Memory Lane

Monday, May 09, 2005

So Ben had a good idea for a post: talk about your past RPG designs, successful or otherwise. Here we go. You might want to go get coffee first.

This was my first stab at game design, age 12. I fell in love with the classic Marvel Super Heroes RPG and its colorful universal action chart, and decided to make my own game using the chart as a base. I still have the hand-colored crayola marker charts in a box somewhere. PCs were intergalactic bounty hunters with crazy powers. The only cool part: you didn't have to be a "party." The PCs were free to team up or not, as they pleased. I ran this game many times in many forms up until 1990 or so.

In college, I worked pretty seriously on a game based on the Vlad Taltos books of Steven Brust, around 1991-92. I was corresponding with Brust regularly, and I thought I might have a shot at working out a publishing deal. He ultimately decided to go with Steve Jackson Games, who managed a first draft of a GURPS Jhereg book but never took it any further. My version used the core Action Table system from Talislanta, and was honestly a pretty boring stat+skill+dice affair. Better than GURPS, but that's not saying much.

I worked on this one in college, mostly. I still think it has some potential. A traveling circus of acrobats, strongmen, magicians, and strange creatures always seemed like the ideal "adventuring party" to me. This design was strongly influenced by Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children in terms of style and fairy-tale qualities. It featured a map with fixed locations that the circus train traveled to each session. Places like The Lighthouse, The Village Under the Trees, and The Outskirts of the City. To move to the next stop, the circus had to feed the Dragon that powered the train. Before play, the players decided what the Dragon ate (dreams, lost hopes, wedding rings... murderers). I may go back to this one someday.

This was my Space Marine game, written for Fudge. It was the first design I finished. It used to be available free on the web (starting in 1997 I think) but the site is now gone. There were a few little bits that I liked about this one, especially the ultra quick chargen (using broad "training program" skills) and the nifty little gimmick that allowed for lots and lots of PC death.

Ah, Daredevils... we hardly knew ye. This design rapidly morphed into what would become Danger Patrol. Basically pulp action-adventure with low-level supers. It used the core Action Table system from Talislanta, modified a bit.

Talislanta 4th Edition
I got to write the fourth edition of one my favorite RPGs and then ended up publishing it, too. Working with Steve Sechi was a blast. Reading that game book today makes me cringe again and again, but it was well received and I am proud of it.

Clockworks from another dimension are taking over our world by replacing our leaders with clockwork doubles. You have to stop them. Or maybe you're just going insane. I also worked on a totally different game called "44" which was a kind of Sin City thing. One (or both) of them might be worth resurrecting some day.

Dead or Alive
You died out in the dust of the West, but you ain't gone. You're in Perdition, and the Great Beyond won't have ya. This was gonna be a kind of mystical/ghost/western redemption thing but it never really got off the ground. And years later I read Dust Devils and kinda lost my steam. Probably a dead horse.

Section 8
Rainbow Six meets Call of Cthulhu. There are monsters in the world, and there is an elite special-forces unit that is sent to deal with them. Pretty hyper-realistic Tom Clancy kinda thing, with magic and demons. Years later I watched Buffy and discovered The Initiative, which is pretty similar. I still want to do a very tactical and gritty special-forces game (based heavily on SPEC OPS by William McRaven) and if I do one, it will probably be this. Laser-sharks be damned!

My modification of Puppetland to run a game about children magicians in a fairy-tale land.

A masive city of black minarets lit by a lake of fire. The Goalim: Wrapped from head to toe in black gauze and bound with silver wire. The Sualim: Giants with skins of bronze. The Jalim: Those who wander below. The I'Yalim: Bearers of the blade. The Rayalim: Servants of the God of Suffering.

Stranger Things
You play either a Stranger (a human who can See Things and Doesn't Belong) or a Thing (a creature from imagination). You live in the Otherworld, trapped between real and make-believe. It's Tom Waits meets Blade Runner. TSOY would be a good fit, system-wise.

My take on a Matrix supplement for the Donjon system. All about "the enemy", "the dream" and the "the awakened." There are some really cool ideas in here that I am totally gonna steal for something else. It's written in this call/response style that I kinda dig, too.

Tales of Wudan
A kung-fu game that used rock, paper, scissors (or fist, palm, touch) as part of resolution (it used dice too). Playtested once. Lost the rules doc (written in a notebook and not on disk!) but I may re-invent the wheel on this one someday. It was fun in play. We really got into standing up and doing our "moves" when we did RPS.

The Company
A Sorcerer supplement that I'm taking my sweet-ass time with. It strips away the central metaphor in the game and replaces demons with real people. PCs are CIA operatives who manipulate others to get what they want. Now that Ron is doing Spione (which, you know, will ROCK) I'm less excited to finish it.

And, of course, Danger Patrol. Since I ran headlong into the Forge, development of DP has slowed to a crawl. But oh what a crawl it has been! I have learned so much and the game has been so vastly improved because of it. To give you an idea of how much it has improved, there is a folder in the depths of my computer (among the dozens -- literally -- of cast off DP designs) called "Danger Patrol d20." Shiver.


Blogger Matt Wilson says:  

Prior to 2002, I had only attempted to design a game once, and it ended in catastrophe.

Although at 17, I created a hit location chart for D&D using 3d6, carefully figuring out the odds.

And that's several hours of my life that I can't get back.

I suggest working on Circus in order to trick yourself into forgetting about DP, then suddenly going AHA! and switching back and then kicking ass and finishing.

Plus, Circus is cool.

You know, "Talislanta system + clarified stakes" wouldn't really be so bad. You could so something like GM narrates result of "okay success" and "bad failure" and player narrates results of "kickass success" and "kind of failure." Isn't that how the chart is divided? I guess that's also how InSpectres works.

You were totally on to something and didn't even know it.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Re: Talislanta

TELL me about it. Thus the cringing. Steve Sechi came up with a mighty fine little conflict resolution system in 1984 and then got beat into submission by all us "gamer types" until it resembled something we were used to. ("What?! The player can't just GET WHAT THEY INTENDED as a result of a dice roll! The GM has to decide that stuff!" Jeez.)

But the core of it is in there. I wish I had the wisdom to see it for what it was back then.

Blogger - Daniel says:  

Hi John -

I too have thought that the Circus would be an ideal setting for a good fantasy rpg campaign. I call mine, "Sideshow Heroes".

Though I never got around to running Sideshow Heroes, I hope to do so, someday.

Here are a couple of links to some Sideshow Heroes articles I've written:

Sideshow Heroes Overview:

Character Archetypes:

Circus Kant:

And so on. Not exactly the game that you're describing, but certainly a close cousin.



Blogger John Harper says:  

That's cool, Daniel. Our games are close cousins, indeed.

Blogger Orkboi says:  

Somehow I totally missed that you had started this blog!

My entire game design history can be summed up in a game we called "Fantasy". Whenever my buddy and I ran into one another in the hall, one of us would inevitably start a game off with one line. Over three years we worked our way through endless variations. Some examples:

"OK, for some reason your four inches tall and you're on top of that desk over there. The cat's in the room and it's eyeing you curiously. What do you do?"

"You're sitting in your room at home. You hear on the radio that the missles have been launched and the first ones are expected to hit in 16 minutes. What do you do?"

"Did you see Lethal Weapon yet? No? OK, here's the setup..."

"You're a ninja, and you've finally found the castle of the invisible clan that killed your grandfather. You're at the bottom of the hill. What do you do?"

"You have no memory of who you are. You're wearing a fedora and normal clothes. You're in an alley. What do you do?"

"As part of a contest, you have 7 days to make 1 million dollars. All you have is a suitcase, a Ford Escort, and 10 yards of red velvet. What do you do?"

There were no dice, character sheets or rules. We played in class, walking down the street, eating lunch, anywhere. Sometimes I honestly think we should just do away with game systems all together.

Blogger John Harper says:  

I hope this doesn't come out the wrong way, Tony, but what you were doing was not playing a roleplaying game. You were telling stories together. You were roleplaying. For those things, rules may or may not be what you need.

But the thing I mean when I say "RPG" -- that thing is all *about* system. The system coordinates and *causes* a certain kind of play. It's the polar opposite of freeform storytelling.

So, yeah, for freeform, maybe ditching the rules is a good idea. And that thing you guys did? Sounds fun.

Blogger Unknown says:  

Fair enough... though as I think you said yourself once, a significant part of an RPG is the social contract that the player(s) and GM enter. I think of Fantasy as the social contract stripped to its bare essentials: the starting premise and, occasionally, a map. I'm inclined to see system as a further development of that contract.

Now that I've said that, it occurs to me that we've just invoked one of the central debates of political philosophy.

Admittedly, the distinction between that and a game where the contract is explicit is a meaningful distinction, so maybe I'll just stop yapping and concede the point.

Blogger John Harper says:  

In the RPG theory model that I prefer, all of RPG play is embedded within Social Contract. So SC is the biggest "box" in which everything lives, including system and exploration and all that.

So I think we're fully in agreement here.

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