Archive for March, 2005

Early Notes about a Spy Game

March 24, 2005

Our current hot topic of discussion is a spy game. Bringing out the old Tiny Spies helped trigger the whole thing. We have a few interesting ideas for it that we are working through, and there will be more discussion coming in the future.

So today’s find of an article with the CIA’s review of The Great Game, a book about fact and fiction in espionage, seems particularly apropos:

Redmond Simonsen Obit

March 16, 2005

This news will only be of interest to those of you who are familiar
with the staff of SPI (or who have memorized the credis page in their
copy of DragonQuest). I have just learned that Redmond Simonsen has

For those who don’t recognize the name, he was the co-founder of SPI,
and was responsible for their graphic design and art direction.

New York Times obituary (registration required):

Greg Costikyan’s remembrance:

Greg has some good things to say about Redmond on his blog. He was a
pioneer in the whole industry.

Friends of Tekumel

March 9, 2005

I’m not personally a fan of Empire of the Petal Throne or M.A.R. Barker’s writing, but I note here that a new Tekumel RPG has been published. (also in paperback)

This incarnation is produced by Guardians of Order, and one of the co-authors is my friend Joe Saul.

Joe points out a correction:

There isn’t actually a paperback edition (Amazon pulls these listings out of their butt), but you can download a copy as a watermarked PDF from

A Theory of Fun for Games

March 9, 2005

It’s a multi-posting day. Here’s a really good article about what makes games fun:
found via the ever helpful BoingBoing.

Some interesting quotes to ponder:

Fun is the feedback the brain gives while successfully absorbing a pattern.

Games are the cartoon version of real world sophisticated problems.

Games are distillation of cognitive schemata. That’s. What. They. Are. They are prefab chunks – you can run through and practice without actually having to do it. Games are fundamentally forms of cognitive training.

This is all taken from a keynote speech by Raph Koster at a Game Developers Conference (transcribed and blogged at the link above). The speaker is a developer of online games and author of a book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design. While it may not be directly targeted at role-playing games, I think it maight be useful. I linked to the Slashdot review and discussion about this earlier.

When we meet noise, and fail to make a pattern out of it, we get frustrated and quit. There are patterns everywhere. Static snow on TV. My kids have never seen that, by the way, which is pretty scary. Once we see a pattern, we delight in tracing it, and in seeing it reoccur. That’s meaning, all of a sudden. The brain doesn’t learn something the first time it sees it, it takes a while. You have to practice it. When you’re a kid, learning to put on trousers. It takes a really long time! It’s disturbing! It takes MONTHS! And children are way smarter than we are. I’m serious. As we get older it’s harder and harder for us to build patterns. So when we see a pattern that we get, we do it over and over again. We build neural connections. Now this is what I call fun.

There’s a level of complexity that enters into table-top RPGs that computer games can’t really meet (at least not yet). Human GMs can be infinitely more variable. But I take notice anytime someone starts talking about patterns, and I start thinking about how pattern may apply to traditional RPGs.

Task Resolution Mechanics

March 9, 2005

Neel had a posting on The 20′ By 20′ Room about discovering a mechanic for resolving other conflicts in a Star Wars game:

However, I noticed a very clear jump in the quality and fluidity of the action when we finished the wangle-an-invitation sequence and moved on to the scene depicting Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s pleasure barge. This was an action sequence in which the players, all gathered together at the barge kicked off their big rescue plan. This part of the game was a fight, and made full use of the Feng Shui combat system. It played out a good deal better than the previous sequence — the improvisations were more fluid, and it was clearer when the players were successful and when they failed.

I think that this was because the combat had a much more concrete indicator of success or failure than the first part did. In particular, the NPCs had a bunch of wound points, and we all knew that they were dead when they ran out. This sounds like a pretty trivial point, but it became clear to me when I made an off-the-cuff ruling — Lando Calrissian was trying to convince Bella Nyx to heroically convert to the side of good, and after his player rolled, I mentioned that his kiss did 14 points of “indecision damage” to her, and that he would convert her if he did enough damage to “kill” her. The other players went “ah-ha” then, and I realized I had stumbled on a good thing.

Here’s why I think it’s good, and what the previous scene was missing. In Feng Shui, the basic way that the game works is that the GM comes up with a general description of the scene, including a number of cool features that the players can seize upon to use in their stunts. They describe doing something cool, and then they roll.

This is basically assigning “hit points” to concepts or abstractions, rather
than monsters. You’re after a project rather than a critter, and you’re
tracking points on vanquishing it in a different fashion, but it’s not that
much of a stretch, really. Comments to the posting suggest that Neel invented HeroQuest. And Thor has been pushing me to read those rules, as well, so maybe this is nothing new after all.

We’ve been having some discussion about doing things like this in the Attention mechanic. A particular task is assigned a particular number of Task Points, and those are tracked much like hit points on an opponent or a monster.

Can anyone say “Legacy”?

You spit in her decolletage

March 9, 2005

This article was forwarded to me quite a while ago. I don’t know if the original was on a mailing list or on a website or from someone’s blog. A bit of googling didn’t turn it up. If anyone recognizes this and can help, let me know. I’d like to credit the original writer (or link to them if it’s out there somewhere).

That said, this is obviously someone else’s work, and I don’t want to encroach on someone else’s stuff. Therefore, my caveat is that I’ll leave this here as a placeholder for now. If the original author can be found, I’ll link to them instead.

We’ve discussed the mechanic used here, and sort-of tried to implement it in one scenario that was run. It needs some further elaboration, perhaps, but the concept is a good one. And I think it’s worth sharing.


As we left the theatre after watching Brotherhood of the Wolf for the first time, I confided to Ramee that there was this role-playing game I had never given much thought to before, but apparently it was pretty much exactly like all that crazy shit we had just seen on the big screen, all that and moreso. Ramee walked over to the movie poster and pointed at Monica Bellucci and said, “I want to be her. If I can play her, I will play that game. Make me the Pope’s killer whore.”

Thus our ongoing 7th Sea game was born.

Last night we kicked off the first of several sessions that will focus heavily on politics and social intrigue. I’ve never pulled that off before – not successfully, anyway – and I’d been pretty nervous leading up to last night’s game. Our group has often run afoul of the perennial dilemma that surrounds social mechanics: how do you use dice without devaluing player input? how do you roleplay it without reducing the decision-making process to GM fiat?

In a game like 7th Sea, where witty courtiers are supposed to be viable heroes right alongside the flashing swordsmen and daring pirates, I think it’s important that social skills have some sort of objective measure. Everyone in the group can quip in pseudo-medieval Olde Englishe with roughly equal facility, but a high rating in social skills makes your character unique, and provides a niche to fill. On the other hand, abstracting social interaction into a roll of the dice can disempower the player:

PLAYER: “I attempt to impress the Countess with my dazzling social acumen.”

GM: “What’d you roll?”

PLAYER: “I rolled a 1.”

GM: “Tough luck. You say something completely stupid and spit in her

Somehow, that just doesn’t play very well.

The solution I finally hit on was inspired, in part, by Jared Sorenson’s “I-system” and James West’s Pool – which stipulate that the result of a die roll does not determine success or failure, but rather who gets to narrate the result. Now, our group is structured much more traditionally than either of those games, but I was able to incorporate that philosophy into one small part of the mechanics, I think to good effect.

All social intrigue revolves around the basic currency of favors. The NPCs are not merely information banks and clue-dispensers; the object of the game is to get them to do something for you, and to do that you have to do something for them in return. So all the improving and kibbitzing and Olde Englishe quipping eventually leads up to the critical moment where the player puts her cards on the table and says, “Okay, I’m trying to get this guy to do this for me.”

We roll an opposed test of her social skill vs. the NPC’s. Already this changes the “feel” of play from simply making a flat roll against your own skill. We have a tendency to interpret the results of an opposed roll relative to each other, rather than in absolute terms. A crappy roll doesn’t mean your character did something stupid; it just means your opponent did better.

If the player wins the roll, she gets to dictate the terms of the agreement – that is, she decides what the NPC will do for her, and what she will do for the NPC in return. As the GM, I reserve the right to dicker a bit if the player gets ridiculously greedy (“Gimme the keys to the royal treasury, and I’ll buy you a hot dog…”), but for the most part the player takes the reins and determines the outcome of the scene.

If the NPC wins, then I get to dictate the terms of the agreement instead, both how much the NPC is willing to give and how much the player has to pay for it. The kicker here is that either way, the player still achieves her objective, which was to get a favor from the NPC. In no case does the NPC simply brush the player off and refuse to negotiate. A “failed” roll, then, does not signify a dead end; it just means the player now has to do more than she expected. Ideally, the player will have to do just a bit more than she can accomplish on her own, which should drive her to more NPCs looking for more favors, until the web of promises and obligations gets hopelessly entangled and then voilá – instant intrigue.

It worked splendidly. Ramee’s character now has to find a way to convince the Lady Jamais Sices du Sices to spend one night with Prince Donello Falisci – whom the Lady despises – in order to get an important favor from him. Meanwhile, Brian’s character has already slept with Lady Jamais in an attempt to get a favor from her. And the most important NPC of all, Duchess Thérèse Rois et Reines du Roché, is the only person who can get the heroes what they most vitally need – and she hates Lady Jamais with a boundless passion. Lord knows what she’ll ask the players to do.

And all that is from a bunch of failed rolls.

Lots of fun, and a great solution to an old problem. Can’t wait until next week.