Ok I’ve never done this before so this is quite exciting. I have a game to promote!

It’s called “The Sound of Silence”. It’s a weird little two-player game about communication in a relationship. It’s two pages long and one of them is mostly whitespace. You won’t have to roll dice but you will have to talk about your feelings. It made one playtester cry, and if that’s not a sign of a successful game then I don’t know what is.

It’s track 11 (the last) in an anthology called “Indie Mixtape (vol. 2)”, which is a collection of short games themed on songs. So even if you don’t like my game there are 10 others that all look really interesting. And anyway, it’s for a good cause – all the money goes to people in the indie games community who have medical bills and the like that they might be struggling to pay. So you should definitely buy it, is what I’m saying.

You can get it from DriveThruRPG. If you read it / play it, I’d be delighted to know, and to hear any feedback!

Two months since I last posted, and this one’s off-topic. Unforgivable! But I’ve been playing a bunch of Commander format Magic: The Gathering recently, and my play group has made some rule tweaks (some by my own fair hand) to improve our play experience, and I’ve found it interesting to see how our play goals are informing our design choices (i.e. house rules).

Play Goals / Design Principles

Our core principle really is that we want the game to be fun and interesting for everyone. That’s where our rules tweaks have come from, but it’s kindof ill-defined. Working backwards from the changes we’ve made, I’ve extracted these more specific principles:

  1. The group’s desire for all players to have an interesting and enjoyable game trumps any individual’s desire to win.
    • This means any play that totally shuts down an opponent’s deck is not welcome. Obviously answers to individual cards or plays are totally fine, but stopping an entire deck from working is boring and we don’t allow it.
    • This also means that, because of the obvious tension in the above, the game doesn’t work at all for people who can’t stand losing. Ah well.
  2. Variety is the core of an interesting game; consistency is boring.
    • I mean card consistency, really. Consistently getting the same kinds of effects from different cards is fine, but if a deck plays exactly the same every time it comes out, that’s boring.
  3. Interesting commanders make for interesting decks.
    • Commanders with unique mechanics lead to unique decks, which means more unusual and interesting games.
The Rules Changes

The Commander format rules already help with this – the singleton format means plenty of variety and that card consistency is difficult to guarantee, and the commander being returned to a playable state (the command zone) when killed or exiled means that they are easily available and therefore easy to build decks around. (Also, having them there makes them a cool visible centrepiece for the deck, which encourages players to seek out interesting ones.) Principle 1 is well served, too, by a general culture of “play for fun, not for glory” that has grown up around the Commander format in general.

However, it’s not perfect. So here are some of the house rules we use to improve things for our group. Like I say, these evolved organically and I extracted the above principles from them – but I’ve tried to lay out the reasoning as if we’d planned it from day one :-)

  • Re-draw after mulligans.
    • As normal, each mulligan (except the first, as normal for Commander) means you draw one fewer card before making the decision about whether to keep the hand or mulligan again. However, once you’ve made the decision to stick, you draw up to seven cards.
    • Having a dreadful opening hand can dramatically hold a player back, and that’s no fun for them nor for their opponents – and the variance of the singleton format means that this happens more often than we’d like, even in well-balanced decks. With this change, players may have to accept a risky hand, but hopefully never a totally disastrous one.
  • No card-search.
    • Card consistency is boring, so searching (or “tutoring”, in Magic parlance) for specific cards is out.
    • The exception is basic lands. Not having enough mana means a deck gets stuck and is no fun to play – so searching to bring out basic lands is fine.
  • The commander can be returned to the command zone when they’re put into the library (draw deck) or player’s hand.
    • Normally this can only be done when the commander is killed or exiled, but we want to make sure that the commander is always available, even after these other means of removal. In general card consistency is undesirable (principle 2), but the commander is the exception to that because of principle 3 – if people can’t rely on their commander being available, then they won’t build decks around their commander, and that’s a shame because it limits the variety of deck themes.
    • This is particularly important when you remove card-search; that effectively means that if the commander is shuffled into the library, you’re very unlikely to get them out again (and it’s almost impossible if they specifically get placed on the bottom of the library, as some effects will do). Therefore we need a way to ensure that these effects don’t permanently shut down the commander.

I hope those rules are of use to Commander players, and that the principles-to-mechanics design discussion is interesting even for those who don’t know or play Magic. Anyway, I’m off to carry on reworking my Oloro deck; I’ll admit that building a deck that will be fun to play is itself half the fun!

In my last post, I discussed the idea that in most roleplaying games, players’ time is split. Some of it is spent performing as a character, acting exactly as that character would in the fictional world, but some of it is spent on other activities. Exactly what those are depends on the game, of course, but it might be: straightforward narration of material that can’t be directly performed; engaging with some real-world mechanical tool like dice or character sheets; metatechniques like delivering an internal monologue for the benefit of the other players (while their characters remain unaware).

Despite the prevalence of these other activities, many games (and many players) do strive to be in-character and acting “realistically” (i.e. not monologuing or using other dramatic character-breaking tools) as much of the time as possible. This isn’t necessary for a good game, of course – Microscope is a great example of a powerful story-telling game which doesn’t necessarily require any in-character performance at all – but where you do want to encourage the players to stay in character, you can run into difficulties, as there are some actions necessary in the fiction that simply can’t be reproduced in the real-world performance. (The three example techniques above present some ways to get around that.) As mentioned in the last post, there are games like When the Dark is Gone that manage to stay in-character 100% of the time (at least after the setup phase), but the situations you can portray in such a game are heavily restricted.

An alternative approach is to set up your game so that the time spent out of character feels like time spent in character. Use the mechanics, rules, or game setup to foster in the players the mindset that you want your characters to have. There are plenty of great examples of this, such as:

  • Murderous Ghosts, Doomed Pilgrim, and many other games that explicitly have an adversarial relationship between one group of players playing “the world” and another playing the protagonist(s). This sets a tone where the world is not a fair place and in fact is actively working against the protagonist(s) – heightening the tension and the fear factor for their player(s).
  • The Jenga tower in Dread. A very visible and tangible indicator that everything could at any moment come crashing down on top of your character – again, pushing the tension higher and higher until it finally collapses (creating a very real sense of relief for the players not affected by the downfall!)
  • In Remodel, the various manipulations of the house (represented by a real physical set) reflect and enhance the emotional journeys the characters are taking. Physically ripping up tape to “demolish” parts of the house, for example, provides a powerful cathartic experience and prepares the player for their character’s new beginning.
  • In The Secret Lives of Serial Killers, key information is hidden from one player in order to give them a very real sense of horror and betrayal when it finally comes out.

Perhaps nothing can be more realistic than acting something out in full, but that’s a luxury we don’t often have. By choosing techniques carefully, you can “shortcut” some of the acting process and elicit feelings in your players that match those in the characters without needing a full in-character portrayal. If you know others I’ve missed (and there’ll be plenty), let me know in the comments – I’m keen to try them out!

Some semi-formed ideas have been bubbling around my head recently, about the boundary between a LARP and a tabletop roleplaying game. What differentiates the two? My friend Mo posted this write-up of a game I played in the other day – an absolutely fantastic game called When The Dark Is Gone – in which he suggested that despite its tabletop appearance, “When the Dark is Gone pretty much is a larp, apart from the fact that you’re sitting down”.

I can see where he’s coming from. The premise of When the Dark is Gone is a group therapy session, exploring the childhood memories of the (now adult) player characters, assisted by a game facilitator in the form of the group’s therapist. This premise allows play to remain completely in character at all times – players negotiate discrepancies between their memories by disagreeing in character rather than by appealing to an external arbitrator; the game’s pacing and direction is managed through the mask of the therapist; even the “I need a break” emotional safety mechanism can (very deliberately) be interpreted in-character even though it’s used for out-of-character reasons. So yes, I can see why it could be called a LARP. (Typically the players are sitting down, though, it’s true.)

The thing is, I don’t actually think the LARP / tabletop distinction is all that useful. After the setup phase, play in When the Dark is Gone is entirely in-character – in other words, the players develop the situation solely through improvised acting. But it wouldn’t be true to say that 100% acting is a characteristic of LARPs. Many LARPs require players to appeal to some kind of system in order to resolve certain things that simply can’t be acted out – combat being the obvious example, but there are plenty of others, varying by game. Even the highly-immersive Nordic school of LARPing frequently uses “metatechniques” like drawing a window to introduce an internal monologue – clearly not a direct  “in character” performance, but rather a theatrical technique to allow the player to portray a perspective that simply can’t be acted out directly. To my mind this isn’t so different from a tabletop player rolling a die to get their character to climb a wall – both are character-breaking mechanical techniques that allow players to introduce particular types of content that they can’t introduce while staying in character. The types of content differ between the two styles of play, sure, but the principle of breaking character to do it applies to both.

Describing a game as LARP or tabletop doesn’t really tell me very much about it. I’d rather simply know what proportion of the game time you expect players to spend acting in character. At one end this covers games like Microscope, another brilliant game but which tells the story of a world or a setting rather than a specific set of characters, and so most of it is developed through narration rather than in-character scenes. (In fact to my mind the acted-out scene mechanics are the weakest part of the game.) At the other end of the spectrum are games like When the Dark is Gone that aim to be 100% in-character once play starts – actually a very difficult goal to achieve outside of very specific game scenarios.

And once I know how much acting I’ll be doing, the next and more important question is: What will I be doing the rest of the time? Most roleplaying games include at least some time spent acting. What the designer chooses to include for the other, character-breaking, parts of the game is possibly the clearest indication of what they intend the game to really be about. Do they include rolling dice for physical actions I can’t directly perform? Must be an action-heavy game, then. Or are they including hand gestures to indicate internal monologues? Seems like that game will be psychological and introspective. If I’m considering playing your game, I don’t care if you call it a LARP or a tabletop game – I just want to know what the gameplay is about. (And, of course, whether I’ll be sitting down.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about winning and losing in roleplaying games recently, not least because of several recent games by Vincent Baker that have explicit win (and loss) conditions. Something about these games has really inspired me, but something else has jarred a little – and it’s taken me a while to work out what both those somethings are. It’s been interesting particularly for my current work-in-progress, which pits a thief (or other ne’er-do-well) against the wits of a GM antagonist. Clearly, I could say the thief “wins” if they get away with whatever it is – but is winning-and-losing the right design for this game?

What Works

One thing winning-and-losing games do really well is match the tension out-of-character with that in-character. Pitting the GM’s wits against mine makes the threat very real, and so aligns my mental & emotional state with that of my character. In Doomed Pilgrim, my pilgrim is thinking, “Holy crap, how can I survive this using only my wits??” while I am thinking, “Holy crap, how can I get this pilgrim to survive this using only my wits??” That strong identification with my character (point #4 on this post about immersion, in fact) feels exactly right for my thief’s adventures – I want the tension high as the player uses their cunning and wits to get the thief into and out of trouble, and get away with the prize.

What Doesn’t

But fun though these games are, they lack something for me in terms of replay and longevity – and that’s because they don’t, really, tell that great a story. Sure, they make for a very cool, tense scene – but that’s all it is: one extended scene. As a story audience, I want to see the protagonist develop – if not within that scene, then at least over the course of several scenes. So they survive – phew, thank goodness! Now show me what they do next. And, more importantly, why. But these games aren’t built like that – they’re mostly built as one-shot adventures (sort of) and don’t focus much on the personality of the focus character. (Deliberately, I think! That’s not what they’re trying to do.) They’re like a longer version of a conflict scene in a more narrative-focussed game – and so they’re missing the bits before and after, that frame that conflict and give it meaning. In my thief game, I definitely want to focus on the protagonist’s character development, so a purely win/lose game doesn’t work.

What I’ll Do

So I guess I want a game that’s divided into adventures, each one tense like those winning-and-losing games, but that also strongly promotes character development within and (especially) between those adventures.

To keep the tension high, I think I do want the same “you versus the GM” model – i.e. the GM should be actively trying to thwart the protagonist, rather than (as in some narrative games) just provide an environment that reactively challenges them. The direct antagonism builds the sense of threat – and makes it more personal, too.

An aside: However, I’ll need to increase the win rate. Vincent’s described both Murderous Ghosts and Doomed Pilgrim as having a pretty low chance of winning – somewhere around 1 in 3, I think; certainly less than half – and that doesn’t suit this game, where the protagonist is a master thief. I certainly need to adjust the survival rate – for these games, loss also means death (or doom), which doesn’t work for an extended narrative game – we can’t see character development if the character doesn’t survive for at least a few adventures! Also, their death (if it happens at all) should be a dramatic climax point, not just some mid-adventure mis-step on the part of the player.

A Model For Episodic Character Development

One game that does character development within and between episodic adventures really well is Dogs in the Vineyard (also by Vincent Baker). In Dogs, your job is to save towns from sin. You could call this a “win” condition for each town. But there’s lots of great character development as well – for three reasons I can identify:

  1. The win condition is defined by the protagonists themselves. (Strictly speaking, “save the town” is always the win condition, but what “save” actually means for a given town is decided by the protagonists.) This shows us something of who the protagonists are – what they value and what they overthrow.
  2. The definition of winning is challenged throughout the adventure. The town (or certain elements of it) will inevitably resist the protagonists’ efforts to “save” it. How hard can they push before they’re no longer saving the town, but destroying it? Again, since they decide this themselves, it reveals more about their characters.
  3. There’s an explicit character development phase in between each town. The protagonists reflect, consider whether they did really save the town, and change as a result – with game-mechanical changes to solidify that development for future play.

My game’s going to feel very different to Dogs, I think – but to promote character development despite the GM antagonism, perhaps I can learn something from it.

2014 Project Update

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Game Ideas
Tags: , ,

Here we are again; my annual very-late “new year!” post. So what’s changed since last year? Well…

Not a lot. And yet, some quite significant things. As is traditional, I’ve hardly made any progress on any of the games on last year’s list – instead starting a whole set of new projects that I can leave half-finished for next year’s update. However, two new projects are worth mentioning.

The Council

This one’s unusual in that it’s computerized. I can’t remember which came first – the game idea or just the desire to do some programming. Anyway, whatever. You play members of the monarch’s inner council in a fantasy world, trying to appear devoted to the monarch and their rule, but actually working to further your own agendas and interfere with each other’s. No prizes for guessing what TV show inspired that setup. The interesting thing here is that it’s turn-based like a Play-By-Mail game, so as long as you submit your turn before the administrator runs their turn (weekly, maybe), you can do it at your own convenience – which I hope will make it easier for people to schedule games around busy schedules. Unlike a PBM, though, I want this to be a story- and character-focussed game rather than a tactical one – and initially I’m aiming to use the Apocalypse World engine to help with that.

I have got a basic website in place, but no real functionality yet. I’d forgotten how much time coding takes :-( So this is kindof on the backburner already. Easy come, easy go. But it’s been surpassed by…


Ok so yeah please ignore the monstrously dull working title. This is a one-on-one game where you play a master thief (or other kind of ne’er-do-well) in, again, a fantasy world – focussing on character development and tension, and trying to minimise interaction with real-world cues like dice and sheets and stuff (though it’s far from absent entirely). What’s particularly exciting about this game is that I might actually make it; it’s the first game ever, I think, that I’ve taken beyond just the idea and a few brainstormed notes – I’m actually at the point where I’ve got first-draft concepts for most of the mechanics, and am in the process of gluing them together and producing an actual rulebook which I can test. I’m really excited!

A couple of shout-outs… First, if you think this sounds interesting, you might want to look at Will Hindmarch’s Project Dark Kickstarter, which is another fantasy sneak game (but I think will be quite different from mine in fact). Second, I’ve recently been helped a lot in my design brainstorming by the ReForged G+ Community. If you’re interested in game design, you’ll find some interesting people here willing to help answer questions, read texts, playtest, and so on.

And The Rest…

And as ever, there are a few bits and pieces that are nothing more than a paragraph or two of notes at this point, but I’ll mention them anyway:

  • A whole suite of small games set in the same fantasy world but exploring different aspects of it – a bit like Vincent Baker’s Sundered Land. Thief would be the first of these, but I have sketch ideas for maybe eight or ten more.
  • The Wake: the game opens with a murder in a small community, and follows the repercussions of that murder throughout the community. Some aspects of whodunnit, perhaps, but focussing more on the drama between the characters as they come together or fall apart in reaction to the awful event. The “GM”, such as there will be one, probably plays a detective inspector investigating the murder. (Again, you can spot an obvious TV influence here if you’ve been watching the same stuff I have…)

And that’s it for now. More to follow, sooner than usual I hope :-)

For a while I’ve been pondering how to run an effective Apocalypse World introduction one-shot – in particular, how to give it a bit of a kick-start to get the story burning nice and fast. In a full-length campaign, it works better (I think) to use the rules as written and let things burn up slowly to begin with – but I wanted to give a feel of what a campaign might be like a couple of sessions in, when relationships have really started pulling at the characters and driving the story forward. Something a little like the “Hatchet City” playset was supposed to achieve, though I gather Vincent Baker no longer recommends using that.

In the most recent one-shot I ran (today!), I tried to kick-start this by using the following set of custom moves, to be read and followed by the players during the character creation process. For now I’m just going to post them here without (further) comment – but I’ll come back and talk about how they worked in a later post, when I’ve thought about the results a little more.

 To my Angel,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+sharp and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone whose life you saved and now they owe you, big time. On a 7-9, name someone whose life you saved, but they resent feeling indebted to you. On a miss, name someone who has it in for you because of someone’s life you *didn’t* save. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Battlebabe,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+cool and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone who relies on you when they need Shit Sorted Out. On a 7-9, name the last person you slept with (or, if no-one, the last person you turned down). On a miss, name someone who’s fished you out of trouble when you got in deeper than you could handle. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Brainer,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+weird and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone who genuinely likes you, even though you’re fucking weird. On a 7-9, name someone you’ve fucked with in the past (maybe with one of your Brainer moves) and now they’re kinda scared of you. On a miss, name someone whose brain you’d like to fuck with, but you’ve never been able to. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Chopper,

When the characters are introducing themselves, ask whether any of them are in your gang.

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+hard and name an NPC. On a 10+, name your second-in-command. On a 7-9, name the least reliable member of your gang. On a miss, name someone who was in your gang but quit in less-than-amicable circumstances. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Driver,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+sharp and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone who depends on you and your wheels, and why. On a 7-9, name someone else who’s good with cars (but not as good as you, of course). On a miss, name someone you wish you could get a read on, and why. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Gunlugger,

When you’re choosing moves, don’t choose NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH. Sorry, I’m an asshole, what can I say.

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+hard and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone you took something from by force, and what. On a 7-9, name someone you argued with recently and you haven’t really settled it yet. On a miss, name the person you care about most. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Hardholder,

Before you do anything else, read the next paragraph to yourself. If, during character creation, people ask questions about the holding and its surrounding environment, answer them using the information in that paragraph and the decisions you’ve made about it during your own character creation. At some point the holding will need a name: come up with one between you, or be boring and use the one I came up with: “Maxwell’s Fault”.

Your holding is situated on the edge of a once-massive multi-storey city which is now by and large just a crater full of rubble. There’s still treasure in the centre for those who go looking, but there’s danger, too – you never know what you’ll find there, and you don’t need a brainer to tell you that the psychic maelstrom gets more dark and violent the closer you get to the middle. Further out is ok, though, and most of the structures there are more or less intact, so there are multiple holdings like yours on the edges or just a little way inside the boundary. Outside there’s the Ash Waste, which is a mess of dust storms and scrubby vegetation. It’s cold, too, especially in winter when the snows are deep and the blizzards are bitter.

Now go ahead and create your character and your holding, according to the rules in your playbook.

When it’s your turn to introduce yourself to the group, tell them about the holding too, if you haven’t already.

When the characters are introducing themselves, ask whether any of them are in your gang.

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+hard and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone you need to protect. On a 7-9, name someone useful who’s playing ball for now, but you wish you had more leverage on them. On a miss, name the biggest troublemaker in the holding (maybe excepting the PCs). The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Hocus,

When the characters are introducing themselves, ask whether any of them are in your cult.

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+weird and name an NPC. On a 10+, name your most devoted follower. On a 7-9, name someone you’d like to convert to your cause. On a miss, name someone whose devotion is wavering. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Operator,

When you’re creating your character and you come to choose your gigs, discuss the choice with the group. Tell them the options, and ask if anyone wants to be part of your crew and what gigs they could help out with. (Ultimately, though, it’s your call which gigs you pick; you don’t have to pick one just because another character offers to help with it.)

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+cool and name a member of your crew. On a 10+, name the most reliable. On a 7-9, name the most skilful. On a miss, name one who hasn’t yet realised you’re taking advantage of them somehow. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Savvyhead,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+sharp and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone who owes you a favour because you fixed their stuff. On a 7-9, name someone who has something you want – a piece of tech, maybe, or a tool, or maybe they just get access to the best loot from scavenger hunts. On a miss, name someone you depend on – for work, for help, for friendship, whatever. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC


To the Skinner,

At the end of your turn in the Hx round, roll+hot and name an NPC. On a 10+, name someone who’s madly in love (or lust) with you. On a 7-9, name someone who’s told you their deepest secret. On a miss, name someone you’re (secretly?) in love with. The MC might tell you some other interesting things about this NPC, too – or they might not, yet.

Your MC