Saturday, April 21, 2007

Over on Story Games, Jason Morningstar challenged me to write a game. Here's what he said:

John Harper! All right, luser, I want to see a game outta you that explicitly, deliberately isn't mechanically precise, where authority is evenly distributed. Bonus points if it looks sort of crappy. Because it'll be the anti-AGON.

Bring it!

No problem, sucka. I fear the challenge of no man*!

Here's my game:


First, the group has to decide who Max is. Maybe he's a pirate captain, or a gang-leader, or a US senator. Maybe Max is short for Maxine. Maybe MAX is a robot. Max should be in some position of power. Max is a real bastard, and he's going to do bad things to the characters. Sometimes you have to give Max a different name to keep your game from being totally lame (like if Max is supposed to be a Sith Lord or something). That's okay too.

Next, everyone makes a character. Making a character is easy. Grab five dice of the same color: d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. Each player should have their own dice color. Grab an index card and write down five traits for your character. Label each trait so it matches one of your dice, like this: Sailed the Midnight Sea d8. Some of the traits should refer to some thing, person, or place in the game world.

At the top of the card, write your character's name and why you want Max dead. Also, write the color of your dice. You might need to know it later.
Carlo the Blade
Max killed my brother

Color: burgundy with silver numbers

Scarred from a wave demon attack d4
The Way of the Knife d6
Sailed the Midnight Sea d8
The Brotherhood of Nine d10
Rebecca is waiting for me d12
Once everyone has made a character, we get on with the business of trying to kill Max.

The first player sets up a scene. Each player rolls all their dice. See which die for each player is the highest. The trait that matches that die should be part of the scene in some way, if possible. The player setting up the scene says where the action is taking place, which characters are there at the start, and what's happening in general. Characters can enter the scene later as needed.

Each scene has something to do with Max in some way. Maybe some characters meet to plot his murder. Maybe Max shows up to taunt the characters or pretend like he's their friend. Maybe the scene is a flashback to the time when Max did whatever he did to make it so he needs to die.

Each scene involves risk for the characters. Maybe they're playing high stakes table games in Max's casino in Vegas. Maybe they're having a raygun battle with Max's henchmen on top of a burning zeppelin. Maybe one of the characters is trying to form an alliance with a dangerous gang who also wants Max to die. Whatever it is, it's risky, and things might go badly for the characters.

Once you've set up the scene and played out enough of it to establish the risk, it's time to roll some dice.

Rolling Dice

When you roll dice for a risk, you roll one, some, or all of your dice. Look at the numbers to see how things go. Do you have high numbers? Things went pretty well. Do you have low numbers? Things went badly. If the numbers are in the middle, maybe it's a mix of good and bad, or the outcome is uncertain. It's up to you. Say what happens by pushing dice forward and narrating a moment of action. Narrate bad stuff when you push lower numbers and good stuff when you push higher numbers.

You can narrate all your stuff at once, or you can just do part of it, then let someone else go, then do another part, all collaborative like. Think of your dice as your script for the scene, showing your ups and downs.

The dice are linked to character traits, remember? So, if you get a high number on your d8 trait Sailed the Midnight Sea, then your character's weird experience in sailing the pitch-black waters has resulted in something good. If you roll a low number, then the trait has contributed something bad or failed you somehow. When you narrate a moment, include your trait in the narration.

There's no set standard for dice results. You have to judge them for yourself. A roll of 1 - 1 - 1 - 7 might mean utter failure to one player but to another it might mean a string of bad luck followed by a smashing success. You decide what your dice mean.

In Case of Ones
I know I just told you that you decide what your dice mean. And you do! But when you roll a 1, it's special. A 1 is something bad, right? Because it's low. A 1 is also an indication that Max is mucking around in the lives of the characters, probably framing someone for murder or burning down a village or something.

You have to give your ones away. Pass the dice showing ones to the other players. You can give them all to one player, or spread them around, or whatever. Totally up to you. When you pass dice over, you say what Max is doing to make that character's life suck more. The dice match traits on the characters you're passing them to! So, when you pass the 1 over, look and see what trait matches the die you're passing, and then include that trait in your narration of Max's badness. This is most fun when people have relationships as traits, like, I love Julia d6.

The player you're passing the dice to will probably have ideas about how Max is ruining their character's life. Listen to their ideas... they're probably nastier than yours.

Now you have fewer dice. But don't worry about that right now. It just means your character is more likely to die.

In Case of Max

There's another special kind of roll. When you roll the highest number on a die (a 4 on a d4, a 10 on a d10) you have rolled the max. Yeah, it's no coincidence that it's also Max's name. A die that rolls max is awesome because it means that you've done something to screw Max over. A die can be "low" (like a 4 on a d4) and still screw Max in some way, even though it might mean something bad for you, too.

You have to give your max dice away. Put them on the piece of paper in the middle of the table that says "Max" on it. When you put your dice on the paper, say what your character does to hurt Max, directly or indirectly. Don't hurt him too much yet. The really bad stuff comes later. Remember that your dice are linked to traits. If a die is another player's color, it's linked to that character, not yours. So, when you place the max die, you and that player should collaborate to say how Max gets hurt, and include the linked trait somehow.

This is really fun when you max a die that you're holding from a dead character (see Death, below). Because that die you're holding represents a trait from the dead guy, like, I grew up in the islands d10. Maybe it's your memory of him that gives you what you need to stick it to Max.

Next Scene!

After the risk rolls, it's time the wrap up the scene and move to the next one. A different player should set up the next scene.

Yeah, your character can die. If you ever run out of dice, your character bites it. Max is behind it, of course. Say how your character dies or permanently leaves the story. Don't be too sad. Max is a bastard. That's just the way things are. He'll get what's coming to him.

Grab a new index card and make a new character. You get all new dice at this point (in a new color).

When Does Max Die?
Max might die when he has a lot of dice on his paper. Someone should look at the paper and say, "There are a lot of dice on there now." After that, Max can die. The next time someone rolls a max, they pick up all the dice on the paper and roll them. Dice that roll 1 are bad news for Max. Things go badly for him. He gets stabbed in the face, his corporation falls apart, his secret scheme is revealed -- stuff like that.

The dice are linked to traits! Yep. So when these bad things happen, look to see whose die it is, and which trait applies. It might even be the trait of a character who has died. Include that trait when you say what happens. Then give the die back to the player, if the character is alive. If not, it stays on the paper. The traits of dead characters continue to kick Max's ass from beyond the grave.

In addition, for each 1 rolled, tear the Max paper (or a part of the paper) in half. You'll end up with a few pieces of paper. The group should look at the pile and decide if Max is still kicking or not. Are there lots of little pieces, like confetti? He's probably toast. If not, keep playing.

Once Max is dead, the game is over. You finally took the bastard down. Good job.



Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Strong work, John! I like every bit of it. --JM

Blogger Unknown says:  

OK! Let's play it!

Blogger John Harper says:  

Cool. Thanks, folks.

Blogger Allen Varney says:  

At once weirdly inspirational and sanity-threatening. Does each player who has a character in a scene always roll his or her risk dice for that scene, or is that supposed to be kept mechanically nebulous?

Don't know if this is a breach of etiquette or design philosophy -- but I could totally see an "Advanced Max Must Die" where, rather than tearing Max's sheet to bits, you instead write different phrases (henchmen's names, etc.) on the four corners of the sheet and then push his dice to one or another corner to make those phrases influence the scene. When too many dice are clustered in a corner, that phrase falls off (out of the game) and the dice move back to the center. When he runs out of phrases, Max is ready to die.

Blogger John Harper says:  

I was thinking that each character in a scene rolls her risk dice, yeah. But it's nebulous in the text.

I like the idea of having phrases on Max's sheet. Definitely something to try when it's playtested. Thanks, Allen.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  


I love the linking particular dice (the real things) to traits and throwing them around the table & piling them on the bad guy. It seems if you've got enough unique dice this method system-bit really rock.

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