Designer Diary: Quick Draw

I ran Disaster Strikes! at Furnace last weekend, and it was pretty successful. I used a new mechanic for the first time – the disaster pool. But before I can explain how that went, I need to talk about Quick Draw, the conflict resolution system I’ve been using for DS!

We at Black Armada have been planning to release a “generic” conflict resolution system which we can use with our games, and QD is our first attempt at this. It’s still somewhat in development, but I’ve been testing it with DS! because it seems to fit the game pretty well.

QD works in a similar way to many conflict resolution systems in that you say what you’re trying to achieve, identify the stakes of the conflict (i.e. what happens when you win, what happens if you lose), work out which of your character’s stats apply and then set a difficulty number. In most games you’d then go to the dice, but as the name implies, QD uses cards instead.

The player who is taking the action draws 3 cards, and the GM (so far it’s only been used with games that have a GM) draws 1 card. The player reveals his best card and adds it to whatever stats are in use, while the GM reveals her card and adds it to the difficulty number. High number wins, player wins ties.

What makes the system interesting is how face cards are handled. Forgetting Aces for the moment (Aces are special), face cards count as 5-point cards for purposes of working out the results of a draw. However, face cards can be played after other cards have been revealed as described above, to add a +5 bonus to the player’s side. Naturally, having a face card dramatically increases your chance of success.

However, in addition, playing a face card generates a consequence of some kind. The consequence is usually decided by the GM, and is generally something that the character on the receiving end will not like. It’s against the rules to overturn the outcome of the card draw (i.e. the stakes as agreed above), so consequences tend to mean a new event of some kind, which might or might not be related to the current action. Kind of like Leverage, this means that conflicts often generate spiralling sets of complications.

For DS! this is a nice property for a system to have, because it reinforces the sense that the disaster is raging out of control. The GM can use complications to activate aspects of the disaster in an unpredictable way, so that a seemingly straightforward challenge can turn into a cascade of pain. The Furnace session saw the protagonists hurdling rivers of fire only to be struck by an out-of-control rollercoaster train with a zombie on it, carried by the momentum to the ticket stands where a horde of zombies began pouring through the turnstiles, and so on.

The downside, though, is that it’s a lot of work for the GM to come up with consequences. When the players are firing on all cylinders as well, this isn’t too bad – the GM can take suggestions and avoid running out of ideas. But there can be fairly long moments where the GM is all “what the heck do I do now?”. This is especially a problem when multiple consequences come up in a single turn. Which happens more than you might think.

I haven’t yet figured out quite how to get around this problem. Maybe it isn’t a problem at all – it generates creative challenges for the group, and I don’t think I’ve ever found it literally impossible to come up with something. But I’m wondering if there’s a way to avoid breaking the action while the GM thinks of a consequence.

Next up: suits, player-generated conequences, and the disaster pool.

Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

Furnace rpg convention – review

Admiral Frax and I headed into the hills of Sheffield on Friday night for Furnace, a smallish (about 80 people) roleplaying convention focused exclusively on tabletop gaming.

We have been doing what we refer to as “the con”, a gathering of about two dozen of our friends for roleplaying purposes every year for about a decade, but this was the first proper convention we had attended. Furnace is a fairly intense affair – three gaming slots on the first day and two on the second, leaving the Sunday evening for everyone to race off home. This meant that the games were fast and focused, which was largely a good thing. Despite this, it didn’t feel rushed, and most of the games I played in found time for a coffee break or two.

I managed to play in four games using systems I’d never tried before, which was great for my new year resolution to try lots of new games, and all four were an excellent standard of both GMs and players. The venue was the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield, a former, uh, garrison on the north side of the city. The place is full of little nooks and crannies where gaming can happen in a relatively quiet environment (including some rather spiffy little jail cells which are just big enough for a decent sized tabletop and nicely separated off from the surrounding area, if slightly hard to extract yourself from when you want to go for a coffee break). It’s pretty labyrinthine, though by the end of the weekend we’d just about worked the place out. And the food is somewhat above mediocre, which is high praise when you consider how bad such venues can be. Also, their real ale menu is a big bonus.

Partway through there was a raffle in which, unprecedently, I won something – specifically, a copy of Apocalypse World. Yay! Frax also got given a free copy of Witch by the author, who I can only assume was so impressed by her enthusiasm for the game that he temporarily turned into Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of a Christmas Carol. Looking forward to giving this game a try!

Frax and I were both nervous because it was our first con, because we knew absolutely nobody who was attending, and because we had both decided not only to GM but to run our own games (When the Dark is Gone and Disaster Strikes! respectively). We needn’t have worried – Furnace is very welcoming, and we both got players who threw themselves into our games, as well as quite a few interested bystanders asking about our games in the sidelines. The con seems to be quite a tight-knit community, where everyone knows everyone else, but we didn’t find it hard to strike up conversations with people and by the end we didn’t feel like we were outsiders at all.

Games-wise, I played:

Hot War, a d10-based throw-in-as-many-stats-as-you-can type game, in this case set in the “ashtrays in space” (as the GM evocatively described it) setting of the Heracles corporate spaceship. Hot War seemed like a decent system, though I found out later its real strength is faction-based conflict, something which didn’t really leap out at the time. I had a lot of fun playing my bigoted (anti-replicant) security chief and shooting many people in the face.

Trail of Cthulhu, the cthulhu version of Gumshoe, in this case set in the WWI Royal Flying Corps. Lots of fun shooting at German planes and wrangling demonic creatures. I like the way ToC avoids dice rolls when you don’t want them by paying points from skill pools to auto-pass, though remain slightly suspicious that these pools tend to run out partway through leaving you a bit stuck, unless the pacing is just right.

Age of Arthur, a FATE-based post-roman pre-arthurian dark ages Britain game (due to be released this December). I really enjoyed this setting, which blended Roman-esque feel with low fantasy, exactly the kind of fantasy setting I enjoy. AoA includes a mass combat system which allows generals to duel at the strategic level while individual heroes strike decisive blows at the tactical level – a nice balance. One to watch out for.

Wordplay, another grab-the-stats-that-apply game (d6-based this time), in this case set in a sort of post-apocalyptic setting where it started raining one day and never stopped. Oh, and there were angels. I really liked the idea of this setting and I always enjoy a good post-apocalyptic game, so this was always going to go well. My english Clint Eastwood-type gunslinger got to do a lot of, er, gunslinging, which was lots of fun.

Disaster Strikes!, which you can read about elsewhere on this site. We ran a zombie plague set in a British theme park, a rather over the top schlock action fest, which seemed to be enjoyed by all concerned. I’ll write up the new mechanic I was testing, the disaster pool, in another article.

All in all, a great time was had. I’d recommend Furnace to anyone looking for a con where you can rack in more tabletop gaming than you can shake a very big stick at, all in one weekend, and for the very reasonable price of £20 (plus accomodation). Especially reasonable if you receive over half the ticket price in free games.

Black Armada at Indie+

So, I’m going to be attending Indie+, the online roleplaying convention, and running a session of my forthcoming disaster movie game, Disaster Strikes!. If you fancy a spot of roleplaying over G+ hangouts on the afternoon of Sunday 4th November, do sign up!

The game is at 14:00-18:00 (Western European time, which is 09:00-13:00 on the East coast of the US and somewhat less sociable hours if you’re situated further West). Details are here.

I’m also running DS! at Furnace. This will be the first outing for the game where the players aren’t all my friends, so I’m a bit nervous. Nervous, but excited!

Black Armada’s reviews

I’m thinking of revamping the way we do reviews here. I’ve done a handful of board game reviews, and I have plans to do a bunch of rpg reviews, but the one RPG I’ve reviewed so far (Microscope) left me feeling a bit dissatisfied, so I’ve paused for thought.

Fact is, Microscope is a really great game. I felt uncomfortable giving it great marks though, because I don’t think it’s particularly great as a roleplaying game. It’s just something else entirely.

Looking back, I should probably just have changed its category to “history building game” or something, and had done with it. But anyway, it got me thinking that a rating out of five really isn’t good enough for a nuanced review. The text helps to convey the detail, but I’d like to break the rating up a bit.

We already have “type” (strategic card game etc), # players and time to play, plus text on gameplay and components and a written summary.

Here’s what I’m thinking of adding:

Complexity, from 1 to 5. 1 is “you can pick this up and be playing it inside of 10 minutes”. 5 is “you’ll need to set aside several hours to read this game, and allow time at the start to explain the rules to the other players”.

Strategic/tactical depth, from 1 to 5. 1 is snakes and ladders. 5 is Go (simple but deep) or Game of Thrones (complex and deep).

Roleplaying advice (roleplaying games only), from 1 to 5. 1 is “tells you what a roleplaying game is and leaves you to work the rest out for yourself”. 5 is “devotes a chapter or three to advice on how to run and/or play the game”. (Could widen this to boardgames I guess – play/strategy advice?)

Production values, from 1 to 5. 1 is cheapass games. 5 is Fantasy Flight Games.

Cost. In £s or $s or whatever we can get.

I feel like there’s something missing here… maybe something about how well-designed the rules are for the game it’s trying to be. “Design”, perhaps. 1 to 5, where 1 is “the experience of playing this game is radically different from how it’s sold on the tin” to 5 “rules and guidance come together to produce a game which hits the desired play experience on the head”.

So anyway. Thoughts? What would you want out of a game review? Would the above help you to identify a game you wanted to play? Do you even want ratings, or would you just prefer a good writeup?