So, I’ve been posting to G+ these snippets: they’re a little too small and underdeveloped for the blog but I thought I’d do a round-up and save them here. If you want to know more about how Piece of Work is going, take a look over here:

On the topic of damage.
On the topic of perspectives.
On the topic of the core mechanic.
On the topic of purchasing gear.

There’ll probably be more as we finish our final playtesting and toss around more rules edits. Hope you enjoy!

Kit, Austin, and I sat down to play Dog Eat Dog last night on a whim. I wanted to do something but we didn’t have formal plans, so Kit listed off all the games we’d been meaning to play, and I picked the smallest one. I think all of us were just slightly lower energy than we usually are, which led to a quiet, casual atmosphere. It turns out that’s perfect for Dog Eat Dog.

I expected the game to be more serious. This is a game about colonial oppression, about how the occupation has all the power, and the natives have none. It was more mellow than that. You start out by naming some facts about both sides: the Natives share a proud desert culture, The occupation is technologically superior. Then you start a list of Rules that the occupation has conveyed to the natives, and the first rule must always be the [Native Culture] are inferior to the [Occupation Name]. The game plays in a few hours, and it seems like it’s more or less a one-shot style game.

Sounds intense, yeah? Of course, our first reaction as people when involved with something that intense is to buffer ourselves with humor, distance, and irony. I ended up being the occupation, and the Varangians, as we were known, were out to “fix” the natives. As Kit put it, the things that are true about the natives become traits which the occupation ends up attacking. The natives in our game, known as the Raj, had no discernible gender roles. Our first scene was one in which the scholar Pasho was burning dresses in the marketplace.

One thing the game stresses that I find super important is to push as far ahead into the action as you can. We found that a lot of the game is about what you’re willing to dispute. “I’m burning the occupation’s dresses in the marketplace,” Austin says. “Yeah? Okay.” say I. “I’m going to preach to the people of the marketplace about the evils of the occupation’s treatment of women.” “Then you’re going to get arrested.” Cool. Dice time.

After you roll dice, whoever rolls better gets to say how it all goes down. If anyone has any problems with it, they can have the occupation say how it goes down. Which means, when you’re a native in conflict with the occupation, you have this pressure to come up with something you think will be acceptable to the occupation. I found, though, that as the occupation, you also have pressure to accommodate the conclusions that the native players provide, if you want any sort of legitimacy to your occupation. I found myself negotiating more than proclaiming.

After each scene, the natives confer and make new rules about what they see as the occupation’s stance on things. For instance, in the first scene of the game, the natives decided that the occupation must really not be okay with speaking loudly in public places. This is the one spot of the game where the natives have any real authority and it inspires just the sort of helplessness in the occupation player you’d want. To whit: I was continually frustrated that I couldn’t “make them love me”. Here I was, bringing in roads and they come up with “Varangians have tender feet.”

All in all, the game was exactly the game we wanted that evening. Just enough space and low energy requirements that we could dive in without any real preparation or thought, and enough dramatic moments that the game actually produced a narrative we cared about. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I recommend you give it a try.

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So it’s been a few weeks since our last post because we’ve been working on a panoply of things. I want to get all of it down, because it seems impossible to be doing so much. Also, there are some exciting things in the works.

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They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that character sheets are the pictures of the games they’re from. With that in mind, here’s a sneak peak into Piece of Work.

Piece of Work character sheet

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So, having recently worked up a number of characters for one shots at Gen Con, I needed to figure out a way to make a lot of characters quickly. If we ever print a revision to Becoming Heroes, one thing I want to change about the book is to write a lot more advice about choosing traits. Until then, however, I want to share a “quick generation” pattern that I think works really well.

Choose your arc first. This will help you with the next bit. Also, some arcs have special trait requirements, and you’ll want to keep that in mind.

Next, choose traits to fit specific aspects of your character, as listed below:

  • Power: A thing your character can do that others cannot. You might be Attuned to the Forest. Or you could be a Demon Summoner.
  • Feature: A mundane aspect that is really useful. Are you a Shrewd Merchant? Maybe you have The Luck of a Fool.
  • History: The background you come from. Were you trained as a Forest Guardian? Perhaps you’re a Former Assassin.
  • Weakness: A character flaw. Perhaps you have an Uncompromising Devotion to the Faith. Maybe it’s an Endless Hatred for Monsters.
  • Quirk: Some tick or habit that others will notice. Are you a Zen Gardener? Are you a Wicked Gossip?
  • Disposition: How you come across to others. Are you an Eternal Optimist? Perhaps you Brook No Offense.
  • Description: How people describe you. Do you have a Gallant Bearing? Or are you a Master of Deception?
  • Physicality: How you physically interact with the world. Maybe you have Tattoos of Arcane Power. Maybe you’re Born of Giants?

After that, choose ties:

  • Someone you love
  • Someone you hate
  • Someone you need

Then choose circumstances and a virtue—I find these go pretty smoothly after the rest. With this mould, I was able to create six characters in a few hours by myself. If you’re doing this as a group, I’d recommend going down the list with each player creating one trait at a time.

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So we’ve been discussing damage in Piece of Work. In a cybernoir story, eventually someone is going to get shot, stabbed, or clubbed. Mechanically, there are a lot of options available for tracking hurt—hit points, statuses, health levels—but each has drawbacks that doesn’t deliver the effect we’re after. We want something gripping but still lightweight and story-focused.

Unfortunately, many damage systems are disconnected from the visceral thing they represent. Hit points are engaging while we mark off a few more points, but they don’t reflect the gaping wounds later in the story. We can check the box labeled Angry but that doesn’t feel like the irrational anger of a jealous lover. Health levels are flat and wide—they simultaneously say too much about a character’s capabilities and not enough about the reason they’re in the shape they’re in. They are, in short, abstract.

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Continuing the discussion from last time, I do think the “plotiness” axis is an interesting tool, but creating axes is where things get really fun. Some axes are more interesting than others, so how do we know which opposing conceptual concepts would make good pairs? Here are some guidelines I go by.

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As people, we’re good at identifying two opposing things and using that to make sense of the world. So, let’s talk about one of these opposing pairs, and maybe in a later post I’ll talk about creating axes as a way for understanding games more generally. The pair I’ve been looking at recently is what I’ve been calling the “plotiness” axis.

On one side of this scale are games about atmosphere. Here, the gestalt experience of mixing specific feelings and tropes together is the whole point of the game. Atomspheric games tend to have lighter character mechanics, quicker character generation, and sessions of the game tend to be disconnected from each other. These games have strong scene framing techniques and some emotional distance between the players and their characters. A good example would be Annalise. Another good one is Durance. (Both are excellent, and the latter has a Kickstarter underway right now.)

On the other side of this scale are games that feature strong episodic content. By that, I mean that the game is intended to be played week after week with the same crew and the same cast of characters. These games often have richer character mechanics, an “us-them” party-based dynamic, and GM-directed play. There’s also a strong “event-ness” to them—players will make plans, have those plans go awry when something happens, and generally focus on getting through the events of the day. Most traditional RPGs fall into this category, but so do games like Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel.

What’s cool about drawing lines in the sand is what we see by looking at the whole beach. We see games like 3:16; its char-gen is notoriously lightweight and play is highly disconnected—each session is a new planet. This is an atmosphere game about war. But at the same time, subtle mechanisms like Strengths/Weaknesses and Rank/Medals add just enough episodic play to give it a hook.

Or maybe we take a look at something like Call of Cthulhu and see that despite it being a very episodic plot-oriented sort of game, that sanity scores can really push towards brooding, atmospheric scenes and that GM techniques to establish tone are essential to creating a great play experience.

Or we can look at things that fit surprisingly well and extrapolate additional qualities: games like Dread and My Life with Master both fit very squarely into the atmospheric domain. And both these games barely, if at all, include character advancement. Neither particularly talks about “stuff”—items or gear or tools that might make things easier to do.

Or we can find games that don’t seem to fit cleanly into the spectrum. Principia: Secret Wars of the Renaissance—a fun episodic game where there’s this extra “what is happening to the world” mechanic that doesn’t really fit into this model at all. (Go download it. It’s free and it’s good.)

Next time, more on creating axes like this. Enjoy!

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When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.

Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.

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More and more these days, I am fascinated by the power and role of decisions. Decisions create buy-in, generate unexpected outcomes, and provide drama. As I’ve come to see it, most of all, decisions provide meaning.

But not all decisions create meaning—to do that, a decision needs to be personal, needs to have weight, and has to be visible. Each of these things is challenging to engineer reliably. I’ve been trying to take stock of what works for me. This is what I’ve come up with so far.

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