Station Keepers Update

I ran a little tiny kickstarter to make a game in a month. The kickstarter funded and the game Station Keepers was made. It’s a dungeon crawl on a freaky space station.

It has an odd mechanic to it in that you pay to succeed in passing through elements of the station. Only it’s way to specific in some ways on how that happens and not specific enough in others. I got kind good at running it even but it left a machine oil taste in my mouth.

I was trying really hard to keep the moving parts of the machine to an absolute minimum. What that ended up doing was severely limiting what the players could actually do. That’s what really needs to be fixed and I have a vague idea of what needs to happen to open up player choice.

I need to find some way to let the player’s exploration effect the game. The trick is that the station is spontaneously generated so it’s not like a GM is sitting there, trying to figure out how all this works. It’s possible that I could do a series of random tables and prompts for secrets in each room but there’s already a lot of tables to go through. There’s also an element of backstabbing the other characters and I have the idea that a player could offer a “bounty” by describing a secret in the room that their character discovers and that exempts them from some of the difficulty but locks in the difficulty for the other characters. Something like a -5 to the difficulty for your character when you describe a danger and you explain how you avoid it but you don’t share that detail with the others.

The other thing that needed to get fixed was what the consequence of failure means. You bid to try and overcome challenges, paying for your bid with bad things that happen to you. and after a few tries, if you don’t bid high enough, you fail. Only failure was kind of meh.

So my new thought is to ask three times what the player will give and then, if they don’t succeed, the GM gets to tell them what is taken from them. There should be rules for how much can be taken and I have the idea should be things that will actually impact the character and the player. Things like a worsening plague that’s infecting them, losing the ability to speak, losing a limb, losing a sense. Major effects. I think a list to roll or choose from would fit with the existing game well.

It’s been a while since I worked on this project and maybe it’s overdue for a revamp.

Narrative Lego

Ken Levine gives an interesting talk about building video games with modular narrative. There are a number of games made by Ambrosia software that already did what he’s talking about (see the Escape Velocity series) but possibly in a less chaotic way. What I do find interesting is some of the terms that he uses because language is one way to build structure.

Since I mainly use the table top format for games, a lot of what is talked about here is both too complex and not sophisticated enough for those needs. What I do find useful is his structure of “Stars” and “Passions”.

Game Masters have been putting Stars in their games for a long time. These are NPCs that can have a material effect on the players. Specifically, they’re ones the players can form one to one relationships with. None of that is functionally new. Giving the process a name is useful though, because now I can tell a new GM “Put a few Stars in each setting.”

There are tons of RPGs that effectively have “Stars” in them and they build relationship trees for them etc. The simple term with a definition is enough to make this useful.

Passions, by itself are also nothing new. Again, it’s the definition of what a passion is that is interesting. Passions are motivations the Star has that is tied to what the player will do. Motivation is old hat for RPGs so it’s not that big a deal but the narrowing of what motivations are relevant that makes the term interesting. I don’t really like the term “Passions” but it serves a purpose well enough.

I think one way to use this in a tabletop setting is, instead of status bars and winning points on those bars, the players get labeled different things by performing distinct actions that relate to the Passions. Labels like “trustworthy” or “helpful” can be written below the Star’s stat sheet and tracked.

That’s all for now, I just thought there were some useful distinctions made.


I’d like to make things that help friends communicate with each other who they truly are. There are plenty of barriers to authentic communication. Trying to break down those barriers so you can earn trust is hard work. I believe those barriers can be circumvented when we “play” and that’s what I want to use to help people express themselves to their friends.

Play What You Know

Rules mastery is great but the concept makes games intimidating to new players. When I started playing RPGs, we didn’t know a lot but we played anyway. We got a lot wrong but we still had fun. I’m considering including something like the following in my games.

So if you can have fun not using the rules, do you need them? Rules can help you tell a story, they’re a partner in the creative process that makes for a level playing field. Ignoring rules can make things too easy, too hard or maybe make things that should be possible impossible. They change the story being told.

But if you leave them out, as long as you have a way of handling conflicts between players you can form a narrative together. The most common conflict to resolve is establishing a cost for success. Usually that cost is some kind of skill check.

Aim for play that follows the rules as you understand them. There will be times when you realize you don’t know how something is supposed to work. Usually this results in the facilitator frantically reading through the book trying to find a relevant rule. That may be necessary if the condition is likely to come up frequently.

If It’s something that’s only going to come up once a session, consider ruling in favor of the players this time and make a note to study the problem later in between sessions. Automatically favoring the players can serve as a signal that no rule is being used and the players should not always expect that result. There is a problem with establishing the precedence of a house rule. It will stick in the players minds and it will be hard for them to remember it was a stop gap.

There is a long history of house rules in RPGs. They became an important part of play because rules were often poorly written and players were left to fill in the gaps.

Today there’s more page count being dedicated to better descriptions and a greater knowledge of what works for players. House rules are best when a rule gives the players an experience they don’t want or they don’t cover a subject the players are interested in exploring.

As you learn, update your play to match the rules as written. This way you’ll get the experience that was intended.

Player Conflicts

there are really only three conflicts that come up in RPGs. Not in story, I mean between players. Usually the default mechanism for resolution is GM fiat or group consensus. I have some thoughts on that but for now, see if you can come up with a type of disagreement that can arise during play (that is about the play) that can’t be covered by these three.

Not for free

Players want the event to happen but it should require a test of skill or pay a cost.

Tone Harmonize

Something introduced is not in the perceived tone of the story for one or more players. Giving all players influence over tone can cause the tone to shift over time.

Problem Causing

A narrative causes discord with established story. Normally this is seen as a failure in the story. Can the discordant elemements become acceptable in specific circumstances?

Working On Station Keepers

Hey, I can finally say I’ve run a successful Kickstarter! Station Keepers is a go and I’m furiously working on it. The first phase of getting a functional structure is in place and now I’m working on infusing it with some more meaning. Not that I’m trying to shoehorn meaning into it, but each design speaks in it’s own voice. Station Keepers has a specific voice and I’m trying to find it. Maybe I have my metaphor, but I’ll have to see if I can make it work.

Infinite Win

I’ve been asked “How do you win” an RPG a number of times. This is closely adjacent to “Why play an RPG”, A question I’ve thought a lot about. I’m stealing from the book Finite and Infinite games for this description.

How do you win?
An RPG can be played in two different ways.

You can play a finite game with one win condition in mind. A way to reach the end of a story and everything hinges on that goal. It is some condition agreed to by everyone at the table but often suggested by the GM.

Or you can play an indefinite game, where much like life, there are many finite games along the way. Here, you win as long as there’s more ground that the players want to explore.

There is a big difference in tone in each option. Finite games are powerful, focused and serious. They are played within boundaries, time matters, they are played to be won. It’s not fair for the goalposts to move in a finite game. Players should not be surprised in that way. The conditions of play are controlled.

Indefinate games are dramatic, playful, exploratory, they’re about curiosity. The game’s boundaries will shift and even break, the reason to play is to be surprised by the results of play.

The Player’s Character

In Robert McKee’s book – STORY he says “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”

He’s talking about character arcs, but the thing that struck me about the quote is this is exactly why I love to GM. Only I’m not so much interested in the character arcs, I’m more interested in learning how the player will guide the character. It’s almost like a laboratory to find the essential core of the players.

That’s why I think I’m less interested in constructing a “Story” and more interested in how the player interprets their character. A good story helps to do that, but arriving at the story isn’t my end goal. It’s to know that essential element of the player’s personality, to see who they are inside, revealed by that pressure.

It’s really only then I feel like I know someone. So while I like exploring fantastic worlds and finding out how they work, those fantastic worlds allow me to explore the people I’m playing with in ways I can’t in everyday life.