Friday, September 20, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] Some Trouble In This Place

This post does indeed reek of trouble.

If you're one of those poor unfortunates who isn't already familiar with Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, that guy on the right up there, the one speaking trepidatiously about the mere possibility of trouble, is the Barkeep. (He has a name, but it was a fairly recent revelation on the podcast, and I'm embarrassed to admit I don't remember it.) "I don't want no trouble in my place!" is the Barkeep's catchphrase, defining character trait, and probably his concept aspect as well.

So there's no way I'm not using trouble as this hack's term for "damage." So let's talk about damage.

First of all: no stress tracks. Just troubles, which will sub in for consequences in every way that matters. I'm not completely clear yet on how they'll work, but the basic idea is that you have so many trouble boxes, like six. Checking a box reduces a hit by 2 shifts.

But! When you take a hit, you can write down any number of troubles and check any number of boxes for each trouble. For example, if the Binary Kid nails you with a 6-shift hit, you could write down a single trouble, like Broken Ribs, and check three boxes -- or you could take three troubles, like Winded, Embarrassed, and Caught Off Guard, and check one box for each. Either way, you've dealt with all six shifts.

(This is a character sheet design issue: It has to be clear that you can have several troubles, and that each trouble has its own track of boxes, but that you can't have more than six boxes checked at a time.)

So if these work like consequences, why would you ever take three one-box troubles instead of one three-box trouble? Because the fewer boxes a trouble has, the faster it goes away.

  • When you have a moment to breathe, like at the end of a scene, erase one one-box trouble.
  • At the end of some currently unspecified longer period of time, like after a night's sleep or something, do all of these:
    • Erase all  your one-box troubles.
    • Clear one box on each of your troubles that has two or more checked boxes.
  • A trouble can be treated much the same way a consequence can, with a difficulty equal to twice the number of boxes it has.

Now look, I'll admit that this is a little more complicated than consequences as written in Fate Core or FAE, but it's also a little less complicated in that you only have one option for damage mitigation (troubles) instead of two (stress and consequences). In my experience, new players -- my expected audience -- have an easier time with "When you get hit, take a consequence" than they do with "When you get hit, check a stress box or take a consequence, or both, or take two consequences." Plus, I dunno, it seems fun, so I'm going with it.

I also like the flexibility of it, and it makes things like Sparks' make-them-check-another-trouble-box stunt and Croach's clear-an-additional-trouble-box stunt viable and engaging without being difficult to grasp. There are other potential hooks too, like saying that if you take two troubles at once from a physical attack, one of them has to be mental (which is pretty typical of Sparks Nevada characters, who, Cactoid Jim aside, tend to have their share of insecurities). Or maybe a success with style on anything lets you immediately clear a mental trouble box. Just spitballing here -- this whole thing needs more thought, and obviously some refinement of terminology.

Anyway, this looks like the end of the hacking for this hack, but... I guess I'll post a few characters? Next week or something?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] Stunts

I don't have a lot of changes in mind for Thrilling Fate! when it comes to stunts. Hey, if it ain't broke, etc. Really, I only have three guidelines for myself: no more than three per PC (so... three per PC), explicitly tie each one to an aspect, and make them about something other than bonuses.

The first one isn't unusual, especially since I'm using FAE as a base, but I need to emphasize it to myself because lately the characters I've been making usually have a lot more than three stunts' worth of stunts going on. I don't want to give my players too much to look at on the sheet. I picture a really clean layout, with stunts in callout boxes connected to aspects.

I want to connect each one to an aspect to make everything feel that much more interrelated. I like FAE's stunt sentence construction of "Because I'm a whatever, I can do whatever," but if I include an aspect in there, it's a little more smoothly integrated. I think it'll make the idea of the stunt easier to swallow.

And the ideas behind those stunts aren't going to engage with the mechanics quite as directly as they usually would. I mean, look, it's really easy to say "Because I have Robot Fists, I get a +2 to attack with them." That's a totally fine stunt. The issue is that I have no idea how much arithmetic my players are going to tolerate. Even experienced gamers forget the odd +1 or +2 here and there. I don't want any of that going on, because I don't want them to feel distracted by the math, simple though it may be.

The next most common stunt is probably skill substitution -- y'know, "Use Athletics instead of Fight to attack when fighting unarmed" -- but since the total lack of skills here would make those meaningless, that's not really an option.

As I mentioned yesterday, I initially made these characters for an Apocalypse World hack (Thrilling World, I guess?). In that incarnation, each playbook had about three custom moves. So... hey, stunts! AW-style stunts! These are pretty easy to do in Fate.

Here are a couple for Sparks:
  • Because you're the Marshal on Mars, when you're acting in your capacity as a representative of the Mars-Earth Coalition, they can either do as you say or give you a fate point.
  • Because you have Robot Fists, when you punch someone with them, they have to check an extra trouble box.

And here are a few for Croach:
  • Because you are Under Onus to Sparks Nevada, whenever you are in a scene with him, you start with a free boost called Onus.
  • Because of the Sacred Nah Nohtek within you, you heal extremely fast -- clear an additional physical trouble box at the start of every scene.
  • Because of your Martian Physiology, whenever you try to perceive something in your environment, you get a +2 bonus to your roll if you mention how you're using one of your 28 senses in the process.
Right now, you're probably jumping up and down and screaming at me about how I said I wanted to avoid bonus-oriented stunts. That's a perfectly reasonable reaction. I'm okay with them if they look like that last one. It's not a passive bonus that's easy for you to forget; you have to make a roleplaying choice to activate it. As long as nobody has more than one of those, it oughtta be okay.

But hey, what's this "trouble" thing about? It has something to do with this guy:
But what? Find out next time! You can probably guess already!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] Cues and Aspects

So! Self-indulgent tangent time!

I was a music major for a little while -- like, four years -- back in the '90s, during my first go at college. Two years performance, two years composition. I left high school with really no understanding of music theory at all. I mean, I'd taken a fairly informal after-school "class" taught by our band director, but clearly I didn't get a whole lot of actual understanding out of it, because in college, if it was more advanced than basic counterpoint and harmony, it was a struggle for me. (I'm much better now. My ego compels me to say that.)

Anyway, when you learn music theory -- and forgive all this bloviating if you've done just that -- you generally start with Baroque music, and specifically the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (father of PDQ). Baroque music has all kinda rules to follow for it to be "right," and most of it becomes second-nature after a while. Like, avoid parallel motion if you can, and parallel fifths in particular, and this chord wants to resolve this way while that chord wants to resolve that way, and so on. These rules inform all Baroque music, but we study JS Bach because, among other reasons, he's the GOAT.

The thing is, though, Bach and his contemporaries didn't study these rules the way we do. We've reverse-engineered these rules by analyzing their music.

Shift now to game stuff. I've said before that sometimes I see making a game like making a machine: You build it for a specific function, and the more maintenance you have to do on it, the more problematic it is. From this perspective, houserules are maintenance. Relying on the players to ignore problems or exploits because they "get it" is maintenance. I want to be able to send a game out into the world and have it work for everyone else the same way it works for me.

In this case, I want a game/machine that, if you input players and characters, and everyone follows the rules, it produces a Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars story. But a Sparks Nevada story is a lot more than whiz-bang action and shoot-'em-ups. Those things, in fact, usually have very little prominence. There's probably only one fight, often even just one shot fired, in an average episode. While it looks like an action-adventure story, it's way more character-focused than you might expect. What keeps me coming back is the characters and the way they relate to one another. If a Sparks Nevada game can't produce something like that, whether or not the players know the source material, it's not much of a Sparks Nevada game, if you ask me.

One of my favorite nudge-them-into-roleplaying mechanics is The Shadow of Yesterday's (and Lady Blackbird's) keys (called milestones in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying). A few weeks ago at Gateway I ran a Saturday-night Firefly-ish Spelljammer game using the Fantasy Heroic rules from the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide, and coming up with the pre-gens' milestones was integral to getting those characters "right." I loved that the goblin mechanic could earn XP simply by complaining about the ship, or that the Githyanki monk could do the same by offering up a cryptic aphorism. These have nothing to do with complicating the character's life or even spotlight time, really. It's just offering the player roleplaying cues.

The thing I love most about keys is that when you use them correctly, you may feel (as I did) like you're abusing the system, or getting away with something. But you're not! It's a trick. All you're really doing is playing your character to the hilt, because you're incentivized with small, immediate rewards for injecting personality and color into the story.

In other words, it's a perfect mechanic for Sparks Nevada. I want Sparks to be annoyed with Croach, or announce that he's... from Earth. Likewise, I want Croach to inform Sparks of an increase or reduction in onus owed, or to drop vaguely unsettling comments about his egg sacs or multiple esophageal tracts. To me, these fly under the aspect compel's radar, primarily because they're lousy, weaksauce compels. They don't get the characters in trouble in any way. They're fun, but hardly worth a fate point. But it's these little character moments that give the show its, well, character. And for a hack like this, that's absolutely vital.

These are essentially keys, but I'm calling them cues, partially because I'm treating them a little differently, and partially (largely) because I'm writing for my intended audience, whom I figure will more easily parse "cue" than "key."

Every PC has three cues: two Scene cues, and one Episode cue. You can hit a Scene cue once per scene, and an Episode cue but once per episode/session. When you hit a Scene cue, refresh one aspect. When you hit an Episode cue, refresh up to three.

(I'm not 100% on the Episode cue's benefit there. You'll only use it in one of two circumstances: you desperately need to refresh multiple aspects and don't have a lot of time to do it, or you've already used your Scene cues this scene and are just using your Episode cue out of necessity to refresh fewer than three aspects. The right way to do this will depend on how exhausting an aspect ends up working, as I mentioned in yesterday's post. Maybe a better option would be "Refresh an aspect and gain a fate point." Dunno. The point is, the reward is getting to exhaust an aspect again for a +3, which is something we want people doing anyway because it calls attention to various facets of their characters in dramatically appropriate circumstances. That's not cheating or working the system; it's being bribed to play up your character's personality, which leads to a fun, memorable game. Everyone wins.)

So maybe these are Sparks' cues:

  • Scene: Act annoyed with Croach.
  • Scene: Call attention to how great you are.
  • Episode: At a dramatically appropriate moment, justify your course of action by reminding everyone that you're... from Earth.
And maybe these are Croach's:
  • Scene: Tell another PC your onus owed to them (or vice-versa) has just increased or decreased owing to something that just happened in the story.
  • Scene: Make specific reference to some bizarre feature of your Martian physiology, or humans' lack of same.
  • Episode: Rank a sensation. For example, "This is the fourth-worst pain I have ever endured" or "Your face is the seventh-most pleasing face I have ever beheld."
In other words, this is just reverse-engineering mechanics based on an "analysis" of (i.e., "re-listening to") episodes of the show itself. And hopefully, those mechanics will successfully create a play experience that feels like a Sparks Nevada story. For example, It's a rare episode in which Sparks doesn't pull the "I'm... from Earth" thing, but he doesn't run around saying it all the time, either. However, bickering with Croach? Calling (totally justified) attention to himself? Pretty common behaviors for the Marshal on Mars.

Next time: messing with stunts!

Related but non-Fate P.S.: BTW, my first whack at a Sparks Nevada game is based on Apocalypse World. There, cues get you either 1 XP or 3 XP. This essentially replaces stat highlighting as the main route to advancement.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

[Thrilling Fate!] Getting Started

So here's what's going on. I'm probably going to do a few posts about this thing, so consider this the intro.

I may have an opportunity to run a game for a bunch of non-gamers whose work I very much admire, and (more importantly) who I want to make sure have a really good time with their first RPG experience. Some of them may have RPG experience, actually, but I'd be really surprised if it were recent at all.

Anyway, so my first thought is naturally to use Fate, because it's second nature to me and I've already introduced more first-timers to Fate than I can count. But because I want to make any barriers to entry as low as possible, my next thought was to use Fate Accelerated, because it's rad.


This PCs for this game would be specific, well-established characters, characters with whom the prospective players are very familiar. And frankly, the default approaches in FAE don't really fit all that well. I could easily replace them with new adjectives, adverbs, or nouns that fit the property better, but not even that would really do the trick. Ranking these characters by how clever, forceful, or sneaky each one is just doesn't feel right. It feels too confining, and it doesn't put enough emphasis on what makes these characters really interesting. It's too... objective, I guess.

Plus, because of the whole new-to-RPGs angle, I want to cut down on how many things they'll have to look at on the sheet. So I decide to to cut out approaches altogether and concentrate on aspects. (Almost everything from here on out is a little weird.)

You have five aspects. Each aspect has a box next to it. When you roll the dice, if you have an aspect that seems helpful, you can check its box to exhaust it and give you a +3 bonus to the roll. You can only exhaust one aspect per roll, but you can invoke other aspects (the usual way) for a further +1 each.

(Maybe it'd be per roll, maybe it'd be for the scene. I'm not sure yet.)

What this means is that instead of having a predetermined menu of bonuses with attendant contexts, you'd choose as you go what's important right now. Any aspect is potentially a free +3; it's just a matter of deciding which one. It's a bit like Cortex Plus's distinctions.

For example, here are the aspects for, I dunno, some random character:

  • Marshal on Mars
  • Robot Fists
  • Justice Rides a Rocket Steed
  • Righting Outlaw Wrongs
  • Emotionally Unavailable
So if you're chasing down an outlaw, you might exhaust Justice Rides a Rocket Steed, or Righting Outlaw Wrongs or Marshal on Mars. If you're punching out that outlaw, you could turn to your Robot Fists. If someone's trying to talk you into committing to a relationship, which does happen from time to time, and you're resisting, which happens all the time, exhaust Emotionally Unavailable to put up the wall.

Of course, all of these aspects can be invoked and compelled as usual. Situation aspects work the same way: exhaust, invoke, or compel.

But how do you clear those checked boxes? How do you refresh these aspects so they can be used again? Find out next time!