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:
- 2010-12-30 Looking Back – indie games we played (comments)
- 2012-03-16 Podcast Update – podcasts I listen to it
- 2011-09-30 Solar System vs. Old School D&D – talking about Solar System RPG and old school games (comments)
- 2011-11-30 Erzählspiele vs. Labyrinth Lord – comments on the various indie games I liked and comparing them with old school games, in German
- 2012-02-09 Social Skills Revisited and 2011-05-14 Role Play, not Wish Fulfilment – about social situations
- Rules Cyclopedia: A review 15 years in the making, written by Greywulf in 2006
- German Roleplaying Games by Stargazer
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:
- The rigid character creation allows you to pick a very specific kind of character. In terms of D&D, you’d pick a class, a typical attribute distribution, a skill package, a name (from a list!)—it’s really very rigid. In the end, however, I enjoyed it. I guess a rigid system is very similar to a very simple system (like Labyrinth Lord).
- The obscure attributes like Hot, Hard, Weird and the rest of them are often tricky to picture. Eventually it all works out because the character sheet will list the “moves” you can do with the respective attribute.
- The rigid list of moves players are allowed to choose from seemed very artificial. I feared it would play like D&D for Dummies. In the end, however, it feels quite flexible. On the contrary, by listing common actions and the required skill test, it’s actually easier to pick a move and continue playing.
- I don’t like the post apocalyptic genre. I don’t remember seeing any movies in this genre. I don’t remember playing either Fallout or Wasteland.
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:
- a session of My Life With Master (2010-12-28 My Life With Master)
- a session of In A Wicked Age
- a session of Don’t Rest Your Head
- a session of Donjon
- a session of Dungeon Slayers
- two sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition
- a session of Polaris (2010-12-06 Polaris)
- two session of Mountain Witch
- a session of Robin Laws’ Feng Shui
- three sessions of Dogs in the Vineyard
- two sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition
- a session of Paranoia 2nd edition
- three sessions of Spirit of the Century
- a session of Labyrinth Lord
- a session of Western City
- a session of The Shadow of Yesterday
- a session of Burning Wheel’s Blossoms Are Falling
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:
- Rolemaster (got switched to Legends of Middle Earth)
- Legends of Middle Earth (got replaced by A Song of Ice And Fire)
- A Song of Ice And Fire (I had to quit – no more time!)
- Mongoose Traveller (got switched to Diaspora)
- Diaspora (got replaced by a second Labyrinth Lord campaign)
- D&D 3.5 (two campaigns still ongoing)
- Pathfinder RPG (one campaign still ongoing)
- Labyrinth Lord (just started a second ongoing campaign)
Today we played My Life With Master in our biweekly Monday system experiments group. I liked it! Things I noticed:
- All characters were basically identical. There is no niche protection, and none is needed.
- Characters had two negative attributes, and the master has two negative attributes. Nothing else was needed.
- Players spend a lot of time talking about the scene and explaining the results of the single die roll made per scene. The rules push you into this situation, but there are no rules governing the main activity itself.
- As you fail and weariness and self-loathing increase, you start looking at your stagnating love score and realize that you need to find friends and love soon, or you’ll end up loosing against the master. It is a game about finding love. That makes your life as a wretched minion bearable.
- The players loved looking up the fate of their character after the master had been defeated. I like how finding closure is part of finishing the session.
- The other two characters took their own lives. Mine went on to serve another master. We explained it as the other two dying in the crumbling castle, none of the children rescued, the inspector blamed my character, I hide in a forest and am consoled by a friendly women that takes me in. She, of course, is a witch and turns out to be the new master…
A nice game for one-shot sessions! We created the master, our characters, and ran the game in a three hour session.
I had recently heard about it on Canon Puncture episode 101 featuring My Life With Master. What we played matched what I heard on the podcast. Well done.
I was talking to some friends the other night. One of the things we do is run a biweekly “systems” RPG night where we try out new rules for one to three sessions. Many of these games are indie games. J. asked me about our Polaris experience. As I wrote on a previous occasion, it didn’t go very well. But as we were talking about setting and mood and not systems per se, I started talking about the default Polaris setting: some sort of ice elves living in a clean and fantastic ice age, the dawn of the corrupting sun, the order of knights, the demons, and key phrases and rituals to help you get into the spirit. I told J. that I really felt we should all have read the book before sitting down to play because it sets the mood so well. After reading the book I wanted to give Polaris another try.
Thus, today I went to check out Ben Lehman’s site. And this is what I saw:
- As an experiment, I’m trying a new pricing model for my eBooks. For right now and at least until the end of the month, Polaris and Bliss Stage are moving to a “pay whatever you like” model. […]
- As part of this experiment, you can also receive the pdfs at no charge by writing to me at email@example.com and asking. Please let me know why you’re interested in the games, where you heard about them, and so on.
- This is an experiment which will hopefully lead to more exciting things in the future. I hope I can make this work. – Ben Lehman 
Wow! I approve! I decided to donate USD 6 which is not a lot. Maybe I’ll donate some more if we actually run the game and I end up loving it after all.
As for the rules, for those of you not familiar with Polaris: There is no game master. Instead, four people meet and the person sitting across from you acts as your antagonist. You have attributes that keep getting better, but eventually you have negative attributes that keep getting better as well, until you finally fail in your fight against demons, the sun, corruption, or whatever else the theme of your campaign is. It’s subtitled “chivalric tragedy at utmost north” and I approve of this subtitle.
I also like this summary on the Polaris homepage on why you might want to play the game:
- I wrote Polaris to give myself the horrible beauty that I wanted to get from in Nobilis, but could [not] find in my own play of that game; to give myself the smooth GMless play that I wanted to get out of Universalis, but couldn’t find in my own play; the moral decline that I wanted from Sorcerer but it wasn’t geared to produce; the fairyland magic of Dunsany’s stories that I had never thought possible in a role-playing game. If you like Nobilis, or Universalis, or Sorcerer, or Lord Dunsany, or if you wanted to like any of them, you should try Polaris.
- I finished Polaris because I wanted to show that death in a role-playing game is not a bad thing. If you like it when your characters suffer and die, you should play Polaris. – Ben Lehman 
There’s also a thread on the Story Games forum regarding the pay what you want model.
I really wanted to like Polaris after listening to Canon Puncture 89: Game Advocates – Polaris, but it fell a bit flat at the table. I would have liked to see more free roleplay, and more epic tragedy, but somehow the magic didn’t happen. The other players have scheduled a second session a few weeks from now, but I’m not so sure whether I want to join. For the moment Harald has lent me his Polaris book, and I’ll have a read through the book.
Regarding that Canon Puncture link above… That’s an RPG Podcast with Indie game focus I really recommend.
In their own words:
- “Game Advocates is a miniseries of interviews about a single game, not with the game designers but with people who have thoroughly played the game. In Game Advocates, we ask about how the game plays, what’s fun about it and what players enjoy about it. We also chat about possible pitfalls for new players.”
At the end of the Polaris session Harald, Lior, and I were talking about our plans and I mentioned that I was starting to see the end of the line of Indie game one-shots for me. It was an excellent opportunity to quickly play through a lot of games that are being talked about online, and that was good. I was also looking for a new game to play for a longer time, and testing various systems is going to help me make an informed decision. Unfortunately that also limits my interest in games that cannot be played long-term. My Life With Master, Mountain Witch – I guess not.
Twelve hours later, I’m listening to Podcasts and as luck would have it, Canon Puncture is talking about using Indie games for longer campaigns! Canon Puncture 96: Indie Campaign Games. I agree with the suggestions of Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vinyard, and The Shadow of Yesterday. We haven’t played Prime Time Adventures, yet.
I’m still bummed that my Burning Wheel / Blossoms are Falling one-shot didn’t work out. I still want to like the game! Perhaps if I just started a campaign and pushed! … Irrational, I know.
What I’m really afraid of is contracting Gamer ADD.
For more on that topic, I recommend the following recent blog posts:
- Gamer ADD and the Campaign by James Maliszewski @ Grognardia
- The Long Game by Brian Murphy @ Trollsmyth
- Combating Gamer ADD for 30 years by Rob Conley @ Bat in the Attic
I think that’s key. Deciding on six sessions in my Burning Wheel Campaign:Krythos game worked but at the same time it made clear that we were not serious about the game, that we were just trying to experience some of it instead of making it our own.
I don’t mind a campaign folding after half a year, but I fear the encouragement of Gamer ADD.