Monday, 18 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Positions

Onto the second part of my exploration of the Signs and Positions from Ask the Stars.

While the Signs give you a sense of the core of the issue, the Positions tend to act as a modifier of that, a secondary theme, or a sense of how that core is changing. Often they ask you questions that give you more context.

The Signs represent general shapes formed from the stars, while the Position represents their shifting form and relationship to their surroundings. Nothing is permanent, and nothing exists in isolation from its neighbours.

As with the Signs, sometimes the meaning is more literal than symbolic. Reflected can mean reversal or vanity but could also be referring to an actual mirror. 

1 - RISING (Growth/Possibility)

The Sign is moving upward from the horizon or other large reference point. Things often start small, and call for patience or nurture, assuming you want them to grow.

Think about what could be, and how this could just be the start of something so much bigger. What factors are causing this growth. What would happen if it were left untended, and what is your place alongside it?

2 - ENTOMBED (Memory/Death)

The Sign is tightly surrounded on all sides. It cannot be touched, the tomb cannot be broken, but its image remains clear.

Are you looking at something real, or just a shadow of the past? Our memories define us, but they can hold us back. It can be difficult to come to terms with an ending, but even those that die leave an imprint on the world. 

3 - TWINNED (Intimacy/Dependency)

The Sign is repeated nearby. It is strengthened by its twin, but both are dependent on each other. Often when one leaves the skies the other will follow.

What relationships are strengthening this sign? Are they actually a source of strength, or is the co-reliance holding things back? An enemy could use this to exploit an alternative angle of attack, removing the Queen to trap the King.

4 - WANING (Hunger/Decay)

The sign is closing in on itself or its light is fading. All things must pass, but this sign is clinging onto its light, fighting against the darkness.

Consider how this inevitable decline changes things. What would allow things to remain for just a little longer? What desperate things we would do to survive in these last throes?

5 - ROOTED (Stability/Plenty)

The Sign is interlocked with the horizon or another large point of reference. A position of safety, but immobile.

What foundations are holding things in place here? What is providing this position of strength? What source of abundance is allowing things to flourish?

6 - BOWED (Submission/Mercy)

The Sign is small and sits below a much larger object. It is content in its position below a greater power, simultaneously dominated and protected by it.

Consider the power dynamics of this situation, who is submitting to whom? What structures are in place that allow the weak to survive here? If there is a dominant power here, why is its hand steadied? 

7 - COLLIDING (Change/Violence)

The Sign is moving towards another object, or has already begun to meet it head-on.

Great change often comes from a clash of two opposing forces. What are the opposing forces here, and what change would come from their collision? If the clash is inevitable, which side will you take?

8 - BURNING (Honesty/Pride)

The Sign is displayed clearly, brightly, and seems to be growing more intense. Such a roaring flame surely cannot burn forever.

Something is proclaimed loudly here, or perhaps a declaration is needed. What will be the outcome of such plain honesty? Is truth the ideal at play here, or are these declarations a display of self-importance? If pride comes before the fall here, what truth would bring things crashing down?

9 - VEILED (Faith/Deceit)

The Sign is difficult to see, partially obscured by another object. Maybe you can't see it at all, but you feel it's there.

What unseen powers are at work here? Not necessarily malicious forces, but the invisible hands moving the pieces. They could be impartial to us, or perhaps we like to think they're on our side. The veil could be concealing those hands, or blinding our own eyes, asking us to step into the unknown in a trusting stride.

10 - EXILED (Guilt/Autonomy)

The Sign sits alone in a sea of darkness, even the nearby lights appear to be slowly drifting away.

We crave the support and approval of others, but sometimes we must embrace ourselves. What sits alone here, and how does it survive without support? Was it banished, or did it seek solitude?

11 - CROWNED (Ambition/Ruin)

The Sign is capped with a brighter star, its luminance making the Sign appear duller by comparison.

A great achievement can bring rewards, both material and otherwise, but it is rarely enough. What achievement is being recognised here, and what comes next? Who is climbing the ladder, and how far left before they run out of rungs? All towers must fall. 

12 - REFLECTED (Reversal/Vanity)

The Sign is mirrored in another part of the sky. They appear identical at first, but time reveals subtle differences.

When we observe ourselves we must acknowledge our flaws as much as our strengths. Focusing on either one alone presents a distorted reality. Is there another way of looking at things here? What boon could actually be viewed as a bane, or vice versa? For every action there is an opposite reaction, where can this be seen? 


So now we have all of the Signs and Positions fully fleshed out, let's put it to work with three rolls, asking for a character, location, and event.

Character: 10/11 - The Fleet, Crowned
Somebody striving toward their ambition relentlessly, to hell with the cost. Perhaps the wreckage they left in their wake is slowly amassing to drag them back down to earth.

Location: 3/1 - The Cage, Rising
A place where growth is simultaneously protected and nurtured, but destined for a set purpose. A walled city that appears at first as a thriving metropolis, but is working towards a selfish goal.

Event: 9/10 - The Elder, Exiled
The old faith is thrown out, kept alive by a few hermits. Where will they retreat to find safety?

Monday, 11 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Signs

The Signs are designed to work as oracles, similar to how I've used Spark Tables but with a dash of Tarot's symbolism and openness to interpretation. I want to strike a balance between being vague enough to suit a range of situations, but specific enough to offer actual direction for your creativity.

The Signs make up the first half of the Ask the Stars system. The Signs don't represent static constellations, instead looser patterns that appear to reform commonly among the shifting positions of the Living Stars.

When combined with a Position, the Sign generally gives you the core of the issue at hand, with the Position acting as a modifier or accent to this.

Each is condensed to its symbol and two words. Let's dig a bit deeper into each.

1 - THE FANG (Hostility/Fear)

The survival-obsessed beast that lurks behind all of our civilised words and facades. The Fang represents the terrible things that we would do to ensure our own safety, and the unpredictable things that others would do to protect their own. These things tend to snowball out of control. A misplaced glance here, a crossed-wire there, and before you know we're enemies tearing at each other's throats. 

The Fang speaks to you when you're holding a knife and your eye lingers on it for just a touch too long. It may have been the first Sign that we learned to recognise in the stars, and without it we might have never made it beyond our first campfires. 

It can represent spiralling tension between two neighbours, a paranoid recluse, or a cowardly lickspittle parroting their leaders words of hatred. 

2- THE WINGS (Freedom/Nature)

That feeling of just wanting to leave everything behind. What could be more important than this ultimate freedom? Everything around you is just holding you back, like rocks pinning down a bird's wings. Don't overthink it, that's what you've always done up to this point.

The Wings speak to you when you gaze out of your window or into the night sky. It's the comfort you feel when you turn your back on obligations and responsibilities, or allow your animal brain to take full control. 

It can represent elopers heading off for a new life together, a hermit embracing wilderness life, or even nature itself acting as a great leveller.

3 - THE CAGE (Protection/Obligation)

The sacrifice of liberty for security, but consider that the danger can positioned be on either side of the cage. Stick to your word, laying down your life for the cause you have sworn to protect if that's what it takes. Some say that cages are made to be broken, but it's not your place to question, just to hold strong for as long as you can. 

The Cage tells you to close ranks and stay true to your oaths. If it all goes wrong, then at least believe that your sacrifice would be worth something.

It can represent a soldier throwing down their life to protect their liege, a secret society forming a square around a member when threatened by slander, or a monk dedicating their life to the spiritual salvation of their peers. 

4 - THE HAND (Creation/Misdirection)

The power and mastery that we all possess. By our own hands we wrench our vision into reality and feel our power grow even further. But a hand rarely works alone, so always consider what is happening behind the flashiness in front of you. The craftiest hands do their work out of plain sight.

The Hand puts your plans into action and forces your will onto the world around you, whether by your own hard work or the manipulation of others. 

It can represent a visionary leader uniting disparate followers, an engineer creating devices beyond their own reckoning, or a shadowy power behind the throne.

5 - THE MASK (Persuasion/Shame)

Everything that is false, hiding behind your face. We look at others and constantly fail to see the same insecurities and self-loathing that lurk and whisper to us. We seek their approval, but do not allow ourselves to enjoy it. Still, we can't get enough of it.

The Mask puts on a presentable face to the world, following social norms and building connections, all the while gnawing at you with its other side, never letting you show your true face.

It can represent a charismatic performer craving approval, a righteous politician hiding a dark secret, or a nation rising in anger to reclaim its shattered pride.

6 - THE EYE (Judgement/Secrets)

You just can't resist, can you? Peering over that fence, listening in on that conversation, reading that letter carelessly left out in the open. But just knowing isn't enough. You must pass judgement. What did they do wrong? Something rotten at their core? You'd better make sure your own secrets are carefully locked away.

The Eye draws you towards your neighbour and asks you what you really think of them, longing for an opportunity to be able to proclaim your judgement out loud.

It can represent a vengeful inquisitor, an intrusive relative, or a vault-keeper that revels in holding so many prized and secret possessions. 

7 - THE CHILD (Learning/Greed)

The empty vessel that we all were at birth. A cup longing to be filled with knowledge, but at times can feel impossible to even half-fill. The more we learn, the more we want. The more we have, the less we appreciate those things. The more questions we ask, the less we like the answers we hear. 

The Child is a constant voice inside you, always asking "But why?" and never being satisfied with the answer. 

It can represent an iconoclastic young scholar, a gluttonous socialite, or a bickering circle of conspiracy theorists.

8 - THE TRAVELLER (Wandering/Chance)

Symbolised as a walking stick or a sword, this is the romantic version of ourselves that follows the wind and leaves everything to fate. They close their eyes and trust that their destiny is planned, stepping boldly into whatever the universe has planned or them. Forget about your origin and your destination, all that matters is this step on your journey.

The Traveller wants your mind to shut off from worrying about past and present, and focus on what makes the now interesting. Stop to smell the roses, but don't stay for too long. 

It can represent a Knight without a liege, an artist travelling in search of inspiration, or a gambler that lost everything on a roll of the dice.

9 - THE ELDER (Authority/Tradition)

Listen. This is the way it is. I've been around, I've done the required reading, and everybody agrees with me. Who do you think you are to question this? Some things just work, so why should they change? Progress isn't a march towards some utopian destination, you know. It's much more complicated than that, but you really don't need to understand. Just get in your lane and you'll be happier.

The Elder speaks with harsh words that can, at times, feel oddly comforting. It's nice to not have to agonise over every ethical decision, so just follow orders or do things the traditional way.

It can represent a Prince inheriting great power through his bloodline, a despot stamping out resistance, or an ancient festival uniting a culture in celebration. 

10 - THE FLEET (Direction/Struggle)

The easy journeys are hardly worth thinking about. At some point we're all due a great pilgrimage, whether we're a lone ship or part of a sprawling armada. The journey makes us, and the destination allows us to reflect on the price paid. Was it worth it? And where next?

The Fleet pushes us towards our ambitions and desires, manifesting around us when we finally take those first steps towards progress. Its momentum keeps us going forward, sometimes preventing us from reconsidering the direction we're travelling in.

It can represent a battered army refusing to stand down and return home, an explorer leaving behind a loving family, or a great leader rising up through a life of hardship.

11 - THE COUNCIL (Opposition/Cycles)

Everything comes back around to where it started eventually, so what's the point in it all? We've got to keep the wheels turning, or else somebody will feel their side isn't getting the fair share of sunlight. Go through the motions, make them work for what they want or else they'll just keep asking for more.

The Council is the friction you feel even when you're doing something you've done a million times before. Why can't this just be simpler? Everything needs some sort of opposition, like the universe itself acting as Devil's Advocate.

It can represent a difficult harvest season after a particularly good year, a ruler unable to get reforms through their parliament, or a formerly ridiculed pastime coming back into fashion.

12 - THE LEGION (Unification/Identity)

The individual is nothing compared to the crowd, and the crowd ascends to something truly special when they act as one. A fighter is nothing next to a knight, and a knight nothing next to a crusader. We can do so much more when we cast off our own names and chant for our cause as a single voice of thousands.

The Legion is the rush you feel when you're marching in step with your compatriots, when you cheer at a flag being raised, and when you almost feel no control over your own body and voice. 

It can represent an army marching under a new banner, a traveller adopting the local culture, or a choir singing in perfect harmony.

Next time we'll look at the Positions that give each sign even more possibilities.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Ask the Stars - Putting the Core to Work

I've been thinking some more about the Ask the Stars system. 

I wrote that last blogpost with a focus on solo play, but the bridge to co-op seems pretty effortless. Similarly, I'd be interested to try it out in a more traditional GM/players structure.

But most of all I'm excited to continue this "make a simple core and put it to work" thing that's been stuck in my head recently. 

Putting the Core to Work

I've touched on this a few times but maybe I should be ultra-clear what I mean by this.

The games that I really connect with, both tabletop and digital, have a very simple mechanical core and then fully explore the possibilities of that core while remaining faithful to the original concept. 

For videogames think N++, Outer Wilds, Into the Breach, all of which I've spoken about before. For Tabletop RPGs it's trickier. There are lots of complex games that go deep into exploring their system, but they tend to lack that simple core that I crave. Similarly, rules-lite games often carry their lean presentation over to content, leaving much of the exploring to the individual game groups.

Risus, when read alongside the Risus Companion, stands out as a good example of what I'm describing here. Mothership is almost there, with its lean Rulebook serving mainly to support a diverse set of adventure modules that explore the system's possibilities. PBTA as a whole seems like a perfect fit at first, but they're a massively mixed bag,  and I feel like overall there's still too much focus on the intricacies of the mechanics rather than what you can actually do with them.

Yeah, I know I'm being super fussy here, but as always the point here is about identifying my own tastes, rather than trying to prescribe anybody else's.

And what's the point of all this? Well it's all so that I can make the game that I want. 

Putting Ask the Stars to Work

So Ask the Stars boils down to 

  • Make Notes for anything that seems important. Similar things stack up to three, when it generally becomes a more critical and permanent in its impact.
  • When you're unsure, roll d12 on the Ask the Stars table for a Yes/No answer or a cryptic oracle.
  • Advantage/Disadvantage on rolls that are more/less likely to answer Yes. 
There's some guidance on structuring your Notes and interpreting the results of a roll, but then you're mostly left to work out the rest for yourself.

So let's look at how you actually put that core to work.

The Conversation

It's sometimes useful to think of a game as a conversation. There's that Sid Meir quote that "A game is a series of interesting decisions" which I quite like to twist into "An RPG is a series of interesting questions". In actuality it's not a perfect fit, but I've noticed I often find the questions part of a game more interesting than the actions part. 

So, whether you're acting as soloist, player, or GM, keep the following questions on hand.

When a character is taking an action, consider asking:

Action: What exactly are they doing?

Objective: What is the desired outcome?

Leverage: What established fiction makes this possible?

When you are unsure what to do, consider asking another player or the GM:

Information: What if I examine this more closely or in a different way.

Choice: What are some alternatives here?

Impact: What’s the likely outcome in the case of success or failure?

Yes and No

As standard, this table gives a equal 1-in-4 chance each to your Hard Yes, Yes, No, and Hard No results. 

At first glance your only tool to modify this is the option to roll two dice and keep the higher/lower die for a more/less positive shift.

But really you have more options than that. Consider the points made when I discussed difficulty in Electric Bastionland. In that post I rallied against the idea of adding an Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, but here that mechanical is essentially a replacement for Ability Scores, allowing characters to be outright more likely to succeed in areas of strength and fail in areas of weakness. But still, remember those other ways of modifying difficulty, recapped here:

Alternative Advantages
  • Free Entry: It just happens.
  • Enhanced Success: If you succeed then you get more than you normally would.
  • Lower Risk: If you fail then the consequences aren't as bad.
Alternative Disadvantages
  • Barrier to Entry: You can't do it. Find another way.
  • Mixed Success: Even if you succeed there will still be a complication.
  • Increased Risk: If you fail then it'll be extra-bad.

Degrees of Success

Another area where this minimalist system is technically more complex than Electric Bastionland. Remember that the distinction between a Yes and a Hard Yes is not a constant, and varies depending on the situation at hand and the question being asked. 

With the presence of Hard Yes as an option, the temptation might be there to think of Yes as a Yes but... and I can see the appeal. But really it's just Yes, and the fiction will hopefully guide you in whether that's followed by but or and or just a full stop. 


I look forward to a point when the word Zoom doesn't carry the negative weight that it does in January 2021. Until then, this is simply deciding how closely you want to view the fiction in a specific situation. There's no right or wrong here, but just remember that you have the choice. You don't need to work through every day of the three-month voyage if you're more interested in the destination, so maybe just ask a broad question covering the entire journey. Obvious, but something I know that I've forgotten in the past.

Signs and Positions

Next time I'm going to dig into the specific Signs and Positions on the table and how they can be best put to use for inspiration.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

The Great Game-Book Dig

I love scouring old game books, or even books only loosely related to RPGs, and finding nuggets of thought that are useful in running and designing games.

Sometimes a passage just makes me laugh, which I'm holding in equal value for this post.

Let's pick out some assorted thoughts from recent reads.

Pan Book of Party Games (1958) and The Second Pan Book of Party Games (1963) - Joseph Edmundson

The name and dates of publication give you a pretty good idea what to expect here. There's not much I've found that can be mined for current tastes, except for some truly brutal rules for a series of beach-based wrestling games that would be a great fit for Electric Bastionland.

This was my favourite, especially when I thought the "clasping hands around the neck" was a choking motion, rather than something more like slow-dancing. 

Also I'll present this without further comment.

Maelstrom (1984) - Alexander Scott 

I find this whole book fascinating. It predates Advanced Fighting Fantasy but shares some of its presentation, even including a FF-style solo adventure in the book. It's almost a straight-up historical game, but has a punishing magic system. It's relatively light on rules but has that classic minutiae of the era with distinctions between musician, minstrel, and actor training times, and descriptions of five different types of fraudulent beggars. And, of course, critical wound tables. 

But there's one bit of weird-detail that got me thinking. There aren't stats for a sword, there are stats for seven different swords.

BUT it's not the usual D&D thing of having falchions and sabres and rapiers all function slightly differently. Instead, you can just buy better quality swords that are significantly better (and more expensive) than the inferior options.

D&D has its Masterwork swords, but I like the solid, grounding feel of being able to kit yourself out with just a really good sword, and knowing that an opponent with an even more finely crafted weapon is a real threat.  

Playing Politics (1997) - Michael Laver

This book contains a number of games, I guess varying from "party games" to "strategy games", that aim to reveal something about the political process. 

I stumbled onto this while I was reading about Nomic games, which is a rabbit-hole I'd be interested to spend proper time diving into. 

The part I find interesting here is that each game is presented in three sections.

Section 1: The Rules. Just the hard essentials.
Section 2: Playing the Game. Tips for how to play the game, some of the tough decisions that come up, peeking into some of the depths.
Section 3: Real Games. Insight from the designer based on the actual games that they've played and parallels to real political scenarios (from national government to selling a car).

I feel like there's merit in the idea of an RPG with an extensive "play report" section that breaks down some of the designers own experiences playing the game. We're so used to stilted examples of play, but why not draw on the reality of your game as it hits the table?

One Hour Wargames (2014) - Neil Thomas 

This book is a solid example of a phrase I keep parroting: Put the Core to Work. Basically, I like the approach of giving a game a solid core that needs little explanation, then exploring that core both in breadth of possibilities and ensuring that the player gets the best use out of that compact nucleus. N++ is a great example that I've spoken about at length.

The rules are simple and fast, as the name suggests, fitting on three A5 pages with spacious layout. I reckon you could easily get them down to a single reference sheet.

Then the game repeats these same rules across 9 different eras from Classical to WW2, each like a small, self-contained hack of the original. Each era has just four types of unit. Most eras tweak a rule here or there, so pivoting a unit is more difficult in the tight formations of the Medieval Era than the looser squads of the Machine Age. Some luxuriate in adding in a special rule, like Indirect Fire for Mortars in WW2, but every decision is outlined in a small article prefacing the rules, explaining why the changes were made in order to reflect the warfare of that period. It feels like additions were only made when the designer felt it justified even the smallest increase in rules complexity. 

Then it gives you 30 Scenarios that can be used for each eras, describing some historical battles that influenced it. 

I haven't even tried the game out, and I'm not entirely sold on the specific mechanics and scenarios, but there's something about the approach here that inspires me.

Top Ten Games You Can Play In Your Head By Yourself (2019) - Sam Gorski and D.F. Lovett

So this game is pitched in a sort of "found footage" way that might be the most exciting thing about it. 

The story goes that this book contains 6 volumes from an out-of-print series of games from the 80s/90s. Like Choose your own Adventure but replace all rules with IMAGINE IT and most content with IMAGININE HARDER.

There's a bit of structure to get you started but... I'm not actually going to try and explain how these games are meant to work. There are better write-ups elsewhere and I'm actually more interested in the presentation than the content.

Reading it for the first time is one of those "is this real?" moments that creates quite a unique experience. It's like those lucky few that saw the Blair Witch Project believing it to be genuine footage.

If this was presented as a new book written by the actual authors it would feel awkward and incomplete. If it was presented as an open pastiche it would feel toothless and trivial. But instead, if you allow yourself to embrace the fiction of this being a lost treasure from the past... it has a life of its own.

Some RPGs touch on this idea, but I've never seen it taken to this depth. I'm not even sure it could be done to this extent in an area that has been so rigorously documented over the years, but there's some power here. I just don't know how you'd tap into it yet.

The Complete Book of Card Games (2001) - Peter Arnold

I wanted to read about some card games to see a set of mechanics that are all based on the same limited set of components. It's that old Put the Core to Work thing again, right?

Well, I enjoy a card game, but I think I've learned more about what I dislike in games from reading their rules. 

I'm calling this section "Arbitrary Bullshit" and card games love this sort of thing.

There are dozens of examples, but just one:

"A short pack of 32 cards is used. Removed form the standard pack are the 8s, 5s, 4s, 3s, and 2s. The cards rank in the order 7, 6, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9"

Now I'm sure these little fiddly rules exist for a reason, and removing them makes the game worse, or maybe just not work at all. There must be a reason why 6 outranks 9, but not 7. Well maybe that's a sign something else could be changed in this game? 

Stay tuned for my Kickstarter campaign for a book of ultra-streamlined card games coming 2029.

The Matrix Games Handbook (2018) - John Curry

Matrix Games are big, multiplayer, somewhat free-form wargames that rely a lot on adjudication over hard rules. I find this whole area of games fascinating. I'd like to write in more detail at a later date, but for now there's one thing I like from here.

Their approach to objectives got me thinking. One of the example games is based on Iraq in 2014 and has players taking on roles of the US, ISIS, The Iraqi Government, The Iraqi Opposition, Kurdish Regional Government, Iran. Obviously they've all got vastly different resources they can deploy.

(sidenote: I have no idea how accurately or appropriately any of these are represented, but just using it for an example here)

Each faction also has one or two situational advantages/disadvantages intended to abstract another aspect of the larger political situation. Some factions are just outright better or worse than others if you judge them on these alone.

But at the end of the game, the only thing that matters is your set of three or four unique Objectives.  These are often down to self-assessment at the end of the game. You have to just look at them and discuss with the other player "Have I discouraged Kurdish separatism?" or "Have I avoided US Ground Troops being deployed?".

Asymmetry is nothing new, but I like the looseness of their objectives. I've seen similar systems in place for XP systems in RPGs, but again I feel like there's more that can be taken from this idea.

Zach-Like: A Game Design History (2019) - Zach Barth

The Zachtronics games are a series of problem-solving games that often draw on principles of programming and optimisation.

Note that I say problem-solving, not puzzle games. They present you with a task and the games are usually about solving it in various ways that might optimise speed, simplicity, or efficiency. 

This four-hundred page book is snippets from the design documents of various Zachtronics games going all the way back to the designer's school days. There are hex-based wargames scrawled in pencil and half-baked RPG systems, all the way up to prototype level sketches for their most recent games.

I've hidden from some of my old game designs in shame, telling myself that they're just relics from before I knew better. But Zach appears to revel in his old ideas, often revisiting them as inspiration for the next big, polished release. It's inspired me to rethink how I treat my poor, abandoned old creations. 

Monday, 14 December 2020

Ask the Stars - A Minimal Solo RPG

So I'm going through a real phase of just chopping existing games to bits and seeing if the remains still twitch. Maybe that's all I've ever really done.

Next in line was Ironsworn by Shawn Tomkin. 

There's lots to like in here, especially if you like a game with lots of moving parts and PBTA-style moves. The solo/coop stuff is what's really notable here, and there are loads of videos and written reports of the fun people have had using this game in that way.

Me, Myself and Die is a particularly polished example

So obviously my dream is to be able to tap into those useful solo/coop tools but see how many of the systems I can jettison in the process without the entire thing falling apart.

I also dipped back into some of my experiments with Intergalactic Bastionland, which continues to warp and morph in my head. The thing that I've been most happy with is the use of 2d12 rolls as a sort of oracle to discover truths about the world.

As I pressed on, I reached a point in the design that I always enjoy. A point where I looked at the document and thought "wait... there isn't really any Ironsworn left in here".

So we have a new thing! But I think it's fun to share the origin of these experiments. 


Download all the free stuff for Ironsworn or buy it in print. Read through it and absorb its guidance for running a solo/coop game. It's really good, and I'm not going to regurgitate it word-for-word here, and as it's free I feel like anybody interested in trying solo games should go and give them a read. 

Done? Okay, onto how to play this game.

ASK THE STARS - A Minimal Solo RPG

Most of the game comes down to two things:

  1. Asking the Stars
  2. Your Notes

Getting Inspiration: Roll 2d12 and consult the Symbols and Position columns. Inspiration could be symbolic or literal. The Cage might represent Protection or Obligation or just a physical cage. 
Use this to create characters and give them descriptive Strengths and Weaknesses until they feel interesting. This method also generates locations, events, and anything else you need.

Yes/No Questions: Ask and roll d12 and consult the Answer column. If more/less likely to be true, roll 2d12 and discard the lower/higher respectively. Consult your Notes to decide whether an action is likely/unlikely in this way. 

What Else: For anything else you need, Ask the Stars in one of the two ways above.

Wait what about: Yes, just ask the Stars.


Your notes are a record of what's real in the game. Things you narrate out loud or in your head are real to a degree, but writing them down sort of locks them in. The goal is to make them interesting.

I'd recommend boxing off a few different sections for your notes, or maybe a page for each if you're settling in.

Character: Note down some details about your character. Give them a Strength and a Weakness that are both relatively broad. Add to and modify these as the story progresses.

Assets: These are beneficial things your character acquires to help in their journey. They might make you more likely to succeed in certain actions, or open up new actions that were not previously possible.

Debilities: When you would take direct harm to your character, note a specific Debility that occurs as a result. They might make you less likely to succeed in certain actions, or prevent actions that were previously possible.

In general taking a third Debility of the same type (ie a physical wound) should have permanent consequences.

Challenges: Note down the challenge and keep a list of steps you’ve made towards completing it. Not everything is a Challenge, and it's mainly for significant multi-stage tasks. 

As a general rule, Challenges require three steps to complete and may require a final roll if the outcome is still uncertain. 

World: Use this section to keep any other notes you think will be useful, especially characters and locations. Here maps are especially useful. Before play, try to sum up the core of your setting in three bullet points and make an instigating situation that throws your character into making tough choices. 


Yep, that's all you're getting. 

Now when I was talking about Risus I mentioned that I preferred games to come with some flavour of their own, but here you've got the Stars to assist you in creating that flavour for yourself. So let's say I sit down not even knowing what sort of setting I want to run in. I know nothing.

Stars, hit me with some straight-up inspiration for a setting.

I roll 2d12 and get 11/5, so that's the Council, Rooted.

I could take this very literally. The setting features a council that's literally rooted in place. Do they live in a tree? Have they been turned to stone? Are they buried in a warren of tunnels? Each of those could be the spark of a setting, but they'd need work.

Or we could do with the less literal approach. We've got Opposition/Cycles and Stability/Plenty. 

Opposition and Stability could pair up to represent some sort of uprising. A world in the midst of a revolution against the status quo. Cycles/Plenty makes me think of harvest. Maybe the harvest is ruined this year, which triggers the aforementioned revolution.

Let's augment all this with some Yes/No questions asked to the stars.

Is this a pseudo-medieval setting?
I feel like this is likely, given some of the things we've touched on (agriculture, being turned to stone) so we roll 2d12 and keep the highest.

Roll is 5/5: No.

Even taking the highest die we're not in that era. Is is drawing from further back in history?

Roll is 8: Yes.

Okay. So I'm going to make a call here and say we're drawing on pre-medieval themes, more like late-classical, fall of Rome. I could keep asking yes/no questions to narrow things down, but you've also got to leap into inspiration when you feel it.

Are there many supernatural elements in this setting?

I'm going to say this is likely, based on my gut feeling. 

Roll is 1/4: No. 

Again the dice surprise us. This is what I like about this process. As it wasn't a hard no, I'm going to say there are hints of supernatural, but nothing openly fantastical. Right at the bottom end of low-fantasy.

Are the Council the holders of what little supernatural power there is?

Roll is 3: Hard No.

So perhaps the Council have worked to supress a supernatural element in this setting.

Maybe we can draw on all those ideas and do a classic three-bullet setting, or at least enough to start running a game. 

The World
  • The harvest has failed for the first time in a century, the once thriving Empire is burning in the flames of rebellion.
  • The Council has descended into the warren of tunnels and caves beneath the capital, cowering while their city burns.
  • Without the Council holding them back, whispers tell of things emerging from the shadows, preying on the desperate and hungry citizens.
Gives us enough to get started! Let's use the same system to generate a character.

2d12 gives us The Mask (Persuasion/Shame), Bowed (Submission/Mercy).

Let's ask some more questions to hone in on this.

Do we work for the Council?

1: Hard No.

Sounds like we oppose the council. Maybe we're part of this rebellion that's been brewing for years.

Let's use Persuasion/Bowed to make our character a sort of sleeper agent. Maybe we're within the Council, but have been working against them all along. Now, in their moment of weakness, we need to aid the rebellion from within while also keeping our identity secret. 

Now we need a Strength and a Weakness.

4/2 gives us the Hand (Creation/Misdirection) Entombed (Memory/Death).

Being a spy, Misdirection would be sort of obvious as a Strength, so let's go away from that. We'll use Creation/Death to make ourselves an Engineer, used by the council to create weapons. 

That leaves us with Misdirection and Memory to determine our weakness. Or we could take a more literal approach with the Hand Entombed. Maybe in the uprising we got caught in a  skirmish and lost our hand. That's why we were dragged underground by the other Council members. We wanted to slink away, but they were trying to protect us, unknowing that we were working against them.

And for a name we'll just warp one of the words we didn't use. Memory becomes Morie. Feel like we need one more little physical or behavioural detail so let's do a final roll. 

8/4: The Traveller (wandering/chance), Waning (hunger/decay). 

I like chance + hunger to make us a a keen gambler, perhaps compulsive. 


Morie - Rebellion Sleeper Agent
  • Engineer, specialising in weapons.
  • Recently maimed from scuffle with the Rebellion.
  • Compulsive gambler, always carries a set of dice.

Have fun, and let me know if you try this out for yourself.

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

TROIKUS - A Troika/Risus Hack

I like mashing things together and seeing if something interesting forms from the reaction. Generally I pick ingredients that I like individually, and see something a bit special in them. Like how putting chilli and chocolate together brings out elements of each that you might not have noticed before. 

I wrote about a similar process before.

So the two games I've been thinking about are...


What do I like?

  • One of the great examples of having a simple core and then putting the core to work, especially if you pick up the Risus Companion, which I'd recommend as a great read even if you don't love the system. 
  • Low barrier to entry. Here are your four(ish) things you need to know about your character. When you do that thing you roll that many dice and add them up. Let's go. 
  • It took me a long time to realise that the "Inappropriate Cliche" rule is sort of the MVP of this game. It means that players are encouraged to twist their characters into situations they shouldn't really be in, and come up with creative and entertaining solutions. It's not how I want every game I ever play to work, but in the right context it's a lot of fun. 


What do I like?

  • The flavour is just pouring out of this thing. It's like when you eat something so tasty that you just can't shake the aromas from your head for the rest of the day. 
  • The Backgrounds are perhaps the most famous example of the above, but I think the monsters are up there alongside them. 
  • I don't normally think Skill systems add much to a game, but here many of the skills are so flavourful and specific that they serve a similar niche to the weird bits of equipment that I like to give characters in Electric Bastionland. You've got the usual candidates like Swordfighting, Locks, Sneaking, but then things like Gastrology and Vengeance. I really wish there was more of the second type in the original book, but the wealth of additional backgrounds available make up for that. 

What common links are already there?

  • Comedic elements, albeit from different angles
  • Squeezing flavour into those Cliches/Advanced Skills
  • Encouraging creative use of Cliches/Skills that might not be an obvious fit

Where do they differ?
  • Troika has a lot of fancy little mechanical systems (initiative, damage tables, luck) compared to Risus, which is essentially a unified-mechanic system. I'm going to lean more towards Risus on this one, though there's some interesting stuff in Troika. 
  • Risus is "the anything RPG" so is generic by design, but Troika is all about its own specific tone and flavour. This is a case of "opposites attract" for the purposes of this experiment.
  • In Risus every character starts with the same number of points to spend on Cliches, but Risus can have fluctuating character power levels straight out of creation. I'm happy with the imbalance here, but I can also see the appeal of less quantitative imbalance (Troika) ad more qualitative imbalance (Risus). Like if you have Skill 4 and you have Skill 6 that's not especially interesting, but if you have Talentless Imposter (4) and I have Genius Rocket Scientist (4) that's a more interesting type of power-variance.

What could be gained from this union?

  • I understand that Risus is deliberately generic, but personally I don't like the "blank slate" method of character creation. Blending some of the looseness of Cliches with the strange specifics of Troika's backgrounds and advanced skills could yield fun results.
  • Similarly, I feel like Troika's skills could benefit from Risus' attitude towards Cliche creation. Make each one work for you in an interesting way and drench your character in flavour. 
  • Annoy a whole bunch of people that think these games are untouchable, I guess. 

TROIKUS - The Anything Spheres

Rule 1: Go get both games because they're great and you'll need them. 

Character Creation

  • Roll d66 to get a Troika background, or take one from a supplement if you like.
  • Note down your Advanced Skills and their score, but you have to go through and make each one more unique and interesting, drawing on their description if possible. So the Ardent Giant of Corda has Strength but you might change that to Display of Strength to lean in on their storytelling side, or Mournful Strength if you prefer the tragic side of this background. 
  • Get creative when doing the above, and any amount of rewriting feels right as long as the end result is more interesting, rather than just more powerful. 
  • Note down gear, but don't worry too much about specific mechanics.
  • Spells are just a really specific Skill. Again, ignore specific mechanics and just write down the spell effect as if you were writing a proper spell book.

Playing the Game

Basically play Risus with Skills replacing Cliches. 

BUT because I can't help myself I'm going to mess with the core of Risus while nobody is watching. 

I never liked the way Target Numbers are assigned in Risus, and simply totalling die pools gives more of a middle-weighted probability curve than I like in this sort of light-hearted game. So run the game with the following tweaks:

  • When you roll your die pool, discard all dice showing 4-6 and total the remaining dice. 
  • For opposed rolls follow the rules of Risus after this point. 
  • When you would normally make a Target Number Roll, instead use this 1-2-3 scale based on the result of the roll.
    • 0: Failure
    • 1: You scrape through. The bare minimum of what could be considered a success while making a real mess of it. 
    • 2: Success with a minor setback or complication. 
    • 3: A clear success.

Run everything else by-the-book from Risus, especially the Inappropriate Cliche and Proper Rools rules. Up to you if you want to use double-pumps and other fancy stuff but I'd personally keep it down to the core.

What about Difficulty Modifiers?

What about that Risus Death Spiral?
Leaving that in there. I don't see Troika as a setting where you grind away on dungeon crawls or settle in for big boss fights, so having to surrender or flee from combat and find somewhere to recover seems like it would lead to some fun interactions with weird characters. 

Use Troika monsters but split their Skill points between two or three skills as appropriate, drawing on their special abilities and description. So a Troll might get Regenerate (4) and Abuse of Power (3) while a Dragon gets Wanton Slaughter (5), Wealth Accumulation (4), Forbidden Knowledge (4), and Soaring Between Worlds (3). 

Make sure to use their Mien from Troika, because it's a great mechanic with an awful name. 

So there you have it. Raw, untested chemistry in action. Enjoy. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

d20 Foods of Bastion

Bastion has everything, so whatever food you're craving is just around the corner. Maybe a quick jump on a tram, or actually you might need to change at the ice factory and use one of those hire-bikes... well I can smell it, so it can't be far. Wait, how are we supposed to get across that new canal?

Forget it, let's just see what's on offer around here.

Roll d20

  1. Neep Cakes (£1 each): Dense pancakes of various root vegetables. One fills you up for the day, two sees you through tomorrow as well. Halve your DEX (rounded up) for this duration. 
  2. Miscie Pies (£2 each): Short for Miscellaneous, but the actual recipe is closely guarded. Immediately lessens the effect of any alcohol in your system, but in a few hours you're Deprived unless you're laid down on a comfortable bed.
  3. Tyre Bread (£3 for one, large enough for two to share): Chewy black bred served in a ring. Pass a STR Save to even be able to eat it, but doing so generally impresses anybody that's familiar with this challenging food. 
  4. Stuffy Pufflers (£1 for a portion of 6): Aerated pastries filled with gluey mashed potato and dipped in saltwater. Once they go cold the mashed potato hardens like a super-adhesive clay. 
  5. Buckbirds (£2, condiments sold extra): Salty sardines crammed into hollowed-out bread. Always attracts seagulls, no matter where you go. 
  6. Bean Boomers (£1 each): Refried beans wrapped in a pancake and super-fried at temperatures previously thought to be impossible. Freshly cooked they can be thrown for d6 blast damage. 
  7. Edibowls (£3 each): Watery soup served in a bowl of edible porcelain. The bowl isn't good at holding soup or as a food. 
  8. Crisp Boxes (£1 each): Various flavours of fried potato crisps topped with onion, mustard powder, and relishes, before being shaken up in a cardboard box. Anybody ordering this without knowing how bad it is loses d6 CHA upon opening the box. 
  9. Noodle Bricks (50p each): The latest trend, just a brick of dried noodles. So much effort to eat that you don't actually receive the benefits of a meal.
  10. Fatty Branches (50p each): Actual tree branches coated in a thin lair of meat drippings and flecks of salt. Regular consumers will insist you can eat the branch. If it's your first time doing this you're Deprived for the rest of the day with an upset stomach, but by next time your body is used to it.
  11. Hog Paste (£1 each): Meat-free salty spread, slathered onto cheap sliced bread, toasting optional. Don't ask how they make it so meaty. Afterward you are Deprived until you drink at least a pint of water.
  12. Mushy Jar (£1 for one serving that can comfortably serve two people): Glass jar of various beans and vegetables cooked down and pureed, traditionally garnished with a softened rib bone to use as a spoon and crunch up at the end. Rumoured to improve your eyesight, and actually grants a mild darkvision for the rest of the day. 
  13. Dead Dogs (£5 on a plate with side salad): Actually half a roast bird with an aggressive spice rub. No, they don't know what the name is all about. Anybody eating must pass a CHA Save to see if they're especially susceptible to the spices. Those that fail are Deprived until they consume a large amount of milk, cheese, or similar, to quell the heat. 
  14. Three-Lunch Handy (£1 each): Battered vegetables in a stodgy bun, then battered and fried again. After eating this your hands are oily for the rest of the day no matter what you try. 
  15. Sweaty Rice (£3): Rice sticky with the cooking juices of whatever is being served in the next stall or cart and pepped up with a special hyper-addictive ketchup. You are sweaty and  Deprived for the rest of the week unless you eat another portion (with ketchup of course).
  16. Broiler Baps (£2 each): Gravy soaked sandwiches filled with melting cheese. Something happens to them when they go cold, and they develop a sickening stench. You couldn't possibly eat a cold one. 
  17. Bagger's Mix (£4 for a portion): Cold salad of squid and stuff that can pass as squid. Works great as fish bait. 
  18. Bodybags (£2 each): Long griddle-seared dumplings filled with a whole cooked animal (whatever fits in there really, commonly a small bird or rodent). Eating one is seen as a test of bravery among local students. 
  19. Slobbery Boys (£3 each): Small steamed sponge puddings filled with a rich, spicy gravy. No way to eat it with dignity. Anybody that sees you eat one will never quite be able to take you seriously again. 
  20. Slammed Egg (50p each): Smash an egg down whole onto a flat griddle and cook it up, shell and all. Can be served in a sweet bun (50p extra) or wafer cone (20p extra). The seller offers you a seemingly endless selection of up-sell toppings (£15 extra if you go for everything), and is working on commission.