Games Every Game Designer Should Play

Inspired by Antti Lax’s post at LOKI (which in turn was inspired by Ryan Macklin’s post at his own blog), Sami Koponen from Efemeros challenged the rest of the Finnish gaming blogosphere to list the three games that we think every role-playing game designer should be familiar with.

Of course, in any such listing, the real challenge is condensation. I mean, I can easily rattle off a dozen games that are or were, in their own ways, innovative. There are innovations in rules, setting, even presentation, that are worthy of emulation and imitation and challenge traditional notions of how roleplaying games should be done. Note that I am not claiming that these are the only true way to do these things, or even necessarily the best ways. They are, however, pretty good ways of doing it, and should provoke thought, perhaps even inspiration. Being well-read is also valuable so you do not end up reinventing the wheel by accident. Most of the time, when someone is touting their new RPG with words like “revolutionary” or “unbeforeseen”, in practice they end up producing something straight out of 1988…

Note that I am leaving D&D off the list, firstly because it’s obvious and secondly, when you run into a role-playing game whose designer clearly was not too well-read, it’s generally pretty obvious that the gap in their education was not D&D. (If, on the other hand, you see yourself as a game designer and are not familiar with D&D, I recommend familiarizing yourself with at least the Mentzer red box Dungeons & Dragons [1983], Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 [2003] or Pathfinder RPG [2009] and Dungeons & Dragons 4E [2008] to familiarize yourself with the three major strains.)

The list will also reflect my own background. I’m from the traditionalist school of big, heavy rulebooks, GM authority and lots of dice. Though I am acquainted, and have occasionally even worked on or played things like Forge-style indie games or the school of Nordic roleplaying that sometimes eradicates the line between larp and tabletop games, I started with Middle-Earth Role-Play, continued with Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and my present go-to game is Pathfinder RPG, after playing its two direct forebears for the previous decade. That’s my background, deep in the dungeon.

So, in no particular order…

Pendragon

Any edition, pretty much. The thing that makes Pendragon special is how its ruleset and specifically the Traits and Passions can efficiently and non-intrusively direct the game to genre emulation. The knights of Le Morte d’Arthur frequently acted obviously against their own interest because of a rigid honour code that is alien to modern thought. Not only is their behaviour rather unlike the heroics of your average D&D campaign or modern fantasy film, it is also sufficiently removed from our way of thinking that its role-playing doesn’t come naturally unless you are very familiar with the source material. Pendragon, then, has Traits that operate on a sliding scale between two extremes, such as Chaste/Lustful or Pious/Worldly. The characters have a number value in each Trait, and the total of every Trait’s two extremes must equal 20. Whenever a situation arises where one of these Traits would come into play (in a dramatically appropriate fashion, of course), you roll against the Trait and successes or failures can limit your actions in the situation. In action, it leads to the player characters falling passionately in love with the damsel they’ve rescued, finding the inner reserves of strength to vanquish the dragon, and killing their fellow knights because of honour. A system like this could be adapted, I think, to any game where the player characters are expected to act according to a rigid code, cultural values or morality that goes against their self-interest. The obvious example is a samurai game.

The second thing that Pendragon does well is the generation game. The game is designed explicitly for a campaign encompassing the entire rise and fall of the Round Table. The Great Pendragon campaign takes 81 years from start to finish. That means you need more than one player character, and more often than not, it’s your player character’s job to make more wee potential PCs. Your character, like in most RPGs, will steadily get better as they adventure. Then, inevitably, they will die. Hopefully, they will do this in a heroic and/or tragic fashion that minstrels will sing of for ages to come and you get to bore your friends with over a pint. Their offspring, then, will not be quite as good as daddy was in his best days, but they will get an inheritance of Glory, titles, land, and generally better gear than papa had (weapons tech develops at a pretty respectable clip during the Enchantment of Britain). The foundation for this is laid out in character creation (at least in the 5th edition), where you start by rolling up the lifepaths of your first knight’s father and grandfather (both inevitably dead).

All in all, I think Pendragon is an excellent example of how to model a very specific genre in a traditional tabletop role-playing game.

Stalker

As the translator, I am probably biased, but then, this entire post is about my opinion on something, so hear me out. Stalker does a clever thing (actually, it does quite a few clever things) in how it handles combat. There is no separate combat mechanic or subsystem. Kicking someone’s, or even several someones’, ass is the same mechanical process as is used to see if the characters manage to fix a car engine or browbeat their dealer into giving them a better price. If you have more than one adversary, the extras are defeated in the margins of success. If any are still left after the first bout is resolved, then you look at how the scene has changed and see how the numbers stack this time around. Stalker is not interested in the process of combat, the blow-by-blow take that many (I’m tempted to say “most”) RPGs go for. Stalker is interested in the end result. How, precisely, that is reached is the players’ and the GM’s job to figure out. The rules are just there to help. The system encourages – nay, enforces – roleplaying and tactics beyond “I shoot him with my gun”, and rewards both. It is also impossible to break, save by bribing the GM. (Just so you know, I’m partial to Johnnie Walker Black.) This is relevant because, well, for one thing, it shows you that even a traditional game (and despite being diceless, I think Stalker is pretty traditional, with its long equipment lists, full-page character sheet and whatnot) can be designed without separate combat rules.

There’s a load of other things that make it worthwhile to have a look at Stalker. Player characters have no Intelligence attribute; the character’s wits are those of the player’s. This removes the issue of a player squirming because he figured out the puzzle immediately but his character, IQ turnip, never could. The Flow system is diceless, yet doesn’t include the usual pack of narrative rules elements like shared narration or negotiating outcomes. It is elegant yet robust, which is pretty much everything I can ask for in a roleplaying game system. It is also sufficiently lightweight that if one so wishes, they can easily adapt it to run whatever game or genre they want by merely rewriting one or two skill lists. Indeed, if our hypothetical designer padawan is more interested in writing the setting and the meat of the game (much like I) instead of designing a ruleset, Flow can be licenced under terms that are not only generous but also rather entertaining.

Finally, the rulebook also contains some damn fine GM advice, but that should not be limited to the perusal of putative designers.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play

The first two editions, at least. I am not familiar with the third edition and do not know if it retains the features I speak of. In any case, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play strikes an elegant balance between the classless and the class-based with its career system. Characters can start off as rat catchers and camp followers and over time, having fulfilled the requirements of their career, move on to other careers, accumulating experience and skills (possibly also gear, though that tends to be transitory) along the way, from rat catcher to cat burglar to vagabond to thief to rogue to demagogue to politician to crime lord to outlaw chief, or perhaps along some entirely different path. This allows the character a natural, organic development while retaining game effectiveness (both breaking the game and creating a completely useless character are rather tricky, especially in the second edition where they fixed the Naked Dwarf loophole). The characters are not nailed down to specific advancement paths, even if their starting careers were randomly determined.

The careers also tell you something important about the characters and the world; this is low fantasy, and the characters are not great heroes from the get-go. They’re not just rootless adventurers who roam the land performing feats of derring-do. They’re just people, who need to work to put food on the table, except half of them are too poor to own a table. It roots them into the setting. Switching careers is also a strong narrative element, such as when the peasant decides he has had enough of toil and sweat under a weary life and becomes an outlaw, or the outlaw figures that the injustices that led him to a life of crime are because of inequality in the deep structures of the society and becomes a demagogue to speak against those who misuse power. The career mechanic is flavourful enough to act as story seeds in and of themselves, but sufficiently flexible to serve the needs of the campaign.

Additionally, WFRP is not afraid to rain shit upon the characters. It’s not overly lethal, and player characters stand a good chance of seeing ripe old age, but getting there will hurt. There’s madness. There’s mutation. Using magic causes both. Critical hits can and will cause limb loss. The PC is not sacrosanct and both violence and meddling with things man was not meant to know will have consequences. The webzine Critical Miss did a series of three articles on the theme and style, a long time ago. They are here: How James Wallis Ruined My Character’s Life, Yes I Sank Your Barge, and Wolfgang’s Guide to Screwing Your Fellow Players. Read them in order.

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Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Stalker RPG, Self-Aggrandizement

It is time for some commercials!

As you may know, I translated Stalker RPG for Burger Games, and the game was finally released in PDF back in March. Now, Burger Games finally got a print-on-demand option worked out that they’re happy with. Additionally, the PDF’s price has been lowered to €14 (which translates to about $19.30). The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG, and the PoD book can be purchased from Lulu, for an eminently affordable €29.90. For a refresher, here’s J. Tuomas Harviainen’s review of the game. Additionally, here’s a thread on EN World where I discuss the system in some detail.

Another project I’m involved in is an IndieGoGo drive from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Ostensibly, it’s for printing hardcover versions of the rulebooks. Actually, it’s about getting game writer luminaries such as Kenneth Hite, Frank Mentzer, Jason Morningstar and Zak S to write LotFP adventure modules. Oh, and me. I’m not sure what, exactly, I am doing in this esteemed company, but if you throw enough money Jim’s way, we can all find out together when I pen him a 32-page adventure module. “Enough money” in this case means $105,000.

Okay, it’s probably not going to happen unless someone throws in $7,500 for a Drooling Fanboy pack with my name on it (which is also probably not going to happen, but I’d love to be proven wrong), but guys, I want that Richard Pett adventure. If I don’t get my Richard Pett adventure, I will be very disappointed. Also, I want the stuff that comes before Pett, too. Seriously, the writer of Fiasco and Grey Ranks doing old-school D&D? Gimme! Never saw anything by Kenneth Hite that I didn’t love, either. And there’s Frank Mentzer, the man who gave us Bargle!

Also, since the man behind the project is Jim Raggi, you know he won’t skimp on the production values. These adventures, when they get made, will be small works of art.

Stalker RPG Released in English

The much-awaited Stalker roleplaying game is finally out in English. Based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, it was written by Ville Vuorela and released by Burger Games in 2008. Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily newspaper in the country, dubbed it the best Finnish roleplaying game of all time.

Last year, I was contracted to translate it into English, which I did. Then it was in proofreading limbo for months. However, the wait is over, and the game is here. The prose is vivid, the diceless Flow system is elegant, and my utterly biased opinion is that it’s a must-have for, well, everyone. (Seriously, guys, you will be incapable of leading a happy and fulfilling life without this.)

Burger Games pays royalties from the game to Boris Strugatsky (Arkady having passed away in 1991). Since the Roadside Picnic was originally written in the Soviet Union where copyright defaulted to the state, they’re not technically required to do this, but it is how gentlemen go about these things.

Well, the PDF is out. Burger Games is now investigating the options for utilizing DTRPG’s print on demand service. Apparently there are some issues with margin widths, but we’ll see how that goes. There may also (hopefully) be a limited print run for Ropecon.

Though science fiction, the game is set now, today. Thirteen years ago, the Visitation created six Zones around the world. They are areas where the laws of nature no longer apply. The very chains of causality may be broken. Gravity and temperatures fluctuate, poisonous gases float over the landscape, and strange, unearthly creatures wander the land. They are watched over by the Institute, which is responsible for researching the Zones and guarding them, keeping the curious, the foolhardy and the criminal out. It is corrupt and its guard shoot first and ask questions later.

Despite the danger, some do go into the Zones. There is treasure to be had – the artifacts of the Zones are strange and alien, but possess powers that in a less enlightened age would have been called magic. There is a bustling black market in these items, and where there is demand, there is supply – the stalkers. Some do it out of greed, some because of thrills, a few because of a mystical affinity to the Zones. Romanticized in fiction and hunted by the law, they explore the Zones and discover their secrets. They are modern-day outlaws, living on the edge. Most die young.

Stalker presents Zone France, an urban desolation located in what used to be the city of Toulouse. Weird creatures and mutated beasts stalk the ruins, and what remains of the city is inhabited by the disenfranchised and the impoverished. Crime is rampant. The Institute patrols the border, but the border is long, the guards are few, and a determined team can easily get through into the Zone. In the end, the Zone is its own best guard.

The English translation also contains details on Zone Japan, originally released in the Burger Games designer blog.

The Flow system is simple and encourages roleplay. The basic mechanic is as follows: For a given task, the player describes their idea for solving it and how their character goes about it. The GM considers whether the idea has any merit and whether it fits the character and assigns the Idea and Roleplay values. If the character has an ability that would fit the situation, both values are increased by one. They are then multiplied and their product is compared to the target number. If it equals or surpasses the number, it is a success.

It’s there. Go buy it.

 

News: RPG Blog Alliance and Stalker RPG IRC channel

There is a new networking site for roleplaying bloggers out there, the RPG Blog Alliance. It is more community-oriented than the old RPG Blogger Network, which has also been suffering from technical issues lately. There’s a forum, they’re processing new memberships quickly and the site looks pretty good, and it’s caught on with the bloggers, too. I’d bookmark it if I were you. Just sayin’.

Also, though I have no news about the Stalker RPG to announce, we did put up an English-language IRC channel for the game, in IRCnet. It’s called #stalker-rpg. Since the game has been out in Finnish since 2008, we have no real reason to be tight-lipped about any of its contents, either. The game’s author, Ville Vuorela, goes by the nick Burger or Burger2 or some variant thereof, while I am NiTessine. Everyone is welcome!

Stalker RPG to Be Released in English

…and I translated it.

It’s official now. Burger Games is releasing the English-language version of Ville Vuorela’s Stalker, sometimes called the best Finnish RPG of all time (by Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily newspaper in the country) or indeed, the best there is.

The final manuscript that I sent yesterday clocked in at 101 093 words, 182 pages. Now it’s just a matter of proofreading, editing, layout and finally, printing.

It was quite a bit of work, but in the end, most of the text was in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, and I didn’t need to coin all that many new words or terms. Roleplaying games are easy, that way.

So, come July, even if you aren’t conversant in our strange Ugric moon language, you will be able to enjoy the dark brilliance of Stalker and have your characters get killed in abject misery in the ruins of Toulouse, where it’s a flip of the coin whether a given natural law even functions in a given place.

Come to think of it, the game’s tone isn’t far from Lamentations of the Flame Princess in that respect, except for the genre and setting.

Anyway, it was a fun and a rewarding job. I’ll post more information once it’s out. Meanwhile, you may refresh your memories of my review from way back in 2008.

Review: Stalker

Well, I didn’t quite break my own deadline with this. I finished reading Stalker, all 242 black-and-white pages of it. No, it’s not a game about spying and harassing young girls.

To repeat what I’ve mentioned here at least a couple of times in the past, it’s a science fiction roleplaying game from Burger Games, and it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker has also been a significant inspiration. I have neither read the book nor seen the film, though the novel is about five books deep in my to-read pile and the DVD is in the mail.

The RPG is only available in Finnish. I considered also doing the review in Finnish, but I figured a bilingual blog would be just annoying and confusing to my other reader, who doesn’t understand Finnish.

The Story

For those of you who need brushing up on your Soviet sci-fi, the core of the story is that thirteen years ago, six places in the world were hit by an unexplained phenomenon (often theorised to be a visit by extraterrestrial lifeforms) that twisted the laws of nature and rendered them uninhabitable and very dangerous. In the Zone one might run into, for example, an area where gravity is increased thousandfold, or a region of vacuum with no discernible physical barriers to keep it that way.

However, there are also artifacts, items not of this world that also defy the laws of nature. Some of them are nearly useless toys, such as a needle that creates light patterns in the air, but others have terrible powers, like a lamp that kills anything its green light touches. There’s also an item that’s weightless when touched by a living creature, but weighs many tons when it’s not.

The Institute is an organisation nominally under the UN that controls the six Zones and access to them. It is corrupt, authoritarian, and has guards that shoot first and ask questions later. However, the Zones are large, the budget is limited and there are areas where a group of determined and stealthy people can get through the net of guard towers and patrol routes.

Some of those people are stalkers – criminals who enter the Zone and brave its perils to bring back artifacts for their customers, who themselves are sometimes scientists working for the Institute.

That’s the PCs.

The game’s tone is grim and realistic. It doesn’t happen in a far-off future, it happens in the now. Violence is ugly and painful, poverty is rampant, prejudices and misery are commonplace. Authorities are corrupt. Most people are too preoccupied with survival to worry about morals. Death is inevitable and ever-present.

Of course, the game is mostly set around the Zone, where the proximity of the dangerous region has prompted most people to move away, and where only mutants, refugees, stalkers and other criminals dwell. And the Institute, of course.

The RPG’s default setting is around the French Zone, in Toulouse, but it gives short overviews of the five others – Klamath Falls, USA; Marmont, Canada (the setting of the novel); Derbent, Russia (homage to the movie Stalker); Saysu, China; and Sapporo, Japan.

The Game

One of the things that people have been making noise about in Stalker is the Flow system. It’s a diceless system with a resolution mechanic that relies on the GM grading the player’s roleplaying and his idea, adding possible skill bonuses and then multiplying and comparing to the target number. It’s an interesting system, since it’s diceless while still retaining some crunchiness. It also actively supports roleplaying and gives the player more power to affect the outcome.

Character creation is mechanically simple. You pick ten very broad skills, come up with explanations for how the character has them and then give each of them an associated negative side, something bad from the character’s history. A former policeman may have been fired for taking bribes, or a doctor killed his patient. Something like that. It’s a nifty way to bring depth to the character.

The Book

It’s ironic that the book starts by saying it’s probably not a good first roleplaying game for a newbie, and then in the GM section goes on to give some of the most comprehensive and best all-purpose GM advice I’ve seen in a game book, including some very basic things. The seeming contradiction may be a vestige of the extraordinarily long time the game has been in the works, but I don’t really mind. It’s good advice.

In general, the book is packed tightly with setting, adventure hooks and advice. It’s an advantage of having a light ruleset – more space for the meat of the game. This is the good stuff.

The font used throughout the book is Comic Sans. It’s clean and readable. I showed it to some graphic designers who nearly had an apoplexy. I do not know why, but it may be useful knowledge when dealing with graphic designers.

There’s the occasional typo and grammatical error, but nothing major. The art is black and white, and very dark.

Overall

It’s a good game. Very nifty, with a good, evocative setting and an interesting rules system.

Personally, though, I don’t see myself running this game. Playing, yes, but not running. It’s partly a deep-seated psychological need to have my dice bag with me, and partly because the setting just doesn’t do it for me, that way. It’s interesting to read about and well written, but I don’t get that “wow, I gotta run this right now” feeling I get off games like Godlike and Delta Green (which do set a very high bar, admittedly).

Also, Stalker doesn’t feel like a game you play many campaigns with. You’ve got the Zone and the artifacts and the Institute and the mutants, but you’ll end up retreading the same ground a lot, which demands a great deal from the GM in terms of creativity and work. Especially trips to the Zone could get hard to keep fresh for very long.

It’s a good game, though. I recommend it. Thumbs up.