Player Narration

The Energy System allows the players to narrate or better yet interpret, what the results of their rolls are. Some players have a bit of trouble with that and understandably so, since in most games they are passive when it comes to narration.

Because of this, I’d like to give the players some simple processes that would help them think through narration (or interpretation).

GMs do narration all the time, they’re used to it. Fill a table with players that have been GMs and I think there would be no problem. Some players think they could never GM. It seems magical to them how this person comes up with all this stuff.

To make the choices simpler I thought about introducing a list of ideas to develop the players narration but it ended up being either too vague to be useful or way too long and overwhelming.

So I need a different strategy. It needs to be concrete as possible for the players to easily absorb the advice.

I actually have a goal for player narration in the Energy System and that is for the narration to explain the dice roll as much as possible. That, I think, is key to this effort.

Of primary importance are dice depletions in this system and so I think that should be the focus of the players “interpreting” their rolls. Encouraging the players to say how each die depletes and why would be a great step forward.

In their early stages, with a player struggling to develop their narration skills, the GM can readily help out at this point. I’m thinking of something akin to Archipelago’s ritual phrases are in order. They don’t have to be as robust, they just have to be functional for the prompting we want to do. If there are phrases that are standardized, they’re less surprising when said, they are much more likely to be supportive than unintentionally demeaning and are probably easier for the GM to recall and use. This also conditions the players to expect GM intervention in their narration which is occasionally needed if the player is narrating something that contradicts known facts (even if it’s only the GM that knows them at the moment).

As the player gets more fluid in their narration, they will need less and less prompting. I can imagine a rules lawyer player using their narration as a weapon to suss out secrets from the GM, but that’s a problem for a different day.

Here are some prompts to help the players interpret the events connected to their rolls.

What made it go that way? – Prompting the player to start off a description.

What mistakes were made? – When the player hasn’t described a depletion.

Keep going – When you want the player to add more narration either because they’re doing well or they’ve stopped before fully explaining the roll.

Think of other ways  – When the player uses the same description again.

That can’t be – When the player contradicts facts that they may or may not be aware of.

I’m not sure if these are the best phrases to use, I’ll try using them in our next session and see how it goes.

Relationships in the Energy System

I realized today that relationships in the ES should be their own agent. This gives a relationship actual mechanical power in the game. It could be rolled against by any person in the relationship and like any other agent, it can be depleted.

This makes things really interesting because you can use the relationship to influence the people in the relationship, but using it too much (abusing it) can make it fall apart.

It could also be used to explain what happens if an NPC has their energy depleted via social attacks. They would essentially be “reborn” as a relationship to the player character.

The GM could bestow a relationship agent to a character if they think the situation warrants, the players could also use an advancement phase to build their own.

There’s a bunch of different types of relationships that would be interesting. Love interests could be used to fight aggressive actions. If you had a Hate relationship, it could help with tests of endurance when going after your enemy.

You could even model a Mentor relationship with this because the mentor can help with training rolls but when the relationship depletes the Mentor has taught all they can, or all they’re willing to teach.

I’m debating if I should formalize this in Jump Temp. On the one hand, it really should be a function in any game, but I’m not really sure if it fits in the Jump Temp story.

Jump Temp Book

I got my first hard copy of Jump Temp! Woooo!

Getting a hard copy always helps with figuring out what the finished product should look like. For example, some of my image placements need to be moved to the other side of the page so they’re not in the crease of the book. At least one picture needs to be moved to another page.

Another thing that becomes obvious is that since a color print is needed for the star maps and most of the art is black and white, there needs to be a lot more color on the pages from layout elements.

So far I haven’t run into typos yet, but it would be a rare thing to have caught them all by this stage.

Playtesting Jump Temp

Jump Temp is nearing completion. It’s illustrated and has a cover. Now I’m cleaning up typos and trying to clarify text. I originally thought to keep Jump Temp and Protector together but there’s been a lot more interest in Jump Temp from elevator pitches and the book is getting big all on it’s own (80 pages). The thing that pushed it forward while Protector languished is I found a style that I liked for the book. I haven’t figured that out for Protector yet. The art is kinda mis-mashed.

I’m putting the book out for playtesting and we’ll see what comes of it.

OSR?

I’ve been following around the OSR (Old School Renaissance or Revival depending on who you ask) community for a little bit now. At first, the movement in the RPG community seems like a rejection of anything modern and it is to some extent. It’s easy to be against things, what’s more interesting to me is what the OSR works toward. That’s why I liked Matt Finch’s booklet “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” it summarizes some reasons why people enjoy an OSR title in what he calls Four Zen Moments. He then explains four Taos for the Game Master.

Some of these Zen moments I like some I don’t, some I think are better achieved through different means. I’d like to approach them here and attempt to discuss them objectively from a design perspective.

Zen Moment 1: Rulings not Rules

I’m not going to rehash the whole text that Mr. Finch wrote, the booklet is free. Briefly though, the idea here is that the referee (or GM) uses the rules and the players use descriptions to interact with the referee. The referee is like a judge that must rule based only on a constitution and the arguments that are presented and possibly a few tests (that’s how it sounded to me anyway).

Observations
  • Players are totally at the mercy of the ref. A good ref can run an enjoyable game, a poor ref is maddening.
  • The mental load on the ref is shifted from memorization to making spot judgements. This is good if your ref is very imaginative and has a poor memory.
  • The mental load on the players is moved from memorization to imagining the environment they’re in. This benefits people with good spacial memory but hurts those who have trouble imagining a three dimensional space.
  • This approach is highly dependent on good communication skills in both directions. I think we’ll all agree that it’s always nice to have a good communicator but we don’t always get one.
  • When philosophies clash, the player will lose.
  • Players have no “legal” legs to stand on. When there is a rule, a player can point to it and show why they should be allowed to do something a ref says no to.[1]
  • I have personally seen a ref follow the example that Mr. Finch gives for the “Ninja Jump” in a modern game so he’s not wrong.

Zen Moment 2: Player Skill, not Character Abilities

This one seems a little less focused to me but I understand the grouping. The main idea is that you are your character’s mind. You’re able to do whatever you could with common knowledge in that situation. Usually that doesn’t include knowledge that would be situationally inappropriate like how to build an airplane in a medieval fantasy. However, if the player is clever with their use of knowledge, it’s ok for them to do things that would seem inappropriate for their character, like a big dumb barbarian that keeps coming up with brilliant plans.

It also includes the idea that the game doesn’t revolve around the PC’s stats. There are monsters that the players just can’t take on and it’s their job to be able to tell that.

This Zen moment is the most revealing that OSR is a specific flavor of RPG. Mr. Finch explains that OSR games are about taking an average person and building them into a hero.

Observations
  • Players that are good at something will always be good at that in game.
  • Players that are bad at something cannot effectively play characters that should be good at it.[2]
  • This type of play is better looked at through the lens that the character is inexperienced at first and as the player learns how the world works, the character is also. A game that uses more character abilities assumes the character has knowledge that they are bringing to the situation.[3]
  • Inexperience can be deadly.[4]
  • Clues that should be obvious and relevant might be missed because the ref didn’t offer and players didn’t ask for it.

Zen Moment 3: Heroic, not Superhero

I’m not sure where the Zen moment is here. This point is just framing the scope of the game. Players start out as average people and you try and build them into heroes. They never become untouchable or immortal, it’s just not in the scope of the game. Maybe the Zen is that this can be enjoyable?

Again, this is pointing to the OSR being a specific flavor of RPG. If you like that scale of progression, then you might like an OSR game. If you’re looking for something different, OSR might let you down.

Observations
  • Obviously superhero games might not fit well with OSR concepts but it could be done for low level superpowers.[5]
  • Spy games don’t really jibe with this moment.
  • One kind of experience (zero to hero) might not be what players want.[6]

Zen Moment 4: Forget Game Balance

This was partly covered in moment 2 but is elaborated on. The game doesn’t care what the character’s level or stats are, it’s the player’s job to figure out what they can and can’t fight through.

Mr. Finch also emphasizes moment 1 here, that the players have no right to depend on a rule book[1]. It may have been better to call this moment “You don’t have the right” because that’s what is repeated. It’s brought out that a ref never has the right to tell a player what their character does. More accurately, the ref can never make a choice for the player. In earlier examples given, the ref is repeatedly telling the players what their character does as a result of their choice and rolls.

Observations
  • Inexperience is deadly.[4]
  • Taken too far, the ref could build an adventure that is simply impossible for the PCs. This has to be tempered with the ref working to make an enjoyable game. The general difficulty of the game still needs to be controlled.[7]

Tao 1: The Way of the Ming Vase

Basically, find ways to have secondary effects happen in the game. Be imaginative with the player’s choices having consequences. Critical successes and critical failures are intrinsic to these consequences.

Observations
  • This is probably good advice for any RPG, although the mechanism for unintended consequences and secondary effects isn’t always explicitly stated.[8]
  • This is going to be difficult for a starting ref to always have novel unintended consequences. I’ve been GMing for twenty five years and it’d be hard to do this perfectly.

Tao 2: The Way of the Moose Head

This is a way of handling exploration that relies on the characters asking the right questions and knowing what to do with the answers.[9]

Observations
  • This is a matter of preference more than solid gaming advice.
  • Tired players are going to have a hard time asking the right questions.
  • Players are going  to miss out on a lot of details that you’ve prepared.[4]

Tao 3: Your Abstract Combat-Fu Must be Strong

This is the idea that it’s the GM’s job to fill in the results of combat creatively or quickly.

Observations
  • This Tao’s description relies heavily on critical successes and failures for permission to be creative.
  • This really should be part of any RPG, I know it’s not always but that’s just people getting lazy.
  • This is putting all the load of creativity load on the GM.
  • This could be a source of contention with the players since the GM is dictating what their character does as a result of their choice.[8]

Tao 4: Way of the Donner Party

This Tao is about resource management. The most useful part of this advice is that the GM should keep a tight grip on how much time has passed in order to handle depleting resources. The big takeaway is that OSR games are heavy in resource management[4] take a step back and own that and you’ll get the results the designers intended.

Observations
  • I’ll say it again, lose track of time and you lose track of resource use when doing it this way.
  • A lot of players actively try and game resource and time management (cheat), this puts a heavier load on the GM.
  • There are some tools that handle resource management without having to mentally track all the elements that could cause a party to be in trouble.
  • This is good practice in a lot of RPGs, not a lot of people do it though or even want to which says something.
  • Time management might get squishy when the characters are wandering around poking 10 ft poles at things. No rules no structure.[8]

In the end, OSR games are a type or RPG, they’re not my thing judging from the descriptions given. “Modern” games are often designed to avoid problems that players of old school games had at their tables. I don’t think playing an OSR game would result in table flipping in my current group but it would have when I was a teen.

I was hoping to find some essential core truths about RPGs or why the OSR has such a strong following. I don’t think I see a lot of universal tools here other than “be creative and tell a story” which is mostly the Story Games crowd’s thing. Certainly the OSR group gets there differently. I’ve always played without worrying about game balance. Story Games would have a hard time inducing that kind of experience so there’s lessons to be learned for sure. Neither group have a monopoly on RPG insights.

If anything, seeing that large numbers of people like this kind of experience confuses me. Either there are a lot of really good GMs out there, people are masochistic or they prefer GM control because it’s easer for them. RPGs largely rejected all controlling GMs in the 80’s and keep moving away from them. Then the OSR shows up and goes right back to it. Is the OSR made possible by the older, wiser, more experienced GMs out there? Is it possibly driven by them, their desire to play games like they did when they were young? Is it simple nostalgia? I know all the OSR adherents are screaming at your computers right now.

Games have to talk to your experience in life for them to be really enjoyed. In some ways I’ve experienced the ideas described and in others I’ve experienced the opposite making them difficult to try and enjoy. GM control can simplify play fun can turn into a game of Mother May I. It strongly depends on the GM, their experience level and even their mood. Thats why a lot here is mercurial. It can be good or it can get really bad.

There are some good concepts to be explored here though. I think they have their upsides and downsides. A lot of the ideas put a heavy load on the GM which could lead to burn out if a GM isn’t careful. Each trade off may be better or worse for specific players. Some will find the methods here liberating. Others will find them frustrating and limiting.

Continue reading “OSR?”

One Rule

It would be interesting to make an RPG out of only words, no math, no charts, just words. Maybe it would be simple and refreshing.

A game like that could easily become just as or even more complex than any normal RPG though. In order to build a world engine that only used descriptions, could end up taking up a huge amount of time to convey.

To circumvent that eventuality, it may be useful to give the engine a direction so that things stay simple. This is what I thought of.

One Rule

Every story worthy element has One Rule. The GM gives the world a rule. Players give their characters a rule. Important (special) equipment gets a rule. An important NPC or maybe a group of NPCs get a rule. Weather can get a rule. A maze can have a rule.

There are a few conditions that make things clearer.

No two elements can have the same rule. This is important so that two unstoppable forces don’t collide and annihilate everything.

A more specific rule supersedes a more general rule. If one player has a character that is “The greatest fighter in the world” and another has the rule that they are “The greatest swordsman in the world” as long as the fighting is being done with swords, the swordsman wins out.

That’s very Amber like in it’s certainty however. A character can always win in a specific contest, a randomizer could be employed, but that doesn’t seem interesting. I’ll have to play with the idea and see if it I can make something of it.

A Beginner’s RPG

RPGs are often designed for the expert player’s experience. An RPG game designer is likely to have had many experiences playing games and already has a concept of how the game “should” work. It would be great to see a board game designer who has no experience with RPGs be asked to make one. A game for beginners by a beginner that knows how to make a game, just not “our” game.

The reason I find that situation intriguing is that it would seem like it would produce a game that is much more beginner friendly. It would probably ignore ideas that an experienced RPG designer would think of as important. Like knocking out chunks of DNA and seeing what happens to an organism, we could learn immeasurable lessons about what it takes to make an RPG.

So what are things that you find in almost every RPG? Character sheets come to mind. What if you didn’t have them? How would you track who your character is and what they can do? Cards might be a way of keeping track of who your character is. Simple things like a special ability or equipment. Maybe if there were only a few attributes, you could simply remember what your character could do? Would a board game designer even use attributes?

I think it’s fairly obvious that a board game designer would not have a big beefy game book. If anything, they might make some kind of board for tracking game states. Things like hit points, would easily be managed by on a board with tokens. If you want a record of a game that’s interrupted, take a picture of the board.

Things like initiative might not even come to mind or if they did, might not show up like we’re used to. Either you take turns in the order you sit around the table, or it might be tracked on a board by how many rolls you’ve made in something like a racetrack.

Although most game makers would be familiar with the idea of experience points from things like video games, someone who was truly starting fresh would probably not come up with that idea. It’s more likely that if there was some kind of advancement, that you’d draw from a reward deck. As that deck depleted, the chances of advancement reduce because the player’s keep the advancement cards while the other rewards cycle in and out of the deck. This would also cap the total possible advancement so you don’t see overpowered characters. It would require a very large reward deck though.

Now, what about a “win” state? Most games have some kind of an end state that tells you that you’ve won. RPGs don’t do well with that because they’re supposed to be open ended. I’ve seen “arena world” RPGs that no one wants to play because there’s not enough of a story to them. They have a clear goal and a clear win state, but it’s not interesting. What if each player got a card that said what their “win” state was? Maybe the character is retired after that? Maybe the “win” is that you get to take one of the reward cards?

What about for the GM? Maybe the game board would track enemies in very simple terms. Maybe the game board also acts as a kind of random encounter table for generating games on the fly.

The real question is story, and how is it treated? I think there needs to be a specific world for the players to act in. A universal game engine is not beginner friendly because it’s not specific enough for the GM or even the players. It has to be open enough so that each player can pursue their own interests, but the main way to get what you want is usually via one path (traditionally this is slaying monsters). This also has to be communicated quickly and simply.

I’d like to make a free version of this game. A game tracking piece of paper for 1 to 4 players (if you have more players, print off another page). A printable deck of cards (printable decks are not my favorite, but it’s a workable solution). A small game book, under four pages describing how to play. A boxed version of this game would be a nice upgrade.

What Does The Energy System Do?

My two new RPGs both use my Energy System (ES), why am I using it and what is the system good for?

ES is designed to play a game that tells the story of characters exerting themselves. The core of the system is that each character (or really any entity) has a certain amount of energy to exert on the world. Traits say what the character is good at and makes the energy they spend more effective.

Why ES and not some other system?

ES handles a number of things organically that other systems need special rules for. It was developed with the question of “What might an RPG look like if they didn’t stem from war-games?” For example, there are no Hit Points, a staple of war games. The closest thing a character gets to hit points is their Energy Dice. There are no separate rules for combat or other skill challenges. They’re all handled the same way. This results in a game that handles any type of in game challenge using the same rules. The only special cases are more like examples of how to use the core rules in specific situations.

What is different about playing ES?

One main difference is the approach to storytelling. This is not a storytelling game as some RPGs have sold themselves. The game dictates what happens in mechanical terms, then the player interprets the game result and tells the story from that. Players are free to tell exciting and impressive tales about their character, but are constrained to make the tales fit the game result. This is a very different experience that some love but others find alien.

Another big difference is in the pacing of the game. Often many dice are rolled at once for each turn. One of the original design criteria was that my players wanted to use a range of dice types so ES obliges them. The important thing to remember is that, rolling the dice is not telling about a single action, but is a stage of a challenge. A character in the ES doesn’t swing a sword, they enter a duel. They don’t dodge an attack, they engage in defensive maneuvers. If players try and explain their rolls in terms of single actions as most RPGs do, the story of what goes on in game will seem very short. If the explain the game results in broader efforts and tell the story of how those efforts went, the game is fuller and will feel properly paced.

At it’s core ES has two main elements to the rules, Agents and Traits. Player Characters are not referred to as an Agent, but are in fact special instances of an Agent. NPCs are Agents but so is equipment, vehicles, and even things like super powers. An agent is anything that has it’s own pool of energy dice. Traits make the dice the player will roll bigger, making the numbers larger and the results higher (on average). There are different kinds of Agents and Traits, but the whole system boils down to those two elements. In play, this sometimes takes players a little bit of getting used to, mostly to unlearn all the baggage that many games require.

ES simulates a large number of situations and interactions with it’s simple ruleset. For vehicles, fuel tracking is handled by their Energy Dice. Weapons ammunition are handled by their Energy Dice. A gun jamming is handled by the Energy Dice. Encumbrance is handled by Energy Dice. At the same time Energy Dice are how the characters get things done so they aren’t tracking several different values, it’s all managed the same way. Social conflict, survival situations and combat are all handled in the same manner.

Is the ES a universal system?

The ES is flexible, but it’s not universal. In each application, the ES needs adjustment to set the proper tone. In most cases, specific types of Agents are considered special to the setting and get special rules. Character creation also has to happen differently to handle different genres.

Balancing Function With Simplicity

I’m a simulationist. When I make a game, I want it to handle the situations that I throw at it and I want the whole thing to be elegant. The problem I have is, I’m always adding more situations that I want my games to work under.

For example, in the Energy System (the system that is powering Protector and Jump Temp) the function of things like vehicles is pretty simple. The problem I’ve been having is how many passengers a vehicle can carry. On the one hand, I could just say “use common sense.” A motorcycle can carry one or two people and a car can carry four or five and be done with it.

But then I wanted to throw a light airplane in the equipment list. How many people does it carry? One? Four? Twelve? How big is a “light” airplane?

That’s a bit of a minor issue, but not simulating things like passengers properly leads to weird issues. For example, a motorcycle is probably a little faster than a car, but the car can probably travel further. As things are, they kind of balance each other out and motorcycles cost about the same as a car, which is an odd result.

That kind of thing really bugs me. There are structures in place to handle this kind of problem, but the system handles everything in terms of challenges and I’m not sure what kind of challenge “passengers” are and if I want to spend time in game even handling that.

I could write it off and say “Adding one passenger costs one die” and that could work. The problem with that is it’s one more rule to add to the system.

I had to half add a rule for money. In reality, all I did was explain how to handle money in the existing framework, but it had to called out and explained. I’d rather not have to add a special rule for passengers.

I’ll work on it. . .

Aliens In Jump Temp

Yep, it's ugly

You can have your bumpy headed aliens that you’re likely to see on shows like Star Trek, but if you’re serious about your science fiction, you want to have alien aliens.

With that in mind, the aliens in Jump Temp are not humans with bumpy heads. Not only do they look weird, they’re darn hard to communicate with. Considering an alien is likely to have very different thinking than humans, it would seem unlikely that they would speak languages that we’d easily translate. The closest thing we have to an alien language on earth is whale song. So if it’s hard to talk to a creature that breaths air like we do, imagine how hard it would be to understand a creature that breaths ammonia at pressures that would crush our lungs.

There are three races established in the Jump Temp book. Two were discovered before they achieved space flight (no prime directive here!). One, the Neamasta, have their own starships and maybe a different FTL technology. They’re being very secretive and although humans have allowed them into our space, they have not returned the favor. What are they up to? What are they hiding? The book leaves that up to you. I know what I’m going to have happen in our gaming group, but the idea is to establish the world and then let the players find their own way.