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:
- 1 bear, 4hp, AC 0, 3 Attacks, no trespassers
- 4 mutants, 2hp, AC 1, 1 Attacks, giants, chainsaws, see invisible, wings
- Grüber, 8hp, AC 0, 3 Attacks, sticky giant tentacles
- 3 giant ants, 3 hp, AC 2, 1 Attack, acid fog envelops combat
As the game went on, I added more:
- Orbyx, 6hp, AC 0, 4 Attacks, friendly, curious, hungry, psychic
- 1 extradimensional shadow dragon, 12 hp, AC 0, 2d6 of non-euclidean space ruptures
- 4 arachnoids, 3hp, AC 2, 1 Attack, poisonous, hungry
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!
Remember the old posts about player agency and the “quantum ogre” back in 2011? Today I was reminded of a different issue regarding agency.
Philip Watson mentioned on Google+ that he moved from AD&D 1st ed to Pathfinder with his group. The DM basically continues GMing like he did before, making up rulings rather than looking stuff up, but now some of the players are questioning this and even arguing with him, especially those who know the rules of Pathfinder better.
Here’s what I said: I left D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder because of the rule discussions. I think the reason these rules afford (encourage, invite) arguing about the rules – and I think it’s perfectly rational, which is why I decided to change the rules instead of trying to convince my players – is best summarized by Courtney Campbell in an old blog post called On Skills in Games.
- By giving me agency (making choices matter) for those choices made while building my character, I am having my agency removed during play.
Courtney was using this passage in a slightly different context, but I still find it apt: players made important choices during character generation where as the GM is making rulings at the table, possibly negating the choices they made (“How can I fail to convince the guard having rolled a 15 and having a Diplomacy of +17?”) – and now the only recourse they have during play in order to make those choices they made matter is to argue their point using the rules. That’s why players might feel cheated if a game master ignores the choices they made.
As I said, what I took away personally is that I needed to change the rules such that not many choices are made during character creation and thus agency returns to the moment at the table where play happens.
(As an aside, back in 2010 I was playing a paladin on level 12 with Charisma 19, Diplomacy 32 und Sense Motive 24 and felt unhappy about the GM making too many rulings instead of sticking to the rules. I reacted just the same without really understand why I felt so unhappy.)
I want to like Pathfinder. It’s large, it has adventure paths with long stories, it has more traditional modules, it has background material, colorful art – and yet the products are often awfully long. I used to appreciate that, but these days I often think that the material takes me longer to read than to think up myself. I’m still subscribed to their adventure path line, however, and I still listen to 3.5 Private Sanctuary.
In Known Direction 31 they discussed “interesting” encounters and Ryan says: “Basically if every player feels like they have something they can do on their turn, and not just something they can do but something that they’ve put into their character, some part of their character build that they can use, then they’re going to feel better about it.”
I feel torn. On the one hand, I absolutely understand it. On the other hand, this leads to “my precious encounter design” and railroads and quantum ogres (otherwise players will miss on these carefully designed encounters). I prefer games where as a player I have more freedom, where builds are not that important, where encounters can be incluenced by player ingenuity at the table and don’t server to reward choices made during character creation.
- Hack & Slash: On the Superiority of the Railroad Method Over Sandboxes
- The Alexandrian: The Rise of Tactical Gaming
- EN World: Player Entitlement and My Precious Encounter
Over on Hack & Slash, -C wrote a blog post called On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun that reads like a manifesto. It belongs to a whole cross blog conversation that I haven’t really read up on. Maybe I will.
Basically, -C is ranting against a «quantum ogre» – a mythical encounter that happens no matter what. -C ends the blog post with the following:
- What’s really terrible about the destruction of player agency in the above examples is the implicit thought that ‘your encounter that’s sooo cool’ is what makes Dungeons and Dragons fun. It’s not. It’s getting in that Dispel Evil on Strahd that slays him outright. It’s getting that critical on that dragon while it’s talking shit. It's taking down that frost giant at first level - not your fsking precious encounter. 
In the comments, some people argue that the quantum ogre isn’t so bad. I disagree. Here’s why. The quantum ogre is only bad if the players have information that ought to help them evade it and they cannot. But in addition to that, having to make a choice without any information is also bad. Thus, we’re talking about two bad things.
An adventure involving the quantum ogre is bad because the players’ choices don’t matter: either they don’t have enough info to make a meaningful choice or the information they have is useless since the quantum ogre will show up no matter what they do. They have no agency – they have no capacity “to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Either they cannot make a meaningful choice because they lack information, or they cannot impose their choice on the world because the quantum ogre shows up anyway.
Update: A comment by Trey on the «On How an Illusion Can Rob Your Game of Fun» blog post wanted to know about the differences between a single quantum ogre encounter and the use of random encounters. Both of them remove player agency and yet the sandbox proponents don’t decry random encounters. Why not?
I think there is a way to improve random encounters because the quantum ogre and random encounters exist in a continuum.
(The following assumes that players have some sort of information allowing them to make meaningful choices.)
The quantum oger is at the one end. No matter which way you turn, the oger encounter happens. Next to it, we find random encounter tables. No matter which way you turn, eventually you will meet an item from my precious list. Next to that, we find differing random encounter tables depending on the surrounding areas. No matter which way you turn, eventually you will meet an item from one of the appropriate regional lists. Finally, the last alternative I can think of is having no random encounters and only lairs placed on the map. No matter which way you turn, you will meet the appropriate item for this hex on my precious map.
What I’m trying to do is increase player agency:
- quantum ogre – no choice
- single random encounter list – no choice, but DM needs to be flexible
- various regional lists – players can influence encounters by picking regions
- lairs on a map – players can pick encounters by picking locations
I’m sure there are more variations. For my own games, I try do #3 and #4. Players get to pick the important encounters by choosing to explore the mountains where they need to fight a frost giant (#4). In addition to that, there are rumors about a white dragons (also #4 with partial information). What players don’t know is that the icy glacier environment also supports winter wolves (#3). In addition, the trolls are on a war path and thus I have added them to the random encounter list (this starts out as #2 but eventually moves to #3 as players learn about current events in the sandbox). This creates meaningful choices: If players don’t feel like fighting frost giants and white dragons, they can avoid the area.
Thus, I agree with Trey’s comment. Simply having a random encounter list is only marginally better than having a quantum ogre. Basically you’re just having more of them. The key is introducing ways for players to make meaningful choices and have those choices make a difference.
Update: Courtney has written more articles in his series on player agency. I recommend them all.
- On Slaying the Quantum Ogre – without information and freedom players cannot make a choice with intent nor can they impose it on the world around them
- On Ressurecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea – excellent advice that explains how to say yes, how to say no, how to remind players, how to present choices and a quick list of answers for unbelievers
Update: More recommended articles I found by following links:
- Judging the Game by Alexander Macris has this awesome passage: «Most of our capacity for meaningful choice is illusory; our daily lives are routine, and our scope of choice limited by lack of opportunity or resources. Very few people really can “change the world” in even a small way. Almost all of us lock on to meaningless decisions, such as what football team to support, or what color to dye our hair, as a means of expressing our need for agency.» The following passage also offers more food for thought: «I believe that the agency theory of fun is the reason that esoteric games like Amber Diceless Roleplaying or Everway have never caught on, and why as games evolve, they evolve in the direction of more rules. Comprehensible, detailed rules add to the player’s sense of agency, just as playing with friends in an ongoing campaign does.»