Tag Archives: apocalypse world

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.