Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

Back in October, I suggested to my table that we put our UVG campaign on hiatus for a week to throw in a special horror-themed one-shot for Halloween. I had a specific one-shot in mind, and it wasn't until after excitement began to build around the idea that I decided there were too many ways for that one to go wrong.

The replacement I landed on was Liminal Horror, a modern-day urban/cosmic horror game in the Cairn lineage. Which is to say: a streamlined NSR game with a stress mechanic for simulating the psychological effects of supernatural horror.

How simple? Most moves are resolved via discussion. Rolls come into play only when there's some specific and immanent risk, and even then only in the form of saves. Roll under one of three ability scores in order to avoid some specific consequence. Damage is automatic, factoring in the character's Hit Protection, and subtracted from either Strength or Control. Damage to Control eventually causes Fallout, resulting in weird side effects from the characters' encounters with the supernatural.

Comparatively simple, but sometimes simplicity creates more opportunities for things to go wrong. My big concern, going in, was that the modern-day setting made movement less structured than you might find in a medieval fantasy or sci-fi game. Those tend to have a well-defined division between wilderness and settlement, and a built-in excuse for dropping players into closed labyrinths. The urban milieu, by contrast, threatened to be messier, more abstract, less compartmentalized.

No doubt, some of the locales we ended up playing did feel flimsy. Solid prep feels more essential to Liminal Horror than in some of the other games I dealt with recently, but it's difficult to anticipate where players will want to take their characters when your milieu is a modern city. Nevertheless, we wound up having effective scenes against a variety of backdrops: conversations in diners, some low-speed vehicular cat-and-mouse, a tense rescue on a fire-escape, a heart-to-heart in a skate park, a nearly disastrous stake-out in a morgue.

Also surprising, given our constraints, was how much the players managed to flesh out their characters. In the interest of expediency, we used Liminal Horror's quick character creation method, and I warned everyone that the game was structured to play rough with their characters. If anyone died, we'd roll a new character for the bereaved player and leave the body where it lay. Yet, almost immediately, backstories began to percolate around each character.

In part, that was simply a side effect of thinking aloud about how the characters might respond to each obstacle. How often implies why. Why sent them brainstorming for biographical details. One character, they decided, was a single father, worried that his teenage daughter had fallen in with a cult. Another was the social worker he called in for help. Together, they enlisted the third, an archivist, who we positioned as a researcher specializing in cults. Almost out of nowhere, the party had a raison d'être — an uncommonly solid one in a hobby that often contents itself with treasure hunters and murder hobos.

The daughter complicated things, though. My prep did, in fact, contain a secret society you could reasonably call a cult, but she didn't really fit the profile I had worked out for recruitment. As long as she was pure background, that hardly mattered. When the heroes went back and check in on her, though, I had to make a choice. Changing the profile was one option, and in all honestly, I'd likely have been the only one to notice the change. Instead, I declared that she had fallen in with the school misfits, one of whom had recently dropped out of the secret society. Normally, I hold with the idea that you should be willing to part with your prep the moment player interest points down a different path, but in this case, trying to salvage the prep paid off. The daughter's friend quickly turned into a compelling character in his own right. The party took under their wing, which allowed for a narrative turn my players likely would not have accepted had it occurred to the daughter they had created.

Steadily, things fell together. I fumbled a bit on one of the combat rules, but everyone rolled with the correction, and anyway, they seemed intent on avoiding combat right up until the crisis point. The scenario ran longer than I had intended, but wound up describing a complete narrative arc. Its conclusion managed to both maintain thematic consistency as well as afford the characters agency. The results seemed to satisfy everyone at the table, even as it sealed their doom.

#LiminalHorror #Cairn

Several times now, I've come across GM advice on the importance of leading questions. The problem such questions aren't meant to address is that we sometimes want players to contribute to the fiction, and they’re not always sure how to do that. The solution some GMs have struck upon is to ask questions that guide their players toward a playable response. So instead of asking a player how the NPC bartender feels about their character, the GM asks something more pointed: “What happened in your past to make the bartender hate your guts.”

“Leading question,” in that sense, has become a veritable term of art in GMing, but what we’re looking for generally aren’t leading questions in the popular sense. Leading questions are what lawyers ask witnesses when they already know the answer and want it entered into the record. Sometimes, they're used to surreptitiously suggest what the witness ought to say, as opposed to what they would say on their own, much to the judge's ire.

Hopefully, that's not what most GMs are after. We may have an idea of what a player could answer, and their actual answer may even match that expectation. But if the questions we're asking are genuinely leading, then the GM is still dictating the fiction, just behind the guise of involving the players. In such cases, everyone's better off dispensing with the pretense that the broader fiction is, in any meaningful sense, collaborative.

Nevertheless, asking well-calibrated questions can be a good strategy for nudging players to shape the world beyond their characters. Understanding why is essential for figuring out how to.

Why are some players reluctant to contribute ideas about the world of the game? The range of possible reasons is broad, but often it’s simply that they’re not sure about the state of the fiction they’re being asked to shape. The GM is given general charge over worldbuilding, and will typically have a more substantial — and often underplayed — conception of the setting. As a result, players aren’t always sure what additions would makes sense. The question cedes some of the GM's authority to the player, but they don't necessarily feel competent to exercise that authority. What we need, then, is a question that nudges them not toward any particular answer, but into a position where they feel competent to give a good answer.

The NPC bartender for whom they're being asked to improvise a backstory was introduced only moments ago and is still just an abstraction to them. “Why does the bartender hate you?” is a stronger prompt than “Tell me about the bartender” precisely because it adds to their information about the state of the fiction. That, in turn, gives the player a bit more expertise about the world, which is something they can build on. They can build on it not only because it gives them a better command of the state of the fiction, but also because it relates the fiction back to their characters, which is the part of the game over which the rules give them the most authority.

#worldbuilding #GMing

An addendum to my previous post on the ascendancy of system in role-playing games, inspired by Travis Miller's recent explanation of the evolution of the genre:

Miller sees the emergence of the RPG format as the creative addition of open system world building to the closed systems of hobbyist wargaming. Role playing proper appeared when wargamers started using the relatively inflexible rule sets of wargames as the basis for collaboratively imagining adventures in fantasy settings.

I've already seen some pushback to Miller's account, and honestly, I'm not versed enough in the history of the scene to adjudicate, but I find it striking that the theoretical division he presents — open vs. closed — maps pretty well to the way system and setting are discussed in the OSR scene. Miller writes:

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

But we need not think purely in terms of generic systems. Discussion about taking the system from one game and applying it to the setting from another is common. Free Kriegsspiel Revolution goes a step further, demonstrating to what extent the open system component of Miller's equation can be made to stand on its own.

The implication, whether we like it or not, is that the units we think of as role playing games are chimera, patched together from parts which, more often than not, have no integral connection to one another. The phenomenon we called a role playing game may, in fact, be something occurring at the intersection of other games.

Maybe Miller's account is wrong. I've already seen it argued that early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons hewed close to a simulationist model — wargaming with goblins, in effect — and that may be so. At the very least, it's possible to imagine a fantasy dungeon crawl game constrained by a much more tightly closed system than those used in modern OSR/NSR games, and I'm sure some people would both play and enjoy that. But would we call it a role playing game? If not, then we may still have to reckon with the hybrid nature of the beast.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #freekriegspiel #FKR #DND

Bloodheist, recently published by Vaults of Vaarn creator Leo Hunt and illustrated by Lewis Garvey, does that thing I wrote about in my previous post — namely, leverage bespoke rules in the service of building a particular world and type of play. In some ways, it resembles Blades In the Dark: both games deal with fantasy-horror themes in a gothic-industrial setting, revolve around criminal heists, and are structured for episodic play. But where Blades is comparatively maximalist, Bloodheist deploys only a handful of rules and mechanics to foster a more free-wheeling style of play.

The underlying design is clever, though. Risky actions are resolved using a dice pool and a version of the familiar “d6 with complications” model. In part, that pool is assembled by counting character advantages (e.g. skills, the right tool, assistance), but its further expanded by the addition of “doom dice.” Doom dice can contribute to a successful roll, but they also represent the increasingly mortal risk player characters take in pursuit of each heist's prize. Collect enough doom dice, and succeeding on one will eventually kill you.

Doom dice are an elegant illustration of how a rule can hone the theme of the game while staying close to the core of play. As a replacement for hit points, they fold one RPG trope into another. Doing so, they link character death to success in a way that's narratively compensatory. Sure, your character was killed, but they went out in a blaze of glory. Death in Bloodheist ends up being a function not only of risk, but also of success, rather than failure.

Another rule — presented as optional, but why deprive yourself? — encourages tension among protagonists by issuing each player a secret motive. For example, a character may be under strict orders by a shadowy council to ensure that a given NPC, or even another player character, meets an untimely end during the course of the heist. Not every secret is so confrontational, but they're all designed to complicate the collaborate nature of typical role-play by putting the individual at cross purposes with the crew as a whole. That sort of player-vs.-player undercurrent can be risky in a RPG — nerve-wracking, even — but it also makes the theme of treachery more than just an narrative conceit. At the same time, the rule softens the antagonism by portioning out secrets by the draw of a card. Nothing personal, just playing the hand I was dealt.

Lastly, the game is deliberately thin on combat. Weapons have no damage stat, which would avail you little anyway, since characters have no HP — or, for that matter, any other numerical stats beyond a score to determine how many doom dice they roll. Combat is handled, like any other action, by preparing an action roll and narrating consequences based on its result. No initiative, no turns, no enemy skill checks. The result, per one of the design notes threaded throughout, is meant to be quick and decisive. That set up is, in other words, a decision about the sort of action the game affords. Bloodheist doesn't abjure interpersonal violence altogether, but by refusing to simulate it in fine-grained detail, it refuses to privilege it above other types of play.

#Bloodheist #BladesInTheDark

The more time I spend in OSR/NSR conversations on the internet, the more I'm struck by the quietly contested state of system in those communities. On the one hand, there is an absolute welter of rulesets out there, ranging from relatively true-to-model adaptations of various editions of D&D, to radical reinventions of the form. But at the same time, there seems to be a broad consensus that none of these systems are essential to actual play. They're taken more in the spirit of suggestions. At best, each is a tool shed that may be ransacked for parts.

There appears to be a general aversion to playing games “as written.” GMs certainly haven't stopped bringing new games and supplements to the table, but to hear them speak of it, many run those materials using not the printed rules, but rather bespoke systems, hacked together out of elements from here and there. One designer of a well-known horror/sci-fi game is even said to have admitted he doesn't run his own game as written.

This makes conversation tricky. To what extent are we talking about the same activity when we discuss a game we've both modified, each to our own tastes? I'm reminded of the comment sections underneath recipes on food blogs: “Loved this dish, made it with turkey instead of beef, added oregano, and used a different cooking method.” Serve whatever you enjoy at your own table, but those changes complicate how we talk about what the recipe does or does not achieve.

The attitude shapes design as well. New games are routinely presented as hacks, by which I take them to mean a formalization of their own approach to running some other system. Some are written on the assumption that players will pick-and-choose which rules they'll implement. Maybe that's merely realism about the state of the hobby. In some cases, it's almost reads like a moral imperative. For people just cutting their teeth in the hobby, it can pose challenges.

There are, of course, historical reasons for these tensions. GURPS, heartbreakers, the Arneson–Gygax rift, D&D's release of a SRD. Ours is a haunted hobby. Cumulatively, these points along the last half-century of its development have contributed to a conception of system that suggests some underlying game we're all playing, an unattained object toward which this endless proliferation of rules is aimed.

Many paths, one destination. For me, that premise locked into focus a while back when someone on Twitter (I don't recall who) alluded to the “one perfect system” every GM is seeking — a semi-mythical ruleset particular enough to suit your own personal play-style, but flexible enough to accommodate any setting or story you might want to explore.

Deliberately or not, that trope correlates to a certain diminution of the rules. What function does a rule serve if you can change it out for another and ostensibly arrive at the same game? Are they even rules once they've been made interchangeable? At the far end of that trajectory is free kriegspiel, which dispenses with most rules in favor of judgments. All well and good. Your table, your rules. Or no rules, as the case may be. In the middle ground, though? The territory between D&D and FKR? Rules appear to have been replaced by system.

Would it be uncharitable to characterize the OSR as a movement built on devising new systems for playing old games? Perhaps; but it's also true that one standard by which OSR systems are judged is their compatibility with existing modules. That, in itself, exerts a formative pressure on design. It favors rules — or are they methods? — that do what has already been done, or which, at the very least, ensure that past modules, some of them nearly half a century old, don't break at the table.

Which is not to deny that there are innovations in the ever-growing catalog of new games and systems. There are substantive differences between them, even if the changes are sometimes incremental. But the demands of adaptability and modularity ensure that many of them are disposable. New games are made to be functional without any given rule or method because the odds of the system making it to the table intact are low.

I'm painting with a broad brush, but only to highlight a general trend. There are, of course, a great many games that take seriously the constructive power of a clever rule. There are games that daisy-chain a slew of well-crafted rules to foster novel modes of play at the table. There are games with rulesets so carefully calibrated that removing any one rule would undermine how the game as a whole plays. These games sacrifice the ideal of a universal system that can be used to role-play in any world, but in doing so, they make it possible to role-play some worlds and some stories better.

#system #rules #OSR #NSR #GMing

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