Tag: games

Fantasy Defense

The Savage Worlds fantasy sourcebook that I mentioned last time turned up*. I haven’t had time to really dig into it but I will post more about the content and how it fits into my plans for a fantasy game for my boys at some later date. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit more about fantasy gaming.

Dungeons and the Crawling Thereof

What is a dungeon in a roleplaying context?

Well, it’s not really much to do with the real-world definition, which is an underground cell or “close, dark prison” as Chambers puts it. A roleplaying dungeon is a complex of interconnected rooms in which there are monsters to fight, traps to avoid, and treasure to collect. They are classically situated underground, but that is not mandatory: a castle complex, a tree city, or a sinking ship could all be treated as dungeons with rooms to explore and adversaries to overcome.

The AD&D GM materials included a random dungeon generator, tables which you roll dice against so that you get random rooms and their contents – obviously these tend towards the arbitrary, but they can be a diverting way to spend time hacking and slashing your way through them. One of the funniest roleplaying sessions I engaged in at Uni was a random dungeon played for laughs, where the rolls were taken at face value no matter how absurd, along with some very silly set pieces. However, it’s not really roleplaying: the characters are only considered as tactical units, not as people.

One of the reasons I have resisted this kind of arbitrary dungeon delving with my kids is because there is usually so little story. The games I’ve run have been concentrating on storytelling while minimising combat – going to action rounds** for fiddly bits where inter-character timing is important, but mostly just letting the description of action and reaction tell the story. I am going to try to retain as much of that flavour as I can, but there will inevitably be more fighting because the boys have now had a few games of Munchkin.


Munchkin is very silly, entirely by design. It takes many of the roleplaying game concepts popularised in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and turns the dial all the way over. It’s a game which specifically encourages undermining other players in combat, focusses on the loot collected during a dungeon crawl while utterly ignoring the geography of the dungeon, and it doesn’t have any story at all.

It’s also enormous fun. Terrible and wonderful things happen to the characters in more or less equal measure, and the game can completely flip in only a couple of turns. One game we played had my oldest’s character*** suffer some deep indignities and then die rather messily at the feet of a stomping dragon, but he ended up winning. It’s chaotic and hilarious.

Playing Munchkin helped lodge a few fantasy game staples in the boys’ heads: class, race and level are basic concepts in D&D, especially the trade-offs inherent in what you choose for your character. So now the boys know that a wizard might be able to control coruscating arcane energies but can’t pick up a sword, or that a dwarf can see in the near dark and lug around twice the amount of gear of any other race but can only run half as fast****. Savage Worlds doesn’t impose quite the same constraints of class that D&D does (or did) but many of the same trade-offs are present.

And so now we’re ready to dive into a dungeon.

Before we do so, however, I do need talk to the boys about the portrayal of women in fantasy.

Women In Fantasy

Fantasy, even more than science fiction, has historically appealed to and been targetted at young adult males, and part of that targetting has led to the pervasive portrayal of women as scantily clad, pneumatic objects: women in fantasy are often shown as fantasies.

Most games (at least the ones I am willing to play) don’t discriminate in the abilities of the characters based on gender: female characters are just as capable as male characters, and even in Munchkin the sex change curse only gives a penalty for one round because of the sudden confusion over how your body works.

But still… the fantasy source books tend to be illustrated with cheesecake. The Savage Worlds book is no exception here, with the cover showing an unnecessarily lightly clad female warrior, even though no one sane would go into battle without some kind of covering over every inch of skin.

So, there is a conversation to be had there before we start the game proper, with possibly a strategically placed paper cover over the unavoidable cleavage.

But I’m looking forward to running a dungeon. There will be puzzles at least as much as fighting, but a dungeon will be fun.

[*] or rather the paper copy did. I already had the PDF, but I haven’t looked at that yet either.

[**] the less combat-focussed term for combat rounds that I suggested last time.

[***] the characters don’t even have names.

[****] the same speed limitations being true of halflings, the non-copyright encumbered version of the hobbit race, leading to the saying that you do not need to run faster than the dragon, you only need to run faster than the halfling.

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Fantasy Attack

I’ve mentioned the roleplaying I have done with my boys before, particularly the Animal Agents sessions that we played last year. Those sessions were intended to tell stories about the setting and to avoid physical confrontation. They were also using a simplified game system.

Well, the kids are ready for something different: a fantasy roleplaying dungeon crawl.

This has come on because of a couple of things:

  • broader awareness of fantasy elements in culture – they’re both pretty knowledgeable about goings on in The Hobbit and Harry Potter.
  • playing more games with fantasy combat in them – both video games (LEGO Batman, for example) and board games (Castle Panic, and Munchkin)

More about Munchkin another time.

The boys are old enough to deal with more complex rules, especially now that the younger one is reading fluently. Using a full ruleset seems like a plausible thing to do.

That ruleset won’t be D&D though.

Why I Don’t Like D&D

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is by far the most well known roleplaying game – it’s the first one I played, back when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a thing. I loved roleplaying from the start, but I was always uncomfortable with the opacity of the game system: determining whether a blow hit was a table lookup in a table only available to the GM (or Dungeon Master, in D&D parlance).

Then there were the systems of class, race and level: boxes the characters get put in which punish the player who wants to do something different. Want a fighter with some stealth abilities? You might have to multi-class with thief, which makes advancing in either class more expensive.

More recent editions of D&D have addressed some of these concerns, but they are still terrifically complex. When I joined my current roleplaying group we were playing D20 Modern, which is the D&D system with modern trappings. We had to use a computer program to manage the characters because of all the interactions of different class abilities and bonuses.

One of D&D’s great strengths is the combat system – there are rules, it seems, for everything, from charging into combat to firing spells into melee. This betrays D&D’s roots as a skirmish war game, and it’s not for nothing that there are players who will play arena combats using the system.

The problem for me is that all of this faffing about gets in the way of telling the story.

So, not D&D.

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a much simpler system to learn and to administer. It’s a skill-based system akin to Runequest, but there is a unified mechanic for testing for success: each trait has a die to indicate its level, and you just roll that die type to try and exceed the target difficulty number. Traits are divided into skills and attributes: skills are learned and specific (Drive, Shoot, Persuade) while attributes are innate and general (Smarts, Agility).

Combat is faster and involves less bookkeeping than with D&D. It’s also cruder, but a single combat round* won’t take half an hour** which is the point of the simplification.

The Savage Worlds system itself is generic, that is there is a core rulebook and separate materials for particular settings. The most famous of these (and in fact where the system originated) is Deadlands – a Weird West setting of undead monsters, mad science, and gunslingers. There are many other settings from fantasy to pulp science fiction to horror (including a truly excellent Mythos setting called Realms of Cthulhu).

I now have the Fantasy Companion which includes fantasy races and some specialised rules for suitable magic systems. This should help me build some small dungeons for the boys’ characters to crawl around in.

Next time I will explain what a dungeon is for.

[*] games go to combat rounds whenever there is any activity where timing is important, not just combat. Maybe they should be called action rounds instead?

[**] unless there are a lot of combatants, but scaling combat is one of the harder things to deal with.

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Storytelling in Games: Summer 2014 Edition

I’m always looking for storytelling elements in the games that I play. Here are three games I have not written about before, and some more thoughts about a game I discussed at the beginning of the year.


Takenoko is one of those games for which the words “charming” and “delightful” could have been invented – it’s a game about a garden, the gardener who tends it, and the panda which has been let loose amongst the bamboo to eat its fill of the gardener’s work. Your goal as a player is to guide the panda, the gardener and the (unseen) architect of the garden to satisfy goal cards you draw which dictate bamboo colors to be eaten, bamboo formations to cultivate, and tile arrangements to lay out.

The game is played on a board constructed as you go from hexagonal tiles which come in one of three colors and with various improvements that affect how and whether the bamboo grows, as well as whether the panda can eat the delicious shoots. There’s a consistent aesthetic around the components: stylised Japanese artwork enhances the storyline presented in the game booklet, and the individualized player cards and turn counters make for a unified gaming experience. These components support the mechanics very effectively – it’s easy to follow the rules, because the components and the play card design remind you of them.

All this talk of consistency should make it clear that this is a game with a story: a slice of Japanese Imperial life which starts from the short comic strip in the game booklet and continues throughout the game.

Good for kids, too.


One of my favourite arcade games is Missile Command, not because I enjoy it – on the contrary, it makes me panicky and claustrophobic if I actually play – but because I love the way that its design engenders those emotions. It’s a pressure cooker: limited resources, increasingly dangerous attackers, and ever more hopeless odds.

Pandemic is like a board game version of Missile Command.

The players take on the roles of researchers and operational staff working for the Center for Disease Control, seeking to contain and ultimately cure a set of diseases that are plaguing the world population. It’s a cooperative game designed by the same talented designer who made Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, and it shares some of the same mechanisms.

First, the infection deck. This is the part of the game that routinely makes things worse: it dictates where the next infection occurs.

Secondly, the player deck. This is place where the players collect the treasures they need to defeat the diseases, but also contains the escalation mechanic: there are a number of epidemic cards in the player deck which, when picked, increase the rate of infection and then resets the infection deck with the cards already played shuffled and put back on top. This is the same mechanic I adore in Forbidden Island, where bad things that have already happened are the same ones that are going to happen again.

The third mechanic in Pandemic which meshes with the first two is how diseases spread. When a city is drawn from the infection deck, you put a disease cube on it. You can do that up to three times per city per disease, but when it happens a fourth time then there is an outbreak where disease spreads to connected cities – a disease cubes goes to every connected city. This can trigger chain reactions, and when that happens…

Well, let’s just say that there is only one way to win at Pandemic, but lots of ways to lose.

Red November

Drunken communist gnomes on a sinking submarine: it’s not a situation you’d actually want to be in, but it’s a highly entertaining game.

Your goal as players is to survive on the failing sub Red November long enough for rescue to reach you. To that end, there is a time track which the character markers needs to traverse: once everyone’s gnome has consumed all his* time, then the whole crew is saved. You use time by doing things: moving from room to room, picking up items, wading through flooded rooms, fixing things. For repair jobs, your base chance to succeed is linked to how much time you spend with bonuses for having helpful items.

Where it all goes wrong is that as time passes, Things Happen. On the time track there are markers for drawing an event card, and when your gnome passes over one of these a fire will start, or a room will be flooded, or a hatch will block, or the missile countdown will start. Some of these just make a bad situation worse, but things like the missile countdown set a time limit so that if no gnome can fix it before the time is exhausted then the sub is lost.

And I think this is the brilliant storytelling mechanic in Red November: the goal is use up time, but if you use up too much time on one action then too many events will occur while you’re doing that – spend ten minutes fixing the engines, and the reactor could overheat or go critical in the meantime. More than that, the time track is traversed by every gnome, not the team as whole – three players get three sets of event triggers, four players get four. So many, many disasters await you.

Recommended, as long as you can handle the messaging around alcohol in the game. Drinking is not without consequence (a dead drunk gnome can easily end up dead) but the up-front effects of laying into a bottle of grog in the game are beneficial**.

Elder Sign

Having written about Elder Sign at the beginning of the year, I have now played it a couple of times and I wanted to report back on how story-laden it is.

And it is: the locations are atmospheric, and it’s easy to get the feeling that one adventure or another is cursed as every investigator tries to resolve it but fails messily.

There are a couple of problems with the game, though, which prevent it from being quite the immersive experience that one would hope.

Firstly, the colour text on the adventure cards is unreadable. Even on the large format cards that the adventures are printed on, the text is tiny which makes the “atmospheric” font used almost impossible to decipher. All of the game relevant text is perfectly readable, but in neither game I played could I find someone who could actually read the adventure text comfortably.

Secondly, although the basic dice rolling mechanic is terrific at raising tension, the over-abundance of tokens rather gets in the way of play. As you play, you collect and spend stamina, sanity and clues. The clues never abound (you spend them on re-rolls pretty fast) but both stamina and sanity could have been better handled with some kind of counter rather than the tokens. One player said that he’d used d10s in lieu of these tokens in the past, and I think that’s something I will be doing too (although I will need more dice).

It’s still an excellent game despite these hiccups, as long as you understand that the box is simply lying about how long the game takes. It took us three hours to defeat Shub-Niggurath the other night, rather than the 1-2 hours claimed.

[*] this is not a diverse game.

[**] for example: a gnome can only fight a fire if he has a fire extinguisher, or if he drinks a bottle of grog.

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New Games: Elder Sign, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork and Ticket To Ride

look at the lower stack this time

look at the lower stack this time

This is the second post covering last week’s stack of games which are new in the sense that I have only recently started playing them. None of them are especially recent in their release, and Ticket to Ride in particular is more than ten years old.

With that observation out of the way, on to the rest of the stack.

Elder Sign

Those Elder Gods – they’re nothing if not tricky. In this game you need to cooperate to stop them intruding into our space.

I’ve played through this game in solitaire mode so I haven’t quite got my head around all of the mechanics of it, but this game oozes storytelling: different adversaries have different effects on the atmosphere of the game, and each adventure has its own distinct feeling in the tasks to be completed.

Which brings me to the particular mechanic I wanted to describe – the tasks, and the dice you roll to try and complete them.

Each adventure requires multiple tasks to be completed, sometimes in a particular order (monsters may form additional tasks for an adventure). The players have game-specific dice which have faces showing results of lore, terror, peril, and investigation. Tasks are fulfilled by matching rolls of these dice to the required targets – so a task might need to match a total of investigation 6, plus a lore, plus a terror die. The combination of these tasks attached to a location tells a story.

To take an example, one adventure is “There’s Something in the Basement”. Its tasks are:

  • investigation x 6
  • lore
  • terror

The story is clear – the investigator enters the basement seeking an explanation for some strange noise, then recognises something about the situation and must fight their fear in order to overcome it.

That’s the narrative element, but in play the story becomes desperate: each time you roll you may complete only one task, but if you do not complete any task then you lose a die for the next roll. There’s a real sense of rising panic during a turn where the dice pool gets smaller and smaller and you’re looking at some dreadful effect on your character if you fail to finish the adventure.

There’s a lot to this game, and it evokes the feelings of terror appropriate to the genre.

Discworld: Ankh-Morpork

The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has disappeared – who will rise to rule the city in his absence?

This is a game based on the characters and locations in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels concerned with Ankh-Morpork. The game starts with each player drawing a character card which defines their goals – some characters just want to control as much property as they can, others want to sow discord or suppress it for as long as possible. The Patrician is of course one of characters who may be drawn because that is how the man thinks.

Play proceeds by laying down cards whose effects are based on the character depicted: the Fire Brigade threaten to burn down the house of another player if not bought off, while the journalists (Sacharissa Cripslock and William de Worde) earn money for the player proportional to how much trouble there is on the board. The different effects a character may have include placing minions on the board, removing other player’s minions from the board (assassination), and building in the neighbourhoods of Ankh-Morpork to claim those areas. There may also be random events triggered by magic – a dragon may appear to destroy anything in an area, for example.

This is a splendid and exciting game full of back stabbing and front stabbing – trying to figure out other players’ goals while furthering your own – but it is less about the story of the game played as it is about recalling the characters so memorably written by Sir Terry. If there is a story to be told here it is of a teeming city where everyone has their own axe to grind.

My biggest criticism of this game is that it only supports four players.

Ticket To Ride

Claim rail connections between North American cities to satisfy route cards in your hand. Cities that are further apart will garner you more points – L.A. to New York is worth more points than L.A. to Seattle, for example – but you also get points for each connection claimed (longer connections score more) and lose points at the end of the game for route cards you did not finish.

This is an exciting game, but from a story point of view I am dissatisfied with it. The back story in the rules talks about a competition to travel the railways of the US inspired by the epic journey undertaken by Phineas Fogg, but the game itself doesn’t really carry that through – many players think they are meant to be rail barons instead, which story actually fits the game mechanics a lot better.

The narrative mismatch comes from the fact that there is no progression. The goal is to complete a network to connect the pairs of cities you have drawn, but there is no sense of a journey being undertaken because you don’t start in one place and then move to the next. Indeed, completing the route in a sequential way is weak strategy because it gives other players too much information about your goals.

I’d still recommend the game because it is interesting and occasionally frustrating (one friend calls it Angry Trains, and that seems apt) but it’s not strong on narrative devices.

What new games are you playing?

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New games: The Resistance and Forbidden Island

a stack of good games

a stack of good games

I’ve bought a number of new games in the last year, and I wanted to address some of them from a storytelling perspective (as I have done before). I’m going to talk about the top of this stack today.

The Resistance

This is a game about treachery.

It’s a pretty stripped down set of mechanics: 5-10 players, a little less than half of whom are traitors to the cause. Each player is sure only of their own loyalty if they are loyal, but the spies know who everyone is. Then one player picks a team to go on a mission, everyone votes on whether that team goes, and those who are on the mission vote to see if it succeeds (although only spies are allowed to vote for it to fail).

The actual story delivered with this game is pretty sparse, being nominally a battle against a near-future totalitarian regime, but there is nothing in the game itself which ties it to a time or place (indeed, Avalon is a variant of the same game set in the Arthurian court), but that very incompleteness is the thing I find most thrilling – we can tell our own stories of the missions. An early mission might be to procure illegal technology,while a later one might be about breaking into the government-controlled broadcast centre to install the data bridge for later hijacking of the programming.

I hate being a spy, but I love painting the scene as the spies betray their trusting comrades and see justice done.

Forbidden Island

A cooperative game of collecting treasures before the island they are on sinks beneath the waves. Every character has a unique ability, and as the game goes on the island sinks faster.

There are lots of ways for this to game to end badly for the players: if the treasure houses for a treasure disappear before the treasure is retrieved, or of one of the players is stranded, or if the helipad sinks.

The location tiles are two-sided: all the tiles start off dry, and when flooded are flipped – the water is lapping over them. In this state the tile can be recovered, but if flooded again are lost.

There are two particular mechanics which heighten the tension here.

First is the water level: this is an indicator of how many tiles are flooded each turn – this rises when special cards are drawn from the treasure deck.

Second is the fact that the same tiles will flood again and again until they are finally lost beneath the waves: when the waters rise, the already-flooded locations are shuffled and returned to the top of the flood deck. This introduces a magnificently Sisyphean element to the game: you shore up a location, then the waters rise and it sinks again.

It’s worth noting that this game is designed by the same designer as Pandemic, which uses a similar mechanic in deciding where the next disease outbreak occurs.

I will cover the other three games in the stack in another post, but what games are you playing at the moment?

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A New Dawn: storytelling variations

dice-and-chipI am still running A New Dawn, the superhumans game I started with my roleplaying group in June. It’s just restarted after a couple of months’ hiatus, and I wanted to talk about a couple of novel elements in the most recent session.

Presenting A Prologue

“Show don’t tell” is some of the most repeated advice for writers. It captures the balance to be struck between exposition and demonstration: telling the reader what is happening, or showing the reader what the effect is.

The parallel in roleplaying is the choice between narration and playing it out. The narration can be player-guided or not, but if you have story happening which is not on stage then that’s narration – it doesn’t engage the players as much because they’re not as invested in the outcome, but it also moves the story on a lot faster. Roleplaying everything out takes a long time.

The way the story has developed in A New Dawn led to an interesting situation. One of the PCs had separated himself from the group and gone off investigating on his own – without telling anyone where he was going. Sanity being a fragile thing, this PC entered into a mental twilight upon exposure to unexpected horrors.

So we had a character captured by the bad guys, and no one in-game knowing where he was.

Playing out the scene didn’t seem very likely since insane characters are hard to play, and there wasn’t really a lot that the PC could actually do: he was physically out-matched, and his captors were… well, let’s just say unsympathetic.

On the other hand, resolving the situation just through narration seemed unsatisfactory. Something more engaging was required.

The approach I took was to use narration, but narration in which the captured character’s player could participate: I wrote a short scripted episode, with me playing the bad guys and the player reading his own character’s words. The scene faded to black, and the story picked up when the group next met.

I’ve used this scripted scene approach before, of course, with the Animal Agents stories I’ve been running for my kids. This was a different situation, but at least allowed the story to move on (or accrete more mystery…) without taking an hour of solo roleplaying to resolve.

A Chance To Be Heroes

A pretty common structure in roleplaying games (and TV shows) is Monster of the Week – the PCs get something to fight to resolve the situation.

The setting we’re playing is not quite as straightforward as that: the bad guys hide in the shadows, and they have already learned the lesson that direct confrontation between them and the PCs tend to end badly.

The PCs had agreed to a meeting in downtown Portland (yes, the game is set in Portland – I am that lazy) and it seemed that giving the PCs a chance to demonstrate their heroism would be useful.

In the game, Pioneer Courthouse Square was hosting the Beach In The City* event when the PCs were there. The square was crowded. The PCs met at Starbucks and tried to sort through what they knew. The PC who had been captured had been released but his memory interfered with, so he at least was interested in finding out what exactly had happened.

That was when the beach event display systems were hijacked to display a disturbing and threatening piece of computer animation. Once that had run its course, a billboard started to fall, followed by radio aerials and other high structures which would severely damage anyone they happened to land on.

The PCs swung into action, looking in vain for an opponent to chastise for this outrage, but none could be found – because there wasn’t one. The structures were all set to drop using carefully placed explosives and remote detonators. All the PCs could do was to mitigate the collapse, and shepherd the crowd from the square – a task which the group accomplished handily.

But there was no villain on-scene – no one to thump. This idea of protecting the populace from something which cannot be stopped is something that turns up in superhero comics and science fiction quite regularly but it’s not something I’ve played through very often. I thought it was an interesting way to have the characters act, and for me it was also a nice change to not have to think tactically in a combat situation.

Are there any unusual narrative techniques you’ve used in your games?

[*] modelled on a real event where there are mounds of sand sculpted into various elaborate dioramas. It’s pretty cool.

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A New Dawn

A couple of weeks ago I posted about some world building for a roleplaying game. That’s not the setting that I am actually using, since I don’t want to tip my hand to my players. The setting I am building is called “A New Dawn”. I am describing it as “concentrat[ing] on emerging super humans in the style of “Heroes”, “Alphas”, or “Misfits”.”

Currently I am engaged in the interesting work of building this out to make it playable.

I have my mechanics sorted out (including borrowing a sanity mechanic from Cthulhu Mythos games to model the alienation the PCs feel – “because super humans are still human”), an opening story ready to go, and I am currently making characters to oppose the PCs.

The tools I am using for this work are all the ones I’ve been talking about recently relating to outlining: state diagrams, gating events in act structure, and the Noteboard. The goal here is to have a broad story structure which the players can explore. I am trying very hard to avoid too much prep on aspects which the players may well avoid – the point here is to have enough structure in place that I can improvise details as I go.

However, the most disruptive aspect of this preparation exercise is the research. I mentioned three TV shows in the descriptive statement: I’ve watched all of Heroes, but I had never watched any of Alphas or Misfits, so I have been catching up with those shows on streaming video services.

Based on the pilot episode at least, I don’t think I would recommend Alphas. They lost me right at the beginning by misapplication of the term “synesthesia” to mean “enhanced senses” – synaesthesia (as I prefer to spell it) refers more to cross-wired senses, and that is the way in which the synaesthetic Alpha character uses her power for parts of the story, but the first usage of it is enhance her hearing, which is a bit off.

On the other hand, Misfits is a real corker. It’s a classic British show with a small cast and limited location scope (at least in the first couple of episodes) but it manages to pack so much mystery, tension and character development into those tight spaces.

Anyway, all of this means that I have watching more TV lately which is not good for my routine.

But it’s going to be great. More on this post-game, I think.

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The Fiasco Method

Fiasco is a great game, and one of the things that is great about it is how the story and characters are built up.

A traditional approach to character creation (in games as well as writing) is to think about the background and how that feeds in to the skills and personality of the character now. So, you might have a dwarf magician with a history of poor decision-making and a penchant for humiliating audience members in his stage act, or a former policeman who was discharged from the force after an incident in which he lost his leg to a crocodile (I have actually played that character – he had two prosthetic legs, one for walking that looked very much like a normal leg and one for running which was more like the leg blades Oscar Pistorius ran with – although his Brummie accent was bit tiresome to put on after a while).

The downside with individual character creation is that you can end to end up with isolated characters and no immediate impulse for a story. At least, that’s what happens for me.

In Fiasco, you start by describing relationships and then fill in the details of the characters based on the relationship and the other elements of the story.

Now Fiasco, obviously, is a game and as such it is based in part on chance: you roll dice to shape the options available for the relationships and story elements, and the intent is to build a complete story setting to play in, but the same basic approach will work for building characters in a pre-existing setting. That’s something that you can do in a writing exercise, and the story treatment I mentioned in the Fiasco post is good evidence of that, but it also requires a playset for your setting which may be impractical when you’re building something in a significantly different milieu*.

So, let’s have an example.

The story is set in a future prison, one where every inmate is under constant surveillance. Privacy is almost impossible in an absolute sense, but is more available from other prisoners than is usual in current prisons. I am going to say that there are three primary characters, A, B and C.

  • A and B have a mentoring relationship, where A is the senior and B is the junior. Let’s say that B is a prisoner starting a new occupational activity and A is the activity trustee.
  • A and C have dealer/customer relationship, where A is the customer and C is the dealer
  • B and C share a secret. No, let’s have C with the secret that B knows – perhaps C is a disgraced cop looking to recover some cred by informing on the other prisoners, and B knows that C used to be with the police.

That’s pretty interesting. There are hints there of the kinds of needs and objects which might appear in a Fiasco game – for a three character setup you would have a detail attached to each relationship: one need, one object, and one location. I’m thinking for this one I’d have the location be the occupational activity room, the object would be a packet of drugs or whatever is being dealt, and need would be to get even.

So now we have a small setup for the situation, who are the characters themselves?

  • A – Anton is a veteran of a decade-long gang war. He has scars, gang tats and the dangling earlobes of big piercings removed, but he is still only in his early thirties. He’s an expert in making virtual environments, a skill he used for phishing scams on the outside but he is now the trustee in the virtual environment lab. He just wants to get through his sentence and get out in the next five years. Unfortunately, he has an on and off habit for Bounce, a modern meth variant.
  • B – Brian is a recent arrival, a late-forties enforcer who is trying to get out of that game after his latest conviction. He has been learning virtual environment programming from Anton. Despite being the older guy, Brian looks up to Anton both as a programmer and as a role model for going straight.
  • C – Chuck has just been transferred to this prison from a lower security facility, or at least that’s the story. In fact, Chuck is a former cop who has been sent in to expose Bounce usage in the prison. However, he has become corrupt and has been making money off the back channel supply he is supposed to use as bait for the suppliers. Also, rather unfortunately for Chuck, Brian knows him: Chuck was in on a deal which Brian was the muscle on. Chuck hasn’t realized that Brian is someone he should recognise yet,

That’s obviously not the whole story: where do the drugs come from? How does the prison security system play into all of this? How will Brian react when he finds out that Anton is a user? How will Chuck make use of his connections to garner more influence? But that’s an interesting set of characters to begin with, and if you spend more than fifteen minutes on your own characters you’ll undoubtedly have something even better.

[*] you can compile a playset for your setting if you like, but that’s a different skill than using one that’s already in existence and you don’t probably don’t want to be making a playset every time you write a story. Conversely, there are a lot of playlets already floating around so you may be able to find one that’s appropriate already available.

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Rearranging My Storytelling Approach

The way I have always written roleplaying games has been to describe the setting and the supporting cast (NPCs – non-player characters) with more or less detail. Depending on what part the NPC is going to play, it may be described with a stat block – a collection of numbers describing the skills of the character in terms of the game system. Then I let the players loose. There are certain events that their actions may trigger – for example, open the safe and the alarm goes off, bringing the police down upon them – but the basic structure is that certain items or pieces of information are found in a particular place or with a particular person.

I’m going to try changing that.

This is influenced by hearing about Trail of Cthulhu, a roleplaying system intended to focus on the investigation portion of the Mythos gaming experience. The core element is that there are clues, and the player characters will get those clues at some point based on their actions, but the precise location or person is not set in stone. Another important element is to say that the next clue is only available after certain conditions have been set up – and some of those conditions may be the finding of other clues.

In software terms, I would call this a gating condition. I use this in state transition diagrams in particular, where you are defining the behaviour of a system in terms of what has already happened: what has gone before effectively defines what can happen next.

I am also trying to apply this to my novel. The current work I am doing is to take the scenes I’ve already written in the outline and to describe the transitions and changes described by each scene. I also want to describe the major events in the same way. The point of all this is that every scene must have an effect on the story, or the characters, or the circumstances. If it doesn’t have an effect, why is it there?

The early casualties of this approach are introduction and bridging scenes – a scene where the MC wakes up and takes a phone call is not urgent enough to hold the attention; a scene where the MC reviews video footage and checks his equipment is not building tension.

There’s an element of pacing here, of course: every scene shouldn’t be an action scene or the reader will become fatigued. But breaking things up with slower scenes later is a lot easier when the story is good already; transitions and changes can be moved around too.

Have I made new words recently? No – but I do feel like I am learning more about analysing story and narrative.

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Storytelling mechanics, part two: board games

Last time I wrote about mechanics in roleplaying games that enhanced the storytelling. But what about board games?

Not all board games are about storytelling, but a lot of what are (in the US at least) called German-style games carry storytelling elements in the mechanics they use.

Here are two of my favorite examples.

He’s Not Dead

Roleplaying games tend to be heavy on the paperwork – you might track hit points, and ammunition, and encumbrance limits, and so on. This is manageable because each player has a character sheet and have paper and pencil to make note of these details.

Board games have less scope for heavy note taking. Tracking the score is usually the most that is reasonable: the rest of the game state needs to be instantiated* in the board or the cards held by each player.

So when board games stray into the kind of territory usually occupied by roleplaying games, there needs to be some simple way to represent the information usually tracked by the players or the GM.

This is exemplified by Castle Panic, a cooperative tower defense game where the players are working together to protect their castle against attacking hordes of monsters emerging from the surrounding forest.

The monsters are defeated by attacks from the players using their soldier cards. If all the monsters could be defeated in a single strike then this would be pretty simple to manage, but most of them need two or three successful attacks before they can be removed as a threat. In other words, the monsters have hit points. Tracking those for each of the dozens of monster tokens would be a huge pain, but the tokens used have all the possible hit point values for the monster printed on them. When a monster is struck, if it has one hit point left then it is removed but otherwise you rotate the token to the next lowest value.

A physical mechanic is also used to track the state of the tower: six towers in the middle, with six walls around the outside of those. When a wall or tower is demolished, it is removed.

Castle Panic is a an exciting game to play, and these mechanics contribute greatly to the excitement by removing the need to keep notes as you go.

Thief, Farmer or Knight?

Carcasonne is one of my favorite games to play with my kids. You build the board as you go with randomly drawn tiles, and lay claim to portions of the board by placing your  tokens – also known as meeples – on the tile just played.

Your meeple can be a thief, knight, farmer, or monk by claiming a road, city, field or cloister respectively**. The role is indicated by the meeple’s location on the tile features, but the tiles shift very easily. The tricky bit in terms of tracking game state is that thieves and farmers tend to occupy similar looking tile portions: fields are bordered by roads. If the tiles shift (which happens all the time – it doesn’t need a clumsy player) then the meeples may be jerked off their spot.

The solution to this is that robbers are placed standing, while farmers are placed lying down.

Apart from arguably sarcastic commentary on farming as a career, this is a simple mechanism to record the meeple type without confusion. Now you just have to remember which field the farmer was in.

These have been some of my favourite game mechanics – what are yours?

[*] or reified, if you prefer your realisation verbs less entangled with programming jargon.

[**] these are the roles from the basic game.

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