The Blood Oath Empire: Dreamation 2012 Playtest

Dreamation 2012 started with a bang and I snagged four players for a Thursday night playtest session. For ease of reference, let’s just call them players A, B, C and D. We achieved my goal for the session; to test the Setting Creation and Character Creation systems/procedures. Fortunately, we also got a chance to play the normal game for the second half of the session and a fun story emerged. Here is an explanation of our process and the lessons I learned from this test.

 Setting Creation

The first step of creating a setting was determining our Lines, Veils and Thresholds. I will warn you this gets a little dark. Lines are strict limits; topics absolutely forbidden during gameplay. By contrast, indirect references to subjects under Veils are acceptable. Thresholds are topics that you personally find sensitive, but you would be interested in seeing respectfully explored during game play.   We came up with rather dark lines and veils, and had thresholds of “Inbreeding” and “Ethnic Cleansing”.

Now we needed to determine what kind of setting we were making. I went around the table asking everyone to provide their favourite book, movie, tv show, video game or song. Once we got this together, I asked them to each state what specific aspect of their chosen media they most enjoy.   This is the list of inspirations we created from the process.

  • Army of Darkness – Comedy Horror
  • Mass Effect 2 – Mortality
  • Hardboiled – Heroic Bloodshed
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena – Dream-like Symbols.

We added a few more inspirational ingredients to add to that list:  Drug abuse, Duels and Mechs

Using the various inspirations as guidelines, we started to brainstorm potential setting Beliefs. After producing this list, we selected three of them (bolded) to represent our new world.

  • Change requires bloodshed
  • The ends don’t justify the means
  • Drugs are the only way to make it.
  • Everyone dies for a Reason
  • Laughter makes us human
  • Honour lost is blood lost.
  • The price of Honour is blood.

Faction Creation

Once we had the core themes of the setting established, we started on developing the various major factions and their relationships with each other.  We went around the table twice, with each person picking either a faction’s Name or their Mandate. The Mandates represent the organization’s core purpose and must be related to one of the setting’s Beliefs. Our final list was as follows.

  • The House of Crimson Shackles: To tell bereaved families the reason for their loss.
  • The Mechbuilder’s Guild: To ensure the weapons of war stay in Noble hands.
  • The Crows of Heaven: To punish lies.
  • Diviners of the Black Gate:  To eat dishonour from the dead. (Established as exclusively female)
  • The Children of the City: To tally the honour of the ruling houses.

Once we had the factions established, each player chose one relationship between different factions.  The House of Crimson Shackles and the Crows of Heaven became rivals for control of the truth. The leaders of the Mechbuilder’s Guild and the Children of the City are brothers. The House of Crimson Shackles apparently owns the Diviners of the Black Gate, who are plotting against them.   Lastly, the Mechbuilder’s Guild are apparently unwitting pawns of the Crows of Heaven.   It’s a great deal less confusing with a relationship map in front of you.

 Character Creation

This went by quickly enough, with four key characters established.

A’s character was a noble from the House of Crimson Shackles with these key beliefs: “The Children are our future.”  | ” I will control the future.”  | “Change requires bloodshed”.

B’s character was a torturer from the House of Crimson Shackles with these key beliefs:  “I don’t ask questions.”  | ”A man isn’t measured by his actions.” | ”A torturer is an artist”.

C’s character was a drugged out mech pilot with these beliefs: “The drugs pilot the mech” | My will is Reason enough” | “I follow a false purpose”.

D’s character was a jaded duelist with these beliefs: “Duels and honour are meaningless” | “Laughter is the Coward’s Way” | “Violence must be democratized”.

We took a break, two hours after starting the session, then dove into game play.

 

Gameplay Summary

We started game play with the prelude. I provided the group with a focus for play “Darshim, a Child of the City with a secret to reveal”. Each of them had a chance to narrate a short introductory scene where they showed off their characters and determined why they needed to reach the focus of play.  This went fairly quickly and we established some interesting facts about the world at that point.

We then got into normal gameplay where a duel had commenced in the royal dueling arena. We established that there were two kinds of duels in this world: The Duel of Wits and the Duel of Blades. We had various characters try to interrupt the sacred tradition of the Duel of Wits and they learned that the House of Crimson Shackles was plotting against the Emperor. Add some imperial adultery from A’s character’s wife, and you get a very tense and exciting scene.  It was short, but we ran the system through its paces and discovered a few spots deserving of attention.

 

Lessons from the Playtest

  • The first thing we noted was that by starting things off with Lines, Veils and Thresholds, the game became very adult and very dark, very quickly. Everyone at the table was comfortable with this, but it was a concern.
  • I need to give a list of potential lines and veils to kickstart the discussions.
  • It was hard for people to come up with Thresholds; likely due to the conflating of “Handle with care” and “request for others to handle”.
  • I need to create a separate setting-creation worksheet where the Lines, Veils, Thresholds, Inspirations and brainstormed setting Beliefs could be recorded.
  • We needed a stronger setting agreement before play. I resolved that in the future, we would create a title and tag-line for the settings during the process to help tie it together.
  • I failed to deal with the step of character creation where the players would provide their setting concepts to the group. As a result, the characters were only loosely related.
  • I need to more clearly define talents and conditions with more examples.
  • We were having a hard time remembering to narrate after pickling Resolutions.

My kind playtesters said they really enjoyed the process of using existing media and transforming them into tangible beliefs representing a new setting.  I have to admit, it was enjoyable on my part as well, so I will be keeping this in with a few minor modifications.

The Blood Oath Empire was fun to create and explore. I wish to thank all four of my kind playtesters for their hard work in crafting a world and PC’s in a span of a mere two hours.

Introduction to Independent RPG’s – A GenCon Seminar

I will be on a panel at Gencon on Thursday morning, providing an introduction to independent RPG’s.  I hope to see you there.

 

Introduction to Independent RPG’s

A panel of independent game designers are here to help! Hear about the major schools of rpg design. Learn some GM techniques from indie designers. Discover new games that match your interests!

This seminar is here to help you learn about the philosophical underpinnings of traditional games, Story Games and the Old School Renaissance. Our goal is to provide context about different types of games so that people can explore a variety of different games.

We will share some handy techniques and tricks, either invented or discovered by independent designers, that you can use in your games. Indie games tend to be a hotbed of innovation and we want to help you take advantage.

We will be happy to play matchmaker, finding just the game that would meet your particular interests. What sorts of things do you want to see in play? We can help you expand that to include things you didn’t even think of, and then try to hook you up with games that do that.

Let’s explore Indie Games.

Software Choices

Good software is nearly essential for producing a good roleplaying game book.  Over the years I have made a series of choices between different software packages and I thought I might explain my reasoning. Perhaps this may be useful to some of you.

Brainstorming:  I am currently undecided between using the technical solution (Freemind) or simply resorting to pen and paper for this function. I haven’t quite internalized a separate “brainstorming” step in my game designs, so I tend to use this in an ad-hoc fashion.

Writing the Draft: I started using the very nice open-source program Celtx which is a remarkably versatile media pre-production program. That one is particularly good for screenplays and movies, but I managed to get it working for my game writing. Easy to learn and freely available, it was a good choice.

That was when I found that Literature and Latte had released Scrivner for windows.  I picked up the program and fell absolutely in love. It’s a logical system for organizing and shuffling content without the fiddly bits involved in word processing software. Excellent as an organizational tool alone, it also supports the writing of content.  It comes with a a two-hour long tutorial and costs about $40 USD, but well worth the price. It’s telling that this is one of the few pieces of commercial software I currently use.

Editing: My go-to word processor is the open-source program Libreoffice at the moment. While I have access to MS Word and WordPerfect, I like to support the free program. Despite a few aesthetic disagreements, I have found the program to be robust and it fulfills my needs at the moment.  Some of the technical decisions, such as the use of frames, work quite well.  As a supporter of the open-source movement, I appreciate the use of open standards.

That said, I do fall back to MS Word on occasion.  Turns out that word 2007 has some extremely handy automated tools to point out passive phrasing and a host of similar stylistic problems. It’s also the default file format for writing, so sometimes it must be used.

Art: The open-source domain has continued to treat me well when it comes to art. I use the excellent and intuitive program Inkscape for all of my vector art.  I have replaced the proprietary Adobe Photoshop with the excellent and free program The GIMP.  Both of these are of professional quality and free

That said, I fully realize that some closed-source software can be worthwhile.  One program in particular, Corel Painter, has earned my praises.  I know that it would take me months of continuous practice to learn how to use the program effectively, but the incredible versitility has impressed me.

Layout and Publication:  I have the hardest time in choosing the best programs for layout and pdf production.  Picking an excellent closed-source PDF Editor was easy (PDF-XChange by Tracker Software). The challenge was in picking the ideal layout program for my purposes. I am torn between sticking with the open-source Scribus or invest in the proprietary Adobe InDesign.

Adobe InDesign is aboslutely the industry standard and is objectively the best program of it’s type on the market.  Everyone uses the program, printers expect it and tutorials abound.  It’s also a closed-source program with a price-tag of $699 USD.  That is certainly not a casual purchase, especially for a new publisher.

The open source competition is Scribus, a program with its own challenges.  The consensus within the Forge and Story Games appears to be, avoid the program. There is a significant learning curve and the help files/tutorials are quite poor. Adding to that, several professional graphic designers have mentioned some key deficiencies in the program. I put in days of effort learning the bloody program and the effort paid off; I am now able to do my own rudimentary layout. I used Scribus for “A Sojourn In Alexandria” in Gamechef 2010 and it worked well enough.

 

I hope that someone finds this information worthwhile.  I would love some discussion on the layout programs in the comments, if you kind reader(s) would like to help. Thank you.

 

Building the Machine

There is a simple joy in the act of creation.   It doesn’t matter if you optimized a deck of Magic Cards, created a D&D character from scratch or forged a robot with a murderous heart.  Preparing your tools before you play is rewarding because every choice is significant.   I think this is one facet of design that we in the Indie RPG design community tend to overlook.

This realization came to me after leveling up in a D&D 4E game that I am playing in. Each time I got to tinker with my character, I was presented with a puzzle of which new feat or power I was going to choose. I knew that I was stuck with whatever decision I made until I earned my level, always feeling like my choices were meaningful.  Looking back, it was the same thrill that I had gotten each time I started altering one of my decks of Magic cards.  The very act of altering and customizing something for a game was enormous fun.

If you look back at the changes to D&D, you can see that the fun of preparation was taken into account.  In classical D&D, the sum total of your creative input consisted of a few trivial decisions at character creation.  2nd edition introduced Kits, giving you more choice for differentiation at character creation. 3rd edition gave us Feats and Prestige Classes which allowed the players to alter their characters in significant ways whenever they earned certain levels.  When 4E came around, the advancement system was altered so that the players would be able to make small but important decisions every time they leveled up by changing feats, power selection and/or attributes.

Changing my character helps me feel as if I gain a little more agency.  In turn, I find myself more and more engaged with the game.  I know that many great story games include preparation, but I think that it’s still an aspect of design that is far too often overlooked.   I’m not saying that we should start including detailed encumbrance rules in every new game, but I think that _some_ level of preparation can improve a game and keep the players wanting more.

 

What do you think?


We must Organize!

I thought I knew what I was doing last year.   My plan had been to write up the text of the game, then simply make a _few_ revisions based on the playtesting.   I thought that my design _must_ have been advanced enough that I could commission art.  I expected that I could finish off playtesting in 6-9 months, max and have my book in public Beta by early 2012.

I have learned a great deal over the last year.   I tore out 50% of the system and abandoned the text which I _had_ been writing.  I changed my approach and decided that I really needed to get the core system solidified before I tried anything else.   This led to me creating and heavily revising of a 2-page rules summary, just so that I had something to work from.

This is almost all I had ready by the time the convention season began.  Each playtest taught me a different lesson.  CanGames taught me that the game itself had the potential to be fun and compelling.  The Grand Roludothon taught me to simplify the mechanics and adopt a more improvisational style.  GenCon gave me 2-3 pages worth of astounding feedback which I am only now starting to digest.

Now I am organizing all of the rules for the Spark RPG.   I have Google Docs open and I am populating it with a series of one-line statements.  Each statement corresponds to an individual rule, concept, explanation or piece of advice for the game.  When I finish that up, I will be able to organize the content and turn that into a solid outline for my next attempt at writing the rule.  My hope is that through outlining, I ought to be able to write the game in the most concise manner possible without losing clarity.

Are there any readers in the audience who outline this way?  If not, how do you organize your RPG content?