My Games


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Saker Tarsos: Weird & Wonderful Interviews

This is an interview with Saker Tarsos of Tarsos Theorem. He was one of the first people in the OSR blogosphere I became friends with, and I've always been a big fan of his. He's bringing some really interesting ideas to tabletop RPGs, particularly through his use of coding tools and generators, but also through various other kinds of alternative mechanics (which in retrospect we did not discuss as much as I would have liked, but goblin's henchman has also discussed one of these). Also, we talked about some heavier and more personal topics in a few places, and I really appreciate Saker opening up to me and being willing to discuss these things for this interview.


Max: You and I started our blogs around the same time, I want to say around Spring or early Summer 2018. We've had conversations of this kind at various points, but for the sake of this interview, I'd be interested to know how you think the TTRPG scene has changed since we started blogging? And I guess as part of that, can you explain where you think the TTRPG scene was a couple years ago?

Saker: I think the TTRPG scene has constantly had to adapt. We arrived on the scene right before G+ went down, so we've never really been around in a long period of normalcy. We've had to find new social media homes. Social justice in our TTRPG circles has come a long way. Technology is being integrated into our TTRPGs due to social distancing. It's all very overwhelming to be honest. And, to be honest, it's hard for me to think back to how the scene was a couple years ago, I'm always so preoccupied with what's next.

Max: I hadn't necessarily thought of it that way before but you're right, I guess there's never really been much of a status quo for us.

Saker: It feels like right when we get settled down, something big happens that gets us up out of our seats again. And a lot of innovation and change comes out of it. This time it's the pandemic, and it's spurred an increased interest into online/socially distanced games.

Max: Are there any settings, or systems, or other aspects of TTRPGs, that you think have specifically become more prominent as a result of these changes (e.g. the pandemic, the increase in social justice and awareness of social issues)? Or less prominent, for that matter?

Saker: I think online and socially distanced environments favor simpler systems. The energy needed to engage with a game system gets magnified the more distance (physical or informational) that lies between the players. A lot of my thought recently has been towards how to make games easier to engage with, and specifically, how can I use coding automation to achieve that.

Max: I knew we were going to get to that topic eventually :).

Saker: I could see the increase in social justice awareness affect game settings and premise. One think that has stayed on my mind for years is changing the narrative of domain play away from the player being some kind of king or hegemon fighting with other rulers over scarce resources. It's a struggle because that schema is very deeply coded into the genre of domain play, and because that situation, though colonialist, can admittedly lead to situations that my mind finds very engaging. I've been thinking of creating domain games around community survival in very harsh environments, which I hope will foster a sense of the players needing to overcome differences and work together in order to succeed. And ideally, that situation would have players look at other communities as potential allies against the harsh environment rather than potential foes to be "othered". I think the idea still needs a lot more refinement... I am very interested in how social justice awareness will affect changes in game systems and game mediums, but that might be a whole nother discussion in and of itself xD

Max: No I agree, violent conflict and those kinds of colonialist / dominance values are very deeply rooted in, not just TTRPGs, but all media, but I think especially in games (including videogames), and it can be hard to break from that. Personally, I think that's why I've tried to find ways to use what are traditionally combat mechanics in non-violent conflict situations, to sort of blur the lines between violent conflict and other forms of conflict, and normalize that.

Saker: It's made me think on how dependent RPGs (both tabletop and videogame) are on the concept on violent combat in order to work, thematically and systematically. Killing is the (mostly) unquestioned means by which new loot and advancements become available to the characters, and by interfering what is essentially the big progression pipeline, the designer causes sweeping changes throughout all aspects of the game. You're doing good work, and fighting an uphill battle, by subverting that. I think it's going to prompt stepping back further and rethinking the entire premises of RPGs. I think one promising direction change is to tie progression to exploration and discovery, (for example, research and discoveries in Zoa of the Vastlands). There's still some colonial themes in the whole exploration of uncharted lands concept, but it's a huge step in the right direction.

Max: I'm actually not familiar with Zoa of the Vastlands. I don't know if this is where it's from, but I think post-G+, it seems like you've gotten involved in RPG Twitter and certain other circles that I'm just totally oblivious to.

Saker: It's a sort of follow-up module to the Ultraviolet Grasslands by Luka, I think you'd get an absolute kick out of it! And its creature generator gets an A+ in my book.

Max: Oh ya, I haven't sunk too deep into UVG but Luka does good stuff. I'm definitely a sucker for a good creature generator...

Saker: I used it for ~80% of the creatures in Interdimensional Voyages

Max: Want to talk more about Interdimensional Voyages?

Saker: I think so. it's been so hard to put to words in a blog post. Every time I sit down to write one, I end up ADD'ing off somewhere else.

Max: Oh I get that, the struggle is real. It requires a really deep focus to write effectively, at a broad level, about real projects of that scale. Maybe it would help to focus in on a specific aspect of it then. We already brought up coding, let's swing back around to that. I've said before that I think the way you use coded automatic character creation is unlike anything else I've seen, and really interesting, and a great demonstration of the unique value that coding can bring to TTRPG beyond just as a convenience tool or simulation tool. Can you talk more about that?

Saker: Gotta give Spwack credit here, the prototype of the Interdimensional Voyages character generator is based on his INCREDIBLE Die Trying character generator. It then metastatized through several evolutions to become the monstrosity it is today! On coding in TTRPGs: for me, it is definitely a convenience tool. I got into coding TTRPGs because I wanted to make tools that would allow me to continue to run TTRPGs as my free time and energy dwindled for various reasons. Me and my friends back home, who were my original audience, are very busy, and stressed, and don't always have physical spaces available for us to play games. Coding these tools is a means to try and make games more accessible to people who are short on time, energy, and space.

Max: Oh that's true about Die Trying, and I even interviewed Spwack as well lol. Well in any case though, I do think you've carried that mantle alongside him.

Saker: I think there are, indeed, times where coding in TTRPGs can have inherent value in and of itself. Modules in mothership, for instance, have the unique opportunity to become immersive objects in the fiction itself. But I do think trying to code for its own benefit can miss the point, which is that it should be making peoples lives better, easier, or more accessible.

Max: I like that idea with Mothership. Speaking of moving away from violent combat, you could imagine a TTRPG where the game mechanics are basically just light coding- like even stealth-teaching people how to code. I agree that the coding should serve some purpose, but I do want to kind of push back on the idea that it should just be a tool of convenience. Again, I think even what you're doing with it, it's more than just a convenience tool, I really think it allows you to do things that wouldn't otherwise be possible, or wouldn't otherwise be fun. I do think it can actually change the nature of a game.

Saker: I could see that game being very helpful. The initial learning curve for basic coding concepts is... not optimal. But unfortunately I think such a game would be rather complex in nature (compared to the games I play, which are very simple and thus I have a very high standard of simplicity) and hard to introduce to new players.

Max: Ya... I do think it can be done, but would require some thought. Cryptomancer does that, to an extent. Kind of a tangent, but speaking of social justice in games, their game Sigmata is also worth checking out.

Saker: You are absolutely right to push back there! I would not be coding if it didn't provide me some sense of wonder that defies its utility. And when coding is capable of doing things that otherwise wouldn't be possible, it becomes very valuable. In my recent projects, I've been using coding to try and bypass a lot of the busy work in games, and to save a lot of time by performing calculations that would otherwise be done by the DM. This, especially, allows me to make games that are more complex than I could on paper, because the players will not ever witness the complexity itself, only its results. But, now that I think about it, I do think these cases still provide utility and usability above all.

Max: Well, it's sort of both, right? It's utility/usability, but as you say, it allows you to add a level of complexity that normally I would not find palatable for TTRPG, but do enjoy, but because it's automated, it works.

Saker: Pretty much, my project at the moment is to code a discord bot that will be able to replace a DM in a simple but detailed TTRPG.

Max: I've actually recently developed an interest in Solo RPGs. Haven't done much of them and only just begun to think about them, but I think there's potentially some shared logic between those two ideas.

Saker: I love me some complex games in theory, I just don't like running or playing them. Automation allows me to enjoy the fruits of complexity without having to actually labor for them, heh

Max: Absolutely. I really like the conditional logics in Interdimensional Voyages character creation, for instance, but I would not necessarily like to do that by hand.

Saker: Oh yes, that would be a nightmare.

Max: I found when I was making my character for IV, I'd just keep clicking the generate button to see what weird combinations I'd find. Those conditional logics felt like easter eggs. Then I just ripped your source code lol. But it didn't ruin the magic, if anything, it only enhanced it.

Saker: It's my hope that in future renditions, there will be even more of those easter eggs and conditional logics. My hope when tuning it was that things in the character sheet loop into themselves logically, making the character as a whole make thematic sense. I think the nicknames do a lot for that specific experience: the first thing the player sees is the character's nickname, which foreshadows one of their life path events. Then they see the life path event and go aha! and the connection is made that ties up the character. The more of those little tricks exist, the harder it is to see the character as a procedurally generated jumble of words, and the easier it is to see them as a fictionally realized being.

Max: Ya, on the one hand, with combinatorials, you can exponentially increase the number of possible unique results, but... for a character in an RPG, it's not necessarily the case that all combinations will be interesting. By adding conditional logics that tie certain parameters together, you do lose some possible combinations, but you gain in coherence.

Saker: In the book "Procedural Storytelling in Game Design", one of the essays (I forget which one) describes a sort of spectrum of procedural generation. On one end there are very focused generators, with relatively small design space to work with, that generate very consistent results. On the other side of the spectrum, you have very wide, wild generators that cover large swathes of design space and can output results with extreme variance. The goal is to find that sweet spot in the middle, where the results will be focused enough that they are useful, but varied enough that they can still continually surprise you. Conditional logics can be time intensive to program, but can help you stay in that sweet spot. And so the interesting thing is, I'm a Lit major. Not exactly the person you'd think would be coding, but all those writing and narrative skills come into play in weird areas in the coding process. Like working with combinatorial word generators. Or being able to tune a generator so it more consistently outputs results that make narrative sense.

Max: I'm a software engineer with a psych degree so I get that. My favorite peers tend to be those who also have atypical backgrounds like that, we're weirdos!

Saker: Yes! And that's a great example for people who might be interested in coding, but feel intimidated because they didn't come from a compsci background (aka me in early 2018)

Max: Oh I look back now on the kind of coding I was doing back then compared to now, i don't know how I was able to get anything to work back then lol.

Saker: Saaaaame!!

Max: Eh, honestly my understanding is that many people coming out of compsci don't necessarily actually understand the principles behind software engineering anyway, but that's a whole other conversation. But I do think, people who have both a liberal arts or basically non-STEM background but also know STEM... I think there's a sort of non-linear gain on that. The things I've learned about statistics, machine learning, and software engineering, have actually enhanced my ability to talk about, think about, and act on, my views towards cognitive neuroscience (my former work), but also society, literature, and all sorts of things.

Saker: Agreed, it feels like, rather than learning new things taking up limited brain space, that they expand the things you already know exponentially.

Max: I would really encourage everyone who can afford the time and effort, to really try to learn at least a little coding and stats. I really don't think it can be overstated just how valuable it is on every level, even if just intellectually, and you really don't have to be a genius. I barely passed my math classes even in college lol.

Saker: I'm actually going back to take a stats class once the current semester is over. It feels Necessary (in a good way). I've pretty much hijacked my library science degree into an information science degree so there are so many missing holes in my knowledge to shore up xD, stats being one of them.

Max: That's awesome! I'm really excited for you. Getting off the soapbox though, and maybe back on track, I think we should wrap things up soon, but do you have any other RPG-related topics you still want to talk about?

Saker: Hmm let's see, I think I did my Technology Is Good, Do Not Fear It soapbox.

Max: lol ya but if we reinforce each other on that we'll bore everyone away pretty quickly!

Saker: I guess talking about my current place in the scene? It's been hard to consistently post because the projects I have been working on have been difficult to describe in blog posts. Honestly ADD makes it really hard to keep consistent lines of communication through social media, and to be consistent in projects as well. That's something I've always struggled with when it comes to being part of an online community, and I'm starting to identify its source.

Max: I can imagine how that would be difficult. I've been trying to focus in on a smaller number of projects but going deeper and doing bigger things with them, but it is not easy to do even without ADHD.

Saker: As such, I feel like a comet. Occasionally coming back into orbit after long periods of time then hurtling off again.

Max: That kind of outsider-ness, of being like a comet, I think like we were saying with being someone with both a humanities background and an interest in quant, I think that gives you a unique perspective. I don't know if it's too personal, but when you say you're trying to identify the source- that's a sentiment I strongly agree with, when it comes to tackling any kind of issue, really. Maybe I'm not so much asking what that source is specifically, but I guess a better question is, how, if at all, do you think ADD and the struggle to overcome it, and so on, has affected how you approach TTRPGs or your creative efforts? For instance, you've talked a lot about wanting tools to make running games more manageable...

Saker: Yes. Absolutely. I would say it has always subconsciously defined my entire approach to TTRPGs. All my automation efforts could be seen as attempts to reduce the breadth of cognitive load that I would experience by running games. Let the computer take care of these certain areas (the computation, the details), so I can focus more on the stuff that matters to me (ideas, dialogue, having fun with my friends). And hopefully, by extension, other people with ADD and just other people who are busy and stressed in general.

Max: I just handwave those complexities ;), but your approach is perhaps a more rich and fulfilling one in the long run.

Saker: So far, ADD has proven a serious obstacle in my attempts to be a productive member in this community, but because of that, being part of an online community has helped me identify the ways it was, and is, affecting my life. And this community is providing me with the motivation to tackle it. So, thank you for being a very positive aspect of life!

Max: Well, that's probably a genuinely more worthwhile accomplishment than anything else I've done with my blog, and I don't mean that self-deprecatingly, so thank you very much! And likewise, my blog has been, and continues to be, a real source of personal accomplishment and value to me, and it has helped me through some hard times. Early on, when I was struggling to get the ball rolling and having real doubts and confidence issues around my blog, you were a very early source of support, and I can't thank you enough for that.

Saker: You're very welcome, and likewise! Seeing your blog was the inspiration that got me to start mine!

Max: Ya, wow, ok... I think that's a good place to end this interview haha, but thank you very much for your time and for the conversation. It's been an interesting couple years, I hope we have even more to discuss a couple more years down the line!

Saker: Indeed!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Integrating Videogames into Tabletop RPG Conflicts

I drafted this post a loooong time ago, like way before people were even using the term "diegetic" and other related concepts, so I sort of make up some language here like "meta-narrative" or "meta-component". For whatever reason, I never felt quite right posting it, but I shared it on the OSR Pit just to see what people thought, and it got some positive reception on it, so I figured I'd finally post this, in lieu of a more "proper" post to come hopefully soon. It may also be a decent companion to my recent Pixels & Platforms Retrospective.



Most resolution mechanics in tabletop RPGs consist of player ingenuity, character ability, and some kind of dice roll or card draw. Generally, these resolution mechanics are used for their probability distributions, convenience of use, availability, to be a meta-component of the setting (e.g. poker chips and poker card mechanics for Deadlands), or just because they're fun.

Let's lean into those latter two. You know what else is fun? Videogames! So the obvious thing to do would be to use a turn-based RPG, tactical RPG, or "Infinity Engine"-style game, especially if it has a custom game editor, and literally simulate the tabletop. That's fun in its own right, but at that point why even have the tabletop? Also, that's too obvious. No, this isn't about a digital simulation for resolution, this is about using videogames as an abstraction, like dice or cards.

It would be best to choose a game that is fast, relatively easy, and that your players have roughly even skill or familiarity with, and is customizable. I'm going to use Super Smash Bros. as my example here, but it doesn't have to be a combat game, it could even be a competitive puzzle game like Puyo Puyo.

So with smash, by default, you would pick a character which is most like your character (you don't have to do this, but it might be better this way meta-narratively). Depending on your level relative to your opponent's, you could give yourself or the opponent handicaps (e.g. extra lives, higher starting damage, w/e else can be customized). To simulate spells or special abilities, you could only include certain items on the stage, and artificially impose a rule that only a character that should have that ability can use that item (for this reason, you wouldn't want to play against a bot). I haven't played smash ultimate yet actually, but if it has customizable fighter stuff, which I believe it does, you may be able to simulate character stats even more directly. 

You probably want to have a very short time limit, or a low-stock game (even one stock), and want to play on a smaller stage (ideally one most like the environment of the conflict), or with a high starting damage, to keep things snappy. If there is a major imbalance in player skill, the player can allow someone else to play for them, or the GM could have one of the players play in their place, but if this is going to regularly be the case then you probably want to play a different game. 

You could make each RPG conflict turn a videogame match, where the winner of the match then rolls their damage dice, or simulate an entire one-on-one encounter this way, where the loser of the match dies / is defeated in the RPG conflict.

You could even replace tabletop RPG combat altogether with this, having a team fight with all players against all opponents (although this would only work if you have a few extra people around to help the GM, or are ok with pairing the GM with bots who might not follow the item rules). Depending on the game (both tabletop RPG and videogame), you could use this for not just combat conflicts but potentially other kinds of conflicts as well.

This is maybe a bit of a novelty idea, but I think it could be fun. Here are some reasons why you should try this:
  • Videogames have a degree of inherent fun. 
  • It's potentially a lower barrier to entry for new players. 
  • If the videogame is a good meta-narrative fit with the campaign setting of the RPG then it could add to immersion. 
  • It adds a unique kind of player skill that you don't normally see in tabletop RPGs. 
  • It's a different kind of engagement with the game, if your players sometimes struggle with staying focused.
  • If you find the right game, it can be faster than usual tabletop conflicts.
  • It requires less prep / can be done on the fly.
  • You can get more people involved in the game, even if they aren't playing the RPG directly.
  • You could build a whole campaign setting around this, with different games as in-universe challenges and different characters in those games as avatars or champions of the players / PCs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Spwack: Weird & Wonderful Interviews

Given a significant timezone difference, Spwack and I decided to do this interview in a "play-by-post" format, so the overall flow may come off a bit different than in prior interviews (those being my discussion on the Korean tabletop RPG scene with Gearoong, and my discussion with the generator-master Semiurge).

Max: 
One question I've been meaning to ask you for a while: You originally wrote the Meandering Banter (MB) blog, which, at least to my mind, was quite popular and successful in what it set out to do. Then, from my memory, you were silent for a while, until you came back with the Slight Adjustments (SA) blog. It does appear to me that there is a philosophical distinction between the content of the two blogs, but it is difficult for me to identify what exactly that difference is. Can you elaborate on why you decided to make a new blog? Is there in fact a philosophical difference between the two blogs, and if so, how do you see those differences? Do you see yourself ever going back to MB?

Spwack: 
Meandering Banter was my first blog, which I also started out just as I was beginning to create GLOG classes. Looking back, the posts on MB aren't particularly "refined". I found myself posting for the sake of posting quite a bit, and while it was a standard blog, it wasn't something that I could use as easily.

Enter Slight Adjustments, which has had far fewer posts in the same amount of time. My goal for SA is to strictly only include table-useful materials in each and every post. GLOG classes are fun and easy to write, and mini-essays are enjoyable in their own way, but they aren't as "table-useful" as an entire hack in one place. While I might go back and write more as stand-alone pages (rather than blog posts), I'm endeavoring to keep SA as lean and mean as possible. Plus, I just prefer the new name. I think MB is a complete work at this point. It'll stay as its own structure from here, but I might be plucking a few choice morsels across to SA.

Max:
It's interesting, because that does make sense, but I can't think of anyone else who has done that before. Maybe it's gauche to ask, but were you at all worried that moving to a new blog could affect readership?

Spwack:
The only reader that I am interested in is me, and I'm reading my own blog a lot more now, so no!

Max:
Lol fair enough. I've noticed on SA, perhaps more so than MB, that many of the games are not strictly speaking OSR e.g. GLOG, retroclone, or in that vein. Can you talk about the thought process on some of your new systems? You know, for instance, how intrigued I am by Batteries Not Included.

Spwack:
Well, firstly I'm of a mind that any game that has even the slightest influence from GLOG is magically transmuted into a GLOGalike, hence both versions of Finders Keepers fall into that category. Finders Keepers can definitely trace its lineage through Owlbear Stew and Die Trying. GLOG and GLOGalikes are wonderful things, and a truly excellent way for any RPG designer to start. GLOG v -1.0 is a little like something called an "orchestra minus one" which is a recording of an orchestra playing every part except the lead. Turning GLOG v -1.0 into your own GLOGhack means standing atop an almost, but not quite finished product, and tweaking it to make it your own. Once you've finished a project, any project, the next one is so much easier and more achievable. It exemplifies what I think is best about the OSR scene/genre/whatever, the DIY aspect, rather than the retroclone aspect. 

That "next one" for me was Die Trying, and I feel like the links are pretty clear. DT is OS chopped into pieces and sprinkled across a more involved character creation process, with the usual leveling process stripped out. The "X" system has been talked about quite a lot by yourself and others, and I'm pretty proud of it. However, I think Finders Keepers will be the system I use by default for... well, the foreseeable future! It can absorb an unlimited amount of tinkering and content that I scrounge from the blogs, it comes with generators built-in, and is completely class and level free. The amount of games I run that only last a single session is a little depressing, but why try and hide away all the goodness in a theoretical future time? FK and FK in Space covereth a multitude of sins.

Batteries Not Included has been my biggest divergence so far, and requires the most "hardware" (ha ha). There are some obvious links to MTG but an especial focus on tactile character creation. One original source was a hardcopy rendition of Die Trying, with each “package” of traits and items coming on a card. This eventually transmuted into BNI, and I think the modularity of the cards and the tenuous construction of scrappy improvised robots come across quite well. My girlfriend recently arranged a prototype printing of my initial truly haphazard cards, and I’m hoping to do a redraw and re-run of the cards after some more playtesting.

Once More* (the name of which took the most effort and I'm still not happy with) is a move in a different direction. I sometimes talk about there being several different games that we play: the "Make a Character" game, the "Explore the Dungeon" game, and the "Fight the Thing" game. The 3.X era leaned incredibly hard on the "Make a Character" game, and hell, even I got in on it a bit. Theorycrafting and builds can be fun, as horrifying as it is to think or say that. The only issue is when half the table is here to play "Fight the Thing" and the other half just want to show off their shiny new creation. OSR games are usually built around the "Explore the Dungeon" and the world in general side of things, and I'd say FK falls into this category as well. OM, however, is all about Fighting! Flashy moves! Weird combinations of subclasses! There are things that look like builds, but are in fact randomly generated. It's got mana and combo moves and big shiny buttons to press, rather than focusing as much on the world beyond the character sheet. Life is cheap, death is easy, and characters don't come with names (by default, at least).
* (Max) For my thoughts on Once More, check out this OSR Pit discussion

You Don't Make Friends With Magnets (the name of which I'm hugely happy with because my girlfriend came up with it) is an experiment in minimal / non-design. It's nothing but a character generator and a 1d6-only system. Everything else is left as an Exercise For The Reader. Unlike the rest of my creations, it's not exactly feasible to make a character "by-hand", and it relies on using the blogpost as a jumping-off point. The lack of complete rules and only a vague gesture towards a setting makes it... a little... like GLOG in a way.

Max: 
I really appreciate these analyses. This is exactly the kind of discussion I want to be having with these interviews, and I have so many thoughts.

One thing I notice across many of these games, perhaps as you say more so with SA, but I believe this to be true also of your games on MB, is that there is a degree of "jigsaw completeness", for lack of a better term. They are decidedly incomplete, giving you just enough information to fill in the rest for yourself. It's a style that lends itself well to DIY design and play, I think.

I forget who said this, I think it may have been on the Bastionland podcast, but they said something to the effect of, paraphrasing, "the best way to learn how to design games is to take a game with missing pieces and figure out how to make it work", and that feels very true of your games, especially something like You Don't Make Friends With Magnets.

I think that generator-based or other programmatically-assisted games fall into this category of "jigsaw completeness". It allows you to take out much of the minutia of character creation, and also bake implicit worldbuilding, game styles, and even game mechanics, into the character creation process itself, and it's something that I would say you and Saker Tarsos excel at more than anyone else in the OSR/DIY scene that I can think of. There are other games that do "jigsaw completeness" as well, I suppose Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, as I alluded to before, being good examples, but I do think that a game designed from the ground-up to be programmatic can really take that general design pattern of "jigsaw completeness" in a novel direction.

You're welcome to come up with a better term than "jigsaw completeness", or reject this framing entirely, but do you have any thoughts on this style of game design, and if/how programmatically-designed games can facilitate it?

Spwack:
I think that jigsaw completeness is an excellent term! It's definitely something that has come from my initial experiences with GLOG, which has colored the rest of my interaction with the OSR/DIY scene. YDMFWM perhaps goes a little too far in this direction, but I still call it a successful proto-game, since it has a lot of the world-building built-in without being laborious to modify. Since, you know, there isn't much there to modify!

It's interesting, my initial goals with generator-assisted games have changed the way I look at RPG design in general. This is because a really well-designed system with a tight layout and good readability is really easy to turn into a generator! So since I've started games with the assumption that I am going to turn them into a generator, I've had to cut down on unnecessary fluff, make things accessible, and that sort of thing, solely for my own benefit. I still think my early goal of "whatever can be done using the generator should be able to be done by hand" is a good one, even though I've let it… slip a little.

While it’s less relevant in today's semi-apocalyptic society my early in-person games really cemented my attitude towards phones at the table. They are almost a huge drain on attention span and focus whenever they come out. This might seem odd since I use so much online content, however, this was a concerted choice: since I've lost so much efficiency to the screens, I figure I'll try and reclaim it by speeding up character creation. Plus, if a player is using their phone for their character, they can't use it for anything else!

Max:
That idea, of thinking in terms of generators as a way to build a tight game, is not unlike the principles of modularity and unit testing in software engineering, I really like that way of thinking about it. I don't necessarily agree that all games need to be generator-izable, but I think it's an interesting heuristic for good design.

And I actually strongly disagree with the idea of "whatever can be done using the generator should be able to be done by hand"! I am very intrigued by the idea of what kinds of TTRPGs can be made when we remove those kinds of limits. Again, I do think Saker Tarsos is a good example of that sort of thing, but I would have described some of your work in that way as well if not for you just now arguing the opposite. I can certainly see the logic behind that approach as well- I think it just comes down to intentionality and understanding the implications of what it would mean to design a generator-based game that is not contingent on being something which could feasibly be done by hand.

I also agree about the phones thing. It can be a big distraction, but also, if you leverage it for the game, at least it's productive. And especially right now when hopefully everyone is playing digitally anyway, barring unique circumstances, you need to be able to make these kinds of concessions.

Up to now, most of my questions have been more on the game design and technical side of things, but what about creative influences? Are there any particular genres or works that most resonate with you? Any particular ways you think about genre or worldbuilding which you would like to discuss?

Spwack:
Well I'll swing a question at you first, how come you disagree with that statement, that by-handed-ness should be sacrificed at the altar of the generator? To be fair, I'm intrigued by that idea as well. And for sure, a lot of my work is heading on a screaming trajectory towards intractable complexity, but I'm still trying to make it possible, see? Otherwise, I'll get pulled all the way into overwhelming simulationism for the sake of it.

And yes, the point about phones makes a lot more sense pre-COVID. If everyone is at the table, and half are on phones, it's not great, but I gotta say that online play has been a godsend in these troubled times!

I'd say that my first major inspiration was Arnold K of Goblin Punch for introducing me to GLOG and the OSR in general. For the life of me, I can't remember how I ran into the blog, but it was an experience. Going from a vague and unexplainable dissatisfaction with 5E, to suddenly understanding that I could make something? That was good. My players definitely suffered through a lot of early GLOGerry but it ended up well! (I think!)

My second would be Patrick Stuart of False Machine. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be insulted if I described him as the Insane Byronic Author of the OSR sphere. Just the sheer outpouring of content that was unlike anything else. I would say that Veins of the Earth was the first big product that really caught my eye.

Thirdly would be Skerples, for teaching all of us about history, inbred monarchs, death-taxes and what finishing things actually looks like. I'd say there's a scale that goes from "useful" on one end of the scale, to "art" on the other, and Skerples is definitely on the opposite side to Patrick Stuart! I've got and love Magical Industrial Revolution, but I'd say that my single most explicitly referenced "product" from Skerples would be the Drow Conspiracy, because hooo boy that really got my players absolutely freaked.

And of course my girlfriend for helping me start drawing again, because god knows I haven't been brave enough to do that for a very long time.

I'm also going to say a random selection of things, in no particular order, from no particular time of my life: Incunabuli. Kill Six Billion Demons. North of Reality. Trilemma. Last Gasp Grimoire. Ultraviolet Grasslands. Joesky the Dungeon Brawler. QNTM. Unsong. This: http://blogofholding.com/dungeonrobber/index.php. Dwarf Fortress. Fallen London. Kingdom of Loathing. Don't Starve. Hollow Knight. Uprooted and Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Name of the Wind by Patrick "Where Is My Third Book" Rothfuss. Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle.

Max:
Well, "by-handed-ness should be sacrificed at the altar of the generator" may be a bit of a loaded way of asking lol. I can see the argument for intentionally placing this limitation, either because you want the thing to be usable under any context, or because it could be a useful creative constraint. However, I think removing this constraint could also open up possibilities that are simply not possible to do by hand, but that could still be a lot of fun.

I also don't agree that the inevitable outcome of an unconstrained generation-based game need be simulationism. You could imagine a character generator / jigsaw complete game like YDMFWM, that has so many character options, with so many complex dependencies (if you roll 1 on table a, go to table b, if 2, go to table c, etc.; if you roll 1 on table b, go to table aa, if you roll 2 on table b, go to table ab, etc.), that it is either too complex and not fun to do by hand, or even if it is still fun, is very time consuming and a process unto itself. Whereas an autogenerated version is trivial, and may even be fun to just keep mashing the button and see what pops out. All for a game that is still at its core rather simple. Although I could also imagine a game where the core mechanics themselves are computationally-assisted, and still not necessarily just simulationist.

Even though I never quite got into GLOG, I do get what you mean, that was my thought when I started getting into the OSR as well. Actually, I got that feeling at first with Numenera, but OSR was where I first not just had the idea for myself, but saw a whole community built around the idea of weirdness and openness to creation.

I'm obviously a big fan of both Patrick and Skerples as well. Patrick's works are some of the most imaginative and well written, I would argue not just in TTRPG, but in fantasy more generally. Many of his works really defy genre as I typically think of it, in a way I deeply respect. And while Skerples works are somewhat more within the realm of preconceived genres, they are also brilliant and intricate. I really loved the whole concept of pre-apocalypse, and Innovations, in Magical Industrial Revolution.

Pivoting a bit, but are there any games, settings, bloggers, game mechanics, etc.; literally anything TTRPG-related, that you think is under-rated?

Spwack:
I guess I'll just do one of each of those?
Game: The Wizard's Grimoire by Lumpley / Vincent
Setting: Mythos
Blogger: You!!! (this answer should either be interpreted as you, the reader whether you are currently blogging or not, OR as you, Maxcan7, depending on how you are feeling)
Game mechanic: Anything that involves one of the players ascending and taking over as DM, whether it's temporary or not. Also, anything that involves players swapping character sheets, or otherwise having to do something that concretely changes what they are doing at the table.

Max:
lol thanks. I haven't heard of Wizard's Grimoire nor Mythos so those are good picks, I'll have to check those out! I've also played around with that idea of players swapping character sheets and meta-mechanics like that, but haven't done the GM swap.

I've really enjoyed this conversation. I really like getting into the weeds on game design, worldbuilding, and speculation with interesting, intelligent people who are doing interesting things and have also spent a lot of time thinking critically about these topics, so these interviews have been a lot of fun and I hope everyone is enjoying them as much as I am. Any final comments you want to make before we wrap this up?

Spwack:

I really feel like the DIY aspect of the OSR scene has blossomed recently, and I wholeheartedly support it. In a time of certain monolithic companies dominating the RPG scene and the hassles and scandals that come with that, it's refreshing to see new talent and new creations push their way a little bit into the mainstream. I just have to find the time to play them all!

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

More Half-Formed Ideas from The Onenote

Over a year ago I made a post Half-formed ideas from the onenote. Crazy to think how much my life specifically and the world in general has changed in that time. Anyway, some of those ideas I eventually incorporated into other things, many of them I never did, but now I have more!

Setting Ideas

  • Post-humanity travels back in time as invaders, forcing their past selves to grow more savvy and powerful, until they are defeated, to then repeat the process until post-humanity is powerful enough to defeat some greater threat in the far future.

  • A fully interconnected multiverse. It's about as easy as taking a plane, and it's been around long enough that culture and politics have adapted around it. Certain nations across the multiverse have merged or allied, new interuniversal communities have formed.

  • Heavy Metal Haiku of the Machine God.

  • Nurglopia: Nurgle wins (came up with this idea pre-covid; could either be really good, or in really poor taste)

  • Ithaqua = frost giants, wendigo, Loki (?)

  • What is the original species of Yuggoth before the Mi-Go invasion?

  • Carbuncles as infant outer gods. Most are stillborn, or get eaten by other outer gods or beings of equal power, or take so long to develop that they are irrelevant. Some become true eldritch beings. Others land on celestial bodies and instigate life, or become absorbed into a pre-existing biosphere. In such a case, they may first develop a symbiotic relationship with a lifeform on that world, morphing into something more like that species. On Earth, this would be the basis of anthropomorphic gods, magic, or superheroes. Maybe tied into Lovecraftian Dreamlands?

  • Golemjammer: Like lichjammer... but golems.

  • Something with the Black Dragon Society (kokuryukai) and the Black Panthers.

  • A superhero setting where superpowers are heavily regulated, so rich guys like Batman and Iron Man types use their lack of superpowers as a loophole around the rules. They lobby to keep advanced-tech and non-super vigilantism relatively unregulated.

  • Cyberpunk where there is technically a government but nobody even knows who it is anymore. There are two police forces, both claim to be the government (as opposed to corporate). It's not even that corporations run things, it's just chaos. Clearly there are people profiting, it seems like there are people on the Foucault Flow, but the moon is completely obliterated and the tides are coming whether someone rides them or not.

  • Sarugami Japanese monkey cult.

  • Polterzeitgeist.

  • A fantasy setting of super-OP species. 
    • A species of humanoid / cold iron cyborgs mad rage geniuses like Carnage Kabuto with beetle, horseshoe crab, mantis shrimp, etc. cold iron carapaces.

    • A holographic aerial species of nephilim pixies/nixies with Divine magics (closer to the gods) and aerial dominance.

    • Demons from a dimension of sulfur and mercury, beings of pure explosion animating corpses of extinct species pickled in mercury and gasoline.

  • Landfill animals / plastic beach.

  • Heaven and Hell vs Martians; Heaven and Hell vs Humans; Vampires vs. Zombies.

  • Kingdom of Oudh.

  • Mother Earth expresses her will through technology. Rare Earth Metals are her medium. Teleological technological goddess.

  • Gasoline Swamp: The Primordial Soup from whence hyperlife evolved. A fungus-like species covers the Earth, a constant hazy explosion of spores and heavy diesel energy. Most animal-like life in their adult form are tiny "pixies" with manic energy. They have no mouths and other than absorption of some transient energy, they have only the energy they absorbed in their adolescent / larval / tadpole state. The dominant lifeforms are hyperplants, tesselating undulating monsters which branch, root, fruit, and leaf in real-time. They are not photosynthetic and instead are mainly carnivores (fungi and animal eaters) or predators (herbivores), or some are omnivorous. Their biology is inextricably linked with plastics and microplastics, like if humans wore their microbiome on the outside. Their blood is diesel and most consumption is vampiric; diesel being the most nutritious substance for all hyperlife.

  • Fantasy "salt lick" / oasis setting.

  • A pocket universe that exists as a liminal space between life and death.

  • How would a nocturnal intelligent species mythologize light and dark?
    • Blinding to their dilated pupils.

    • Vividly, grotesquely colorful (cone cells less effective in the dark).

    • Those who go out during the day must wear sunglasses, a hat, or other eye protection.

    • Monsters and demons more so like diurnal species, angelic / majestic creatures more so like nocturnal species.

Random Scifi / Fantasy Ideas

  • Flower / pollen / spring apoptomancer.

  • A reverse werewolf / Hyde / Hulk. Temporarily shift into energetic, manic, ambitious, strong, intelligent, etc, but somewhat unempathetic and detached- like detox Morty.

  • "Butterfy" / pixie chaos(-theory) magic.

  • Parasite of the Gods.

  • A perpetual chain reaction of causality from another universe.

  • Twister Troops: Create whirlwinds and ride them. High mortality rate.

  • Gorgon / Medusa / Basilisk petrification as metaphor for anxiety, depression, or stagnation.

  • A species that births different offspring depending on whether or not the eggs were fertilized.

  • Kawauso as Kappa / Deep One transformation of otters.

  • Mani Jul as Kappa butt ball as Dragon Quest-style Slime.

  • Rocket / impulse deceleration boots.

  • Soft Mother / Wire Mother.

  • Biological implications of a creature with a pocket dimension inside of it.

  • Fossil Golem.

  • Starbarian.

  • Bodhisattva vampire. By rejecting immortality and burning in light, they become "something else".

  • Dog Mutants: Dogs are adaptable and have been relatively rapidly mutated in ways physically and behaviorally unique.

  • Temporal "memory sense"; some alternate memory system as a sensory mechanism.

  • Spellbeasts: Based on the GLOG idea of living spells. These have taken physical form and take various shapes and sizes.

  • A Borg-like cyborg / transhuman hybrid species that loses its technological abilities and has adapted / evolved into a solely organic species.

  • Protobeings: A fantasy pre-history setting. The world is new, low entropy, there is an inherent order to things. The protobeings lack knowledge and history and advancements, but are magical and fey- or god-like, more in tune with nature, but a kind of nature that is uncanny to our perceptions because of its orderedness. Whereas we think of Order=Civilization vs. Chaos=Nature, the relationship between the protobeings and nature is the inverse.

  • Carnopolis Cyborgs: Organic internals have evolved into a robot shell. Mostly nerves and cardiovascular system and brain, and fat as padding. Higher thought mostly digital, brain used more for autonomic processes and memory. Those damaged are sometimes reshaped and given more primitive, animal intelligences.

  • Massive, slimy, dirigible-like floating predator-plant propelled by noxious gases.

  • Coffin monster and/or pocket dimension.

  • Saint as "Holy Vampire".

  • Colorful, iridescent shadows.

  • A city of "exploded" architecture like a multidimensional diorama space.

  • Dragon Mole.

  • Mustard Men: Humanoid plants with balloon-like heads full of toxic mustard gas.

  • Weapon made of a compressed universe or spatial dimension.

  • Rainbow ape fae.

  • Geistlos: Superhumans with no souls.

  • Pugmen: Not actually pugs, just heavily inbred species.

  • Whistle of the Giant Rat.

  • Metallic / Chromatic Bats.

  • Hippo-Ogre.

  • Laughing Gecko.

  • Aye Aye knocking on the wall (weird finger).

  • Neon Dolphin.

  • Living Missile.

  • A creature with spiders / octopi for hands.

  • A lich except with other things instead of a soul like brain, heart, brawn, etc.

  • Souldier ("soul soldier").

  • Bomb bees. Their stingers inject explosive chemicals.

  • Missile shark / robo-bulette.

  • Gun Worm.

  • Caveman weapon of mass destruction. Weapon of Darkness. Debilitator and danger as a relative concept, independent of technology or other forms of progress. Liminal state between human / conscious and "the wild" / beasts.

  • Emoji-Men.

Game Mechanics Ideas

  • Track every killed monster on a character sheet. Can temporarily revive defeated monsters to fight for you, but lose that experience.

  • Garudas and Gaussians: Binary-outcome system.

  • RPG Madlibs.

  • Eightball resolution.

  • Final Form: A game hack or set of tables to generate a DBZ-style "Final Form".

  • Ending Quest: A play on my dissatisfaction with never-ending RPGs.

  • Dice mechanic where you have to roll between two values (probably percentile). This allows you to instantiate both the properties of the PC and their opposition (e.g. roll under attribute, but roll over AC, creating the range to roll within).

  • Vector / Decision Tree mechanic for multi-step action resolution such as heists.

  • Rules-light OSR-style game built around random dungeons with an Enter the Gungeon / Rogue Legacy-style time or generational-based ludo-narrative, and some mechanics to tie each player's characters together in that sense.

  • Some sort of storygame meets tactical combat / strategy wargame wherein events in the past are retconned through time-travel as a function of narration / game mechanics.

  • A framework for creating X-crawl systems.

  • Stagger Stress System (i.e. FFXIII). Morale-derived? Another kind of HP abstraction?

  • Tactical positioning game (i.e. Into the Breach).

  • Jax-based resolution mechanic. Can it be diegetic?

  • Birdwatching / Pokemon Snap-style game.

  • Spaceship bridge crew game inspired by the LAN game Artemis. Rather than sitting at a single table, ideally, the players should be spread out. Each player operates some stations (engines, weapons, piloting, etc.). The captain receives specific information from the GM, and because the players are spread out, generally the captain is the one who will coordinate between the different stations. There is perhaps an "event deck" that the GM draws from periodically and/or at a fixed rate so that there is a semi real-time element to it, creating tension.

  • A combat resolution die (e.g. d4 for short, d8 for medium, d12 for long) rolled at the beginning of combat. Combat always resolves at the end of the die, with the outcome determined by the amount of progress made e.g. if enemies were mostly defeated, they are entirely destroyed or run away; a critical mission is failed (failed to deactivate the bomb, an enemy sniped the prince, the boss arrives, you were spotted, etc.).

  • Spells tied to an attribute and/or HP e.g. a level 1 spell costs 1d4 HP/int/wis/cha, level 2 costs 1d6, level 3 costs 1d8, etc.

  • A super-fast creature that behaves physically fluid-like and exists in a gameplay sense "between actions". It moves so fast that it resolves its actions between the resolution of other actions.

  • Animal setting generator: Roll ten animals from a random animal table. Two are humanoid and intelligent, two are intelligent but not humanoid, three are mundane, three have fantastical properties (roll twice on a magical quality / mutation / etc. table).

  • Rainbow beasts puzzle: Monsters are color-coded ROYGBIV, and can only be injured if a wand / lasergun is set to the corresponding frequency. The enemies may be a mix of colors, so the party would have to decide which colors to target on each turn.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter

Originally posted in the OSR Pit.


The anime Food Wars is about a highly competitive, iron chef-esque Japanese culinary high school. It’s funny, engaging, clever, mouth-watering, dramatic, sexy, basically all of the things I like.

The main character, Yukihira Soma, is in some ways a very stereotypical shonen anime character, but there is one characteristic about him that I feel is unique, and speaks to the intelligence of this show.

He likes to experiment; combining ingredients that make absolutely no sense together, that are even viscerally disgusting. And, he doesn’t really care whether or not it works. There is value in the exploration and experimentation, even if the end result cannot possibly succeed, because he understands the fundamental components of cooking and can meaningfully apply these speculations.

And so, he makes grilled squid and peanut butter.



This is how I think about genre conventions.

I can respect a well-realized but otherwise basic setting, and I can even see the logic in conforming to these conventions. Game of Thrones, for instance, is about political machinations and grand drama, at a level of depth which would be difficult to do in a very Weird setting; in this case, it makes sense to keep it mostly low fantasy, and mostly traditional fantasy where it’s supernatural at all.

Likewise, I can understand the logic of less is more; of using a mostly mundane setting to accentuate one very Weird idea, and explore that well. As much as I love the Lovecraft Mythos, creators often struggle to make it work to the same effect when integrated into an already overloaded, high-power fantasy setting. Or similarly, taking something that is well understood, and subverting it in some very clever way, like the comic book Rat Queens which juxtaposes modern sensibilities with traditional fantasy to positive effect.

But for me, I like Weird, Gonzo, Pulp. I want a million ideas jam-packed together, that don’t really make sense and don’t pretend that they do. That is fundamentally different in some critical way, intentionally or not, as the sum of its parts or at the level of its parts, than anything that has come before. There is an art to all of those cases I describe above, but there is also an art to doing something truly Weird, genre-defying, and unapologetically unrestrained, and those are the works that most inspire me and that I strive to create.

Sometimes those ideas work and sometimes they don’t, and it’s important to understand why. I’m willing to acknowledge when an idea doesn’t work, or when I think it failed to work because of something I did or didn’t do that is ancillary to the core idea itself.

These ideas require more buy-in from the audience. I can’t leverage your preconceived notions of orcs and elves, or colonial marines, or whatever else the case may be. That means I have to do more to earn that buy-in, to pique the interest of the reader, to express the core concepts coherently, or have such compelling ideas that even without context they are engaging. It also means the ideas themselves have to be better. All of this, when the audience for something of that sort may not even be that large. Some people just want orcs and elves, and there’s not anything I’m going to be able to do about that.

So, sometimes, I create something that I know can’t possibly work, something like Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter, just to see what happens. 9 times out of 10 I am more interested in an ambitious idea that fails, than a safe idea that succeeds.

But also, there is a difference between throwing random shit together or making over-ambitious hypotheses out of ignorance, and doing so because you understand the things you’re doing and want to understand them better.

That’s where the brilliance of Yukihira Soma comes into play. He understands flavor profiles and cooking methods, he understands Grilled Squid and also Peanut Butter, and where they work and where they don’t and why, but he chooses to experiment anyway, just to see if there’s anything he missed, some emergent, inconceivable phenomena, that would make it delicious. Or that still fails, but that he might take with him to another recipe.

So I will end with a food idea. The next time you make pancakes or waffles, mix some soy sauce into your maple syrup; 2 parts maple syrup to 1 part soy sauce, or to your own taste. You can even very briefly boil or simmer them together to get some more caramel-y notes. Some people completely balk at this concoction, but the mix of sweet and salty, and especially these two with rich, complex notes, is wonderful. Not just the saltiness, but also the umami of the soy sauce, combines so well with the sweetness of the maple syrup. It’s even better than salted caramel, or like the sauce of mitarashi dango.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Modern / Progressive takes on Genre Fiction

Originally posted on the OSR Pit.

I recently watched both Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn on HBO Max, and both shows are excellent and brilliant and really spoke to me both in unique ways.

One thing that really struck me, and this is something I’ve been feeling for some time, but hadn’t seen it done as explicitly as in these two shows, is how these shows recontextualize the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, Weird, etc., which were historically portrayed as horrific and rooted in xenophobia, in a way that is consistent with the original concepts, but is now empowering and inclusive. It all feels much more relatable, even as a straight white cis-gender male, and just as if not more so creatively and intellectually engaging.

I had read Grant Morrison’s run of Doom Patrol years ago and I was generally aware of how much Grant Morrison has inspired me over the years, but the show felt like it was reading my mind in terms of exactly what I’m trying to do with Maximum Recursion Depth. Likewise, I haven’t fully processed it all yet, but the Harley Quinn show has me excited about and interested in superheroes in a way I have not felt for several years now. I think Marvel and DC would do well to incorporate these ideas into the comics if they hope to remain relevant.

I realize that there have been many other works along these lines, like The Ballad of Black Tom or Lovecraft Country for HP Lovecraft (the latter I still have not read nor seen the show), Imaro or possibly also Elric for Conan (neither of which I have read, unfortunately), and of course many more. But I do think there’s something about these two shows, in particular, their specific sensibilities, that to me seems really telling about what the future of genre fiction and probably also RPGs entails.

This feels very in-line with a lot of the indie TTRPG / SWORDDREAM-space, the sort of post-OSR-exclusivity BS that always drove me crazy, where we can talk about and acknowledge these more complex social issues, and also Weird high concept fantasy, and we can do both in a way that is organic and functions on multiple levels of subtext.

So when I say modern / progressive genre fiction, I don’t just mean in the social equality sense per se, but in a very literal sense, I think these kinds of works are telling about the future of genre fiction.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is. I’d assumed, at the beginning of the Trump era, let alone whatever happens from covid, that this was all going to have a profound effect on culture and zeitgeist, but I wasn’t sure exactly what shape that would take, but now I think I’m beginning to see it, and it has me very excited. So I guess this is just me putting those thoughts out there, and asking if other people feel the same way, or have other thoughts about the future of genre fiction.

The key components I see, and this is absolutely a non-exhaustive, stream of consciousness list, but roughly:

  • Characters who are deeply flawed, but conscious of this fact and, importantly, are striving to improve.
  • While interpersonal conflict exists, real communication is important.
  • Weirdness happens and to a certain extent, you just have to be willing to go along for the ride.
  • Weird can be dangerous, but it is not to be feared.
  • Normal can be just as weird as Weird.
  • Weird can be just as normal as Normal.
  • Not just intellectual white men can be quirky, brilliant, angsty assholes.
  • It is not unreasonable to look at the universe, at the macrocosmic / cosmic scale or the microcosmic / societal scale, and feel existential dread or nihilism, but it is generally better to try to relish in the absurdity of it all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Retrospective: Pixels & Platforms

I enjoyed writing the Mythic Beings Retrospective, a re-examination of my very first post, so I decided to do another retrospective. I recently published my second game, Maximum Recursion Depth, for the Eclectic Bastionjam, so I thought I might do a retrospective on my first game, Pixels & Platforms for the SWORDDREAM DREAMJAM (I also wrote an article about P&P for the high level games blog).

Overview

P&P is intended to simulate the experience of old-school 2D platformer videogames in a tabletop RPG, using a resolution mechanic building off of Lasers & Feelings. It is loosely framed within my setting The Quantumverse, although the way I present it in P&P is more so like an off-brand NES crossover (although I do have bigger ideas for that setting which I haven't written about).

There are three attributes; JUMP, SPECIAL, and FIGHT, and each attribute has a Light and Heavy input. For each attribute, you choose a NICE! number between 2-5. For Light actions, you want to roll over the NICE! number (lower is better), and the reverse for Heavy. The particulars of what these attributes are used for, and the differences between Light and Heavy Inputs for each attribute, are described in further detail in the Select Screen and Control sections of the game, but this is the core of the game mechanics.

The CPU (the term for the GM in this system), designs a Platform Crawl, a series of Screens (or Stages, or Worlds, depending on the scope of the game), consisting of traversable platforms and various enemies and obstacles. Unlike a real 2D Platformer videogame, there is obviously no real-time input for platforming, and very early on I decided that the challenge should not come from success or failure on JUMP rolls per se; that would basically just be chance and not very much fun. Instead, the platform crawls should be designed such that there are many ways to go about getting from one end of a stage to another, and it's a matter of the party figuring out how to leverage their attributes and special abilities to collectively get across. In some ways, it's almost more like a boardgame than a TTRPG per se, for better or worse. I have some additional thoughts on this which I discuss in the conclusion.

There were a lot of ideas for this game that I think worked, and some that didn't. It's biggest flaws, I think, are that it lacks polish and that it needed more supplementary content. In particular, it very clearly needed to have a platform crawl module included. Despite being a small game, I think it was actually fairly ambitious in what it tried to do, but as a result, I needed to do more within the text to demonstrate to readers how it should work. I also think I needed to have a deeper understanding of it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had designed the resolution mechanics and the platform crawl concept independently and tested them at least to some extent independently, to better understand how to polish the mechanics and articulate them. In general, I needed more playtesting.

That being said, I still think it is an interesting game, with ideas worth consideration and worth exploring further, and I hope this retrospective maybe convinces people to give it a look, or think about these ideas, and maybe I will be able to one day come back to this game and turn it into what it really should be.


Things that worked

The layout could use some work, it's definitely pretty dense, but otherwise, I think looks pretty good. HarveydentMD's cover art is great, and the itch page looks good, and I'm happy with the font I used for the game text itself. It's like a poor man's Super Blood Harvest. In retrospect, if he were even open to doing it, I wish I had commissioned HarveydentMD to do the layout as well and make the whole game look like the cover art and itch page, then it would compare more closely with SBH.

I have mixed feelings about some of the terminology, but overall, I really wanted the game mechanics, down to even the terminology, to be evocative of old-school videogames, and I think I succeeded in that regard. Whether that ultimately makes for a better TTRPG experience is a separate question which I'll discuss later.

The setting. Despite the fact that I include very little explicitly about The Quantumverse within P&P itself, and most of what is included is like an off-brand Nintendo crossover, I still like the way the character classes, enemies, items, etc., generally present. I had some more ambitious ideas for the setting which I never ended up writing about, unfortunately, but I assure you there was more to this setting, in a classic Weird & Wonderful way, if you've been following this blog long enough to have any sense of what that means. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I'll ever come back to this setting unless out of nowhere there is suddenly an outcry for more on this game or setting, which is a shame, but my main focus right now is MRD.

The classes. With the caveat that they needed more playtesting and balancing, and I don't necessarily think it makes sense for only two classes to have a variety of options given the Spellbook. In retrospect, there should have been some caveat, like maybe the spell they can cast at any one time is selected randomly, so at least there's a tradeoff to their versatility, or something like that. In any case, I tried to give the different classes special abilities which actually made them interesting and change how a player could interact with the world, and I think within the context of the platform crawl design, it makes sense. It's more prescriptive than I generally prefer in TTRPGs, but within the context of what P&P is supposed to be, I think it makes sense.

The core resolution mechanic. The idea of treating an attribute as two-dimensional; as an axis, where the number on that axis doesn't necessarily mean good or bad, but good at one category of thing and proportionally worse at an opposing category of thing, is really clever and in my opinion underutilized in TTRPGs. I don't understand why this mechanic exists only in L&F or L&F hacks. P&P is to the best of my knowledge the first and only game to actively try to build on this mechanic, as opposed to being just a straightforward hack, and also to leverage it in a totally different way, that way being as a "simulationist"-style mechanic.

Along those lines, putting aside the toxic and, I'll say frankly, stupid debates people used to have on "GNS", since as far as I'm concerned it's a decent heuristic regardless of whether it is a fundamental truth of the universe, it is the only game I can think of that is "simulationist", while also being rules light. "Simulationist" games are generally very crunchy, whereas I tried to use the simplicity of the two-dimensional attributes along with the terminology and platform crawl design pattern to simulate the experience of an old-school 2D platformer videogame in the absence of "high-fidelity" crunch. Regardless of whether or to what extent it succeeded, I still think this is conceptually really cool and with some polish could potentially work quite well.

Things that did not work

Due to time constraints, I only had one playtest, and that one playtest went poorly, which was part of why I did not follow up with as much additional content for the game as I had originally intended. I do genuinely think the poor playtest was in part due to extenuating circumstances and a couple real rooky mistakes in how I ran it, but it was still discouraging. I made a lot of changes after that playtest which I do think were for the best, but those changes were not playtested, so I am not as confident as I would like to be that those changes succeeded. There are also some things when I look back at the game, even without further playtesting, that I know are rough around the edges and need more work.

I said this in the overview, but this game absolutely needed a platform crawl module included. At the core of P&P is a very goal-oriented, puzzle-like design pattern that I think could really appeal both to OSR gamers and the kinds of people who like the tactical combat of D&D 3.+, but without a demonstration, I think it was hard to explain this concept to anyone. Also, frankly, I am not a very visuospatially capable person in the first place, so in retrospect, I wish I had collaborated with someone with those kinds of sensibilities, or even attempted some kind of random auto-generation approach. While this game is not crunchy, it does require a playmat or some other visual or tactile representation, and my reticence to acknowledge that hurt my playtest and the lack of that kind of support really hurt the game as a whole. I do not own Mario Maker, but my players had rightfully suggested that something like Mario Maker could have been a useful tool for roughly designing platform crawls. I still think that, or just taking asset rips of the stages from old-school 2D platformer videogames, could work really well for P&P, at least as proofs of concept.

My hope was that the terminology would be flavorful, and also intuitive. However, at least in the playtest, everyone had a very difficult time keeping track of the terminology, myself included, mainly from being flustered because I definitely understood it all beforehand, but if I failed to keep track of it while running the game, that means it failed. After the fact, I completely reworked the terminology. Rather than having separate terms for each end of the axis for the three attributes, and using the terms Left and Right "Inputs" for the axes of the attributes which obviously got conflated with left and right movement across the Stages, I replaced Left and Right with Light and Heavy, and just referred to them as e.g. Light Jump and Heavy Jump rather than unique terms for each. I also think maybe some kind of visual aid even within the game text itself, like a graphic showing what a rollover vs. a roll-under success would look like next to the description of Light and Heavy Inputs, could have been very helpful. Given how the first playtest went, I am somewhat skeptical whether these new terms work and would ideally like to playtest them as well, although I do hope they're at least an improvement.

Conclusion

Talking about this game really makes me want to playtest it again, and design a proper platform crawl module to go along with it. This concept I genuinely think has so much potential, but it's very experimental and just needed more time and playtesting. I almost would want to make it a sub-game, like run a campaign in The Quantumverse using something more like an Into the Odd / Super Blood Harvest hack, and then make platform crawls an occasional thing like one might do with hex crawls, dungeon crawls, point crawls, etc. That would also put a lot of burden off of this system to accommodate more heavy lifting in RP or non-platform crawl activities, which is decidedly not the case.

If this at all seems appealing to you, please let me know. My main focus right now is on developing and expanding Maximum Recursion Depth, so it would be hard to justify putting more work into this unless there was any interest whatsoever in it, but clearly I'm trying to talk myself into it...