Archive for March, 2010

Magic and Obligations

Posted in Projects, RPGs on March 29, 2010 by Jeff Russell

Okay, as I said last time, I’m now going to take a break from reviews for a while (I’m out of games to read, for one) and start talking about my own game. It is still fragmentary and hazy, but I’ve come to a few decisions that will help guide the process from here. First off, I think I have decided that the genre will be “sword and sorcery” in a setting of my own devising. It’s a setting I began generating as a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but I realized that I was making so many fundamental changes that it would probably benefit rather than be harmed by separating it from the venerable system. As discussed in “A Question of Genre”, I believe that a fantasy setting is fairly accessible, and it also has the benefit of being ‘expected’ as what an RPG is about, due to the whole D&D thing. Also, most of the rules ideas I’ve had recently seem to mesh with a fantasy setting better than something else. That being said, I’m open to being swayed by arguments for a different milieu.

Now, when I said that I’d been having rules ideas suited to a fantasy setting, I had two in mind, primarily. The first is rather vague at this point, and that is magic. I’ve always loved magic in games, and recently I’ve read some very creative uses of magic in stories, and this has inspired me to want to design a new, different, and elegant magical system for my game. I’ve been doing research on various real world and fantasy traditions of magic so that whatever I come up with will have an ‘authentic’ feel about it, but at its core, I want the system to simple and elegant, having complexity through a combination of simple factors rather than complexity through sheer exhaustiveness. What I would like to avoid is the ‘magic as super powers’ kind of effect that seems to me to be the dominant paradigm these days. By this I mean you have mages (or sorcerors or warlocks or whatever) who are “magic” and so they can do magic things from list A) a set number of times based on the day or magic points or whatever. Sure, most games try to distinguish flavor wise between people who study arcane secrets, or those who make pacts with otherworldly forces, or those who pray for their magic, but especially in 4th edition D&D, the mechanics are basically identical, with only the specific effects of each spell differing. I want to represent magic as a force that exists, that some people figure out how to manipulate (perhaps through multiple ways, such as rituals, pacts, prayers, or what have you) rather than an inherent trait that some people have and some don’t. Obviously, I haven’t yet come to any concrete decisions on how to make this happen, so I’m looking for suggestions and ideas.

Secondly, I have a rather better developed mechanic in mind that popped into my head almost fully formed while watching HBO’s “Rome” series and reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, in addition to various medieval/fantasy influences. I started thinking about how in the historical ancient world and middle ages, family was hugely important. The idea of individual rights and privileges was somewhat foreign, and most people accepted that your family took care of you, so you had duties to them, and that anybody without kin to back them up was facing a hostile, dangerous world. This got me to the idea that a fantasy setting ought to have inter- and intra-family relationships play a bigger role in game. And like aspects in “Spirit of the Century”, I decided that family would best be represented by a trait that could both help and complicate things, and that made me think of other similar double edged resources that would be relevant, and for a sense of wholeness, I came up with three that I think work nicely. These are Family, Wealth, and Authority. Here’s how I envision these three traits working. Every character at creation will have a set number of points to distribute between those three categories. Family represents how strongly your family supports you and how much it expects from you. Wealth represents your ties to the commercial world and how much your character can personally accomplish with coin. Authority represents your character’s position in a hierarchical system of some sort, be that governmental, official, illegal, or informal. The point is that the higher the number, the more each category can help you out, but the more is expected of your character in return. With family and authority, a higher number can mean a more influential family or a higher position in a large organization, or it might not. I think I will leave such decisions to the player to decide. What’s important here is the level to which it helps/complicates your life. So, someone with high family might be the heir to a powerful political family expected to marry as he’s told and rule over his holdings responsibly and so forth, or it could be a low-born person with a truly massive family that has representatives in every village and holdfast throughout the land. Both can expect large amounts of help (in different ways), but both also have enormous responsibilities in exchange. Likewise with wealth (commercial contracts, debts, social obligations to support the kingdom or the poor or whatever) and with authority (duties and responsibilities, people who depend on you, ability to be ordered by superiors). I haven’t quite worked out how it will work mechanically yet (I think that will depend a lot on how the rest of the game works mechanically) but the goal is get a good balance of benefit and complication whatever level you take in each category. The catch is that you can’t opt to not put the full number of points into the categories: your character has to have help and obligations to somebody or something, but what it is is your choice.

So, that’s what I have so far, besides what I’ve mentioned in the prior reviews. My end goal is a fluid, action-packed game with simple rules and engaging play (hah, not asking much here). I’ll discuss further rules ideas as they come to me, and probably start elaborating on my setting a bit if there’s any interest, but it’s strongly influenced by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, and H. Rider Haggard, with dashes of mythology, history, and folklore for good measure.

Spirit of the Century

Posted in Projects, RPGs on March 29, 2010 by Jeff Russell

For my last Indie game review for a while, I’m going to talk about “Spirit of the Century” from Evil Hat Productions. I’ve saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one, despite some creative and innovative mechanics and approaches, of the games I’ve reviewed, I’d say it’s the most traditional: PCs each have a character, they all cooperate in an adventure the GM comes up with and controls, and their characters have skills and stunts and gadgets that work much like any other RPG. The other reason I’ve saved this one for last, though, is that it is very close to what I’m shooting for already. It bills itself as a ‘pick up RPG’, designed to be great for one-off adventures, new players, and on the fly gaming. As a matter of fact, it does this job so well, and in a setting near and dear to my hear (20’s pulp action!), that I was sorely tempted to just make this game my default ‘starter RPG’ and be done with all of this design nonsense. Alas, the game design bug has me but good, and not only do I want to design a game of my own, I also feel like SoTC is just a touch more suited to a one-off game full of experienced roleplayers than it is to people new to the hobby.

Before I get into discussing how the game itself works, I want to point something out that I read in a review before purchasing the game. The rules of “Spirit of the Century” are chock a block full of great GMing advice. There’s a whole chapter on GM craft, but tidbits are scattered throughout the entire book. This GM advice is better and more comprehensive than 90% of ‘how to GM’ chapters I’ve ever read in various RPGs. It is geared towards running an exciting Pulp flavored game, but I think that most of the advice that is good for that is good for other games. Sure, you could be running a serious, dramatic game full of intrigue and politics, but advice on keeping things moving and compelling is just as useful in that milieu as it is in a rip-roaring aerial dogfight. As I said, all of the GMing advice is good, but there are a few key take-aways I want to highlight. The single best piece of advice is in regard to situations where the characters attempt an action with a roll. Simply put, make sure there are interesting consequences for success or failure. Obviously, “interesting” isn’t always good for the characters, but it is always good for the players. This simple guideline guides all sorts of decisions, like avoiding ‘make this roll or die’ situations. Dying because of a failed roll is not interesting, it’s cheap and sucks. Character death happens, but it should be more meaningful and interesting than just that. Second is the advice on information management. This applies to any way the GM gives information to the characters. Too little, and they don’t have any idea what to do. Too much and they get overloaded and stop paying attention to details. Beyond that advice, though, these rules recommend that you aren’t stingy with things like clues and important plot information. The whole point of such information, after all, is to drive the characters towards further action. Sitting around not acting is boring, so give them what they need to make decisions! What makes the game interesting is the decisions players make for their characters, not the tension of knowing or not knowing. I think that the tendency for GMs to want to ‘keep secrets’ comes from other entertainment media where that is a dramatic and interesting effect, like movies and mystery novels and such. The trouble with applying this particular technique to RPGs is that the characters don’t have a script to follow. In a movie or book, the main characters are guaranteed to eventually stumble across what is necessary to make the plot go forward or have an exciting reveal of previously secret information, but RPG characters have no such guarantee, unless you railroad them in the most horrible and boring way. So, sure, mysteries are fun and exciting and a great thing to introduce into RPGs, but rather than making the drama come from whether or not the characters find the clues, make the drama and tension come from putting the clues together. Give them as many clues as they need, then let them figure out what they mean. Finally, in the spirit of a pick up game with limited play time, SoTC advises that “dead air” time where nothing significant is happening is just a plain waste of game time, and gives a whole raft of ideas on combatting such boring down time. Things like keeping an in-game ‘clock’ element so that the adventure is a race against time and ensuring that action is a viable solution to the ills of the characters. And perhaps my favorite specific example of how to cure downtime is an old GM-favorite: send in the ninjas. Players totally off course? Have a squad of thugs break in and start shooting. At the end of the fight, one gets captured and interrogated, or runs off, leading the players to their secret base, or whatever. Action scenes pick up the pace, and if you plan them right, they can provide a way to gently nudge the characters back on the right track to taking further action. But you gotta be careful with this, because it might get obvious if you do it too much.

So, to reiterate, the GMing advice of SoTC is worth the price of admission alone. If you have any interest in running RPGs at all, and you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you pick it up and at minimum give the ‘tips and tricks’ chapter a read. Besides the general advice I mentioned above, it gives three different ways to come up with an adventure (a pre-plotted story, a cluster of decisions based on the characters’ main interests and traits, and a web of conflicting interests that will cause action and drama no matter how they turn out, or best of all, a combination of all three). For as good as the advice on crafting adventures is, I was actually pretty disappointed with the sample scenario included in the rulebook. To my mind, it seemed to not follow the advice given in the preceding chapter, giving a fairly straight and narrow plot line, not enough information to guarantee the players can act properly, and little focus on the characters as the stars of the show. That being said, it did have some pretty creative pulp elements and a decent initial situation.

Now, to actually discuss the rules, the core mechanic was one of my least favorite parts of the rules to start with, but it grew on me a bit. First off, it’s based on special “fudge dice”, which is irritating to me. The good news is that “fudge dice” are nothing but specially marked D6’s that can be reproduced using normal-person D6’s, which rather than being a pain in the ass to get, are in fact the most common dice on this island earth. Basically, 1-2 equals a -1, 3-4 equals a 0, and 5-6 equals a +1. So, skills are rated on a ‘ladder’ of -2 to +8, with a corresponding adjective (0 is ‘Mediocre’, +8 is Legendary and so forth). Difficulties are also set at some level on the ladder. To attempt a challenge, you roll 4 dice, add up the results, add that to your relevant skill, and compare against the difficulty.

So, for example, let’s say that Two-Fist Bob is trying punch out a disrespectful young man for an insult to his girl. Two-Fist Bob is a local amateur boxing champion, so he has a rating of “Great” (+4) in Fists. The GM decides that the drunk and lecherous fellow with a rude mouth isn’t going to take much to go down, but he’s a little tougher than a random schmoe, so he sets the difficulty at “Average” (+1). Two-Fist Bob’s player rolls his four dice getting a -1, -1, 0, +1. Add those together, and you get a net -1, which you add to his +4 from his skill, for a total of +3. He handily knocks the guy out with two “shifts” (each level over the required level for success is a ‘shift’, which comes into effect for some combat mechanics and the like).

Since characters are heroic paragons of their age, any skill they don’t specifically take is rated at ‘Mediocre’ (+0), and they take a ‘skill pyramid’: 1 skill at ‘Superb’ (+5), 2 skills at ‘Great’ (+4), 3 skills at ‘Good'(+3), 4 skills at ‘Fair’ (+2), and 5 skills at ‘Average’ (+1). No ‘stats’, just skills, but their use is intentionally pretty broad. The way the skills shake out, it is at once hard to be super specialized or an extremely broad ‘jack of all trades’, since every character will have the same number of skills at each level of competence. It’s fairly balanced, and allows characters to still have a strong main area of interest while being useful in a broad range of situations, but like I said, it’s hard to make a hyper-specialized character or one specialized in not being specialized.

The character creation system given is actually a pretty cool process. After coming up with your skills and a broad concept, you go through the phases of your life – initial background, the Great War, and then 3 pulp novels about your character’s adventures. In each novel, you choose a ‘co-star’ from among the other Player Characters, and you thus come up with a background of helping each other out and interacting. There are also mechanics associated with this background, but more on that in a minute. As with the challenges in “Agon” and the best interests in “In a Wicked Age”, I’m a big fan of having a mechanical process at character creation that binds the characters together and gives them a reason to interact in play. It beats the hell out of “An old man speaks to each of you in a tavern. . .”

Now, that mechanical feature I talked about is perhaps the coolest and most striking trait of the SoTC rules, and that is “Aspects”. Aspects interact with another mechanic called ‘fate points’ that on their surface look pretty familiar: a bonus point to get you a reroll or add to an existing roll when you really need to succeed. But those are just the boring uses of fate points. Where their real coolness comes in, your character can spend a fate point to do things like declare that their happens to be a convenient fire escape in this alley, so he can follow the high-jumping villain. Or for your academic to announce that he’s come across this tribe in his studies and that the proper way to show respect to them is a feat of strength. In other words, players can inject a bit of narrative control. The GM can still overrule such things, but a good GM will go with it if it’s cool and let the player spend his fate point. So what about these aspects I mentioned, and what makes them so cool?

So, Aspects are the way that players can use fate points or gain them back. At first glance they look a lot like perks and flaws, but they’re actually much broader than that. They can be a tagline, a significant person, a prop, or just traits about the character. Anything from “Sworn enemy of the Secret Brotherhood of the Flame” to “Unspoken Love (Sally)” to “Ancient Family Sword” to “Fiery Latin Temper”. Players have total leeway in picking their aspects, but the rules give some great advice on what’s good to pick and what’s not. More on that in a sec. Mechanically, if a player wants to use his aspect to help him out, he can spend a fate point, and then either reroll the relevant dice, or add 2 to his result. So, in a fight with minions of the Secret Brotherhood of Fire, a ‘sworn enemy’ might “invoke” his aspect, spend a fate point, and rain down righteous fury. On the other hand, the GM can “compel” an aspect, in which case he makes something happen to the character with the aspect, but pays him a fate point for the trouble. So, the “Sworn Enemy” notices a ring on the hand of an important politician that denotes his membership in the brotherhood, and the GM compels him to act against the politician and pays him a fate point. A player can choose to ‘buy out’ of such a compel. An interesting twist is that a player can even ask a GM for a compel – in other words, he says he’ll act in a complicating/negative way in accordance with one of his aspects, but he wants a fate point for it.

The rules also cover temporary aspects (like “dizzy” for someone who just got hit in the head in a fight), environmental aspects for scenes (like “shadowy”) and so forth, and there are some neat mechanical ways they come into play, but it’s as a character trait that I find them most interesting and most useful. This is one of the best ways I think I’ve ever seen to handle ‘perks’ and ‘flaws’, as well as just general character information. One issue with traditional ‘flaws’ that give character points for a negative effect is that many are on the player to incorporate, or at most the GM can be like “well, you did take unfriendly, so I’m not going to let you make a charm roll here”. And when those flaw points are used to buy extremely useful in-game abilities (like a one-eyed, one-legged, stinky, drunk, midget combat monster) munchkinism is born. The beauty of the aspects system is that it gives in-play uses to aspects to both player and GM, and it mechanically rewards ‘double sided’ aspects the most. With aspects that are occasionally useful and occasionally trouble, you can both spend and regain fate points using them. If you have nothing but out and out useful ones like “Lucky” or “Great Shot”, you’ll never get fate points back.

Aspects are also a great way for players to let the GM know what kind of things they want their character to do, what kind of situations they want to be in. If a character has aspects like “In the Nick of Time”, “Dramatic Entrance”, and “Not this time, Dr. Zambago!” he probably doesn’t want to research ancient scrolls in the library or mingle in high society balls. Even better, with those aspects, the GM has both story and mechanical back up for making those things happen! And when characters have aspects that involve each other, it creates an even tighter bond between the play group. The GMing chapter recommends one method of adventure creation where you look at your PC’s aspects and use those to come up with “decision points” involving those aspects, and then just see where the players go from one decision to the next, or if you are doing a more scripted adventure, to keep aspects in mind as you write what sort of conflict and drama will be going on. In short, aspects permeate every facet of this game, and I think are a delightfully subtle yet powerful tool for integrating story and mechanics, and as with the rest of the rules, the advice on their use is top-knotch character creation and play advice, even when applied to a system without ‘aspects’.

After gushing so much about this system, I feel like I should mention some of the reasons I did not choose it as my go-to starter RPG game, in addition to those I mentioned in the introduction. First off, as much as I do love early 20th century pulp adventure with Action! Science! and Action Science! it is not everybody’s cup of tea. I also find the core mechanic to be just a bit awkward. After fully reading through the rules, it makes a lot more sense than when first presented, and I feel that it would play fairly smoothly, but I also get the impression that adequately explaining it to new players would be a bit of a challenge. Likewise, the way things like sidekicks, gadgets, and other ‘stunts’ are handled is flexible, but not my favorite ever. With the fairly limited ‘skill’ options, stunts are the main directly mechanical way you distinguish your character from others, and for all that they felt somewhat limited. Perhaps most importantly, however, the game strongly discourages character advancement, and with good reason for what it is, but still. The philosophy put forth is that a ‘pick up game’ is one that you play when and how you can, without necessarily having the same players or characters present every time. To provide in-game rewards based on amount of play time effectively punishes players for having other things going on in their life. So, that makes sense. On the other hand, though, I feel like character advancement is the most rewarding and ‘hooking’ part of roleplaying, and not allowing new players to enjoy it would rob them of an experience that would likely help cement their enjoyment of the hobby. So, as with all the other games I’ve reviewed here, I will shelve this as a game I’d love to play sometime, and in the meanwhile, ruthlessly pillage it for good design ideas to include in my own project.

Starting next time, I’ll finally begin the development process of my actual game! It’s exciting that it’s starting to take shape, bits and pieces at a time, and I plan to make the process as open as possible via this blog, both as a record for myself, and as an opportunity for input from readers to shape the game as it develops. Once again, any comments are a welcome source of discussion.

In a Wicked Age

Posted in Projects, RPGs on March 29, 2010 by Jeff Russell

Tonight I’m going to talk about the game that got me excited about this whole Indie RPG business: In a Wicked Age. This is the second game in my survey by D. Vincent Baker, author of “Dogs in the Vineyard” of a couple posts back. First off, some generalities: IaWA is a wonderfully fluid and story driven game, with an emphasis on low to no preparation for play. It does this in a few innovative ways that I want to discuss as inspiration. Also, like “Dogs in the Vineyard”, but perhaps even more so, “In a Wicked Age” hones in on what makes RPGs compelling with laser like focus, namely, conflict. It also gives a great deal of narrative control over to the players, with the game master essentially just being the controller of NPCs, with little direct control over what happens in the story or with the characters. As such, while it strikes me as a fantastic game I’d love to play, I don’t think it’s quite suitable in and of itself for a first time RPG. I think it would be good to prepare players for a more traditional game structure, and to stress interplayer cooperation, rather than conflict. Changes to these core assumptions, such as you see in IaWA, are interesting and fun, but I think a little more suited to advanced gamers. That being said, there’s a lot of good concepts that I intend to incorporate into my starter RPG.

The first and most prominent element of “In a Wicked Age”, and also the one easiest to port to other games, is the “Oracles”. Every game of IaWA begins by choosing one of four “Oracles” and then drawing four standard playing cards. Each oracle is a list of 52 entries broadly grouped by category. The oracles supplied with the game have a subtle but strong sword and sorcery flavor, and are entitled “Blood & Sex”, “God Kings of War”, “The Unquiet Past”, and “A Nest of Vipers”. Each entry (corresponding to a card drawn from the deck) contains a brief setting/story element and/or characters. All of the players, including the GM, then decide which characters are mentioned and which are implied, and each player besides the GM picks one to be their PC. The game master then takes control of any others. Players then develop characteristics for their characters and the GM comes up with slightly less detailed stats for the NPCs. The beauty of this system is that it generates a situation with tons of  conflict and story development, while still leaving plenty of room to fill in the blanks as you go, so it can create detailed, engaging stories on the fly. Another great thing about it is that with a little bit of imagination, you can create a set of oracles for just about any setting. The Abulafia Random  Generator has a list of oracles that will randomly generate 4 entries for each whenever you click on them, and shows the breadth of possible options, with oracles for everything from Wuxia to Battlestar Galactica. The oracle system and the island generation system for Agon are two of the best ‘on the fly’ adventure generators I’ve ever seen.

As is, the Oracle system makes no distinction between which characters generated or implied will be PCs or NPCs, leaving the choice up to the players. And the entries are cleverly crafted to create lots of potential conflict between any given characters. This creates lots of opportunities for making choices and intense roleplaying  using the fluid and simple dice mechanics to be discussed momentarily. With a little work, the system can also be integrated into a more traditional RPG. For example, the GM could use an oracle to come up with an adventure, making any characters so suggested into significant NPCs that the existing PCs will interact with. Likewise, the GM can draw up some choices from the oracle and allocate some characters as pregenerated PC options and leave others as NPCs for a pick-up game. But one of the core strengths of the oracles is that everyone involved brainstorms the connections between the disparate elements and so has a say in the setting and the story. I’d say that Mr. Baker has a real knack for creating evocative yet sketchy settings with lots of room for customization while still having enough meat to fire the imagination. As I said, I’m a big fan of this whole concept and plan on incorporating something similar to my game.

The next innovative thing about this system is its core mechanic. Like “Dogs in the Vineyard”, “In a Wicked Age” uses combinations of dice as the ‘stats’. In DitV, however, the core stats are somewhat are a bit whimsical, but still map onto pretty standard concepts like “Body”, “Spirit”, “Acuity” and so forth. IaWA, on the other hand, focuses instead on the manner in which actions are performed, rather than on the core abilities that allow you to accomplish them, with stats like “Covertly”, “For Myself”, and “With Violence”. These stats give the player a lot of leeway in how they affect the story, and allow you to fill in the details as you see fit. For example, two characters with high scores in “With Violence” would both be good at getting what they want through force, but one might be a lightning quick fencer while another is a burly barbarian. Other than what the ‘forms’ (the name for stats in this game) imply, characters can have a ‘particular strength’. This strength can be a magical power, or a legendary weapon, or a particular skill. The rules are intentionally very broad. Each particular strength can be only be used in conjunction with one form, and has several options to customize it, such as that it’s unique, or that it’s particularly powerful, or whatever. As with “Dogs in the Vineyard”, there’s very little mechanical enforcement on game balance, and a lot of trust is put on the players to choose things that are appropriate and interesting to play. On the other hand, the rules are so broadly defined anyway, it would be hard to come up with situations to be especially munchkiny anyhow.

Another really cool element of character creation, and one that really drives the conflict assumed by the game, is that each character picks 2 or 3 (but 2 are recommended) “best interests”. These are story-descriptions of what your character wants to achieve. For your character to become recurring in future ‘chapters’, you have to attempt to achieve your best interests by challenging other characters (PC or NPC, there is no distinction made) where they are strong, so you are encouraged to set up your best interests in conflict with the strengths of the other characters. This is a delightfully subtle way to push characters into contests, whether of wills, words, or swords. Now, like the oaths in Agon, I like the way that best interests weave the characters together into a coherent storyline, almost automagically. I think when integrating this concept into a more traditional game, it would be a good idea to have the PCs focus on best interests that overlap and compliment, but don’t repeat one another, but likewise come into direct conflict with significant NPCs. When combined with the oracles, these can create really meaty storylines surprisingly easily.  Along similar lines, I think the concept of “Best Interests” is a good tool for GMs to clarify why their NPCs come into conflict with or choose to aid the PCs. Even with a straight up traditional game, I think that a modified version of oracles and best interests would be a great asset for generating adventures.

Before I go onto to describing the core conflict resolution mechanic and how the dice are used, I want to take a second to talk more about what I said is at the heart of “In a Wicked Age”: conflict. I think it is a valuable insight that conflict is what makes stories interesting and engaging, and it is also what leads to the ‘game’ part of roleplaying games: the dice come out to decide conflicts. Earlier, I said that I didn’t think a default position of PC on PC conflict was a good habit to instill in starting roleplayers, but I think the idea deserves a little more attention. First off, as numerous entries at Ars Ludi point out, the only truly valuable resource in an RPG is playtime. It’s what everyone is there for. It doesn’t matter how much in-game treasure or mighty stats your character gets if you just sat there with no say in things the whole time. Having the majority of the storyline be conflict between PCs automatically means more play time for players: instead of every conflict being one or more players and the GM, the majority will be two or more players, sometimes with the GM involved. The rule system has a neat way to handle this, more in a moment. So, the plus side of all this conflict is that players get more time in the spotlight, and the GM takes a more subtle background role. The reason I’m leery of such inter-PC conflict, however, is that it’s all too easy for inter-character conflict to become inter-player conflict, and I think the chance of that is increased with people less used to making the distinction between player and character persona. If you get really attached to your character (and why shouldn’t you?) it might be hard to forgive your buddy for thwarting his every aim and ending up crippling or killing him despite the fact that all of it was ‘in character’ and made for an interesting and complex story. So, I think the take away for me is a renewed commitment to make the players and their characters the stars of the show, but still to encourage overall cooperation. Also, there’s some solid GMing advice on how to set up conflicts and vary them up, as well as how to set the scene and describe details and focus in on the parts of the story that will be most interesting (those directly leading to or involving conflict, specifically).

Now, on to the dice system itself. Like “Dogs in the Vineyard”, the core mechanic of “In a Wicked Age” is very back and forth, with a heavy narrative element interwoven with the dice rolling itself. First off, the rules say that the dice only come out when a character acts in some concrete way, and another character can and would interfere. No matter how heated a conversation becomes, the dice don’t come out until a character takes some action other than talking. I think this is a nice way to put the focus of character interaction on the roleplaying, rather than something like “okay, I successfully rolled my lie test, so he believes me” or what have you. For an example, I’m just going to talk about one on one conflict, but the rules provide for conflicts involving multiple parties. First off, when an action happens, each character chooses two forms that apply to the action. More than two might plausibly apply, but you just pick two. So, for example, if my character is stabbing yours to steal the jewel he needs to enact a dark ritual, he might roll “with violence” and “for myself”.  Each player rolls his two dice, and whoever has the highest single die roll takes the first move. The player taking the first move leaves his dice on the table and describes an action that fits with the two forms rolled. The other player picks up his dice, and after the first player finishes describing his action, he rolls them again. If the highest roll doubles or more the first players roll, he wins absolutely. If he equals or beats the first players roll, he takes the advantage and gets to roll an extra die subsequently. If the dice are lower, but more than half of the first players roll, the fight continues and the first player takes the advantage and rolls an extra die subsequently. If the second players dice are less than half, then the first player wins absolutely.  Play continues to the second round. In between rounds, the players can choose to negotiate rather than continuing to roll, and if both agree on some outcome, that’s what happens. Otherwise you keep rolling. The advantage die is always a D6 with pips, and it adds its score to the highest roll of whoever has it. Any fight will only go on for 3 rounds max. At the end of the 3rd round, there’s no ‘taking the advantage’. Instead, whoever rolls higher wins, and whoever rolls lower loses. Once the fight is over, the winner either exhausts the loser, or injures him, or else both parties negotiate. Exhausting lowers two forms, injuring lowers two others, and negotiated results can lower forms or be in-story outcomes, or some combination. But the winner can always choose to pick exhaustion or injury, so he has a ‘stick’ in the negotiations, and has no reason to accept a negotiated outcome that wouldn’t please him at least as much as exhausting or injuring his opponent. If a character ever has two forms go down to 0, he is out of the chapter. He might be dead, incapacitated, or whatever.

Now, this brings us to an interesting game mechanic that makes this largely PC dominated game work without the usual GM editorial discretion. There is a mechanic called “the owe list”. The way you get put on the owe list is to go up against another character who has higher dice in the conflict than you do, and to still be in the fight after the first round. Once your name is on the owe list, you’re guaranteed to go on to the next chapter, if you want to. Or you can scratch your name off for an advantage die in some conflict. NPCs never go on the owe list. What this means is that a character can’t be killed outright unless the controlling player decides that’s the coolest thing for the story. He can be ‘out’ and not be on the owe list and so not come back, which might make the most sense for him to be dead, but that’s still up to the player. I imagine this lack of ability to kill enemies outright might be frustrating to new players, though. Another cool thing about the way the owe list works, specifically the way you get on it, is that it drives characters to go for risky (and therefore more likely to be interesting) conflicts. You don’t just have two guys equally good at stuff always going at it. It rewards gumption and desperate moves, the meat and mead of compelling stories. The player at the top of the owe list also gets a special advantage: he is for sure in the next chapter (other players can choose to bring a character back by scratching them off the owe list) and he gets to pick what oracle will be used for that chapter, and to pick one of the four elements, rather than drawing it randomly. Interestingly, chapters can be before or after ones already played, and characters can come back at different ages, in different roles, or whatever. Particular strengths can be increased if a character returns ‘as is’ (i.e. from being on the owe list), but the forms never increase, you can just choose to shuffle them around. I think that this very limited character advancement takes some of the fun out of campaign play that a more traditional RPG provides.

Finally, not so much the rules, but the way the rules are written for “In a Wicked Age” provides some cool inspiration. The description of what the game is, and how to go about it, suggests you get your cool, creative friends, and that you serve wine and cheese and nuts. In other words, it presents the game as something for classy adults to do, not something for awkward teenagers with mountain dew (nothing against awkward teenagers with mountain dew roleplaying, I was there). Given where I’m at in my life, as well as my beliefs about RPGs, I thought this was a nice touch. I think a lot of people view RPGs as immature or hopelessly nerdy or just plain an odd way to spend your time. For whatever reason, it does seem that a good deal of roleplayers are awkward or odd, and this is off-putting to new players not used to such company. Having been awkward and odd myself, with a number of awkward and odd friends throughout the years, this isn’t something that bothers me, but it’s not a stereotype that helps bring in new players, which is the whole goal of my project! So, in addition to whatever decisions I make regarding the game rules and the genre and the setting and what have you, I will keep in mind the advice here to make the actual event, the physical space and attitude towards the game, something welcoming and intriguing to those who may be skeptical. Things like where you choose to play, what kind of snacks and drinks you have on hand, and so forth, can have a big impact on new players’ experience. The “quick start” nature of these rules is one thing that helps with that, since the long prep and character creation process has killed many a prospective roleplayers interest in the hobby.

So, in summary, “In a Wicked Age” has numerous elements I wish to use as inspiration, both philosophically and mechanically, but is a game I will wait to play “as is” until my players are a little more experienced with the hobby. As always, I look forward to discussing the above in the comments.

Agon

Posted in Projects, RPGs on March 18, 2010 by Jeff Russell

In this installment, I will continue my reviews of “Indie RPGs” that have recently made an impression on me. Today I’ll be talking about “Agon“, a game of mythical Greek heroes. First off, “Agon” is awesome. I absolutely love it, and if I had like minded players around me, I would run a game tomorrow. It is simple but rich, and it captures the feel of Greek mythology and the whole Greek ethos masterfully. And I’m not just talking out of my ass when I say that, as I have a degree in Classics, so consider it my semi-expert opinion that this game is very “Greek” in feel.

The way it achieves this feel is right there in the title: “Agon” is the Greek world for struggle or competition, but the meaning was much wider than either of those English words. In the ancient Greek mindset, everything was a competition, and it was the struggle for glory between men that the gods found most pleasing. Inherent to the Greek worldview was that everything could be done with more or less arete, or excellence, whether that was mending a shoe or killing a rival warrior, and that the only way to judge a person’s arete was through direct competition to see who came out on top. Who made the most beautiful tapestry? Who sang the best song? Who fought with the greatest valor? These questions, and the implicit question behind them, namely “Who is the better man (or woman)?”, could only be answered by directly striving against one another. Whoever achieved more rightfully gained more glory and was accorded better status.

This sets the stage for the key philosophical difference between “Agon” and other roleplaying games. In most RPGs, the player characters cooperate against foes and threats presented by the game master and succeed or fail as a group, pooling resources and winnings and gaining experience as a whole, divvied up evenly. In “Agon”, you still have a game master (the “antagonist”) and a group of PCs who help each other achieve quests, but the PCs are really vying against one another to be the best and most glorious. They don’t fight one another, but each player wants to make sure his character kills the Gorgon, steals the treasure, or wins the maiden, so that he gets the most glory. And the game tracks glory and unabashedly uses it as a scoreboard for which hero is winning. The analogy presented by the author, John Harper, is that it’s like a black jack game. The antagonist is the dealer, and the PCs are the players at the table. Everybody is competing against the dealer, but the real competition is against the other players. But like a card game among friends, since everyone comes to the table knowing they’re trying to beat the pants off of each other, there’s no hard feelings. I think this spirit of friendly competition is helped by the fact that the player heroes never directly fight each other, instead they do help each other fight, but they’re still trying to each achieve the most individually.

Getting into the game, the antagonist doesn’t have to worry about ambiguity of what the players need to accomplish, as the default way of setting up adventure is for a god to literally descend from the heavens and impart a quest upon the heroes. Sure, it lacks subtlety, but it lets the players get right into what they’re there for: heroic exploits! Also, it’s entirely in keeping with the Greek mythological flavor, and the game makes no bones about not being about subtle character development or complex storylines. That being said, some adventures available for free from Ben Robbins, the author of the Ars Ludi game design blog I’ve mentioned before, do a good job of showing that stories can be straight forward and still have plenty of flavor and interest.
The quest system also comes with defined objectives that the antagonist determines for the quest (usually 3-5 per quest). These aren’t necessarily laid out at the beginning of the quest, allowing for some roleplaying and investigation opportunities, but there’s some solid GM advice given here that is repeated in “Spirt of the Century”, to be reviewed later: the GM’s job is not to hide information from players or keep secrets, it is to provide exciting situations for them to interact with. In other words, you should give more than enough clues for players who are trying at all to find out what they should be doing and where. There’s another reason for the codified quest and objective system that allows the fiercely competitive nature of Agon to be fair: strife.

Strife is a pretty cool innovation. In most games, the GM has total fiat over everything that isn’t directly under a player character’s control. His only restraint is the real-world social restriction of ending up with no players if he abuses his in-game authority. In Agon, however, the GM has a budget called “Strife”. If you’re familiar with wargaming, strife works a lot like points systems in many games. The GMing rules provide costs for using strife to create obstacles, NPCs, and villains. During game play, he can also use left-over strife on the fly to make given conflicts more difficult. Having a budget like this gives the GM license to be as tough as possible on the players, because the game is designed so that he only gets as much strife as the players can theoretically handle (though it will be challenging). The flip side of the coin is that the harder the GM makes any villain or situation, the more glory the players win for beating it. This whole notion of restraints on the GM fits into the similar ethos present in “Dogs in the Vineyard” and “In a Wicked Age” where traditional player/GM roles are questioned and modified, usually giving more in-game power and responsibility to the players. I’m all for such changes, as even if you decide you still like a more traditional roleplaying format, having played games like this will make you better at being either a player or a GM.

Now, if it hasn’t become apparent by now, Agon is a heavily rules-dependent game. Almost everything that happens in the game from an argument to GM NPC creation, is governed by defined rules rather than loose guidelines.This would have the potential to be stifling, except that the rules are admirably straight forward and the competitive philosophy of the game is straightforwardly and unashamedly presented everywhere to remind you why the rules are so stressed. This brings up one of the guidelines of the game, notable in the use of strife: nobody gets anything for free. Any time there’s a conflict of interest, the dice come out. Nothing happens because “it should” or “it’d be good for the story”. No rewards are free, but then neither are any challenges free for the GM. This guideline also seems to me to be a helpful rule of thumb to keep in mind for less competitive or rules-focused games on when to break out the dice and when not to: dice are for conflicts of interest. Any time there’s not a conflict of interest, don’t bother with dice. But when there are, it’s probably more satisfying to the group to have the dice decide it, unless you’re purposely playing a game with a more communal storytelling feel to it.

Okay, so, having said that the rules are very important, let’s shakedown the core mechanic. Stats are listed as dice, from d4 up to d12, with d4 being ‘not very good at’ and d12 being ‘legendary/divine’, and d6 being average. For a conflict you roll all relevant dice (usually 2 or 3) and whoever has the highest single number showing wins. Ties go to the aggressor. And that’s it! See what I mean about simplicity? Now, of course there are wrinkles to make the game interesting, such as being able to spend divine favor points for extra dice or rerolls, but as with “Dogs in the Vineyard” the scale of dice means that bigger dice are more likely to win, but not guaranteed. Unlike “Dogs in the Vineyard” you don’t have as much leeway with rolling more of a lower die rather than fewer dice with more sides.  I like the fact that ties go to the aggressor, as this is a subtle but useful incentive to players to do things decisively, as befits Greek heroes.

Another way that larger sided dice come in, besides giving you a better probability of winning is that for every 4 points you beat your opponent by, you gain a “victory”, and additional victories are useful in various ways. In combat, they provide more injuries, and in other situations they determine with how much flair you’ve overcome your opponent or an obstacle. In situations where all heroes are rolling against the same challenge (like fording a raging river) the one with the most victories does it best/fastest and gets a bonus glory point!

A cool factor is that your “base die” that is used in all rolls is your “name die”. Mortals start with a d6, half divine characters start with a d8. In addition to your name, you choose an epithet (fleet-footed, clever-eyed, et cetera) that grants you bonuses to certain kinds of rolls as appropriate. This is a subtle but awesome way to hammer home the Greek/Heroic flavor, making your name have in-game effect.  All of your stats are divided into 4 categories of 4 stats each. Arete includes Insight, Grace, Might, and Spirit. Craft includes Lore, Music, Orate, and Heal. Sport has Athletics, Cunning, Hunt, and Wrestle. Battle includes Aim, Shield, Spear, and Sword. And that’s it on stats. You don’t have any skills in addition to stats, rather different situations are modeled by combining different stats, and more complicated weapons rules are avoided by combining two facts: one, the weapons listed (bows, javelins, spears, swords, shields) were pretty much the only weapons used by heroic Bronze Age Greeks, and two, you can pretty much ‘map’ other weapons onto the existing weapons without too much trouble because the combat is tactical but somewhat abstract. So it doesn’t really matter if you roll exactly the same thing for a javelin as for a ‘furious charge’, since the only parts that matter in game are range and damage. This makes creating monsters really easy as whatever nutty natural attacks they have, they just count as bows, javelins, spears, swords, or shields.

The four categories of stats are important because you can trade around ‘points’ in each category to get different dice. For example, within “Arete”, if you want to up Insight from a D6 to a D8, you can lower Grace from a D6 to a D4. But you couldn’t trade a die from the “Craft” category to up Insight in the  “Arete” category. Also, in some types of non-combat conflict, the categories are important.

An aspect of character creation that I really like is the “achievements/oaths” method. In this, at character creation, every character engages in a simple contest with each other character. When it’s your turn to go around to each character, you get to pick what the contest is, but then that person will get a chance to choose a contest with you. These can either be direct like “we wrestle each other” or less direct like “we both engage in stealth to see who is more successful at sneaking into the enemy camp back in the war”. Whoever wins the contest gets an “oath” from the other player. Oaths are an actual mechanic whereby a player owes another player direct in-game help of a mechanical nature. The player holding the oath can choose any time to call in the favor. This system is neat for two reasons. For one thing, the little vignettes of each contest give the heroes a built-in history, explaining why they’re traveling together killing monsters and liberating maidens and such. Secondly, it creates a mechanically-reinforced mutual dependence between players. Oaths can force cooperation that might be held back, but you have to deal with the shame of needing help on something (and you have to share the glory when you call in oaths). Also, as the game goes on, oaths are the primary currency in inter-player bargaining (or even bargaining with NPCs). You can say “okay, I’ll rid your village of these pesky harpies, but you owe me three oaths for it” or you can be like “hey, heal me in this break, and I’ll give you an oath”. This encourages at the same time friendly competition as well as cooperation (even if grudging cooperation).

Now, going back to the core notion that any time someone has a conflict of interest or seeks an advantage a contest happens, it is important for players to clearly state their goals whenever they take an action. This allows the antagonist to determine if it would gain the hero an advantage or come into conflict with some other entity. If not, the action happens, no problem. If it does, then a contest happens. There are two types of contests, simple, and battle. Battle is not necessarily physical combat, as you can have a rhetoric battle or a lute playing battle, or an involved wrestling match, or whatever. But obviously the most common more in-depth contest is actual fighting. Simple contests are where all involved parties roll the relevant dice, compare results, and you’re done. Any heroes participating who succeed gain glory, but the winner gets an extra glory. Battles are more involved affairs with a series of exchanges between opponents and usually have more at stake than simple contests. A neat feature of the rules, though, is that player characters reserve the right to “Invoke Hubris” after any simple contest. This escalates a simple contest into a battle, and the loser of the simple contest goes into the battle with a number of wounds equal to the victories rolled by the winner of the simple contest.

I won’t do a play by play of the battle system here, but essentially it’s a series of simple contests with the addition of an initiative system and an abstracted range rule (you have a vertical strip divided into zones. On your turn you can move either yourself or an opponent a certain number of zones closer or farther. Different weapons work optimally at different ranges) that allows a surprising amount of tactical interest while remaining quite simple.
With any contest, simple or battle, things are at stake. Something tangible, besides glory points, always comes out of a contest, whether that’s an advantage against a foe in an upcoming battle, or an impairment for the loser or vital information (don’t look at the medusa or you’ll be turned to stone, or you have to burn the heads off the hydra, or whatever). Impairment is where one of your abilities goes down by a die level, and the first level of impairment is always against the stat used in the contest. In a contest, either the antagonist will dictate which ability is used, or the players will be able to phrase what they’re doing in a manner to make it clear what ability applies. A neat exception, though, is that you can opt to use a “creative ability” to add an extra die to your roll. All you have to do is describe adequately how the ability is being used in the contest. If you use an extra ability, though, it gets impaired afterwards win or lose (all that extra effort!). So, for example, say a foot race calls for a name + athletics roll. But you explain that your character is going to use his cunning to find a short cut, while I explain that my character will use hunting to find a deer trail through the dense woods. So you’d roll name + athletics + cunning, while I’d roll name + athletics + hunting, but afterwards no matter how we did on the contest, your cunning would be impaired as would my hunting.

Now, the one semi-exception to the ‘nothing happens just because it should’ rule is with ‘obstacle contests’. In these contests, the outcome will happen one way or another, but winning allows the heroes to do it easily and with style, while losing makes them tired and struggle harder. Examples include things like crossing a river or purchasing from a hard-driving merchant. It would be boring for the hero to be stuck on one side of the river or not to acquire the necessary item, but if he wins he swims across easily and without danger or strikes a good deal with the guy, but if he loses he wears himself out crossing or gets cheated. Either way he’s across the river or in possession of the object, but the in-game effect doesn’t come for free. Contests can also be ‘dangerous’ where losing causes wounds in addition to impairment, but heroes gain extra glory for beating them, and antagonists must spend strife to make them dangerous.

As I said, I’m not going to go into the battle system, but I’ll summarize by saying that it’s relatively simple but detailed enough to be interesting. Also, since glory is awarded based on individual action, there is an inherent tension in needing to cooperate to defeat foes, but wanting to prevent the other heroes from doing better than you. In addition to being the game’s “scoreboard”, glory works as the experience of the game. 10 glory = 1 advance, and advances buy you bigger dice at a rate equal to half the sides of the current die. So, to go from a d6 to a d8, you’d pay 3 advances. From a d8 to a d10 would be 4 advances, and so on. You must advance to each die in turn, you can’t skip any. Each advance also ups your ‘legend’ which is the scoreboard of the game. The hero with the highest legend gets to add +2 to any orate rolls to determine who makes decisions for the hero band (yup, you even roll who’s the leader!).

In addition to glory, you have another tracker called “Fate”. Mortals start with 0, but half-divine heroes start at 8. Fate only goes up, never down. Your fate goes up when your hero is defeated in a battle, when you complete a quest successfully, or when you challenge a god to a contest in order to resist their demand that you go on a quest. In addition to these, you can chose to up your fate for in game benefits like not taking damage from an attack. or to get rid of impairment. Also, as your fate goes up, your name die increases to a d8, d10, and d12. Here’s the catch, though. Fate is quite literally a ticking clock on your heroic career. When your fate is filled up (16 boxes, so half-divine characters start out more powerful but have half the time to be glorious) your hero is done. You can look at a handy little chart to see how your final legend score means you meet your end (glorious battle, horrible shame, or old and fat and happy). Once your hero retires or is dead, you get to create a new hero who’s a little more powerful (based on how many quests your prior hero completed, so no running up the fate on purpose to get to a better hero!) than your old hero was to start. I rather like the tension between cost and benefit and various trade-offs here, and I think it’s a nifty game mechanic.

The whole game, really, is all about cost/benefit trade-offs. GMs have to spend strife to make challenges. Players end up giving the GM more strife whenever they rest to heal and recover. Players may expect oaths if they help you out. And so forth. It makes for interesting decision making and gives yet another thing to be competitive over.
Like with the town creation in “Dogs in the Vineyard”, “Agon” has a really nifty island creation system. It can be used randomly or you can choose elements from the various tables (terrain types, residents, monsters, et cetera) to your taste. But it provides ready made sources of quests and conflict to get involved in. I fully plan on taking the idea of rich, interesting random setting generation and adding it into my toolbox for pick-up games that have to be created on the fly. Other elements of the GMing chapter I really appreciated were really good minion rules for mowing through hordes of lesser enemies, and the advice on NPC creation. It says that you should remember that the PCs are the stars of the show, but that doesn’t mean NPCs should be flat or boring. Rather, you should ensure that your NPCs have motivations that will create interest through the characters. Whether it’s someone who thinks the heroes will solve all his problems or someone who thinks killing them will solve all his problems, his focus of action should lead to the PCs so that he remains relevant and interesting to the group and keeps the focus on the players.

Finally, at the back of the book, the author provides a list of suggested variants and what rules changes would be necessary. He points out that a Norse variant would require almost no mechanical changes and only really flavor ones. This idea struck me as so cool that I’m working on a Norse variant. I emailed Mr. Harper about permission to do this and any restraints he wanted on distribution, and he gave me the go ahead on making it and distributing it however I like, so expect to see it here when I finish! I’m equally excited about either running a straight-up Greek Agon game or the Norse variant once I get it hammered out.

That being said, I don’t think Agon would be the best starter game for new RPG players. I don’t want my players’ first experience with RPGs to be in competition with each other, since most games do not operate that way, and it can in fact be quite rude to be actively competitive with your fellow party members in some games. I feel like a better method of development would be to get used to cooperating and then learn to compete in a friendly fashion rather than the other way around. Also, Agon is less narratively/story focused than I’d like to start players out on for reasons discussed in some of my other posts. Still, with the right group of players (maybe ones more used to strategy board games than RPGs) this might be just the ticket, as you’re still competing against your friends, but you’re controlling a single hero rather than armies or gathering resources or what have you. As always, questions, comments, and even attacks are all welcome.

Dogs in the Vineyard

Posted in Projects, RPGs on March 18, 2010 by Jeff Russell

Okay, long time, no post. I apologize, and will try to make with the regular updates!

For the moment, I’m going to set aside my more general and theoretical speculation about RPGs and discuss some concrete examples. Of course, I plan to sneak general applicability into my discussion, but I’ve recently become acquainted with some games that get me very excited, and I want to talk about why. This is still going to be a part of my ‘starter RPG’ series, because I approached these rules not only as potentially fun games in and of themselves, but with a critical eye towards innovations and techniques worth steeling, with ease of use by new players as the lens through which I viewed these innovations.

My first game to discuss is going to be “Dogs in the Vineyard“. I mentioned this game in my last post as an example of a just barely alternate history western. No steam powered airships or undead gunmen, just lots of pseudo-Mormons. That being said, the game purposely leaves the setting vague and invites you to experiment and switch things around to your and your players’ tastes. This game also has the distinction of being one of two on my list by the same creator, D. Vincent Baker. His games were highly recommended throughout the online RPG community as great examples of what “Indie Games” can and should be, and I’ve taken to them like a weasel to a bag full of suet.

As a general introduction to the game, players take on the role of ‘Dogs’, the colloquial name for protectors of the faithful. “The Faith” is purposely left vague, but as presented in the game is basically early Mormonism. The Dogs journey from town to town and see to the spiritual ills of the communities. But they’re not priests in the normal sense, as their job is to see only to those spiritual troubles that have spilled into concrete actions, like spite, jealousy, and murder. With that established, you basically have a reason for a group of people to go from town to town and get into conflicts in good wild west fashion.

The first interesting feature of the DITV rules is that dice are used as stats, from D4s up through D10s. Stats can also be a mix, e.g. 2D6 1D4, which would mean that stat has all three of those dice to put towards a conflict. More on how the dice are used in conflict resolution in a moment. What’s cool here is that higher numbers beat out lower numbers, so while a D6 gives you a better probability of beating a D4, a 3 beats a 1 whatever die it’s rolled on.  You’ll also see that the number of dice versus the value of the dice (i.e. having 2D6 rather than 1D8) has more effect than just smoothing out your probability. I like this feature because D&D tricks a lot of us into the default position of “die roll plus number vs difficulty”, or if you’re more old school “die roll versus number, roll lower” to succeed. Not that there’s anything wrong with a roll + stat (+ skill) type approach, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that this isn’t the only way to do it. Of course, another popular system, Storyteller is similar, where your stats and skills are basically the number of D10s you roll vs a target number, and then you see how many successes you have, but the introduction of multiple dice types adds some subtlety. Plus all those crazy dice are cool.

What’s really cool, though, is not that you use dice for stats, but how those dice factor into conflict resolution. First off, you determine what’s “at stake” in a conflict. At the end of the conflict, whoever is left will get to decide what happens to what’s at stake. Then you figure out the specifics of where it’s taking place (anything that might be important like who’s watching, chairs that could be smashed, exits that could be escaped through, et cetera). Then you figure out who’s participating. At this point, everybody participating takes up the relevant dice and throws them all at once. The dice you roll depend on what category the conflict starts out in: Just talking, physical, physical fighting, and gunplay. If a character has a relationship at stake, or has relationship dice representing his opponent in the conflict, he rolls the relevant relationship dice (relationship dice can cover the obvious like brother, uncle, or what have you, as well as less obvious like ‘the town drunk I helped home one time’). That’s it for the initial dice. Dice for traits and things come up when and if they’re used.

So, everybody involved has their dice rolled and out on the table. Whoever’s opening the conflict starts out by picking two dice to use as his first “raise”. You can choose any two of your dice, and as you put them forward, you must describe what action those dice represent. The action is something your opponent can’t ignore, and must fit the scope of the conflict you’re currently at (so if you’re just talking, you can’t describe your action as punching a guy in the face, you have to escalate to physical conflict for that).

Your opponent will then attempt to ‘see’ your raise. He can put forward, one, two, or more dice to see. If he can match your raise with only one die, he has “reversed the blow” and takes no negative effect, and in fact reverses it against you. He gets to keep that die to use when it’s his turn to raise. If he uses two dice to see, he has somehow negated the effect of your action with no negative effect to either of you. If it takes 3 or more dice to see, your opponent “takes the blow”, which means he’s still in the conflict, but he takes a negative effect for your action. After the conflict is resolved, he’ll take a number of fallout dice equal to how many dice he had to see with. The size of the fallout dice increases depending on the type of conflict (each fallout die from just talking is a d4, while fallout dice from shooting are d10s). Finally, if an opponent can’t or won’t see a raise, he can ‘give’, which means he’s out of the conflict, but he doesn’t take any further fallout dice.

Players then take turns raising and seeing. If there are more than two opponents, one player will raise, each other affected by your action will see, then the next player will raise and each other will see, and so on. Now, let’s say you run out of dice to see or raise, but you’re not happy with where the conflict is ending, what do you do? You escalate! This is where you go from, say, just talking to making a break for it, or throwing a punch, or drawing a gun. When you escalate, you look at what stats are appropriate to the new type of conflict and roll those dice. You can only ever roll a stat, trait, or thing once in a conflict, so if you’ve already used one stat for a lesser type of conflict, you don’t reroll it when you escalate. Likewise, once you’ve introduced a trait or item, you don’t get to roll it again no matter how many times you use that trait or thing. Eventually, somebody gives by choice or by being out of things they can roll, and whoever is left in the conflict decides what happens with what’s at stake.

After the conflict, those fallout dice mentioned get rolled, and depending on what’s rolled, you get experience, short term effects, long term effects, minor injuries, serious injuries, or you’re dying. Note that due to the size of dice associated with different types of conflict, you can’t get injured from a conflict that never escalates past ‘just talking’ and you can’t end up ‘dying’ unless guns come into the picture (a bit of dramatic license here, since obviously stabbing or severe beating could kill someone, but the game is set up so that such unglamorous things won’t off your character unless you want them to for dramatic reasons).

That’s a really rough outline of the conflict resolution, and examples make it much clearer, but I don’t want to reproduce too much of the rules here. The point is that the rules are heavily narratively focused, and they give a lot of narrative power to the players, since if they win the conflict, they dictate how it ends and what effects it has. A lot of the ‘fallout’ also isn’t necessarily bad, as even ostensibly negative effects can help you have more say in narrative events (for example, you might do something like gain relationship dice of ‘hated foe’ with the guy who kicked your ass, which could be used any time you’re in conflict with him from then on). I also like the back and forth nature of conflict resolution. One of the subtler points of the system is that it quietly encourages both the players and the GMs to escalate conflicts while still allowing meaningful resolution without escalation.

The system for traits and things is extremely open ended. You’re given a certain number of dice to assign, and you can make up whatever traits or things you want with those dice. While some obviously useful things can be chosen like “Good Shot”, you can also go for potentially more interesting approaches, like having a trait “I love my gun”. Sure, the first one would come up whenever you need to shoot well, but the second one might have more scope, but still might help out when making a shot with your particular gun. Even seemingly non-useful things like “I’m a drunk” can give you more say in certain conflicts, but in others your opponent gets to use them. I wouldn’t recommend this system to extremely munchkiny players, as the only limit on ‘min/maxing’ is the combined opinion of GM and players. With a group sufficiently dedicated to narrative play, however, it is an extremely flexible and empowering tool for coming up with and resolving in-game conflicts.
Which leads me to perhaps the most abstract benefit of these rules I gleaned, namely the focus on conflict. You’ll see the same thing when I review “In a Wicked Age” by the same designer. In both games he elucidates that the key source of interest in an RPG is conflict in which the players participate. This is usually most obviously represented by the strong focus on combat in most RPGs, but it supports a conclusion I discovered on my own years ago with one of my first forays into game design. Around about 6th and 7th grade, a few friends of mine and I tooled around with on-the fly games in order to play in settings for which we had no game system at the time (which was pretty much everything except D&D – we played a Final Fantasy III RPG, a Middle Earth RPG, and numerous others). After a while, I got bored with doing nothing but proceeding from fight to fight and sought the opposite extreme of a game with no fighting. I created a game based on running your own business and only ever ran a session or two with a friend of mine as the only player. Pretty quickly the reason for fights in games became evident: it was awfully boring. Strangely enough, my friend who I was running for enjoyed it and requested to play it for some time after, but I’d always put him off because I got bored running it with no fights to design and run. What I had failed to grasp was that conflict is what provides excitement and drama, and at the time I was too inexperienced and unknowledgeable to create conflict that wasn’t fighting. Both “Dogs in the Vineyard” and “In a Wicked Age” do an excellent job of pointing out that conflict comes in many forms and providing rules for handling all those forms consistently.

Finally, one of the most useful parts of the rules is its system for town generation. Not simply a system for coming up with what buildings and businesses exist in a town, it starts with the assumption that the players wouldn’t go there, or at least play time wouldn’t be used, if there were no conflicts there. So, the system also creates ready made conflicts for the players to walk into the middle of. It’s one of the best ways I’ve ever seen to quickly and easily create a dynamic and engaging environment for gameplay, and it provides for rich roleplaying and decision making without any sort of overarching storyline or plot. In fact, in this game as well as in “In a Wicked Age”, D. Vincent Baker discourages the GM from having set storylines in mind, saying that this takes away agency from the players and results in something less like a game and more like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book with the GM as the author. This is a valuable point to keep in mind, because most GMs, myself included, love creating intricate worlds and epic storylines (it’s a large part of why we want to GM instead of play). The trouble is that your job as GM is not to provide novel-worthy plots or history book worthy detailed settings, it is to facilitate your players having a good time, and if your players don’t want to explore the plot or world details that you’ve painstakingly created, it’s not fun to railroad them into it anyway. Fortunately, both of his RPGs I’ve read do an amazingly job of providing resources to come up with interesting, rich roleplaying situations on the fly that allow tons of room for player ownership and involvement.

So, I’ll close with an analysis of what I do and don’t want to take away from these rules for a starter RPG and why I don’t think I’ll use it “as is” and instead will continue with designing my own. To address the last point first, I have to admit that part of the reason for designing my own game is because I like designing games. I’m trying to not let that be the leading reason, as having a fully home grown game that is less readily available than some other already created game inherently limits its usefulness and options, as any players that get used to it will only be able to play it with me running it or with our circle of gamers. So I’m trying to keep an open mind about finding more widely popular games that adequately address all of the issues I want to see covered in a starter RPG. That being said, while I think “Dogs in the Vineyard” is an excellent game that I would love to run or play, I don’t think it’s the best choice for a brand new group. First off, it demands a lot of its players as well as its GM. I feel like the level of player control of narrative and responsibility in choosing traits and things for character development reasons rather than concrete benefit might be a little much for people first introduced to gaming. On the other hand, maybe setting the bar high on such levels of player responsibility and involvement would be inculcating good habits. I also feel that the core mechanic, while elegant and flavorful, is a bit much to explain to complete neophytes, though the popularity of poker makes the rounds of ‘raises’ and ‘sees’ perhaps more accessible. Also, the game lends itself to weighty moral questions and dramatic situations rather than the easier pleasures of high adventure and heroics. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’d like there to be some elements of the fantastical in my starter game so that there’s something to grab the imagination. As always, I look forward to your thoughts on all of my conclusions. Next up I’ll discuss a game that has grabbed me so strong I’m working on an expansion for it!