Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

Take 'em, or leave 'em.

  1. Materially different media make different emotional, psychological and semiotic effects possible.

  2. It is possible to simulate the effects of one medium in another, e.g. to create a “cinematic” effect in a novel or tabletop game.

  3. But the effects that have the greatest impact will tend to be those most characteristic of the media in which a given work was produced.

  4. The modern conception of heroic action has been so thoroughly shaped by movies and novels that we tend to imagine heroism in the idioms of those media.

  5. The conventions most characteristic of any game media will be those constructed around play.

  6. Thus, when designing games, err on the side of features that emphasize play, over those that simulate cinematic or literary effects.

#design #theory #cinema #literature

A few things have changed since my previous post. The most obvious is likely the domain change. Session Zero now resides at blog.symbolic.city. The RSS feed is here, and the site federates to @symboliccity@blog.symbolic.city.

The reason for the change is that I've recently started producing RPG materials, and wanted an imprint under which to gather those projects. For various reasons — not least of all, that I already owned the domain — I settled on Symbolic City. It's not much to look at yet, but the top-level domain will function as the central hub for everything I do in the TTRPG space.

Over the last several weeks, I've participated in several jams. You can see the results on my itch page, and follow me there. I have a project in the works for at least one other jam, and a handful of independent projects in mind for the future.

Finally, I've set up a few accounts for discussing RPGs on social media. You can find me on Twitter @symboliccity, and on Discord under the name Symbolic City#5590.

For all the novelty of its elaborate setting, maybe the aspect of Ultraviolet Grasslands that has done the most to keep our interest are its skills — particularly those that seem more tongue in cheek than practical.

For example: In our most recent session, our caravan returned to a storehouse where they had previously discovered some contraband, only to find some strangers rooting around in the goods. To size up their rivals, one of the players attempted to sneak within eavesdropping range. To hedge his bet, he applied his Contortionist skill, which allowed him to weave deftly through the shadows. Or would have, anyway, had he not failed his dice roll. Instead, he knocked over a large ewer outside the door. Out rushed the strangers, weapons drawn, demanding to know who was skulking about.

Here, quite obviously, was an opportunity for combat. Yet combat was probably the least interesting possibility. Besides, the odds were a bit uncertain: While three party-members could still strike from hiding, the other was essentially cornered, and their enemies were comparatively high level. So instead of rushing out, guns blazing, the players hatched another plan: Step 1: Lead the polybodies on a wild goose chase. Step 2: Pack up the contraband in their absence. Step 3: Disappear into the night.

To pull this off, they again relied on their least adventurous skills. In addition to Contortionist, the trapped player had chosen Comedy as a skill, and he used that now to defuse the situation. I could see how that might backfire, so we put it to a roll: Success! We decided that his prior attempt at acrobatic stealth had ended in a headstand, and that he was still holding that position when he answered his interrogators: “Just looking for my dog!” At first, their laughter was sardonic, but it quickly turned into genuine astonishment when another player character quietly nudged their steppe puppy out into the alleyway. The puppy scampered away, the PC and his challengers chased after, and the rest of the party went to work loading the contraband into their wagon.

This was all unscripted, so it could have ended there, but I decided there was still some risk that the polybodies might return before they finished. There was probably a more exciting way to play out that possibility, but I was thinking on my feet, so I put it to another roll. To consolidate the action, I had the players designate one character as foreman while the other concentrated on brute labor. They'd roll against strength to get the contraband loaded up before the polybodies returned, but the foreman had a relevant skill that could help tilt the balance: Packing! (Even so, he rolled one measly point short of the target number. That could have been disastrous were it not for UVG's “heroic dice” mechanic, which let him roll a spare d6, nudging the total up to a save.)

Most role-playing games are built around exploration and combat — solid adventure tropes. The skills prescribed by their rules reflect that focus. By contrast, contortionism, comedy and packing are unusual skills, and UVG offers them up without much in the way of explanation or justification. It's left up to the players and GM to make them useful. From a design perspective, the point here is just that, if a game provides options like these, astute players will look for ways to use them. That requires creativity, and flexing creative muscle is half the fun

#uvg #design

I've been reading through Blades in the Dark with the idea of making that my group's next big campaign. Unsurprisingly, given its reputation, I'm dazzled by the mix of ideas that have gone into its design. The setting and scenario are distinct — “daring scoundrels in a haunted industrial-fantasy city” is the table pitch author John Harper provides — a definite plus in my book, as I've mentioned before. But what really stands out is the way in which the game orders play.

The basic routine is uncommonly tight. Campaign play centers on the construction of a criminal empire. To get there, the players must pull off a long, uncharted series of criminal scores. The narrative beats that make up these scores are divided into distinct phases defined by what the players can and (depending on the circumstances) should do in each. And at the level of moment-to-moment play, those phases are fleshed out with procedures that, whenever possible, cut to the action.

Take, for example, flashbacks, which let the table skip the potentially endless deliberation over what ought to be done in preparation for a heist. They do so by letting players prepare for a challenge after they've encountered it. At the players' request, the GM simply pauses the current dilemma, lets the group narrative how they might have already prepared for the obstacle they now face, and any difficulties that might entail are sorted out using the usual procedures, typically an action roll. That post hoc maneuver sorted, play returns to the more current problem, and the party deals with it accordingly — or fails to, as the case may be. Blades' use of flashbacks is only meant to simplify play. It's meant to make complex scenarios manageable, not easy.

Procedures like flashback and progress clocks serve as levers and dials for dynamically adjusting the tension level of play. Draw a circle, divide it into slices, and scribble in each wedge as an ongoing circumstance unfolds, until you've filled in the whole clock. That's a progress clock. When matters get out of hand, a flashback lets players pause the action and root around in the recent past for potential solutions. By attaching a progress clock to a given consequence, the GM can ratchet the tension in the opposite direction, making a threat steadily more immanent.

Progress clocks also help maintain a balance between the freedom and grounding afforded to play. The rules place very few restrictions on the sort of actions players can claim for their characters. By assigning a progress clock to an action, a GM can give it narrative heft, without cramping the player's creativity. The clearest examples involve the long-term projects characters can work on during the downtime phase of play. Thus, if a player wants to fabricate a hyper-specific super weapon, the GM can allow it — on the condition that the character makes building it into a long term project, divided into specified phases, each measured by a progress clock. Breaking the action down into parts gives the player something to do in order to pull of their plan, and the progress clocks freight those steps with a sense of effort expended.

Engagement rolls and flashbacks keep play from bogging down in endless haggling over the details of plans. The engagement roll sidesteps the tendency toward over-caution that comes of throwing players into a situation that is still pretty abstract for everyone involved. It assumes that the characters are competent criminals who've already assessed the best possible approach to their goal, then resolves the uncertainty of that approach with a Luck roll. That jump starts the action and prompts the players to adjust to an immanent threat, rather than a undefined range of merely possible threats.

All of which promises to cut down on long spans of unfruitful narrative uncertainty, which can be especially frustrating when you're already struggling to carve out a few hours of session time per week. The question is whether the tightness those procedures afford comes at the expense of flexibility.

#BladesInTheDark

Another week, another canceled session. No one's fault, really. We've each been the missing player at least once. We all have other things going on: work, family, travel, social lives, other hobbies. I'm not going to bore you with the details to a story you already know.

So when this week's session fell apart, I made a suggestion. Next time, instead of cancelling when one player can't make it, maybe we play pick-up. We could just pause our ongoing campaign, and whoever is available can play something fast, lightweight and self-contained for that week's session. Throwaway characters. Procedural scenarios. The indie scene suffers no lack of games geared for quick-and-dirty, single-session play.

Not a new idea, I'm sure. Pick-up-and-play is a popular conceit in the indie scene. The trick to playing pick-up is having everything arranged so that making the transition at a moment's notice is easy. A go-bag for one-shots.

So now I'm sorting out what I'll need. First of all, some games. This seems like a perfect opportunity to introduce DURF into the rotation. Possibly Cairn, too — though… do we need two medieval fantasy options? Maybe for switching tones, one breezy, the other grim. Yokai Hunters Society is a strong candidate. FIST for something modern? Sci-fi? Something with cowboys? I'm sure I'll find more.

What else? Watabou's One Page Dungeon Generator simplifies things immensely, so let's keep a folder of those on hand. There are literally hundreds of tables for rolling up enemies and loot — though, I'll probably cobble together my own, for aesthetic reasons. Yokai.com is an essential resource for quickly spinning up a YHS scenario. I can keep a notebook of prompts, toss-off characters and random details that occur to me, or that I find floating about in the culture. The aim is to have a liberal mix of ready-made elements that I can draw from the moment they're needed.

At some point, I'll have my players make up some back-pocket characters — just a bundle of stats and character traits that they can whip out any time there's a pick-up game. Moorcockian Eternal Champion types that (with a little conversion) recur throughout the settings of our little pick-up game multiverse. No point in burdening them with the demands of a character arc. They're out for adventure, or blood, or treasure. That's good enough; now cut to the chase.

Most of all, we've got to keep the stakes low. Nothing carries over into the following session. Sure, the heroes can die, but go ahead, revive them the next time we play. A little plot can be fun — but only a little. And coherence? That's for long campaigns. The epic saga will still be there, ready to pick back up when everyone's at the table. Maybe next week.

#DURF #Cairn #YokaiHuntersSociety #pickupgame

Having finished up an initial reading of ARC, I'm faced with a question: What is its setting?

In many ways, it's a cipher. The game has no geography, no economic system, no lore. It is built around a framework for facing down a particular kind of threat, but the examples it provides merely gesture at the sorts of world they might threaten. A few particulars may be gleaned from the procedures. Magic of a particular kind is a feature of the world, which puts us in the realm of fantasy. But what shade of fantasy? High, low, dark, weird, urban, medieval? The appendix on non-player creatures includes fairies and knights, but also automatons and a smattering of Philippine and Indonesian folk legends. (Designer and illustrator momatoes is a prominant figure in Southeast Asia's thriving indie RPG scene.) Couple all of that with the book's vibrant, evocative art, and the sense I get is that a syncretic setting works best — something like the varicolored mélange of early Final Fantasy games, compressing a range of cultural reference points into some beautiful and volatile compound.

Volatile because this is, after all, a game about apocalypse. That conceit may be key to understanding the function of so much ambiguity. Spelling out a setting would give the world (and its status quo) a solidity that it is the impulse of the game to destroy. And having destroyed it, what then? Do the players start over, playing subsequent adventures as though nothing had been irrevocably altered? That would sap all gravity out of the notion of doom. Or do they start building their own world out of the wreckage? But if that's the natural next step, then why not just start there? For wreckage, you can draw on the tropes of every fantasy story you've ever known.

What's going on here, I suspect, is that the game is prompting us to explore a fantasy by imagining it in the act of tearing itself apart. Maybe the most definite thing you can say about the world of ARC is that we come to it in the midst of two simultaneous processes. At the same time that it is being destroyed, it is also being created. Saying more about it in advance would only serve to dissipate that fundamental tension.

#ARC #worldbuilding

I'm always on the lookout for interesting complications around how a game implements magic use. My POV is that if you don't distinguish magic from other ways of playing the game, then what's the point? Take a bog-standard example, familiar from nigh unto every high fantasy role-playing game ever made: magic missile. If casting the spell is just a matter of rolling a skill and marking off a use, and the effect of the spell boils down to damage done at a distance, then what distinguishes the spellcaster from an archer? You can gussy it up with some descriptive narration, but unless you're being very creative with the results of the move, that's strictly cosmetic. What I look for are ways in which the procedures of the game distinguish magic use, while at the same time distinguishing the world of the game from mundane reality. Two solid ways to achieve those goals are to attach risks to spell-casting, and to encourage players to make their magic-using characters into weirdos.

ARC, which recently arrived in the mail, uses a pair of interrelated rules to make magic risky. The first concerns initiative, sorting the moves you might make in conflict into five categories and ordering the action accordingly. Spells and special techniques come fourth in the line-up, which means any character attacking will do so before the spellcaster can follow through on their spell. As with all other risky moves, spellcasters must roll under a Threshold Number (TN) if their spell is to succeed, but a second rule turns the screw: each attack on the spellcaster lowers the TN for successfully casting a spell. The lower the TN, the lower the odds of rolling a success. Effectively, what's simulated here is the difficulty of concentrating on the work of magic as the conflict escalates. This gives substance to the conceit that focus is required to work magic, while also loading the decision to cast a spell with a degree of tension.

That distinguishes ARC from other games on the tactical level. In terms of role-play, ARC encourages weird characters by making ritual behavior a condition of recharging spells after use. The prescribed rituals are usually analogically related to the spells they restore. So, for example, to replenish the Windstep spell, your character would jump over a newborn. Like a weirdo. (I use “weirdo” here not only affectionately, but also diagnostically; initially meaning “fate” or “destiny,” weird is the word Middle English speakers used to describe the control of destiny. The “uncanny” connotation is reportedly Shakespeare's influence, and the pejorative sense is a result of the puritanism and disenchantment of the modern era.)

Those ritual prescriptions not only force players to approach magic-use more deliberately; they also push them to shape their characters' behavior around a strong underlying conception of how magic relates to the world. To be successful as a magic-user, you must play ARC as the sort of character who would jump over a baby, or cover yourself in ash, or spend most of the day skulking in shadows. I'm a little skeptical of the spells that require ritual behavior of the player, as opposed to their character, but the rules mark those as negotiable. And for gaming groups who balk at the prospect of jumping through those hoops, there's an option to play with rest as the sole requirement for replenishing spells. I'm sure that's more convenient, especially for the GM who has to narratively conjure up a newborn every time a player wants to prep Windstep, but it also undercuts what makes ARC's magic, well, magical.

#ARC #magic

Three sessions of Ultraviolet Grasslands, and things are settling into a much happier groove. After a fight with some vomes west of the Last Serai, one of our characters has developed an addiction to hop fizz; another tricked a Porcelain Patrol with a severed head; our quarterling has developed mutations that make him resemble a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz; and the group has taken time off from their trade mission to start smuggling contraband bodies. Technically, some of these are negative turns of event, but the group responded positively. There's a narrative quality to the turns. They have throughline. They develop the characters. The clear, mercantile goal they started with no longer seems like the obvious end of their trajectory. Events are beginning to shape them in ways that surprise us. This is The Good Stuff.™

Some of this emerged from playing the system, which as you may recall, was the source of my frustration last time around. The quarterling's mutations arose as the result of a routine Misfortune roll. That put the party in a sandstorm. Three of them rolled high enough to weather it without trouble. The quarterling's player rolled a failing number and had to roll for consequences. I think. I'm not totally sure I handled that one strictly according to the book, but the player was actually pleased with his character's mutations, so who's to gainsay my method?

Other turns were the result of prep. Once the characters decided to start smuggling bodies, an inspection by the Porcelain Patrol was too good a narrative opportunity to pass up. The random procedures could have led to the same scene, but the odds were against it. And my meddling paid off. The resulting scene was tense, threatening to break out in combat at any moment, with the odds very much against my players' low-level caravan. As often happens in the groove, table banter gave rise to a plan so absurd that it had to be tried. Its success is already one of the highlights of the campaign.

I'm having to reconcile myself to the fact that this is what works. It feels like a weak spot in my skill set. I've seen GMs write that they've run the game straight from the book, and that it just “works.” Which is appealing, but not my experience.

Could that be the issue? Experience? UVG is an opinionated system. Opinions inform all game design, of course, and those opinions are functional to the extent that they translate into procedures for play, but they're not really meaningful to the player who has no basis for comparison. “I like rolling d20s,” Rejec writes. That's why the game relies so heavily on the outcome of d20 rolls. Well… okay. Not having played other tabletop RPGs — even, you know, that one — my opinions on the pros and cons of the d20 were as yet unformed. Much of the book felt (and still feels) organized for someone who's run enough games to have their own opinions and procedures for making a game work. That's not to single out UVG. The more OSR games I read, the more the whole scene feels that way.

Adventure supplements are sometimes labeled, e.g., “for level 0-3 characters.” Maybe systems should have similar guidelines — “for level 2-5 referees.”

#OSR #UVG

My group's UVG campaign is ongoing, and I've been reading through another system in anticipation of what we'll try next (more on that later), but I had an out-of-town weekend lined up, so I decided to take a break from both of those and bring along a much smaller-scale game for a quick read-over: Emiel Boven's DURF.

What initially drew me in was Boven's tone and art, particularly on “Lair of the Gobbler,” an introductory “dungeon module” released alongside ver. 2.0 of the core game. Having now read through both, I'm toying with the idea of running DURF between long campaigns of other games. There's a breeziness to the style that makes it appealing as a palate cleanser, and the rules lend themselves to running fast-paced, single-session adventures. The core rules provide virtually no procedures for play outside of dungeon-crawling, and at 12 A5-sized pages, even the dungeon-crawling is comparatively bare bones.

Hit Dice may be the most interesting detail of the system. (D&D also has a Hit Dice procedure, used mostly for character creation and downtime activity. This is different.) Rather than track diminishing HP until it reaches zero, characters add up their wounds and attempt to roll over that number with their HD. Given that a failing throw results in death, you could understand Hit Dice as simulating the odds that any given wound will be fatal — minimum 1:6 for a newly created character. Boven lists “risky combat” as one of the elements he designed around, but if a random chance of dying on the first hit seems like a touch too risky, there are caveats. Characters take no damage until they've exhausted any Armor points their equipment grants. Characters can add Buffs to their rolls at the cost of Stress. And GMs can give the option of rolling a saving throw.

Hit Dice also stand in for the traditional character levels: Accumulate 1,000 times as much XP as your current HD and you add another die to your character's pool, up to 12, progressively lowering the odds that any given wound will prove fatal. Advancement also allows characters to increment their attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower) or learn a news spell, but that's about as far as character-building goes. The emphasis stays narrowly focused on the action.

In fact, the core DURF book spells out practically nothing of a world beyond some weapons and spells, mostly in the conventional mold of medieval fantasy. “Lair of the Gobbler” expands the setting a bit, but the module is so self-contained that you likely won't catch tell of borgles and rootkin without it, and may not ever encounter them again. There are a few references to the setting beyond the dungeon where the action takes place — just enough to frame that action, really — and virtually no explicit opportunities to play them anyway. The writing and illustrations evoke the broader genre with a cartoonishness that's more playful than smirking. As a result, the humor avoids self-deprecation. This, is seems to say, is all in the service of fun.

That I find all of this appealing might seem a little odd, given the frustrations I've expressed about Dungeon World. It's easy to make too much of the similarities between the two games. Both are presented as high fantasy dungeon-crawls. But DW is over-designed for the sort of quick-and-dirty adventuring DURF affords. Its more extensive rule set and DM guidance is geared toward supporting collaborative world-building and elaborating characters with complex narrative relationships. I'm willing to stick with DW because the promise of that sort of play exerts a strong appeal. My frustrations with it stem from how little the setting helps distinguish it from a narrative space that feels somewhat gerrymandered.

DURF, by contrast, charts a very streamlined trajectory toward swords-and-sorcery, one not characterized by all of that scaffolding for holding up emergent narrative. It invites players to play fast and loose within the tropes of high fantasy goofiness, and is very direct in how it goes about fostering that.

#DURF #DungeonWorld

Back in May of last year, when I convinced some friends to try role-playing over Slack, the game we started with was Luka Rejec's Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City. I ran our first campaign like a loosely-plotted story, prepping characters and potential plot-twists ahead of each session, tacking toward new possibilities with each curve ball thrown by my players. It worked reasonably well. We had a few sessions bog down for lack of clear direction, and there were times when I only just kept a few over-ambitious set-pieces from derailing the whole thing. It ran overlong, which is, perhaps, a habitual flaw in my approach to GMing. On the whole, though, we were happy with the results.

My sole, lingering regret, perhaps, was that I hadn't given the game freer reign. UVG is an exceptionally distinct setting — a surreal sci-fi, psych-metal Oregon Trail that melds a panoply of influences into a bizarre and diverse world. When my group decided to circle back to it, I decided to take a less active roll in prep and lean more heavily on the book's procedures for throwing weirdness at the players.

Easier said than done. UVG is, by Rejec's own admission, as much an art book as it is a game system. Most (but not all) of the procedures for play are concentrated in the back third. The setting is presented primarily as a kind of guide book covering thirty-two locations, ranging from the Violet City in the west to the Black City on the eastern edge of the world. The descriptions tend to be terse and suggestive, the better to elaborate your own interpretation of the world. Some questions are answered not directly, but with tables of rumors that make your players' perception of the world subject to the roll of a die. What solid information there is in the game is often spread across multiple sections, with no clear references to connect them. The book offers a glossary and an index, but neither is exhaustive.

Take lings, by way of illustration. To help character creation along, I showed each of my players a copy of the “Factions” section so they'd have a sense of the deviations from standard human that were available to them. One player took the bait and cast his character as a quarter-ling. Okay, so what's a quarter-ling? They're descendants of lings, who were, according to the glossary, a “mysterious, missing sentient sub-type” from the long span of fictional history before the players' time. Maybe. Or maybe some quarter-lings only prefer to believe in that lineage. Okay, but what are they if that's not the case? To complicate matters even more, three sessions into the campaign, I've run across a section on quarter-lings under the chapter for a locale we haven't visited and likely won't reach this time around.

So I may have been mistaken in supposing that the book offers a system, a la Perilous Wilds, for generating adventures. That would require a more systematic exposition of the rules, the major elements of the setting, and their interrelation. The travelogue is full of surprises and uncertainty, and the exposition is so dense and noncommittal that it's practically impossible to absorb it all and deploy it at need. Best to treat it, maybe, as an especially fecund set of prompts for elaborating your own scenarios and narrative stems. Which means I'm back to prepping a few ideas and potential narrative directions for our next session.

#UVG