Musings on rules

Once, at the dawn of my roleplaying career, I had convinced a friend to try DMing, letting me be a player for once. It was, naturally, D&D. We had ourselves a decent enough adventure, and fought some robotic wolves at some point. An enjoyable experience. Later, I asked him what stats he used for the monsters. He said he used regular wolves, but wanted to make them tougher, so he didn’t track their hit points. Instead, they died after a few rounds, when he felt like the fight had gone on long enough.

The fight was a lie. The fight was exactly the same. We still stabbed the wolves, were bit in return and prevailed in the end. What changed? While individual rolls were a waste of time, the decision to fight did matter: we could have, perhaps, found a way to sneak past them. The starting point (decision to fight) and the destination (wolves dead) stayed the same, it’s the actual journey in the middle that turned out to have been meaningless. Except even that is not quite true. We still enjoyed rolling the dice, and imagining the hits and misses.

Don’t get me wrong, that was a terrible thing to do, but mainly because it violated the rules of the game that we thought we understood. One can easily imagine a system where a fight (or any other scene) only goes on as long as it’s interesting. In fact, that’s a backup rule or suggestion in many games: wrap things up and move on if players start getting bored. And in systems without such rules, people have invented tools like Combat Out for D&D 4e, ways to end a combat once the victor is determined or a specific condition is met.

Generalizing, many if not most games have the so-called rule zero: ignore the rules if that makes your game better. And on the flip side of that is the illusionism approach: the belief that the GM cannot cheat, and should be free to lie about the dice rolls and other mechanical elements to make the game better. This may involve helping a recurring villain get away, saving the party from an unlucky TPK or engineering one.

Then why even have rules? Why do we bother with mechanics if they inevitably get in the way of the experience we wish to have? Some people quite happily play freeform, after all. Others avoid using any rules for the majority of their game time, e.g. playing a social intrigue D&D game. In no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustively, rules provide impartiality, surprise, structure, and fun.

The fun part is the easiest to explain: by most definitions, you can’t have a game without rules. And we like games. We like to roll dice, to demonstrate our mastery of the rules and be rewarded for it. Then again, I already mentioned freeform games here, and I’m not particularly interested in declaring something Not A Roleplaying Game. A different kind of enjoyment can undoubtedly be had even without rules.

Rules allow players and GM alike to anticipate likely outcomes of their actions. They make it harder for a GM to play favorites with their players, and make it easier to be consistent. Rules also take on the blame. It wasn’t the GM that killed you, it were the dice. Rules make sure the game is fair. This is where the desire for game balance comes from: it is a problem if the players perceive, whether correctly or not, the game itself to not be fair.

Then again, there are entire playstyles dedicated to the idea of GM knowing best, like the aforementioned illusionism. “Rulings, not rules.” Indeed, some players reject the idea of rules governing some of their activities, such as social interactions or exploration.

By and large, the impartiality of rules is an illusion anyway, though a useful one. In all but the most restrictive games, the GM has leeway to interpret an event in a variety of ways, and to decide whether to apply mechanics at all. Fate is particularly noteworthy here: its rules govern narrative circumstances rather than the in-game situation. Meaning the GM (hopefully with cooperation of the players) chooses which rules to apply. Not to mention the ability to set up any kind of situation in the first place. It’s not against the rules to throw a tarrasque against a 1st level party, just not advised. Declaring that Rocks Fall, Everyone Die is legit, too.

Related to impartiality is the capacity of a game to surprise us, to choose the outcome for us. More than that, true surprise comes from unexpected outcomes rules can provide. Not just path A or B, but an entirely unforeseen path C opened up by a (un)lucky critical hit. 13th Age’s owlbear exemplifies this: most of the time it’s just a monster to be fought, but it could rip your arm off, forcing the story in a new, bloody, direction. Then again, the GM can certainly surprise players without any rules, and players are notorious for doing the same to the GM.

So far, everything the rules do, we can achieve otherwise. The last element left is structure, and this is, I believe, the main benefit mechanics provide. Roleplaying games are an interactive medium. A group creates their own game every time they sit down to play. We breathe life into it, use our imagination to create and live out stories of our characters. And while we do so, we have the rules, the mechanics, to fall back on. Any time we don’t know what to do, what to choose, we can lean on them. If you’ll forgive me waxing metaphorical for a moment, if a roleplaying game is a plant, its rules are the structure around which it entwines as it grows, as we play it. And just as a structure can offer support, it can be stifling.

We don’t need the rules. But with them, we can reach higher, go to places we wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Constraints breed creativity, being forced to grow in a certain direction gives the plant a shape. Just be sure you picked the right rules for the game you wish to play.

Especially Nasty – Trollflesh Golem

Flesh golems are stitched together from the bodies of many different creatures. They are disturbing in their own right, but what if it wasn’t made up of just any old dead creatures? What if the parts weren’t dead at all?

Trollflesh Golem

Huge 4th level wrecker

Initiative: +7

Sweeping claws +9 vs AC (2 attacks) – 21 damage

Patchwork regeneration 15: While a trollflesh golem is damaged, it heals 15 hit points at the start of the golem’s turn.

When the golem is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, or suffers a critical hit, its regeneration is permanently reduced by 5 as stitches come undone and a large chunk of its body falls off. It grows rapidly if haphazardly, becoming a spasming trollflesh – roll initiative as it joins the fight.

Dropping a trollflesh golem to 0 hp doesn’t kill it.

Ignore this ability once the trollflesh golem’s patchwork regeneration is reduced to 0.

Stitched together: a trollflesh golem is vulnerable to weapon attacks.

Energy magnet: Whenever a spell that causes cold, fire, force, lightning, or negative energy damage targets one of the flesh golem’s nearby allies, the trollflesh golem has a 50% chance of becoming the main target instead. Therefore, spells that affect groups would spread out from the trollflesh golem.

Weakness of the flesh: Unlike other golems, troll flesh golems are not immune to effects and can be affected by the fears and madness of mortals.

AC 18

PD 17      HP 150

MD 13

Nastier specials:

Something had to keep the trolls from regenerating all this time. You’re about to find out what it was.

Exposed necrotic core: Whenever a creature engaged with a trollflesh golem makes a natural odd hit or miss against it, the attacker suffers necrotic damage equal to 15 minus the golem’s regeneration.

Spasming Trollflesh

It’s a jumble of claws and muscle trying desperately to regrow, but it’s forgotten what it used to be. It doesn’t even have a head. Unfortunately, attacking everything around it seems to be in muscle memory.

4th level wrecker

Initiative: +8

Frantic Spasms +9 vs AC – 7 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: The spasming trollflesh pops free, moves to a random nearby creature and repeats the attack against it.

Maddened regeneration: spasming trollflesh heals to full health at the start of its turn. Reducing it to 0 hp kills it. When the trollflesh is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, it can’t regenerate during its next turn.

AC 18

PD 17       HP 28

MD 13

Why are narrative games so hard to grok?

Nice clickbaity headline, well done. But it’s true – narrative, “modern” games like Fate or Dungeon World are seemingly much harder to run, or even play, correctly, as compared to the more “traditional” games like D&D. By “running the game correctly” I mean using the rules to their full potential and in a manner articulated by the game’s authors. Are the narrative games terrible at explaining themselves, are they inherently unintuitive, is there a problem at all?

The titular observation is based on personal experience (though backed by the prevalence of answers on Fate or DW questions on RPG.SE amounting to “you’re doing it wrong, no really”), so some discussion of said personal experience is warranted. I’d started running RPGs with the release of the preview of D&D 3.0, some sort of quickstart pdf with 1st level characters and a fight against skeletons. As is fairly common, I was the only person in the group dedicated enough to read all the rules, so I ended up running the games. We worked our way through the free adventures WotC had put up on ther website. They were straightforward hack-n-slash affairs, or maybe that was the best I could manage at the time. I wasn’t a good GM, far from it. That took years of practice, of very gradually expanding my range, of trying different approaches, of arguing on an Internet forum (hi, Rolemancer/GameForums), of learning from other GMs (it took moving to a different country to find them).

Through it all, I’ve never felt I was running D&D incorrectly. Sometimes I would misunderstand the way a rule worked – mistakes happened. Often I would not get the experience I expected. I didn’t necessarily have great mastery of D&D 3.5 – not on the level of character optimization boards. As mentioned, the games frequently wouldn’t be any good, just an unsatisfying sequence of fights. And of course I’d get mired in plenty of online arguments about superiority of particular playstyles – but that’s just what they were, playstyles. “Roleplaying vs rollplaying”. I never had a feeling that I’m just not getting how to run D&D, though, only that I wasn’t getting how to be a good GM.

With well over a decade of GMing experience (oh boy), I finally decided to get out of the comfort blanket that is D&D. The tag “First Impressions” documents the more noteworthy of my forays. There were a few smaller games which we tried to play and simply couldn’t get to work for us – they didn’t make it onto the blog. Even in the games that did, a common theme would emerge: I’d read the book, and be uncertain I could actually run the game well. I’d read it again. Then I’d go online and look for existing discussion, easily finding other people with same concerns, which hardly dissuaded my fears.

This was particularly notable with Fate: the entire first campaign I ran in it was essentially a learning experience, both for myself and my players – seasoned roleplayers, all. I still don’t use compels very well. I “cheat” in Apocalypse Engine games I run – I rarely think in terms of GM moves, simply running it as any other game. That’s, pretty explicitly, against the rules.

But weren’t narrative games meant to more naturally emulate the storytelling process we all grow up with? Dungeon World was once described as “D&D you always thought you were playing”. What gives? Why are narrative games so damn hard to grock?

A part of it is due to the “narrative game vocabulary” still being developed. Roleplaying itself is still a relatively new hobby. Within it, certain playstyles have had decades longer and a whole bunch more games to grow, to figure out how to articulate their concepts. Again, take Fate as an example: it’s gotten so much clearer over the years. It’s progressed both in weeding out the unnecessary clutter from its rules, and in how it explains these rules. This process will undoubtedly continue.

But the main reason narrative games are hard to run the way they’re meant to be is due to narrative games codifying how they’re meant to be run. Narrative games have Opinions. Unlike traditional games, which give you tools to resolve situations that come up in typical scenarios of the game, narrative games also give you tools for creating these scenarios. Fail to use those well, and you fail to play the game well.

Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in D&D? You have a quest to get a MacGuffin, who cares, roll Initiative. Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in Dungeon World? The party had rolled a 3 on their Carouse move, choosing to gain useful information but letting things get really out of hand and getting entangled in the process. GM offered them an opportunity: they can get out of jail if they promise to go deal with goblins who’ve been robbing caravans. They can even keep whatever’s already been stolen. Quest, MacGuffin, etc. But they flow directly from the game rules.

Naturally, you can, even should, have the exact same sequence of events in a traditional game. It’s not like narrative games invented cause and effect. You don’t need the rules to have a satisfying story. It is, however, telling how eager we are to adapt these narrative shaping structures to other games – e.g. Dungeon World Fronts in D&D by Sly Flourish.

And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. A traditional game doesn’t care if you have a satisfying story. It has some opinions on what stories should occur within it, and its mechanics do have an effect on these stories – even such seemingly minor rules elements as hit points matter. But, because D&D doesn’t exist, a sequence of fights in 5×5 rooms is just as much a proper D&D game as a game of courtly intrigue and noble duels. As long as you roll a d20 + attack bonus and compare it to the AC of the target, you’re good.

In contrast, narrative games have story bits and GMing practices “hardcoded” into their rules. Failure to compel PCs in Fate means failure to involve them in the plot. Failure to come up with an interesting consequence to a bad roll in DW calls into question the necessity of that roll in the first place. By making these narrative elements explicit, narrative games make our failures to implement them explicit.

And finally, if the group isn’t after the narrative elements the game wants them to employ, or if the mechanics are not well written or well explained, making it hard to reconcile the rules-mandated narrative element with the rest of the story, it comes off as clunky. A failure to use an unwieldy tool the purpose of which you don’t quite understand.

With mixed success (hah), narrative games describe tools, constraints, and practices they believe will lead to the game being played not just correctly, but well. Narrative games are hard to grok, because being a good GM is hard to grok. And it may be even harder to grok what the game considers to be a good GM.

Especially Nasty – Wereowlbear

Wereowlbear

Were. Owl. Bear.

Large level 6 troop [BEAST]

Initiative +10

Rip and Peck (hybrid form only) + 11 vs AC, 22 damage, and the target is hampered while engaged with the wereowlbear.

    Vicious hybrid: If the escalation die is even, make another rip and peck attack.

Owldropbear (one enemy below the wereowlbear) (owl form only). +11 vs PD, 33 damage and the target is grabbed and hampered while engaged with the werowlbear. The wereowlbear transforms into its hybrid form as it plummets from up high, pinning its unfortunate victim down. It’s very hard to intercept a plummeting wereowlbear.

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs, likely in its owl form. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn. Does a wereowlbear have cubs? Are they werecubs? Does it just feed a den of bears in a misguided maternal instinct? We may never know.

Bestial fury (hybrid form only): Wereowlbears gain a bonus to damage equal to double the escalation die.

Resilient shifting (all three forms): As described in 13 True Ways, a werebeast can shift forms once per round as a quick action. When a werebeast shifts, it can roll a save against one save ends effect.

Silent hunter: Owlbears are nearly silent until they strike. Checks to hear them approaching take a -5 penalty. The penalty increases to -10 if it is in the owl form.

Nastier specials:

Moon bloodlust: Expand the wereowlbear’s critical range by the escalation die if it is fighting under the moonlight. E.g. if the escalation die is at 4, the wereowlbear crits on 16+. Note: very likely to result in loss of limb and life. Run.

Cursed bite (hybrid or bear form only): Unlike other werebeasts, wereowlbears do not spread their curse to humanoids, as they never were one to begin with. It’s not even clear if it’s a curse at all, or the true origin of owlbears, or the next stage in the evolution of the ferocious hybrid.

However, they may be able to infect other animals they bite, such as ranger’s animal companion or a pack mule. Unless blessed, purged, or otherwise cured, the bitten creature will turn into a werebeast on the night of the next full moon.

If the beast was land-based, it becomes a wereowl. If it was aerial, it becomes a werebear. What that actually means is left up the GM and/or ranger.

AC 21

PD 20          HP 140

MD 15

Bear, Owl, and Hybrid forms

The wereowlbear is not likely to fight in the bear or owl form. It’s quite happy to start the fight in the owl form, though, and it’ll transform into an owl to reposition and perform the owldropbear attack whenever no one’s engaged with it. In the rare instance when PCs somehow manage to attack it in the owl form, decrease its AC and PD by 2 and call it a day.

Corruption in 13th Age

Corruption. Taint. Insanity. Mutation. Warping. The idea that some threats are so horrible, so alien, that dealing with them permanently changes the heroes is very compelling. It’s the cornerstone of Call of Cthulhu games. But whereas in CoC it is an inexorable march toward damnation, it was Heroes of Horror, an excellent D&D 3.5 book, that introduced the rules for taint that really gripped me. In it, taint was horrendous, but also a source of power. Heroes were still sliding towards damnation, but they were damn cool on their way there.

Since reading that book, corruption has been a staple in my D&D games, and the fight against it is one of the foundational concepts of my setting (and my as-yet unfinished novel set in it). Here, then, are my rules for corruption in 13th Age. I tried to capture the playfulness of the system, its unconventional uses of d20. While specific abilities presented utilize 13A concepts, the core mechanics can probably be ported to any other D&D game without any issue. Finally, this version of corruption is written with aberrations as its main source in mind. But it’s trivial to modify or extend it to demons, undead, or some other source of taint, too.


PCs have permanent corruption, which ranges from 0 to 20, and current corruption which starts off equal to the permanent corruption, can never go below it, but can go beyond 20. Unless desired otherwise, new characters start with 0 permanent corruption. 

Enemies and other threats that may cause corruption have a corruption rating: d6 for Adventurer-tier sources, d12 for Champion and d20 for Epic; one die for regular monsters, two for double-strength or Large monsters, and three for triple-strength or Huge monsters. Thus a Large Champion-tier monster would have a corruption rating of 2d12.

Whenever an effect causes a PC to risk corruption, they roll the corruption rating of the source of the effect. For each die higher than the PC’s current corruption they increase it by 1. Then, if rolling more than one die, add up all the dice rolled. If the sum is greater than their current corruption, increase it by 1 as well.

At the end of a full heal-up, current corruption becomes the new permanent corruption – heal it before that happens!

Corrupting Abilities

Following traits modify appropriate monsters or their abilities. They can be roughly broken into two categories: abilities that tempt PCs to risk corruption (always a choice), and abilities that hit you harder if you’re corrupted.

A Thing That Shouldn’t Be

(Apply to gibbering mouthers and the like – utterly aberrant)

To apply the escalation die to an attack against this creature, you must first risk corruption. Each. Time.

Insidious Violation

(Apply to attacks that inflict an effect with normal save, like mind flayer’s daze on mind blast)

Change the difficulty of the save to hard. Before making the save, a PC can choose to make the difficulty easy instead by risking corruption.

Maddening Visage

(Apply to boss-like monsters)

This creature gains a Fear Aura (no hp threshold), which can be ignored for a turn by risking corruption.

Unclean

(Apply to attacks that inflict a borderline unfair effect with a save. Give your boss a borderline unfair effect.)

Change the difficulty of the save to the target’s current corruption+.

Impossible Geometries

(Apply to attacks that are changed by the natural roll)

Change the natural roll trigger to “Natural roll equal or lower than the target’s corruption”.

Tainted Ground

(Environmental effect, think radioactive desert)

Spending an hour in this terrain causes a character to risk corruption. This check is repeated every 12 hours for as long as the character remains within the tainted ground. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the environment, and always uses 1 die.

Tear in Reality

(Environmental effect, an object on the battlefield: a ritual site, eldritch idol, etc)

Ending a turn nearby a tear in reality causes a character to risk corruption. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the source of corruption, and uses 1 die. Ending a turn engaged with the tear in reality (necessary to undo the ritual, study the eldritch idol, close the tear) increases the number of dice in the corruption rating to 2.

Effects of Corruption

Permanent corruption is broken up into several tiers:

0 – pure, good for you.

1-5 – mild corruption, cosmetic effects, can take corrupted feats.

6-11 – moderate corruption, this is really noticeable, but you get a free corrupted feat.

12-19 – severe corruption, really unpleasant effects. Have another corrupted feat as recompense.

20 – You’re an aberration now, time to make another character.

What are the actual effects of corruption? In a word, unsettling. Tentacles sprouting, eyes multiplying, transparent skin, shadow gaining a will of its own: all this and more. There are plenty of random mutation tables out there, and the boundary between gross and gross-yet-cool is very individual. You don’t want corruption to be so disgusting no one would ever wish to risk it. Damnation should be darkly alluring. All the mechanics have been written to tempt players into becoming corrupted, don’t let your description of its effects stop them. Work with the player to come up with a satisfactory description. It may be derived from the source of their corruption, or could manifest in entirely unexpected ways – corruption knows no rules (other than the ones written here).

Healing Corruption

Spend a recovery immediately after the scene where you became corrupted to reduce the current corruption by 1d4 points at the adventurer tier, 2d4 at the champion tier, and 3d4 at the epic tier, but never below the permanent corruption.

To reduce current corruption post factum, but before it becomes permanent, requires a costly ritual: material components cost 100gp if the target is Adventurer tier, 200gp if they are Champion, and 400gp if they are Epic. This ritual allows its target to heal current corruption as if they had just gained it. These components may not be readily available, however, especially in tainted ground.

Reducing permanent corruption is extremely hard, and likely requires a quest on its own.

Corrupted Feats

Regular feats, such as Reach Trick, can be reflavored to fit the corruption theme.

Whenever corrupted feats cause you to risk corruption, the corruption rating is determined by the tier of your corruption: d6 if it is mild, d12 if moderate, and d20 if severe; while the number of dice is equal to the number of times you’ve used this ability since the last full heal-up.

Forbidden Lore

You gain a new aberrant-related background, with 1 point in it if you have mild corruption, 2 if it is moderate and 4 if it is severe.

Unnatural Toughness

Risk corruption to gain temporary hit points equal to your current corruption.

Out of Sync with Reality

Once per round, risk corruption to roll a special save against any condition, even one you cannot normally save against. You succeed on this save if you roll less than or equal to your current corruption.

Vile Devastation

Risk corruption to increase the damage of your attack by your corruption. The target is probably corrupted as the result, too, not that you care. You monster.

New Regular Feats

These abilities could easily be granted by magic items, too. That’s probably a better idea if corruption is not the focus of your campaign.

Pure Soul

When you heal corruption, roll d6s instead of d4s.

Azure Flame Halo

When you risk corruption, add the escalation die to your current corruption.

Nature’s Rage

Once per battle when you hit a creature with a corruption rating, you may add the corruption rating to the damage you deal.

Corruption is a Choice

This is crucial, the main thing I’ve learned from using corruption in one way or another for years. That’s what these rules were written to reinforce. Often, it is a desperate choice between survival and damnation. But that’s what makes it meaningful, an effective horror element in an otherwise heroic game. It’s a permanent, or at least very long-term, consequence of player choice. Take away the choice, though, and you may ruin your players’ characters. Not everyone wants to have tentacles coming out of their character’s eye sockets. But sometimes you have to damn yourself to save the world.

Götterdämmerung

You are great heroes, or even gods. Tonight you die.

Describe yourself and your greatest feat. Players on your left and right each name a power you have based on it. Name the third one.

Every player writes a prophecy of death. Be poetic. Draw one randomly. Accept it, reject it, rage against it, it is your doom.

Every player takes a token, called an omen.

Whatever you attempt, you succeed. To resolve a scene:

  1. For each of your powers used, take a d6.
  2. Each player starting with you can describe a different way in which the situation is like your doom and hand you one of their omens. If you agree, discard it and take a d20. Otherwise, keep it.
  3. Roll your dice. If any show ‘1’, or you take another omen, there are no nasty complications. Add 2 to the roll for each omen you have. If the total is 20 or greater, describe your death.
  4. Discard the dice.

Once dead, you have unlimited omens to give.

When you clash with other players, the greater total wins. Reroll ties.

This is your last tale. How do you end? Play until every character is dead.

Attached comment: d20s work great as omens, as long as you don’t get confused between them and dice to be rolled. Vaguely inspired by Don’t Rest Your Head and Mythender


This was my entry into the 200 Word RPG Challenge. While it didn’t get picked by the judges, I’m quite fond of it.

Originally, I wasn’t intending to participate. 200 word RPGs are a neat exercise, but hardly anyone, myself included, wishes to play them. Then I saw Grant Howitt’s MECHANICAL ORYX, which ended up being one of the three winners this year. It was brimming with flavor and had actual mechanics at the same time. It inspired me, and you can undoubtedly see traces of it in my game.

Götterdämmerung isn’t all it could have been. The character generation is bog-standard. The main/only game mechanic took up most of the wordcount, forcing me to discard the majority of the thematic fluff and all of the suggestions on what the game could be about or any kind of structure. 200 words is not a lot of words! Still, within those limits are doomed heroes, a reason for players to hasten the doom of others, massive risk taking, a choice to hasten your own doom to not ruin everything you hold dear, and an implied soundtrack by Amon Amarth. It’ll do.

Passages & Plunder – New Colonists

Version 0.92 is out! But first…

It’s been a bit over a month since I’ve put the game up for public playtesting. How is that going? Not great, to tell the truth.

I’ve shared the original post on a number of platforms – a couple of subreddits, Google+, a Facebook community, Twitter, BGG. Several people were kind enough to read the rules, or at least glance at them. Their feedback was quite positive. Looking at the click through numbers, 11 people at least looked at the print & play files. There’s 6 subscribers to the TTS mod on Steam, 2 of which are me and a friend I’ve playtested with previously. It’s unknown if any of them have actually played the game, but if they have, they haven’t told me.

This puts me in something of a bind. From what I’ve gathered, blind playtesting is essential. But getting people to try your 2-or-so-hours board game, on their own, after printing out a whole bunch of pages, is not easy. It would have undoubtedly helped if I had any kind of online presence in any of these communities or platforms, but I’m a lurker by nature. That’s the issue with treating the blog as a hobby: there’s no cutlivated audience here, either. I’d even come up with what I thought was a smart idea for an exchange playtest and review program*, but failed to find any takers as well. Maybe I just suck at selling “free” things to people.

While not a blind playtest, I did manage to play the game with two groups of people I didn’t know, found via meetup.com. Shout out to Jeff The Gamesplainer, who took immense delight in screwing over the colony.

Between his efforts, another player who found out she could get lots of points if a bunch of colonists died, and my own machinations, it was a quick game. Whenever I playtest P&P, I tend to stay relatively quiet, only reminding other players of potential dangers, not pushing my own agendas. I don’t want to be seen as the authority on the game, to skew the inevitably fatal results. Still, I find it interesting how I get sucked into the mentality of quietly grabbing points and hoping others will protect the colony. I know it’s a failing strategy, but do it anyway.

I’m gonna try and find other groups to test the game on. Other than that, I’ve signed up for the Sydney Protospiel event happening in July (haven’t heard back from them yet). July is far away, though, and it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m not sure what to actually do next, how to contact publishers. The ones I’ve found accepting submissions so far weren’t looking for a game like P&P. I’ve been writing these design diaries, mostly for myself, to stay motivated. Barely anyone reads them: I haven’t posted the link anywhere other than my personal accounts, as I doubt they’ll be of much use to anyone not already interested in my game. I will publicise this post, though, this is probably an experience other designers have faced or will face.

Passages & Plunder 0.92 update

As mentioned in the previous post, sponsors are now randomized. After a few games, it became apparent that keeping track of 4 sponsors’ agendas at once was a bit much. To that end, there are now only 3 sponsors per game, out of a total of 8. In addition, rules now encourage players to volunteer to track one sponsor of their choice. We’ll see how this plays out.

Expedition decks have been updated to remove iconic reminders of sponsors, as sponsor icons are no longer tied to sponsors themselves – you can still play with old decks just fine as long as you ignore those bits.

I’ve removed 4 of the calamities (Green Mists Rising, Heat Wave, Iron-Eating Locusts, Chanting in Darkness) that formed a mini cycle – reducing a specific skill for each colonist for a turn. I like their theme, but their mechanics just made playing harder, not more interesting. That’s the only change to the calamities deck.

You can find the print & play files here, and the Tabletop Simulator mod here. The rulebook is here. If you do give it a try, please let me know, and respond to the questionnaire in this post.

Passages & Plunder – Underworldbuilding

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

As this blog will readily attest, I play a lot of roleplaying games. And I like some roleplaying in my board games, too. It’s no surprise I’ve made a game about dungeoncrawl management with very subtle allusions to D&D that encourages players to talk to one another. Not only that, it encourages players to sometimes do so from the in-world perspective. The very first thing players have to do as they set up the game is come up with the name for their colony – this determines the first player. There’s a space on the central board to write it down, and ideally in the final published version there’ll be a gloss “panel” there fit for an erasable marker. Furthermore, whenever players do something that would earn them the favor of one of the sponsors, they’re supposed to loudly proclaim they did it in the sponsor’s name.

Beyond the prescribed in-character moments, there’re the actual interactions players have with one another. The most common ones are arguing about who should be helping the colony, or why what you did was actually not that bad. These are mechanical concepts being discussed: how many colonists you’ve spent on the colony last turn, how protected the colony is, how likely an attack is. Still, some amount of in-character banter sneaks in. The trick, I think, is in having simple mechanics and evocative setting.

The social deduction genre is a great example of the former. Take Resistance, or its (IMO) superior version Secret Hitler, or Sheriff of Nottingham. The actual mechanics are trivial. You are either a fascist or you’re not. You either have contraband, or you don’t. And yet players frequently argue about not just the mechanical bits, but the story of the game as well. “You say there’re only apples in the bag, where’d you get them? It’s not apple season.” (In-character accusations of fascism are somewhat rarer, I’ll admit.) When we’re not too busy calculating the probabilities and figuring out the next move, we naturally pay more attention to the flavor. Which is not to say you’re doing it wrong if you’ve never bothered with the (paper-thin) flavor, of course. It all depends on the group.

While P&P is more complex than these games, I did try to keep the actual gameplay simple. You only have a few options at a time, a few colonists to send out each turn. And everything you do, absolutely everything, is visibly either selfish or cooperative, or both. So any time someone is being selfish, it is obvious. And therefore open to challenge by the other players. Why did you do this? In-character spin comes naturally at this point. Another major element is the mayor. Not just the first player, it’s a moving spotlight that grants extra powers and extra scrutiny to those it highlights. I’ve even witnessed newly minted mayors do a little speech, promising how their rule will be better for everyone.

And then there’s the setting. There’s no detailed backstory. No lore as such. Fantasy settings are a dime a dozen, and a board game is hardly the place to develop another one. Instead, there are evocative (I hope) bits and pieces scattered throughout. There’re the diary entries below each calamity. Had to come up with lots of different ways of saying “it’s dark and spooky” for those, lots of different kinds of darkness. Not everyone reads the flavor text, but it’s nice to have it there. Then there are the titles of all the cards, and some day the art. You meet Giant Furry Slugs in the Underworld. Empress Elect can be one of your sponsors. They provoke questions. Tiny lights in a dark cave, that your imagination composes into a picture more terrifying than whatever I could describe in detail. More entertaining, I mean. Certainly.

Finally, I tried to tell a story with the mechanics of individual cards. Take Dragon’s Lair, for instance. When there are multiple Task block present on a card, you can choose which one to do. So in order to plunder the dragon’s lair, you can either fight lots; or investigate a bit, but increase menace in the process. Kill the dragon, or just steal its treasure and piss it off.

The end result, I hope, is a game that enables you, every now and then, to create a memorable story. Likely about yelling at your friends.

Passages & Plunder – Vision (or lack thereof)

Because it’s dark in the Underworld, you see. Or maybe you don’t.

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

There’s a certain way the game has played out within several groups of people I’d tried it on. The first game starts nice and cooperative as everyone’s learning how the mechanics work, then, about half way through, players realise they don’t have to be the ones to contribute to the colony’s wellbeing, so long as someone does. One person goes selfish. Seeing them gain points off the back of their labor, others go fully selfish, too. If someone holds out and tries to keep the colony alive, the selfish players win easily. Otherwise the colony is overcome in a couple of turns and everyone loses. Either way, afterwards the losers will explain, in great detail, why it’s my fault they lost. They didn’t have a reason to cooperate, they say. I can’t help but grin.

In the second game, people are selfish from the start. It’s a quick game. Eventually, gradually, an understanding comes. You have to find a balance between selfishness and cooperation. And to do that you have to talk. You have to convince your fellow players that what you’re doing is for everyone’s good. Or at least that you promise to help out on the next turn. Talking is easily half the game, that’s it’s purpose. That’s why it requires at least 3 players, to allow for these bald-faced lies and accusations.

There is, theoretically, an even deeper level of strategy. P&P is somewhat unique in that players can choose to end the game by evacuating at any point. But doing so early results in a crapshoot – someone will have grabbed more points than others, but will that be you? No, a better way is to let the game run for longer. To sneak ahead on favor with sponsors. If a player visibly gets ahead too much, others will become selfish, too, putting the burden of maintaining the colony on the nominally successful player. The player ahead still hopes to win, so they make sure everyone survives. The players behind hope to catch up. It’s a catch-up mechanism without any actual mechanics.

The longer the game goes, the more favors players will accumulate. The more uncertainty in the outcome there will be. The more willing everyone will be to help out, secretly thinking they are the ones who’s going to win. If everyone thinks they’re losing, the colony will be overrun. Therefore the aforementioned deeper level of strategy is to convince others they’re doing well. To let them catch up on points. To manage the group. To talk.

This is my hope for the game. My vision. This is why I’ve resisted putting in rewards for cooperative behavior – something playtesters always thought was missing. No, in my eyes, the reward for helping the colony is being able to say you did so. There is no “good standing” track. If you can convince others you’ve been useful it doesn’t matter if you actually have been.

But. But, but, but. This does mean that the first game or three can result in frustration, until players understand how the seemingly simple game is supposed to work. And that’s dangerous. It’s too easy to have a “meh” experience with a game and never put it on the table again. To combat this, I try to emphasize the nature of the game in the rules. Some sponsors favoring cooperative behavior is as much of a compromise as I’m currently willing to entertain, though. Vision, or lack thereof.

Variable sponsors

Enough with the retrospective, though. The last several playtests I ran focused on fine-tuning the new addition, the sponsors. While doing so it became apparent how much they shape the game. Players significantly change their behavior to gain their favor and advance their agendas – it would be a useless feature otherwise. So what if the sponsors were variable, drawn from a deck? That’d non-trivially vary up playthroughs. Right now, sponsors cover the basic actions required to run the colony: scouting, supplying, and defending. Removing any one of these sponsors could result in hobbling the colony – but maybe that’s alright, too. The current set can still be a recommended setup for the first game.

Current sponsors

Adding extra sponsors would allow me to do some bonkers things that didn’t fit into the “core” set, e.g. a sponsor whose favor is gained when another player wants you to gain it, and whose agenda is advanced when all the players agree it should be advanced (both probably limited to 1/turn).

The main concern I have is the amount of effort it’ll take to balance these extra sponsors and their combinations – it took some effort to get the first 4 right. Still, that’s what playtesting is for. I’ll try this change myself before putting it out there.

Another issue is technical. Right now, sponsor symbols are tied to their nature. If there were, for instance, 8 sponsors to choose from, though, it’d be something of an overkill to have 20+ favor tokens of each, only using 4 at a time. I guess generic sponsor emblems will have to do, with players assigning them during set up.

Passages & Plunder – Safety of the Surface

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

The basics of colony management and Underworld exploration worked from the start. They’ve been refined a lot, different approaches tried and discarded, sure, but they worked. The ending didn’t. It’s a game where only one person can win, and with an open score there was no doubt as to who was winning. Which almost inevitably meant everyone else would not contribute to surviving, instead focusing on getting as many points as possible. While it was the intended behavior, it meant the games would end in everyone’s defeat. Lose due to score, by helping someone else win, or lose together due to the colony being overrun – not a great choice. The problem, I realised, was in players knowing who was ahead.

I’d considered obfuscating the score. What if the plundered resources (printed on expedition cards) sent to the Surface were not tallied on the track, but kept in a pile, to be counted at the end? But that would turn the game into a giant memorization exercise. And besides, there isn’t a lot variance in the amount of resources on each expedition, just knowing the number of cards in the pile would tell you enough. This didn’t seem worthwhile.

The approach I had actually tried was to have secret objectives revealed at the end of the game. “Gain 2 points for each dead colonist”, “Gain 3 points for each building”, that sort of thing. It was… okay. Along with identities that gave bonus points for specific actions (“Priest: gain 1 point each time you donate a card to the warehouse”), it also addressed another issue: single path to victory. If all that matters in the end is the score, and the score is gained by completing expeditions and nothing else, everyone behaves the same way. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how we get to the end, what state the colony is. Only the score matters.

With goals and identities, things got better. Goals introduced some uncertainty and a bit of long-term strategy. Identities varied turn-to-turn tactics. But it was 2 extra decks, 2 extra cards each player would get. It was extra bits, not an extra system. And I like systems. It didn’t feel right.

Enter Sponsors. Sponsors are an amalgamation of both goals and identities. Flavor-wise, they are the powerful organizations that are paying for the colony and expecting a return on their investment. Each sponsor has an action that earns their favor (donating a card to the warehouse earns you the favor of the Empress), and an event that advances their agenda on a separate track (the Pledge gains points each time a colonist dies). You can see how the previous ideas have been folded into this one. In addition to specific events, each sponsor likes two out of four resources in the game, and selling them to the sponsor advances that sponsor’s agenda as well.

At the end of the game, players earn bonus points based on their relative standing with sponsors and the sponsors’ agenda score. Uncertainty comes from a simple rule: at the end of each turn, players take the favor tokens they earned that turn, and secretly choose only one to keep, discarding the rest for a point each.

Finally, a dynamic system. Have you invested heavily into a particular sponsor by choosing to keep their favors? Perhaps you’ll try and advance their agenda. Is another sponsor getting ahead? Now may be the time to do them a favor or two.

It took several games to get the numbers right. It also quickly became apparent that not enough favor tokens were entering the game, with players mostly ending the turn with only one. That failed the uncertainty requirement, so I added quests: every time a sponsor’s agenda advances past a certain point on the track, the mayor takes their favor token and places it on one of the expeditions, to be claimed by whoever completes it. If a sponsor is doing well, more people have a chance to get into their good graces. More dynamic, more system!

As sponsors are a new addition, I expect they’ll still undergo some change. For instance, right now it may in fact be better to go for the second place in each sponsor rather than vying for the first. I’m not sure if that’s the way I want it to be. More playtesting is required, clearly. And I may still add secret goals back into the game, now that they have sponsors as a foundation.