Game Chef 2018 Finalist Entry – Cardenio

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It’s another catch-up entry. This time, I’m going to focus on my entry for Game Chef 2018, “Cardenio.” I was delighted to see that it made it to the finals. I’m going to repost it here in its entirety, but this time it’ll have director’s commentary.


First, what is Game Chef? (No connection to Uranium Chef)

cropped-game-chef-header-1

From their website:

History – Game Chef is an annual design competition for “analog” (non-electronic) games, challenging participants to write a playable draft of an original game in just over one week, based on a theme and a set of “ingredients.”

This was this year’s theme:

2018 Theme: Lost Stories

People have been telling stories for as long as our species has been around, but the vast majority were not recorded, and have been lost to us. For example, Aeschylus’s play Psychostasia (Weighing of the Souls) was popular when it was performed in the fifth century BCE. But today, only three words (blunt, speedwalking, and sheepskin) remain. Games are a major source of lost stories today. A single game may generate thousands of stories as it is played by different groups. But the adventures of the characters at the table usually disappear as they happen unless the players make a special effort to record their session.

This year, we ask you to think about the concept of lost stories as you design your game. Why are some stories lost, and others are not? How are we affected when stories are lost? Might losing certain stories be a good thing? What would happen if we recovered a story we had thought was lost?

2018 Ingredients: blunt, speedwalking, sheepskin, weigh

And now, the entry:


 

CARDENIO –

by Dave Seidman-Joria

DJ: If the name looks slightly different, it’s because I recently got married.

A game of choosing sides for 4-12 players

Premise – Players will be crafting a Shakespeare-inspired play one scene at a time. In any given scene, one player will be restricted in what answers they provide.

Backstory – Of all the plays Shakespeare wrote, only 37 have survived. However, scholars are delighted by the recent discovery of a chest containing the script to Shakespeare’s 38th play:  the missing work Cardenio

DJ: This is actually based on a real story: there was a lost play called Cardenio, which at least one publisher attributed to being co-written by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Scholars have no idea what the plot is, but a. Cardenio is the name of a character in Don Quixote, b. Fletcher liked stealing plots from Cervantes, and c. Shakespeare liked stealing plots from… well, everyone… it could have been the TALE OF DON QUIXOTE RETOLD WITH SHAKESPEARE’S WIT. To find out more, read the Wikipedia page. Also, to read a fictional account of what it might have included, Jasper Fforde included some snippets in his novel, “Lost in a Good Book” (I can’t recommend the series enough.)

However, it is not a complete script; the chest contains only a selected number of “sides” (i.e. the lines for a specific character). The surviving sides were written for the notoriously picky actor Devin Twinshire, who insisted that all his sides be written on durable sheepskin parchment (while all the other sides, written on paper, have since crumbled). Devin was a versatile actor; he seemed to have played a number of characters in multiple different scenes, and thus we have the lines for at least one character per scene.

DJ: Devin is fictional. I don’t know for a fake if sheepskin/vellum is more durable than paper, more of a sneaky way to include the “sheepskin” ingredient. However, in the days before mimeographs, to save time, the production time would give actor papers that had only their own lines and cues. So, the idea that only ONE actor’s part would survive is not unheard of. This was also an anti-theft tactic, as copyright laws were law or nonexistent at the time. Case in point, the Quarto 1 edition of Hamlet is a paraphrased mess, likely pirated with the help of the actor playing Marcellus (as his lines are the only accurate ones in the piece!)

MATERIALS

  •         Notecards
  •         Paper
  •         Writing utensils
  •         Safe, Blunt Weapons (ex. foam swords)
  •         Costumes / Props / Hats
  •         An area of free space (designated as “the stage”)

THE SET-UP

Before starting the game, prepare the document that one of the actors will be reading from; this is called the Sheepskin. To create this, do the following:

Make a set of cards with, the following:

  •         3 x “Yes, and…”
  •         1 x “Nay, because…”  
  •         1x “I propose…”
  •         1 x “Let me be blunt…”

DJ: In improv fashion, you want to have more “Yes” than “no”; if you had equal number of yes and nos, the action would constantly be one step forward, one back.  “I propose” gives the Sheepskin holder a chance to act instead of merely react. “Let me be Blunt” is a vague one that gives the performer more flexibility, but also leads easily into a revelation, an insult, or the closing of a scene, any of which can make the action move along.

On a sheet of paper, write 1 on the first line, 2 on the second line, and so on, until you reach 19.  

Shuffle the 6 cards, and reveal the top card, and write what it says on the first line. (Ex. If the first card you draw says, “Nay because…”, write “Nay because…” on line 1 of the sheet.)

Continue drawing the six cards and writing out the lines until the stack of cards is depleted (which should be after line 6). Next, shuffle the cards, and continue drawing and transcribing (writing lines 7-12). Shuffle again after line 12, transcribe 13-18.

On line 19, and write the stage direction “[Speedwalking],” and add the phrase, “Make haste, for…”

As an example, here is a premade script.

  1. I Propose…
  2. Yes, and …
  3. Yes, and …
  4. Let me be blunt …
  5. Nay, because…
  6. Yes, and…
  7. Let me be blunt …
  8. I Propose…
  9. Nay, because…
  10. Yes, and…
  11. Yes, and…
  12. Yes, and…
  13. Yes, and…
  14. Nay, because…
  15. Let me be blunt …
  16. I Propose…
  17. Yes, and…
  18. Yes, and…
  19. [Speedwalking] Make haste, for…

DJ: If you only have note cards and no long sheets of paper, I theorize you could do it with only 6 notecards Personally, I would want it to be a bit more organic; once you’re in the flow of the story, you don’t want to shuffle cards around. Also, it’s easier to gauge when the scene is over, and to pace yourself.

Lastly, create a small set of scene cards. These consist of a Beginning Scene card, an Final Scene card, and any number of middle scene cards.

Beginning Scene: In which someone complains about a problem.

Final Scene: In which someone is married or someone dies.

We encourage players to create their own middle scene cards, even so far as penciling their own 3 seconds before a scene. Here are some suggestions:

  •         In which a bond is formed / bond is broken.
  •         In which a new problem is introduced / old problem escalates.
  •         In which a plan is created.
  •         In which an existing plan is executed or people try to thwart a plan.
  •         In which a lie is told.
  •         In which 2+ people fight over something they both want.

On a separate sheet, have players collaborate on a cast of 5-10 characters (at least one per player, with a few spare). Each character consists of a Name and a few words of description (ex. attitude, status, connection to another character). Here is a premade sheet:

  •         Cardenio –  Mercurial son of a noble
  •         Hossberry – Cardenio’s greedy servant
  •         Lucinda – Innocent and beloved maiden
  •         Don Fernando – Young Duke and rival for Lucinda’s affection
  •         Theodora – Don Fernando’s pragmatic ex-fiancée
  •         Don Xavier – A senile but virtuous old knight
  •         Sadwell – Don Xavier’s lazy peasant squire
  •         Signor Claudius – Cardenio’s loving but ambitious father
  •         Servant / Messenger – Any number of servants, messengers, and various nameless helpers.

DJ: Cardenio, Lucinda, Don Fernando, and Theodora are all straight out of Don Quixote, along with their mixed up love triangle. Don Xavier and Sadwell are my nods to Quixote and Sancho, albeit with their names changes (as Willy Shakes would likely do). Hossberry and Claudius are new characters, based on stock characters Shakespeare used a lot.

(If players want, they can create name tags for each character as they switch in and out – a notecard and a binder clip is often all you need. Alternatively, assign a specific costume piece, like a character or a scarf to each character.)

GAME PLAY

Gameplay is taken one scene at a time. A scene consists of one two or more players each picking a character and acting in that scene as that character. In any given scene, one of the players uses the Sheepskin (we recommend that Cardenio carry it in the first scene). This player is called the sheepskin-holder.

Using the Sheepskin: Players who are not holding the sheepskin may act and talk like normal, acting out the scene as their character without restrictions. (They are not required to speak in full Shakespearen verse, but the occasionally “thee” and “thy” does spice things up.)

The sheepskin-holder will act the scene with them, but is restricted in what they say; each of their lines* must start with the same words as the corresponding line on the page.

[*Note: For the sake of this game, a “line” consists of a sentence of any length, and any immediately following sentences. A line ends when the speaker pauses for a period of a few seconds, or another player says something.]

  •         Ex. If the first line on the sheepskin is, “1. I Propose…,” the player must start their first spoken sentence with, “I propose,” and continue on with the sentence. After they  are done talking, the sheepskin-holder moves their finger to the next number on the sheet; it says, “2. Yes, and ….” The next time the sheepskin-holder speaks a line, they must start by saying, “Yes, and…”

It is important that the sheep-skinner holder doesn’t just say “Yes, and” and stop abruptly. They are required to continue the line to best of their ability. This happens in several ways, depending on the line.

  •         “Yes, And” –  If the line starts with, “Yes, and…” they must add something new, such as a new idea or an escalation of the current idea.

Ex. Player 1: The duke is the worst.

Cardenio: Yes, and… we should rise up against him!

Player 1: Woah! Are you mad?

Cardenio: Yes, and… will be intentionally drive myself madder still, so that the duke will be afraid to face me!

  •         “Nay, because…” – The character will reveal why they are against a notion. (Although, it is best if the player can include in their line a condition which, if met, they would agree to.)

Ex. Player 1: Are you going to propose to Lucinda?

Cardenio: Nay, because… there is no way she would agree to marry such a man as I, without any fortune.

Player 1: Hmm. What if I told you there was a fast way to make you rich?

  •          “I propose…” – The sheepskin-holder must do their best to introduce a new idea. (Or in the case of a romantic scene, they might literally propose to another character!)
  •         “Let me be blunt…” – The sheepskin-holder’s character must reveal their true feelings. This may, of course, risk of offending another character (this is actually recommended, as hurt feelings lead to interesting scenes!)

ENDING A SCENE

The scene continues until the sheepskin-holder reaches the last line on his sheet, #19.

  •         19. “Make haste, for…” –  At this line, they explain where people are going, why they must hastily leave (speedwalking), and what they will attempt to do between the scenes.

Ex. “Make haste, for … we have only hours before the wedding starts, and we must prepare our disguises!”

Starting the next scene:

The players will then return to the stage and present another scene. The sheepskin is handed off to someone else.

  •         No player should have the sheepskin two scenes in a row.
  •         No character will have the sheepskin two scenes in a row. (I.e. if players are switching characters).
  •         The player either starts again on Line 1, or picks a random line between 1 and 4 to start with.

Other rules to keep in mind when starting the new scene:

  •         If some players sat out during the first scene, make sure to trade out as many players as possible.
  •          Be sure to switch out or add a new character from one scene to the next.
  •         It is recommended to have only 2-4 characters in a scene at time (unless you are presenting the Final Scene, or players are representing a mass of people, like an angry mob or a pirate crew).

Additional Rules:

Improv Rules Apply – Improv Theatre rule applies, particularly:

  •         Once a fact is established, it is true; other players cannot deny it or instantly remove it (Ex. If a character declares another character is sick with the vapors, the other character truly has the vapors.)
  •         Players should work together to further a cooperative story, rather than focus on their own ideas argue or “waffle” over story directions. (The only one allowed to say “no” to ideas is the sheepskin holder, who is sometimes required to by the script!)
  •         And most importantly, RESPECT SAFETY AND CONSENT – Even if you are in character, respect other players before grabbing or touching them. Even when fighting with blunt, foam weapons, be careful of people’s faces. If any player calls to stop, all players should immediately stop.

Q1. Can the sheepskin-holder skip lines?
A1. No,* they must read through each line. If it makes no sense (i.e. they argue to something, and then disagree, and then agree again), then it is best to play it off as indecision, or via asides (see below).

Q2. Can the sheepskin-holder telegraph what their next line is?
A2. No!* It’s more fun if the scene partners have no clue what the sheepskin-holder’s next response will be.

*The Exception – The only times that sheepskin-holder can skip lines or telegraph lines is with the LAST line in the scene, i.e. “19. Make haste, for…”

  •         Skipping – if the sheepskin-holder feels like the scene is over (i.e. something interesting has happened that furthers the story, and there’s a lag in the conversation), they can skip to last line, “19. Make haste, for…”, bringing the scene to an early close.
  •         Telegraphing – if the sheepskin-holder has reached the end of the sheet, but the scene is still continuing, they can give the other players a sign to wrap up the scene. The sheepskin-holder should give the other players about a minute to finish their thoughts and wrap up any loose ends before providing the, “Make haste, for…” line, officially closing the scene.

Switching Characters – Players are allowed to switch characters out in-between scenes (and even during them, sometimes). However, we recommend that once a player portrays a character in a scene, no other players can portray that character for the rest of the scene (without that player’s insistence).

Sarcasm – The Sheepskin-holder has to agree with every line in the sheepskin. It is possible that a player may want to use sarcasm, (i.e. saying, “yes, and…” but in such a way that they really MEAN “no.”) This is definitely allowed, but we encourage players not to rely on this too heavily; part of the fun is going with the crazy script, rather than undermining it. A good way to regulate this is the “Sassy Friend” rule below.

  •         The Sassy Friend rule – if a character ends up using sarcasm a LOT in a scene (ex. for at least a third or a half of their lines), allow them to officially add the description “Sarcastic” to the character’s description. (Ex. “Lucinda – Innocent and beloved AND SARCASTIC maiden”). This allows the character to use sarcasm without any restriction. However, the number of players/characters who are allowed to be “Sarcastic” is limited; this can be capped at one Sarcastic character per player, or 2-3 Sarcastic characters total. Once the cap is reached, no other characters can use sarcasm at all.

Note: Only the sheepskin-holder is cautioned against using sarcasm. The other players may use as much as they want.

Asides – The sheepskin dictates what the character openly agrees to during the scene; however, it doesn’t always dictate what the character is actually thinking. We recommend that the holder of the Sheepskin be encouraged to speak to the audience, providing thoughts that the other characters cannot hear; this is called in theatre and “aside.” In an aside, a character can explain their true feelings, and explain away any discrepancies in the character’s objectives and the dialogue.

  •         Ex. The duke Don Fernando proposes to Cardenio that they murder Cardenio’s father (and Cardenio loves his father dearly). Cardenio notices his next line is “Yes, and ___”, which the actor feels doesn’t make sense. Before Cardenio reads off the next scripted “yes” and offers to go along with the plan, Cardenio says in an aside to the audience, “I’ll play along with them for now, until I know more of their plot.” Players can also give asides AFTER a line, to justify retroactively.
  •         Note: Any player may give asides, not just the sheepskin-holder.

Combat and Death – Characters can die in the middle of the play (that’s what the blunt weapons are for!) However, the following rules apply:

  •         All fights must begin with a declaration, such as, “Have at thee,” or a similar call to action. The challenger must give the challenged player ample time to obtain and draw a weapon. Any character who attacks another without such a challenge (Ex. stabs someone in the back) can still emerge victorious, but their character will be brandished a coward and a treacherous knave by all other characters.
  •         Players should talk while fighting with foam weapons. Combat is over once of the players mutually decide which should be injured; this is normally signaled by a player intentionally leaving themselves open to an attack for an extended period, or “piercing” themselves on their opponent’s blade.
  •         If players disagree over which character should die in a fight, have them play rock-paper-scissors to decide who lives and who dies. If a fight goes on for more than a minute, any player (not just those fighting), can proclaim, “Finish it,” forcing the players to move to rock-paper-scissors.
  •         Players can kill each by other means (such as poison), but they must declare they have poisoned an item in an aside BEFORE someone consumes it. Players can only consume a poisoned item with their consent (NO FORCE FEEDING).
  •         Multiple characters may die in a single scene. However, each PLAYER may only initiate one death per scene (except for the Final scene). Similarly, we recommend capping the total number of deaths to a total of X, where X is the number of players, at least until the Final scene. (This does not include nameless servants, who can die by the droves).
  •         If a character is poisoned or mortally wounded, they are not required to stop talking; they can talk, just like any healthy character, until the end of the scene or until they choose to die, whichever comes first.
  •         If a player has one of their character’s die (outside of the Final scene), they may create a new character. Before starting the next scene, take a small break to give time for the player to create a new character; they have first dibs on playing it. Alternatively, the player may have their character come back as an incorporeal ghost, and can choose which characters can and cannot hear the apparition!

The Final Scene 

Once enough scenes have been played out (generally between 4-10), the players should agree whether or not to begin the Final scene. Once the majority of players are in consensus, it begins.

A few reminders and a few new rules:

  •         All players should be included to be in the scene – however, we recommend only 3-5 players start the scene. After the first few minutes, the rest of the players will trickle in a few at a time.
  •         By the end of the Final scene, a character will be married or a character will die (maybe one of each!) However, no one may be killed or married until all players have had a chance to come into the scene.
  •         If the sheepskin-holder reaches line 19, they still cry, “Make Haste!”; however, if it doesn’t make sense for the scene to end, or not all players have been included in the scene yet, the scene is not over and no one permanently exits. Instead:

o   The current sheepskin-holder explains in character why time is short; all characters must pick up the pace and go faster.

o   The sheepskin-holder then gives the sheepskin to another player.

  •         Players may also exchange the sheepskin any number of times during the scene; they are not required to reach the last line but must read at least one line before giving it to another person. When handing off the script, the old holder may take no more than 3 seconds to show the next player where they left off in the script. If the new player cannot find the exact spot within 3 seconds, the new player must pick a new spot at random. (This discourages halting the scene to a stop after every switch).

Epilogue

After the game is over, each player should record one line that they remember from the game on a notecard; do not provide any context. The game owner should keep these lines with the rules as a memento (perhaps to add to a future Sheepskin).


 

There you have it, “Cardenio” is all of its glory! I have yet to playtest it, but I look forward to trying it soon. When I do, I’ll try to document it thoroughly and share it here.

Have you tried any Shakespeare or Improv inspired games? Let us know!

 

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RPGaDAY – Round-up!

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RPG-a-Day 2018 (1)

This is long overdue (been very busy playing the lead in a local production of Sweeney Todd), so I thought I’d finish Week 3 & 4 in a single post.

Day 15: Describe a tricky RPG Experience that you enjoyed:
The trickiest I can think of is when I ran a playtest of Dungeon Tours, LTD at TCEP, and while I was setting up, I caught the attention of a younger kid. I’d guess barely nine or ten. He was curious about everything, couldn’t sit still, and constantly jabbering away about everything – you know, all of the same annoying traits that I definitely possessed as a kid. I felt having him in the game might impact the experience for other adult players, but I really hate not being included in things myself. So, while I didn’t ENCOURAGE him to join, I didn’t discourage him neither, and he jumped in.

He was a little distracting while he was in, but we yes-anded none the less. About 90 minutes in, he wandered off to another con room. We carried on without him (we treated his character as an aspect that could be invoked). An hour later, he came back in, took a look at the board.

Me: (filling him in) He’s falling for it so far.
Kid: Oh. Good!

The kid runs off again, glad to know his team is doing great.

I wish I could say the kid made amazing contributions and that it was the best, most original gaming experience of my life. Rather, I think those that stuck around had fun, and I hope the kid had some too.


DAY 16: Plans for your Next Game

Well, the next game I’m RELEASING is “Dungeon Tours, LTD” (coming soon to Kickstarter.

https://tatabletop.com/dungeon-tours-ltd/

However, the next new game that I want to release is based on +Richard Williams‘s theatre experience: basically, a super-loose, rules light LARP / RPG inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” with bits of “The Tempest” and “As You Like It” thrown in.

Basically, the plan is to have the players create a brand new, improvised Shakespeare fantasy-pastoral comedy. I have about 75% of the rule book done, and can’t wait to playtest it.

dtl cover_web

And now, a preview of the cover!


Day 17: What is the best compliment you’ve received while gaming?

I react to compliments by squirming, and so I generally don’t remember specific things that have been said.

I guess the best general compliment I can think of is how amazingly supportive the Fate Community has been of my first work, Masters of Umdaar. People continue to say the warmest things about it, and I blush every time. The one that gets me the most is that they call it a great “gateway” into Fate or RPGs in general. Also, players will commonly say, “It reminds me of [a movie or show],” citing one of the very stories that inspired it.

I’m flattered to be part of the team that brought it into existence.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/155458/Masters-of-Umdaar-o-A-World-of-Adventure-for-Fate-Core


18. What art inspires your game?
This is a little bit of a shameless plug, but I’m going to have to go with my sister, Monica Marier, who is also the lead artist for our group Tangent Artists. To explain why, a little context: a few years ago, I pitched to Monica the idea of doing a comic about life and love in a superhero world. It didn’t really appeal to her, but she did love a group of supporting characters I had mentioned. It wasn’t the normal heroes, it was the weird, creepy undead “other” team that handled the oddball cases; they were the Skeleton Crew, who were like the Doom Patrol meets Hellboy. She is a trained artist with a decade of experience doing comics and illustrations, but this was her first real “creepy” comic. It turns out she’s a natural for it. Her creations are dark and inspiring, to the point that I always wanted to jump in deeper and learn more and more about this crazy world.
Eventually, this lead to me wanting to do an RPG set in the Skeleton Crew universe. (It’s not coming any time soon, I’m afraid, but it’s comings. It’s one of those “Magnus Opuses” that sits on the backburner until the perfect time.)
But some day, I’ll create something so fantastic that she’ll want to do the art for it; and thus, hopefully the cycle will continue.

http://tangentartists.com/skeletoncrew.html


19. What music enhances your game?
I typically don’t music when I PLAY a game. I do know that what I wrote Uranium Chef, my favorite Spotify playlist consisted of Background music from “Iron Chef America,” “Flash Gordon,” and the newest “Tron” movie. It helped remind to keep tension, but with various moods; there’s a difference between slow-building tension and the last-minute rush.
Typically, I have trouble writing over music that has a large among of lyrics; thus, techno music, Celtic instrumentals, and songs in other languages (ex. Gipsy Kings) tend to dominate my writing playlists.


20. What game mechanic inspires your play the most?
The game mechanic that I’ve latched on to the most is Fate Core’s “aspect” mechanic. You could play Fate without aspects, but you’d essentially have a weak, generic RPG that you’ve likely seen a hundred times before.
What aspects do is bridge the gap between the abstract world of language and concepts, and the tactile, grounded world of mechanics. Other games can achieve this, of course, with intense mods, new charts, or add-on supplemental guides, but Fate can achieve the same result in SECONDS.
Now, I’m a little behind on my Fate mechanics (I haven’t read Dresden Accelerated, Fate Adversary, or Fate Horror yet), but I feel that fate aspects are ideal for two types of scenarios:
a. The Improvised Weapon / Destructible Environment – Aspects let players improvise their way through a scene, turning random props on the wall into weapons, or swinging off chandeliers like swashbucklers. It creates rich, exciting, and cinematic environment. I often advise to new Fate GMs, “every room should be a playground.”
b. Additive – Aspects work particularly well when they are used to represent a creative process, as the character’s creative actions literally create something on the table (or at least a notecard describing this thing.) This is why I was inspired to make Uranium Chef an actual game (which involves creating meals), as well as our soon to be released Dungeon Tours, Ltd, which involves creating fake monsters and traps for your dungeon.


21. What dice mechanic appeals to you?
This isn’t a dice mechanic from an RPG, but it still stuck with me none-the-less.
It was actually from an old, Sci-Fi football boardgame that I bought on clearance; I think it was called Battleball. It came with a lot of dice and cheap minis, so I thought, “why not?”
But there were some brilliant ideas in it. Each type of player had a specific die: the big blockers had a 1D6s, the medium sized guys various from 1D8s to 1D12, while the fast runners had 1D20s. These dice determined speed AND combat.
When moving, you roll, and the move up to the number of spaces – (i.e. higher die is better).
When in combat, you roll, and the player with the LOWER score wins (i.e. lower die is better).
It is such a beautifully elegant system. You don’t need stats, charts, or algorithms – it merely takes the simple dice type and fills it with personality and a sort of specialization.


22. What non-dice system appeals to you?
I have yet to play it, but I would LOVE to play Dread one of these days. The Jenga – ahem*sorry, NOT Jenga*ahem. The DREAD block tower is such a brilliant design that I can’t wait to try it out sometime.


23. What game do you hope to play again?

At some point, I want to play Dungeon World again. I ran in once for my friends, but never felt I really got the hang of it. I felt like I was always one round away from having something “click,” but it never did.


24. What RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

An unsung game that I wish was back in the limelight is Teenagers from Outer-Space. As a youth, I bought the rulebook (specifically with the amazing art of the 1997 edition, reminiscent of Rumiko Takahashi’s “Urusei Yatsura / Lum” series). I’ve never had a chance to run it, but it seems the perfect mix of low-stakes cartoonish silliness combined with the infinite possibilities of sci-fi. If I had a million bucks to relaunch and/or reprint any old RPG, this would be it.


25. Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year.

Last November, I had the pleasure of playtesting Paul Stefko’s game Chromeshoe, a cyberpunk setting for Gumshoe. I had be curious about Gumshoe for a while, and this was my friend real exposure. It reminds me a lot of Fate 2.0 (in that it is very collaborative and player focused, but more bookkeeping than Fate Core or FAE). I have a dream project that I suspected Gumshoe would be a good fit for, and playing it only confirmed my suspicion.

Find out more about Paul’s work and how to support it at his patreon
https://www.patreon.com/PaulStefko


26. Your gaming ambition for the next year.

HAHAHAHAHAHA. Man, this could be a lengthy answer. Some projects I hope to accomplish:

Kickstart “Dungeon Tours, LTD.”; finish and publish “Haunted Grove”; Start work on Umdaar Sequel. This does not include any boardgame projects, which I am equally ambitious / psychotic about.


27. Share a great stream / actual play
I don’t listen to many, but I have heard a little of Rag-Nerd-rok when I discovered they have a whole lot of Fate and Umdaar sessions.

http://ragnerdrok.com/

(Edit as of 11/2018: And I just learned Stumpt ran a series of actual plays for “Uranium Chef.” There are a few small errors regarding how to play Fate, it’s far too entertaining for me to care.)

 


28. Share whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for.
(That is a sentence that’s hard to decipher.)

I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but this last year, I was really impressed with the new RPG “Bluebeard’s Bride,” designed by Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson. I really am glad that the community is seeing more non-male authors, and works that explore different narratives. (For example, Bluebeard’s Bride is definitely reminiscent of Women’s Gothic Literature.)


29. Friendship you’ve made;
In the last year, I’ve definitely enjoyed talking on G+ with +Don Bisdorf, +Jon Freeman, and +Brie Sheldon. I don’t know if they consider me friends, but I’m grateful for the company.


30. Learned about playing your character
Not. A. Thing. Ignorance is bliss.


31. Why take part in RPGaDay?
I wanted to challenge myself with a daily deadline and see if I could keep it. (Didn’t quite meet the daily quota, but I made it by the wire for all 31). I used to do NaNoWriMo, and I enjoy a writing challenge with a deadline. My work doesn’t tend to be as good, but writing on a time-table is a kind of muscle; it needs exercise to keep it in shape.

Well, that was all 31! Hope you enjoyed!

7 THOUGHTS ON RPGS – RPGADAY 2018 – Week 2

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Here’s the second week of posts from RPGaDay, consolidated into one place.

RPG-a-Day 2018 (1)

Day 8: How Can We Get More People Playing?

0. Obviously, there are steps that can be taken like “community outreach” and coordinating with your local stores and meetup (organization isn’t my strong suit, so I’ll focus on what I do know).

1. One-shots are your friends – Don’t be afraid of one shot adventures with pre-gen characters. Several reasons:
a. it skips right to the the fun.
b. These make it more easily run with strangers at game nights or conventions.
c. Sometimes people can’t commit to a campaign, or are afraid to commit. A one-shot still lets them enjoy in small doses (and who knows, maybe they’ll get hooked.)
d. Instead of a campaign, think of early adventures as a series of continuous one-shots. This will mean more work carefully crafting the adventure, but if each session has a complete beginning, middle and end in which the players achieved something significant, the experience will be far more satisfactory, and they’ll be more likely to return.

2. Keep it Simple – this may mean using less complex rules systems for brand new players (Fate, Dungeon World, diceless), but can also mean avoiding complex characters (ex. difficult to happen spellcasters,) steering absolute rookies to easier classes, or just fudging the rules a little at the beginning (ex. if an ability is available once per rest period, maybe make it once per fight instead). You can always play rules lawyer later.


Day 9: How has a game surprised you?

I think the number one surprise I’ve received from an RPG was when I first read +Chris Longhurst‘s “Gods and Monsters”. The very idea that you could play a GOD was unheard of. If I had been tasked with such a thing, I would imagine I’d spend pages defining the many things players are NOT allowed to do, restrictions on power in order to keep things “balanced.”

But as written, “Gods and Monsters” is the ultimate test of the improve rule “yes, and.” There is literally no limit to what a character can do, so long as it fits their character and their narrative. Create a continent? Sure. Forge a second sun? Why not?! Sculpt and entire species of sentient beings out of clay? Sounds fun.

I have yet to run a game (itching to), but I feel like running such a game would be extremely liberating, while also putting my GM skills to the test. (The only way to provide a challenge to PCs who can do the impossible is to provide a situation so paradoxical they can’t best it; i.e. if they can lift anything and create anything, make them create a boulder so heavy that can’t lift.)


Day 10: How has gaming changed you? 

I guess a big change for me came when I was first contracted by Evil Hat. This affected me in two major ways:

a. After years of fan-projects and self-publishing, this was my first paid writing gig. In the years before that, my self-confidence was in seriously short supply, and it amazing to have a win in my corner.

b. I’ll let you in on an amazing secret: Evil Hat has an art guide which lays out what standards they have for art. To this day, it is the most inclusive and progressive document I have seen. It set the bar wonderfully high for ART work; Though I was only the writer, I did my best make sure that my prose met the same high standard. Since then, I have looked back to my earlier work and seen were I have lacked, and try to keep it in mind in any new project.

(Note: Some of you might have read criticism about Evil Hat’s earlier works being less diverse with their art and their authors. I am merely a contract worker observing from the outside, but I am under the impression they are very aware of their deficiencies and are working hard to improve with every wave of game releases. They set high standards for themselves, reach them, and then set their bar higher.)


Day 11: Best NPC name?

This NPC was created for an Urban Fantasy / Supernatural rpg, based on the world of our comic Skeleton Crew.

http://tangentartists.com/skeletoncrew/skeletoncrew_000.html

More than Half of the PCs had backgrounds in mad science, so it made sense to have a villain who was a mad scientist. I wanted a name that was unique and had a fun juxtaposition; I think the inspiration was the Mystery Men villain Casanova Frankenstein. And thus we created the mad scientist,

Dr. Socrates Madonna.


Day 12: Weirdest Character Concept

This one is a recent addition, but I’m still quite proud. At #Blerdcon, I had a pleasure playing a one-shot Adventure League game run by my friend, +Eric Menge. I let my elf-loving friends have first dibs on picking the elven characters, and I didn’t feel like playing a rogue. Thus, I ended up with the pre-gen character of the Human Paladin.

I picked a name. The only thing left was to decide what kind of god he worshipped; I could use one of the set ones, but thought it might be fun to try one of the lesser gods we created for the Clerics Guide to Smiting. Should I go with Pretensia, Goddess of Good Manners? Should he be a fashion paladin, dedicated to the Doodad, God of Accessories? (I didn’t want to use Chuggett, Dwarven God of Drink, as I’d already played a Dwarven nun dedicated to him).

And then one of my colleges made a suggestion: Paradoxiquatl, the God of Atheism. (His followers go door to door, asking people not to believe in him).

And thus, Cuthbert the Atheistic Paladin was born.

The GM Eric allowed it (partially due to his flexible nature, although +Rachael Hixon also made the argument that “Paradoxiquatl” could be an aspect of the Trickster God Erevan Ilesere).

During the adventure, Cuthbert made it his mission to visit the heathens with pamphlets boasting the virtues of common sense and critical thinking. When making attacks, he would loudly pray, “Paradoxiquatl, may you have no effect the outcome in any way!” If the attack was successful, he would praise his deity, proclaiming, “O god, thanks for nothing!”

I kept the character sheet, and will likely pull him out again.

tangentartists.storenvy.com/collections/767751-books/products/8247369-the-clerics-guide-to-smiting


Day 13 – Describe how your play has evolved? 

As a GM, I’d say the major change that I’ve tried to implement is this:

Old system for an adventure: Craft a beginning, middle, and end.

New system: Craft a problem, and a list of NPCs. (Also, have half-a-plan for one possible outcome.)

The difference I’m trying to do less railroading and more open ended solutions.

The new system says, “The role of the GM is not to create a challenging solution and lead the players there; rather, any solution is the right solution, and it’s the GM’s job to make that solution challenging.”

I know this is basic GM 101 stuff, but it was a bit of a revelation to me.

I talked about this in more detail in an open ended adventure I wrote a while ago, “Blackstache’s Revenge!”
https://tatabletop.com/2014/10/17/open-the-gates-open-ended-adventures-skeleton-crew/


Day 14 – Describe a failure that became amazing?

(I’m going to have to cheat on this one, as it was neither my failure, nor a gaming related one, but it was inspirational enough.)

I had the pleasure of watching a performance of the Improvised Shakespeare Company when they were on tour. Every night, they create a brand new 60 minute show from scratch, pairing long-form improv with many Shakespeare inspired tropes, puns, and innuendo.

Now, as an improver, I always thought I embraced “Yes, And,” the idea of taking any suggestion from a fellow performer and building on it. Improvised Shakespeare took it to the next level.

Twice, in the opening scene, one of the performers misspoke. However, rather than correct himself, he YES AND’ED his own mistake; thus, he took the rule of “what is said can’t be unsaid” and applied it even to himself.

The exchange, as best I recall it:
King: Groomsboy, make sure you prepare the finest horse we have. The Prince of Spain is arriving soon to marry my daughter. And when he rides down the aisle –
realizes his mistake – It’s a strange custom, but we respect it – Rides down the aisle on that horse, I want him to look perfect.

later:
Princess [Talking about the Prince of Spain]: When will he arrive?
King: The prince of France – I mean, Spain- I mean-
Princess: Just how many people am I engaged to?!?
King: Okay, the princes of France, Spain, and Denmark. Just those three. It’s a horse race. The first one to reach you at the altar gets to marry you.

And thus, by accepting even the ACCIDENTAL suggestions and running with it, they had both a cast of characters, a conflict, and a climax.

http://www.improvisedshakespeare.com/


That’s all for week 2 of RPGaDay. Will be posting more soon!

But before you go, we wanted to announce that Tangent Artists just launched our Patreon! 

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Our webcomics are, and will remain, FREE TO READ. However, if you want to give back, please support a small amount every month to let us keep creating what we love to create.

Until next time, Game On!

7 Thoughts on RPGs – RPGaDay 2018

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Hello, tangerines! As many gamers on G+ know, August months the RPGaDay challenge. This is part of 31 writing prompts created by game designer David F. Chapman. I thought I’d share my first week of answers all in one place.

RPG-a-Day 2018 (1)

Day 1: What do you love about RPGs?

I love that it’s s chance to collaboratively write a novel that no one knows the ending of.


Day 2: What do I look for in an RPG?

I look for a system that is both flexible and simple enough, that in any given situation:

A. I can quickly assess what is likely to be a smart tactical choice, and carry it out efficiently.

B. Will still be fun if I decide to stay true to the character’s flaws and take the worst possible choice.

C. Can quickly and easily carry out a crazy 3rd choice that no one thought of 3 seconds ago without having the game grind to a halt, Ex require the gm pull out supplemental rules for grappling.

By comparison, I remember playing Champions with a group of 5 players. A round of combat took an hour. Way too many rules to simply state “here’s all you can do, and nothing else.”


Day 3: What gives a game staying power?

3 things:

1. Can I find a group of friends to play it? This is the crux, because a game no one will play only collects dust on the shelf.

2. Does it have flexibility that I add my own content? I write more than I game, so it’s not surprising that any game system and/or game setting that grabs my interest has to be modular.

3. Are the creators and/or community creating a slow stream of quality content?
This is what keeps a game alive over a span of many years.

Part of this is my collecting bug. From a kid, I loved collecting things. Collector cards, Pokémon, miniatures, you name you. So it’s no surprise that some of my ongoing purchases for games and rpgs has been books in a series. This is a bit more evident in boardgames, although it touches on RPG-esque games (for example, I used to collect every Warhammer Quest expansion hero I could afford with my allowance.) Similarly, I have every Red Dragon Inn expansion.

However, I have found I will no longer collect for collecting-sake; quality is important. For example, I used to collect Munchkin games, but that changed with “Super Munchkin.” I didn’t care that the mechanics will basically a reprint of Munchkin Bites; what I cared about is that the creative wit from the first few games was gone. Other than one or two good puns about “Bat-Mobile”, it was clearly such a rushed project that they had no time for satire, resorting to calling objects by their clichéd names, like “power ring.”

However, a constant stream of new worlds, or better still, areas to explore within the existing world, keeps the world fresh and my curiosity piqued.


Day 4: Most memorable NPC:

This one was created by my friend and cowriter, Steve.

The Harbormaster -(D&D) In a city overrun by religious cults and political infighting, the party finally found an ally who was willing to transport us.

So long as they didn’t have any mangos. The harbormaster had a strange, paranoid obsession with these cursed fruits that would rival Captain Ahab’s loathing of the white. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, as if we would encounter the same fate as him. Would we end up trapped on an island, eating only mangos until we grew sick of them? Would we be ambushed by a mimic disguised as the succulent fruit? On the inside of the next mango, would we find a mere pit, or a hidden evil waiting to be released?

The other shoe never dropped, leaving us in the dark about what horrible incident shaped this harbormaster into the shell of the man we knew.


Day 5 – FAVORITE RECURRING NPC

Karbaas the Nearly-Undefeated

(This is cheating a little, in that he TECHNICALLY showed up in a round-robin fanfic… which is basically an RPG, minus the GM and the rules system).

This is how Karbaas made his entrance:

~~~~
As the party makes themselves comfortable at the tavern, a large figure approaches your table. He seven feet tall and just as wide, with every inch of him covered in black, spiky armor. He slams his gauntleted fists on the tabletop.

“TREMBLE WITH FEAR, WEAKLINGS, FOR I AM KARBAAS!!! KARBAAS, WHO RAVAGED THE COUNTRY OF AVENMOOR AND MADE THE MIGHTY WALLS OF WINTERKEEP TUMBLE! I, WHO RAZED THE CITY OF BRYN LAFAR TO THE GROUND AND WADED IN BLOOD OF THEIR CHAMPIONS! IN THE FAR EASTERN LANDS, THEY DO NOT SPEAK MY NAME FOR FEAR THAT I AM A GOD OF DEATH!!!!!!!”

He sighs and, with great reluctance, pulls out a notepad and a tiny pencil.

“I AM ALSO YOUR… WAITER… THIS EVENING. TODAY’S SPECIAL IS CHICKEN SANDWICH, BREADED WITH A DIJON MUSTARD SAUCE. THE SOUP OF THE DAY *sigh*…. IS CORN.”

~~~~

The inspiration for it came from the Warhammer champion, “Arbaal the Undefeated.” I had to wonder, “What would happen if he lost only once?” Thus, Karbaas the Nearly-Undefeated.

The down-on-his-luck warlord originally showed up as a waiter, but kept popping up in numerous menial and demeaning jobs; waiter, tour guide, party clown (guess it’s hard to keep a job when you constantly threaten to slice your customers, coworkers, and supervisors in twain). A version of him even makes a cameo in our comic CRIT! as a pencil pusher for the Warriors union (see below).

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I have yet to drop him in a recent campaign, but it’s only a matter of time before he returns, grumbling to customers, “YOU ARE SO LUCKY MY BROADSWORD’S IN HOCK RIGHT NOW…”


Day 6: How Can Players Make a World Seem Real?

I think the best way that players can make a world real is when are allowed to freely explore their environment and fill in the corners.

A common practice when setting up an adventure or establishing a character’s backstory is ask questions about what ties this character to the campaign; for example, they’re avenging a loved-one, have a mission to collect an item, etc. Connections like this drive the story in a straight arrow and give it motivation.

However, it’s often the OTHER players, who lack the drive in any given scene, that tend to flesh out the story. To fill the time, these “side characters” end up meeting new faces, picking up local gossip, and surely breaking hearts and noses. For example, in one urban fantasy campaign, in the middle of a night club, the vengeful PC stalked the evil club owner; meanwhile, the others made friends with a random drunk party-goer, shouting to each other “I LOVE THIS SONG” for twenty minutes straight. I couldn’t tell you any of the big-bosses’ names or stats to save my life, but I will remember the “I LOVE THIS SONG!!!” for the years.

How do I encourage this as a GM? Leave a few details unplanned. A ticking clock is essential for a few scenes, but in most cases, give the players a chance to explore and create things of their own (Fate system is particularly good at this). Any missing details, the players will flesh in with their own real experiences, painting a picture more universally human than a single writer can achieve.


Day 7: How can a GM make the stakes important?

In my humble experience, the best way to handle conflicts (particularly in Fate) is to make sure that the objectives are clearly set.

For example, a fight just for fighting sake results in an amusing bar brawl; but if a villian clearly states over the din, “make sure we get that wizard’s head!” then they now what will happen should they fail. To make the fight more dynamic, this isn’t just something the PCs want to avoid, but something the NPCs are willing to try hard to get; the wizard has a particularly large bounty on his head, and they haven’t eaten a full meal in days!

Another Fate trick I love using is letting the players will in the gaps. If you can’t think of a good consequence, ask they players; they might come up with something far worse than you would have thought of (I tend to go a bit easy on them).


That’s it for this week. Stay tuned for more soon! In the meantime, share us your experience!

Going Ultra – Superhero RPGS and Choices

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Today I thought I’d share a few thoughts about playing super-powers in Fate, and ways to add tough decisions into your homebrew games.

miss fury comic

Classic Golden Age heroine, Miss Fury, created by June Tarpe Mills. Image in the public domain.

My recent pondering from super heroes came to mind recently when watching trailers for Ant-Man and the Wasp, which feature a villain I was unfamiliar with: The Ghost. One wikisearch later revealed that in the Marvel comic canon, the Ghost is a spy and saboteur whose tech allows them to be invisible or intangible, but not both at the same time.

This stuck with me for longer than I expected, and I soon began seeing how a similar system would be useful in a Fate Core roleplaying Game.


A Problem I Have When Running Fate

I have loved Fate, currently love Fate, and will likely love Fate for a long time to come. That being said, I have a problem making a game difficult enough for my players. Sure, I’ll make a villain have high stats and a few stunts, but my willingness to let my players invoke most anything under the sun, and generally say yes to most any approach, can lead to the boss villains that are beaten a little too easily. The players have never complained, but deep inside, I feel like there’s a way I can make the game more suspenseful for the players.

Which brings me to the next part: good superhero comics are all about CHOICE. If a comic teaser asks, “Will [Insert Hero] live or die?”, the answer is always “live” (with the rare “die and come back to life later,” which doesn’t really count.) However, despite their godly powers, superheroes will sometimes have to make choices that affect their world in a more permanent way: will Spider-man catch Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane? Will Superman reveal his identity to Lois Lane, or keep it a secret?

Those, a GM might be able to increase the tension and difficulty in a way other than bumping up the bad guys stats. Here are some ways how:


The Power

When using the powered skill against an unnamed NPCs or obstacle, the hero automatically wins, assuming the player can describe how in a narrative way (this is based on Gifts from the Fate World “Wild Blue” by Brian Engard). Against named NPCs or obstacles (ex. The Sonic Osteo-Forcefield), the hero gains a bonus of +4.

How do they get / use the power?

Either-Or: Similar to The Ghost, each hero on a team has exactly two powers, but can only use one at a time. They can switch over at the beginning their exchanges. It is particularly fun to focus on a defensive and an offensive skill, letting the player decide whether to leave themselves open to counterattacks.

Here are a few sample “two-power” heroes I happened to make a while ago:

Thornado – spikes and wind powers

Rubber-brand – elasticity and fire powers

Jump Start – superspeed and electricity

Sea Monkey – water powers and wall-climbing

Cyberpuck – magic and hacker


Ultra-Boy Style – This variant is inspired by one of my favorite Legionnaires: Ultra Boy (not to be confused with Ultraman, the evil Superman from another dimension… yeah, comics are weird when you describe them out loud). Once per scene, a player can choose a skill or approach to go “Ultra,” which lasts until the end of the scene. However, no other gifts or superpowers may be used, meaning the hero is mortal in every other way.

Note: It could be possibly to have the Ultra-power be switched over at the start of every exchange with the cost of a fate point, but I fear this would be too strong.


Dial H for Hero Style – In this variant, the player gets to pick skill that there’s boosted for the entire scene, with the small exception that it can’t be the same skill as any other hero. Or, to make it even more chaotic, randomly pick two different skills, and have the player pick one. Once you know the skill, pick an appropriate superpower that ties in with it. (Ex. Empathy = telepathy; Athletics = superspeed.)

If you have any superhero variants you’ve found useful, please pass them along!


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WIP cover for DTL. Art by Monica Marier

Lastly, a shameless plug:
Be sure to watch this space for the upcoming Kickstarter for “Dungeon Tours Ltd,” a comedic/con-job Fate adventure set in a fantasy world. Coming soon!

 

 

 

 

Monster Showcase – The Guardian Bell

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This week on Tangent Artists Tabletop, we showcase a new monster for your Fate Game: The Guardian of the Bell!

The Guardian is intended to be a boss or mini-boss for the party to face solo. The players will face it in a conflict, but it’s special rules will force the players to act in ways they wouldn’t normally.

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GUARDIAN OF THE BELL

Thousands of years ago, a forgotten tribe of mountain dwelling people built a temple. Their names and the name of the god has been forgotten, but it is clear that they consecrated the ground with a blood sacrifice of some beast.

 

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Art courtesy of Gennifer Bone. For a full-sized version, become a patron of her Patreon.    (Warning: some images NSFW).

A great time later, a group of monks tore down the paleolithic temple, and founded a temple, dedicated to a more peaceful religion. They blessed the shrine, and wrapped the perimeter with sacred writings meant to ward off attackers.

 

On the hundred year anniversary of the shrine’s founding, the shrine was attacked by robbers.
To the monks astonishment, the sacred temple bell arose and began attacking the bandits, driving them away; but soon the strange guardian started hunting down the monks as well. The sacrificial beast of old and the prayers of the new had, instead of counteracting each other, merged into something entirely other.

The Temple of Osha-Rin still stands on the clifftop, abandoned. No doubt the overbearing guardian is still haunting it, slaughtering any pillager or pilgrim that comes near. 

RULES

 

High Concept: Reanimated Spirit Beast

Aspects: Beastlike mind; Holy terror; Territorial; Here and Gone Again.

Core Skills*

+5: Fight
+4: Provoke/Intimidate**, Will
+3: Physique, Notice,
+2: Athletics, Stealth

FAE Approaches

+4: Forceful
+3: Quick, Flashy
+2: Clever, Sneaky

*Core Skill Level – The Skill levels are based on a game with a Great (+4) cap. If playing with a higher or low starting cap, the guardian’s level should be +1 above the PCs.

**Intimidate: Tangent Artist’s upcoming “Skeleton Crew RPG” will feature the skill “Intimidate.”

 

Special Rules

Stunt / Extra – Indestructible: The Temple Guardian does not have a stress track. For all intents and purposes, it is indestructible, and players cannot use the attack action. (Note: Fight and Shoot can still be used to attempt overcome rolls and create advantages.)

Ring the Bell: The temple guardian will only disappear if the PCs can get the bell to ring five times. This can be done by making the spirit over exert itself (see below), or by besting the beast in an overcome roll (See “Shall Not Ring!” below).

Stunt – Shall Not Ring! The Guardian Beast gains a +3 to any skill/approach when defending against any overcome rolls to ring the bell. (Ex. If attempting to use Fight to ring the bell, the beast defends with a +8 before rolling; if using Athletics, it defends with +5.)

Stunt/Extra – Exerting: The beast thinks like a wild animal, and will spend its turn attacking if possible. If it cannot attack (ex. it is pinned to the floor by an obstacle,) it takes any appropriate action it needs to free itself, and then will exert itself. Whenever it exerts itself, it may take an additional action, but this causes the bell to ring. The beast will continue exerting itself until the bell has been rung a total of 5 times, or until it made an attack against a character (it doesn’t have to succeed). GM’s: As an exception, the beast will not exert itself to death in the first round.


GM Tips

Handling Indestructible – There are a few ways to let the players know that the players cannot use the indestructible action.

  1. Warn Them – Let the players know at the beginning of the combat that the attack action won’t work. This prevents them from wasting their time. (Of course, you can offer a compel to any players for PCs that would be a little too slow to realize this).
  2. Surprise Them – You can wait until someone attempts an attack, and tell them it doesn’t work; treat this as a compel, with the player getting a free fate point. This is less friendly, but matches the normal flow of the fight. The downside is, this will often make players upset. As a consolation, considering giving two fate points instead of one, or let the player take an extra action next turn / at the end of this turn. Also, if the player spend any fate points or special one-use stunts during the attack, make sure they get them back at the end of the turn / conflict.

 

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Webtoon-Logo

Speaking of creepy stuff, Tangent Artist’s comic “Skeleton Crew” is now on Web Toon! The first issue is up, with more to follow. Read it online or on the Web Toon app!

M:tG – A Designer Essay

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A little while ago, I participated in Wizards of the Coasts’ third Great Designer Search.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t do well enough on the multiple-choice test to make it to the third trial, but I thought I’d share my essay, as well as some of my thoughts on Magic. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get another chance to apply for a job there someday.

 


  1. Introduce yourself and explain why you are a good fit for this internship.

You only get one first impression. On the whole, I’m a positive person. Acquaintances know that I try to see the good in everything, but this is only half of the story. Those who know me recognize that my mantra is always, “This is good, but how can we make it better?”

From a young age, I’ve always been tweaking board games. I was inventing house rules before I knew what house rules were. In middle and high school, you never saw me without a pocket notepad, ready to write down a new idea for a game, a fanfic or an original Magic card.

This carried over into college too, when I earned my BFA in Music Theatre. I loved working in the established shows and, but I still felt to the urge to write my own plays, perpetually asking myself “How can I make this better?”

This is one of the reasons I was drawn to working on roleplaying games, which are inherently malleable. In 2015, I had the pleasure of working with the professional company Evil Hat to create an RPG setting for the Fate system.

 

Given carte blanche to create whatever I wanted, I drew inspiration from the cartoons of my youth, and created the planetary romance “Masters of Umdaar.” Later, I approached the company with an idea for a second setting; I had been inspired by a small series of filler art from one of their rulebooks. I fleshed out those five pictures into an RPG about a culinary game show in space, “Uranium Chef.” In addition, I have just sold a carnival themed board game to another company.

In my quest to perfect my craft, I have not always been alone. I have extensive experience collaborating with creative teams. For the past ten years, I have worked with the group Tangent Artists, coauthoring three comics: the supernatural adventure “Skeleton Crew,” the comedic fantasy “CRIT!”, and the gag-a-day strip “Donuts for Looking.” Over time, I have learned when to take the lead on a project and when to follow. I know that sometimes you must campaign for your ideas. I also know that you sometimes have to step back, take a deep breath, and set your ideas aside for the good of the project.

In the past, I have worked as a professional actor and a drama teacher. I currently work as a team coach at a call center.

 

 

  1. An evergreen mechanic is a keyword mechanic that shows up in (almost) every set. If you had to make an existing keyword mechanic evergreen, which one would you choose and why?

 

Given the chance, I would remake the mechanic known as flanking into an evergreen keyword for black and blue. If so, I would remove the “blockers with (keyword) are unaffected” clause. I would also change the name to a term, perhaps to “corrupt” or “dominate.” Here is why I think flanking would be a good fit:

  1. Missing Hole – Blue and black is currently lacking a unique keyword ability.
  2. Color Pie Theory – Divorced from the name “flanking,” the flanking mechanic is about making opposing creatures weaker. Thematically, this fits perfectly with black (which is about punishing the weak and sapping the strength of your enemies), and very well with blue (which is happy to transmogrify an opponent into a weaker form).
  3. Enemy Color Pie: Green is the color of brute force. Green creatures overcome obstacles by increasing their own strength (ex. rampage and “new rampage.”) It is appropriate that the blue/black ability have the opposite effect. Similarly, Naya (green, white, and red) are the colors that focus most heavily on small creature tokens, (ex. green elves, white soldiers, and red goblins). Black and blue need a keyword that overcomes tokens without necessarily evading them.
  4. Balance – Flanking can be placed on low-mana creatures without fear of speeding up the format, as the ability only increases the relative power of the creature without dealing additional damage to the defending player.
  5. Record Keeping – Unlike wither and infect, two keywords that also weaken an opposing creature, flanking’s negative modifier only lasts until end of turn; this makes record keeping easier, without Wizards having to make -1/-1 counters evergreen in every set.
  6. Design Space – Like most evergreen keywords, design space for flanking is limited. However, because multiple instances of flanking stack, it is possible to create rarer cards that use flanking in complex ways. For example, imagine a rare demon with an activated ability: “2B: Target creature gains flanking.” Similar, flanking interacts very well with black’s new keyword menace, increasing flanking’s effect across multiple blockers.

 

  1. If you had to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic that is currently evergreen, which one would you remove and why?

 

If I were to remove evergreen status from a keyword mechanic, I would choose hexproof. Here are my reasons:

  1. With most keywords, a large creature can be dealt with by removal or with creatures. Only two keywords are immune to one of those options: hexproof and indestructible. If you are a player on the receiving end of an immensely powerful creature with either ability, you will likely be frustrated and will be hard-pressed to comeback. Cards with indestructible are rare and have expensive costs, while hexproof is cheaper and more common.
  2. Hexproof is based on the older “shroud,” which affected all players equally. Hexproof is entirely one-sided, which makes the fun one-sided as well.
  3. Whenever hexproof is placed on a card with evasion, such as a creature that is unblockable, it effectively makes the creature irremovable without some time of board wipe or edict effect.

Given the chance, I would replace hexproof with the following: An ability or keyword that reads, “Spells your opponents cast that target [cardname] cost 2 more,” as demonstrated on the cards Elderwood Scion and Icefall Regent. This ability discourages removal without eliminating it completely.

Alternatively, if hexproof were to continue, I’d recommend limiting it in several ways:

  1. Situational hexproof, such as Dragonord Ojutai, which has “has hexproof when untapped,” or Tromokratis with “has hexproof when not attacking or blocking.”
  2. Keep it temporary, such as spells that grant “hexproof until end of turn.”
  3. Make hexproof only apply to permanents of another kind. For example, an equipment that says “equipped creature has hexproof,” or a creature with “non-creature enchantments you control have hexproof.” However, a non-legendary card that grants others hexproof but effects its own creature type, for example an elf that grants other elves hexproof, is too easily abused, as your deck will likely have more than one in the deck.

 

  1. You’re going to teach Magic to a stranger. What’s your strategy to have the best possible outcome?

The first thing I focus on when teaching a new player is to find a familiar frame of reference. Ideally, I start with a familiar mechanic that the player would recognize. For example, if the player is familiar with Pokemon or Final Fantasy video games, they will understand damage and health. A player that is familiar with the deck builder game Dominion will more readily understand building decks and card costs. I would even draw connections to games that are not board games, such as how the objective of Magic correlates with the dodgeball variant bombardment.

If none of the mechanics seem familiar, I would draw up the flavor to help craft a story. Magic has a strong fantasy theme, which resonates well with any fans of the genre. Most importantly, stories also weave a sequence of cause and effect, and can help cement turn sequence in a way that a grocery list of rules cannot. I would craft a story about how each player is a wizard, pulling upon the raw magic of the wilderness; they use this raw mana to summon loyal minions (which stick around), and fickle sorceries (which are potent but fleeting).

Once the foundation is laid out, I would play several rounds with the opponent with our hands revealed. I would explain what steps I’m taking and why, and make sure that the player is aware of what options are available. I would mostly lead by example, making smart choices; however, to facilitate the learning experience, I will sometimes “accidentally” make a strategically poor move and immediately point out my own mistake, so the player will learn from my errors.

As you can tell, I’m not afraid to let the opponent have a chance of winning. In my experience, if a player’s first exposure to a game is crushing defeat, they are less inclined to try it again.

 

  1. What is Magic’s greatest strength and why?

I think Magic’s greatest strength is how it lets a player express themself. Because players have a pool of over 15,000 cards to draw upon, it is possible for a player to create a deck that is utterly unique to them.

Personally, I relate most with the expressive Johnny/Jenny psychographic. I build fun and quirky decks that combine unusual creatures and forgotten cards in a way that my opponents don’t expect (and once in a blue moon, I actually win with them). This is the message I choose to express, and the face I want to show the world when I play.

There are other psychographics, such as Timmy/Tammy and Spike, but I theorize that they also want to express themselves. When a Timmy/Tammy plays a Darksteel Colossus, they are expressing “I am a force to be reckoned with”; that is a message they want to share with their friends. When a Spike creates a tournament deck, they are expressing, “I am a winner.” Even a competitive, no-nonsense Spikes express themselves in which competitive deck format they prefer; a pro-player that builds an aggro deck expresses “I am a daredevil,” while a control player expresses, “I am in control.”

I believe this is also the reason why, in the casual format, Commander has been such a strong hit. Players aren’t just picking a high-value creature to base a deck around; they are picking a named character with a strong identity. When a card is successfully built with the color pie in mind, it carries with it a philosophy that the player can adapt. Do I want to build a Phelddagrif group hug deck and be everyone’s friend, or do I want to play Saskia the Unyielding and openly declare war on a single player? It’s almost akin to roleplaying in that the accomplishments of this commander reflect on the player itself, and in turn the player will build future decks using commanders that they will relate with.

 

  1. What is Magic’s greatest weakness and why?

I believe that Magic’s greatest weakness is that the required amount of knowledge a new player needs to understand before they can play is staggeringly high. As an experience player, it is easy to forget how much information is not clearly displayed on a card, and how many rules are buried in the rulebook.

For example, take the type line. At Magic’s debut, this line used the phrase “Summon [creature].” While this correctly communicates that this is a spell, I know of confused beginners that assumed they had to pay the casting cost to keep the creature in play, or assumed they could use a counterspell to destroy a summoned creature that has been on the battlefield for several turns. When Wizards changed the type line to “Creature – [type]” with Sixth Edition, it made the permanence a little easier to remember; however, I know of beginners who had trouble realizing that “Creature” was a spell that could be countered.

If the type line for Llanowar Elves accurately reflect everything a new player needs to know, it would have to say, “Spell Permanent Creature – Elf Druid.” As it stands, there are no indicators in cards to define which are permanents and which are spells. Similarly, there are no indicators on sorceries or instants that once they resolve, they do not stay in play- the player must simply memorize that fact, which increases the comprehension complexity.

I personally feel that adding the words “Spell” and “Permanent” to every artifact, enchantment and creature would be a bit unnecessary. However, I can imagine implementing it in other ways, such as a collapsible bar on the type line for beginning Magic Online players. Similarly, I can imagine adding a permanent and a non-permanent symbol to the side of cards; such icons proved very useful in Portal, and similar type icons were used in Future Sight.

  1. What Magic mechanic most deserves a second chance (aka which had the worst first introduction compared to its potential)?

As a fan of both Ravnica and Orzhov, I feel like Haunt has the potential to be a better mechanic. By my analysis, I see the following flaws:

  1. Asymmetrical – Haunt is confusing in that it has two separate triggers: first when the creature or spell enters the battlefield, and again when the creature it haunts dies. A potential solution would be to make both effects triggered at the same time (i.e. when the creature dies).
  2. Flavor – When Haunt is only a creature, the flavor of it dying and haunting another creature is clear. However, haunt also appeared on several sorceries, which is unusual flavor – how can a sorcery haunt you?
  3. Exile – White and black are two colors that deal well with resurrecting creatures from the graveyard, making exiling cards a disadvantage.
  4. Too Symmetrical – By insisting that haunt effects be identical when it triggers both times, you are limiting the place space; the effect must be weak enough as to not be broken, yet strong enough that a player would want it twice. I would recommend that the initial effect and and haunting effect have correlation, but are not slavishly identical.

Solution – Double Faced Cards – The flaws mentioned above can all be solved with double-faced cards; the front side of the card is a creature, which transforms upon death, coming back as an aura. A perfect example of an existing card that does this well is Accursed Witch.

For example, if I were to rewrite Cry of Contrition as a creature, it might be:
Front:
Shriekfang Bat – 2B –Bat – 1/1 – When Shriekfang Bat enters the battlefield, target player discards a card. Haunt – When Shriekfang Bat dies, you may return it to the battlefield transformed attached to target creature.
Back:
Shrieking Agony – Enchantment –Aura – Enchant Creature. When enchanted creature dies, target player discards a card.

Better still, the flipped auras can be extended past “when creature dies” effects. For example, I can easily see a white/black creature with flying and lifelink transform into an aura that grants an enchanted creature flying and lifelink.

 

  1. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your favorite and then explain the biggest problem with it.

 

My favorite expansion I’ve played with is the Ravnica block. It successfully established ten unique factions, each with their own motivations, flavor, tribe, and societal niche. It also marked one of the first times when ally color pairings and enemy color pairings were treated as equals, which added new depths to color pie philosophy.

jace amnesia2The biggest problem with Ravnica was the inconsistency of mechanics across the block. Many of the mechanics, like Convoke, Bloodthirst and Dredge, fit both the theme of the guild and the colors it represented beautifully. However, other mechanics were forgettable or poorly matched. Azorious’s mechanic, Forecast, had little connection to their flavor as lawmakers, and was mechanically awkward – it was the only mechanic that required the player use it use during their upkeep; as a player who has instinctively reached for my library after untapping, I’ve missed my window many times. Boros’s keyword Radiance makes slightly more sense thematically, in that it represents how courage can ripple through a militaristic force; however this theme starts breaking down when the mechanic is used on cards that smite your enemies or, because they share a color with your enemy, accidentally punish your own troops. Radiance always focuses on colors, which can be very swingy. The keyword Transmute ties in well with the colors of blue and black, but the mechanic does not tie into the theme of spies and assassins; even the name suggests alchemy, which is associated with the Izzet guild.

As a minor note, many of the above problems were rectified in the Return to Ravnica block. Dimir, Orzhov, Azorious, and Boros, all gained new keyword mechanics that functioned within their color pie and within their theme. However, I always felt it a shame that the new mechanics for Gruul and Rakdos weren’t switched. If Gruul had the ability Unleash, it would have combined well with Bloodthirst, as they both utilize +1/+1 counters. Similarly, Bloodrush synergizes well with Hellbent; an attacking player can use a bloodrush card at instant speed, emptying their hand and making them Hellbent.

 

  1. Of all the Magic expansions that you’ve played with, pick your least favorite and then explain the best part about it.

Of all the blocks that I’ve played, Mirrodin is my least favorite. With the addition of powerful artifacts, equipment, affinity, and indestructible, the power level of the game skyrocketed. At the time, as a casual player who didn’t use sideboards, I was forced to add extra Disenchants and Shatters into all my decks.

However, the block does include the wonderfully crafted mechanic Sunburst. When I was younger, I purchased a Sunburst deck and was entertained by it, but didn’t realize how brilliant it was until years later. Creating strong yet balanced colorless creatures can be difficult, but Sunburst solves this by giving the players a more difficult, multicolored hoop to jump through. However, the mechanic also gives the player strategic flexibility; if they are in a bind, they can still cast the sunburst card at less than optimal value. Case in point, should I cast my Etched Oracle now for three colors to give myself a 3/3 blocker, or hold out until I have my fourth color to get it’s full worth? This is an example of an elegant mechanic design that is easy to comprehend, but carries great strategic depth.

Sunburst requires players to build balanced multicolored decks with balanced land bases, but doesn’t dictate what colors they must use, making the Sunburst cards a happy addition to most any deck. In my Commander Cube, cards with Sunburst and Converge are a perfect fit, encouraging players to play multicolor decks without dictating their color choices.

I also enjoy the fact that the art team added five suns to each of the cards. This is both a flavorful nod to the storyline, and a subtle reminder to new players on how best to utilize the mechanic.

  1. You have the ability to change any one thing about Magic. What do you change and why?

If could pick one thing I would change about Magic, I would remove all references to a player’s gender from the cards; for example, I would replace all uses of “he or she” or “his or her” with more inclusive phrasing. I have friends of mine who identify as genderless or as non-binary genders, and I feel that it is important that they feel included in the hobby as well. Of course, that is not to say that we should remove all gender from characters; it is perfectly fine for the creative team to create new legendary creatures and planeswalkers that identify as male, female, agender, genderfluid or anything else that feel reflects the story and the community.

As for correcting rules text, there are several alternatives:

  1. Their – Use the term “their,” as in, “each opponent discards a card from their hand.” A decade ago, using the word “their” in the singular would have been confusing to many people, but in the past few years, the singular “their” has gained more usage in the common vernacular. For example, in 2016 the singular “they” was made Word of the Year and added to the AP Stylebook.

    B. Their own – If “their” by itself is not clear enough, adding the determiner “own,” as in, “each opponent discards a card from their own hand,” might clarify ownership further still.

  2. No Pronouns – In some cases, the pronoun can be removed entirely, such as, “Target player chooses a creature that player controls.”

I know this issue is more about word choice than about design mechanics, but one of R&D’s principals is, “We are inclusive and respectful.” In order to fully promote an inclusive community, I recommend Wizards phase out any language that dilutes their message.

It is also in keeping with the philosophy of Magic’s original design; Richard Garfield and the other progenitors could have saved space by referring to players solely as “he,” but they went the extra mile to use the phrase “he or she.” It is only fitting that we continue the trend further.