The Fine Art of Role-Playing
Part 7.5: Proof in the Puddingby Jonathan Walton
The Fine Art of Role-Playing
Part 7.5: Proof in the Puddingby Jonathan Walton
The Fine Art of Roleplaying
Part 7½: Proof in the Pudding
After months of trolling these forums... I just registered for the sole purpose of saying:
Pirate Penguins. SO COOL!
-- Sydney Freedberg, Son of Iron Game Chef Thread (2004)
Once every so often, the folks at The Forge take a break from discussing the nuances of roleplaying, whip out their aprons, and take part in a battle of culinary delights the likes of which the wider RPG community has never seen: The Iron Game Chef Competition! The most recent contest (the final offerings are being judged as we speak) took place over this past week. It was also the most prolific competition to date, resulting in no less than 36 complete games(!!!) crafted by over 30 talented contestants. This year's challenge was to create a "fantasy" game containing the following ingredients: Island, Ice, Dawn, and Assault.
My submission is included below. Ironically, it's not a very "arty" design at all. Just some down-home Saturday Morning Cartoon fun, with a few wacky and progressive resolution mechanics thrown in to make things interesting. If anyone actually gets around to playing it, I would LOVE to know how it goes. The games created by my wonderfully talented competition are linked at the bottom of the page, in case you're interested in the other 35.
You and your fellow band of penguin pirates sail your enormous laser-sharked iceberg-ship/home through the dangerous seas of Arctica. Such is the lifestyle of fuzzy penguin pirates! Booze, violence, and boistrous songs! Arrrrr! Squeak!
The Summer Isles, deep in the warm southern reaches, are ripe with plunder, especially that divine necter known as Dawnwine. However, when you crew aboard an iceship, sunshine is your worst enemy. The tropical waters will quickly turn your home into an icy patch on the sea. You might find yourself easy prey for the shaman-wizards who rule the Summer Isles, worship the sun-god, indulge in penguin sacrifice, distilling the Dawnwine, and practicing magical arts that can burn holes straight through your ship. Yowza!
It's going to be a icy hot time in the tropics tonight! Strap on your fur-lined asbestos pirate gear and get ready to rock!
Declaration of Intent
This game is meant to emulate the often bizarre nature of Saturday Morning Cartoon fantasy worlds. It's got a setting specifically designed to be a cool toy line. Imagine Pirates of Dark Water meets Gummibears. Let out your inner pre-pubescent.
This game is not funny or cute. This game is badass, dammit! Any signs of cuteness or humor should be quickly suppressed. Anyone caught giggling uncontrollably at the table should be forced to walk the plank or go get everyone snacks. The person running the game needs to enforce this with a ruthless efficiency. Grimace a lot. Snear at any players who allow themselves the slightest smirk. After all, you're pirates, dammit! Get control of yourselves!
Materials & Setup
To play Seadog Tuxedo, you will need the following:
1) A table that you can get wet. Either some kind of plastic or metal one, or you can cover your expensive wooden dining room piece with a vinyl tablecloth. Whatever. Just something you can get messy.
2) Walk into a liquer store or other dealer of alcohol. Buy the cheapest gold rum you can find. Yes, I mean literally the cheapest rum that's being sold. I don't care how awful it is. You're not going to drink this because you like it. You're going to drink this because you're badass. If you're underage or have a weak stomach, find something that is sufficiently badass, like real ginger ale (the spicy kind), high-class root beer, or quality soda in glass bottles. Mmm...
3) A few coasters or other small objects to represent the Summer Isles. Arrange them all on one side of the table, in an archipelago. Mark them with small objects to symbolise major locations of interest. Arrange the players seats around the opposite side of the table, far from the Isles. The GM's chair goes right behind the archipelago, since they're in charge of the sun-worshiping shaman-wizards.
4) You're going to need lots of icecubes. If you have trays, make sure you fill them the night before, but an electric machine (like in most up-scale refrigerators) is better, so it'll keep refilling during the game. You're probably going to want to play in the kitchen if you can. Otherwise someone will keep having to run and get more ice.
5) You're going to need basic pirate gear for each player. A hat or an eyepatch is plenty. Just something simple and noticable. Lacking proper pirate gear, baseball caps work.
6) Some sort of small glass to sit in front of each player. Shot glasses work best, but anything will work.
Character Generation: Penguins
Pirate Penguins are asexual, in that they have no genetalia and exhibit no sexual behavior, but they are all gendered as male and are attracted by comely wenches. Like Smurfs, you know. Just thought we should get that out there at the beginning.
They have 3 traits, representing the depth and complexity of their identities. They don't embody all of them constantly, like characters in other games. Instead, they switch between them, emphasizing one at a time.
PIRATE represents their scurvy seadog life, with its carousing, drinking, wenching, fighting, plundering, stealing, singing pirate songs, and generally being an ocean-sailing rapscallion.
CUTE represents their innate penguin nature, fully of love, friendship, and the joy of swimming gracefully in the sea or sliding down sheets of ice on your belley.
These two traits express the inherant contradiction in the life of a pirate penguin. I mean, you're a scurvy pirate, dammit, but you're also a cute and fuzzy penguin. This causes all sort of angst and inner turmoil, as the cuteness struggles against the desire to be truly badass. Pirate penguins are the kind of drama queens that put vampire Shakespearean actors to shame.
Each character also has their own IDIOM, which represents their gimmick, giving them a seperate identity. Having individualized Idioms makes it possible to make more action figures. Every pirate penguin has an emblem representing their Idiom emblazoned on their belly and it should also be immediately obvious from their name. For instance, the pirate penguin Black Death has an evil-looking boil tattooed on his tummy, while Forked Lightning has a bright yellow bolt of electricity.
Idioms distract pirate penguins from the inner turmoil of their souls. They are an attempt to resolve the eternal tension between the pirate's life and the penguin's natural instincts. Thusly, they almost always show signs of torment, taking the form of dark and nasty things, monsters from the Id.
Character creation involves simply selecting an Idiom for your character. Everything else is secondary. Cute and Pirate traits are not measured numerically, but as states of being. Every character strives to stay in their pirateness as much as possible, but sometimes slips into their natural penguin state, letting the cute beast take over. All characters begin play with their Pirate trait fully in control.
When their character is in badass pirate mode, their pirate gear stays on (see, that stuff has a purpose), when they become a cute and adorable penguin, that stuff comes off. This keeps you from having to use a character sheet, which would probably just get wet and fall apart on the table. If you're using the baseball cap substitute, just turn them around backwards when you're a badass pirate and forwards when you're a cute penguin.
Character Generation: Shaman-Wizards
Sun-worshiping shaman-wizards, the bane of a pirate penguin's existence, are created in similar fashion, though they have the trait SHAMAN and DECENT instead of Pirate and Cute. Their IDIOMS all have something to do with fire, the sun, burning death, and the like, and their names too. Volcano Raga, high-priest of the Cult of the Sun, is empowered with the Idiom "Volcanic Destruction". Instead of having their Idioms ritually tattooed on their bellies, sun-worshiping shaman-wizards wear red robes with their Idiom symbol embroidered on the back. Much less badass, but what do you expect from such pansies? Like pirate penguins, sun-worshiping shaman-wizards struggle between badassness and being normal, which, for human beings, is not about cuteness, but about compassion and forgiveness (yes, this game is optimistic about human nature; it's a Saturday Morning Cartoon).
Character Generation: Gregory and Isabel
Modern cartoons don't like absolute dialectics, where one side is all good and the other is all bad. Instead of making things sufficiently complex, however, they often go the route of having "token" representives on both sides. This was the route taken by the writers of Seadog Tuxedo. Very much like the "token gay guy" in sitcoms, this show has, if you dig this comparison, "token transgendered" characters who cross cultural lines.
Gregory is the shaman-wizard's loyal penguin servant. He plays himself off as being selfless and hard-working, but he really just wants absolute power for himself, and the shaman-wizards have control of the only source of real power, Dawnwine. Of course, the wizards have made it abundantly clear that Gregory is not allowed to drink Dawnwine, but, unsurprisingly, the little penguin spends all his spare time scheming about how to get some. As such, Gregory shares his badass trait (Shaman) with the priesthood and his weak trait (Cute) with the pirates. Otherwise, he's treated as normal. Gregory's Idiom is "St. Elmo's Fire," the ghost light that haunts ships and sailors.
Likewise, what would this cartoon be without a strong, uppity and very hot female character who hangs out with the pirate penguins and acts as a combination of unrequited love intrest and surrogate mother? All action cartoons have one of those. Ours is Isabel Raga, daughter of Volcano Raga, the High Priest of the Cult of the Sun. Being a rebellious teenager, she has thrown her lot in with the pirates and spends her time pillaging the Summer Isles with her new adopted family. Similar to Gregory, Isabel uses the pirates badass trait (Pirate) and the shaman-wizards' weak trait (Decent). Interestingly, since Isabel comes from a long line of shaman-wizards, she gains fire powers from Dawnwine just like her father, though her volcanic Idiom usually takes the form of colorful jets of flame (her father prefers rivers of lava and clouds of smoke and ash).
Deep in the Summer Isles, the Fortress Impervious houses the vineyards of the Sun-god himself, carefully tended by the Cult of Sun-Worshiping Shaman-Wizards. Grapes shine like tiny solar orbs, bursting with warm juice: the nectar that sustains the entire immortal civilization and it's autocratic priesthood. Sungrapes can be ritually prepared, through ceremony and (if they're available) penguin sacrifice, to create a divine elixer known as The Essence of Dawn. This ambrosia not only extends the life of humans, but endows them with the solar fury of their patron, empowing the Sun-Worshipping Shaman-Wizards with the moxie required to kick serious ass.
To pirates, this drink is known as Dawnwine. Why do they bother raiding the Summer Isles so much? Dawnwine. After all, pirates do their best to keep the drink out of the hands of the Sun-Worshipping Shaman-Wizards, who will only use it for evil, extending their lives and using their solar magic to subdue Decent Human Beings. Besides, have you seen what Dawnwine can do for pirate penguins? When drunk by a penguin pirate, Dawnwine also empowers them with serious moxie, represented by an immediate projection of their Idiom out into the world. If Forked Lightning, for example, downed some Dawnwine before confronting the enemy, electric arcs would erupt from his diminuative penguin body, making him near-invincible for a short period of time. He could hold off an entire army by himself, as long as he managed to get away before the effect of the ambrosia wore off.
Whenever your character drinks some Dawnwine, you (the player) have to take a shot of the cheap rum or whatever you're using. I don't care if it's nasty. Suck it up! Drinking Dawnwine is the only time anyone can drink any rum (or whatever). So part of the incentive for pirate pillaging is to get more rum for the players.
Whenever their character succeeds in obtaining Dawnwine and refilling their bottle (since every character only carries one bottle), their shotglass is filled with rum, representing this. All shaman-wizards start out each episode with their shotglass filled, unless there's some plot afoot involving a lack of supplies.
Seadog Tuxedo uses a turn-based system of free narration. Play proceed in a circle, with each player giving a brief description of what their character does. This narration is basically unlimited, as long as it fits within the genre and color of the game. Pirate penguins can swing from chandeliers, sneak through towns under the cover of dark, pull off amazings stunt of spectacular daring, all by their player simply narrating what happens. Likewise, the GM (or other players, if you have enough) should narrate for the Sun-Worshipping Shaman-Wizards and other significant characters. Gregory is probably a GM-controlled NPC, while Isabel should be a PC, played by a female player if you can manage it.
The open narration means that, in practice, confrontations are like duels. No one ever fails to do what they narrate, but no one gets narration rights over someone else's character. For example:
SWSW #1: "Aha, Forked Lightning! We meet again! I'm going to burn you to a crisp you scurvy scalliwag! Reaching into my belt, I pull out a magic solar wand and fire bolts of heat at the penguin!"
FL: "That's what you think, Villain! I scamper nimbly out of the way of a few bolts, before lauching myself in the air, sword swinging!"
SWSW #1: "I step out of the way and wiggle my eyebrows menacingly. You've overestimated yourself, this time, little one... Face the wrath of the sun! I fire a blast at the gunpowder barrel he's standing next to, causing it to explode in a cloud of heat and smoke!"
FL: "Rolling out of the way, Forked Lighting emerges looking slight burnt and bruised, but he smiles triumphantly, though in pain. Is that the best you can do, you old fake! I pick up a barrel of Dawnwine, obviously feeling a bit weak, and throw it into the ocean, jumping on top and paddling it back towards the iceship!"
This pattern of unchallenged narration can be broken by one of two ritual phrases, which indicates that an opponent is challenging what you've just narrated.
For those opposing the heroes, this phrase is: "Cute trick, pirate!" Oh no! Pirates can't be cute! This sends a shock to the Pirate's psyche and requires them to roll or risk going into Cute mode!
For the pirates, their challenge phrase is: "Not so, bozo!" Bozo? But... but... Sun-Worshipping Shaman-Wizards don't mean to be evil and cruel. They're just Decent human beings that do what's necessary to preserve their way of life. Better roll or risk succombing to compassion and weakness.
Rolls are done Risk-style, with the narrator getting 2 dice (d6's) and the challenger getting one. The narrator simply has to beat the challenger's roll, but the challenger automatically succeeds on a 6. Whoever wins the roll gets to re-narrate the last action, ignoring the rule about not narrating for other characters. Failing to overcome a challenge means the narrator's character reverts to "sweet" mode (Cute or Decent, depending). Having your challenge ignored means that you can't issue another challenge for the remainder of the scene.
Continuing the example:
FL: "I pick up a barrel of Dawnwine, obviously feeling a bit weak, and throw it into the ocean, jumping on top and paddling it back towards the iceship!
SWSW #1: "Cute trick, pirate!"
They roll. FL gets 2, 4. SWSW gets a 5.
SWSW #1: "Forked Lightning leaps onto the floating Dawnwine barrel, but it rolls out from under his feet, causing him to fall unceremoniously on his rear end. He looks dazed and very cute and adorable."
FL: "Help! Help! Somebody help me! Oh, the evil man is going to get me!"
Alternately, it could go the other way...
SWSW #1: "Cute trick, pirate!"
They roll. FL gets 2, 4. SWSW gets a 3.
FL: "The Shaman-Wizard calls for his troops to come get the pirate, but when they rush to the edge of the pier, the ones in the rear bump into the ones in front, causing a domino effect that ends with the Shaman-Wizard flying unceremoniously into the brine!"
SWSW #1: "Hack, spit, cough! Curses, foiled again! I'll get you, you... pirate!"
Idiom-based narration (as opposed to that based on Pirate or Shaman traits) works a bit differently. Erruptions of Idiom result from drinking Dawnwine. This makes a character's actions unchallengable for 2D6 turns, rolled the turn when the Dawnwine is drunk. Furthermore, the character is able to narrate supernatural effects into their actions, as long as those effects are part of their Idiom. Additionally, those empowered by Dawnwine suffer no ill effects from losing a challenge. They retain total control of their character, the winner isn't allowed to narrate for them, and they can freely challenge again on their next turn. All of these powers are lost once their turns of Dawnwine-empowerment are up.
Conflict is complicated by two Dawnwine-empowered characters facing off against each other,. In such cases, rolling works similarly, but both characters roll two dice and BOTH have to be higher for one side to triumph. Otherwise, nothing happens. "Nothing happens" means that no side gains a distinct advantage. All narrations still succeed as normal and supernatural effects are probably flying all over the place. The consequences of losing a Dawnwine challenge are different as well, and make no distinction between challenger and defender. Whoever loses a Dawnwine confrontation immediately looses the powers of Dawnwine and should probably run, since the other character is still empowered and can challenge without restrictions or fear.
Cute and Decent
Once a character is in Cute or Decent mode, they cannot be challenged, but they are officially banned from being badass. Everything they do should be as cute and innocent as possible. They can still try to run away or escape, but no actions of daring or crazy stunts are possible. Narration works as normal, except with those restrictions.
However, no real harm can ever befall someone Cute or Decent. This is the secret power. While sun-worshiping shaman-wizards hate pirates with all their hearts, they really have a soft spot for cute penguins. Likewise, even pirates have a code of honor and refuse to hurt or humiliate Decent human beings. This is what protects them from challenges.
Additionally, Cute and Decent characters are much more successful, socially, than pirates or sun-worshipping shaman-wizards. Normal people won't give a pirate the time of day. If the scurvy seadog wants something, they'll have to fight for it (and most gladly do). Pirates never get anywhere in relationships with humans. Whatever they do, the pirate will always been a mangy seadog, worthy of contempt. Likewise, everyone hates sun-worshiping shaman-wizards, even their own people. They're stupid, egocentric tyrants that whine like babies whenever the pirates succeed in stealing some Dawnwine. Everyone resists their rule, but the shaman-wizards also have the power to take what they want (and most gladly do).
However, once a pirate has switched into Cute mode, or a sun-wizards reveals themselves to be a Decent human being, things really change. Humans are always more than happy to assist cute penguins (though shaman-wizards, being badass, don't succumb to this weakness and can get people to obey them, and not the cute penguin, out of fear). I mean, who can resist cuteness? Also, penguins and other humans will always treat Decent human beings like they would want to be treated themselves. That's the humane thing to do. Pirates, however, regularly steal and plunder and beat people up, so they're immune to such tactics.
Both pirates and sun-worshiping shaman-wizards can lose their badassitude through conflict, reverting to their Cute and Decent selves. In order to get their mojo back, the characters have to wait for the current scene to expire first. This can be tricky, seeing as Cute penguins are helpless targets for any sun-worshiping shaman-wizards in the area, unless shielded by their mateys and quickly taken back to the iceship or other safe hideout. Likewise, Decent human beings can easily be taken prisoner by the pirates, unless other shaman-wizards step forward to prevent this.
Captives on both sides are humiliated, but not mistreated. Decent human beings may be forced to serve the pirates, dance for them, and so on. Likewise, the shaman-wizards always appreciate penguin servants and have plenty of dungeon space in the Fortress Impervious in which to keep them in chains. Often times, an exchange of prisoners will quickly be negotiated, with the pirates returning captives and Dawnwine in exchange for their friends and the shaman-wizards doing likewise. Prisoners can also be exchanged for a ransom, magical objects, information, or whatever other scheme the pirates and wizards want to work out.
The shaman-wizards always hold the threat of ritual sacrifice over the penguins' heads, which frightens them a great deal, but killing never actually happens. Whenever a penguin ends up on the alter, they will inevitably be saved at the last minute by their pirate comrades. Additionally, Decent human beings forced to walk the plank are inevitably fished out of the water by local fishermen or saved through miraculous acts of the Sun-god, who loves his priest-kings, misguided though they may be.
Once a Cute or Decent character is integrated back into their respective faction, a simple scene-long ceremony is enough to restore their badassitude. For shaman-wizards, this is a formal ceremony that re-invokes the favor of the sun-god. For pirates, their mates simply redress the penguin in properly badass pirate garb. Then they all the players should yell "Arrrrrr!" and get back to plundering.
Victory? and Rebuttals
Seadog Tuxedo is meant to reflect an ongoing cartoon series, which means that neither the pirates or the shaman-wizards should ever gain an obvious or irrevocable advantage. This is an eternal battle meant to continue forever. As such, whenever such a thing would seem about to occur (for instance, if the shaman-wizards were about to sacrifice a penguin to the Sun-god) the opposing side gets a "Rebuttal."
Rebuttals are not world-changing paradigm shifts. They are slight twists of events that make all the difference in the world. For example, perhaps the penguin sacrifice suddenly manages an action that would normally considered badass (and, therefor, illegal), such as escaping from their bonds. Perhaps there is some accident or lucky escape, where the ritual bonfire catches the high-priest's cloak ablaze. Perhaps the hooded cultists are really the pirates in disguise.
Similar things would occur if it looked as though the pirates had obtained an absolute advantage or were about to alter the very foundation of the world. Maybe they stormed the Fortress Impervious and took it over. Maybe they burned down the vineyards of the sun, destroying the source of Dawnwine (and what would the series be without Dawnwine?). In this case, the GM or a player representing the shaman-wizards would get a rebuttal. Perhaps Volcano Raga and other powerful wizards secretly sneak back into the Fortress with several casks of Dawnwine, ready to kick serious ass. Perhaps the Sun-god yells at the wizards for not defending his vineyard and then uses his magic to regrow it from a box of stored seeds (afterwards, stealing some seeds could be the point of a whole episode).
Sailing on the Ships of Ice
Yeah, you know this is what you've been waiting for: iceship mechanics!
Pirate iceships are basically just icebergs, those giant drifting islands of ice. With a few quick alterations, such as sails (which pirates inevitably seem to have hidden in their trousers), any iceberg can be made servicable in the time it takes to run a few scenes. However, iceships are not really made for sailing through the warm southern waters of the Summer Isles. They melt rather quickly and are liable to leave pirates stranded if they suffer any delays or setbacks during a raid.
To simulate this, iceships are represented on the tabletop by ice cubes. If possible, find someone with an electric ice machine that spits out those little half-moon shaped slivers of ice. When you put the round edge against the table, they look just like little boats.
Now, assuming your house isn't kept at freezing temperature, the iceships are going to melt in realtime, while scenes are playing out. If your iceship is totally melted, or drifts/falls off the edge of the world (the table), your pirates are stranded wherever they happen to be (in the water, on the Summer Isles, on a sandbar) until they manage to change this situation by stealing a human boat or hijacking one of the icebergs that occasionally floats south and steering it back home.
Now the pirates normally live in a moderately-sized ice castle on the northern continent of ice. Whenever they are there or sail around the arctic seas, no ice needs to be used. Their iceships don't melt fast enough up there to actually shrink at any noticable rate. Only when the pirates decide to sail south (which they almost inevitably do, in most episodes) does the ice hit the table.
This is how this works:
1) On any given turn, a player can either declare their character's actions or push their iceship 1d6 inches across the tabletop. Dice must be rolled, a ruler must be utilized, all in real time while the icecube is melting. Once the icecube reaches something placed on the table top to represent an island or other interested feature of the southern ocean, the players (including the GM) can declare actions and frame scenes related to to that location.
2) Any icecube-drift that occurs, as the ice begins sitting in a growing puddle and even floating on top of it, also occurs in-game. The pirates might park their iceship only to have it drift away, forcing them to abandon it or swim/sail out to it. Icecubes that drift over the edge of the table are removed from play.
3) The shaman-wizards fire magic can do a doozy on iceships. This is represented on the tabletop too. After drinking Dawnwine a wizard character can focus his attention on an iceship. The player representing the shaman-wizard then picks up the icecube in their hands, warming it and causing it to melt faster. As long as the wizard is focused on melting the ship, in game, the player can focus on melting the icecube. If the wizard is distracted or impeded in his melting, the player must set the icecube back on the table in the same spot that they picked it up. If more than one wizard is blasting away at the ship, one player may try to crush the icecube in one hand. If they succeed, the shards are placed back on the table, representing fragments of the iceship that might still be servicable to resourceful pirates.
4) It can be ever more annoying if the iceship melts on the way back home, stranding the pirates and their booty in the middle of the warm ocean. There should be some marker on the player's side of the territory that represents the cold waters of the arctic seas. Once back to that point, intact, the icecube is removed from the table and the pirates can breathe a sigh of relief. This point is also the starting point where icecubes are placed to begin an expedition to the south.
5) Sometimes, to ensure the safety of the whole, individual pirates who don't make it back to the ship on time may be left in the Summer Isles. After all, they have to get the iceship back before it melts. This kind of situation just comes an excuse for more storytelling, as the pirate tries to wait out on the Isles (avoiding the authorities) until their mates can come back and rescue them.
6) To represent the lucky break of having an iceberg drift through the Summer Isles and provide a way off (which is a good option if the whole crew is stranded), the players can all choose to give up the rum (Dawnwine) that they have (assuming they have some) to put an icecube into play. This can be moved by any player as normal, on their turn, including the GM and players representing shaman-wizards. Since the pirates inevitably have more players, the icecube should eventually reach the pirates (assuming they are working together), but at a much slower rate than a crewed iceship, due to meddling by the opposite side.
Like every cartoon show, Seadog Tuxedo has trademark phrases.
• "Yowza!" Pirates always use this word instead of any four-letter words. Try it. It's fun.