Wednesday, September 9, 2020

A BLACKADDER RPG

As a kid I was a huge fan of Blackadder. I lived in the US, and to my knowledge it never aired on my local PBS station (or at least I was unaware of it airing if it did), so I picked up the series slowly, one VHS tape at a time. I began one series one, which I quite liked. I enjoyed it so much, when I finished the second series 1 tape, I rushed out to pick up the second series. The quality of series 2 amazed me; the writing was sharper, and the characterization of Edmund Blackadder worked a lot more. I devoured the remaining series, and loved them all. Joke after joke had me on the floor. It appealed to my interest in history but also propelled my curiosity about history further. It was formative, both in terms of my academic interests and in terms of helping to shape my sense of humor. 

Years later, I was running a Masque of the Red Death campaign. It must have stumbled, or been an off night. I can't quite recall. The bottom line is the session wasn't as horrifying as planned. So I just started incorporating a lot of situational comedy complications: the PCs had a rich uncle, were hosting a large important ball, and their reputations and wealth would be ruined if any of the guests discovered an embarrassing supernatural curse was spreading among the guests. The details I don't recall so well anymore. But I remember the basic thing I did was throw in complications and give the players space to solve them. It just worked well. And everyone laughed the whole time. 

This planted a seed of a game I never made. When Bill and I started Bedrock Games, we had a list of things we wanted to make over the next several years. One thing on that list was something we just called "Sitcom: The RPG". But what I really wanted, was to make a Blackadder RPG. There was a Red Dwarf RPG, which I liked at the time. And that gave me the thought it might work. 

I had no idea how to secure the license for such a thing though (and doubt I would have been able to even if we had the resources). So it never went anywhere beyond some ideas tossed around in a few meetings (we used to meet and brainstorm all the time). We toyed with the idea of just going with a generic sitcom RPG, but that never really captured out imaginations the way a Blackadder RPG would have. 

To this day I am curious how it might have come out. It probably would not have been a network game. If it were, the system would have been greatly altered I think. I do recall us bouncing some interesting ideas. But interesting ideas don't always survive playtest, and we never got to the play testing phase on it. 

I do remember wanting time to be important. I was hoping for the game to play out over the course of thirty minutes, so the situation would have a real countdown to disaster feel (something I had done a lot in our game Terror Network, except in this case the disaster would probably be more social). 

I almost did something like I had done with Servants of Gaius, and make a game greatly inspired by the source material (Servants of Gaius was inspired by I, Claudius). I doubt this is a game idea I will come back to. It is one of those games that never made it past the idea stage. 


Thursday, September 3, 2020

BILL THE GAMING WIZARD

Today is the day that Bill Butler, the co-founder of Bedrock Games, my creative partner and friend, passed away. I always spend a lot of time thinking about him in the days leading up to the 3rd of September. And this year I thought I would explain what Bill brought to Bedrock, why he was so important, and why his influence continues to be important. 

Bill was the gaming wizard. I don't think people truly appreciate how much Bill loved gaming. I am a gamer, but my devotion to the hobby pales compared to his. Bill was a person who gamed possibly 4-5 nights a week (I can manage 1-2). When he passed away, and we attended his memorial service, people identified themselves by the day on which they gamed with Bill (i.e. I am so and so, from Bill's Tuesday game; I am so and so from his Saturday game). 

And playing that much made a difference when we sat down to design. Bill played games, read games and thought about games all the time. I believed I knew a lot of systems and games before I met Bill. No. Bill demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of the hobby I never possessed. He knew every system imaginable, knew what made that system unique, what was good about it, and what wasn't good about it (with plenty of subjective opinion thrown in for good measure). He understood game systems, and I always deferred to him when we were managing mechanics (we both did a bit of everything, but basically he was more the mechanics guy and I was more the writing guy). If you don't have sound mechanics, there isn't much to write about. 

After Bill died it took me and the others a while to do this without him. Because we buried ourselves in making new material after, there was an explosion of content, but I still feel it took time to bring the games to a focused level that fit Bill's more demanding standards. 

One thing Bill helped maintain was quality control. He was very good at tightening a system. You can see the difference very clearly when you look at a game like Sertorius, which he was involved with from beginning to end, and compare it to Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, which he was involved with in the beginning but was unfortunately not part of the design process after the first few months because of his death. Don't get me wrong, Ogre Gate is a very good game, it was also the game we needed to make at the time, but it was part of learning not to design without Bill. And that made it very different. I think by the time we got to Strange Tales we had a better sense of how to implement the mechanical vision Bill had for these games. 

A word Bill used a lot when we talked design was "sleek". He was always interested in sleek design. Which is why we made Strange Tales as sleek as we possibly could. 

Another aspect to Bill's approach was this: once we decided upon a course, even if it was one he didn't like, and even if he grumbled a bit afterwards, he would eventually say something like 'okay we can do it like that if we do Y'. He was good at figuring out a way to steer the course once we settled on an overall vision (even if it wasn't his preferred vision). 

As an example when we did the Network System, I knew I wanted d10 dice pools. They are somewhat of a tough sell, or at the very least, a bit divisive. I won't get into the pros and cons as most gamers know them. But after some objections, Bill agreed to do d10s if we adhered to 'roll a hand of d10s and take the single highest result'. That was his exact phrasing which I've tried to keep. And that is what made the system work so well. If it had been any less simple, it would have been too fiddly. In a lot of ways, Bill wasn't a fan at all of d10 dice pools, and he especially hated 'buckets of dice' games. So I think he was the best person to create a d10 dice pool system for that reason. 

Our initial design of the system was often me proposing all kinds of things I wanted and Bill saying no, recommendations ways to make what I wanted work, or saying yes. In the absence of Bill, it became very hard to appropriately gauge the level of restraint he would have brought to an idea. I had two very capable co-designers helping me at that time (Dan and Ryan) but we were all committed to the idea of trying to preserve Bill's spirit in the design process, and I think we all had our own difficulties figuring out the answer to what Bill would have thought. I know I personally found it to be a very delicate process because it was just as easy to overplay Bill's potential objections or praises of an idea, as it was to underplay them. We wanted to preserve the dynamic that was in place when we were designing Sertorius with Bill. Obviously that is an impossibility but something we really strove to achieve. 

One thing that Bill's passing changed as well was how we handled any design conflict that came up. When you lose a voice at the design table the way we did, you gain a greater appreciation for the voices present. Our disputes became a lot less petty or ego driven. 


Saturday, August 29, 2020

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD, RUTHLESS BLADES: DARK WUXIA AND SIMPLIFYING THE COMPLEX

I realized I hadn't quite made an official announcement about Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. I have commented about it here, posted about some of the design goals, but I haven't provided a clear announcement. 

Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades is a dark wuxia RPG, written by myself and Jeremy Bai. Our aim was to capture the feel of the style of wuxia in Gu Long stories and Chor Yuen movies. We wanted something that was more gritty, dealt with weightier themes and presented an unflinching view of the Jianghu. 

RBRB is fast, lethal, and dark. It will be released December 10th in the UK, and December 8th in the US. It can be pre-ordered HERE

You can listen to our podcasts about the design to get some insight into what to expect. 

Our aim was to make a game was light enough to fade into the background, but deep enough to emulate the intricacies of the wuxia genre (particularly the martial abilities). I think we achieved our goal and am proud of the final result. 

A few years ago I made a game called Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, my first attempt at a wuxia RPG. It is a good game, but mechanically on the heavier side (which I felt was necessary because I wanted to capture all the kung fu and swordplay I could from the genre). During the years I ran Ogre Gate, I had been thinking of ways to simplify without losing the flavor. What we tried to do was keep the core idea of selecting martial abilities, and codify the counters better (making them a whole separate category). This worked well. We also tried to make many of the abilities broader in application. 

One lesson I learned from Ogre was that because the core system was deep on its own, some of the residual depth in the system elsewhere could bog down play. So I wanted a much less extensive section on combat rules. We have key rules in there, but we set a bar that it really has to be necessary to be a part of the game. There was a point for example where we considered not having guidelines on restraining (in the end we reluctantly decided this was needed). Every mechanic was seen as a potential drag on the game, something the GM had to remember and keep in mind during play, or something that would necessitate look-up. And we wanted to reduce all that. 

The design became about streamlining and simplifying our ideas as much as possible. But again without losing the emulation. 

I also made a point of measuring things. It is easy to say "quick character creation" or "speedy combat". But I timed them both whenever we play-tested. We were particularly interested in combat speed (whereas when I made Strange Tales of Songling, my interest was in very quick character generation). Because we were drawing a bit more on Gu Long stories, many of those feature more efficient combat scenes than Jin Yong stories. There is a bit of a gunslinger or samurai vibe to how Gu Long handles duels. There is often a suspenseful buildup, then the confusing flash of weapons, followed by quick dismemberment or death. It is stylish and fast. And we wanted to capture that. 

One of the key ways to make sure this was in the game was to time the combats, and I think we succeeded. Obviously when dice are involved, and different mixtures of characters are in play, you can have much longer fight sequences. But I think the fights play out quite fast on average and this is aided by the fact that the game is theater of the mind (I do not ever use miniatures for my wuxia campaigns). 

Another key thing that helped this was how we handled turn order. We placed a talking phase at the start of combat. This is called the "Talking and Analysis Phase". It can be used to simply say something dramatic before the fight begins, but it can also be wielded cleverly to manipulate a foe, get in their head, or decipher something about their skills, so you gain an advantage or edge in the battle. It isn't always a required phase (it can be skipped in instances like ambushes for example). But it is a very good tool. 

This is also a gorgeous book. I am very impressed with the color artwork, the maps and layout design. 

As we get closer to the release date I will post more thoughts and ideas. In the meantime, check out the preview at Osprey Games


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

LUNDO: THE VOICE OF CRIME NETWORK

Crime Network was all about the voice. Of all our games it has the most personality, and is meant to sound like a conversation rather than a rule book. The text is brash and colorful, and written with a Boston accent. The narrator of the core rules and the Gangsters Guide to Organized Crime is a character from the game named Lundo Lipioni, and he was based on my grandfather, Orlando "Lundo" J. Fanti. I made him a hitman, which made him happy because he liked mafia movies, and I channeled his style of speaking into the writing. 

The writing style in the Crime Network books was the most fun for me personally. I was able to employ lots of humor using his voice, and really helped bring things to life. I remember when I first showed Bill the manuscript (I had written a draft of the rules before we started Bedrock), he commented that it definitely had lots of personality. 

The real man was obviously not a killer, but the book reflects how he spoke, and he worked for the character and the game setting. The image to the right is my favorite one of him in the book. Getting his hair right proved a challenge (he had curly hair like me and that doesn't always show up in art great). The picture below is a real photograph of him. This was probably taken shortly after the married my grandmother (who died a year before I was born). 

In real life he was a brick layer. In fact he was born in the Brickyard in Lynn (basically where the Italians lived at that time). He had been an amateur prize fighter before turning professional, but WWII cut his career short (he injured his hands in a jeep accident after the Battle of of the Bulge). He worked other jobs as well (for many years he had a job in the tunnel in Boston for example). But stone and bricks were his trade. The house where I live today is surrounded by the stone walkways and patios he and his brothers build ages ago. 

He always had a boxer's personality in my opinion, and you could still see it in his movements, even after he turned 80. And he was the kind of person who couldn't remain idle during the day, he had to be working on something. I remember when I lived in California, he came to visit for several weeks every year, and he would spend all day working our yard (he would trim all the foliage, and dig giant holes to bury the trimmings). I was always amazed to watch him dig what looked like 10 foot by 4 foot holes, several feet deep. At his house he was the same, endlessly mowing, shoveling leaves to burn in his brick furnace, then going to his brothers and sister's houses and doing their yard work (he was the youngest sibling, so this was apparently his duty).

He was also an extremely tough man. I heard stories of him ripping doors of old refrigerators with his bear hands, for example. And he once got stung by a swarm of bees and swelled up, but refused to go the doctor (he also had several heart attacks and didn't go to the doctor for those either). 

But he was very family focused and loving. For him, family was the most important thing. Nothing ever equalled family. He was not the type of person to turn his back on a family member, and he was always close with his brothers and sisters (they lived next door to each other until they died, in four adjacent houses). 

Like I said, he liked mafia movies. I remember listening to him and my aunt Lily laughing at the violence in them when I was a kid: there is a humor to how mafia movies handle violence. That is probably where a lot of my interest in the genre comes from. I think because of the way they would laugh at the hits, I realized early on that there is more going on than just violence in most of these films. 

I should say, while I channeled his voice in the material I wrote for Crime Network, we had other writers on projects at that time. So if you detect any fluctuations in the style, it is due to that (I was the only one who knew how my grandfather talked and I would basically write hearing his voice say these words in my head). If we ever revisited Crime Network, one thing I would do is make sure the voice is consistent through the whole line, and I would probably want to revise some sections as well. For some the style of the books may be a bit on the corny side. Personally I like how they came out. And I it was a wonderful opportunity for me to immortalize a family member like my grandfather. 



 

Monday, August 24, 2020

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD PODCAST EPISODE SEVEN: JADE DAGGER NINJA

Today on the podcast, Jeremy and I talk about the movie Jade Dagger Ninja and try to explain how it reflects some the design of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. We discuss many things in this episode, but I want to focus now on character clusters, because those are a key thing to understand about the game. 


The NPC section of Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades is large. We have dozens of NPCs and they all form clusters or networks. Most of the NPCs are affiliated with other NPCs, as enemies, allies, etc. Unlike Ogre Gate, where the chief focus was on Sects, this game takes an approach that is more character focused, like you find in Gu Long. The sects are still there, PCs and NPCs still can and do belong to organizations that matter, but the focus is on the characters and their relationships. 

This was our aim as we organized our characters. Rather than come up with a list of sects, and then group NPCs into them, we started with characters, their backgrounds and their connections. In many ways this was more complicated, and it proved a much bigger challenge because it is harder to track. But it resulted in something that works great at the table. 

We took to calling this "character clusters". These clusters can be quite extensive, but to use a simple example to illustrate the point, there is Hua Yin, also known as Little Raksha. He mastered his Crazed Raksha style by deciphering a manual rendered on the wall of a Pagoda, which he destroyed so others could not learn his martial arts. He is a minion of Eunuch Zhang, often doing his dirty work, but is being chased by the monk, Purity, who seeks justice over the destruction of the pagoda. In addition to serving Eunuch Zhang, Little Raksha has secret goals of his own (described in his entry). The idea is every character is almost like a walking adventure depending on how the PCs encounter them. We wanted them to all be gameable, not just scenery for the setting. An encounter with Little Raksha could just be a random meeting or fight, but it could lead to more interesting developments if they are drawn deeper into his orbit. He is a doorway to intrigue and conflict with Eunuch Zhang or Purity. It is a bit like chemistry, when you drop an NPC into the mix, depending on what the player characters goals and personalities are, it can lead to all kinds of unexpected directions and works very well on the fly. 


However a more planned approach can work too. You can build adventures around NPC clusters. It is very easy for example to take a character like Zhu Fei the Crimson Stargazer, who has many more connections to other NPCs. She is the wife of The Golden Bowl Chief, who left the martial world and abandoned her for the Halls of Tranquility, and she is the leader of Screaming Zither Sect, which she uses to ravage the Jianghu, hoping to attract her estranged husband's attention. She also has a conflict with a man named Tranquil Scholar Hua Shiyi, who stole her sect's Screaming Zither. This provides the GM with lots of avenues for hooks, adventure goals, etc. An adventure centered around the Screaming Zither could work, but so could one focused on settling the conflict between Zhu Fei and Golden Bowl Chief to bring peace to the martial world. 

Some of the clusters are much more extensive, while others, like Little Raksha's, are more simple. It is one of the guideposts we encourage GMs to look for and utilize when they run Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

THE HORROR EXPRESS EPISODES 2-3: HELLRAISER AND THE HORROR OF DRACULA

We continue, full steam ahead, with the Horror Express. First stop is a return to Barker country with Helltraiser (1987): 

Then we make our way to the lands of Hammer Films, and enjoy the Horror of Dracula (1958):


Hopefully we will have time to remain here and watch other Hammer gems like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Vampire Lovers, perhaps even The Lost Continent

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

SERVANTS OF GAIUS: A GAME ABOUT CALIGULA

Servants of Gaius was probably my most inspired concept. It came about for a few different reasons and everything in it gelled almost perfectly. When I was young I had a profound interest in Ancient Rome. I had a strong interest in the early empire more than the republican period (though Spartacus is one of my favorite movies). I read a lot of Roman history but also fell in love with a series and book called I, Claudius (and Claudius the God).

After we made Horror Show I was interested in doing something I, Claudius inspired, but I didn't know how to make it gameable; and gameability has always been a foundational principle of Bedrock Games. Our original motto was: Plausibility, Gameability and Personality. I tried to think of what we did well, and I also thought about what made I, Claudius so compelling to me. At the time, the answer to the former seemed to be "Investigations" and "players belonging to organization, often of a clandestine nature", and the answer to the latter was: the relationship between Claudius and his Nephew Caligula. That portion of the story, where we watch Claudius balance the desire to survive and loyalty to his family was both the most terrifying the most warm-hearted aspect of I, Claudius. So I decided to set the game in that environment. 

Initially I was going to make Caligula the bad guy. But this had all kinds of problems, in terms of being a gameable setting. Also, because Horror Show had suffered from my stint in the hospital,I wanted the concept to be something really special. I came up with the idea that Caligula was never actually mad in the first place. It really wasn't much of a stretch. It is a central question that plagues Caligula throughout the I, Claudius series (is he really a god or just mad). So if the answer was, no he was really a god, that could both explain his eccentric behavior, while opening up all kinds of potential for him being misunderstood. The historical consensus is that Caligula was a bad person, but there are a handful of books with more sympathetic takes. And I drew a bit on these, to help explain some of the forces working against him. However the chief antagonist I took right from history and from I, Claudius: Caligula would be a god waging a war against Neptune and his forces. 

I quite liked this concept once it crystalized, and it worked amazingly well in play. The players would take on the role of members of a secret organization headed by Caligula's uncle Claudius. Their role was to protect Rome from the threat of Neptune. To make it more interesting, Neptune would operate through a mystery cult and through impersonators who could assume the identities of influential romans. This really helped push the game in the direction of mystery and adventure. And this was important because there is a whole genre of historical fiction about Roman mysteries which also had a very big influence on the game (I was particularly influenced by Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco series, and by Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series).

The game worked great once we had all those pieces in place. We were still trying to make games of roughly 100 pages so that limited some of the content. In the end though, I think that does often make for a tighter game (which is why I shifted back to smaller books with Strange Tales of Songling). 

Servants of Gaius is one of our gems, and not a lot of people know about it. It does have some rough edges. I wasn't as consistent as I should have been obtaining art for this one. So some of the formatting of the weapons and NPC images contrasts sharply with the feel of the book. This is a book that I have actually thought of redoing the art for at some point. I do not know the feasibility of this, as it might need to be laid out again as well. But it is a project I hope to eventually return to touch up (not revise, just give it a new cover, more art, and more visual refinement to reflect the content better). 

In the meantime, it is one of the games from our back catalog I strongly recommend checking out.