Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Shattered Mirrors: Structure & Procedures (#3)

(Shattered Mirrors is a storygame I’m writing, blogging the process here to entertain and hopefully get some advice/feedback. For the introductory post that lays out the design goals of the project, look here.
To check out the last storygame I produced, head over to gamesfromthewildwood.itch.io/endlesssea. To read the history of its design, check out the 'across the endless sea' tag on this blog).

Alright, so let’s pick design for Shattered Mirrors back up. Things haven’t advanced as much as I originally intended, because I accidentally tripped and designed an entire other game from scratch, but I’m pushing on regardless.

I think it’s time to talk about mechanics.

Firstly, I think this game draws a distinction between what for now I’m going to call (titles pending) ‘vignettes’ and ‘scenes’. The former is framed entirely by one player – it’s pure narration, pure storytelling. The latter involves two or more players, and is framed around a conflict.

This game has a distinct and deliberate structure of three (or maybe five, and lean Shakespearean?) Acts, with different lengths, tone, goals, and mechanics for each.

Act One
The first Act is a series of vignettes. Each of the core fictional playbooks (The Child, The Departed, The Ghost, The Authority) takes it in turn framing a vignette that illuminates and introduces certain elements of the story, and answers certain questions.

This is where we see the despair of the Ghost and how the Child is affected, this is where we see that the Departed is a hole in the life of the family, this is where we meet the Authority and see this tyrannical controlling force that insists it knows best for the child (benevolent, well-meaning).

During these vignettes, each other player is allowed (but not mandated) to request elaboration or doubling-down on a particular element that interests them.

This Act ends with the Authority’s vignette, in which we see the arrival of supernatural badness.

Act Two

The second Act is a series of scenes. It is far and away the longest of the Acts, as it contains the bulk of the story. This is the portion of the game in which the Child’s quest for the return of the Departed is carried out, as well as much of the build-up involving contact with the Authority’s agents and possibly (indirectly, through a dream or in the world) the Authority themself.

The draft procedure for what these scenes will look like goes something like this.

1: The Child decides what the next scene is about. Where are they going? What are they doing? Is this scene about healing the Ghost, or following the Departed’s quest, or [INSERT OTHER CHOICES?] This is where they set the stakes of what is at stake to be won.
2: Based on that choice, the Antagonist playbook passes to either The Departed or The Authority. Whichever didn’t take it, claims The Judge playbook.
3: The Antagonist
onsults the choice that they’ve made on their playbook and thinks about where the story is currently at, and frames the scene.
4: Narration goes back and forth between the Antagonist and the Child. The latter says what they do, the former introduces opposition / monstrosity / difficulty and describes what it does.
5: The Judge and the Guide watch and listen closely. When their roles call for it, they decide how well things work and tell the Child what and how many to choose.
6: Once the question of the scene’s stakes (the next step in the Departed’s quest, an attempt to help the Ghost, an attempt at exerting control by the Authority) has been resolved through play, the Antagonist closes the scene.

(This question, given the genre we’re emulating, isn’t really a question about if the Child wins what they wanted. It’s more a question about what it costs them, and how much they gain).

Act Three
The third Act is made up of one scene and then maybe a few vignettes. It is, essentially, the final confrontation and then the epilogue. The Antagonist is always the Authority, in this scene, and the Departed is always the Judge.

Otherwise, I think it probably plays out normally? The exception is that here it is possible to fail – this is where we get the ambiguous tragic Pan’s Labyrinth ending. Whether that’s just a player choice about tone or a different list for Things Lost, I’m not sure.

With all that structure in mind, all that really remains is to specify and refine the mechanics for resolution. And here, I think, I’m just going to double-down on what worked very well in Across the Endless Sea by doubling the number of players who get to assign choices.

  • When the Child and the Antagonist’s forces come into opposition, the Judge decides how it goes (it works completely, it works partly or at cost, it doesn’t work) and how much is won or lost.
  • When the Child calls on the magic of the Otherworld, the Ghost decides how it goes (it works completely, it works partly or at cost, it doesn’t work) and how well it works and how much is cost.

So we end up with one player advocating on behalf of the Child and another arbitrating on no-one’s behalf but in a way and with a set of priorities and mechanics that will necessarily favour the Antagonist (simply because the Child will usually lose something, or pay a price, and thus end up weaker by the time Act Three arrives).

And that's what I'm currently looking at. Without a doubt the next step is to actually write a playbook and work out what those will look like, as well as figuring out how these rules will actually be communicated.

That's design work I'll probably try to do on stream? 

No set thoughts on timing yet, but if watching me work on a game and getting to make suggestions is something that interests you, the time and date for that will no doubt be posted up on my Twitter eventually.

Otherwise that about wraps things up for this week's project. Hopefully by next time I'll have some excerpts of a playbook ready to show y'all (or maybe something to celebrate my resurgent love for Monsterhearts 2...)

(Find this post useful/interesting? Enjoy the content I'm putting out on this blog?

If you'd like to support me to keep creating material like this and working on other RPG/game-design projects, check out my Patreon to help me do more cool stuff like this. You can get access to monthly Q&As, early-access playtesting of my story games, or a place on the credits list for any game I make. 

When the Patron really gets up and happening I'm planning to start running playtest sessions of my games with patrons, so go get in on that potential action!).

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Shattered Mirrors: Mechanics (#2)

(Shattered Mirrors is a storygame I’m writing, blogging the process here to entertain and hopefully get some advice/feedback. For the introductory post that lays out the design goals of the project, look here.
To check out the last storygame I produced, head over to gamesfromthewildwood.itch.io/endlesssea. To read the history of its design, check out the 'across the endless sea' tag on this blog).

So, I've got an idea for a game, and some vague ideas about narrative archetypes. What comes next? 

I'm going to do something slightly different with today's post, and just share the personal notes I transcribed yesterday from a bunch of voicemails I left myself while walking to work and while on the bus (otherwise-"dead" time that's excellent for being creative). 

These notes aren't polished, and they aren't mechanics yet, but in them the basic shape of this game is starting to emerge. 

I hope that seeing what things looks like now, and then later seeing what this is solidified into, will be at least entertaining and maybe even interesting or educational. So, without further ado, here's the current state-of-thought regarding how this game will work:

We have four characters who all have clearly-defined domains of things within the story that belong to them (ref. Polaris roles). These also all have within them choices that structure what the story is about – the Absence choses the Quest, the Authority creates their Agents, etc. These characters are:

The Child:
You are a child who has known loss in your family and watched it destroy those you loved, even the survivors. Given time, it may destroy you too. Your family is broken now. Ruined. You want only one thing in all the world: to have your family back as they were: loving, and together, and here. You will do anything to make that happen.
You frame your own actions, and the memories you have of your family. These may be scenes that truly happened, or imagined reunions to give you strength to go on. You also make the initial aesthetic decisions of the game: what kind of real world is this, what kind of Otherworld?
The Departed (a Parent, a Sibling, a Friend):
You are the absence that makes this family broken. You are distant, you are missing, you are long-dead. Whatever the reason, you are gone. It is the wounds of your loss the Child must heal, your return their goal. You are their quest. You too want to reunite, of course, but for whatever reason (choose 1 - including "you are dead") you can’t.
You frame the object for which the Child is searching, the quest that drives them through the Otherworld. You frame the obstacles that they must confront, too. This may be literal, as in Kubo and the Two Strings (The Armour of Three Parts), or it may be more figurative (the quest for Saoirse’s heritage in Song of the Sea).
The Ghost (a Parent, a Sibling, a Caregiver):
You are the emotional anchor of this story, your healing the drive behind the Child’s quest. To have you back, as you were, is the burning desire that drives them through perilous wonder and beautiful danger. You want do right by them, to be better. But you are burdened, and so weary, and without help you can’t.
You frame the beauty of the Otherworld: the magic of love and compassion and childhood wonder that the Child can draw upon, and the friends who will help them along the way. This help may be direct (the transformation of Kubo’s mother into Monkey and her gift of magic, in Kubo and the Two Strings) or from more diverse sources (the magic of the Selkie Song, the Great Seanachai).
The Authority (a Grandparent, a Family Friend):
You are the force of benevolent well-meaning tyranny that stands in the Child’s way, both in the real world and the Otherworld. You want them removed from the Ghost and in your care, for both of their own good of course.
You frame the Servants of Darkness, the creatures of the Otherworld that try to stand in the Child’s way (in Song of the Sea, the owl-familiars of Macha; in Kubo and the Two Strings, the two Star-Aunts). You frame the darkness and hopelessness that creeps into their heart, and seek to keep them from their destination. 

The Child definitely has something that resembles the decision of Our Destiny that Andrew wrote into Girl by Moonlight. They make choices at the start of the game that shapes what the win-state of this story looks like. 
They also start with an ally/companion – not physically powerful, but offering emotional support and guidance. This is Cu from Song of the Sea; this is paper Hanzo in Kubo & the Two Strings.

How does play actually work?

The First Act is very very structured. There are mandatory scenes framed by each character. It opens with the Child, it closes with the Authority and the intrusion of supernatural badness. Pre-defined pre-ordered scenes, prompts on the character sheets for choices what they’re about.

This is where we see the despair of the one left behind and how the Child is affected ,this is where we see that the Absence is a hole in the life of the family, this is where we meet the Authority and see this tyrannical controlling force that insists it knows best for the child (benevolent, well-meaning).

Then we enter the game proper, we’re now in the Otherworld – this means a different structure.

In any given scene the Protagonist always lays parameters (they chose position/effect, to borrow a Blades metaphor). They control what the scene is about – what are the stakes. They don’t get to frame what the scene is.
Whichever character has authority over what the scene’s about frames the scene.

This is a four player game, therefore it must have four distinct mechanical roles that may or may not match up with / be linked to narrative roles. Like Polaris, each player needs something to do.
Here is what they are:
  • The Protagonist – they frame expectations, they make most decisions
  • The Antagonist – they frame the scene, they set actual stakes? Maybe a negotiation process?
  • The Guide – helps the Protagonist through
  • The Judge – representative of the rules & the game structure

Instead of the Judge role and the Antagonist resting in the hands of the same player, they are deliberately separated out.

Lean into Ash’s observation about Across the Endless Sea and choices & lists. All the Judge can do is distribute choices from lists, but that’s the greatest authority of all. As the scene goes back and forth, based on what is common-sense and what seems fair (and maybe a tonal/genre guiding tool in terms of how severe this story should be and how often success should happen / with which costs) they assign consequence/victory for other players to choose from.

Can you resist these consequences, like in Blades? Maybe. Is it a limited resource? Yes.

As in Endless Sea, the lists are distinct between playbooks  They are unique. Probably the Child has a list of Things Won and Things Lost, and then the others have lists of moves they can make / things they can inflict. Choices from these lists are incorporated into fiction as the scene goes on, rather than at the end of the scene (as mostly happens in Endless Sea).

Where there is conflict, the Judge resolves the outcome: usually either “you can have this but it costs you” or “you can’t have this but you gain something”. These choices are assigned, they immediately feed back into the narrative, play rolls on.

I imagine probably that a scene will run for 20-30 minutes. Assuming a 3-hour run time we’ll only really get 4 set-piece scenes but that sounds about right to the genre.

Some kind of mechanical structure that we shift into for the Big Finale Scene where everything is put right (or if this is the tragic version, where things are ambiguous - think the closing of Pan's Labyrinth).

So, there's what I've currently got! 

At this point I'm expecting that the manifestation of this requires 8 playbooks: 4 narrative ones for the Child, Ghost, Departed, & Authority; 3 mechanical ones for the Protagonist, Antagonist, & Judge; and then one mixed narrative-mechanical playbook for the Guide. 

The Child & the Protagonist playbooks always go together, but otherwise the roles of Antagonist, Judge, & Guide circulate between the other players depending on which intention/stakes the Child declares for a given scene. 

It's possible though, looking back over my notes above on narrative roles, that the Guide & the Ghost always go together, and the Guide is explicitly framed as a representation of the relationship-that-was before the Ghost fell into despair. 

At that point we're now just circulating antagonism between the Departed's Quest, by which the Child can get them back, and the Authority's attempt at establishing control.

Hm. I kind of like that better? 

And I think it's more in keeping, actually, with the key texts I'm drawing from. 

Anyway, that's enough for now. Next time I should have an actual write-up of some game procedures, samples of the text from the mechanical playbooks to describe how the game will actually run. If you've got any questions about the notes above (clarifying my meaning is always a helpful exercise) or any thoughts/suggestions on what I'm currently thinking, please leave them below as a comment and be part of this design process.

(Find this post useful/interesting? Enjoy the content I'm putting out on this blog?

If you'd like to support me to keep creating material like this and working on other RPG/game-design projects, check out my Patreon to help me do more cool stuff like this. You can get access to monthly Q&As, early-access playtesting of my story games, or a place on the credits list for any game I make. 

Whenthe Patron really gets up and happening I'm planning to start running playtest sessions of my games with patrons, so go get in on that potential action!).

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

GMing for Children #2: Making Choice Matter

(This post is part of a series on GMing for children, drawing on the experience/lessons I’ve gained through 7+ years working professionally at a business that runs RPGs for children and young people. For the introductory post that talks about my background and my aims with this series, look here).

So last time we talked about how to help kids to grasp and get a fix on the economy of abstract resources (HP, spell slots, actions per turn, what have you) that are highly prominent in most roleplaying games.

Today, I want to talk about how to help them make meaningful choices, and how that intersects with agency.

Let’s start by laying out some things that I’m going to assume are true: players making choices is a key part of roleplaying games; choices should have consequences that follow on, and not just the illusion of choice, and choices made with no clues to what those consequences might be aren’t actually meaningful.

The wording of the last is important: “what those consequences might be”.

As my friend Ash said recently while playing Darkest Dungeon: even if the clues are arbitrary and don’t really correspond to the consequences, that still feels better than being asked to choose entirely at randomly.

But I digress: how does all this relate to children?

To reiterate the core theme of last time, children are natural roleplayers and can be wonderful to GM for but it is important to recognise they are children. Their capacities and skills differ from adults, often in ways that make playing an RPG (which assumes certain baselines of ability) more complex.

Children have issues with making choices, often for exactly the same reason they have trouble with resource management.

Abstract thought isn’t real yet to them, and weighing the cost/benefit of two choices is tricky because everything involved is abstract and intangible. None of the things that distinguish the two choices are physical or graspable: the differences cannot be seen, or felt, or interacted with.

Comparing two similar options and choosing between them, particularly when mathematical probability/optimisation gets involved, is a huge struggle for children.

Speaking from experience, they hate wasted time. That thing in games like Torchbearer and Burning Wheel where certain choices in a Conflict just mean your action is neutralised?

Kids will fucking riot.

And just in general, present them with too many and too complex choices and they get disengaged, they get bored, they get frustrated. Often, they pick at random and then feel betrayed by the outcome (because they didn’t really grasp the associated consequences, even if you explicitly identified them).

Now, what can we do about this? There are a number of strategies, depending on what you like best.

I’m going to stay focused, and talk about just two: streamlining choice, and incomparables.

So, streamlining.

Anyone who has ever played Dungeons & Dragons, how many options do you have in any given round? Between the various questions of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, the order of your actions, the question of positioning, the length of a spell-list, the length of the skill list, and so on, there is a near-infinite combination of things to choose between.

Now, some of these choices are clearly sub-optimal (though maybe not-so-clearly to a seven year old) but that still leaves a large array of options that have to be compared to find the best choice.

This is too much choice and too much demand for abstract reasoning for a seven year old.

Way too much.

And especially when the added burden of learning how to roleplay in a structured manner and learning the game rules is already in place.

Build to slightly more complexity by all means, but keep it simple to start with.

Two options, maybe three. Give them a couple of tools with which to solve their problems – a combat option, a tricky or sneaky option, a diplomatic option – and then let them learn to use them. Streamline their options and make them distinct and non-overlapping, so that they have only a few valid choices to navigate.

Give them a few meaningful choices rather than subjecting them to death by a tiny thousand decisions.

The other strategy comes down to this idea of meaningful alternatives, and it’s about the power of (mathematical) incomparables.

Don’t ask a child to compare 2d6 damage and 1d12 damage, don’t ask them to compare risk-reward rations, don’t ask them to compare a lower chance to hit with more damage and a higher chance to hit with less.

Give them choices that can’t be compared based on mathematical advantage or probability.

Give them distinct choices between genuinely alternate possibilities that don’t need to be compared in those terms. Make the choice between them a narrative choice, a character choice, rather than a question of optimal tactics and play.

Do they help the stranger or run away? Do they focus on offence or focus on defence? Do they kill the bandits with fire spells or make them all fall asleep?

And to return to the point from before: let them know what the likely consequences are.

Let them choose between the two distinct options with a sense of what will happen if they do. Let them choose, meaningfully. Not between two mathematical equations but between two likely outcomes, so they can decide which one is more desirable to them.

And of course, there’s an important coda to all this: make sure to leave space for them to come up with alternative choices of their own.

That’s one of the most key elements of making sure that players have agency: give them some authorship powers of their own. But that’s starting to touch on questions of pre-planning vs. improvisation and the dreaded GM railroad, and that’s a subject for another blog.

So, there it is:

Kids don’t like option paralysis, they don’t like wasted time / trap choices, and they don’t do well with choice that involves probability and maths-based tactical analysis.

Instead, pare down the options you offer, and give distinct choices, and prepare to be surprised.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Shattered Mirrors: Introduction (#1)

So, Across the Endless Sea is finally finished, published, and out in the world. I wrote a game! It’s still a surreal feeling, and more so every time someone actually buys it or a game designer I respect helps to spread the word.

(If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check the game out at gamesfromthewildwood.itch.io/endlesssea).

With that project now done (pending expansions, etc), though, I find myself looking for the next project.

And there’s another very specific mini-genre/set of literary motifs dear to my heart that I’ve wanted to see a good game about for years.

I love stories about children travelling to fantasy Otherworlds.

I always have. From the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland to the poignant darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s something about that archetype of crossing the threshold between the mundane and magical on a bildungsroman-style journey that speaks to me.

Now, there are already games about that.

The main one I’m familiar with is Heroine (I watched it played once, but didn’t get to play), but it’s more Labyrinth and Alice in Wonderland than what I’m picturing.

Because the stories about these Otherworldly coming-of-age journeys taken by children that I love are those that center on family. Stories about children with a lost mother or father, or estranged parents, or some other intimate familial trauma in their background.

Stories about children who find the members of their broken family doubled by creatures and figures in the Otherworld, and through their journey find some resolution of their troubles.

I’m thinking of Song of the Sea and Kubo and the Two Strings as recent examples of this motif, though casting the net wider also draws in works like Pan’s Labyrinth (the doubling isn’t explicit, but it’s there: Captain Vidal and the Pale Man, for example).

So once again I have a desire for a game that is far too specific to already exist, and thus no recourse but to design it myself.

So: Shattered Mirrors (name extremely placeholder, please suggest something better).

I think this will be a smaller game than Across the Endless Sea: more intimate, and for fewer players.
This time it absolutely is a game about playing specific characters, and owning them and their secret pains.

Once again I think I’m going to borrow the basic language of playbooks and moves from Vincent Baker, as well as borrowing some of the ideas about distributing narrative authority/responsibility from Polaris. I also feel like this is going to be a very structured game: with a sequence of scenes framed by the various playbooks in specific order, playing to find out how things happen rather than necessarily what happens.

But those are thoughts for a future post. For now, like last time, I want to talk about design intentions.

So, my goal is to create a game that captures the sense of poignant longing for a family that is whole again that is core to the various source texts. I want antagonism to come from all characters, for everyone save the child to be culpable in the breakdown of the family, and for villains to be people who are hurting in their own ways.
  • I want forgiveness and empathy to be the way to resolve problems, not violence and not rage.
  • I want it be GMless, so all the players equally own the messy family drama that unfolds (and so I can play).
  • I want it to build messy and broken family units whose love and issues both feel real.
  • I want it to evoke both how magical and threatening the world is as a child, and the reality of children’s complexity and capabilities.
  • I want to make use of ritual phrases. I really enjoyed them in Polaris, and I think it’s a shame more games don’t use them.
  • I want to do something interesting for a mechanic. Perhaps something like Endless Sea, perhaps something new. I haven’t yet decided.
  • I want to playtest it sometime in August, and hopefully release it for first-stage playtesting on my Patreon by mid-September.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Across the Endless Sea: Second Playtest (#5)

So, the initial playtest with my housemates had proved that the game, at the most basic level, worked.

The resolution mechanism was functional; the game produced interesting play; and the flavor of it was interesting to a group of people broader than just me.

I took away the feedback from people and made several changes: some major, some minor.

Being able to ask too many questions when investigating encounters was breaking the game a little - allowing players to work out a plan that would certainly succeed rather than having to take chances – so I revised the number down. The wording of some of the moves was confusing; as was the layout of the moves on the sheet.

There was also a request for more substantial information about the People, which was coupled with an observation I made during the game: not having all the choices made about the People centrally listed was slowing play.

So, I also created a playbook for the People as a whole, intended to be printed A3 to everything else’s A4.

It has space to record choices made about the People; a list of evocative names (drawn in equal parts from proto-Indo-European syllables and Pacific Islander cultures); some basic details about the technology levels and beliefs of the People; and a listing of the twelve months of the People’s journey and their traditional names (for flavor).

Thus armed, I was ready for a second playtest.

I was lucky enough to get in contact with EricVulgaris of Once Upon a Game, a Twitch show that streams storygames and indie RPGs, who kindly agreed to host a playtest.

Eric was a phenomenal to play alongside, as was our third player, and if you’d like to see the tragedy we unfolded you can watch it here.

Some really useful feedback came out of the session, as did a deepening confidence in the game seeing how enthused two experienced storygamers were by what we created as a group and the way that the system facilitated that.

Unsurprisingly, one major piece of advice was that the game needed to include mapping.

Storygamers seem to really love their maps. I think the craze might have started with Avery’s The Quiet Year, but I don’t know the scene well enough to be sure. Regardless, they were right about the coolness of mapping the People’s voyage and so that advice is now in the game.

The session also highlighted the importance of reincorporation to the game, and so I’m now slowly building a “player advice” document to help ensure groups have the best experience.

What really became clear during the session, though, was the issue of timing.

I’d written the game originally to assume 12 – 24 encounters per game, but what both playtests had made clear was that encounters take far too long for that to be viable. Even playing with just 3 players, we only made it through about 6 encounters over the course of 3 hours. Of course, that includes a bunch of extra time costs unique to doing a Twitch show, but still.

Something had to give.

So the year-long journey is now a half-year, meaning there are five standard encounters (one each for the first five months, which also allows every player to take a turn as the Endless Sea) plus an extra three: one for the Voice’s choice of what has changed since the People last made the voyage; one for the Eyes’ choice of what sign reveals that the People are coming close to their destination; and one for the Hands’ choice of the final challenge that awaits the People.

Eight encounters seems like a much more manageable number, and the option to play an extra encounter per month is still preserved if a group really wants to settle in for a long game.

Of course, this was all theory. It needed testing, to check that the game could fit into 3 hours.

Luckily, my workmates and I had a PD trip coming up and an evening set aside to play a game of some kind that they agreed I could commandeer…

(Find this post useful/interesting? Enjoy the content I'm putting out on this blog?

Want a copy of this game I've been talking so much about? 

If you'd like to support me to keep creating material like this and working on other RPG/game-design projects, check out my Patreon to help me do more cool stuff and get access to monthly Q&As, early-access playtesting of my story games, or a place on the credits list for any game I make).

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Of Children, Dungeon World, and Playing Fair

This blog has been fairly quiet of late, because for the last month and a half or so the only RPG-related stuff I’ve been doing has been at work (or working on a game for an upcoming convention, but I'll talk about that later). 

And I always feel weird posting about my work, for several reasons.

It feels too much like boasting, for one – I’m sure there’s any number of amazing designers and GMs who would kill to have a job that’s RPG-adjacent. Then there’s always the imposter syndrome, the fear that talking about my work is either boring to everyone else or that I’m not qualified to draw anything out of my experiences at work.

And always, of course, is there’s the privacy concern: for me, and more importantly for the kids.

But after thinking (and blogging) for a while I think I’ve found a line I’m comfortable with in terms of privacy. And the last frantic fortnight of GMing 10-hour days has spawned all kinds of thoughts I think are interesting enough to share.

While I work on the more theory-heavy stuff (including the next installments of my series on GMing for Children), there’s a quick story I want to tell.


So, for the last fortnight the kids and I spent our lunchtimes playing Dungeon World.

The actual programs we run are played using a custom system that combines LARP combat, improvisational theatre, and tabletop gaming, but starting in the first week I found the kids begging me to run freeform Dungeon World instead of taking a break from gaming.

No dice, no character sheets, nothing but our imaginations and my best memory of the mechanics.

And even though these kids are doing a lot of roleplaying, both within each day and over the course of the fortnight for those who are regulars, they were still hungry and keen for it every day.

And so, we played Dungeon World.

It started with one of the older kids, who’s most invested in systems and the mechanics of RPGs. We’ve been chatting about Powered by the Apocalypse games for a while, and he’s even tried writing his own.

He was telling me about a recent failure running Dungeon World for his friends as I diagnosed his issues (he was running just with the free sheets from the website, without reading the GMing chapter of DW or Apocalypse World), and to prove a point I started GMing it for him.

Incredibly free, incredibly casual: making decisions about stats and equipment as they became relevant and just having a conversation in the most Powered by the Apocalypse way possible.

It took us five minutes before a single move was even made (which served to prove my initial point).

By then, though, we’d attracted a crowd. Other kids were piping in with their desire to play, and soon where we’d had a single character we had a party. Over the course of the fortnight, numbers swelled until I had to limit the numbers of characters in the party and kids had to work together to play people.

The point of this story, though, the part of it that’s interesting, is the mechanics.

As I mentioned above, we were playing freeform. We only had the mechanics and sheets in my memory, and so we ended up playing in some ways the purest form of DW: players simply describing actions, with me activating moves when their triggers came up.

But we didn’t have any dice.

Whenever a roll needed to be made, I simply told the kids their modifiers and asked the player/s to tell me what they rolled. It was the usual 2d6 + MOD, but all the randomization and math was going on in their heads.

One might expect that there was a string of 10+s, that failures vanished as they learned the thresholds.

I’ll be honest: at first, I had the same fear. When we talk about children and RPGs, the discussion is always framed by unstated assumptions about maturity and fairness: the belief that children will have issues with consequences, or with failures, or with randomness giving rise to differences in reward and difficulty.

And yet the failures never disappeared. The partial successes never disappeared.

From start to finish, the statistical probability was pretty much the same as on a set of dice (perhaps slightly skewed towards success, but then I was more generous with bonuses). In fact, if anything there was an increase over time in their willingness to embrace danger or failure.

All of this surprised me.

I’ve been GMing for children for a decade now, seven of those years professionally, and still, I was surprised: by their ability to play fair without an external arbiter; by their willingness to embrace failure and consequence; by their openness to pushing towards difficulty as an interesting and desirable outcome.

And I think, as I work on more articles on GMing for children, that all this is very important to remember both for me and for my readers.

Playing fair and embracing failure aren’t limited to adults.

And children are often far more capable than you give them credit for.

(Find this post useful/interesting? Enjoy the content I'm putting out on this blog?

If you'd like to support me to keep creating material like this and working on other RPG/game-design projects, check out my Patreon to help me do more cool stuff and get access to monthly Q&As, early-access playtesting of my story games, or a place on the credits list for any game I make).

Sunday, 9 April 2017

West Marches PbtA Hack + Bonus DW Content

(For those just looking for the homebrew Dungeon World bonus content, skip to the bottom of this post).

Next week will mark almost 8 months since I started running All Things Under Heaven, my East-Asia-inspired West Marches campaign. 

Over the course of that time (and the preceding few years, when I avidly watched Steven Lumpkin run Rollplay's epic West Marches show) I've come to a realisation: Dungeons & Dragons just can't handle the kind of West Marches game that I want.

This isn't a slight on the system or designers, just a comment on the fundamental difference in genres.

For the West Marches I want magic that feels inexplicable and wondrous rather than systematised, and operates in discrete unique units each with their own underlying logic. I want characters to grow outwards rather than upwards, to become more broadly-empowered rather than straightforwardly powerful, and to be able to lose things through their own choices and through the hardships the game throws at them.

I want a world that is dynamic and has systems that encourage that dynamism, I want unique regions that all feel definitely and meaningfully distinct, I want to plan broad strokes and fill out the details in play based on what makes sense, what comes before, and what my players suggest and achieve.

I want, I've realised, a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

Spells and items and rituals as individual moves; character growth/loss fluid in the style of the "change playbook" option; a GMing structure that replaces Threats and Fronts with the individual regions of the Wastes.

And so I've begun working on the skeleton of a system, a (very) loose hack that draws equally from Dungeon World and Apocalyse World.

Since there was no session of the Twitch ATUH campaign yesterday and thus nothing that needed to be done with my usual hour of streaming GM Prep, I started to actually put some flesh on those bones: designing the initial very-rough draft of what the Basic Moves might look like.

They're still in early stages, but I'm liking how this system is coming together.

It feels cohesive, and like it should deliver the experience that I want (of course, playtesting will undoubtedly demonstrate otherwise).

So, here's a couple of the draft moves. Feedback and commentary very welcome!

(For an insight into my thought process as I put some of these together, check out the video here.)

When you go into battle, roll +Force. On a hit, you do harm to your opposition and they do harm back to you. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 2:
  • You strike especially hard, inflicting extra harm on your target/s.
  • You defend especially well, taking less harm from your target/s.
  • You are a flurry of motion, engaging multiple foes.
  • You push forward, gaining ground or momentum
  • You drive the enemy back, creating an advantage or an opening
On a miss, you take a nasty hit. You may still do your harm, GM's choice.

When you push through danger, ask the GM to name the danger/s you risk and roll +Force. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7-9, you still do it but choose 1: you survive but some equipment doesn't, you charge right into something worse, you falter and lose the initiative. On a miss, prepare for the worst.

When you read the lay of the land, roll +Insight. On a hit, you can ask the GM questions. Take +1 when acting on the answers. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7-9, ask 1:
  • What happened here recently?
  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is useful or valuable to me?
  • What, if anything, appears out of place (or is not what it seems)?
  • What is the safest position I can take?
  • What is my best way out / way in / way past?
On a miss, you overlook something important but ask 1 anyway.

When you notice something unusual, roll +Insight. On a 10+, ask 2. On a 7-9, ask 1:
  • Is this a thing of the civilised world, or of the wild magic?
  • Is this thing created, caused, or naturally occurring?
  • Is this something that might have value or use to me?
  • Is this something that might be dangerous or helpful to me?
  • What, from what I know and sense, might happen next?

On a miss, ask 1 anyway and it is older and stranger than you thought. 


BONUS CONTENT! Supplementary Special Moves for Dungeon World

When you ask around for information before a journey, roll +CHA. *On a 10+, hold 3. *On a 7-9, hold 2. Spend your hold 1 for 1, now or during the expedition, to gain the following information about your destination:
  • Directions to a significant or interesting location
  • General information about the region, its terrain, and inhabitants
  • Names of a few powerful local figures, and a little more about them
  • Information about dangerous predators or creatures in the region
  • Warnings against a common threat or danger to travellers
  • Rumours of a great treasure or magical artefact

On a miss, hold 2 anyway but the GM will answer one falsely (their choice).

(Plus, for those wanting something a little more specific than Defy Danger)

When you steel yourself against magic or outside influence, roll +WIS. *On a 10+, you do it and gain an impression of the motive behind the attempt. *On a 7-9, you do it but choose 1: some lesser trace of it lingers, your resolve is shaken by the effort, your resistance or refusal is obvious. *On a miss, prepare for the worst.

(Find this post useful/interesting? Enjoy the content I'm putting out on this blog?

If you'd like to support me to keep creating material like this and working on other RPG/game-design projects, check out my Patreon to help me do more cool stuff and get access to monthly Q&As, early-access playtesting of my story games, or a place on the credits list for any game I make).