May 27th, 2009

HotB

HotB Larp: Contests


In the tabletop game, players settle their scores with risks. Here, in Blood & Tears, we settle things with challenges. There really aren’t any dice or playing cards or any other random number generators. Nope. What we’ve got is spending Style.

The key to the Parlor Game is Style. If you want something to happen in the game, spend a Style and it happens. Want to add a secret door to the room you are in? Spend a Style. Want to say Lord Willford is your uncle? Spend a Style. Jump across rooftops or pick a lock? Spend a Style.

Spending a single Style gets you what you want, regardless of what it may be.

If you modify any existing character or object in the game with a Style Point, you must give the owner of that character or object the Style Point. If he accepts your suggestion, he gets the Style. If he doesn’t, you can either submit or take your Style back or you can issue a challenge. Let’s go through it, step-by-step.

Rule Zero: No Roleplay, No Style

First, an important rule. In fact, it may be the most important rule.

You cannot use Style to replace roleplaying. In other words, if you want to convince another player to act against his better interests, you cannot simply offer Style and be done with it.

If you don’t roleplay a contest, you cannot spend Style.

Let me say that again in bold and italics.

If you don’t roleplay a contest, you cannot spend Style.

If another player tries to give you Style without making an effort to roleplay the reason for spending the Style, you may ignore the entire contest. I give you permission. Now, on to the system.

Step 1: “Is it True?”

First, remember Rule Zero.

Next, if you want to say something is true in the game—that you and another character were once lovers in a younger and more innocent age, that a secret panel exists in the wall, that a library contains a particular book—offer a Style to the appropriate player, explain your suggestion and ask, “Is it true?”

You may offer as much Style as you want: one, two, three, fifteen. Offer all the Style you want.

If your target says, “Yes,” give him the Style you offered and your request is fulfilled.

If your target says, “No,” you have three choices. You can persist, desist or insist.

·        If you persist, you simply offer them more Style, upping your original offer. If your target says, “Yes,” the contest is over.

·        If you desist, you give up the attempt and put your Style pack in your pocket or pouch. The target has said “No” and that’s enough. The contest is done.

·        If you insist, move on to Step 2.

Step 2: “But, I Insist…”

This is where you step up the game. Your target has refused a friendly offer of Style. We now move from Friendly Game to Cut-Throat Game… but only for a moment.

As soon as you say, “But I insist…” any Style spent by any player involved in the contest is lost. No player gets any Style after “But I insist…” is invoked.

The acting player (the one who started the challenge) and the reacting player (the one the challenge is about) both spend Style as they wish. You can wait to see how much Style your opponent is willing to spend to outbid him or you can make an offer of your own.

Whoever spends the most Style has privilege (as per the core game) and may narrate the outcome of the challenge.

Again: all Style spent after players invoke “But I instist…” is lost.

Contest Examples

Desist

I am playing Tomas Yvarai—an infamous rake from ven literature—and Jess is playing “the only honest ven in Shanri.” Jess confronts me about a plot to defame his beloved wife. We roleplay the scene. I insist I had nothing to do with any such plot, but Jess does not look very convinced. I offer Jess a Style: “Is it true that you believe me?”

Jess looks at the Style. “I do not,” he says.

I nod. “Very well,” and put away my Style, not wishing to take the issue any further. If Jess does not believe me, then he does not believe me.

Persist

I am playing Tomas Yvarai—an infamous rake from ven literature—and Jess is playing “the only honest ven in Shanri.” Jess confronts me about a plot to defame his beloved wife. We roleplay the scene. I insist I had nothing to do with any such plot, but Jess does not look very convinced. I offer Jess a Style: “Is it true that you believe me?”

Jess looks at the Style. “I do not,” he says.

Jess has refused, so I persist. I offer another Style—two now. “Are you sure, sir?”

Jess shakes his head.  “I am sure. You have not convinced me.”

I continue to persist. I offer two more Style for a total of four. “Are you sure, sir?”

Jess looks at the Style and nods. “Yes, I have been convinced. You are telling the truth.” Jess accepts the Style and his character believes what I have told him regarding his wife and my part in the plot to humiliate her.

Insist

I am playing Tomas Yvarai—an infamous rake from ven literature—and Jess is playing “the only honest ven in Shanri.” Jess confronts me about a plot to defame his beloved wife. We roleplay the scene. I insist I had nothing to do with any such plot, but Jess does not look very convinced. I offer Jess a Style: “Is it true that you believe me?”

Jess looks at the Style. “I do not,” he says.

Jess has refused, so I persist. I offer another Style—two now. “Are you sure, sir?”

Jess shakes his head.  “I am sure. You have not convinced me.”

I continue to persist. I offer two more Style for a total of four. “Are you sure, sir?”

Jess crosses his arms. “I am unimpressed,” he says.

Okay, I’ve gone through all the offers of Style I’m going to make. Now, I can either desist and give up—leaving Jess’s character unimpressed with my argument—or I can insist and turn this into a real contest.

“But, sir, I insist,” I tell him.

Jess nods—understanding what is about to happen—and we both get our Style together. After this point, any Style Jess and I use to win the contest is lost: we give it to a Narrator.

I put up one Style. Jess puts up two. I put up three. Jess puts up four. I look at my remaining Style and determine I don’t want to spend five, so I say, “Enough.”

Because Jess spent the most Style, he gets privilege and can say whether or not he believes Tomas. Because Jess is Jess, rather than saying “Yes” or “No,” he says, “Tomas’ lies are a bit too clever and I cannot decide whether or not I believe him.”

Dancing Skeletons

D&D 4E

I bought Octane and Inspectres (both available over at Memento-Mori.com) for twenty bucks each. Forty dollars. What I got out of those games was absolutely invaluable.

Jared's keen insight into roleplaying games changed the way I wrote games. He didn't change the way I played or ran games, but he made me realize I could write games the way I ran them.

See, if truth be told, first edition L5R looked absolutely nothing like the way I ran it. My style of Game Mastering has always been very loose. I encouraged player feedback. I seldom, if ever, used dice. In fact, I only ever used dice if I didn't know what should happen next. I gave players NPCs to run on their own, encouraged them to contribute to the world with suggestions and used narrative techniques that would make most roleplayers wig out. In fact, most did wig out until they figured out what was going on, and then, they jumped on board the train and never looked back.

Reading Jared's work taught me that I could write a game with the same philosophies I was using to run them. I could not have done this at AEG. In fact, the staff at AEG was moving closer to a more traditional RPG approach while I was moving in a far less conventional one. I was tired of making compromises in the games, tired of putting in rules that would discourage cheating or wankery, tired of forcing cliches into the world to satisfy D&D tropes.

(Yes, like guys in armor walking around a swashbuckling RPG.)

I met Jared at exactly the right time. I'd just finished Orkworld--my transition game from "big games" to "little games." We had a long talk at a convention about game design and I found him to be insightful, funny and damn scary. Scary because what he was saying made perfect sense, but I didn't understand what he was saying at all. Yes, that's a contradiction. If you've never met Jared, you don't get it. If you have, you understand exactly what I mean.

I listened to him talk, but it wasn't until I actually read what he designed that everything clicked. I really could make games the way I ran them. I really could. And then came the daunting task of trying it.

All of this is leading to a very important topic I've been waiting to discuss for some time. Something I've been holding off until I had exactly the right words. And, strangely enough, a gmail chat with Jared finally gave me the words to say exactly what I mean.

You see, I've had the D&D 4E box set on my shelf for a long time. I read through it. I liked a lot of advice I found in the DM's Guide, but reading it was like walking through a maze of mirrors: it's all things I've seen before. A lot of it read like Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and the dozens of indie games I have on my shelf. Stuff about narrative control, stuff about player empowerment, stuff about spotlight... I mean, yeah. I've seen this before. In fact, I wrote a lot of it for the L5R and 7th Sea GM sections. And I wrote those books a decade ago. I'm glad they put it in the DMG: this may be the first time D&D players ever see it... but I don't think it will affect the way people play D&D at all. I mean, you can give all the narrative advice in the world, but if your game is still about kicking down the door, killing the ork and taking his stuff, that's exactly what players are going to do.

Which brings me to the Player's Handbook.

Reading this book and reading the DMG is a lot like reading two different roleplaying games. One of them rewards killin' shit and the other encourages roleplaying. Now, granted, those two goals are not mutually exclusive, but pay close attention to my wording here. One of them rewards killin' shit and the other encourages roleplaying. The mechanics do not reward slowing down the game to have talking time.

But that isn't what I really want to say about 4E is something a bit different. 4E feels a lot like a summer movie blockbuster to me. A whole lot of flash and not a lot of substance. More than that, though, D&D 4E doesn't move game design forward at all. There isn't anything innovative or new or daring. In fact, the game itself is... what's the right word? 

Oh, yeah. Bland.

When 3E first came out, I said it felt like the design team had been playing Diablo. I'm not the first to say this, but I'll confirm the reports: this version feels like the design team has been playing World of Warcraft. That isn't insight on my part: I'm just confirming it. And that's a symptom of my chief problem with it. The game doesn't feel at all inspired. It feels... adequate.

Adequate. Sufficient. Satisfactory. What's more, it doesn't feel like any fun. Quite simply, there are no risks in the game design. Everything is perfectly safe.

You would think with a ton of money, time and manpower, the most powerful roleplaying game company in the world could design something that was at least a bit more spicy than oatmeal. Now, there's nothing wrong with oatmeal, but nobody eats just oatmeal. You eat what an ex-girlfriend of mine called "oatmeal with..." Oatmeal with honey, oatmeal with sugar, oatmeal with fruit. But this feels like the oatmeal except someone forgot to add the "with."

The real question--the real test--I think, is asking this: "Will this change how gamers play D&D?" The answer, I feel, is "No." They will continue to play the same game, except with different dice tricks. They may as well be playing GURPS or Hero. It's just another generic system designed to produce generic results from a generic fantasy world using the most safe choices possible so they will offend the least number of players.

And that's the part that really disappoints me. I like comparing the Watchmen novel to the Watchmen movie in terms of manpower and money. One of them cost a far less amount of cash, a far less amount of time and a far less amount of resources. The authors had near complete control over the content and the result was a book that's regarded as a classic of human creative endeavor. The other spent a fortune that's the equivalent of the GNP of some countries and produced something... adequate. 

D&D 4E feels like that. Given the same amount of time, money and manpower, I think of what Greg Stafford would have made. Or Robin Laws. Or that punk Jared Sorensen. And, frankly, I get kind of weepy. A game that probably cost more than a million dollars to make and it's just oatmeal. It doesn't suck. It isn't a bad game. It's a good game, in fact. It does exactly what it says it does.

But that's all it does. And, to me, that's just a little sad.