Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Daredevil (Series One)

Part three in a seemingly unending, inescapable series. Part One covered Archer and Part Two covered Leverage but with Jessica Jones hype going crazy I decided it was time to look back at what we learned from Le Homme De Sans Peur. Spoilers for series one herein.

1. Prologues Are Fun

Humans like repetition. That’s why call-back jokes are funny. Playing with timelines allows us to do the pre-call-back where we see something we know is important later, and we love seeing the pattern begin. This is why we love prologues, and a huge part of Daredevil’s fun was seeing him get his billy club, his costume, his nickname and so on. RPGs tend to trade on unpredictability, however, and that is part of their appeal: we never know where the dice and random player choices will take us so the story is always fluid, always unfolding. So how can we have the fun of prequels? The only way is to give up some of the predictability, but as Daredevil proves, there’s a powerful payoff for it, so don’t be afraid to do so. You can actually start your characters at a point in their lives and then run a flashback to how they acquired their stats but an even simpler way is simply to plan ahead. We have a bad habit of designing our characters fully-formed, beginning with all their accessories, abilities, allies and resources in place, because that’s fair and point-balanced and we feel awesome. But what if you designed that character, and then went back in time for the first X sessions? You know at the end everyone will end up equally cool, but now you get to find out how and why those things come into your life. Took telekinesis? Play out the adventure where it first happens and you suddenly can read minds. Wear a costume? Have the scene with a dressmaker (like Edna Mode) discusses options. This doesn’t distract from the plot it becomes the plot – Edna is how Mrs Incredible finds her husband, remember? Over the Edge taught us that every stat should have a visible tic expressing it somehow, but every stat can also have a backstory and it’s better to play that backstory so it emerges naturally and so you experience it. Write it and it’s just a stat. Live it, and it matters.

2. Levels Are For Stories Too

Levels, like classes, have a bad reputation in gaming, and for good reason: they can kill games dead. Too often we think in this theoretical world of gamification where XP is only reason people play and not handing it out would be anathema and then before we know it our heroes have outgrown our campaign and nothing seems to matter any more. You can’t motivate them to save the princess when they could punt the king into the next country with zero consequences. Daredevil shows us leveling done right: it’s subtle because the universe expands around him as he goes. He starts off taking a beating from fairly low level street thugs and ends taking a beating from an extremely tough ninja – which is why his battle with Madam Gao’s men went a lot better than his battle with the Russians much earlier on. Part of this is simply making sure your opponents also level up, of course, but the other part is making sure your story levels up. The ninja isn’t just tougher to be tougher, he’s tougher because he’s the head of the Yakuza, and is one step closer to Fisk. You don’t have to link it directly to the opponent in question, of course; the fight to take down the Russians is hard because Fisk sics the cops on Matt, which makes the fight an equivalent level of how important it is to unlock Owlsley, the next step to Fisk. Every time the difficulty level of the game goes up, they do so in parallel with more being revealed about the bad guy and with the stakes rising. We never get to meet the girl the Russians took but we get to know Mrs Cardenas personally because we’re now another step up – and finally the last victim is Ben Urich is all-but a PC. Daredevil’s 13 episodes are a masterwork on how to structure a plot that unfolds in stages with perfect clockwork, something we’re getting a lot more of now that the new TV lets writers plan their whole shows out in advance (True Detective also does this well). If you’ve got a level system, you have the same deal: a number of discrete episodes which have to happen in order. You must make sure your plot levels up each time the players do.

3. Know How To Lose A Fight

Level-appropriate fights are not an exact science. Especially if you want your game to feel scary, gritty and dangerous. But players tend to see RPGs as a game, and in a game you lay down your forces against the opponent and fight until one person wins. Some games have rules for resigning but most games of chess go to checkmate or stalemate as the expectation. But in most RPGs, our resource at hand is life points and if we fight until we lose we get the dreaded Total Party Kill which is awesome but also kills the fun. But one of the things that made Daredevil great was the sense of cost and difficulty, which meant he got beat down a lot. He lost a lot of fights and those he won he did with the kind of damage that would have ganked the mage in the party for sure. The writers could do this because they wrote in ways for Daredevil to lose without it seeming unbelievable (the inevitable James Bond excuse where they don’t instantly kill him for no reason) or blocking the story from progressing. Clare “Night Nurse” Temple is a character who exists to let Daredevil lose fights and make that interesting and plot-driving, and his deal with the dying Anatoly allowed him to survive a fight he knew he couldn’t win. Daredevil’s vigilante status also means he has to run a lot, and he’s willing to dive into rivers and sewers and dumpster to hide and catch his breath. If you want your game to be gritty you need the PCs to lose fights and they’re not going to do that just because the odds are against them: you have to build narrative architecture into your story so that losing feels awesome and doesn’t cost them too much. System architecture can also help, like the Hero Points in Mutants and Masterminds that you only get for being beaten, but without fluff architecture (to coin a phrase) it won’t have nearly as much resonance.

4. Bad Guys Have Their Own Issues

The stakes are high, the difficulty immense, the cost enormous. Everything about Daredevil tells us that his task is impossible, which is why it’s so powerful when he succeeds. Watching the Kingpin go from untouchable, godlike shadowy mastermind to a man without allies or empire or standing, broken and bloody at Daredevil’s feet was a hell of a cathartic arc. You also want your players to feel they too have achieved the impossible and brought down the gods themselves, but there is always a risk in overselling your villain: you can stretch believability that he would fall, no matter how someone fights. Indeed, Daredevil hammers home again and again how impossible it is to fight Fisk and win. Yet we never feel it is unbelievable that he falls. Why? Because Daredevil isn’t the only factor in play. Owlsley is a sneak. The Russians are temperamental. Madam Gao is cautious. The Yakuza have their own stuff going on. And most importantly, Fisk has weaknesses. He’s distracted by newfound love. He’s emotionally fragile which causes him to start a war with the Russians when he didn’t need it. His need to stay out of the public eye makes him vulnerable to exposure. He committed a crime and has gone unpunished. He has a mother that can expose him. He’s invisible because he’s a Rabbit in a Snow Storm, and when the snow is gone, his white fur is exposed to owls(leys). You absolutely want to sell your villains to your PCs as unstoppable badasses that they cannot imagine how to destroy. But then you need to give them the hint of hope by giving those bad guys a weakness. Make their lieutenants or goons disloyal or afraid so the PCs get the idea of turning them against their master. Make their base be on an unstable volcano (to avoid detection?) so that they get the idea of making the volcano erupt. This is much better than the villain making a stupid mistake like letting the heroes live or falling in love with one of them or standing too close to the monster cage, or having the PCs be forced to come up with some outlandish deux ex machina. Ghostbusters was a great film, but it would have been better if Ray had realized in prison, say, that the telemetric structure of the building created an unstable vortex, that the very power needed to summon Gozer meant you could overload the circuit. You don’t want bringing down a god to feel like cheating.

5. Puns Are Power

Puns have a bad reputation. Mostly because they’re the easiest joke for children to learn (and one that helps them learn as they see how the language they are developing can have two meanings or can sound the same) so they’re usually done in a childish manner. But there’s a reason that writers as deft as Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer and Pratchett use puns so often. It’s because puns are a form of subtext, and subtext is the greatest thing humanity has ever invented, in my opinion, which is why I fell in love with Daredevil the moment I saw the title of episode two, “Cut Man”. What’s the use of subtext, though? It’s not just a linguistic stunt to make the writer (and the audience) seem clever; subtext exists so you can send information on as many levels as possible, producing a more nuanced and rich portrait of your characters and narrative. Linking Fisk to a rabbit and his rival to an owl told us about Fisk’s vulnerability both temporally and psychologically. Having him break eggs to make an omelet made him sympathetic as it reflects his grander vision. Having Matt Murdock be blind tells us how important law and justice is to the character. And these things work on you subconsciously without you even noticing them. Are such subtleties worth playing with in an RPG? Depends on how much your players want to listen, but you should never throw away a way to communicate. Warhammer is full of puns but they serve a purpose: the castle is called Wittgenstein so you get a hint they are trying to reanimate the dead (sounds like Frankenstein). A character is named after Margaret Thatcher so you know she’s evil. And so on. These cues tell you how to play the game in the most dramatically and narratively appropriate ways, and can guide you even subconsciously to the most satisfying story and character moments – and make those matters resonate further because they’re hitting two parts of your brain at once instead of just one.

Supers in particular are built on coded imagery and visual subtext, not to mention actual visual and verbal supertexts like having your bad guy called Dr Doom, so they would be bereft without rich visual and verbal puns. But it doesn’t stop with supers. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson of Daredevil is that supers is now an extremely unfixed genre that tells you nothing about the style of the story, which is why Daredevil felt more like the Wire than a four-colour comic. The point is: great storytelling is never genre-specific. Puns work everywhere. Prequel call backs are fun everywhere. Unfolding villain weaknesses and story structure work everywhere. And every hero gets more awesome if can take a licking now and then. These are your tools. Without them, you’re flying blind.

See what I did there?

The GM Screen is Not Your Friend

Now, let’s start by saying I don’t mind if you use a GM screen. I’ve been known to use one myself at times. Nobody wants to go down the insanity of One-True-Way-ism as they used to call it on RPGNet, the idea that there is only one way to roleplay that is proper or mature or purposeful. The GM Screen is a tool, and if you find it useful, use it, and if you don’t, don’t. But like every tool we use it behooves us to examine how and why we use it, and what unconscious benefits and drawbacks are built into that.

As I previously discussed when I pointed out the character sheet is not your friend, the game space is divided generally into two areas: the personal, where we examine our personal information, our character sheet or player board or cards, which in some games is private, and the shared, where we focus our shared attention and energy. Chess is a game with no personal space, Battleship is a game with no shared space, Bridge is a game where the whole mechanic is based on trying to determine what is in the personal space based on what happens in the shared space.

The GM screen is part of the core dynamic of the traditional rpg which says that the shared space is imaginary (or, if mapped, produced on the go), and is created by everyone using the tool in front of them. The players get single actors in the universe, who uncover the shared space by their actions, while the GM shows what they uncover. That’s why he needs a shield, because there’s the assumption that the game is part mystery. And that’s fine, up to a point. There are definitely cool things to do where you want it to be a mystery and the players to uncover it. The problem is not everything works that way, yet we apply it to everything.

A lot of GMs don’t use a screen and suffer no loss of mystery, because there isn’t much visual to hide and because – and this is the important bit – WE DON’T REALLY LOOK AT ANOTHER PLAYER’S PERSONAL SPACE. We can and occasionnaly we might lean over and go “what have you got?” but this is actually a key element of character-based games: we play them as if we’re playing Bridge and our hands are hidden. It happens in Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill and Dead of Winter and Last Night on Earth and every single board game where you have your character and they have theirs. It’s just how we operate as human beings. If there’s something in front of each person, that’s their thing, and we don’t mess with it and we avoid thinking about it because it doesn’t belong to us. And so we don’t care.

The best example I can show you of this is that there are some cultures in the world (and you’ll have to forgive me for not being able to name them right now) which consider the idea of individual meals on plates to be insane. After all, we sit at a table to share a meal, so why have something sitting in front of you that cuts you off from others, out of the central space? Food is in the centre, and everyone gets a fork.

Even without the screen, we cut ourselves off from other players and their character information. But the screen makes it worse because it encourages it all the more so. It tells us this is a simulationist world where we can only know each other in the shared imagination space. That I can only tell if Sally is playing a Karate Cop if she describes what she does and what she looks like and communicates thusly that she is a Karate Cop.

That. Is. Bonkers.

The GM screen’s typical orientation works the same way: rules on the inside, pictures on the outside. Rules are how we construct something but it is done personally and privately, the shared space is where we reveal that, but using only images and description. There’s a rule suggestion in the original Unknown Armies (no idea if it’ll make it to third edition) which suggests GMs should never tell players how much damage their characters took, so as to simulate the fact that injured people, unless they’re paramedics, have no idea how badly they are injured. The problem with that is that it forgets what numbers are FOR. Yes, they keep things fair but they also add random elements to the story that nobody can predict, and even more importantly THEY COMMUNICATE INFORMATION ABOUT THE WORLD. If you have 12 hit points, being hit for ten feels like a huge damn thing. Being told that your guts are hanging out after a hit may not, in fact, have the same punch – at least, not on its own.

Now, that assumes you think like that, of course. Some people do not think in numbers. And some people do. The point of using both at once is to accommodate both types of thinkers. The real sin, here, though, is the sin that the GM screen implies upon us: that the GM should do all the numbers, and the players should do all the imagining. The pictures are facing the players, the numbers the GM.

Now again, this can be important for some kinds of players. Some GMs love numbers and love doing all the crunching for players. Some players literally cannot take in all the numbers and love that when they play RPGs they just stay in character until the GM tells them what dice to roll and what it means, and they never have to learn the rules – they’ll even describe their character to the GM and get the GM to make up the best mechanical version of that. For beginners, that can be a great model to follow. But it’s not always the answer. If players want to communicate in images, why doesn’t the GM get to? Why do you even need numbers at all if that’s the most awesome way to share information? Why not make a system that’s about talking in descriptions, rather than make a system that’s full of numbers and force one player to use the numbers and everyone else to use descriptions?

It hammers home this idea that GMs are performers. That they are presenting a show to their players, who can move the story in different ways but are still engaging more passively, waiting to be entertained. Where there is less expectation for players to engage with the rules there will also be less expectations for players to engage in storytelling. Sometimes I’ve seen GMs see what the player rolls and then describe for them how cool they look. And again, that’s fine if that’s how you want to play. But understand the assumptions behind it. And if the GM is expected to do all that work, understand that he needs cool pictures inspiring him more than anybody else, so they should not be facing outwards.

For me, when I game, I’m all about energy. Whether GMing or not, I want to feel energy pouring into the table from all sides. Playing with people who show up to watch a show is not my idea of fun because it’s like putting on a Shakespeare play for grumpy teenagers. They lean back, they make jokes, they ask too many questions, they don’t attempt to buy in, they never send forth the energy. But of course they don’t – you’ve built a shield to hide all the energy from them, and you’ve told them they never should and never need to look beyond that shield. And then forced you to try and captivate them using only your ability to tell stories and present imagery. You’re not playing a game with your friends. You’re trying to do Hamlet in a school cafeteria. No wonder people are so afraid to GM, and so easily burnt out.

If you’re using dice and mechanics to build a story, you should consider if everyone should be part of that equation. Players should know the rules and look things up for you. And the information on the inside of the GM screen should be available to everyone, right in front of them. Maybe even in the shared space. And the pictures should be too, of course, because we’re not turning off our imaginations. That’s the opposite insanity, that numbers take you out of your Total Immersion Experience. I get it, you don’t want to break up an incredible dramatic in-character moment with having to look through an index for how to make a charisma check while on fire. But at the same time, your rules should be sitting there saying “do this cool thing with these numbers TO MAKE AWESOME STORY COME OUT”.

Imagine if in theatresports and improv only one player knew the rules, and he had to run around in the background making sure nobody blocked or wimped on an idea, but never used those terms because that would break the illusion of the shared scene for the other actors. It would be a disaster. And it would be massively unfair on that one player. Asking players not to use mechanics is the same idea. If you’re using a game, everyone should be playing the game. And that means rules on the outside, pictures on the outside. Or get rid of the rules altogether and just use the pictures.

Threeforged: Addressing the Critics for “It Is Forbidden”

And now I’m going to respond to people who were kind enough to review my third-stage game.

Adam McConaughey said:

“Genre: Anthropology Experiment” made me chuckle. Adam asks if the game is fun, or just a lecture? I don’t really know. We had fun with the playtest but it is also a lecture. I’m watching racism tear my country apart, I figure we could use the lecture. Adam got the concept though and was first to review so hooray!

it’s a little bit Dog Eat Dog, a little bit Breaking the Ice, a little bit The Quiet Year and a little bit It Was a Mutual Decision.

Dog Eat Dog was sort of an inspiration but more that the two games come from the same rage. Never read the others. Microscope was the main inspiration, and Lexicon games.

Meguey Baker said:

Art and layout! Above and beyond credit for that, folks. Basically, a game of religious zealots clashing against each other. I’m probably not reading it deeply; I can see the fun there, it’s just not for me. The one part that made me pause was the last paragraph, about playing in other scopes than cultures, Talking about micro-societies clashing suddenly makes me take notice. So yeah. this goes on the “I’d play that if I really dug the folks playing'” pile.

Interesting that she says “religious zealots” because that couldn’t be further from the intent – the point is to illustrate that all cultures are somewhat zealotic, we just forget our own culture is. It shows how much we associate the phrase “It Is Forbidden” with religion (and I didn’t help by including pictures of Lot and Adm and Eve). I almost called the game Thou Shalt Not (ala Blake). I agree that the most interesting part is using for non-traditional culture clashes and micro-cultures. I want to run a game of it set in a shared house. Generally, I ONLY play with folks I dig, so I understand that!

Grant Howitt said:

A game about a clash of cultures in the Dog Eat Dog and Chronicles of Skin vein. Very cool-looking, and without a lot of the baggage the other two had so maybe an easier sell on game night?

I was hoping that it might end up being less “dark” than Dog Eat Dog by presenting both sides as neutral. A thought exercise more than a lecture, one hopes.

James Iles said and then later said more:

An expansion and reframing of Dog Eat Dog’s rule-layering system to tell the story of two culture’s increasingly fraught interactions. The system is good, and it’s really nicely organised to teach the game to you.

I deliberately didn’t reread Dog Eat Dog until I’d written the whole game so I wouldn’t overlap. Turns out there’s overlap anyway, because culture works by intuiting rules from narratives. The key difference, as I see it, is in Dog Eat Dog the natives are trying to guess what rules they broke so they don’t suffer again; In Forbidden, the lawmakers will simply tell you what you did wrong. “No, you can’t eat that rabbit you caught because it’s Friday, you stupid savage”. Microscope was a big influence on the teach-as-you-go organisation so I’m super glad it came through.

The game is pretty cynical – there’s no way to deescalate tensions until things are about to break out into open warfare, and the game enforces that all attempts to make reparations will only cause further insult or injury – but so long as your group is up for this kind of downbeat allegory it should work well.

Cynical is an interesting word. It does suck that things always get worse and there’s no hope. Does anyone have any ideas about breaking that up? Maybe once per round you can play a chip to get what you want? Or you can succeed as long as your character is punished for breaking the law?

Charlie Etheridge-Nunn said:

After all the chat at the start about the similarities to games like Dog Eat Dog, it’s good to see the differences right away. ….
It feels quite prescribed, but has a lot of potential, especially for a very large group. One of the things which interests me the most is the alternate settings such as a new neighbour moving in or possibly teams integrating in a workplace. The same tribal concepts as the basic game has, but in a different setting.

Charlie saw the differences. I would love to test it with a large group; it felt to me like something good for a classroom. If you have 12-20 people, please run it for me! And again, pick any setting! I’m going to put something more in the final version (already much enlarged) about different settings to use. Maybe a random table to roll on, or a list of inspiration.

Kirk Dankmyer said:

The rules are clear, and there’s a running example that’s in a fantasy world. The game is very freeform, but what it does establish, it establishes clearly. It sounds brutal, and I really want to play it.

Kirk did an excellent recap of the rules as well so I recommend reading it to get the gist of the game. He used italics in his review which made me do a big fist-pump: success is measured in emotional reaction.

Phill Calle said:

The game’s rules are few, and the few that exist are integral to the game and explained in detail. It is an elegant work.

Thanks Phill! Might be a cover quote!

Ivan said:

No dice, no cards, no randomisers. Perfect party game and handy educational tool about identity and prejudice. Best played with a lot of people and great for social gamers. A brilliant alternative to Werewolf/Mafia. 

Best bit: you’ll always have half the room opposing you and the other half backing you all the way. 

Verdict: Elite.

Very flattering. Hadn’t even thought of it like Werewolf because those games are about secrecy and lying. But it is like them in that you can, I hope (and as Grant also said): get people into it with very little effort. And it snowballs so you become more invested over time, unlike how many story games demand you invest hugely at the start. Makes me think it is worth publishing.

Daniel Lewis PLAYTESTED the game and said:

I had mixed feelings on this one, too. It tells a Dog Eat Dog-esque tale of two peoples, natives and newcomers. Except, in truth, it doesn’t really tell a tale at all. It is closer to the The Quiet Year in that it isn’t really a roleplaying game as much as it is an exercise designed to explore a theme. You can play the game in a more RP-focused manner, but we chose not to play it that way because 1) the rules seemed to heavily imply this was an optional style of play and 2) it looked like it would have a problem similar to Microscope, in which the RP seems disjointed and out of place. 

This one has a set-up process in which you answer questions about each team’s respective people. As I have mentioned before, I love set-ups that involve answering a list of questions, because it forces you to think critically about the setting, and this one is admirable in that way. The actual gameplay is a little less interesting, being played out over three rounds in which each player describes their people taking an action, and someone from the other people explaining how they stop them from doing it and then declaring a law by saying “It is forbidden to do X because . . .” You end up with a series of laws on each side, and then have a discussion as as group about whether the two people will go to war. It works fine, but each individual scene is not particularly exciting because the outcome for each turn is pre-determined, leading to no actual tension. 

In the end, there just isn’t much here. Everything works fine, but it’s all a little underwhelming. It took us less than an hour to play an entire game, but we didn’t really feel like we played a game. It felt more like a really complete set-up process for some other game. Again, nothing offensive here, and everything works ok; it just needs to be fleshed out. 

The transition into roleplaying can be a big issue in Microscope and when playing Microscope I never demand roleplaying, I wait and see if the group wants to. But that to me is okay because with or without roleplaying I find the game works fine, as long as you don’t want it to be an RPG but an exercise in shared creation (which can be used to set-up something else). So a lot of this for me was a success but I will put in a discussion of “to roleplay or not to roleplay”. Microscope does have the edge in that the roleplay determines an answer to the question whereas here the answer is already known. I think for me that’s okay because I’ll be sure to emphasize that since you know the answer, you’re roleplaying to determine the question. I’ve already added some to the game along these lines: you’re not supposed to just go “I make a boat” “No you can’t make boats”, you then need to go “well, why?” “Because travelling on the ocean is forbidden because that’s where the bad people live…” I need to play with this more; my playtests before the submission didn’t roleplay scenes at all (but proved it was an acceptable game for non-roleplayers).

K.N. Grainger said:

Overall I think this has potential, but currently it struggles to sufficiently differentiate itself from Dog Eat Dog. Currently both games share many traits that are distinctive. I like the amendments made so far – the unique roles, the way that the factions are equally represented, and that the intent is to provide a more neutral tone. However, more can really be done to make this game independent and have a little more ‘umph’ behind it.

I’m trying to add umph with a great emphasis on how to use Roles and different ideas of what a culture is but I can’t think of much else! As a lot of people said in the whole threeforged thing, it can be really hard to think of what a game needs. I didn’t feel like the word counts were too big (the opposite) but sometimes you look at something and go “it’s done”. Threeforged was a great way to help designers push past that, so if anyone wants to stage FOUR It Is Forbidden let me know…

Lowell Francis said

Images are clearly older, out of copyright, but probably ought to cite sources? Guides for the questioning process to establish the premises? OK. This is pretty great. Solid, well-written and it deals with questions I had right away. Looks cool and I would definitely play this. 

Do we need to cite sources in a competition like this, not actual publication? I know respect for artists matter, but all my images were public domain, and I’m not even sure they have an identifiable source…but hooray for liking it!

The Gauntlet Podcast said (in a podcast!, the 1:07 mark, and they playtested it!):

-name checked The Quiet Year again. I really should read it

-also talked about the “do we roleplay” question (said the rules assumes no, which is  fair)

-it took 20 minutes to play, feels like a setup. Happy with the set up idea. The speed is…interesting. We also saw that in our playtest but again, the Werewolf thing comes in; the speed is a huge help for making it accessible.

-so quick it becomes dull, empty, not much impact – no tension because outcomes are set – a resolution mechanic might help?
– the third round devolves into “MURDER IS BAD”. This comes up a lot. Insult is actually much more interesting, because nobody likes being murdered. I tried to address this in the stuff I’ve added because every society has conditions under which murder is okay and you want to tease out the specific law. But maybe the whole third round needs to be fixed. Hrm. Maybe we go Annoyance, Insult, Injury instead of Insult, Injury, Death?

So overall it works. I’m not too concerned about the “Microscope problem” because I’ve seen Microscope work well with those transfers and I’m okay with the game being an exercise. I do think maybe the scenes/interactions could use some kind of extra way to resolve so there’s more tension and might provide more of that elusive oomph.

Threeforged: Coming Clean

The veil has been lifted and now everyone knows who wrote what. So now I can talk about how it went for me.

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My stage one production was called Super-Dog, although the moment after I sent it I changed it to Dog-Watch. I’m bad at rules and good at setting so I kept the rules dead simple: you have two stats, Super and Dog, each rated with a die type, and if you roll a 4 or higher you succeed. I assumed a standard GM-player set up, and then wrote in a backstory about Laika returning from space, the aliens she met and the true history of the human race.

It was then received by Daniel Fowler, who added some amazing stuff to it. He turfed most of my setting but in its place did the lovely thing of describing most of my ideas as the dogs would see them. Which really worked instantly; Daniel clearly got and embraced my concept. He kept the core system, but added a rotating GM concept and an adventure structure (dogs are with their people, dogs notice something weird, dogs fix it, dogs go home) which is very nice, and has some lovely examples. There are also really good rules for how dogs act and their guiding principles (humans must never be hurt) and limits on superpowers (like very sensibly, no talking human talk) and super behaviour (nobody must know about our super powers). I love it and will be using almost all of it (putting my setting back in, dammit) if Daniel approves. I’m not sure I like the idea that dogs turn into monsters as they grow more super, ala Aberrant. That’s too dark for me.

As always, the smallest changes are the most curious. In my version, the sample character was based on a superpowered dog I made for a Mutants and Masterminds game, a black Afghan hound who can blend into the darkness (invisibility). Daniel made her a pure white bulldog. Does he own a bulldog? Not like Afghans? Curious…

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Dean Baker’s first draft was called Under the Bed and reminded me a lot of Grimm and Little Fears – you were kids fighting monsters, and whatever thing you clutched tightly to could have super powers, and you were afraid of growing up. The system was confusing and not my style, but worse the setting hit me like a freight train because I’ve never really liked these kind of core ideas: being a child is not something I remember fondly and it certainly never worked like those tropes. I felt utterly stymied because I felt there was nothing here I could connect to. But Paul said we could change anything as long as we kept the core. So I asked myself, what was the core? Children and what they fear. So I decided to see what I would say about that core, starting from just that idea. I also would try to keep cards as the mechanic.

I remember my nights as a child as ones of relentless terror and uncaring adults, and so I wrote Fear of the Dark, where the adults have made a pact with something called the Shadow which eats fear, and of course prefers the strongest fears which come from children. So adults force their children into dark rooms, close the door, and go back to drinking wine and laughing loudly and watching movies that give you a funny feeling in your tummy and you have to think about how in the darkness in your room it would be possible for a scorpion with a screaming monkey face to get onto your pillow before you saw it. I really like what I wrote, it’s a relentless bonesaw on the nerves with a harsh as hell system where just getting a drink of water can damn your soul. Well, I think so. It went way over word count so I cut it down and then afterwards restored it and expanded it. Like Super-Dog, it assumes a standard GM and player set up. The only real connection it has to Under the Bed is the list of rooms in the house (cut for space in the end), a deck of cards, and having stats based on child experiences and their “magic toy”.

It then went to Vincent Baker who kept pretty much everything I wrote but changed the game to a competitive one. Chargen returned to being somewhat random, and the idea of playing to win came back too, which was a weird echo. Now you get points for facing challenges (win or lose, more points for harder challenges), taking them off the parents, assuming the parents have them left. If they don’t you have to recharge the parents by getting caught out of bed. The need to get caught and face high stakes drives kids to want to scare themselves and push themselves which is a really interesting mood and it comes through very strongly. It’s also very different to the mood I was going for, which is really interesting. My game was about choosing between the unimaginable horror of sleeping without your teddy vs the unthinkable danger of reaching across a shadow to get it and risking having your skin flensed off. Baker’s game is more about pushing your limits and scaring yourself deliberately. And he takes this one step further by suggesting that my mechanic of growing up doesn’t mean your soul is lost forever, but you just grow up.

I think there’s a fun game of “play the psychiatrist” we can do here. Like Vincent and Dean liked being scared as a kid, and I didn’t….

Baker added a play structure explaining how to GM (the kids set a scene, the darkness asks questions, cards are drawn to answer them). Not my style, but very much the style of the times – I guess it’s sort of Apocalypse World-ish? This and the points system also allowed him to develop what happens when you grow into a teenager, so now instead of being knocked out of the game you keep scoring points but using different rules.

I want to keep the development of playing a teenager. I want to make the play structure GM advice rather than rules. I think the scoring mechanism is interesting and could stay as an option, but I want my darker game back. This is the real tricky issue about this: we didn’t make one game we made three, and if we try to turn them into one game, we’ll have to figure out who is in charge. I lean towards just everyone making their own game, myself. Safer, easier, and no knife fights over tone.

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Mark Nau’s sketch is pretty solid and inventive: the Old West, but with fairies, as in four-inch-tall wee folk messing with you. A round robin Moringstar character roster method sets up the town’s inhabitants and then everyone makes a fae interested in the character of the player to their right. Not unlike my first stage game, the system is very very tiny – deal out cards, high card wins.

Jay Treat took this sketch and put a lot of meat on the bones. The game got a name: Superstitions, and a setting (Arizona). The instructions were polished and made clearer. The cards were removed in favour for each player doing entire free-form GMing, using his fae wherever he wants, to GM for the player to his right (with some clever limitations on fae powers). Rotating GMs were very common, to my eye, in the competition. Jay also did heaps of research into the fae types Mark had listed, turning one line descriptions into rich paragraphs and linking their old world classifications with near-analogues in Native American culture. He also put in a rule at the end that fae support humans they see observing superstitions.

And that’s what struck me. I thought it weird that the fair folk of Europe had somehow come on the boat or there were perfect equivalents of them waiting in the US. It seemed really interesting to me to find a bunch of probably Catholic missionary types in a world, drenched in their old-world superstitions, running into spirits with their own rules. I began sketching out a game around the idea of terrified Irish people trying to leave saucers of milk out for the wee folk like their mam always told them would keep them safe and then the spirits getting made and killing the human babies in revenge. What happens when your rules stop keeping you safe?

As with Fear of the Dark I was quite ready to build my game from scratch around that concept, but as I did so I remembered a conversation I’d had with friends a few weeks ago regarding Lexicon games which we adore, and how a set of laws would be a great way to describe a culture (rather than a chronology like Microscope, or a lexicon). The end result was It Is Forbidden which poured out (way beyond word count) in almost full form in a day or two. I imagine my previous designers wondered where their cowboy game went, but you don’t question the muse, I say. And, as I blogged, I could never have written It is Forbidden without their game to light the fire.

But I do wish there’d been a third-stage game from their fae in the Old West game.I hope Jay (and/or Mark) take their game and make it. As I said with Fear of the Dark, we got three games out of each line, not one. If Daniel wants to make his own Super Dog game I give him my blessing but I’m taking some of his 2 ideas and going back to my one. And likewise I’m taking some of Vincent’s stage 3 stuff on FotD and adding it to my own stage 2 game. 306 games is better than 102, after all.

Five Things Roleplayers Can Learn From Leverage

Robin Laws likes to Blow Up Hollywood, but I’m more of a small-screen kind of guy, so here we go for part two in a hopefully long series. Obviously, if you like Leverage you should also get the roleplaying game but here are some writing lessons from the show that apply everywhere:

  1. Show Us The Bad Guy First

So many RPG adventures have a problem with motivation. They start with Mr Johnson or a wizard hiring you, or something odd going on, and when the proverbial shit goes down those aren’t enough reason to stick around and fight something with too many teeth or tentacles. Some games build it into the setting, many people remember to put these things into their characters but a reason like that will only go so far, not least because it doesn’t hit the players. Think about Star Wars: Luke’s character sheet says he wants to join the Empire to be cool like Biggs, and his character history starts with his adopted parents being murdered and a mysterious inheritance but the first thing the audience sees is the big evil wizard murder the guards and kidnap the princess. It’s not just something the characters can’t ignore, it’s something a lot stronger: if you do it right, you’ll piss off your players. And once you do that they will buy into your game with a fury you may not be able to handle. They will lose their minds, their weapons and their XP points to get their hands on someone who made them angry, and the emotional funpark ride of Leverage knows this and that’s why it hooks you in with this big kick. Obviously most RPGs thrive on some kind of mystery and you don’t want your opening scene to give away clues you need to hold back, but Leverage shows every episode that the actual perpetrator may be hidden among others, or be only half the story, or require a several stage plan to access. Leverage often just shows the damage left behind, too, which is a trope of fantasy we often forget. We start our games with the village hiring you to fight the orcs, and skip the scene where we impotently watch the orcs rape and murder everybody (or the long walk through town afterwards, seeing the haggard faces and the tiny tiny graves). No more starting in a tavern, it just doesn’t work.

2. Niche Matters

Yes, we hate classes, and for good reason: they feel boxy, like you can’t make a character your own, and doubly so when they’re paired with levels and you have to follow the fighter train to fighter town and nothing else. But Leverage loves classes so much it name-checks them in the opening credits, and here’s why: it WORKS. In plot-based fiction, niche works like a charm, and it also produces natural drama and comedy when niches clash or have to be transcended. John Wick has some kind of insane hate-on for balanced game but for me a balanced game is one where everyone has a niche that nobody else steals. That way everyone feels like they bring something unique to the table, which makes them feel special and needed and lets them shine, and everyone gets equal time to do that shining. Whether your system is “balanced” or not or class-based or not, early on in your campaign, maybe even before any play at all, sit down and work out who is in charge of what. It might take a little while to emerge, of course, but if you at least note to look out for it, you’ll move faster into the niches when you see them. And remember you can have different types of niches; Leverage has the Hacker as the Comic Relief and the Hitter as the Cranky One and the Thief as the Outsider, but you can easily have your Thief be the Cranky One and your Fighter be the Love Interest – and both of them, again, work wonders when they are reversed, challenged, swapped or transcended. As long as the fighter usually does the most damage, it’s awesome that one time you rolled a 20 and the cleric took off that guy’s head. Archetypes make for a strong story, jiggling with archetypes makes for an interesting story, and you can have both.

3. Earbuds are Code For “Metagame Everything”

There’s a problem with niche characters, and it is summed up in the statement “everyone make a stealth roll”. If the whole party doesn’t take sneak, some clumsy guy (or just a bad roll)  is going to turn a silent recon into a physical comedy scene. But you have to take everyone everywhere, says the common wisdom, because others people feel left out of the conversation (“YOU’RE NOT THERE!”) or stuck with limited information they then have to not use because some GODDAMN IDIOT decided that this was ‘metagaming’ and thus bad. If Eric the Cleric didn’t tell you there’s a lever, you can’t reach for the lever. Seriously, this is the single worst idea in roleplaying and needs to be killed with a spade. And you’ll notice that in Leverage, these situations almost never come up. Everybody gets to comment on every single scene, because everybody is connected by earbuds. Now, you could do this with whisper-magic or blood-bond telepathy or scurrying messenger voles, whatever transparently bogus in-world device you like, but you don’t even need to do that. You can just pretend that for whatever reason, everyone is allowed to know everything everyone else does, and can always talk about it. Because then everyone is always involved, AND not everyone has to go everywhere, finally. Your charisma character can talk to the king while the thief crawls through the sewers and everyone can talk to each other the whole time, without the thief failing his charisma roll and calling the king a jerk or the charisma guy failing his climb and drowning in sewage. Your niches get stronger, your interaction never stops and everyone benefits. And yes, sometimes it might be too unbelievable or needed for a plot, but Leverage loves those moments when they can’t get somebody on the coms – it means the stakes just rose.

4. You Can Has Flashbacks

Immediacy matters. That’s why you want your players talking to each other. Which is why we want to get into those scenes where people stop thinking about everything carefully and just act, stop wondering what their character would say and just saying it, stop joking around and react to the world as if it were real. But we also recognize that we’re not geniuses and taking a moment to think of the coolest or cleverest or funniest thing to do is perfectly fine. The fight with the lich can pause and roll back a round if Jane forgot to add her modifier, the conversation with the king can roll back because you probably wouldn’t have told him elves weren’t real if you knew there were elves in the setting, we can stop and cut that bit where you forgot the president was still in his limo when you threw it at the helicopter full of terrorists. But the further back in time we go, the more we tend to get antsy about a believable simulation and respecting planning and not using the Bill-and-Ted-Trick to get out of trouble. Which means plots and plans are written like computer programs. We want to climb the wall of the castle so we’ll need rope so step one we go buy rope. Or worse, you get to the castle and your characters would probably have thought of rope but the players didn’t, so you have to go back to the village and get some. No. Bad. You just ruined your pacing. Instead, flashback to the time you remembered and bought rope. Or if that feels like a cheat, flashback to the reason why you didn’t bring rope (you used it for something, or it was stolen, or it didn’t fit in the bag). The flashback stops you looking like forgetful doofuses and stops your game feeling like an exercise in careful shopping. You can even be a doofus if you like, flashing back to you throwing out the rope from your pack and putting in your teddy bear. All of those options are more interesting than Detailed Inventory Management Class. And don’t worry if the timing is weird, you’re already messing with time the moment you start telling a story, and some of the best flashback moments in films make no sense at all: Chekov seems to recognize Khan on sight despite not being on the Enterprise in the original series episode that featured the villain; Indiana Jones’ lack of a gun in Temple is a reference to the shooting scene in Raiders which hasn’t happened yet in his life. We, the audience, don’t care.

5. Anticipate the Twist and It Can Make You Awesome

Leverage twists aren’t always what we would call twists in that they don’t always spin things completely around. A better word is the tilt – where things suddenly swing from one way to another, or the original picture changes its aspect or zooms out to reveal a different or larger problem. The tilt in fiction is a pacing mechanic, a fun way to play on your expectations while also stopping people going straight from A to B. Good tilts make great stories and they can be used for all sorts of different effects (they can be very scary and disorienting in horror; Psycho for example is built around several unexpected and gigantic tilts) but in Leverage they are used to make the cast seem awesome, because not only are we the audience ready for the tilt, the characters are as well. Sometimes consciously: the audience has no idea that the good guy is really the bad guy but the team DOES know and un-tilt the tilt back after the fact (using flashbacks). Other times, it isn’t a conscious knowledge but the team is used to thinking on its feet and changing plans fast (Nate starts from Plan N and works backwards, he says) and the fact that they can cope with the tilt is why we love them. This does not mean running around your game pulling on every person’s face in case its a mask and trying to break the genre. What it means is understanding that no matter how much you want to, very few games let you go straight from A to B. Some time in the middle, you’re going to roll a 1. And a lot of gamers get sad or mad at that, they feel like they’ve failed somehow (taking personal responsibility for rolling dice is the basic definition of roleplaying) and their character looks weak. But if you’re waiting for the tilt to happen, you can roll into it and use it to give you the spotlight in a situation where you still shine – or where you can throw the ball to someone else whose niche now can take over – your failure isn’t erased, you just reframe it as interesting. Fail that sneak roll? Then the tilt swings to the guards advancing, and now the fighter can run up and have some fun, while you run back screaming. Or even better (although you may need your system to have some way to spend plot points, or wait for the next good roll to tilt the other way), let the guards get their hits but then reveal, via flashback or cut away, that you MEANT to fail so the mage could get behind them, or so the fighter wouldn’t be heard going the other direction.  Tilt!

Tilts and flashbacks are classic tropes of the heist genre but heist is just another word for stealing stuff from a well protected dungeon. So once again, as with the Archer rules, you’ll find these rules apply anywhere adventure is found.

The Estalia Project: One Last Damn Time

I’m Steve and I’m a WFRP fan. Back in the days of 2nd ed, I co-wrote several Warhammer books including the Ennie-Award winning Children of the Horned Rat, Night’s Dark Masters and Realm of the Ice Queen.

Somewhere around 2009 or 2010, when 2e was dead and 3e didn’t exist yet a plan emerged to try and fill the sourcebook gaps left by the departure of Green Ronin/Black Industries, perhaps to publish some ebooks on Liber Fanatica (which now looks dead). At that time some people gathered to help write a Tilea sourcebook and I took lead on the Estalia sourcebook. We had some people flake out but a cadre of amazing folks including Craig Oxbrow and Steven Lewis gave me huge swathes of material. Things were chugging along, and we kept getting more ambitious; talking about new careers and bestiaries and adventures and science rules and dueling schools.

Then I had a nervous breakdown.

Not only did this impede heavily on my ability to finish the book, it also – as is the way with the human brain – ensured the project itself was linked in my mind to the breakdown. This made it impossible for me to do anything with the material, and nobody else but me had the files. Several times on several internet forums (on RPGnet, on Strike-To-Stun and on my own blog) I told this story and offered the files to anyone willing to try to finish them, because I figured both fans of the game and the contributors did not deserve to wait.

Now, at last, I am healthy enough to go back to the Estalia project. Too much time has past for me to build on it in a significant way. I don’t have the system mastery to add the rules we’re missing. I don’t have the time or inclination to make it as massive as we dreamed. But I still very much believe the contributors deserve their work to be shown. So my goal is to take everything I have, edit it, polish it, link it all together and put it into a Word file, and then into a PDF. Liber Fanatica no longer seems to be updated, so I’ll then just host it on my webpage with my other WFRP stuff.

As the project progresses, there may be space and capability for people to help out, as Andrea Maurizio just asked me about. I don’t know about that yet, because I’m still sifting through the ashes. I definitely have no layout or Indesign skills; I definitely will need art/stock pictures to make it look less dull. Got something that can definitely go in with no work like a monster or some fiction or a career? Send it on over. But I don’t have time to workshop anything, so I can’t guarantee everything you send me will go in the book. But I’m throwing this out there to just let you know that it has begun again, and maybe you can help.

Please forward this around so everyone who loves Warhammer can read it! I’m going to post all this on my blog as well.