Our Sacred Waters – Design Notes

March 31, 2021


Yesterday, I put up my first game on itch.io as part of the TryFolds game jam. (For those not aware, a game jam is a contest where people submit games within a certain criteria. These jams are usually very short, between several days to several weeks long. It’s a way to get a little creative with designs, and experiment with something new. As the TryFolds submission page reads: “Jams get to be a little dirty, and a little punk, and that’s part of the appeal”. I can dig it.)

I was a bit nervous to get the game up on the site. It’s my first public foray into RPG design, and although the point of a jam is to be a little rough around the edges, I still wanted it to look good. I had been struggling initially to come up with something interesting. The TryFolds jam needed to utilize folds, as in folded paper, which certainly gave me some neat design concepts. The jam allowed for submissions to be supplements, but I was working towards a small but complete game.

Many sheets of paper were lost in the making of this jam.

THE FOLDED COMPASS 

The game I ended up submitting is called Our Sacred Waters. It’s a GMless game for 3-6 players, and takes about 2-4 hours to play a session. It works as a single one-shot, but can also be expanded as a longer campaign. And, of course, it uses folds.

The basic premise is that one players acts as the Sailor, a lost voyager on their way home. They must pass through the strange seas, sacred waters controlled by the powerful and petty gods. These Gods will work to deceive, aid, tempt and destroy you as you travel across the seas, stopping on various Islands in order to get home. The other players act as the Gods, with each answering several questions about their power as a God. Once the ritual is complete, the Gods then create and control the Islands visited by the Sailor. 

The folds come into play in two different ways. The first is the Sailor’s Map. As the Gods introduce Islands to the Sailor, the Sailor can then flip open their map and sketch what the Island looks like. This serves as a reminder of the adventures in their journey, and also helps them navigate their surroundings. (There’s no mechanical system for navigation, but it does help to see visually where you’ve already been in case you revisit an island.) 

But where the folds really present themselves are with the Gods’ Celestial Compass. The compass is a folded sheet of paper that has the markings of the compass rose. At the beginning of each voyage (once the Sailor boards their ship), the Gods will silently flip open a direction on the compass. Then they draw, write, or detail their ideas for the next Island. Silently, so as not to alert the mortal Sailor of divine decisions, the Gods will swap compasses, collaborating on which Island will be the next to be presented. 

The folds work well with the compass here, for two reasons. First, it’s an easy way to determine which way the Island is located in relation to the Sailor’s current location. Simply look at the direction of the compass rose, and the Sailor can sketch out the Island without having to ask or clarify where the island is. The second benefit of the folds are the secrecy element of Island selection. The compasses are exchanged quietly, so the Gods don’t accidentally reveal anything about the upcoming Islands. It’s kind of like a mini GM screen. It’s more of a courtesy to the Sailor than it is to specifically stop them from sneaking a peak. The secrecy isn’t necessary to play the game, but I think it adds a layer of curiosity for all parties.

NEXT STEPS

Unfortunately I only got to playtest the game once before the submission deadline. I was heading up to visit my partner’s parents (we all got the vaccine), and wouldn’t have access to my editing programs to finish the work while I was there, meaning I had to spend the last two days before the deadline scrambling to get the game done. It’s certainly a little rough around the edges, and there are some pretty notable flubs in it. Particularly around the hand drawn folding instructions. I was really cutting it close to the deadline with that part.

I think at some point I’d like to revisit this game and do a complete overhaul of the graphics on this one. It’s certainly playable as is, but it doesn’t exactly sing with the level of quality I’d like to see. Plus, once I’ve had enough time to properly playtest and workshop the game, it would be good to add some additional rules or structures to the system. I’ve got a few ideas floating around already, particularly about the navigation system.

But for now, Our Sacred Waters is available on my itch.io store for a tiny fee of $3.00 (Gasp!) But to anyone reading this: feel free to shoot me an email for a free copy! I’m happy to send over a file just to get the game out there. I just updated the site’s email server, so if you go to the About page, you should see a brand new email address there. Feel free to reach out!

“Dearest Sailor, your journey has been long and weary.
Yet still, you persist.”

 

Check out Our Sacred Waters on the Wetlander’s itch.io store.

 

OD&D In Context

February 9, 2021


Back To Running the Open Table

OD&D cover art

There’s a tendency for people to look back upon histories and apply anachronistic labels or methods upon them. (Ever notice that every ancient/fantasy accent is British?) Likewise, when we think of the first roleplaying groups, we tend to think about our own experiences, tacking our modern expectations onto the past.

While this is a somewhat natural inclination, I think it’s worth placing these aside for a moment and put these games in their proper context. It can help shed a little light on why certain norms have risen and faded, and why we look back on some early practices and scratch our heads.

Much of what we’ll be reviewing is focused on D&D, but it serves as an analogue to what much of the hobby was up to at the time, given its dominance in the market.

HOMEBREWED SETTINGS

When early gamers first started to venture into this whole roleplaying thing, they weren’t given a ton of options for setting. Or at least not from publishers.

There were various flavors. There was the ambiguous fantasy world of early D&D and the many variants that soon propped up. For those who desired a richer setting, there was the highly defined world of Tekumel in Empire of the Petal Throne. But with theexception of EPT, most of these games were undefined and setting devoid. Many designers expected (and in fact, encouraged) GMs to build settings out of whole cloth.

Most would do exactly that, creating varied and unique landscapes, unified among other play groups by only their rules and structures. (You could expect just about any swords and sorcery game to have a dungeon.) Homebrewed scenarios weren’t so much the norm as much as they were the sole option.

And within that, player would often find themselves neck-deep in a world rife with opportunity.

The lack of setting and prepackaged material meant that players and GMs had to participate in building the setting. The PCs often had just as much a role in changing the world as the GM. (By that, I don’t mean that they were literally taking the GMs worldmap and adding new dungeons to it. I mean instead that they were constructing new encampments or building baronies within the existing world. They were looking at the game and staking their claim in it.)

Many groups would have multiple domains ruled BY players. Within them, players could create their own cultural norms and practices. And then there would be other PCs who lived within those kingdoms that would do the typical dungeoncrawling, hoping to become powerful enough to one day rule their own domain.

And to top it off, OD&D HAD RULES on how players could go about domain-level play. I believe that the mere existence of these rules made them a viable goal and active part of play.

THE LONG HAUL

Of course, getting to the point where you are powerful enough to own anything beyond the equipment in your pack can be trying. How were these players able to get to the point where they were ruling whole kingdoms or realms? How were players able to so deeply integrate themselves into the worlds, rather than just wandering vagabonds moving across lands in the quest for power?

The answer is time.

Even by the time of D&D’s 1974 release, Gygax, Arneson and others had already been running campaigns for several years. And many of the games that were started shortly after its release continued well through the 70’s and on. Most of these ended up transitioning into AD&D, but the campaigns continued all the same. At that time, a short campaign seemed to be considered a few months or so. And these shorter games weren’t considered the norm.

By comparison, modern conventions consider a long campaign somewhere between 10-20 sessions, played out over the course of 4-8 months. To be completely fair, that is certainly a sizable chunk of time to place into a game, and I want to make clear that I’m not claiming this is a “one true way” to play. There’s certainly merit to single-arc campaigns and one-shots which don’t have to take up large chunks of your lifespan.

But I do think there is something to be said about the depth and verisimilitude that can only really come from a campaign that has the history to back it up.

It’s one thing to fabricate an entire timeline, stretching back centuries or longer, to give the world some color and purpose. It’s an entirely different thing to have actual years built off of the that, where PCs have become legends (or maybe even gods), evil empires have risen and fallen, and many arcs have passed. That kind of play almost never happens anymore.

On top of that, most groups weren’t playing two or three sessions a month. Many anecdotal accounts indicate that players were meeting up several times a week! (Of course, a lot of these groups were doing open-table gaming, which made this much easier to achieve.)

When your game is one that has the strength of multiple years of worldbuilding behind it, it’s no surprise players would be interested in coming back week after week to play.

A PLETHORA OF CHOICE

This of course, brings us to another point, somewhat related to the piece about homebrews. Even more than a lack of published settings, there just weren’t a lot of games to choose from.

Sure there were a lot of different fantasy games. But to some extent, nearly all of these were fan-hacks of OD&D. Games like Runequest and Tunnels & Trolls were among the more ambitious edits of the bunch, but were still D&D-esque in concept. Even then, most groups usually picked a variant they preferred, and stuck with it.

It wasn’t until designers starting introducing radically different game structures that the broader scope of games being played took hold.Call of Cthulhu First Edition

A great example of this is Call of Cthulhu. By the early 80s, the whole dungeon/hexcrawling thing was getting a little dull for players. Many had transitioned to AD&D and the supported modules for the game weren’t encouraging domain-level play. The result was a sort-of leveling out, where players would grow tired of simply traveling the overworld, taking on dungeons and threats increasingly weak when compared to the PCs.

What a game like CoC offered wasn’t simply a new genre-bust for the hobby (although it certainly was that.) It gave players and GMs alike to try something totally new- mystery and horror structures.

By shifting the prevailing game structure on its head, making players increasingly powerless rather than powerful, it opened the doors to some of the more innovative designs of the period.

And with this variety in design, and an understandable desire to try them all, it became quite difficult to try and participate in that years-long campaign multiple times a week.

Compare that to today’s gamers, by way of looking at my own game schedule. I have my OD&D Open Table, a more typical campaign I’m planning for a homebrew system, and an ever-growing list of other games I plan to run sometime in the next year or so. Additionally I play a fair number of low/no-prep games like Fiasco or Technoir. Pretty quickly it becomes easy to see why it’s difficult to choose ONE game to devote all my time to.

And maybe that’s just me. I really could just be a really small minority of gamers who try to play as many games as possible. But I really don’t think that’s the case.

 Once you get outside the group of players who are only playing D&D, most gamers play a lot of different games.

The earliest groups didn’t have the plethora of choices that we do for play. Now, we choose to play space opera sci-fi one night, cosmic horror the next, and some one-shots for a cyberpunk and low fantasy game next week. There’s so many opportunities to play new games that there’s rarely a group who is willing to participate in building a world in the way these early players would. It’s no surprise that the linear adventures of 2nd edition arose in the 80s, because there was so much competition from other games that players were rarely spending years and years exploring one setting.

CONCLUSION

I may have babbled on about my own interpretations of history and made some bold assumptions about the way games are played. But I think there’s some value to doing that. One of the reasons I’m writing this series is to reflect on the hobby’s origins and how much it has changed from those early days.

From the years long OD&D games (some of which are still ongoing!) to the solo journals and micro-RPGs being developed in game jams and by indie designers, there’s a ton of differences between them in purpose, style and structure. But there’s also a commonality that brings a lot of this together. When we all sit down to play, we’re still looking to explore worlds of wonder, just like the early gamers were doing years ago.

 

Back to Running the Open Table

Tangent: Stranger Things & Troupe-Style Play

November 23, 2020


Stranger Things cover

I’ve recently been rewatching Stranger Things (I’m currently wrapping up Season 2.) Obviously, the show is quite popular, for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’m a fan of supernaturalhorror, and it pairs well with the cozy nostalgia that seems to be part-and-parcel with the 80’s. Most films/shows of this cross-genre features some nerdy “kids on bikes.” And of course, all these kids play D&D. (Not too far from reality, given the game’s huge popularity in the early 80’s.) 

So maybe it’s the cosmic terrors of the Upside Down, or it could be the eerily accurate D&D diagnoses throughout the show, but it’s making me think about roleplaying games. Specifically, the character’s various posses are reminding me of an uncommon way to game– troupe-style play.

For those unfamiliar, troupe-style play is when players have a “stable” of available characters to play. Compare that to a standard RPG, where a player uses a single PC for their in-game actions. Some troupes will even have the entire stable be up for play, with any player able to play any PC. Others will have players hop between PCs in a single session, playing each character simultaneously.

(All this lets the players experience a much wider depth of interaction with the game world. Not to mention the roleplaying opportunities between players, letting characters develop different relationships with each other. Ever had to come up with a half-assed reason why the same 5 PCs got together and don’t seem to have any other friends? That problem doesn’t exist when your group collectively runs 15 people.)

See below for ideas on how to use troupe play to run mysteries like the ones in Stranger Things.

Warning: Stranger Things spoilers ahead!

Much of Stranger Things splits characters into distinct groups. These groups often have overlapping goals, but largely work to accomplish them separately from the others. Think of Hopper and Joyce searching the Upside Down for Will, while the kids are fighting the Demogorgon. Right before this, the teens were also fighting the Demogorgon, and briefly interacted with the Joyce/Hopper group across dimensions.

What the show does here is jump from climax to climax, giving the viewers multiple paths to piece together the mysteries of the Upside Down. But it also keeps us guessing, never giving us an exact answer to the question we were looking for.

Something the show does particularly well is firewall the viewer’s knowledge. We often don’t get an “A-Ha!” moment from Group A until Group B has just fallen straight into deep shit. We feel as clueless and in-the-moment as the characters do, totally blind with only a loose plan of action to follow.

And I think this is the groundwork for some really interesting play. I could easily see this mystery-driven campaign explode across the table. 2-4 Players run several different groups, each with a character per group. With multiple intertwined mysteries pulling the groups in different directions, players can choose which group they want to follow, and therefore what scenarios they want to engage with. These groups can then be picked up and played with, working with various investigative procedures to tackle questions.

    • The kids have access to Eleven, and a surprisingly accurate D&D Monster Manual to guide them.
    • The teens have the freedom to act a bit brazenly. They can get weapons (like the bear trap), sneak around, and generally cause less commotion than the kids since they’re “crazy teenagers.” 
    • The adults, on the other hand, have access to information. They’re able to move across town freely and have a lot more cred than the other groups. Plus, with Hopper’s position as police chief, he has access to records and methods that no other character offers.

The groups each tackle a certain problem, using their unique abilities to gain further info on topics. As the players start to pull on the strings, it triggers other factors into play, drawing the focus back onto other groups.

For instance, when the kids come across “Will’s body” at the quarry in Season 1, a fantastic switch would be to immediately cut to the Hopper/Joyce group, as they work to identify the body. Hopper has access to the morgue and police, while Joyce has to identify her son.

The kids have essentially activated the “Will’s Body” mystery into play, allowing other groups to interact with it. All the GM needs to do to manage groups is keep a list of the revelations needed to trigger various elements into an active state. Once the conditions are met, simply jolt the players to another group for more dramatic effect. If the group would prefer to take a more calculated approach, I think letting them choose when to switch groups could work just as well.

This kind of dancing back-and-forth between groups can keep the mysteries holding their suspense, letting each group discover different angles. Eventually, the players will gather enough evidence to solve their mystery, making their next moves.

Of course, these mysteries will probably just lead to even bigger questions – who tried to fake Will’s death? And why?

(A: it’s the government. It’s always the government.)