Session Zero

Indie TTRPG, GMing, and the philosophy of play.

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

This is a familiar pattern to me: Some community catches my attention because indie creators are bringing in fresh, interesting ideas. Months after I get involved, reactionaries come crawling out of the woodwork because those ideas also challenge the politics implicitly endorsed by the old guard. So I'm not really surprised to see it happening with tabletop RPGs.

I won't link to it (because why send them traffic?), but some self-appointed gatekeeper on one of the popular RPG forums has posted a traffic signal-coded list of RPG publishers, sorted by the “wokeness” of their politics. Publishers who are outspoken in pushing back against chauvinism end up on the red list, meaning: Avoid. And, of course, the red-list includes some publishers putting out the games that drew me back to RPGs in the first place.

In some ways, the revanchists have already lost. The innovations left-leaning indie designers are bringing to the community are compelling enough that the old guard is already incorporating them into their games. They're generally not some ideological Trojan Horse for converting players into leftists, but many of them do encourage inclusion and cooperation as modes of play, which serves to make tabletop role-playing more inviting to a broader range of both persons and politics. The audiences they've brought into the fold are large and vocal enough that they're already tilting the demographic balance of the hobby for the better. The biggest name in the business, Wizards of the Coast, has clearly taken notice, and made it onto the red list as a result. As Cat Elm points out, the very existence of a woke list is likely to make some publishers rethink their prima facie apolitical status.

Games using the Wretched & Alone ruleset typically call for a block tower as a kind of probabilistic counter for determining when play ends. If a block tower is not readily available, or if it's impractical or inconvenient to use one, the following dice rules work as an alternative method. It requires:

  • Two (2) six-sided dice;
  • Some means of tracking points, e.g. pencil and paper, an abacus, etc.

Method

At the beginning of the game, assign a total of 100 points to a countdown tracker. Any time the game directs you to draw a block from the tower, roll two dice.

  • If you roll double threes, combine the results, subtract the total from the countdown tracker, then roll again.
  • If the prompt instructs you to remove the piece from the game, subtract both results from the countdown tracker.
  • If your countdown total is 51 or higher, subtract the lower result from the countdown tracker. (This is rolling with advantage.)
  • If your countdown total is 50 or lower, subtract the higher result from the countdown tracker. (This is rolling with disadvantage.)

Reaching zero is equivalent to knocking over the block tower — typically, the end of the game under Wretched & Alone rules.

Examples

  1. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. You roll a three and a five. Since your countdown is currently at 92, you subtract the lower number (92 – 3) for a new total of 89.
  2. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower and remove it from play. You roll a one and a four, and subtract both results from your current countdown score of 62 for a new total of 57.
  3. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. Your countdown is currently at 75, but you roll double threes. You subtract six from your countdown and roll again. This time, you roll a two and five. Since you're rolling with advantage, you subtract the two from the countdown, bringing your countdown total to 67.
  4. The game instructs you to pull a block from the tower. Your countdown is at 14, which means you roll at disadvantage. You roll double threes, subtract six from your countdown, then roll again. Improbably, your second roll also comes up double threes, too! You subtract another six from your countdown, and roll again. This time, the dice come up one and five, and since you're rolling with disadvantage, you're stuck with the five. Subtracting that from your countdown total brings you to zero, ending the game.

Notes

  • Pencil and paper may the easiest tools for tracking the countdown. One relatively clear approach is to create a sort of analog gauge. Draw off ten rows, label them from 100% to 0% counting down by tens, then mark off the points deducted from the countdown time using tick marks.
  • If you use some sort of counter (e.g. pennies, poker chips, go stones) be sure to begin the game by dividing them into two piles of 50 pieces each. That will make it easier to know when to switch from using the lower result to using the higher result of each roll.
  • Other methods for emulating the tower method were discussed during the Wretched & Alone Jam in 2020.

Explanation

The block tower game is played by means of a physical system progressing toward collapse by degrees that are difficult, if not impossible, to estimate. Pulling and restacking blocks can be understood as a way of increasing the entropy of that system. Games built on the Wretched & Alone ruleset use that erratic progression toward collapse to load an element of unpredictability into their condition for failure. Pulling and stacking blocks nudges the game closer toward catastrophe, but by irregular and unpredictable steps.

The dice tower emulates that function by combining two methods familiar from traditional role-playing games: rolling with dis/advantage and exploding dice. Both are used here to approximate the entropy of a block tower over the course of the game. Rolling the dice works approximates something like the normal scale of difficulties involved in choosing and pulling a block where different pressures impact how snug each fits into the stack. A strategic player will always look for blocks that fit relatively loosely in the stack, since those are the easiest to pull without increasing the tower's overall entropy. That's comparatively easy early on, but grows more difficult as the weight of the tower shifts. We simulate that strategy here using advantage, tossing out the higher scores at first, then shifting from advantage to disadvantage midway through the countdown to emulate that increase of difficulty. Subtracting both results reflects the curtailment of a later opportunity to pull a block. Exploding the dice on double threes simulates the occasional outlier move that increases the total entropy of the system by a disastrous or nearly disastrous amount.

One-hundred is a nice, round number, and convenient for presenting the countdown tracker as a percentage, but that's not why it was chosen. It was deduced, rather, by calculating the maximum number of moves possible in a standard block tower game consisting of 54 pieces. By concentrating exclusively on the corner blocks it's possible to pull a maximum of 36 blocks (in 36 turns) from the initial pool of 18 levels. Stacked atop the 18th, those 36 blocks furnish twelve new levels to draw from, for a maximum of 24 additional pulls (bringing the total number of turns to 60), which can, in turn, be stacked into eight new levels. The process can be repeated until the 99th pull, resulting in a stack 54 levels high, each constructed of a single block, at which point it becomes physically impossible to pull from a lower level without toppling everything above it. The 100th move, then, is the point at which the stability of the system necessarily reaches zero.

Levels Pullable bricks New levels Pulls
18 36 12 36
30 24 8 60
38 16 5+1 76
43.3 10 3+2 86
46.6 6 2+2 92
48.6 4 2 96
50 2 +2 98

In simulations of the method, the average number of pulls per game was approximately thirty. Generally speaking, you can expect a lower bound of about 18 pulls and an upper bound of around 42. I haven't been able to find confirmation of Chris Bisette's claim that there are 30 pulls in an average game of Jenga, but the accord between those numbers shows that the dice tower method will generally adhere to typical game length envisioned by the ruleset's creator.

Theoretically, exploding dice make is possible to roll a 100 on a single turn — even your first turn. That makes sense from a simulationist point of view — it is possible to flub your first pull from a block tower so badly that the whole tower collapses right away. If that's less satisfying from the perspective of someone using the dice tower to play a journaling game, the odds against it are so astronomical that you really shouldn't feel cheated if it ever happens to you. After all, what you're witnessing is much, much rarer than a successful game.

#TheWretched #WretchedandAlone #gamemechanics

Reading through Perilous Wilds and Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I've started to form some ideas for how to address my frustrations with Dungeon World. One way role-playing games express the character of their respective worlds is through encounters. The party is given an opportunity to engage with some other person or creature. Sometimes, the subject of the encounter is a proper noun, like the principle antagonist of a written adventure. Others times, we're dealing with common nouns, the conventional fodder of the setting or scenario, usually summoned up by rolling a die and consulting a table.

It's the potential of those tables that I find interesting. As noted previously, my goal is to inject more specificity into the game world. The proper nouns might seems like the most obvious vehicle for that. They talk. They recur. They follow their own agendas and have names that conjure fictitious languages. They're better developed qua character — or, at least, they should be. But it occurs to me that you can do just as much worldbuilding by designing thoughtful tables for random encounters. Indeed, table design may even be better for worldbuilding.

For my purposes, what's left off is almost as important as what's included. The DW rulebook includes a catalog of monsters. A GM could very easily number the entries and use the section as a table for rolling random encounters. It's even sorted by environment. But the list is a hodgepodge of elements, compiled mostly from the greatest hits of other RPG settings. Each on its own may deliver that small jolt of enthusiasm we demand from genre adventures, but all thrown together they're a hodgepodge. Rather than a thematically cohesive world, what they suggest is, well, Dungeons & Dragons, and since this is not D&D, it often feels generic. Throwing in bespoke creatures is one way to assert an identity, but unless it's accompanied by a process of winnowing away the vestiges of other games, that identity is apt to get lost.

Just as importantly, building the world this way goes a long way toward preserving the flexibility of a game like DW. Yes, I'm talking about prepping stock creatures for encounters, but because they're the common nouns of the game world, they can be deployed randomly, as part of the process where you “play to find out what happens.”

#DungeonWorld #worldbuilding

My group has recently wrapped up a high fantasy campaign, our first time using Dungeon World. It was rocky in most of the ways that the first time using an unfamiliar system will tend to be rocky. Those hitches get ironed out with practice. But there were also dissatisfactions that have more to do, I reckon, with Dungeon World itself. Now that we've moved on to a different game for a while, I'm actively looking for ways to address them the next time we circle back to DW.

The tricky part, I realize, is that I want two things that, though not quite diametrically opposed, tend to pull in different directions. One is flexibility. The other is specificity.

A major strength of DW is the way it fosters improvisation. A GM is free, of course, to prep as much material as they'd like ahead of time, and in our initial campaign I spent an appreciable amount of time each week doing just that. But the core rules are distinctly tooled for building out a world through play. Why would I eschew that? High fantasy games are numerous enough that there's little point in sticking to one if you're not going to lean into the features that distinguish it. So choosing a different game the next time we want to play high fantasy is an option, but I enjoy the way DW plays. Part of that is its flexibility, and I want to preserve that quality.

The specificity I want has to do with setting. As I understand it, DW was designed to make the conventions of old-school high fantasy games playable in the newer style ushered in by Apocalypse World. The game's setting is generic out of fidelity to those conventions. It defines some character classes and includes a bestiary, but to the degree that DW presents a broader world, it does so mostly by gesturing toward the familiar. All of which is fine, but lends itself very easily to a generality that, by tasting a bit like everything, ends up having no distinct flavor of which to speak. Maybe I've been spoiled by Ultraviolet Grasslands, but what I'd like is for DW to present a world that asserts some identity of its own.

The major options offered by the game for fleshing out its setting are to either “convert” material from other games, or elaborate your own. The first has limited appeal. Converting D&D modules wouldn't really address my complaint, of course. Converting a more idiosyncratic setting might, but at least for comparison's sake, I'd rather run the more specific setting by its own ruleset at least once or twice.

So that leaves devising a completely new setting and gearing it to work with DW. The trick is to get it to do that without undermining the strength of either.

#DungeonWorld

Let's draw another distinction. Rules, let's say, are imperatives. Roll the dice, and abide by the results: that's a rule, one basic to most tabletop role-playing. When they're well-designed, rules give a game the internal coherence that makes it a game.

Not everything you do to make a game work well is necessarily a rule, though. The looser a game is — by which I mean, the less it uses rules to proscribe play — the more inclined we are to lean on methods. By methods, I mean all of those repeatable but optional behaviors that fill the gaps left by the rules. Opting to roll the dice from a cup is a method. So is using a table to generate unplanned elements of the narrative or world.

I'd go so far as to suggest that most of what we find in the guides and rule books are better understood as methods. In practice, role-playing games tend to need fewer hard-and-fast rules than we imagine them having — particularly if we prefer to run our games like a monk. So-called “rules-lite” games demonstrate just how little is truly imperative, but much of what gets carved away the pursuit of lite-ness are the methods that keep play from bogging down in indecision.

Even games that don't present themselves as rules-lite tend to lavish more attention on some methods than others. Most games leave very little to the imagination when it comes to combat. Head into town, though, and it's easy to find yourselves staring at your character sheets while you try to figure out what's worth doing and how to make it not just playable but also interesting. Those lacunae pose less of a problem for long-time GMs than it does for a late bloomer like myself. The long-timers have a stock of methods to draw on, many of them adopted from more elaborately designed games. Me? I'm just trying to keep things from grinding to a halt.

#rules #methods #ruleslite #GMing