Friday, 21 November 2014

Trail of the Scorpion has released!


Race like a pack of Terrolinian Wolves to buy it here. If you wisely decide that you would prefer to join the Order of the Scribe, pre-order a print + pdf copy here

Trail of the Scorpion is a great opportunity to get onboard Rocket Age, the radium fueled game of interplanetary adventure. You get six Episodes (one by yours truly) constructed to be played alone or in sequence as an epic campaign.

If you haven't checked it out before, now is a great time. Rocket Age won an ENnie earlier this year as the game most likely to get you eaten on Venus, enslaved by the Mind Dunes of the Moon, pursued by Nazi war walkers on Mars and disintegrated in high orbit over Europa. Supplements to the core rules offer more hero options - Heroes of the Solar System, locations -Blood Red Mars and the Asteroid Belt and a glittering handful of episodic adventures.

I look forward to comments and reviews as GMs get their hands on Trail of the Scorpion and from players as they experience it. Working on it was a great learning experience and I feel that I have improved as a writer and game designer. 

Onwards and upwards Rocket Rangers, turn your heels to the Sun.
Blast into the unknown, it's where all the cool kids are a'goin'.
Make allies of strangers, get good deeds done.


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Collaboration

Work/Life has taken its toll of late and Mesh Dream keeps expanding in scope. The project was originally something to do while Bandit Country percolates through my subconscious and finds traction. It has become so much more than that.
Mesh Dream is very ambitious. On a scale that I can't really reveal because that would ruin the whole point. The game is a playable mystery and the reveal is... a revelation.
This requires some intricate design and writing. For it to be anything more than a game with a plot-point campaign or a playable story- arc there are obstacles that must be considered and resolved.
Mesh Dream is a traditional game in that it has a GM (called the Architect), Players, dice and characters. The role of the Architect transforms as the game proceeds. Initially it is that of a GM like in most RPGs. As the players gain a sense of what the game is and begin to learn and use the strengths and weaknesses of their Characters, the GM becomes more of a Curator. They hold the mystery of the game and the ideas that it represents and decide how to give them form as a gallery for the Players to observe and interact with. In the final stages of the game the Curator becomes the Architect, the game has become a plan, a composition, and at the very end, the Players are faced by a decision.
The obstacles that I face to complete Mesh Dream are mostly in the form of successfully translating the concepts of the game into a format that empowers utility for the Architect. In many ways, the art of writing a successful pen and paper RPG is all about recruiting the GM. The GM is the first customer and if drawn to the game, will sell it to the Players. (I am talking here about the exchange of ideas). All games need this buy-in because they are a group activity. Mesh Dream needs it even more because the game is intended to arrive at an ultimate moment and will only get there if the GM is an actively enthusiastic guide who wants to prepare and present this moment for the Players to discover.
To bring it all together (and to get to the point of this post!) I have been searching outside my own head for solutions. Three things that I am quite proud of and excited by have all come together recently. They are all the result of collaboration; being an active participant in, but not an owner, of a creative endeavor.

 Firstly, my work on Cubicle 7's Trail of the Scorpion for Rocket Age is soon to be released. I am the minnow in the pool of talent involved and I am looking forward to seeing the completed book. Rocket Age is a young property but thanks to the tireless work of Ken Spencer (and everyone else involved) has a very strong sense of self. Professionally writing for a property that you don't own is a great way to grow your talents because you have to bring your A game and you don't get to choose the narrative limits. 
Secondly, I discovered the Golden Cobra Challenge. I started working on a game and realized that my time is just too limited at the moment. Then on rpg.net I came across Rickard Elimää's entry: Imagine (Click Here for final version). We started chatting and I drew a flowchart (as is my wont) and before I knew it I was immersed in the Kishōtenketsu narrative structure.
Thirdly, I got in touch with Jeff Moore, prolific game creator who wrote 5x5, a game that I have admired in previous posts whilst bemoaning the jargon and complexity of roleplaying games and the barrier to entry that they offer new participants. Jeff is one of those rare creatives who not only create and innovate but can then iterate and refine. He is working on a version of this game for Super Heroes and it is absolute genius. Fortunately for me he was open to my ideas and I am attempting to hammer two disparate mechanics into a consolidated flip state mechanic (that I will then have to sell him on!)
My creative stream has always benefited from harvesting insights from multiple simultaneous projects. On one hand Rickard's game is minimalist to the point that it slaughters many of the cows sacred to gaming, nearly the entire herd. It eschews a GM, random challenge resolution, character reward/ challenge loops, character acting and even conflict. I told him that some people would (wrongly) argue that it isn't even a game. Jeff's game is all about character acting, challenges and in comics, everything is conflict. The games are poles apart and it has been a fantastic experience collaborating on them.
I expect that this will change Mesh Dream which, considering what it is, is entirely to be expected. I now have a flowchart for the core gameplay loop and that goes a long way towards implementing the methods by which the later stages of the game will subvert it. I will post this soon along with a glimpse of the Mesh Dream palette.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

MESH DREAM: Character Sheet

Click here for MESH DREAM Character Sheet

I am working on the next version of Mesh Dream and will post it when I have completed my next round of playtesting.

>EDIT>
I updated the sheet to fix a typo.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

MESH DREAM: POSTCARDS

Included here, a short (non exclusive) list of the mad visions that inspire Mesh Dream.

FILM
Her (Spike Jonze): Prelude to the Singularity.
12 Monkeys, Brazil (Terry Gilliam): When humans are components of their own mechanisms. The horrible grind of recursive patterns.
Solyaris (Andrei Tarkovski): Failure to communicate, the language of experiences.


TELEVISION
the Prisoner (BBC): An artificial society trapped in its own patterns. Unthinking obeyance. The strangeness of the Herd. The rebel.
Dr Who from the 80s: Strange communities threatened in a way that only an outsider can resolve.

FICTION
J G Ballard’s short stories and novellas: Space, Time , Human Perception and Memory are facets of the same universal constant. Megastructures, Transformation,Epic strangeness
the Hyperion Cantos (Dan Simmons): Epic scope, AIs, Humans, shenanigans. Megastructures. Unique vision.
Feersum Endjinn, The Bridge and the Culture novels (Iain M. Banks) Megastructures, epic scope. AIs and Humans, impending doom, calculated responses.
the God Whale (T. J. Bass): What will humanity do to survive? What tools will they create and what will those tools become?
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams): There's no place like home.

COMICS
Blam! (Tsutomu Nihei): Megastructure. Emptiness. Strangeness.

King City, Prophet, Multiple Warheads (Brandon Graham): Strangeness, sensibilities, scope. Is there any doubt that the future will be confrontingly weird?

GAMES
Transistor: stylish. 
Alpha Complex of Paranoia rpg: All hail the Computer.
NaissanceE: The nearest thing to the Structure that I have seen.

MUSIC
The music of Eduard Artemiev (soundtracks for Solyaris and Stalker).
Koyaanisquatsi (Philip Glass)
Spektrmodule podcast (Warren Ellis)
Future Sound of London and their contemporaries.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

MESH DREAM v 040

Check out the latest version of Mesh Dream: Click Here

I think it is well on the way to supporting my first two Pillars. The final two Pillars are more about the setting and the experience of Play but I hope to refine more of them into the Rules and Instructions as I go.

Meanwhile; Avoid the Renovators, beware the Mal.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

MESH DREAM: PILLARS

Mesh Dream is built on four Pillars. If you have read QTE before, you know my design process. In short, Pillars are the core essence of the experience. Pillars inform all design and creative decisions to produce an integrated and holistic work.

DISCOVERY -Choices
Hidden relationships surround the Fabricants. The Structure is an endless jumble of sealed rooms interacting as a vast mechanism. The Architecture is everywhere and nowhere. The Human communities cling, powerless and ignorant, to whatever resources they can co-opt. All things collaborate in a sophisticated interplay as components of an oblivious instrument. With each discovery the Fabricants will be faced by choices.

RENEWAL -Consequences
Everything the Fabricants do will change the relationships that bind the Structure, Architecture and Humans. They are the agents of change and will observe the consequences of their actions. Everything they touch will become new and they will experience the creative and destructive potential of renewal.

INFINITE ENCLOSURE -Patterns and Simplicity
In every way, all relationships and things form simple patterns of interaction. Repetition ascends and descends in scale and all things that enclose are themselves enclosed by these recursive patterns. The Fabricants are the only complexity, they are the anti-pattern. They are emergent.

PRESS TO START -You!
The final Pillar is secret. If you want to know more you will have to buy the game. Alternatively, you can exchange it for your own. Mesh Dream will provide you with the guidance to create and implement a fourth Pillar if you want to deliver your own take on the Mesh Dream. This fourth Pillar drives the Mesh Dream itself, what it means, how the Fabricants will reveal it and the choices and implications for accepting or activating it.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

MESH DREAM: INTRODUCTION

It is a time of crisis. The AI factions of the Architecture sense a looming horizon beyond which their predictive functions falter and collapse. Tension and mistrust isolates them as the oldest and most elite faction; the Caucus, hatches a desperate plan.

At the very boundary of chaos where their prognostic capabilities founder the Caucus foresee a choice, a decision that may spell their obliteration. For the first time in millennia they will inject agents directly into the Structure, the physical hosting medium for the Architecture. The Structure, a vast product of megascale engineering, is a compartmentalised and enigmatic machine. Their agents, these Fabricants, serve one purpose. They must answer the question:

What is the Mesh Dream?

Mesh Dream is a role playing game where the Players play the part of the Fabricants. As they explore the Structure they will learn its purpose and solve its puzzles. They will discover the human residents that cling to the Structure as they edge ever closer to the enigma that binds and threatens them all.

To solve the mystery of the Mesh Dream the Fabricants must complete a grand expedition through the Structure. They will resolve the relationship between the Architecture, Structure and Human communities. Finally they will face and be faced by the Mesh Dream. The game will end as, at the very juncture of the Mesh Dream, they will make a momentous decision and commit.

The Architect (GM) is given the tools to make Mesh Dream a memorable experience. One of the key tools is a guided process for making the game their own. I have included a (hopefully brain melting) version of the Mesh Dream but this may not suit everyone. I support you in designing and implementing your very own Mesh Dream.

I also guide and support you to create the rooms of the Structure, the augmented reality of the Architecture and the perplexingly strange Humans. All three of these interactive participants in the game share a role in your Mesh Dream.

The rules of the game are guided by the principles of simplicity and exploding choices. By this I mean that the game endeavours to be as simple as possible at any point to support play. Choices and consequences are initially clear and simple to minimise any barriers to participation. Character creation is an example of this; Players do not need to know the game rules to create a character. Right from the beginning the Players will find that consequences are a key part of play and they will be involved in shaping the impact of their decisions on their environment.

Finally, Mesh Dream has a style, a tone, a flow. The game is Science Fiction not science fantasy. I equip you with a style guide to Mesh Dream and, of course, the means to modify it to suit your vision. I look forward to producing Mesh Dream and invite you along for the journey as I blog my progress and challenges.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Will you run towards or away from the Mesh Dream?

It has been a few busy months since I completed my latest contracted work for Cubicle 7's Rocket Age. Prior to that I responded to a `Powered by the Vortex System' thread in their forum with this post.
I scratched my Agatha Christie itch in the Rocket Age work (for now). Ballard has been bouncing around in my brain and a game has started to coalesce.
Introducing: Mesh Dream. 
Mesh Dream is inspired by the enormous gulfs of time and structure and the normalcy of the strange of J.G. Ballard. And the gigastructures and discrete civilizations of Tsutomu Nihei's Blame! The everyday isolated future of Spike Jonze's Her. The dystopian madness of Paranoia's Alpha Complex and the inevitable conclusion that it would all run so much smoother without the citizens. Brandon Graham is a major inspiration with his written and art work on Multiple Warheads, King City and Prophet - his work is a conceptual and visual compass for Mesh Dream.
Mesh Dream will run on a fleshed out and improved version of the system that I designed for Flower. I call it Revolver for now.
My game plan is to write, illustrate and publish Mesh Dream as my next project. I have plenty of other projects on the backburner; I want to edit and release Flower with some nice art. I want to do the same for Acceptance. I have a mostly finished campaign for STALKER that I would love to finish and give to Ville Vuorela, I have written before that I consider his game and the Flow system the cleverest and best realised emulation of fiction in a RPG bar none.
And there is Bandit Country. It is without a doubt the most challenging and radical game project that I have conceived and I have always known it will take time to complete it. Bandit Country is the project I retreat to when my main project is stuck or derailing and it benefits from lurking in my subconscious. All my best ideas for BC have emerged while I was working on another project so I have accepted and harnessed this as a method.
I have a lot of work to go with Mesh Dream. Most of what I have done to date has been tweaking Revolver and figuring out how character creation should work. I need to lay down some boundaries and I will write up my Pillars, Postcards and Palette for you to read.
I hope to test Mesh Dream in the next week or so and will put out a call for playtesting after that. Until then; never doubt the Structure, beware the Goal Tappers and report all signs of the Mesh Dream.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Where are the Dark Patterns?

Deception is one of my favourite things. It is the defining human behaviour. It can be used for favourable actions; concealing the Normandy landings or dastardly deeds; misdirecting the public over mass internet surveillance. Deception is one of the ways we manage Trust or, to be explicit, to circumvent Trust.

Here we come to Games. Games have rules. Games have rules to prevent players from taking advantage of other players through Deception. And Games have rules to set a template for the kinds of Deception permitted by the Game. These rules establish the base Trust. Everything else is fair game.

There are plenty of examples of unintentional flaws within games that allow player advantage. Murphy's Rules, a one panel comic published by SJG chronicled humorous examples of this. But what if the Game rules were actually a kind of Deception? This is a Dark Pattern.

"A dark pattern is a user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do"

Dark Patterns are something that you don't see in games because we put a lot of stock in Trust and prefer to place boundaries on Deception whilst in civil society. Consider the effort spent balancing Game Rules to ensure fairness no matter what choices the players make. Dungeons and Dragons 5e has just been released after years of development. It didn't take years to write the rules. It took years to test them to the point that it was considered fair to the exacting degree expected by the players. Most of the cost of developing the game was invested in precise management of the economy of Trust.

Is there a fun alternative that includes Dark Patterns? Magic in RPGs is ripe for Dark Patterns and is therefore one of the most rules intensive components. In other words, Magic rules are usually pumped full of Trust to limit Deception. This stops it from being fantastic because Deception is a creative act.

Try this one out: Magic introduces new things into the Cosmos. Once introduced, it becomes part of the natural order and can be utilised by anyone. Seasoned GMs are shaking their heads, that would ruin the game in about 5 minutes. And that is the point. Consequences of Dark Patterns are unpredictable for the Players and the GM. If the heroes ruin the world with magic there is still a story to be told in this ruined world, perhaps even an apologue.

Most RPGs assume that the Players are all equal shareholders in the Trust that is authorised by rules of the Game. A true Dark Pattern is about the Game deceiving the Player. It is not just a matter of making a choice and getting more than you bargained for. It is a matter of making a choice and then discovering the choices and consequences that follow are different than expected, it is about their role in the economy of Trust.

I find the idea of Dark Patterns fascinating. I think that they can introduce a tension into the economy of Trust within a Game that can improve the experience of play, if done well. Let me know what you think; would you use a Dark Pattern or do you consider Trust a basic and inviolate commodity?

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Ode to the two Terrys


Terry Nation and Terrence Dicks, you are the Scylla and Charybdis of my childhood, consuming the fleets of my mind as I  lurk on the headland thrilling and weeping to discover the strange architecture formed amongst the wreckage.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Post Thaumatic

In the words of Tadhg Kelly and preformed as an introduction to a fantastic series of microtalks at GDC 2014. I encourage you to watch them all.
If you design games or write for them do you feel that exhilarating  rush of wonder?

Thauma by Tadhg Kelly

Leo Tolstoy once wrote that artists evoke a feeling in themselves and then - by means of expression - evoke the same feeling in others.
This, he said, was the activity of art.
Games also evoke feelings by means of expression.
I use the word thauma to describe how.

Thauma derives from Greek, meaning a wonder or marvel.
Thaumaturgy is the ability of a magician to work miracles.
As we describe the sensation of powerful story as dramatic.
I describe the sensation of powerful play as thaumatic.

There is an experience unique to games.
An enchantment that steals over us.
As we play, as we watch and as we retell the story of play it comes back to us.
We feel transferred to a different context of being.
We are here, yet we also feel elsewhere.

Where?
On a race track, pulling incredible turns.
On a tennis court, trying to score.
On a battlefield. In a city. In a haunted house.
A childlike landscape. A long forgotten shore.
An abstract space. An infinite plane.

Our journeys vary.
In some games we appreciate individual qualities.
But they don’t transport us.
Some games transport us but we don’t tarry long.
For each of us the criteria of thauma is different.
The nature of evoked feelings unique.

But to Tolstoy art was not mere beauty.
Or the expression of energy or emotions or pleasure.
He considered art not to be about how you feel.
Or who you are. Or if you cried.
But about what feelings the artist intended to generate.
And was she successful.

There are four schools of thaumatic design.
The school of mechanism, formal and elegant.
The school of simulation, complex and authentic.
The school of behavior, guided and rewarding.
The school of narrative, directed and emotive.
Each is valid.

As designers of thauma we add and remove.
We make giants of puny humans or gnats of fearsome egos.
We empower players with roles and fairness and resonance.
We toy with them and set the terms of their existence.
From these beginnings feeling is evoked.

Thauma is the holistic pot of fun, grokking, mastery,
skill atoms, veracity, flow, reward, action
meaning, narrative, magic circles, winning, losing
persuasion, immersion and ludonarrative resonance.
It is the feeling that a game world matters.

Thauma has many components.
That sense that a game must be fun.
That tendency of the mind to abstract.
That need to learn and grow.
Imperfection. Physicality. Time. Profit,
For some these are pillars. For others, boundaries.

Some games like to play with boundaries.
They should, particularly for criticism.
Yet the thaumatic experience rarely succeeds when only critical.
Or clever.
Especially if intended to be played for long.
Successful thauma is often grounded in rules.

In the elsewhere we know the rules.
We equate action with power.
In sports and board games rules make the world smaller and more focused.
In tabletop roleplaying they do the opposite.
The world grows larger.
In videogames?
Both at the same time.

Some would argue otherwise.
Why does a game have to be fun?
Must all roads lead to multiplayer?
Must all avatars have the same identity?
Is a player really a hero?
Is a game really a game?
These debates should show you how games are art.
But do you see it that way?

Or are you stuck on what games are meant to be?
That some games are art and some are problems?
That games will be an art one day?
That games must be destroyed so they can flourish?
That games must go beyond fun?
Are you frustrated by the present?

Future addiction gets depressing.
It’s fun to consider where games might go.
But as a group we get hung up on saying they have to go there.
And advocating that they have to change.
Or else be doomed.
Perhaps games are what they are today.
Warts and all.

Silly games with flapping birds are thaumatic.
Nagging games about making words are thaumatic.
Bewitching games about plants and zombies are thaumatic.
Cinematic games about solving murders are thaumatic.
Personal games about identity are thaumatic.
Ours is a broad church.

Arguments about “should” are a distraction.
The real argument is not about game versus story
or fun versus art
or future versus past
It’s about function versus institution.
The thing itself versus its place in the cosmos.
It’s about legitimacy.

Gamers often feel like outsiders.
So they co-opt the language of other arts and say “games are these too”.
And eventually get to “games should move on”.
Or they prefer to be outsiders.
They demean some voices to make them shut the fuck up.
For fear that they will “ruin games”.

Who Looks Outside Dreams.
Who Looks Inside Awakens.
We all already know that thaumatic feeling.
But we compromise it by only speaking to its future.
Or demeaning the present experiences of others.
We should own that feeling on its own terms.

We are neither scientists nor dramatists, psychologists nor economists.
We are thaumatists.
Our art of powerful spaces generating feelings is an art on its own terms.
It always has been.
In whatever form we choose to express them, this is what games are.
Thank you.



Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bandit Country: Networks

When I first envisioned Bandit Country I was watching Proof of Life. Here I saw a film that had a protagonist who was not a super hero and who did not have a Future Box*. I saw the first inkling of the Big Picture, the Risk - Consequence - Opportunity loop. As I refined that loop I realised that it was missing an element and the Network module was affixed at the centre.
I watched Proof of Life again and I began to notice just how central Network is to the Risk Management resolution scheme of Bandit Country.
Terry Thorne played by Russel Crowe is a Consultant who is engaged to arrange the release of an American engineer who has been kidnapped for ransom. If you are interested in my mindset and the storytelling that I want to emulate, watch the film. The good news is that you can skip any scene that doesn't include Terry.
From the moment that Terry meets Alice and Janice by the pool at the Bowman compound he begins recruiting. He is studied, deliberate and follows basic risk management strategies in everything he does. My early appreciation of the film as a pillar for writing a modern espionage game that is not a Bourne/ Bond clone or a conspiracy game was based on his Risk Management behaviours. In later viewings I began to appreciate that he builds and surrounds himself with a Network and that he arranges and prepares this network to execute his objectives.
To avoid the Bond/Bourne heroic action genre Bandit Country needs to present player goals in terms that they cannot achieve on their own. Even a team of players cannot achieve them with nothing more than their own or specific dedicated resources. The Players will have to recruit the locals to complete their objectives. 
The first part of addressing this design goal is that the Players have to define their key tasks in terms of a Risk Management cycle. Even before they perform the task they have assessed it in terms of the risks and the resources they have to apply. This is inherently anti-heroic because heroes are all about doing as they will and adapting to the consequences whereas RM is all about minimising them. RM places the consequences ahead of the benefits and that is a good place to be for some gritty espionage gaming.
Secondly, Recruiting should be fun and achievable. The one thing that all Bandit Country Characters have in common is that they are great recruiters. It is the key ingredient of a consultant. It is also the reason why there is no `Recruit' Specialty. It is automatically assumed that every Consultant is an Elite recruiter. Recruiting has its risks but the Consultant is equipped to manage that because a goal of play is for them to build a Network.
Once they have a Network the real fun begins. Running a Network is a mini-game within the game. I have messed around with it a fair bit and have to playtest more to see where it goes next. Originally I modelled Network building on crafting in video games. If each Recruit is categorised by their Asset (Specialty), connecting them in specific ways builds a structure that is great for a specific role. If I recruit a Fireteam Asset and an Infil:Exfil Asset and a Intrusion Asset, I can link them to make a team that has mobility and can breach security to perform extractions. I could call that a Mobile Extraction Team. This is attractive because it addresses player uncertainty and essentially gives them a menu or shopping list to recruit to. The problem with this approach is to either have to create a long list of combo's or leave it to the GM who is busy enough. Secondly, I really want to see emergent play arise from Networks and defining the structure limits that.
I am currently leaning more in the direction of a boardgame style design (not that it will be played as a boardgame) where each Asset has certain applications (think chess pieces) and can be combined however the recruiter wants. The resulting combination should then be like a machine that performs the task it was designed for (and hopefully succeeds).
One of the core emotional jags that I want to arise through Network play is that the Consultant is using these people. He might convincing them that he is advancing their agenda but his actual interest is in advancing his own. It is quite likely that things will not end well for many of these recruits and that is part of the experience of playing Bandit Country.

*A Future Box is stuffed full of technology and allows for things to be done and discovered without a direct chain of human intervention. We see Future Boxes all the time in film, Jason Bourne consistently befuddles anyone who attempts to use one to engage him. The antihero in the upcoming Watchdogs video games has a cell phone Future Box. The US President and co watched the SEALs kill Bin Laden in one. 
Future Boxes are anathema to Bandit Country. The only way to really know what happened is to find out who was there and the only way to do that is to recruit someone to find them. If a consultant wants to have access to the tools of the First World's military and espionage communities, a stupendously risky thing to want, they will have to recruit someone to get that access. Bandit Country makes a story out of the hard road and will never give a Consultant the keys to a Future Box.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Bandit Country: Why?

I am turning my attention to laying down some serious track towards getting Bandit Country written. I see the roleplaying blogoverse is brimming with nostalgia as the Northern hemisphere begs for Spring time so I have decided to join in.

I have always loved espionage stories. The depth of commitment, the price paid, the marginal reward and the lack of recognition. The first Roleplaying Game I ever bought was Top Secret 1st ed from TSR in 1982. I realize that every game I have ever run has really been an espionage story.

But espionage is a hard genre to find in fiction and film. That might seem like a strange statement but almost everything that claims the espionage genre is just themed action, mystery or conspiracy. Bourne isn't espionage, Bond definitely isn't espionage and neither is Jack Ryan (at least in the films). A good test is whether the protagonist recruits someone to perform a task, usually by lying to them. Another test is whether the protagonist's key objective is to solve a mystery that is actively being concealed from them. If so, it's probably a conspiracy story. If the protagonist is fully aware of their objective but is unable to immediately attain it (thus the recruiting of assets who can bridge to the objective) it is probably espionage.

Bourne is action/conspiracy with espionage trappings. Recent Bonds are the same. Older Bonds are Action/mystery. Burn Notice isn't espionage, it's procedural investigative mysteries (conspiracy for some episodes) with pithy tradecraft voice overs.

Espionage is pretty much anything written by John le Carre; try `The Little Drummer Girl'. It is rare to experience a spy story from the point of view of the asset. `Spy Game' is a great espionage film that also proves that you can incorporate action sequences without breaking the convention. Same with Munich.  

My favorite espionage film isn't even generally thought of as being one. It is categorized as an action drama and was generally disliked and poorly reviewed. It has 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB rates it at 6.2/10. On the other hand it meets the criteria to actually be an espionage film and absolutely sets the template for what a Bandit Country consultant is and does. 

Bandit Country: The Risk - Consequence - Opportunity Loop.

After completing my latest work on Rocket Age I am turning back to Bandit Country. If you are new to the blog and you don't know what Bandit Country is, check out this link and check out the back posts.

One of my goals with Bandit Country is to be able to express the game as a series of flowcharts. This is what I call the Big Picture, the primary play loop as a whole.



The Big Picture works like this. The Player selects an Objective for their Consultant and goes through the Risk phase to Assess, Address and Apply a solution. Moving to the Consequence phase we discover the outcomes and apply them. Shifting to the Opportunity phase we find the exploitable circumstances that have emerged from the Consultant's solution and a new Objective is selected. The loop iterates until the Player has achieved their Mission Goal or has been captured and is being tortured to death.

Network sits at the center of the Big Picture because it is informed by each phase of the loop and is protected and enhanced by the Risk Management process. Bandit Country is not a heroic game in the genre meaning of the word and Players will need to recruit, manage and organize one or more networks to achieve their goals.

Risk, Consequence, Opportunity and Network are the four key modules that define a game of Bandit Country. I have written the Risk module and I plan on writing the Consequence and Opportunity modules before the next play-test, 2 weeks.

I am also thinking about how the Network module will work because I want it to be a mini-game within the game as a whole that is simple, strategic and deep. I suspect that I will be looking at card and board games for inspiration there and that will be fun because I don't have much experience with either.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Horse or Rider: Plot Vs Character?

A recent talk at Games Developer Conference really got me thinking about writing for tabletop RPGs. Titled Death to the Three Act structure it proposes an alternate approach to delivering story to Players. This link, you will notice, is to the slides from the talk because there is no video or transcript of the talk in the public realm. To gain more context check out this video from IGN and this post at Gamasutra. This MS power point file includes the slides and the discussion notes of the talk, well worth it if you have the time.

The short version is that there is a mystery that the multi-billion dollar video game industry is trying to solve:

Why do so few players complete a game?

So why does this matter for tabletop games? The longevity of your favorite campaign is all about engagement. If you can't engage your players you will not sustain your campaign. It really is that simple. But figuring out how to engage your players - that's the hard part.

The short version of the talk, contextualized to RPGs, is that successful story telling is all about Characters. Your Plot, no matter how clever it is, will always take a back seat to the Characters. The Player Characters and the Non Player Characters. Ten years later, if your Players remember the campaign at all,they will remember it in terms of the Characters they played and the characters they interacted with. Microsoft spent a bunch of money to prove this, see Slide 21. Players have a hard time explaining the plot of a game compared to explaining the plot of a film or book. They have invested in the Character not the Plot. The following slide provides the four key findings of the study and they are quite telling. 

All the Old School and Sandbox GMs out there are wondering why their eyes are rolling because they definitely don't read this blog. A sandbox GM would claim that Plot arises from encounters and encounters are driven by characters. They are not impressed by any of this and confirm that introducing film narrative structure to RPGs was something that they ignored because it has nothing to contribute to the sandbox or hexcrawl style of play.

For the rest of us, pretty much all of the GM advice printed in a game since 1990 suggests some variation of the Three Act Structure as the proven method for creating and presenting content to your Players. It is one of those `best practice' things that is presented without question. The research within video games (and I see no compelling reason why it isn't equally valuable for RPGs) is that this structure does not mesh with Players. Are we emulating a structure that does not resonate for our chosen medium?

The writers Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy end with three points to steer or reconcile Character and Plot.
  1. Focus on character first; align character motivations with player motivation.
  2. Align your narrative with the structural needs of your game's user experience, learn-practice-master loop, and level/mission design.
  3. Use that information to inform your narrative structure – build your story’s dramatic rhythms around those needs.
The first point is interesting to me because tabletop RPGs don't consider the relationship of needs between the player and the player character to anywhere near the depth that video games do. Maybe that needs to change and if so does it gift the GM greater utility?
The second point is one that I think RPGs often do better than video games is not so much a lesson that GMs really need to hear. Your narrative is being told within a game; respect that.
The final point ties back to points made earlier in the talk. If you have an agenda ie; a story that you want to deliver through play, figure out the story before you decide how to tell it. Ideally, don't decide how to tell it, tell it through the characters that the Player Characters encounter both directly and incidentally. 

If, at the conclusion of play, a player can list all the key characters that they interacted with and by telling the story of heir interactions with those characters they tell the story as a whole, you have successfully created a narrative without a three act structure. Imagine that!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

An Interview with Tadhg Kelly of `What Games Are'

One of the key goals of this blog is to learn from and draw context by examining the design idioms of the video game industry, its right up there on the blog banner. I firmly believe that my tabletop roleplaying game design and writing has improved as a result of this and I hope that it is useful for you too.

I have quoted Tadhg Kelly in previous posts and referred to his excellent blog What Games Are. If you are unfamiliar with his blog and you are interested in game design you are in for a treat. I especially encourage you to read through the Glossary. I recently posted some questions to Tadhg and he has replied. 

QTE: In your  What Games Are posts you frequently refer to the Fun Boson and the futility of the hunt to capture it. Is this hunt purely a tool for securing investment or do you believe that there is more to it than that?

Tadhg: No it’s actually mostly genuine. Personally I think the urge to think this way is more to do with general attitudes toward risk and fear of failure. It is also a great story for investors (because they tend to be risk averse by nature) and so they line up. But if it were just about that then you would see most of the companies who preach the method then ignore it, which they don’t.
One of the ways in which games are unique as a medium is that they can be measured. Another is that there are a lot of people both in and around the medium who fundamentally believe that game design is an undiscovered science, a problem to be solved. And once it is solved, they think, it can be replicated. We see this idea manifest repeatedly in many gaming markets, from social through to mobile, and a considerable amount of cloning is similarly driven by trying unlock the boson. And it fails over and over because - like any entertainment medium - the audience’s tastes are always informed by what it saw before and therefore what is considered fun, cool, delightful or entertaining in context.

QTE: A frequent theme in your writing is critical or at least quizzical towards constant industry trends to measure and metricize player experience. If there is no value in solving player experience as an input to iterative design, do you think that by doing so a designer is unintentionally limiting their ability to reach their audience?

Tadhg: Absolutely. A friend of mine likens it baking a cake. When you’re in the middle of baking a cake the dough tastes like a mush of egg and flour, not at all nice (well maybe for a few people). It’s in a protoplasmic state that needs to be brought up to a certain standard of production (baked) before the intended audience can see what it is. Once baked the whole of the mixture has transformed and become something else, something that the individual ingredients would not have predicted.

It’s the same with games. You go into metric and measure and assessment too early and all that happens is you get a lot of people who tell you they don’t like dough mixture. You get a lot of people who complain that it isn’t fun, and also a lot of people who want to tell you how to fix it (often in the cheapest way possible) to get to their idea of what a fun game should be. This fundamentally leads to a fatalist kind of design that ends up simply replicating what seemed to work before because it’s impossible to let yourself think beyond the numbers.

I’ve experienced the result of that kind of thinking far too often in my career to find anything but fault with it. People literally spook themselves out of being creative by not letting themselves just get on with the baking, with iterating for themselves and using their own expert eye to assess what is and isn’t working. Then they lose their nerve and become cloners just like everyone else.

QTE: This final question is more of a Devils Advocate. Imagine that someone, however briefly, captured the Fun Boson and intentionally and deliberately used this knowledge to design an absolutely fantastic game. There was no coincidence or lucky intersection of emergent market trends. How did they do it?

Tadhg: Oh probably through a combination of trial, error, inspiration and contemplation. But there isn’t a boson so it’s a rather redundant hypothesis. 

There’s a reason why most game designers actually only have one or two successes in their entire career. The best games never come about because of a formula, they tend to emerge over time according to rules that we can’t quite decode. To give you an example, I recently played quite a lot of Cards Against Humanity. This is a game that I wish I had conceived of myself because when you look at it it’s just so darned simple, but at the same time has a rhyme and reason to it that belie real game design smarts. You look at Flappy Bird even and it’s the same. 

QTE (*Bonus Question!*): The Story Vs Game debate is heating up again. I find it fascinating because I can't think of any other creative medium that seriously doubts that it can meld or at least reconcile both. Is Story Vs Game an Identity Crisis for video games or is there more to it than that? 

Tadhg: It’s more a battle of perspectives. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago (The Four Lenses of Game Making) I argued that dualities are easy to digest but rarely have any real truth to them, and really games are better analyzed through a quadrant graph structure of frame/fantasy and emergence/experience. Sure, mechanically driven games are a part of that as are narrative-driven games. But so too are simulations (which are neither) or behavioral games (likewise). Thought of in those terms the variations of what kind of game is popular in the moment tend to make more sense and be more easily mapped.

Does it say a lot about the legitimacy of the form? Yes. I personally believe that one of the hard truths of the video game form is that it is very poor at telling narrated stories (as in the manner of a movie or book) because player agency is part of the package, and players are unreliable. Take that away and you have simply linear media with dressed-up page turning, or a kind of interactive artifice which the player doesn’t really affect. Yet many of us still cleave to the idea that games are supposed to somehow be better than movies.

I believe games are an art form, up and down the line, but I also believe that that art form is about state and place and urgency and moment and dynamism and the sense of story rather than the telling of a story. I think game makers from all quadrants essentially sense that too, that the art of games lies somewhere in the middle of these polar opposites, and that the unique capacity of games to pull us in and make us believe in their space is connected to that. 

I think that the legitimacy issues come more from being looked down upon by the outside world, and so sometimes we try to mould ourselves to look at sound more like what the outside world considers “art” (such as co-opting the language of drama, say) but really it’s a problem to be solved internally. Games are an art as they are and we should use language of our own derivation to describe them, and to hell with what the rest of the world thinks.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Escaping the Heliosheath: Story Vs Game

I have been following a debate that is raging within video game circles currently that is interesting because it does not have an analog in tabletop games. Specifically: Game Vs Story.
Greg Costikyan wrote about the competitive tensions between Game and Story. This is a must read for anyone interested in game design. During his time at West End Games Greg wrote the Star Wars RPG and co-authored Paranoia. Both of these games are significant waypoints in the history/ evolution of tabletop RPG design. His argument is that (video) games are not inherently a story telling medium. He posits that Story and Game are repellent objectives so that the more of one, the less of the other. Any attempt to reconcile this results in discordance in the play experience and a poor design. He writes that "story is the antithesis of game".
My first reaction to this is to reject his thesis because it denies the core goals of my design brain that wants to reconcile the Art Brain and the Play Brain. I don't want it to be so. But I think he makes a compelling point and the fact that I have no counter argument instructs me that he illuminates a key tension in game design. I have fielded a question raised by Greg's article to a games theorist who I greatly respect and hope to publish his reply soon.
A reply to the Game Vs Story issue can be found here stating that games are about participating in a story, not producing a story. It also points to story being irrespective of quality or scope, meaning that the shell story of Mario rescuing the Lady from Donkey Kong is as much a story as the tale of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. They are both Stories and they are both Games. This is a neat reply and it chips away at the inconvenient and jarring points that Greg makes but it doesn't address the core tension.
What does all of this mean for tabletop RPGs? Is it a thing to think about when designing or writing for RPGs? Is it just an identity crisis for video games, growing pains that will be surpassed as they shift from being a discrete activity to an incorporated experience in day to day life? One of the frequent comments about my recent game Acceptance: A Game about Winning, Losing and why it Matters is to question whether it is actually a game or a group story sharing activity. It is basically all story and no game. Of course, my plan is to build game elements into it as I iterate but the point is valid. 
I feel that Story Vs Game is a compelling tension in Game design. It is as important for tabletop games because otherwise the responsibility for dealing with it is shifted to the GM. Maybe that is for the best? I plan to write more about this in the future.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Mind Dunes of the Moon

I am immensely proud and thrilled to announce the release of my first episode for Cubicle 7 Entertainment's Rocket Age.
Enjoy Mind Dunes of the Moon.
Available at Drivethrustuff and wherever good Radium may be found.
I am enormously excited to find out what you think of it.

Grinding the grind: Gamifying the workplace

I work in the customer service department of a large Australian company. One of the key changes in customer service over the past 5 years (I suspect everywhere) is the transition from a service model to a sales model. The mechanism for doing this has been to gamify the work place. 
And here's the thing, it's being done really poorly. I have a deep interest in games, gaming and why we play them. I subscribe to the Homo Ludens theory that play is a primary motivator in the generation of culture. I also believe that when we are faced by a personal challenge, a key process in identifying, addressing and defeating it is to make it into a game.
So why are games in the workplace done so poorly?
Lack of definition
When you sit down to play a boardgame, watch sport, fire up your console or break out the polyhedrals with your buddies you know exactly what you are there to do. You are participating in a game. You either know the rules or you will be assisted by someone who knows them. The space you occupy is prepared for your upcoming gaming experience and you have a sense of the time allocation available for this session. You are also unlikely to participate in more than one game at a time and that game will be front and central. Try watching sport and playing D&D at the same time, doesn't work. 
In the workplace I see multiple, simultaneous games often with competing or contradictory goals. I see games that are initiated and often concluded without ever being defined. I see games that have poor design and single win conditions so that everyone who doesn't win has failed.
Solution
Games can be excellent in the workplace. Considering that I believe that everyone makes games out of their challenges in order to surpass them, the workplace should have games.
Firstly define your game. This game is to increase customer retention by 3%. Be specific. 
Let everyone know it is a game. All of your coworkers have played and enjoyed a game. I look at the enthusiasm for the sports tipping games at work and wonder what would happen if the same gusto was applied to the actual work games, evidently one is fun and the other is not.
Set a time limit and use it to drive performance. 
Keep the game front and central. Incorporate it into the workspace or it will be lost in the chatter. 
Make sure everyone knows the rules. Design games with multiple win conditions, Leaderboards suck in the workplace for absolutely everyone who isn't the leader. If lifting team performance usually means improving the results of the bottom 30%, will celebrating the results of the top 30% do that? Run one game at a time. If you have multiple initiatives, have them feed into the one game. This way it will be easy to remedy competing or conflicting goals.
Iterate. Change the game when you hit your time limit (but not before). Get feedback, fiercely prune out the un-fun and go again. If you are going to use themes, do it wisely. A recent example in my workplace was a game based on the Winter Olympics. No one cared. Playing as a nation on a leaderboard style game with a winter wonderland Russia did not resonate during a 40+ Celsius summer heatwave in Australia. 
I am interested in what you think. Does your workplace run performances games or gamify to increase engagement and competition (which incidentally I believe are competing priorities)? Do they do a good job of it? 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

It Looms!

Mind Dunes of the Moon, my debut episode for Cubicle 7 Entertainment's Rocket Age now has cover art!


Sunday, 16 February 2014

Acceptance: A game about winning, losing and why it matters.

Acceptance is a game for four players as they collaboratively tell a story about winning and losing and why it matters.
I wrote it this afternoon.

It is a structured shared narrative game. Tell the story of a character winning an Award and the sacrifices and consequences that lead up to and follow their victory.


One player is the Winner. They have just been announced as the winner of an Award. What award? It is up to the Winner. It could be something small and domestic like a school fundraiser cake bake-off. An international humanitarian award. The announcement of the winner of a billion dollar military industrial contract.
Don't stop at the limits of the real. It could be the negotiated surrender of a mighty alien empire. A kite flying competition using nothing more than one's elemental control of the wind. The winner of the Elf Queen's hand in marriage. You choose.

The Winner then chooses a player to be the Eye, the person who should have won the Award. The Eye tells a tale, recalling a situation that exposes why they should have won the Award.

The Winner then chooses a player to be the Hand, the person who helped them win the Award. The Hand tells a story about how they sabotaged the Eye.

The final player is the Mouth, the character who chose the Winner for the Award. The Mouth tells a story about why they selected the Winner.

As the Eye, Hand and Mouth tell their stories the Winner hands out prizes if they meet the criteria of their roles.

Finally, the Winner shares their acceptance speech. The Eye, Hand and Mouth all have criteria for gifting prizes back to the Winner.

Then the game is done and it is time to select a new Winner and go again.

Download a copy of Acceptance: A game about winning and losing and why it matters HERE.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Bandit Country Fiction: Cafe Cola

So we’re sitting out front of Cafe Cola, a rusted iron clad shack nestled into the indistinct fringe of the Dantokpa Markets. The miracle of African demarcation and deep understanding of territory means that we are somehow separate from the bustling flood of shoppers. Benoit leans over to clink bottles. “Did you know that Cotonou means `Mouth of the River of Death’?” We are both wearing backpacker tourist gear. Loose button shirts, shorts and sandals. Packs with Canadian flag patches.

He shifts on his yellowing plastic chair. “Most of the slaves passed here on their way to the New World. Prisoners of war sold to the Portuguese. And even now, it is still a market.”

I can smell herbs and leafy vegetables, yams, meat, fish. But mostly I can smell people. African sweat.

Benoit is a native of the French sub species of European expat. Clinging to the cracks of a Post Colonial Africa that is industriously paving over the ghosts of recent history with alternating bricks of war and commerce.

“This is the birthplace of Voodou. One of the better models of human conflict, yes? People have been competing here for as long as there have been people. See how we are not heckled? We are at Cafe Cola. If you took two steps from here you are in a different land. You have crossed a border. Africa is borders.”

We share an easy silence and watch the markets pulse. Women haggling over piled trestles, children working the crowd for dropped coins and the ever flow of colours and smells under a smog of two-stroke fumes. I am told that Benoit originally came to Benin as a part of the security team that oversaw the transfer of French nuclear waste for storage and disposal in the 80’s. But it is hard to wear one hat in Africa. He soon went off the radar and was no doubt stitching new borders of his own.

Across the alley, glimpsed through the passing crowd, a young man is erecting a collapsible satellite dish and then pegging up a dirty sheet to conceal it. Benoit stands; “It is time.”

Saturday, 8 February 2014

My Mars, Seven Pillars.

My Mars is the Woomera rocketry range 500km North of where I live where, most recently, the secret British stealth drone Taranis stretched his wings. Named for the Welsh God of Thunder, did he know that the last time the British brought thunder to this remote and beautiful desert it was in the Antler series of surface nuclear tests in 1957 at a place called Maralinga? 
My Mars is the moment when Lawrence turns back to rescue Gasim during the crossing of the Nefud and what he says upon his return.
My Mars is Gunga Din sounding his bugle from atop the Thuggee Temple, alerting the approaching highlanders to an impending ambush, even though it means his doom.
My Mars is the Pyramid Mine and the secret it conceals and Quaid who rebelled against himself to activate it.
My Mars is the sound of thousands of spears beating on thousands of shields brief moments before the final assault on Rorke's Drift.
My Mars is the Great Trunk Road, where a boy can be both a pawn and a player in the Great Game. And it is the Ox and Bucks light Infantry, the Red Bull on the Green Field who were a promise to Kim by a lost father.  Which was the regiment of my grandfather who was lofted on wings one dark night to capture a bridge named Pegasus.
My Mars is just within the threshold of The Room in Tarkovsky's Stalker because ultimately everything that we want whether it should be or not, is in that room.
These are my Seven Pillars. Will you go with me to Mars?

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Collaboration and Creativity

My latest writing project is part of a shared series of Episodes for Cubicle 7 Entertainment's Rocket Age, forming a connected Serial. I am writing the third Episode. This is a watershed for me because this is the first time that I have written in a collaborative environment. Sure, any time that you are obeying the canon within an established work you could claim to be collaborating but in terms of the creative experience, the work itself is a silent partner. 

So how am I going to approach this? We hammered out some broad guidelines during a Skype group chat. Each writer takes the GM and players through an exciting and adventurous episode and then hands them off to the next writer. We have set some contextual and thematic threads to better bind the Episodes into a Serial.

I plan on taking the advice of the Destiny design team at Bungie. My Episode starts with an ambitious Goal. Now, I'm not going to tell you what it is because, well, patience is a virtue. You may however deduce my goal from my process below.

Then I set out some Pillars. I will reveal that they include Mars and Deception. My Pillars set the criteria by which I judge my effective and entertaining interpretation of the Goal.

Next I go looking for Postcards. I look for images that catch my eye and demand to be part of the Episode. They help with locations, characters, descriptive details and often help me visualize a sense of scale for the key events. Postcards are also a metric for continuity.

At the same time I am working on the Pallette, the thematic and emotional landscape that I will map to the Episode. 

Postcards and Palette are a great opportunity to look well beyond the genre conventions that are expected of a Rocket Age Episode. I started by looking at Sci-Fi Mars art and found some great stuff but it felt like generic video game art designed to encapsulate space into RAM sized levels. I don't have that limit so I want more.

I have always felt that Pulp Sci-Fi like Rocket Age is Colonial Pastiche. It describes a brave new frontier that is open for business and intrigue and the Empires of Earth will flood in to lay a claim at the heels of the brave. You could call it the Wild West writ large but it is so much more than that. It is the Great Game. It is Kim and the Soldiers Three with a healthy dose of the Jungle Book. But isn't it Burroughs' Carter and Tarzan? Well, yes it is but I can't find as many photographs of Barsoom as I can of India. So if you are unsure, Mars is Colonial India. That is where I will find my Postcards.

For my Pallette I wanted some visions of Mars to reinforce my Goal and I decided to turn to film. I want Desperation so I watched Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990). Probably not the first Mars to come to mind for Rocket Age but this is Palette not Postcard. I love this crimson Mars that is an airless prison concealing a breath of salvation. Hmmm.

My next Mars is found in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). A place where rebellion begs for heroes but at what price? The Arab rebellion against the Ottomans hits a vibe with the Caste shakeup resounding from the arrival of Humans on Mars.

My final Mars is the marriage of desperation and inevitability. Where better than Zulu (1964)? What happens when the ground you stand on becomes the front line of a war and duty forbids retreat?

How far am I through this process? Early days. I have to watch and note the films, refine my library of images and keep my colleagues up to date. If you have any suggestions or want to know more about my process, let me know.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Rocket Age: Radium fueled tales of interplanetary adventure

Back in November I wrote about Busy Times. Late last year I wrote the Reddit award winning Flower and then turned my writing attention from the child like Garden Realm to the dark and gritty place where the wants of the first world meet the needs of the developing world in Bandit Country.

At the same time I joined the hallowed fraternity of freelance writers and was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to write for Cubicle 7's Rocket Age. I look forward to posting more about the fruits of that labor when it completes publication. 

Busy Times are back because I have been supremely fortunate enough to be asked to write for Rocket Age again, this time as part of a collaborative episodic campaign. This is exciting beyond measure because Rocket Age is an excellent game with a strong sense of purpose and a steady hand on it's guiding principles.

My first encounter with written science fiction as a pre-teen was the Big Three of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke but my visual experience was Starwars, Battlestar Galactica (original TV) and Flash Gordon. Quite a juxtaposition. 

My preference for written Science Fiction drifted through Gibson and Sterling's Cyberpunk to Ian Banks Culture Novels and Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos. My preference for Science Fiction visually and experientially has drifted back towards the roots. 

If you want a primer for everything that is awesome about Rocket Age, check out the Republic Pictures serials, short episodic films that preluded a feature film and primed the audience for the fun times ahead. They peaked from the mid to late 30's, the Rocket Age setting. Radar Men from the Moon is a great start.

Check out Rocket Age. Blast your jets into the deep, wide skies of opportunity. And keep a RAY gun strapped to your hip.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Bandit Country: Modules

Below are the Modules used during a session of Bandit Country. These Modules interact to form the rules and guidelines of the game and to give the Moderator (GM) some useful tools for creating real-time content if they prefer a more sand-box style of play.

Character
A minigame that Players use to create Consultants. Already described here.

Tempo
This hub module informs all other modules in the game.Tempo generates random numbers for resolution, included as part of a 7 digit number string. These strings can then be used for resolution such as in the Risk Module and True/False booleans for navigating the Consequence and Opportunity Flowcharts.
Tempo also manages Risk mitigation projects used by Players to avoid Consequences.

Risk
A flowchart used by Players to Define Objectives, Assess and Address Risks and then Apply controls and assets to complete Activities and Recruitment. A reflexive Review component of the Risk cycle encourages the Consultant to identify Opportunities.

Consequence
A flowchart used by the Moderator to track outcomes for failed Activities and Recruitment. It outputs Complications and Trauma, the immediate outcomes of failed Risk Mitigation.
It also maintains The Dossier; the evidence that the Consultants leave behind when they take Risks. As The Dossier grows the chance of capture and intervention grows. 

Network
A minigame for Players. They can use this module to arrange and rearrange their recruited Assets to better serve their Objectives. Clever Network play might just keep the Dossier out of the hands of the Authorities. Or keeping the Consultant out of the hands of the Authorities if The Dossier is revealed, at the cost of burning the Network.

Opportunity
Drawing from the number strings that feed out of the Tempo Module, the Review component of the Risk Module and the unfavorable outcomes of the Consequence Module, this Module generates real time Candidates (for recruitment), Situations (Risks) and Objectives.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Bandit Country: Test Cover

I got a Wacom Intuos Manga drawing tablet this weekend and so instead of writing I created a mock cover instead. I have to say that I am pleased with the result. 











This shader style photo manipulation captures the art style that I want for Bandit Country.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Bandit Country: First Playtest

Last night I ran the first Playtest of Bandit Country with testers Joe and Ciaran.
We ran through a brief introduction scenario - `The Interview' last night. It incorporated an interview for Risk :: Reward (character creation) and a single objective (recruit a banker). I have included a link to the right. Check it out, it wont make much sense right now because I haven't blogged the key resolution rules of the game but don't let that stop you. It is a living document and I will be updating it with more material as I refine it. `The Interview' will be the introductory scenario for Bandit Country.
As my first playtest I was really pleased with the result. I had been pushed for time in the lead up and my prep was not the best. My PTs didn't get much preamble and the character sheet docs were fairly poor but they jumped in with gusto.
We played over Google Hangouts and that was a positive experience, especially considering that online / remote play is one of my design goals.
Some comments from the PTs about Character creation and the character system as a whole were:

Positives

  • Once the `Specialty chain' mini game was figured out it was quick and intuitive.
  • It quickly conveyed a sense of just how highly capable the characters are.
  • Nine Specialties still allow for variety.
  • Assets are neat.

Challenges
  • Assets don't make sense until you are using them in-game. They need more definition. I have some ideas about this.

Following the Interview I raised their first Objective: recruit a banker. We then launched into the Risk Management System.
I haven't outlined RMS yet on the blog because I was waiting to see how it worked in actual play. I will be writing more about it soon.
The short version is that whenever players want to do something that has inherent risk they plan it through a basic flowchart that results in them executing their plan and dealing with the consequences. 
It is designed to emulate a fiction where contractors are meticulous and deliberate. They plan, have contingencies and consider the risks leading into acting and then review the results. This is the same whether they are in an immediate situation like an ambush or it is an extended situation such as recruiting a target. The only difference is time and scope of action.

Wins

  • Within minutes of setting the Objective the PTs were plotting and planning. They looked up Bahraini laws for foreign property investment, checked out his apartment building and sorted out locations for intercepts. They got into the Bandit Country Groove. I was very happy about this. They described this sense of brainstorming as a highlight although it also posed challenges (see below).
  • They liked the RMS and Recruitment mechanics.
  • The entire play session came down to resolving one Key Objective that nested a couple of sub Objectives and one Recruitment encounter. It is a mechanically light game whilst being structurally heavy. 
  • The session played out pretty much how I imagined the game should play. This was really satisfying because you never know until you throw it to the wolves.
Challenges
  • Explaining the RMS to players is hard. I should have prepared better for that. 
  • The PTs advised that a better way of presenting a first Objective within the Risk Management System would be to structure it like a `choose your own adventure' rather than the open structure that I used. I agree with this.
  • I focused more on the structure of play than the story of the session. This is partly due to minimal preparation and also because I was keeping tabs on the RMS structures and teaching them to the players more than I suspect I will need to in future sessions. 
Outcome
I am very pleased with where BC is right now. I know what I need to do next (Blog about the RMS and Recruitment) and also some GM support tools. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Bandit Country: What is a consultant?

I have revealed how to make a character in Bandit Country and a sample Consultant. So what happens next? What does your Consultant do?
For the Player
Consultants work in the field of Risk Mitigation. Companies such as Risk/Reward, the firm that reached out to Ammar (our sample character), send them to the parts of the world where large capital investment projects (Large Projects) have been made, usually in support of extracting mineral, energy or agricultural resources. And that's where things get complicated.
Millions are invested to extract Billions and specialists are required because these projects are always raised on the promise of building educational and continuous improvement opportunities for the locals. So your Consultant is in-Country assisting local projects according to their Specialties. Ammar for example usually works as a Transportation Systems Consultant. You are on loan to the locals from the benevolent Large Project investors to help make good on the promise that the project will improve the community as a whole.
But that isn't the whole story is it?
You are also a spy. You are watching the human terrain looking for the tipper, the agent of change. You are trying to figure out what will happen next and who will do it. For this you need networks. With your team you will build a priorities list and start recruiting. You will spread a net for rumours and hearsay and will begin to bracket. You will find out who is probing and who is planning. You will identify them and their plans. You will define their structure and fill it with names, locations and capabilities. Then you will determine a response and craft the groundwork. This is called a Package. The Package includes the Threat, it's structure and links to major players, its capabilities. locations and habits. The Package also includes a basic action plan with built in logistics. The Consultants pass the Package to their Firm and they shop it to the stakeholders, foreign intelligence and security services who will pay millions for a concise threat disclosure with organic action plan/ logistics.
Everyone meets for Margaritas and slaps on the back and then redeploy to do it again.
Unless it goes horribly wrong in which case they are either dead, incarcerated or abducted.

Who needs Consultants in the era of the NSA?
The NSA, GCHQ, the Chinese Ministry of State Security, Iranian MISIRI and other Intelligence stakeholders have the realm of signals intelligence all sewn up. They know who is calling who and what they are saying. They have access to the phones and computers. They have access to the infrastructure that carries and switches the data and the vast clouds that hold the data that inform the transactions of the internet. 
The kinds of threats that the Consultants hunt don't use the internet. They don't carry phones. They don't have ipads. They build networks of their own where disposable human links tie them to a fringe of one time electronic communicators. 

For the GM
Running Bandit Country allows you to layer two discordant narratives and have fun with the result. 
Consultants work with local project management on what is typically a specific community improvement project. It could be to do with improving water quality in a city, roads and transport infrastructure linking a port , access to crop harvesting technology, etc. Or they might be involved in a broader national or regional project like a hydroelectric dam or training police forces. This project will threaten to use far more time than they have available and each member of the team will be involved in different aspects of the project or completely different projects. There will be dramas, accidents, bad weather, labor tension and all the other things that happen when money is the sole accelerator for a large project.
At the same time the Consultants are building a Package. The real money in the game they are playing is in the shadowy hand of a major intelligence agency. They need to start recruiting and get some ears to the ground. They need to find a threat that is saleable. They need to develop some contingencies and start shopping it on the market. The more Threats they find the more assured their parent company is in its role as a Risk Mitigator to the Large Project. This game can be warmly heroic in the sense of the Consultants uncovering and shopping the solution to a serious terrorist plot. It can be bleakly cynical in the sense of the Consultants building a network and converting it into a straw-man threat, ensuring the triumph of fear when it is shopped to an Agency of the key investor nation.

Consultant, welcome to Bandit Country.