Friday, November 29, 2013

FATE SF - Zones

This post is for the From The Zones community blog project, hosted over at Fate SF. I've never read the book in question, Roadside Picnic (which I'm going to rectify), but I think that I have a handle on the subject. So without further adieu, I give you the artifact known as the Tetragrammaton, in Fate Core terms.

Dr. Saar,

In reference to your request to begin experiments using the artifact code named Tetragrammaton, we regret that we will be forced to deny it. While your research record has been stellar, it is highly doubtful that anything more than disaster will come from studying it. The device has resisted all attempts to interpret its function and use, and there have already been multiple incidents resulting from trying to do so. Namely, the appearance of several anomalous new stars in the constellation Lepus and the disappearance of the entire population of bluefin tuna from the planet. Current theory holds that many unexplained Zone phenomena may be the result of interaction with this device or devices like it. As a result, the device has been secured and isolated from any and all possible stimulation and will remain so for the indefinite future.

Dr. Hind Ali
Director of Visitation Artifact Research
International Institute

The artifact known as the Tetragrammaton was retrieved by an unnamed stalker from one of the Visitation Zones. The stalker was eventually apprehended trying to sell the artifact on the black market and, once the Tetragrammaton's danger was realized it was locked away. It was found that the disappearance of the population of an entire town was likely triggered by the stalker passing through with the artifact. A mysterious rain of organic material nearly 3,000km away was later identified to have come from that population.  Once under observation, the artifact exhibited the ability to fundamentally change reality in unexpected ways. One researcher's skin was turned completely translucent, and during this period new stars appeared in the constellation Lepus and the entirety of the world's population of bluefin tuna vanishing (with the attendant ecological and economical disaster that would be expected). Following these events, the Tetragrammaton was completely isolated, and all interaction with it forbidden.

The Tetragrammaton resembles a fleshy starfish with a body about the size of a large dinner plate. It is completely inert and nonreactive to any stimuli, although it has been known to change colors. One recorded incident involving the aforementioned researcher was after it secreted an oil-like substance - contact with the substance turned the researcher's skin translucent, but otherwise it did not react with anything else. A small number of individuals that have spent time around it have reported hearing a voice speaking indistinct words. These words have become to be associated with the unexplained events, and are known as The Utterance.

To date, only the effects of three of the five known instances of The Utterance have been discovered. It is assumed that the initial event when the stalker recovered the artifact was a sixth instance. A small number of religious sects have become convinced that The Utterance and its results are the work of the divine, and that should a seventh Utterance occur, it will be a major divine revelation. Even though the Tetragrammaton has been isolated, it is monitored through a double-blind system (to prevent it from receiving any feedback) and no more Utterances have been observed.

The Tetragrammaton 
Permissions: Being in physical possession of the Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton possesses an aspect known as The Utterance, which can be invoked or compelled to make changes to reality. These changes cannot be controlled, and the scope of how wide-reaching they can be are not known. To date they have been relatively limited in scope, and have not been beneficial (either from being outright harmful or just simply not helpful). The Tetragrammaton may possess other abilities, but they are unknown at this time.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

RPGBA November Blog Carnival - Treasonous Acts and Plotting

This is my entry for the RPGBA November Blog Carnival, with the topic of treasonous acts and plotting. I'm going to break down the elements that I think make a plot like this work, with a slight slant toward Fate Core (but really it's all usable regardless of system).

Harud grabbed the page by the collar, dragging him into a small alcove. "What are you doing here?" he hissed, the words echoing in the cavernous throne room. A servant glanced up and seeing Harud quickly returning to her duties.

"I..I was told to come here to warn you..." The young man turned ashen, surprised by the elder chancellor's strength.

"Warn me? About what?"

"The Queen's Guard...they..."

The massive doors to the hall opened, each pushed by one of the purple clad Queen's Guard. The Captain of the Guard strode past them purposefully, sword in hand, followed by a dozen Guards in two single-file lines.

"Harud, you traitorous snake!" She called out. "I will see your head on the end of a pike for this!"

Harud let go of the page's shirt, who stumbled back into the alcove. He stood tall in the face of the approaching warrior. "No, it is you who are the traitor, Laydel. I have served this court since before you were born, and served it well." The chancellor made a slight motion and archers emerged from the shadowed galleries above the hall, training bodkin-tipped arrows on each of the members of the Queen's Guard. "Not to worry, I had no intention of telling the Queen of your plot to put a pretender on the throne. I have other plans for you..." 

Anatomy Of A Plot
Whether it's a conspiracy to depose the King, a race to prevent a power-hungry dictator from staging a coup, or staging a mutiny aboard a ship, there are a number of simple elements that go into pretty much every one. Mixing and matching these can lead to a huge variety in possible situations for characters to get themselves in.

In Or Out?
The first thing that needs to be decided is if the player characters are a part of the plot or not. The assumption is that if they are involved then they are working toward seeing the plot come to fruition, and if they aren't then they are working against it.  They don't necessarily need to be aware that they are involved, either - meaning that manipulation or ignorance could enable them to work for or against it.

The Nature of The Treason
The next thing to do is determine what exactly the treason or plot is. By definition, treason is internal, even if the forces behind it are external. They are people that are within the government or organization, often with a position of some authority (historically, treasonous plots by people who don't have a lot of power don't evnd well for the plotters). Some common goals for this sort of treason are:
  • Deposing a leader or government. This is the obvious one. The current leader, administration, whatever is in someone's way. They could be good, bad or just ineffective - but they need to be removed, killed, imprisoned, etc. Either way, taking them down needs to be carefully planned and kept secret - but once it happens, the whole world will know (even if the details remain hidden).
  • Secretly taking control. Like the type of treason above, this one can be for good or bad reasons. Maybe the King is in poor health, and different factions are jockeying to control the realm. Maybe the goal is to effectively cut off the parliament from any ability to implement their decisions - or just muck things up so badly that nothing can get done. Regardless, the end result shouldn't appear to be much different than the current status quo.
  • Only change one thing (or very few). Perhaps the treason isn't all that wide-reaching. Maybe it's specifically to cause or keep a certain event from happening. The goal could be kidnapping or assassinating a particular individual, or to deliver (or stop the delivery of) specific information. Regardless, the plot isn't to enact a sweeping change. These events might be part of the build up for a much larger plot.
  • Personal reasons. Maybe the plot is hatched out of a personal vendetta, with the only purpose to ruin the target. Conversely, the plotters might be committing treason to cover up the malfeasance of an otherwise popular or well-liked leader.
The People Behind The Plot
The next thing to do is decide who is behind and/or against the plot - not necessarily the actual characters (yet) but what roles they fulfill. If it is primarily the PCs, it's still a good idea to figure out what some of the possible roles they might play in the overall scheme. Sifting through TVTropes yields quite a number of archetypes, but these are good general roles to start with.
  • The Mastermind: Any plot is going to have someone behind it, or at most a very small group of people. Whether or not the mastermind is
  • The Advisor: Many times an advisor, chancellor, councilor, etc. will be somehow involved in the plot. They are often in trusted positions within the upper levels of the government, and have the means and connections to get things done on their own. This doesn't just go for an advisor that is plotting treachery - an advisor can just as easily be aware of the plot and is trying to stop it, or is trying to avoid exposure to the traitors. It's not unusual for the advisor to be the mastermind.
  • The Mole or Double Agent: This character isn't necessary, but when there is a renegade or splinter group that is either trying to stop the plot or bring it to fruition then there's a chance of a traitor among the traitors or the patriots. If the character is a mole, they will only work on funneling information or planting it - a double agent might actually take action to derail things.
  • The Collaborators: While there is likely going to be only a small circle of people who are aware of the entire plot, depending on its scope there may more people involved in the periphery. A plot to assassinate or kidnap someone might not require too many more (if any at all), but a larger, complex coup might need dozens, scores, or even hundreds. A large number of them may know that they are part of some larger plan, but may not have any inkling as to exactly what that plan is.
  • The Sympathizers: These are typically only brought about if the plot comes to pass, but they are the ones who are happy that things have changed. However, since they may be sympathetic with one side or the other they can act as red herrings for the people who actively trying to move the plot forward or stop it. One twist is that a character seems like a sympathizer, but in reality when they are brought into the fold they are nothing of the sort.
  • The Starscream. This name was so good I had to lift straight from TVTropes. Essentially, they are an ambitious underling who has their own plans. They are likely to try to betray the leadership of the plot at the first opportunity, so they can grab the reigns themselves.
How Does The Plot Go Down?
I'm not going to try to outline a specific approach to actually structuring the treasonous plot, because there are a lot of possibilities. In general, though, the plot should have a Goal, Current Problem and a Price For Failure. All three of them are aspects, and can be summed up using a Mad Libs-style approach:

"We are committing treason because we want to __________________________, but first we must __________________________. If we fail, __________________________ will happen."
Once you've established these aspects, and have a measure of the characters involved and their motivations, the rest will likely fall into place pretty easily. One thing that can't be overlooked is the aftermath, or at least what various actors perceive of it. It's a fairly common trope in treasonous plots for co-conspirators or others who know too much to be disposed of by the people running the show. This is especially true of plots where the truth behind it isn't supposed to be known or can't get out. On top of that, there's always the belief that if someone was willing to betray their countrymen, king, loyalties, etc. that they are likely to do it again. Even in cases where the conspirators are relatively in the right, they may come to the conclusion that one of their own needs to be a sacrificial lamb in order to further cement their position (which is seen in Dishonoured). This kind of plot would probably be pretty boring without at least one reversal by a character. The "disposal" doesn't necessarily have to be killing people off either - discrediting them, imprisonment, exile, there are a lot of opportunities to be had.

Regardless, a treasonous plot is going to have repercussions within the campaign or the setting. I don't think they could work very well as a "crisis of the week" kind of thing (although patterning it after something like Scandal where there are constant crises of the week might work). The plot arc can be a welcome distraction (and possible twist) for a group that is used to more physical dangers.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Mecha In Fate Core

One of the things in my bucket list is to do a Mekton-style mecha build treatment for Fate Core. I realize we already have build systems in settings like Camelot Trigger and Apotheosis Drive Exodus, but I have some slightly different ideas in mind than how they've handled mecha (which are, by the way, great) mostly inspired by changes I've want to make to Mekton or the Silhouette Vehicle Construction System. While I've only got a few prototype ideas, I want to put them out there so they can germinate.

What Are Mecha?
For my rather generic purposes, "mecha" are defined as any vehicle that's intended to act as an extension of the pilot.  I know this is different than the Japanese definition of mecha. Real life examples include excavators, forklifts, cranes, combat vehicles like tanks and aircraft, etc. They have nonstandard control schemes and systems or structures that given them more versatility than just getting from Point A to Point B. They can manipulate things, project force, etc.

The Pilot
The divide between Mecha Piloting and just Piloting is how well you can utilize the mecha as an extension of your own body. Both Camelot Trigger and Apotheosis Drive X handle this fairly well. I particularly like the use of the pilot's stress track but the mecha has its own consequences.

The Mecha
There tends to be a divide between representations of mecha that falls either on the mecha is only an extension of the pilot or the mecha is completely separate. I want my mecha to be extensions, but also stand on their own (one idea I had was a double-sided character sheet - one for the pilot and one for the mecha). Mecha have their own things that they are poor or good at independent of the pilot, and there are some things that the pilot can excel at regardless of the mecha design. Finding the sweet spot of how the two relate would be one of my primary goals.

The way I see it, there are a number of basic characteristics that mecha typically have. These are:
  • Size/tonnage/classification
  • Power/Energy
  • Offensive capability
  • Defensive capability (whether it's through armor, active systems, maneuverability, etc)
  • Sensory capability
  • Movement
  • Special abilities and systems
Out of those, size or classification sounds like how big of a container you have to put things in. I personally like classification with size or tonnage ranges. It would serve as an indicator for how many gizmos the mecha can have, possibly with the designer having a pool of "mecha refresh" that is used to spend on the frame, which in turn gives a base level of slots. The idea of slots and internal/external systems is nice in Camelot Trigger, but I don't particularly care for the skill bonuses for my purposes. I like the idea of the mecha using the pilot's stress track, but the mecha having its own consequences

Power/Energy looks a lot like a stress track, but it might be useful as a skill ala Endurance. It's an expendable resource, and one that I've found lacking in a lot of games. Mekton and Silhouette assume that, at the minimum, a vehicle has enough power to do what it was designed to do (barring some modifiers that can be added on to indicate over or under powered designs). Yet they also take into consideration operational range as a separate measure. That makes a lot of sense. But I know that I want to see something where the mecha can overextend itself on an exchange-level basis, but without tracking energy costs for every single little thing it does. So the Power concept is something that I definitely want to examine further as a potential mechanic.

Offense, defense, and sensory capability are things that mecha do so they are probably best represented by skills. This is where I'm likely to split with existing systems like in Camelot Trigger- while the pilot's skill in certain areas is used, the mecha has its own things that it is good at or bad at. I'm not 100% sure yet how I'd handle it, because I don't want to lose the idea that the mecha is and extension of the pilot yet still distinct. It would wind up being the core of the pilot/mecha interaction.

Specific abilities and systems would be Extras, most likely modeled after stunts, that would use slots very similar to Camelot Trigger. I still might come up with a simplified classification system for the stunts that would allow for them to fall into general modifiers and abilities.

There's a whole of lot of details I need to hammer out, but that's at least the foundation of how I would like to tackle mecha in Fate Core. My next step is actually going to be finding a setting to tie it into...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Abstraction Is The New Realistic

I've decided that abstract systems - like Fate Core - have more potential to be more realistic (at least to me) than more complex systems that give more detailed results. The reason is that the "realism" in roleplaying games is an illusion, and is dependent on the players around the table to play the game "realistically". The system simply constrains the results, and the more constraint the more likely that a given system will produce an unrealistic result. I've talked about this before,  but not with respect to how the system constrains results.

Roleplaying games can be simple or complex. They can be detailed, consistent, constraining, "crunchy", abstract, you name it. But for realism, they have a ceiling that can't be breached - and those are the limitations of trying to resolve events with a couple of die rolls and maybe a table lookup. The heavy lifting with regards to realism comes from the players, not the system. This is because the graph of "realism" in roleplaying games is pretty much a flat line with a few bumps and dips here or there.

Plus, there are some things that should never be realistic

Now, I'm sure I will get at least one response of, "But [insert system here] is obviously very realistic because it [includes such and such]." My contention is that the system is just constraining the possible results to a subjective measure that the game designer deemed realistic, and isn't actually intrinsically realistic. It's just a level of abstraction. And my experience has been that the more constrained that abstraction is, the more likely it is the system will produce unrealistic results. So for the trouble of having to learn a system - like, say, GURPS - I'd rather just go with a more abstract rules set and draw upon the people playing the game set the level of realism that they want.

Realizing this has completely changed my view of game systems, away from whether or not they handle this or that realistically and toward how they support the level of abstraction and style of game that I want to play. It's caused me to reevaluate - and in some cases, reaffirm - this level of abstraction as being fairly high. An example is for many years I've favored general wound systems, such as found in Dream Pod 9's Silhouette or Blue Planet's Synergy systems, over hit location systems. Fate's Consequences are just the next step of abstraction by going from ever-increasing negative modifiers to having descriptors attached. To me, I'm better able at handling the severity and nature of injuries than a random die roll. The same goes for adjudicating the exact nature of actions - I'd moved to subjective measures of success rather than a chart of success levels (for example, critical hit charts) quite a number of years ago. There's just too many variables, and too much going on, to distill important things down to a single die roll.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pure Roleplaying

I just recently read a post from someone who runs and plays games using "pure roleplaying." They try to make no references to anything mechanical - specifically the players, but the GM is supposed to keep mechanical talk to a minimum. They only refer to things that happen in the game narrative. The idea is that it is the "purest form of role playing." Now, I don't think this kind of play is elitist hippy, New Age crap (well, the thought crossed my mind but I'm not a complete jerkstore) - reducing mechanical talk is a pretty good goal in my opinion. But the wording of "pure roleplaying" makes the needle on my elitism meter jump a bit. I freely admit I'm a bit overly sensitive on this front, and it's worth examining why there's a few issues with taking this goal too far.

The first thing is the whole "roleplaying vs. roll playing" thing, which has hammered itself in my brain as a code word for "someone I don't really want to talk to." But there is a new generation of gamers who have come into the hobby by way of free form message boards, unstructured roleplaying sites, etc. and they have slightly different expectations that don't derive from the same place as the typical "rollplaying vs. roleplaying" argument. My own impression of those communities is that there is a lot of hen-pecking and jostling for status, and I can understand the appeal of more structured roleplaying games. It's one of the most tried and true solutions to the "cops and robbers" problem portrayed in the introduction to roleplaying games a lot of books include.

The mechanics in roleplaying games provide a shared language that is used to communicate what's in the imaginary space happening within our heads. That's it. I'm totally on board with mechanics "getting out of the way" and being unintrusive, but if they served no purpose and could be ignored we wouldn't have found a use for them. So, I don't see them as a necessary evil - I see mechanics as something that actually help. They are a tool, used to communicate vital information that keeps everyone on the same page. Doing away with mechanics completely basically makes the experience improv.

Second, from a personal perspective, I don't play roleplaying games because I want the purest roleplaying experience possible. If I wanted that, I'd do improv theater. I do it because I like games. I may not have a high tolerance for overly fiddly games, but I do enjoy rolling dice and figuring out how to work things out within the constraints of the mechanics.  If that means having to use mechanical terms during play, as long as they aren't completely jarring and mesh well with the game it's a compromise that I think yields tangible benefits. Otherwise, using the mechanics while not talking mechanics just sweeps the thing that's making everything work under the rug. And this isn't even getting into the question of what is a mechanic anyway? If you've devised a system where you give hand signals every time your character uses a skill in order to avoid mechanics, you've just invented a mechanic.

In short, trying to not talk about the mechanics while using the mechanics is like roleplaying Fight Club (or saying that you don't need programmers for Salesforce).

Monday, November 18, 2013

Collaborative Campaigns

One of the things that is featured in Fate Core is collaborative setting building. It's a clever device for a toolkit-like game with no predefined setting, and fits into the Fate philosophy rather well. From discussions I've seen about collaborative setting building from scratch, pretty cool stuff comes out of those initial sessions. But most of my interest in games comes from already established settings or campaigns. Tribe 8, Exalted, The Laundry, Mekton...the list goes on. It's assumed that if I ask a bunch of people, "Hey, do you want to play Exalted?", there's not a whole lot to be done in terms of coming up with setting elements. My MO in running games in the past has been precisely,  "I want to play X" and then dumping the players into character creation without any real input into the setting.

Obviously there are a number of obvious things that need to be worked out when using an existing setting - mostly regarding tone, the exact themes, and what the campaign will actually be about. Fate Core talks about this to some degree. Creating player investment is a pretty big deal to me now (I have to admit, I'm relatively late to the bandwagon on these topics), and that's really what the collaborative methods are all about (at least to me). When players aren't invested in a setting, and really in the game overall, they just aren't going to be as interested in it. They aren't motivated to try to stay within the bounds of the setting's tropes, tone, theme, mood, whatever. When they're not hooked and interested, they get bored. When a player gets bored, sometimes they get frustrated or start kicking down figurative sandcastles. I've experienced it multiple times, and I've always chalked it up to the player just not wanting to play nicely.

There's always that one guy
But like a lot of nuggets of wisdom in Fate Core, there are things that I have done - sometimes without a conscious realization of what I was doing. One of those things is taking cues from the player about what to do next. It's an often repeated piece of GMing advice. So if helping to create the setting gets players involved, by extension creating things within a setting, and the campaign at hand, should do the same thing.

So I've been thinking a lot about the types of things that Fate Core suggests for collaborative setting creation, as well as other games like The Dresden Files and the Spark rpg (or even games like Microscope or Kingdom, which I don't have yet but have peaked my interest). I've come to the conclusion that all of the types of things that one might define in a new setting - locations, NPCs, factions, issues, goals - should be things the players have a hand in even in defined settings.
I think that adding these personalized touches to the setting can help the players feel a little more ownership of it. They will likely feel a little more protective over the village that they created and populated. Or more driven to get vengeance on the crime lord that they decided would be the big bad guy of the campaign. My hope would also be that players with in-depth knowledge of a setting, who I've always come to rely on in helping fresh players get acclimated, would likewise be good resources for helping those same players actively contribute. The setting isn't some pristine thing that needs to be protected from the players - their characters are a part of it, and the players are just as much collaborators as the GM is.

On a final note, I completely discount the idea that the players might balk at having to do "the GM's job" in creating setting elements. I've never once met a player who's attitude was, "I'm just here to play a character, I don't want to have to design the setting". Every game I've run where there has been some element the players can create - whether it be mecha, or a military unit, or NPCs that are related to the character - they've jumped at the idea. Before my change of heart on these issues (because I used to be the "It's my setting, your characters" type), I had plenty of players wanting to give input on setting-details.

Friday, November 15, 2013

So Why Are Some Cloned Games Okay and Others Aren't?

Someone asked a pretty good question in the comments from my last blog post: what makes retroclones (and OSR in general) okay but not, say, something like the In.Fuzion game that was recently taken down from DriveThruRPG and other digital distribution sites?

The answer is: it depends on a lot of factors. In general, game mechanics can't be copyrighted beyond the actual text (they can be patented though, and terms can be trademarked). I could make a Mekton knock-off right now, as long as I wrote all of the rules myself and didn't use any text or artwork from the original books. I could use all of the mechanics - d10 + stat + skill, damage mechanic, etc. I might run into issues with the build system, because large swathes of it are tables and those might be considered the "expression of an idea" and not rules. Even so, I am totally free to take the basic idea of the build system (containers to put things in, effects-based systems, armor, etc.) as long as the rest of it is original. Legally I would be in the right. That doesn't mean that R. Talsorian Games couldn't try to stop it, and might have remedies to do so. Most retroclones follow this model, even to the point of adjusting experience point totals for level charts and changing the contents of other tables.

Also, it's been pointed out that many retroclones are done so under the auspices of the OGL, where the creators explicitly allow people to create works based on it (provided they do it properly). Other games, such as Fuzion, are not OGL (despite what the In.Fuzion creator claimed). That is certainly, legally and conceptually, the biggest difference between retroclones and other problematic games.

And I do have a fan adaptation of Tribe 8 (someone else's game) - to Fate Core (also someone else's game) right here in Google Drive. I wrote every word of it myself. It contains no copyrighted elements from either Tribe 8 or Fate Core, the one piece of artwork is used with expressed permission, and even at 40 pages or whatever isn't playable without either rulebook. It's purely supplementary material. It's kind of a bucket of bits and pieces that can be used to run the game in Fate Core. In my opinion, and to the best of my knowledge, it doesn't infringe on anyone else's intellectual property. I could very well be wrong, and DP9 could likely take my documents down with little more than a DMCA notice. But because of the vagaries of game copyright law, I'd only have to file some serial numbers off and put it right back up. Whether or not that would make me the douchebag in the situation would depend a lot on how on how I handled it.

What about other industries? I've mentioned the plethora of Alberto's Mexican restaurant knock-offs in Southern California before. Similar name, similar characters on their signs, similar color scheme, similar menus. Or take the story I read some years ago of a Russian laundry detergent brand that copied the product labeling of the "Other Brand" from their competitor's television commercials (basically, casting themselves as the other brand). Those are the same situation as retroclones vis-a-vis In.Fuzion, right?

The difference, to me at least, is that those other types of industries are highly competitive and often engage in a games of slap-fight marketing. There are boundaries set for how far they go - both legally and ethically - and those boundaries are understood by everyone involved. Within the tabletop gaming industry, those boundaries are different - and the Mykal Lakims, Tracey Alleys, and Nathan Robertsons of the world are ignorant (sometimes willfully so) of those boundaries. Whether they believe it's okay to market their own copies of a product line based on some interpretation of "Fair Use", or recycling an old campaign map (because, really, who's going to know?) or thinking that putting a lot of effort into editing and compiling someone else's work without their permission justifies selling it - all of that is overstepping boundaries. In some cases it may be legal, but the angry reaction by the designers and writers is justified nonetheless. This is because of their expectation for how the tabletop gaming industry works. Don't blatantly copy other people's stuff. Own your shit.

In the end, if there's some doubt as to whether or not something infringes on someone else's work, that's a sign. It might actually not, but at the very least that doubt should give pause to anyone who is concerned about stepping on someone else's toes. Getting defensive and calling people "Hoss" or threatening a lawsuit is, to me, the first indication that somewhere deep down they knew. At least one stray thought had crossed their mind, and it was dismissed. And if I were the writer in question who was saying, "Hey, this was actually mine. What the hell?", that defensiveness would outright infuriate me.

So, to me at least, that defines the difference between a retroclone and a blatant swipe of someone else's work. For anyone who is interested in more detailed discussion about copyright, trademarks, and patents - and what is likely acceptable or not acceptable - I found a really good thread about it on Boardgamegeek. It was highly informative about some details that even I really wasn't aware of, and tackles some of the most persistent myths about copyright. Be warned, it's at least a dozen pages long and meanders through a lot of different areas. It also contains links to a host of other interesting resources.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Update On In.Fuzion (And How Not To Respond To Reports Of Infringement)

First, an update. Nathan M. Robertson's efforts to sell Fuzion-based products without a license, and with large portions of other people's works included, have ceased. DriveThruRPG, Lulu and Scribd have all removed Cerberus Gaming Combine's offerings - only Amazon remains, and Mike Pondsmith will need to deal with that. Additionally, their website has also been taken offline and apparently a Twitter account has been removed. Some actions are obviously the work of copyright holders notifying the hosting services, while others (such as the website and Twitter) may be memory holing at its finest.

Nathan, who has gone by the username tectuctitlay on a few forums, looks like what I would like to dub a serial compiler. He collects up bits and pieces of things posted around the Internet (it looks like, in this case, GURPS in particular) and reassembles them into a coherent document. This is a pretty common pastime for gamers that were heavily involved in early Internet roleplaying communities like UseNet. Heck, I did much the same thing years ago with Mekton material (and some Fuzion as well). The tidbits that people posted to different groups were scattered, and it made it easy to find for myself (with the added benefit of making it available for others). I always referenced where I found a rule or mechanic from, when and where I could - and I always respected the creator's wishes when they didn't want it mashed together with somebody else's stuff.

Where Mr. Robertson appears to have gone wrong is assuming that he had some ownership in the Fuzion materials because he put work into it. You can see the mindset at work in the screenshot from DTRPG that I thankfully grabbed before they pulled the plug on his products (click to embiggen).

Hey, I changed the engine in your car without asking, so I'm just going to take it, mkay?

He took it upon himself, without asking any kind of permission, to rewrite someone else's work. By his logic, since only "20-25%" is left over (the old 30% myth rearing it's head again?) it somehow changes the fact that it wasn't his place to do it in the first place. On top of that, he throws up a defense of, "It was shit to begin with, I just fixed it". Because that totally makes it all right.

This is followed up by claims (which I unfortunately didn't get) that because the cover to his Fists of Fuzion was just the first image that he grabbed when searching that it was somehow okay that it was an image copyrighted by Midway. A fact that he dismissed as "nitpicky".

No Sparky, it's not a lot of effort to figure this stuff out

Finally, we get the "Mine's totally different, even though it looks the same argument." As well as a wrong assumption about the licensing status of Fuzion in general.

Apparently, he go this information from the same cereal box Mykal Lakim's lawyer did.
Setting aside copyright and legalities here, it's not rocket science to figure out that if someone else created something or owns something, it's not yours regardless of how much work you put into it. It's certainly not yours to try to charge people money for. Obviously there's a gray area between where something becomes truly your work and stops being somebody else's - but slapping some new art and paraphrasing some rules is definitely not in that gray area at all. Especially if you're going to use the same names (or similar) as extant products.

For the time being, it looks like this was a pretty quick flashfire. No threats of lawsuits, no cray-cray Twitter exchanges, just the torpedoed hulk of Cerberus Gaming Combine sinking beneath the waves. But the word I used above was serial. Remember that novel that the Eldritch Dark Forum talked about? Same guy, same MO. Take a bunch of posts and other material, edit it together, and try to publish it as their own. That means that there's a chance he'll be back.

EDIT: I want to make something clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with gathering up hacks or creating derivative works or creating conversions or adaptations of other systems or properties. I do this myself. It's the putting it up for sale to profit off of it, without asking for permission or getting a license, that is the issue. Getting snippy about it and calling people "Hoss" and "Chief" is just the douche in the canoe.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cerberus Gaming Combine Joins A Lofty Cadre...

They are joining  the likes of Dark Phoenix Publishing in an elite circle of companies who think that because a game line seems dead, they can take it and run with it. Or, in CGC's case, if a property is generally available for free they can reformat it a bit and sell it for money.

I won't link directly to either RPGNow or DriveThruRPG, but CGC is marketing a system called In.Fuzion that is a rewrite of R. Talsorian Games' Fuzion system. Except, apparently, they don't have permission to be using the name Fuzion, or the system, or any of the text they've apparently lifted in the process.

This is according to Jay Libby, an R. Talsorian Games freelancer, and others on the Fuzion Facebook group. So far, the list of people in addition to RTG that are being copied includes Jason Dour, Studio187, and BTRC (because please tell me that their product called Guns, Guns, Guns is totally different than BTRC's Guns, Guns, Guns). I wouldn't be surprised if other free Fuzion products wind up mixed in as well - Christian Conkle, for example, had a large amount of Fuzion content with the Atomik Fuzion product line.

What is it with taking people's logos for cover art?

Apparently R. Talsorian Games and other rights holders have been notified, so we'll just have to see what comes out of it. At the very least, someone is about to get a lesson in how the Internet gaming community views people who try to profit of other people's works. At the worst, they might get a lesson in how copyright enforcement works.

Fuzion was one of the first wave of freely available roleplaying systems on the Internet. To try to repackage it and resell it is bad enough. To take other people's work,  such as Studio187's Fists of Fuzion or BTRC's Guns, Guns, Guns and then repackage that is exceeding Mykal Lakim levels of bravado if they actually try to do it with a straight face. I even think it's actually crappier than what Lakim was doing, if only in terms of volume and brazenness.

It takes a lot to knock him from his throne
I'm going to be keeping an eye on this because, R. Talsorian Games is a company that's full of lots of goody-feelies for me - going all the way back to the original edition of Mekton. But regardless of the company or the game, doing this kind of crap just isn't cool.

EDIT THE FIRST: Looks like Cerberus Gaming Combine has also done this with someone else's novels, from the discussion here.

EDIT THE SECOND: DriveThruRPG and Lulu have taken his stuff down.

How I Adapted Tribe 8 to Fate Core

I was reading an RPG.Net thread and thought it might be helpful if I outlined the method that I used to adapt Tribe 8 to Fate Core.

Of course a lot of this is in hindsight, because the adaptation was an iterative process starting several years ago with Spirit of the Century, moving to Strands of Fate, and finally settling on Fate Core where it's going to sit for a while. It's taught me a number of valuable lessons, most prominently one that you hear a lot:

Adapt the setting, not the mechanics

It's a concise little saying, but not without landlines. For me, when coming into it from a highly detailed setting with tightly integrated mechanical bits that work just so, it's hard to divorce preconceived notions of how things should work from how they already work in the parent system. So something I prepare myself for now is tearing everything apart and putting it back together - I make no plans or have no expectations that anything mechanical will be ported to the new system. Concepts, yes. How those concepts work, no.

Getting Organized
One thing that helped tremendously when adapting Tribe 8 was sitting down and figuring out exactly where I needed to put my effort. There's no need to re-examine and tweak the entire system to fit the setting. At a high level, I'd say that there are four areas that need to be considered:

  1. Skills (or Approaches for FAE)
  2. Extras
  3. Mechanical tweaks (including stunts)
  4. Setting-specific considerations, such as setting aspects, genre-enforcement, etc.

The reason why I put setting-related things last is because they can often derail an adaptation. Depending on the game, there are things that can be hard to quantify. Plus, it might be beneficial to save them for when the players actually get involved - in essence, saving a bit of the collaborative world building for them.

What Do You Want To Do Today?
The reason why I choose skills first is because exactly what you want characters to do in the setting is pretty important. Tweaking the skill list and making any additions, merges, or removing skills does a lot to reinforce the feel of the game and make it "feel" like the setting.

For Tribe 8, I left the base skill list alone for the most part. I tweaked Contacts, Crafts, Investigate and Resources to better match the setting. I knew that I was going to be further tweaking Resources with an Extra and tying it to a new skill, Survival, so I simply created a placeholder for the Barter mechanics. I removed Drive and added a Ride skill, and added Survival. Finally, I knew that I would need placeholders for Dreaming, Sundering, Synthesis and Technosmithing - basically, the magic of the Tribe 8 world.

Extra or Extraneous?
Once the skill list was fleshed out, I set out about defining various Extras. The key was to not pump too much into it for the sake of novelty. For example, in an early draft I created a new method for defining Contacts that I ultimately decided was too much and removed.

For Tribe 8, I knew I had four major areas I needed to create Extras for:
  • Social groups
  • Bartering
  • Equipment
  • Magical abilities
The first three were purely emulation of elements I wanted to either bring forward from the Tribe 8 setting or things that I wanted to bring out. Social groups are pretty important in Tribe 8, as is bartering, and both had a lot of implied support without anything really to hang them off of. Equipment was something that I knew I wanted to be a little more defined (particularly weapons and armor), without being too detailed and fiddly. I saved the magical abilities for last because they were the most complex and there were a lot of factors to consider.

Dealing with porting over things like magic or other special abilities benefited the most from completely ignoring everything but the fiction regarding the powers. I've talked about ludonarrative dissonance a bit, and this is typically where it worms its way in to tabletop rpgs - the description of how something works doesn't line up with the mechanical implementation. I didn't necessarily want to balance the abilities against one another (balance, to me, is a knob on my stereo) but I did want the various abilities to snap together properly. I went through multiple iterations, each stripping away some assumption I had that I thought was based in the setting - but only turned out to be limitations of the Silhouette system.

For a different setting, winnowing through the extras might mean divorcing a mechanical assumption completely. Essence in Exalted comes to mind - there's a strong urge to retain it because of how embedded it is in the setting. Thinking outside of the box may not actually lead to not having Essence at all, but the process of trying to do it without mirroring the original mechanics can lead to a better implementation.

Just Hit It Till It Works
The next to last thing I tackled was specific mechanical tweaks that I wanted. In general, I'd say that unless there are overwhelming reasons to change the basics, leave well enough alone. That includes aspects and their use, stress, consequences, etc.

However, when the Fate System Toolkit draft was released and I got around to looking at it, I did find some changes that I wanted: namely scaled invocations for use with Synthesis and conditions instead of Consequences. These changes weren't made lightly, but fortunately I had just come back to the document because of another thing I've found helpful...

Shelve It For A While
After working on in-depth writing, such as a new adaptation, I find it's useful to set it aside for at least a few weeks and come back to it with a fresher set of eyes. It helps snap things into perspective and identify rough spots. Typically this is the time that I start to remove extraneous elements and generally tighten things up. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, it might get shelved more than once. Even though I consider Fate of Vimary to be "done", I'm planning on looking it back over in the near future as I get closer to starting to play.

Play It, Revise It, Retcon It (If Need Be)
Speaking of which, actually playtesting the hack in some fashion works wonders. I have to admit I haven't had the chance to do it with Fate of Vimary, but some of the decisions I made were based on prior playtests of similar components. In the past I've learned a lot more from letting my hacks into the wild by playing them. Even if it's just one component in isolation, with only one other person, it's well worth doing. A lot of harder to quantify elements like setting aspects or other larger scale bits can be hashed out either just prior to or during play.

Even after (or in lieu of) playtesting expect revisions. Some concepts that look good on paper don't work quite as well in actual play. I usually find that I already knew which ones were going to need to be tweaked or dropped. They'll typically be the parts that I fiddled with a lot or couldn't quite wrap my head around the implementation. How I've implemented conditions in Fate of Vimary is a good example. There are a couple spots that I don't feel are ironed out yet, so I'm letting those concerns rest until we actually play it out. It might also mean outright retconning an implementation if it proves to not work correctly. The important takeaway is that it's really difficult, especially for an involved adaptation, to get everything nailed down ahead of time.

Monday, November 4, 2013

We Are Never Ever Ever Working Together

An ode to my special Internet friend, to the tune of Taylor Swift.

I posted a lonely update last night
Saying, "I'm only trying to stay relevant," 'cuz like
You hadn't really mentioned me in a month
And I think that makes you a stalker. (What?)
I'm still waiting for Mark Smith to show up and say,
"He's just trolling and slandering away."
Those were totally the best days
When he said, "Lakim'll sue you", you responded, he shut up.

Ooh, you posted an update again last night
But ooh, this time I'm telling you, I'm telling you...

We are never ever ever working together,
We are never ever ever working together,
Talk to myself in the third person talking to them talking to you
But we are never ever ever ever working  together

Like, ever...

I don't miss +Steven Trustrum checking my copyrights
Or bringing my traced art sources to light
I'll just go ahead and keep on keeping on
With my vampires that are so much better than +David Hill 's

Ooh, you posted an update again last night
But ooh, this time I'm telling you, I'm telling you...

We are never ever ever working together,
We are never ever ever working together,
Talk to myself in the third person talking to them talking to you
But we are never ever ever ever working  together

Ooh, yeah, ooh yeah, ooh yeah
Oh oh oh

I seem to think you take me seriously
But I never realized I have an  entry on T.V. Tropes... he posted a blog update and he's like, "I hate Vampire Undeath"
And I'm like..."There's supposed to be a colon, he totally doesn't get it, like...
We are never working together. Like, ever


We are never ever ever working together,
We are never ever ever working together,
Talk to myself in the third person talking to them talking to you
But we are never ever ever ever working  together

We, ooh, working together, ohhh,
We, ooh, working  together

Talk to myself in the third person talking to them talking to you (talking to you)
But we are never ever ever ever working together

"Beneficial" Compels

It's probably due to crosstalk, but a few different communities have had similar Fate Core discussions lately. Some of them featured rather generous interpretations of compels that look more like invocations, that I'm calling "beneficial" compels. I figured I'd string together a few thoughts I have about them.

First, a little drawing I made:

This is not the new Evil Hat mascot

Where does the Fate Point go?
Character aspects are probably the most likely suspect for a "beneficial" compel, but it applies to any aspect. The idea is that the compel might have the same basic effect as an invoke. For example, doing a self-compel on a Consequence to make an attack miss, versus invoking the Consequence as a bonus to a defense roll. The crazy thing about this method is that not only does the character not get hit, but since they compelled their own aspect they'd get a Fate point. Win-win, right?

It doesn't wind up being quite that simple.

To illustrate this I'll be using an example from Revolution (warning: potential spoilers if you haven't been keeping up with the show and plan to). Charlie, the spunky Action Girl, is tracking down Monroe, the Evil Former Friend of her uncle. She's set up to give him a complementary trepanning with a crossbow bolt when two guys shanghai him, causing her shot to miss and hit the tree next to his head.

Under the "beneficial self-compel" scenario, it would appear that Monroe self-compelled his Most Wanted Man In North America trouble aspect to avoid getting skewered. If they work the way I've seen it described, the conversation leading up to it looks like this:

Charlie's Player: I take the shot. Rolls Shoot. I got a 6.
GM: Some guys knock him down and put a bag over his head, because Monroe is Most Wanted Man In North America. Your shot automatically misses. [Monroe gets a Fate Point].

There's a huge problem with this. Charlie actually made a Shoot roll only to have it invalidated by the character compelling his own aspect. It obviously doesn't work, on multiple levels. First, if she actually made the roll it means a thing happened. She took her shot, and he needs to defend against it. Second, compels mean complication. Getting clonked on the head and taken away is definitely a complication, but it's actually secondary to the intent of the compel (which was to avoid the attack). The complication of the compel should never be secondary.

A far better arrangement would look something like this:

Charlie's Player: I'm lining up the shot on Monroe.
GM:  Because Monroe is Most Wanted Man In North America, it's likely others are looking for him too. How about some guys knock him down and put a bag over his head. They take him away before you can shoot him. [holds up a Fate Point]
Charlie's Player: Damn [takes the Fate Point]. Well, at least can we say the bolt hits the tree where his head would have been, so Monroe knows someone took a shot at him at the same time?
GM: Sure, that's a really cool touch.

Do you see what happened there? Charlie had a narrative stake in the outcome of the compel. Charlie gets the Fate Point, not Monroe. This is kind of like a "hostile" invoke - the GM compelled Monroe's aspect to screw up Charlie's action. When that happens, they receive the Fate Point instead of the character who was compelled. Alternately, Charlie could have compelled Monroe's aspect to get him captured - then she would have paid the Fate Point and he would have received it. But my focus here is defusing the idea that the compel can be used to get out of something that would otherwise be a given within the narrative.

As an aside, and hopefully not to detract from the topic hand too much, there are a couple more options here. Monroe's player (or the GM) could concede the conflict, and it's decided Monroe gets captured by someone else. He could also actually have been Taken Out by the attack, and Charlie decides it means he's captured by the bounty hunters. Both of them don't seem as satisfying as the compel of his aspect to me though.

The narrative circumstances to allow a compel to have even a glimmer of a beneficial aspect should be pretty narrow - and this goes for any party affected by it. In the end, compels should always have strings attached, and narrative bite, unless you want your game to start looking like a Chevy Chase movie or an episode of Jackass.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The NQULGS (Not-Quite-Unfriendly-Local-Game-Store)

One of my favorite pastimes when I was younger (and had more time and disposable income) was visiting lots of different game stores. I've talked to employees and owners of all stripes, and pretty much seen it all (like the store in Burbank that had a nasty microwave on a shelf alongside products for sale).

I think this one is actually cleaner
I've also done some self-motivated promotional work of the, "Hey, are you carrying these products? They're really good", or distributing flyers for night clubs. As a result, I've interacted with a wide variety of clerks and business owners, and while I'm not what one would call a salesman (I'm really bad at selling things, actually) I'm not a complete slouch when it comes to chatting someone up.

Which is why I'm puzzled by the outcome from yesterday when I stopped by the local game store to ask them to put up a flyer from the Evil Hat Street Team challenge. This particular one is a local comics/game store in Lake Forest - people local to me will know which one it is. I've been in this game store maybe every few months and went there on one of the National Free Whatever Game Days last year.  Last time I was in there I found Ancient Echoes for Blue Planet and the time before that I bought Fudge Dice. I also dropped some sizable cash on some D&D 4e materials for my sons a couple years ago. Needless to say I'm not a regular customer in that I'm not a super consumer of roleplaying products, card games, comics, etc.

So I go in and ask ponytail guy behind the counter if he wouldn't mind putting up the flyer, telling him that I'm doing it for the Evil Hat street team. He says he needs to check with the owner. I've spoken with pony-tail guy before, but I've never seen the owner that I know of. The owner comes out and asks me if I work for Evil Hat. I tell him no, I'm doing it as part of of a Street Team event challenge to promote the Fate rpg. He says he normally doesn't put this kind of thing up, but it can go in the gaming room. All of that is pretty okay at face value.

"He is NOT Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Man"

I may not have worded my request or explanation very well - but the owner came off with an attitude of "You're not in here to buy anything, you're just checking things off on your checklist" toward me. His response to my mentioning I had backed the Kickstarter was, "That doesn't help your case."  The exchange made me feel rather uncomfortable. While I know I was asking something of him and don't feel like I was doing him a favor by putting the flyer up, it felt like a not-so-subtle guilting that I wasn't spending money and thus wasn't worth the time. In the end, the flyer wound up on the top of a case in their game room, and I left without taking a picture of it.

At that point I was actually disinclined to buy anything before I left. Out of politeness I did take a look around. I considered picking up Zombie Dice, but we're on a really tight budget this month so I decided better of it. After I left I thought about why he would react the way he did, and why I would feel somewhat slighted by it. I understand that owning a brick-and-mortar store in this day and age is very challenging. There's a lot of bitterness and cynicism driven by consumer behaviors like people coming in just to check out books so they can turn around and buy them online.

Yet, it's not my fault as the customer (or potential customer) that online retailers often make it much more convenient to buy the product I want, when I want it (though to be fair, I have always - with the exception of Kickstarters - purchased game books through stores). It's not my fault that Kickstarter is an appealing platform to fund games that I want to see published. Where I spend my money is my choice. If a store owner is losing money to competing business models they need to figure out how they can differentiate themselves. To me that means providing atmosphere, meatspace interactions with other gamers and hands-on customer service. Channelling the Comic Book Guy and being snarky about the customer's other buying choices is not a differentiation I'm particularly looking for. I've walked out of game stores before because the owner couldn't get up from whatever he was doing to ring me up. I've done the same when the clerk decides he wants to badmouth my purchase while I'm reaching for my wallet. Being made to feel that backing a Kickstarter was something negative is going to elicit the same reaction from me.

I'd like to think that I just kind of bungled things and it might not have been the brightest move to show up randomly with a flyer when the store doesn't know me. For certain I've had much worse interactions with store owners and employees. So I'm definitely not putting them in the NSFLGS category. But my goal is to move toward more regular gaming activities after the start of the year, and I'd like to engage with the store more as I do so. Yesterday just made me rethink whether or not that's something I want to do a little bit.