Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Narrative for non-wounding hits

In the last couple of months I've listened to a number of D&D 5e actual play podcasts courtesy of the Podcast of Foes series. Of the many things I've noticed is the way in which combat hits are narrated. Most GMs and players describe hits in the same way.

The weapon creates a wound.

I mean that even if it's a dagger used against a paladin in plate, the narrative is still about the dagger drawing blood or sinking into flesh. Hit points seem to be a bit more nebulous than that. They're a pool of points used to describe fatigue, bruising, cuts, poisoning, burns, infection, psychic pain, and so on. As such, we need to tailor our narrative to each strike. Let's consider a paladin with full hit points taking a few different hits.

From a lizardman's spiked shield: "The shield crashes into you, each spike delivering a painful bruise."

From a rogue's poisoned dagger: "The dagger thuds against your armour, and slides across to find the space between the plates, nicking your skin."

From an orc's sword: "The orc's sword comes down in an overhead arc. You lift your heavy shield high to block it and stagger back from the effort required to hold back the brute."

From a monk's flurry of blows: "The monk moves faster than your armour allows. Strikes land and miss, but all of them force you back and forth under the weight of your armour. It's exhausting."

The challenge is to find a fit between all the aspects that hit points represent and the details of the attack. The other challenge is to break the mental model that all attacks create wounds. As players we need to change the way we think about hit points.

I'll take a leaf from Vincent Baker's theorising about games. He described it as an interaction between Dice and Clouds. It's probably more accessible than using semiotics theory to describe it, so let's go with it.

The dice (the physical game component) have produced a number. The number is interpreted by the rules as a hit. The hit needs to be translated by the players into the cloud of the narrative. We know the first two parts of this chain quite well and have the opportunity to do better with the third part. Broadening our understanding of what hit points represents opens the possibilities for how to convert the interpreted die result into fiction.

So think broadly! What else does a successful hit look like in your game?

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Fight me!

I posted earlier this week that my next session of Burning Wheel would use the Fight! rules. This is one of the features that people raved about when the game was published. Naturally, I was excited.

We got into it. Two of my players know the rules well so I often lean on them for rules help. They were great! They know the ins and outs of it. They suggested ideas and rules interpretations. We had the fight.

And I hate it.

I fucking hate it.

It took an hour to resolve six volleys. The stakes were resolved nicely but the effort required to get there was far more than was necessary. Because of these rules, my once-a-fortnight game turned into treacle. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. The story became a statue. Nothing happened. Two hours of gaming advanced the story almost nowhere.

That makes me sad and angry. I wanted this to be glorious. I wanted it to be active and meaningful. I feel disappointed that it's not the play experience I had expected.

Part of me wants to convert it to DramaSystem, Fate, or even D&D. That's unlikely to win me any friends in the group. I'll probably just never use the Fight! rules again.

Intermission: I wrote all of that in the 30 minutes after my game finished last night. Then I slept on it before coming back to it.

I still fucking hate it.

I was ready to sell all my Burning Wheel Revised books, or give them away as a prize at the next Go Play. I just wanted the foul things out of my life for the time I won't ever get back. Instead, I've mellowed a bit to figure out what I've learned from this.

I've learned that I don't like the Rim of Burning Wheel. In the last couple of games I've tried the Duel of Wits and Fight! to add something to our experience. The Rim doesn't suit my comfortable play style at all. After a good night sleep I've come to the conclusion that I like shorter fights, perhaps no more than a few rounds of action. Poison'd fits that category nicely. So does Primetime Adventures, most Fate games, DramaSystem, low-level D&D, and so on. So what does that mean for my game?

Bloody versus linked tests. That's about as complicated as I want to get for a fight in Burning Wheel. If a simple bloody versus test doesn't suit the story then I'll make it a linked test of three to five tests with a mix of fighting styles or agility or whatever it is the scene needs, and be done with it. I'll be able to handle multiple combatants more easily and get to a resolution within five minutes.

Will I ever use the Burning Wheel Rim again? Very unlikely. I'll keep playing the Hub and Spokes of this game, though, but the Rim has suffered a mortal wound and there's no coming back.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

There's going to be a fight

My next session of O Mortal is tomorrow night and I've decided there's going to be a fight. Well, it's Burning Wheel so I guess it's a Fight!

I've been apprehensive of this in BW because I'm unpractised with the Fight! rules. Furthermore, I'm unpractised with the multi-character Fight! rules. There's a great worked example of it that I've read and that will inform me, for sure. Let's see how it goes.

Of course, I'm just the GM and I strongly pursue the idea that we should play to find out what happens, but I'm also a participant in the game and that gives me space to bring elements to the story. I'm not railroading, I'm being creative. And if that sounds lame to you, let me add that I've no current idea who is going to start the fight but the players have made enemies and some of them don't mind killing their way to success. I have plenty to choose from. Lameness has been overcome.

Now you may imagine a GM cackle all the way between now and the end of the game session.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Queen Rowena of the Lakes

As Ken Hite always says, "No invented setting is as interesting as the real world." Well, something similar to that, anyway. Having heard him talk about this idea, I think he's right. Put whatever skin on it you like for space opera or high fantasy, he'd say. The point is that the events, motives, machinations, and so forth of real earth history present a vast source of inspiration for games.

I'm using this principle in my Burning Wheel game. For example, one of our protagonists is Lord Alain Fitzroy, bastard brother of Queen Rowena of the Lakes. Rowena rules Fournemouth, one of the four mannish kingdoms. Now that my players have added her to the game, I can work my GM magic on this character. She needs to be interesting, with depth, with flaws and terrors, with connections. So let's turn to history.

The ever wonderful and terrifying Elizabeth I of England. Never married but often pursued. A brilliant mind from youth. Attacked by religious authorities but refraining from persecuting. Monarch in command of one of the great powers of Europe, yet able to foster the cultural growth that included Shakespeare.

That's my inspiration for Queen Rowena of the Lakes.

But let's put boundary around this. Although Elizabeth was many things, that doesn't mean Rowena is all those same things. As GM, I can cherry-pick what I need from Elizabeth without needing to bring all of it. Fournemouth has the prosperity and power of England, and has good relations between the state and the mystical. Fournemouth has a significant naval presence in the Keon Sea. Rowena rules over all of this.

And Rowena is the centre of conspiracy. In this game, Lord Fitzroy believes that there is a conspiracy against her and he will uncover it. Rowena has attended the executions of people found guilty of treason, adding weight to the feeling of suspicion in the game. This is the aspect of Elizabeth that I draw on for the larger plot, keeping the players moving.

Around the edges, though, is her unmarried status. The setting is patriarchal (ugh... medieval Europe...) but she resists. The suitors and the lords and the other kings and the advisors are all kept at bay by her choosing. She, like Elizabeth, is a woman of intellect and power, and marriage would only dilute it.

Let's see how things transpire with an Elizabeth on the throne.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

What I Learned by Listening to Actual Play

I've been listening to the Podcast Of Foes series of actual play episodes and I've learned something about how I like to play games like D&D.

I like a short section of narrative in and around each die roll
Player: I attack with my short sword with a... 14.
DM: That's a hit.
Player: Yes! I do... 5 points of damage.
DM: Next in the intiative order is Player 2.

This kind of narrative isn't my style. It doesn't require any flavour text. In fact, you could take all the flavour text away and say, "I'm playing a Race-type-A Class-type-F character, with weapon types 12 and 17." Can you imagine how short the Monster Manual would be?

Instead, I like the short sentence or two that goes with these events. "I thrust my short sword at the goblin's chest! It's a 14." which is later followed by the DM saying something like, "the sword cuts into the goblin's armour and you hear it grunt in pain at the hit."

It reinforces the narrative of the game, not just the rules of the game. In fact, it's a bit like the view (I think I got this from Vincent Baker) that the game starts in the narrative, moves temporarily into the rules in order to return to the narrative. The rules are always subservient to the narrative, guiding it and forming it, but never eliminating it.

I like subtlely in character voices
Unless you are talented at voice acting, most good character voices only need to be subtle or slight variations on your natural voice. Cliche or pantomime voices are just annoying, unless you're playing a pantomime game, I suppose. Change the pace a little, the pitch a little, and maybe the precision (clear t or dropped g, for examples), but there's no need to be the cast of Monty Python.

I like characters that don't take themselves too seriously
Excessive faux-fantasy speech is distracting. "By my oath, m'lady, I shall vanquish the foe with the point of my sword!" belongs in Shrek because it's over the top and a bit funny. We laugh at it because it's pretentious. Maybe this is a variant of my dislike for the pantomime voices; pantomime syntax.

That's just a few things I've learned about my preferences based on hearing a dozen other groups in their own style of play. There are a few more episodes left in the series and I'm looking forward to hearing the rest.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Embers of the Forgotten

One of the players in my Burning Wheel game has been involved in a recent kickstarter project. You should check it out. Here's the quick pitch.

Discover the forsaken. A systemless, soulsian-inspired book of NPCs and creatures to take your games into dark new worlds

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Balls In The Air

Gail Simone has some of the best content on twitter. Snarky, witty, and wise.

Here's a wise one.
Here is my advice to writers.

If you throw a ball into the air, SOMEBODY better catch that mother******.

And that inspired me to make a list at the end of each of my game sessions. It's a list of unresolved plot items and it accumulates more with each game session. It's a list of ideas that I can drop back into the game as I need to. It helps to keep the game tight and meaningful, as well as ensuring that good ideas (or characters) aren't lost.

Here's the current Balls In The Air list for O Mortal.
  • Hector Long (guilty? who else? what was he doing?)
  • Stablehand
  • The water spirit - You're not the one I'm looking for. Who is it looking for?
  • Artis Chapter (what contacts can be made here?)
  • What did Qualthorn see in Robus?
  • People know that Alain Fitzroy was looking for someone who knows how to destroy Dwarven artifacts
  • Who wrote the unclaimed note?
  • Forest, three days in the future, one bell after nightfall.
  • Qualthorn is disappointed in Malasil for turning away from elven traditions.
  • The Hunter is still in the prison
  • Martha has high astrology skills, making observations about the dates and times

None of that will mean much to you within the context of my own game, but any of it is enough to trigger a scene for almost anyone in any game. For my game, I want all of these to get caught sometime. It might be in the next game or in a few sessions after that. And if no one catches any of them, we just get more balls in the air.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Lunar Cycles

When I first pitched O Mortal to my players I included the premise that in seven months, the querub would arrive to announce the end of one dynasty and the beginning of another. The clock began to count down. Time is an aspect of this game.

Every game session, we track elapsed time. After just five sessions we've passed about eight days so at that rate it's going to be a while before the querub comes. Well, if we assume months of similar length to the player world, that is.

So let's talk about time in this game world.

There is a major moon, Soma, that determines the lunar cycles. It has a 22 day cycle, and the inhabitants have constructed months around this. There are ten days between full moon and new moon and ten days back to full moon. The inhabitants of the world have created two weeks of ten days around this, with rest days at new moon (Monnovi) and full moons (Monpuni).

There are two other, smaller moons called Anahid and Khons. They have 14 and 37 day cycles respectively. Lunar alignments are rare but celebrated.

Monnovi and Monpuni are always celebrated religiously by elves (it's a bit like going to mosque or temple each week), and often by humans. The elves connect with nature spirits as their principle religion whereas humans worship gods of places and areas. Human gods with a lunar connection would inspire more devotion on these days.

The days are divided into 22 hours, reflective of the lunar cycle as well. Clocks are not widely used outside of cities and even in cities the residents rely on a central clock tower to ring the bell each hour from one hour before sunrise through to one hour after sunset. Inside the towers are a variety of timepieces, ranging from hourglasses to clockwork mechanisms to (rarely!) magical constructs.

And as for the year? It's just not as important as the months. The new year does not happen on the same date every year, but is a moving date. Years last between eight and nine months and is calculated as the first storm of the rainy season. The seasons are based around weather, plant, and animal behaviours. Over a year, the cycle moves through rains, blossoms, bird migrations, snowfalls, and dry winds. As with all seasons, individual days are variable (e.g., during the dry winds season, rain is still possible).

Friday, 2 March 2018

Adjusting to the Crunch

The third session of O Mortal played out last night. At the end we spent a couple of moments talking about the game and one player said, "Wow. Only eight rolls all game."

For context, we played for two hours. That's one roll every 15 minutes or so.

At first I shrugged it off but the players reminded me that this is Burning Wheel. Every roll is a test. Every test helps towards advancement. Advancement is built into the psychology of this game. Therefore, by not asking for die rolls I'm hindering the players' desires for character advancement.

As a GM this was a great moment for me. My players are telling me that they want something from the game that I didn't give them. They want the game to be Burning Wheel and I ran it as though it was Fate or DramaSystem. This kind of disconnect can lead to players being dissatisfied with the play experience and potentially with the game system itself.

My role as a GM includes participating in creating the conditions for enjoyable play. I'm included in the mode of production of the story so I have to respond to the others at the table in some way. It might not be acquiescing every time, but it has to be a response that moves towards greater enjoyment.

More importantly, my role as a GM is to respect the game that I run. A game is written to be run as that game. It might be similar to other games but that still doesn't make it the same. After playing PTA and DramaSystem games for the last few years, I need to adjust to the crunch of Burning Wheel.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Online gaming platform

My Burning Wheel game starts in a week or so. We've had two planning sessions and now it's time to play. However, because of the oppressive capitalist society in which we live, we are all VeryBusy(tm) and have chosen to play online. So far we've used Skype and google hangouts as platforms, and next week we'll try Roll20.

Skype was OK. Some of us used webcams and some just audio. Connections were reliable and A/V quality was great. Unfortunately, that's all it does. Great for distance relationships but I think I want more from a gaming platform.

Hangouts was also OK. Again, a mixture of webcams and audio. One of us joined in over his phone while driving so pure audio. Thankfully he has a mind like a steel trap so he could remember plenty from his own documents and the rules. Connectivity was a problem, though. Not sure if it was Hangouts or individual technical setup, but we lost people from the hangout often.

Roll20 looks interesting. I found a Burning Wheel game on youtube that was using Roll20. I watched about 30 minutes of one episode to see how they used the platform and was more than piqued by it. So next week will be Roll20. I don't want to invest a massive amount of time setting it up with characters and documents yet. Apparently the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Also, I like pudding.

So watch this space for more about that platform experience. Other activity for this game is the wonder of inking my world map and the drawing a closeup of one area in that map that seems to be a natural space in which most of the story will take place. I know maps aren't essential for Burning Wheel but I like making them.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Religion in O Mortal

I cannot lie, I love religion in gaming. Now, I should be clear about that. Unfortunately many depictions of religion in gaming (or other fiction) is a tedious variant of the 12th century Catholic Church with corrupt priests, inquisitions, and exploitation. That's a tired trope and one that adds a very specific flavour to games. It's the ketchup of religious depictions. If you like your story flavour to be common and uninteresting then do that.

What I'd rather have in a game is a religion that has an appeal to common people, that gives ordinary people a web of meaning to their lives, and that allows for corrupt clerics sometimes. I want a religion that helps explain cultural features or turns of phrase. It has to explain festivals, rites, supersititions, and more! When I started to sketch a religion for my Burning Wheel game I had all of this in mind. I could do no less. So here's my take on a creation myth for O Mortal.

There was Chaos, churning and rolling,
And there was no form.
Then the Four reached into Chaos with their hands
And took some
And shaped it
Forming land, and sea, and sky
And all the lights.
They breathed into it and time began.
Erolti made balance in the days and seasons.
Palsu made the multitudes, in living things.
Urgomath made structure, in the land.
Therokim made turmoil, in the storm and the volcano.
The Four looked and saw the works of their hands.

Erolti reached once more into Chaos.
She brought forth spirits
Playful, perceptive, and balanced.
She placed them into the animals.
She placed them into the streams.
She placed them in all things of the world.
So it is that spirits are in everything.
Then Erolti reached into Chaos again.
She brought forth Elves
And gave them the centuries
And gave them songs
And gave them to the spirits as brethren.

Palsu reached once more into Chaos.
She brought forth gods
Powerful, placed, and plentiful.
She led them to mountains.
She led them to valleys.
She led them to oceans.
So it is that gods rule places.
Then Palsu reached into Chaos again.
She brought forth Humans
And gave them the many features
And gave them magic
And gave them to the world as a many textured rainbow.

Urgomath reached once more into Chaos.
He brought forth gods
Creative, purposeful, and changing.
He showed them the clay.
He showed them the forge.
He showed them the tools.
So it is that arts are homage to the gods.
Then Urgomath reached into Chaos again.
He brought forth Dwarves
And gave them ideas
And gave them gold
And gave them to the mountains to bring forth wonders.

Therokim reached once more into Chaos.
He bought forth demons
Mischievous, hungry, and destructive.
He showed them Chaos.
He showed them the efforts of living beings.
He showed them Chaos.
So it is that demons return all to Chaos.
Then Therokim reached into Chaos again.
He brought forth Orcs
And gave them passion
And gave them caprice
And gave them to the world to punish hubris.

This seemed more fun that just saying, "The Human god is Palsu. Other lesser gods exist and rule over areas." It's also (I hope) evocative enough to give my players a sense of a cosmology, a metaphysics, some superstitions, and some divine explanations for things. Also, since the Gods and gods are real, I get to use all of this in the game. Joy!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Campaign Title and World Map

I've been sketching a world map for my Burning Wheel game. At the moment it's a first draft only (thankfully not inked yet). The castles are major cities; each one about the importance of Paris. Using Burning Wheel's own idea that the game suits a 12th century France, that means each "Paris" has a population between 200,000 and 300,000. I might make one of them a little smaller, we'll see. Each of the square-ish dots is a medium town, with population above 20,000.

As you can tell, this is a well populated world, helped along by magical interventions in food production. There are thousands of lives at stake in any major scenario, but also enough population to support a bloated nobility. Let the rebellions foment.

For a sense of scale, the sea that diagonally crosses this map from NW to SE is around the same size as the Adriatic Sea. I plan to ink major parts of it as they become constants in the game.

As for the campaign name, the impending presence of the qerub has siezed the group's attention so I've turned to biblical inspiration for a name. One book that has a lot of descriptions of cherubim is Ezekiel and the Tanakh translation is a particular favourite of mine. Take a look at how the cherub conveys the word of Yahweh to the prophet Ezekiel.

"O mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed..." (12:1)
"O mortal, these men have turned their thoughts upon the fetishes and set their minds on the sin through which they stumbled..." (14:3)
"O mortal, set your face toward Jerusalem and proclaim against her..." (21:6)

I think you get the picture. This translation has used "O mortal" instead of "O son of man" that you see in many other translations. The literal translation of ben-adam is son-of-man, I realise, but in the context of an angelic being giving instructions from God to a human, I think "O mortal" conveys a layer of meaning.

That's a lot of ink spilled to say that the name I'm going with is O Mortal. Thematically I'm sure it will include the folly of human endeavour in the face of the power and desires of the gods. There will be pettiness and power squabbles, all of which will come to nothing for the mortals who will eventually, inevitably, die.

But what about the elves? They're ageless! If the war between the humans and the elves taught us anything, it is that elves can die. Violently. Painfully. Cold steel interrupting their journey to the West.

O mortal, be afraid.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Character and setting notes

My players and I got together to talk setting and characters in our upcoming Burning Wheel game. Here's what we came up with.

Other fantasy inspirations from the group.

  • Game of Thrones, first book (politics)
  • Assassin's Apprentice (politics)
  • Shannara Chronicles (magic has a cost)
  • Dragon Age (in which the Dwarves run all the organised crime)
  • Dresden Files (starts street level, getting more important, but never goes crazy... well, up until recent books)
  • Constantine (he's annoying but the world would be worse without him, he's outside the formal organisations)

Interesting plot ideas from the setting
  • What if the Qerub makes a proclamation about an Elven dynasty?
  • What is the Qerub is actually a demon in disguise?
  • Third threat, not just taking sides in the Human-Elf conflict.
    • Orcs are secretly uniting under a single ruler?
    • Dwarven threat to Humans and Elves?
  • What's going to benefit the Dwarves in the change of human monarchy?

Character ideas and belief ideas and lifepath ideas
  • Human wizard
    • Magic has a cost
    • Noble and bastard lifepaths
    • My sister does not deserve to remain in power
    • I owe the Elves to saving my life and putting me on the path
  • Elf guardian
    • I will protect the wizard (seen as special by the Elves, taken on by teaching of the Elves lords)
    • Soldier protector lifepath
  • Four lifepaths per characters

High Concept Setting

This is mostly for my players but you can read along too. :) It's some high concept statements about a setting for a new campaign.

The last Great War between the humans and the elves ended 117 years ago. The humans lost. The elves made several conditions in the surrender.

  • The elves keep a presence in human lands. Every noble court has an elf advisor and there are elven settlements scattered throughout.
  • The human High Throne was destroyed, along with the High King. It was the High King who united the human kings into a single warmongering army against the elves, say the elves.
  • Trade between elves and humans must continue for the betterment of the humans.
  • The most promising humans are accepted by elves for training in elven lore and ways, in the hope that elven values will permeate throughout humankind.

Dwarves were neutral during the war, selling metals, weapons, and armour to both sides. The dwarven lands are not united under a single monarch leaving each clan or king to trade as they wish.

Human monarchs reign in an inherited dynasty for as long as the gods allow. There are times in history when the gods send a Qerub to announce the end of one dynasty and the selection of the new one. The astrologers have announced that the next Qerub will come at the next solar eclipse, in seven moons time.

The current dynasty has granted more titles than any dynasty before. Intended to be positions of responsibility, paid for by the kings, they have turned into competitive squabbles for land. A number of vassal king arrangements have been established as the hierarchy of nobility has become more complex than ever. Minor nobles seek to strengthen their lands, towns, and villages, in preparation for eventual conflict.

Orcs continue to raid the lands of humans, elves, and dwarves, as they have done for centuries. They have never shown signs of uniting under a single ruler.

Most of the lands of humans, dwarves, and elves, are free from the worst monsters. However, the wild lands are still wild. Only the brave or foolish travel them alone. But the rumours are that the wilderness still has lost treasures in old battlefields, mines, and forgotten places. Some of these treasures are the ancient relics of power that bards still sing about.