Category Archives: Roleplaying Games

Unknown Armies 3e and loving people

The third edition of Unknown Armies is currently on Kickstarter. This was one of the more significant roleplaying games in my past, so I was positively required to back this one. This got me access to the Gamma edition of the rules, so I’ve been reading.

Oh my.

The second edition of Unknown Armies came out in 2002, which means that it’s been 14 years since it was published. In the interim, there’s been both a lot of history and a lot of development in RPG game mechanics. Both of these have been rolled into this new edition.

Last time I was rhapsodizing about Unknown Armies on this blog, I talked a lot about the Madness Meters. Now they are called Shock Gauges, and Greg Stolze has doubled down on their inclusion. Without going into too many details, the Shock Gauges are now the mechanical core of your character. Not only do they define your psychological profile, they set your core skills, which are the basis for the relationships and identities (e.g. player-defined skill sets). Everything radiates from your core psychological state.

Add to this rules to manage a sandbox approach to play (the Objective system), collaborative character creation, and GM advice which seems like the MC advice from Apocalypse World filtered through UA glasses (a really good thing, from my perspective), and you are left with a modernized version of a classic. Folks, I want to play this so hard.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about how Unknown Armies loves people.

That’s kind of a weird assertion to make. After all, Unknown Armies is known for horrible things happening to–and being done by–its characters. How could a game like this be accused of actually being warm towards humanity?

Unknown Armies has always been humanocentric horror. It’s almost the exact opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in fact. Lovecraftian horror is all about the cold, uncaring cosmos and the lack of human meaning. In the Unknown Armies universe, everything is humanity’s fault: the good and the bad alike. The world is a cosmic democracy; we make it what it is. Thus the “you did it” slogan from bygone days.

This edition of Unknown Armies does the best job of all the editions of capturing this humanocentric approach within its mechanics. You’re not creating a power fantasy with which you will be awesome. Rather, the rules guide you into making an emotionally real character who is still obsessed enough to chase something and pay the price. And you will pay the price. Both the rules text and the game mechanics enforce this. First, obviously, there are the Shock Gauges that will track the mental and emotional impact of what you have done and what has been done to you. Also, violence is brutal. In Unknown Armies, the characters’ “hit points” are tracked by the GM. The player isn’t allowed to track them or know what they are. Instead, they have to rely on the narrative description of their injuries provided by the GM. Gimmicky? Not really. Instead, by introducing uncertainty, the players respond towards the violence in more reasonable ways. They don’t know how hard they can push without suddenly dying. Combat in Unknown Armies tends to involve a lot of taking cover and scurrying from one location to another. Even magickal adepts can go down to a gunshot to the head.

The rules text amps this up, too. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the combat chapter in both the second and third editions:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Then the text proceeds to discuss ways to avoid a fight. The game treats violence as horrible because humans–real humans with loves and fears and dreams–are destroyed by it.

And, maybe even these things are justified. After all, the brutality of the combat doesn’t stop it from being a tool. So apparently, at least this time, what you wanted was worth inflicting that kind of harm on someone…or receiving that harm yourself.

This approach makes the horror of Unknown Armies work. It’s not about cosmically horrific monsters, as much as I love that sort of thing. No, in Unknown Armies, the horror is that the worst things being done in the world are being done by people. Real people, with real loves and desires and history. People who are understandable. Maybe even you.

That’s what I love about Unknown Armies: the intersection of real people, real desires, and real price. The magick and everything is just the setting.

Sound interesting to you? Consider backing the Kickstarter campaign!

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BREAKING NEWS: Dirty Secrets featured in current Bundle of Holding

So, the newest Bundle of Holding is out. If you don’t know, this is similar to the Humble Bundle for video games: pay a small amount to get a collection of roleplaying games, but if you pay above the average, you get a larger collection. Well, the current bundle is noir-themed, and it includes Dirty Secrets!

You should totally check it out!

Other games in the package:

  • The Big Crime
  • FASTLANE: Everything, All the Time
  • One Last Job
  • A Dirty World
  • Killshot: The Director’s Cut
  • Secrets & Lies: Hardboiled Triple Feature
  • Streets of Bedlam

In particular, I want to call out A Dirty World and Streets of BedlamA Dirty World is Greg Stolze’s noir game using the One-Roll Engine (ORE) which was popularized in Godlike and Wild Talents. It definitely skews to the classic noir period piece, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

Streets of Bedlam, on the other hand, is inspired more by Sin City by Frank Miller. Written by my friend Jason Blair, it’s powered by the Savage Worlds engine, most famously used in the newest edition of Deadlands.

All this, plus Dirty Secrets, for just a few bucks. If you love hardboiled fiction or noir of any kind, you simply can’t pass this one up.

Check it out, and please spread the word!


It’s Epimas!

My new game Showdown is for sale during Epimas, so if you’re interested, you can check that out.

But what is Epimas?

It’s a celebration of giving! You purchase one or more bundles of RPG PDFs ($10/bundle, with a discounted rate for buying multiple bundles). You get the contents of that bundle immediately *plus* the person of your choice receives the same bundle on Epimas (December 24). Essentially, you buy someone a gift and get to keep the gift at the same time. That’s the magic of Epimas!

Be sure to check out the Epimas sale, and get yourself a copy of Showdown for you and a friend!


My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.


You should back Mars Colony: 39 Dark right now! (with bonus reasons)

So, let’s start here.

If you like politics, or you are concerned about the direction your country is going, or you like science fiction, or you like supporting independent art, or think that I know what’s up–at least from time to time–then you should back Mars Colony: 39 Dark by Tim Koppang on Kickstarter. $6 gets you a PDF of the game, and $12 gets you both Mars Colony: 39 Dark and the original Mars Colony. That’s not a lot of money, and I really want to see this go super well for Tim.

The Kickstarter ends at 10:00 am (EDT) on April 2, so this doesn’t give you a lot of time. But, really, $12? To support a great guy? It’s a no-brainer to me.

But I promised bonus reasons, which are really the reasons that I care about this Kickstarter. And it goes a bit like this.

I like Tim.

As best I can recall, we first met at GenCon 2007. I was demoing Dirty Secrets and he was demoing Hero’s Banner. We ended up going out for lunch at the Ram. We chatted about…honestly, I don’t remember what we chatted about. But it was the beginning.

We’ve stayed in touch since then, mostly via Twitter. Tim came down from Chicago to one of our Go Play Peoria events, and he was one of the playtesters on Showdown. I had another odd connection to him. He was a lawyer and his wife is a law librarian. Back in Erie, I was a law librarian (without an MLS) at a law firm, so I had opportunities to work near and with lawyers. It was an educational experience, to be sure.

So when I got wind of the news that Tim had decided to quit being a lawyer and pursue an English degree and a career in teaching, I was kinda curious. So, in September 2012, I was at a convention in the Chicago area, and we were able to get together for breakfast. And we talked.

In this post, Tim sets out his reasons for pursuing his career change. It’s worth the read, and it matches with my own experience working around lawyers. The long hours, the constant grind to bill more and more hours, the deception.

The stress.

I wanted to be supportive to Tim. I know that there were people who straight up didn’t understand why he was making the choices he was making. He was deviating from The Plan that we’re all supposed to follow.

I found a kindred spirit in Tim.

He’s been working his ass off to keep up with work and graduate school ever since August of 2012, and I’m not really sure how he figured out time to finish getting Mars Colony: 39 Dark designed and developed. But I believe that Tim made some brave choices a couple years ago, and I want to see that his creative work is still rewarded as a result.

Maybe I want to believe that daring, counter-cultural choices can actually pay off, and that the road less traveled sometimes leads through easier terrain, not harder.

I’m proud of Tim, of what he’s done, and what he’s pursuing. And that’s why I want to see Mars Colony: 39 Dark succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

There’s not much time left, so you’d better go back it now.

And Tim, all my respect.


Looking for feedback on Dirty Secrets (plus a Showdown update)

So, in the wake of all the Veronica Mars attention, I find myself idly poking at the idea of doing a second edition of Dirty Secrets.

For those of you who don’t know, Dirty Secrets is my roleplaying game of detective noir, set in your home town, last week. One person plays the investigator, who is drawn into the seamy underbelly of her town in the service of truth and justice and righteousness…or at least some of those. The truth can be a dirty thing, especially the truth about yourself.

In fact, I was introduced to both Veronica Mars and The Wire through my work on Dirty Secrets. When I was demoing Dirty Secrets at GenCon 2007, people were constantly asking me, “Oh, so it’s like Veronica Mars?” After having to admit several times that I hadn’t seen Veronica Mars, I resolved to watch it as soon as possible. And, as I engaged discussions on the Internet about how Dirty Secrets handled issues of race, I discovered the need to watch The Wire.

And now, I find myself poking at the idea of another edition.

After all, it has been seven years since I designed the game originally. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about game design since then.

For example, I know that Dirty Secrets required significant cognitive load, especially during conflicts. Using Liars’ Dice as the core mechanic was a cool idea, but this was also the time that gameplay could come to a screeching halt, as players tried to juggle narrative and dice info plus bluffing…. It was a lot to hold in the mind.

I’d also like to allow for a smaller footprint for the game. There are a lot of components required to play Dirty Secrets. Dice, index cards, record sheets…the table was full. Maybe I could cut down the clutter a bit. I’d also want to reduce the social footprint of the game. I doubt that Dirty Secrets would ever be an hour-long game, but it might be nice to get it into the three-hour time slot. This is because I’m selfish. I don’t have the mindspace these days for a multi-session game, and I want to be able to play my own stuff, dammit!

So, these are some of the thoughts I have when I start thinking about a second edition. I’ll even admit to having done a little design and prototyping. But here’s where I’d like to pause and ask a question: what were your experiences with Dirty Secrets? Anything that you really liked? Anything that could be smoothed out? Any awesome experiences? Any really bad ones? I’d love to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t.

Please note: this doesn’t constitute a promise to actually release a second edition or even to do any work on it. I’m still in the exploratory phase, you might say. After all, I still need to get Showdown out the door, right?

Oh yes, about that….

Here’s the deal. I have a final manuscript in place. Layout has progressed a significant amount. However, my wife is my graphic designer and layout person. Part of the joy I get from working on Dark Omen Games is being able to work with her. And right now, due to some health challenges[*], she hasn’t been able to work on the project. I like all of you, and I really want to see Showdown in the world, but caring for Crystal comes first.

We both intend on seeing Showdown through to the end. But for now, the project is at a standstill.

At such time as we reach our next milestone, which would be the completion of layout, I’ll let all of you know.

[*]No, nothing life-threatening or anything, but enough to be very tiring.


Showdown update

So, I probably owe the world a Showdown update. This is pretty short and sweet, but hopefully it’ll whet your interest.

The manuscript is done and has been handed off to layout. Layout has made significant progress, but layout is currently busy with Christmas preparations in a household of eight and therefore isn’t getting anything done this month.

Work will continue in January, and I hope to have good news soon thereafter.

The biggest complication for this project is that we’re going to be working with Drive Thru Cards to create cards for Showdown. this being a new experience for us, it’ll probably take longer than normal. If we were just going to release a PDF and POD book, we’d probably be in good shape for a January release. As it is, we’re probably looking at sometime in the first quarter of 2014–which as everyone knows means by June. (I kid! I kid! I hope!)

Anyways, thank you for your continued patience as we poke along towards a release.

In the interim, check out Epimas, a sale of various independent roleplaying games, including Dirty Secrets!


Linda Ben-Ezra (March 9, 1952 – July 19, 2003)

Ten years ago, my mother died.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know what a pivotal moment this was in my life.

“Pivotal”. Yeah, let’s try that again.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that this moment broke my life.

But I forgot. I forgot it was today.

I forgot because I’ve gotten used to it. I forgot because the hole in my heart has healed, or, perhaps, scarred over. I forgot because the gap is normal. I’m used to not having a mother, to my children not having a grandmother–indeed, three children having never met her.

And then, I struggle sometimes with feeling guilty. Because, what kind of son am I if I don’t remember the last day my mother had on earth?

There was one moment that I felt guilty that I wasn’t there when she died. That’s a completely stupid feeling. I had moved my family out to Peoria the year before. My parents had visited only a month or so before she died. I wasn’t being irresponsible or neglectful. But, when I looked over the obituary, and it listed me as being from “Peoria, Illinois”, there was this quick, sharp jab of guilt.

Stupid human psyche.

My brother and father have already written today. I wouldn’t be surprised if other little memorials began appearing throughout the day. They are worth the read, especially my father’s. (More on that in a moment.)

For myself, the memorial I set up to my mother is the LARP I wrote, A Flower for Mara. Because the death of my mother truly taught me about death and dying.

In his piece, Dad says that his heart was shattered ten years ago, and at the same time, says that it was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Those aren’t idle words. I saw Dad earlier this month, and it was clear to me that he feels every single day of those ten years. He doesn’t complain or grumble (oh no!), but I can tell that he carries them all.

And still, to be able to see past all that pain, to see through to the good that God is doing…. That is a blessing.

I know that it’s more subtle, but A Flower for Mara is also in honor of my father. In the dedication, I wrote: “To Leon Ben-Ezra, my father. You showed me that, truly, there is life after death.” And you can see him in the pictures in the book, which were taken by my sister Adiel. It’s his hand holding the roses on pages 29 and 38. It’s his grief-stricken face on page 32. And it’s him you see on page 40, worshiping in the cemetary where they buried my mother.

A Flower for Mara is in memory of my mother, but it’s maybe even more about honoring my father. I watched him carry his flower, and I’ve watched him put it down.

Life after death.

Why am I talking about page numbers and pictures you can’t see? I’m going to fix that. For this weekend, I’m making A Flower for Mara free. Just click on this link and help yourself. Edited to ask: Give-away is closed now. Thanks for all the interest.

I’ll probably take down the file on Monday or thereabouts, so spread the word. But, please, don’t just share the link to the file. Link to this post. I want to honor my parents. Help me in that goal, please.


A milestone for Showdown

Tonight, I finished the Showdown manuscript.

To be fair, what I really mean is that I finished the draft of the manuscript that will go off to the editor to be savaged. (I mean this in a really good way, by the way.) There are still cards and tokens to design. The project isn’t completed by a long stretch.

And yet, this is a major milestone. I can put a stake in the ground tonight and say that a chapter has closed.

When I was working on my first game Junk, I came to a point where the goal was simply to finish. It wasn’t about a quality product (which is a good thing, given my current assessment of that game) or about satisfying market demand or anything like that. It was simply about the race against myself, about defeating Resistance for the first time.

I’ve needed Showdown to be done. For the last five years, it’s been an open loop in my mind. It’s been the project taunting me with its incompleteness.

And it’s not done yet. But tonight, I put another nail in its coffin.

That’s right, Showdown. Your ass is mine. By the end of summer, you’ll be done.


Keepers of the Lantern

I designed a game tonight!

It’s time for Game Chef, which is an annual game design contest of sorts that’s been running for…um…ten years now, I think. A number of published games have come from this contest, including some significant ones like Polaris, The Mountain Witch, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, and A Penny For My Thoughts.

I somehow doubt that Keepers of the Lantern (PDF) will have the same kind of impact. It’s just a short one-shot RPG poem. Mostly disposable, in fact.

But I really wanted to write it.

This year, the Forge is closing down. The site will remain with an archive of threads, but that’s it.

Eleven years ago, I signed on to the Forge forums. (Aside: through a funny convergence of events, I actually have had a user account on the Forge longer than Ron Edwards. Serious! Here’s my profile, and here’s Ron’s.) And, for that eleven years, the Forge has been a major part of my life.

I’ve launched three games through the community at the Forge.

GNS/The Big Model/Whatever we’re calling it now was a major boon for me, as it helped me broaden my enjoyment of games by coming to see that different people are looking for different things from the same experience.

I’ve made friends and colleagues across the country through the Forge. In fact, I connected with Ralph Mazza largely through the Forge, before either of us lived in Peoria.

My thinking on rituals and ritual design was shaped in part by an article by Chris Lehrich that was posted on the Forge.

There were years–years, I say–where reading the Forge and grappling with the ideas being pushed around there was a major component of my intellectual life. In fact, the Forge proved to me that it is possible to have productive discourse on the Internet.

Over the last couple of years, my life hasn’t allowed as much room for interaction at the Forge. For better or worse, the Forge Diaspora moved on most of the people I was really interested in continuing to connect with. And, as my life changed, my ability to devote the time to this place was hampered. I stopped checking the Forge regularly. Then, over time, it fell off my radar.

I’m probably not alone in this. Ron’s right; it’s time for the Forge to move on.

But still, I like that the last hurrah for the Forge is about design. At its heart, the Forge was all about quality design, leading to quality play. And, from where I’m sitting, it succeeded brilliantly.

So, Ron, Clinton, Vincent, I salute the work you’ve done over the years. Thank you for what you built.

Thank you for the Forge.