The first step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. For some problems, like being on fire, that's not very hard to do. For other problems, like being addicted to meth, (or having an irrational dedication to a particular die type) the big step is recognizing and admitting to the problem. For more complex problems, it's not always quite so straightforward. Sometimes, for example, you think you've identified the problem but it turns out just to be a symptom or side-effect of a different or more fundamental problem. In the work I've done on Cinemechanix this week, I think I've hit on one of the latter.
One distinction I've tried to make between an "adaptable" game system (which is what I'm shooting for) and a generic game system is that a generic game system tries to find a one-size-fits-all solution and an adaptable game tries to provide the tools to let you find the solution that actually fits in your game. The problem I've run into a couple of times, and have been trying to solve with the current draft of the rules, is that stating that distinction doesn't quite get the point across. I've run into several instances where players have been annoyed by rules that I thought were pretty obviously take-it-or-leave-it ideas that could easily be ignored. Despite the repeated reminders that everything is optional, the fact that these easily-skipped rules weren't explicitly marked as optional made the playtesters feel like they had to use them.
Trying to find a way to short-circuit the impulse of assuming that anything not clearly marked as non-essential is essential got me thinking about the difference between a game system and game concepts or mechanics. The word "system," implies a certain level of interconnectedness, so it makes sense for people to assume that everything is necessary unless specifically identified as non-vital. The truth is that for most game systems only some of the rules and concepts are interdependent and necessary. There are a lot of sub-systems and add-ons that you only need occasionally and may not need at all for some games. This got me re-working the text to make it more obvious which rules concepts were central to the system and which ones were part of the "toolbox" that could be used to build the sub-systems you need for the particular game you're playing.
From there, I realized that I needed to move from the specific to the general on a lot of things. I'd provided some sub-systems in the early drafts of the rules for things like investigation and persuasion and specific combat mechanics I thought would be cool. Several of these were among the things playtesters didn't like or thought were unnecessary. Like the sub-systems in most games, these relied on some basic mechanical concepts, but they were concepts that built upon the ideas in the core rules rather than directly using the core rules. In some cases, these concepts were already introduced in as generic concepts in other parts of the rules. The trick was to stop doing a little of both and get rid of the sub-systems in favor of the mechanical concepts, then to organize it in a way that separated the mechanics you use for building the rules for your specific game (the "toolbox") from the rules that you're probably going to need for every game (the system).
That's when I realized the difference between a generic system and what I'm calling an "adaptable" system: generic systems don't give you the toolbox. If the system is well-designed enough that the sub-systems are coherent with the core rules, you can usually figure out the underlying concepts on you own, but the game designer isn't going to tell you. Most generic systems are, it turns out, adaptable systems, but the tools for creating that adaptability are proprietary. You might be able to run a wizard in GURPS* with just the basic rules, but it's going to take a lot of work on your part and Steve Jackson isn't going to give you any pointers. You're going to have to buy a copy of GURPS Magic, and even that's just going to let you run a generic wizard that's sort of a gestalt of wizard archetypes and fantasy fiction. If you want to play anything that doesn't fit the standard paradigm, like wizard in the Harry Potter Universe, you're going to have to wait for GURPS Harry Potter to happen. Chances are both of those books will rely on a number of ideas that show up in a lot of GURPS books but aren't spelled out as generic mechanical ideas anywhere in the main rulebook.
Why keep these rules concepts a secret? Part of it's convention, some of it's probably ego, but the big reason is obvious from the example: the game designer wants to sell you more books. Despite the conventional wisdom that people don't buy games because of the system, most game companies seem to think that filling in system holes is what sells game supplements. In my opinion, the conventional wisdom is right for a change in this case. Most people aren't going to buy GURPS Harry Potter to find out the stat adjustments for half-giants or whether Parseltongue is an advantage or a skill, they're going to buy it because they know the designer has mined the source material for gamable ideas and has probably come up with some ideas they wouldn't have thought of themselves. Giving the players guidelines for building the game-specific stuff isn't going to stop them from buying the supplements the company releases. They're still going to buy supplements for the research, new ideas, and convenience of having someone else do the boring, tedious work for them and put it all in one convenient package. Telling them how to do the boring part themselves just makes it easier for them to come up with their own Harry Potter rules without having to wait for Rowling to give up a license. It also helps them come up with rules for their own original game that the company will never write a supplement for.
So once again, the root of my problem is "it's the way things are done." And because that's the way things are done, readers are going to assume that's the way I'm doing it. Fixing the problem requires making it clearer where I'm departing from the standard operating procedure.
*I'll use GURPS here because from the few interactions I've had with him, Steve Jackson doesn't seem like he's got an easily-bruised ego. Besides, he's too busy counting Munchkin money to read this anyway.
I don't have Munchkin money, so I have to panhandle on Patreon.
Alert readers will notice I didn't post a blog last week. That's because I was re-writing the rules again. The good news is that the characters I posted two weeks ago still more or less work in the new new system. I'm keeping the format, for reasons I discussed in the post before that one, but I'm reworking the core mechanic again, which means that the Trope Numbers (and probably a few character's Special Effects) change. Those stats will actually look a lot more like the original character sheets, with the numbers dropping by half for most characters because I'm getting rid of roll modifiers and replacing them with something more akin to Bonus Dice in the original system.
The basic change to the core mechanic is that we're opening up the system to more dice than just the d20. Now, instead of rolling some number of d20s based on character traits and adding to them, players just roll two dice: A Default Die (which is a d20 if the Character Concept is applicable, a d12 otherwise) and a Hero Die (which is the highest die less than or equal to Hero Factor, so a Hero Factor 3 character rolls d2, Hero Factor 6 rolls d6, etc.). Instead of roll modifiers, you now have Boosts and Drops for things like Tropes. A Boost raises your Hero Die to the next dice up (d12s roll over to d12 + d2, so sometimes your Hero Die is really Hero Dice). A Drop lowers it (and if your Hero Die drops to zero, they lower the Default Die as well). So if youv'e got an appropriate concept, a Hero Factor of 4, 2 Boosts, and a Drop, you'd roll a d20 Default Die and a d6 Hero Die then add them together to get your total roll.
Turning what used to be roll modifiers into Boosts and Drops makes the math work out a lot better. Since character abilities increase (or decrease) the size (and sometimes number) of dice you're rolling, more competent characters are still going to generally get better numbers, but the range of likely results isn't as limited as when everyone's rolling multiple d20s. Also, since more powerful characters aren't just adding a huge bonus to their roll, there aren't cases where a less powerful character is mathematically barred from winning a roll. The guy rolling d20 + 2d12 might still roll three 1s and lose to the d12 Mook's 5. This also makes the arbitrary limit of 10 for Hero Factor less vital to avoid breaking the system. And best of, no roll modifiers.
Why is getting rid of roll modifiers a good thing? Because adding them back to the system (at least as part of the core mechanic--there will still probably be cases where they're the simplest solution) felt like moving backwards. One of the things I liked about the original dice pool system was that if something helped or hurt a character's chances, you could just add a bonus or penalty die, so there was no need to worry about how much the thing helped or hurt--the randomness of the die determined that. You could theoretically apply that to modifiers, too, but something about giving an ability a concrete numerical bonus or penalty opens up a whole new can of worms and you inevitably start wanting to compare that bonus or penalty to other bonuses or penalties and fiddle with them so they're all accurate. So we're back to a different kind of fiddliness. When the bonus or penalty is variable (even if the range of variation is only 1 or 2, which is what a standard Boost or Drop is worth), the urge to compare it to other modifiers isn't nearly as strong for some reason.
I probably should have gotten around to this fix sooner, but it was a long time coming because of a block I'd built for myself without even realizing it: The desire to use only a d20. Since QAGS was originally just a simple system I'd come up with for pick-up games, using just one die was to keep the equipment you needed to play to a minimum. Find a d20 and some kind of counters and you're ready to go. During the Open Game License glut, using only a d20 let us make snide comments about how we were the "real" d20 system since we didn't give those other dice the time of day. Somewhere in there, the crude little drawing of a smiling 20-sided die from the first edition of QAGS got redesigned and colored and became our mascot, Happy d20.
Since Cinemechanix started life as QAGS Third Edition, I never even considered using anything but a d20. Josh brought up the possibility when we were working through the second major tweak of the core mechanic, but I dismissed him, in part because of his specific suggestion of replacing the d20 with the d12 as the sole dice would make Happy d20 obsolete. What kind of monster was I dealing with, who could so casually suggest just tossing a loyal, long-term employee like Happy d20 out on the street in this economy? As you can probably guess by my concern for a drawing of a die, I was not in the right frame of mind to make the obvious leap of considering a way to keep both dice around somehow.
Breaking down the block started on the Cinemechanix Playtest group with the idea of using other dice (which seemed easier to stomach than just firing Happy d20 and hiring some d12 scab) in addition to the d20. I suggested a possible way to do that, but was basically just making conversation. It was more "here's a mechanic that would do that" than "this is a mechanic I would consider using." I still felt like we needed to be a d20-only system. I think the block was in part because the d20 was one of the QAGS hallmarks that's still in the game. The early versions of the system still "felt like QAGS" despite the differences, and I think I was afraid that adding new, strange dice would cause that to go away. But really, if you're defining QAGS by its mechanics and dice rolls, that ship sailed a long time ago, maybe even before the system stopped being QAGS 3E. Also, Cinemechanix is not QAGS. I want it to keep a lot of the things that I love about QAGS, but Cinemechanix is really meant for a kind of game that QAGS can't pull off very well. The more I thought about the mechanic, the more potential I saw in it. By the time I started running the math I'd managed to reconcile any old bad feelings about the dice of my childhood (even that foot-poking little bastard d4). When I saw that the math actually worked better, I was sold.
All these changes to the central mechanic of the game may seem excessive, but the Cinemchanix system is more about how to use the rules to build a game than what specific rules you're using, so the character trait redesign I did as part of the last iteration was actually more work than the rules changes for either version. The core mechanic is kind of like the engine in your car. It's vital to make the whole thing work, so you want the best you can get. But unless you're a gearhead it's probably not the main thing that made you buy the car in the first place. If all the other parts of the car work and are still in good shape and the engine blows up, most people are just going to replace the engine. The new engine has to be the right size and have all the right options to work in your car, but once it's replaced the fact that the car has a different engine probably isn't going to change your overall opinion of the vehicle. It's not the plank that turns Theseus' ship into a different boat for most people. With me, the core mechanic of a game is the same kind of deal, so I'm going to keep replacing engines until I find the one that works best.
Replacing game engines is thirsty work. Hook me up with some beer money on Patreon.
With the new rules changes, I had to change a few things around with character creation, so while I was at it I rearranged, renamed, and simplified character creation. Since I also had to rewrite the Sample of Play Theater entry for character creation, I went ahead and upgraded the characters for the Guardians of Aetheria, the sample game I'm using in the examples. The basic premise is "He-Man/Thundarr the Barbarian style 80s cartoon with nods to Ralph Bakshi and Heavy Metal." I'll post the stats for the four PCs below, but first I'll go over the format, especially the changes.
The first part of the character sheet has game information, and is divided into four main sections: Character Concept, Tropes, Special Effects, and Stats.
The Character Concept section contains the core character traits plus any game-specific traits that the GM feels are necessary. The big change here is that I've gotten rid of Hooks, which never quite worked the way I wanted them to. That leaves 3 core traits:
- Role: Role is similar to Job in QAGS and describe the character's core skill set or function, but adds a word or two about the character's personality; something like "Hard-Boiled Detective" or "By-the-Book Cop." Role is within the context of the story, so a character's Role might not be the same from one game to the next. In Full House, Jesse's Role is "Cool Uncle," but in a Jesse and the Rippers spin-off it might be "Responsible Lead Singer" or something.
- Backstory: Just a quick description of the most relevant, interesting, or life-changing part of the character's past: graduated at the top of his class, just got out of prison, combat veteran, whatever.
- Fatal Flaw: Since Fatal Flaw is technically a role-playing tool and not really a game mechanic (you never roll to see if your Fatal Flaw takes effect like you do a Weakness in QAGS), I thought of moving it to the story side of the sheet, but it's like such a core part of the character that it feels like it should stay here. Besides, you can earn Acclaim for playing it well, so that kind of justifies leaving it here, I guess.
In addition to the core traits, you may have additional traits specific to the game. For example, a Harry Potter game would have a "Hogwart's House" trait, a supers game may have "Secret Identity," and M-Force would have "Day Job." For Guardians of Aetheria, there are 3 game-specific traits:
- Origin: This is to define what kind of creature your character is and possibly where his powers come from. Is he a human, a mutant, a member of a non-human race, or some kind of weird hybrid or automaton, for example.
- Toy Gimmick: Since the game is based on 80s cartoons, every character needs some kind of cool gimmick so kids will want to buy the toy.
- Accessories: These are the cheap plastic weapons and stuff that come with the character. A character can have one "big" accessory, like a horse or a vehicle, or two smaller accessories (weapons or equipment, most likely).
None of the Character Concept traits have numbers associated with them (though game-specific traits might have special effects associated with them--for example, elves might get a bonus to magic or whatever). If your character concept is relevant to the roll, you get to roll an extra die and take the highest for your roll. So a character with a Role of "Knight" would roll two dice when jousting and use the higher roll.
The basic definition of Tropes hasn't changed. Trademarks are still skills and things the character is good at ("Strong" or "Swordsman" or whatever), Drawbacks are still things that cause the character to do certain things badly ("Hard of Hearing" or "Computer Illiterate"). The big difference is that instead of bonus or penalty dice, Tropes give the character a modifier to the roll total. Characters get points for Trademarks equal to double their Hero Factor and can get more by taking Drawbacks (up to Hero Factor).
Originally, this section was for mechanics for traits that needed extra mechanics, so you might have a Hook of "werewolf" and Special Effects for extra damage from silver and heightened senses and whatever else werewolves do in the game setting. Now anything weird is a Special Effect. Figuring out how Special Effects work is part of putting together the game, and players can choose whatever method works best. Special Effects can be pre-defined based on other choices ("Dwarves have the following abilities"), chosen from a list ("Wizards get a number of spells equal to Hero Factor"), bought with points "Invulnerability is 50 points, Matter Eating is 10"), or just decided by the GM and player on a case-by-case basis ("How about a +5 to all magic rolls?"). There will be detailed chapter with lots of examples to help players and GMs decide how to define their own Special Effects, and specific game settings (including some of the Elevator Pitches in the book) will have their own special effects to give people even more examples of how it's done.
Hero Factor, Acclaim, and Stamina haven't really changed, but Stamina is now 10 + Hero Factor instead of 5 x Hero Factor.
The Story side of the sheet has 3 sections: Casting Call, Plot Devices, and Trivia and incorporates some of the things that were previously considered Hooks that don't need game mechanics.
This is basic character description-type information:
- Tag Line and WWPHITM?: Are the same as in QAGS.
- Character Design: This is for anything interesting about your character's look or costume. If the character has a cool Nick Fury eye patch but doesn't suffer any penalties because of the missing eye, it's part of the character design. (If it does cause problems, the character would have a "Poor Depth Perception" Drawback or something).
- Characterization: Personality traits, mannerisms, or anything else that will help the player role-play the character goes here.
Plot Devices basically covers any important story information that the GM needs to know, either because it might make it easier for the characters to resolve plot points or because she needs to work it into the story. This can include things like major resources, important contacts, plot hooks, etc. If your character is wanted by the law, has his own crime cave, or wants to kill the Six-Fingered Man, it should be mentioned here.
Trivia is anything else the player wants to note about the character but that probably isn't important to the game. Basically Dumb Facts in QAGS terms.
Plot Developments is the third section of the character sheet that starts out blank. It's for notes about things that happen during the game, especially if those things need mechanics. Since Cinemechanix uses seasonal TV as the model for character development, nothing is permanent until it survives a season break. So if a character gets an arm chopped off or finds a magic sword or whatever, that's a plot development. If the character gets a penalty to some rolls because of the missing arm or a bonus for the sword, that information goes here. Some plot developments may disappear or become irrelevant during the current season (the sword gets destroyed or loses its magic when it kills the thing it was made to kill). If not, the GM and player decide whether the development hangs around into the next season (the penalty for the missing arm becomes a Drawback), gets explained away (the character gets a new robot arm), or just disappears (the character is still missing an arm, but has gotten used to it and no longer suffers a penalty).
Guardians of Aetheria
So here are some sample characters using the new character definitions. The section headings from the character sheet (Character Concept, Tropes, and Casting Call) and Plot Developments aren't included in the stat block. I also haven't gotten around to writing descriptions yet.
Role: Barbaric Warrior
Backstory: Scarlands warrior rescued from demonlings by Uriel
Fatal Flaw: Aggression: Glob-Lobber prefers to solve problems through violence.
Toy Gimmick: Oozes real slime!
Accessories: Battle Spear, Dragon Tooth Amulet
Trademarks: Battle-Tested +3, Slime Effects +3, Tracking +2, Keen Senses +2, Scarred Lands Survival +2
Hero Factor: 6
- The Dragon Tooth Amulet gives Glob-Lobber a bonus equal to his Hero Factor to rolls to resist magic.
- The slime that Glob-Lobber secretes is very sticky and gives him a Concept Bonus to rolls for climbing, holding onto things, etc. He can also leave puddles of slime to create “glue traps” or to hold things in place.
- In combat, Glob-Lobber can throw slime at his opponents. The slime doesn’t cause any damage, but he can use it to put an opponent at a disadvantage or make him suffer Penalty Dice (by entangling him in sticky slime), or to disarm an opponent.
Tag Line: “Get ready to bleed!”
WWPHITM? Ron Perlman
Character Design: Slimy humanoid with slimy, scaly skin and sharp teeth.
Plot Devices: None
Trivia: Eats bugs.
Shalamar the Sorceress
Role: Tenacious Sorceress
Backstory: Narrowly escaped capture when Bloodgrave’s forces attacked the Conclave of Wizards
Fatal Flaw: Reckless: Shalamar tends to throw caution to the wind and act on impulse when in pursuit of a goal or when innocents are being harmed.
Toy Gimmick: Hands glow with magical power and make real magic noises!
Accessories: Midnight the Black Cat, Bracelets of Hippolyta
Trademarks: Spellcasting +5, Knows Everything +3, Defense +2, Unallocated: 2 points.
Hero Factor: 6
- Shalamar knows the following spells: Mana Attack, Mana Shield, Telekinesis, Plant Control, Concealment, and Healing.
- Shalamar has a telepathic link with Midnight and can see through her eyes.
- Midnight can shapeshift into a panther once per episode. When she changes is normally the GM’s decision, but the player can make the decision (or veto the GM’s decision) by spending 5 Acclaim. Midnight has a Hero Factor of 3 regardless of form.
- The Bracelets of Hippolyta can be used to deflect missile attacks.
Tag Line: “Merlin’s Wand!”
WWPHITM? Mila Kunis
Character Design: Standard 80s cartoon wizardess sky blue robes.
Characterization: Compassionate, Brave
Plot Devices: Mission: Find out what Bloodgrave did with her teacher, Godric the Grey.
Trivia: Crows give her the creeps, but so do scarecrows.
Role: Resourceful Explorer
Backstory: Abandoned by his tribe as a child.
Fatal Flaw: Curiosity: Teg’s curiosity often trumps his self-preservation instinct, causing him to ignore potential dangers when there’s something new to be learned.
Toy Gimmick: Periscoping Explorer’s Staff lets you see around corners!
Accessories: Hoversled filled with exploring equipment and loot
Trademarks: Action Archaeology +4, Gadgets & Gizmos +3, Sharp Mind +3, Ancient Lore +2
Hero Factor: 6
- The Explorer’s Staff is a steel tube that can expand out to 20 feet. Lockable joints every 2.5 feet allow it to be arranged into various configurations. The staff has a lens on each end and a series of mirrors inside that allow it to be used as a periscope to peer around corners and over obstructions. Teg also has a collection hooks, blades, and other attachments that can be fitted to the end.
- Snuks get a +2 bonus on rolls involving stealth, scavenging, and surviving in the Scarred Lands. They also may get a Context bonus or penalty die for rolls where their small stature is useful or disadvantageous. Snuks can see as well in the dark as in full daylight.
Tag Line: “Great Gondor’s Ghost!”
WWPHITM? John Noble as a Middle Earth movie dwarf
Character Design: Little guy with a giant beard and lots of pouches and pockets full of junk.
Characterization: Mumbles to himself a lot
Plot Devices: Pack Rat: The Hoversled is loaded tools, supplies, and things Teg has found in the ruins. It contains most common items useful for exploring or likely to be found in the ruined cities.
Trivia: Always wears goggles.
Sir Uriel Lightblade
Role: Valiant Knight of the Phoenix
Backstory: Second son of Baron Gareth Lightblade of Castle Dawnspire
Fatal Flaw: Death Before Dishonor: Sir Uriel takes his vows very seriously and would rather die than betray his order or his king.
Toy Gimmick: Lightblade sword really lights up!
Accessories: His trusty warhorse, Flamedancer
Trademarks: Formidable Swordsman +5, Feats of Strength +3, Surprisingly Acrobatic +2, Missile Deflection +2
Hero Factor: 6
- Lightblade can be used as a missile weapon that fires darts of light energy. It can only fire a number of darts per scene equal to the wielder’s Hero Factor.
- Lightblade can be used to deflect missile attacks.
- Lightblade can also be used as a light source.
Tag Line: “By Bennu’s beak!”
WWPHITM? Chris Hemsworth
Character Design: Big muscle-bound warrior with an energy sword and gladiator-style armor.
Characterization: Hero Voice, Honorable
Plot Devices: Searching for the Sword of Acala, the legendary First Lightblade
Trivia: Early riser.
Join the Guardians of Aetheria Official Fan Club today!
I'm going to do all of this year's #RPGADAY questions real-quick like.
1) Real dice, dice app, diceless, how do you prefer to "roll"?
Don't care. If I'm sitting around a table, I'll usually go with real dice. If rolling dice is a pain in the ass, I'm fine with an app.
2) Best game session since August 2015?
I think this was in the past year, but I'm not 100% sure (it was close enough, though). A group of my Patreon supporters took me up on my offer to GM a game for them over the system of tubes and we had a very enjoyable M-Force game. More than the game itself, it was great because it was one of those situations where people you've previously only known online turn out to be exactly the kind of people you hoped they were when you meet them in person (or via video chat, in this case). Other than that, I haven't played much in the past year. Since I live in the armpit of the Midwest and the few gamers around here mostly play D&D (which I'm usually not willing to drive a half hour for), I mainly game at conventions. The only one I've made it to in the past year as Archon, and I was on booth and panel duty all weekend there.
3) Character moment you are proudest of?
- Driving through Hell with Johnny Cash, Demon Hunter in the Bluesmobile with Gabriel's Horn blasting, A samurai car surfing on the back, and Geronimo's skull as a hood ornament so we could meet Stagger Lee at the crossroads and take his hat.
- Gratuitously adding a magic bullet to an exorcism ritual just so I could say I shot Hitler's ghost.
Both of these happened in the same game. There was also an inter-dimensional train that William Faulkner took over driving when Jesus went to rescue Elvis.
4) Most impressive thing another's character did?
In a game I ran in college, one of the characters morphed into the main villain of the campaign. During the finale, the player role-played the character. When he casually (and unexpectedly) ordered the execution of another PCs' sister, the reaction from the other players made the rest of the session more intense and made the whole campaign work better.
5) What story does your group tell about your character?
No clue. We play so many different games and have been playing for so long that there are too many possibilities for one to really stick out.
6) Most amazing thing a game group did for their community?
I can't think of anything that I'd consider "amazing" unless you mean in the clickbait headline sense. I've mostly just seen normal community service stuff. But Gamers For Humanity was/is (haven't heard from them in a while and not sure if they're still around) the hardest working game-related community service group I've run into. Some of Drivethru's charity bundles have raised a lot of money for good causes as well.
7) What aspect of RPGs has the biggest effect on you?
Since I write games, I guess the creative aspect.
8) Hardcover, softcover, or digital? What is your preference?
I hated and feared the idea of digital books at first, but being able to (1) sell books without paying for printing or shipping; and (b) carry all of Hex's products around on my tablet (at some point we got to the point where our entire product line was too heavy to lug around at a con) has given me an appreciation for digital. That said, our products still don't feel completely real until I've got the physical book in my hands. For books I buy, it depends. If it's a throwaway read or a game book I'm just buying for a single game, digital is fine, but there are some things (like books by favorite authors or things I'll want to go back to again and again) that I want a hard copy of for the shelf.
9) Beyond the game, what's involved in an ideal session?
People you want to talk to and be around when you're not playing a game. I'm also a big fan of the "good food and beer and games" format.
10) Largest in-game surprise you have experienced?
When we played the proof-of-concept game for Hobomancer and realized that there could be a lot more to it than the throwaway goofy idea we had in mind at first.
11) Which gamer most affected the way you play?
A whole bunch of people, but since Leighton Connor and I have been trying to work out what we want out of games and how to communicate that to other people for nearly 20 years now, I think he gets top billing.
12) What game is your group most likely to play next? Why?
If we can schedule it, I want to try a Cinemechanix game over Skype or something with the Hex crew, probably the He-Man style cartoon game I'm using for the samples of play in the rulebook. Officially it's playtesting.
13) What makes a successful campaign?
Shared expectations about what the game is supposed to be and the ability to act like grown-ups when there are problems.
14) Your dream team of people you used to game with?
Depends on the game, but the core Hex Games crew are at the top of the list for almost anything.
15) Your best source of inspiration for RPGs?
I rarely read and issue of Fortean Times without coming up with at least a couple game ideas.
16) Historical person you'd like in your group? What game?
I'd kind of like to play Hobomancer with William S. Burroughs.
17) What fictional character would best fit in your group?
Wash from Firefly. Or any Alan Tudyk character, really.
18) What innovation could RPGs benefit most from?
Not sure if it counts as an innovation, but the changes to the way stories are told in TV and movies (television with seasonal story arcs or planned series arcs, cinematic universes, that kind of thing). I think a lot of the techniques can be incredibly useful in RPGs.
19) Best way to learn a new game?
20) Most challenging but rewarding system you have learned?
I can't think of a single system that was actually challenging to learn where the payoff was worth it. Most systems that are that complicated have goals that are diametrically opposed to my own. There are a lot of systems that are way more complicated than they need to be (TOON and It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show come to mind), but most are just annoyingly over-complicated, not challenging to learn.
21) Funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group?
Not really "in my group," but my brother played a game or two of D&D when we were kids and one time he thought that he could use his cleric's "Turn Undead" ability to come back to life after being killed.
22) Supposedly random game events that keep recurring?
Back when we used to use the Central Casting books to generate character backgrounds, it was way too common for two or three characters to end up with the same really weird background hooks (and everybody ended up with a goddamn pet).
23) Share one of your best "worst luck" stories.
The most recent I remember is spending like 10 rounds in a Star Wars game trying to get the bad guy's last hit point.
24) What is the game you are most likely to give to others?
QAGS. I've got boxes and boxes of it.
25) What makes for a good character?
A good character fits the premise of the game and the game world and has some hooks that make the game more interesting without sidetracking things or changing the focus.
26) What hobbies go well with RPGs?
Well, I don't really recommend doing anything at the same time, since it's kind of hard to roll dice while you're skydiving or whatever. If you're not playing a game at the moment, do whatever the hell you want. If the question is trying to ask what hobbies compliment RPGs, reading and anything that involves experiencing stories--reading fiction, reading comics, watching movies/TV/plays, playing Zork, whatever--can help make RPGs more fun.
27) Most unusual circumstance or location in which you've played a game?
For location, we once piled into a car and drove randomly around town for the "Highway to Hell" adventure from the original Mummy. Circumstance-wise, in 2010 we got an extra night of gaming for one of our "Hex Cons" (where all the Hex people meet up in one place to spend the weekend playing games) when we got stuck in Nashville due to flooding.
Also, when I was a kid we always played D&D on Boy Scout camping trips. You don't really appreciate how heavy the D&D rulebooks are until you lug a backpack full of them for about ten miles.
28) Thing you'd be most surprised a friend had not seen or read.
Sorry, but I've never understood why geeks get shocked and offended when they find out somebody hasn't seen or read the same pop culture thing they've seen or read. It seems really dumb.
29) You can game anywhere on Earth. Where would you choose?
I guess there could be an argument for playing a particular game in a particular place, like playing a Harry Potter game at the Disney Harry Potter park or something, but for the most part the location of the venue doesn't matter as long as it's comfortable and has whatever you need for the game. If the question is "where would you like to spend a weekend with friends, some of it gaming," we've discussed doing a Hex Con in New Orleans if we can ever work out the details.
30) Describe the ideal game room if the budget were unlimited.
Plenty of shelving for all the books, games, and other pieces and parts, a table for board and card games, and a lounge-type area with comfortable chairs and couches for games where you don't need to keep track of boards or minis or whatever. Maybe a separate table for miniatures gaming as well, but that could be cut for space since I don't play miniatures games that often anymore. I'd also want a big dry-erase board on the wall, a computer setup with a screen projector and good speaker system and other multi-media type stuff, and a kitchenette (or at least a beer fridge and microwave). Since the budget is unlimited, there also needs to be plenty of wall space for art, because that's where a big chunk of the imaginary cash is going.
31) Best advice you were ever given for your game of choice.
Kind of a weird question since I wrote my game of choice. If I took 90% of the advice I've gotten about it, it would no longer be my game of choice. I guess that means the best advice I've had is "don't take advice from other people," which I'm sure somebody's told me at some point.
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Sorry about not posting last week. I've was busy working on a couple of Brainfart Press projects and tilting at windmills over at my non-game blog, so the game blog kind of slipped through the cracks.
After a longer delay than I would have liked, I think we've got a workable solution to the core mechanic/combat system problems with Cinemechanix that showed up in playtesting. The basic plan is to limit the dice pool to three dice: the default die everybody gets, a Concept Die (which is always a bonus die) for things that are central to the character concept, and a Context Die (which may be a bonus or penalty dice) that basically covers everything else. Instead of adding dice to the pool, Tropes will be modifiers to the roll. This should get rid of the problem of roll ranges so limited that nobody gets an advantage without a loss of scalability. A couple of our GMs are running Cinemechanix games at GenCon, so hopefully I'll have some feedback on how things work in the near future.
An early version of the system (when it was still QAGS 3.0) included a similar mix of bonus dice and modifiers, but I dropped it because (not yet having noticed the problem with large dice pools) I thought that leaving modifiers out altogether would eliminate temptation for "fiddly" modifiers that add complexity to the system without really adding anything to the gaming experience. Unfortunately this led to a different kind of fiddliness. I've known it was there for awhile, but kept trying to ignore it or improve upon it (in ways that probably just made it more fiddly) because admitting to it would require rewriting the way characters are defined. Knowing that I'm going to have to rewrite big sections because of the core mechanics changes just made it easier to admit.
The fiddliness comes from that weird class of character traits that are somewhere in the middle between game stats and story elements. Things that are clearly character abilities (like the character's marksmanship skills or super strength) are easy; they need game stats. Things that are pure story (like the character's eye color or favorite Stooge) are also easy; they don't need game stats. The problem comes from the stuff in between that are story elements that seem like they need to have game mechanics tied to them--things like contacts and resources and reputation. Up until now I've been trying to include these things as a sorta-kinda-mechanic under the character concept as something called "Hooks," but it's created a lot of confusion since Hooks can easily overlap with and even require repetition as other game traits (especially Drawbacks and Special Effects). This has led to what I sort of think of as "Storygame fiddliness" where game concepts have such precise meanings that it makes things confusing in a way that's just as off-putting and inaccessible as multi-page femoral artery integrity check rules.
A lot of the tendency to try to turn "damned" (to borrow from Charles Fort) character traits like these into game mechanics tied up in the myth of game balance, which is hard to get away from because some of the things done in the name of game balance are useful for reasons that have nothing to do with the "problem" they're trying to solve. For example, some of the damned character traits that led to all the fiddliness need to be accounted for because they can affect both the story and the game mechanics. The question is how to do it without an obnoxious level of precision.
The other thing that's led to fiddliness is a tendency to think in terms of generic game system standards (which are the norm, especially for "universal" systems) instead of adaptable game systems (which is what I'm trying to write). I'm sure I've gone into the difference (probably at length) here before, but the quick version is that a generic game system is a blueprint, an adaptable game system is a toolbox. Generic systems say "here are the rules for magic"; adaptable systems say "here are some rules concepts you can use to create the magic system that works best for the game you're running." A lot of the fiddliness I was creating was creeping in because I was still thinking in terms of generic game system (in my defense, the distinction between the two is something that I've been developing along with the system, so it's not like I've got a handbook to refer to). If you're playing a fantasy game using Cinemechanix, you should be able to say "I'm a fighter" and have a generic bonus for "fighter stuff" or create D&D style advancement tables that enumerate specific fighter abilities and bonuses by Hero Factor, whichever works best for your game. In an adaptable system, the best way for dealing with damned traits is something the players need to figure out when they're building their game. By trying to force certain kinds of traits into specific mechanical bins like generic games do, I'm taking away the players' ability to customize the system to the game they're going to run.
Long story short, I'm re-writing the character creation chapter right now, and it's getting a lot clearer and simpler all the time.
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