Saturday 30 June 2007

My milestones - let me show you them

This seems to be a time of significant events for me.

Two weeks ago I gave my first paid-for professional hypnotherapy session.

Last week I gave my "Change Your Mind" seminar for the first time. It went really well. It helped, of course, that I knew most of the people who came, but I felt (and apparently appeared) confident, I got great feedback, and even though I'd advertised it as a free course (because it was kind of a trial run), people gave me completely unsolicited money. Almost $175 of unsolicited money, in fact. At the end. Which is a pretty good indicator of perceived value.

Yesterday was the company I work for's last day in the offices that have been my workplace for over 10 years, since I first went there in September 1996 for a two-month contract (and never, up until now, left). We start at brand-new offices, specially fitted out for us, on Monday.

I have spent more than a quarter of my life so far working in that building. It's a crappy building and I don't adore my job (though I don't despise it), but that's still significant.

And that's the other thing: a quarter of my life. I turn 40 in less than two weeks. I'm now older than my mother was when I was born; I've had half my average life expectancy and a third of the currently conceivable maximum. I'm choosing to see this as a start rather than an ending: I am starting on the most productive, most satisfactory decades of my life (though the 30s were pretty good, especially since I got married at 32).

So in closing, I would just like to say:


Thursday 28 June 2007

Underground Railroad: Setting Design Principles

I'm starting to come up with some principles for designing the Underground Railroad setting. As I said in the Story-Games RPG Fantasy Setting Wishlist thread (which I am so mining, oh yes I am):

Setting stuff that isn't just "Montanus exports opals and wool and is
dry and cold" but gives you a reason to be a character from Montanus
and tells you what that means in terms of who you are likely to be in
conflict with, what your abilities are likely to be, what you probably
care about...

So every place will have at least one thing about it that makes it a cool place to be from, and one thing which makes it a cool place to set a story or part of a story. Every institution, every setting element generally, should have at least one thing which makes someone say, "I want that in my game." Otherwise, why is it in the setting material? And always, always looking for the potential conflicts. Always.

And subsequent to that, of course, I figured out why you would want to be from Montanus. Because some people from Montanus ride flying horses. Which also fits in to Daniel Solis's request in that thread, in response to several people saying "Airships!": "More flying in general."

Why am I putting so much flying in a setting called Underground Railroad? Because flying is cool, that's why.

Underground Railroad: Cover Inspiration

It is far, far, far too early for me to be thinking about a cover for Underground Railroad (the first Pentasystem setting). However, inspiration strikes when it strikes. Here's what I envisage.

The cover features a young woman, small and slender, like a jockey. Her skin and eyes are brown; what you can see of her hair is black. She is wearing tight-fitting (but not cheesecakey) white leather boots, pants and shirt, and a vest, open at the back, which is covered with white feathers in neat rows. She has a white flying helmet with goggles pushed up, and streaming from the back of it, attached by its middle, a white scarf. A matching white sash is around her waist, where an ice wand is holstered. (I don't know what an ice wand looks like. The artist has to do some work.) She is leading a large white horse with white wings; the horse is grooming its wings with its teeth, because the woman has stopped to argue with (and it's clear from her expression and body language that they are arguing) a small black cat which is up on its hind legs - not in a Peter-Rabbit kind of way, just like an ordinary cat that really wants something from a human.

I'm reasonably sure that her name is Suan; I am sure that she's the commander of the Montanusi sky-cavalry employed as mercenaries by Anavalus IV of Koskant. The cat is a Jorian talking cat called Skyport Midnight, and they are arguing about whether he can have a ride on her flying horse, The Zephyr. I'm strongly considering making this my conflict example in the rules text.

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Tuesday 26 June 2007

Current Story-Games Goodness

Some things over on Story-Games that are provoking thought for me at the moment.

1. TonyLB (again), on second-order bribery. Tony's thing is, you set up a Key so that everyone at the table will want to cause things to happen that hit the Key. His example is someone who gets rewarded for defending authority. That means that the other players are going to be questioning authority (because that is bound to get your attention) and the GM is going to be introducing questionable authority (because that is bound to get everyone's attention). Rewarding a specific kind of behaviour that creates a dynamic. I think that's what he means.
2. Tony is also talking about conveying things narratively rather than instructionally, which has inspired me to do some "false document" stuff in my setting for Underground Railroad (I've started a thread to toss out some of my ideas, which so far isn't attracting any posts).
3. He's also discussing his idea of a card-based mechanism for controlling authority which might possibly – possibly – see use in the Pentasystem. Maybe.
4. Sydney Freedberg (in yet another of TonyLB's threads) is talking about setting creation by giving some examples of things that exist and some principles or algorithms that are generally operative that can generate more such elements, and letting it flow from there. It makes sense; if you have a clearly-defined character, you know what your character would do in a given situation even if you've not previously devoted any thought to it. Likewise with setting elements, surely.
5. Finally, Daniel Solis is talking about having actions that typically occur around your character, rather than your character having "powers" as such – for example, a fighter may get ambushed frequently. His ideas (he admits) need further baking, but they lead in intriguing directions. Especially when combined with number 1.

Thursday 21 June 2007

Idea: Tarot of Kells

Someone, and I'm probably not allowed to say who, but anyone who knows us both will be able to guess, put me on to the book Meditations on the Tarot recently. It's a remarkable book, by a devout Catholic who's also a very knowledgeable Christian esotericist and hermeticist. He uses the symbolism of the Marseilles version of the Tarot cards as a jumping-off point for all kinds of fascinating philosophical, theological and spiritual discussion. There's a lot of practical mysticism in it. I'm planning to write up a summary of his main points in each chapter (or "letter"; they are "letters to an Unknown Friend", one for each of the Major Trumps).

Unfortunately, the Marseilles is far from being a beautiful Tarot deck, and the beautiful decks that are out there (like the Gilded Tarot, which I will probably buy) have imagery that doesn't always reflect the points the Unknown Friend makes. For example, the High Priestess in the Marseilles Tarot wears a triple tiara (which is why she's the Papesse in French) and carries a book; the UF uses these as a symbol of four levels of spiritual thought and understanding. The Gilded Tarot's High Priestess (image here) has no headgear and no book. The Rider-Waite-Smith, which most people think of when they think of Tarot cards, has a three-part headdress, but the three parts are horizontal rather than vertical.

So, inevitably, I return to an idea I've had before and probably will never act on: making my own Tarot. But if I did do it, I'd do it like this:

  • Base the imagery on the Book of Kells, since that's an artistic style I've done before and like.
  • Probably call it the Tarot of Kells.
  • Make sure that I incorporated the symbolism that Meditations on the Tarot uses, so that it could be used with that book; almost certainly add other symbolism as well.
  • Add two more cards (probably the Celtic Tree of Life and the Great Serpent as ourouboros and labyrinth) to make 80, since that's an easier number to divide into sheets for printing than 78.
  • For the "pip" cards (1-10 of each suit), make an illustration of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, scan it, and insert the appropriate number of suit pips at the appropriate Sephira.
  • That would mean I would only need to do the 22 Greater Trumps, the 16 Court cards, the two extra Trumps, one image of the (Kabbalistic) Tree of Life and one fairly simple one for each of the suits, a total of 45. Plus a "carpet-page" to use for the backs, 46. (That's still a lot of images.)
  • For the Court cards, use the Four Archangels (Kings), the Four Seasons (Queens), the Four Living Creatures (Knights) and the Four Elements/Directions (Pages), or something of that kind, as per the associations of each rank.
As I say, I probably will never do this. But if I do, I've now recorded my ideas.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

Pentasystem: Filthy Hippy Swine RPG

So here's version 0.5 of the Pentasystem. It's turning into what certain diehard old-school gamers see as the worst kind of anti-D&D.

You get experience based on what your character feels*.

You get rerolls based on your roleplaying*.

Everything your character does uses exactly the same mechanics, with no privilege given to physical combat.

Worst of all, I haven't just "taken power away from the GM". I've killed the GM, taken his stuff, and distributed it among the players, and then set the corpse on fire and danced on the ashes in my hippy sandals.

Truly, I am a swine. If the RPGPundit ever sees this, he'll have a pleonasm. (Which turns out not to mean what I thought it means - something between an embolism and an aneurism - but he'll have one of those, too.)

*Not exactly, but it makes a better story that way.

Monday 18 June 2007

Pentasystem: Radicalization

The Pentasystem just gets more radical as I go along. I mean that in a couple of senses. Firstly, it started out in very early concept (before it was called Pentasystem) as a generic "adventure" system. "We're adventurers. Our motivation is - adventurosity." Not quite as bad as that, but definitely towards the pulpish end of things.

Of course, Spirit of the Century has this pretty much sewn up, and if you wanted to play the game that was my original concept, SOTC would probably cover it reasonably well. So as the Pentasystem has evolved, it's as if it's searching for an unoccupied (or at least less occupied) evolutionary niche, and is wandering through the possibility space attempting to achieve a comfortable distance from what is already there. Or something. And that seems to be a game of radicalism - challenging the status quo at a basic level. Which is odd, because although I describe myself sometimes as a spiritual descendant of radical Anabaptists, I'm really fairly conservative in my day-to-day life.

Anyway, a couple of threads at Story-Games are currently pushing my "that's intriguing" buttons. Not surprisingly to me, both of them involve TonyLB, who is more or less my muse of gaming for some reason. I just like the way the guy thinks. The questions he asks push light switches in my head.

One of them, started by Tony, is The Power of Class-Based Systems. Pretty nearly everyone chiming in there is saying "classes = good" in the sense of giving you a good start towards a character definition, and this fits with a direction I was already moving in with attributes and derived attributes. Basically, a primary attribute with a whole set of derived attributes is (kind of) a class. It isn't necessarily just a "what do I do" class, though. You can have an attribute Mage which is a "what do I do", but you can have an attribute Dwarf which is "who am I" with a bit of "how do I think", or an attribute Earthist Mystic which is "what do I do", "who am I" and "how do I think" all wrapped up together. In D&D your abilities are defined by class, and your stats are modified by race, while national origin, religion and so forth are largely colour. In TSOY, race and national origin are two independent variables which define what Secrets, etc., you have access to, and your abilities work together to define what you do. In the Pentasystem, it's all attributes, all the way down.

The other thing that's come up in that thread - because Tony is talking specifically about his game Misery Bubblegum, which is all about how other people's opinions of you contribute to your identity (it's a teenage setting) - is that the whole Best Friends chargen thing, where your character's abilities are determined by the other characters' jealousies of you, is another good way to define characters besides class. This is where Enmeshment comes in. It's ultimately based on Best Friends, and gives attributes to other players' characters (and to elements of the setting, and so forth). I need to work more on the "unreliability" of all of this - not only the attributes given to you by others' opinions, but the attributes you give yourself, perhaps. All your attributes are subject to change (unless you lock them); maybe that's enough.

The other thought-provoking thread is one on analyzing GM-less games, which now that I look at it again doesn't have anything in it from Tony at all - but several people reference his game Capes. Ben Lehman says:

There is no inherent need for a GM in a role-playing game. So just write your game, say who does what when, and playtest it. If it isn't fun, or if you see people doing things that are not part of your who does what when, then clearly you need different rules.

And light dawned for me. I'm holding on to a GM-like figure (the Opposition) in my design because, well, you need someone to provide adversity for the other players, right? Because the Czege Principle says you shouldn't provide your own adversity, right? And someone needs to manage all the bits of the setting and situation that nobody else is managing right now, right?

Um - why? Why can't you set it up so that players provide adversity for each other, just as a natural consequence of playing the game (I believe Capes does this really well)? And since the group is collectively defining the world, why do you need to have someone who's in charge of the world? Why not say: "OK, A, you're positively enmeshed with the Lunar-Asterist Church, so you run that aspect of the setting. Define it however you want (but you pay resources for anything that has mechanical effect). You over here, however, B, you're negatively enmeshed with the Lunar-Asterist Church, right? So you are going to adversity the hell out of A, and vice versa, whenever the L-A Church comes up, because that's what's going to reward you. Plus, you get to say that things are true of the Church as well, and if A disagrees, you get to have a conflict over it. Whoever wins - that's how it is." (Actually it may be better to have someone who's not enmeshed either way be the one to run the setting element, which is how the rules currently read.)

Which leaves a lot of detail to fill in, and some questions (like "What happens if there is someone pro but no-one anti?", to which the answer may be "that setting element simply doesn't get fought over"). Plus, it moves it much closer to Shock:, and I wasn't really wanting that, because Shock: seems a bit too abstracted for me. Definitely gives some design challenges. But also, if I can pull it off, marks it out from the pack of slightly-drifted-trad-games, which is where I started out.

Grounded and centred

Just a quick observation about how I feel the day after giving a hypnotherapy session, even one that didn't necessarily go brilliantly in terms of the client walking away radiantly changed, or in terms of me feeling like I did the greatest job in the world.

I feel grounded, centred and at peace.

I think that's a good indication that I've finally got the whole career-choice thing right, after years of drifting into the next thing that came along.

Now to make it an actual career.

Thursday 14 June 2007

Pentasystem: Killing darling #1

I've vaguely suspected for a while that the adage "Kill your darlings" may apply to the Pentasystem's 5x5 grid of arenas vs realms, on which all attributes must be placed. It was part of the system from early on, but it was always a bit arbitrary. Proof of this came just now when I compared, side by side, the grid I came up with out of my setting ideas brainstorm with the original character grid and found several things that were on both, but in different locations. Is communication Emotional/Physical or Mental/Physical? Are prejudices Emotional/Quintessential or Creative/Quintessential? Does it matter, or am I just straitjacketing players by saying, "You can only have a conflict of this type using attributes of this type"?

My conclusion is, it doesn't matter. Ripping this part of the system out will, however, leave a gaping space. I'm not going to rush to fill it. Sooner or later something will turn up which is much better. But it may be difficult to work on other parts of the system now that this fairly central subsystem is cast back into the realm of the undecided.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Pentasystem: Evolution towards revolution

I was, at one point, going to say that the Pentasystem was only innovative from a distance; up close, each individual thing in it has been done before.

That's still sort of true, but the distance at which it's true is changing. As far as I know, the kind of co-evolution of the setting and characters that I'm currently envisaging hasn't been done before (oh - maybe in Verge). It will predispose the game to work well in settings where things are in a state of change, and where there are a number of handles that characters can grasp to attempt to direct that change - which describes Underground Railroad pretty well.

So, I'm thinking that consequences may also apply to setting as well as character. You get into a conflict, and there are things you're trying to change in the setting, but you're risking change to your character as a side effect. But there may be unintended consequences to the setting too...

Also, perhaps consequences are - at least sometimes, maybe at the highest level of escalation - a little bit like Chad Underkoffler's PDQ, where (if I recall correctly, though I can't find it at the moment) getting certain kinds of consequences mean that you then get a complication to your story and have to sort out another issue before you can proceed with your main goal. That would fit with things I've already put in place about how one kind of story can flow into another via subplot or sideplot, and make it into mechanics rather than just advice.

Sydney Freedberg, whose grasp of setting I respect, and Joshua BishopRoby, whose game designing I respect, suggested on Story-Games that instead of doing something highly front-loaded I set up a simple core of things that are important and build from there in the course of play - kind of what I was planning with the characters anyway, with their attributes being elucidated through play. So you take maybe 5 (to pick a familiar number) attributes upfront - most of which will have multiple derived attributes, for richness - and something similar for the setting and situation, and then bring out more depth as you play. All of a sudden it's a lot closer to Risus (quick build on the basis of a few cliches) than it is to GURPS (extended agonizing point-buy).

So what I need now is a mechanic for introducing new attributes to the setting and characters at points where they'll be useful. I'm not talking, here, about the way in which the characters act on the setting to change it (which is a separate problem to solve, and which I have at least a general idea of how to handle); I'm talking about how to introduce new details that have "always already been there" and have only just been mentioned as far as the fiction is concerned, but as far as the game is concerned have just got invented on the spot. There are some reasonably well-explored ways of doing this in the story-games space. The simplest, but to me the least satisfying, is to leave one person playing the whole of "the world" and solely the gatekeeper for what is "real". Then there are point-buys, like Universalis, or vote systems like Verge (last time I looked at Verge, anyway). And then there's the Shock: method of giving parts of the world to each player to administer, which is what I'm currently leaning towards; distributed GMing (like with the Tenan role in Errantry, but not rotating).

I'll probably retain the Opposition player, though, to hold the setting elements and parts of the situation that all the main characters are invested in and to do some of the traditional GM things like provide surprises.

Monday 11 June 2007

Pentasystem: Setting and Situation Mechanics

What? Setting and situation mechanics?

Yup. This may be a really stupid thing to do; I won't know until I try, of course. It's a development of the idea I had when I read Tony Dowling's Mathematica.

I was trying last week to shoehorn setting elements, like ideas, institutions and "sets" (physical locations), into the same mould as characters: attributes, rated 1-5, set out on a 5x5 grid of the five categories (physical, mental, emotional, creative and quintessential). It wasn't working very well. There are a number of problems with taking something designed for characters and using it for an entirely different purpose. Firstly, the categories don't necessarily match up all that well. And secondly, the 1-5 rating is too restrictive; it implies that an individual character can go up against (for example) a global ideology, attack one of its attributes as if it were just another character, and bring it down.

What I'm groping towards now is keeping the attributes system (which is flexible and intuitive), but allowing the players to collectively rate the attributes of the setting, not by strength, but by how interested they are in engaging with them. This then feeds into the design of the situation. (Kind of a loop back to Situation Engineering from Full Light, Full Steam, which has been an influence in several ways.) The Opposition then gets to assign a budget of points to those elements of the situation which the players want to engage with, and build each one out into characters and objects that they can interact with, notably by having conflicts with them.

Steps towards this for me will include writing down, for each kind of setting element, the sort of attributes it might have, without regard to the 5x5 grid. I may invoke the awesome brainstorming power of Story-Games on that one. So, for example, an ideology can have detractors, defenders, heretics... I'm looking for objects, people and groups, which can then be statted up as opposition. These then become "handles" by which characters can affect the larger setting. It's a revolutionary RPG, is really what it is, which fits nicely with the premise of Underground Railroad.

Unformed as yet is the connection to the various kinds of situation I have already laid out in the text, such as a chase, guarding a valuable item or person, or seeking revenge. I have vague ideas about specifying roles in each such scenario and offering the players the opportunity to fit their characters into them, while the other roles get taken by (representatives of) elements of the setting. Potentially, this is going to be very front-loaded and high-prep, which wasn't necessarily a design goal. However, there's nothing to stop people ignoring a large swathe of the rules in order to play a more pickup kind of version. Some pregens would also be a good idea.

The other thing I need to work out is how the various bits of setting relate to each other. A religion, for instance, can be an idea, an ideology, a worldview, a group and an institution, all at once. Each of those aspects will give it certain attributes. I think this may turn out to be another job for "templates" - after all, if templates give you the derived attributes from being a dwarf, a mage, and a meditator and allow you to combine them together into one character, why not use the same principle? Setting material will then consist of both prose and also template blocks of attributes. (Not stat blocks; there are no numbers involved at this point.)

While I'm babbling on I'll mention the changes I've made since last time. I've put in a quick system summary upfront, based on one of my earlier blog posts. I've talked about the process of characters becoming enmeshed with each other and with the setting and situation (which, obviously, will change when I work out the issues mentioned above). I've written up the beginnings of a secrets mechanic, based on the Story-Games "Secret Mechanics" thread, but that, too, will likely change because finding out secrets about someone or something is an excellent way to get leverage.

I've also put together an early draft of the attributes sheet, which I'm sure will change further. At the moment it should work for characters, groups and important objects; it was going to be for everything, but - see above.

And I found the AutoREALM map that I had made ages back for Underground Railroad, and uploaded it here.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Winter is here

Someone at Story-Games opened the June "Stuff to Watch" with "Welcome to summer." Hemisphere chauvinist.

The leaves are almost gone from the trees in Shadbolt Park, the nights require blankets, and the cats are doing this a lot:


(Image captioned with Roflbot, found via the amazing Generator Blog.)