Friday, December 27, 2013

Design Journal: Steampunk, Gaslamp, Victoriania...How To Not Be Any Of Them?

As we move into the new year, I'm going to be posting roughly weekly design journals as I craft a new, as-of-yet-unnamed fantasy setting for Fate Core. My goal is to have all of the pieces in place by summer, so I can actually get to running it.

I'm a huge fan of the Thief franchise of PC games, as well as Dishonored. I'm currently playing Thief Gold, with the goal of getting through The Metal Age and Deadly Shadows before the end of February. If I finish before the new Thief game consumes my time, I'll probably replay Dishonored with the DLC that I didn't have before (and my new surround headphones). I am also a fan of a lot of older fantasy, particularly Fritz Leiber and other offerings in the vein of Amazing Tales (and, of course, Lovecraft), and devoured every Thieves' World book. Pulp, noir, and sword and sorcery are more my cup of tea than high fantasy.

I want my setting to incorporate a number of elements from these seemingly disjointed influences. I'm deliberately avoiding "medieval fantasy" as the setting's basis, but otherwise all I have so far is a few embryonic ideas, and a reasonably good looking map (which I will post at some point). But the one thing I'm completely unsure of is how to steer clear of the whole thing getting slapped with a "steampunk" or "gaslamp" label. Because my intention isn't for it to be any of those things (I don't even particularly like steampunk, at least as any kind of cohesive "genre"). I suppose that I should just build the setting I want and damn the torpedoes. Comparisons to this or that are going to inevitable and there's nothing I can do about it. For sure, there's not going to be any gears in my setting. Or gas masks. Or goggles.

Ironically, even though I'm trying to steer clear of those genre labels, I think it's best in these situations to actually learn something about them. As I said, I'm not a steampunk fan. I don't know it beyond pictures I see of people's costumes or when I see a steampunk RPG title cross some news feed or in a post. So I figure at the very least I should familiarize myself with what's already out there. Luckily Age of Ravens has a great rundown on the history of steampunk rpgs. That looks like as good of a place for insight as any.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Year In Review

Hopefully everyone had a great holiday season. It's been a busy one for me at home and at work, so I have haven't gotten a lot of blogging done.

It's been a year since I resurrected (or, more accurately, performed CPR) on this blog. I started out with a bang, by posting about the Vampire: Undeath trainwreck. Since then I've been somewhat all over the map as I've tried to find some direction. I've been moderately successful, sticking mostly to Fate Core topics and commentary on the gaming industry in general.

What I've decided to do for this retrospective post is link to the top 10 posts by pageviews. I'm ignoring search labels and links to static pages (even though one in particular dwarfs most of the posts).

10. RPG Realism And Why It's Crap
9. Post-Apocalypse Exploration "Triangle Tables"
8. Plagiarist Of The Week
7. Things I Hate In RPGs (And Sometimes Gamers)
6. Is Fate Unchallenging?
5. Managing Campaigns With A Large Cast of NPCs
4. Cerberus Gaming Combine Joins A Lofty Cadre...
3. Necessary Selling Points For A Heartbreaker
2. Why Fate Core Is Awesome
1. I'm In A Different Hobby Than Most Gamers

There were some "hot-button" topics in the top 10, but overall if I look at the top 30 I'm pretty satisfied that posts with substance as opposed to sensationalism (which was never really their point in the first place) fill a majority of the slots. But I'd be remiss if I did a review and didn't mention a few posts that I personally really liked, but didn't bubble to the top (after all, the top 10 I've listed already have high numbers of people having read them).

Humorous (And Horrible) Gaming Experiences - I really enjoyed reliving these oddball happenings.
Ludonarrative Dissonance - Discovering new terms for existing things is always fun.
Non-Protagonist Characters
Gir (And How Awesome Fate Accelerated Is) - It's Gir.
Your Character Knows More Than You Do
Recursion In RPGs - Because, recursion.

In the meantime, there have been several Kickstarters come and go. I have my physical Fate Core books, my Fate dice, and I'm ready (in spirit at least) to start up a couple of games. I've started preliminary work on a fantasy setting using Fate Core, which I will be documenting as I go (and hopefully I'll have the first set of posts on mapping up next week). Hopefully, this year will be as fulfilling as the last!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Help Out Some Good People

+David Hill and +Filamena Young's house was broken into. They had computers stolen, and it was just another crappy thing to happen to them recently.

You can help them out in one of several ways.

Both of them are awesome people and make great games, and all around make the gaming community a better place. But beyond that, absolutely nobody deserves to have something like this happen to them - particularly with Christmas just a few days away.

As an aside, I know that a few assholes have decided to chime in on threads discussing what happened. I'll just give some forewarning on this post: keep it to your fucking self. It's not appropriate and trolling discussions about a family that has been victimized is the lowest of the low.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nova Praxis Review

I’m going to kick off a new cycle of reviews with a game that I finally finished reading (it’s only be the better part of a year): Nova Praxis. With that, I’m also trying to get a rhythm and structure down to how I approach reviews so they’re informative without just rattling off a bunch of facts about the product (like how many pages are devoted to this or that, or dry chapter breakdowns). Most importantly, I’m eschewing any kind of rating scale at all.


Nova Praxis is the latest game from Voidstar Studios. It features a transhumanist-style, post-cyberpunk setting. Earth was pretty much rendered uninhabitable by a grey-goo type scenario, and mankind has since populated the stars. Society has changed, ideologies have changed, but ultimately people remain the same. The player characters are presumed to be edgerunner/troubleshooter types, either living on the edges of or beholden to a tarnished utopia. There are cybernetics, sleeves (the ability to download a consciousness into a new body), virtual reality, drones, and minds that exist only as software.

Nova Praxis’ Fate Pedigree

Before going any further, some comment on Nova Praxis’ flavor of Fate is probably useful. Nova Praxis uses a variant of Strands of Fate, which is itself a Fate variant. The game was apparently developed somewhat before and concurrently with Fate Core, but it sits firmly on the Strands side of the divide. Mostly this means the system tends to be a little more “crunchy” than Fate Core in terms of modifiers and extra systems...yet at its heart it’s still Fate (4DF, aspects, stress tracks, etc.). Overall, Nova Praxis is not as dense with subsystems as, say, Starblazer Adventures but still features a number of them. There are some departures from Strands that slide Nova Praxis a little closer to Fate Core. It eschews abilities for skills, and goes back to using stunts instead of advantages. It also reduces the number of character aspects to start with to 5. These changes bode well for Fate Core fans wanting a science fiction game, as it makes adapting it all the easier, but the game is solid on its own.

The Book

Well, in this case, the "enhanced PDF". Hands down this is one of the best looking and most feature-packed PDFs of any game I’ve read. The experience on a tablet is likely even better, but I only have a PC. Every page has a side menu on the left for accessing chapters and buttons on the right for moving from page to page. Chapter headers have menu buttons to go to specific subjects that seamlessly take you to the text. Every other PDF I have looks primitive in comparison. Plus, it’s fully bookmarked. There’s an appendix with a variety of NPC templates, glossary and the aforementioned character sheet. The artwork, as seen in the screen captures scattered throughout this review, is full-color, evocative and very high quality.

My copy has a slight problem with the back and forth arrows turning weird colors when I click on them. I may have an outdated PDF, or it could be my version of Acrobat or even my PC. If the case it is an outdated PDF that’s no fault of Voidstar’s, who have been on-the-ball with updating the PDF and getting it out to customers. I probably just haven’t downloaded an up-to-date version. My only real complaint is that the borders seem kind of busy, but not in a “ZOMG, why’d they layer the text over an image of Donald Rumsfeld?!” way. They don’t really detract from reading.

The Setting

The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to the setting’s history, locations, culture and politics. The setting is compelling, given that the Singularity kind of came and went with the birth and unexplained shutdown of the first true AI, named Mimir. Prior to shutting down it essentially spit out a ton of technological advancements (called Mimir-tech) - so many, and so advanced, that there are entire disciplines dedicated to decoding its archives. This technology is where pretty much everything comes from in Nova Praxis. This leads to humanity taking to the stars, but even in the wake of the end of scarcity and unparalleled technological advancement, doesn’t do anything to end conflict - it just makes it worse.

The end of a bitter war between two superpowers results in one side releasing the technophage - nanites that reconstruct matter into war machines. The technophage spirals out of control, and mankind is forced to try to fight it, then try to stop it, and eventually run from it. Earth is abandoned, leaving billions to die. The governments of the two superpowers become all but insolvent, forcing the largest corporations to have to step up and take charge. This leads to the formation of the Coalition, and the establishment of the current house system.

Coalition society is post-scarcity, at least in terms of ensuring that what is left of humanity has a baseline standard of living. The result is a society where the citizens have all of their basic needs provided for and have the freedom to do absolutely nothing - in exchange for near constant monitoring of every aspect of their lives. The Coalition economy runs almost solely on reputation, with those who contribute the most having access to more wealth. Predictably, there are those who who are unwilling or unable to live under the aegis of the Coalition and the Houses - they are called Apostates. Some hold-outs even try to continue a guerrilla war against the Coalition. Obviously, the Apostates, Houses and others exploit as many loopholes in the system that they can - otherwise it would be a pretty boring place to tell stories in.

Overall, I find the setting to be perfectly serviceable but not “Wow, that’s really awesome!” inspired. The aesthetics are good, and there are good justifications for why there would be groups of troublemakers running around stirring shit up. The structure of the Coalition with the Houses falls a little flat for me, but that’s mostly a taste preference. What the setting has in spades is a good mix of general tropes, ranging from a cyberpunk dystopia to Mass Effect-style space opera. It’s easy to drop things in that match any number of themes. I could see doing something in the vein of the Unincorporated Man, or even Blindsight, just as easily as a simple cyberpunk-style run with a Mr. Johnston and a double-cross and everything.

The Rules

Nova Praxis is basically Fate with a few differences. In case you’re not familiar with Fate, here’s the general rundown I included in my Fate Core review:

  • Uses Fate (or Fudge, same thing) dice, specifically four (notated as 4DF). Two sides are marked with a +, two sides with a -, and two sides are blank. They are read by adding up the results, so ++ - is a +1.
  • Skills are rated from 0 to 6 or higher. They add to the die roll. There are no attributes.
  • Most importantly, uses descriptive "tags" called aspects. Aspects represent things that are important - to the character, to the scene, even to the campaign - and can be used to justify influencing the story or results such as getting bonuses to die rolls, rerolling bad rolls, creating a special effect or merely being used as a justification for an action. Aspects can be used by (called invoking) and against (called compelling) characters, and characters can take actions that will add new aspects into play.
  • It uses a currency called Fate Points that players spend to use their character's aspects (called invoking). Players receive Fate Points when their aspects are used against them (called a compel).

The differences in Strands of Fate mostly revolve around nomenclature, the use of aspects and some specific cases regarding die rolls. Rolls that succeed over the difficulty can generate Spin, which follows the standard pattern of allowing the player to create a short-lived aspect. Rolls that fail to generate enough shifts generate Stall, which can result in a negative penalty or just something bad happening - a short-lived, negative aspect. Likewise, situational modifiers can be positive or negative, and compels can be used to impose a penalty on rolls. The game also multiple scopes for aspects, and doesn't allow more than one aspect from any one scope to be used on rolls. The system also keeps the concept of Persistent Aspects from Strands of Fate.

Since the game sits on a balance (and a rather nice one) between more traditional role-playing systems and Fate Core (which I’m taking as the “standard” to compare it to), there are a number of subsystems and specialized rules. For example, there are rules for sweeping beam weapons, falling, poisons and diseases, etc. Personally I’ve kind of moved away from needing or wanting these types of rules, but they are definitely useful as baseline examples for how to handle various situations that can come up in play.

There are two subsystems stand out: Rep-Ratings and Sleeves. Both of them are tied intrinsically to the transhuman nature of the setting, and so are totally appropriate to be given focus with their own rules.

The character’s Rep-Rating is an abstraction of the complex system that exists in the setting for tracking a person’s contributions to culture and society. Rep-Ratings are used in place of money, as well as calling in favors. They can also be used to limit membership or acceptance into various social institutions, schools, etc. People can give one another bumps or hits to their rep ratings pretty much at will, although it affects their own Rep-Rating when they do so.
Sleeves are new bodies that a mind can be downloaded into. They come in two types: biosleeves and cybersleeves. In order to utilize them, a character needs to undergo Apotheosis - effectively digitizing their mind. There are a number of stock sleeves available for characters, each with a cost, aspects, physical skills, built in augmentations, points for customization and any special rules. Not all characters are Apotheosized, although many augmentations can be purchased without the need for a sleeve.

Character Creation

As part of this review I’ve created a character, straight out of the rules and following the steps listed in the book. Nova Praxis comes with a form-fillable character sheet at the end of the PDF, and the same sheet is available as a stand-alone PDF. You can see the completed character here.

One thing I like about character creation in Nova Praxis is that various components - such as skills - are listed right there in the appropriate step. There’s lot a not of flipping between sections. The only exception is stunts, which makes sense. If they were listed with the stunt selection step, you’d just have to flip past all of them to get to the next section.

Unlike Fate Core, Nova Praxis does not include the character concept as one of its aspects. What it does with aspects though is something I’ve always liked: the aspect alphabet. While not hard rules on what the aspects have to be, they provide a nice guideline for the kinds of aspects that make well-rounded characters. The aspect alphabet goes in a bucket list of cool things to do for any Fate game, along with the mad-libs style template for phrasing invokes and compels from Fate Core.

Beyond aspects, characters have a starting state: Pure, Sleeved or as a SIM (basically software). The inclusion of an option and support for playing a character that is basically pure software is really interesting, as SIMs can control surveillance systems, download themselves into sleeves, and control drones. Each state has it’s own benefits in terms of bonus skill ratings, refresh and free stunts. After the state is determined, the player chooses skills. There are 20 skills total, plus three physical skills. The separation of the physical skills seems like it was a good way of dealing with characters that can have a wide-range of physical abilities (or, in the case of SIMs, none at all). Likewise, sleeves and drones have at the very least their own allocations of physical skill ranks.

To make it easier to distribute skill ranks, there are three skill sets (Specialist, Expert, and Generalist). The skill ranks between the sets are not the same - Specialist grants 22 ranks, with the highest skill rank at 5. Expert grants 30 with a max rank of 4, while Generalist gives 38 and a max rank of 3.

Finally you choose stunts, determine your character’s allegiance, choose gear and calculate starting Rep-Rating and stress boxes.

When creating a character I ran into an annoyance and a couple of issues. The annoyance was the character sheet - while it covers all the basics, it could have really used dedicated spaces for the character’s current state and allegiance. As it stands I jammed them under Notes. That’s relatively minor.

One of the issues was when calculating Physical stress. The first time that it's explicitly stated that humans are Size 0 is on page 151, under "Lifting Things" and there is no size chart in the game aside from vehicles (which starts at Size 1). It took some searching to find this out, and only after that I remembered that humans are Size 0 in Strands of Fate. Again, this may be changed in any revised PDF that may exist, and it's far from a showstopper. Still the character creation process is fairly straightforward, and the layout and writing make it relatively painless (aside from the dilemma I face any time I create a character in a vacuum).

Finally, there’s choosing starting gear. The method used to determine how much gear the character has is to determine the highest cost that the character can purchase and then choose one piece of gear for each step down to 0. So if, like my character, the starting value was 7 I would choose one piece of gear that costs 7, then 6, then 5, etc. I was barely able to squeeze in the types of items I thought this character would have, and had to do a lot of rearranging to fit in with the n = n - 1 pattern. The personal computer had to go in a slot one higher than it should have (so I added an aspect modification, which increased the cost by 1), and I left the 1 and 0 slots empty. To be fair, I restricted gear purchases only to what was actually listed without making anything up, which might be an unrealistic situation (more on the gear selection below).


There is a whole chapter devoted to gear, and it gives some decent guidelines on restricted items, modifying gear, augmentations, as well as building sleeves, drones, and vehicles. The examples are rather sparse for weapons and equipment (one of the reasons that I struggled with equipping my character - I wanted to do it straight out of the book without adding anything). Strands of Fate actually has a slightly more varied equipment list, with a few items that would definitely have been useful in Nova Praxis (such as equipment kits).

Now I’m not a gearophile, but when there is an equipment list I like to see a good mix of generalized gear and special, setting-specific items. For a game like Nova Praxis, this would have been especially helpful. Personally, I would just wind up filling in the blanks with items from Strands of Fate, or other games such as Blue Planet, Jovian Chronicles, etc. Similarly, there are only a handful of sample drones and vehicles given. While the rules are there to build your own, it would be nice to see at least a small variety of stock vehicles for immediate use, as well as to get a feel for how “canon” vehicles and starships are statted out.

Some Room For Improvement

There are a few things I would have liked with a little more meat in Nova Praxis. First, some more utilitarian illustrations or description to give a better feel for the setting. One thing that I find with some settings is the zoom level is far enough out that there’s no real impression of how things are “day to day”. In contrast, Blue Planet does a good job of conveying what life on Poseidon is like in just the Player's Guide. The same goes for Jovian Chronicles in terms of living in various installations, what shipboard life is like etc. I suppose the difference is that both of those game lines are well developed with multiple books, while Nova Praxis packs everything into one. Still Voidstar might have included a few zone maps or illustrations of locations, vessels, stations, etc. The same goes for more example vehicles. Similarly, while each House has it's specialties listed there's little indication if there's any overlap. Is House Dalianis the only starship manufacturer? Does House Jinzhan manufacture them and, if so, how are they different? Likewise, I thought that the information on compilers was a bit on the skeletal side - enough to grok how they affect the setting and are used, but still leaving me with a couple of questions (particularly regarding PCs purchasing them).


Nova Praxis is a solid post-cyberpunk, transhumanist style roleplaying game. For anyone familiar with the genre it doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, but it does offer a good foundation for nearly any style of game that a group might want to run. While the setting could definitely work with nearly any system with minimum fuss, the tailored version of Strands of Fate that it is built on serves the game very well. The PDF is extremely well designed and organized, even if the links are a little on the busy side - just not enough to be a true distraction.

Nova Praxis is available from
DriveThruRPG for $14.99, as well as in digital and hard copy from the Void Star store.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Language In Fate Core

No, not the language skill (the most useless kinds of skills in any rpg, IMHO, at least the way most game handle it). No, I'm talking about the use of language in Fate Core and how it affects the theme and mood of any particular game.

There are a lot of questions that I see related to how to make Fate Core more "this" or "that". They usually revolve around mechanical concerns, probably because in most games that's how you handle enforcing certain things. If you want to make a game more comical, you exaggerate certain elements or restrict things (like removing lethal damage). If you want to make a game more "realistic", you do x, y and z. A lot of this has to do with most games not having other tools to make those kinds of adjustments.

With Fate Core, though, we have aspects - and aspects are at their core language. How aspects are worded, and thus interpreted, can have a huge impact on the game. Humorous aspects reduce how serious the game is, while dour (or even darker) tinged aspects can change the atmosphere dramatically. For example, consider Shaun of the Dead compared to most other zombie apocalypse fiction. Shaun might have the aspect:

Buy Milk. Ring Mum. Dodge Zombies (lifted from one of the taglines of the film)

While in a more serious game, a character might have the aspect:

Survival At Any Cost

The wording sets the tone, and this is true for any of the aspects in the game - character, situation, boosts, campaign, all of them. This isn't to say that there aren't mechanical means to deal with bringing about a particular mood - only that aspects are going to be the linchpin of that effort (and in a lot of cases, not much more will be needed). This extends to how aspects are invoked and compelled. Hostile invokes and cutthroat compels have been suggested as a means of creating a "grittier" (or at least more unfriendly) game. The same goes for any other theme, especially since the wording of the aspects are going to speak to how they are invoked and compelled.

So I guess my point here is when hunting around for ways to tweak out Fate Core, look toward how aspects are worded and what the table wants them to evoke. If that doesn't quite do it then maybe look at other adjustments to the game system. This doesn't necessarily apply just to Fate Core either - how players around the table talk during any game is going to have a major impact on the mood of the game. That's really kind of pointing out the obvious. The difference is that Fate Core (and games that are similar) have the language baked right in.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Thanksgiving Vacation Inspiration

For Thanksgiving this year we went to Sedona, AZ. I had always thought it was just a resort town, so I didn't really know that Sedona is known for a number of things:
  1. New Age tomfoolery
  2. Hiking trails
  3. A number of Native American sites in the surrounding area

The chiquitos are more likely to be of extraterrestrial origin
The New Age tomfoolery isn't so much interesting (except maybe from an urban fantasy perspective). However the country around Sedona is absolutely breathtaking and inspirational.

While we didn't get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked exploring, we did get out to Palatki to see the ruins there. Palatki is known for having a couple of cliff-dwellings (mostly crumbling) as well as a grotto with pictographs and petroglyphs. Just seeing it is a humbling reminder that for every ancient civilization that GMs and game designers write about, there are real world examples often right under our noses, stretching back thousands of years. That shit's real.

Cliffs near Palatki. Every butte or cliff in Sedona needs a fortress on it.

The dwellings at Palatki are built right up against sheer cliffs, with overhangs that protect them from the elements (which is one of the reasons that they are still there). These were two-story structures, sometimes three or more. The Sinagua (not the actual name of the people) did not utilize the wheel, have a system of writing (that we know of) or use metal implements. They were still able to build some pretty impressive dwellings. What's really clever about them is that by building them along the cliff-face, they eliminated the need to build one entire wall.

First floor dwelling entrance

Second story of dwelling

Additional dwellings along cliff
The two dwellings were strategically placed on either side of an area where rainfall ran off the cliffs above, creating a huge waterfall. The guide said that when there's heavy rain, there are multiple spectacular waterfalls - they were more than likely the source of the settlement's fresh water.

On top of that, the site contains a grotto that has preserved some pictographs - some of them dating back to the "archaic" period of prehistory, at least 5000 years ago. There aren't many identifiable symbols - a lot of them are very abstract, although I was able to spot a number of animals. A couple, such as the weird alien-looking humanoids are thought to be depictions of shaman or a Sinagua girl (they put buns in their hair when they reached the age of majority, hence the horn-like protrusions. There are also multiple culture's pictographs crammed into the grotto - ranging from the prehistoric, to the Sinagua's art, to later comers such as the Apache.

Animals and Sinagua girl

The black markings such as the ladder and horse figure are most certainly Apache, because the Sinagua didn't have horses
In addition, there's a good likelihood that they used various markings for more than ceremonial or decorative purposes. One pictograph depicts mountain peaks with black triangles underneath certain portions. Those peaks just happen to line up with the shadow cast by the cliffs across the valley - and the black triangles align with the position of the sun at different points during the year. Another shows what appear to be waterfalls coming from the cliffs. Who knows what that was supposed to represent - maybe part of a map?

Anyway, all of this real life stuff has given me some inspiration for a potential fantasy setting. It's not Native American-inspired, per se- I'm not sure that I could do it justice without in some way being offensive. But I know that I want to aim for that overall time period in human history, or at least a fantasy analog. I have a few ideas bouncing around, I'll just have to see how the seeds of inspiration grow out of them.

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.

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.