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.