Recently I listened to a podcast where the hosts discussed investigation and mystery adventures in Dungeons & Dragons. My recent introduction to the Gumshoe system with Night’s Black Agents has me wondering: what if you treated skill training in D&D like investigative abilities in Gumshoe? Continue reading
NBA mashes up vampire fiction with super spies in the vein of Jason Bourne. It’s an action-thriller with a focus on conspiracies. As a Gumshoe game the play focuses on resource management, with players spending points to advance the story and gather clues.
Over on G+ a member of the Fate Core community asked “How can I use Three Rocketeers to play TMNT?” and basically made my whole week. The main thrust of the question is, “How can I modify the swordplay rules to other styles of combat?”
It’s a great question! And particularly apt as the swordplay in Three Rocketeers grew out of my desire to have something similar to the kung fu in Tianxia but spun out into fencing. So I began the strange experience of hacking my own game and teaching others how to do it. Continue reading
It’s been a while since I’ve had a regular game group. A few weeks ago I decided to fix that. After reaching out to game design friends, we now have a group for playing RPGs and playtesting new designs. Since we’re all busy adults, the plan is to play on Monday evenings from 7-10. This is going to require us being very focused and intent on the game, not the social aspect. I set that expectation in the early stages so hopefully it will just take. Click after the jump for a recap of our first session. Continue reading
Yesterday I tackled the big system chapters of 7th Sea Second Edition. Today I’m going to dive into the chapters that cover specifics of dueling, sorcery, sailing, and secret societies. Continue reading
Today I’m going to tackle things a little differently. Rather than go in order, I’m going to start with Chapter 4: Action & Drama, jump over to Chapter 9: Game Master, and then tomorrow circle back to do chapters 5 through 8.
Chapter 4: Action & Drama
The first page of this chapter, which comprises the bulk of the game rules, says that you only roll the dice when it matters. Is there a chance of failure? Is it interesting? If you answered ‘no’ to either of those things, just let it happen.
Actions where you roll the dice are called Risks in 7th Sea. That choice of phrase is deliberate and well made. Risks are risky, dangerous, and exciting.
The basics of making a Risk are simple: you declare your Approach (which Trait and Skill you are using), the GM tells you the Consequences and any Opportunities involved, then you roll the dice and create Raises, lastly your character spends Raises to accomplish goals (achieve your intent, prevent a Consequence, or seize an Opportunity).
Consequences are side complications that make life difficult for you. It could be taking some Wounds as you rush out of the burning room but it could also mean the MacGuffin falls overboard. It’s possible to achieve your intent but suffer consequences – essentially success at a cost in Fate Core, or a partial hit from Apocalypse World. It’s also possible to fail at your intent but avoid the consequences – failing forward, as it were. If you have lot of Raises, it’s possible to both achieve your intent and avoid the Consequences.
Opportunities are the opposite of Consequences – they are chances for you to do a little extra, be a little more heroic. If the GM didn’t list an Opportunity, don’t worry. You can spend a Raise to create one for another Hero – you could knock that pistol out of the Villain’s hand and have it slide over to your partner, for instance. Spending a Raise to create an opportunity is a lot like create an advantage in Fate Core. It’s a setup move, maneuvering pieces into place for more awesome stuff later.
When you spend a Raise, what you declared would happen happens. This is huge. As in this is the killer app of 7th Sea. Why? Because you never miss that clutch attack, never fail to swing on the chandelier, and never fall off your horse jumping the fallen tree. In short, when you spend a Raise, you are guaranteed to be heroic.
Now, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get a Raise. Dice are fickle. But the number of dice involved in the game stack the odds so that nearly every roll you will have at least one Raise. A Raise is a set of dice that add up to 10. On average, you should have one Raise for every 2 dice in your pool (or so). Remember in my first post of the review that I said every Hero starts with 2 Ranks in every Trait? That’s the baseline of your dice pool. You will always be rolling 2 or more dice, and two dice average out to one Raise. If you give dramatic flair to your description, you get another die. So, really, the fewest dice you should ever roll is 3. The examples in the book have the players rolling up to 10 dice. That should show you where the designers want you to go with dice pools.
It also doesn’t mean that the Villain you stabbed can’t use the Parry maneuver to cancel damage. But you hit the Villain. You always hit the Villain. No one can take that away from you. When you play 7th Sea you’ll never describe this amazing, dramatically appropriate moment as you engage with the Villain you’ve been hounding for months and then look sheepishly at the GM to announce, “I rolled a 1…”
I really love this idea and can’t wait to put it into action.
Action and Dramatic Sequences are a bit more structured than simple Risks. You can think of Action Sequences as the Battle of New York in The Avengers – all action and heroics. A Dramatic Sequence is much more like the CIA clean room hacking scene in Mission: Impossible – people do cool stuff but the tension isn’t released at the end of the scene.
Rolling Risks in Action and Dramatic Sequences is a bit different, too. At the start of the round, everyone announces their Approach (with flair for that bonus die) and rolls the dice. Then Raises get counted and the person with the most Raises goes first. If players are tied, they decide who goes first. If a player is tied with the Villain, the Villain goes first. You always act based on your current number of Raises – this goes down as you spend them and eventually everyone will sync up. When no one has Raises left, a new round begins. It’s an elegant bit of design that should make big, dramatic fights flow smoothly.
There are a couple of wrinkles to “spend a Raise to do a thing.” First is if you change up your action midway through. You can do it but it costs you an extra Raise – so if you’re looking to spend your last Raise to do something else… well, tough luck, I guess. (A quick house rule hack is to let the player do it but it knocks one Raise off the top in their next round.) The second is that if you don’t have at least one Rank in the Skill you use in your Approach, it costs and extra Raise to do the thing. And these stack, so if you change up your action in the middle of spending Raises to do something you don’t have the Skill for, it costs 3 Raises. Dabble accordingly, I suppose.
Keep in mind, I like these wrinkles. They’re not bugs in the system (except maybe the edge case of one Raise left and changing actions) but rather encourage a particular form of play.
A couple other things I want to point out real quick: 1) you can always choose to fail before you roll the dice and doing so gets you two Hero points that can be spent to do cool things like activate sorcery; 2) any dice you don’t use to make Raises can be ‘bought’ by the GM to add to the Danger Pool: you get 1 Hero Point while the GM gets as many Danger Points as dice you had left over. These both add really interesting tactical choices to play. I like that it’s not the dice you rolled that came up 1 that the GM can buy. This operates in a different space you can’t emulate in Cortex Plus games.
The rest of the rules in the chapter cover Brute Squads, which are dead simple to use, and Villain rules.
Villains are antagonists that operate on the plot level. They have two stats: Influence and Strength. Added together is their Villainy Rank. When a Villain rolls dice, they roll up to their Villainy Rank. This can put the Heroes in trouble when a Rank 20 Villain shows up. But! The game has a system in place where Heroes can undermine a Villain’s Influence, thus lowering the Villainy Rank and making them easier to tackle.
The writers of 7th Sea have found a way to mechanize the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo and make it the emphasis of play for long term campaigns. My hat is off to them. There’s also a system by which the Villains can gamble Influence to gain more through Schemes, which ought to intersect with the Hero stories to give them a chance to thwart the scheme.
The section on monsters is fine. I like it. It’s very utilitarian and aimed at letting you build your own monsters rather than handing out a bestiary. That’s good, that’s solid.
The last two sections of this chapter have me really excited. Game Master Stories is about building story arcs for your game. It uses the same system as the Hero Stories from Hero creation but turned around so the GM is at the helm. It’s very simple but it’s really a very elegant and useful way to prep the threads of the plot in your game. They break down some different classes of stories but really the juice here is in how to construct them as use them as a game master. It’s great, functional design and advice for GMs. I grok this more than Fronts in Apocalypse World.
The last page of this chapter, page 203, is about Corruption. Remember how I said “always capitalize Hero when talking about PCs in 7th Sea“? This is where that gets put into place. If your Hero commits acts of evil, they gain corruption. After just four acts of evil, they are guaranteed to become a Villain but they could fall and become evil after just the first. Dice are fickle. What’s an act of evil? Murder. Torture. Hurtful indifference. Ultimately it’s up to the GM but the guides in this section are clear: this is not a game about murder hobos.
Chapter 9: Game Master
Right from the beginning the emphasis here is that the GM’s job is to entertain the players. It goes on to outline three hats the GM will wear: author, storyteller, and referee.
The author hat is about constructing a plot and story. The chapter outlines modes of stories (conspiracies, adventure, espionage, etc.) and a dozen dramatic situations (abduction, disaster, revenge, etc.) before getting into the construction of a plot. This is where the chapter starts to get a little disjointed to me. There’s a half-page about nailing your opening and then an extended example of plot construction (in play with improvisation from a starting point) that ignores the opening.
Wearing the referee hat is to be the arbiter of the rules and to keep play moving forward. Here John Wick advises you to play hard and play fast. Don’t let the players sit back and think about what they want to do. Get them to act impulsively and heroically. Keep your action scenes running at a breakneck pace. Be fair but never dawdle and don’t brook dissent. This is a hard thing for me to get behind but I have problems asserting myself in social situations. This section does, however, provide the three-line summary of 7th Sea rules:
- You create a Scene.
- Players create Raises.
- Players use Raises to change the Scene.
That is the core of play. It’s a shame it takes 286 pages to get to that point.
One last thing in the referee section: death. Heroes don’t murder and Heroes don’t die from happenstance. They can only die from Villainous action. And the rest of the Heroes have the ability to save them, no questions asked. So how do you kill a Hero? With the player’s permission. Get them on board with the idea by asking how they’d like their Hero to die – what would make a satisfying, glorious end to their story? How can we bring that about together? Because stories are about endings.
Being a storyteller is a performance guide. How to get in the head of your NPCs and villains, engaging all five senses in descriptions, and different voices (action, description, dialogue, exposition, and thought) for different information and tone. It also advocates a very animated, stage-like performance aspect to game mastering where you embody your characters.
7th Sea is the first tabletop RPG I’ve read where I’ve seen instructions for debriefing after the game. This is common in LARP but hasn’t really entered the mainstream of tabletop RPGs as far as I’m aware. It’s framed mostly as a way for the GM to get useful feedback for improving but there are hints of making sure everyone is okay.
The last four pages of the book are dedicated to making Villains compelling. This seems like solid advice.
The core system of 7th Sea (the GM makes a Scene, players make Raises, and then spend Raises to change the Scene) is robust. It empowers players and largely avoids the fickleness of dice. The idea that spending a Raise always accomplishes something is powerful technology that you should be on the lookout for in future games.
It’s not perfect, no system is. There’s a lot of responsibility thrust upon the GM, which isn’t really my style. It seems a lot of the GM advice boils down to “Dance, monkey! Dance!” That doesn’t jive with me. There’s a certain truth to it but it’s only one perspective. The GM advice here is how to GM like John Wick. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot trying it but in the end I’ll need to figure out how to run 7th Sea in a way that works for me and doesn’t involve quite so much dancing monkey.
Throughout the text there are edge cases that pop up and I’m not sure if they’re intentionally vague – there’s a lot of ink spilled about making rulings, not rules – or just weren’t covered. Are players just SOL if they want to Improvise with only one Raise left? Can you buy Minor Glamours in your Knight Errant’s Major Trait?
Criticisms aside, I’m really excited about this game system and can’t wait to get it to the table. Soon! Alright tomorrow I’m gonna close out the last four chapters, which cover Sorcery, Dueling, Sailing, and Secret Societies.
A Day’s Work
The second edition of 7th Sea opens with what has become traditional for certain RPGs: a short story set in the fictional world of the game. Written by Jennifer Mahr, “A Day’s Work” has everything you want in a 7th Sea adventure: adventure, comedy, romance, a thrilling chase, bar room brawl, duel in the dark, and equal opportunity swashbuckling. It’s eight pages long and sets the tone nicely. Something I appreciate here is that it is a complete story, not the first part of a story that is broken up and scattered throughout the book. Continue reading
The 7th Sea backer preview PDF of completed text and design went out yesterday. Tonight I built my first Hero (always capitalize Hero when talking about PCs in 7th Sea) to get a feel for the system. I really like it quite a bit.
Character creation happens in nine steps. I went through them in order without reading ahead, for the most part. While not exactly quick for a first-time character generation, I was able to build a character I am enamored with and just want to play. The hardest part was the sorcery section. That threw me for a bit of a loop and involved the most revisions as I went along. (Not because I’d gotten it wrong, I don’t think, but because I refined what I wanted as I went along and read more about the sorcery.) Continue reading
It’s early March and I’ve written a book this year. An entire book, start to finish. This is a big accomplishment for me because it’s my first book. It’s 40,000 words strong and was written in six weeks.
How It Happened
On January 10th, I was offered the opportunity to write a supplement for the game Bulldogs! by Galileo Games. The book is called Ports of Call: Homeworlds and was a stretch goal from the Kickstarter last year to update Bulldogs! to Fate Core. The assignment was to write 40,000 words covering as many homeworlds for alien species in the Bulldogs! universe as I could fit. The biggest challenge was the timetable – Jeremy Morgan, my editor and primary point of contact, wanted it done by the end of February.
Jeremy really is the person I have to thank for this opportunity. We’ve met briefly in person a few times but mostly I know him from Twitter – we follow many of the same people and are part of many of the same conversations. Last year he put out a call for back up writers in case scheduling conflicts came up with the writers he’d already tapped. I submitted my name and Jeremy added me to his list. That second week of January, I heard he wanted me for a gig. At the time I was suffering from a terrible head cold and agreed almost immediately, despite being under the influence of Day- and/or NyQuil. (Pro tip: when you’re married, check with your spouse before you agree to do a 40,000 word book in six weeks.)
The business portion of the project – agreeing to a rate, signing the contract, getting author materials, etc. – took a while to get running so I lost nearly two weeks before I could start writing. Once I had all that sorted, though, I took a long look at what needed to happen and worked it out with Jeremy and Brennan that I’d need another week. My new deadline was March 7th. Spoiler alert: I made my deadline.
Nuts and Bolts
My pace needed to be an average of 1,000 words a day. That’s an ambitious goal for someone who has a day job, is married, and active in local communities. I ran the X-Wing store championship for my local store in February. I brewed two batches of beer in the time I wrote this book. I even managed to play a game for the She’s a Super Geek podcast.
The first step was to familiarize myself with the source material. I’d read Bulldogs! before but it had been a while and I’d never played a campaign. Jeremy sent me a PDF of the Fate Core version and manuscripts for other sources I’d need. I read them all multiple times, making mental notes about what each species is like and different themes I can play with for their ports. This I was able to accomplish while other business details were being attended to; it happened in fits and starts because I was sick early in the process and we had some miscommunication along the way, probably because I wasn’t asking the right questions.
Because I’m a bit of an organizational nut, I love to use Scrivener. My first scrivening for PoC: Homeworlds was a list of each species with the homeworld and singular, plural, and adjectival forms of the species name. This would be my most common reference note as I wrote. There are about fifty species in the materials Brennan sent me. Some of those will have homeworlds represented in other books, some don’t have homeworlds, and some don’t have homeworlds suitable for visitation. That brought my total list of ports down to 36, something of a perfect number. I aimed for each port to land between 1,100 and 1,200 words. Some were more and some were less.
Then I set about creating my port template with spaces for the port name, planet of origin, climate, port description, three aspects, description of locals, and three prominent NPCs. My template was properly formatted with the header and aspect tags where necessary. The template was based off the manuscript for another Ports of Call book by Filamena Young. (Big help!)
Writing the ports was surprisingly easy. I broke it down into manageable chunks, with the goal of a port a day. That worked out to be a bit more than a thousand a day, so I banked a couple days off in the process. They were much needed.
I knew that if I tried to create an outline of 36 unique, original port ideas all at once that I’d never get it done. So instead I used a technique I’m calling a “rolling outline” where I brainstormed four port ideas and then each day I wrote a port, I’d also brainstorm a new port idea. The intent was to keep three or four port ideas in the list so I always had something to work with the next day. This worked really well! Since the ports are small-ish and mostly self-contained, I was able to let each idea percolate in my head for a few days before writing it. This also broke the brain load of ideation into small chunks. When I stuck to this pattern, I was just zipping along. Late in the game I finished a port and went to see what was next in my outline to find out I hadn’t generated any new ideas. That was panic inducing.
From there on, it was really just about the discipline of sitting and writing every night. That’s not an easy thing to do and I didn’t always want to but I did it. My wife deserves major recognition and thanks. She really stepped up to help me by planning meals, cooking, and packing my lunches. These are things I typically do around the house but on such a short deadline, it just wasn’t feasible. Ports of Call: Homeworlds wouldn’t have happened (at least not as quickly as it happened) without all of her support and hard work.
What Can We Expect in Ports of Call: Homeworlds?
The ports in the book are pretty diverse. There’s a port on an authoritarian world that is only place aliens are allowed to visit. All interstellar commerce on that planet occurs there, and is primarily concerned with contracting out the services of exceptional individuals.
Another port is a low-gravity world with enormous big game animals. Think T-Rex size. The port has a number of safari companies that will take you out to bag the big one. It’s also one of the prime destinations for extreme sports fanatics.
I wrote about a space elevator, an enormous space station, a hollowed-out asteroid with an enormous sentient mainframe, and a place where biomechanical ships are built/grown. There’s Shakespearean drama (in spaaaace!), assassin’s guilds, environmentalist protesters, Pangalactic Corporations everywhere, and even a port with mysterious werewolves.
As a Bulldog coming to one of these ports you’ll be embroiled in murder mysteries, plans for bloody vengeance, local politics (both governmental and criminal), thrilling races, daring heists, and more. You’ll be able to explore crumbling empires, failing businesses, paradise resorts, and expanding kingdoms.
The hardest port to write was the philosopher’s enclave run by hive-minded insects. My favorite is probably the port that is basically a Buddhist temple from a Shaw Bros. flick. The funniest, I hope, is the port where a species with a terrifying appearance is trying to change galactic opinion about them and have built a hilariously mismanaged tourist trap. Because it doesn’t matter how good the skiing is if the entire place is crawling with giant spiders asking if they can help you.
The species with homeworlds represented in Ports of Call: Homeworlds are Behemothians, Chan Guls, Dolomé, Eegop, Endevians, Forrszp, Gabradeen, Guloorpans, Hacragorkans, Han-To-No-Gon-La, Hikiyans, Hoodoosuns, Isilins, Keero, Ken Reeg, Lachkessen, Lassieans, Lutrani, Madribel, Mgrummen, Myriasoma, Nukimen, Ophrenics, Rangoons, Ryjyllians, Sabines, Septercians, Sishi’ik, Skuras, Telosians, Terrizans, Tetsuashans, Thalds, Undines, Vilichlopans, and Zevallia.
You will not find the Arsubarans, Saldrallans, or Templari here because they’re going to be in other books.
Write and Live Responsibly
Coinciding with this unprecedented level of creative output, I decided that I’m kind of tired of being fat and out of shape. A gym just opened in my office building so I joined that and have been exercising every work day. Started slow because I wanted to be successful, so once I got in the habit of hitting the gym after a couple weeks I also started counting calories and restricting my diet.
The first few weeks of going to the gym was great. I was hitting my word count every day, my mood improved, and I had greater energy even though I wasn’t seeing any weight loss. Once I restricted my diet, that all changed. My energy levels and mood dropped precipitously but I lost twelve pounds in two weeks. The thing is, I couldn’t write. I found myself taking longer to write a port in the evening. What had been taking two or three hours was stretching into five. That’s on the days I was able to even muster the mental fortitude to sit down and do it. So while I was doing great on the weight loss, literally everything else crashed.
In order to finish the book, I stopped dieting the last week. I was behind schedule by about five thousand words and needed to get it done. Breakfast and lunch were still healthy, but dinners were larger and heavier than I’d been doing. Upping my calorie intake improved my energy levels and I was able to knock out the words I needed to
I was surprised at how much my diet affected my writing process. It makes sense – my brain is the source of my creativity and it’s an organ that needs energy as much as anything else. The experience really highlighted for me how terrible the starving artist trope is. I already understood that it promotes a toxic abuse of creatives by devaluing their work or by encouraging society to actively mistreat artists but I never understood before how hard it is to be creative when you are starving. And my starving wasn’t even financially motivated; I didn’t have the added stress of not knowing if I could pay rent. (My wife and I are lucky enough to be fairly financially stable with our joint income.)
How I Got Here
Getting away from the story and process of writing this book, I want to talk about “making it” in the hobby, insofar as I have had some success.
The question I’ve asked myself a number of times over the past few months is: “How did I get a book deal?” I’ve given it a lot of thought and it all comes down to this: I know people, they know me, and I’ve worked up the courage to put myself out there. None of it was easy and it all started by a chance introduction.
Over the past eight years I’ve been developing connections in the RPG community. I’m on friendly terms with a number of designers, writers, and editors. Really, that’s the key: over the course of years, I have gotten to know and get on good terms with people in the game design community.
I’m not joking or being hyperbolic about the time frame, either. After discovering Spirit of the Century in 2008, I started following Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue on Twitter. I now freelance for them (two projects down, and the biggest so far just ramping up).
In 2010 I met Ron Edwards, who did a lot to convince me that I could write my own games. We haven’t spoken for a while but it’s impossible to be a gamer and not speak to Ron without him picking your brain about what you want in a game, which inevitably leads to brainstorming game design.
But where it really started, where I can directly trace the connections I’ve made and the success I’ve had is GenCon 2011. My friend Tim introduced me to some old friends of his – Clark and Amanda Valentine, who had just been part of the announcement for Marvel Heroic. Because of that, I started following Cam Banks and interacting with him on Twitter. In 2012 I bought a one-day pass to C2E2 so I could get a physical copy of Marvel Heroic and have it signed by Cam; we chatted at the booth and it ended up that I submitted a writing test for the Age of Apocalypse supplements. At GenCon I ran a ton of the official Marvel Heroic games. I was laid off at the same time (literally the day before GenCon) so I wrote a first draft of Heroes Fall (which was then called Grim World).
In 2013, Margaret Weis Productions lost the Marvel license but picked up Firefly. I volunteered to GM for them and Mark Diaz Truman asked me if I would be interested in writing for Firefly as we talked about the game. Over the next two years, I worked on five books for Firefly.
In 2014 I went out on a limb and submitted for the Evil Hat writer’s search. They liked what I wrote and I came on to write Three Rocketeers. That went well, so in 2015 they added me to the Kaiju Incorporated RPG team as a system developer and Fate of Cthulhu as the lead designer.
Throughout this whole time I’ve been getting to know more and more people in the community, building connections and friendships. I’m becoming more visible in the community, for better or worse. For me, at least, it means that when Jeremy needed someone to write an entire book in six weeks I seemed like a reasonable candidate.
So if you want to get into a community, that’s the only path I know and can recommend: meet people, make friends, make things, contribute, and put yourself out there. It’s work, dammit, and hard work, at that. But you’re never going to get opportunities without the legwork.
The Force Awakens is a good movie – eminently fun, beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted. The pacing is relentless, flowing from action to action in typical Abrams style. There are only a few brief pauses for characters to reflect and process what’s happening. In this case, I feel safe saying that The Force Awakens is a non-stop thrill ride without it being hyperbole. All in all it’s a very modern take on Star Wars and that’s a good thing. Releasing a relatively slow, methodical, contemplative adventure film in the modern cinema landscape isn’t something a director can get away with anymore.
There’s a fair bit of ink spilled below on flaws the movie has. Don’t take this to mean I didn’t like the movie. I did. It’s fun, rollicking, and epic. It’s not perfect, but hardly any movies are. There needs to be a place for fans to discuss the flaws in the film as much as what they love. My final consensus is two lightsabers up.
I reiterate: this review will contain spoilers for the film. I’m also interested in discussing the movie so hit me up in the comments to know what you think. Continue reading