Stream of Consciousness Game Design: SUPER SHOWDOWN

So most RPGs kind of focus on players playing one character at a time. But most comics these days are ensemble affairs, where half a hundred guys criss-cross continuity in continuity-shattering events. About time we simulated that. And thus: SUPER SHOWDOWN (with a foreword by Ilan Muskat)

Foreword by Sexy Game Designer Ilan Muskat:

I’m ruggedly handsome, but I don’t have any design credits. I’d better design some games in time to write a foreword for your next one! – Ilan


Everyone makes up a team of superheroes. The team can be just one person (The Hulk, Spidey) or a big team of guys (The Avengers, the X-Men). Say no more than six characters each though. Each hero in your team is represented by a single die: a d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The smaller the dice, the less subtle you are. Someone who just pours out power like Cyclops would be a d4, someone who has a lot of little tricks and is hard to pin down, like Nightcrawler, is a d12. The number of dice represents endurance, how much you can bring that power to bear. Cyclops might have like 4d4 because his visor gets knocked off all the time, but the Hulk might be 20d4. Write down on a piece of paper (A4 or foolscap in size) who is in your team and which die represents them. So you might have something like this:

Iron Fist (4)d10
Power Man (10)d4

Put the die for each character next to that character. Just one! That die itself is a stand in for that character. IMPORTANT: each player should use dice all of one colour, different to colours/designs used by others at the table.

Come up with a name and an ethos and a niche for your team. Eg Heroes For Hire: They are mercenaries on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.

Now take all the dice from all the players and throw them from one of the table so they roll hard across the whole thing. Any dice that end up on your piece of paper are in your comic during this event. You may claim one character of your team that didn’t end up on anyone’s sheet back onto your sheet as well, but you could totally get a whole new team. So why is Daredevil and the Wasp in Heroes For Hire? That’s what you have to figure out. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the Avengers has to figure out why Power Man is working with Herbie in Stark Tower.


Two options here:

1) Hero v Hero. All heroes not on pieces of paper have gone rogue. Divide them equally and randomly among the players. The team possessed by the player to your left is who your team will be fighting this issue.

2) Hero and Villains unite. Everyone makes up a small rogues gallery for their team using the rules above (at least one fewer villains than they have heroes). Then everyone draws a line down the middle of their paper. Then all the villain dice are rolled again, across the table. Any villains on the left side of your sheet have teamed up with the heroes for this story. You get to decide why! Ask the people who invented the villains for tips. Villains not on paper become the enemy of your team using the method above: collect them up, divide them equally and randomly between players, fight the villains on your left.

In this case, heroes in the first big roll that don’t land on anyone’s sheet are Not Appearing In This Story. The same goes for villains on the right side of your paper. Maybe they’ll be killed in a big fight. Maybe they’ve been captured. Maybe they’re off in their own storyline having a Secret War or Annihilation or somesuch. Put them aside for the NEXT event!

IMPORTANT: for a good, balanced game, you want about equal numbers of heroes and villains, so when you roll the dice, try to make sure the area covered by everyone’s pieces of paper is about half the area where the dice will fly.

“Villains” (aka the guy on your left) always roll their dice first, and announces some kind of scheme to destroy the world. Then heroes roll to respond. Here, both you roll all your dice for that character ie, roll ten d4s for Power Man. Or roll one d4 ten times and note the results.

Compare all your dice to all their dice.

Matched results: If one of your results exactly equals a villain dice, that’s confrontation! KATHOOM! POW! The die you matched with yours is knocked out of play! Yours isn’t!

Villain dice lower than yours: You get in their way somehow, but don’t slow them down. They don’t do evil. Nobody loses a die. The battle looked awesome though!

Villain die is HIGHER than yours: Choose: either you get beaten up (lose a die) or something bad happens. The evil plan takes shape. Aunt May marries Dr Octopus. Dr Doom kills a puppy. Something like that.

Flexible villains are more likely to succeed but generally don’t do quite as much damage. Abomination with his chunk of d4s hardly ever rolls higher but when he does he totals a city block, kills hundreds. Mystique (1d12) gets the better of heroes all the time but just runs off and does more planny plans stuff, or sleeps with Wolverine or whatnot.

After all dice are assigned, any dice left get rerolled, for act 2! Keep going until one side runs out of dice. If it’s the Heroes, the villains win, or at least conquer the heroes (but perhaps their plans to murder innocents is foiled, so it’s not bad. The heroes may teeechnically win, maybe retreating to their hide-outs all banged up – but villains aren’t punished. If the villains run out of dice first, they are totes foiled and all either killed or arrested (genre-permitting). If a character has no dice left for themselves, they don’t make it to round 2 or the end of the story. Decide what happened to them! Peeps with lots of dice hang around longer! But cost more to build (just work out what feels right for point buy, I trust you).

Of course, you can duck the hit and pass it on. The question is, how many times will they let Bad Things Happen to keep their dice around to go the distance?

If you’re getting hammered, ask for help from another team! CROSSOVER EVENT!  Problem is, if you do, then their villains come into play as well! Doh! Or, swap one of your characters for one of theirs! If you do this, you MUST invent a love story to explain why! (“Kittie Pride come and help Spiderman instead of Thor! Because THOR LOVES IRON MAN! and Iron Man is DRINKING AGAIN!”)

When you (and any of your buddies) have done your event, someone else does theirs! While Daredevil and Wasp were fighting Giant Man and Magneto, what were the X-Men doing? And why? When everyone’s done, retrieve the other dice and play with them, or start from scratch!


If at any time, a die falls on the floor, that character permanently dies or is massively depowered or something. CONTINUITY IS SHAKEN FOREVER! Everything else is resettable.

And that’s how you play the game.

In Which I Am Cranky At Netrunner for No Good Reason

I am cranky with Netrunner. I bought it, and now I don’t know if I can play it.

This is not Netrunner’s fault. This is my fault. Netrunner is a living card game, a game which is built around gathering cards in a large pool, and then building decks to face off against others in competitions. Those are its design and production goals. It is not a game which you can play straight out of the box and expect everyone to have a balanced deck to play with. Indeed, the factions are specifically designed to have holes in them that other factions can plug – but rules limitations are placed on how much cross-faction stuff you can use.

This means I am now screwed, because what I really want is a game that I can play out of the box. That, in fact, is the ONLY thing I want.

I figured what I’d do is try and fix this by buying a few booster boxes. Slot in some of the new cards to help cover the weak points in each faction’s deck. Problem is, now I have a bunch of decks which STILL aren’t balanced against each other. They can’t be, without rigorous testing. And I’d have to figure out what level I wanted to balance them at – harshly, demoralisingly brutal lunges for victory, or fun romps for all involved, or wacky experiments in storytelling, or everything in between? And I’d have to rejig those decks depending on which one of those games I’d want to play. Yes, I have the option of rejigging those decks in the first place, but that’s a lot more work than just finding the game that suits the mood and players and pulling it off my shelf.

The only real option is to go for the jugular so you can win, and thus only play in tournaments, because that’s the easiest to calibrate. But I hate going for the jugular, and I hate playing to win. They’re the things I try to minimise as much as posisble in my game-playing and game purchases.

This is not Netrunner’s fault. I had a square hole, it is a round peg. Netrunner is still a beautifully designed game with a sexy setting and seems to be well set up for tournament play and collecting. But this is why I gave up playing Shadowfist, and why I shouldn’t have gotten into Netrunner: it is way too hard to control the experience I have, and turn it into the experience I want. All too often in Shadowfist, I just wanted to have fun, but my opponents had built to crush, and I felt I had to compete with that or have no fun at all – but competing with that killed my fun.

Sigh. Live and don’t learn, I guess. But at least I know more about my tastes now.

How It All Began

June 6th, 2006 I was asked to write my first RPG book, the critically acclaimed and fan-favourite, Children of the Horned Rat.  I just found in my folders the very first notes I made on the book, before we even got jobs or the outline, just trying to get a sense of Why Skaven Are Awesome (always a great place to begin). Here then, you can see great art taking form!


I shall translate the scribbles:

(picture of a skaven)

Evil Science (& Terrorism)

– electricity

-nuclear waste/power




(This is me nutting out the theme of the skaven, what makes them scary – a key fear vector is they are the fear of perverted science.)

In a circle: BE ASH. Not sure what that means. I think it means playing a Skaven is fun because you get to call everyone Primitive Screwheads, and build freaky robot hands and cars with medieval tech.


– smell and musk

– breeding = insane

– adaptable

– completely omnivorous

– resistance to disease

– CARRIERS (ala komodos, plus pestilence) – this was the old idea that komodos had no venom (now known to be false) but they ate such rotten food their breath was an infectious death sentence.

– sharp claws and teeth, strong jaw

– fur – waterproof, cold and warm

– senses – incredible

– speed and reflexes – phenomenal – good metabolism – always hungry

– can get anywhere – flexible

– strength low, courage low

All Chargen Is Random Chargen

If you want it to be. You can make it random. Which is heaps fun.

There are two basic objections to random chargen. The first is it removes total, absolute control over the character creation process. And that’s fair enough. If your fun arc depends on you having a perfect pre-conceived idea of who your character is in your head to begin with, and then creating a system to fit the image, birthing it Athena-like from your brain, then I get how leaving anything to chance would get in the way. The second object is that it produces characters that are unplayable and unfun. Generally, this objection comes from the fact that when people hear “random chargen” they think of D&D’s random chargen where the randomness causes the power level to be random, so some players end up a bit ahead of others. That can be unfun, but of course random chargen doesn’t have to do that. Random chargen can be perfectly balanced, and indeed, you can use point-buy systems to make sure your random chargen is balanced.

The last part is the bit we only realised recently because we are Slow Of Mind. G and I adore random chargen, we love sitting down and rolling on tables and seeing whole new universes appear out of nowhere, but only so many games have random chargen – or so we thought. Last night we came to our senses. We got out Savage Worlds and made Novice level characters using a totally random system. Every time it came to spending a point, we would roll randomly to find out where to spend it. Suddenly, point-buy became random, and as usual, it was glorious.

For example, you have five attributes, and five points to spend. Roll 1d5 five times, once for each point, to see where it goes. Granted, it becomes fairly ridiculous when you do it for equipment buying but otherwise it worked surprisingly well for something as simple and rules-light as SW. Without any cheating at all, they are highly playable and mostly make sense!

Below are the characters we created but I’m really blogging this so others can use the idea. I wouldn’t want this awesomeness not to be used around the world just because other people think point-buy games can’t be random, like we did.


Race: Mantis-Man

Agility: d6  Smarts: d6 Spirit: d4 Strength: d8 Vigor: d8 (Parry 4 Toughness 8)

Fighting d4, Area Knowledge (The Swamplands) d4, Shooting d6, Healing d4, Investigation d6, Persuasion d4, Swimming d6, Boating d6, Driving d4, Tracking d4, Streetwise d4

Edges: Carapace (2 points Natural Armour), Mantis Leaping (x4 normal distance), Arcane Background (Miracles)

Hindrances: Outsider, Curious, Pacifist (Minor), Doubting Thomas

Miracles: Detect/Conceal Arcana, Boost/Lower Trait. 10 Powers points.

He’s basically a scout/indian agent type – lots of outdoors skills plus low-level faith magic. I pointed out that it was weird that I had no Faith skill, necessary to use the Miracles power, so maybe I could use a substitute. Mr G brilliantly suggested I use Boating or Swimming, and together we decided that I was less a mantis and more a Jesus Bug, and that my religion was based around the philosophy of spiritual surface tension. Just like the lake, the universe is full of fluid, and we must walk softly  on it. Those who are heavy with evil or sin, or drive their weight harshly against the surface, soon plunge beneath and find nothing but death. Alas, their descent causes waves which can cause even good, softwalkers to stumble, so those of the faith must help others stand, and keep the surface smooth and taut. Such an incredible idea! We wondered why I was also a Doubting Thomas (no belief in the supernatural) but we had two options there – either he just sees supernatural things as some lies of the devil, or he is so into his beliefs and his natural environment he doubts civilisation exists.

If I was going to actually play him, I’d get rid of maybe Persuasion and Streetwise to get a few more dots in other skills and maybe swap Spirit and Smarts, but otherwise, he is ready to go! I want to play him and am sad I can’t….

G’s char was:

Race: Dwarf

Agility: d6 Smarts d4 Spirit d6 Strength d6 Vigor d6 (Parry 2, Toughness 5)

Climbing d4 Knowledge (Journalism) d4, Taunt d6, Persuasion d8, Riding d4, Shooting d4, Guts d4, Boating d4, Gambling d4, Investigation d4

Edges: Low-Light Vision, Tough

Hindrances: Slow, Young, Quirk, Vow (Minor)

With the ability to climb, taunt and persuade added to Journalism, we knew instantly that this character was a paparazzo, who would get the shots of the celebrities no matter what. (We hadn’t specified any setting, SW doesn’t do that) So we made his Quirk “Never Without A Camera” and his Vow “Never To Give Up On A Story/Photo”.  The Lowlight vision would come in handy in the darkroom (or could, in fact, just his night-scope fitted camera!). We discussed briefly which fantasy settings would have paparazzi or similar, and how they might be translated to worlds without press or photography. A gossip paparazzo is not unlike a bard, after all….

Two awesome characters, a bundle of great ideas, all from a system that – on the surface – doesn’t appear to be random. Today’s lesson is: DON’T LET THAT STOP YOU.

Why I’m Really Excited About The Cortex Hacker’s Guide (And You Should Be Too)

In case you missed it, the Kickstarter for the new Cortex Hacker’s Guide went live 48 hours ago. At time of writing this, they’d already got $10K pledged which is a fanatastic start for what might seem to be a fairly niche product. It’s a great kickstarter with heaps of levels to pledge at, and some great stretch goals. I’m really excited to be a part of it, not least because it’s my first official kickstarter. My own projects have so far used IndieGoGo and haven’t had a cool video to go with them. MWP’s video is great and I got a little shiver of excitement when Dave Chalker listed my contribution – mutant animals – as one of the sections.

It’s also fantastic to see this product come out, after nearly two years of waiting. Marvel Heroic Roleplay sort of got in the way, because hey, Marvel is a 200-pound gorilla of a licence (and one hell of a game). It’s always good when something you’re proud of finally gets to come out (assuming we get the next five grand). It’s also great how MWP have designed this particular KS. Us writers have all been paid our base rate, but anything the company makes beyond costs goes into paying us more. MWP already pays above average for a gaming company, because they are classy, professional people who are joy to work with, but passing on the return to writers takes that to a whole new level. One of the biggest problems with the RPG industry is the market won’t bear price rates that pay authors a fair rate for their work. Until, of course, crowdsourcing came along, allowing consumers to send money directly to those authors. Hopefully, more companies will follow MWP’s lead. We want that because good writers deserve good money, and they go elsewhere if they don’t get it. Letting them make more money on products keeps good designers writing good material for the games you love.

If that alone doesn’t convince you to back this project, let’s talk about the content.

You might not know what a Cortex is. Cortex was originally designed by Lester Smith and others for the first product from MWP, the long-forgotten Sovereign Stone fantasy RPG, then hammered into a full generic system by Jamie Chambers, after which it was used in such games as Serenity, Supernatural and Battlestar Galactica (all great games, btw). I’ve been a fan since the beginning of Cortex’s goals: it’s got a central rigidity like its design-cousin Savage Worlds, but, like Unisystem, is simpler and cleaner because it wasn’t designed to also support miniatures. As someone who finds most generic systems (eg GURPS, ORE, FATE) generally far too heavy, Cortex is right in the sweet spot for me.

Then something really awesome happened. Cam Banks, Josh Roby and Rob Donoghue (and others) came onto work for MWP and produced Smallville and Leverage. Both games started with the very “core” or Cortex, which is roll one die, rated from d4 to d12, for one “axis” (originally your attribute) and one die for a second axis (originally your skill) and add them, plus roll extra dice if you have them, but still just add the two highest. Both games then transformed that central idea by adding some very modern and indie approaches. In Smallville, they replaced the two axes entirely, replacing stat+skill with Emotion + Relationship, to build a completely different mindset. In Leverage, they got rid of hitpoint ideas and replaced it entirely with FATE-like Aspects and some other great ideas. These new interpretations were, as a whole, nicknamed Cortex Plus (or C+).

This wasn’t just great design, it was great modular design.  There are at least two key aspects to game design – having numbers that work and make sense, and dressing the numbers up so they communicate the right information while making sense. So far, few games have really looked at breaking those two things down separately. I can only think of FUDGE/FATE as the exception. I’m good at dressing up the numbers but not always good at building the basics, so I was intrigued (not to mention incredibly impressed with both Smallville and Leverage as RPGs as a whole). The first thing I did after reviewing these two excellent games was email Cam Banks and demand to know when Cortex Plus was going OGL. He didn’t have an answer – yet. Instead, he got back in touch about the Hacker’s Guide.

The designers were well aware that with Cortex Plus, the genie was out of the bottle and there were suddenly a lot more you could do with the system, and that the two incarnations were not just great games but great ideas that inspired more tinkering. That rather than split them up into Cortex Plus Drama and Cortex Plus Action, the two could be cross-linked and combined and broken down and rebuilt, and that was in fact more interesting than taking a core system and hammering out a few appropriate Merits and Flaws for your favourite TV show. However good Serenity and Supernatural were, they could be made better by bending things around more, and applying these new ideas. I was already chafing at the bit to do this; I was not surprised to find I was not alone. One such interaction of the two came out soon after, as Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and very nice it is too.

But putting out a whole new game was an expensive idea. Instead, the idea was to bring all these ideas together in one place, in a shorter form. The Hacker’s Guide, on the surface, looks like a shotgun-blast sourcebook, adding new traits and merits to the Smallville and Leverage systems so you can play them in other settings. But it’s a lot more than that. We crossed the streams and relinked the wires, and in the process, teach you how to do that yourself. Some of that teaching is explicit and direct, some of it is implied by seeing our end results. Cortex is one of the most interesting systems around right now, and some incredible stuff has been done with it already, and we’re taking that even further. That’s exciting as hell and something I’m really proud to be a part of.

I knew the moment Cam asked what I wanted to do. My first RPG, the thing that made me love this hobby, was Erick Wujcik’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG. Nothing else I’ve ever seen has ever got right the part I loved so much about that game, which was being able to play almost any animal imaginable. Finding a way to do that – and keep the simplicity which is so important to Cortex – was a huge game design challenge, and I’m really proud of how it came out. It’s not TMNT, of course, (no use of copyright material should be implied!!) but inspired by that RPG and how it inspired me. TMNT holds a special place in my life, and Erick was a hero, and later, a mentor and a personal friend, so this is also my way of giving something back. That’s my personal connection; for you, the point is that if you liked TMNT, my response to it is here, and it a more passionate and dedicated response to that game and its goals you will not find anywhere else in the hobby.

So if you are interested in RPG design, both indie and trad, and where the two meet, if you’re interested in how to take a core idea and expand it and develop it across settings and genres, so as to learn how to do that yourself, whatever your core system of choice, then you should be excited about the Hacker’s Guide. And if you ever liked the TMNT rpg and really feel a need to play any reptile, bird or mammal you can name, then you should be very excited about my contribution. So go out and back it already. If only because I need the cash.

Fragments of Old Game Design

Was cleaning up some old notes and found an outline to an old game idea I had about ten years ago. The idea was a game based on trick taking, but with the twist that you could add more cards than just one to each hand – but of course then you’d have nothing to play at the end of the round if others still had cards. Like a weird combination of cribbage and whist. Never really got the mechanics working but I decided the setting would be a bunch of mad Scottish clans doing Gaelic Wrestling or something. And the one thing I really like doing in game design is coming up with flavour. So what I did back then was sit down and come up with four clans and their 12 members each. (I chose those numbers so I could play test the game with an ordinary pack of cards, see.) Anyway, I still have the names, so here they are for your enjoyment, or possible window in game design.

Clan Tankerus

Kilt Bill

Gundam McRoss

Savage McTavish

Mel, The Woad Warrior

Connor McWickening

Connor Seanery

Biaoughie McSlayer

Dirty MacGonagal

Di Haird

Vinn Dalziel

William Warbles

Siobhan Siobhoff


Clan Derstine

Ewan McHobeewan

“Doc” Mactardis

Laddie McBeth

Patrick Fitzinwell

Conner Commover

Ewan Mee

Haggis Itwitchoo

Fluyed Macanix

Apple McIffon

Meghan Mogg

Dinah Fashe

Hairy Nobb


Clan Samwych

Brenda Fender

Duncan Dellishers

Ronnie McDonald

Steamy William

Enormous Richard

Bloody Annoying Mary

Moira Lesse

Livia Withongions

Ozzie the Bruce

Haddie Biglunshe

“Whiskey” O’Goughgough

Ann O’Therun

 Clan Tasstick

Len And MacCartnee

Glen Orglender

Ben Toomie

James Tiekirk

Tickel M’Sporran

Skyclad Sally

Tam O’Shantern

Rob Roy Rogers

Bess Tiensho

Old Ock Waintens

Katie Lang

Johnie Coomlaitly

Functionalism in Design

That is to say, function as the guide to design choices. I remember having a lightbulb turn on in my head when Paranoia’s GM section listed “things players do in the game” – Shoot Things, Complain, Lie, Blow Things Up, etc, and what to do about them. It’s also nice when we take those things and make them the actual mechanics or the basis of the mechanics.  It actually helps you run the game when you can see things like that.

For example, I liked the way Dread (which is now Scorn) first edition had three classes – one based on fighting, one on using magic and one on investigating, thus summing up the three main activities of the game. It was also nice when back in 1980 Call of Cthulhu wrote skills in the sense of how to use them: it wasn’t “Search” but “Spot Hidden”. That tells the GM to hide things, and – more importantly – that there are things hidden from the Players. Paranoia and Ghostbusters also had great skills like Lug Heavy Thing and Fall Through Testtube Racks (for scientists in horror films). I also have a soft spot for what they call effect-based superpower design systems because they also focus on what powers do, which is not only a great way to think about things from a different angle (narra-topologically, Wolverine’s claws do the same thing as Colossus’ fists) it also helps identify core game activities.  Wild Talents breaks powers down into Attack, Defend and Useful (and “Duds” not worth points); Smallville breaks superpowers into: Attack, Defend, Move, Sense, Control and Enhance, which I find quite lovely. Dr Who wires core activities into its initiative order: talkers go first, then runners, then fighters. Because that’s how it goes in the show – not only are those things the most common reactions/actions in the show, but the show always privileges them IN THAT SPECIFIC ORDER. Gorgeous mechanics.

Robin Laws has always been big on identifying core activities in various games and that’s what caught my attention in his new Hillfolk: It might be just because of the simplification of the bronze-age setting but his list of abilities are: Enduring, Fighting, Knowing, Making, Moving, Talking, Sneaking.  You can add names to them to customise them but at their core they cover pretty much everything that happens in an RPG. Although I find it interesting he’s split Moving and Sneaking; they COULD be separate but in another sense they are both about the same thing. Then again, Sneaking is usually also a kind of Knowing as well…but that’s part of the fun. It’s never going to be a perfect classification but thinking about it is a good place to start.

Coincidentally, the stat list I was just making was very similar, without seeing Mr Laws’ work. I had Knowing, Doing, Talking and Enduring. But I also want to use it to do more than that, maybe use it to reflect character from a descriptive point of view, so I might end up shifting it. Not sure yet, but something that points out what the player cares about, or perhaps a combination of the two, such as how they get what they care about. So something like

I present myself as….

But I strive for…

I seek it by….

I survive by…


Anyhoo. Enough of my game. The point is, even if you like Strength and Intelligence, what are they for? And have you told your readers? Could you change the language without removing the sim nature? Could be “Force My Might Upon the World”? Verbs, we were told in school, are DOING words. If you want a mechanic to be used, maybe you should talk about it in that sense. Put the verbs into your mechanics, and take out the nouns.


Genre Eats Design

The more I explore MMOs and video games in general, the more I’m struck by how many huge decisions are determined by genre.

Most significantly: most superhero stories actually start in the 2nd act. Don’t get me wrong origin stories are there but a lot of superhero films do it in flashback. The superhero first act is written: hero has traumatic experience that changes him fundamentally, hero decides to use outcome to fight crime, second act begins. The thing I love about CoH is the first act happens in chargen, and the game starts with the 2nd act. The moment chargen is done, you are out there, busting heads and fighting crime as a fully-fledged, back-story complete hero. Partly by game design, partly by genre assumptions. Superheroes don’t need to level, because that’s not part of their genre (much).

Fantasy, in games and literature, has been hoist on the petard of character arc and the Hero’s Journey. It starts with a boy in a village being sent on a quest. This means most fantasy games begin with an old man telling you a story. A cut scene of a bad guy giving you motivation. Even pulp classics like Conan were given backstories in the films. I get it for stories; it makes a familiar arc, but games don’t work that way. We need a backstory for killing shit the same way we need a backstory for Pacman eating white balls. He is the white ball eater. That’s his thing. He is the best at what he does and what he does is EAT WHITE BALLS AND KILL GHOSTS. And he’s all out of white balls.

(This doesn’t have to be dull. Compare the opening scene of Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2. 1 is a briefing about a promotion. 2 is HOLY SHIT THE SHIP IS ON FIRE GET A GUN AND FIGHT TO LIVE.)

In roleplaying, kickers are one way to jump into the action – giving every character SOMETHING HE NEEDS TO DEAL WITH the moment the game starts, but you can achieve the same effect by actually hard-wiring the first act into chargen, and/or the mission into the game’s assumptions. Warhammer, for example, lets you roll the “career you had before you decided to become a psycho for hire”. The career roll provides you with backstory and stats in one fell swoop. This isn’t quite the same as just have a lifepath, of course – because the lifepath is often random and isn’t about an actual first act, but a biography. Those things are different. A first act ends with “and then we fight crime”. And the games I tend to least enjoy are ones where the question arises of “what do we DO?” – because they don’t have a fight crime.

Nobody ever asks what Batman does. Patrol. One of – if not THE – first superhero RPG, Superhero 44, had tables to roll your Patrolling on, kind of like Random Monster Encounters. I think maybe Marvel might have had something similar (old Marvel I mean)? Seems these days we forget that in our RPGs – to their detriment. Mutants and Masterminds is a great system for making a superhero – but it doesn’t encode patrolling into the text ANYWHERE. And yet its default assumptions are comic-book heroes. It’s not like Aberrant where you could make a campaign about being celebrities singers or wrestlers. So there’s no excuse.

I’ll pause here while 99% of gamers have a rant about the bit in the Aberrant Player’s Guide. If you don’t know what I mean, you don’t want to know.

And indeed, a lot of games aren’t about fighting crime. And that’s okay. I just won’t be playing them. I like games like Leverage and Cthulhu instead, where the entire game is written around eating white balls, and there is literally nothing else the system supports. That doesn’t mean it has to be indie or limited, like just about five guys fighting one witch (Mountain Witch) or dealing with one pirate ship (Poison’d); it just means I like certain genres with strong vectors – heists, mysteries, police procedurals. And I like RPGs that learn from those things.

But be careful you don’t learn too much! To bring us full circle, just because fantasy begins with the first act in literature is no reason it should in all games. Likewise, it could be fun to play a Star Wars game that runs on totally different narrative rules to the movies, and an RPG can support that. Some of the best RPGs have that as their virtue – taking a fenced-in narrative world and asking “what happens if we wander around it like it is real?”. And some of the best stories ever come from telling old narratives in new settings or vice versa.

Best example is of course Blade Runner: a classic noir in an SF setting. And I like the title, because it has a clear vector. What does he do? He runs blades. Well, he hunts androids. He’s Buffy the Android Hunter, and it’s RIGHT IN THE TITLE.  We don’t need to know how he became an android hunter.

Skip the first act: it’s not just a good idea for stories, it’s vital for games. And the day fantasy computer games realise this is the day I will actually play them.

Roleplaying and The Righteous Mind

For those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that besides gaming, the topic of this blog, I’m a political animal. That is of course, why The MESSAGE is coming into existence. But the feedback can, of course, go the other way. What we learn in politics – in anything – is always good fodder for games. GMs and game designers alike should never forget that the whole world is our source book, and everything is a potential mechanic.

In 2008, psychologist Jonathan Haidt did a series of studies to try and identify the moral framework of the human mind. That is, to identify ingrained ethical principles we acquire either genetically at birth or are imprinted with in our very early childhood, and are found universally across all cultures and societies. He reports on these in his book, The Righteous Mind, and summarizes his conclusions in this TED talk. Haidt’s focus is on the growing differences – the seemingly intractable gulf between the left/liberal and right/conservative voices in America, and how these might arise and be analysed from the basis of our universal moral framework.

His research identified five key principles of morality we acquire at a genetic level.  These are:

  • Fairness. A very familiar one. Every child knows when someone gets more than them, and also that the duck at the back hasn’t had any bread crumbs yet.
  • Care. Those who are weaker and smaller need to be cared for and defended by those who are stronger.
  • Purity. There are things which are pure and things which are impure, there are things which are fundamentally right and wrong, and the wrong has a taint to it that is powerful and dangerous.
  • Authority. There are powers or principalities or investitures which deserve respect because they have widsom and keep us safe.
  • Loyalty. The tribe is important, and we should cleave towards it.

What’s important about the list is that although we all have our sense of these moral lines, we value each of them differently, and we use each of them differently. Specifically, Haidt found that those who identify as strongly Liberal, put a lot of value on Fairness and Care, and very little value on Purity and Authority. Whereas those who identify as Conservative do the opposite, and this explains the great gulf mentioned: liberal arguments typically focus on asking conservatives to value things they do not, and to ignore things they value greatly. The liberal knows only that the man was starving (fairness, care), the conservative only that he stole the loaf of bread (authority, purity), and never the twain shall meet.

So what does it all have to do with gaming? I’m sure you’re well ahead of me on this one: this is absolutely perfect for a morality system in an RPG (or even a simulation board game). You can pretty easily see some parallels already in the D&D moral poles – Law and Chaos being Authority/Loyalty, and Good and Evil being Care and Purity. There’s also something like Exalted’s Four Solar Virtues – Compassion (Care), Temperance (Purity), Conviction (Loyalty/Authority), Valor (bit of a mix).  The poles I used in my old Firefly RPG were similar too – I had Self vs Others and Code  vs Chaos, but also some social dividers because of the nature of the setting – I had Core and Border as well.

The point is not so much to use the original five, although you certainly can, but by seeing those five and the moral rules of your RPG of choice (or of design), get a sense of how the world’s morality curve differs from our own. It is not uncommon for example, in D&D, to use a very medieval principle where, as I said, Care and Purity are strongly linked, philosophically,  symbolically and temporally. That tells you a lot about how the world is perceived, and when these moral views have absolutely real magical correspondences, how the world actually works.  The question then is, what would a world look like if that wasn’t true? If Purity was associated with a negation of Care? Or if Goodness (Fairness and Care, say) were strongly associated with a lack of Purity, or a lack of Authority? Indeed, D&Ds monks arise from linking Purity (of Body as it were) with a lack of interest in Care (Monks cannot be Good or Evil).

It doesn’t just stop at religious philosophy of course. You can flick these switches to design entire cultures, races and alien creatures. There are, it is believed, strong evolutionary reasons for us to have the Big Five encoded so deeply. As social creatures, we need Fairness to maintain our numbers. Care keeps us alive in a different way to herd animals, who are usually better at leaving the weak to die, because as  tool users, we know strength is not the only virtue. Purity tells us not to eat the yellow snow or the smelly corpse, and Authority tells us that the elders know what they mean when they teach us those things. And Loyalty is vital for a species who can maintain social groups of enormous size that transcend any family or biological links.

But change those conditions and you change the moral landscape. If a species gave birth like turtles, for example – leaving their young alone to hatch and reach the sea on purely their own strength – they would probably have no use at all for Authority. Or would see all Authority coming only from the self, and centred around survival. They might despise Fairness and have no notion of Care, but have a great sense of Loyalty to those who shared their struggle and lived. On the other hand, in a herd species, there could be Loyalty above all, even without a sense of Authority (something we have little experience with – as humans we are more used to following individuals, although we certainly know mob mentality). Voracious species that need to eat everything and must risk constant experimentation to find edible food might have no concept of purity. So they won’t be freaked out by your gay elf, because amongst the locustmen, everything is permitted – except, of course, going against Fairness. The swarm eats as one or dies as one. But the delicate butterflykin whose fragile biology can be killed by so many things, have a complex series of rituals and rites they will follow unto death…but care nothing for Fairness or Care. Each Pappilorn performs the rites correctly, or he dies and is not wept for.

Five dials, two or three positions each (value, despise, don’t care) is potentially 243 different societies or races to create, explore and compare. Go and move some sliders around, and see what happens. And never forget: the world is your sourcebook. Use it.

The Genius

The greatest genius of the Buffy RPG was taking something gamers always do – in that case, make pop culture references and undercut dramatic moments – and make them both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.


The greatest genius of Smallville is taking something gamers always do – in this case, constantly get into pissing contests with each other over the smallest things and fail to move the plot forward as a result – and make it both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.


I may have to make a game about drinking Mountain Dew…