Drone Mechanics

In my copious spare time – by which I mean, “when I neglect the children” – I’m working on Drone, a cyberpunk-ish game about disposable cyborg assassins. Elevator pitch – one player is the reactivated Drone. The others are the remote Operators, guiding the Drone through the collaboratively-designed mission and pulling the strings. They’ve got to balance the Drone’s growing sense of self against the needs of the mission.

The core of the game is the Action Pool. Each round, the Drone rolls a pile of d6s. The number of d6s depends on the Drone’s health – damage takes away from its ability to act. The colour of the d6s – Black or Red – depends on how dangerous the situation is, and how alert the bad guys are to the Drone’s presence.

Each turn, a player takes one of the dice from the pool and uses it to fuel an ability. The Drone’s abilities are pretty conventional – move, attack, interact with people, hide and the like – but the Operators each have their own specialised abilities (and everyone has their own Apocalypse-World style play sheet). So, the Director can order another player to act twice in a row, or override someone else’s action. The Tactician can give the Drone a firing solution to take down multiple targets, or scan the surrounding area for threats, or co-ordinate the actions of other assets. The Medic can pump the Drone full of painkillers, download skills, or activate cybernetic devices implanted in the drone.

If a player takes a Red dice, then the bad guys also get to act that turn. There are various ways to raise or lower the number of Red Dice in the pool like disrupting enemy communications, or hiding and waiting for the alarm to die down.

I designed the system to emphasise the idea that there’s only a single ‘conventional’ player character – there’s only one character actually present in the action – even though there are three other characters backing him up. The pool mechanic, though, has the unexpected but wholly welcome side effect of engaging all the players in every action. I was worried that Operators might feel left out as they’re less involved in the action, but as everything the other players do affects your own ability to act and plan, and as there’s a clear visual/tactile focus in the form of a diminishing pile of dice in the middle of the table, it actually fosters a lovely claustrophobic ‘we’re all in the same virtual foxhole’ feeling.

 

13 Princes

This just jumped into my head, so I’m frantically writing it down in gaps between feeding twins. Excuse unseemly brevity and enthusiasm.

A setting where the PCs are the Icons. Each PC is the ruler/champion/symbol/figurehead/chosen one of a particular race/culture/faction. Instead of Icons, you take TWO qualities of your faction that might or might not show up in a given session. So, if you’re the Werewolf Prince, you might take Savage Nature  (positive) and the Moon (conflicted). Each game session, you roll for Icon benefits as normal; on a 5, you OR your faction can do something awesome with that “quality”, but at a cost. 6 means it comes without strings.

The twist – you then take a third quality from one of the other players, but you have to have a different relationship with it (or stay conflicted). So, if you’re the Shepherd of Worlds, you might take my Savage Nature quality as a negative – you want to tame nature, I want it to remain red in tooth and claw. (Maybe each player should only define one icon, and take two more from other players, to bind everything together.)

This concept would probably work best starting at 5th level, where the PCs have some real power under their belts, and I’m not quite sure what sort of adventures the PCs actually go on. Presumably, battling against shared external threats to their cultures would be a big part of it.

Now that I write it down, I realise that I’m channelling bits of the primordial setup of D&D (back when it was closer to Fantasy Diplomacy in Blackmoor) and Callisto. Good antecedents to have.

Fellowship Phases & The One Ring

Paul Baldowski asked

Is there any guidance or room for a blog post or two from you on the matter of Fellowship Phases in TOR? It’s a common grey area. I’m not sure I (or many other players) grok the concept of just how much roleplaying is involved in the Fellowship phase

Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘it depends’.

For those unfamiliar with the mechanic, the One Ring RPG has two ‘phases’ of play. During the Adventuring Phase, the player characters go adventuring – they journey across Middle-Earth, encounter strange people and explore strange places, fight off the corrupting touch of the Shadow, get lost in Mirkwood, fight Orcs/Spiders/Wolves/Trolls/More Orcs and do all the things that adventurers do. Then there’s a Fellowship Phase, where each player character gets to perform a Fellowship Action. On the face of it, these look like downtime activities – actions include stuff like Raise Standard of Living, Heal Corruption, Gain a New Distinctive Feature and so on. Other supplements have introduces new actions, like Gather Herbs or Visit the Market, as well as one-off or special Actions like Receive Title, Visit the Kingstone, Consult with Saruman and the like.

Fellowship Actions give the players a chance to drive the story. TOR adventures tend to be reactive – the Enemy does something, and the PCs respond by thwarting it. The Fellowship Phase, though, is almost entirely Active – the players almost always have a choice of actions, and should be made aware of their options by the Loremaster. As you can only carry out Fellowship Actions as a Sanctuary, the phase also lets the game explore the peaceful, settled parts of Middle-Earth; without them, the game would take place almost entirely in empty wilderness and orc-caves.

Each Fellowship Action has a mechanical effect, and it’s perfectly fine to have that be the entirety of the phase. “You arrive in Rivendell – erase your fatigue, roll to get rid of Corruption, and off we go on the next adventure”. Similarly, when Journeying, you don’t need to play through every single Hazard.

However, The One Ring benefits immensely from taking a slower pace than other games. Describing even comparatively uneventful journeys may seem like a recipe for dullness, but TOR is much more grounded in its setting than other games (compare a long journey in Dungeons and Dragons). There’s no need to describe every tree, but giving a brief bit of description and scope for roleplaying between Travel checks lets the game breathe; it lets miles be miles, so to speak, and lets the players show off traits and features of their characters.

The same applies to Fellowship Actions. There’s no need to role-play through them, and certainly they shouldn’t be turned into mini-adventures or challenges where, say, the PCs need to deal with some snooty Elves before they can Open Rivendell as a Sanctuary. Instead, let each player give as much or as little narration as they wish.

When considering how much time, detail and roleplaying to put into Fellowship Phases, ask yourself if you want your game to feel more like the Fellowship of the Ring (lengthy travel interspersed with short bursts of peril, and lengthy interludes at Sanctuaries) or The Two Towers (mostly hazardous travel and combat, with only brief breaks to rest and refresh that mostly have only mechanical consequences.) The right answer may depend on the appetite for your players for consequence-free colour roleplaying and Hobbitry.

 

Warpcon 24

If I run a Cthulhu game at the next two Warpcons, I’ll unlock the achievement “Great Old One – run a Cthulhu game at 20 Warpcons in a row.” I’ll have to do something special for that. This year, with two new distractions, I reused a pair of GenCon scenarios instead of writing anything new.

Saturday, I ran The Wind from the South, a One Ring scenario where the PCs have to rescue a princess of Rohan from Tyrant’s Tower. The players went rather spectacularly off-piste for around half the game, but then turned around and completed the quest with some rousing team-work and Hobbitry, culminating in the most improbable ‘use the evil ring’ check ever (3 sixs and two Gandalfs on a Hobbit’s Corruption test).

Sunday morning, I ran a Laundry scenario that’ll be part of an upcoming anthology. It revolves around HP Lovecraft and an attempt to summon a fire god. Half the players were Americans, which lent any Black Chamber jokes an interesting frisson. They all survived, despite one of them being devoured by said fire god (the others worked out a plausible way to bring her back from the dead as a transgender clone of Lovecraft, which the players then put on a Cards against Humanity card.)

After that, I ran a brief seminar on adventure design, which made me want to run another seminar on adventure design that takes advantage of all the things I learned doing the first one, and so doesn’t suck. My thanks to the audience for enduring my learning experience.

The annual Warpcon board game was  Yggdrasil, a co-op “you’re all Norse gods fighting Ragnarok” game. Very pretty, nicely thematic, but possibly a bit shallow. We’ve played it twice so far, but haven’t tried the Asgard expansion yet.

I did comparatively little socialising, and completely missed the guests other than a very brief flyby of Chris Pramas. The boys’ meal-time meant that I had to skip dinner in town, and I’ve never been comfortable in bars. Still, thanks to deli’s help, juggling twins and con proved successful (and I must thank the Warpcon committee for the twin-sized con shirts.)

My first Warpcon was Warpcon 4; twenty years ago, and twenty years before that was the start of D&D. Egad –  I may have already unlocked “run Cthulhu for half the time it’s been in existence…”

Warpcon 24, D&D 40, Boys 1, Infinity

Warpcon is done for another year. I always feel like my year really starts at Warpcon – more than the new year, more than Christmas, more than my birthday, it’s the axis around which the seasons turn. Every con brings with it revelation, or at least the illusion of revelation, some motif for the year to come, and this year I think it must have been continuity. The convention committee were young and inexperienced, but that’s how things should be. It’s in good hands. I remember feeling that things couldn’t possibly continue after my generation left college, that things would fall apart. They didn’t.

Dungeons and Dragons is 40 years old today. I can’t begin to quantify how big an influence roleplaying games are on me. Like Warpcon, I’ve always felt a sort of melancholy desperation about gaming; I was unable to shake the feeling that I’d come in at the end of the party, just before everything ended, that the great days were over and gone before I arrived, but that if I kept gaming, I could stave off that end for a little while. Fight the long defeat, as Tolkien put it.

(Tolkien has a lot to answer for.)

Screw all that. Here’s to Warpcon 25, and 35, and 50. Here’s to the next century of D&D. Here’s to making the future out of the best pieces of the past. Here’s to being part of an ongoing campaign, not a story moving inexorably towards an unwanted ending.

 

 

 

 

Darkening of Mirkwood

The Darkening of Mirkwood is finally out! It’s been in the pipeline for a very long time, and I’m ecstatic to see it released. I took Francesco’s outline and notes from  The One Ring’s Loremaster’s Guide, and expanded them into a thirty-year adventure modelled on the classic Great Pendragon Campaign. It may be the best adventure I’ve written so far; I’m certainly extremely happy with it.

It corrects one unavoidable issue with the GPG – the ending isn’t set. The Arthurian saga demands that Arthur perish fighting at Camlann, and be taken away to Avalon. The fate of the Woodmen of Mirkwood, though, is left unanswered by Tolkien, so I was able to put much more weight on the player characters’ decisions. There are significant NPCs running around the adventure – one adventure has both Saruman and the Nazgul, and another starts off with the PCs being sent to apprehend Gandalf – but they’re never the deciding factor in how the campaign resolves.

There are some sections that I’m very gratified to see in the final product. The melancholic ending, for example – the campaign inevitably ends in a defeat, although the PCs’ actions determine whether it’s a temporary setback for the Free Peoples, or a complete victory for the Enemy. The opportunities for player characters to take on mythical roles, or to retire and take on new character types who arose from previous events in the campaign. The very, very careful references to the earlier Ages of Middle-Earth. The absolutely stunning artwork.

Thirty years have passed since the company first met in Wilderland. Thirty times have the black leaves fallen in the wild wood. A lifetime, as the short-lived Northmen reckon time; a brief spell for the immortal Elves. This final year is an opportunity for the surviving companions, if any, to reflect on their deeds and even lay down their burdens. Characters who helped Prince Bain in earlier adventures can retire to the safety of Dale. Others may prefer to continue adventuring outside Mirkwood.

The forest itself lies under a dark shadow. The Woodmen, if they still endure, are few in number. Radagast remains in his cottage at Rhosgobel, where he has lived for many years, but his absences grow longer and longer as he wanders the forest. Some rumours claim he goes to visit the River-maidens, other stories say he travels through the wood in the shape of a bird or a fox.

In the south, the Messenger of Mordor leaves Dol Guldur. The Ringwraith is recalled to Barad-Dûr, to report to Sauron. What tidings does he bring the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne? Does the Nazgûl tell that the north is weak and divided, or does he speak of heroes that drove back the Shadow from the wood? 

Other minds, other hands, working the same black soil, growing their own cuttings of Tolkien’s great tree.

 

Cylons of Waterdeep

I’m just back from a board-gaming minicon. It’s become a Christmas tradition, as expat gamers return home for the holidays, then flee the loving embrace of their families to roll dice and move meeples. Two games dominated the day - Lords of Waterdeep and Battlestar Galactica. I’ve admired and adored the BSG board game for years, while Lords is a recent addiction. I don’t have the physical board game, but the iOS version is on the front page of both my phone and my iPad.

Both games hit a sweet intersection in a Venn diagram. Both are abstract enough to take a high-level approach to challenges – you’re not rolling to hit, you’re resolving whole conflicts at a time. Both are strongly themed, and even push a little towards roleplaying, although BSG is obviously much more immersive. Both are co-operative while also being competitive – admittedly, in Lords, that’s more the theme spilling into my impressions of the game. You could so easily push Lords towards the BSG/Arkham Horror model if you introduced penalties for failing to complete quests.

I’ve often said that Arkham Horror isn’t a great game, but it works as a fragmented recollection of a fantastic epic Call of Cthulhu campaign. The thought of a game that produces the high points and dramatic decisions of an entire campaign in a single afternoon, and fits in a box, is a goal worth pursuing.

2013 Review of the Year

The changes this year were seismic ones. Obviously, the far bigger and more challenging development was the arrival of the twins. deli went back to work shortly after the posting of the previous entry in this blog, so my previously quite random writing schedule is no longer workable. I’m on childcare duties every weekday from 8 to 5 on average, and between dinner, bedtime, handovers and actually trying to retain some semblance of human contact, that means my writing day is down to three or four hours in the evenings.

Deadlines concentrate the mind. So do constraints. I am so concentrated right now that I can taste the words.

The other big change was the move from Cubicle 7 to Pelgrane Press. By late August, I knew that something had to change. Previously, I was able to juggle writing and line development duties relatively easily, but then I got hit by a quadruple whammy of Twin 1, Twin 2, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and a bunch of extra writing work. Nothing got dropped, but it became increasingly clear to me that things had to change. The post-GenCon shakeup, coupled with Pelgrane’s sudden soaring and resulting expansion proved to be the optimum time to switch companies. I’m still Line Developer for the Laundry Files, but stepped back from my involvement in DWAITAS, The One Ring and Primeval. I’m happy with the work I did on all three lines, but DWAITAS and The One Ring both deserve their own dedicated line manager.

Over at Pelgrane, I’m working on a dungeon campaign for 13th Age entitled Eyes of the Stone Thief, and after that I’ll be working on the long-awaited Dracula Dossier. Pelgrane assignments always push me to work harder – there, I’m at the receiving end of the editorial feedback and line developer comments – and improve my craft. The first few months were challenging, as I joined just as the boys started teething in earnest, but I think I’ve found my feet now and I’m looking forward to the new year.

The other unexpected change was getting back into writing for computer games. I helped the Mandate kickstart itself to more than $700,000, and got to write scripts for David Bradley.

Warpcon’s coming up on the radar. I realised that at Warpcon 2017, it’ll be the twenty year anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu scenario for the con – I’ve written a Cthulhu game for the con every year since 1997 (and thinking about, that means that next year is the 20th anniversary of my first Call of Cthulhu game. Whoa.)

So, as I look towards 2014, I see

  • lots of work that I’m enthused about
  • a healthier financial situation
  • (leading to the possibility of carving out time for my own stuff in the summer without worrying about bills)
  • Living Dungeons, Vampires, more vampires, and Tsarist space adventures
  • a triumphant return to GenCon

and

  • two happy boys growing up in a secure and loving home

2013 –  when you’re not sleeping, one year can contain an awful lot of changes.

 

The Twin Dilemma & Other Stories

The lack of updates over the last few months can largely be attributed to the birth and subsequent all-consuming tyranny of T & E (born Feb. 7th, and as I type, they’re having angry conversations with a toy dragon and lurid green toy dog, respectively). Their existence hasn’t overly impacted on my freelance writing, although life has been stripped down to the bone and all extra commitments – like blogging, or sleep – have been pared away.

So, highlights of the last few months:

  • For Cubicle 7, I’m editing, developing and wrangling the Doctor sourcebooks for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. The First and Second Doctors are done, the Third’s waiting for approval from the BBC, and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth are in various stages of production.
  • DWAITAS got nominated for a bunch of Ennie awards, mostly for the Time Traveller’s Companion.
  • For The Laundry, GOD GAME BLACK came out at the start of the year, and I’m jugging bits of another three supplements. The Mythos Dossiers got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • Over in Middle-Earth, The Heart of the Wild is out to moderately great acclaim, and The Darkening of Mirkwood will follow soon.
  • The Primeval rpg also got nominated for an Origins Award.
  • I wrote a chunk of the recently-released World War Cthulhu, and have a pitch in for an interesting take on the Cold War.
  • Over at Pelgrane Press, The Zalozhniy Quartet is also up for an Ennie, and I wrote small parts of Hillfolk: Blood on the Snow, Double Tap: The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book and  (through Stoneskin Press) stories in The Lion and the Aardvark and Schemers.
  • I’m also working on three other Pelgrane projects, one of which (The Dracula Dossier) has been announced.
  • Through Mongoose Publishing, the ongoing free epic The Pirates of Drinax continues to trickle out.
  • Development work on Rakehell continues, along with with on a cyberpunk game entitled Drone.
  • I think that’s everything.
  • No, wait. I was a stretch goal on James’ Alas Vegas, and wrote Yet Already, a game of warring timelines, for that. That all happened in the crazy twilight of March, so no wonder it slipped my mind.
  • Actually, that’s quite a lot.
  • Not quite half a Forbeck, but close.

2012 Review of the Year

M’colleague Jon did a review of the year over at his blog, so I thought I’d follow suit.

That was a busy year. A very, very, busy year.

At Cubicle 7, I added line management of The One Ring to my portfolio. Releases in that line were lighter than we hoped, but we got Tales from Wilderland and the Laketown Screen out the door, and I wrote the double-headed epic of Heart of the Wild/Darkening of Mirkwood which will be out early next year, all going well. Two Doctor Who supplements came out in 2012, and I’ve another half-dozen in the pipeline. The Primeval rulebook came out, and has a devoted if modest fanbase. And the Laundry continued to hum along; the Mythos Dossiers supplement is one I’m particularly proud of.

For Pelgrane, I worked on the Zalozhniy Quartet, and Cthulhu Apocalypse – Slaves of the Mother. The reader may judge how effectively I channeled Ken or Graham. Over at Mongoose, three of the ten segments of the Pirates of Drinax campaign came out in PDF, I worked on a few minor bits and pieces for Paizo… oh, that little bit of SLA Industries freelancing I did also came out. Overall, though, staying on top of the four lines at Cubicle 7 is close to a full-time job.

May brought the Week of Gigs Unlooked-For, where three brand-new clients contacted me out of the blue (along with an email from Pelgrane). One of them has yet to pan out, but I took the other three. One of them was Cthulhu Apocalypse, one of them was a (now regrettably late) Bulldogs! campaign, and the third was some website content writing for Riverkey Creative. I can, it seems, still work in the real world when I have to, and the pay is good, but you can’t talk about Cthulhu when writing medical advice for a dental practise website.

Last year, my first novel Reality Optional was published by Ultraviolet Books. I wrote more short fiction this year – a Cthulhu story for a charity anthology, a short piece for The Lion and the Aardvark from Stoneskin Press, and a longer horror story for the Dark Harvest setting. My guide to Tolkien for kids also came out from Carlton Books; it’s a mass-market release, and I’ve found copies in book stores. That was a fantastic thrill.

I made to GenCon for the first time as a professional.

I helped run Dragonmeet.

I got nominated for a few awards, mostly for adventure design, and won an Ennie for best rules (for Lorefinder).

Woot on all counts.

Oh, and raised four puppies.

There were mistakes to learn from, too. Rakehell remains unfinished – and if I had pushed harder on that, I could possibly have grabbed some of the wave of enthusiasm for FATE. One Laundry book still languishes in limbo because of a poor outline on my part. Dragon Warriors needs more time too, although there was some progress on that front. My communication took a hit too – apologises if you’re waiting on a email from me!

The teams at C7 & Pelgrane have been wonderful to work with – thanks especially to CEODMT, Jon, Paul, Stuart, Walt, Andy, otherGareth, Simon, Beth, Graham, and the increasingly ampersanded Kenandrobin. Here at Milkyfish, though, my chief collaborator remain my beloved deli. Preparations for our planned release dominated a large chunk of this year, but we made it this far and the finish line/starting point/life-shattering twingeddon is in sight.

But hey – if I can get all that done in 2012, how hard can twins be?

Don’t answer that. I cherish my illusions.

Happy Christmas, good gaming and here’s to next year.