My Games

Friday, April 23, 2021

Anyone Can Wear the Mask with Jeff Stormer!

I got to play Anyone Can Wear the Mask with the man himself, Jeff Stormer! We played over Discord, with Jeff as The City, me as The Villain, and my friend Aaron as The Hero. I had listened to some actual plays of the game he had done with The One Shot Podcast Network and on his own Party of One Podcast.

The game was very loosely set in Maximum Recursion Depth, and specifically in "Bell City" inspired by Jeff's experiences living in Philadelphia. It was also a pretty much entirely nonviolent scenario. Both the hero and the villain, and nearly all of the other characters, had nonviolent-based powers, and most of the threats encountered were of a nonviolent nature. We hadn't explicitly set out to do that necessarily, but I think it's pretty consistent with how I've been thinking about things and trying to do things lately so it was a pleasant outcome. It's also cool to see that this system totally supports that kind of play.

Play Report

Bell City was broken up into the following neighborhoods:
North Bell - Riverside (Clubs)
South Bell - Downtown (Spades)
East Bell - Historical Philly (Diamonds)
West Bell - The District of Neighborhoods (Hearts)

Chris Harris (He/His) is our hero, although he has no superhero costume or alter ego, he's just a guy out there with powers, doing good. He's a college student at West Bell Arts University. The powers were drawn from this list, and Chris has the power-
Memetic: Their photos, drawings, writings, etc., tap into the metaphysical collective unconscious, virally infecting culture within a matter of days. Often the tail of the meme lasts only just as long.

Lorenzo Tan (He/His) is our villain. He's sort of the corporate executive evil supergenius archetype along the lines of a Lex Luthor. His power is-
Letter of the Law: Has a supernatural ability to identify rules, regulations, laws, bureaucratic organization, etc., and additionally to either find the loopholes in them, or enforce them through legal writing, counseling, or courtroom tactics.
The big catch with Lorenzo, is that he explicitly does not do anything illegal. He does plenty of shady stuff, and as the head of a major corporation he is often twisting the laws in his own favor, but he will not be entrapped. Defeating him will require some kind of resistance against the status quo.

Chris lives in Paintcan Alley in West Bell, an area with a lot of affordable housing for the students, but since it's an art school, the whole neighborhood is full of cool art projects and it's a kind of low-key hip area. He's got several roommates, some of whom are students and some of whom dropped out or never went to college but are old childhood friends.

One of them, Cyrus, works odd jobs as a handyman, but has a history of misdemeanors and was caught stealing from the evil corporation he was working for. Cyrus asks Chris to intercede on his behalf, so Chris heads to Stanwick Tower, the massive, iconic centerpiece building of Downtown South Bell.

At the top of Stanwick Tower is a secret rooftop garden full of vibrant, over-lush, indulgent, bizarre, and exotic plants. Cyrus' client was Professor Kentucky "Tuck" Johnson, a sleazy tax-haven art dealer and part-time professor, who knows Chris from one of his classes. Tuck is organizing a convoluted pyramid scheme; a blockchain-based virtual art gallery composed of NFT art, with a cryptocurrency valued off of the value of the museum as the "bank". However, the scheme is The Producers-esque, where the company is depending on the value of the bank being low, at the expense of the artists and the community funding it. Chris is forced to contribute to this scheme, or else Tuck will report Cyrus and he'll go to prison.

Chris's girlfriend, Tessa Kincaid, is a computer science graduate student and hacktivist. They work together to promote the virtual gallery and turn it into something profitable and empowering for the community, at the company's expense, but with plausible deniability with regard to his obligation to Tuck.

At the gallery opening, Chris meets a high school art prodigy, Pete Jenkins. Pete has the power-
Artist's Touch: Their touch imbues objects or surfaces with an inherent, aesthetic sense of "art". Likewise, by touching art, they can extract the aesthetics from it. The object or surface does not change, merely others' perceptions of it.

Pete is a tragic, misunderstood, awkward kid, with so much potential, but who could easily succumb to his darker impulses and inability to understand society. Chris, using his Memetic powers, takes Pete on as something like a protege or sidekick, in some ways serving as an editor on his art to help him refine his works into something that is still true to himself, but also that others can better understand and appreciate.

Along the North Bell Riverside is an old warship that now serves as a tourist attraction in the pseudo-historical, touristy, family-friendly Riverside area. Suddenly, people begin to lose their memories and become confused, and soon they take on the personas of pirates and privateers in battle. The ship is being haunted by the Poltergeist Fanny Rotten Forgotten. There's an old wive's tale, that Fanny's husband was a fisherman who left to become a pirate, hoping the lucrative treasures could be used to raise his family. However, after so many years, he was yet to return. In her grief, Fanny took arms against the pirates when, years and years later they did return, but by then she had forgotten what her husband even looked like. Chris wades through the chaos to reach Fanny, and uses his memetic powers to remind her of her past; and rather than channeling her frustrations on how much the neighborhood has changed and become unrecognizable (a metaphor for her own grief), she should instead appreciate that the neighborhood still exists, and what it has become, and the tokens of the past still present. This returns things to normal, although many people still have foggy or forgotten memories, including Chris.

An old friend who has been gone for some time overseas reaches out to Chris, but because of his recent memory loss, he does not remember who this person is. They ask Chris to infiltrate the shipping yard to retrieve an important shipment, and to keep absolute secrecy and not even tell anyone that they're back in town or talking with Chris. There are shady rumors about this person and Chris isn't sure if he can trust them, or how much this person knows about his powers.

Chris manages to sneak in and finds that it's a government shipment, surrounded by scientists in lab coats. When Chris and this person meet up with the item, his memories begin to come back. The "old friend" is actually his uncle, who also has Memetic-related powers. Whereas Chris can spread Memetic information across the Noosphere, his uncle can perceive it, and this is how he's able to return Chris's memories.

From the uncle "reading" the package, they're able to learn that this is all connected to something called The Doppler Potential: Super-organism distributed intelligence that evolved as an epiphenomenon of the formation of the United States Government, to which it is inextricably linked. It is part of the Karmic Cycle and legally human according to the Celestial Bureaucracy, but seeks to attain godhood. It does not hide its existence, as there is no need to do so. Its existence marginalizes humans as merely nodes of a larger consciousness, which most humans find existentially untenable and so deny it in the face of all evidence or grant it uncritical token acknowledgment.

Again using the uncle's powers, they learn that The Doppler Potential has set off a cascade of events that will cause a subway train collision into the Bell City Megaplex, an underground mall in the middle of downtown. They arrive in the middle of the night, but the Doppler Potential has shut down all electricity and network access and trapped them inside. They discover that the train has been possessed by The Ghost in the Machine, which has been manipulated into lashing out against the modernization of the city. Chris finds some of Pete's transgressive graffiti inside the mall, and uses the evocative imagery to appeal to Ghost in the Machine. However, he is a little too convincing, turning Ghost in the Machine into an aggressive anarchist, who is now broadly lashing out against the city, inadvertently hurting people even as it aims to topple the corporations vying for control over the city.

As chaos ensues, Lorenzo Tan uses this as a smokescreen to buy up large swathes of the city and open a new warehouse for his corporation. The poor conditions of the warehouse and new gig economy leave workers exhausted and desperate, Cyrus acts out in protest and is arrested, local businesses are run out of business and replaced by monolithic corporate chains, and the city is metaphorically, and in some ways literally drained dry.

At a historical revolutionary war site in East Bell, poltergeists rise up in a chaotic war between Fanny Rotten Forgotten and her privateers, Ghost in the Machine and the revolutionary soldiers, and the corporate goons. As it turns out, Ghost in the Machine's subway line was once a railroad smuggling ring and war supply line, managed by Fanny's husband's pirates; Ghost in the Machine is Fanny Rotten Forgotten's husband!

They make peace, and Chris, followed by practically the entire city, confront Lorenzo in the mall, who looks down on them from a private office above. Lorenzo uses Chris's relationship with Cyrus, the shady dealings of Tuck and Chris's association with that deal, and the other recent events, to try to portray Chris as a rat, an opportunist trying to take advantage of the people and the city, and not truly fighting for justice and the city. However, the uncle releases the documents from the Doppler Potential heist, and Chris makes a convincing argument for how he's only bringing value to the community, such as how he banded the city against Tuck's NFT art gallery scheme or Pete's political and aspirational street art, and that he decidedly does not want power over the city (in fact, the dangers of his powers and how they could be used for selfishness and evil was his greatest fear for the city).

While he can't force Lorenzo to leave the city, the entire event generates enough bad press that Lorenzo decides it is not worthwhile to continue to pursue his current plans, and instead shuts down the warehouse and leaves the city (for now). Many of the businesses affected by Lorenzo will never return, and Cyrus will always have a mark on his record, but new businesses startup and the city develops a rebellious spirit, especially among the younger generation. Bell City has become iconic as a place for those with a rebellious spirit who wish to create positive change in the world. The story of Ghost in the Machine and Fanny Rotten Forgotten becomes iconic, the symbols, the cultural icons, for Bell City and this movement.


I had an absolute blast playing this game. Jeff for sure brought a lot of creativity and charisma to the experience, but I have no doubt that Aaron and I could play this again with others, and in fact, have talked about doing so. As someone who plays primarily OSR / NSR type games and not as many narrative games, but who loves worldbuilding and storytelling and also superhero comics, this nonetheless all played out very organically. The system itself is very straightforward and basically unfolds the narrative in itself. I was surprised how easily we were able to tell a coherent and moving superhero story, one that explores themes of personal interest, with themes we were able to establish early on and use as throughlines for the whole session, culminating in something that felt weighty and impactful, as if we had carefully constructed the story as if we knew how it would end from the very beginning. I could also very easily imagine using this system as a starting point to build a world for a larger campaign. I am very glad to have supported this game and had the opportunity to play with Jeff, I hope people enjoyed this story and check out the game for themselves!

Friday, April 16, 2021

MRD Campaign Play Report Summaries (6-11)

My Maximum Recursion Depth campaign has continued, yet it's been a while since I've written a play report. You can see a summary of the last handful of sessions here, and from there it links to a bunch of other stuff if you're interested. Here I will attempt to summarize the last several sessions of the campaign.

If you're interested more in my approach to game design and GMing style, check out some of my other recent posts like my post on non-combat conflict encounters which includes some examples from the module in the (slightly delayed but still soon to come) MRD book, or my post on how rather than narrative or problem-solving or the usual things people look for in RPGs per se, my main interest is in exploring tabletop RPGs as performance art.

I tried to keep these PRs brief, might be missing or misremembering certain details, but hopefully these are mostly on point.


Alco (SlimyKeyboard): A student in a trade school for plumbing. While working the pipes for the Poltergeist Investigators (the original team), she inadvertently activated her Poltergeist Form, Ghost in the Mirror, and has since joined the team.

Jack (Eight): A "wetworker", a Recurser with the Poltergeist Form, On a Full Moon an Ichor Heart. Works for the Nature Spirit drug dealer Chester, and has joined this team of Poltergeist Investigators on Chester's behalf.

Adore "Dori" Greyfeldt (Fiona Maeve Geist): An enforcer, also working with the team on Chester's behalf. Her Poltergeist Form is Crashing Rocket Nixie.

Pauling Linus had to drop out because the Player had a baby! He may eventually come back, but is not involved in any of these play reports.

PR 6
The Team head to Forest Hills, Queens, for the Christmas Toy Drive Festival. After the Christmas in July (in August) Toy Drive Festival Fiasco, many expect the return of Pepper Pan and the Recess Rascals, and the Poltergeist the Team is investigating, Barry O’Brien-Gonzalez aka Junior, is suspected to have joined the Recess Rascals.

The Team splits up to investigate various locations. Dori investigates the Metropolitan Theater and encounters a Recess Rascal with the powers of superhero action figure Macro-Man and has to play an elaborate game of hide and seek.

Jack investigates Edie's Sweetes Shoppe and has to do an Egg Cream drinking bet with a bloated Scurvy Kid, at risk of getting a Tummy Ache (or the scurvy kid exploding...).

Alco heads to Alphonso's Chocolatier and gets into a PRO Conflict with a Recess Rascal protected by a Devil in the form of a human-sized Suzy Suburb doll.

Altogether, they get into a curry cooking competition with a group of Recess Rascals at Segura's Curry Shop and they win a Funky Pot.

Eventually, Pepper Pan makes her move, and the Arch-Devil of The Court of Those Who Break Their Toys, Joffrey the Giraffe, hack into the electronics in the area. The Team manages to disable Joffrey and banish him back to his Court, defeat Pepper Pan and the Recess Rascals, and after a troubling conversation with Junior over his short life and the unfairness of his existence, they help him to be properly reincarnated.

PR 7
Via "GM Fiat", I tell the players that the Team is at a fancy apartment in Tribeca, investigating the Poltergeist of Olivia Loeb, alongside Soft Mother and "Denny" (Do No Evil Monkey Robot). They are not aware of who sent them on this Investigation, or why, and they do not actually ask this question for at least a couple more sessions! Olivia Loeb is the granddaughter of Manny Loeb, the suspected head of the underground casino (the same that Barry O'Brien was indebted to in the last Investigation), and it is believed that Olivia died in some internal gang conflict.

They investigate "The Loop" of the apartment building, basically a micro hyperloop in place of an elevator in the building, which distorts their perceptions within the tube via a Doppler Effect (why would one experience a Doppler Effect from within a moving object...;)?).

They encounter some strangeness, and Doctor Loves-Me-Not attempts to reach them and give them warnings through landline phones throughout the apartment. Eventually, suspect that they are in some kind of unreal space, but the particulars elude them and they move on to follow up on other things.

Also, Jack is hacked and blackmailed by a mysterious individual known as The Multi-Armed Bandit, who demands that he rescue a woman, Yana Yasak, who had been framed for corporate espionage, as she has information on the underground casino. It is unknown at this time what the Multi-Armed Bandit actually wants.

Yana's Devil Dog

PR 8
Via "GM Fiat" again, the Team is at the Apartment, waiting to speak with Doctor Loves-Me-Not, where they first encounter two odd fellows, Hopscotch and Honeybee.
“It’s me. I’ve routed The Loop to my hideout, it’s safe. Come.”
When they arrive, Hopscotch and Honeybee are there.
“Ooh! We made this appointment for-eeeever ago, and he’s gonna see youse guys first?” 
The team asks who they are:
“Eeh, don’t w-ooorry about it. We’re not imp-ooortant yet. The guy in charge just likes us to make an appearance now and then.”
Honeybee says: “It’s not like we’re short on time, hehe.”
Hopscotch: “Ooh! Don’t say that around them. They don’t know what’s going on, they have no i-dea what they’re in for. You’re just gonna conf-uuuuse them. Anyway folks, nothing to it, go on to your appointment.”
Doctor Loves-Me-Not goes on to give them three oracle-like hints: 
"Don't Trust Her"
"Now is the time to Explore, not to Exploit"
"Remember Where You are in Relation to the Siren"

The Team is using The Court of Those Who Bet on the Wrong Horse as their base of operations, so after coming out of this shared cognitive distortion and back to reality, they head there to discuss with Barsabbas and amongst themselves their plan.

They come up with an elaborate heist to rescue Yana Yasak from the Brooklyn Detention Center, made more complicated by her Karmically Attached Devil Dog. They also have to circumvent the hostile and extremely unethical Orange Goblin paramilitary private security hired to watch Yana. Using Alco's plumbing knowledge, they manage to break in in disguise as plumbers, rescue Yana and send her through a portal to the Court. Afterward, she reveals some more information about the casino and gang conflict and provides the Team with a Torch of Primordial Fire, a Poltergeist-busting flashlight that also provides WIS insights.

They return to the Apartment to finally rescue Olivia, at which point they encounter Dick "Fuck Ya" Smashburn and a SWAT military-police team roll up on the scene, along with the experimentally-powered Redlight / Greenlight soldiers (cliffhanger for next session).

PR 9
The Team holds them off for a while before Wire Mother shows up and all hell breaks loose. They do manage to escape, but only after Dori makes a suicide run to hold off the opposition and then uses her Reincarnation Ritual.

With Olivia now in their Court, the Team wants to assault the underground casino, both to resolve this Investigation, and also because of The Multi-Armed Bandit.

Several events unfold in the planning:

Yohannes, the grandson of Shining Ostrich and a higher-ranking member of the underground casino, wants to talk with the Team and initiate them. This would involve a Karmic Attachment / blood pact where they accept that eventually, one of them will be forced to kill one of the companions. Olivia makes a counter-offer, and Dori decides to make a Karmic Attachment with Olivia, a blood pact to be her protector for the rest of her life, without first consulting Yohannes. In return, Olivia will keep Dori's counsel and interests.

Jack is forced by The Multi-Armed Bandit to make a Karmic Attachment with Alco, to develop a genuine empathetic connection with her (not romantic or anything like that, just to open up as a person and accept someone else in his life).

The Team reveals to Barsabbas the truth that the Court of Those Who Bet on the Wrong Horse had been decommissioned unbeknownst to him, due to Bureaucratic Error. They make a business deal* with him that if they take over the underground casino, they'll work with Barsabbas to get the Court recommissioned.

* I made a point of saying several times to the Team that this would be just a "business deal", in contrast to the Karmic Attachment "Blood Pacts" with Yohannes and/or Olivia. This is because, unbeknownst to the Team, Barsabbas had already been made aware of the decommissioning inadvertently in conversation with Sweet Romeo, who the Team had left behind in the Court, and Barsabbas had already cut a deal on his own with the casino while the Team had disappeared at The Apartment (details soon!). He intended to fold the Team into these plans and honoring his deal, but he was not aware of Dori's Karmic Attachment with Olivia, which will complicate things down the line...

Through means which I no longer remember off-hand, the Team manages to summon Doctor Loves-Me-Not back to reality and learn a whole bunch of other information. They learned that the formation of the United States Government led to the epiphenomenal birth of an emergent distributed intelligence known as The Doppler Potential, which seeks to attain godhood. It has created an artificial Court of Hell, The Court at the Center of the Universe (And Yet it Moves), and that in fact, The Apartment that they rescued Olivia from is actually part of this artificial Court.

They also learned that whoever killed Olivia had sold her to The Doppler Potential so that she would not wind up in a regular Court of Hell, where inevitably Manny would find out what had happened.

I think this is also the session where they finally questioned how they even got started on this Investigation and were disconcerted to learn that there was no actual answer, or none that they can find, in any case.

They end the session determined to infiltrate and overthrow the underground casino.

PR 10
The Team makes an elaborate plan to infiltrate the casino via multiple avenues. Dori uses Olivia's knowledge to enter. Alco reaches out to Shining Ostrich who gets her invited. Jack returns Sweet Romeo to the Suzano Crime Family and asks them to hire him. Also, I don't remember when exactly this happened now, but Olivia went into a cocoon-like state and can still communicate with Dori but more so empathetically than through words or thoughts. Dori keeps Olivia in her pocket.

Before that, they go to Jack's "Dry Cleaners" where they receive multiple special items, including a Power Suit, Detail Devil, and Mantra of ABC.

During her brief time in the casino, Alco starts gambling and quickly finds herself deep in debt.

As they each infiltrate, they learn that the underground casino is actually just one small part of a much larger organization known as Anti-Sphinx. This organization was founded by Myer Lansky of the National Crime Syndicate, Alan Turing, Hedy Lamarr, the Lakota Code Talkers, and numerous other individuals in organized crime and cryptoanalysis after World War 2. It is an international crime syndicate with numerous legal and illegal ventures, it creates and maintains the QlippothNet "Dark Web" as well as the Qlippoth Hell-Money cryptocurrency, and is also aggressively Antifa.

Full-scale war breaks out as Olivia Loyalists, Barsabbas' Devils, and the Team (including The Bear) face off against Anti-Sphinx and associated crime families. Along the way, Jack questions via evisceration several gangsters, and eventually learns that The Multi-Armed Bandit is actually the Poltergeist Alexei Strauss, the very same who initiated the internet alt-right hate group the Deseret Avengers, and they have infiltrated Anti-Sphinx.

Eventually, they reach Manny Loeb and Yohannes... and Barsabbas!

Barsabbas reveals that he had already worked out a deal with Manny. Additionally, the Team learns that actually Olivia had been gaslighting the aging Manny and committing elder abuse and that a group of Manny Loyalists killed her behind Manny's back in order to protect him and the organization, despite himself. Also, Jack suspects that Alexei had blackmailed them to help Olivia, and that possibly they were working together. Nonetheless, Dori made her Pact with Olivia.

PR 11

Jack attacks Barsabbas, and all hell breaks loose again. Barsabbas, an arch-devil, is mostly unthreatened, however, he expresses hurt that the Team can't see his perspective on why he felt the need to work his own angle, and still wants to come to terms with them, but they aren't having it.

Alco uses her Two Truths and One Lie to glean the following:
"Barsabbas will always work his own angle"
"You were lost in The Court at the Center of the Universe (And Yet it Moves) for much longer than you've been told"
"Barsabbas is rooting against himself"

Jack gets shot real bad and is on death's door. Then, Manny stands up and reveals himself to be an incarnation of the Boddhisatva Manjushri. He tells the Team the Parable of The Chef and The Server, relinquishes control of Anti-Sphinx to Olivia (and by extension the Team), and then asks Dori to shoot him.

The Parable of The Chef and The Server
There was a fine chef who every morning would prepare a meat pie for his king. The server would collect the ingredients; the richest butter, the ripest vegetables, perfectly marbled lamb, the most fragrant herbs and spices; he would give these fine ingredients to the fine chef, and wait on the king until the meat pie was prepared, and he would serve it to the king.
The king loved this meat pie and would lavish praise every day upon the chef, whereas the server would receive only the king’s impatience and contempt as he waited for his meat pie. The server grew jealous, and so one day he slew the chef and made the meat pie for the king himself.
When the server brought his meat pie, the crust was greasy and wet from too much butter. The meat was tough and gamey, as it had not been well tenderized. The vegetables were bitter, they had been chopped coarsely and were undercooked. The pie was under-salted, but also overbearing with too many herbs and spices.
The king was furious and demanded to know why his meat pie was so foul. The server, bewildered and confused, explained that he had made the pie himself, with the same ingredients as the chef had always used, but the king would hear none of it and banished the server from the kingdom.
Yohannes acquiesces to the Team. Using the Detail Devil, the Team retroactively changes the terms of their agreement with Barsabbas to contractually obligate him to work for them, which he seems to accept unbegrudgingly and then leaves. Many within the organization leave immediately in protest.

The Team uses their Funky Pot to merge the dying Jack with Manjushri's flaming sicarii in order to revive him without the need for his Reincarnation Ritual, which would have required him to go on a rampage and destroy much of their new base of operations.

This is where we leave off...

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Weird & Wonderful Player Design Patterns (pt.1?)

This post was inspired by, or rather is a distillation of a thread I had started on The OSR Pit: I am a Bad Player, wherein I discuss my concerns about being a Player in a game, as someone who is usually a GM and also as somebody with atypical preferences. I am currently a Player in Semiurge's game Beyond the Bizarre Armoire, although I don't go into many particulars on that game in this blog post. 

This post is more broadly about how I think there are a lot of OSR / Blogosphere type analyses on how to be better at GMing, but not as many about how to be good Players, and even amongst those, I think there are certain particulars lacking, so this is an attempt to address this. The original post was very stream of consciousness, so I'm going to try to break it down after the fact into smaller and more coherent chunks. I may or may not make this part of a larger series of blog posts, but this first one will focus on what I am calling Player Design Patterns.

Here I'm differentiating between Tips & Tricks, vs. Design Patterns, vs. Specific Implementations. This is an abstraction that is intended to be useful in a heuristic sense, and not overly prescriptive. I'm not looking to get into semantics arguments over what counts as a Tip & Trick vs Design Pattern or whatever, you can define the terms differently or use different terms if you'd like, this is just about creating language and tools closer to what already exists for GMs, but for Players, to help them improve in an efficient and non-linear way (as opposed to just intuiting from experience alone, although of course experience is still crucial). 

Given this schema, here is one example from a GM perspective:

Tip & Trick: Don't Railroad
This is generally good advice. Even this shouldn't necessarily be taken as absolute, but generally, most Players prefer to have agency, and it can allow for problem-solving and emergent play and a whole bunch of other nice things. However, in itself, Don't Railroad doesn't tell you what to do, only what not to do. It doesn't tell you how to write an adventure in a non-railroaded way, or what that looks like, or all the myriad benefits that stem from that kind of design beyond just the straightforward explanation that I gave above.

Design Pattern: Modularity
Rather than prepping linearly, like if you were writing a novel, prep in a modular manner. This not only gives players more agency, but if you keep in mind a handful of specific implementations, including but not limited to those below, you'll likely see how it can actually make prep easier and can make you more adaptable to your Players' decisions when they inevitably jump off the rails.

Specific Implementation: Three Clue Rule; Random Generators; Quantum Ogres; Game Modules
The Three Clue Rule is the idea that if the Players are on an investigation, there should be at least three clues in any given scene. That way, the investigation is not dependent on the Players doing one specific thing or succeeding on one specific roll. Random Generators are a good way to create modular content, by offloading the burden from the GM to create every facet of every scenario from the ground up. That quantum ogre link is just for a specific monster, but I think the term originally came from the idea that, if the Players don't know where the monster is, or don't know which road is the correct one, then the monster is wherever the GM needs it to be, and all roads lead to Rome. This is perhaps more like an invisible railroad rather than being truly modular, but can still be a useful implementation to have in your back pocket. And then most obviously, actually game Modules, which can often be interconnected across a larger campaign given some shared setting assumptions.

You can disagree with some of my specific phrasing, or with the effectiveness of the specific implementation examples, I'm just saying in general, this is a useful way to break apart the kinds of concerns a GM may have, and what to do about them.

There are few, if any, similar kinds of design patterns and implementations for Players, besides the character sheets themselves. Most books or blog posts I've seen, not all but most, stop at the Tip & Trick level. That's better than nothing, but I think it would be even more useful to have Design Patterns, which then lend themselves naturally to Specific Implementations. Here is one example:

Tip & Trick: Write Notes
Writing notes is a good idea. It helps you remember things better. It keeps you focused. You can refer to the notes later. It shows the GM and the other Players that you're engaged with the game and you care. There is nothing wrong with this advice. However, it's vague. It doesn't in itself give you an idea of how to do it effectively. It can put a lot of pressure on the Player and even distract them from playing the game. Some notes are better than others and too many bad notes quickly become the same as having no notes.

Design Pattern: Write Event Cards 
These are short blurbs, a paragraph at most, about an NPC, place, event, etc. Any key sensory details, relationships, or significance to other important Events, etc. By discretizing them onto cards (see Specific Implementations for what that might entail) they're easier to keep track of, and by having some schema of what they are for and what goes on them, it's easier to know when and what to write, and less stressful or distracting. It's also something a GM can just as easily do for their Players or alongside them.

Specific Implementation: Aspects (FATE); Flowcharts; Pinned Discord Messages; Physical Notecards; Computer Database
The most straightforward implementation is just physical notecards. You could also do pinned discord messages if you're playing digitally, or make a SQL or noSQL database if you want to be fancy about it. I personally have grown fond of flowcharts, like you'd see in Crime Dramas, for connecting the Event Cards by their relationships like a graph. The game FATE has a mechanic called Aspects, which takes this idea one step further and actually ties it into the core gameplay loop so that they are not only not distracting, but are actively additive to the game.

If people find this interesting or helpful, I may post more Player Design Patterns in the future. I'm still early in this journey of rediscovering what it means for me to be a Player, given everything I've learned over the years about how to worldbuild, GM, and design games. Besides Design Patterns per se, I have some other thoughts, like the role of Players in a game vs. the GM, or the Player/GM interaction, or Player/Player interaction. We'll see where this goes. I'd also like to maybe just discuss my own anecdotal thoughts and experiences from being a Player, and what I want out of a game as a Player, and so on.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Non-Combat Conflict Encounters

One of the things I'm trying to do with Maximum Recursion Depth is design encounters in such a way that physical conflicts and non-physical conflicts can be treated the same way. I decided to go about this in both directions- physical conflicts can be resolved with a Save roll, but the Conflict mechanics can be applied to any kind of conflict, not just physical conflict. I tried to avoid having too many "GM Tip"-style writeups in the book, but I actually do a section of the book to this topic up-front, so I'll hold off on going into too much depth here, but you can get a sense of it from the Ashcan Edition now if you're interested.

This is not to discourage non-mechanical / player-driven problem-solving solutions to conflicts either, it's more about challenging the default assumptions of how to interact with the game when that becomes non-viable, or for that matter, using the default assumptions to even more so blend the player-driven and mechanical approaches.

I had intended for this post to be more of a general discussion, but since I'm framing it in terms of MRD I do have to provide some MRD-specific context, but I hope people find this interesting regardless.

I've still been struggling with the logistics of coordinating a playtest of the Module, but I've tried to apply this general approach to my ongoing MRD campaign and I feel good about the results up to this point. I've had some Kickstarter backers express interest in participating in a playtest as well as some people on the NSR Discord Server (see the MRD channel), but even if you're not a backer, if you're potentially interested, feel free to reach out to me in the comments here, on the server, or DM me on Discord (you can find me on the NSR server ;)).

In short, here are the basics of the MRD Mechanics:
  • The three Abilities are Nature (willpower, effort), Wisdom (awareness, ability to learn), Propriety (social skills, adaptability).

  • Saves involve d20 roll-under an Ability Score + d6 roll-under Karma Score.

  • Each Ability is its own HP pool for characters (NPCs generally just have one single pool), and so Damage dice denote which Ability they affect e.g. Nd6, Wd4, Pd8, Xd10 (where X means it contextual / varies).

Below is one example of a non-combat conflict encounter for the Module in the first issue. The assumed setting is MRD and I'll provide MRD statblocks, but I tried to make the abilities translatable to other systems, and hopefully, many of these can be also be dropped into another setting with only a little bit of conceptual tweaking. Keep in mind that MRD is somewhat of a Mark of the Odd game, so while it would require some tweaking, you could potentially translate these to Into the Odd or Electric Bastionland or other similar games.

I generally take a stance of, try to come up with context-specific and interesting ways for players to face an encounter, and encourage them to come up with their own ideas. If a Save or Conflict is suggested in the text, that should be used in lieu of a more dynamic approach.

Bad Breath Troll (15 HP)
An explosive burst, toxic fumes spread throughout the train. The fumes are themselves a Poltergeist. Each turn, each PC rolls a NAT Save. On full success take no Damage, on Partial Success take Nd4 Damage, on Partial Failure take Nd6 Damage, and on Full Failure take Nd8 Damage.
The Poltergeist was an internet troll and will try to argue with the party on various topics. It will go away if thoroughly humiliated, or the train is vented.
Karmic Attachment Opportunity: Don’t feed the troll. No good will come of it. Accept the Damage it inflicts, accept the taunts, the bait, the insults, and carry on. The troll has a 50% chance of following the party to any subsequent encounter, and must be successfully ignored three times in a row in order to Resolve the attachment. If anyone retaliates against the Troll, it may go away temporarily, but then the counter resets.

In this case, the Poltergeist that the players encounter here is basically a gas cloud. Yes, it has HP, but you're not going to be swinging a sword at it. Instead, the HP might reflect social conflict or dispersion of the gas particles.

The NAT Save on each turn is a fairly basic way of creating tension or danger in that it deals Damage, although GMs are encouraged to come up with more creative situations. In this case, I chose the NAT Ability Score because I generally map physical exertion or other physical effects to NATure, although NAT can also include mental exertion.

I provide a brief descriptive text and some suggestions for how to confront it. It can be humiliated or vented. After discussion with some people on the MRD channel of the NSR discord server, I chose not to overly define what that entails. Depending on personal preference of GMing style, this could just be a player creativity / problem-solving situation. 

If all else fails, arguing with or humiliating the Troll could be handled with a PRO Save or PRO Conflict, where PROpriety entails one's social standing and ability to operate within society; somewhat like CHArisma but not entirely the same, but as a frame of reference.

If it's handled as a Save, you'd be treating it more like a single event, or like an environmental hazard. But in this game, you could also treat it like Conflict, where the mechanics of a verbal jab are no different than a physical jab, so if you have PRO Damage dice you could do that (but expect to take PRO Damage in return). You could imagine a similar scenario for venting the Troll from the train, needing to conceive of some means of opening the jammed train doors and hold out while the Troll slowly vents out.

In MRD, the Karmic Attachment Opportunities are meant to be core to the gameplay loop and incentivization structure, somewhat like XP. In this case, the KAO is meant to create a tension where the players are encouraged to ignore this threat, even as puts you in greater peril, and may compound future threats. And if you attempt to do so and reach a point where it is not viable to continue to do so or are baited out of doing so, you must confront the sunken cost of the Damage you took trying to ignore it.

If you are not playing in MRD, rather than a KAO, you could tie experience to the approach. Maybe defeating the Poltergeist provides no XP or some lesser amount of XP, whereas ignoring it provides a greater amount of XP, so the players are incentivized, but not forced, to take this approach. If you're not concerned with the philosophical underpinnings that I'm going for, you can just do what you want with it and ignore this, of course.

If you've made it this far into the post, thank you :), and here's a bonus one:

A live One (15 HP)
One of the eggs becomes a vessel for a Poltergeist accidentally reincarnated into the Court. It grows into an existentially frightening human-sized balut monster.
Each turn, each PC rolls a WIS Save. On full success take no Damage, on Partial Success take Wd4 Damage, on Partial Failure take Wd6 Damage, and on Full Failure take Wd8 Damage.
KAO: Help The Live One to overcome the horror of its own half-born state and metamorphose into something beautiful, or help it to come to terms with itself as a horror. The Live One will follow the Team until the attachment is Resolved, providing some assistance, but also requiring care and attention from the Team, or else it will intermittently cause existential dread and/or WIS Damage.

You can see here that I took the same default approach to tension via the Save, although in this case, it's WISdom, relating more so to one's existential or general philosophical understanding of the universe. There is a reason why we often choose to use different terms for meat for consumption vs. live animals e.g. beef == cow, pork == pig, etc. (although I realize there's also an etymological reason in English for this as well).

The KAO is somewhat similar here as in the last one, only rather than ignoring the creature, they are encouraged to engage with it, except in a non-confrontational manner. The players are encouraged, rather than treating this creature as a threat, to instead try to accept it, but doing so is effortful, and the players will need to engage with it in lieu of potentially doing other things.

However, they could also choose to face it head-on, and this could mean a physical fight, but it could also mean any number of other things. Perhaps they try a WIS Save or even WIS Conflict to simply overcome the existential threat of its existence. Perhaps they try to pawn off the obligation of caring for this thing onto a passerby (roleplay or PRO Save / Conflict).

I hope that my intentions with this creature are clear and that it's not inadvertently offensive towards the Filipino Community. I'm a vegetarian and often use the imagery of meat in my works, but this is not intended as a criticism of Filipino food or culture or meant to mock their customs or anything of the sort. I hope the KAO in particular makes it clear that this is about something else entirely anyway. But just in case, make no mistake, STOP ASIAN HATE!