RPG Bucket List Or Gaming Resolution for 2012

Recently, I subscribed to the Evil Machinations blog and read through Jade’s RPG Bucket List.  The idea is to list the RPGs that I would like to play or run. Below is a list of RPGs that I have not played. There are others that I’ve only played once or twice and would love to play again (Fiasco and Do for example).

  1. Technoir – A gorgeous presentation with the awesome Transmission concept.  I’m still working my way through this book, but it’s at the top of the list, especially given it’s high marks.
  2. BattleTech – This is certainly influenced by Fear the Boot‘s rabid fanaticism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for miniatures combat.  Throw in a feudal society and I’m seriously interested.
  3. Burning Empires – I love Burning Wheel and am fascinated by the concept of a truly adversarial game master and rules to enforce it.
  4. Lacuna Part I –  Role-playing agents who delve into the shared “dream world” and unraveling what it means.  The dungeon is the waking world? Or is it the dream world?
  5. Apocalypse World – 2011 Golden Geek winner for best RPG, the systemic layering of moves is fantastic.  I’ve played Dungeon World and really enjoyed it.
  6. Dogs in the Vineyard – The conflict escalation pressure cooker is very intriguing.
  7. Lamentations of the Flame Princess – D&D stripped to what I consider to be it’s core. Many of the obscenely powerful spells have been stripped away.
  8. Microscope – Collaborative world/epoch building engine.
  9. Reign Enchiridion – I love Birthright and the idea of having agency at the macro-level.  Reign appears to handle this quite well.
  10. Inspectres – A Ghostbusters type RPG with the confessional couch.

I should probably lay out a plan for making this happen, but knowing is half the battle.  Of the above Microscope, Inspectres, and Lacuna Part I appear to be the easiest to bring to the table.  Followed by Technoir, Dogs in the Vineyard, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Apocalypse World.  Then Reign Enchiridion, with it’s unique mechanics. And finally BattleTech (no minis, no rulebook) and Burning Empires.

And herein lies the challenge.  I want to play in long running campaigns (8+ sessions) that see characters develop and events unfold.  I also want to experience via play the different game systems.  All of this is in tension with finite time for my hobby.

So my New Years Resolution for 2012 is to play two of the above games face to face with my friends.

Contemplating Scene Economy with Seven Players

I am embarking on a grand journey.  Running a D&D 1E campaign using Burning Wheel with 7 players.  I’d imagine this will cause me some sanity loss.  Recognizing this, I want to make sure I go into the game with a plan.  In particular, I want to make sure everyone has a bit of the spotlight.

The Lead Up

I’ve already wrote about Burning Empires in greater detail, but it was the first RPG that I read that had an explicitly defined scene economy.  In brief, a session is comprised of Conflict, Building, Color, and Interstitial scenes.  Each side can have one Conflict scene per session (though they can have  another one). Major characters have other scenes as well, though those are also strictly rationed.

Another one of Luke Crane’s masterful creations, Mouse Guard introduces the concept of the GMs turn and the Players turn.  The GM frames the first half of the session (i.e. deliver this package, wrestle with the snake).   The players take the reigns in the second half (i.e. resupply, look for a healer).  Here is a review that sums up the session framing.

And then I played Fiasco, a game with a very structured scene economy; Each player will the spotlight for 4 scenes per session.  When it’s a player’s turn for their scene, they can choose to either frame the scene or say how it resolves.

Proposed Solution

Today at lunch I got to thinking about how I’m going to make sure that everyone gets moments to shine; I don’t want to leave anyone behind, and I want some structure to the game itself.

The plan is at the beginning of the session, I’m going to hand out two tokens to each player;  One will be an “Initiate a Scene” token, another will be a “Jump into another Scene” token.

If we are in a lull (i.e. a scene is just wrapped up and “two weeks pass”) then a player may spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.  When initiating the scene, the player can choose to include other characters in the scene as well so long as those characters are available and not off negotiating a treaty or some such nonsense.  (In some cases, I imagine that I might have the brought along character spend their “Initiate a Scene” token.)

Likewise, there are times when a player wants his/her character to jump into a scene.  Spend the “Jump into another Scene” token, and you are there.  You may need to make some kind of test to see how you arrive (i.e. Orienteering or Stealth come to mind).

Once all of the players have spent all of their “Initiate a Scene” tokens, then everyone refreshes their “Initiate a Scene” and “Jump into another Scene.”  The idea is that I want everyone to have their moment.

If a player needs a follow-up scene, but doesn’t have an appropriate token, they can petition the table to have another scene.  This system isn’t intended to be a straight jacket, but instead be a set of focused constraints to ensure everyone is participating.

When spending the “Initiate a Scene” token, the player should state the intent of the scene, instead of just saying “I wanna go into the inn.”

Burning Wheel and Bloodstone

I am committed to running the Bloodstone adventure series, and today I have settled on using the Burning Wheel rules system.  Below are some of the elements that went into my decision.

System Wars

The initial candidates were Burning Wheel, Dungeons and Dragons 1E, and possibly Legends of Anglerre.  As I was deliberating, Rob Donoghue posted a timely article on returning to D&D 1E after having played D&D 4E.

What struck me about the article, and something that I had forgotten about, is that D&D 1E combat strongly encouraged pre-combat preparation.  Whereas D&D 4E combat only happens after initiative is rolled.

In addition, I still maintain that the system you use will strongly influence, and all to likely mandate the game that you will play.  And I want to be a part of a memorable game where the story takes front stage.

Mass Combat

Bloodstone makes use of the D&D 1E Battlesystem for resolving the many mass combats.  I have trepidations about spending an entire evening of a role-playing session focusing on mass combat.  While I have fond memories of the mass combat, I want to see if we can possibly get those battles done in about half a session.

While Battlesystem might work, I think there are better options available.  Legends of Anglerre and it’s cousin Diaspora, have wonderful mass combat systems.  Burning Wheel’s sibling, Burning Empires has Firefight, and with a bit of grunt work, would work well for a fantasy setting. It turns out a few intrepid souls already did the conversion.

Devil in the Details

Another factor that went into the decision, is that my 11 year old loves playing clerics.  So the system we play should easily accomodate her.  She’s not a strong reader, so I’m hesitant about having her process lots of spells.  She is, however, very strong with numbers.

Burning Wheel’s Faith magic has a simple set of rules to follow, and allow for creative prayers…something an 11 year old is quite adept at.

I do have concerns about her ability to track tests, but I’ll take those concerns over her deliberating over a massive list of prayers.  She’ll have several adults playing to help her.  And I plan on creating a sheet for her to track her tests.  In fact, I think this is going to be something that’d be helpful for everyone.

Cold Hard Reality

And lastly, the cold hard reality is that I’m running the game, and as such I can choose the system I want to run, and the players can choose if they want to play. So with Burning Wheel as the chosen system, I need to layout what will go into play.

Onto the Rules

The available races are Man, Elf, and Dwarf.  I’m capping Men at 7 lifepaths and Elves and Dwarves at 6 lifepaths; Everyone will have an 7 exponent cap.

I’m going to make potions available to assist in recovery Health tests.  The obstacle to create a potion is double the bonus dice granted to the Health test.  So a potion of Lesser Healing that grants +2D to a Health test will require an Ob4 Alchemy or Herbalism test to create.

B is for Burning Empires

In my extensive collection of games (this is not a complete list) there is a subset of games that I’ve never played; And in some cases, likely never will. One of those unlikely to be played is Burning Empires a role-playing game by Luke Crane set in the comic series Iron Empires, created by Christopher Moeller.

The production value of Burning Empires is simply amazing; It is 600+ pages of visual and written inspiration. The underlying Burning Empires system is directly built from Luke’s Burning Wheel. Where needed, there Luke both creates and updates rules to better model the appropriate game feel; After all, according to Luke, game design is mind control.

There are three intertwined concepts in Burning Empires:

1) GameMaster vs. the Players
2) A scene economy
3) A macro-level story conflict and resolution mechanism

GameMaster vs. Players

In most other role-playing games the GameMaster (GM) is responsible for providing the interface for the characters into the world. The GM creates the conflict, manages everyone other than the player’s characters, and is arbitrates any rules conflicts. The GM in those other games challenges the characters, but has no explicit goal of winning (at least shouldn’t have that goal). Burning Empires throws that convention to the wind and explicitly states that the GM should play to win. To make this happen, there are rules put into place to make sure the GM is not abusing their position of power.

Scene Economy

In part, this is done by defining the scene economy. Without a scene economy, the GM could simply manipulate the story as they see fit, constructing scene after scene that helps them win. So Burning Empires defines and allots each side four types of scenes: Color, Interstitial, Building, and Conflict scenes.

  1. Color scenes are there to establish the tone and timber of the game, to foreshadow possible upcoming events, or to highlight something that interests the players.
  2. Interstitial scenes are used for characters to interact.
  3. Building scenes are there to improve the teams position in the macro-level story (i.e. the movie montage scene).
  4. Conflict is used to force concessions from the opposing team.

The scenes happen in the context of the larger story, with the design intent being that the macro-level mercilessly moves on; Thus there is a “make it count” mentality. If the scene-economy wasn’t present, both sides might get bogged down in the minutiae of small conflicts, and the over-arching story would stagnate.

Macro-Level Story

The over-arching story of every Burning Empires game is that the insidious Vaylen are working to infiltrate and perniciously dominate a feudally fragmented humanity. Each campaign starts in one of three Infection phases: Infiltration, Usurpation, or Invasion. The first game session is spent collaboratively creating the world (planet/star system) that will be fought over as well as the primary movers and shakers that will influence the greater conflict. During the world creation, each side is allotted a certain number of Disposition points. Once one side runs out of Disposition points, the one with points remaining is the winner and the campaign is over. The winner then narrates the epilogue based on concessions and margin of victory.

The macro-level story is narrated via Maneuvers; What is happening on the larger scale (i.e. massive battles, propaganda campaigns, trade wars etc.). These Maneuvers are influenced by the lower level scenes (i.e. an impeachment proceeding, a fist fight, a training montage). There are guidelines and rules for tying the character scenes to the opposing maneuvers, all of which help establish a clear and stated purpose for each session.

Session Overview

The session is comprised of one (or possibly two) Maneuvers; Each maneuver has many scenes. Below is the interaction between Scene and Maneuver:

  1. At the beginning of the session, informed by the results of last session’s maneuver, “secretly” declare your side’s maneuver (i.e. Go to Ground, Flak, Gambit, Assess, etc.).
  2. Then, play out your scenes, remembering that you want to play towards your maneuver
  3. And finally, at the end of the session, resolve the opposed maneuvers.

So why will I likely never play it?

The game is a very specific type of game. The campaign has a shelf life, simply resolve the maneuvers until a winner emerges. I’ve subjected my gaming group to countless different games, and I think this one, with it’s specificity strikes me as having little chance of being chosen. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Diaspora military campaign

Diaspora accounts for four primary conflicts:

  • Personal physical combat
  • Spaceship-level combat
  • Platoon-level combat
  • Social combat

Having yet to run a game, I would wager that each conflict works best with between a couple and a dozen or so participants.  Star Wars, Star Trek, and Star Frontiers: Knighthawks were each influences in my formative years. As such, I have a soft-spot, as I’m sure many of the people my age, for a good space battle.

Having played quite a bit of Axis and Allies and other large scale military games, I also find myself interested in the potential for larger military campaigns, ones with large space battles, fleet deployment, strategic maneuvering, and propaganda.

In some ways, I’m musing about how to incorporate and/or use the amazing work Luke Crane did in Burning Empires; He implemented a very important concept of “scene economy” and adapted his Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits conflict mechanism to address different stages of an insidious invasion.

In looking towards a macro-level conflict sub-system, I believe it needs to address, at a minimum, the following:

  • Information
  • Influence
  • Expiration

Information: The players need to know the current state of the conflict; In an abstract way they need to know how many hit points each side has left and should probably have a sense at which side has the momentum.

Influence: The characters need to have influence over the conflict; The actions they take at the micro-level should bubble up to the macro-conflict.

Expiration: The characters should not have enough time to methodically address everything. No single person, or even small set of people, can possibly always be the “critical path” of a macro-level conflict. Decisions and actions will be made outside the scope of the characters influence.

In the case of Diaspora, modeling the larger conflict would clearly be done with the existing sub-systems, and likely with another sub-system for measuring the macro-conflict. Or, would it make sense to create a handful of social conflicts  that are happening concurrently?  Then again, I want to see spaceships shooting it out. Blockades being run. Ground troops working at securing a critical resource.

So, what is the next step?  I think it is time to re-read my copy of Burning Empires and figure out some next steps.