Monday, January 29, 2018

Actions in Retrolock

I missed updating last week, so figured I'd make up for it by writing a post with some meat to it.

Previously I had mentioned that I was working on a kind of Interlock retroclone called Retrolock. While stripped down to the mechanical level it runs very similar to Interlock (roll d10 + stat + skill), games like Fate Core have wormed their way into my gaming DNA to such a degree that I can't really look at any rpg-related without having that particular brand of "fiction first" lens tinting it. So I set out to try to make something that honors the crunchier, "Let the dice decide" philosophy of games like Interlock while still having some newfangled bells and whistles. Without playtesting it's difficult to say if I succeeded, but I like what I have so far.

Basically, like most narrative-focused games everything starts out with what the player is trying to accomplish; how they are going to accomplish it; and what happens if they succeed or fail. This doesn't have to be some long and drawn out negotiation between the player(s) and GM, but it is there to help reinforce that there should be something important, or exciting, or interesting, happening when the dice come out.

From there, it looks like most every other game of its ilk - roll, add stat and skill, compare to the Risk Factor (more on this in a minute). If the rolls beats the Risk Factor the action succeeds, if it's lower the action fails. The kinds of things that you see in games like Fate (success at a cost, boosts, etc.) are kind of there, but more rigidly defined. Rolling a zero results in things Going Sideways, which increases the Risk Factor of a subsequent action logically connected to the failed roll. Rolling a 10 gives a Bonus Effect, which decreases the Risk Factor of a subsequent action.

Finally, the character can Go For Broke, which entails intentionally increasing the Risk Factor of an action in order to reduce a follow-up action's Risk Factor if they succeed (with the chance of getting a stacking Bonus Effect to boot).

Another twist compared to most systems like Interlock or Silhouette is there aren't supposed to be any modifiers to dice rolls, and the Risk Factors are intended to be raised and lowered in clean increments of 5 (matching the Interlock scale of 10 = easy, 15 = average, 20 = hard, etc.). There will be some room in there for instances of smaller adjustments to Risk Factor, but those are going to be the outliers and not the norm.

Finally...what about this Risk Factor thing? Initially, it was intended to be a kind of detour from the idea of basing the target of rolls on "difficulty" but in the end, it just looks like difficulty does in every other system. I'm keeping the label Risk Factor though, because risk is definitely a component of how difficult an action is - along with the capability and skill of the character attempting it, the luck of the die roll, external forces working against the character, etc. So, in that light, the Risk Factor is just one "factor" in the equation of whether the character succeeds or not.

Hopefully things will start to settle down a little bit more at work and home, and I can put some more time and polish into this little project. Of course, that's along with the half a dozen other projects I want to work on as well.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Post Apocalyptic Location Inspiration

Today isn't a Tribe 8 specific post, just more post apocalyptic in general. It's also not going to be too long. A lot of times when I'm thinking of post apocalyptic locations, I try to reimagine what we consider everyday things around us with a different perspective. That's how we get buzzsaws as polearm blades, stop signs worked into a set of armor, communities forming in subway tunnels, using sports arenas for trading outposts or forts, etc.

And then there are locations that do the work of feeling unique and fantastic all by themselves:

Image result for cal poly canyon creative commons

Recently I visited Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and went on a little hike up to Cal Poly Canyon, which is the home of the "Architecture Graveyard". It's where the architecture and design students build their
yearly projects, and while I knew that it had some cool structures I didn't realize how cool. The first thing that I thought when I saw the structures was I had stumbled into some kind of post-apocalyptic village. I could  totally see some post-apocalyptic group coming to the canyon and seeing a place to build a settlement, using the existing structures as the foundation.

At the end of the trail leading to the Graveyard are a couple of structures, as well as corrals for horses. There's fresh water relatively close by, but it also wouldn't be hard to conceive that a stream might run through the area. There are also cattle in the immediate area, and nearby are greenhouses and crops that could be relocated if desired. This is the perfect setup for a little post-apocalyptic community. 

Image result for cal poly canyon creative commons

Structures like these could also be used as inspiration for standalone locations, not just postapocalypse but science fiction or fantasy as well.

Atlas Obscura actually has a nice page for the graveyard with a gallery of some of the structures.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Could Ingress Be A Decent RPG Setting?

Ingress is an interesting beast. It's a mobile game and has some MMO features. It's capture the flag using your smartphone, and is the direct predecessor to Pokemon Go and the inspiration for efforts by other companies, such as the game Delta-T.

There's potential for a decent RPG buried in the Ingress backstory. The premise is that there is "Exotic Matter" (or XM) that when certain people ("sensitives") are exposed to it they can do awesome stuff. XM is the catalyst for inspiring artists, scientists, thinkers, innovators, etc. throughout history. But there are some extra-dimensional entities that have an interest in the stuff, who have been meddling with humanity's affairs for a very long time. Once the knowledge of XM leaked out of the original lab researching it, two factions arose to battle over how the XM was used - one trying to help the extra-dimensional entities and the other trying to stop them. Beyond that, various research companies have started privately experimenting with XM to create new technologies. The macguffin is the "scanner", a mobile app that was leaked out to the world that allows regular people to interact with XM on their smartphones.

In the end, it's psionic secret agents allied for or against extra dimensional beings, corporations, and each other, for the fate of mankind. Or something.

These agents often look something like this
The enormously obtuse and disjointed storyline behind the game is played out largely through G+ posts from "characters" in the game - most of whom are paid actors who also show up at the Ingress events - and people who are just interested in pontificating on the clues and other bits that are revealed. It has little impact on day-to-day gameplay, with only occasional short term changes that tweak the rules for a week or two. Most players ignore the unfolding storyline, with only a handful of dedicated G+ communities and chats discussing it. A small subset of the people who follow the storyline have put together and hosted Remote Participation Exercises (or RPEs) to further play out events in the game. While these RPEs are tied into setting-specific things within the Ingress fiction, out of game they amount to roleplaying sessions.

So now we have a mobile ARG that is using tabletop games to play out stuff that would happen in the ARG.

When I first heard of the rpg sessions, I admit thinking it was kind of a neat idea. A lot of the action that happens in the backstory isn't expressed in the game itself - for all of the cool spy-stuff-with-powers that goes on, the actual players are just nerds staring at their smartphones. So I tracked down the rules for the rpg sessions, at least what there are of them.

They're pretty incomplete, which is to be expected (this isn't published or anything). It's basically a d20 clone with some tweaks here and there. It's not balanced in any way - just looking at the stat bonuses for various character choices I see the min-maxing potential. It has a couple novel things such as an option to generate stats based on your Ingress game profile. Likewise, advancement for the characters is tied to Ingress game advancement. Unfortunately, Ingress itself has no roleplaying element (unless you count trolling) - and advancement boils down to how much time you put into the game versus any kind of skill. So that retiree who spends eight hours a day running around town playing Ingress? They could totally have a kickass character in this.

And for you non-Ingressers out there who are surprised someone would spend hours and hours every day playing, it happens more often than you think. I went through a phase myself where I was playing 3-4 hours at a time, nearly every day. Fortunately, I got better.

Oh yeah, and apparently characters don't die, they "recurse" and come back. This is likely tied to some backstory thing within the RPEs that isn't explained in the document (again, I play Ingress but don't follow the meta stuff). It seems that at least a few of the sessions involved some kind of remote viewing into the past so the recursion kind of makes sense. There are also hints throughout that actions from the mobile game - capturing portals, building them, hacking for gear - are directly represented in the game sessions. While this is a big part of the mobile game, in an rpg.....meh. This would be the equivalent of roleplaying gold farming in WoW or something.

So Smartass, How Would You Do it?

My intention here isn't to dog on the efforts to put this together, or the people who are obviously enjoying these sessions. Well, there is one thing - using the word "mundanes" to describe ordinary people. I've always had a huge problem with the usage of that word, it reeks of nerd pretentiousness. But from the OGL implementation to the kind of oddball things in the rules, I'd definitely do it differently.

There's a huge dichotomy between the NPCs embodied by the ARG characters and the schmuck on the street playing the game. The hordes of Ingress players, in setting, are just gathering data for the researchers, with the added bonus of throwing in with one side or the other to try to control portals - but with no established endgame they don't do anything important. So, as a basis for PCs, they're subsequently boring (besides, I don't think any rpg where you're supposed to start out playing yourself has ever turned out well. You remember Immortal: The Invisible War, right?).

So a high-tech thriller, corporate espionage angle seems like the way to go, with the PCs being  XM sensitives - either agents of one of the factions/corporations/etc. or on the run from them (or the government, because who knows where the fuck the government is in the official storyline). System-wise, Fate Core or FAE would seem to be good fits (because to me they're always good fits). The XM and Dark XM from the existing RPG adaptation look a lot like stress tracks to me; the Archetypes/Anti-Archetypes look like good candidates for Aspects, which give permission to stunts based on the already described abilities.

From a mechanical perspective, I'd ditch the direct correlations between mobile game actions and how they're represented in the fiction. The routine of capture portals, upgrade portals, hack portals, link portals, create control fields is mindlessly repetitive and great for when you're commuting to work or standing in line at Disneyland. And if you don't get what any of those things means that's okay - just imagine doing the same thing every day, day in and day out. So, kind of like life. Doing that in an rpg isn't exciting.

The first step there would be to make sure that those actions are important. Reducing the size of the "portal network" is a first step - hanging out at Jamba Juice or a memorial bench isn't particularly thrilling. These are supposed to be places of power. Similarly, linking or upgrading the portal (again, if this makes no sense to you just think of an  RTS or something where you can improve on towers or whatever) should be meaningful. Occasionally Ingress has special events where objects called shards manifest at certain portals, and they have to be moved on to target portals so that the shards can be brought together into a complete set. That kind of thing should be the focus of the portals in an rpg setting. Now you get globe-hopping psionic secret agents fighting for control of places of power in fantastic locations. That tagline has potential.

The whole thing would obviously require some fleshing out, but that's the beginning of how I'd do it for an Ingress rpg. At some point in the future I might take a more complete crack at it.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Vimary

Over the years, I've had a number of  ideas and opinions about Vimary's default state in the main rulebook. This week I'm going to consolidate and make them a bit more concrete.

H'lkar and the Skyrealms

I've always been a little iffy on Hl'kar's borders being so close to the Nation. Given the general theme in the main rulebook that Z'bri are seen as kind of boogeymen, a broken race that was defeated by the Fatimas and sent packing, it seems odd that they would be so close to Tribals (especially given the Z'bri's particular needs).

To that end, in My Vimary Hl'kar's borders end at the far shore of the Great River. Tribal lands don't actually extend all the way to the shore, with the area between the Seven Fingers and the near bank somewhat of a no-man's land. Similarly, there are no Skyrealms directly above the Tribals - the Skyrealms exist in the Discarded Lands. The Seven Fingers are more individual watch/signal fortresses spread along the Nation's borders - but they have an added function (as you'll see below).

The Pact of the Dome

The Pact of the Dome in My Vimary serves to contain the Tribals within the boundaries of the Nation, through arcane Z'bri and Fatimal rituals and artifacts that discourage Tribals from venturing beyond them. The effects are varied, including disorientation that turns the Tribal around until they arrive back where they started or overcoming the Tribal with terror. Those that succeed in pushing past it find themselves disconnected from their Fatima and, per the pact, fair game for the Z'bri beyond. For their part, the Z'bri are bound from crossing into Tribal land, with effects including disconnect from The Seed.

The Seven Fingers are the engine for the Dome, with boundary markers between them. The Joanites who man the Seven Fingers are hand picked, and while they don't know the particulars they are definitely aware that the Z'bri are still out there, and what the consequences are for Tribals who cross the border. The public mission of protecting Tribal lands and being on the lookout for the return of the Z'bri is a cover for their true purpose - keeping Tribals in and trying to intercept those who try to get past the boundaries. Needless to say, the presence of the Z'bri/Fatimal artifacts at the core of each tower is a closely held secret and being in close proximity does have some side effects.

The Fatimas were very quick to realize that they could offer relief from the effects of crossing the Dome, by granting relics created from their physical forms. These relics form the basis for Dahlian caravans, Agnite scavenging parties, Joanite patrols and other missions into the Outlands. The Z'bri are aware that Tribals are leaving Vimary using these protections, but to date the Baron hasn't pressed the issue with the Fatimas. It's almost certain the Melanis have discovered similar means of entering the Dome

The Fallen and Hom

Banishment likely wouldn't exist without the Pact of the Dome. The Fatimas need a way to keep the population compliant and complacent, and Banished Tribals provide the Z'bri with fresh bodies. This part doesn't change so much from canon - Tribals gets Banished for dissent, sticking their noses where they don't belong, crime, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in absentia.

But like Hl'kar, having a "thriving" Fallen community right under the Tribals' noses feels a little off. Especially since Fallen are portrayed as sneaking into Vimary (Bazaar in particular, notably in the introductory scenario), this would mean crossing a lot of hostile territory with a very high risk of being caught. An explanation, one that I've used myself, is that the general population are at the worst ambivalent to the presence of Fallen and at best sympathetic - but it always felt clumsy.

As a result Hom doesn't exist in My Vimary in the same form as canon. It's flooded with only the tops of the tallest structures breaching the surface. It won't become the Hom of the main rulebook until Children of Lilith. The Fallen population subsequently is a lot lower than the estimates in the Tribe 8 Companion, and the majority of them live underground. This provides some neat opportunities, from giving them a believable means to sneak into Tribal lands to providing opportunities to interact with Keepers, Z'bri, and other inhabitants of the underground. It likely would change the details, but not the intent, of the Tribal actions against the Fallen in Children of Lilith and make the end of the Cycle even more dramatic than it already is.

I think these changes to the setting keep things in the spirit of Tribe 8, while making things a little more interesting and add some more dramatic possibilities. I know there's a few things that I've thought of and forgotten, but those can always be for a later time.

Monday, January 8, 2018


Back in December I started noodling around with the idea of an Interlock retroclone, called RetroLock. This quickly spiralled out of control, ganking concepts I like from Silhouette, Blue Planet's Synergy system, and even newer, Communist swine narrative games. It also involves lining up concepts or implementations in those systems that I've never quite liked as targets and knocking them over.

Character-wise, it has 10 Primary Abilities and 5 Composite Abilities that cover about everything you'd expect from a medium to high crunch system. The abilities are rated 0-10, but in a break with most implementations of Interlock 0 and 10 don't represent the absolute floor or ceiling of human ability - a character with Strength 10 is really strong, but not the strongest human on the planet.

There are about 40 Skills, which I've tried to make general enough to not require a separate skill for tying each shoe, but not so broad as to bleed over into other skills. To allow specialization the skills are tiered - Generalist, Specialist, and Polymath. Specialists can get a bonus when using the skill within their chosen specialty, while Polymaths can get a bonus from being able to tie other skills into the action they're attempting. I also have some wordage around performing everyday tasks. Basically, unless there's a good reason why a character shouldn't know how to drive; or use a computer; or whatever you would expect the average person to know how to do, they don't need the skill to do it. It only becomes important when they're attempting something risky. The skeletal character creation system is rounded out by an Aspect-like optional system called Facets for tacking descriptors onto abilities or skills - albeit more limited in scope than say how Aspects are implemented in Fate Core.

I have yet to decide if I'm going to plug in some kind of archetype or role system.

Actions use the tried and true base resolution of roll a d10 and add Ability and Skill. There are some instances (being unskilled, having a tiered skill) where more dice may be rolled, generally to the tune of picking the highest or lowest result. That's my little nod to Silhouette and Synergy. From there the roll is compared to broad levels in increments of 5 (basically CP2020's difficulty levels). There is room for more finely grained adjustments to the Risk Factor, but the dice are always read as rolled and compared to that number and not adjusted themselves.  Conflicts are going to use a Condition-like injury system but (at least for physical conflicts) paired with random hit locations. I discovered that the area percentage of various parts of the human body map nearly perfectly to a 2d10 roll.

Oh yeah...the Risk Factor. I really need to kick the tires on this idea, but basically it's that actions aren't evaluated based on difficulty like in Interlock and other systems. The idea is to bring in a more "fiction first" approach where the player and GM decide what is going on and how it is going to happen; how risky it is; and what happens if it succeeds, fails or goes really badly. One thing I've come to feel is very important is that give and take between the players and GM, and having well-defined goals and results for rolls.

My goal this year is to actually turn this into a thing - whether that be just a freebie on Google Drive or something that I actually try to turn into a product, I don't know yet. As I continue to develop it, I'll post updates and thoughts.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Welcome To Tribe 8 Thursdays

Anyone who spends any time on my blog, knows that there's a lot of Tribe 8 posts. A good chunk of them are posts from old blogs and websites that I have recovered, cleaned up a bit, and reposted.
But, I realized tonight that there is likely a large chunk of people reading who have no idea what Tribe 8 is and why I love it so much.

No, not that Tribe 8
Tribe 8 was a roleplaying game published by Dream Pod 9 in 1998 (yes, 20 years ago), and was in development for a couple years before that. It was written by a team that included Joshua Mosqueira Asheim and Lucien Soulban, both of whom also wrote for White Wolf and would go on to make their marks in the video game industry. The setting is without a doubt my favorite of all time.It hits multiple sweet spots for me - post apocalyptic, dark fantasy, horror, post modern tribalism. It's kind of like Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker got together to create a world, and they enlisted Lisa Gerrard to do the score. As presented the setting is evocative, gritty, and ethereal all at once.

In contrast to the setting, the Silhouette system was never a perfect fit for the game. It's lightweight enough to largely get out of the way during play, and its gritty nature matches the atmosphere of the setting, but it has simulationist foundations that go back to the early 90s or even earlier. The spiritual elements - namely Conjunctional Synthesis (kind of a dream based magic system) and the River of Dream (basically, a shared dream realm) - stand out in stark contrast to or even outright clash with the simulationist underpinnings of the system. There also was no real support for social or interpersonal conflicts, which are something you'd expect would be really important in a game that so heavily features tribalism and a barter economy. There were plenty of times when dealing with the more ephemeral elements that I just ignored the system entirely and winged it.

Oh, that's just my Tribe 8 collection
Beyond the setting and the system, I think the game suffered from over reliance on in character fiction and supplement bloat (more than 24 books in six years) - followed closely by high prices (a 96 page book was often $25+) and inconsistent quality. Using microfiction to communicate setting information to the degree the game did was novel in the main rulebook, and really helped gel the setting in my mind. But in the long run, with 2,000+ pages of material, the format made it difficult to process and figure out what to implement in game. Furthermore writer and editorial turn over caused the quality to fluctuate, sometimes dramatically. For a line so heavily reliant on narrative and with relatively high price points per book, it started to cause players to hesitate before buying.

Still, a reboot could be successful, especially if it tried to do more with less and ditched the dated Silhouette system for something like Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse or a Blades in the Dark variant. Unfortunately, the game has been kept in limbo by Dream Pod 9 (by far not an unheard of situation in the gaming industry). It's out of print, and the company has rebuffed or made very difficult attempts to both license the game or outright purchase it. From a property standpoint it's somewhat understandable - there likely is a lot of potential for cross media tie ins. It's just frustrating to me that the potential is just sitting there, unused.

As a result, for at least the first Thursday or so of each month I'm going to be either reposting some old content or adding some commentary toward using Tribe 8 with some of the newer systems out there such as Blades in the Dark (I already have a Fate Core adaptation, which you can find in the Downloads section), as well as discussing the post-apocalyptic/dark fantasy genre at large and particulars of what Tribe 8 did (and didn't) do well conceptually.

Monday, January 1, 2018

It's a New Year, and a new start

As is kind of human nature, with the New Year I've been reflecting on the past year and looking toward the next. From getting laid off from my old job in January, to getting a great new job in March, to moving halfway across the state for said job in July, to a bunch of other personal shake ups - it's been one of the most eventful years for me in a very long time.

Thus, in the spirit of new starts I'm going to start blogging again. Regularly. About roleplaying games, no less. I'm even going to try to get some regular gaming in.

So what subject am I going to kick off the New Year with?

It just so happens I've been watching the Mythbusters marathon while I do a bunch of post Christmas cleanup and whatnot - and it struck me what an enormous resource Mythbusters is for GMs. You get top see how crazy, extreme stuff works, across a wide variety of situations. Want to see what happens when a concrete mixer packed with explosives is blown up? Need to figure out if arrows fired from horseback have more penetration?  Your players want to try to use a rocket powered chair to get over a barrier? There are episodes for those things, and watching how they tackle the problems associated with busting the myths (or getting to the inevitable point of just blowing shit up). Plus, it's a hell of a lot of fun