The Measure of an RPG

I was discussing RPGs with an old friend yesterday, and a thing which stuck with me is him saying, about our high school RPG group, being a "combat table" is sticking with me.

Broadly, I don't think D&D is meant to be a robust roleplaying system. If we measure D&D by the contents of it's book, very few pages is spent considering actual roleplay, and many more pages are spent considering combat directly or indirectly. Pages of combat equipment, magic items (almost all for combat), flanking, most class abilities are about combat, the race pages are mostly lists of combat modifiers that you get, and 47 pages of grappling rules.

When it comes to social interaction, we're given a framework of bluff, diplomacy and a handful of other skills that are meant to govern social interactions. Not much more consideration is given than that to NPCs whom you might roleplay with.

I've had discussions where people think that it's much more of a roleplaying game system than I do. I am not sure that I am wrong, by the numbers.  Much like with a video game, a game is about the things you spend your time doing; Terraria is a game about mining and building things.

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Supers, Powered by the Apocalypse

A game idea, on the AW/MH engine: A supers game, in the vein of Watchmen and other stories which are less about action, and more about the fucked up people who become super heroes. But pressure still probably comes from the outside, in the shape of villains - who may be other player characters.

My thought is that each playbook combines a supers archetype with an exaggerated personal issue.

Playbooks might include:

The Monster - like The Thing, or The Hulk, or Karl Donovan, maybe bits of The Joker.
You used to be beautiful Or, at least, that's how it felt. But that time is past you, now. Now, when people see you, they gasp. They run away. You're powerful now, sure. And you can use that to fight crime. But you know that your "friends" just tolerate you for your power. How could anyone love a monster like you?

The Hero - Captain America, Superman, maybe aspects of Cyclops
Or maybe "The Patriot"?
You try to do the upright, honest thing. You lead by example. You try to be helpful. So why is it that your honesty and good acts always seem to backfire on you? Why are you always the one rescuing kittens from trees? How is it that you're always supposed to be the responsible one? Always, always responsible? For EVERYTHING. All your responsibility means that you're always missing personal appointments. You've stopped going on dates. You haven't had a full night's sleep in weeks, because there's always someone out there, threatening the city. So, when is it your turn to have your way, for a change?

The Mask - The Batman, The Nite Owl, The Kracken
Whatever happened, you can't leave it in the past. It's a battle that you fight again and again, each night, out on the streets. You can stop the trauma that happened to you, from happening to others. Every moment is defined by what happened to you -- except, well, sometimes. There's someone else in a mask, out there. When you're fighting with them, or maybe fighting with them, sometimes you're able to let go for a little while.

The Beast - Wolverine, The Hulk, Sabretooth
Once you're going, nothing can stop you. Nothing. Not even yourself. And you've tried.
You just have this anger, and once it starts coming, it just keeps coming. And you keep going. And when you come to your senses, you're often horrified by what you've done.

The Psychic - Jean Grey, like every psychic ever.
Strange things have always happened around you. You can see what others don't. You get people - like, you really GET them. But your brain is like a sponge, absorbing thoughts and feelings from those around you. Sometimes it's hard to tell where you stop, and where they begin. Maybe the difference between the two doesn't really matter.

The Journalist - Nearly every supporting cast member from Spider-Man or Superman
Whether you work for a news organization, or you're just a blogger, you always seem to be around when shit hits the fan. And you always seem to get the worst of the splatter. The problem is that you don't have powers, like the others do. You can't fight. And worse, now that the villains have realized that one of the heroes is sweet on you, it seems like they're actively targeting you. Will you always be a victim, or collateral damage when the big players come to blows?

Edit: Bill suggests rolling with "Brooding", as a Dark-type stat.

Skin or Move Set Idea: The Plague Baby / The Rotten / Something Else Gross

Pulling an idea out of Rae, and a certain Fiasco game in which an alien STD played a huge part in the game, there's totally a Monsterhearts skin or a set of moves that one could build out of a supernatural STD.

This is a skin about a person who's body disgusts them, about self-image, about being shamed by others, about dying young and all the things that go with dying young. There are all sorts of feelings of shame, self-disgust, and feeling horribly rejected and unloved. Inflicting harm to others, and feeling guilt for it.

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Feel free to contribute.

Edit: With a more generic skin name, and maybe the option of another name for the condition, this could also be kinda Final Destination or Drag Me To Hell-esque (or the way Rae seems to be working out). In this instance, any harm you take through Ashes, Ashes represents an unlikely injury or coincidences. Someone you're shutting down shoves you to punctuate a point, and accidentally knocks you down a set of stairs. While lashing out, a gun you're shooting backfires or ricochets, and you hurt yourself.

All of the skins have more than one way you can read it, so this idea might be a thing needed to round out this skin idea. Accursed might be a more generic name.

Chrono Trigger

I don't think I've played this since high school. Not only is the game itself still fun, but the characterizations are much better than I remember them being. The opening two hours are really strong, and there are narrative threads being woven into things really early in the game that won't come up for a long time. For the first four or five hours, the game manages to neatly avoid having dungeons that feel pointless or unfun. Even once we do get to a point where that starts to happen, the dungeons themselves are mostly pretty neat.

One thing I've noticed, though: The dungeons that I didn't care for as a kid, I still don't care for now. Lab 16 in 2300 AD, and the cave outside Medina villiage in 1000 AD, come to mind. These areas felt slow at the time, and now I feel like it may be because they feel like delays without any plot or flavour in them, which makes them the exception in this game. Each of them have an enemy theme, and maybe they're supposed to be training dungeons to teach you to use certain types of attacks in certain ways, but they're still not fun.

Some things that are interesting about time travel: You set out to change time, but early on, it seems like you're ensuring that time goes the correct way. You spend a bunch of time recovering, and then repairing, the Masamune. But it seems that repairing it is not possible without time travelling to 1000 AD and then 65,000,000 BC, which would seem to suggest that the existing timeline includes a bunch of actions that you take as a player. However, there are some small things I've changed, like being generous to someone, so that they will raise their children to also be generous.

This time through, Lucca is jumping out at me as an extremely cool character. She's brilliant, egotistical, and fun-loving, but constrained by how she thinks she should behave as quiet and polite. She even makes a comment about another character's sexism at one point, which really surprised me. I dunno, strikes me as neat.

This game is also delightfully short. I think I'm about half-way through, and I didn't play it all that long this weekend.

It's fun to revisit these stomping grounds.

Video Game Round-Up

Surgery Simulator 2013
Time commitment: An hour or so.
I played this after watching the hilarious Idle Thumbs cast about it. So, in this game, you control a single arm with an amazing amount of fidelity: You individually control the arm movement through x and y planes, the arm's movement through the z plane, wrist movement, and each finger individually. It's extraordinarily difficult to do each of these things individually. From there, you're asked to do heart, kidney, and brain surgeries. The game is surprisingly mercenary about what counts as acceptable, as will find yourself ripping out the lungs and the heart completely, dropping the heart into the chest cavity, and calling it a day. You will likely kill several people before you succeed for the first time.
Controlling with this level of detail is interesting, challenging. The experience is very focused. It's funny to play, both in a weird way and in a funny way. Funny-morbid, really. I managed to do all the transplants, and then also do the heart transplant while in an ambulance. So that was cool.

Rogue Legacy
Time commitment: A few hours
This is a game where you delve into a castle to defeat a monster of some kind. When you die, your kid makes the next run some twenty years later. When you die again, your great-grandkid makes the next run. Each of the traits your characters gain are represented as different medical conditions or outlooks, like "gigantism" means that your character is giant, while "nostalgic" causes you to view the game in sepiatone. The castle itself is randomized each time you go in.
It's pretty fun, pretty funny, very clever in design. Good for listening to podcasts while playing.

Viscera Cleanup Detail
Time commitment: About half an hour.
A first-person game where you play a janitor in the aftermath of some kind of battle on a space-station. Your job is to mop up blood and clean up gore and bullets. The level of fidelity on this is that you're required to pick up each piece of gore or bullet individually, and put it into a garbage bin. Eventually your bin will fill up, and you'll need to empty it into the incinerator... and be careful not to spill the bin, as it's simulated in the physics engine. Likewise, your mop will eventually become saturated, and you'll need to rinse it out. Eventually, your water-bucket will get too bloody, and you'll need to change it out.
It's amazing how focused one can get doing this. You know how you can get, sorting things on a shelf, or tidying a folder system? It's a bit like that.

Cities in Motion 2
Time commitment: More than a few hours.
Like the first game, this is a public-transit management system. If you imagine Sim City, and then imagine the entire game was building and managing the bus and train routes, you'd have Cities in Motion. It's pretty fun, in the way management games often are. This has been nicely refined from the first game, and some sharp corners have been smoothed. It's very pleasant. Good for podcast listening, too.

Rogue Scholar

You know, next time I play a post-apocalyptic game, I think I should like to rip off a character class from Rifts that I've always loved: The Rogue Scholar.

Promoting literacy and preserving history and science in the wasteland is very appealing to me, especially if there are political or military powers who would rather their populations not have access to knowledge. Covert educating seemed when I was a kid, and still seems to me now, like a real cool idea.

Of course, part of that is also that the character is a sneaky badass who can slip away from trouble when it comes looking for them, and shoot to kill if they need to.

Textbook in one hand, handgun in the other. To me, there's something pretty sexy about that combination.

A Surprising Final Fantasy VI Moment

Our Heroes fail to prevent the Big Bad from sundering the world. They escape the place, but also lose each other. The continents are thrown apart. The land and sea are poisoned.
Plants, animals, and humans are doomed to eking out a life, but for many this is mostly just a delayed death sentence.

One year later, a woman named Celes, a former General, wakes in a bed on a deserted island. An older scientist named Cid has been caring for her since the world was ruined, and these two have been allies, and are on good terms. Cid has recently become too sick to feed himself, so Celes decides to repay his kindness, and bring him food and water while he recovers.

Cid explains that there were other people, but they all succumbed to despair and boredom. He mentions a cliff up north, that people used to fling themselves off of when they were down - "Perked them right up!" he jokes, grimly. Celes and Cid begin referring to each other as Grandfather and Granddaughter, because they only have each other, and this is what their bond has become.

You can hunt, but the animals (random encounters) are so poisonous that they will expire a few moments after an encounter begins. So you fish. Your only company while you do this is a small, white bird. There are a precious few healthy fish, but you can catch them. And you can save Cid, of course: Bring him enough healthy fish quickly enough, and he'll get better, and help you get off the island. It's pretty standard fare.

But, and this is the surprising bit, you can fail, and the game is pretty rigged against you, making it almost a certain thing that you will. If you do, Celes will find Cid's body, and go through a few moments of denial before accepting what's happened. She flees from their home in tears, and wanders. Coming to the cliff, she recalls what Cid said about people "perking themselves up". She decides she doesn't wish to live anymore, especially not here, by herself, and especially after failing to take care of another person who has trusted her (interpersonal trust is one of this character's themes).

Celes throws herself off the cliff.

More surprising: This is not game over. Celes will wake on a beach, having been nursed back to health by a bird - now her only company. She bawls out the bird for nursing her back to health. Eventually, she finds a letter that Cid wrote while he was dying (missed in her shock, while finding his body, and missing his death), which will help her get off the island.

Interestingly, the game rewards neither option mechanically. In some ways, Celes' attempted suicide this feels like the truer version of the story. Certainly, it's much more involved, and it's a big character beat, and there isn't an equivalent character beat if Cid lives.

I bet the notoriously conservative Nintendo of America didn't know that was in there. And it's surprising for a console game that came out in 1994.

Fate Hack: The "Awesome" Aspect

I've wanted to include something like Exalted's stunting or PTA's fan mail mechanics in the Fate system for a while now; Mechanics based around audience participation, essentially. I've thought about a few ways to do it, most of which involved the movement of fate points around the table. These seem like they'd work, but here's another idea, and one that's maybe a little less involved:

One sure way of knowing that you've got the audience interested is when you get unprovoked exclamations of "Awesome!", or "Dude!" or flicking¹, when another player's character is going through a particularly interesting or intense or compelling scene, or describes a bit of action in a particularly cool way. This is probably the most genuine expression of excitement you can get at the table, and a great measure of investment. It's also a reliable enough response that you can probably hitch a mechanic to it, triggered by the expression.

So, when someone makes an unprovoked exclamation about the awesomeness contained in the scene, perhaps it could be treated as putting a Fragile Aspect (one use, one tag, must be used on the next roll) on the scene. Naming of the aspect isn't really important here, but something like "That was Awesome!", or whatever the expression was, would work. This is something which would happen without discussion, since you don't want to pause to deal with mechanics in the middle of a scene, after all! It'd be a little way of helping to ensure that the effort the player is putting into the scene is rewarded by the fiction, and it's always really nice to see the person you're rooting for win the day².

I say "unprovoked exclamation" because this should not be something the active player is trying to prompt the other players to do by asking; The prompting should come from the content of the scene, not social dynamic of the table.

Anyway, it's a thought.

¹we do this at our table when we want to be quiet about expressing excitement.
²It doesn't come up a lot in FATE, but an aspect could probably also be used to reroll a good result if the player wishes to fail. Maybe even for a self-compel, but it's really difficult to imagine an impactful scene that a player would want to self-compel out of which doesn't involve one of the character's aspects already.

Game Idea: Alternate Selves?

Could you use our table's "wide cast" setup in order to do something Fringe-like, where there are other versions of one's self out there? Likely with the other players playing alternative versions of one's own character, to allow for self-alternative-self interactions? Having the other person *not* be your character might be just enough distance that that works, but you'd have to carefully think out your character combinations to avoid the dramatically-optimal pairings from being between two of the same player's characters.

Alternatively, as a character concept: What if the character were replaced by a look-alike very early in the game, such that much of the character bonding stuff happens with the replacement? Or, possibly, after that, and going into the climax? This'd be fun with our open-secrets style of play, since everyone at the table would know, but the characters wouldn't. It'd be an interesting RP challenge, too, to play a subtley-wrong version of your own character.