Tag Archives: system

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

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.

Introduction to the New Horizons RPG Campaign

Welcome, fellow RPG person. To the world that is not apparent to the naked eye. Where we as humans are not the only dominant species, and we are not even aware of it yet.

This here is the mandatory first post of a new blog. Something that’s usually the hardest bit for me to write, but I have a good feeling that since there’s a lot of ground to cover, I’ll manage to write something. And I’ll be expanding on each topic I touch here later in their own posts.

New Horizons has officially started. It’s a tabletop roleplaying game campaign that I’ve been planning and working on for a good while. The elevator pitch of what sort of a game this is is “team-based sci-fi horror game set in the modern day” with the players playing characters who form a field team of a firm called New Horizons (which is the source of the name, obviously).

Mechanically, the game runs on a system Powered by Apocalypse that’s been adapted to a more traditional team and mission based format. Biggest influences in system design have been Apocalypse World itself, The Regiment, Star Wars World and Tremulus. While the new mechanical things it brings to the table are few, the presentation and goals of the game differ quite a lot from that what Apocalypse usually barfs out.

The table morning after a New Horizons RPG game session

Structure-wise, I have two player groups in the campaign. Five-character (and five-player) teams each. Ten players quite a lot, but compared to my previous long-term campaign and the 54 players who participated, this is relatively manageable. The way I chose the players for the two teams was different for each.

The “Alpha Team” has five veteran GMs as players. The least experienced one has some 18 years of running games under his belt. I wanted people who knew what they were doing, and also people who don’t get that many chances to play games, because they’re busy running them all the time.

The “Bravo Team” has been hand-picked to build a team that would play out the horror aspect of the campaign the best. All of them are people who I know to be as immersive players as they come (not to slander the GM group – there is something that years of GMing games does to the way you view and play games), regardless of the experience.

Both teams’ players were given character roles to fill. The Leader, The Techie, The Seer, The Empath and The Voice. Each role came with a limited pool of things that they could choose to be able to do and a short description that might point at what the characters could be. The end result is two teams where the characters essentially fill the same purposes, but in descriptive text, they are quite polar opposites.

The game is a horror game and I’m planning on exploiting all the possible tricks in the book to get there. The initial idea of mine was that I wanted to do something of Cthulhu, but without resorting to a) the Cthulhu Mythos or b) all the tropes that come with Cthulhu. It’s my Cthulhu heartbreaker.

And it’s off to a good start. At the time of writing this, Alpha Team is somewhere in the rainy woods of Heartland, Maine; while Bravo Team is examining maps at a seven star luxury hotel in Dubai, UAE.