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O1: Pimp My Game, Kick it Up a Notch, Emeril-Style, Bam!

by Jonathan Walton
Jun 30,2004


Welcome to Push, a column by Jonathan Walton, which explores various attempts to rethink roleplaying from the ground up, using new insights and theories to actively pursue new possibilities in play and design.

Jonathan Walton is a recent graduate of Oberlin College, a 2004 Fulbright Fellow to China, the former columnist of The Fine Art of Roleplaying and head of 1001 Designs.

O1: Pimp My Game, Kick it Up a Notch, Emeril-Style, Bam!

    Out of the ashes of the old, rising like a phoenix, comes Push, a new column about "progressive" roleplaying and pushing the envelope as far as it goes, in design, in play, and in every other facet of this medium. Unlike my previous column, The Fine Art of Roleplaying, I'm going to attempt to eschew abstract theory in favor of down-and-dirty practical workings, discussing actual projects that I'm developing, ideas that are percolating, and the madness of trying to get game products into players' hot little hands.

Meet Me Again for the First Time

    Here's where I'm coming from:

    I'm a 22-year-old recent college graduate, having absconded from Oberlin College with a BA in East Asian Studies and a minor in something called Third Stream Computing (basically, internet-based programming and design). This summer, I'm working on my aunt's alpaca farm outside of Richmond. Yes, an alpaca farm. In the fall, I'll head to Nanjing, China for 10 months of government-funded academic research, thanks to the Fulbright Fellowship I was awarded, so you'll be receiving these articles from halfway around the world. My proposed research topic involves the Taiping, a syncretic religious group that mixed Christianity with traditional Chinese beliefs in the 1850s and 60s, and relating their situation to how contemporary peoples develop complex systems of identity in a multicultural society. Should be rather cool.

    As far as roleplaying goes, my first game was Palladium's Robotech in sixth grade, followed by Toon, Rifts, GURPS, my friend's fantasy homebrew Nomier, my own fighting-game homebrew No Idea What We're Fighting For, more Rifts, Nightbane, lots and lots of In Nomine, and then the revelations that were Ergo, Fudge, Continuum, and Nobilis. The later four works drastically altered the way I viewed roleplaying. I needed to learn more. I needed to become a better player, GM, and designer. If these kinds of things were possible, there was so much more that I had to prepare myself for.

    Two years ago, I discovered the Forge, perhaps the 4th Seal in my personal gaming apocalypse. Here were people who thought about roleplaying as seriously as I did, and they had such fascinating and insightful theories. I became an apprentice for several months, reading voraciously and learning all I could. More metaphorical bombs were dropped, meanwhile: Universalis, My Life With Master, Robin Law's Rune, and the works of Vincent Baker and Shreyas Sampat, two designers whose minds often twist in the same directions as my own. Also, during this period, I was running Nobilis on a regular basis and began to form my first intentionally non-traditional gaming group: 5-6 female players, only 2 of which had ever had any roleplaying experience. We played a lot of Once Upon A Time and a roleplaying-centered variant that I call Folkways. More and more, I began to realize that roleplaying's cutting edge was fairly accessible to mainstream non-roleplaying audiences, while it achieved limited success among traditional roleplayers. The future, then, would require looking beyond existing gaming culture.

    Where am I now? Well, after two years of solid participation and engagement, the Forge is starting to feel less and less like home. I've learned an unbelievable amount hanging out over there, but I think it's time for me to push off in directions that are tangential to the main body of Forge theory. The Fine Art of Roleplaying was one attempt to do just that, trying to connect developments in roleplaying to what's been going on in contemporary art theory, but it never quite succeeding in clearly communicating my intentions. Push is my attempt to correct some of that. All the same lofty ideals and grand earth-shaking visions are present here too, but the focus is on getting things to happen.

    But enough about me. Where are we going to begin?

Sing, Muse, of the Rage of Achilles

    I have this half-finished game called Argonauts. The promotional materials go like this:

      It is a time of legends. Mythology runs in the veins of the people. Who will step forward and take up the mantle of the hero? The son of a king, the daughter of a god, or the orphaned child of mystery? The call to greatness pounds in the ears of every mortal that draws breath. With every splash of your heart, an epic adventure is summoning you to be part of it. It says, "If you will only give yourself to me, dear child of the Achaeans, I will raise you above all others, up to the pinnacle of this Age. They will look to you and say, 'That is how a life is to be lived.' I will burn you bright and fast, and you will not last long. But, I will make of you a beacon that shines eternal. And you shall never truly die." This is the promise made to every hero, and the bargain, once made, is never broken.

      Argonauts is the first "genre book" published under the M&M Superlink license, reaching beyond spandex vigilantes to the superheroes of Classical mythology, the warriors and demigods of Greek legend. Argonauts is not just a sourcebook, but a full-fledged genre-based adaptation. While the book will pay passing homage to Greek heroes in modern comic books (Hercules, Amazons, etc.), its main focus will be on epic adventures in Mythic Greece. Argonauts includes new mechanics for:

      Myth: What makes a hero a hero.
      Fate: The process that inevitably drives each hero to a fitting and tragic end.
      Invoking the Gods: Getting help (and harm) from the divine.
      Hubris: Human arrogance and the punishment of the gods.
      Mythic Beasts & Mythic Tasks: Real heroes prove their worth.

      Ultimately, Argonauts is about the same things that M&M is about: following your passions and dealing with the aftermath, love and violence, life and death, power and responsibility.

    Honestly, I've been rather busy lately, graduating and whatnot, and Argonauts has fallen by the wayside. Now, personally, I get the most jazzed about a project when I first begin putting it together, but, coming back to something after a long period away from it, I find it hard to get passionate about finishing up. While I still think Argonauts is really cool, it just doesn't excite me in the same way it once did, so our goal this week is to change all that. We need to kick Argonauts into gear, making it fresh, exciting, and turn it into game that will really challenge me, both as a designer and a player, so that we end up with a product that's really worth delivering. Argonauts should reach out, grab people by their hair, and demand that they play it, now!

The Old Clunker

    Let's take a look at what we've got to work with:

    First of all, Argonauts, being an M&M Superlink product, is built on the solid chassis of Green Ronin's OGL superhero game, Mutants & Masterminds. We don't have to make up rules for individual superpowers or come up with attributes or skills or whatever. Forget all the basic system questions, because we're skipping that step entirely. We have a solid superhero game, so all we need to define are the tweaks: how do we want Argonauts to be different from other superhero games and how do we make that happen?

    Secondly, we have these subsystems that I created for the game, which could potentially support a different kind of superhero roleplaying. I won't go into the details, because that's not critical now, but let me give you a basic idea of what we're working with:

      Myth: Instead of levels of experience or power, heroes are defined by their degree of mythic potency. Individuals can start at any Myth level they like, between 0-20, without worrying about "balance" so much, because there are advantages and disadvantages to having both high and low levels of Myth. High Myth characters are more powerful, generally, but they are also closer to arriving at their inescapable fate. A good metaphor might be professional athletes: would you rather play someone who was developing into a star (recent draftee), a current star at their peak (Tim Duncan), or a former star on their way down (Karl Malone). Instead of there being a hierarchical ranking, one stage of life is not better or worse than another, just different. However, like in other d20-based games, gaining levels gives you more points to spend on powers and abilities.

      Fate: Heroes also keep track of how close they are to meeting their fate. Like Myth, Fate is ranked by levels 0-20, with 20 being the end of your career as a hero: either your death or another tragedy (like the self-blinding of Oedipus) that keeps you from ever being a hero again. Each level of Myth you start with or gain during play automatically translates into a point of Fate, but you can also gain temporary Fate points by being injured (physically or emotionally) or taking actions that move you closer to your prophesized doom. In this way, Fate and Myth complement each other. You can rise quickly, gaining Myth and Fate simultaneously and burning out young, or you can slowly accumulate it over the course of a long lifetime. Most heroes, by their very nature, choose the former.

      Mythic Deeds: How do heroes become heroes? How do heroes gain Myth? Well, anyone can gain Myth and become a hero, potentially. You simply have to accomplish one or more Mythic Deeds, which involve besting an entity of higher Myth than yourself. This entity can be another hero or demi-god, a terrible monster, or a monumental task of epic proportions. Groups of heroes can seek to accomplish Mythic Deeds together, but they have to surmount obstacles of even higher Myth or take on a series of challenges to make up for the assistance of their companions. Aside from serving as a system of "advancement" and character development, Mythic Deeds provide structure and focus the game, like missions in a spy game or villains in traditional superhero stories. Each session will almost always revolve around one or more Mythic Deeds that the characters are trying to accomplish, though there are inevitably complications and sideplots. To simplify things, Mythic Deeds are created using the same character creation system as heroes, getting attribute levels, superpowers, and the rest using a point-based system.

      Hubris: I needed some way for heroes to get rid of temporary Fate points and I wanted to model the idea of hubris, the human arrogance that leads them to avoid their fate and ignore the gods. So, to kill two birds with one stone, I decided that heroes could trade in temporary Fate points for points of Hubris, symbolizing their efforts to avoid the workings of fate. But I needed a way for the Hubris to come back to haunt them. That leads to

      Invoking the Gods: Tweaking a concept that I stole from In Nomine, I wanted the heroes to invoke the gods' assistance in times of trouble, and for them to invoke the deities that were related to what they were doing. A hero trying to shoot his enemy with an arrow would invoke Apollo, while a hero trying to win the attentions of a handsome prince would invoke Aphrodite. However, I also wanted some gods to wish the heroes harm and try to impede their progress, as in the stormy relationship between Odysseus and Poseidon. So this is what I came up with:

        • Gods are either "attentive" or "inattentive" at any given time. You only need to keep track of the "attendant gods."

        • Gods become attentive by being invoked, either by the heroes or by other NPCs. Invocation requires a roll by the person doing the invoking.

        • Gods have certain "dominions" in which they can act. Apollo's dominions might be Art, Prophecy, and Archery. Poseidon's might be the Ocean and Weather. When someone attempts something within a god's dominions while that god is attentive, the god can choose to add either a bonus or a penalty to the action. So Apollo might help Paris' arrow strike Achilles' hell, while Aphrodite might harden the heart of your lover.

        • Hubris serves as a penalty to all invocation rolls and an additional penalty that's compounded with any god-induced modifiers, so bonuses get smaller or disappear and penalties become even more crippling. So, you can take on loads of Hubris, if you're willing to fail at almost everything and live a terrible life.

    So there we are. That's the old clunker, the game as it currently stands. It's not a total piece of junk by any means. In fact, it has a lot going for it. What are the problems, though? How can we pimp it out and make it into an even better product?

We're Having Meatloaf Tonight!

      "That's when it started. The shooting of the Sacred Cows"

      "You do all kinds of design gymnastics to try and figure out how to incorporate this thing into the design. You may be convinced that it fits into the design well. You may even be convinced that it is the lynchpin, the cornerstone of the whole design that makes everything work."

      "Maybe it is. But maybe it's just a sacred cow that needs to be shot so you can get back to designing the REAL cornerstone of the design"

      "Time to shoot the sacred subsystem dead. Maybe you can figure out a variant way of using it in the game. Maybe you save the idea for a future project. Whatever you do with it, you don't let it ruin your entire design, no matter how brilliant it seems"

      "Sometimes you just have to make a nice big pile of ground chuck out of your assumptions. "

      -- Ralph Mazza, Shooting the Sacred Cow

    I keep Ralph's post bookmarked in my web browser. I highly recommend that everyone read it and re-read it from time to time, because we always forget. We always fall in love with certain ideals, certain styles of play, certain techniques, certain mechanics, and lose sight of our real goals. It's never too late to start shooting some cows, so let's load up the shotgun and take aim at Argonauts.

    First of all, look at how many new subsystems I've added to the game, new things for players to keep track of: Myth, Fate, temporary Fate points, Hubris, invocation rolls, attentive gods, and sets of dominions for each god. Holy schmoly. I thought I was simplifying things, when I was really layering on more and more subsystems to simulate all the things I thought were important.

    Secondly, look at how complex the Invocation rules are. I had to use a whole paragraph and four bullet points just to describe the basics in abstract. Keeping track of which gods are attentive in any given scene, all these invocations taking place, trying to keep track of the dominions of each god (and there could be more than a hundred, including major and minor ones), and trying to constantly figure Hubris into the equation would be a nightmare for any GM. And it doesn't even take into account the system of "patron" and "nemesis" gods that I didn't even bother going into.

    Let's start shooting cows and see what we end up with.


    There goes the distinction between Myth and Fate. It doesn't take a genius to see that I have two systems that are basically keeping track of the same thing. They're both numbered 0-20, they both mark a hero's progress on "the road of life," and they have a kind of yin/yang symbiotic relationship. Why don't we just keep track of Myth and not both? That frees up the term "Fate" to only refer to the ultimate end of a hero's life, instead of also being yet another subsystem.


    There goes Hubris and the entire Invocation system. Ouch. I was really proud of some of that, especially how all the subsystems connected with each other. But it had to go. One very important design principle is: weight your system towards the things that you really care about. Games with a detailed combat system will almost inevitably lend themselves towards stories about violence. Games with a detailed system for invoking the gods will almost inevitably lend themselves to stories about the gods and the heroes' relationship with the divine. Do I want that to be the focus of the game? No, not really. It was a flavor that I wanted to capture, but the focus of the game should be the heroes and their attempts to accomplish Mythic Deeds.

    So what's left? Myth and Mythic Deeds have emerged as the core of the game, along with a final, inescapable Fate for each hero. This is how it was always supposed to be. This is what Argonauts is about: blood, glory, fame, adventure, the adoration of the masses, and the inevitable downfall that every hero, every star, must face.

Prog Eye for the Trad Game

    Now that all the scrap parts have been torn from the old clunker, it's time to figure out how we're going to rebuild it in proper pimpin' style. The hard part is choosing features that will pimp the game out, but also reinforce the themes and goals of the original design. We don't want to tack on new subsystems that don't gel with the rest, because we just finished ripping old ones off. It's also important that all the new stuff is accessible and useful to the intended audience. Having three DVD players, a full drum kit, and a tropical fish tank built into the car sounds great, but am I really going to use all that junk? Do I even know how to play the drums? If not, it's better to not have ever installed it in the first place.

    To begin our "pimp job," we should start by considering what we want the game to play like, what an average session might consist of, and then figure out ways to make that kind of play happen over and over again. Here's a summery of what I want to have happen in a standard Argonauts session:

      The heroes attempt one or more Mythic Deeds, triumph over them after some hardship, gain the adulation of the masses, and ponder how to face their oncoming Fate. Or, alternately, they succumb to their Fate and meet an end worthy of being remembered.

    Notice a few things about this description:

    Do heroes fail Mythic Deeds? No. They best them or they are destroyed. There are no chances for the hero to attempt a Deed, fail, and move on to another Deed. That's just not how these things work. Hercules didn't skip the harder trials and then come back to them later. It's not a standardized test; these are "do or die" situations.

    It's also clear that a Mythic Deed should be the focus of each session. When heroes are not attempting Mythic Deeds, why do we care what they're doing? Do we want to listen to stories about Atalanta hunting deer in the forest? No. Skip all that stuff and tell us about her taking on monsters and kings. There's no reason, then, to assume that the heroes' entire lives will be on display during the course of play. There can be years that expire between Deeds and, therefore, between the events of subsequent sessions, but the game isn't about those "in between" events, so we won't bother telling those stories.

    Each Mythic Deed is also a Myth Level gained. Which means that 21 sessions will take you through the entire life of a hero, if you start at the beginning, before they've even proved themselves. However, I imagine that many players will choose to begin with characters of higher Myth Levels and that many characters will succumb to their Fate before they even reach Myth 15, due to wounds and other things. All of these factors combine to make Argonauts a very focused game, confined to the boundaries of a dozen sessions or so, on average, sitting halfway between intense one-session games like My Life With Master and the open-ended long-term games that dominate the commercial market.

    So let's begin to examine these Mythic Deeds more carefully, since they're going to be the core of the game. First of all, who prepares these Deeds (using the same character creation system as heroes) for the rest of the group? Part of me wants to give all players an opportunity to create cool monsters, foes, and tasks for the group or specific heroes to attempt, which immediately brings to mind Robin Laws great game, Rune. What if every player was responsible for preparing a Deed in advance and the group members would take turns serving as a temporary GM for individual sessions? If they were short enough sessions, you could even run more than one in a single evening, since you'd have a bunch of Deeds pre-prepared. In this kind of format, there would be no real "Gamemaster," more like a "Session Master." What about a "Taskmaster"? Ha! And, to match that, we could rename Mythic Deeds to be Mythic Tasks. Perfect.

    However, if everyone's going to take turns being Taskmaster, we're going to need really good guidelines to show how this can be done. This could create accessibility problems, since not everyone is going to feel comfortable being Taskmaster and more traditional groups of players might be uncomfortable with even the idea of rotating GMs. Perhaps, then, we should make the switching optional instead of mandatory. You could all take turns being Taskmaster, if you like, but you could also just stick with having one or two players responsible for creating Tasks and running them for the group.

Kick it Up a Notch!

    So, we know that a Mythic Task is at the core of each session, that it may have been created by any player in the group, potentially, and that it's created using the same guidelines as for hero creation. Well, that's all cool, but how does that convert into actual play? Many games make the mistake that of thinking that characters + setting = story, naturally, without you having to do anything else. This is why you see so many people asking, "Yeah, but what do the characters DO?" and have GMs that start by saying, "You're all gathered together in generic location X. What do you do?" Stories need motivation, need purpose, need conflict to get them up and going with a bang. The heroes need to be put in contact with their Mythic Task for the session, and it can't be in the form: "You hear that a giant lion has been plaguing the people of Nemea." That gets really boring really fast.

    So ditch the mystery and get everyone on the same page from the beginning. The whole group should know, before you ever start play, what the session is going to be about. "We're going to tell the story of how Hercules, Atalanta, Orpheus, and Jason took on the Nemean Lion or the Labyrinth of Minos or whatever." Say that up front and then everyone knows what naturally follows. None of this pussyfooting around.

    Once you get ready to play then, and everyone knows what the story will be about, how do you begin? Well, you invoke the Muse, of course. The patron goddess of Argonauts is Calliope, the Muse of Epic & Heroic Poetry, who was also the mother of Orpheus, perhaps the most tragic figure in all of mythology. How do you invoke a muse? Not with your heads bowed in prayer, but with loud voices: "Sing, muse, of the rage of Achilles!" Or, in this case, the invocation should set up the Mythic Task for the session:

      Sing, muse, of the dread lion of Nemea! Large as an elephant it was, with teeth like spears and a roar that could strike men dead with fear. Tell us how, for five long years it ravaged the people of that place, eating and killing with an appetite that nothing could sate. Sing, too, of how the King of Nemea beseeched the gods, sacrificing entire herds of oxen at the temples of Zeus and Apollo, yet his prayers went unanswered

    How's that for a start?

To Be Continued

    Come back next time and we'll continue to bang out the details of Argonauts (aided, hopefully, by thoughts and suggestions that you post in the forum below). Additionally, we'll discuss my other big project for the summer: creating a Player's Guide to Roleplaying.

      See you in the forums, or email me directly.

    P.S. If you want a more complete description of Argonauts, check out the 10-page preview in the first issue of Daedalus.

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