The road ahead is pre-generated

I’vebeen listening to a few episodes of The Sons of Kryos this week. One of their segments was on character creation sessions. Both on SoK and on innumerable threads & blog posts around the web, I hear about these great character creation sessions that get everyone excited to play. Everyone pitches in, gets interested in each other’s characters, and is anxious for the looming conflicts.

I’m listening and drool is leaking from my lips. That sounds good. I want that. I think. Then, I do a reality check. With the exception of a few MLwM one-shots, that’s never really worked for me. In general, character creation has always been a chore to get done before you’re allowed to play. You use skills in building a character that never get touched on again. I’m reminded of a post I made last year about “pregame prep is a bug, not a feature.” I still believe that.

The next SoK show had a segment on pre-gens! That’s what I’m going to do: throw character gen to the wind. On Mondays Kat and I will have some pre-gens ready to go for something we feel like running that week. If something goes long, we can pick it up the next week. If people are excited and want to play more, but with a different character, then they can do the whole character generation thing. Thanks, Sons of Kryos!

We’ll see how it flies in real life…

By The Stars — “Slowly Digested over a Thousand Years” — Week Thirtty-Four

Due to the holiday and some particularly horrid days at work, there was not much concrete progress on BTS this week. However, I have been jotting notes on the game’s biggest single weakness: Lack of a cohesive, structured story with a sense of dramatic pacing. Many of my ideas currently revolve around a large central whiteboard that will function similar to WGP’s synopsis sheet. No single concept is ready for playtest yet, but luckily, “The Myth of Planet Earth” day playtest isn’t for another week and a half.

Looking back on these last few entries, I realize I’ve been playing a bit closer to the chest than I’d originally intended. So, below the cut are the quick rules handouts I used for both the first and second playtests. Let me know what you think.

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By The Stars — An Unexpected Party — Week Thirty-Three

This past Saturday, I went to Policon, a small, annual, private convention run by Don Corcoran. This year it was at Don’s home in Philly. Kat and I were only able to attend for one day, so I had planned to run With Great Power… and she had planned to run Serial. On Thursday, Don announced that it looked like he would have more attendees than he’d have games being run. So, prompted by my muse-in-wife’s-clothing, I volunteered to run By The Stars again. Don asked that I pare the scenario down to 6 players, due to space constraints. So Friday night was spent implementing the rules tweaks we had discovered after the first playtest.

On Saturday, there were but five of us, but a great five it was. A big “Thank You” to Kat, Don, Matt Talli, and Scott Lesher for helping to test my game. The game was, once again, fun. Most of the rules changes worked well and did what they were intended to do.

After two playtests with slightly different groups, I can begin to see the strengths and weaknesses of the design. On the positive, it does give people both a mechanical and story-based agenda. Players are kept engaged and active throughout the play time. The mechanics encourage players to create detail and engage in conflicts that they might not on their own.

On the negative side, the multiple-conflicts-at-once aspects means that each person is paying attention only to their own story, and usually missing out on everyone else’s. The disjointed nature of the narrative means that the story doesn’t build, it just sort of happens, happens, happens, and then ends. Plus, while characters are extremely active, they’re not really developed all that much.

This is all very good. The positives give me fuel to continue development. The negatives give me goals to work towards–thorny problems to fix.

In passing, for those of you keeping track of these things, the young Singularity Pilot won the day, convincing his father, the Singularity Overlord of Illyria, to leave the planet in his hands. The Prince proved his courage and, IIRC, stayed on as an advisor to the Pilot. The Pirate gave up his criminal ways to woo the Cyborg Princess, who was also sought by the Pilot. We joked that this would be the kick-off of a romantic comedy in space.

I’ve got three weeks until the next playtest and a huge list of things to think about. Maybe I’ll sign up to run it at Camp Nerdly at the beginning of May.

In any case, I’ve got a game. The game’s got legs. But the race is far from over…

By The Stars — The Jump to Lightspeed — Week Thirty-Two

We did it! We playtested By The Stars for the first time yesterday. My most heartfelt thanks to Kat, Bruce, Bill, Michele, Stefan, Don, and Jo for taking a chance, helping me out, and having a fun time in the process.

Yes, that’s right. Not only did the playtest happen, and not only was it successful, it was also fun! I have pages of notes in my cramped little handwriting for mistakes that were made, ways to fix them, suggestions for improving the game overall. It was the best session I’ve played in a long time.

From a story standpoint, the resource-rich, gas giant planet Illyria was thoroughly conquered by the forces of the Singularity, killing the rebellious Prince in the process. The Singularity Admiral died in making this, her greatest victory, possible. Her son, the hotshot pilot, ran off to find his own way enlightment. The Stalwart of the Glaive (my space knights), his reputation tarnished, went his own way. The former Singularity Overlord, the Illyrian Princess, and the first Self-Aware Robot joined the crew of the fearsome Space Pirate in search of freedom, adventure, and booty!

I’ve got lots of revision to do between now and the second playtest on April 22. But the basic token-trading system has a lot of promise and the game is well on its way to something great.

By The Stars — Danger! Danger! — Week Thirty-One

My playtest is in six days and I’m not ready. It’s going to be extremely rough and my little panic-voice is screaming “Cancel the whole thing and take up something simple, like gardening or photography.” But I shall persevere. No matter how rough the game is this Sunday, WE WILL PLAYTEST.

One of the bits I did work on was a brief setting intro. Initially, I tried to mimic the setting-free approach I had done for WGP…, but science fiction (even space fantasy) is so much bigger than superheroes that I don’t feel it could work. The finished product will have details on crafting your own setting, but for starters, I have this. I hate writing setting stuff.

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By The Stars — Sickness & Health — Week Thirty

It’s Monday morning and I should be recovering from a too-full day of too-much gaming fun at NYC’s RECESS yesterday. Instead, I’m recovering from a nasty stomach flu that filched most of my weekend from me. I’m frustrated for not being able to go to RECESS, confer w/ the NYC nerds, actually play some games. But it’s times like these when it’s hardest–and most important–to remember:

Falling down isn’t important. Standing up is.

I’ve got less than two weeks to prepare for my first open playtest. I’ll be using the WGP… enrichment process for the core resolution mechanic, but I need something that will force players to take actions that betray their Oaths. But it can’t be linked to a random event or a flip of a certain card. It must be clearly caused by their early decisions. I’m thinking of a sort of “favor” exchange system, where you can avoid the consequences of a failed conflict by giving your opponent one of your favor tokens. You’ll have a number of favor tokens, and can keep on dodging repercussions, until one of the other players amasses more of your favor tokens than you have and decides to cash them in. Then, you need to do what they ask of you, or destroy part of your own character to get out of it.


By The Stars — Punch It! — Week Twenty-Nine

In the realm of concrete words-on-a-page progress, I’ve got only a handful of scribbled notes to report. I spent a decent bit of the weekend fretting, cying, bellyaching, and tearing my hair out over this latest creative drought. Just yesterday morning I was ready to hang the whole thing up again.

Then I thought, to hell with all that! It’s wasted energy I could be using for a dozen better things, particularly in shoving By The Stars into playtesting. So that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve got no rules draft. I’ve got no scenario. I’ve got no characters. I’ve got no regular players lined up and committed. But there is one thing I do got: my spine. I’m not sure how I found it, and I’m not sure how long I’m gonna be able to hold onto it, but I’d better use it while I got it.

Therefore, I’ve just sent a bunch of local (and not-so-local) folks the following e-mail (if you didn’t get one and want one, I apologize for the oversight, let me know and I’ll put you on the list):

Hey, All!
As you may know, I’ve been working on designing a space fantasy game called By The Stars. For close to a year I’ve been struggling with it, often spinning my wheels fruitlessly. To get this game done, I need to revamp my methods. To that end, I’m going to be holding open playtesting of By The Stars. I’d appreciate if you could come and help me out.
We’ll be playing at my house. I’ll hold the playtests every other Sunday afternoon, starting at 1:00 pm. We’ll play with whomever shows up–there’s no pressure to make it to every single session. We’ll play for a few hours, discuss what works about the game, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. We’ll finish up with ordering dinner from a local restaurant, and possibly a board game or two. The first time you show up for a session, I’ll buy you dinner as a way of saying “Thank you!”
Although I want to start this RIGHT NOW, I have previous commitments. The first session will be Sunday, March 25. We’ll skip April 8 because it’s Easter and continue on April 22.

That gives me a bit over two weeks to come up with something actually playtestable. I can do that. I swear by the stars that I will!

By The Stars — Working? Working? — Week Twenty-Eight

The Good News: I finished the initial playtest draft of Serial. If you’d like a copy, e-mail me at thebard at incarnadine dot indie-rpgs dot com.

The Bad News: I only had time for one project and Serial was it. The new character sheet and Dreamation AP will have to wait until next week.

However, I did make notes on the resolution system and further clarified my design goals to focus on the kind of play that I most often do. By The Stars will be optimized for a 4-hour convention slot, but allow for other structures of play as well.

The saga of Mike and his dice…

I played the minis game Heroscape last night for the first time. It uses special attack and defense dice. Attack dice have 3 skull sides and 3 blank sides. Defense dice have 2 shield sides and 4 blank sides. Each shield counters one skull, with any skulls left becoming damage. I had 3 figs. Each got attacked once. In total for all 3, I rolled 24 defense dice. I scored 2 shields. Total. I was dead 5 minutes into the game.

Did I mention that my crappy die-rolls are infamous among my friends?

After that, I played two games of 10 Days in Africa–a rummy-like game from Out of the Box. I won both of those, with a lot of luck. Then, seven of us played Cancellation Hearts, where I succeeded in taking zero points in the three hands we were able to squeeze in.

Contrasting these two games–and just Heroscape vs. Mechaton–I find that I like, and am better at, choice-centered games. The feeling of control is a powerful thing. Even when the handful of cards are so bad that your control doesn’t help you to prevail. Choice forces you to make a decision about how to allocate your resources, no matter how scant they may be. And decisions promote engagement.