Monday, October 28, 2013

RPG Person Profile

Since I've been so busy at work and at home I've been trouncing that little jerk Napoleon Alexander in Civilization V, I haven't written a proper blog post. Luckily +Zak Smith came up with something that seems like a fun idea so I'm going with that for now.

I'm currently running (at home): Nothing currently. After the holidays and the arrival of my physical Fate Core books I'm going to get something running.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include: Ditto. 

I'm currently running (online): Ditto.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include: Ditto.

I would especially like to play/run: Fate Core/FAE, Blue Planet, Mekton Zero, Exalted

...but would also try: The Laundry, Fractured Kingdoms, Spark, Nova Praxis, Eclipse Phase. But I'll try most nearly anything.

I live in: Orange County, CA

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: Exalted, Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu

2 or 3 novels I like: Blindsight by Peter Watts, Game of Thrones, Starship Troopers

2 or 3 movies I like: Pacific Rim, The Fifth Element, Get Him To The Greek

Best place to find me on-line: Google+

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Post-apocalypse, urban fantasy, mecha

I really do not want to hear about: Your immersion.

I think dead orc babies are ( circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....) That's definitely a complicated question...dead babies are problematic period. I think the deeper question is are alignment systems problematic?

Game I'm in are like (link to something):

Free RPG Content I made for Tribe 8 is available here.

Free RPG Content I made for Fate Core is available here.

I talk about RPGs on RPG.Net under the name Wil

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Heartbreakers, heartbreakers everywhere!

No, I'm not talking about a new heartbreaker. At least not one that's actually out. My involvement with a semi-sekrit intentional heartbreaker project has gotten me thinking about what my heartbreaker would look like.

For sure, it would be some form of Silhouette with elements of Interlock, Synergy and possibly even CORPS mixed in. With a smattering of Fate on top. It would still be reasonably identifiable as Silhouette- dice pool, take the highest, zero-average attributes, wound system. It wouldn't use d6...most likely d10, and the ranges would be a lot different as a result. It likely would use a Friday Night Firefight style ranged combat system without active defense rolls. It might get a little crunchier in terms of turn order. It would definitely ditch the SilCore notions of complexity, as well as the social conflict rules. Not that I don't think social conflict rules are good to's just implementing it like combat with the bloody parts filed off and replaced with social bits that doesn't work.

None of that includes the vehicle design system, which likewise would be a Silhouette and Mekton love child, maybe with some Maximum Metal mixed in for good measure.

So, that's my heartbreaker. I'm sure at some point I'll get around to actually getting it out of my head.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ludonarrative Dissonance

So I've found a new term that describes a problem that pretty much every gamer has ever encountered, anywhere: ludonarrative dissonance. It satisfies my logophile tendencies (I mean, my blog's name is Aggregate Cognizance) and it pretty much hits the phenomenon on the head.

In short, as you can see from the TV Tropes entry, it describes those moments when the game doesn't really fit the narrative. Most everyone who have played video games know this phenomenon well. It happens a lot in tabletop rpgs too, which I'm sure isn't a big surprise to anyone. Whether it's from a character build that doesn't perform as advertised, or a die roll that contradicts what's going on in the narrative, or when the rules actively get in the way and stop the action, it's like the game hits a speed bump that launches it into a brick wall. It stops. Hard.

It looks like a problem without an easy solution. But while I was poking around the Internet, I came across this blog post discussing the combat example from Basic D&D - an example I remember really well. The first thing I take from actual example is how different the designers show the game being played from how I remember the DMs in my area actually running it. Even me (especially me). Our games didn't flow anywhere near as naturally as the combat described there.

The blogger does a good job of doing a play by play of the combat example. Of interest to me in terms of ludonarrative dissonance is how the archer fires her bow out of initiative order. I may be wrong, but I chalk it up to the DM trying to avoid a situation that doesn't make sense given the unfolding situation. If the archer already has her bow readied, there's no reason she can't just fire an arrow regardless of the timing. Classic DM call, considering that there appear to be no rules in BD&D that specifically cover it.

In the end, the interface between what's going on in the player's imaginations and the rules system is highly imperfect. Strict adherence to the rules in spite of what's going on around the table is always going to create those hard stop moments - resulting in ludonarrative dissonance. The best that we can do, as GMs and players, is recognize when we need to disconnect from strict by-the-book interpretations wing it a little bit in the name of keeping the game going.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Necessary Selling Points For A Heartbreaker

So, this happened. A game company putting out a game called Mazith posted a Reddit, and it went about as well as can be expected. When people ask questions about a game that has been developed for 30 years in relative isolation, there's going to be difficult questions. Like "What resolution mechanic do you use?" Those answers are never easy, particularly when you're not sure what a resolution mechanic actually is.

I'm not going to pillory them too much, because other than surliness and a slip by their artist in using one of +Dyson Logos' maps as the background for an advertisement, they seem to be sincere. Plus, I can't snark it any better than the Kicksnarker community on G+ already has.

Instead I'm going to compile the absolutely necessary selling points for anyone wanting to market a heartbreaker. Please refer to this list as you prepare to publish your game.
  • Make a point of saying your game has been in development for (choose one):
    • 10 years 
    • 20 years
    • Some period of time that would make you a teenager at the time
    • Before you were born 
My rpg is at stake!
  • Specify exactly how many classes, races, skills, spells, items of equipment, monsters or plants that are in your game and how it's more than every other game ever published. Mention this, a lot, especially when answering questions about the system.
  • Universal systems are cool. What's even better is playing two or more games together. Smash everything you can into your game without regard for how it fits together. Who needs focus anyway?
  • Highlight the things you've just swapped out with something that is really the same. Like the d20, classes, hit points, armor class or experience points. No need to be creative, just use a thesaurus when renaming them.
  • Use some variation of the phrase, "For gamers, by gamers". This indicates that the game was not made by beekeepers for airline pilots.
  • Say your game is a "ROLE playing, not ROLL playing" game. And thereafter use the word "roll" incorrectly. 
  • Include the words "most realistic" or is "meticulously historically researched". Especially if the game deals with fantasy elements.
I may have just swiped this image from GnomeStew, too hard to tell!

  • Make sure you have at least a half-dozen different resolution mechanics, all inspired by games with completely different design goals. Even better, each subsystem should be written by a different person, at a different time.
  • Call out a single other game that you are "fixing". Be enthusiastically insistent about how your game is better than the other game.
  • Concentrate on something that your game does or has that no other game has. Like being able to "do anything", or "imagination being the limit", or having Morning Elves or Trash Dragons.
Bonus Points:
  • Primary sources are for chumps. A lot of people have already done a lot of creative hard work for you. Use only television shows, movies, Wikipedia and other games as sources for your own.
  • Include references to "real majick" and criticize other games for their magic implementations.
My lack of Satanic orgies in my youth was because D&D's magic doesn't have a "k" at the end

  • If you're going to be a boss, act like one. "Internet on a website", set up an 800 number, and call yourself a CEO. More people will take you seriously. Issue press releases and make it seem like you have an office full of developers, editors and artists.
  • Create as many different social profiles as possible, and sporadically update different ones with information. You need to keep your competition on its toes!
  • Speaking of competition, the roleplaying industry is notoriously cutthroat and full of thieves. Bigger companies than yours are always looking to steal your ideas. They know yours are better than anything they have, otherwise you wouldn't need to create your game in the first place. If you see one of your ideas in their product the only conclusion is that they stole it. 
  • But remember that if you find something on the Internet, it's totally okay to use it. When you do that, it's not stealing. It's a cost-cutting measure. When someone points out your sources, frantically remove all traces and act like it didn't happen., or insist that it was a coincidence. Make sure to point out every instance of something being similar that has ever happened.
  • Threatening to sue when someone says something mean about you is the best way to get them to be quiet, and is great PR.
  • Play up your personal accomplishments that have nothing to do with game design. Like how you played guitar for the Ramones and were a Navy SEAL. At the same time. Or you're a master of some unheard of martial art. Or you were a wandering homeless person bum guru.
  • Tie your game company to another existing enterprise like a thrift store, shoe importer or medical marijuana dispensary.
  • Arrange for a small army of friends and family (or just register a few extra accounts) to swoop into any discussions when things go south.
  • If someone asks a hard question (like "How is this game different from any number of games that are exactly the same?") call them a troll or unprofessional.
Please reference this article, as well as the above-mentioned Reddit, to see elements of this phenomenal marketing technique in action. Also, Dark Phoenix Publishing has employed many of these techniques very successfully. Just don't Google Byron Hall no matter what you do. That's a random table you don't want to roll on blindly.

The Reservoir (Spooky Spots #2)

March 16th, 1938 was a dark day for Haidale County, MA. On that day the township of Sefield was accidentally submerged under over 30 feet of water as a dike for a nearby reservoir completely failed. The small valley where Sefield was located flooded, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and the complete decimation of the entire town. While the dike was repaired, the resulting lake was not drained - leaving the flooded town in a relative state of preservation underneath the surface. The tops of dead trees that have not succumbed to the water jut from the surface of the water and, depending on the water level, occasionally the rotted spire from the church tower can be seen.

Today, the area around the lake is fenced off and the larger area is part of a national forest, administered by the US Forestry Service. A small monument with a plaque commemorates the tragedy that occurred, and there is a small museum - really little more than a cabin - that contains a few historical artifacts and exhibits. It's maintained by one of the flood's survivors, a spry 80-year old named Helen.


Inside the fence, numerous warning signs dot the area to warn off people from entering the water. The remaining submerged structures, murky water, and fluctuating water depth makes the lake dangerous when boating and swimming. Still, the lake is a magnet for teenagers, the curious and occasionally criminals. Thrillseekers love to dive down to get mementos from the town below, or just boat out over the decayed buildings and streets. Only one death on the lake has been confirmed - a college student who became trapped while diving - but multiple unsolved disappearances are suspected to have happened on the lake. Very few agencies are willing to venture into the water to try to solve the cases. The Forestry Service doesn't have the manpower or the inclination to police the area too vigilantly. They have an informal agreement where when they do find interlopers on the lake, they just call the local Sheriff. Typically the Sheriff just drops the trespassers off at their car or (in the case of minors) their home, letting them off with a warning.

Venturing on to the lake at night is even more treacherous for obvious reasons. Beyond those, local legends say that on some nights the town underneath the surface appears as it did before the tragedy struck. Streetlights illuminate and ghostly figures can be seen walking the streets. The legend has built up over countless campfires, adding on elements such as waterlogged corpses wandering up on to the shore. A very common warning is to never enter the water at night, or else the spirits of the townspeople will drag the interloper down to be drowned. Some claim that even sticking their fingers or hand in the water at night can trigger a strong pulling sensation. Helen is also rumored to be at lake at night on occasion (usually during a full or new moon), leading to rumors that she is a witch or even a ghost herself.

At least one local historian, Ray Carman, disputes the claim that the dike which flooded Sefield failed. A professor at a local college, he points to evidence of a scandal surrounding Ingram Leighton, a local council person. Carman believes that the flooding was engineered to cover up...something. The descendants of the council person's family - one of the most prominent in Bellbrook, the town that was founded shortly after the accident - dismiss his account as muck raking, pointing to their ancestor's establishment of a trust for the survivors and a campaign to drain the lake and recover the remains of the deceased that continued until he passed away. On the subject of the scandal, Leighton, and what might actually be going on on the lake, only one person might be able to clear up the mystery - Helen - and she isn't talking.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I Don't Fudge Die Rolls

And it's not likely for exactly the reason you might think.

I'm not part of the "let the dice fall where they may" crowd. I have not seen roleplaying games as physics simulators for quite a long time. I'm actually one of those GMs who always rolled behind the screen, explicitly so I could fudge rolls in the best interest of the "story" or to make sure things went the way I wanted them to. Sure, most of the time it was to the players' benefit but there were times when the monster missed and I flipped it to a hit, or when a random encounter didn't yield an interesting result so I made it interesting. My players always trusted me, and thought I was a good GM.

But I always felt like a sham, knowing that so many times I kicked down rolling all 10s on damage dice to 5s, or I bumped the enemy's hit to a critical because the PCs were defeating it too easily. So gradually, and without quantifying the technique, I started moving toward rolling everything out in the open. If the dice were rolled, everyone around the table would be bound by those rolls. Dice were used to resolve uncertainty, when no one wanted to (or felt they could) take responsibility for the results.

Fudging rolls makes me feel something like this
Once I got around to reading Fate Core, I already had a pretty good grasp on the play style I was comfortable with - it just put the cherry on top. Only roll when it's important. Because while I was mostly on board with not using the dice when it wasn't necessary, I was still rolling for pretty trivial stuff. Random things on scavenging tables, NPC reactions, that sort of thing.

Knowing when to roll is a skill that I'm constantly working on improving. It's what I actually want the players to trust me for. I want them to trust that I know when it's the best time to let the dice decide, when it's the best time to make a declaration sans randomizer, and when it's the best time to get a consensus. Just trusting that I'm an impartial die roller isn't enough.

Monday, October 14, 2013

North Hall (Spooky Entry #1)

Last week I touched on the types of places that I felt made good creepy locations for RPGs, so now I'll continue with an example. I already kind of tipped my hand with this one in the previous post, so I'm going to see what I can do to add a twist to it.

North Hall is one of the oldest buildings at the High School. It's a two story building with a basement, consisting of classes and offices on the first floor and more classrooms on the upper floor. It is representative of the late 1800s and early 1900s architecture that comprises the older parts of town - solidly constructed of stone, aesthetically pleasing but still functional. Along with the auditorium, library and science building, it is a defining edifice for the school. It has had a few minor renovations but still retains a lot of vintage elements - radiators in the classrooms for heating, hardwood floors, door locks with keyholes, etc.


The basement is used for records storage and consists of a short hallway with two rooms. The larger of the two rooms contains jumbled stacks of old school desks. A door - welded closed - is located at the far end of the room, behind the desks. Officially, the door leads to a section of the basement that was used during World War II by the Army, who maintained a training garrison on campus (which, at the time, was actually a college). The area is considered off-limits due to structural concerns. It's thought by many, and backed up by historical records, that the area is a much larger sub-basement connecting to other buildings on the campus. It's known that there are also sub-basement entrances in the library and science building.

North Hall has more than its share of unusual occurrences - odd sounds, electrical malfunctions, random air currents, etc. All pretty standard fare for an older building. Students over the years built up quite a bit of lore around the happenings within the building and the school in general. Beyond typical stories about the ghosts of students that have died on the campus, there are a number of legends regarding the door in the North Hall basement. The most persistent are students who claim to have heard knocking, banging or rattling coming from the other side of the door - one story goes that if you knock on the door, something on the other side will knock back. Another is that the door was welded shut after a group of students were found in a state of catatonia just inside the door.


Exactly what is behind the door depends on the nature of the campaign. In conspiracy-oriented campaigns, the rooms behind the door might hold information needed to solve some other mystery. Older faculty or staff may be aware of the content of the rooms, or might possibly even be actively trying to keep it a secret. In a horror game, the rooms beyond might harbor some supernatural threat - spirits, a demon, vampires, whatever works best for the campaign. In survival-horror game, the PCs might even be trapped or held captive within the sub-basement - possibly by whoever originally built it.

A connection to the Army presence on the campus holds quite a few possibilities. There had to be a good reason that they would set up some kind of operation underneath the campus, and using the school as a training garrison is questionable (and probably full of a number of holes). Perhaps it's tied to the location of the school, and what was underneath was already there. The Army operation was to unearth or otherwise utilize whatever could be found underground. It may have been a simple retrieval operation, and whatever is left only holds clues. Experimentation might have gone on as well, and depending on who or what the subjects were, they might still be around.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Children of Lilith Relationship Map

I just completed a massive relationship map for the NPCs in Children of Lilith, as part of my preparations to run the metaplot using Fate Core. The patterns that emerged were very informative, and I finally think I know how I want to alter the published plot to better suit my tastes.

Also, spoiler alert. If you have never played in Children of Lilith and think you may want to, don't look at this chart.

Update: if the image won't show up full-size, you can get it from here.

Managing Campaigns With A Large Cast of NPCs

I'm shooting for starting Children of Lilith using Fate Core around the beginning of the year. This allows me enough time to get my physical Fate Core books, my Evil Hat Fate Dice (although I have enough now between the Thematic Fudge dice and the Fudge dice I picked up earlier in the year) and get some solid campaign prep going. There are a lot of things that I want to organize and plan for before attempting CoL for the third time.

For those of my readers that aren't familiar with Tribe 8, Children of Lilith is a "cycle" book, the first book in a longer campaign arc. It was originally published in 1999 and while it's a great introductory campaign for Tribe 8 (and drives the entire metaplot), it has some rough spots that I'd like to polish out.

One thing that can be hard to manage in Children of Lilith are the NPCs. They range from single mentions in the narrative to major players in the world of Tribe 8. Once you include these minor supporting NPCs and characters that are only mentioned once, CoL has a cast of at least 60. Since Tribe 8 eschewed the "chess piece" system used in Heavy Gear, it's likewise difficult to know which NPC may play a role in a later cycle book without actually reading that book.

The task of keeping track of all of these NPCs, as well as who is related to who and why, can be a daunting one. Luckily, someone somewhere invented the relationship map and I (non-sarcastically) love flowcharts and diagrams. I have multiple mapping programs and I've done some mapping in the past with various games, but the scope wasn't nearly as broad as CoL. Also since I'm using Fate Core I have some other considerations (such as aspects) that I can leverage to pack more usable information into the map.

Luckily, there are a number of good articles and documents that have been written in the past couple years. Gnome Stew has a couple good ones, as well as the Entanglements system from Yaruki Zero. Gnome Stew actually turned me on to CmapTools, which was a great replacement for the plethora of other diagramming tools I've been mucking around with (it's free).

Maybe DP9 could have had Mykal Lakim name their NPCs. Also, DJ Skot did a great remix of "Once In a Lifetime" by Wolfsheim
(pedantic note: liberties have been taken with the NPC relationships shown, as two of the three are one-off mentions in narrative sections of the actual book)

My structure is inspired by the Entanglements system that I linked to above. Basically, squares with dotted lines are "extras". They count as a nameless NPC in Fate Core terms - for all intents and purposes, they are an aspect and little else. Thus, all extras must be directly or indirectly linked to either a minor or major NPC. Two of them are linked to Kyrt through group membership and the third directly. Ovals with dotted lines will represent social groups - the lines coming from each NPC denotes membership in the group. In this manner, I can map relationships between groups. Boxes with dashed and dotted lines represent locations. The three extras could also, obviously, have a relationship with one another beyond cell membership (let's say if Skot and Andrue were lovers). You'll also notice that the line around Lilith's box is bolder (I'm actually going to increase the thickness more). This is to help with visual recognition of a character's importance - dashed lines are the least important, while increasingly thicker lines are more important. Any useful aspects will be included in the boxes as well, to reduce the need to reference other documents.

I think this is a really good start, and with CmapTools I think I can get a complete relationship map of all of the NPCs in Children of Lilith done efficiently with a high degree of usability. Once I'm done with the entire thing I'll be sure to post a link to the document.

Update: Someone on G+ pointed out Vue, which I am playing with. I think I might like it better than CmapTools, but so far CmapTools has been fantastic.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

October Blog Carnival Post: Spooky Spots

The October RPG Blog Carnival topic is spooky spots. I think I'm going to do several of these.

Growing up in the Inland Empire (aka The Valley of the Dirt People aka The 909), there were plenty of spooky spots. Old buildings, in particular, are some of the creepiest. On top of having history, they tend to have architectural features that more modern Southern California buildings don't - basements, boilers, cellars, tunnels, sealed off rooms, etc. Remodeling and renovations can lead to anomalies in a building that makes you wonder, "Why is that there? Where does it go?". Out of those older buildings, high schools are prime real estate for creepy goings on. This is usually because there are a lot of hormone-riddled, over-imaginative kids filling them who like to make shit up. Rumors and stories get started by the upperclassmen to freak out the freshman, and coupled with a dash of truth, these places can be very creepy indeed.

The original Chaffey College building has creepy written all over it

Chaffey High School in Ontario, California is very definitely one of those places that can be very creepy. There's a huge, well-outfitted auditorium complete with trap doors under the stage and a sub-basement with prop rooms, and a building with a clock tower that was permanently closed off. Up until relatively recently, a boiler room sat in the middle of the campus - the remains of the mechanical plant - which means there have to be steam tunnels running to the older buildings. Rumors persist of a bomb shelter underneath the campus - for sure, there are basements in at least two of the buildings. Some doors in those basements are locked or welded shut. When I was going to school some friends and I tried to find ways to get into the tunnels, including being in buildings at night (the statute of limitations is seven years, right?). Renovation of one of the buildings unearthed rooms dating from World War 2 that contained cots, rations, medical supplies and even an indoor shooting range . The high school had an aeronautics department starting in the 1930s, and I've seen pictures of army bivouacs on campus and remember reading the Army Air Corps trained mechanics there (but oddly can't find any confirmation of this). The Army presence on campus isn't too far-fetched though, because Chino Airport - only a few miles away from Chaffey - trained pilots during the war. This place is totally Mazes and Monsters-ville.

So, over the next few weeks I'll use rampant conjecture and a few facts to spruce up a few roleplaying locations inspired by my own experiences. I might even try out some of the cool mapping tutorials I've seen lately to provide some visual aids.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tribe 8 LARP rules

Looks like someone has put together some Tribe 8 LARP rules. LARP isn't really my thing, but I figured I'd boost the signal a little bit. You can download them from here. They also have a Facebook group set up.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Is Fate Unchallenging?

One of the things I see on occasion in discussions about Fate is how the game comes across as unchallenging. Throw a whole bunch of stacked modifiers at a roll and wablam! you just got a total of +8 and wind up blowing away that measly 2 passive resistance. It's sometimes described as taking the tension or suspense out of the game.

Usually when I read these, for some reason I think of the one guy who spends all of his time combing through the rules and sourcebooks to create a perfect build. I had one of these once - he could zero in on the exact combination of ability, skill and modifiers that essentially made his character unbeatable when he had a sword in his hand. In the right hands, it's great. In the wrong hands (or with the wrong intent) it can really bork up a game.

But in a game like Fate I can see how it would deflate that kind of player. At first glance, there's not a lot of fiddly bits that can be used to tweak a character out. They can just put down an aspect, Master Swordsman of the Wablam School, take Fighting +4, pick some stunts and they're done. It doesn't feel mechanically beefy to simply state that you're a master swordsman. The mechanical bonuses are the same as someone who has the aspect Deadly With a Butterknife. On top of that, the PC may not even be in danger of dying once the dice do come out. So everything is lollipops and unicorns, and everyone lives happily ever after, right?

Well, not exactly. Because oftentimes what's missing from this mix (and their arguments against the game feeling unchallenging or bland) are compels. On occasion, I've seen compels actively dismissed. Yet compels are the GM's way of throwing a wrench in the gears. They serve the role of critical misses, fumbles, whiffs, tactical errors, and all manner of other "challenging" things that happen in "those other games". Sure, the player gets a Fate Point in return - but as the GM you shouldn't worry about that so much. What you should worry about is if the players are feeling sufficiently challenged throughout the game. How to time a compel to ratchet things up a bit. When not to compel.

It feels like a completely different paradigm than running in a system where the modifiers are stacked against the players instead of for them, or it's completely on a bad roll or lack of modifiers which creates a bad situation the PCs have to deal with. But it's not - most seasoned GMs have a good feel for when a hornet's nest needs to be kicked (and not a small number probably fudge things around to make it happen, whether they'd admit it or not). Even people that don't have as much experience likely have some sense of pacing from books, television shows and movies are timed to know when to put the screws to the players.

In the end, it isn't so much that Fate Core lacks certain things that other rpgs have, or is fundamentally different in some magical way from other rpgs. It's just that sometimes it takes looking at it from a skewed angle to realize how to get the same end result from a slightly different toolset.