have quirky rules such as how fireballs work, then you can draw conclusions as to what happens if obstacles block the fireball’s path and use them in play. If the system is very abstract, then we roll first and interpret or explain the result afterwards.
The end result, therefore, is that the game felt a bit blander than before. The story felt like epic high level D&D without all the pain that high level D&D 3.5 would add, but the actual game experience felt blander than the simple Labyrinth Lord games I like to run.
A while ago I read a comment by Wilhelm on my blog. A bit later I saw a comment by Wilhelm on Google+. A few weeks ago I saw a call for gamers from across the globe on his blog. I left a comment and soon enough I made an appearance on one of his English podcast episodes.
“We discuss the Swiss gaming scene, old school gaming, indie games and building gaming communities.” – Avsnitt 14 / Episode 6 – Alex from Switzerland
Check it out if you want to hear my German accent.
Some links for stuff we mentioned:
Games mentioned: Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, M20, Solar System RPG, Western City, FATE, Spirit of the Century, Der Geist Mesopotamiens, Mountain Witch, Kagematsu, Montsegur 1244, Poison’d, Fiasco, Burning Wheel, Zombie Cinema.
What I did not mention is the One Page Dungeon Contest. Gaah!
On December 25, 13:00 eight of us started playing Kagematsu. The samurai was played by my wife, Claudia – most people did not know what to expect and there was some gasping and yelping when the game rules and objective were revealed. Good fun was had by all, even when Kagematsu suffered a terrible defeat at the end, mostly because my character decided to flee, leaving six dies of Fear behind…
We hat some Döner, Pizza and whatever else could be had in the vicinity (since cookies, M&Ms, Stollen, chips don’t make a good dinner) and started playing the Mountain Witch. We used super-hero like ronins: One could turn into a dragon and breathe fire, one could fly and turn into stone, one could turn invisible, one had Amaterasu’s sun sword on him, etc. The beginning of the game was slow and boring, but apparently mostly because I was slow on the uptake. When I started pushing for dark fates, at least half the players claimed to clearly know what was going on. Ok, I soldiered on. As we reached the castle, a sudden flurry of violence errupted. There was fighting, there was backstabbing, the was a killing innocents, vengeful help from dead player characters and a final showdown of one player character and the witch king vs. the two remaining player characters (three other player characters having been killed before). The two remaining player characters won – he who was afraid of sleep and she who had entered a sinister allegiance…
By now it was near midnight and two players had to leave. The five of us decided to play one more thing and a few minutes after midnight we started two hour delve into The Spire of Iron and Crystal using Swords & Wizardry. It was good fun, they made it out alive of the first level, the dwarf had reached the second level via teleportation for a few moments, they had looted the gems of the crystal tree and collected the coins lying around in the slitherrats’ lair – total points awarded: 1300 for two hours of play.
There was some cleaning up to do and I think it I head the 4:00 bells before falling asleep at last.
Today we played our second session of Apocalypse World. I think I like it. There were many things about the game I suspected I would not like:
I liked the barter system and the way successes are described. Essentially you can have partial successes and full successes for every “move"—and many of the move descriptions also have a list of four or more items with a partial success meaning “pick one” and a full success meaning “pick three” from the list. That’s awesome.
I think our Indie game night will play Apocalypse World for another one or two sessions before switching to something new. I’m not sure I’d want to play it again, but I’m interested in playing Dungeon World, now.
There’s a biweekly indie RPG group here in Zürich. I still remember the exhilaration at the table after we played our first session of Spirit of the Century. Yesterday, there was a similar feeling at the table when we finished our session of Lady Blackbird.
The actual rules of the game fit on half a page of text, the character sheets are another half a page of text each – and thus every page you hand out to your players is their pre-generated character and the entirety of the rules. As a GM, there’s a page of flavor text, half a page with a map, and half a page with adventure ideas. I basically ran the 2½h session using copies of the character sheets and the half page of adventure ideas.
The story has hints of Firefly (something that’s not science fiction “in space”) and Star Wars (Leia, Han Solo, the boarding of ships) to inspire but it is sufficiently open ended to adapt itself to your players’ taste. I also liked the many female characters and the romantic framing story. That makes it ideal to introduce new players to it.
Or, according to the author:
I made a game package inspired by the things they like: Firefly, World of Warcraft, and Laputa (Castle in the Sky). The system is my homebrew fusion of TSOY, The Pool, and Mouse Guard. […] The PDF has a setting guide, starting situation (Poison’d style), pregen characters, and an airship data sheet. It’s presented “oracle style” with plenty of suggested bits for you to fill in as you play. – announcement on Story Games
After the game we wondered whether the simple mechanics would work just as well if we had created the starting situation and characters with their traits, keys and secrets ourselves. How important is this setup?
I think one has to be careful to stick to well know tropes in terms of mechanics, characters and initial situation. As Brand Robins said in the same thread:
John is using genre communication to get across what his games are about. Its pretty easy to see where he does this on the fictional level – drawing on tropes that those the game is for will have some familiarity with and an emotional response to. He’s also doing a similar thing on the mechanical level, where coherent bits are built out of elements across different games.
I’m definitely in the mood to try out more Lady Blackbird Hacks!
We played Archipelago II yesterday. I didn’t like it too much. When I sit down for my gaming session, I want to be entertained. I personally require some sort of struggle and tension for this to work, and Archipelago did not deliver. We did have a most illuminating discussion after the game, however.
I felt that the game was basically a 97% story telling game. We took turns in telling a story. Except that we’re not awesome story tellers like authors from books. Stories in a good book are subtle, deep, novel, surprising, emotional, surprising, and we are not. Maybe we could become better story tellers over time, but I don’t have much hope for myself.
I think this has to do with how my creativity works. I like constraints. Random encounters, random abilities, a struggle against opposition. The story I prefer is therefore a side-product of player action, game master plans, random rolls, twists and opposition introduced by others – it is a necessary side-product, but not something that I want to deliberate with my fellow players, not something I want to plan beforehand. I don’t want the author perspective on the story. I want to discover the story as it unfolds.
Archipelago features a random element: On your turn a player can (and usually does) challenge you, forcing you to draw a card for somebody else to interpret. These cards have the famous Yes and or No but answers. Yes you succeed, or you succeed and something minor goes wrong, or it has unintended consequences, and so on. It’s what books like Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley (@grahamwalmsley) try to teach the reader, except now you’re doing it instead of reading it.
Interesting, Archipelago works as a game master teaching tool?
I think it does.
Scene framing, saying yes, accepting cool ideas from the other people at the table, I agree!
Archipelago also has this element where every person at the table is responsible for one aspect of the game world (magic, geography, culture, history – broad aspects, all of them). This responsibility comes into play when a player draws a fate card when they are out of ideas or when they want to spice things up. The card usually calls upon another player to narrate something related to their aspect. So if Lior is out of ideas, he picks up the stack of fate cards, picks one and hands it over to Johannes to read. Since Johannes is responsible for the magic aspect of the world, his interpretation will probably involve magic.
This aspect (hah!) of the game is harder to translate to traditional games. Do I want a player to be responsible for the gods? The cities? I don’t think so. What I will do, however, is grant players narrative rights or veto powers over their home town, their faith or their race (such as my goblins or my shadow elves). We’ll work something out. If I have maps or non-player characters to share, I’ll share some info with players from the location and I’ll let them add to it as far as possible.
This works like wises in Burning Wheel and other Luke Crane games or certain skill uses in FATE games – except that I don’t require dice rolls, nor do I require rules to regulate narrative rights like the ones Archipelago provides. I just offer the opportunity to my players. One or two might take me up on the offer, depending on inclination, interest and time available.
I like there to be 10% player empowerment and story telling in my games, sometimes using emails and the campaign wiki. What Archipelago offered instead was 97% player empowerment and story telling. Thus, Archipelago turned out to be interesting from an intellectual point of view, if not from an entertainment point of view.
The image above was randomly generated using Amit’s Flash Demo of his Polygonal Map Generation (Perlin, 2D slopes). I also removed a bunch of red lines using the Gimp: Select the area with the red lines, go to colors and saturation, pick red, and change the saturation to zero. Worked for me.
I joined a group with the goal of trying as many game systems as possible. What I played:
Outside of this group I also played three sessions of D&D 4E and a session of Star Wars Saga edition.
And in my regular campaigns I played: