Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fudge, with bells on it

I've started outlining my new Fudge campaign. If it gets off the ground, I'll let you know how it goes. At this point, though, I want to write about two tools I've used at this stage in the design theory: Long Knives and Island Design Theory. I encourage you to check them both out, as well as the sites that host them. Amagi Games, which I've only just discovered, has a ton of little plug-ins and tools for planning and running RPG sessions. They're all extremely simple to implement, system-neutral, and clever. Gnome Stew, home to Island Design Theory, is a GM's blog, run by a bunch of wonderful fellows, gives general advice for running your games. It's worth your time trawling around the archives, and checking it when you get up with a cup of coffee (or whatever your morning ritual is).

I'm trying to create a campaign set in a city-state with numerous internal factions vying for control. Long Knives is absolutely perfect for designing this. At first I thought it was a bit extraneous, but forcing yourself to map out all of the relationships between factions, design a few plot hooks, and considering interests is worth the effort. On the one hand, it suggested relationships I hadn't thought of before. As I filled out the chart, I saw that some factions were diametrically opposed, whereas some had possible common interests. I know now that my campaign could take several directions. A, B, and C could ally against D and E, or A D and C, or whatever. This unstable state of affairs makes the actions of a few motivated individuals a lot more important, so the party will have a real role to play. It also helped me when I went onto the second phase of planning.

Island design theory uses individual events or encounters as its building-blocks. These are loosely linked into a story, but players can skip between them or go back and forth. The order isn't set in stone (even though actual ISLANDS are, in fact, set in stone). This allows the GM to react a lot better to player initiative, while still retaining some narrative control, and some ability to plan ahead. After filling out the Long Knives chart, I found it very easy to write out 25 possible events (one for every interrelationship on the chart) on scraps of paper. I sorted these events into three piles. Because I had been brainstorming, I found that my largest pile was events that could in and of themselves form the basis of a gaming session. A few events were totally earth-shattering (coups and assassinations and things like that), and really couldn't take place without the players first becoming immersed in the campaign and having a hand in events. And a fairly large stack were somewhat interesting, but contained no possible plot hooks for the pcs, and really didn't stand up on their own as adventures.

I knew I wanted my first adventure to be interesting, to get the party involved immediately, and to set the tone for the campaign. So I randomly picked one event from the first pile (reasonable adventures) and two from the third (slightly interesting events). I looked at the three I had selected and saw that because of the interrelationships set up with Long Knives, these events were all far more interesting in relation to each other than they would be individually. I sorted them out into a logical order (one order out of several possible orders). These will form the central events of my first adventure. I have a lot of detail to fill in, but it's obvious at this stage which characters I should prepare, what settings I should put together, and some of the encounters, combat or otherwise, I should be ready to run.

I'll probably run an island process again for this adventure, writing out linking events that lead from A to B to C, and roughly arrange them. This will give some narrative structure to my adventure, while still allowing a fair bit of player control. Rather than setting up a flowchart, I'll instead make a timeline. The timeline will be structured as such:

Event A --- Linking group A --- Event B --- Linking group B --- Event C

I'll know roughly that after event A, the players will head in one of several likely directions, and I'll be ready to engage them. Come event B, they'll have explored the world a bit, be more committed to events, and start to understand a few of the ramifications of what's happening. Similarly, the linking group B events will allow players to start situating themselves in the world (I work with These Guys, Those Guys are my enemies) so C will be able to wrap the adventure up nicely with a decent cliffhanger, leaving them wanting to know more.

I have been using these tools partly because I haven't GMd in a while, and in the interim have read a lot of ideas about it. I've been eager to try out some new tricks. Please share any experiences you have with any of these.

Regarding Education

From an educational standpoint, both of these tools would also be useful. Long Knives would make a good worksheet for students trying to understand complex political events (like the French Revolution, for instance). The first section would allow them to jot down some initial impressions about the actors, the second would allow them to decide what events leading up to the crisis seemed most important, and the third would let them explore the interrelationships in a tense situation, and see why a crisis had to occur, but also that it could have gone several ways. Comparing results between students would make for fruitful discussion.

Island Design Theory would make a perfect planning tool for teachers. Have a good look at the curriculum and figure out what the main concepts you want to explore are. Give each of these a colour code and use coloured post-its or index cards. For medieval history, you might make pink cards about society and culture, blue cards about historical change, and green cards about historiography and history skills building. Write out every lesson and activity you have on one of these cards. Sort them roughly into units of work, of 2-4 weeks. This is your semester plan. You can always grab a later lesson and move it up. You can add cards if students show a particular interest in a given topic. If you have more possible lessons and activities than you have teaching time, you can ask students to pick which ones they would most like to explore. Inform them that they need a few from every colour, and let them collaborate with you on curriculum development. Cards could carry reminders about lesson timing, resources you will need (dice, videos, construction paper, etc), and links to other topics. These cards are also re-usable from year to year, assuming you make them sturdy enough.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Fudge Campaign

I'm looking over my Fairy's Tale game, and it's very railroad-y. I might give it a shot as a one-off, and if the system turns out to be oodles of fun try a mini-campaign, but I'm starting to find my thoughts turning back to Fudge, aka the Freeform Universal Do-It-Yourself Gaming Engine. Go read the rules if you've never heard of it, I guarantee you'll be intrigued. I am. The DIY aspect in particular.

I've been hesitant about starting a Fudge campaign, though, for several reasons. First, the sheer amount of effort. I can be a perfectionist, so making a game from scratch invites disaster. My last attempt spun out of control and into nowhere. Second, I've got no experience with the system, so it's tempting to fall back on something I know how to use. Third, connected to the second, and perhaps the most important, Fudge could be any setting I want. It could be any game I want. The burden of coming up with a setting, and at the same time limiting myself to one, is a bit intense.

Still, I'd like to see if I could write something up by the time I get back from holidays, and run it by my local gang. I've got a week and some change, so let's see if I can commit to a reasonable project. I think I would like some sort of back-stabbing cloak-and-dagger game, with light magic and brutal violence, but with plenty of room for good characterisation. I'm leaning towards a Renaissance feel. This suggests the magic would be somewhat occult, curses and seances or something, more than fireworks. I'll figure that out later, though. The most difficult thing for me will be pacing: having enough long-term action to keep the story on track, as well as enough short-term action to keep players motivated before the story comes together. A friend of mine did a good job on one campaign in this regard, slowly revealing clues to build up a big picture. I'm bad at it, as the big picture is usually what I'm most excited to share with my players.

So, a few commitments:
1. I will map out a few main rivalries to happen at an "upper" level, that the players will begin to discover after 3-5 sessions, and have influence on in the late campaign.
2. All of the main actors will have minor bullies and thugs for the players to grapple with as they work out who's working for whom.
3. There will be a murder in the first session. It will remain unexplained for at least one adventure. That should set the tone, get the players on their toes, and keep them there.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Recent gaming action

I've got two things going right now. The first is an adventure I'm designing, the second is a computer game I'm playing.

Fairy's Tale
It's a cute game, I must say. I explain the nuts and bolts a bit more in this post. I started writing an adventure based on a Russian folk tale. Since I don't think any of my prospective players read this blog, I'll summarize my efforts.

The story
The story starts with a brother and sister, prince and princess of now-deceased monarchs, wandering through the wilderness. They pass a series of water sources, each with a herd of animals (pigs at a lake, cows at a river, and finally goats at a well). Each time the sister warns the brother not to drink, and in true fairy-tale repetition he does not, until he finally drinks from a well in extreme thirst, and turns into a goat.

The pair travel through the land, and word of her beauty spreads through the usual rumour mill. A king sends his emissaries to fetch her, and they are promptly married. All is well for some time, until the king goes on a hunting trip. Now it gets good.

While the king is out hunting, the princess is visited by a witch, who puts a spell on her that makes her ill. The king is concerned when he returns, but naturally goes hunting the next day. The witch returns to the castle, and promises to cure the princess. The princess follows her to the sea shore, where the witch ties a stone around her neck and throws her into the water. She promptly sinks. The witch makes herself look like the princess, and goes back to the castle to take her place.

The king is pleased that his wife has not only recovered, but seems more jovial than ever, though strangely she now has an extreme aversion to her brother, and refuses to spend time with him as in the past. In time, she encourages the king to prepare a feast. She lets him know that she would like nothing more to eat than... the goat that is her brother (awesome). The king is slightly shocked, but agrees.

The feast is to be in the evening. In the morning, the goat asks leave to go out for a walk. The king feels sorry for him, so he allows it. The goat goes to the seaside and says "Oh my sister!" The sister calls out from the water that the witch has trapped her. In the afternoon, the goat again asks to go for a walk. The king agrees, and again the goat calls out to his sister, who again informs him of her predicament. In the evening, shortly before it is time to be slaughtered, the goat persuades the king to come out with him for a final walk. They go down to the water and the goat calls "Oh my sister!" The princess again relates her story. The king dives in and releases her. They chase the evil sorceress away and life happily ever after.

Making a game of it
The first changes are cosmetic. The king's court becomes a fairy court. The king becomes a supernatural being himself. This much was obvious to me.

Beyond that, I needed to insert the players. Obviously, they can't be any of the main characters. Main characters have to follow too structured a path for gaming, and the players should have choice (within reason). So I'll make them servants of the king. This has three advantages. First, I get to assign them tasks to carry the tale forward quite easily. Second, I get to show a side of the story not represented in the version I read in my book of fairy tales: that of the servants. They are vaguely referred to: they bring word to the king of the princess' beauty, they fetch her for him, and they must be helping him with his wedding, feast, and hunts. I think I will make their lives suitably miserable. Think of Puck compared to Titania and Oberon. Every telling of a fairy tale ought to be a re-telling... Third, their position sets up a nice reward structure. As mentioned in my earlier glance at the game, it has very little detail about magic weapons, gold, and other trinkets, but lots of detail about getting rewarded with rank, prestige, and other social gains. Thus the early phases of the campaign can be about the rise of menial servants to prominence in the court.

With the players' roles settled, I now have to modify the structure of the fairy tale somewhat. I need to make the main cast of such calibre that they carry out their parts faithfully, with nudges from the party. I have made the king a drunken partying idiot. This fits well with a man being taken in by a rather stupid ruse. To expand on it, I have made him a satyr: instead of hunting, he goes out partying in the glades, and does not take his mortal wife with him, lest she escape. This means that the players will have to uncover the witches' schemes, and convince the king to see what is going on.

I have made the princess a reluctant bride of the fat, ugly king, meaning the players will have to use their magic to convince her to marry him. Fairy magics are pretty powerful in this game (only a tiny in-game sacrifice is needed for major effects) so this is a nice warm-up task for the party. I've scrapped the bit about the brother turning into a goat, though that can be backstory that the players can reveal in their investigations.

The sorceress has changed little. She's an awful hag with the power to beguile others and transform her appearance. Most of the considerations about her are tactical. Her banishment of the goat becomes an effort to keep the king in the dark, giving the players a chance to talk to him in secret. I've also made her the ruler of an evil realm, so sporadic attacks by goblins and trolls as she draws closer to taking over her rival will tip the players off that something isn't right (because, after all, the queen recovering from an illness doesn't seem like a bad thing at first). I'll make her disguise somewhat imperfect as well. Perhaps the princess had brown eyes, the glamoured sorceress has green ones... She's using her magic to keep the king fooled (he's drunk, so it's easy), but again the lowly servants notice what's going on.

The goat/prince/brother is the hardest one. I have to make him a little bit pathetic, so he doesn't just assert himself and say it's a trick. But if he's too subtle, the players may not figure out that anything's amiss until he's turned into stew. If they don't seek him out, I suspect I will:
1. Have them overhear some goblins talking about the queen's plan.
2. Emphasise at first how the new queen was good to the servants, but after her recovery she's cruel (an incentive to depose her!)
3. If all else fails, arrange a meeting and have the goat beg for help.

Of course, if they're really switched on, I'll throw up obstacles. The queen will try to prevent them from meeting with the king, goblins will waylay them, the king won't believe their story when they reveal the truth...

The hardest parts will be individual encounters and pacing. But there are enough events in the story (the king fetches the princess, marries her, she gets sick, she gets well, she banishes the goat, she decides to eat the goat, the goat makes his escape, the sorceress is driven away) for decent encounters. Early ones will focus on menial servile tasks (collect food for the feast, run errands) of various danger levels, the latter ones will lead to an outright confrontation. I'll give them a shot at killing the sorceress. If they succeed, her second-in-command will become a campaign villain. If not, she's perfectly established to do so.

A game
I've been playing Dominions 3. It reminds me of Warhammer, in that you spend most of the game crafting your own army, deciding on your strategy, deploying your troops, then watching the fights play out. It also has a wealth of races to play, which is great. I spent a Christmas gift certificate for it, and it was well worth it.