Manifest Destiny… of Blood!

gp_rpg_logoAs I start preparing for my upcoming charity Ghost Punchers RPG session, it occurs to me that while I’ve discussed game systems that model much of the traditional haunted house experience, we’re still missing the mood-setting bits of horror that don’t actually attack you, but still scared the 2d10 out of you.

I’m talking about stuff like bleeding walls, the sounds of rattling chains, laughing stuffed moose heads, fortune cookies sprouting spider legs and skittering away off your plate. Creepy, startling stuff that might require a fear check… but isn’t a ghost itself.

These things are manifestations. They are, essentially, temporary illusions. The blood on the wall won’t stain your shirt, for example, and the fortune cookies lose their legs the moment you look away. Some of the illusions can actually hurt you (the fortune-spiders bite if you touch them), so it’s never safe to ignore them. Such wounds are usually also temporary, however. (In Savage Worlds game terms, they inflict Fatigue rather than Wounds.)

Manifestations are created by ghosts, either consciously or unconsciously, usually to help scare people. Creating and maintaining them costs the ghost Essence… though during an adventure, I wouldn’t worry about the economy of the thing unless it’s a plot point.

As a Game Master populating your haunted house, manifestations are your ticket to create whatever creepy wackiness you want to include. (For example, in my Tacticon game, I had a room in a mansion that was overlaid by an illusion of a forest at midnight, with a crashed car in the midst of the trees. When the characters got too close, the car came to life and chased them around the house.)

I’ve mentioned before that a Ghost Punchers adventure is a dungeon crawl in a haunted house. If the haunted house is a dungeon, and the ghosts are monsters to fight, then you can think of manifestations as traps: challenges that require courage and quick thinking, and can’t be overcome with pure violence.

Another Month, Another Con

mlpccg_boosterpacksJust when I thought it was safe to reinstate my “no-pants Saturdays” policy, it turns out I’ve got another convention coming up: one requiring a certain amount of travel, preparation, and yes, pants-wearing.

This month’s con is Running of the Leaves, a convention in Denver dedicated to celebrating “the eccentric and effervescent community that developed around the television show ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.'” I’ll be attending in my role as a designer and carnival barker for the My Little Pony Collectible Card Game. The con runs October 31 – November 2, so while others are lolling around the house in sugar comas, I’ll be at the con teaching people to play the MLP CCG and handing out promo cards to anyone who asks.

While the con is only two weeks away, they’re still taking registrations. So if you’re a brony looking for your tribe, or just a fan of animation and its related subcultures, check out Running of the Leaves. (But don’t tell them I sent you. I want it to be surprise.)

There’s Something About a Loser

Broken EggWhile drafting up some ideas for my upcoming Ghost Punchers RPG adventure, I’m thinking about who the characters will be, and keep coming back to the idea that I love a good loser.

Oh sure, super-competent experts are fun too, but if that area of expertise is too broad (“I’m the best there is at KNOWING THINGS.”), there’s not much challenge to the character, or room for dynamic problem-solving. If your hammer is big enough, every problem really IS a nail. As an RPG player, I find that part of the fun of the game is finding a way to overcome the adventure’s challenges despite not being equipped with the “proper” skills and abilities. (Find me at a con and I’ll tell you tales of my peasant PC who survived the brutal Warhammer Fantasy world just by hiding and bluffing.)

What’s more, losers have something to prove. “I’ll show them!” is the loser’s battle cry, and can be enough to drive characters into adventures that more… um… winninger? characters would be likely to avoid. It’s a built-in motivation.

Finally, losers are sympathetic. We’ve all been losers at one point or another. And I think being able to take that “loser” character and turn it into a winner feels better than taking a winner from one victory to another.

When creating your next RPG character, consider making him or her a “loser.” You might be glad you did.

Punching Ghosts for Charity

thanksgaming_logoDo you like feeding hungry people? Do you like playing games? Do you live in Colorado? Then I have an event for you!

On Saturday, November 8, Gamers Giving is hosting this year’s ThanksGaming event — a day-long mini-convention of board and roleplaying games, with all proceeds going to towards supporting the Food Bank of the Rockies.

I’ll be running the Ghost Punchers RPG that night. It’s being billed as a “special guest” event, so I’ll be stepping the game up a notch. I’m not exactly sure what “a notch” looks like, but I’m sure candy bennies are involved. (That’s the #7 reason people like Savage Worlds, you know — candy bennies.)

Head over the ThanksGaming site to see what games are being run and sign up to play. It’s for a good cause and it’s sure to be a good time.

Role Reversal

I think your blindness algorithm is off about 17 percentI had a bit of an epiphany today while pondering narrative design in various types of game. Well, “epiphany” is probably overstating it. Angels didn’t sing or anything. But I did realize something:

In video games, story exists to supplement the game mechanics. Its purpose is to give the gameplay context and increase the player’s engagement with the game.

The same could be said about board games. As anyone who plays Eurogames can tell you, story is often a thin layer of varnish sprayed over the clever and interesting mechanics that are the point of the game.

In tabletop RPGs, however, the roles of story and game mechanics are reversed. The game mechanics are there to support the story.

As players of the game, what story are you trying to tell? What are the conflicts in that story? What are the obstacles? What are the protagonists like? How about the antagonists?

For (an obvious) example, if your story is about fantasy heroes who kick down the dungeon’s door, kill the monster inside, and take its stuff, then you need rules for doors, kicking, killing monsters, and all the stuff you can get.

But even within this story, there can be subtle nuances. Do your heroes start out as monster-killing machines who might get scratched in battle, but it’s nothing that can’t be buffed out with a 15-minute rest? That’s one set of rules. Do they start out as little more than peasants with sharp sticks and nothing to lose? That’s another set of rules.

This is why not every set of RPG rules is perfect for every game. While rules don’t technically tell you what kinds of stories you can and can’t tell, if the rules and story don’t match, the rules restrict what kinds of stories you can tell well. For example, you could technically run a game of courtly romance and intrigue with rules that focused on door-kicking and monster-killing, but you’d have to wing it a lot more than you would with a game that actually had rules for courtly romance and intrigue.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I start noodling around again with some original RPG design ideas.

The question at the heart of the RPG, even deeper than “What do the players DO?” is “What kinds of stories do you want to tell?”

First you answer that. Then you design mechanics to support your answer.

Tracon – There And Back Again

tracon_9_logoAs I mentioned briefly a couple months ago, I was a guest of honor at Tracon9 in Tampere, Finland about a week ago. I was meaning to write an exhaustive report in the vein of Ross Watson’s write-up from last year, but between jet lag, baby-lag, and looming deadlines that are both on fire and covered in blades, I haven’t got it yet… but figure I’d better get something on the blog before the whole trip fades from memory like a delicious dream. (Mmmm… reindeer meat…)

I arrived in Helskinki a couple days before the con. Ably assisted by my guides/translators Eevi and Aapo, I played tourist there, exploring the city’s famous cathedrals and the Suomenlinna island complex (aka “the sea fortress”). The island was shrouded in an unusual mist the day we toured it, giving it a mystical, “wandering the Shire” vibe. The fantasy felling that was particularly prominent when we made our way through old stone tunnels that should have, by all rights, been occupied by trolls. My last day in Helsinki, I was even able to sneak in a tour of the Remedy Entertainment video game studio. I’ve been slathered in NDAs, so I can say nothing more, aside from assuring you that the makers of Max Payne and Alan Wake are awesome people and still making awesome games.

No one's scouring THIS shire. No one’s scouring THIS shire.

After Helsinki, I was off to Tampere, where the convention was being held in the local convention/performing arts center. On Friday night, I was fortunate to be able to attend “Final Symphony” – a concert focusing on music from the Final Fantasy series performed by the Tampere Symphony and arranged by Jonne Valtonen & Roger Wanamo, the convention’s musical guests of honor.

Saturday, I gave a presentation on world-building entitled “Crafting Storyworlds” that brought together and formalized a lot of the storyworld and fractal theories I’ve been writing about here on the blog. It was a good audience – maybe 100 people – with tough questions like, “Is the conflict between Jedi and Sith a core conflict of the Star Wars storyworld?” (I had to say no, but was feared I need to defend my position with fisticuffs.)

On Sunday, I did a Q&A on game design, world-building, and my history in the industry. Again, there were good questions, and no one threw anything, so I called it a win. Later, I had a very small informal kaffeeklatch with a handful of folks that almost turned into a religious skirmish over the merits of the Star Wars prequels. (“So you’re saying that Episode I isn’t all bad…?”) Good times!

I also popped down into the gaming room to check on the local My Little Pony CCG tournament. It’s always great to meet fans of the game, and I spend some time signing cards, handing out promos, and getting my butt kicked by the Finnish card sharks.

Of course, no discussion Tracon would be complete with mentioning the amazing cosplay on display. Of the 5000+ people there, I’d say 80% of them were in costume — and most of the costumes were incredible. That might have had something to do with the con hosting the 2015 World Cosplay Summit; those that were competing seemed to raise the bar for everyone else’s costumes.
I just want to hug you... with my jaws. I just want to hug you… with my jaws.

It was an incredible week. I’m beyond grateful to Ross (who suggested me to the Tracon folks), my handlers Eevi and Aapo, the head of international guests Tiina, and head of RPGs Hermanni, and all the rest of the Tracon crew. I would jump at the chance to return to Finland for a convention, and would encourage anyone else who gets the opportunity to do so as well.

Looking for a Hero

Seventh-Hero_BoxTopIf you follow me on Twitter, you might think my days are filled with pastel ponies, ghost-punching, and baby-wrangling. And you’d technically be right, but also you’d be overlooking the parts of my day in which I do world-building for tabletop games.

To that end, I’d like to direct your attention to Seventh Hero, a new micro card game recently released by AEG. The game features a clever design by Yasushi Kuroda, gorgeous artwork by Zezhou Chen, and background story text by yours truly. It was a fun challenge to pack as much flavor and storyworld goodness as I could into such a small package.

Back in the day, I used to do a ton of this sort of thing while working on tabletop games for Fantasy Flight. It was a blast to get back to my roots like this, and I look forward to doing it again soon.

Ghosts of Conventions Past

the calm before the stormSo many ghosts! So much punching! Tacticon was this weekend, and it was full of gaming goodness! Friday night I ran my first actual session of Ghost Punchers for a fun bunch of players who really got the the mix of horror and humor I was going for.

As promised, the adventure was a haunted house as a dungeon crawl, with an excellent “haunted house” map supplied by the fine folks at Fabled Environments. (Seriously, as you can see, the map was top-notch, and a couple players even said “Is this Fabled Environments? I love their stuff!”) There were many highlights of the session, including the moment when a PC opened the door to a side room… and I dumped a double handful of “ghost” miniatures onto the map. The table gasped. “It’s full of ghosts,” I said. “And they’re all dancing.”

From a game development perspective, the modified Enchanted Fist power (which increases damage by a die type for each raise) worked well, and the power-tracking cards (those things with the fists on them in the image) were useful if a little fiddly. On the GM side, running the ghosts was a bit too much record-keeping and not enough fast/furious/fun, so there’s work to be done there before I let someone else try to run the game.

On Saturday, I ran two packed sessions of a Karthador adventure featuring a rag-tag band of rebels fighting their way out of an Ursicor bazaar, then sneaking into a royal ball. Neither session went exactly how I planned, but both had incidents of players obsessing over the guards’ hover vehicles and trying to figure out how to sneak a riding bear into the city. (“If we put it in a tutu, we reduce the chances of the guards shooting at it.”)

Tacticon is always a good time, and this year was no different. I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year!

Come for the Punching, Stay for the Swashbuckling

gaming_diceToday I’m playing the part of the fire-fighting lumberjack, swinging from one burning tree to the next, an axe in my belt and a fire extinguisher in my hand. So I’ll be keeping this post brief and to the point.

This weekend (starting tonight, actually), if you’re in the Denver area and want to get your game on, come on down to Tacticon. They’ll have board games galore, and so many RPGs being run, my metaphor engine burned out trying to come up with a figure of speech to describe the quantity. (Seriously. It’s like hundreds of RPGs, including tons of Savage Worlds, Pathfinder Society, every edition of D&D, and lots more.)

I am running three slots over the course of the con. Friday night, I’ll be running the inaugural public session of Ghost Punchers. On Saturday, I’ll be running two sessions of Karthador (you know, the RPG of swashbuckling science fiction): one at 9 AM and the other at 7PM.

As of this writing, I’ve still got some slots available in you’d like to play. And even if you don’t, there are plenty of other great games at the con, so you should definitely check it out!

There’s a Storm Coming

While I’ve never actually run my own Kickstarter project (yet), I’ve been attached to a number of them, either as a game designer or a stretch goal. But I don’t know if any of them have had a full-blown trailer quite as fancy as the one for SIENNA STORM, the espionage thriller video game I’m helping design.

My role on the project is “card game guy.” The game is presented as an interactive graphic novel, with lots of dialog trees and decisions to be made. When the time for talking is over, however, the action scenes are resolved by playing a card game with your own customized deck against the computer. It’s my job to design the cards, the enemy AI, and the dynamic events that might pop up over the course of the game (such as reinforcements arriving on the scene, a bystander wandering onto the scene, or a piece of vital equipment being destroyed).

The Kickstarter campaign is live. If you’re interested in video games, or just curious what I do beyond ghost-punching and pastel ponies, check it out. If you’ve been looking for a modern-day spy thriller with hand-painted art and choices galore, this might be the game you’re looking for!