Category Archives: DEVblog

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

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.

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.

How to Get Out of a Game? “Exit Strategies”

This is a topic that came up on the Facebook wall of a friend that fits the general style of these Monday morning posts. What to do when a campaign you’ve signed up for just doesn’t “do it” to you? How to get out of a game that you don’t want to play in anymore?

I am one of those people who always aims to please and never wants to be a bother to anyone. This means that I am exactly the type of player who finds the idea of leaving a game harrowing. And I had to quit a game I was playing in. This was about half a year ago.

Can you just walk out? How to get out of a game?

The campaign concept was brilliant, the GM is one of the most innovative bastards (that’s a good thing) I know, and the co-players were excellent. But sadly, the game would have required way more commitment than I could ever reasonably give it. While in my youth I could reasonably memorize the philosophies of three different fictional religious orders to get into the mindset of my character, doing something on that scale for every game session was too much for me (or at least that what it felt like, to the stressed-out me).

We had been playing for a good while before that realization hit me. It took me three more sessions before I managed to actually say something, and even that was because a non-gamer friend pointed out that I was supposed to be gaming for fun and if I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I wanted, I should stop.

First I considered calling. But I knew I could be easily convinced that I was wrong, so I decided on a written message instead. I did my best to write it out as clear as possible that I had to quit, and that it wasn’t anything personal (since it wasn’t), that the game just wasn’t for me. And all that poetry. Still, took the better part of the evening to get the simple message written. It was horrible to do. And then I sent it. And it was over. All I could do is wait.

I got a very kind and understanding reply back from the GM, and the world didn’t end. We’re still as good friends as we were before the “break-up” and as far as I know, the campaign still continues to this day (can’t be sure, since one of the things about the campaign was that we don’t talk about the campaign to people outside the campaign). It really was as simple as saying “I can’t play in this game anymore,” but believing that was pretty much impossible.

From the other side of the GM screen, it seems more complicated than it is as well. The thing that has killed more games I’ve run than any other is “scheduling issues”. And everyone who runs games knows that it is a code word for a) actual scheduling issues or b) dwindling interest in the game. You are never really sure. Players do not tell me if they want out, so they just make the arranging of a game date impossible. Which just doesn’t kill the game for the player but the whole group. It is a terrible way for a game to go.

While I haven’t spoken with the players about exit strategies in New Horizons, it’s next on my list of things to do. My plan is to tell them as clear as I can that I don’t mind people quitting. It’s not a bad thing to take a couple of months of break from the game. It doesn’t hurt me if people have to cancel the last minute. The only thing I ask is that the players are open about what’s going on and won’t just disappear. The game is designed to handle things like that, but only if I know about them.

This is a thing that has happened with me growing older. I value my time. I value my friends’ time. I would never want them to be suffering in a game I ran if it was inconvenient for them. I know that life happens. People have to move to strange countries because of their work. They get babies. They find other time-consuming hobbies. They die. Or they get tired because it’s cold outside. And we have to be willing to accept that.

The bottom line is that it is just a game. We play it for our entertainment. If it costs us more than we get from it, we shouldn’t do it. As players we should feel free to say this to our GMs. As GMs we should be prepared for it and accept it if it happens. There is nothing personal about it. That’s the part that’s hardest to keep in mind.

So, as a player tell the GM if you want out and you will probably not ruin the game for anyone. And as a GM explain beforehand how to get out of a game and you might save your campaign. Simple as that.

8 Seduction Tips for the Game Master

If you look at popular magazines aimed at men and women, you find a lot of articles about seduction. Lots and lots of things in these articles are really basic human interaction put to words, but there are some hints of wisdom here and there in those seduction tips that can be used to improve the way you run RPGs. This is a rewriting of an old article of mine from an old blog of mine.

Seduction Tips. Go outside. Play.

8 – Be the Alpha

“In social animals, the alpha  is the individual in the community with the highest rank.”

That’s a Wikipedia definition of an alpha. At the table, this is your position as the Game Master. It doesn’t mean you need to dry hump lower-ranking members of the group back into submission if they get out of line, but you are expected to take charge of the situation and provide rulings and guidance. While games these days focus on shared ideas and executions, as the GM, you are still the one organizing the event and everyone there subconsciously holds you responsible when it comes to keeping things rolling.

The GM role is an authority role, and you should embrace it as such. The others are expecting you to be a good, reliable leader. Remember that actions speak louder than words do. So stand behind what you say, and deal with situations fairly.

7 – Stay Fit, Have a Life

Having an active social life and staying in good health is super-important. If you’re energetic and happy when running a game, this bleeds to the other players as well. Having social circles outside your gaming buddies mean that you’ll spend less time obsessing over game details and that you’re putting yourself out there. Meeting new people and getting experiences, stuff that give you tons of inspiration for your games. Maybe the new girl in the coffee shop is the basis for your next big NPC. Or she could be the love of your life. You never know until you get off your ass and actually go do something.

6 – You Can’t Seduce Someone Who Don’t Want To Be Seduced

Sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Not all people want what you’re offering. Maybe the way you two think about RPGs clashes or could be that they just think you’re a brute for your lack of interest in 12th century swimwear. It is all very natural, and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. If you get indicators that they’re steering away from your game by constantly canceling and being absent, you should offer them an actual chance to step down. A reluctant player in the game is worse to the game than one not being there.

5 – Use Stories To Sell You(r NPCs)

This one is a tip about selling your NPCs than selling yourself. You can make any NPC more memorable by introducing them with a story rather than just a description. The new recruit who comes late and explains how she almost got into a fight with an old lady over the last pair of the pink gloves she wanted is infinitely more interesting than a new recruit with pink gloves. Keep a couple of stories for each major NPC and use them to re-introduce the character to the players.

4 – Be Interested In What She Has To Say

Really pay attention to your players. What are things that keep coming up? What do they react best to in your behavior? When do they go non-responsive? You need to figure out what your players want. Sometimes you can ask them directly, but more often than not this will make them to tell you what they think you want to hear. Observe their actions, and keep eye contact with them to show them that you’re observing. If you are slumped into your rule books when they’re making valid points, you give a discouraging signal. A good GM is one that cares about what’s going on and shows it.

3 – Learn From Each Encounter

Players are notoriously bad at giving negative feedback. Listen to what they say, and listen to what they don’t say. Fill the holes and figure out what didn’t go well. And once you figure out that, try and improve. Don’t aim to get everything perfect at once. A goal of improving one thing per game session is already an impressive one. Even if you don’t manage to make things better with the first try, it’s a huge step every time you try.

2 – Know your shit

A good player can spot bullshit a mile away, so you better know your shit. If you keep pulling rules and ideas out of your ass, your authority ends up under inspection pretty fast. If you’re trying a new system, be willing to do the effort and learn how it works. Better than your players. The OSR has it right with their “don’t make rules, make rulings” policy. If you can’t remember how a rule really works in the books, make a ruling how it goes in your game. And then stand by that ruling from that point on.

1 – The Best Way To Get Over a Bad Lay Is To Have Ten Great Ones

And then all goes to hell. Half of the players don’t want to talk to you anymore because of your Norwegian artsy indie scenario that experimented with whale blabber as a randomization mechanic. It’s time to take a deep breath and get back on the horse. Pick up a Pathfinder adventure, make characters, kill goblins with people. Don’t let failure bog you down. Keep rolling them dice.

Cooking Your Way Through a Game

I’ve always loved using kitchen metaphors when talking about Role Playing Games. Usually while talking about the industry, since I’ve found the comparison between a traditional RPG core book and a beginner’s cookbook to be very apt. And other things like how by cooking or running a game, you will only ever touch small audiences at a time. But the gaming-as-cooking thinking fits the other parts as well.

Cooking your game

The real meat (sorry) of where I’m going today with this metaphor is how you build a good game.

You start with an idea. It might be “I’ll cook veal today” or “I’ll make Mexican food” or even “I’ll pick a random recipe from the net”. This also applies to your game. You need to have something. It might be that one adventure book you’ve wanted to try out, or maybe you are really itching to run a proper old school Call of Cthulhu game, or just that Halloween is coming up and you want something with werewolves.

Choosing the right protein for what you’re doing is essential for any meal. If you choose tofu and beans, you’ll end up with something different than you would if you use crayfish. So do you go with d20 or In Nomine? Is using a system with tons of moving parts really necessary for a game like this or would you be better of with something almost freeform? Do you use the whole system or just parts of it? Cut and trim it to what you actually need. Or maybe mix things up, borrow something from another system. Could the scallops benefit from some bacon?

As important as the protein are what you’re serving it with. This is where basic flavors actually come to play. Most systems out there can support multiple styles of game play. Just as you can use fish to make Japanese sushi just as well as some nice Finnish fish soup, you can use Pathfinder to run hack and slash Pathfinder or horror Pathfinder. And on the other hand, if you want to run a love triangle game, you need to consider what system would best fit that. You can run it with Conspiracy X, but if you want the game to focus on that aspect, you might want to go with something like Shooting the Moon. If you want to make a fish soup, might not be the best idea to use chicken for the protein.

Then you start to cook. When choosing ingredients, you’ve probably decided how you’re going to go. Seared, steamed, baked, boiled. By the time you’re having your players sit down and write down characters, you’ve pretty much committed to the choice of system and most of the other big parts for the game. Sometimes you realize at this point you’re missing something – you might need to take one more bell pepper or switch the red onions to garlic. Some things simply change once you get going. But once you heat up the pan, it’s go-time. All the preparation you have done has brought you here and you either succeed or you don’t.

Seasoning happens during this phase. You add salt, pepper, vinegar to taste. Maybe some blackened spice mix to get that Cajun thing really going on. You taste, you sample. Seasoning is getting the things taste just right. It’s the small details that affect both the system and the setting. Do you want Dark Elves in your fantasy world? Are the zombies fast or slow? You get the feel of the game – are the players going to enjoy a bit of heat or would they like to keep things smooth. Ask questions about preferences. While you can trust your instincts a lot, you can’t guess allergies. Ask and adjust.

And if you’ve done everything right, you’ll get a great meal that is both nutritional and delicious. And most importantly, it’s more than the sum of the parts you’ve used for it. But a good cook knows that the actual food is only a part of the experience. Presentation is equally important. If you make the game look nice and feel nice, on top of being nice, it will shine.

This is the point where you explain how all the carrots were organically grown by you over the summer and how this particular part of a bull’s body has been used for this meal by the Italian princes since the 1400s. You need to tickle the senses, tease the mind a bit more. Use the right background music, have a nice gaming table set up. Going that extra mile to get a dice set that fits the game’s theme. Players need seducing.

Or you know. Just heat up a microwave pizza. Nothing wrong with that if that’s the way to roll tonight.

Choosing the Right RPG System for Your Game

I hate generic role-playing game systems. And love writing about how much I hate them. The choice of the right RPG system for your campaign is the second most important decision you’ll be making over the course of its lifespan. And the most difficult one to change once the game has started, so it shouldn’t be made lightly.

RPG systems, even the generic ones, tend to do things right. Pick a game and you’ll find something that is done well in relation to the style of play it tries to generate. Most games are awesome like that. But one needs to think about systems as very specific tools. Trying to screw in a nail with a screwdriver can be damn difficult. Same with running campaigns with wrong RPG systems – make the wrong call, and you’ll ruin things.

Which of all these possibilities is the right RPG system for your game?

I have to admit, it is really easy to get stuck with your favorite system, even if it is not the optimal one to run a certain type of game. I was there for ages with the old World of Darkness, which is a dreadful system for any type of game. Generic rulesets like GURPS and Fate Core even encourage system-elitism. They provide “universal” rules and tell everyone that they are usable for any setting out there. And people confuse this with “any and all types of games.”

Systems generate gameplay, and that is different from the setting. If you take the rules of GURPS and run a Call of Cthulhu game with them, you will end up with a very different game than if you used the actual rules of CoC. I think it’s a shame that the big game systems claim that they can be used for anything. Sure. They can. Hell, coin toss can be used as a system for any kind of an RPG. But should they? Not really.

If we were talking about computer games, this would be a lot clearer. An aggressive first-person shooter might very well be set in the same setting as a complex team-based strategy game. They are very different because of the systems they use, and if you wanted the feeling of one, you wouldn’t use the system of the other. With tabletop games, that is easier to forget.

The big question is of course, how can one choose the right system for the game?

You’re lucky. It is really easy. Before you even consider a system, write down things you want from the game. They might look simple, but once you’ve written them down, start opening them up. “To get this, what do I need to have in the game?”

“I want a game that has highly tactical situations where the decisions that the players make have consequences” might sound quite straightforward, but it is the snowball that starts an avalanche, once you start to think about it. Decisions having consequences means that wrong decisions have to have negative consequences. That leads quite naturally to a damage and death mechanic there somewhere. “Highly tactical” and “player decisions” make me think that there aren’t that many layers of abstraction between the player input and what happens in the game. No “I roll for team leadership” generalizations, but more direct things like “My character gives Private Johnson the order to flank from the left.” And that means some team play rules. And so on. Keep opening up what you want, until you run out of ideas.

Once you have figured out what you want, it’s a matter of picking the system. Take your time. Weigh your options. Go to a forum and ask around. And find out that this is a point where you’ll have to compromise. The moment where your perfect vision gets mangled up by realities of life. Think what you are willing to sacrifice, don’t give up the things you can’t. Be willing to hack the shit out of the system to get those crucial points to to stay in the game. Nothing wrong with little creativity.

The system is the paintbrush. It’s not a blunt instrument. Choose the one that sings in your hands and paints the picture you want it to paint.  There are dozens and dozens of systems out there to choose from, pick something that fits the game you want to run. The use of the right RPG system makes any campaign a lot better.

The Importance of Honest Communication in RPGs

One of the greatest things about growing older is developing that confidence about who you are that enables you to openly express what you really want and what you actually don’t. Besides the obvious benefits in relationships and random encounters in the night, clear and honest communication has also done wonderful things to how we play our RPGs.

I’d really love to hear about what you guys are thinking of playing, so I can better build my character as the glue that binds the team together.

My character will appear to be really antisocial and cold at the beginning, but this is only because I’d like to let the growth out of that shell be a big part of her story.

I just got out of a rough relationship, so if it’s at all possible, can the stuff focusing on my character’s family life be bright and happy?

I’d love to see you guys push me to making hard calls.

I’m paraphrasing what various players in my games have voiced about their characters and preferences to the rest of us. Something like that wouldn’t have happened 5 years ago. On a really good day, we might have vaguely hinted the GM what we wanted, but having an open discussion about it, especially with the whole group – unheard of.

Honest communication?

(cards by 4PM Designs, tokens from Dapper Devil)

New Horizons is in a good place when it comes to honest communication. It’s been fun to see to the players making their ideas ideas, wishes, needs and wants known to me and each other. And as with many things, the two teams differ somewhat in their approach to this.

The Alpha Team’s players have been very open and vocal about the direction and pace they want the game to progress and what sort of things they’d love to see and feel in it. As GMs, they have a solid grasp of the structures underneath that makes them willing to talk about structural matters quite openly. They are also extremely careful about not stepping on each others’ toes or stealing the spotlight from someone else. Polite lot.

And as a more concrete example, The Bravo Team character creation / tutorial session began with a good long talk about what the players were looking for from each other and how “we should see how this plays out and be willing to change things if they don’t really click.” The conversation was started by the players themselves without any prompt from me while I was in the other room getting ready for the game. I walk back to the gaming table and there is a discussion going on about how they see horror in games and how they should play it together.

It’s a wonderful age to be playing games in. We’ve matured as people and as gamers a lot over the years.

One thing that I just have to mention is something I came across while reading Ashen Stars after Joonas (Who plays The Leader in Alpha Team) recommended checking it out. The game actually has a formal system for dealing with characters’ personal plotlines. While I will not use this particular system in detail, I will be asking the players to come up with a few themes, plot points or motifs that they want to see their character exploring and encountering in the campaign. But this will wait until after the tutorials are done so the players have had an opportunity to see and feel the game for what it actually is.

I’ll leave you with a thought about your next game. With RPG campaigns becoming more “this our game here” instead of “the GM’s game that we get to participate in,” and things like “How violent and how graphic do we want to be?” or “At what point do we fade to black in a sex scene?” being standard discussion topics (which reminds me, I need to cover these with the players in +H): Why not expand the dialogue further, to things like “What are our themes?” “What do we want to explore with this game?” “Where are we going with this thing?” “What do we need from this?”