Today in shameless self-promotion, I’ve just released my latest non-gaming book through Brainfart Press. It’s called Dispatches From The MGT: Curious Signs from the American Workplace and you can get your copy from CreateSpace or Amazon. My previous Brainfart books, Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) (Kindle edition also available) and The Callipygian Grimoire: A Discordian Activity & Spell Book, are also still available through both sites.
A couple weeks ago I talked about Cinemechanix, the new game system I’ve been working on that developed out of what was originally going to be QAGS 3rd Edition. Since work on the project, like love, will come in spurts (and since it’s sometimes hard to think of things to write about in a gaming blog when you’re not gaming regularly), I’m going to post updates and “designer’s notes” types of things here than rather starting a separate blog with sporadic updates. That being the case, it seems like a good idea to start by talking about my design goals for Cinemechanix. Since these goals are based on my idea of what makes gaming fun, some of this will sound familiar to regular readers.
The System Should Support Collaborative Storytelling
This seems like a straightforward goal, but let’s unpack it just the same. First off, Cinemechanix is a storytelling game, not a strategy game, so players should be rewarded for contributing to the story, not for finding ways to exploit the rules. The best way to do this is to keep the rules simple. Complex rules, whether intentionally or not, often become gatekeeping mechanisms when they make new players (or players with lives) feel like they’re at a disadvantage because they haven’t had time to read (or money to buy) all the supplements in order to use obscure rules to optimize their characters. As someone who has a financial as well as personal interest in making gaming inviting for new players, I want as few gatekeepers as possible.
The disadvantage created by too much rules complexity also hampers a new or casual player’s ability to effectively collaborate, since according to Celine’s Second Law true communication can only occur between equals. It’s always going to take new players a while to learn all the rules, but the rules shouldn’t be so complex that players who haven’t mastered them feel like second-class citizens. Celine’s Second Law also comes into play in relation to the power dynamic between the players and the GM. It’s not the GM’s game, it’s everybody’s game. The players should feel like they’re active co-authors of the story, not editors who are punching up the GM’s half-assed characterization. If you’re worried that giving players more control over the direction of the story will lead to a game where players always “win” an empty victory, there are two things you should know: (1) you don’t understand how stories work; (2) you are not the target audience for this game.
While there are some mechanics (like the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums, called Acclaim) that help encourage a more egalitarian relationship between the players and GM, it’s more a matter of encouraging a game “culture” that allows for more player involvement in the initial campaign design as well as ongoing world creation.
The System Should Be Cinematic
The fact that the game is called “Cinemechanix” probably clued you into this. The name comes from a multi-part series of articles about cinematic role-playing that Deep Space Rescue author Jason Whisman wrote for one of the early incarnations of The Death Cookie. We also used the name for QAGS Cops & Robbers, which we subtitled “A Cinemechanix Guide for QAGS.” Since the system is geared toward “cinematic” gaming and since I make a lot of comparisons between RPGs and movies/television in the rules, the name seemed like a natural fit. Don’t worry, I checked with Jason and he said I could use it.
I’m not using the term “cinematic” here in quite the same context that most gamers use it. In gamer-speak, “cinematic” usually means “there are rules for doing action-movie style fights and stunts.” Typically, these rules are just as complicated, simulationist, time-consuming, and generally destructive to any sense of narrative flow as the "non-cinematic" rules found in first and second generation RPGs. I’m using the word “cinematic” to suggest that playing the game should feel like you’re watching a great movie or television show, not like you’re doing math. Or, as we put it in QAGS, the game should model fiction, not reality.
A big part of meeting the goal of making the game system cinematic is recognizing the sorts of rules that don’t do anything to enhance storytelling (and often get in the way of it) and are mostly included in games because of inertia and tradition. QAGS has already done a lot of the heavy lifting here, but even it has a few of these. A good example is the Damage Bonus rule for weapons. In a simulationist game that attempts to model reality, it makes sense. In fiction, combat prowess is a function of the character, not the props he’s carrying. If Buster Bluth tries to shoot Machete with his machine gun and all Machete has is a fluffy pink bunny, Buster’s going to end up unconscious on the ground with a fluffy pink bunny shoved up his ass nine times out of ten.
The myth of game balance and the idea of the character sheet as an inventory are bigger picture concepts that also need to go, but they're so ingrained in role-playing culture that they sometimes try to slip into the rules even when you’re actively trying to keep them out. Both have their place in more strategy-oriented games where the goal is to “out-play” the other players through use of the game rules, but are completely unnecessary in a cooperative social game unless the players lack emotional maturity and/or basic human decency. If that’s the case, there’s no rule that’s going to help.
The Game Should Be Adaptable
Players should be able to use the system to play any kind of story they want to play. For games about action movie cops or Old West gunfighters or vikings, you can probably just take the core rules and run with them. The need for special rules usually arises when you throw something weird like magic or super-powers or futuristic technology into the mix. I’m using “adaptable” here to differentiate the game from “generic” or “universal” systems. The generic approach says, for example, “Here are the rules for psychic powers. Any character with psychic powers in any setting uses these rules.” The problem of course, is that psychic powers may work very differently or have a different flavor from one ficton (or even one character) to the next. The “one rule to rule them all” approach more often than not results in a mechanic that kind of works in a lot of situations but doesn’t work especially well in any of them.
The “adaptable” approach says “Here is a toolbox of rules concepts. Use them in whatever way works best for your game.” The Hulk’s “Super Strength” ability might not use the same rules as Superman’s (or even Thor’s), and a magic system that works perfectly for Hogwart's isn't going to work very well for Sunnydale High. Adaptability requires mechanics that are simple and versatile enough that adapting them to a particular use is mainly a matter of either defining how the general rules work in specific situations or creating new rules that work alongside the existing rules without changing them. An example of the former would be deciding what kind of roll players make when they want to hack into a computer system and how high they need to roll to achieve common results. An example of the latter would be adding a spell point system that governs how much magic players can use during a particular span of game time. The core rulebook should also provide a lot of examples (very clearly presented as examples, not universal rules) to give players ideas of how to adapt the rules to different settings and situations.
Outside of the rules, one of the things I’m trying to do to encourage the idea of adaptability is to put a lot of emphasis on “designing” your game. This doesn’t mean drawing a map and writing up pages and pages of minutia, it means getting together with the group and deciding what kind of world you want to play in and what kinds of stories you want to tell. Part of the process is deciding what setting elements, story concepts, or character abilities require additional or more detailed rules to achieve the desired flavor and level of detail. A Star Wars game will probably need rules for spaceship combat. A Firefly game won’t.
That’s the big picture of what I want to accomplish with Cinemechanix: an adaptable, cinematic system for collaborative storytelling. I’ll go into more detail about how I’m trying to do it in future posts. The playtest draft is close to being presentable enough to show to people other than Hex staff, personal friends, and Patreon followers, but it’s not quite there yet. Right now I’m focusing on helping with the editing of And One For All (Ian’s Three Musketeers sourcebook) so the text will be ready for layout as soon as the art (by Robert Kemp, who did the cover and interior art for Aces & Apes) is finished.
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All Games Considered spent most of a recent show reviewing a whole bunch of Hex products. If you're on the fence or want to know more about a particular QAGS book, there's a good chance they mention it in the podcast.
In other news, I sent in an entry to the Playing D&D with Porn Stars Thought Eater Tournament, but couldn't tell you because all entries were anonymous until the voting was done. My entry and the one it was up against tied, so I get to move on to round 2. I'm not sure of the timeline, but the submission deadline is Sunday so presumably Zak will start posting entries sometime next week. As with the last round, I can't tell you which one's mine until the voting is done.
My topic for the first round was: "Monster and Encounter Design (How to make it memorable? Is 'memorable' even the aim? How to make them good? etc)”
Here's what I wrote:
“Memorable” isn’t something the GM can create, it’s something that happens in play. A throwaway scene that the GM just pulled out of nowhere to fill time can be the most memorable scene of a campaign, while an elaborately plotted scene can be forgotten by the next week. It’s all a matter of what the players grab onto during the scene, what they do with it, and sometimes what they roll. That being the case, I’m going to ditch the idea of trying to make an encounter memorable in favor of some nebulous definition of “good” that includes elements with a high potential for memorability (which, at least according to the Google Docs spellchecker, seems to be an actual word).
For me, the thing that always makes a encounter seem “good” is context, which needs to work on a couple of different levels. On the meta level, it needs to feel like the encounter does something to move the story along, whether it’s giving the party information, moving them one step closer to the goal, or just helping the story flow by providing some tension when things get boring or a break in the action when things get too tense. If you’re watching a movie or TV show, you can often tell if a scene was just added to stretch out the run time, show off a special effect, or get Christopher Walken’s name on the poster, and noticing it makes the movie less enjoyable. With encounters that aren’t plot points, the biggest challenge is knowing when to include them and when to throw them out or hand wave them. If the party has already beaten the level boss, making them wade through a bunch of low-level cannon fodder that can’t hurt them and don’t add anything new to the story just makes it feel like you’re delaying their victory party unless you’ve specifically set up a “it’s getting back out that’s the hard part” situation. If the last hour of the game is spent in a series of boring fights with small bands of half-starved kobolds, the players are more likely to forget the really cool battle with the minotaur by the time the session’s over.
The other level is the setting level: the encounter seems to feel like it belongs there. Things that are part of the story will already have reasons for being there, but even incidental or unplanned encounters (like surprise ninja attacks to get a group that’s dithering to start moving again or wandering monsters) need to feel like they make sense. If an encounter doesn’t seem plausible, it’s going to feel like a plot point, so you need to be prepared for when the players realize that there traditionally aren’t any ninjas in Rivendell and start trying to figure out where the guys in black pajamas came from. Even if the players take a “eh, ninjas, what can you do?” attitude and don’t pursue the anomaly, it doesn’t hurt to throw in something later that helps explain where it came from. The more encounters interconnect with one another and the setting, the more alive the setting will feel.
My personal solution for making sure that encounters feel like they have context is not to think in terms of encounters. The typical gaming definition of “encounter”--when the players arrive at location X, event Y will happen--is static, which makes the world seem less like a living setting and more like a diorama that only comes to life when the players are there to see it. Instead, I try to think in terms of motivations and conflicts. Instead of sitting around waiting for the PCs to break into their house and kill them, the non-PC actors go about their lives (often clashing with one another) and react accordingly when the PCs inevitably mess up their plans. Even if you’re running a dungeon crawl where the “there are orcs in this room” model works a little better, it still helps to understand what life in the dungeon is like when there are no adventurers breaking up the place. If nothing else, it’ll help you spot design flaws that might kill the players’ suspension of disbelief, like the fact that the Displacer Beast in room 7 probably would have either starved to death or set off the spike trap at the end of the only hallway to room 7 long before the party ever got there.
Context is also important in monster design in that the kind of monster you choose or create needs to fit the role you want the monster to play in the story. I usually break monsters down into a few broad categories: Cannon Fodder are nuisance monsters that are mostly used for pacing; Mystery monsters are puzzles to be solved and can usually be killed fairly easily once you figure out how to kill them; Brutes are big and tough and scary but ultimately just meat that can be hacked apart; Tricksters screw with the character’s minds; Predators create tension by playing cat and mouse with the heroes; and Forces of Nature are things like giant monsters and zombie hordes that require a brilliant plan to defeat because taking them out by hitting them with pointy sticks is statistically improbable. Once you know why the monster’s there, it’s just a matter of adding bells and whistles and assorted pointy bits to make it seem cool.
Ultimately, the key to creating good scenes is asking “why is this here?” or “why is this happening?” and then answering your own question. The more these answers interconnect with one another, the story, and the setting, the more alive the world will seem. The more alive the world seems, the more the players will have to latch onto in order to create memorable scenes. A series of disconnected encounters with no context or narrative flow are likely to blend into one another, just like a series of random workdays when nothing interesting happens.
In a few recent posts, I’ve made references to a super secret project I’ve been working on. Today I’m going to tell you about that project.
First, here’s a brief history of QAGS for those of you who aren’t familiar: sometime in the late 90s, I wanted to come up with a quick system that we could use for one-shot games without having to spend an hour making characters and looking up stuff on tables. I made up some rules and ran a couple of games with them, but didn’t do much with them until Leighton and I got the hairbrained idea to start a game company. Since the “real” game system I was working on (a complete monstrosity that will never be published) wasn’t even close to being ready, we decided to publish the simple little candy-based system. Since the system would only take a few pages to explain, we decided to fill the rest of the book with jokes and dumb stuff. That turned into the first edition of QAGS, which we published in 1998.
Over the next few years, we realized that in order to sell a game, you actually have to run it from time to time, and in the process we discovered that QAGS actually worked surprisingly well for what we wanted to do in an RPG. We started using it for our regular games and thinking of it as a “real” game system. When we moved up to printing real books, the digest-sized core rulebook with the cardstock cover that we’d printed at a shop one step up from Kinko’s just didn’t cut it anymore, so we started working on QAGS Second Edition. Q2E came out in 2003 and while we kept the general tone and some of the jokes from the first edition, we also added a lot of stuff to make it a more complete and usable game system.
When you run and write for a game for 12 years, you inevitably start to notice the flaws. With QAGS, there are some mechanical problems, but the biggest flaw is that making the system work requires buying into a certain style of play and, while the GM advice in Q2E does a good job of explaining this style, the only things in the system that really support it are the overall simplicity and the use of Yum Yums. Otherwise, the system is representative of games from that time period, and some of the rules we added to the second edition are really there more because at the time they were things a game was “supposed to have” than because they add anything to the gaming experience.
Since the system and the play style aren’t as intertwined as they should be, playing QAGS with someone who doesn’t really get it can turn out badly. Part of the problem is the humor in the rulebook. Most gamers approach “silly” and “serious” games differently, so they’re fine using QAGS with something like Sharktoberfest or Funkadelic Frankenstein, but when you try to use QAGS for non-comedic games, they get confused. Either they’ve mentally tagged QAGS as a “funny” game so they ruin the story by trying to be wacky or they shift into a more simulationist “serious game” mode and start trying to bring a level of crunch to the system that just isn’t there.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve been playing around with ideas for a third edition of QAGS for a while. Initially, the idea was to fix the mechanical eccentricities, streamline some things, and provide more support for campaign play (the experience system in Q2E is fiddly and weird, and that’s coming for the guy who wrote it). Eventually it hit me that the real goal should be to bring the rules more in line with the style of play we’re trying to promote, so I started completely overhauling the system.
At some point, the game system I was working on stopped being QAGS. The QAGS roots are still there, but there are so many changes that it’s really not the same game anymore. A new edition of QAGS that’s barely identifiable as QAGS presents some (mostly marketing-related) problems. The first is that we have close to 50 QAGS supplements out right now, so releasing a third edition that’s vastly different from the current rules set would mean rendering those supplements obsolete until we got around to rewriting them. The other is that there are a lot of our existing games work perfectly with Q2E. QAGS works great for beer and pretzels one-shots, for example, because the kinds of things the new system does better are things you just don’t need for something like Fratboys Vs. The systems are also different enough that some people will probably simply prefer QAGS over the new system, and we don’t want to lose the people who are perfectly happy with the game they’ve already got.
Long story short, instead of releasing a third edition of QAGS, we’re working on a whole new game system, which right now we’re calling “Cinemechanix.” Second Edition will remain the current version of QAGS, and will still be supported. New products will be released using whichever system works best for the goals of the game (or the author’s preference, if both systems are equally appropriate). The first Cinemechanix setting will be M-Force, which means those of you who have been patiently waiting for the new edition are going to have to wait a little longer. We apologize for that, but I think it will be a much better game with the Cinemechanix rules. As we get time, we’ll also be releasing new versions of some of the existing QAGS games that we think will benefit from the new rules, starting with Hobomancer.
We don’t really have a timeline for this yet. As most of you probably know, we do all the Hex stuff in our spare time, so real life can really slow down our release schedule. Since real life has been punching us all in the dick a lot over the last few years, new releases have been few and far between lately. These sorts of slowdowns have happened before (and will probably happen again), so those of you who have been around for a while know the drill. As always, thanks for being patient while we work to get things moving again.
The first draft of Cinemechanix just needs a few more chapters to be ready to playtest. We’re planning to do more playtesting than usual for this one before we start moving toward an actual release, so the timeline will depend on how well that goes (if you want in on the playtesting, contact me through the usual channels, or through the Hex web site if you don’t have usual channels). Now that we’ve told you it’s happening, I can also talk about it here, so watch this space if you’re curious about the new system.
In the meantime, we’ve got a few QAGS supplements that are ridiculously close to being ready for release. Carter’s been whipping the third installment of American Artifacts into shape, Ian’s Three Musketeers Game, And One For All, is being edited right now, and the Comprehensive Soldier supplement for Qerth is 95% written. Once we finish up the text, get the art, and do the layout, you’ll be able to own them yourself for some ridiculously low price. If you want to be among the first to know when we get them done, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or join the QAGS community on Google Plus.
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Supporters at the $3 or higher level will get advance access to the Cinemechanix playtest draft.
Want some Hobomancer T-Shirts, Happy d20 Keychains, or other Hex swag? Good news. We've got a store at Zazzle now where you can order all sorts of Hex merchandise. I'll personally be picking up some Hobomancer playing cards in the near future.
If you read last week's blog, you saw how I'd run a trashy 80s fantasy version of My Fair Lady directed by the South Park guys. For that one, I had plenty of time to think about the basics and work out the details. Usually you don't have that luxury, so this week I'm going to share an example of running a randomly generated premise in real time.
At Archon over the weekend, I ran a Players' Choice game, which means the players get to decide what game I run for them. Since it was Sunday morning at a con that hands out free booze and nobody's brain was firing, they decided to leave it up to The Book of Dumb Tables, which the Random One-Shot script is based on. We rolled on both sets of tables and the players picked the one from The Book of Dumb Tables 2, which was "A Dark Comedy Version of A Christmas Carol as directed by The Coen Brothers." Since there were three players, we decided that it made sense for theme to play the three ghosts and they started making their characters.
That's when I realized that the obvious story for this concept wouldn't work for an RPG. Most people, upon hearing the premise, would expect the plot structure of A Christmas Carol set in a Coen Brothers world with Coen Brothers humor and tone, but each ghost in the Dickens story "stars" in its own vignette of the story, which is exactly the opposite of how RPGs work. So the first step in making the premise work was throwing out the structure you'd naturally expect. Luckily, the core plot of "three ghosts redeem a bad guy" still works. The ghosts are just working as a group, not a three-man tag team.
With the Dickens element covered, I needed to decide how to work in the "dark comedy" and "Coen Brothers" bits. Since the Coen brothers tend toward dark comedy, I decided to focus on the Coens. Many of their movies feature supernatural (or seemingly supernatural) elements in a stylized but mostly mundane world. O Brother, Where Art Thou is full of mythical creatures, Hudsucker Proxy has a magical clockman and an angel, The Man Who Wasn't There has UFOs, and even the Warthog from Hell in Raising Arizona and The Dude could easily be interpreted as not-quite human. Since the game had at least some kind of Christmas theme, we decided that the characters would spend their downtime working in the place where (the modern American version of) the Christmas spirit is alive year-round: the fucking mall, temple of disastrous consumerism.
The introduction of the story was brief, but the players threw in enough flavor to hint at a hellish ghostly bureaucracy that might be fun to play around with at a later date. For example, one of the ghosts had recently been promoted to Christmas ghost and was previously the Ghost of Tax Audits Future, so she was determined to do well on her first assignment out of fear of being sent back to the Eternal Revenue Service. Once the characters were established, I had to give them their assignment.
Since the game was set in modern day America, my first instinct for a Scrooge with lots of dark comedy potential was Donald Trump, and since all three players had been in my M-Force game the day before and didn't seem like raving racists, I felt reasonably safe that I wouldn't offend anyone by going with The Donald. Luckily I was right and once they realized that Trump was far too obstinate to change his ways because some ghosts kept him up at night, the players managed to convince the aliens who had put that thing on Trump's head that they could mine Earth for plastic without destroying humanity (It makes sense when you've got all the details. Trust me on that). It ended up being a short game (less than two hours), but the players seemed to enjoy themselves, I had fun, and it was very different from the average convention game, which is exactly what randomly-generated premises are supposed to be.
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Do you want to hear me talk about Hobomancer? You’re in luck, because the Game School podcast where I do just that came out a week or so ago. Also, the Hex crew will be at Archon this weekend. If you’re going and want to come to our panels or games, the schedule is on the QAGS Facebook page.
For this week’s blog, I decided to randomly generate a game idea using the One-Shot Game Concept Generator, then describe how I’d run it. The two concepts the script gave me were “the PCs are priests who work as super-heroes who are opposed by demons” and “A trashy 80s fantasy version of My Fair Lady as directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.” Since the first one is basically the plot of Battle Pope, I decided to go with option number two.
It’s up to the players how closely they want the characters to resemble the cast of My Fair Lady (I’m going to use the character names here to keep things simple), but Parker and Stone need to be the WWPHITM? for the Higgins and Pickering roles (I’d probably cast Parker as Higgins, but could see it going either way). In this version, they’re noble knights rather than linguists. Since the PCs are an adventuring party, the roles of Higgins' mother and the housekeeper would be filled by other party members. I’d make the funny little guy who’s in all the Parker & Stone movies Higgins’ squire. Eliza could work as either a PC or an NPC.
Ten years ago, the young Princess of Pygmaila was kidnapped by agents of the Witch King of Kromdor (who is METAL AS FUCK). After years of searching, two brave knights (Higgins and Pickering) believe they’ve discovered the keep where the princess is being held. As the game begins, the party is preparing to assault the keep and rescue the princess. Just in time, too: according to a not-at-all-contrived-for-pacing prophecy, the kingdom will fall into ruin if the princess does not return home by her 18th birthday, which is right around the corner.
You can play through the raid on the keep if you really want, but I’d probably open the game just as the PCs have freed the princess and are facing off against the level boss and his minions so they can make their escape. During the battle, the princess needs to die. Since it’s a Parker and Stone movie, it would be really appropriate for a PC to accidentally kill her or at least indirectly cause her death. Also, make sure there’s a big fire. It’ll be important later.
Following the princess’s untimely demise, our brave party decides to drown their sorrows in booze and women at the nearest inn while they try to decide what to do next. If the king finds out what happened, they’ll probably be executed. As thy sit around feeling sorry for themselves, they can’t help but notice that one of the bar wenches/dancing girls/whores (depending on how Deathstalker you want to take things) bears a striking resemblance to the princess. Since the characters don’t want to die (and since the player presumably know the premise of the game), it shouldn’t be much of a leap for them to decide to try to pass the barmaid off as the princess.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. For starters, the proprietor of the inn (who may either be her father or an employer she’s indentured or enslaved to) isn’t going to let her go with the PCs without compensation for his loss. She also has a lover who doesn’t want her to go. Even more problematic is that she’s a commoner who doesn’t know anything about courtly etiquette or being a princess or covering her cleavage (it is trashy 80s fantasy). In addition to dodging the Witch King’s minions (since the real princess’s body was destroyed in the fire, they’re going to assume Eliza is the princess and her shabby clothing and unladylike behaviour is an attempted disguise) and other dangers of the road in order to get her home in time for the princess’s birthday, the party has to teach Eliza to be a proper princess. If you’re not lucky enough to have players who embrace the idea of playing adventurers running a finishing school, you can focus mostly on the dangers they encounter during the journey (but you’ll probably miss out on some great gaming).
Assuming the party makes it back to the castle in time, they’ll have to convince everyone that Eliza is the princess. The real test will come at the birthday feast, where the party will have to deal with Zoltan, a rival knight who just knows the PCs are up to something; the innkeeper, who has used the money he got from the PCs to buy his way into the nobility and is threatening to expose the ruse; Eliza’s lover, who wants her back; and possibly Eliza herself, who may want to just go back to her simple life in the hinterlands of Kromdor. As the PCs try to juggle all of this so they don’t get their heads chopped off, hilarity should ensue. Also, musical numbers.
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