Scenario ideas for Fastaval 2017

After coming home from Fastaval, I’m always filled with a great desire to write more roleplaying games. This year was no exception. In no time at all, I spurted out a number of scenario ideas. Now, the synopsis deadline is early this year, which means that I’d better get started on developing an idea for a scenario.

And so, in this post, I am going to sketch out some ideas for games. I would love to hear your feedback on them, so that I can tune my ideas. Continue reading Scenario ideas for Fastaval 2017

Fastaval 2016 Retrospective

This year, I took a step down from being activities coordinator last year. Instead, I was “merely” a board game jury member. Plus, I wrote a scenario, Death of a Playwright. Being a member of the board game jury, I played more board games than roleplaying games – but again, being a jury member, I don’t feel like I should talk about my play experiences. In other words, I am only going to talk about my roleplaying experiences here. Continue reading Fastaval 2016 Retrospective

18th of December: Terminal X


Please do not leave emotional baggage unattended at any time.

Author/Designer: Hal Mangold

From: Bundle of Hillfolk

I heard about Drama System, by Robin D. Laws, and decided to get this bundle, which included the Hillfolk implementation of the system (the primary implementation), along with several other “pitches” for the game. And since I’ve just flown in to Denver International Airport (DIA), I decided to go with the one that takes place there: Terminal X.

The premise of Terminal X is this: DIA is not just another soulless airport. It is a magically charged place, a botched ritual to harness magical energies. That’s why so many weird and unfortunate things happened during its construction (and they really did). Now the airport serves as a gateway, not only to the South-Eastern United States, but also to the world beyond through the otherworldly Terminal X. This means that loads of people “in the know” travel to DIA to transfer through Terminal X to magical destinations beyond this world.

This whole mess is overseen by the Gatekeepers, a cabal of mystics who have divided up the airport, and are exploiting the energy of the many people travelling through the airport. They on their part are opposed by the Movers, a group of adepts who get their energy from travelling, and who want to exploit the energies from Terminal X.

The document is only seven pages, and details the basic premise, ideas for characters and some possible ideas for issues, conflicts and themes to explore through play. The character ideas fall in three ranges, either regular people who have run into the mystical happenings by chance, mystically enlightened people trying to use the energies of the airport, or members of the Gatekeepers who run the place. The characters in the document are nameless ideas for characters, rather than actual characters, and it’s up to the group to flesh them out. The document is designed for Drama System, but through the very systems-light approach of Drama System, there is no actual system specific in the text, and it could easily be adapted for another system.

My impression: This is in many ways a fun little setup for a game. I do feel like it is a little generic, and I would want to spice it up a bit before actually running a game in it – though that can happen in character generation.

Ironically, from what I know of Drama System, I’m not sure it’s that good a fit for that system. Drama System seems best for people who have a close relationship with each other, while Terminal X features a more scattered group, each doing their own thing.

On the other hand, it seems like a good basis for a number of other games. The one that first springs to mind is Unknown Armies, using the three types of characters as ideas for the three power-levels in Unknown Armies (and you could actually combine it with Break Today to include a game of Mak Attax’ers in the Scotsman’s Steakhouse franchise in the airport).

Another good adaptation would be Mage: the Awakening, using the airport as an access point to beyond – the traditions perhaps represented by Native American Dreamspeakers, Sons of Ether aircraft engineers and Virtual Adepts running computer systems, or the Technocracy using it to ship out resources.

Finally, there might be a GUMSHOE game hidden in here in one of the occult mystery variations, like Trail of Cthulhu, Nights Black Agents, Esoterrorists or Fear Itself. This requires a substantially larger amount of work in order to adapt it, but it could be a fun campaign, centred around trying to figure out what is up with DIA. For Esoterrorists, the Gatekeepers and the Movers would obviously be turned into cabals of Esoterrorists.

How would I use this: I think this might be a fun starting point for a game of Unknown Armies. I think UA benefits from having some structure to it, and this could be a fun basis.

17th of December: The Esoterrorists


Protect reality from human fear

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

From: The Esoterrorists Bundle

GUMSHOE really became famous with the publication of Trail of Cthulhu, but Esoterrorists was the first game to feature these rules. That was my reason for picking up this bundle: I was curious to find out what Esoterroists was all about.

The premise of Esoterrorists is this: supernatural phenomena exist. Wherever and whenever humanity becomes sufficiently unsettled and frightened, and they start to doubt reality, the Membrane separating this world from the world outside – dramatically called the Outer Dark – starts to thin, and beings from outside can communicate, and can even be summoned into our world. And of course a bunch of people have decided that doing just that would be a great plan of action. These people are called the Esoterrorists, and they are a very disparate group of people who have the common goal of weakening reality, so the Outer Dark Entities (or ODE’s) can get through).

If that was the end of the story, the prospects for humanity would be grim. Luckily, a number of people know about this and are trying to stop the esoterrorists. These people are members of a global, semi-official conspiracy called the Ordo Veritatis (OV). The OV is backed by several world governments, and many of their agents are law enforcement officers, crime scene technicians or similar for most of their lives, but ready to spring into service as OD agents whenever they are called.

The game comes with a very particular structure for a game – even more structured than its little brother, Ashen Stars, has. Agents are called, meet up with each other in one place, then meet up with “Mr. or Mrs. Verity” (a generic cover name for a briefer) for their mission briefing. Then they go out, investigate, and neutralise anything they find. Then, before they leave, they conduct the “Veil-Out” – cleaning up the mess, removing evidence and disseminating a cover story for what happened. The last bit is important, because rumours of the truth would weaken the Membrane.

Characters in this game are experienced and capable investigators, who have training from somewhere. That is reflected in character creation. Each character has two kinds of abilities (like in other GUMSHOE games): investigative abilities and general abilities. Investigative abilities deal with investigating – not just things like Evidence Collection and Forensic Accounting (yes, that is an ability), but also things like Impersonate and Intimidation that might not usually be considered as belonging to that kind of category. These abilities are not rolled – instead, you always get clues you have the right skills to get, and can spend points for better effects.. General abilities, on the other hand, are rolled, and deal with things like fighting, stealing things and being prepared.

The antagonists fall in two categories: Esoterrorists, and ODE. Esoterrorists are people who are dealing with ODE and trying to break down reality. They are usually organised in cults, and there is a system for classifying both cults and members, to help you better detail them. ODE, on the other hand, are supernatural beings, inhabiting some form of biological, but strange, body. These are described with stats for what they do and how to fight them, and often also a drawing.

The last half or so is an in-depth look at an example of an alternative kind of scenario for the game, called Duty Station: instead of being assembled to deal with one specific issue after another all over the place, this cell of OV has been stationed in a particular city, and will be trying to weed out the Esoterrorists hiding in the community. This section includes several fully fledged NPC’s. Also, while the book is peppered with little story seeds, this part has a whole scenario ready to go.

My impression: I’m a bit ambivalent about this game. On one hand, it looks like a good setup for a really classic, straightforward supernatural investigation game. On the other hand, the game seems rather bland, particularly compared to many similar games.

The game doesn’t really put the player characters in focus. Instead they are mostly just competent proxies for the players. There are no drives, player arcs or similar features in this game (as opposed to Ashen Stars, and also Trail of Cthulhu). Just characters and their abilities. This meshes well with many investigative games I played as a kid, where the story was the important thing, and the investigators were pretty flat.

On the other hand, I think I might prefer having player characters with built in conflicts and personal goals that I can play with in the game. Particularly in a campaign game, where we’ll be hanging out with the characters for a long time.

The scenario structure is also a little stiff for my taste. It meshes well with the premise for the game, with the very structured police-like agency of the OV, and it’s also a good help for quickly getting a game off the ground. On the other hand, it seems the different cases would feel disjointed, and I’m not sure whether a campaign would feel at all like a coherent story.

The Duty Station setup seems more likely to accommodate a cohesive story. Not only will we be dealing with many of the same NPC’s over and over, and to some extent the same enemies, the player characters will be living in the community of these NPC’s, so anythings that happens will hit much closer to home.

On the other hand, I do quite like the way the game introduces the antagonists. The human antagonists are presented as real humans, and asks the GM to consider the history and motivations of the NPCs. In many of these kinds of supernatural investigation games, there is a tendency to skim over the reasons for the evil foe being evil. It’s good to have a game encouraging the GM to make their antagonists into whole and believable characters.

The ODE’s are also well designed. They are weird creatures, but have a distinctly unique feel, different from Cthulhoid horrors or other “creatures from beyond” that would help Esoterrorists stand feel different than other, similar games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure this game is for me. I don’t have enough interest in police procedure, and I would prefer characters with a bit more flesh to them.

How would I use this: I could see myself using this game for one-shot investigation games, particularly if I ever went back to teaching adolescents. I could also be persuaded to run a short campaign of Duty Station – I could see it as a great basis for a game that is part Twin Peaks, part X-Files and part undercover police drama.

Other than that, I might lift the Esoterrorist creation chapter in a Cthulhoid game, when creating the cults that are summoning the horrors from beyond.

16th of December: Break Today


You want fries with your enlightenment?

Author/Designer: Greg Stoltze with Chad Underkoffler

From: The Unknown Armies Bundle

I remember being very fascinated with Unknown Armies. It was a modern, urban horror/mystery game with a very different feel than the World of Darkness. It has a very weird and slightly tounge-in-cheek feel to the rather straight and sombre WoD. And I remember that one of the aspects of the game I thought was really neat was the organisation Mak Attack – a secret cabal, spreading enlightenment by loading up burger meals at the world’s largest fast food franchise with magical energies. Well, lo and behold – here’s a whole book, just about them.

The book first describes the cabal, including write-ups (fictional biographies and stats) of many of the movers and shakers. It has some tips for running campaigns with Mak player characters, including some scenario-seeds to use in Mak campaigns. The book also includes new rituals as well as new types of magick and new types of archetypes for the players to play. This includes the Plutophage, who gets power by consuming money or expensive items, and the Anagram Gematrist, who works magic by making anagrams.

The book contains a fair bit of fiction, portraying the main players of Mak Attax, and a number of rather disturbing images. In between chapters are often emails or similar, sent between members of Mak Attax.

My impression: I like Break Today – it gives a very nice intro into the organisation of Mak Attax, and provides an example of what the world of Unknown Armies should feel like. The book has a lot of details about specific people in the UA world. This means the GM runs the risk of turning the player characters into extras in the story of these movers and shakers in the Mak Attax world. On the other hand, it gives a good impression of the feel of the world of UA, and some neat resources to help you make the world of Mak Attax come alive.

A great thing about using Mak Attax is that it gives some more purpose and structure to Unknown Armies. One of my problems with the setting is that I find myself wondering what the goal is for the characters. With Mak Attax, that becomes much more obvious. Not only in that they share the common goal of Mak Attax – it also becomes much easier to develop individual goals that can mesh or conflict with those goals. It provides a great basis for a game where players are each others’ greatest allies – most of the time. At least until one of them has an opportunity to further their own goals, to the possible detriment of the others in her crew.

The book has pretty good guides to starting a campaign based on a crew of Attax’ers. There is a lot of background information on Mak crews, and some advice for creating a crew that will play together. I also like the story seeds included. They vary a fair deal, providing stories for many different kinds of games, and all of them seem interesting. They’re not too detailed, but give a good basis for turning it into actual play.

On the other hand, I lack guides on creating a cohesive campaign based on Mak Attax. The book suggests stringing the story seeds together into a campaign, but that is not really what I’m after. I would like some hints on creating a campaign with an overarching plot and some good story development. That is mostly absent from the book.

Break Today is a great resource for a game of Unknown Armies, particularly if the premise of using the world’s largest – and probably most controversial – fast food chain as a vehicle for enlightenment strikes you as a fun concept to develop. It could also be a great resource for creating NPCs for a campaign not featuring a crew of Attax’ers.

How would I use this: If I ever get around to playing some UA, I might very well use this as the basis for such a campaign. My problem with that is that this probably benefits from running at least a short campaign, and running a long game of UA is not first on my list. I like many things about the game, but I think it’s old school enough that I would grow frustrated with it pretty quickly. Still, with the right group…

15th of December: Bulldogs


Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

7th of December: A Penny For My Thoughts

07 Tevis-PennyForMyThoughts

Remembering other people’s lives

Author/Designer: Paul Tevis

From: The Bundle of Holding +2

Today I’m bringing you a game from the very first bundle I got from Bundle of Holding: The Bundle of Holding +2. I think Monsterhearts was what persuaded me to get that bundle, but that’s not the game I want to talk about today. Instead, I’ve taken a look at A Penny For My Thoughts, a game I remember Oliver talking about back when we were playing Indie games together when we lived in Aarhus. I’ve never played it, though, which is why I decided to read through it for today. The game is a product of the Game Chef competition, an annual design challenge, where participants are asked to design a game based on a number of ingredients, in this case “memory”, “drug”, and “currency”.

A Penny For My Thoughts is a game about memory and personal stories. In the game, you play a group of amnesiac patients who have been administered a dose of a drug that allows you to see each other’s memories. The idea is that the others are free of the emotional trauma that caused the amnesia, and as such can get into the memories that the person are shutting out.

In the game, you write a number of “Memory Triggers” – brief phrases that will spark a memory. Everybody writes a number of triggers and put them all in a hat, a tin or something similar. Then, on your turn, you draw a trigger and read it out loud. You will then ask each of the other players in turn to ask you a “guiding question” – a yes or no question about the memory, to which you must answer, “Yes, and”, and then elaborate on the answer.

When you are done asking questions, you will narrate the memory. There’s a catch, though: you are free to narrate other characters and the world around you, but whenever you take considerable action yourself, you must ask two other players: “What did I do or say then?” Each of them will give you an option for what you did, and you must choose one of them, giving that player a penny from a little stash in front of you. When you are out of pennies, the memory is finished, you wrap it up, and take one penny from a central stash.

Then the player with the most pennies (sort of – there’s a more complicated rule I won’t explain here) takes the next turn. This continues until each player has done three memories. At that point, the game is over, and each player will decide whether to retain their pennies – and their memories – or give back the pennies, going back into amnesia.

Most of the book is written from the point of view of the doctor administering the drug, explaining to the patients how to carry out the procedure they are about to undergo. The game text is designed to be read out loud while playing, such that you can pick up the book and play with very little preparation. The last chapter of the book is written from the author’s point of view, giving some advice and explaining the inspiration and design process of the game.

The game is intended to be played in a realistic, present-day setting, and in the appendices, there is a “Facts & Reassurances” sheet to that effect. “Facts & Reassurances” is the game’s way to coordinate expectations about setting and tone, to avoid clashing visions causing a problem for the players. The game does provide other versions of “Facts & Reassurances”, allowing for instance a Bourne Identity style secret agent game, or a game of Lovecraftian investigators in an asylum.

My impression: First off, I want to mention the tone and layout of the game. It is designed to look like a case folder, and the tone of the doctor comes through quite strongly. On one hand, this is a bit silly. On the other hand, it sets the mood for the game, and I think it will help ease the players into the game very nicely.

The game itself is clearly heavily inspired by improvisational theatre (something Tevis himself acknowledges). I’ve done some improv myself, and I recognise many of the moves that the game uses. Drawing cues from a hat and getting heavy prompting from others are both ways that improv helps participants get into the scenes. This seems like a very good way of doing a game like this, as it effectively stops the players from planning, and instead gets them into the flow of the story. The storyteller knows as little as the other players about where the story is headed.

On the other hand, this may also be a turn-off for many players who like more control. And while I think it might be good for them to learn how to relinquish control and go with the flow, a game that rotates so heavily on that mechanic needs players who can accept that premise for the game.

All said, I like a lot of things in this game. It would seem the game has some very sound mechanics that give good support to storytelling, and teaches some good habits that could be good to have in other games.

I’ll be honest, though. While I like the game, and would be perfectly happy to play it, it doesn’t really get my blood flowing. I think part of that is not having experienced the game in full flow. But part of it is also the way the game seems a little like an exercise, and not quite as much as a game. I’d have to try it to really pass judgement on it.

How would I use this: I would love to give this game a try, just to see how it works. I would prefer to do it with some players I know to be good storytellers, though, as I’d be worried the game would drag with players who are not comfortable with this way of storytelling.

On the other hand, I could also see myself using this game as part of a storytelling or writing workshop. The game aims at fining the emotional content of a scene and making problems for a character, and could be a good exercise in writing potent scenes. Also, you could definitely use the game as the basis for a short story, or even for a novel.

6th of December: Cthulhu 101

6 Hite-Cthulhu101

(Almost) everything you wanted to know about Cthulhu, but was afraid to ask (and understandably so).

Author/Designer: Kenneth Hite

From: The Bundle of Tentacles

This is from a bundle of cthulhoid gaming stuff, including several eldritch and tenebrous little games. But I didn’t need to spend untold aeons to ruminate over which game to pick. See, I have spent many an unquieting evening engaged in Cthulhuvian roleplaying – and I’ve even read several stories in the blasphemous world imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and his disciples. But I’ve always felt a little bit like an impostor. There is such a large backstory to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, and I’ve never been quite sure which dark and horrifying tome to turn to first. Well, never fear, Kenneth Hite is here with this handy little introduction to the wonderful world of Lovecraft.

The book is 130 pages, but it feels much shorter. The pages are small and the writing large, and peppered throughout by cute little drawings of Cthulhu, Lovecraft and other, related characters. It’s divided into bite-sized pieces. Some answer important questions such as “Who is Cthulhu?”, “What happens in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’?” and “What’s the deal with August Derleth?”. Many others are lists of things, like “10 things things H.P. Lovecraft liked”, “10 things H.P. Lovecraft did not like” and “14 wrong ways to spell ‘Cthulhu’”. Hite has also included lists of some of the best stories by H.P. Lovecraft, best stories not by Lovecraft (featuring and not featuring Cthulhu), as well as cthulhoid films, games, comics et cetera.

My impression: I went into this book expecting a primer on Cthulhu mythos, and that’s pretty much what I got. As a matter of fact, it might even be a bit too basic – I don’t feel like I learned too much new stuff, and I would have liked a little more on the parts of the Mythos that is not directly related to the Big C himself. What about the Dream Cycle, for instance? Or maybe a little about the philosophical underpinnings of Lovecraft’s work?

On the other hand, I was well entertained throughout the book. The book is clearly meant to be entertaining, and it is witty and polemic throughout. At the same time, I did learn a number of things about Lovecraft, his writings and the writers he inspired. It is clear that Hite has a knowledge and great passion for the Cthulhu mythos, and his views and opinions often shine through.

As such, this might be more of a Cthulhu appetizer than a “Cthulhu for Dummies”. That’s not such a bad thing, though – the world of Lovecraftian fiction and games can be difficult to penetrate, and this provides for good and enjoyable introduction for the beginner, while at the same time providing more experienced Cthulhuoids with a nice brush-up on the genre.

How would I use this: If I had bought this book as a physical book, instead of getting it as a pdf only, I might well have put it next to the loo – it seems the perfect format for a toilet book, with nice, bite-sized chunks. As it is, I am most likely to use the hit-lists of stories and films, to find out what to seek out first in my quest to gain proficiency in Lovecraft. And if I am ever playing Call or Trail of Cthulhu, or something similar, with people who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft, I might well hand them this.

4th of December: Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

4 Kobold-GuideToWorldbuilding

A bunch of advice and insight by gaming industry insiders.

Editor: Janna Silverstein

From: Worlbuilder’s Toolkit

This book is an anthology of essays on various facets of worldbuilding, written by veterans of the gaming industry like Monte Cook, Keith Baker and Wolfgang Baur. The book starts out with some more general essays on worldbuilding as such, and then progresses to more specialised topics like options for religion, technology or magic in a Fantasy world , designing a mystery cult or how to write a “world bible” or work within someone else’s intellectual property.

A couple of highlights:

Chris Pramas’ “Worldbuilding Outside In or Inside Out”, about two ways of doing worldbuilding. Do you start with the great strokes of the world, or do you start with the specific setting for your story?

Joshua Roberts’ “Here Be Dragons: On Mapmaking”, about creating maps for your world. A quick and accessible guide to creating good, believable and useful maps for your setting.

Michael A. Stackpole’s “They do what now? On societies and culture”, about creating interesting cultures, and thinking through the consequences of small cultural differences.

My impression: This is a very interesting book, and one that holds a lot of inspiration for someone embarking on a worldbuilding project. There is a lot of general advice, and the more specialised articles would be quite useful when designing those certain elements of your setting. The essays are short, which makes it easy to blast through one if you are in need of a creative pick-me-up. I might have wished that some of them were a little longer, but there you are.

My main objection is that they are rather focused around a certain kind of setting: the standard D&D Fantasy setting. While many articles refer to other kinds of settings (like Wolfgang Baur’s “How real is your world?”, which lays out a taxonomy of Fantasy worlds), it is clear that the focus of the book is that particular kind of world. I would have loved an article or two about science fiction world, or maybe on Urban Fantasy or contemporary horror worlds.

Other than that, the book might have benefited from perspectives outside of the very D&D-focused world of heroic Fantasy games. Maybe a Fantasy author, or perhaps even an Indie game designer. Or just someone from another corner of the “trad” rpg sphere – maybe someone from White Wolf/Onyx Path, or perhaps someone like Kenneth Hite or Robin D. Laws, who have been responsible for a number of different games.

I do like the book, though, as an inspiration for creating worlds for either Fantasy fiction, or for role-playing.

How would I use this: I would turn to this book when I need inspiration for a world – like when I’m about to start preparing for a new campaign – or during the process of designing a setting, in order to get some inspiration for things to consider.

3rd of December: Sorcerer (Annotated)


3 Edwards-Sorcerer-SpreadsScreenviewThe grand-daddy of indie-games, with commentary by the creator
Author/Designer: Ron Edwards
From: Indie Treasure Trove

Today I’m looking at the annotated version of Sorceror, taken from the Indie Treasure Trove
bundle. This one has a number of classics, including 3:16: Carnage among the stars and Annalise, just as I was tempted to go with the western game, Dust Devils. But in the end, there was no getting around this game.

See, Sorceror was the game that started it all. The first certified Indie RPG, by the man who created The Forge himself: Ron Edwards. Today, the web is teeming with story games and indie games building on the ideas that grew out of The Forge, but back then, it was a revolution. Now, I haven’t played Sorceror, nor had I read the book till today, so this book was too obvious to pass by.

In Sorceror, you play more or less regular people in an ordinary world. At least on the surface – because in reality, you possess secret knowledge that allows you to summon and bind demons to carry out your bidding. Of course, that is not an uncomplicated thing to do, and so you are fighting to keep up your cover while trying to sate your demon’s needs, just as it helps fulfil yours.

The book is divided into chapters, with each chapter detailing a certain part of the play. Edwards has a little graphic describing this that I thought described it pretty well, so I’ll include it here:

Diagram from Sorcerer
Edwards has a neat little diagram showing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

And so, Chapter 1 describes the initial discussion as you’re sitting down to play Sorceror – where and when are we, and how do we envision the magic working? Chapter two is Character generation, while chapter three deals with generating Demons, something that is mostly a task for the GM. Chapter 4 then describes the overall framework for playing the game, while chapter 5 deals specifically with how you deal with demons, and chapter 6 is all sorts of other kinds of conflict you might end up in. I liked the clarity of this visual way of describing both the structure of the book and the flow of the game.

This is the annotated version, so on the left hand side of the book is the original page, while on the right you’ll find present-day Edwards’ commentary on the old text: praise or condemnation for his earlier self, along with clarifications and better ways of doing things.

At the centre of the game are two concepts that have become very famous in indie game parlance: the Kicker and the Bang. The Kicker is created by the player during character generation, and sets out the beginning of the character’s first story arc. It details a conflict, an opportunity or a threat that the character will deal with during play. This should be enough to fuel the character’s story for a few sessions, and by the end of it, the character will have undergone significant changes.

The Bang, on the other hand, is a loaded situation here and now that players have to deal with. Anything from “Ninjas come barging through the door!” to “Your mother is at the door, and the escort you picked up last night is still in the bathroom, freshening up.”

My impression: I can see the appeal of this game. Even today, after so many other games have developed these ideas further, there seems to be a number of really interesting aspects to Sorcerer. Not least the basic premise of being pretty ordinary people, except you can summon Demons to do your bidding and get you everything you desire… for a price. The basic rules seem pretty simple, and I think it provides the tools for interesting play.

Having said that, though, it feels somewhat clunky. The text seems longer than it needs to be, and it doesn’t always explain the concepts of the game very well. At one point, I searched through the whole document for the proper definition of the Bang and how they should work, but it turned out that the book only had a very vague definition and a loose discussion of their role in the game. At other times, the book seems to spend far too much time on concept that are, all things considered, rather straightforward.

Of course, part of the clunkiness comes from the fact that half the book is commentary. This means that in order to understand a concept, you often have to read the original text, then read Edwards’ comments on it to understand how he would do it know, then skim the original text again in order to see how it relates to the commentary. The commentaries are interesting as part of a study of the development of these kinds of games, and the development of Edwards as a game designer, but I found myself wishing he would write an updated version instead, streamlining the rules and integrating 15 years of experience into the main text, making it more accessible.

Speaking of… Something about the commentary bothered me a little as I was reading. It seems a little as if Edwards is ignoring the development that’s happened over the decade and a half since this game out. This particularly stood out to me during the commentary to the start of the first chapter. Edwards writes:

You simply cannot begin preparing and playing in the same old way you’re used to because you “understand role-playing,” and rely on looking things up as you might in many other RPG texts. This goes double for people who’ve been GM for many different games and who consider themselves experienced. (Sorcerer, p. 13)

And a few lines later:

A lot of games shoot for the initial, necessary inspiration by providing a detailed setting. However, Sorcerer begins with building characters. And since the character creation process necessarily wraps them into in a crisis situation, you only need a little bit of setting to make this go. In other words, setting exists at the outset only to supercharge the characters’ immediate hassles, not for the characters to explore. Play itself will make lots more setting (the “complete” setting if you like), which is fine.

Now, I can see how this holds true if you’ve only ever played “trad” games, with complete GM control and great big setting tomes. But take a look at games like Prime Time Adventures, Fiasco or Apocalypse World, and this is exactly what they do. And honestly, the people who are most likely to read this book are the people who are already familiar with the Indie scene, and who will know about the development over the intervening years. As such, it seems odd for Edwards to write like this. I am certain that Edwards is aware of the development in the scene. So has he misjudged the audience for this book so severely (or, I guess, am I misjudging it?), or does he really think that sorcerer is so different from all the games it inspired?

All in all, this is an interesting game, unfortunately presented less clearly than it could have been.

How would I use this: This annotated version of Sorcerer is interesting as a historical document. I wouldn’t mind diving into it a bit more, seeing which lessons Edwards drew, and trying to figure out what that says about the development of the Indie- and Story-game scene.
The game in itself is also interesting, both as in itself and because of the historical significance of it. I would love to try this game, perhaps just for a couple of sessions, to see how it works. It seems like the game might provide a good basis for some interesting and rewarding stories.