Monday, July 8, 2013

Where are you going, where have you been.

Whew, long absence. Where have I been for 4 months? Well, work got crazy, and my gaming attention has been taken up by several games that aren't Apocalithic. I have ADHD, whaddaya want from me? 

What's more important is where the game is going. And it's coming along OK. I've got a tentative skill list, a character creation system, and a fairly good idea about how communities work and how you alter them. But what's really got me psyched about the game again is the system I'm working on for places. Using the Fate fractal, we're obviously going to represent the environment as a character. But what will that character look like? This is especially important because Apocalithic aims to have a lot more player vs environment than the standard tabletop RPG, and the environment is the GM's primary character. I think every GM knows the joy of drawing a map, so I wanted making the region the game takes place in more like drawing a map than stating a character. To that aim, regions in apocalithic consist of Sites and Paths. 

A Site is a distinct location. Perhaps it's the tribe's winter camp, or a windy canyon, or the ruins of a town. The point is that it has something to distinguish itself. Size-wise, a site needs to be large enough to hold an entire community. So a single clearing wouldn't be a site, but a valley could be. Sites are where things happen. So you can start your Region by coming up with the basic idea for a few interesting sites. 

Sites are described by their Aspects, Complexity track, Resources, and Fate point pool. 

The core aspects are the site's Biome, which roughly describes the landscape and ecosystem, the Landmark, which is the feature that defines the site, and the Trouble. Like any other Fate character Sites have a trouble. A site may also have more aspects, but not too many. You don't want to overload your site, keep it simple. Site aspects are scene aspects on any scene taking place at that site. 

The site's complexity is a measure of how interconnected the ecosystem is, how many checks and balances it contains, and thus how resilient it is. The higher this number, the harder altering the site will be. The value of this is equal to the number of aspects the site has. 

Resources are the site's skills. They are Water, Vegetable, Animal, Mineral, and Salvage. These are the base difficulties players are up against when searching for these types of resources. Thus, the lower the value, the more of that resource is easily found at that site. Rare resources would raise these difficulties. If a site has an abundance of a specific resource, this would be an aspect like Herds of Deer or Silver Mine. 

Finally, the site has it's own pool of Fate points. This is the GM's pool for any scene taking place there. I'm still working on the numbers here, but the idea is to relate it to the resources. Either you have a pool of points to buy up the resource values, and anything you don't spend is your Environmental pool, or the resources start out high, but each point you reduce them by gives you a fate point for the pool. I'm leaning toward the latter as being more intuitive. Mostly I'm trying to just let the GM pick stats instead of having to crunch numbers. 

Sites are connected to each other by Paths. Every site has 1 to 3 paths that connect them to other sites. Path are a lot simpler stat-wise. They simply have a Distance, which is how many victories you need to tally when taking that path to reach the end,  a Difficulty, which is the target number used on checks to take that path, and an Aspect that describes what kind of path it is, like Quiet Forest Trail or Raging White Water Rapids. This aspect will usually suggest what sort of skills are appropriate to the check, such as athletics, boating, whatever might be appropriate. 

So creating your Region starts with a single site, likely the site where the tribe is currently camped at. Then you draw one or more paths away from that site. Now at the end of each of those paths will be another site. Decide what's there, and give those sites some aspects and stats. Those sites will have paths coming off them, possibly connecting to each other, possibly connecting to other sites. Draw out as many sites and paths as you need to create the region you want, but don't forget to leave the ends of some paths undefined. You won't know where those go until the players go down them. 

At the start of any Apocalithic game, the player's tribe will be newcomers to the region. This is a world in flux, after all, and letting the players start settled in would rob them of that exploration goodness. Some Tribes will be the settling type. They'll pick a nice site and make that the location of their community. They'll get to have all kinds of stories about clearing the land, building community projects like walls or wells, and the like. They'll get to add or alter site aspects, resource values, maybe even create new paths.  Other tribes will be Nomadic, following the paths from site to site. Even they'll leave their mark on the places they stay. The system should work well for either playstyle. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Apocalithic Playtest #1

It's been nearly a month since I last penned anything here. Between work, Illness, and a new video game, I haven't had much time to write. And what time I have spent writing has been putting together Apocalithic's skill list, which has turned out to be a harder proposition than I first thought.

But in this last week, I had my first playtest of the game. So that's progress.

I had eight players, myself included. Which is two or three more than I like, but it seems gathering playtesters is feast or famine. This included about half my regular gaming group, and half were friends out of town who wanted a one-shot. So we ran through Tribe Creation, character creation, and then started a community change contest.

The Tribe took shape as a Polynesian-like tribe of Fishermen who lived near an abandoned resort arcology. The arcology held lots of good salvage, and also tons of malfunctioning robots and other hazards. The men of the tribe make runs into this arcology to get salvage and prove their manhood. So the high concept was Arcology Runners.  The Trouble was, last year all the adult men died running the arcology, leaving the tribe with A generation of young men lost. Other aspects included the genetic mutations Low-light vision and Aquatic Adaption, and the cultural trait of History in Song.

Players report they found the process of coming up with the tribe very fun. More than anything, I think I made the right choice to restrict the tribe extra to just aspects, because it turned tribe creation into a conversation. I think adding any more mechanics would have bogged down people's creative process here.

From there we made characters. To keep things simple, I'll stick to high concepts. We had the Elder and Loremaster come out of retirement to take up his old role. We had his son, the Loremaster in training. We had a Rebellious Tomboy who wanted to do the arcology run, and her Supportive Friend. We also had an Eager young scout, and a Skilled Boatmaker who had never made the run despite being old enough and thus was a Social Pariah.

Next we discussed what the conflict would be, and at first everyone assumed we would do an arcology run. I asked if there was any way we could do a tribe change conflict first because that's what I wanted to test. We decided to make the conflict about who got to go on the run at all. The only men of the right age were the loremaster's son, and the boatmaker who'd avoided it so far. The eager young scout was too young, the loremaster too old,  and the two girls weren't allowed due to gender. My favorite quote of the evening was one playtester exclaiming, "Yeah, actually, after all that conversation about the tribe, that conflict sounds way more fun!"

So far so good, except that it was getting late. We were only able to play out two scenes into the conflict, and both of them wound up being arguments. The fun thing is that I didn't have to provide NPC opposition to the players, because they split up into several camps over the issue by themselves. The Loremaster and the Boatbuilder became unlikely allies in arguing that they should skip this year's arcology run since there weren't enough eligable men. The two young ladies and the kid scout tried to argue that they should go. And the Loremaster's son was caught in between, as he wanted to have the girls come with him but couldn't be seen to go against his father.

However, the most useful information from playtesting is what needs to be improved. What I learned this playtest is that I need more solid mechanics for having arguments. Both scenes boiled down to people trying to get their way without being open to compromise, and trying either to get the other to back down, or to sway the crowd that gathered to their side. Intimidation checks and Mental stress worked OK, but felt like intrusions onto the scene rather than aids to the fiction. This is where I need to focus my attention next.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Passive Skill Use.

So my last post ended with briefly mentioning the idea that characters could be considered to be using their skills at their base rating at all times. I knew there was some potential there, but that it wasn't a finished idea. The problem is that while for skills like notice it makes perfect sense, for other skills it's weird. How do you passively use craft? I just couldn't make it make sense for every skill.

Then I remembered that skill lists are the first thing you're supposed to rewrite for a FATE build. If the skills and the mechanic aren't meshing well, change the skills.

So here's the mechanic fully fleshed out. Each skill has a Passive Use, which is a constant effect of possessing the skill. Usually this means automatically overcoming obstacles with a difficulty less than your skill rating, but what that means will vary skill to skill. Broadly speaking, most skills fit into the following categories.

Knowledge skills: (Ex: Lore, any skill regarding related topics)
Characters with knowledge skills unsurprisingly know stuff. A character automatically recalls any facts related to the topic at hand with a difficulty to know equal to or less than their skill rating

Awareness skills: (Ex: Notice, Empathy)
Characters with these skills are always passively aware of their surroundings. Inform the character of any detail with a difficulty to notice equal to or less than their skill rating.

Grace skills: (Ex: Athletics, Piloting)
Characters with these skills move with better grace, balance, and awareness than others. They automatically overcome any obstacle to movement less than their skill rating. These skills also usually set the base difficulty to hit these characters in ranged combat.

Concealment skills: (Ex: Stealth, Deceit)
Characters with these skills are always more difficult to suss out, even when not actively attempting to hide. This skill sets the base difficulty of any attempt to notice something about this character.

Conflict Skills: (Ex: Fight, Rapport)
Characters with these skills are more on guard against people using these skills against them. This skill sets the base difficulty of any attack action against this character, even those they're unaware of.

Resistance skills: (Ex: Physique, Will)
These skills passively provide your character with extra boxes on their stress track.

Resource skills: (Ex: Resources, Craft)
A character with these skills never wants for the right tool. They can be assumed to have, make, or buy any tool with a difficulty/cost equal to or less than their skill rating, within reason.

If a skill doesn't have an obvious passive use, look to these categories to see if one fits. If it doesn't, then rework the skill to include one. At the very least, any skill is potentially a knowledge skill.

What we gain from this, first and foremost, is less rolling. In general, if the difficulty is equal to or less than the appropriate skill on defense or overcome actions, your passive skill use will get you through. You only have to break out the dice when the difficulty is greater than that. This should speed gameplay, and make your characters that much more competent.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Paying attention to attention.

FATE Core has an entire resource allocation mechanic hidden in a sidebar on page 137 of the kickstarter preview. It's subtle, but I thought I would bring it to your attention. Because that's what the resource in question is; Attention. The sidebar in question is about passive vs. active resistance, and when to use it. And one suggestion it makes is that an NPC who is unaware of a PC should make a passive instead of active resistance. That makes intuitive sense, and I like it. I like it so much, in fact, that I think it can be generalized. In an information soaked world, there's a lot of interest in how we allocate our attention. And I think an interesting FATE mechanic can be found in that concept.

Here's the idea: Active checks are checks your character makes while focusing what they're doing. You roll dice for these checks, and may invoke aspects on these checks. Passive checks are checks you make when your character isn't paying attention. For these, you simply use your skill level and any stunts (or locked-in aspects, if using the stuntless rules) that might apply. Generally speaking, your character is paying attention to whatever they're doing. This means most actions you take will be active checks, and most passive checks you make will be defense checks. Regardless, you may only pay attention to one thing at a time.

Usually an active check is better than a passive one, if you've got an invoke-able aspect on hand. 40% of the time rolling is actually worse than not rolling, but having a single aspect to invoke changes the "worse than normal" range down to roughly 2.4%. Because being able to invoke aspects is the real advantage here, I'd probably want provide my players with slightly more Fate Points when using these rules. On the other hand, this does mean that if you don't have an aspect you can invoke, you may not want to actively defend. I'm OK with that, and wouldn't make anyone take an active defense if they didn't want to. You're giving up the ability to hit the high numbers in exchange for predictable results.

So what does this rule do? The first thing we get out of this are fairly clean surprise rules. If someone takes your character by surprise, then you'll defend against them with only your skill, no aspects or dice to defend you. Since your attacker is making an active check, and probably has an "Ambush!" aspect to invoke, you'll be at a sever disadvantage. It also covers being at a disadvantage when outnumbered. If you can only pay attention to one opponent at a time, then all other opponents get to deal with your passive check. Unless they're a mob, in which case the rules treat them as one entity.

The second thing we get out of this is a good way of handling Notice checks. If you're actively scanning your environment, that's a declared action and you roll. The rest of the time, however, you're not oblivious. You still have a passive notice check equal to your notice skill. You'll automatically see anything in your environment who's difficulty to spot is equal or lower than your notice check. If anything new happens, well, just let players know anything with a difficulty to spot below their notice skill. You'll never tip your players off by calling for a notice check again.

The same thinking applies to knowledge skills like Lore. Any fact pertinent to the situation with a difficulty to know less than the player's Lore skill, they know off the top of their head. Info-dump it to the player and move on. Any fact with a difficulty higher than that, well, they'll have to take the time to think about it.

Whenever adding or quantifying a new rule, you're also creating fertile ground for new stunts that allow you to break those rules. Perhaps a stunt called "appropriately Paranoid" allows you to always make active notice checks. Another, perhaps "Fighting stance", would let you actively defend against an additional attacker. But since I prefer stuntless rules, I like to add the following to general invocations. You may invoke an aspect on a character to immediately redirect that character's attention. So you would invoke an "appropriately paranoid" aspect to shift your attention immediately to the notice check regardless of what you were doing. Or you might invoke an enemy guard's "Tired and Bored" aspect to direct their attention away from the notice check against you.

Another possibility is that you might "actively" use passive checks when taking certain kinds of actions.  Certain kinds of training seep into your unconscious mind. Someone with good proprioception is less likely to trip and fall, and people trained in moving quietly do so even when not paying attention to it. This kind of unconscious training can be represented by passively using these skills anytime you move. So someone with the stealth skill, unless they say otherwise, is always moving with some amount of stealth. And someone with a high athletics skill will automatically overcome obstacles below their skill level when taking their free move. In fact, I'm tempted to generalize this to all skills. A rule like "A character is always considered to be passively using any skill they have ranks in" would have far reaching and interesting effects on gameplay. I haven't figured all of them out, but its something I'm certainly going to focus on as I work on my FATE hacks.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to win friends and Influence People.

As a transhumanist, a social radical, and as someone with an antagonistic relationship with money, I'm fascinated by the concept of Social Capital and Reputation Economies.  Eclipse phase won my heart as a game that makes reputation economies a central part of the premise, but their mechanics are very gamist and not very realistic. In Apocalithic, of course, there's nothing BUT reputation economies. So I've been thinking about how to really model a reputation economy. And fortunately for me, FATE lends itself fairly well to implimenting my ideas on the topic.

I have no ambition  so great as the esteem of my fellow man. 

The first thing any FATE reputation system needs is a Social Capital stress track. This is the game;s measure of how much social capital you have built up.  You'll also want to link it to a skill that determines your length. I'd suggest making a new skill, Reputation, that serves as the social version of Physique. Mostly it serves to determine your social stress track, but it may have other uses related to throwing your "weight" around socially. In my games this skill usually absorbs all the trappings of the Contacts skill.

So what does Social stress mean? It means you're tapping into the social good will you've built up with the community. As long as you don't overflow your stress track, you're still in everyone's good graces. Getting taken out, however, is a problem. That means you're tapped out, you've been taking more than you're giving back, and everyone knows it. As long as you're tapped out, no one will grant you any favors. Unlike other stress, Social stress sticks around until you do something to heal it.

Listen, I need a Favor

But that's just the basis for tracking a character's social capital. What does a transaction in the reputation economy look like? The central idea here is a new type of task resolution, which I'm calling a Conversation. (Negotiation would be a more accurate term, but I wanted to keep within the alliterative naming structure task resolution has currently.) In a conversation, one character wants something from another character, a favor of some sort. We'll call that person the Seeker, and the person they're asking the Giver.  Both Seeker and Giver need to belong to a shared community, and the seeker may not have tapped out their social stress track. Like a contest, a conversation proceeds in a number of exchanges.

On the first exchange, the characters start by talking. Talking is a variation on Creating an advantage, and the goal is to learn something about the other person. The players make opposed checks with the appropriate skill. In Core, this is probably Rapport Vs Empathy, as the Seeker tries to make friendly and the Giver tries to figure out what they want. The Seeker might roll empathy if they're trying to figure something out about the Giver, like what they need you can offer. One or the other party might use intimidation if this isn't a friendly situation. The narrative will inform this part. The results of this action are below
  • Seeker succeeds with style: The Seeker learns of or gains an advantage related to impressing or learning something about the Giver, along with 1 free tag. 
  • Seeker succeeds: The Seeker gain a boost related to learning something minor about the Giver. 
  • Tie: Pleasant small talk of no importance. 
  • Giver succeeds: The Giver gain a boost related to learning something minor about the Seeker. 
  • Giver succeeds with style: The Giver learns of or gains an advantage related to impressing or learning something about the Seeker, along with 1 free tag. 
Talking can go on as long as both parties want, but sooner or later you have to get to the point. After the first exchange, either party may choose to proceed to Asking for a Favor. In most cases, this is an opposed Rapport vs. Rapport check. One or both sides of the check may be modified by the magnitude of the favor, see below. The following results are possible:
  • Seeker succeeds with style: The Giver now has an option. They either grant the Seeker their perfectly reasonable request, or word gets around and they take social stress equal to their margin of failure. If the giver chooses to take social stress, the Seeker may choose to do one less point of stress in exchange for a boost
  • Seeker succeeds: As above, but without the boost
  • Tie: The Giver grants the Seeker their request, and both parties receive a boost related to a having a mutually satisfactory exchange. 
  • Giver succeeds: The Seeker now has an option. They either don't get what they want, or the they get what they asked for at the cost of social stress equal to their margin of failure. 
  • Giver succeeds with style: As above, but if the seeker chooses to take social stress, the Giver may choose to do one less point of stress in exchange for a boost.
You may use boosts or invoke advantages like normal on this check. That's what all those boosts and advantages you gained making small talk are for! In fact, you also have an additional way to use aspects on this check. You may choose to add your invocations to the other character's roll instead of to your own. It's also worth noting that Consequences can be used to lessen stress taken just as you could in a conflict. 

The strategy here is complex. The best possible scenario for the seeker isn't succeeding with style, it's tying. But hitting that sweet spot is difficult, and dangerous because it's so easy for the other player to invoke an aspect to take you off the tie. So you might want to go for a solid win. But it's the loser of the contest who has the choice of how the contest turns out. Either they're giving the other person what they wanted (or not getting what they wanted), or they're taking social stress. It's lose/lose, but you choose the loss. Thus if you REALLY want that favor, you might want to actually lose the check in order to make sure that choice is yours. You can choose to play it cooperatively or more coercive.  Of course, if the giver is predisposed to give anyway, they may just pile their bonus on the seeker's roll and be done with it. 

Boosts that result from the outcome last beyond the Conversation. They represent the way the community at large regards the interaction. They aren't very long lasting, though. A day or two at most. Boosts like "you're so generous" or "I can't believe what a jerk he was to you" are appropriate here. In You may use these boosts in like normal for social checks within the shared community, but they have another use. If you have any social stress, You may spend a boost gained from an asking a favor check to clear the lowest ranked stress box you have marked off. This is how you recover your social capital. 
So basically on success with style, you're increasing your social capital at the expense of the other person, while on a tie you're mutually increasing each other's social capital.

How big a Favor?

One favor isn't like another. The magnitude of a favor matters a lot. But how big is a favor? Fortunately, we get to rate this on the ladder.  Once you've given a favor a rating on the Ladder, add that value as a bonus to the final Asking for a favor check at the end of the conversation. Of course, that assumes that the Seeker isn't offering a thing in exchange, which likely isn't true. The seeker may offer the giver something in exchange for what they're seeking, in which case the value of that favor is added to the seeker's roll.

The Giver decides what level they thing the favors in question are at based on how much each party values what's being asked for. There are several metrics you might use to judge value, but I like to think of it in terms of time. An Average favor is something the Giver can grant on the spot, with little cost to themselves. A fair favor asks for a few hours of the givers time, or something it would take them a few hours to replace. A good favor is about a day's worth of time. A great favor would be several days. A Superb favor would require a week or two, a Fantastic favor a month, and so on. Basically how much effort will you the Giver have to go through to give this favor, and how much effort will what's being offered save them? The key here is that a favor's value all in the eyes of the Giver, and not the Seeker.

In a society where Status is a huge deal, simply interacting with someone of lower status might be seen as a favor equal to the difference between your Reputations skills. I'm a little wary of this mechanic, though, as it seems like it's double-dipping reputation. Of course, if your higher status is expressed in an aspect, you could invoke as a fair favor (which grants +2 on your roll, like any other invoke.) Similarly, in a society where time and attention are of the essence, even taking time to have a conversation constitutes a minor favor.

We're old Friends, aren't we?

This kind of negotiation is for acquaintances, people who share a community but aren't close friends. If one or both parties have an aspect that describes a positive relationship between them, then you don't use this mechanic. Instead, the Seeker compels the aspect with a Fate point, and the Giver either accepts the compel and receives the Fate Point, or has to spend a Fate point to buy off the compel, costing both of you a Fate point. Do that often enough, though, and people might rethink being your friend!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Contest Fractal: A framing device.

A few years ago I really got into Indy RPGs, especially the game design theory behind them. I hung out on the Forge forums, read "Design patterns in RPGs," all that jazz.  And one of the game design concepts I took away from that is the difference between task resolution and goal resolution. The short version is this: task resolution is a system for determining if characters accomplish what they set out to do, while goal resolution determines if what the characters do gets them what they want. Most games, including FATE, really only deal in task resolution. They leave goal resolution up to the narrative, usually controlled by the GM. But I always have a soft spot in my heart for goal resolution mechanics.

In FATE, you have three different ways of handling task resolution: Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts. Interestingly, though, the challenge is the basic building block that the other two types are made of. You could say that a contest is really a number of back to back challenges, or that a conflict is made up of various challenges with many varied results. Lets take that line of thought further. If a contest is made up of a series of challenges, could it not be made of a series of more complicated tasks?

This is the Contest Fractal: each exchange in the contest can be resolved with either a challenge, a contest, or a conflict, depending on it's nature. It's a way of using a contest to frame not just a scene, but a whole story.

Start your story as you will, at some point your players will have a goal. Get them to clearly articulate that goal, like "we will save the princess." Excellent. Now figure out who opposes that goal, such as the evil duke who kidnapped the princess. They've got their own win condition, say marriage to the princess. Now that the opposition and goals are clearly stated, we can use the contest rules to give our story a framework. Each exchange in this contest is going to be a scene. Each scene will have a winner and a loser, but the nature of the scene will determine if that requires a challenge, a contest, or a conflict. The first scene might be sneaking into the duke's castle, handled with each player making a simple stealth challenge. If the players succeed in sneaking in, they tally a victory and we move onto searching the castle in the next scene. But let's say they fail. Then our Duke tallies a victory, and the next scene is a conflict with the guards. They players win or lose the conflict, tally the appropriate victories, and move to the next scene. Let's say they lose the fight against the guards, too. Duke has 2 victories, and the players are captured in the dungeon. The next scene is an escape from prison scene. If the PC's fail this one too, they're in trouble: the Duke will have tallied three victories and the players were too late to stop the wedding! However, if they succeed, they'll tally a victory, and hopefully succeed in the next two scenes as well.

You can finesse the framing here by using alternate contest rules, such as moving the goalpost, tug or war, or cat and mouse from the DFRPG. In this way, the GM can fine-tune the contest to produce the kind of story you want. Again, the basic idea here is that each exchange in the larger contest is one scene, with success in that scene resolved with a challenge, contest, or conflict of it's own.

What this gets us is a solid mechanic for determining when players achieve their goals, or when those goals become unobtainable. It also gives us a decent idea for when milestones should occur. Win or lose, the end of a story contest is probably a milestone. For episodic storytelling, it tells you when the episode is over too. This won't be everyone's bag of tea, of course. Many storytellers would hate being railroaded by these kinds of rules. But for others, having this kind of plot-framing guidelines makes running things so much easier.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Apocalithic: Tribe Creation

That picture you have of the Lone Survivor, who wanders the post-apocalyptic landscape with a leather jacket and a dog kicking ass and taking names? Forget him. He died the first time he caught a cold, and his dog ate his corpse before running off to join a pack. In the feral future, no one survives without a Tribe. Your Tribe cares for you when you are sick, shares food with you when you can't find any, and provides you with companionship so you don't go painting faces on volleyballs. In return, a Tribe expects you to pull your weight, abide by the rules, and generally play nice with others in the tribe.

So whether you like it or not, every character in Apocalithic belongs to a Tribe, even the so called loners. The default assumption is that all the players are part of the same Tribe. This gives everyone a reason to cooperate right off the bat. It's possible to make characters who aren't part of the same tribe, but doing so robs you of the best parts of the game. Because in Apocalithic we put the same emphasis on advancing your tribe that many other RPGs place on advancing your characters. Much of the game revolves around improving your shared Tribe.

(A note before reading ahead: Apocalithic uses the Stuntless rules, and Tribal change contests use the Moving the Goalpost variant.)

Tribal Traits

In FATE parlance, your tribe is an Extra shared by certain characters. The most important tribe will be the one the PCs all share. Belonging to a community requires and aspect that states your membership, and every character, even NPCs, will have one such membership aspect on their character sheet. Of course, that aspect can also state a few other things about your character, such as "Chief of the water people" or "Village idiot of Springville." 

 The Tribe itself has Tribal Aspects, which every member of the tribe inherits through their membership aspect. These aspects may be invoked or compelled as if the character themselves possessed the aspect. These aspects may sometimes be locked in for effect, but doing so costs the character a point of refresh as normal.  The decision to lock in an aspect and what effect is granted, is left to the character. 

Unfortunately, you have to take the bad along with the good, and each community has three consequence slots. These might get used in any conflict involving the community. 

Additionally, a community has a Complexity rating, equal to the number of tribal aspects it currently has. This rating is used when organizing your community, which will be discussed later on. 

Tribes don't have their own skills because tribes don't participate in contests or conflicts. Even conflicts between tribes are played out on the personal scale of it's members, because tribes are small enough that it's always personal. If the tribe is known for being particularly skilled, that's an aspect. 

For the same reason, Tribes don't have any sort of stress track. There are no tribal-scale conflicts, and any sort of harm the tribe can come to is represented by consequences. 

Community Building:

Core Concept:

The most important Tribe in the game is the one the players belong to. To design this community, get all the players together and start talking. What kind of community are you interested in? A hunter/gatherer tribe that follows the wild cattle across the plains? A group of horse warriors descended from Biker gangs? A bunch of librarian/farmers preserving books only a few of them can read? Try to get a loose group consensus about the kind of tribe you're going to create. This is your core concept, and it guides the rest of community creation. This will be your tribe's first aspect, so sum it up in a short phrase. If this also gives your tribe it's name, so much the better.

This is probably the hard part, because you're stretching your imagination to think about how people might live in the future after industrial civilization is gone. The iconic communities provide a good starting point for such thinking. You can look to apocalyptic fiction for ideas, but remember that we're well past the actual collapse. You could take a group and imagine what they might be a century later. You might imagine some society from history that interests you, like the Native American plains tribes or the romanov gypsies, and figure how you might find a similar society in the future. You could also grab a subculture from the present day, perhaps even one you belong to, and imagine how they might survive and change in the collapse. They key to this process is having an open mind. With communication and travel more difficult after the collapse, Global society is gone. In it's place are thousands of local communities, each in contact with only a few others nearby. Each society will have the opportunity to get very different from the past and from each other.

Your idea doesn't have to be too detailed, a basic concept is enough to get started. You'll flesh it out as you go through the creation process, evolving the idea as you go.

For my Iconic community, I want something that hits the core of the game, that screams “Transhuman primitivism.” I also admit to wanting to take a friendly jab at the online community of primitivists. So I'm thinking of a group of people living like neolithic Native American hunter/gatherers, but who keep nanite cultures in jars. These nanites make solar-powered smartphones that form their own network, and the community uses them to coordinate. They've got a tribal version of facebook, a map of good hunting and gathering places they update in realtime, and a localized version of wikipedia. So Neolithic hunter/gatherers with wireless internet, that's my core concept. I sum it up as Children of the Web, decide that the spider is their totem mark, and I've got the first tribal aspect. I decide to most members lock it in to add computer use to the Lore skill of every child of the web. 


Like other characters, Tribes have their problems. These might be external, such as a war with a neighboring tribe or a drought that makes getting food a problem. It might be an internal problem, like a lack of skilled healers or two quarreling families. Maybe it's simply a common character flaw among your members, like "stubborn as a mule." Whatever it is, it's the greatest problem facing your community today. Name it and make it an aspect.

Like any character's trouble, make sure it's meaty and not easily solved. This problem should be a major driver of the plot, either because the players are confronting it directly or because it's making achieving their other goal harder. It's also much like the "setting issues" aspects of the core game, and benefits from the same advice. 

The children of the Web have one major issue: They spend all day playing with their comms and sometimes ignore their other chores.  They aren't going to starve to death from lack of hunting, but it sure makes organizing help for large tasks difficult. I call this tendency Comm Addiction. 

Other Aspects

In addition to the core concept and trouble,  each player at the table (including the GM) may add one aspect to the community. These aspects may be anything that further define the community, such as a well known specialty, relationships with other communities, or other problems facing your community (the GM's favorite thing to add, in fact.) Since each gets to pick an aspect, each player should have something about the community they like. Of course, each aspect you add also increases your community's complexity rating. For this reason a player can choose not to add an aspect if they don't want to. 

When choosing aspects for your community, think about what benefit you are giving community members. Are you adding a restricted trapping to a skill? Are you giving a bonus to a commonly used skill? Are you granting access to a resource that might otherwise be difficult to come by? Or are you giving members a way to earn beads by granting a compel-able aspect? Are you doing more than one of these? Is the effect of the aspect flexible or does it always grant the same bonus?

These aspects are going to further flesh out your community. Give special attention to answering the following questions
  • How does your community get food, water, and shelter? Are they hunter/gatherers? Fishermen? Farmers? Herders? Your primary source of sustenance has a great effect on your culture, determining if you're settled or nomadic, and showing up across your art and crafts in both material and subject. 
  • What Taboos does your Tribe have? What is forbidden? What is required? 
  • What rituals does your tribe go through to mark important passages through life?
  • What has your tribe preserved from the past?
  • What sort of relationships does your tribe have with it's neighbors? Are they friendly, or antagonistic? Do they regularly trade? 
  • What skills does the body of your tribe possess? Are you well known as the best weavers for a thousand miles? Have you preserved the secret of metalwork? 
The Children of the Web have several other Aspects. Their primary source of food is hunting dear in coordinated groups, and they respect the Spirit of Brother Dear in every part of their culture. The tribe also carefully tends to the Ancestor Jars, which contain Nanite cultures that produce the comms they all possess. Most members lock this aspect to provide themselves with a Comm. Finally, the tribe maintains a friendly relationship with a nearby murder of Corven Friends, who help scout for the tribe in exchange for handmade tools they can't produce themselves. 

Your tribe isn't just a list of aspects you inherit. It's also a group of people, who all share a culture, and economy, and a commitment to the tribe. They live together, work together, and deal with problems together. The tribe is a gestalt of the people who make it up, and you can't interact with the tribe except through it's people.

Faces are people in your tribe who exemplify one of the Tribal Aspects. They aren't the only characters that are part of your tribe, but they are important lynchpins of the community, the people that hold it together and make it function. Faces populate your tribe with interesting, motivated people to serve as allies and opposition to the player characters. They may be an important leader in the community, a troublemaker, or simply a definitively average member of the group, but they stand out as the person who has the most invested in that aspect.

Each tribal aspect gets it's own Face. Everyone participates when creating faces, not just the GM. This is everyone's tribe, after all. And if you have more than one good idea for a Face, go ahead and introduce them all! Each aspect needs at least one face, but nothing prevents you from having more than one face for an aspect.

Start by naming the character and giving a brief description of their place in the tribe. This core concept will suggest aspects during character creation later, most importantly describing their relationship with their community. This should put them in a position to represent their aspect well. The aspect “hidebound elders” would be well represented by someone with the concept “Obstinant chief of the tribe,” and when creating the character you'll have the aspects “Chief of the Tribe” and probably “Obstinant.” The same aspect could just as well be represented by a Shaman hung up on keeping the old ways, or the old woman everyone calls Auntie. It would not be well represented by a rebellious youth, even if he is defined by his opposition to the aspect. That character may exist in the tribe, but he's not a face.

Now ask yourself what motivates the character. Why do they represent their aspect, and what do they want? This is important because the purpose of the Faces is to provide allies and opposition for the PCs. In order to know which of those they'll be, we need to know what they want and what they are protecting. Then when the players start shaking up the Status Quo, they'll react appropriately. And if the players don't shake the status quo, your faces should be more than happy to do so, and the players can react.

For starters, a Face will want to protect the aspect they represent. If anything threatens to alter or remove the aspect they represent, they'll fight tooth and nail to prevent that from happening. Motivations may extend beyond that, however. The following stock formulas may help you arrive at additional motivations.
  • The Face wishes to expand their interests at the expense of another. 
  • The Face wants someone else to do something they don't want to do. 
  • The Face wants something that belongs to someone else, who doesn't want to give it up 
  • The Face wants to stop someone else from doing something they plan to do. 
The general idea is that these motivations should elicit conflict. Faces for different aspects may have conflicting motivations, or they may conflict with others outside the tribe. The best conflicts are those that directly involve the PCs. Therefore you may wish to alter motivations during character creation, or wait until after character creation to flesh out your faces.

In our Tribal community, we have the aspects Spirit of Brother Deer and Comm Addiction. Both aspects need Faces. Spirit of Brother Deer is represented by a wise elder, named Leaping Stag but usually called Antlers. Antlers is past his own prime hunting years, but excels at teaching tracking, archery, and the proper ways to respect the spirit of your prey. Almost all the current hunters have been trained by him. He wants to make sure his knowledge is passed on to the next generations, but he also has an additional motivation; He wants the younger ones to stop using their comms to slack off so much. He'd rather they spent more time practicing the hunt and honoring the spirits, instead of playing silly games and updating their blogs.

Meanwhile, Comm Addiction is represented by Stalking Wolf. Stalking Wolf is a layabout with little motivation to do anything but play various games on his Comm. He's got the tribe's high score on all the games, and considers that a meaningful accomplishment. He's not motivated by much other than the desire to play all day, despite being in his twenties. However, he can be very eloquent when it comes to convincing others to see things his way, especially if it gives him more time to play, and some of the younger generation admire him for his gaming skill. He'll fight any attempt by Antlers to limit the amount of time people spend online. So even without the PCs getting involved we already have a conflict brewing.

Complexity and Integrating Change.

A large part of Apocalithic is growing and changing your tribe. You'll have an opportunity to change aspects of your tribe at major milestones. However, this isn't as easy as changing or adding an aspect and moving on. Communities have a certain inertia, a resistance to change that makes it hard to progress. This is represented by a tribe's complexity rating, which is equal to the number of tribal aspects it possesses. 

Adding, changing, or removing a Tribal aspect requires an extended contest. The opposition to change is usually the Face of the aspect being challenged. If simply want to add an aspect, the GM will find a character in the tribe who will oppose this change. Usually the players will be spearheading change, but sometimes the players may be the ones fighting to preserve an aspect! Characters will compete to win the tribe over through whatever sort of contest you can devise, usually some sort of debate or other political activity to convince others to your side. 

Like any other contest, both sides describe their action and make opposed rolls, then tally victories. The first side to achieve a number of victories equal to the tribe's complexity rating wins the contest. If the active party wins, then they get to make the change to the aspect they desired. If the conservative side wins, no change takes place. 

However, if you lose, you don't have to lose graciously. So long as they were within 3 victories of the winner, the loser may chose to inflict a consequence on the community. If within 3 victories, this is a minor consequence. If within 2 victories, it's moderate, and if they were only one victory shy, it's major. This represents the difficulty the opposition causes the tribe in integrating the new aspect, or the rebellious feelings of those who wanted change but didn't get it. Once a consequence has been proposed, the winner has the option of going through with the change, or backing down to avoid the consequence. 

Stuntless for FATE Core

Spirit of the Century had a lot of stunts. And that's awesome, I still use it as a reference manual for what kinds of stunts to give characters in other FATE games. I think that's what stunts should be: a long list of crunchy bits that can't be modeled by the other rules. Feats are my favorite part of 3.5/Pathfinder, and to a certain type of gamer pouring through multiple books for just the right combination of abilities is half the fun. But not everyone has that kind of fun, and so were born the SotC stuntless rules.  They distilled the essence of stunts down to a few specific types, and gave you a way to access those effects via aspects.

Later versions of FATE, including FATE Core, seem to have met the stuntless rules halfway. Instead of 200+ pages of stunts, they've distilled stunts down to a few specific types and examples, and then encouraged you to make up your own. I understand why they did this. It succeeds nicely on keeping the page count down and the books affordable. Still, it's left me a little unsatisfied. Since I got my fun by pouring through those lists, being told to "make 'em up" takes a little of the fun out of them. And it leaves out the really interesting part of the actual stuntless rules, Dramatic Invocations. If you're gonna go that way, I say, go all the way and eliminate stunts.

One of Apocalithic's design goals is to be playable within it's own setting, so a big tome with a long list of stunts is pretty much out. For my own project I'm therefore adapting the stuntless rules to FATE core. And the good news is that's really simple. In essence we're simply going to append the rules about what stunts can do onto the rules for what invocations can do.

Expanded Invocations:

Take a look at page 91 of the kickstarter preview. Stunts are defined as being able to do three things: either add a new use to a skill, give a 2 shift bonus under certain circumstances, or simply break a rule.

In the second one we can immediately see the link to invocations, because that 2 shift bonus is what you get for a Fate Point. Adding a new use to a skill is pretty strait-forward. However, while "create a rules exception" is fair as a one time character creation thing, having to make snap judgments about what's a fair exception during play isn't viable. So we'll have to break that one down with a little help from the old stuntless rules.

Looking at the stuntless rules, several of them are made obsolete by the general "Declare a story detail" rule. However, I personally dislike the general nature of that rule and prefer that players have an aspect in order to use it.

In the end, the list of what you can do with an invocation on page 71 expands to the following:

Take a +2 on your current skill roll.
Reroll all your dice.
Force someone to make a Fair (+2) overcome roll to deal with an obstacle represented by the aspect. If you do this before your target’s turn in a conflict, they have to use their turn on this action.
 Add a new use to a skill. This can either mean substituting one skill for another in a check, or using the skill in an entirely novel way.
 Provide active opposition when you otherwise couldn't. This might mean you get to defend when surprised, or roll notice even when not actively searching your environment, or use active opposition for things you made but are currently unattended using your craft skill, or anything else  you can justify.
 Act Fast. Spend a Fate point to act immediately regardless of turn order in a conflict.
 Declare a story detail, as on p. 18 of the kickstarter preview. This can be introducing an NPC, having your special item on hand, or just know something important.

Now some players may want to force the last 4 to be used only on personal aspects. This is the default assumption for the SotC stuntless rules. But I prefer to allow these sorts of invocations on scene aspects as well, because it provides some interesting game play. For example, if the warehouse is Dark and shadowy someone could invoke that to defend against a ranged attack with stealth instead of athletics. Or someone Grappling someone else could invoke that in order to actively defend against anything the target does with their Physique. Taking this route clears up a lot of the edge cases about aspects and opposition that sometimes come up. However, if you aren't comfortable with letting every aspect be used this way, then section off some or all of the new invocation types and call them Dramatic Invocations. These invocations can only be made on your personal aspects, the ones on your character sheet.

Locking in an Aspect

Sometimes you just don't want to spend a Fate point every time your aspect comes up. The nature of what you are modelling is such that it should be involved every time, whether you've got a Fate point to spend or not. In these cases you want to Lock In the aspect. Pick one potential invocation of that aspect,    then spend a point of Refresh. You get to invoke that aspect in that way for free, but you cannot invoke that aspect for any other purpose at all. A locked-in aspect is still subject to compels, and you still get the Fate point when it's compelled.

For example, you might have the Paranoid aspect. You decide to lower your refresh by one to lock it in. You chose to always provide active opposition with Notice when other people are sneaking up on you, justifying it by stating your paranoia causes you to constantly scan your surroundings for threats. Having locked it in, you'll always provide active opposition in this case, but you won't be able to use your paranoia in any other fashion.

A locked-in aspect is essentially equivalent to a stunt under the normal rules, but with the additional cost of an aspect. I like to think of it as trading versatility for consistency on your aspects.

Stuntless Rules and Extras.

When using these rules, Extras require a little extra thought. All extras will be aspects under this system.   Essentially, an extra is a specifically defined list of viable invocations for that aspect. You spend a Fate point to invoke one of the possible uses listed on the extra. This where we get to pick up some of the more esoteric stunt uses again. Because an extra has to be pre-defined, you can add rules exceptions to how they work that simply aren't viable as on-the-fly invokes.

Extras also might require more than one point of refresh to lock in. If the extra provides more than one unique way of being invoked, then you have to spend a point of refresh for each unique invocation to lock it in. It may be possible to lock in only some aspects of the extra, leaving others open to standard  invocation. Or you may have to lock in all potential invocations.

For example, Zird's "Collegia Arcana" extra (page 313 revised extras chapter) would be an aspect, but each use of Lore for magic would cost him a FATE point! Knowing that will get expensive fast, Zird locks in this aspect. Given that all it does is give new uses to an existing skill, his GM rules that as a single invocation type and charges one point of refresh to lock it in.

Meanwhile, the Super strength extra (page 316 revised extras chapter) has two possible invocations. You could just leave this as an aspect and invoke it normally, but it's hardly worth being an extra just for that. Instead you have the option of spending up to three points of refresh to lock it in for a fixed +2, +4, or +6 to physique checks. The Weapon (2) invocation is probably a separate thing, and can either be left alone to be invoked, or locked in with additional points of refresh.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Messing with Contests.

[EDIT: This article was poorly researched, and apparently there is some discrepency between the rules as they are in the draft and how they will be in the final rules. I'll revisit this post when the final rules come out, for now just skip the section called "Tug of War" and you should be good. ]

When it comes to task resolution in FATE, Contests are kinda the middle child. Challenges are a single opposed roll and are easily used to resolve a problem, and Conflicts are meaty. Because of this, I think contests don't get much attention. That shouldn't be the case, so here are a few ideas for how to hack contests.

Tug of War

By default, each side tallies their victories, and the first to get past three wins. When both sides are competing to see who achieves an outside goal first, that's fine. But sometimes you're directly competing with each other over a single goal which only one of you can achieve. The simplest example of this would be two teams playing Tug of war. Another would be an open-ended chase, where all that matters is if the pursuer can close the distance, or if the hunted escape out of sight.

In this case, you could set the victory as a slider between -3 and +3. Victory moves you one notch in the direction towards your goal. Getting to your end means you've won the contest. Gains by you directly offset gains by your opponent. Another similar concept is to keep the two separate victory tracks, but to allow you to use a victory to remove one of your opponent's tally marks instead of add one to your tally

This can fairly model a number of situations better than the standard contest, but it has a rather serious fault: Two evenly matched opponents will tend to move the victory slider back and forth with neither one able to get it all the way to victory. For this reason contests like this can drag on. I would only use this option if I absolutely could not frame the situation so that the default first past the post scoring worked.

Moving the Goalposts

Anytime I see a constant in a game design, my first reaction is "why isn't this a variable?" Often there are good reasons, but just as often you can get some mileage from messing with the values.

In this case, some tasks require more work to accomplish. In a chase, for example, getting to a safe haven 50 miles away is harder than one only a few blocks away. It's a lot easier to convince a few friends of your side of the story than, say, a judge and jury. In these cases you might require more or less than the standard 3 victories to win the contest.

Adjusting this number pretty directly effects how long the contest will go on for. Dropping the number down to 2 will speed things up, and increasing it past 3 will drag things out. But more turns gives the players more time to do interesting things, story-wise. Entire movies involving courtroom Drama might be played out as a single contest with a much larger victory track.

It gets even more interesting if one party has a longer victory track than the other. Lets go back to the chase example: The hunted is trying to get to their safe house several miles away, while the pursuer is only a block behind them and only needs to close that distance. So the hunted might need something like 10 victory tallies to get away, while the pursuer might have only to achieve three. The hunted better  have some strong advantage!

Stressful Victory

The victory track is, as stated above, just a pacing mechanism. That's also what a stress track is. Perhaps one can serve as the other? In this case, your goal has a stress track, and your actions to achieve your goal become attacks meant to overflow that stress track. By default that track would have three boxes.

This has some speeding up effect, since multiple shifts do more stress. It also unifies all pacing mechanisms under a single mechanic, which some of us gearheads find more elegant. But the main thing this accomplishes is removing this difference between a contest and a conflict. Everything is a conflict, and your goal simply becomes a valid target on your turn. This means that all the tactics and complexity that makes conflicts meaty can be brought to bear on contests as well. This is great in those situations where your hero is directly conflicting with someone while still attempting to reach a goal. Punching each other while also trying to climb a broken rope bridge, for example, or perhaps a running gun battle through a collapsing building (with the aspect "On Fire", or course), while trying to be the first to reach the only exit to safety.

Of these three options, I'm most enamored with Moving the Goalpost. It's simple, easy, and allows the GM to model a wide variety of situations. I have several ideas for Apocalithic that are going to rely on this to implement. The others are ideas that I don't foresee getting a lot of mileage out of, but I'm sharing anyway because it might give others something to think about.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Apocalithic: Introduction

So I've hinted a bit around a FATE game I'm working on involving hunter gatherers. This is my little pet project, and pretty much every hack I come up with in one way or another is meant for use with this game. I figure I should probably share the concept early, then, so that my rules ideas can be understood in the context of the game they're meant to support.

Apocalithic is a game about tribal cultures developing in the ruins of a collapsed post-singularity society. It takes the two most extreme visions of our future: that of a runaway technological singularity and that of a collapse back to the stone age, and fuses them into a single setting. It's our world's future, where the projections of both hopeful post-humanists and fearful collapse survivalists were born out at the same time. Apocalithic is about the lasting consequences our society will leave on the world after it's gone, and about the new societies that will grow into the space we vacate.

The setting of Apocalithic rests on a foundation of 3 “posts”: Post-Human, Post-Industrial, and Post-Apocalypse. Lets take them one at a time.


People in the future can be a lot different than humans today. During the fall, a great deal of genetic tinkering went on with the Human Genome. Many of these traits were heritable, and the selection pressure from the collapse also increased the population's general fitness. As a baseline, humans are notably faster, stronger, smarter and tougher than their civilized ancestors. Even more exotic traits, such as oddly colored hair, night vision, claws, gills, even tails are not unheard of. Most don't even remember that these traits were engineered.

Humanity made up for centuries of extinctions with decades of genetic tampering, creating thousands of new species almost by accident. These almost immediately went feral and became key to the regrowth of the natural world. These range from the fantastic, such as the color changing cheshire cats, to simple yet profoundly important like the plastic eating bacteria. Many animals were “uplifted” to human-like intelligence. Most notable in North America are the Tannunaki, raccoons with opposable thumbs, and the Corven, ravenlike birds who can speak.

Finally, not all of this new life is what we might traditionally call life. Nanites, for example, are just another part of the ecosystem, albeit one with a strange habit of building consumer electronics out of sand and sunlight. Sometimes you'll also find larger robots, built during the last phases of industrialism, that are still operational. Every year more and more succumb to lack of maintenance, but enough survive that the sight of one is a notable but not unknown event. They tend to maintain large solar-powered computer systems that supposedly store the uploaded minds of the ancestors.


This word has two meanings, both of which apply to Apocalithic. The first meaning is a world without factories and assembly lines. Nearly every item in the future is hand crafted, usually by it's user or a member of their Tribe. They're mostly made from local materials, gathered by hand by the the same person making it. The village economy is the engine of production.

The second meaning of Post-Industrial is a synonym for Post-scarcity economics. While things your community cannot produce themselves are hard to come by, those things your community can produce locally are essentially free. Within the communities that have persevered, sharing with member in good standing is a survival skill honed through generations of hard times. So while futurists envisioned post-scarcity as the result of cornucopia machines, the inhabitants of the Rust Age achieve it by having a sharply limited definition of the word “Need.” All a person really needs are a sharp knife, the clothes on their back, and a Tribe.

The consequence of this is that if you can't produce it locally, it probably can't be had. And in general, knowhow has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, the near stone age level of technology that gives the game it's name. Some, perhaps most communities have preserved some sort of higher technology, but which ones are idiosyncratic. Some communities might know how to work metal, while others build computers from carefully tended nanite cultures, but no community preserved all knowledge. Stone age technologies serve as the robust foundation that communities must build apon.

That doesn't mean the things industrialism produced are just gone, however. The landscape still has overgrown ruins, and scavenging is a thriving trade. People take shelter under ancient overpasses, faithfully care for salvaged metal knives, and knap their arrowheads from the shard broken toilets. But these Black technologies are mostly seen as curiosities, because if you can't make it yourself you can't rely on it.


Apocalithic is a game that comes after the fall of civilization. But unlike other Post-apocalypse scenarios, there was no catastrophic event to pin the blame on. Civilization didn't so much crash as it petered out in fits and starts, coming to a rest by the side of the road and being abandoned to rust because their was no where to get gas for the tank. It ended in some places before others, depending on local resources and infrastructure. Depending on your location and how you figure things, it may have ended for you up to as far back as 500 years or as recently as 50 years ago.

And when it ended people didn't turn into crazed cannibals or roving biker gangs willing to die for a tank of gas. Because it was slow, people had time to adjust. Sure, life got tougher, but smart people were more likely to share food with you than kill you over it because friends and family are the real key to survival. When global society went away, people responded by forming local societies, and to many this was actually an improvement in the quality of their life.

This Utopian vision is what differentiates Apocalithic from, say, Burn Shift. Apocalithic is inherently hopeful. Civilization as we know it may be gone, but the worst fallout from that is over with. And the new societies forming have the opportunity to be Better. They have the freedom to explore the way things could be, free from the burden of the way things are. They aren't there yet. But that's where heroes come in.

In Apocalithic the players don't just create a character, they create a shared community for those characters to be part of. Advancing your community takes on the importance that advancing your character does in most RPGS. Your characters will become community leaders, organizing and influencing the development of a new civilization. Along the way you'll explore what communities are for, what they are, and what they should be.

I'm sure I've left some very important ideas about the setting out, but I think these are the basic ideas. The setting details are least important parts of this; they're hooks but if they were the point I'd just drop them into Burn Shift and be done with it. The point is the mood and the heady philosophical stuff. I'm trying for a sort of stone age Star Trek, a vehicle for morality plays about the pros and cons of civilization. I really hope I'm up to it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Bead Bag, another alternative to dice.

When brainstorming, you never stop at one solution. My problem is that I want an alternate to Fate dice that's more setting appropriate to the primitivist societies in my game. Related to this is a desire to make the game easy to play around a campfire. In the last post I described the Sacred Bowl Game, which is one way of doing this. But I'm not about to stop at just one way.

The bead bag is extremely simple. You need a bag, and 24 small tokens. The tokens come in 3 colors, eight of each. One color (say, green) is a [ + ], one color (say red) is a [ - ], and the last (say, black) is the blank. It's important that the tokens be similar in size and feel so you can't tell the difference by touch. Colored beads, polished stones of different types, or the tons of identical d6s most gamers have will serve for this purpose. 

To get a FATE spread, you shake the bag, reach in, and draw out 4 stones without looking. Total it up as normal, then put the beads back in the bag. 

Honestly the probability math on this is a bit beyond me: I can look up the equations online but understanding how to do them requires that I use math I haven't used since graduation. Obviously the first bead you draw will have exactly a 1 in 3 chance, but the chance of drawing a second, third, or fourth bead has decreasing probability. This is why I suggest 8 of each color, not 4. The more beads you have in there, the closer our probability will be to the correct FATE bell curve, but there's a practical upper limit to how many beads we want in the bag for ease of use. I figure 8 is close enough for our purposes.

Edit:  Jack Gulick was kind enough to do the math for me. To quote:

Here's the whole thing... not as hard as I'd thought.  Plus or Minus are still symmetric, naturally.

4     0.6588%
3     4.2161%
2    11.5942%
1    21.0804%
0    24.9012%

That means, relative to 4dF, 4 is 53% as likely, 3 is 85%, 2 is 94%, 1 is 107% and 0 is 106%.  A bit more centered, but not too terrible.

What is this good for? Two words: FATE LARPing. 

To use this method, you don't need a flat surface, or to be sitting. You just need a small bag or pocket with 2 dozen small stones. You can do this while walking without breaking stride. A fourth token (kept in your other pocket) for fate points, and your character's stats on an index card, and you're good to go. No need for an alternate set of rules for a LARP version of your game now. You can use the rules as written seamlessly. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Bowl game: an alternative to dice.

Apparently FUDGE dice can be a bit difficult to find sometimes, enough so that methods for using D6s in place of Fudge dice are described in the core rules. But I've always had a fascination for non-dice game mechanics, and one of the settings I'm working on is a game of tribal hunter-gatherers. So I did a little research into the gambling games of indigenous peoples and found The Sacred Bowl Game.

It's a traditional game played by North American Hunter/gatherers. The premise is pretty simple in RPG terms: you roll 6D2, and if 5 or 6 come up the same, you win that throw. It's kinda cool, and I bet you could base an RPG around that as a core mechanic. But I'm adapting this to FATE, so we're looking for a -4 to +4 spread on a bell curve.

So here's the idea. You'll need 8 of these two-sided tokens. Four of them have a [ + ] on one side and a [   ] on the other. The other four have [ - ] on one side and [   ] on the other. Toss them in the bowl, and count your + and - like you do for FUDGE dice. You'll get a +4 to -4 spread on a bell curve fairly close to the FUDGE die standard.

Here's the probability spread on normal FUDGE dice (taken from here),


   n                    P(n)   
  ---                 ------- 
  -4       1/81        1.235 %   
  -3       4/81        4.938 % 
  -2      10/81       12.346 % 
  -1      16/81       19.753 % 
   0      19/81       23.457 % 
   1      16/81       19.753 % 
   2      10/81       12.346 % 
   3       4/81        4.938 % 
   4       1/81        1.235 % 

And the spread on the my modified Bowl Game. 

8d2 Bowl

   n                    P(n)    
  ---                 ------- 
  -4       1/121       0.826 % 
  -3       6/121       4.958 % 
  -2      14/121      11.570 % 
  -1      24/121      19.834 % 
   0      31/121      25.619 % 
   1      24/121      19.834 % 
   2      14/121      11.570 % 
   3       6/121       4.958 % 
   4       1/121       0.826 %

So my idea is to use this as the core "dice" mechanic in my Hunter/gatherer game, for setting flavor. There's possibly more to get into here. For example, the bowl pictured has 4 quadrants, so perhaps how many tokens end up in each area might have some effect. But for now I'm happy just closely replicating the 4dF probability curve in an interesting way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stress as a Positive Currency

This post is about FATE core. It's the latest iteration of Evil Hat's FATE system, and is currently being kickstarted over here. An early draft of the rules is available to backers. If you aren't a backer yet, you should be: the 10 dollar level is the best deal you're ever going to get on an RPG. So go get the rough draft of the rules, get yourself up to date, and I'll meet you here.

Failure is not an option.
In a  storytelling game, failure is rarely a good outcome.  Pass/Fail mechanics are problematic, because failure tends to stop the story short. "Failure" should be replaced with "Success, But..." The "But" can be an unintended consequence, or an unexpected cost, and the player should have the choice between failing the check or accepting the "But." Within this paradigm, contests and conflicts don't decide whether a character succeeds or fails, they decide how much success will cost the player.

FATE core kind of has this in mind when it outlines it's 4 possible outcomes. It notes that a tie means success at a minor cost, and a failure can mean success as a significant cost. That's good, we're on the right track. But it really only notes this in passing in a sidebar, and doesn't quite draw as much attention to it as I'd like. It's really a powerful notion that deserves to be front and center. And FATE has a wide variety of currencies the players can spend on success, from the obvious Fate points, to the awesome consequence slots. But I'd like to talk about stress bars.

Stress Me Out

Here's the basic idea: stress isn't a damage track that gradually gets filled until it overflows and you're taken out of the conflict. It's really a currency you spend to avoid failure. It works like this: when you fail a check to overcome an obstacle or defend against an attack, you may choose to fill in a stress box on the appropriate track equal to your margin of failure. Doing so turns your failure into a Success with no shifts. That's as far as it goes, however. No check where you took stress can ever be more than a zero margin success. This choice takes place after all Fate points are spent and aspects invoked; it's a last resort. It should also be noted that success with zero margin is NOT a tie: you aren't entitled to a boost.

This requires rethinking the action types a little. It means that attacks aren't actions that attempt to do stress damage. Instead they're actions intended to remove another character from a conflict. If the attack is successful, the other character is out. In some ways this removes the difference between the attack and the overcome actions: I need to think about it more to make sure there aren't any lingering differences that would break the game if I combined the action types. Since it also opens up the possibility of taking stress outside of a conflict, it also requires rethinking when stress is "healed." I'd say it refreshes when you get at least an hour of rest, as a baseline.

Consequences can be used to reduce the stress needed to buy a tie. However, this idea is an extension of, and goes very well with, Consequences as a Positive Currency. In that case, consequences can be used not only to mitigate failure, but to buy into actual success (even success with style).

What this does, first and foremost, is opens up a wide variety of circumstances for your character to take stress outside conflicts. You can overexert yourself with athletics, or drive yourself bonkers studying too much. Sure, the sidebar I mentioned before suggests stress and consequences as options when you fail, but this codifies it into an actual rule. And more importantly, it puts the ball firmly in the players court to make that decision. Instead of waiting for the GM to maybe offer the option, the player gets to cheerfully beat the snot out of their character at their discretion. And every scratch of it is self inflicted: at every point the player had the option to back down and instead chose to take those hits to stay in the game.


Lets take a look at how this rule would work in a couple of circumstances. Lets start with combat.

Bob and Alice are dueling with rapiers. Bob has initiative, and throws a +3 on his attack, and Alice rolls horribly and gets a total of -1 on her defense. She has an aspect to invoke, and so spends a FATE point to raise that to +1. That's still 2 short. She would be taken out of the conflict here, but instead she chooses to take the stress hit. She ticks off her second physical stress box and is still in the fight. Now it's her turn. 

Notice something? That's right, mathematically this is identical to the current rules. Bob still succeeds with 2 shifts, and Alice still marks off her second stress box. The only difference is that instead of the attack forcing her to do so, Alice chose to take that hit. It's a minor difference, but it empowers the player with control over their character's narrative and that's always a good thing.

Lets try another common circumstance.

Alice is running out of the collapsing temple when, Whoops! The floor falls out from in front of her. She takes a moment to size up the gap, then leaps for safety! Under the circumstances, it's a Great (+4) difficulty. Alice is still rolling crap tonight, and only gets +3. She goes ahead and marks off her first physical stress box, and so instead of falling into the chasm, she hits the opposite ledge at chest height and bruises her ribs pulling herself up. 

So here we've seamlessly handled taking damage outside a conflict. Which is really cool.

Lets get one more example in here.

Alice needs a favor: She wants a meeting with His Majesty the King. She's got some friends at court, but she's both foreign and a commoner, so this is going to be a Fantastic (+6) difficulty, and what's worse, she's untrained in Etiquette. Even with an decent roll and an invoke, she's 3 points short. Fortunately this is a game with a fair amount of courtly intrigue, so players have a custom "reputation" stress track that measures their social capital. Unfortunately, Alice only has two boxes. She decides she really, really needs to see the king, and so she decides to get pushy and take a minor consequence "Everyone at court thinks I'm an ill-mannered Barbarian."  The reduces the stress hit by 2, and so Alice checks off her first box of reputation. She's burned a lot of bridges here, but she'll get her audience with the king. 

As you can see, combining this rule with custom stress tracks can represent a variety of exhaustible resources for your character.

In Closing.

Though it's a decent pacing mechanic, Stress is probably the weakest part of the FATE system. This is evidenced by the number of people who play a "no-stress" version of FATE. Mostly this is because as a damage mechanic, Consequences are so strong that people want to get strait to those. Part of that strength is that consequences are heavily tied to player choice. Giving players that same choice about taking stress goes a long way to making it a more interesting mechanic.

Also, this allows for stress to be used in a variety of situations where it was either klunky or arbitrary before. Taking stress damage outside of combat was pretty much GM fiat. And modelling resources like character wealth or Mana reserves with stress tracks required interpreting things like shopping or casting a spell as an "attack" of some sort.

Mostly though, this isn't really a new rule as much as a new way of looking at the existing rules. The only difference between a meter you have to fill to take someone out, and a limited resource you can spend to avoid failure, depends on who's doing what to who. Empowering the player to spend stress gives players agency over their character even in failure, and makes modelling a wide variety of narratives easier. Not too shabby.