Transan Revival

August 21, 2008

I talked to Shreyas about temporarily reviving Secret Wars and wanted to warn everyone that is subscribed to our RSS feed, including the big SG feed. Here’s my plan:

I want to work on the passages in the new Transantigo rules that are read aloud,
so I was thinking about maybe taking turns rewriting the same passage over and over again until it developed into a kind of consensus, like what happens to stories when they are told over and over again. Eventually, you boil something down to the most important parts.

So, just a fair warning before you see more or less the same few paragraphs repeated on this blog over and over. If you’re interested in this development process, cool. If not, you may want to unsubscribe.



October 23, 2007

being a hack of the avatar game

With my arms around her I could feel her tense up. The wind had shifted and evening was approaching. Her golden mask was missing from the sky, but just as though she were there, the clouds were painting themselves in saffrons and purples. The light soaked into her skin, warmed it. She was suddenly too hot to hold. “Lover, it is time I go.” Her breath singed my arms. “I must climb the sky so that the mouth of the mountains can close on me, chew me up, and spit me out.”

She said it as a misbehaving child might say, “I must go home so my father can beat me,” with fear and anger, but also with a kind of resignation, helplessness stretched thin over the span of years.

I watched the sun climb to her doom, her naked feet still stained with grass, her shoulders scalloped with teethmarks.

Someday I will grind those mountains down. In all of creation, I am the only one who may bite her. I know when to stop.

Skyflower is a mini-game about a world that can’t change itself, and the hero’s quest to change it.

Choosing Primary Characters :: Culture & Geography

Most of what Jon said in the avatar game is true here. The crucial exception is that Skyflower doesn’t come with a setting, out of the box, and I can’t be arsed to make you one, but I can make it so you can make one. The one constant is that the gods of the world are, at least pretty often, enfleshed and personal. They take on physical forms and form relationships with individuals and peoples. They can be multifaceted—where one people see the sun goddess as a young, fierce woman riding a chrysanthemum horse, another may see a mother pouring buttery light out of a clay jar, and another might see a sooty three-legged bird that builds its nest in the uttermost east. All these visions are true. Or, they can be very specific and local—the god of this forest, this tree, the god that forged this sword. Universally, gods are embodiments of physical aspects of the world: night, winter, a crow, are all things that may have gods. Liberty, equality, and fraternity aren’t.

Each character comes from a different culture, either because of geographic separation, or because of social stratification; two characters may be from the selfsame city and speak the same language, but if one is a destitute priest and the other is a scholar-princess, they are effectively from different spheres.

As a group, answer these questions about the characters, making sure that no two answers are alike.

How do the character’s people relate to the gods?
How do they live; what god is most important to their livelihood?
What place is most important to them?
What place do they find utterly distant and alien?
What is the character’s social sphere, her people?
What is expected of him when he grows up?
How does she baffle those expectations?
What makes him well-suited for them?

With the first four questions, you can scrawl a map. Don’t fling all the distant, alien places to the corners and edges; instead, checker them with the hearts of nations, and build barriers and threats that keep them apart—deserts, mountains, bandits, superstitions, old feuds or unaffordable tools, whatever strikes your fancy. None of these barriers are impassable, merely imposing. In each nation’s most-important-place, set down a figure representing their most important god.

There are a lot of different ways you can answer that question about the relationship with gods, and how you do will colour your game significantly—are the people worshipful of the gods, or do they treat them as equals, or have they subjugated them? Is there one god they treat differently? Maybe they are familiar or alien, loved or feared or simply accepted. They are never unimportant. And, too, this is a kind of romantic game, so don’t get bogged down in extremes of realistic cultural complexity; suppose we are dealing with small populations that are close-knit and not especially diverse, and describe their cultures in broad, bold strokes.

When you identify a god for a nation, you don’t have to describe it exhaustively or in depth; every culture knows about most of the major gods of the world, and they see them in different and often seemingly incompatible ways. You can leave these different viewpoints unexplored until you need to use them in the game, or you can prepare them beforehand. Developing in play has a swiftness and organic quality that I find appealing, but the other way is good too; it gives you time and distance with which to manipulate imagery more deliberately.

The second four questions are there to get you thinking about who the character is. Remember that you can make multiple characters of the same people, as long as their social spheres differ. Think about what this means for their view of the gods! They will relate to them very differently.

Describing Primary Characters

Begin by describing each character’s relationship with the god you feel is most important to that character. This doesn’t have to be the god of her people. This particular relationship is personal and specific; character and god can recognize each other and their meetings evoke strong feelings in each other. Typically, characters and gods relate as lovers, adversaries, or family members. Think about what it means for a character to be the mother of a god, or for a god to be a character’s grandfather.

Next, for each relationship, describe one that the god has with another god, which has a direct, problematic impact on the first relationship. For instance, one character might be in love with the sun, but he is the husband of the jealous sea. Finally, describe any relationships the characters have between others or with nations. Connect each god to at least one nation. Make a diagram showing how everyone is connected, labelling each connection with a brief description of the relationship involved. Use analogies if it helps! It’s better to describe a god as “father” than “emotionally disconnected authority/creator figure.” The network of relationships between humans, nations, and gods that you draw in this step will become the communal chakra that the characters traverse. Be aware that you can create a discontinuous network—one where there is no path between one group of nodes and another—by following these instructions. That’s a tool for you—you can use it to tell parallel stories that connect later on when you alter the chakra—but you should always build a continuous diagram unless you have a specific reason not to.

Great Dharma

The character’s first great dharma is involved with these relationships; he needs to sort them out.

Lesser Dharma

Characters may have lesser dharmas that involve any character, nation, or god. In a scene about such an entity, only one character present needs to have a relevant dharma. The others may form their own agendas and the associated dharmas if they wish, or they can just come along for the ride.

Moving on the Map

Each character’s pawn starts on the node that corresponds to himself. When he moves to a node, he has a scene about the dharma he has related to that node; if he has none, then there is an opportunity to establish a new dharma, or enjoy an interlude, in which the character learns or teaches something human about the subject. It’s possible to have dharmas for any node, including the character’s own; these might be sort of self-involved, though.

The characters in Skyflower are exaggeratedly empathetic; the relationships that connect the nodes are the forces that motivate them to action, forming the transitions between scenes. In this game, selecting which way to traverse the chakra is more about choice than judgement. So, in a scene you need to do two things: accomplish something, and indicate the emotional connection that leads to the next scene. You don’t need to marry this shift to an action made by the active character; a scene shift can also be motivated by external events, or, from an appropriate character’s point of view, pivot around something that symbolically evokes a new subject, such as fetching water for a scene about a river god, or fleeing from some place shifting into a scene about another fugitive.

Changing the Map

You can change the relationships that connect nodes; to change relationships between humans (or create one; you can never uncreate a relationship) or nations requires nothing more than enacting a lesser dharma, while changing a relationship that involves a god calls for a great dharma. Nations don’t directly have relationships with one another; their interactions are mediated by characters or gods.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are fearsomely mobile. You may encounter them anywhere in the chakra, sitting on a node. Each one has exactly one relationship that is important to them, and you can transition scenes along this connection as well as whatever connections are on your node, but if you take their path they will follow you.

Sometimes a god will split off one of its faces and create a secondary character. These particular secondary characters always have a connection to a human.


Mwaantaangaand v0.1

September 23, 2007

Just posted the final intial draft of Mwaantaangaand, a game that seeks to bring the fun developments that I’ve been working on in various other design projects to people who don’t care about Avatar or Exalted.

The game is heavily inspired by Malcolm Craig’s Cold City, but it runs on a largely “structured freeform” system that has a bit of strategy and resource manipulation involved in the way corrupted spirits are fought.

The premise of the game involves a coalition of soldiers from the various factions of the Angolan Civil War descending into the land of the dead to destroy the horrors created by Project Coast, South Africa’s biological weapons program.

Shreyas says he has a lot to say about it, so maybe he’ll say some of it here.

P.S. I wrote it for Jason Morningstar’s game design contest.


Slave to the Inside Light

September 16, 2007

Maybe that’s not how the story of the seed works at all.

Maybe, instead, it is a battle between the stirring darkness and the nameless light:

Every heroic tradition has its Crown, the thing it must be; the drive to claim the heroic crown is urgent and visceral, and its achievement is a moment of exhilarating relief. But it has its Darkness as well, the struggle that follows it forever and ever. The Darkness is not idle, either; it lives and breathes. In its murky viscera, it nurses a plan, an ultimately self-destructive urge that thrashes and mangles everything it can touch. See for instance the Black Peacock Maiden:

Black Peacock Maiden

Crown: I must love and have my love returned. In my world, you are the moon, the air, the sea; nothing matters but us. How will I claim your heart?
Shadow: I will take what I cannot have, and be most desirable to those that are forbidden me; my face will launch a thousand ships. My love has no rules. I will find the love that destroys you.

Every piece-of-god has a core of Light, its bright fountain of truth, and a thing to which it awards its Wreath, to which it is unthinkingly loyal, to which it bends without a flicker of insouciance.

I dunno. The seed is blooming and changing, well see what comes of it.


Firmament d20

September 14, 2007

I’ve been distracted from posting here by the new Fingers on the Firmament project I’m doing with Justin D. Jacobson of Blue Devil Games. There was a thread on Story Games where they tried to pair up hippie and grognard designers to create fun games and build bridges between the indie and more mainstream roleplaying scenes. So we’re taking a crazy concept of mine that’s been languishing unexplored for many years and Justin’s helping inject some structure and purpose into it.

The premise is:

Basically, characters reach out into the sky one day and discover that they can grasp the stars and pull on them, yanking themselves into the great void of the universe. They can rock-climb on the heavens, basically: grabbing Sirius and pulling themselves towards it, then grabbing another star, further away. There would be star maps included in the game, so the characters could figure out where they were.

Eventually, assuming they are uncommonly lucky, they are stumbled upon by some of the other millions of humans who live amid the stars. Billions of other star-travelers are simply lost forever, wandering amidst the void forever, since finding other humans amidst the insane hugeness of the universe is surprisingly rare. But the humans who do find each other create strange mini-societies among the stars, where they try to find those who are lost and create lives for themselves way out beyond the world that we know. Some even try to find Earth, so they can go home.

The game asks, if such a situation were to occur, what would the society of these dwellers among the stars actually be like? It’s a kind of reconstructed anthropology based on a magical realist premise.

So far… I’m not gonna lie, the results have been stunning. I’m more excited about this project than I have been about anything since I was working on the Exalted hack with a bunch of people on RPGnet. Our new blog is bursting with insane ideas in both the posts and the comments. Putting this all together is going to be a huge undertaking, but the groundwork looks really, really solid.

It’s amazing how versatile d20 can be, actually. I’ve seen some great designers produce really interesting things with it (Mutants & Mastermind, Spycraft, Blue Rose, Freeport), don’t get me wrong, but I have yet to see people try to implement really insane things with it, as different as Continuum or Nobilis or Breaking the Ice. Hopefully the Firmament project will end up being both 1) accessible to traditional roleplaying audiences, because of the familiar chassis, and 2) different enough to really rock the boat a bit.


Wandering through an Endless Palace

September 12, 2007

So, here’s a new way to think about the seed.

Every situation is a tile, a chamber with four doors. It’s the metaphoric place an argument is argued. Each door has a sign, and inside the chamber is a pot of coins. Some chambers have gardens instead, and they don’t have doors or coins, only doorways and wind and water. When you settle a chamber’s argument, it turns into a garden.

You can exit a chamber by passing through one of the doors. To do so, you have to read the sign and produce the emotional key it describes: anger, sacrifice, joy, sadness, whatever. If the sign has nothing written on it, you can decide what to put there. When you leave, put a coin in the pot of coins. The point of this is that it creates emotional inertia in the chamber. Maybe you don’t have to describe your movements unless you are interacting with another character or breaking a door.

You can force a door to which you have no key, but it costs you stars of war, one star for every coin in the pot. This changes the door, inscribes the new emotional key on it based on what you did.

Maybe, if you do what Hungry Darkness wants, you can scatter the pot of coins.

When you pass through a door, you enter the nearest chamber in sight; you can’t pass through a door if you see no chamber. If you enter a garden, you can stop there or you can pass through it, without turning, into the next chamber. But if someone is in the garden, they can stop you, by saying, “Stay and (do something) with me.” Then, you have no choice but to stay, as to go would give affront.

Where do you get your keys? Your hero soul and your pieces-of-god give them to you.


Catharsis, Pact with a Blue Devil, Angola

September 9, 2007

Several interesting things are afoot.

First, after playtesting While You’re Far Away with Josh (for whom I wrote the game originally), I finished up an updated version which will be printed in Elizabeth’s magazine, Catharsis.

Second, I recently agreed to co-develop a crossover hippy/traditional game with Justin D. Jacobson of Blue Devil Games, who may or may not be joining us here at Secret Wars. The idea is to try to bridge the silly internet bullshit about the divide between indie and traditional games by pairing up designers for collaborative projects. I’m pushing for us to use d20 as a base, since I’ve never played it or played with it before, but we’ll see how that develops.

Thirdly, Jason Morningstar has posted yet another game design challenge, which has, I think, goaded me into writing a game about Angola based on Malcolm Craig’s Cold City. This post is becoming a dumping point for my wikipedia research on Angolan history (which I’ve already read a bunch about while researching South Africa for work). Here goes:







Going Retro with New Deliberateness

September 7, 2007

We’ve been talking a lot about the strength of traditional systems lately, the SI group and I. One of the things that we find they do best is, by supplying details, both in setting and in character, they help a play group converge on the same page about events and persons in the game. They help us lock in on a coherent vision, and provide repair routines for when the vision’s consistency suffers. The result is a form of play where formal procedures often recede into the background, being pulled out only when the group agrees they are required for something. I find it to be a really rewarding kind of play.

I’m trying to take what I’ve learned from the Forge school of indie design and import it into this form.

One of the big things I want to touch on in Earth & Sky is the matter of far-flung and far-different cultures, so I wanted to provide a system tool for evoking these. This tool is the Sky: We all live under the same stars, but in different parts of Heaven, the stars are differently arranged.

Each star represents a location of activity – the place for study, the place for eating, the place for cleansing, the place for combat, the place that is refuge, the place of business, and so on. The constellations of each planet describe the planetary culture’s arrangement of their places, and how their skills lie and interrelate.

I’m not sure how to lay out the constellations for the different cultures yet, or how to name the resulting relationships (since we really only have words for them corresponding to cultures that are quite familiar), but I’ll get there.

Sorry for the long delay in posting, by the way. My family has been visiting and it’s been really hectic at work! It’s been a struggle to find the time and the mental energy.


While You’re Far Away

August 31, 2007

Despite my attempts to finish up all these other projects, I have a quick bit of design work and playtesting to finish up in the next week. Shreyas’ friend Elizabeth is organizing a zine called Catharsis, which is filled with creative works of an emotionally cleansing or fulfilling sort. She mentioned that she was looking for more submissions, so I threw out the possibility of including While You’re Far Away (a.k.a. “The Game for Josh’s Girlfriend”). She’s interested, which means I have to finish polishing it up and playtest it… in a week.

Luckily, now that Simon’s set up Snail’s Pace (where Dave and Simon are currently playing Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan actually), we’ve got a great place to playtest it. I figure I’ll see if Josh is interested in playtesting it with me, since he was the inspiration for the game, and then move on to other candidates if he passes. Assuming I can find someone who can post multiple times a day, we should be able to give the fairly minimal rules a good working over.

First thought: the text of the game needs to be more sad and beautiful, reflecting the themes of play. Right now it’s just cold and straight-forward, which helps the clarity without building the right mood.

Second, I’m not sure how much more complicated I want the rules to be. The game is intended to be a very general set of outlines for a freeform game, a much looser version of Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan. So I’ll have to think really hard about whether addition rules will necessarily add to the experience of play.


Story of the Seed Play Kit

August 27, 2007

seed-tiles.jpg I decorated some glass mosaic tiles so we can use them to tell stories of the seed; a gap is opening up in our playtest schedule, so I need supplies for it. The rhinestones turned out, in sunlight, to not really have a lot of fire; I think when I get a chance I will find some better ones at the craft shop and remake these.