My Games

Friday, May 21, 2021

Poltergeist Form Hacking: Glass Maiden Pixie

This won't make it into the first MRD book, but I've discussed this with my players in my MRD Campaign, that they would like to have some guide for how to create their own Poltergeist Forms. To be honest, in a mechanical sense, it's all pretty fast and loose, but nonetheless, I can see how it would be helpful to have a guide because I was implicitly following a kind of formula.

Fortunately, for the very same campaign, I'm working on an NPC who is a Recurser, who has a prior history with one of the players. Fiona's character Dori, who has the Poltergeist Form Crashing Rocket Nixie, used her Recursion Ritual to escape an assault from Redlight / Greenlight, SWAT, and Wire Mother (see PR 9 in the linked post above). In doing so, she returned to a Court of Hell from her past as a criminal in Denver. She had been tricked into stealing an important object from a powerful gangster, but her partner set her up and ran off with the object. After fleeing to New York she thought she was safe, but by returning to the Court, she has now been put back on their radar.

I could have used one of the other Poltergeist Forms not currently in use in the campaign or kept it loose and generic, but I have always liked the idea of duality between Pixies and Nixies, and then after my usual free association borderline psychedelia manic creative process, this idea for Glass Maiden Pixie came to me. This is as much a review of the creative process for a Poltergeist Form as it is a mechanical guide for hacking MRD.

This example Poltergeist Form will probably not be as refined, and definitely not as well tested, as the official ones. NPCs don't need to have full character sheets, so I could have just statted this NPC up like any other, but I figured it would make a good blog post and could add value to the game even if it isn't in the first book.

Oh also I remembered that this post was somewhat inspired by this particular KS Update for Dungeon Bitches, a game I am very much looking forward to and that resonated with me on a deep level even though I am not necessarily what the subtext is pointing towards, and I think if you like MRD you will probably like Dungeon Bitches and hopefully the reverse is also true. DB is probably way more high profile than MRD anyway, but ya, probably the game I'm most excited for right now besides finishing MRD.

The Subtext / Flavor Text

Every Poltergeist Form should have a subtextual throughline, where the flavor text and mechanics reflect behaviors evoking those themes, rather than being stated explicitly. Crashing Rocket Nixie is always moving, has neurotic manic energy, and starts lots of projects but rarely finishes them. I'll leave the rest of the subtext and particulars to interpretation, but this is the basis from which I wanted Gass Maiden Pixie to be a counterpoint. Pixie is more so somebody who thrives in the world, but they feel constrained by the world as well. They can see beyond the limits, but there's a glass ceiling, and pushing against it is painful or aversive. They are uncomfortable with themselves, their body, and the world. They feel detached from reality, or more so they feel hyperreal, like reality itself isn't real. The name is a reference to an Iron Maiden. I guess there's an implied gender to the Form by virtue of "Maiden", but I don't see that as requisite (in fact, the NPC I conceived of this form for identifies as Male), and in fact, I think the implied gender of the name of the Poltergeist Form can itself be part of the subtext, although I'll leave the particulars of that also open to interpretation.

Your Poltergeist Form is a simulacrum of a being from a higher plane. The material world is stifling, disgusting, and it presses against you uncomfortably. Nonetheless, you push against the limits. Your Karmic power comes from your unwillingness to accept your limits or those of the false world around you.


There's no explicit mechanical implication for quirks, it's more just about evoking particular sensibilities. There should be some mix of quirks that are more weird and fantastical, and others that are more subtle and could be nearly non-supernatural. Even if they aren't explicitly supernatural, they should be heightened to some unreal extreme.
  1. You sometimes appear to clip through geometry like a buggy videogame.
  2. Your eyes have a glassy shimmer like you're always on the verge of tears.
  3. You have discrete but noticeable scars. 
  4. Others unconsciously perceive you as though behind a barrier.
  5. In your presence the world appears less real; gilded, smaller, or lower resolution.
  6. You have six fingers, or six toes, or another unusual bodily feature.

Starting Karmic Attachments

There's a lot of wiggle room here. They definitely need to be evocative of the poltergeist form. They should be concrete enough for players and GMs to have some idea of what they can do with them, but loose enough that they can be interpreted in many ways and can be flexible with each other. What I've found is that when players roll or choose their starting karmic attachments, the combinations often lend themselves very well to a particular story for that character, which is exactly what I was hoping for. That being said, several of the poltergeist forms have been playtested several times, and while the overarching themes remain the same, I'm glad to say that the characters themselves have not felt identical.

  1. Knowing that nothing is real, you are quick to take big risks and not pay regard to others. Nonetheless, you are here, and the destruction and consequences left in your wake follow closely behind you.
  2. You find success, despite yourself. However, in striving towards some goals, you have had to forego the pursuit of others, and you will not feel whole until you've come to terms with these other goals.
  3. You feel physically unwell, or incomplete, like hypochondria or body dysmorphia.
  4. You perceive a barrier between yourself and the rest of the world, including other people. 
  5. Your existence is suffering, and you cannot help but be disgusted by yourself or the world around you, and these feelings color your perceptions of everything else.
  6. You have or perceive yourself to have (or are perceived by others to have) a disorder, disablement, or some other dysfunction or flaw which affects you physically or how you think about your physical self.

Reincarnation Ritual

There's a middle ground to strike with these. On the one hand, they should be evocative of the Poltergeist Form, and kind of unsettling (they are, in essence, ritual suicide), but they need to be practical as well since they do have mechanical implications. Admittedly I would like to have tested and refined these even more than I have for the Poltergeist Forms in the book, but I think I've made it work. Originally I had designed them more so with high constraints or requiring a certain amount of time, but in retrospect, the better way to design them is to be broadly applicable, but at some cost. Granted, there is already a cost associated with the Recursion Attachment, but a good reincarnation ritual can feed into that as well.

  1. Lock yourself inside the Glass Maiden and eviscerate.
  2. Place the Flying Guillotine over your head.
  3. Shatter the Glass Maiden and make use of the shards.
  4. While within the Glass Maiden, allow yourself to be destroyed by external forces.

Poltergeist Features

Even though I've tried to make MRD a rolls-light game, I want to make sure that every character has at least one Damage Die for Conflicts. Every Poltergeist Form's 0th Poltergeist Feature has some Combat Die attached to it, starting at d6, but possibly increased or decreased if there are any additional mechanical effects or limitations.

Other than the 0th, there aren't any hard rules necessarily. I try to have one or two other kinds of Damage Dice features, but more importantly than that, the other features should open up interesting options. I'm thinking about features like Mirror Mirror for Ghost in the Mirror or Pirate of the PRO-Plane for Jumping from the Planck Jiangshi. They aren't even necessarily mechanical, but they provide information, or access to certain things or places, that would otherwise not be possible.

  1. Glass Maiden and Flying Guillotine: The Glass Maiden compresses into a sharp disk disguised as a mundane object like a hat. It can be thrown like a boomerang, slicing off heads but only metaphorically, dealing Wd8 in existential trauma. All other Poltergeist Features require the Pixie to be inside the Glass Maiden and take WIS Damage.
  2. Obliteration: None of this is real. Every point of WIS sacrificed within the Glass Maiden may be used to obliterate the existence of something else on a 1-1 basis.
  3. Metamorphosis: Within the Glass Maiden, sculpt yourself into your ideal form. For every 3 WIS sacrificed, gain pixie wings, a bright aura, or other representations of your higher self, and +3 on Saves related to the metamorphosis, for one hour.
  4. Vision: From within the uncomfortable spacetime of the Glass Maiden, one may see from beyond the material world all the disgusting particles and organisms, like one sees floating underwater. The aversive visions cause 3 WIS Damage but reveal unknowns and provide +3 on WIS Saves for investigations or drawing insights.
  5. Transposition: The Glass Maiden serves as a screen into the source code of the material world. Sacrifice 1 WIS to swap a mundane object with one of a like-kind or alter an environment in some slight way.
  6. Simulation: If you fail a Save roll, you may retroactively say it was a simulation, sacrifice the difference between the roll and the threshold in WIS, and consider it a success. This does not apply to the Karma roll.
  7. Proprioception: From within the Glass Maiden you can acutely perceive your function within society as if it were an organ. You may sacrifice 1 WIS to use WIS in place of PRO for PRO Saves, or sacrifice 1.5x PRO in place of WIS on other Glass Maiden Poltergeist Features, or sacrifice 3 WIS to change the Flying Guillotine to Pd8 for the next hour.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

5d4 NPCs Generated with my Character Formula

My recent Design Pattern post on Social Intrigue was one of my most popular recent posts, and people seemed to especially like the Character Formula Design Implementation. So I figured, why not just do a whole Weird & Wonderful Table of pre-generated NPCs. It'll demonstrate the versatility of the Character Formula and give me and others a useful bank.

As a reminder, here's the Character Formula:

NPC: [Adjective] [Occupation] and [Hobby/Other Notable Activity] who [Personality Quirk]

But it's more of a suggestion than a hard rule. I'll have a handful of Roles as I discussed in the Social Intrigue post, in this case, a little broader, more so for different genres than specific roles within a Social Intrigue campaign.

Please comment with your own NPCs as well :)!

Role: Fantasy Tavern Keeper
  1. Joy von Otter: Suspiciously friendly bartender and taxidermist who will not tolerate whistling in the bar.
  2. Benjy Beau: Ungainly barback and bare-knuckle boxer who likes to eat gross foods.
  3. Mr. Diceslingger: Automaton chef and monster hunter who laughs at the wrong parts of jokes.
  4. Crybaby Boo: Ghostly bouncer and dollmaker who cries after every fight.

Role: Cyberpunk AI
  1. Chaz Chiptune: Honky-tonk DJ and meteorologist who despises modern videogames.
  2. Marxxx: Superficially socialist HR specialist and premium personal assistant who was supposed to be so much more.
  3. The Transmigration of John Smith: Experimental human consciousness upload and avid gameshow fan who is so vanilla it's kind of kinky.
  4. Penelope Porpoise: Washed-up uplifted porpoise and former corporate mascot with an opioid feedback loop to deal with the pressure of celebrity.

Role: Roaring 20's Gangster
  1. "Spicy Lou" Santino: Quiet accountant and sports gambler who haunts the other gangsters in their nightmares.
  2. Saul "Rock-A-Bye Baby" Rosen: Swollen brawler and adoring parent who leaves the thinking to the thinkers.
  3. Mia "Womandrake" Murdoch: Mysterious merchant and mystic whose antics could put Houdini to shame.
  4. William "Billy Dreams" Stevens: Suave real estate tycoon and science fiction fan who stares right through you.

Role: Super-spy / Secret Agent
  1. Acid Mongoose: Austere stealth agent with conspicuously few interests who can "regenerate" from a clone farm.
  2. Cackling Fox-Hare: Saboteur and erotic comic creator with a shit-eating grin who once destroyed an entire city in a single sentence.
  3. Six-Shooter Prawn: Gargantuan gunman and photographer who can dual-hipshot with sniper rifles.
  4. Norman: Nondescript spy and birdwatcher who is eminently forgettable.

Role: Superhero "Alter Ego"
  1. Riley Reiner: Rambunctious personal trainer and stamp collector who still loves the limelight after all this time.
  2. Simone Simpson: Nihilistic electrical engineer and soup kitchen volunteer who isn't sure what she believes anymore. 
  3. Neal Nguyen: Charismatic middle manager and vlogger who enjoys the simple life (when he can have it).
  4. Jivan Jarodia: Perky stay-at-home dad and graphic designer who sublimates his violent temper through acts of kindness.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Game Design Patterns: Social Intrigue

I introduced the term Design Pattern in my Player Design Patterns pt. 1 post. Given the volume of Design Patterns that already exist for GMing and the paucity of Design Patterns for players, I think that's the more interesting domain, but in this case, the pattern can apply to both players and GMs.

Design Pattern: Social Intrigue

I was thinking about how, several times recently, I've had people tell me that the way I do what I've begun to call Social Intrigue is unlike anything they've played in before, and this is even when doing it as a player (such as in Semiurge's excellent Beyond the Bizarre Armoire campaign which unfortunately I had to drop out of). While I think of it primarily as a GM Design Pattern, it was enlightening trying it out as a player, and the degree to which I think it was still just as effective. It requires a willingness or buy-in from the GM and the rest of the group of course, but I think it's a potentially powerful way for players to exert some kind of ownership over the setting and course of events, without being strictly encoded into the game as is often the case with PbtA or those style of games. I think it's entirely within the purview of OSR, and is also in line with my thoughts on Non-Combat Conflict Encounters which in retrospect is a Design Pattern as well. On top of all that, in my opinion, this Social Intrigue Pattern is often truer to (my admittedly limited experience of) the Picaresque style of narrative that many OSR gamers say they prefer (more on that later).

A Social Intrigue game is one in which there is some instigating event; a broad goal or mcguffin, like a crime investigation, or a brewing conflict between factions, and each of those factions has some broad purpose and some number of important NPCs who have their own goals.

Design Implementation: Character Formula

To facilitate Social Intrigue, you need a good means of character generation. There are already plenty of Design Patterns for NPC and Investigation generation which I talk about in my Bastionland NPC Generator post where I reference Chris Mcdowall's Mash-Up Character Method but I've since developed a Design Implementation for this Pattern of my own. It goes something like this:

NPC: [Adjective] [Occupation] and [Hobby/Other Notable Activity] who [Personality Quirk]

For instance:

Kennedy Fitzpatrick: Thicc computer science professor and white-hat hacker who has no time for your nonsense.
Jordan Suleiman: Neurotic bespectacled crime journalist and jazz fan who aims to become a politician.
Bam Bam: Ambiguously European art student and intramural athlete who speaks mostly in gibberish.

You can see I don't follow it precisely, it's more of a guideline, but I've found that this implementation has a natural flow that's easy to write, easy to read, and helps me come up with more dynamic and interesting characters than I might otherwise come up with.

Design Implementation: Relationship "Pivot Tables"

Once you have a means of generating interesting characters, bringing it back to Social Intrigue, you then have to give them relationships to each other, factions in the game, and the players. Personally, what I do is create spreadsheets, sometimes multi-tab spreadsheets, so like pivot tables if you do any kind of analytics work. I know I'm not the first person to talk about this, but I can't remember where else I've heard people doing this so I'll re-explain here.

So there might be some number of factions and some number of NPCs, and you'll have the following tabs:

Factions: Has the columns Faction, Status (relationship with PCs), Description, NPCs (associated with this faction) NPCs: Has the columns Name, Status (relationship with PCs), Description, Factions (associated with this NPC)

Just laying everything out like this can make it more salient how the players are interacting with the factions and NPCs, or which factions or NPCs need more hooks, etc. and you can even have one for yourself as a GM, and one for the players, that may omit certain information they aren't privy to yet.

In terms of game design, and how I'm doing it in the Maximum Recursion Depth Module, rather than just having NPCs per se, you can have Roles: e.g. The Victim, The Client, The Journalist, The Professor, The Roommate, etc.

And have random roll role tables of, say, 4+ entries each. You could have just one big random roll table for all roles, but personally, I found that creating separate tables for each role, allowed me to design characters better suited for those roles.

If these NPCs are created using the formula above, you should wind up with really interesting possibilities for each role, and you may entirely change the scenario given the roles.

Before I gave the examples:
(The Professor) Kennedy Fitzpatrick: Thicc computer science professor and white-hat hacker who has no time for your nonsense.
(The Journalist) Jordan Suleiman: Neurotic bespectacled crime journalist and jazz fan who aims to become a politician.

But their relationship to each other, or to the players, or other NPCs, whether or not they're the murderer (if it's a murder mystery), etc., may be totally different if you had instead rolled:

(The Professor) Kentucky “Tuck” Johnson: Ruggedly handsome criminology professor and expert hostage negotiator with a narcissist’s smile.
(The Journalist) Nickelflick: Colorful hair-dyed performance artist turned war correspondent who is surprisingly mundane in day-to-day life.

Also, you now have a bank of extra NPCs to throw around! So if you need another professor or journalist, or just any rando, you've got it! These also could even work as PCs in many cases if you're struggling for a PC idea in the future.

So if you do all of this, what I've found, is that Social Intrigue games eventually start to just write and run themselves. An admittedly fair bit of prep goes into all of this up-front, and I haven't even really gotten into any patterns for the instigating events themselves besides vague suggestions like "murder mystery", I think that needs to be a separate post unto itself, but I actually don't even think it matters that much for reasons I'll explain from the Player perspective, the instigating events can basically be mcguffins, or afterthoughts, and this can still work just fine. But either way, it then becomes intuitive how different NPCs or different Factions will react to Player actions, and by extension to each other, and those relationships also define the conflicts and consequences that the Players themselves must consider, so it's all really organic and compelling.

On Picaresque

I don't want to tangent on this too much, but I've found that there is often a fine line between fun and interesting OSR Picaresque adventure, and murderhoboing. Some of this is subjective and personal preference to be sure, but personally, I just don't find the murderhobo style all that compelling. I know that, especially in the storygame camp back in the day, there was a lot of blowback on murderhoboing, and then on the OSR side there was blowback on the blowback where they tend to argue it's about Picaresque adventure. So I mean this could be a whole big conversation in itself, but I think these things can and should be dissociated, because if you're just using picaresque as a pretense for murderhoboing... I mean if you're having fun, then ok, but we can at least examine this more closely regardless.

A good Social Intrigue game can be Players in a new place, meeting all the factions and NPCs, the movers and shakers, and embedding themselves in that world, running cons, grifts, heists, and doing all sorts of interesting things, that aren't just "let's steal it and run/kill them and run/blow it up and run/touch the thing we're not supposed to touch and run". That's fun in moderation I guess, but for me personally, that quickly grows unsatisfying. But if that's what you want, then enjoy! But to my mind, Socia Intrigue is at least as true, if not more so true, of the kinds of Picaresque adventures I've read, such as Dying Earth, at least until it all falls on its face and then turns into "lets X it and run", but that has the oomph that it does, because of everything that preceded it. What makes the Picaresque fun is the ways they ingratiate themselves in the world and get involved in the intrigues of the other characters... and then break it (or die trying)!

Social Intrigue as a Player

I had mentioned higher up how the instigating events almost don't matter. Now don't get me wrong, being clever with your instigating events can be a really useful tool as well, but I think these things can be dissociated, and this becomes more so clear when you try to do Social Intrigue as a Player.

Sometimes as a GM, players will do things, and you may get frustrated, like "why are they doing X when clearly we're setting things up for Y?!", and I do think there's some need for middle ground, but also, often the best parts of tabletop RPGs are when the Players do the unexpected. Social Intrigue can just be a version of that.

Maybe you have a little village that the Players are passing through, maybe there's a general quest framework there and a few NPCs or things to interact with. But then, they start asking the NPCs deeper questions, they get involved in the local politics, embed themselves in the affairs of the village, and begin scheming. This requires some improv on the part of the GM (although oftentimes you can just lean into or lean against the expectations of the Players based on whatever they're angling towards), but if you do, then session over session, there can be all of these lingering places or characters, that maybe wouldn't otherwise have mattered, but now your Players care about them and have relationships with them, and so they can randomly show up, either as obvious consequences of the Players actions or in unexpected but exciting ways. And even if there are other quests or broader goals, this can contextualize it, or just give it a little extra kick, like a good hot pepper. And again, now you've got less prep work in the future, and less downtime if they complete your dungeon or whatever other quests or adventures more quickly than you anticipated, because you're building up a Gallery of NPCs and relationships that practically propagate themselves, and in this case, it was at least in part generated by the Players themselves and the things that concerned them.