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…


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

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.


  • 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

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?

Ancient capitals in 3D

A good illustration in an RPG session is worth, as the saying goes, a thousand words. I’ve mentioned before how useful the fictional nonfiction book Lebek has been in gaming; more than once, I’ve used it to give players a direct idea of what a multi-story medieval-esque house looks like. It’s been especially useful when I’ve run Tenement Defense.

Street scene from Rome Reborn project | Copyright 2013 by Bernard Frischer, used here for review purposesFor these reasons, I was pretty delighted to discover the Rome Reborn project. In it, a group of archaeologists and historians have worked together with 3D artists to recreate the city of Rome, as it was in the year 320 CE, in beautiful CGI detail. When you see modern ruins, it’s all too easy to imagine that ancient Rome was a city of one-story buildings. It’s even easy to forget that everything had roofs. The Rome Reborn project’s gallery is a great collection of images of what must’ve been a fascinating city to walk around in. And get tired walking around in, especially if your tenement was on, say, the fifth story of a building.

Even more impressive are the videos. This one is a quick fly-through of the complete model; this one is the same video at a more leisurely pace with a running commentary about what we’re seeing. All very cool.

The quality of the 3D looks a little dated; the shadow rendering is pretty good, but it looks like they were working with a relatively small budget of polygons. Some of the surfaces look fairly repetitious, too. But still, it’s all very cool, and would make a great illustration for RPG purposes.

Okay, so, there’s a 3D version of ancient Rome. That made me wonder if there were similar projects for other ancient cities. How about, oh, I don’t know, 長安 Cháng’ān, capital city of the 唐 Táng and many other Chinese dynasties?

The National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture has just such a project: A Digital Reconstruction of Tang Chang’an.

It’s pretty extensive, and pretty impressive. The gallery has a lot of great images, and apparently has some cool movies as well, though I couldn’t get them to function on my computer. The images are also not the richest in polygons, but they’re still quite clear and evocative.

Perhaps most interestingly, the project has a book associated with it. I’ve already ordered a copy, and look forward to having another resource for gaming based in Tang-dynasty China. This refuels my desire to do some sort of game based in the 魏 Wèi Dynasty, a century or so before the beginning of the Tang.

What other resources are out there? What digital reconstructions of ancient places do you know of?

Snippets from Calteir: the Unnamed Dead

Almost in time for Halloween, here’s another snippet from Calteir.

There are many forms of undead which humans have not named. Either no one has ever encountered them, or those who have seen them didn’t survive.
A blurry animal skull

  1. A mass of dark olive fungus, surmounted by a skull. Tendrils of fungus expand out, enveloping and ingesting living things.
  2. Some snails will, unluckily, choose a fragment of an undead skeleton to form part of their shell. The undead then takes hold of the snail, causing it to grow immense and warped. The snail begins to incorporate even more undead parts into its shell, until the entire shell is composed of bone fragments. There will sometimes be a single ‘crown’ bone fragment — perhaps an eye socket or cranium — that has dominance and which controls the snail. The snail becomes hateful, attacking and consuming any living thing that comes near. These molluscs will often have multiple tentacles, perhaps with poisonous slime. The shells are always extremely hard and, as a result, well-armored.
  3. A random assortment of bones, hanging from a tree. When the wind comes, they clatter together like a wind chime. But instead of pleasant notes, they play a chorus of haunting, disturbing dead voices, enticing the living to join their chorus.
  4. A concatenation of bones and rotting flesh, forming a giant quadrupedal form with no head. It charges and tramples any person who comes near. There are many large bony projections, resembling horns or tusks, but also small thorns and barbs. The beast gives a disturbing keening/roaring noise that resembles the voices of a hundred people screaming as one — which is precisely what it is.
  5. When a person dies trapped somewhere — in a well, in a mudslide, in a cave-in — their vengeful spirit will fill up the space with a mist; the mist chills one to the bones, and has a hideous odor. It is best to keep such things inaccessible, because the mist will grow to fill whatever space it can, and is malevolent in its desire to choke and kill the living.
  6. A long, narrow snake made of the finger bones of the dead. It is formed from the hands of a murderer who killed their victim through choking. It travels with utter silence, and will try to wrap itself around the neck of an unsuspecting victim and then constrict.
  7. A long, tangled mass of hair with grisly bits of flesh at one end. On the ground, it looks like the result of scalping. But when a person comes near, it will spring into life, leaping and flying through the air to the attack. It will attempt to smother whomever it can, and eventually to add their hair to its ‘collection’.
  8. A constantly-changing, spinning, morphing structure of bones. At the core are several dozen bones that constantly shape and reshape to form cubes, dodecahedrons and other shapes; within these shapes, there is a single book, the pages of which flap back and forth as if an unseen spirit is fanning through them. Limbs made of bones attach to the outer vertices; the end of each is tipped in a razor-sharp pen nib. The horror will attempt to write out long, nonsensical passages in the blood of those who stray too close.
  9. A bridge that, at first, appears to be made of rope and wooden slats. On closer inspection, the slots are bones and the ropes are sinews. When someone steps onto the bridge, a skeletal spectral form will appear before them and demand a sacrifice: one of the would-be crosser’s own bones.
  10. Animated skeletons that shamble along, unless they are in the presence of magic. The more magic, the faster and more agile they become. In the presence of a powerful mage — whether enemy, ally or neither — they move like supremely speedy, aggressively nimble cats. They are also immune to magical attacks.
  11. A shambling mass of internal organs, lacking skeleton or skin, arranged as if by someone who doesn’t know what organs do: walking on the two lobes of its brain, using kidneys for hands, arms made of intestine, etc. It wails plaintively, but it is impossible to determine what it wants, or how it came to be this way.
  12. A set of jawbones that natter incessantly in some ancient language. They literally never shut up. The teeth are cracked; the bones themselves may have fractures, too. If you smash the bones, they will slowly reform somewhere else, building in volume as they do.

Categories: Undead, Encounters

Battleground: Review & battle report

If I had as much time as I wanted, I’d probably be a miniatures gamer. I love the intricacy, the skill, the sheer aesthetic delight of painting minis. The maneuvering, the planning, the feints and the luck of battles. And it’s great to see it all happening before you in 3D. (So long as what’s happening is actually representational.)

But, of course, I don’t have time for all the geeky hobbies I’d like to. Is there a way to get some of the aesthetic thrill of miniatures combat, without taking as much time? What if you could, say, eliminate all the painting time?

As I mentioned a while ago, one of my favorite podcasts for tabletop games is Roll 2d6, “With Adam and Nate”. In Episode 9, they reviewed a game called Battleground. Their review is quite in-depth; I recommend giving it a listen.

Concisely put, Battleground is a miniatures game played with cards. The cards are bird’s-eye views of combat units, so one card is approximately one stand worth of figures in most miniatures games. The scale is about 25mm, so the game uses about the same space as a 3D miniatures game: basically, a tabletop or large part thereof. The game also uses (a different kind of) cards for its command and control system.

Adam and Nate made Battleground sound so enticing that I had to try it. Several months ago, I bought some sets for the humans, elves, orcs and undead. The packs currently run around US$12 for a basic faction pack, so a minimum of about $25 for a playable game. Add the (optional) $7 reinforcement pack for a faction and you get about twice as large an army, so about $50 gives you a pretty big range of armies — either two really big ones, or four moderate size ones. Not super-cheap, but compared to the expense for two or more full armies of painted 25mm miniatures, it’s definitely on the affordable end.

Having those armies in Battleground means many different possible scenarios: different factions, different armies within those factions, different terrain setups, different goals, etc. It’s really a full 25mm-scale wargame, with all the scenario possibilities inherent in that. Minus: No cool 3D miniatures to look at. Plus: a complete playable minis game fits in a small bag.

Photo of Battleground game components, all fitting into one bag

A few weeks after buying it, I finally got around to play-testing the game by myself and trying to figure out the rules. (By myself? Yes, this is another plus of the game: it’s pretty easy to play solo. Adam and Nate mentioned that solo play was a possibility, which I think was what finally tipped me into buying the game.) It’s possible to give a unit orders and then let it keep going, based on those orders, through the entire game. One unit type, the Crazed Goblins, have the permanent order “Close and Attack”, meaning that they basically run on autopilot.

So I played a couple games. The first battle was a small group of humans versus the crazed goblins; the second battle was a small group of humans against a similar group of crazed goblins. Both games were around 415 points, which is considerably smaller than the recommended 1500-point starting game, but a nice small scenario seemed to work well for coming to grips with the rules. Both games lasted about 45 minutes from start to finish.

I happened to have a map of Lake Superior available, so I used it as impromptu terrain. The scenario: after years of development, the humans have encroached on the orcish lands, and now they’ve sent a small scouting party (some sword-fighters, a unit of archers and a unit of peasant militia) to claim Superior Pool. The orcs, enraged, try to resist.

The humans formed up, trying to protect the archers while they peppered the goblins from a distance. The goblins tried to close as fast as possible and get rid of the humans.

Photo of Battleground game in progress

The sword-fighters destroyed two units of goblins before falling. Eventually, it was down to just one unit of goblins and the archers. The archers weren’t especially hurt, and in spite of their lack of melee prowess, they prevailed. The archers had plenty of damage boxes left, so they weren’t really in danger. But still, it was tense! And very well-balanced — it felt like the battle could go either way, every turn.

Playing the basic game was pretty enjoyable. All movement and range is in multiples of card dimensions (width, length, ½ width, etc.), so you always have ready-to-use rulers available. There’s a fair amount of die rolling, which is aesthetically pleasing. The game seems very well balanced, and there’s a real sense of battles coming down to critical moments of morale and tactics. The peasant militia routed at their first contact with the goblins, which just makes sense.

I later did another scenario, this time elves vs. orcs, to try out the Basic game. This includes far more of the rules, with the command cards coming into play, fuller combat rules, etc. It was actually somewhat hard to follow. This may be because I’m out of practice with wargames.

Another possible factor is the way the rules are presented. First off, the game way overuses bold type. There are paragraphs where it feels like every other word is bolded, often for seemingly no purpose. There was one paragraph where the word “battlefield” was bolded. Why? It’s like reading a pre-owned college text where someone else has gone wild with a highlighter — often for what seems like bizarre reasons. Similarly, some of the graphical design could be clearer. For example, units’ attack values are rated as [icon of a sword] (X) Y/Z. X is something like accuracy; Y is something like chance of armor penetration; and Z is damage after penetration. But they’re all just presented as a string of numbers in a row. I got more used to reading these combat stats as I played, but it’s still pretty easy to get confused.

Also, the game’s writing is often unclear. The rules will frequently define something in a way that makes it unclear whether it’s an “ought” or an “is”. The way the Final Rush rules are presented, for example, make it unclear whether units can do a Final Rush, or must do a Final Rush. There’s a section that carefully defines indirect fire, but then apparently gives no mechanical difference for how indirect fire works. And there’s no index in the supplied rulebook, so it’s hard to find where a given rule is mentioned for the first time. (There is an index for the online advanced rules, but that’s then the advanced rules.) I also think there are too many modifiers to keep track of: terrain, morale, facing, range, etc. etc. all get factored in with + or – modifiers, which can lead to a little too much on-the-fly arithmetic for my tastes.

The game is definitely problematic from a diversity perspective. The rules assume masculinity as the default in a bad way, for a start; they always use “he” or “his” to refer to players, and say “bowmen” where the perfectly gender-neutral “archers” could work instead. Why call the one faction the “Men of Hawkwood”? Also, their illustration of the Dark Elf “lashmistress” is pointless titillation.

There may be some racism in there, too. The orc army in Battleground may be an example of the “evil races” stereotype, though I’m not sure about that. (Do the Crazed Goblins make this worse? Again, I don’t know.) And the Umenzi Tribesmen faction may or may not play into racist tropes. I haven’t bought it, because to be honest I’m afraid of discovering after the fact that it’s drenched in troglodytic ideology. I’d definitely welcome reports on that front.

Aside from those problems, Battleground is very fun. I played out an entire solo moderate-sized wargame conflict in about half an hour, which is something not a lot of games can do. The flavor of the command cards — choosing which unit’s orders to change, deciding whether to try for a new command card or not, etc. — is quite fun. There’s lots of drama in the dice, but doesn’t feel like the game relies too much on luck. It feels like the die rolls mean something. “Ooh, they get hit, but their armor absorbs it!” or “Ah, those wily elves dodge the goblin onslaught!” The combination of command cards, special abilities, etc. gives a good feel of character to the armies: the elves gallantly holding their ground, the goblins charging forward with a “waaarrggh!”, etc. Rout tests, troops lost to enemy attacks, etc. all add to the sense of drama.

Mostly, it’s just neat how you can put an entire miniatures-like wargame in a small pouch.

Divination in RPGs


The Thursday night group recently wrapped up play-testing a game that includes divination as a major PC ability, so I’ve been thinking more lately about prognostication (fortune-telling, foreknowledge, etc.) in RPGs.

As I see it, divination tends to move towards one of two extremes:

  1. The character has perfect foreknowledge of what will happen. This makes the future inevitable, which means that the characters as a group don’t have much choice in the future course of events. This way of handling foreknowledge usually seems to drive the game towards railroadiness. It also reduces the sense of agency, tending towards (as it’s called) deprotagonization.
  2. The character’s foreknowledge of events is unreliable, and the PC merely gets hints as to what will happen. This means that the character’s divination abilities aren’t especially useful. If this is a major subset of the character’s abilities, they feel useless. This also tends towards deprotagonization.

As I said in Blade & Crown:

Actual foreknowledge of game events can be very difficult to implement. Forcibly designating the future of events in-game can make it feel like the characters are railroaded; divination that’s flexible enough to allow for real free will may be too wishy-washy to be satisfactory.

Thus, divination can fail in either of two different directions, Importantly, I think either extreme is easy to fall into. Just a bit of sense that the future is written in stone, or a bit of a sense that a character’s cool ability is actually just lukewarm, can be enough to sour the game and make a player feel powerless.

Games are fundamentally, for me, about making important choices. Put another way, games are about the ability to change the outcome of events, and the ability to not be subject to the usual rules of the mundane world. Divination and foreknowledge mess with that formula, quite easily resulting in a loss of player choice, and of player agency.

Of course, if you’re looking for a game that’s railroady, or where the GM is largely revealing a pre-determined story, this is more of a feature than a bug. And if you’re writing a piece of prose fiction, it’s entirely fine for events to be pre-determined — since they are, assuming you’ve already written the whole piece before the reader interacts with it. But this is almost never the kind of game I want, however.

crystal_ball_1aNaturally, I like the way Blade & Crown does it. In B&C, a foretold future event creates a narrative ‘pull’ on events, but doesn’t lock characters into doing a particular thing. Seems like games that use similar methods of player narrative control (Traits, Aspects, etc.) should be able to implement similar forms of narrative pull. We tried something similar for the game we’re playtesting, and it worked fairly well. (‘Fairly’, because I still felt that tension between falling into utter foreknowledge and complete uselessness. And it felt vaguely unfair that I got to declare the future and no one else did, even though the declarations were wobbly and not especially reliable.)

This kind of narrative gravity is an aspect of RPGs that interests me a lot. Next year’s Con of the North scenario, The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae, is in many ways an experiment to see how well this can work. In that game, the PCs will all have strong senses of their fates — their Dooms, that is — that will drive them towards heroic deeds, and probably both into and out of danger.

It’s important to note here that I’m talking specifically about prognostication — foretelling the future. If, instead, a character’s abilities/fate/spirit leads them towards knowledge of the past, that’s completely fine in an RPG. Indeed, a large part of many RPGs is trying to figure out what has gone before. We call this ‘investigation’ or ‘mystery’.

And this mirrors how we feel about real life. (Well, most of us, anyway.) We all have a sense that the past is written in stone, because it effectively is; none of us can change the past. But prognostication can make the future seem inevitable, and reduce our sense of free will. Divination about the past, on the other hand, is what we all have already: memory. None of us have free will about the past, because we can’t change it. (And perhaps we can’t change the future, either; but most of us like to at least operate under the assumption that we can.) So divination about the past is something that already happens in RPGs. We usually just call it investigation, or exposition.

I’m sure there are other ways of handling foreknowledge in RPGs, but I’m not thinking of them. Do you have ideas for ways that prognostication can be included in an RPG without reducing player agency? I’d love to hear them.