Ideas gleaned from dead cells

I’ve been played Dead Cells today. It seems surprisingly good, and has given me ideas for rpgs, particularly dungeon/hexcrawl ones, and perhaps particularly for open table games:

  • Parcel out knowledge in little, mysterious hints of one or two lines. In session announcement emails, on playbooks and other props, hanging on the back of the GM screen today…
  • Random roll when you enter the dungeon for major state-changing events that day. E.g.
    • There’s a goblin raid ongoing in the section
    • The Gobling King has recalled all goblins for a feast, so there are no goblins other than there
  • Dungeon World (or similar) location moves that don’t supplement but replace the standard set. Have as cards/sheets that you stick over the standard list while in that area.
  • Enemies you can harvest for rare ingredients (seems obvious, but I’ve never done it)
  • Dole out world knowledge in tiny parcels through item names, in-game events (hearing that the Hate-Dwarves attacked means that you now know Hate-Dwarves exist), creature types (knowing that the Funnymen are wretched humans with bizarre things grafted onto them implies the existence of a malevolent grafter)…
  • People love treasure, especially if there’s a chance of a rare and valuable item. I’ve never got good a treasure — my default is to forget it entirely, or be realistic (and thus give far less than is best for player reward experience). For some games that doesn’t matter, but I rarely shift gears properly when it does.
  • Let players unlock things that will outlive their character — perhaps for them, perhaps for all players. Advantage of latter is that it makes player-player balancing easier.

D30 reasons someone is dead

Want to explain a missing family member? Want to put a backstory to a grave? Want to be a dick and stop the players talking to that crucial NPC? I am the OSR, roll d30:

  1. Fell through a rotten floor into a nest of vermin
  2. Thrown from their horse when it was spooked by a ghost
  3. Skin sloughed off and blew away on the wind
  4. Became maudlin, stopped eating
  5. Hung themself out of spite
  6. Limbs turned into snakes and slithered off
  7. Challenged someone to a duel, killed them, killed in turn by a sibling
  8. Cursed by a boggart, dried out, shrivelled up
  9. Got an infection, swelled up, burst
  10. Took patent medicine for a headache
  11. Took to bed, raved prophecy for three days, expired
  12. An excess of laudanum administered for joint pain
  13. Ran wild with joy, fell in a pit
  14. Hit by an arrow meant for a cheating spouse
  15. Cheated on their spouse
  16. Ate very old beans
  17. Key parts wore out
  18. Bones ran away from them
  19. Years of hard living
  20. Years of loose living
  21. Picked a fight with a bear
  22. Jumped in to save another
  23. Something came at them out of the dark
  24. A long suffering neighbour put them out of his misery
  25. With each passing year, another ailment
  26. Was careless with tools
  27. Was barely noticed amid the many that winter
  28. Slowed to a halt over many years
  29. They shrank as their spouse grew
  30. No reasonable explanation, but here they are

What do published rulesets ever do for us?

Some months ago, I asked What Do Rules Ever Do For Us? I asked, there, “Why use rules? Why not just freeform?” Under “rules”, I included those that were “RAW from a third party text, hand-crafted by the GM, or assembled by the play group through a democratic process”. Here, I’m going to zoom in on the first of those and ask “What do published rulesets do for us?”. I’m not interested, here, in things that any collection of rules can do — I’m interested in a what a set of rules carefully designed by a third party can do for you.

I’m not asking, here, about rulebooks per se, as texts or as physical artefacts — I’ve asked that elsewhere. I’m asking about the rules themselves, howsoever communicated and stored.

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What do rulebooks ever do for us?

Some months ago, I asked What Do Rules Ever Do For Us? Here, I’m going to ask “What do rulebooks do for us”? I’m asking not about rules (abstract things that could be just in the players’ heads) but about actual rules texts.

Rulebooks can sell

Rulebooks can start by inspiring one person to want to play. If there is a GM, it will often be this person. This was my experience with Zweihander — reading the book (and, particularly, looking at the pictures) made me want to run it. I wanted to play in that world.

Rulebooks can then help to encourage people to play. The zealot from above can wave the book at players. Those players can look at the art, read the prose, scan down lists of abilities (or insanities) and come to feel that they want to play, too.

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Freedom to choose your path — player survey

I surveyed six people who’d played in several of the recent games I’ve run, asking

How much freedom you had over the major events in my various games? Did you feel you were steering, or that I was? Was it like a quad bike or like a rollercoaster? Like being a writer, or like being a reader?

Crucially, I want to know “Did it feel like you could change the major outcomes of the story being told?”

I asked them for a 1–5 rating of each game, against the following anchor points:

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Vincent Baker and the need for seed

Vincent Baker says that “seed content” is important. Seed content is “You are Mormon troubleshooters moving from town to town”, it is “If you want to be a Sorcerer you must first be Scholar”, it is a standard list of beginner’s spells including Magic Missile and a very weak summoning. It is all the explicit or implied setting material that comes with a game.

Content doesn’t arise from people + creative process. It arises from people + seed content + creative process.

Why? At the time of writing (2009), Baker was seeing a lot of games that just said “work together as a group to make your own setting and then use these generic rules”. And he saw that this caused three problems:

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On the definition of “Storygame” and the problems of theory

Patrick Stuart spells out on his blog what he thinks when he hears “storygame”. And I am like “No! You speak ill of sacred things!”. And I nerdrage, throwing nerd-audience luxury goods out of my basement window. Or, at least, I kind of twist up inside like I’ve got a tapeworm or something.

I find this experience very informative, and issue thoughts, below.

Rage about theory can be rage about lumping

I think my nerd-not-quite-rage is that Patrick, someone I respect and think to a degree I understand, is lumping together things that I like (e.g. PBtA games, Burning Wheel, some GMless stuff) with things that I hate (railroaded “Trad” games, where the GM tells a story and you sort of act along).

I think many people who get angry online about theory are angry that a distinction that makes a big difference to their enjoyment is being obscured.

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