Saturday, March 23, 2013

Providing a Structure for the Beginning of RPGs

I'm currently building my own fantasy world, named "Kakusaretta Sekai" ("The Hidden World" in Japanese). I've decided which races are going to be in the game, languages, figured out it's basic cosmology, and am still working on mythology. As I was working I realized that I hadn't defined what types of stories I wanted to tell with this world, and what the basic point I wanted anyone to get from playing/reading/interacting with this world. As I sat there, I realized that I hadn't really read anything that dealt with the concept of theme other than "pick one". There certainly wasn't any advice on how to build up a framework that allowed players to make a coherent story. Now, to all the Wheel fans who are going "that's crap! They give you lots of advice!" the answer is no, not really. The Adventure Burner gives you plenty of advice about how to use the system on the player's side, tells the GM to throw the players into harm's way frequently and (sometimes) viciously. And it does offer some structure that you can throw at players (Is it a Journey, a Struggle, or an Intrigue?), but that's about as far as it goes.

So I decided to make my own little structure. I wrote it down, and was going to post it, but I thought I'd contact Andy first and...well... he gave me a better idea. Although it's not as rough as my original idea, it's definitely still in need of polishing.

Step 1: Who's Your Nemesis?

Pick One

Nature: The forces of nature has moved to destroy everything you hold dear. It's the stand in for an impersonal enemy that you can't destroy, so you must learn to endure, to survive til the very end.

Drama: The enemy is of a more mundane nature, but he is personal. Very very personal. You can interact with him, and possibly convince him that he's wrong. Or maybe not. Maybe you have to kill him.

Horror: This is where you fight your demons, your homunculi, the things that are most definitely not human and freak you out because you realize a part of you agrees with them. There is no negotiation with these creatures, because their view point is that you and everyone you hold dear should suffer what fate they have in store for you. Kill it with fire!

Metamorphosis: You are one who is getting in the way, the one who is the threat. Your flaws and failures, regardless of how well-intentioned they are, are a threat, and you come to grips with yourself and change. Even if that means that what you love the most must die as well. It's the hardest of the bunch to pull off, but it's the most satisfying, in my humble opinion.

Step 2: What's Your Method of Overcoming the Nemesis?

Destruction: Something needs to go, it's that simple. You can get help in this endeavor by accruing weapons, damning evidence, or maybe the Ultimate Nullifier.

Conversion: Maybe your enemy doesn't need to be destroyed. Maybe he isn't bad, maybe he could-should- come to your side. Allies would be people who think he can be changed.

Perseverance: Your enemy only has so much ammo to throw. At some point he'll stop, and won't be able to continue. For whatever reason you think that it's better to just ride it out.

Step 3: How Desperate are the Consequences?

This is a sort of a sliding scale of how bad the fallout from your actions are. Obviously at the beginning the consequences are a bit smaller (if I hit someone with a sword they'll probably recover) to severe (oops! there goes their head!). While you obviously should take exceptions if a player murders someone, it's a good general rule.

So if I sat down with my players and told them: "We're going to play a low-fantasy game with a horror-based ultimate bad guy, with the preferred method of of overcoming being perseverance, with world-ending consequences should you fail to outlast the horror". I think that'd be a good starting point for the beginning of the conversation. The players could then make their characters around those "buzzwords" and add their own input with a general concept.

Anyway, what do you guys think? Any feedback? Please don't forget to give kudos to Andy for taking my terribly rough idea and making it... plausible.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The REAL Misspent Youth Review

Well, that was something.

I just got done playing out a full campaign of Misspent Youth, which lasted 5 sessions. The game is made so you can walk yourselves through a story about a bunch of teens trying to tear down the horrible authority that's oppressing everyone. The game supports 2-5 players, plus someone who is playing The Authority (also known as the GM). You start the game by discussing what sort of things bullies do that piss everyone off. Deciding on this allows everyone to define what type of Authority they wish to fight, what it's methods are, what it's systems of control (y'know, what it uses to keep people in line) are, and finally what the Authority really wants in all this.

Players then make their characters from an assortment of lists, choosing three personality traits and then making up two. Each of these five traits sells out to a darker, edgier version that more resembles the authority that you decided to fight (Smart sells out to Pedantic: not only are you smart, but everyone's going to know you're smarter than them). These traits are used in the resolution system. But we'll get to that in a little bit.

Every session has 7 scenes. They are the same scenes no matter what, and may never be changed. The scenes guide you through the narrative of the game. This is a brilliant move, given that the there's really nothing else to guide the gameplay other than the conflict resolution system.

Speaking of which, the conflict resolution system is a blast! You play through a simplified version of craps, and use your character traits as the betting material instead of money. If you accidentally land on an Authority number while rolling your 2d6 you can either choose to lose the conflict or to sell out, which changes one of your young and idealistic character traits to a hardened and dark trait, more resembling the Authority you're fighting. The rest is narration and in-character moments. And it's this simplicity that makes it all work. You start the game as young and idealistic heroes, who slowly start to crack from the pressures of fighting a revolution, until one of you snaps and completely sells out. When this happens, the game is over.

The endgame can get downright chilling, as you realize that there is a definite winner and loser in this RPG, and that even if you win it's probably not a good thing. In our playthrough not a single player got a happy ending (all of them were really close to selling out), and most of them chose endings where they wasted away as they realized that what they had fought for was futile.Which, ironically enough, was fine with them. I mean, the game as played takes you in some pretty horrible directions, so the idea that these characters would get a happy ending is actually kind of repulsive.

I mean, the more I think about it, the more I realize that having a happy ending in a story like this would be very hard to pull off well. You've got a bunch of kids who slowly become more and more corrupted, making worse choices and becoming darker and darker, until they strongly resemble what they hated at the beginning.

So, what're the strong points of this game? It's rule light in the right way: the only thing that gets rules is the conflict resolution system, which gets played out only 7 times each session (once per act). So each time you pick up the dice it's a big deal. You have no idea how it's going to turn out, and if the players and the Authority set up their conditions right it can get downright intense. The game is short to run (we did it in 5 sessions), which in this day and age of long-winded RPGs (4th edition I'm looking at you!) is really nice. So it's short, awesome,to the point, and very much worth the investment.

The game isn't perfect, however. As I complained about before, I'm always kind of afraid of destroying the book by sheer accident, and in a house full of toddlers I can imagine this book lasting only as long as it takes for a parent to blink, yawn, or eat something. Speaking of children... yeah... don't let them see this book. It's got a TON of swearing, middle fingers, and such. While that's part of the appeal of the book (the book is awesomely designed, although I advise getting a print copy as opposed to digital), the appeal is specifically for an older audience. The last problem is with the conflict resolution system. While no system is truly random this one is as close as it can probably get. We had a number of conflicts that stemmed from tense roleplaying that fizzled because the dice resolved things in two throws, as opposed to the 8(!!!) throws we had in a few of the sessions. It's not a glaring problem by any means, but it can get in the way sometimes.

Altogether, Misspent Youth is a really fun game that's helped me get into more rules-lite fair. I definitely recommend it for anyone who's interested in a good narrative game and that won't mind the intentionally excessive nature of the book.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What I've Learned from The Mass Effect 3 Citadel DLC

OK, so I haven't played this DLC, but I've read a few reviews, and it really hit me over the head about two things: the first being why I didn't actually like the Mass Effect 3 ending, and a rule for character-based stories.

I'm not gonna lie, the ending bummed me out. I've already talked about it a bit in my review of the Mass Effect Trilogy,but it never really hit all that hard what I disliked, right up until I read what this DLC was: you spending some last moments with these characters before the end. When I read that I actually felt a bit of a pang, and realized that, had I run into that in my playthrough, it would have made the unfairness of the ending hit in a completely different way. I wouldn't have been forced to sacrifice myself for all these people, I would have gladly sacrificed my character had those been the memories I was looking back on. I mean, don't get me wrong, I felt as true a connection with these characters as I ever will in fiction, but most of them were war buddies, not people I'd really spent all that much time with. That's actually why I liked the new Prince of Persia so much: pretty much unlimited dialogue between two characters, I'll take that! What I guess I really wanted from Mass Effect 3 was for the story to wrap up what was really important: the friendships. I mean, honestly, the war was never really the point of the bloody story anyway, the point was to go through it with these people, and to get to know them in their joys, sorrows, dreams, and despair. The point was to make you willing to die for them. And without that DLC, they failed, in my humble opinion, because they provide a sufficient enough connection. Just hearing that this DLC exists is almost enough for me, which says a lot about the true nature of Mass Effect.

The second thing it taught me was something very crucial about character-based stories: the external problems drive the internal ones, and the internal problems are the ones that you really have to worry about. Find out that one of your players has given their character a strong sense of independence? Make their independence, as it stands, a threat to everyone, give them a foil who's methods aren't all that different from their own. Make their relationships think about giving in to slavery and being locking themselves up for the sake of everyone only to have them decide at the last minute to screw everything they must be free. You get the idea. Help the players play up each others' themes, and make the inner journey the one they really care about. Yes, I must destroy the Reapers, but Tali will miss me if I'm gone, I'm a major source of strength in her life. Must I really go? What it all comes down to is that, without caring about the characters and pushing, stretching, abusing, and pampering them character-driven fiction won't work.

Not sure if any of that ramble made sense. Oh well, lemme know what you think!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Christ the Teacher, Part 1

So this is my attempt to make a stable iconographical style for myself. I decided to start with THE teacher of us all, Christ. The icon's still in process, but I find that I've already learned a lot both spiritual and aestheticaly from working on this one. I decided to do the blue highlights on the flesh for two major reasons.

  1. I've always believed that Christ, while comforting and peaceful and kind, is not comfortable. Thanks to our fallen nature Christ's glory and kindness are not entirely easy for us to absorb at times. Since the canons do not forbid me from doing blue highlights on the face and since it doesn't seem to violate any of the positive commands that I do know about, I decided a good way of showing beauty without necessarily making it comfortable would be the blue.
  2. I LOVE blue highlights, also known as double reflections. There's something so incredibly peaceful about them, I couldn't help but want to put them on the face. 
Ultimately we all sit at the teacher's feet and absorb what He has to show to us, regardless of how OK we are with it or not.

Monday, March 4, 2013

On Greek and Christian Theology

There are a few emphasises in Byzantine theology that make it unique to Christianity, but the thing that truly sets it apart is the theology of theosis ("THAY-o-sis"). It's a theology that is all about becoming in action or, as one of the Church Fathers says: "God became man so man could become God". It's all based off of a NT passage that talks about putting on the "nature" of God. My dad asked "what's nature mean? We don't become God, do we?".

So we employed some Google and looked up an interlinear NT, which shows the Greek words put next to the actual English words that we read. The word came out as "phusis", which, when we did a little more searching, is more like "physis", and it doesn't take all that much to make the conclusion that they're meaning "physical" in English. God wants us to take on His body? 

That didn't make much sense either. We looked a bit more, and finally got more. Turns out that physis means some sort of action, habits, the sum total of a person's thoughts, habits, actions, pretty much everything a person does. The passage is saying that we must act exactly as God does. Nowhere does it state that we actually become God. Essentially what God is asking for is a whole universe of creatures who are not Him in any way, shape, or form, but who freely choose to act like how He does all the time, creating a grand universe that can relate to God without being Him.

In the end, all that God wants is for us all to share in what He has. That's a pretty simple request, and one that needs to be talked about in greater detail more often.

On Bad Habits and Depressing Endings

Gah, remind me to not have eggs and plan stuff for RPGs (eggs give me suicidal depression). Now, to be fair, I didn't MEAN to eat the eggs, they were snuck into some chocolate-covered mints (as binder, natch) that I had the cravings for, and, whaddaya know, I wound up depressed! So I went and planned out the end of my Burning Wheel game Revenge of the Countess of Fire, which is a big no-no, of course. This is what I came up with.

So, my players have been unavoidably teamed up an unknown entity known as The One in the Deep thanks to the ownership of The Black Stone, which lets them communicate with the One in the Deep, but which they can't voluntarily get rid of. As of last session, the One in the Deep asked that the Stone be given to his avowed enemy, The Countess of Fire, who wishes to destroy the One in the Deep with the Stone. How she thinks she'll do this is not important, and plus there's spoilers to consider, but at any rate, here's what the original conception for the One in the Deep.

In this world everyone is connected in a vast unconsciousness. Everyone has a special way of communicating with each other on a level that none of them can know about. Well, the One in the Deep is the evil personification of this collective unconsciousness, and, well, he wants to become conscious (since the unknown in each of us wishes to be known). I began to plan around this idea, and while the plan was quite good and imaginative and I'll probably actually use this plan someday, there's one problem with it, that makes it antithetical to Burning Wheel.


Don't get me wrong, I'm supposed to know what the bad guys are up to. But I actually tried to predict how things would go which, as any narrative gamer will tell you, is a terrible idea. I mean, of all the boneheadded things to do...

Oh, and Maria hated the idea on top of it all. She brought up that it was a truly depressing villain over which there could be no victory. It was one thing to have a villain that could only be imprisoned, but someone that was actually you? Not much of a conclusion. So there's always the fact that the rest of my players probably wouldn't like the idea either. No idea, and only one way to find out!

Anyway, yeah, that's how I got my stupid rear end saved from making a plan. But some of the methods I'd thought of I'll probably save for a 4th edition game, whenever I get back to playing that one...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Read Through Review: DnD Basic

Thanks to Wizards, I finally got to get this, the red book version of the original Dungeons and Dragons. 

And I have to say, it made me laugh. Dungeons and Dragons Basic is the most hilariously well-designed game I've read to date, mostly because of the way it makes every choice in the game matter. There's a time limit on how long your torches last, the DM is assumed to provide no light source, and your characters are more fragile than the tissue I just used to blow my nose. At the same time, however, the game allows you to bring in retainers, and suggests that you bring lots of them. In essence ,DnD Basic is a huge character funnel that dares the players to send their characters into the horrible depths that the DM has created. It won't be comfortable, it won't be easy, and you certainly won't have the same character name on the way out as you did on the way in, but it'll be a hell of a lot of fun.

There are a few things getting the way for us new-age players, though. The first thing, of course, is that there isn't a universal resolution system. The d20 is one of many systems used to resolve things. Those who are looking for the all-powerful wizard must NEVER LOOK IN THIS TOME, EVAR. He is not all-powerful and, in fact will always need the fighter to make sure he doesn't get bum-rushed by his foes, who will find his pasty white flesh tasty. Clerics don't cast spells at level one. Oh, and did I mention that THAC0 is in it's basic form? Oh, and 3 levels only. That means you're really only in it for a dungeon.

And yet, I can't help but recommend playing this game. If you just read that last paragraph and felt a little um, excited, afterwards, you should definitely check it out. This is a game of old school dungeon crawls where you'll change characters as often as you get new tissues.