Thursday, May 12, 2005

[Polaris] An Aspect

What I was writing the other day.

Technique: Song of Truth

Description: When you sing, it is a glorious song, and right in the eyes of the empyrean. Lies have no power before your tune -- indiscretions are admitted, betrayals exposed, and disguises torn off like ragged flesh. When you are done, no falsehood remains.

How it might aid you: You must root out a web of lies and corruption. You are called before a senate committee on false charges. Your superior has become corrupt. Your father finally tells you how your mother died.

How it might hinder you: Even you cannot resist your own song. Your wife tells you that she loves another. They blame you and not those that told the lies. You accidentally expose a tactical deception in the midst of battle. You discover that your entire life has been a carefully crafted illusion.

Special Rules: When the Heart invokes this ability, they must sing, at least a note.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GNS Post #1

Not the big essay I had planned, but getting closer.

This post is mirrored at the Forge. Please feel free to respond at either place, although I hope that serious discussion will mostly hit the Forge.

This post is about GNS, in case the titles didn't warn you. If you don't get GNS, you maybe should bone up first. If you don't like GNS, don't say I didn't warn you. Anyone wanting to talk about GNS as a whole, rather than the contents of this post, ought to e-mail me privately.

This is not the big social mode post, nor is it the big humor post, but I think maybe it is working up to it.

GNS, Topics, and Symmetries

I'd like you all to harken back to the ancient and hoary essay GNS and other matters of role-playing theory particularly, the GNS page of that essay, particularly the section about "premises." Ron has specifically asked me not to use the term "premise" wrt to present day talk about that concept, because it conflicts with the modern use of premise as specifically related to Narrativism, and so out of respect for that I want to find a new term of what he is talking about, because I have some things to say about it.

I'm going to propose that we use "topic." The use of this will be something like: "The topic of the game was 'which is more important, friendship or duty?" Note that, wrt Narrativist games, topic is directly equivalent to premise.

Thesis is something about games that are played, not about game texts. If any of y'all talk about game texts, I will kick your ass.

Topic is clearly something about the creative agenda of the game that you are playing. There is no "right answer" to a topic question, the game can be resolved either way. Topics structure how players relate to the game as an activity, a communication between the social contract level and the exploration level, if you will. When I started thinking about it, though, I realized that there is a really deep symmetry in this aspect of them.

While looking at the following, check them out with regard to first, whether they have to do with things that are inside the Exploration level or outside it and, second, whether they are resolved by things that are inside the exploration level or outside of it.

Let's look at some Gamist topics:

Can we play well enough such that our party survives the perils?
Can I score more points than the other players?
Can we make our characters fall in love and live happily ever after, despite the fact that the world is against us?

Gamist topics are, as far as I can tell universally, framed with respect to the players of the game themselves. They are not particularly about the imagined content at all. The key to answering the topic question is the players themsevles. Gamist topics are about whether or not you have the guts and skills to compete and win.

Furthermore, Gamist topics are resolved by the actions of the players themselves. Again, what matters is you, the players, and your own abilities and motivations.

So we can say that a Gamist topic is framed wrt the players, and resolved via the actions of the players.

Now let's look at some Narrativist topics:

Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community?
Is your duty to your wife greater than your duty to your country?

Narrativist topics, to contrast with Gamist topics, are framed with respect to the explorative content. The concern about wife, the concern about the country -- that's a fictional wife, and a fictional country. What the topic is regarding is definitely part of the exploration level. This is true regardless of any meaning or symbolism it has for the players.

Conversely, Narrativist topics are resolved, like Gamist topics, by the actions and judgments of the players. Is the life of a friend worth the safety of a community? That question is ours to poke at and examine and work around and think through, as players, engaged participants in the game. While what our characters think has an important effect on the explorative content, the most important thing is what we think about what they do.

So we can say that a Narrativist topic is framed wrt the explorative content, and resolve via the actions of the players.

Now, how about a Simulationist topic?

What does it feel like to be a vampire?
What does the King of Four Dragons require me to do?
How do various weapons harm or fail to harm a jabberwock, in specific causal detail?

Simulationist topics, like Narrativist ones, are framed wrt the explorative content -- this is not a real King of Four Dragons, nor are we discussing real vampires. This is totally fictitious content that we are addressing with our play.

But unlike the other CA types, Simulationist topics are also resolved, as much as possible, by the explorative content. It doesn't necessarily matter what we, as players, would "like --" the resolution is left up to the setting material, or internal causality, or something similar. (I think. This is the one I'm most unsure about.)

This is an interesting symmetry, to me. Here are some thoughts:

Is there a category of play where the topic is formed wrt to the players and resolved via the explorative content? I'm thinking "no" but I'm willing to be persuaded.

Are my classifications valid? Is there a type of Gamist play, say, where topic is formed wrt the explorative content? (I don't think so, but I'm just checking.)

Does the equals sign run the other way? If all Gamist play has topics that are framed wrt to the players and resolved via the interests of the players, is all play with a topic that is framed wrt to the players and resolve via the interests of the players Gamist? If not, what does this mean?

Am I just wrong?

Other words for "topic?"

Anything else?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

GNS Query

I'm going to be (hopefully soon) writing an essay about various proposals for an "extra Creative Agenda" to be added to the Gamism, Narrativism, Simulationism triad. The three serious proposals which I am familiar with are the Social Mode (with Emily Care Boss as its primary proponent), Zilchplay (with Walt Freitag and Nathan Banks as its main proponents), and Humor (with me as its primary proponent.)

Historically, are there any others? Can you point me to Forge threads?

This is not intended for you to brainstorm new "possible fourths," although I'd be interested in hearing about them in another place, like the Forge's GNS forum. This is mostly a historical query.

P.S. Forge-style link indices for all of the three mentioned, most especially zilchplay, would be much appreciated.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Apropos to the Great White Games thread, I thought I'd mention my design projects, successful and otherwise. Partly this is simply to organize my own history in my head.

  • After A Third I actually stole this game from my brother -- he half completed it and then I sort of picked it up and did my own thing with it. I was 13 at the time, I think, and had already helped him and a friend design an RPG called Misericorde which I cannot remember any details of, and hack BattleSystem into a deranged monstrosity of a system.

    The best thing about After A Third was the title. It was set in a post-apocolyptic pseudo-medevial society, which I think was actually supposed to be in China, although it looked a lot like Europe. There were six races, each of which had strange special abilities, and a combination random-roll attribute and skill-point system. You rolled 8d10 keep the highest 6 for attributes. Major whiff factor. A high starting stat+skill was somewhere in the 50 range. It had a strong influence from Palladium (physical and mental stats divided as such), Tunnels and Trolls (huge, stupid weapons lists), Star Frontiers (d100 resolution, stat+skill) and of course D&D.

    The actually cool things about the design were a mental damage point system which reflected pain, fatigue, and trauma; the weapons lists where you could by weapons in different weights for different strengths; and the really cool cultural notes that I threw into the "speak languages" and "music" skills. There were evil people who lived in abandoned bunkers beneath the earth, and their language sounded like "Tonal Polish, spoken by someone who has gravel in his throat."

    To this day, I'm not sure what I meant by that.

  • The Darkest Hour or just The Dark. I spent a long time on this game throughout middle school and high school. Never finished, of course, though I ran it a couple of times. The basic deal with the game was the you were ordinaryish people in the modern world, which was being invaded by alien creatures out of myth and nightmare called the Legions. Their deal was that they were a sort of inter-dimensional Roman legion -- they marched into a dimension, conquered it, took the best warriors to be part of themselves, sowed the ground with salt, and left. There was some sort of complicated high level conspiracy stuff about God and angels going on, but I can't remember it for the life of me.

    The cool things about this game were that you had to prioritize in character generation in this bizarre way (sort of like shadowrun or TRoS, I know now); that the attributes were divided into physical, mental, social, strength, endurance, grace and you used the cross-sections of those (social grace, physical strength, etc.); the giant psychic powers list with some really bizarre things on it; and likewise the giant monster list which included Chalugs, which were insects that masqueraded as humans and ate people whole, Mages, that were those who wanted to join the legion but didn't have the natural talent, and so were corrupted, Hammers, who were organic robot things made of solid shadow, and so on...

    The sucky things were many. Serious Palladium influence is seen throughout.

  • Cosmos A game where you played gods, I think. I've forgotten most of it.

  • Expenditure System Amber was a revelation to me, and I immediately latched on to dicelessness as the superior way of doing things until midway through college. This was a first step towards that in my own design, and had a lot of elements I'm still fond of. Essentially, you had this sheet which roughly described your character in terms of self, job, hobbies, etc. Each of the words could be used, once, to accomplish something. Things also had traits, which they could bid back. If you tied in bidding, you rolled for it. I only ran this game once, a first-contact alien scenario, but it was a fun time.

  • Metroid I love Metroid so much that I wrote a Metroid RPG around the time I got to college. Never played it. It was essentially a SF dungeon crawl. The cool thing about the game is that, when you rolled your attributes, it "self-balanced--" a high roll gave a penalty to the next roll, a low roll gave a bonus. The only way to get the vaunted "perfect 100" in an attribute was the roll something very low. It had a fun little subsystem with sorting plug-ins for your powersuits, too.

    From the expenditure system, I stole the idea (that I still like, and used for OtB) of giving characters all of useful skills (like bounty-hunting), history skills (like accounting or hockey) and hobbies (like 20th century silent film.)

    I'd like to go back to this project, someday, although I'd have to rebrand it.

  • InterLock Chorus Chorus had been cooking as a setting since at least 1995 (age 14), but at a certain point I decided to make my own system for it. I came up with a nice set of mods on the CyberPunk system which both made it a little more coherent and adapted it to a medevialesque setting. Fun stuff, though it didn't see much use.

  • Gloria Machina I worked on a diceless, expenditure based, enormously complicated models-everything HERO / Amber / Expenditure System / Rifts / D&D / GURPS heartbreaker with my friend Ion for many years, which pretty much consisted of us getting together and geeking out about how much we liked diceless expenditure mechanics. In the end, this turned into Cradle for me.

  • Sangre del Sol I ran a LARP at Brown University from 2002 to 2003 and, as was proper at the time, I wrote my own system, a top-heavy mess of cards and power-sets which was walking wounded from the day it started, and also a bunch of really cool setting hacks on the World of Darkness, introducing the Aztec gods and several secret histories of vampirism. The cool thing about this system was that it was better than Laws of the Night, and that combat scenes only took half an hour to an hour, rather than 4-5 hours.

    The idea behind the system was borrowed from Dave Chapin's Five of Swords, and variants of it are used at Brown to this day. Mine was the first on-going LARP to use it.

  • Threshold I wrote Threshold, a diceless, class-tree system with Adam Kenney for a tabletop game at Brown University. It was really his baby, I just helped. There were over 500 classes by the end of it. It was a mess, but a fun mess. The cool thing about the system was the class tree and the bizarre abilities. A lot of this stuff got folded in Tactics for my own purposes, and Adam managed to turn the very messy and broken tabletop system into a very clean and functional LARP system for his game Threshold Victoria: Invasion.

  • SLARPS or Simple Live-Action Role Playing System was pretty much the system I wrote after Sangre del Sol ended and I was wildly disgusted with LARP systems. It is a very simple system, based on a small number of attributes, a few special abilities, and expenditure of a resource called "will." It never saw play. The cool thing about it was that it was a LARP that you could run and it wouldn't break you open.

  • Over the Bar was my first game that saw publication -- written on a dare at the Forge, it was published in the No Press Anthology. I had just been exposed to Over the Edge, and so it was pretty much a direct take-off of John Tweet's impressive design. The cool thing about it is that you can play it in public without paraphenalia, and still be regarded as a geek. Also, it is pure Gamism.

  • Tactics I've talked about before. It was essentially my goal to make a fun, light, tactical game that could be played in a campaign without needing every player to show up every time. It is presently "on hiatus" and I don't know if I'll be coming back or not.

  • The White Hart was an attempt to take the Spiritual Attributes from Riddle of Steel and make them a system unto themselves. The cool thing about it was that a close roll was much more effective than a massive margin of success, the idea being that close rolls were those that both sides cared about (the dice only represented thigns that you cared about) and thus were more dramatically interesting, and so much more effective.

  • Cradle was my own desire to try to finish up Gloria Machina and get on with my design. It is too complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say it is the bizarre diceless child of Universalis and Nobilis and SLARPS, where you define your character on the fly in multiple levels and then spend resource points boosting them and so on. It was very clever, and probably totally unplayable.

  • Polaris which you all know about.

  • and Bliss Stage which I don't want to talk about.

See anything you recognize?

edit: Wow, that was refreshing to get that all written down. I heartily recommend it to anyone, even if you don't post it in public, just to get a sense of the motion of your own ideas.

Of course, some big chunks (games I ran, games I played) are missing, but it's a start.