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Chop Shop

The Third Atrocity: Stealing from Small Business Owners

by Eric Brennan
Nov 26,2002


The Third Atrocity: Stealing from Small Business Owners

I just bought a game called Donjon the other day (see a review here: www.rpg.net/news+reviews/reviews/rev_7496.html .) PLUG: It's great, and everybody should go out and buy it. While I'm plugging Donjon, I might as well also plug The Forge, the author's website (shared with Ron Edwards), at www.indie-rpgs.com. A warning for the uninitiated, which includes me: steer clear of the G/N/S and Design forums and look at Actual Play as you get your feet wet. The terminology has gone far past the stuff presented in the essays on the site, and thus the first time you hear that something's "pervy," you'll likely be lost. As I am.

Anyway, back to Donjon: Donjon is a dungeon-crawling game with a twist. The heart of the game is the idea that Players determine the outcome of rolls - if a PC checks for secret doors and succeeds, he gets to decide and describe the outcome - and adds detail based on the number of successes. It spreads the narrative power around, takes some of the burden off of GMs, and strikes me as a step past "small narrative power" games like Exalted or Adventure!, wherein players wield control over the scenario in tiny bits, like Stunts or Dramatic Editing. It certainly isn't for everyone, but it seems like it has real potential.

I came to realize in reading through the game that the system itself reminded me a lot of Ron Edward's "Sorcerer," and that it was - okay. Being a dedicated Chop-Shop rules engineer (like all of you are, right...?) I instantly set about thinking about ways to tweak things more to suit my fancy. What I came to realize is that the heart of "Donjon," to me, was the technique of handing narrative control to players so they could describe the outcome of their actions. Really, I thought, I could do that with any system (although Donjon itself provides a very good framework for doing so.)

With that in mind, I started pondering the idea of "techniques" versus "mechanics." Indie and small press RPGs are full of neat ideas for techniques, I've found, but you can also find them, more rarely, in the best of large-press efforts.

Techniques are styles and tricks that make game play more to you're liking, whereas mechanics tweaks are things like stat, rules, and resolution tricks that make the game work more to your liking. A technique can work in isolation of mechanics, and there's probably a "continuum" between technique and mechanics, with the kind of tricks I'm talking about today existing (mostly) at the "technique" end of the spectrum. (That last observation made by Steve Darlington, in the thread in Open. Thanks, Steve.) I raised the topic on the RPG.net Open discussion boards, got some good responses, and here I am to raise the topic again - to you, faithful Chop Shop fans.

Therefore, here's how the game is going to played, folks. I'll name and describe a technique, and what other game I'd use it for. But you can, and should, play this at home - feel free to name techniques that you dig and post them in the Forums below the column. I'm not going to kludge mechanics for a lot of these techniques - if one of them really interests you, you should go out and buy the game and kludge for yourself.

A final note - I find it fascinating that just about every technique I list could be 'ported wholesale to Dungeons and Dragons. I don't know why that tickles me - but it does.

The Game: Donjon. (www.anvilwerks.com)

The (Drastically Oversimplified for Chop Shop Purposes) Technique: The Player gains the ability to describe and control portions of the adventure based on skill rolls - are you trying to pick a pocket? A successful roll allows you to do so, and describe what was in the pocket. Looking to read a scroll you just found? Success on a skill roll allows you to determine what the scroll said - was it a map, a spell, or a clue about the necromancer controlling the dungeon? You decide. If the player fails the roll, the GM gets control and gets to decide.

The Destination: Beyond the obvious D&D 'port we could do, I'd find this technique incredibly interesting if used in Call of Cthulhu. Think about it - a player finds a book and determines what sanity-blasting tome it actually is through his translation roll. The party discovers an attic and a player announces what Mythos beastie awaits.

The reason why I find this so appropriate is that I can't count how many times that I've listened to players fret about what awaits them in a horror adventure, and the theories I hear them throw out are better than mine.

The Game: Sorcerer (www.Adept-Press.com)

The (Drastically Oversimplified for Chop Shop Purposes) Technique: Relationship Mapping, found in the Sorcerer supplement called "Sorcerer and Sword." A GM structures a big map around the ties that bind key NPCs and just lets the players get lost in it. Edwards' structures the ties so that they're based around blood relations, ties of obligation, and sex. Hopefully, not at the same time.

The Destination: I'd apply this technique to Exalted. Reading accounts of play on the web, I see a metric ton of spurned lovers from previous incarnations and blood brothers, castoff families and vengeful parents. Its anime and wuxia stylings also adds to the fun of using Relationship Maps, since both genres are full of that kind of overwrought relationships that inevitably end in a death-duel of massive, CGI-worthy proportions.

A second idea for this technique is to change the parameters of the ties based on what genre you're in - in a Viking themed game, I might change the parameters to life-debts and sworn enemies, or in a Pendragon game to Oaths of Fealty and Oaths of Vengeance.

Bonus (Drastically Oversimplified for Chop Shop Purposes) Technique: Kickers. Sorcerer advocates the use of "kickers" to set off play - in essence, situations that demand and drive the PC's attention, developed by the Player as play begins. A PC's kicker could be, "I woke up this morning and discovered a dead body in the bath tub." In essence, it's something that catalyzes the player's interest and keeps him focused and moving as the game begins.

I'm not going to do them as much justice as the author does, so go out and buy the book, already.

The Destination: Spycraft. It's got to be Spycraft. Kickers are pure adrenaline, questions that drive the rest of the game, and if you look at the genre of spy literature, from LeCarre to Mission Impossible: The Movie, there is a kicker in every one, just about. You might want to set up a "team" kicker instead of tailoring them for each player, if you want to go for a Bond feel. By having one for each player, you're pretty much heading down the LeCarre route, with each PC being wrapped up in his own issues and working toward the group's goals as everything is on the line, personally or geopolitically.

Really, kickers in that sense could work for any spy game - Conspiracy X, from Eden Games, leaps to mind, as does Top Secret. Kickers are just perfect for that genre.

The Game: Pendragon (www.greenknight.com/products/rpg/index.shtml)

The (Drastically Oversimplified for Chop Shop Purposes) Technique: The passage of game time in Pendragon is such that each adventure is essentially one year of game time. Players adventure during the adventuring season and stay home during the winter, with nifty charts to tell them what happens during downtime.

The Destination: Oddly enough, I'd use this technique for Unknown Armies, of all things. The problem with running a game involving horror or the occult is that if players are constantly exposed to the terrifying, it becomes mundane - you end up with Kolchak, the Night Stalker, and not something genuinely scary.

By altering the passage of time between adventures, and making sure players account for what they did during the down-time, you play up the normalcy of life - you'd play up exactly how much the PCs have to lose. The game becomes "normal people thrust into the unknown" periodically, not "occult adventurers fighting evil" ... not that there's anything wrong with the latter, mind you.

In fact, it might be cool to purposely structure a limited campaign so that each adventure occurred each decade of a set of PC's lives, so you end up with a situation like Stephen King's "It," in that adults have to face the dangers they thought they dealt with as children. Even better yet, you'd have something akin to "Goodfellas" on your hands - you could trace the life of a group of friends and allies until everything goes to crap. The plus side of that kind of game is you get to float through a half a dozen time periods, from the fifties to the modern day.

In closing, I could think of a half-dozen other techniques, from Aaron Allston's Blue Booking to Orkworld's group points pool, that could be extrapolated to nearly any game. Think about doing superheroes with Orkworld's technique - instead of giving everyone 200 points for a Champions game, you just gave 4 players a pool of 825 points (it's got to be a weird number, otherwise they'll just split them evenly.) The guy who wants to play a relatively powerful character is going to force one or more other players into playing weaker players - if you tie that character generation method into the Hero Points system I advocated last month, you've got an interesting dynamic going on, where raw power doesn't reflect on actual ability to move the plot further along...

From a Chop Shop rules-mechanics point of view, the best thing about these techniques is that they're very easy to integrate mechanically, but pay off in massive dividends if done correctly. You should definitely run some of these ideas by your group before you try them, though - but if you introduce them in small enough doses, I think you could really alter your gaming dynamic, ideally for the better.

So that's all for now. Next time, I'll hopefully have finished my article on Lifepaths, or maybe on importing Backgrounds into your games. See you in thirty.

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