Cards of the A5 release

State of the Game (Closed Beta Stage 1)

Ok, it’s been a while since I’ve last updated the blog, but it doesn’t mean development has stopped. On the contrary – I’ve managed to push the game from the A3.X version to A5 (what will now be known as “The Last Alpha Version”), and now am moving to the Closed Beta stage.

Cards of the A5 release just before the Closed Beta

What does the system look like these days? In a nutshell. It’s a very different beast from what it used to be in A3. The focus since that point has been in “beginner friendly” and “modularity”.

The Language

+H is now 100% in Finnish, including every single piece of terminology in the system. The fictional corporation is still called New Horizons, because English is a global language and the corporation is global. The name of the game has changed to +H and probably will change further.

As roleplaying games are structured conversations, using the native language is pretty much a must. There might be a translation to English at some point, but for now, torilla tavataan.

The Dice

From what I’ve been observing lately a lot is that for a beginner, the concept of “roll dice, add something to that and compare it to a target number” is terrifying. Even if it’s “roll 2d6, add 1, see if the result is 7-9 or 10+”, like it is in Apocalypse World and variants. This is why I went with the dice pool mechanic I had a draft for with some tweaks:

You roll two six-sided dice. If you have an advantage, you roll one more. If you want, you can use a willpower point to roll one more. If you do so, choose a trait you have and mark that off. If, instead, you want more willpower points, you can roll one dice less by marking off a trait.

What you’re trying to do is get dice that are as good or better than the number you have on your character sheet next to the approach you’re using. So if you’re really good at breaking things, your “hurt” approach might be 3+. And any rolled die of 3, 4, 5 or 6 counts as a “hit”. This change was done because bigger is better.

You then look at the relevant move and see what the number of hits you get does on that. If you didn’t get hits, the GM gets to make a move. Which usually involves you succeeding, but bad things happening while you do.

The rest of the fancy mechanics (Flow, Criticals, Trust) in the original dice mechanic draft will not be relevant to the first stage of the Closed Beta, but they are still a part of the game.

The Player Moves

Killing your darlings. That’s what they say. The road here has been bloody. Sometimes the darling is something that you despise, so it’s easy – that was the case with Toimi paineen alla (Act Under Fire variant) that has been rubbing me the wrong way ever since I first saw the original in Apocalypse World. With others, it’s been harder. But the hand size has come down a lot. It should be manageable now. Should. That’s what the Closed Beta is for.

The GM Threat Tracks

Threat Tracks, Terror Tracks, Doom Tracks. It’s a thing that’s been in the game from A0 version. But now it finally has a form. There’s rules for the GM to follow on how much horrors they can unleash, forcing a build-up and tasty foreshadowing before being able to unleash all the horrors of the uncaring universe on the characters. It’s a very concrete rule for the GM, and one I’m really proud of.

Dividing the Game

I’ll be dividing the game into two sections. The Mission level, that is the focus of the Closed Beta for now, and the Campaign level, which will come later. Mission level is the part that I’ve fine-tuned the most. It deals with regular schmoes of the company going toe to toe with Shadow Biosphere entities for the first time without any tools on how to deal with it. The Campaign level brings those tools to the table, and open up the world beyond the uninitiated.

The Closed Beta Itself

The thing is – alpha testing is me running the game to people. Beta testing will be me writing those rules to other people so they can run it to their people. It’s going to be a wild ride.

And that’s it, I guess. I’ll be posting updates as I get things written. The thing with beta testing is that I have to hand the reins to someone else

Dice Mechanics Draft for A3.X

Even if it scares the hell out of my current players who think that I have gone insane and will ruin their game, I decided that I will start posting rules ideas here even if I never decide to use them. And at the moment, that mind is slowly but surely moving towards something using dice instead of the current playing card based resolution mechanic for the eventual 3.X Alpha of New Horizons.

Roll Dice, ??, Profit

The reasons behind this are as follow:

  1. Dice are much easier in terms of production values than the custom deck of cards constructed from 3 decks of cards. Unless going for custom ones, but that’s just silly.
  2. The current tokens (that are also cards) lack the tactile feeling you get from fiddling something that’s concrete. And the tokens before this were lacking in meaning – “Why do I have different things in front of me?” “What does this one mean again?”
  3. The damage mechanic from cards lacks finesse.

The big reasons not to switch from cards to dice are:

  1. Cards have a somewhat predictable curve – if you’ve gotten the two Queens in the deck, you know for sure that you will not be getting a third unless the deck resets.
  2. Cards are pretty, and when printed, could allow more custom information on them than just the basic value. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with my need to come up with a proper corruption mechanic for the game.
  3. And well, all this.
  4. (a bonus late edit thanks to one of my players pointing this out on FB) Cards aren’t as familiar territory for the player, so a card draw creates a much more intense and scary experience than good old dice.

The basic Powered by the Apocalypse mechanic (2d6 + stat) is something that the current card+stat mechanic of +H emulates quite religiously. Thing that I’ve found really annoying with it is that the short scale gets hard to work with in a game that makes the players face the world, instead of other players — teamwork brings a constant momentum to the rolls; the characters get experienced and gain stat bonuses; and the players let the professionals focus on the things that they are good at. And all of this skews the scale assumptions a lot.

Add to this a good season of playing Blood Bowl, a wonderful miniatures board game by Games Workshop, that also loves its 2d6 rolls (even if the dice are wonky-looking) and too many deaths in the tentacles of some Great Old One in Arkham Horror from FFG. And me looking at the probabilities of rolls in those said games. Suddenly I’m thinking a lot of “what ifs?” — The basic scale of PbtA is “nope”, “yes, but…” and “yes.” (with a bit of “yes, and..” sprinkled in between from the 12+:s to basic moves). The probability spread of basic successes is not that far of from those of rolling certain things in BB or AH. I could tinker with the mechanic without losing the effect quite easily.

I thought about dice pools and target numbers. These were always a pain in the butt in Storyteller System games (one of the big flaws they corrected with the future versions was to have a static target number), so the idea was a bit painful. But with a limited amount of dice, it could be manageable, even tolerable. The system version I have in front of me (doodled on a napkin, more or less) says:

  1. Roll 2 six-sided dice.
  2. If you have the advantage die in front of you, roll that as well. (The easiest way to get this is for someone to help you in whatever you’re doing)
  3. If you have a #hashtag relevant to the situation you can spend and roll one of your confidence dice as well. (These are passed around like candy, so it’s more a question of having a relevant #hashtag)
  4. Look at the (2-4) dice you just rolled. Any dice showing a number that is less or equal to your relevant stat is a hit.
  5. Consult your move card to see what your success actually means in this situation.
    • The card will tell you that if you have one hit, you get the “yes, but..” result for the move.
    • If you have more than one, you get the “yes” result.
    • Investigation moves will let you ask a number of questions based on the number of hits you get.
    • No hits means that the GM gets to make a hard move against your team.

Thing to note is that this mechanical chance means switching the stat range from the old -2 to +2 (or -3 to +3 if you’re crippled or really experienced) to 2 to 4 (or 1 to 5, cripples and legends, again). Characters starting with two 2s, two 3s and one 4 for their stats.

Super special advanced and complicated difficult extra rules (only for real pros):

  • If you are damaged in the stat that you are rolling with, roll a special disadvantage die with the other dice, but don’t count it as a hit if it comes up less or equal to the relevant stat. Instead, if it comes up more than the stat, the GM gets to make a soft move (one of these is giving one of the current threats a soft move later, so this doesn’t really mess with the pace of a situation, but can add pressure nicely).
    • If someone helps you, you don’t need to roll the disadvantage die, and probably get an advantage as well.
    • If your damage has been healed in the stat you are using, only a 6 rolled on the disadvantage die counts.
  • If you have trust towards another team member, you can spend it before they make a move. If they get more than one hit, nothing special happens and you get your trust back. If they get just one hit, they get a second hit, and you lose your trust point. If they don’t get a single hit, the GM gets a soft move, you lose your trust point, but they get to re-roll all their dice. The second result sticks.
  • If you have flow, you can spend it after a failed roll to re-roll your original 2 dice (not your advantage or confidence dice)
  • If you have unlocked the possibility of a critical success (a “yes, and…” result, 12+ in ye olde AW) in a basic move, if you roll doubles (two or more of the same number, like two sixes or two ones, disadvantage die doesn’t count) and get at least one hit with your roll, the result is a critical success.

And I think that’s where I am at the moment with the probability mechanic revamp. It is quite player-friendly. Advantage and Confidence are easy to get, and that puts the balance towards the players getting most of the rolls to the “yes, but..” or better territory, but still there aren’t situations where a bad result can’t happen – no amount of bonuses will make it sure that you get a hit.

And even if it’s starting to feel like something that is alien to the 6-/7-9/10+ mothership that is *World games, it still stems from the same basic ideas. I will have to see where this line of thinking takes me, if anywhere.

State of The System and Ropecon mini-games

So, where is New Horizons? It’s been some 7 months of silence from my part (mostly because of a death in the family that derailed things), so I’ll try to get back on the track with short tidbits now and then maybe continue writing actual long posts further down the road.

Tokens I'm using now.

Quick update on the campaigns first: I’ve been running continuous games for Alpha and Bravo teams, ~15 sessions for Alpha, ~20 for Bravo. Bravo is just moving into Season 2 of the campaign with a big showdown in the last session we had and with Alpha we had a first team split to explore the characters in a more contained setting.

The feedback I’m getting from the players in invaluable (helps to have 7 people in the groups whose field of work is in gaming), which means that the system is updated often and keeps going through iterations quite fast. Officially we’re playing using the 2.3 version now, and I can’t count how many iterations the 1.x versions went through, but “countless” comes quite close.

The 1.0 rules were a shot in the dark. Anything that could even remotely fit a Corporate Scifi Horror campaign was incorporated. Way more mechanics than one could ever need, but that was sort of good. It’s easier for me to cut down mechanics than add new ones, it would seem. 1.x has had Death Moves (from Star Wars World), two interwoven stats (one set for approaches to situations, the other for professional expertise. They were just confusing), sanity-esque corruption-like mechanic and even a core Move (“You did … what?!”, which is basically “Are you crazy?!” from The Regiment 1.0) that was completely out of the style of the games that I was running. It had everything and the kitchen sink. Playtesting with the main groups showed me what got actually used and what had problems, and slowly but surely I honed the smaller details (like what stat to use where, or the wording of some Move) and kept in mind the big things I wanted to change.

Then came 2.0, which was basically the first big revamp. Reduced the system to 5 base stats (change of the stat “move” to “push”, ditch the role stats), one core Move for each stat, put more mechanical consistence on the way Moves work (for example, all role Moves that ask questions give an advantage (+1 forward) to a relevant follow-up Move), temporarily ditch the sanity mechanics so they don’t distract from the game, make the system actually geared towards teamwork, formalize the way threats and gear work.. and most importantly start building a vocabulary for Powered by Apocalypse games that works more naturally in Finnish. If all games are essentially conversations that are moderated by rules, the rules need to speak the same language as the conversation for things to flow perfectly. While the 2.x rules give the campaign some structure, but most importantly, they are geared towards one-shots, like convention games. If 1.x was a general shot in the dark, 2.x took weird stabbing motions towards a campaign play structure and the character advancement there had everything imaginable in it.

And as of last week, I’m now working on the 3.0 version. It will not hit the campaigns in a long while as I realized that there are huge changes that I need to do to the very core of the system. The character roles (playbooks) have always felt schizophrenic and overlapping, and after making pregenerated characters for a couple of con games, combined with feedback on the sanity system from Alpha team, I figured out I may have to take a dual-playbook approach to the game after all. Role book and Depth book (name pending), where the later is the character’s approach when things get shadow biosphere-y and the first one deals with the mundane. Moves will go through a language and functionality check so that using a Move becomes natural in the conversation of the game (so most adjective+noun combos like “calculating bastard” turn into something more action-y like “accept the cost”) and the effects reaffirm the corporate scifi horror theme. There is a huge need to revamp the roles as well. Empath, Seer and Voice roles will be rewritten to more mundane counterparts, while the shadow biosphere stuff moves to new parallel playbooks. Stats will move around for all the roles but the Leader, and this will again have an effect on the moves. And other things. All in all, my mind is primed with ideas.

Full set of character cards for one character. Moves, tokens, the work.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the Ropecon games and what I learned from those.

First thing I learned is that New Horizons is meant to be played around a proper table. It’s a funny by-product of the card system, but to function “as intended”, the game needs structured seating where everyone sees each other and have their cards in front of them. I am not sure what to do with this information in regards to the actual campaigns I’m running (where the game situations are … relaxed), but it might be so that I move the games to the kitchen from now on. There is some relevance in having the Leader at the end of the table, facing the GM as equal (this was impossible actually at Ropecon because of the noise) and everyone around the table seeing the cards and the tokens.

I ran two atypical scenarios at Ropecon, and playtested both before the con. The fact they were something else, allow me to look back and say things like “well yes, if this had been a normal +H game, there should have been some sort of an intel-gathering phase there at the beginning.” Which leads to me thinking that there needs to be a mission setup Move. 10+, you know two facts about the mission choose both (insert list). 7-9, as 10+, but you choose one, GM chooses one. 6-, as 7-9, but GM gets an extra Move for a Threat. Or something like that. In one, I used the gear system to the maximum potential, in the other, the Threats (I’ll have to talk about those in full detail later. They’re pretty much like Tremulus’ GM hold, but more nuanced).

It’s nice to see where the game is going and even if the players weren’t there to provide feedback for my game design, but to enjoy a game, it was interesting to see how they interacted with the system.

I will run the scenarios I did for Ropecon probably once more so I won’t put the details here to spoil potential players.

The Mithral Rule of The Wingman

Like I said, 2014 is a year of being a good wingman. I will do my best to be one, and I’ll preach about the virtues to my players non-stop until they make me shut up about it. My players don’t really deserve the harsh tone I write this in, since many of them are excellent in this, but it’s easier to talk about important life lessons in an uncompromising way.

wingman
noun: wingman; plural noun: wingmen
“a pilot whose aircraft is positioned behind and outside the leading aircraft in a formation.”

The term these days has more to do with bar life and picking up girls than wild battles between airplanes, but the basic meaning is the same in either case. It is doing the crucial job of helping someone else stand in the spotlight. When it comes to roleplaying games, we are wingmen to others most of the time.

The Mithral Rule in action.

The Mithral Rule

One of the self-imposed rules on New Horizon’s Agenda sheet says that as a GM I should: “Make everyone around the table look awesome and be the number one fan of the characters.”

Sounds like a simple enough task.

Some people still see the GM as the guy in charge of creating and running the opposition in the game. But I’m not working against the players when I’m hosting a game. No GM truly is. My role as a GM has a lot to do with moving things forward at a good pace and making sure that everyone gets their share of spotlight, and that when they’re in it, they shine. I am there enabling the players, even if it means I have to let go of the beautiful plans I had and the scenes I had prepared.

It’s not my game. That’s the first truly hard lesson every GM has to learn at some point. One way or the other.

It is the painful truth and that one hard lesson. And now you, the player, have to learn that as well. It’s not your game. We play RPGs together. It is our game. You are as much responsible as the GM. And as a responsible person, here is a good guideline for you to start with as well: “Make everyone around the table look awesome and be the number one fan of the characters.”

Make Everyone Look Awesome

Now. Take a deep breath. This will take some getting used to if you’re not on the level with me already.

You have an obligation to each and every person around the table. Yourself, the other players around you, the GM. This responsibility comes from you having huge amounts of control over the course of the game.

You already without question, do some of the things that come with this burden – you play by the rules of the game, you follow the genre conventions, you portray your character with consistency.

But it’s much more than those. You have control over so many things. You as a player have many questions you should be thinking about during a scene. How much space does my ego take in this scene? How does my focus on certain elements of a scene affect the direction and flow of the scene? Are my actions enabling the other players or limiting their options? What do the others in this scene want to do and how my actions relate to that? It is easy to assume that yours truly, the GM, will take care of all these things, when I probably can’t do anything about them without your co-operation.

Your actions as a player determine how everyone comes off looking. Look around you, remember these people you’re playing the game with. These are awesome people. Make sure they too get the chance to be that.

You don’t have to talk at every turn. You can easily steer the spotlight to your fellow player who hasn’t had a say in a moment. You can focus your attention on things that are important to others as well. You can pass the ball to the GM (I’m at the table as well) if the opportunity arises. You can leave the situation in such a place that the other players have actual choices on how to act and react. You can let them make those without telling them what they should do. You can trust them to be awesome.

That’s the core of it. Everyone is awesome. You can let them have room to be awesome. And you can trust them to be awesome.

And remember that “everyone” includes you as well. You are awesome too, and when someone gives you a chance, be just that.

Be the Number One Fan

Being mindful of the other players just requires some attention and insight, but being truly supportive to the other characters is hard.

It requires that you make a sacrifice. You need to make and keep your own character flawed, so that the other characters can have the opportunity to do the stuff they excel in. A good wingman is the one that says “I have no idea how to do this.” when there is someone else who actually knows. It’s the one who can’t pull the foot out of their mouth so that the Voice can take over. It’s the technophobic one who manages to lock the team satellite phone so that the Techie can come and save the day.

And when I say this is hard, it’s because it’s easy to do wrong. You can appear supportive, but in fact be the opposite. Singing praise to the skills of others is still the sound of you singing and hogging the spotlight. And if you make a character help yours and then point out that your character really could have handled herself without the help, you’re being a condescending jerk. Or if you try to set up the situation where another character gets to do their stuff, but because you’ve set it up and planned so completely, the “moment of shining” is just a dice roll and nothing more.

To be someone’s fan is to enable them to do what they’re great at – Taking a nasty punch in the face so that the scrapper can come and beat the hell out of the guy who assaulted you. Or locking yourself in the cold storage so that the cat burglar can get you out. Saying flat out loud how you have no idea how to defuse this bomb. And pointing out that someone has to make that daring leap across the chasm to save us all.

Enabling doesn’t have to even be that drastic. You need to embrace and love what the other characters are about. If you understand their essence, it is easy to stay out of their way when they do wonderful things or ask for their help when they can do something better.

And be a fan of your own character. I know I ask for the sacrifice, but it’s easy to be a fan of a flawed person. Enjoy being bad at something, and let it show. And when your character gets in a situation that they’re born for, let the spotlight feel as hot as a thousand suns and enjoy the brightness with every cell of your being.

It’s a Two-Way Street

Now, the reason you need to start paying attention to this right now, is that if you are a good wingman to others, you are also opening up the opportunity for them to be a good wingman to you. If you’re willing to let your character take one for the team so that others can shine, it is easy for them to return the favor down the road, and that leads to better dynamic around the table.

And when I say you need to start paying attention to this right now, I mean from next game forward. For Alpha Team that’s the day after tomorrow, and for Bravo Team it’s in less than a week. And for you, random reader, it’s probably soon as well. So stop thinking like it’s your game and remember that we’re all in this together.

States of Play, 2013

And 2013 is over. It’s been a good while since I’ve written an article into the blog. And while this is sad, I have been busy with the game and things related to it instead of public writing, so I can’t really say I’m feeling sorry about the lack of updates. But here’s where we are now:

States of Play, 2013 in review

And back to the basics

I have to say I’m ashamed that when I started the run of New Horizons, I had forgotten how to run a normal role-playing game campaign. My previous long campaign was a set of procedural related one-shots for three years, and then a few random mini-campaigns. They all were based on the idea that I had to be able to respond to the wacky ideas the players came up with on the fly, so there couldn’t be that many pre-planned things.

I tried starting a campaign a few months before New Horizons and failed for the same reason New Horizons has been hard. I didn’t do the long road of planning about everything that normally goes into scenario design. Building a longer, more stable campaign means that I need to focus. Prepare. Think. Ponder. Write characters with short term motivations and goals as well as the long term. Print out maps, think of encounters, make challenges.

The system I use in New Horizons has a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to tell not only what, but why the non-player characters are doing the things they are doing. The investigation rules revolve around me to be able to provide the player characters with meaningful information when they ask for it instead of random clues.

In many ways, +H is more simulationistic system than anything I’ve used in a very long time. And now that I’m finally getting that, I have started to put the effort into the “right spots”. The game I ran the other day to Bravo Team was the first one where I felt fully comfortable with the rules, so at least something was accomplished by the end of 2013.

And speaking of rules…

Now that I’ve run about a dozen sessions of the campaign, I have had an epiphany about how the system is built. The huge emphasis on Role Moves over Basic Moves has a profound effect on not only what rules get used in the campaign, but where are the points of interest in the fiction.

The only two times where the GM makes their Move are when things aren’t progressing, or when a character fails their Move. That means that the trigger points of the Moves become the possible turning points for the fiction. Take the Move that triggers when you are in an intimate situation with someone, and every intimate situation you end up will become a possible point of something dramatic. The ebb and flow of the game ends up being determined by which Moves the players choose for their characters, putting a lot of responsibility for the story in their hands.

Also, a counter-intuitive thing with the system is that having a Role Move doesn’t necessarily make your character more powerful or capable. Someone who doesn’t have the Move “Get the Hell out of Dodge”, can still make a daring escape through the window, probably just as well as someone with it. Just that the rules for handling that situation are different from someone who has that Move and the effects of success and partial success are very different. The drama is forced to bend to a different direction.

There is a lesson or a thought in there about characters in the team taking identical or different Moves, but I’ll leave you ponder on that or maybe return to it in some other post.

Design like it’s 1999

The Moves cards (not an actual photo, just a mock-up)

Being a freelancer and having way too much spare time, I’ve been doing the visual things for New Horizons with the “this will look nice on my portfolio” level of attention and love. Much to the annoyance of my players, this means a lot of graphic design everywhere, even in the situations where they would be happy with just a scrap paper with some letters on it. As well as an endless stream of revision on things that “Already look quite fine just the way they are!”

But for me it’s been great. I’m already looking at the earlier documents I did for the first game sessions and redoing them in a way that fits the “new and improved” line of design. And I’ve done tons. Character sheets, web pages, documents, even a few mock up trailer videos for the game. And for my Christmas present, I put some money in to getting the Moves Cards printed in color and proper cardstock via TGC. Will see how they turn out somewhere mid-January.

Where we are now, at end of 2013

Few words about the actual campaigns. Both teams have now completed their Tutorial missions and their first actual missions and are somewhere in the November-December area of 2013.

Without going into specifics, I have reached the point in the campaign where the words “Shadow Biosphere” have been said to both teams and they have had the opportunity to speak with the scientists of New Horizons who actually study these things. Both groups have ran into people who have opposing goals to the company’s. And both teams have had an opportunity to travel the world. So all of the basic things about the game have been covered.

Alpha Team is currently heading to R/V Polstjärnan that has been lost for half a year, and Bravo Team is yet to make a choice about where they’re going to head to next. Possibly Heartland, Maine. Possibly Oslo. Maybe Geneva or southern France. I’ll see once they reply to my love letters.

Resolutions for a new year

And looking forward.

I promise to continue with the blog come 2014. It’s been on hiatus, but I’ve had the opportunity to recharge my batteries and get things rolling again, so there is no reason to keep this place silent.

I will continue to tinker with the system and release some form of a playable draft to the internet (in Finnish) during 2014.

I will put effort to preparing the game sessions. I am seeing how much preparation I need to put to get the ball rolling right, and I will do my best to get at least that much work done.

And I’d like to make a challenge to my +H players, and pretty much all the players in all the games out there. I challenge you to be even better wingmen in 2014. Making other players (not just their characters) look awesome is a skill that will keep on rewarding you for the rest of your gaming career. Elevate them and they’ll repay you in kind.

And remember that it’s only a game, the main point of all of this is just to have fun!

Happy 2014!

Here, as a treat, one of those trailers I’ve made for our games. It’s spliced together from movies, games and tv-shows.

Things to Fiddle With: Electronic Love Letters

I’ve ran some LARP campaigns in my days, and that has left me with a severe allergy to players who have ideas on what their characters could be doing between the game sessions. I try to keep my free time as “game-free” as possible, but I do acknowledge that I need to keep the players invested in the games during downtime. In New Horizons, I have discovered a nifty tool – Google Drive’s forms. I’m using them to write “electronic love letters” to my players between games.

Love Letter in action

What’s a Love Letter?

The term “Love Letter” is Apocalypse World slang. I can’t find its origin, but one ur-example is Hatchet City with its set-up. The typical AW Love Letter is a short description of a situation that has happened before the current session, followed by a related Move.

“Dear Shadow,

You followed the clues gathered so far to the Elysium and there one Ravnos bastard called Spirit Boy was indeed selling your sire’s heart. Roll+Generation:

10+: choose 3

7-9: choose 2

6-: the Storyteller chooses one

  • You manage to get your sire’s heart back.
  • You don’t fly into Frenzy and slaughter the Ravnos emissary.
  • You aren’t left owing a Major Boon to the Nosferatu Primogen for covering your ass.

Also, while there, you discovered that Damien isn’t actually a Caitiff, but belongs to one of the Seven Clans. Which one?

Love,

your Storyteller.”

This structure gives a great bang to the start of a session. You’re right there now. Shadow’s coming out of his Frenzy, being soothed by the ancient Nosferatu who has managed to keep the situation from getting out of hand. And now.. what do you do?

And How I’m Bastardizing Them?

After the first session of the Alpha Team game, I wrote actual Love Letters. Not good ones, but that’s because they were wrong to the +H context. I don’t really want to start the sessions with a racket. It’s a slow, creeping team horror game with calm normal people. But I wanted to keep asking the important and difficult questions that Love Letters give the opportunity to.

Now, I have been using a post-game questionnaire (on Google Forms) to ask things from the players.

It has some voluntary recap questions. Something like “with a couple of sentences, describe what happened at the airport?” They remind the player of what happened, and I can spotlight things like the presence of a shadowy enemy or a certain NPC with them. Even if a player doesn’t answer it, they still return to the game for a moment.

The important, mandatory questions have to do with the direction of the group. Multiple choice questions like “From these three cities, where would you like to go to next?” The answers allow me to take the game where the players want me to take it (from the choices I’ve provided to them, of course)

And of course, open feedback. Feedback’s is important, especially in a game with lots of new elements. Criticism, rules suggestions and happy thoughts are all appreciated.

But none of these sound like the Love Letters I mentioned earlier. No hard choices anywhere.

The Love Lettery Stuff

In situations where a player character starts a session in a pinch or if a player misses a game, I’ve used the form to ask more personalized questions. They’re related to what’s at hand and set up how the next game begins.

The meeting was boring as you imagined, but at least you got some juicy gossip there. Now as you’re returning to the team, you know the following… (choose two)

  • The Valkyria guards are out for blood (if you don’t choose this, you know instead that the Valkyria people really just want to talk)
  • There is a hacker at the event who is planning to expose your company as the evil you are (if you don’t choose this, you know the hacker is there, but targetting your competition)
  • The main researcher is a former +H employee and is holding a grudge against you (if you don’t choose this, you know New Horizons has actually headhunted her and she’ll be joining you in a few months)
  • The Valkyria know that all of you were at the site of the accident (if you don’t choose this, you know that they only know of the two people they saw at the site)

That’s a fairly good example of a personalized question. It steals from the basic idea of a Love Letter in that it gives the player a running start. Their character has arrived late because of the meeting, but bring important intel.

There is no randomization, and in fact, the method of choosing comes from Durance (that’s currently on sale via The Bundle of Holding) where you get to choose something good, but have to give up other good things and end up with the opposite of them instead. The character returns with accurate intel, but only half of it is good news. The hard choices are always very hard indeed.

Choose Your Own Adventure…?

This is something that I’m just starting to explore. The possibilities with electronic forms that redirect themselves with your answers are much greater than what you can do with a simple paper that contains some text and a Move.

When we last saw you, you were in the shower. Suddenly something is wrong, and you feel like… (choose one)

  • … the walls are caving in on you.
  • … there is someone else in the room with you.
  • … the room temperature has dropped by several degrees.

And if they choose the walls caving in, we can give them a follow-up question about running in a hallway, instead of one about finding themselves in a room with a ghost, or an axe-murderer. Or an axe-murdering ghost.

It requires more work, but it is actually possible to build questions that are a lot more complex and base themselves on things that the player chooses.

Five RPG Systems You Should Check Out

We are all the sum of our parts. And each game we run draws from our experiences of reading, playing and running games before it. No campaign is born in a void purely out of divine inspiration, and the same holds for systems. With New Horizons now underway and the system more or less fleshed out (still tweaking it daily), I’ve been thinking what RPGs have been most helpful for me lately, design-wise (more or less – the games I’ve stolen most stuff from)

Five RPG systems to enjoy

And while the actual list would be long and complicated, these are five systems that are making my mind tingle right now.

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The Game Master as Teacher

The masks a Game Master wears in a tabletop RPG are many. They are an authority figure standing over everything, judging the world from their ebony throne. They are one of they players, there to enjoy the action with their friends. But the role that rarely gets brought up in conversation is the one of the Game Master as teacher.

A game is a love triangle between the players, the GM and the rules. In some groups everyone owns the rule books and memorize the rules. More often I see situations where the GM is the only person who has the books and full knowledge of how the game works. So while herding the cats known as players, and trying to get the adventure across, the GM also has to explain how things work and what dice to roll and where.

I know players who keep asking “which dice do I roll?” session after session in games that use only a pair of d6s. And others playing in the same game who have started optimizing their characters’ numbers from the get-go. People learn games differently and at different speeds. And usually you end up in a situation where the “system mastery” willingness of players varies from one to the other.

While it would seem optimal to let the more experienced players be the rules experts and guide the least experienced ones, there is a huge danger of it turning into a game of “you should do this” that quickly draws the fun out of playing. One big fun thing about RPGs is that they’re a safe environment to make mistakes.

In my games, if the game has rule books, I try to give them to the people who are least comfortable with them. They can then read them while other people are doing stuff and learn. This is much better than them toying with their smartphones or reading comics. And when some rule question comes up from any of the players, I point the newbie to where they can find the rule in the book and have them read it to the group.

While this does bring the game to a complete halt, it is a good part of the active learning process. The least-experienced person gets the time they need to get the rule and everyone else can chip in by explaining what it actually means, thus getting a more firm grasp of the whole. Everyone slowly learns what’s happening.

Now, with games like New Horizons, where there is no core book to share, the responsibility for teaching the rules is really all on me the GM. This means that I both can and have to pace the way I let the players in on how things work. I start with the very basics, get them tuned in on those, and then slowly expand the rules as we go along.

My plan was to craft a few tutorial sessions in the start of the campaign. The first games were played with a lighter version of the system. Basic rules like the Moves were used properly, while others, like Critical Damage weren’t touched at all. And some, like Trust and Confidence were made to be easier and more carefree to use so that the players get the hang of them before they had to think about conserving their strengths. I explained the rules as we played through a sample mission.

Looking back, I would probably construct the tutorial sessions differently than what I did now – taking the structure from the Recruitment Job presented in the Leverage RPG core book that is designed to do nothing else than showcase the characters’ abilities. Will remember this in my next campaign.

Also, while +H has no book to consult, the rules are still there to be read. Every Move is written on cards that are in front of the players. While watching others play, you can look at the cards and ponder how to use them later to the best effect. Effectively placing the rule book in all the players’ hands. The writing out of the mechanical rules is another aspect of Apocalypse World playbooks I really like.

And the last but not least teaching aid I have at my disposal is this blog. I try my best to use this as a backdoor channel in explaining the players not only the “what” but the “why” to my players. I’m trying my best to be open about the design decisions, which hopefully allows the players to understand them, and thus get to the core of the game.

Damage, A Game Mechanic

We, as gamers, are obsessed with combat and especially the way our characters take damage. If we haven’t been specifically trying to create a game where physical harm doesn’t come the characters’ way, we incorporate one damage mechanic or another to our system.

Me too. Of all the rules components in New Horizons, damage mechanics have gone through the biggest changes throughout the design process. Despite my efforts to keep combat as secondary element as possible, I’ve focused on it a lot.

Damage and Doom tokens on Move cards

I started with a system that was just Hit Points. Damage is an abstract arbitrary number that goes down on a hit and up when healed. Simple. Fast. A model for combat where you go in a dangerous situation with some numbers and come out with some others, and the actual events of the combat don’t reflect mechanically on the greater story.

But a “black box” combat system trivializes violence. Actions need consequences. In New Horizons, combat is a bad thing. So, I re-did the damage system. This time modeling it after Vampire: The Masquerade. As I have implied before, the redeeming qualities of White Wolf‘s Storyteller system are few to none. I admit I chose it because of familiarity.

Having a mechanical penalty from damage was a simple way to give concrete effects for characters getting hurt. It also allowed me to highlight the teamwork that’s central in New Horizons – you were allowed to ignore the penalties from wounds if you worked together with someone or someone patched you up. Damage was brutal enough. I felt happy and proud.

Now. This would have been the final version if I hadn’t been playing in an Exalted game where I was on the receiving end of White Wolf’s damage system working as intended. That is, working horribly. My character got injured early in the game and I spent the rest of the campaign being pretty much useless, since even small penalties can cause a horrible tilt to the capability to perform anything.

This, combined with the Moves, where success also determines narrative responsibility was horrible. Roll penalties from getting damaged result in a spiral of darkness in the story that would be almost impossible to escape.

So I redesigned. Stole basics from Apocalypse World, and then did the rest of the system myself. When your character is harmed, a Move triggers to see what actually happens. This is to keep me, as a Game Master, from being too calculative with the way I deal out damage. Things can go much worse than I planned.

When the player marks down a point of harm, they assign it to a previously unharmed Stat. When a character triggers a Move that uses a harmed Stat, they have the same success rate as always, but if they act alone, they trigger additional consequences from their actions if they draw a black card from the deck while making the Move. That’s about 60% chance of the GM getting an extra consequence from your Moves if you do them unassisted. If some other character helps you with what you’re doing, it negates the possibility, making teamwork integral at the later parts of a mission when characters have taken damage.

In story terms, the harm marked in Stats is non-remarkable. Bruises and shock. Any character can heal these from another with something on the level of a good pep talk. A successful healing move marks harm in Stats as “healed”, which means the worst edge of that harm has been dealt with. But you can’t mark another harm on a “healed” Stat, and there is still a possibility of consequences if you trigger a Move with it while acting solo. But only if you draw a blue card from the deck.

Once you’ve marked five of the character’s Stats either as harmed or healed, the next time you take a point of harm, it’s Critical. Critical harm is the point where you need actual medical attention, and fast. Getting to Critical triggers another Move and that can cause lots of long term badness (that I didn’t use in the Tutorial, in case my players reading this are wondering) and after that point, you have to apply the black card rule to all Moves you make.

When you get injured while Critically hurt, you’re out. Killed. Dead. While I am one of those people who love long-term character-centric stories, I didn’t want to remove death as a real system-generated possibility. Horror stories are not horror stories if there is no possibility of the ultimate ending. Keeping the stakes real.

As with most system components, damage is there to give the right flavor for your game. Using this particular damage system for many other games I have ran would have been a terrible mistake. Every game needs things that work for them, not things that work for some other game.