tabletop gamer, writer & visual artist

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Rookwood

Contributing to the Rookwood Curse

The year 2020 has already been full of both strife and success. (Would I have it any other way?) Stresses aside, I’ve had two excellent reasons for spending less time with my blog site. In addition to launching my first Kult: Divinity Lost campaign (more about that soon), I’ve also been writing and editing my first official paid-to-be-published writing gig for friend and fellow game designer, Michael Addison of Nerdy Pup Games.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter for the new tabletop RPG, The Curse of the House of Rookwood is already available to backers as a pdf and scheduled for print late spring. In addition to the core rule book, Nerdy Pup Games is also publishing scenarios (written by a number of contributors, myself included) that explore alternate takes on Rookwood’s otherwise British Gothic setting.

I’m excited for the release of Rookwood—and to contribute to its publication! I remember when Addison first came up with the concept many years ago, and our group of friends created a dysfunctional family, struggling to overcome their worst impulses and bad blood to face a common enemy. In true Addison fashion (given his love for Lovecraftian horror), I remember feeling both terror and dread as an unfamiliar supernatural creature, disguised as a human, revealed itself upon a Victorian ballroom full of unsuspecting guests, during a waltz no less.

For the Love of Modiphius!

Time and again, I debate whether or not to dedicate time to writing regularly on my blog site. I often feel—like today, while I’m sitting at Coffeehouse Northwest with a dirty chai and chocolate croissant—I should be writing or developing my current RPG campaign instead (more on that soon).

But you have to write regularly to write well. I keep coming back to the idea of blogging because I know I need to write more quickly and freely without over-editing. I can save polish for finished works and need to retrain my brain and fingers to let words flow. It’s so important as a writer, and a lesson that I’ve taken too long to (re-)learn (over and over again, yes, I know).

As discussed in my earlier blog post, I want to blog (primarily) about tabletop role-playing games. Why? Because I feel like we’re in the middle of an exciting RPG Renaissance, and I want to draw attention to the games I love; I want to contribute to ongoing conversations about why and how role-playing games work, and why and how they sometimes fall short.

Writing in the Dark

It’s a challenge—for those of us with both a creative and an analytic mind—to learn what to keep simple, so that complexities can speak for themselves.

So here I am, after a long silence: I’m still gaming. I’m still writing. I’m updating my website, as I consider how to best make use of it.

Also, I’ve recently become infatuated with a new-ish roleplaying game called Symbaroum. Like Mutant Year Zero, it’s the product of a Swedish game studio (Järnringen), distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, but dark fantasy rather than post-apocalyptic. The aesthetic is grim, the mechanics brutal. Last night, I introduced my Sunday game group to “The Promised Land”, the adventure in the Core Rulebook, and so far, I think everyone’s loving it—with our own personal touches, of course.

What I really want to share with everyone, however, is that I submitted a short Symbaroum adventure for the Ballads of Blackhawk writing contest co-sponsored by fan sites, ordomagica.com and theironpact.com. You can read my submission, “Lovesick Caravan,” as well as more than 20 others on Ordo Magica. I’m moderately happy with what I wrote, though it suffered from procrastination and trying to squeeze too much into a 1500 word limit (I did it, but had to make sacrifices). Of course, I’d love for you to vote for my submission, but there are a few other gems, no doubt written by those who have more experience than I do with world and mechanics. Some of my favorites include “A Heart in Darkness,” “Blight Spoor in Blackmoor,” “Born of Graves,” “Oroke’s Eye,” and “The Feast of the Willow.” You can vote for a first, second, and third choice, and you have until May 31st, so check them out!

(Oh, and if you’re part of my Sunday night game group, please don’t read my submission unless you feel morally obligated to do so before voting; there’s a strong likelihood that I’ll use it in our campaign.)

Tempeste: Introductions

While I haven’t kept up with blogging—it’s been, what, four months since my last post about RPG development?—I have been writing, and within the past two weeks, almost every day. Progress still feels slow, but as my friend Addison keeps telling me, “One inch punch.”

I’ve bounced around a lot with game development. It felt like a priority to determine basic mechanics, what dice to use, how to handle difficulty variance, basic attributes, etc.; I don’t have much written out longhand (very little in fact), but the notes and basic structure are in place. From there, I moved onto character creation, creating professions (the equivalent of traditional “classes”), skill lists, and I began considering special abilities for each profession. This led to thinking about experience and character enhancement—and then I jumped backwards to determine what steps happen before a player chooses their character’s profession. I realized how important I want it to be to conceptualize one’s character and personality prior to choosing a profession. Rather than just choosing ‘race’ and ‘class’, I want players to consider in what city their character was born, what were their circumstances before becoming a mercenary—why have they become a mercenary? Of course, players are going to choose what they want to choose first. But nonetheless, I want a character’s background to play an important role.

I think part of what led to my change in focus was visiting my friend Jeff Hawley in L.A. several weeks ago. I was in town for a business trip but arrived a few days earlier to hang out with him because we hadn’t seen one another since, when? I think since I first moved to Portland eight years ago! He was the only person I knew in Portland at the time, but unfortunately, he lost his job in Portland and shortly after my arrival, returned to Los Angeles for work. But with common interests in games and game development, I was eager to bounce ideas off him—and he asked me to play through a few rounds of combat using Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. He was planning to run a short campaign for a few friends but had never used the system before, so he wanted to get a feel for it. Of course, I had to create a character (we both did) to see what sorts of effects our choices during character creation would have on our respective combat abilities. Much to my surprise, I built a quick and adept swordsman and gained the upper hand in combat!

But what interested me most about the game design was not the intricate combat system (I tend to prefer simple combat systems anyway), but rather, the importance of choosing one’s family and education, and how these shaped one’s character just as much as choosing to be a courtier or a samurai, for example. All the details about the clans also helped immerse me in the world, if only briefly.

I think one of my biggest challenges with Tempeste will be immersing players in a new world and convincing them it’s worth the time and effort. Of course, the other side of the coin is that—although players love to discover new worlds, they’re unlikely to stay there if the mechanics are clunky, too basic, or too complex. The trick is to wed content and structure together. Well, I guess I decided to put down mechanics for now and to focus on world building a bit.

I again found myself bouncing around, thinking about how to structure the book, how familiar a player should be with x or y by this or that point in reading the book, and I decided, what I need to do is start writing the introduction. I need to lay the groundwork for the Tempeste world, to give a common point of reference.

So that’s what I’ve been up to, writing the first few pages that introduce both the natural and civilized world of Tempeste, and that essentially explain what’s different about Tempeste. It’s a lot of work, trying to perfect an introduction, to be succinct yet descriptive, to give detail without bogging down the reader with too much too soon. If it takes too long, I may need to skip ahead. Haha! I’m anxious to start detailing cities, because I think making the cities come alive again—for me—will help reshape the world and breathe new life into it.

I know, I’m not giving you a lot of details. But hopefully, you’re a little curious.

Alright, back to work with me. I’ll try to write again soon!

 

“Be my Angel, cuz you need me…”

I haven’t always been a fan of character classes in RPGs (e.g. fighter, thief, wizard), but ultimately, my issue has been with needlessly complex leveling mechanics and the over-compartmentalization of character abilities. Yes, I prefer skill-based RPGs. But even in skill-based RPGs, it’s helpful to have a guideline for character advancement and to identify a character’s strengths, what sets them apart from other characters. For this, character classes—or roles, archetypes, playbooks, whatever you’d like to call them—can prove helpful. Character roles in RPGs can also help players by providing characters with background, motivation, even personality. In this regard, the playbooks of PbtA games work really well. Playbooks not only provide characters with unique abilities, they create the structure of a character’s purpose upon which to build a character-driven (rather than action-driven) story. Even D&D—who set the standard for character classes and leveling mechanics—flexed its storytelling muscle in 5th Edition by making backgrounds an integral part of character creation.

In Tempeste, I’ve decided to call roles ‘professions’, at least for now. (I may need to use a different word later, as the initial ‘professions’ will be subsets of a broader mercenary role, and I envision future non-mercenary roles. I may, in fact, use ‘classes’ for the broader categories, e.g. mercenary, aristocrat, civilian, etc., as social classes play a significant role in the Tempeste world. But I digress…) Although I appreciate the way that playbooks encapsulate character creation, I envision Tempeste character creation requiring a few separate questions, each carrying its own weight: What’s your character’s profession? To what mercenary company do you belong? And in what city were you born and raised?

Creating, in a less organized fashion

So after deciding to write a Tempeste RPG (which I’ve actually already done once, but trust me, the earlier version isn’t any good), I returned to deliberating over what to name base attributes. (If you missed my earlier post, I spent more time talking about the human soul than arriving at any conclusions). Thankfully, words come easily when mentally immersed in a world with a rich and complex aesthetic: discipline, finesse, grace, guts, nuance, passion, rapport, style, tenacity. Without even telling you about Tempeste, the words above begin to offer a sense of the world and the characters who inhabit it.

Initially, I thought I’d have a total of eight attributes, four that embody the four aspects of the soul (which, yes, will have its place in Tempeste) and four others for everything else. The four “soul attributes” were also to be called capacities and would relate to how much damage a character can take, e.g. physical damage, mental damage, etc. (to oversimplify)—but again and again, when I began thinking about what attributes would be used for what sorts of actions, I found that more than one attribute might be used for the same sort of action. In social contests, for example, should a character use Nerve or Anima? And what is Anima, anyway? I knew what it meant to me theoretically, but would it make sense to players?

Fantasy requires discipline

I’ve never been good with discipline. (Well, never say never, right? I did manage to get through grad school and wrote a book, after all.) But I’m easily distracted, self-distracted, wanting to chase some fancy or another, or to break a rule because it’s a rule, even if it’s a rule I’ve made. Especially rules I’ve made. Because I don’t want to feel confined, to be told what to do, what I must do, how something should be done. I want to intuit, discover, unfold.

Discipline. Perhaps discipline should be one of my four primary attributes.

Style. Perhaps “art” or “flair”—something that suggests a bit of “flourish”—but thus far, I believe style best fits the genre while remaining broad enough in meaning.

Maybe you’re thinking… “Discipline and style—are these appropriate attributes for superheroes during an apocalypse…?”

Nope. Probably not.

Attributes: quantifying the Body & Soul

bc0b7fa1d9e4041fe4c3a165733ca487I’ve always been obsessed with the number four and four-point scales (or by extension, eight-point scales). Whether rating men or movies, what further delineation does one need than 1=below average, 2=average, 3=above average, and 4=exceptional? Yes, I use half points (and therefore, technically, an 8-point rating system) because let’s be honest, I’m one of those critics who rarely awards a perfect 4 (Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, 4 and 4). Nonetheless, sometimes you’ve got to give a 3.5 where it’s due (Hugh Jackman in the first X-Men movie, for example).

So anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised if I adopt a 4 or 8-point scale or rating system for my RPG. Because I want to include superhuman, almost godlike abilities, an 8-point scale feels more appropriate, with 1-4 representing normal human abilities. (Without going into too much detail, it’s helpful to think of the scale as exponential rather than linear, so 8 isn’t twice as good as 4, it’s sixteen times better).

But this post isn’t really about numbers or statistics. The trick for creating the right “feel” for an RPG isn’t in the numbers as much as it’s in the words we use to define characters’ capabilities. How do we divide people up into universal attributes so we can quantify and differentiate their aptitudes? And more importantly for me—how do I implement my multiple-aspect soul concept while keeping attributes relatively simple? No one wants six to nine basic attributes, then four more special “soul” attributes piled on top of that. (Or at least, I don’t.) I loved the concept behind virtues and humanity when Vampire: The Masquerade was first released. But nine attributes, a health stat, a blood pool, a willpower stat (permanent and temporary), three virtue stats, and a humanity stat—it was a bit overkill. I find the more stats that comprise a character (attributes, abilities, whatever you’d like to call them), the less significant some of them become. And sadly, one or more (or all) of the virtues were often neglected by Storytellers.

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