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.

Creative Constraints

Storytelling demands creativity.  It’s challenging to design a game system that consistently encourages inspiration.  Fortunately, some great minds have found approaches to solve this problem.  Let’s focus on the first of these approaches today; Creative Constraints.

Some games are limited in scope and these constraints can help.  In Vincent Baker’s game “Poisn’d”, players portray rapacious and violent pirates.  The rules tell you what general kinds of things a pirate will do and encourage you do to follow those conventions.  “Dogs in the Vineyard” has the players portraying naïve and faithful youth in a western setting with more power then experience.  Since much of the story is defined, these games let you focus your attention on creating interesting Situations and conflicts.

The limited scope can often show you where the interesting conflicts may be hiding. “How we Came to Live Here” presents a setting with very strict gender roles.  How many of you fine folks reading this considered playing characters which violated that cultural norm?  By telling players what is forbidden, they start to consider how that would impact a character.

Some of these constraints can force us to play outside of our comfort zones. The gender roles in How we Came to Live Here attracts our attention because it clashes with our cultural assumptions.  Other games such as “Grey Ranks” or “Steal Away Jordan” do the same thing, forcing us to consider new perspectives and triggering creativity.

I recommend you check out “Narrative Fenceposts”  by the fine folks at Transneptune Games for some related discussions.

Who are you designing for?

Universal Principles of Design, published by Rockport, has taught me dozens of excellent techniques.  One technique is referred to as “Personas”, where you try to create diverse profiles of potential users so that you can consider each of their needs & preferences.  I suspect that using a technique like that might help improve our presentation of games to a wider variety of audiences. As roleplaying game designers, I feel we have a big advantage when it comes to creating fictional users and anticipating their needs.

Here is my list of different Personas which you can feel free to use for your own designs.  These are in no particular order and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely accidental.

1) Richard:  Richard is a middle-aged Caucasian male with a classical education and a long history with the gaming hobby.  He cut his teeth on basic D&D and still considers 2nd edition to be a bad decision.  His experience focuses on the older games such as Rolemaster, Tunnels and Trolls, Runequest, Gurps and Champions.  He has a broad experience with telling good and realistic stories as a fair and benevolent dungeon master.

2) Zak: Zak is a well-off Caucasian teenager from the suburbs from a dual-income home. He just started playing Pathfinder over the summer and is having a blast killing monsters and taking their loot. He picked up D&D 4e and it looked interesting, but he considers himself is strictly as a player. His Tuesday and Friday nights are spent drafting magic cards at the local gaming store and he considers himself quite the expert in that game.

3) Gloria: Gloria is an Caucasian woman, just turning 18 and considering college.  She embraced drama class enthusiastically and has tried her hand at improvisational theatre. Unfortunately for Gloria, a genetic condition has set in of late and her eyesight has deteriorated over the last few years.  She has never been exposed to an RPG.

4) Suzanne: Suzanne is a first-nations youth in an isolated community.  She has had some difficulty in schooling due to the poverty gripping her people.  She has been trying hard to improve her reading and writing skills and has gotten into reading fantasy novels of late. She has never played a roleplaying game, though she listens to every story that her elders are willing to tell.

5) Mohammad : Mohammad is a devout Muslim gentleman of Arabic decent, currently living in the middle east.  He is passionate about designing new roleplaying games, particularly those originating from the Forge.  He thinks that his current game will have an impact on his society on a whole and help people explore themselves and their faiths during these turbulent times.

6) Lily: Lily is a mature Chinese woman with a master’s degree in psychology. On her off hours, she plays in a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a few other women from the university she works at. She has embraced the Old School Renaissance movement, enjoying pitting her mind against the pitiless fantasy world. Years ago she had played a number of Vampire: the Masquerade LARP’s as well and she appreciated the experience, but was weirded out by the extent people were playing in character.


I hope that some of these persona are of use when examining your own designs and your potential audiences.

The Master’s Attention

Where do you focus your attention when you prepare for a game?  How do you cobble together a convincing and engaging story?  What does your game teach Game Masters to do in the lonely hours of the evening?  Thanks to the Bear Swarm Podcast, and I have noticed three distinct ways that game masters and designers focus their attention.

The first approach is to focus on the characters. The idea is that the GM should focus on creating compelling, dynamic and engaging non-player characters.  You can follow the NPC’s personalities and goals during play, reacting to the players efforts. As a result, the players pay attention to character relationships and motivations.  This is the method of design for the video game “Mass Effect 2” for example, with the richly detailed team members.

The second approach is to focus on the locations.  This is where the GM draws a detailed map of the setting, describing each place as a uniquely themed gem in a massive world.  You can encourage a sandbox style of gameplay, where the characters choose their own path and explore the game as they see fit. This seems to be the method of design use for “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” for example, where exploration of the rich environment dominates the play experience.

The third approach is to focus on the narrative. This is where the GM spends their time on crafting rich plots, character-testing events and dramatic arcs.  This is where the group story is paramount, where matters of pacing and theme drive the action. An excellent example of this in the video game tradition would be “Dragon Age 2”.

Now, each of these methods clearly has their own place in game design.  You can’t have a character focused game without paying attention to their narrative arc.  Locations are defined by the characters they will interact with.  The story depends on exploring a rich world.  I think it’s worth _considering_ how much of each factor you include in your games.

What roleplaying games do you know which focus on one of those particular approaches?