Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

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Make it personal
I needed a break tonight from work, Russian, and other things, so I decided to try to expand (or at least write down) some of the ideas that I've been thinking about for roleplaying games. I still think I want to run a new game this fall or next year, assuming I can commit myself to the time required to do it right.

Some of this post is based on the SF stuff I tried to run last year, a game I consider a "success with complications". Meaning I was happy with some things, but I made a few mistakes that QUICKLY wrote me into a corner where it stopped being fun. Extenuating circumstances because of work and all, but I ditched the game because I couldn't be creative enough to make what I was doing work. I'm trying to learn what I can do better next time, both to tell better stories and to make stories that keep me motivated also. This is all under the theme "keep it personal".

The Faceless Opponent
NPCs with whom the players interact can't be complete cyphers, ninjas, zombies, or cardboard cutouts. The players should know some of them by name, and have an emotional connection to some of them, even if that connection is "Oh, he needs to be smited." And I should know the NPCs well enough that I can invest them with personality and character.

Put another way, I'm finding as I play more, that pointless kill or be killed combats in RPGs are just as bad or worse as pointless action sequences in movies. There has to be tension and emotion or I might as well phone it in.

One of the biggest mistakes I made was that I went into the game with an "event/plot" in mind, but left it WAY too open ended, without enough work to tie it to the player characters or to know why the bad guys were doing what they were doing..or even really who they were. Some of that was trying for an improv scenario but not doing any homework at all.

- I set up the situation, but didn't have anything fleshed out.
- I kicked in the door with ninjas too early and turned it into a thriller, rather than going with a slow burn
- I never really established any named characters to interact with.
- In trying to leave the endgame totally open, what I ended up with was a directionless set of action scenes.
- In trying to let people explore FATE, I let a compel or two in that didn't really serve story, and led me down a path where I couldn't reason a good out for the bad guys. So they stopped making sense to me. They were just targets to knock down.
- the lack of good PC-NPC interactive scenes meant that personality and compels weren't really happening often.

Basically, I didn't have a strong enough pillar of support to build stories on. Leaving the story open to what the players are going to do is absolutely important, but trying too hard to keep everything open ended meant never committing to something with enough meat on the bones to sustain the adventure.

So, I don't want to do that next time. :)

Zoom in on the Players

This one is not about mistakes but is more about wanting to go the extra mile. There's a tendency in some situations to zoom away from the personal action and get too abstract. For example, in RPGs, something like space combat always gets a little dicey, because you might blink and suddenly you realize you are playing Star Fleet Battles or Sails of Glory with your roleplaying group. Not good.

I don't think my game went down that route -- this was one of those places where FATE shined really well, and we kept things appropriately cinematic. But there's room for more. I've been digging quite a bit into different FATE books, to see how they handle "different" combat situations, like space combat or ...disasters or even social situations.

I ran an experimental game last year, and I want to explore the idea more: The Disaster Movie. Essentially, I was running dramatic combat, not against monster but against an event. In the example game, a starship malfunction caused a cascade failure in the ship's systems and effectively the ship was seconds or minutes from destroying itself. The players had to race against time to get the three or four major problems under control. Mechanically, (FATE Bronze Rule), the complications were actually stated like characters. So the ship's fire had an attack roll it could use against players or against the ship. While it wasn't intelligent, I was running it like a character, and generally selecting its "attacks" for dramatic effect.

For a first stab at really building a FATE adventure around it, it was a great success, and one I'd love to explore further. Push the characters into a tough situation. Make them work. It doesn't have to be a monster.

I'm intrigued by Fight Fire, which is essentially a fire fighter game in FATE, because that is all about fighting against situations.

Which brings me back to starship combat. Most of the games I've seen for FATE end up using the normal rules, but having the players pick up different roles. So some of the players are usually attacking and the rest are dropping in advantages in play. In practice this works...okay. Potentially great, when the story works. But there are some issues...
- generally the PCs attacks and defenses are grouped (one ship) and maximized (best player in each role).
- the players usually can get a good supply of aspects to tag.
- running an equivalent sized "crew" of NPCs is a huge amount of die rolling of the GM.
- The action is just a little abstracted.

Here's the idea I've been noodling around in my head -- and I've got a couple of games I need to look at to flesh this out more.

- NPCs do not need to be symmetrical to PCs. Meaning, I don't need a giant crew of NPCs to roll against. It is okay to give them higher skills or bonus stunts just to reflect a "big crew", even if those same stunts wouldn't really work for a PC.

More importantly, these characters need to be able to hurt the PC ship enough to create urgency.

- Zoom in on the player: get away from the space map, and back onto the ship. Make drama on the ship important in addition to the fight.

- Put the ship's schematic out on the board, marked with zones and aspects and everything. Make the actions require players to occasionally move around the ship. They aren't just sitting in cushy chairs. This also invites boarding actions and a wide range of problems.

- Take a page from some of the optional toolkit rules, and ditch stress and even maybe some of the consequences for the PC starship. Instead, there's a series of "conditions" to choose from. Like consequences, conditions can be used as fuels for dramatic effects in play. "Engine room fire" is a lot more interesting than "2 stress", and it puts players into situations where personal stress becomes relevant again.

(Fate System Toolkit p. 18 describes this. Think of having the equivalent of 2 mild, 2 moderate, and 2 serious consequences, and no stress, and that's not terribly far off the mark).

To a great extent what I'm striving for is to build drama and narrative. If every round feels too similar in terms of actions, then things get less exciting. I want someone to have to rush off the bridge down to the engine room because the chief engineer is trapped under a pile of debris.

To get away from ships and ship combat, I think one of the things I'm looking for is being able to do dramatic situations that either have no fighting or the fighting is only part of it. A superhero trope that's discussed far more than it is implemented (in gaming) is the scenario where the PCs are averting disasters. Age of Ultron mostly avoided this in that the scenes with them saving civilians are mostly not scenes where they were fighting. Mostly. But somehow, putting NPCs on the map, making the PCs and the GM care about what happens to them, and making their rescue interesting and dramatic...that has potential.

It isn't *directly* related to these ideas, but one of the other ideas percolating in my head is the frontier game. Put the PCs on a colony somewhere. They've got to deal with the problems of a colony, without access to the best resources. So they need to think on their feet but also keep people alive. The potential for drama is heightened when the person you are saving is the only doctor in the colony...or the person who has the codes to the weapon's locker.

And...I think if you are going to ratchet up the tension, you have to be prepared to pay out. Put pressure on the players and keep it there. Maybe Doctor Stevens *will* die. Adventures have to be tough enough that it could happen. The players need to have a chance to lose. In FATE, this means being tough, because PCs have a huge amount of resiliency and ability to pull out all the stops if it comes down to a single critical roll or two.

I have MANY games on my shelves that I'm either looking at or thinking about past experiences with:

This article has a great mental model for ships in FATE, I think. It got me started down some of my thinking and dissatisfaction with the current options for ships in FATE.

More FATE setting books that either have interesting ship rule ideas or disasters.
Fight Fire
Strange Voyages
Aether Sea
Sails Full of Stars

Asteroid - an old board game by GDW, but with roleplaying elements. It sort of zooms in on the personal disaster story and getting off the base.

Battlestations - boardgame where you play a ship's crew, simulating action on the ship. Definitely the game that got me thinking about zooming in on the starship map itself, not just "space". Make players move around the map.

Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactics - board games where you act cooperatively, but also may be at odds with each other (secret factions).

Robinson Crusoe - boardgames where you explore the island as a group and are just scrambling to survive. I liked its event model of bringing up an event and then having it shuffled back into the deck to strike again later. ("I shouldn't have eaten the pig.")

Collectively, these last 3 games are my colony/disaster games, where dramatic things are happening to the PCs and they are forced to make trade offs and decisions.

And others, but that list is already pretty long.

Am I at least going in an interesting direction here? I'm looking for ideas and discussion, but hey, if I ran a game and tried to push these things, would these ideas be interesting to you?

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I wanted to add that I've also been looking at Hillfolk for its take on making characters and places with more emotional connections.

I feel like to make something like this work, because it feels like a very new direction, I need to go into it with a plan.

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