Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cake in the Background

I'd almost finished a blog post draft and then I realized I'm going be spending at least part of my birthday tomorrow cleaning up my dad's water-damaged basement and I'd really rather be playing Monster Hunter World and so here's a picture of me running D&D as a kid at one of my birthday parties using a homemade DM screen. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: Playbooks

I posted the basic moves for Hearts of Wulin last week. So far we have five playbooks Aware, Bravo, Loyal, Outsider, and Student. Each has three “base” moves players choose from to refine their role. You can see some moves are original and some hybridized. These are my first attempts; I think they work well, but I also need to go back and look at them for how they fit with the Basic Moves and the genre. I'm also unreasonably proud of naming all the moves after wuxia films & series. 

With this, my last post, and experience with PbtA, you can probably run Hearts of Wulin. As with the other move, where it says “roll,” players select which Chi to roll with. You can see an example Google character Spreadsheet for HoW here. There are some small changes to the Move texts between these posts and the sheet, but they’re basically the same. On Thursday, I’ll post some thinking about GM Moves & Principles, next steps, repurposing these rules, and a distinct module for more supernatural wuxia stories (Bride with White Hair, Green Snake, Chinese Ghost Story). If you dig this, have questions, or run this preliminary version yourself, give me a heads up.

You're a paragon of calm and thoughtfulness. You understand when it is time to fight and when it is not. When you attempt to stop a conflict as it breaks out, roll. On a 10+ you cool tempers. If anyone decides to instigate the fight, they must mark a condition. This lasts until the circumstances change. On a 7-9, you have a moment to negotiate. You must offer the attacking side something they want or they will press their assault. On a 6-+, you’re caught up in the fight and suffer damage or blame.

You're a gifted scholar, well read and well informed. When you perform a Study action based on history, research, or informants, you always gain +1 Hold. You gain +1 Forward acting on the information.

You have travelled across the land and met many people. You know telltale signs and markings that reveal members of a faction. At a glance you can pick out an unhidden person’s group or organization. When you attempt to penetrate a disguise roll. On a 10+ you can identify them and ask a question. On a 7-9 you can identify them but they notice your attention. On a 6+ you misidentify them or walk into a trap.

You can immediately spot and identify any kind of poison or potion before it's consumed in your presence. If someone has been struck by poison, you may roll Overcome with a +1 to treat and heal them.

You can build strange devices. Say what you wish to create and the GM will tell you what you need (time, materials, assistance). If you have those, roll. On a 10+ you build it. On a 7-9 the GM will tell you how its effect will be uncertain or fragile. On a miss, choose whether you injure yourself in the failure or the creation backfires spectacularly when used.
Choose a faction, you take +1 Forward on any social interactions with a member of that faction. You're regarded as an honored guest by them until proven otherwise.

Once per scene you may move to anywhere within line of sight. This can be accomplished regardless of height or distance provided no completely blocking barriers exist. While all PCs possess “lightfoot” movement, this motion demonstrates mastery and may shock your opponents.

While you have a condition marked on your Style Element, you may substitute another Chi in for Martial actions.

When you craft a plan with someone roll. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7-9, hold 2. You can spend your hold 1-for-1, regardless of distance, while the plan is being carried out to:
  • Add +1 Forward
  • Clear a Chi condition
  • Reveal you have something necessary for the mission 
On a miss, hold 1, but your plan falls apart at the worst possible moment. On a fail, your plan’s revealed, leading to betrayal or ambush.

If you attempt to keep someone from dying in your presence, roll. On a 10+ you keep them from passing, though that may put them into a suspended state. On a 7-9, you can do so, but there is a significant cost. On a fail someone will somehow blame you for the death.

Take a +1 when you deal with Inner Conflict.

You're the blessed one, the person expected to take control of your family one day. One parent may spoil you, defending you even if the other becomes irritated at your behavior. You always have coin and everywhere you go, merchants and innkeepers set the finest table for you and your entourage. You can defer payment; they know your family's good for it.

You keep a charming smile and live well, but behind the scenes you pursue a life of crime. You're not a common criminal, of course. You simply work to have the finer things in life you deserve. And you only steal from those who deserve it. You may even be a "Robin Hood" character, striking at fat cats and corrupt officials to aid the poor. Come up with a legendary name for your criminal identity. You also have a foil: a magistrate or investigating official who pursues you but manages to always pass you information via their bumbling.

You travel from place to place, enjoying yourself, gambling, and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind. You probably enjoy a bad reputation among the respectable classes, but that only adds to your aura. You may not be wealthy, but you know how to stay ahead of problems. When you would suffer social, legal or financial consequences, name someone and roll. On a hit, they suffer instead. On a 7-9, they know it was you. On a fail, your scapegoating falls apart and your erstwhile victim finds out what you tried to do.

When you case out a location, roll. On a 10+, ask three questions from below. On a 7-9, ask two. Take +1 Forward acting on the answers.
  • What’s my best path in/out?
  • What happened here recently?
  • What here is worth stealing?
  • Who or what here is not what they seem?
  • How can I embarrass them?
On a miss, you find yourself in over your head. The GM will tell you how you're in a bad spot.

Your clothing, belongings and quarters are all lavish and expensive. Gain one of the following NPCs as a retainer: Servant, Assistant, Bodyguard, Consort, or Teacher. Name the NPC and give them a 2-4 word description.

When you go to your circle of contacts to get something you want roll. On a hit, you get what you want. On a 10+ they provide more than you asked for in volume or quality. On a 7-9 there's a cost or complication. Choose one: it takes time, it depletes your ready cash, it attracts unwanted attention, your contact needs other assistance—burn a bond. On a fail they don’t have it and someone finds out about your hunt.

When you express yourself through a performance of song, poetry, or other art, roll. On a 10+, choose 3. On a 7-9, choose 2.
  • People understand your message.
  • One person present must meet you; tell the GM who.
  • You inflict or clear a condition of your choice in someone present.
  • This experience begins to change popular opinion. Tell the GM what it is you hope for. (2 choices)
When you Study in a formal, official, or high society setting you always have +1 Hold for choices. You gain +1 Forward acting on the answers. As well without rolling you may always pick out who is the most influential or wealthy person in the room at a glance.

You can slip from any restraint or pass through any door or window as if it were open. This slippery nature  extends to attack and defense—you move elegantly to avoid attacks so as to not wrinkle your dress or spill your plum wine.

When you spend time with someone to learn their web of connections, roll. On a hit, you discover their three closest confidantes and a short descriptor of that relationship. Alternately, you may learn one confidante and one debt the target has not revealed to others. On a 7-9 your target’s aware of your workings. On a miss someone you didn’t want to know becomes aware of your meddling.

So long as you continue to interact with someone, you keep their attention and distract them from other business. You may even draw them away to another locale. If they want to leave you, the target must mark a condition. This ability doesn’t work after an open conflict has erupted.

You're loyal to your family or clan, and they in turn support you. You have no worries about resources. Once per session you may call in a favor from your family: a letter of introduction, pulling strings to get you and your companions into an exclusive party, or perhaps support for a wild plan. They may ask favors or have other expectations for you.

You might be a magistrate, judge, or simply a civil servant. This gives you a measure of authority. You have connections who can give you information or help you out when you need it. Choose a type of contact- street beggars, court hangers on, members of a particular faction. You can always make contact with someone of that type who can give you basic information or help you in some minor way, so long as it doesn't cost them anything or put them in danger. If you want more hard-to-find information or a dangerous favor, you will have to agree to a cost your connection stipulates.

All in the wulin world have learned combat, but only a few have truly devoted themselves to it as deeply as you. Your service to your family and clan comes in being the best knight you can be. You have an additional Wounded condition. When you mark your first Wounded, you're bloodied and cut, but you can still fight. You're only taken out after checking your second Wounded.

You possess a legendary blade which can be recognized wherever you go. You gain +1 when you Deal with Mooks or attempt to Impress someone from the martial world.

When you seek advice from one of your seniors, roll. On a hit they will tell you what to do. On a 10+, mark XP if you follow their advice and take +1 ongoing to follow through. On a 7-9, you get +1 forward to see it through if you do it their way. On a miss, they’re secretly connected to the troubles you’re asking about.

When you give NPCS an order based on your authority, roll. On a hit, they choose one from below. On a 10+, take +1 forward against them.
  • Follow your order
  • Clear your path
  • Clumsily attack you
  • Freeze with uncertainty
On a miss someone of your scale will challenge you for your abuse of authority. This may happen now or in the future.

When you hunt someone, roll. On a hit, you know exactly where to find them and can track them until you do. On a 10+, they're not alerted and you take +1 Forward against them. On a miss, someone unpleasant finds you first.

When you Support an ally, give them +2 to their roll instead of +1.

When you defend someone or something from an immediate threat, roll. On a hit, you keep them safe and choose one.
  • Take control of something
  • Change the location of the conflict
  • Gain a bond with the person protected
On a 7-9, you also expose yourself to danger or escalate the situation. On a fail, tragedy occurs.

You may burn a bond with someone to appear in their presence. Others may burn a bond with you to have you appear as well.

When someone breaks a promise to you or lies to you and you find out, you gain a Bond with them. If you burn this bond in an action against them, you may add +2 Forward. Additionally, you can spend it to have one of their plans or activities go awry. Say what happens.

You rebel against something: a corrupt official, your original faction, the Empire itself. When you call up your fellow rebels to aid you, roll. On a hit you can secretly summon a small group to assist you. On a 7-9 choose one: it takes a long time, you cannot do this again until you're performed a quest for your faction, the group's small in number, you attract unwanted attention. On a fail, they’re in trouble right and your efforts deepen that.

You travel from place to place in search of something: purpose, faith, love. When you return to a community you’ve visited, roll. On a hit, the locals remember you favorably. On a 10 or greater, they owe you a debt of gratitude. On a fail you left a mess behind when you departed.

You're a trickster, happy go lucky and smart. You know how to use the rules of the wulin and outside world to your advantage. You always have leverage when you go to use the Hearts & Minds move, even against those who might not otherwise be susceptible to your words.

When villains appear you always know who they are. The GM will name them and you may declare (or ask for) one detail about them. You're never taken by surprise.

You can assume a perfect disguise. If you're impersonating someone specific you must have seen them and have their garb. When you might be challenged, roll. On a hit, your disguise fools them. On a 7-9 they have a delayed suspicion. On a miss, your disguise falls apart on inspection.

You may attempt to escape a situation, even when surprised. When you try to escape, roll. On a hit, you get away. On a 7-9, choose a complication:
  • You must mark a condition
  • You end up in another dangerous situation
  • You leave evidence behind
  • You owe someone; burn a bond.
On a fail you walk right into their hands.

When you reveal a trap you've left for someone, roll. On a hit, your opponent trips into it, and you get an opening or opportunity. On a 10+, you take +2 forward against them. On a miss, the trap inadvertently leads to a dangerous escalation.

You may choose to appear as another faction to those who do not know the truth.

Once per session, you may announce your presence in the perfect place to "help" someone, regardless of distance or logic.

So long as there are shadows and cover, you may attempt to become invisible and undetectable for a scene. When you conceal yourself, roll. On a hit, no one can detect you until you decide they can. You can break this by choice or attacking. On a 7-9 you remain hidden but leave some trace of yourself behind or alert someone in the scene before you reveal yourself. On a miss, your attempt fails and leaves you vulnerable.

When you reject someone's declaration of love or friendship because of the gap between you, clear a condition and take a bond with them.

You belong to a temple, but have decided (or been told to) explore the temporal world. When wearing your temple robes, locals will treat you with respect and even bandits may think twice before attacking you. You may ask for hospitality while travelling. You must decide a vow which could cause you problems during your journeys.

You understand devotion and dedication even in the face of suffering. When you burn a bond with a person for a bonus, you gain +2 instead of +1.

You have to prove yourself and your natural talent. When you battle someone above your Scale, you do not lose immediately. You may choose to mark a condition to keep your clearly superior foe busy. This gives others breathing room to act, protect people, or get something they came for. If you do this to cover the group's escape, then everyone gets away, including yourself.

When you mark the Wounded condition, all of your allies gain +1 Forward.

When you seek the guidance of one of your elders, tell them a problem you face, and ask them a question about the problem. They will answer it honestly, and tell you what to do. Take +1 ongoing if you listen. If you go your own way, mark XP.

At start of session, roll 2d6. On a 6-, mark XP and the GM gains a “karmic” soft move for later use. On a 7+, note the die roll. At any time during the session, you may swap this in for a roll by you or an ally. The swapped out roll goes away. If the roll has not been swapped by the end of the session, it goes away.

When you intervene as someone offends, horrifies, or upsets another, roll. On a hit you may change what was said said into the kindest compliment. On a miss, you make matters worse. If the effect came from a failed move, on a 10+ you eliminate any fallout. On a 7-9 you reduce the GM Hard Move to a Soft Move.

When you attempt to change the loyalty or purpose of a worthy henchperson or lieutenant, roll. On a 10+ they hear your wisdom and passion. Depending on the situation they may come with you, go to face their master, or flee. On a 7-9, your words make them hesitate. Choose if this plants doubt in their mind or if they take a deliberate or inadvertent action to assist you right now. On a fail, they push your efforts back against you. Mark a condition.

You may use Comfort or Support to clear a Wounded condition.

You're just here to see the world. Once per scene, you may ask one question from Study without rolling.

You're inexperienced, but somehow you alone are the voice of reason. When you offer advice to another PC and they ignore it, you take +1 Ongoing during any attempt to bail them out of their troubles.

If you dig this, have questions, or run this preliminary version yourself, give me a heads up.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: Moves & Mechanics

We’ve had two sessions so far of Hearts of Wulin. When we’re done all four, I’ll put all these rules together in a manageable form. I’ll also be doing edits and changes. But today I wanted to show you what we’re playing from. This post just covers the non-playbook; next week I’ll post the playbooks. I’ve added comments in a couple of places to clarify choices. This is a PbtA hack, so it assumes knowledge of those mechanics.

My vision of wulin comes from a ton of stuff: RPGs to movies to TV shows. Of those, four stand out as my touchstones. For movies that’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Painted Skin. The latter has more supernatural than I’m working with, but has awesome personal entanglements. More important are two Chinese TV shows. The first is The Handsome Siblings (2005) aka The Proud Twins. Taken from a novel by the prolific Gu Long, that story’s been adapted multiple times for film and TV. The second and more important is Laughing in the Wind (2001), taken from the novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha. That’s had several adaptions, including Jet Li’s Swordsman II.

I also want to note that I wrote an earlier, terrible version of this. Renee Knipe generously looked at that and nicely didn’t point out how awful it was. She’s also working on a PbtA wuxia game and I suspect her version’s stronger than mine. As well I started listening to Jianghu Hustle just after I began this revision. That heavily influenced my thinking—especially the concept of Scale and having triangular entanglements. Go listen to that podcast. Lastly I probably wouldn’t have written this if the amazing Weapons of the Gods/Legends of Wulin didn’t have the most convoluted and opaque mechanics I’ve ever seen.

Characters have five stats, also called Chi. Each has a loose thematic; typical areas it covers. Think of Fate Accelerated’s approaches or The Veil’s emotions rather than concrete abilities. Players have a choice of three arrays for distributing stats:
Array 1: +2, +1, +1, 0, -1
Array 2: +2, +2, 0, 0, -1
Array 3: +1, +1, +1, 0, 0

Stability, Focus, Presence:::Obsessive, Condescending, Uncaring
Creativity, Speed, Passion:::Reckless, Alienating, Unfocused
Control, Solidity, Reflection:::Unsatisfied, Inflexible, Scared
Awareness, Wisdom, Flexibility:::Uncertain, Isolated, Depressed
Might, Endurance, Growth:::Overconfident, Angered, Licentious

When players mark a condition, they mark one of their Chi. Until they clear that condition, they may not roll with that stat. If a condition directly results from their roll, they always mark the Chi they rolled with. Players can describe the condition as they want, usually based on what’s happening in the story. Chi conditions can be a lack or excess of that element within them. The right-hand elements under each present options, but players choose their own name for what’s happened.

Players also have a sixth condition, Wounded. This doesn’t close out a stat but does take them out of a conflict. It also requires time and medical attention to heal.

Everyone chooses a style the Chi associated with it. You roll that stat for martial combat. Your style element should reflect your style’s appearance and flavor. You’ll also name your style. I have some example names below, but please feel free to make up your own.

Ways of the Waters, The Hidden Path, Unfallen Dragon, Seeking Pilgrim’s Style, Storming Master’s Form, Shadow Brother’s Style, Shooting-Stars Hands, Way of the Graceful Warrior, Black Crane, Secrets of the Stone, Heavenly Gifted Form, Eight Diagram Sabre, Path of the Blossoming Tear, Vengeful Beast Mastery, One Soul Legion, Sun and Moon Serpent Sword, Golden Hawk Form, Sunburst Method, Fist of Precise Thought, Forge-Hammer Heart, Quiet Sage’s Steps, Taunt of the Monkey, Thousand Spear Palm, Grasshopper’s Wisdom.

By default, you can use your style unarmed, but most styles have a weapon associated with them. This is for color and fiction. You can actually fight with anything. Typical categories are:
  • Flexible (Chains, ropes, whips, cloth)
  • Improvised
  • Massive (axe, hammer, greatsword)
  • Paired (knives, wind & fire wheels, sticks)
  • Sabre & Sword
  • Staff
  • Spear
  • Thrown
  • Unusual
A character’s style should be important color for them, but not something we spend mechanics on. If players focus on their style, they can create custom moves for it as an Advance. I lifted the weapon groups from Legends of Wulin, but I may rethink their presentation.

You can spend bonds as a resource in play to get a +1 on a roll (after you roll). By default you start with 1 Bond each with your Clan/Faction/Family, the player to your left, the player to your right. You can use a simple descriptor for those (friend, brother, rival, lover, suspicious). Note: to keep things simple, I had them just start with one for their clan and one for their most connected PC.

You’ll gain more bonds via moves. You may have a max +3 bond with someone or something. If it would go higher, you reset it to 0, mark XP, and reveal something about them (subject to PC approval). Burning a bond can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

This is the bread & butter of the relationships in the game. Each entanglement represents a fraught relationship with a person, group, or institution. But each one is a triangle as well, with a third party who creates problems. Since these include PCs, hold off on detailing all of them until everyone’s introduced their characters.

You begin with three entanglements, one of those must be romantic. (In the spreadsheet) I have some example entanglements; feel free to make up your own. I’ve written them for persons but you can easily sub in groups or factions in some places.

I posted my list of entanglements here. Originally I’d steered away from too much guidance—I only required at least one romantic entanglement. When I’d had specific restrictions for relationships in my Changeling the Lost PbtA hack they’d been a stumbling block in character creation. But a couple of players suggested we needed more rules: one entanglement with two NPCs to give you something exclusively your own, at least one with a PC involved, and at least one romantic.

I also didn’t realize how quickly players would engage with their entanglements and change them. I need to think about guidance for making those changes: what can they shift, when can they do that, and how does that affect things?

When you fight against a worthy foe, roll +Style Element.

If your foe is lesser scale than you, on a hit you win the conflict. On a 10+ you may mark XP if you permit them to escape or show them mercy. On a 7-9 you may let them go or finish them with a cost (now or in the future). On a failure, you win but they inflict a condition and escape. Depending on the fiction they may return at a higher scale.

If your foe is your scale, on a 10+ you win the conflict and may mark XP if you show mercy. Additionally if appropriate you may declare a change in the fiction (a change of heart, impressing someone, shifting an entanglement). On a 7-9 choose one:
  • You win at a cost (condition, injury, escape, reputation, roll Take a Powerful Blow).
  • You narrate how you lost (mark XP). You gain +1 Forward the next time you face them.
  • You deadlock with your opponent. You may reveal or learn something about them.
If your foe is above your scale, you lose the conflict. On a hit, you may declare how you lose. On a 7-9 roll Take a Powerful Blow.

Once you have faced or studied a foe above your scale, you may do something to even the score: study a secret technique, acquire a weapon, conduct a stratagem, weaken them, cheat, fight alongside someone that you have an adversarial entanglement with, team up with a group who shares mutual bonds, or the like. Some potent named foes may require several steps to equal in scale.

When you challenge another PC make an offer of what you’ll give them if they accept your victory. You may offer your unspent XP, character actions, burning bonds, changing entanglements, or similar things the GM approves. You put a single offer on the table. If the other player accepts, they lose the duel and mark XP. You must follow through on your offer. If the other player rejects the offer, you both mark a condition.

When you fight a group of foes who collectively are below your scale, roll. On a hit, you defeat them. Describe how you do so. On a 10+ you do so easily. On a miss, choose: their numbers overwhelm and you must retreat (mark XP) or you win at a cost. If multiple characters fight mooks, then if one retreats the others must as well (and mark XP).

When you pressure someone susceptible to your words, say what you’re trying to get them to do and roll. For NPCs: on a 10+, they bow to your words and do what you want. On a 7-9, they can instead choose one.
  • They reveal themselves: you may ask two questions of them.
  • They overreact: you gain bond with them. 
  • They hesitate: you gain +1 ongoing on them. This lasts until there is a major change with them in the fiction.
  • They alienate: they create animosity between themselves and someone of your choosing.
For PCs: On a hit if they do it, they mark XP. If they don’t, they mark a condition. They may burn a bond to avoid this. On a 7-9 you mark a condition as well.

We had some questions with this move. You can see various versions in other PbtA games, but I think I had “Provoke Someone” from Masks as the model. One players questioned the “reveal themselves” aspect here. I think it works because it’s a choice the NPC makes to avoid doing something. In Session Two I mistakenly read an action as triggering rather than Study. It really should have been that since players wanted the NPC to tell them something.

When you act to impress others or succeed at a competition, roll. Describe your performance. On a hit you impress and convince. Pick two. • Create a bond • Gain a favor • Clear a condition. On a 7-9 the GM will offer you a hard bargain. If in direct competition, the bargain will usually relate to them. This move is useful for public gatherings or explicit or implicit competition, (artistic performance, kata demonstration, tournaments). For working with someone specific, see Hearts & Minds.

When you study something in order to change the game state, roll. On a hit you always gain basic information. On a 10+ gain two hold. On a 7-9 gain one. Spend this hold 1 for 1 on the options below,
  • Ask a question about a situation or place (escape routes, hidden details, biggest threat, dangers)
  • Ask a question about a person (motivation, desires, intentions, means of manipulation)
  • Learn a person’s scale
  • Reveal a detail—declare something which changes or adds to the established fiction significantly.
I talked about my feelings about PbtA informational moves in my Mystery Academy post. This is my solution—bundling together spout lore, read a sitch, pierce the mask, etc. One of the end of session comments suggested having set questions like other PbtA games. I don’t know if I want to run it that way, but I might create an optional version for GMs who dig that. At the very least I’ll include sample questions.

When you comfort or support someone, roll. If you’re outside a charged situation, on a hit they hear you: they clear a condition. On a 10+, you can clear a condition yourself, ask them a question they must answer, or gain a bond with them. If you’re in a charged situation, on a hit you may give them +1 on their roll (before or after rolling). On a 7-9 you share in any consequences from their action. Need to better point to the split within this move.

When you deal with forceful emotional turmoil and pressure from one of your entanglements, roll anything but your style element. On a 10+ you manage to keep yourself together. On a 7-9 you must either flee the scene or mark a condition until you make a change in the entanglement.

Given how much we interacted with entanglements, this became a go-to move. Monsterhearts influences this.

Someone’s assault gets past your defenses, roll + conditions marked. This can be physical, social, or emotional. On a 10+, choose one.
  • you must remove yourself from the situation: flee, pass out, etc.
  • you give your adversary everything they want
  • two options from the 7-9 list
On a 7-9, choose one.
  • you embarrass yourself and lose face. Burn two bonds.
  • you give ground; your opposition gains something they want
  • you struggle past the pain; mark two conditions
On a miss, you stand strong.

This move is really reserved for a climactic scene where characters face someone significant. It’s a response to a GMs Hard Move. I expect, given the outlets elsewhere, we’ll rarely come to this. Is it necessary? Not sure.

When you do something under pressure, roll. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

So here’s our “Act Under Pressure” move. Do we need it? I think we do; it generates interesting results and responses. I want to use it sparingly though. We assume competency for our wulin heroes, so we can handwave a ton of stuff. But, for example, when one of the players had to flee a scene with a corpse in tow and the guards pounding on the door, we had them roll this. The 7-9 result got them away, but not before being spotted.

When the PCs go into conflict as a group, nominate one PC as the lead. Two rules apply here. One, you cannot be the lead character again until everyone has had equal turns at it. Two, if the conflict's directly related to your entanglements, you have priority. This does not trump the first rule. The lead character has first choice to take on any worthy foe(s) in the scene.

If there is more than one worthy foe, they may face both (putting themselves down a scale) or ask other PC(s) to handle the other foe(s). Non-lead character can perform other actions: set up opportunities, comfort & support, and most importantly deal with the Mooks.

This tries to formalize PC spotlighting in what might otherwise be a chaotic scene. Some of the other moves refer back to it.

When you go off to develop a new technique to face a foe of higher scale, describe your montage and roll +(the number of times you have faced that foe). On a hit, you gain scale on your foe. On a 7-9 there’s a significant cost to learning the move.

Once per session when you meet a new wuxia character, nominate a PC present. They get into a conflict with them—describe the nature of the misunderstanding. Roll +Style Element. On a 10+, the PC may choose to win or choose to leave it undecided. If the latter, they may mark experience and gain a bond with the encountered character. On a 7-9 the result is undecided before the fighting’s finished. On a miss, the result is undecided but the encountered character will bear a grudge.

This needs revision The idea’s good, but the phrasings unclear on two points. First “a new wuxia character” ought to be “a wuxia stranger.” I want to emphasize that they don’t know each other. Second, I use the term ”undecided” in slightly different ways in the paragraph. To make it clear, the 7-9 should say something like “it’s unclear who would have won the fight.” And perhaps the player should get a question? On a fail, it should be, “though no one wins the fight, the encountered character will bear a grudge.”

When you walk alone into a dangerous situation you’re aware of, but your character isn’t roll and mark XP. On a 10+ you’re altered by something before your adversaries can take advantage. On a 7-9, you’re taken somewhat unawares—the enemy can do something before you act (even the scale, seize something, change the locale, reveal a trap, close off escape, frame you for something).

This one needs work. I added it for Session Two. In the debrief we talked about its intent and how it gets played out. In the wulin genre we often have heroes walking into situations that we as the audience (and the players) know are dangerous, a trap, etc. I want to simulate and incentivize this. The move itself has two problems.

First, I wrote “alone,” because that’s how I pictured it: a PC heads off by themselves to put their life in danger. But that’s a needlessly restrictive detail. It could be the group as a whole. Second, there’s the difficulty of emulating heroic naiveté. It’s hard to divide a player’s smart sense of danger from what their character might expect. I think, if I want to do this, I need to phrase it as an offer from the GM. It’s a different kind of fictional trigger, more like a compel. I’m still thinking about this.

I wonder if I couldn’t merge Misunderstanding and Heedless somehow.

Bonds represent friendship and influence. If you have a bond, you can burn it to gain a +1 on a roll. This can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

I mentioned how those worked above, but here’s some of the additional text:
You may clear chi conditions via the Support or Comfort move. Alternately, between scenes you may narrate how your character deals with the problems of the condition. This should cost something (time, resources, making an entanglement more messy). You can then clear the condition. The Wounded condition’s more involved and requires time and medicine to heal. At the end of a story arc, all characters may clear a condition.

You mark XP in several ways. When you take a loss in a conflict, when you agree to pressure from another PC, and when certain moves offer it. Each session you highlight one of your entanglements. If you interact with that entanglement in a significant way during the session, you may mark 3 XP. If you interact with your other two entanglements, you may mark 1 XP each.

When you gain 8XP, you may take an advance. This is a shortened version, so we’re not worrying about higher level advances. With an advance you may:
  • Add +1 to one of your Chi (Stats). You may take this option five times; once for each Chi.
  • Add a new move from your playbook. You may take this 3 times.
  • Add a new move from another playbook. You may take this twice.
  • Add a custom move for your martial style. You may take this twice.
I have some other ideas about advancement, but I kept it simple for this version. I probably need to specify a Start of Session move where players highlight one of their Entanglements.

Next Post: The Playbooks

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mystery Academy: Structure, Story, and Revisions

In my last post I went over my system adaptations for Mystery Academy, a weird school PbtA hack of Masks. It didn’t require a ton of work: a couple new moves and some tweaks to get it running. It’s a different question if it ran well. This post looks at structure, story, and things I need to fix before I run this again.

Masks: The New Generation is properly referred to as Masks: A New Generation, or MANG. I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I cannot help but refer to and abbreviate it Masks as Masks: TNG. The correct version flies out of my head every time I realize I’ve written it wrong. So for the rest of this I’ll simply call it Masks. I also call the MC the GM because I’m old.

If you’re curious you can see the session videos here (Session 1Session 2Session 3Session 4).

I love the way Masks builds backstory for your group of teen heroes. Each playbook has questions about “When Your Team First Met.” They’re tuned to the specific archetype. It’s a clever technique and one worth stealing for other games—allowing you to do an origin story without having to play it out. I can imagine doing a version for Changeling the Lost along the lines of “When all of you first emerged from the Hedge…” Originally I thought of doing something like that and my first post has some sample questions.

I ditched those when I got to the table. Instead during character creation I used leading questions to explore individual backstories. I wanted to start the actual game with uncertain characters arriving together. Being dropped into a strange place with no guidance is a great set up which lets the player develop relationships on the fly. It also let players color and add to the description of the actual school. Some of the bits, especially the idea of a Tower in the main house, gave me material I fashioned into something cool by the end.

Throughout I gave the players the opportunity to describe something they notice and add to the scene. That’s how we ended up with a second tower on the grounds and weirdly unmatched intercoms spread all over the place. The Seek move supports this, but you can also just do a montage or ask what they find that’s unusual.

I’ve written about School games before and what they offer. My Mystery Academy approach removes some potential features: sports, dances, holiday recess, etc. You could easily add that to your version of the school. My set up still allowed the most important scene in school games: the foreshadowing lesson. You’ll see that in Session Two when Dr. Friday talks about experimentation and observer bias. It’s a great technique, but requires a little prep from the GM’s. I think about the story themes so far and imagine some possible key scenes. Then I figure out what subject might fit. At the table I give a little lecture based on that topic. Those ideas then color the rest of my set up and GM moves for the session or arc. It doesn’t require much prep and doesn’t put the game on rails, and the payoff’s solid.

Here are elements of the setting and story to consider. You can tweak these, but this is what I worked from. In my notes I refer to a Class, that’s the generic name for the PC group (and other parallel NPC groups).

We have a large and sprawling estate. There should be older building, suggesting it was once a larger facility like a sanitarium or college. This gives plenty of outdoor room for the PCs to explore: woods, greenhouses, abandoned buildings with secrets to reveal. It also gives more space for players to come up with what’s actually there.

In a related geography, the Class has their lessons in one of these compound buildings. In my game they had to clean and straighten it up. It provides a space they can describe and also suggests the other Classes have their own buildings.

There are two other Classes. I kept them off-stage at the beginning except to confirm they existed. I moved one of the PC’s sister over to that group to create a connection. In my game one Class appeared adversarial. They’re our Slytherin. I didn’t have the chance to bring the other Class on stage, but I intended for them to be potential allies, perhaps under the thumb of the Sinister Class.

The main estate house is untenably massive. Think the Winchester House presented clearly as a maze. Eventually the characters discover it doesn’t adhere to normal conventions of space. Within the house, the PC have a wing. There’s a common room, boys’ room, girls’ room, and shower facilities down the hall.

Each Class’s “wing” has a designated color scheme. That helps the players grok what’s where. An early rule given is to not enter the other Classes’ wings. I had someone show up and go through their stuff early to show that rule isn’t well-enforced. The staff and teachers’ wing, which they’re not supposed to enter either, also has a color. Mostly important and teasingly, they’re not to enter rooms marked with red scarves or flags.

The staff and the teachers have a special naming convention. That’s a sign for the strangeness, but also helps the players keep track of who is who. In my case we had seven teachers, each named for a day of the week. We had twelve staff, each named for a month. I didn’t put all of them on the table in the four sessions.

There’s no wi-fi or internet. But the school has a large DVD collection as small consolation. This will obviously be a point of contention. In my version the school is atop a cliff and there’s a small, isolated New England town down below. They never went there so I never had to figure out what might be available to them there (or not). The players also asked about mail, which would of course be scanned by the staff.

To emphasize their isolation they have to take care of their own cooking for two meals a day and cleaning their areas. They’re given their own kitchen and dining area.

On the second day, a teacher finally explains the rules to them: they’re to attend classes six days a week, prepare their own lunch & dinner, avoid the other Class or Staff wings, cannot leave campus, must not discuss their schoolwork with the other classes, and aren’t to kill the other students.

There’s more but I wanted to get down some of the essentials of how I set things up. You can change that structure to make it more intimate, less sinister, and/or more clear. These all offer structural elements for the players to move within. But the Gm also has to think about some higher level details.

During the character creation section we discussed tone. The players asked for middle path—not too light, but also not truly dark. They wanted an uncertain and mysterious situation. That fit with my conception, but I can imagine something different. For example, perhaps the staff wouldn’t be ambiguously antagonistic. Maybe they could be helpful like something out of Harry Potter. In that case, the threats would be external—perhaps an invasion of the school. Challenges could also come from rivals or turncoat staff members.

If you want to run this, you have to consider how you want to frame the “weirdness.” What do the character think their powers are? Are there super-beings in this world? Because I hacked Masks, the players may have come with a sense that they possessed classic super-powers. But the strangeness they encountered suggested something beyond that. It wasn’t Xavier’s Academy but something weirder.

But it could have been something like the Massachusetts or Hellfire Academy, a school intended to corrupt their students. In that case the arc would probably have the teachers testing the students dangerously, with the eventual discovery of plans for villainy. At that point they might escape to something like the X-Men or even go on the road like Runaways or the doomed characters from Legion. In my case I had another idea.

Besides the level of strangeness, you’ll have to answer one basic question: what do the staff want from the students? It’s pretty obvious that the kids will push back against the rules and rebel. The teachers have to know that, so why not put them under tighter leash? Let me give my answer and then I’ll come to other options.

My school had once been in the hands of someone else. The current staff and teachers had fought the original owners to gain the location’s power. When they took over, they found those powers had been sealed. The invaders’ nature prevented access. But others, those not involved in the war and innocent about the nature of things, might be able to. By letting the students explore, the staff hopes those kids will unwittingly unlock something. They don’t really care what happens to the Class, though those who survive will make useful recruits.The staff’s powerful and arrogant, so the underestimate what powers these youths could wield.

And in my vision this connects to Mage the Ascension. I think a couple players picked up on that. The school is a former chantry, one of the most potent, connected to places beyond. The staff come from the Technocracy, hence some of the technology I hunted at. So that was my take, but I can imagine handling it in many other ways (parallel universe invaders, time travelers, fictonaut conspiracists ala “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”).

So why are the PCs at an advantage? In my game I suggested the Class before them, those occupying their rooms, had gone. They escaped, got lost, died, whatever. That forced the staff to quickly pull up new students without proper vetting. They ordinarily wouldn’t have chosen children with their confidence or heroism. The other Classes have limitations preventing them from being as brave or united as the PCs. One is made up of bullies and the other contains easily cowed students.

  • There’s a power struggle among various staff and teachers. They’re so focused on their own plans, they pay less attention to potentially wayward students.
  • The end goal is a sacrifice, so they don’t care so much if some of them get harmed or lost. As long as they have a chosen few victims they can properly indoctrinate, they’re good.
  • One of the students may be a “chosen one” and the staff wants to find out who it is. That will grant them some kind of power or control. But they don’t want to alert them.
  • The staff may run the school day to day, but there’s a secret force or figure behind the scenes giving orders. These contradictory and strange instructions give the students room to operate.
  • A defense system exists but the students discover a way around it early on. If they can keep this a secret, they can explore without interference.
  • The school itself is evil and controlling the staff for some nefarious purpose.

You should also consider the agenda and allegiances of the various adults. Not all the staff should be on the same page. We have some neutral, some hostile, some sympathetic, and some faking their kindness. In the “War Chantry” frame I used, a few NPCs hadn’t originally been part of the Technocracy. Some had betrayed their fellows, but others had remained strong. These survivors had been bound by Technocratic magics to serve them, but could push against that programming. At least one surviving member of the old chantry had managed to pass as a Technocrat but remained unbound and hidden among the staff.

Much of the system worked. I can’t claim any real credit for that. Masks offers a solid PbtA structure and I had great players. Of the changes I made, in particular players dug the Seek action I mentioned last time. PbtA always has collaboration, but having a move reinforcing that helped. It’s especially good because of Sherri’s suggestion to allow the player to change the world or ask the GM to do it for them. That gave room for input or seeing what I had in my head.

You can hear a lot of this system discussion in the Roses & Thorns section of the final session. If you’re interested in the nuts & bolts I recommend checking that out.

The Directly Engage a Threat move never came into play. Brendan Conway, designer of Masks, caught this right away, commenting on my last post. It took me four sessions of running to realize it didn’t work for our scale. Players never actually fought anything and even if they did, the move doesn’t feel quite right. We have several  thematically related moves: Directly Engage, Defend, Take a Powerful Blow, and Act Under Pressure. I need to figure out how to bundle these together into one or two moves that fit with the genre.

Throughout the game I forgot about the Team/Trust pool and how it serves as our Aid action. The players remembered in the last couple of sessions and used it. I like how the mechanic reflects the group coming together. But I don’t know if it feels redundant with the spendable Influence mechanics. Maybe I need to tweak that to make those more like Bonds from Worlds in Peril? Would that cost us some of the flavor?

We also had some questions about moves dealing with Adults. Some of that came from my own framing. In particular when the PCs deal with Adults they know are adversarial, should they react in the same way? We had a moment of uncertainty about that in Session 3 when Rosa faced Ms. August. In those situations are the characters Rejecting Influence or are they resisting a hit to get what they want? I’m not sure yet.

I need to rewrite the Read the Scene and Pierce the Mask example questions to add genre feel. That’s an editing pass approach I need to do to everything: how can I tweak the wording to make this feel like the genre I’m aiming for? It’s still a fan hack and not something for publication, but I want it to be better.

A final issue arose from the End of Session move:
At the end of every session, choose one:...Grow closer to your class. Explain who made you feel welcome; give an Influence to that character and clear a condition or mark potential....Grow into your own image of yourself. Explain how you see yourself and why; shift one Label up and another down....Grow away from the class. Explain why you feel detached. Take an Influence over you away from another character.
Across the board, players went with Grow Closer. It makes sense in the context of this game and how I ran it. Masks’ structure plays to the drama of the team interaction. Our game had dramatic scenes and arguments, but we never pushed to the breaking points Masks rightly encourages. As written this would work for a GM who leans into causing separation and tension between characters. Maybe in a game where there’s only one Class and we have NPCs to bounce off of. But If I run this again, I’ll revise that to incentivize all the choices or go for a more basic checklist. I also need to get more Potential doled out to the characters…