Category Archives: Things to Fiddle With

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.

Things to Fiddle With: The Character Sheet

One of the staples of RPGs is the character sheet. That piece of paper that keeps a record of who your character is. It’s a solid constant that has stayed with us from the beginnings of the hobby.

For more mechanically complex games, you need that spreadsheet of abilities, skill scores and derivatives.But no matter how light the system, the character sheet has stayed there to remind you from one session to the other who you’re playing. Even if you use a system that has no scale of values for things like Strength, you will have it in front of you.

Some games have broken the mold, of course. They might not have a sheet per se or use it for other things than the characters. Building a story on the paper or something like that. These days some people have have gone fully electronic, having 9-page Excel sheets instead. But exceptions aside, the character sheet is one of the main reasons why Tabletop RPGs are called “Pen and Paper” games.

Since New Horizons is on fundamental levels a hack of Apocalypse World, using Playbooks for characters would have been natural. Those are basically a combination of multiple choice questions and all the relevant game mechanics you need to play the game.

But I have a more traditional game, with a character sheet to match. There are no lists from where your character name or gender can be chosen from. Just places to write down things and note numbers.

To keep track of what I’m talking about from this point on, this is the actual sheet (or sheets).

The first thing to note is that the sheet is for the most part written in Finnish, with only some mechanics (all the numerical stuff) in English. This is something I’ve been doing long with games, even before I started hacking them – if it is a term related to a thing that would never get used in-character, then it is in English. That way we don’t have to specifically mention if we talk in-game stuff or off-game things. If I ask “Paljonko sen Strength on?” (“How much is his Strength?”) it’s clearly a mechanical question. Asking “Kuinka vahva se on?” (“How strong is it?”) is clearly another thing, more tied to the in-game narrative.

But the actual character sheet. The first page is very traditional-looking. On top you have things like “Character name”, “Player name” and the various describing characteristics. There is nothing really interesting here from the design point of view. Text fields and free-form answers.

While the top is feel-good for the character concept (and things to use with Confidence), the middle contains the meat of the character. Both the character’s numerical stats and their relation to the team. As keep pointing out, team is the essential unit in New Horizons. You live and die with it, so it had to be a central part of the sheet as well. (BTW. to tell things as they are, I am stealing a lot in the team structure as well as the character sheet’s team representation from Unien Äiti, a campaign a friend of mine is running.)

The bottom of the page is dedicated to various things that affect character in the long term, but which are updated during short-term gameplay. Critical damage (and death), experience points, and the three Degenerations. This is the part of the sheet that has gone through most iterations, and at the moment I’m quite happy with it.

Basically everything you need from the character sheet during the game is there on the first page. The second page steals a lot from the Apocalypse World’s playbook structure – there is the list of the Moves the character has access to (without descriptions though) and the possibilities for experience usage.

The Moves list is half-filled out with the few things that are set in stone, like the common Moves all the characters share and some other small details. All else has to be filled in by the players. Why this is a “long-term” thing instead of important first-page stuff is that the Moves the player has in their use are also written on cards the player has in front of them during play.

The experience part is a straight-out version of the experience tracks in the playbooks. Well, mostly. I’ve made a three-tiered system to slow down the retirement and spread to keep things progressing on a more “old fashioned” speed. This is the spot where each character Role looks most different from the others — every Role has their own progression track that should generate unique game path to each character.

The sheet itself is printed on sturdier paper than regular, 200g/m² (the regular copy paper is around 80g/m²) to be exact. This is an important finishing step in the design. It makes the sheet feel more real. An object instead of just some paper waste you toss around. 200m/m² is quite extreme density, but the difference it makes in the way the players touch and handle the sheets is worth the extra cost and bulkiness (storing them is harder than you’d expect). I was going for 160g/m², but the digital printer was just out of it for the hour I happened to go there, so 200 it is.

Things to Fiddle With: The 2d6 Card Deck

Tactile components are important for me in RPG situation. There is that feeling to having something to play with while gaming. As a Game Master, I’ve never been the one to build elaborate props, but I have a tendency to make up for that by using a good many physical objects as part of the mechanical system for the game.

Now, as much fun as dice are to use and one can’t deny the gratifying oomph of rolling them, there is a certain acquired elegance in cards that I’ve come to appreciate lately. How they feel in hand and how you usually don’t have to hunt them from under the sofa every second roll. I used a Tarot deck in the previous campaign, and for New Horizons I’m using a deck of (sort of) regular cards as an alternative to dice.

What the look and feel of my deck would be was clear from the beginning – I had participated in the Kickstarter for the Grid 2.0 deck by 4PM Design, and had a nice pile of those decks in my shelf waiting for a project to use them on. They also nicely played in unison with the blue-tinted color scheme I had planned for +H.

Card deck works as a beautiful 2d6 replacement

New Horizons is Powered by Apocalypse, in the most traditional Apocalypse World way. This means that to be a purist, the players should be throwing two six-sided dice around when executing Moves. Luckily, to make a deck of cards that imitates this randomization is not that hard.

I started with a single 2d6 spread – one 2, two 3s, three 4s, four 5s, five 6s, six 7s, five 8s, four 9s, three 10s, two Jacks (11) and one Queen (12). That gave me a very thin deck of 36 cards with the correct probability matrix, but I had to use only a few (4) cards from a second deck, leaving me with one really crippled deck that would be useless for any future projects.

So, to get a bit bigger deck and make use of more cards, I doubled the count. two of 2s, four of 3s, twelve of 7s, etc. That butchered a total three decks, but to a more satisfying results, mostly because of the next steps.

To get an accurate simulation of a 2d6 roll, a deck needs to be shuffled after each draw of a card. While that would work, it would stall the game and feel like a constant magic trick of “pick a card, any card”.

The quick and dirty fix I came up with was adding four Jokers to the deck as “reshuffle cards” – two black ones and two blues (also known as red in other card decks). Drawing one means you need to reshuffle the deck and draw another card to determine the actual result. This makes the reshuffles themselves random, causing a proper enough randomness to the method.

But something was still wrong.

After meditating on the matter, I realized that the game really didn’t need a dice simulator. If I was using a deck of cards, I should really use the deck more. So in the final version of the system, when you draw a Joker, you choose if you want to reshuffle the deck or not. After a pile of Jacks and Queens, you probably would like to. After a streak of failures because of low cards, you’d want to keep going because the deck is now stacked in your favor. And if you draw all the fourth Joker, you are forced to reshuffle.

Another tweak to them was that the Blue Joker should give a +1 to the result and a point of Confidence to the player, while a Black Joker brings a -1 to the result and adds one point of Terror to the pool. This skews the original pitch-perfect 2d6 scale just enough to justify the cards instead of dice.

And as one last detail, I added some imbalance to the blacks and blues of the deck. There are 30 blue cards in the deck (including the Jokers) and a total of 46 black cards. The colors come into play in the damage mechanics, which I will get to in a future posting.

And the good thing here is that the deck feels like a real object. It gets passed around the table and the players draw from it one by one. And the used cards spread around the table, reminders of the past actions. All in all, it has a good feel to it. You know, a solid, tactile one.