New Traits for Blade & Crown: Short

Traits don’t always have to be personality-based:

Divider illustration of a sword

You are Short. People may also take you less seriously for your diminutive stature, and you may have trouble reaching hand-holds when climbing, or striding across wide gaps. Yet you are also able to fit in spaces that others would not, your abilities may be underestimated by others, and you might avoid that trap set to slice at the heads of your taller companions.

Your Size will be in the range of (2 × your Short rating) lower than it would otherwise be. It may be slightly higher or lower, depending on how densely muscled you are.

Snippets from Calteir: Coins of Aros

Photo of coins sitting in and next to a metal cupThe ancient and possibly mythical hero Aros did many wonderful deeds in the Kreshar region of Morensia. Among these, he gave his last coin to a poor woman in the village of Arosart. When she bought a loaf of bread with the coin and returned home, she found that the coin had returned to her purse. She continued spending the coin and every time, it returned. Even better, when the people of the village spent the coins she had given them, those coins, too, returned to their purses.

At present, no one knows where the Coins are. There are stories that the Coins are buried somewhere in the hills near Arosart (which have become fairly well-pocked with the pits of treasure hunters over the years). Other tales say that the Coins gradually disappeared, until only the last one remained in the hands of the widow, who returned it to Aros. As he walked out of the village, the Coin dropped out of his purse and was lost. Occasional treasure-seekers come to the village looking for the fabled Coins, but none have ever found them. The villagers like to say that the ghosts of the Mountain People jealously guard the Coin’s (Coins’?) resting place.

A more likely explanation is that the Coins were a metaphor for the nearby mines. The village found silver in the hills, and gradually became richer from the silver, until eventually the vein was tapped out and the village was left contentedly prosperous. Well, anything’s possible.

Categories: Magic, Treasure

Why I don’t want you to tell me about your character

So have I told you about my favorite Champions character? Well, third favorite actually, after The Human Cheese Grater and Bituminous Man, but he’s really my favorite in some ways because of the awesome time I, um, the time where it, where he, because there was a time that he was so awesome — oh, wait, I forgot to tell you his name. But first I should tell you about his costume, which is totally the most awesome thing you will hear about today because…

Have you ever been subjected to someone else telling you about their RPG character? I have, and it can be a pretty unpleasant experience. In fact, I’ve found it to sometimes be a downright awful experience, and this feeling seems to be widespread among gamers. However, I find it totally fascinating to look at the reasons why we don’t want to hear about other people’s characters.

A couple years ago at Minicon 47, I was on a panel with Sherry Merriam and some other folks where we talked about just this topic. I feel like I learned a lot from the panel; having Sherry, a trained counselor who’s also a gamer, helped a lot! What follows is a mix of ideas from that panel and more recent insights I’ve had.

Why is it so annoying to be subjected to stories of someone else’s characters? The foremost cause for me is the way that RPGs work. When we game, we’re creating a story while we’re in the moment. The story is all about what’s going on as we’re playing. In the moment, it’s hugely entertaining; later on, memory may fade, and intensity may wane. And, importantly, the audience for the game is the people playing. It’s a story expressly designed to entertain one group of people. And even within a group, people are going to be interested in different aspects of play at different times, so it’s not even accurate to say that everyone within your group will share your interest in your character’s exploits.

No wonder, then, that people outside that group — without all the context and personal involvement — would be far less entertained that those who were in it. RPGs are, right off the bat, almost designed to be hard to recount to others later on; what’s happening in the moment is for the enjoyment of the people who are there, in the moment. Later recounting is going to lose a lot, and reading someone’s post-facto account of a harrowing adventure is rarely as enthralling as firsthand experience. It’s like watching a TV show about restaurant food: no matter how carefully the presenter chooses their adjectives, it’s not going to convey the actual sensation of eating.

This makes an interesting contrast with electronic gaming, which suffers from (what seems to me) almost the opposite problem: with games like Skyrim or GTA, other people share almost too much context. Yes, you retrieved Dawnbreaker after an epic fight. So did I. So, for that matter, did nearly everyone who’s played the game. This illustrates an important thing about stories: they need to be familiar enough to relate to, but not so familiar that the listener already knows the story before you open your mouth. Stories have to be understandable without already being a known quantity; there’s a particular range of familiarity within which a story will be interesting to a bystander.

So I was telling you about his costume colors, which I’ve been trying to rework lately. Here, let me see if I’ve got my latest sketch. This’ll just take a minute, because my tablet has been taking a while to boot up lately. You probably noticed that my tablet is blue, which is my favorite color, but his costume only has a little bit of blue, because — ah, okay, it’s booted up now, so where was that sketch…

All this is compounded by some geeky tendencies. One useful definition of ‘geek’ is “someone who is willing to indulge and talk about their interests even when doing so is against social protocol”. To the extent that this definition is true, it’s only natural that a geeky person would want to talk about their character even when doing so generates some awkwardness.

Another common side of geekiness, one explained in the Geek Social Fallacies, is the misconception that others will necessarily share all your interests if they share any of your interests. So if someone else likes RPGs at all, of course they want to hear about the early career of your 16th level Elven hamdinger, right?

As we put it on that panel a couple years ago, telling someone about your character is a lot like oversharing about your baby. You might be highly proud of your baby’s new teeth, or ability to walk, or whatever, and you might want to gush about their accomplishments, even to people who are completely uninterested. You’re proud, and you can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t immediately care how astounding, clever, entertaining and downright important your PC’s accomplishments are. Yes, some people will be interested, but hardly all. “Sorry, all PCs look like Winston Churchill to me.”

The tricky thing to understand is that your baby is important, but that doesn’t mean they’re unique. It also doesn’t mean that what’s important to you will be important to everyone else; not everyone will be interested in hearing your baby’s exploits, even if that includes besting Snarg the Indomitable with nothing but a sippy cup.

His costume is totally awesome. I asked all my friends and they agreed. Totally. Awesome. You agree, right? Because I actually spent 27 — no, sorry, I forgot, 29 — points on buying the costume. It was a perk for his Caped Avenger tree, which I know you said you don’t understand because you’ve never played this system, but I’ll come back to that. Hey, have I told you his name yet? Anyway, I forgot two of the points because our GM never lets us…

There’s a third factor that makes “let me tell you about my character” so bad, I think. That is simply that a lot of gamers — just like a lot of humans — aren’t especially good at telling stories. My pullquotes in this article aren’t direct quotes, but they’re heavily inspired by an actual experience I had. Hearing that I’m into RPGs, someone at a con once started subjecting me to uncomfortably bad stories about his superhero characters. It almost could’ve been interesting, but he did it in a horribly bland, mechanical, rambling way. He didn’t really think about what he was going to say; it felt more like someone reading the phone book — and doing a bad job of it — than of someone recounting heroic legends. I think some of what he was saying almost had some intrinsic merit as an interesting story, but he killed it through a host of storytelling errors: focusing on mechanics, even though I’d said I wasn’t familiar with the system; destroying dramatic tension when he should be building it up; generally rambling; repeating himself; not listening to or caring about what his audience was interested in; and other problems. (That last I think blurs back into geek social fallacy problems. He assumed I would be interested, regardless of how horrible his storytelling was; he also treated me as an object to talk at, rather than a person to talk with.) That is not to say that all gamers need to be good storytellers, but if you’re going to subject me to stories about your character, doing it in a clumsy way isn’t going to help.

Is it possible for someone telling me about their character to be a good experience, if they’re a better raconteur? Yes, but they’ll have to be very good. I think the aspect of RPGs that they’re for the people playing, while they’re playing, means that RPG tales start off at a disadvantage compared to, say, prose fiction. Prose fiction is designed for the reader to digest at their own pace, usually far removed from the author. Yet the author has all the advantages that prose fiction brings: the ability to put a story aside for a day or an hour and come back to it, with narrative continued from just where it left off; the ability to use long, complex sentences that sound awkward in colloquial speech; and the ability to rework and edit the language until it conveys a narrative smoothly and effectively. Oral storytelling, too, is a skill that people can learn, but not many practice it. And being able to create a story with a group of fellow gamers does not automatically confer the ability to relate that story to someone else.

A lot of SF&F authors seem to have gotten their start writing up their RPG campaigns. And there are some great raconteurs in the RPG community. It’s definitely possible to make your character’s tales interesting and worthwhile to others. That just takes good storytelling skills, which include sympathy with your audience, deftness with language, and an understanding that neither of the previous skills comes automatically with being a gamer.

So you know what? It’s entirely possible that I do want to hear about your character, so long as it’s a story worth listening to, and one well told.

Hm, what? Yes, I was going to get to his — why the cape is only a little blue. Yes, I need to go, too. Actually, I think I left my mayonnaise out. But I’ll explain about the cape first, because trust me this is the best part yet…

Check out the current Bundle of Holding

Bundle of Holding masthead imageThe Bundle of Holding, which I’ve been privileged to be part of, is currently featuring a bunch of very cool indie games: Torchbearer, Uresia the Grave of Heaven, Nobilis, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow (think: Amber Diceless 2nd edition) and more. Very cool stuff — a steal at US$9.95 for the core three books, and well worth the ~US$20 to get the full package. Go check it out!

Blade & Crown dice probabilities

As part of designing Blade & Crown, I was naturally curious how the dice mechanic works. Do large numbers of dice make characters succeed all the time? What’s the difference between rolling one die and rolling three? With the help of my friend Matt, I worked up some very useful charts detailing the dice probabilities for Blade & Crown. Pre-press versions of Blade & Crown included this information in an appendix.

I decided to remove them from the version I actually published — seemed a like a bit too much to include in the actual book. But some folks reading this might be curious what the dice probabilities for the dice in Blade & Crown are. Here, then, are those charts.

First is the chance of getting a given number, based on the number of dice:

Chance of getting any particular number in Blade & Crown, based on number of dice rolled

Sorry the type is so tiny — that’s as readable as I could make it while still fitting. Here’s the same information as a graph:

Percentage of rolls meeting a specific target

This chart shows the percent chance of succeeding against any particular number:

Chance of success per target number

Interesting, albeit crunchy!

Con of the North 2015: House of Indie Games’ games

I participate in the House of Indie Games track at Con of the North. We’re mostly just a bunch of friends who like indie games. Two of us have even published our own indie games (Blade & Crown and Heirs to the Lost World). Most years recently we’ve put together a pretty cool lineup of games, and 2015 is no exception:

  • Friday 12-14 The Condor’s Fall
  • Friday 14-18 Strange Stars
  • Friday 18-22 Crisis simulation
  • Friday 22-24 The Quiet Year
  • Saturday 10-14 Caravan on the High Plateau
  • Saturday 14-18 The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae
  • Saturday 18-22 Classified
  • Sunday 14-18 Microscope
  • Sunday 18-22 Into Glorantha

Here are the descriptions, to further entice you:

The Condor’s Fall

You came to Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism and to support the Spanish Republic. You and your comrades are in a remote village, without the arms to defend it or bring the fight to the enemy. Hitler’s dreaded Condor Legion draws near. Then an opportunity presents itself to even the odds.

p. 25 of the events book

John always runs a good game, and I love the politics implicit in this one.

Strange Stars

Explore a new setting for Fate Core and Stars Without Number: Trey Causey’s “Strange Stars”,RPG setting, a pulp and comics inspired game set in the far far future. Take some original Trek and mix liberally with Farscape, Traveller, and Transhuman SF in this anything goes space opera setting. I’m running it using Fate Core, because, well… I wrote the Fate Core conversion for the game!

p. 29

This one also sounds great. John’s own blog entry for this points to Trey’s extensive index for the game.

Embassy Crisis Simulation

Benghazi! Well, no – you’re supposed to do better. Each player has an embassy role – Ambassador, deputy, Security Officer, and intel chief. The group has collective goals: preservation of American life and property; and individual goals. The Embassy is in the fictional country of Erewhon; characters are pre-rolled. No specific rules are used; the GM is a retired US diplomat.

p. 35

Alan ran one of these for us a while ago and it was really cool. No dice, not even rules really; just a straight-up governmental war game, much like they use in the State Department.

The Quiet Year

The Quiet Year is a map game. You define the struggles of a post-apocalyptic community, and attempt to build something good within their quiet year. Every decision and every action is set against a backdrop of dwindling time and rising concern. The game is played using a deck of cards – each of the 52 cards corresponds to a week during the quiet year. Each card triggers certain events – bringing bad news, good omens, project delays and sudden changes in luck. At the end of the quiet year, the Frost Shepherds will come, ending the game.

p. 42

The Thursday night group has had a lot of fun with The Quiet Year these couple… years. It’s become one of our standard one-shot games.

There was a little confusion in the description for Bob’s game, because the Con has it listed as a board game. It’s really not! The Quiet Year is a collaborative storytelling game that involves a map. Not a board game, at least not in any traditional way.

Caravan on the High Plateau

Entangled in a war against the Spanish in their so-called New Crusade, Moctezuma, the Great Speaker of the Aztec Empire, has ordered a dozen cannon from the pirates of Port Royal. As the pochteca caravan makes its way across the high plateau, it encounters a Spanish patrol, but that is the least of its worries. Heirs to the Lost World is a swashbuckling RPG set in an alternate history 1665.

p. 50

I’ve said this before, but the stunting mechanic in Heirs is probably the best I’ve ever seen. It does a fantastic job of encouraging players to come up with exciting action sequences.

The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae

The Tomb of Gemenos has loomed over the middle of Chaegrae for generations. All who have dared to enter, or even to approach too closely, have had horrible fates. But now, you and your motley friends have come to plumb the depths of the tomb. You are unafraid of the Tomb’s strange fates, because you already know how you will die. The Tomb is but the next step in your destiny.

p. 59

As I mused before, this is going to be an experiment in high-powered Blade & Crown, where your Traits allow pretty dramatic effects. Let’s see who has the stronger doom, Gemenos or you!

Classified: Covert Roleplaying

Play a 1960′s Secret Agent in this Cinematic retro-clone RPG, where gambling, car chases, gadgets and gunplay are the keys to defeating the evil mastermind. Think 007, Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo, Modesty Blaise – ok, even Austin Powers.

p. 66

The system is heavily modeled on the James Bond 007 game from West End. I think it actually qualifies as a retro-clone. Alan’s games of 007 have produced some of my most memorable moments ever from gaming. Of course he’s also a retired State Department official, so he may have to stay away from things that are actually Classified…

Microscope

Together we will tell a saga. The rise and fall of a forgotten empire; the spread of humanity across the stars; the course of the War for AI Liberation — we’ll decide what history to make together. Starting in the broadest scales and then zooming in to decisive moments, we’ll weave a fascinating tapestry together. Play Microscope and make history!

p. 82

This is the other frequent one-shot game for the Thursday night group. You can read some of our Microscope histories here on this blog.

Into Glorantha

With the release of the massive Guides to Glorantha, it is a great time to explore one of gaming’s earliest and richest fantasy worlds. Whether you are a newbie or a veteran come form a Hero Band and take part in an epic adventure at the end of your con! For more info on Glorantha visit glorantha.com.

p. 86

I’ve never played HeroQuest, but its design is pretty influential, and as I said above, John always runs a good game, so I’m looking forward to this.

Divider illustration of a sword

All in all, quite a line-up! I hope to see you there.

Con of the North 2015 program book is here!

A couple days ago, the Con of the North 2015 program book came in the mail. And it is very big. Here’s the 2015 book, with the 2014 book for comparison:

The Con of the North 2015 program book, with the 2014 book for comparison

The new program book is letter size, with glossy pages, nice maps and some actually pretty informative ads.

More importantly, the Con looks jam-packed with cool gaming. I’m already starting to ponder what games to register for, and I’ve already had a few “Noooo! Too many good games in the same time-slot!” moments. It promises to be a great con.

Snippets from Calteir: King Thardan IV, “the Great”

Name Thardan IV
Official Name King Thardan IV of Morensia, Duke of Marbrae
Profession King
Born 54 SD (901 SR)
Died 114 SD (961 SR)

Thardan was the tenth king of the Semlaren Dynasty.

Thardan IV was the son of Perseda III. His grandmother was Denavia I, and while she was Queen, her first husband was Thardan. Although that Thardan was not the monarch, he was still King and thus is considered the titular Thardan III. That is why the monarch with the name “Thardan” who preceded Thardan IV was Thardan II.

Thardan is often considered to be the most effective and greatest ruler of the Semlaren Dynasty. He reigned from 74 SD to 114 SD.

Accomplishments

  • One of his accomplishments was instituting the Mercenaries’ Guild and Adventurers’ Guild. Many bandit groups had formed or strengthened during the chaos of King Pereton I‘s reign, and they had been growing in power since that time. Thardan recognized the hopelessness of trying to eliminate them, and instead brought them into the fold by making them legal enterprises.
  • Another of his accomplishments was that, in 99 SD, to mark the 25th year of his reign, he held the Great Holiday. It lasted a month, a week and a day (36 days) and helped to realign the Morensian calendar more closely to the astronomical one.
  • In 100 SD, he granted Marbrae a charter, making it a City. He made himself Duke of Marbrae, and retroactively declared all past monarchs of the Semlaren Dynasty to have been Dukes and Duchesses of Marbrae.
  • He donated quite extensively to the Temples, helping build many of their largest or most extravagant edifices.

Categories:People, People of Morensia

Critical mass is hard to do

Over on her blog, Mortaine put up a very important post about how hard it is to succeed in the RPG market when you’re not a white, cis, hetero man. It’s well worth taking a moment to go read.

I was moved to comment there, and thought I should repeat my comment here:

Divider illustration of a sword

This market, like most other markets, does a terrible job celebrating those who aren’t already famous. In other words, the RPG market works to reinforce structures of power that already exist. Even now, in the midst of all these discussions of sexism in gaming, it seems that men continue to get the vast majority of the attention. Some of them are saying the right thing, but still, it’d be nice if people who aren’t so much in power could also get our day in the sun.

It’s like the player at the table who demands the spotlight all the time. Even if they’re entertaining, and even if they say nice things about all the other players, they’re still making it all about themselves. Other players deserve their time in the spotlight, too.

I’m seriously worried that all this recent talk about egality is just another marketing gimmick — a gimmick that is being used to make a lot of oppressed folks think that the structures in place are changing to meet our needs, when in actuality they aren’t. A gimmick that will disappear as soon as sales start to flatten out. And a gimmick that is being used to commodify a very honest, very important desire to right the scales.

Personally, I don’t think we’ll break out of this mode until folks with privilege (white, cis, het, men, etc.) stop dominating so much of the conversation, and so many of the business decisions. That is going to be very hard to achieve, but one way to do it is to deliberately celebrate those who don’t have so much privilege. I wish we could do that more.

I think it’s also going to take a deliberate effort on the part of those with relatively large amounts of privilege to shift the spotlight to folks who are not like them. As I so often say, being an ally means knowing when to stand up and when to stand down.

Slightly more on topic, here’s a post I made last year about resources for making games. There are a lot of cool resources out there — some completely free — that a lot of people don’t know about.

Apologies for going so many days without a post — it’s been an amazingly busy week at work. Wish I had more time to devote to this blog.

Free-form magic for Blade & Crown

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Spell effects in Blade & Crown are intentionally unquantified. As I’ve said before, I think this helps preserve mystery. Once you know that a fireball will emit 0.015625m3 of 871° flames at 18m/s, it’s become less magic and more engineering. And that is not a flavor of magic I prefer in my fantasy games.

Dancing with fireHowever, the spells still have defined effects: “allows the caster to fly for a short while”, or “causes someone to become as strong as a bull”, for example. What if we want to take it further?

It’s entirely possible in B&C to dispense with ‘spells’ altogether and go to free-form magic. In this method, a mage can make a spell do anything they want, within two limits:

  1. Elemental domains.
  2. Magnitude effects.

Nodes should still be limited by element. A fire node could be used to power a spell of immolation, sparking, creation, etc., but not cold, logic, insight, etc. Check the table of correspondences on page 107 (may vary by edition) for ideas here.

Similarly, higher-magnitude nodes should be more powerful than lower-magnitude ones, and that’s just as it should be. The spell effects table on or about page 137 should come in very handy here.

What does this do the process of aligning? Not much, really! Mages will still need to align each node to bring themselves into harmony with it. The only difference here is that no spell need be declared at the time of aligning.

One potentially thorny aspect of this system is that it implies more negotiation between player and GM over spell effects. In the standard system, discussion about what magnitude a given spell is only happens only when the player assigns the node in the first place — or, if they use a widely known spell, not at all. There can be discussion when their mage casts the spell, but it’s usually minimal. Does free-form magic imply lengthier and deeper negotiation than would otherwise exist?

Not necessarily. There’s already a bit of negotiation implied in using Traits, and that’s rarely onerous, even here in the land of Minnesota Indirectness Nice. And giving this kind of narrative control over to the players already implies a good amount of trust between GM and players, so negotiating over spell effects on a more frequent basis should hopefully be only a bit more negotiation than was already occurring.

I’m thinking about trying free-form magic with my monthly B&C group. How about you? How could this work with your game?