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Topics - Steve Hickey

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Since Game Chef 2013, I've been working on a diceless AW hack to create noirs. I'm happy to say it's now finished and available. Soth is my game about small-town cultists trying to summon a dark god. I'd call it a cousin of Apocalypse World.

I wanted to create a game with the tension of a noir or thriller: stories like Breaking Bad or Psycho, where we follow someone trying to deceive and murder their way out of trouble.

So, Soth uses a diceless process to evaluate how suspicious the cultists are being. The GM then spends that Suspicion to put the cultists under pressure (I think of it as an economy for Hard Moves).

To celebrate the start of this year's Game Chef contest, you can get it for $6 from (until Monday 15 June).

I created a 1-minute video that describes the game a bit more, here:

Soth is my game about cultists trying to summon a dark god in small-town USA, while trying to stop their family and neighbours from getting suspicious. It's a diceless RPG that takes a lot of inspiration from Apocalypse World's MC moves.

One of the trickiest part of the game is the procedure for dealing with conflicts. I have a process that works well for me when I run the game, and I've been trying to explain it in simple language.

I thought I'd pitch it here and check:
• Are there any areas where it's fundamentally broken, that I'm too close to see?
• Is it understandable? Were there any points you couldn't follow?
• Are there any areas that are redundant?

The full procedure is in this 5 1/2 page .pdf: Soth - Conflicts text

I've put a summary below. But first, some game terms:

Keeper: the GM role
Cultist: the generic term for the characters you play
Investigators: Investigators are NPCs that try to uncover what the cultists are doing and then stop them.
Suspicion: a resource the Keeper spends in order to have an Investigator take an action
Clarity: a score that only increases. Cultists with high Clarity has trouble interacting with non-cultists without increasing Suspicion
Supporting characters: every NPC who isn't a cultist or an Investigator.

- - -


A conflict is initiated if a player feels their character absolutely has to stop the actions of another cultist, supporting character, or Investigator.

Establish a clear vision of the situation
• The Keeper establishes current location (the environment and where the character, inside that environment).
• The Keeper and players describe their characters' single intended action (at level of character who's acting fastest). For instance, if someone is sneaking around a building and another person is preparing to fire a gun, everyone describes what their characters are doing in the time it takes to aim and pull the trigger.
• Everyone revises their intended actions (in response to each others' declarations) until actions are finalised.

Establish the order of actions
• The Keeper establishes the action order for the characters involved in the conflict
  ... Does someone clearly act next based on the logic of the scene?
  ... Does someone clearly act next based on what’s happened in the conflict so far? Compare characters' skills, current positions, and relevant personal attributes. Assess existing injuries.
• Does anyone seize the initiative (to trump the action order and go first)? This costs cultists 1 Clarity (i.e. their Clarity increases) and it costs Investigators 4 Suspicion.
• If no-one wants to act, either:
  ... have a supporting character take action
  ... take an action from the 'Make the cultists' lives as difficult as they deserve' list
  ... end the conflict.

Establish the effects of each action
• Players narrate their character's action.
• Keeper describes the action's effect, establishing an injury or other fictional consequence.
• To change an action 'smoothly', seize the initiative. Otherwise, changing an action puts the character at a disadvantage in the fiction

Ending a conflict
• Repeat until characters are either unwilling or unable to oppose each other, or until the situation stalemates or changes so dramatically that it creates another, more urgent conflict.

(cross-posted to the Adept Press forums)

I've written a two-player game exploring what happens when an employee's new boss turns out to be a bully. It's a game about trying to fight an every-day monster.

Workplace Bully (11 page .pdf, 526kb)

Genre: documentary/real-world
Set-up: under 5 minutes
Duration: I estimate a full game will take between 25-60 minutes, but it's playable in self-contained 5-10 minute segments.
System: a diceless Apocalypse World hack. I think of it as a sibling of Avery McDaldno's Dream Askew

This is a playtest draft of Workplace Bully. It's been through lots of solo playtesting (with more to come) and a few external playtests.

If you're interested in taking a look or playing it, this release is about looking for problems. I'm particularly interested in:

a) places where the rules fall down and don't make it clear how to continue playing, and
b) parts of the game that are too complicated (my main weakness as a designer)

I've been thinking about how you could design adventures for Jeremy's excellent Doctor Who-ish hack, Companions. If you don't know it, the game is set after the death of the Doctor, where the TARDIS has gathered some of his old companions together to finish the Doctor's work.

Here's a previous thread about the game, and some actual play. The rules are here: Companions

This thread is to draw together some of the ideas that I've already seen Jeremy write about, add some ideas of my own, and create a space to chat with Jeremy about his process and for all of us to be able to throw some other ideas into the mix.

My thoughts on adventure design are sketchy at the moment, and they're based on trying to reverse engineer some of the adventures I've seen Jeremy design.

---   ---   ---

Both adventures seem to have the following front: "An old adversary of the Doctor's (in a new guise) creates a crisis"

In addition, I think there are two other fronts that can be applied:

- The Legacy of the Doctor (how the changes the Doctor wrought on a planet or species have worked out)
- The TARDIS' Plan (the ongoing mystery of why the TARDIS has gathered the Companions and what it wants them to achieve).

When I put all of that together, two things spring to mind:

Graham Walmsley's advice in Stealing Cthulhu seems to completely apply to writing a Companions adventure. In short: take an existing Whovian monster and put them in a new location or into the plot of an existing episode. Take an existing plot and change its location or the point you start at (make it earlier or later). Steal setpieces from existing episodes. Take the backstory from an episode and make that the adventure the Companions fall into the middle of. There's lots more in Stealing Cthulhu (which is excellent), but I wouldn't want to write too much more about it at the moment.

In an earlier thread, I suggested make rules for what the TARDIS' plan is. I'm seeing that as being like the arc in Monster of the Week and that it emerges over time / as you play, and can then be fed back in to the adventures you design.

Jeremy, you've also mentioned using Fundamental Scarcities to design fronts in your adventures. Here are some of the ones I suggested from a previous thread:

- Despair
- Hope
- Sanity
- Free will
- Safety
- Caution / Common-sense
- Co-existence / Tolerance

I've reworked Soth, my entry for Game Chef 2013 into something that's ready for a wider audience.

It's a game about cultists in small-town America trying to summon the god Soth.

The tone of the game is noir: you are bad people who have to conceal your misdeeds in order to achieve your goals.

The hack is mostly diceless, and I think I've created a cool 'cat and mouse' dynamic to the game by letting the GM secretly determine: (a) how suspicious people find the cultists' actions, and (b) who has become an investigator as a result of those suspicions.

There are no playbooks. Everyone plays a cultist. There's one stat: Sanity ... and how low your Sanity is depends on your position in the cult.

I suspect a full game will take between 4 to 8 hours to play.

The next stage of testing is to run through a few full games. The game naturally starts as a thriller/noir where you're following the bad guys trying to get away with their crimes. At some stage, though, I'm sure the game will reach a natural ‘break point’ where there are no more benefits to being covert. I'm interested in how does the game handle full blown war (either between the cultists, or between the cultists and the town)?

If you're interested in checking it out, you can download it here:

Soth (Dropbox, 1MB .pdf)

Last weekend, I ran a mystery for a group playing Monster of the Week in the Buffy-verse. It was well received, so I thought I'd write it up for general consumption as a holiday gift.

Secret Santa: a Monster of the Week mystery

Hi Jeremy,

We started a new game of Companions last night. So far it's going well - they've arrived in London, discovered it near-abandoned and covered with mysterious energy and filled with Cybermen. There have been some ingenious ideas (keeping the TARDIS safe by moving it forward two hours in time, and building a homing beacon to attract it to a different location) and some fantastic failed moves (the Agent blowing his 'Oncoming Storm' role while trying to make friends with the Resistance was a classic cock-up).

We've been looking at the rules as we play, trying to note points where we were confused and had to invent our own interpretations. I thought you'd like to know about the following areas we found unclear:

For useability, you'll want to clarify the Bonds and History section. (I haven't played Dungeon World, so I'm not familiar with Bonds.)
- When you say 'it's better to fill in more than one', are you saying that you can write the name of a PC into more than one item?
- When you say 'the total number of bonds each character selected for you', are you talking about the totals of the numbers in parentheses or the number of lines/items
- Are the Hx rules the same as in Apocalypse World? If Hx goes to +4 (even when you're doing the initial History selections in character generation), do you mark experience and reset to +1?
- At the end of each session, do you say who you feel closer to and they mark +1 Hx with you?

When people are explaining their bonds, you might want to indicate to the MC to write down any questions that those Bonds provoke (for the MC to ask the character later).

---   ---   ---

In the Warrior-Poet playbook, insert 'than' into the following bond: "---'s friendship is worth more to me THAN the way of the warrior."

It'd be good to add the Fate clock and Spark counter to the character sheet. (Under the Fate clock, you might want a comment like 'Using Armour doubles the value of the Fate points you spend'.) It's also be good to add five dots for marking down Experience.

For the Construct, you might want to add 'Clockwork' as an option in the 'Material' section.

Everyone's XP section mentions emotion keys, but we couldn't find a reference to those in the rules.

---   ---   ---

The RUN! move was a little problematic. Let's say the Agent and the Whiz are together and they screw up an encounter with a band of resistance fighters. The Agent says "Let's run!" and the Whiz agrees.

The question is: do they both need to make the RUN! move?

The reason I ask is that one of the options in the RUN! move is 'One person of your choice who follows you is safe'. It seems this could apply to a PC Companion - meaning that they don't need to make the RUN! move. Is that option only supposed to apply to NPCs?

While playing, I felt like it had to be applicable to the other PC, so I didn't ask them to RUN!

---   ---   ---

Possible MC moves:
- Reveal the past
- Hint at off-screen badness

At one point, the Agent wanted to do some research on the internet. Jenni wanted to know if there was a 'Research' move? As there wasn't, I just told her what she'd find out, which implied 'a Reveal the past' MC move.

Hinting at off-screen badness works well too. In this episode, we had two Companions being watching by video surveillance (which was later revealed to be a Cyberman's eyes).

The players in this session were: me, Jenni Dowsett, Svend Andersen, Celeste Mackintosh, Wayne Ulyate.

Jeremy Tidwell has written a hack called Companions (here) that is set after the death of the Doctor, where the TARDIS has gathered some of his old companions together to finish the Doctor's work.

It's a great pitch: with a real sense of melancholy and purpose, and it totally grabbed the 4 Dr Who fans I pitched it to at a house-con yesterday.

The game went well: we played an adventure called Ice World Zero, set at a point in the Battle Cleric timeline when suspicions of the Doctor are high, and one of the Doctor's old enemies is up to a nefarious scheme. By the end of the mission, two of the Companions had been killed and then resurrected by the TARDIS - coming back ... changed by their time in the vortex.

Due to lack of time, I'll break my feedback into two or three posts.

In this post, I just wanted to discuss some ideas that came up when we discussed the Touchstone playbook after the game. We felt the Touchstone (an everyday person with a heart) didn't have many options for things to do in the game. We discussed how to make him/her more emotionally central to the game.

(Jeremy, this is one of those situations where I'll offer some suggestions, but they may not be right - they may just help you identify issues of your own. It's all cool!)

People instinctively moved to shield and protect the Touchstone from Harm. Perhaps there could be a move to take advantage of this: "If others take harm to protect the Touchstone, both parties benefit (the Touchstone gains XP, and the protector takes +1 forward)", for instance.

There could be a move that's something like "In a dire situation, you are not seen as a threat by anyone."

Monster of the Week (a hack by Mike Sands) has a great little move for the Mundane called "Always the Victim". I'll have to check out the details of it, but I think it's about people gaining XP if you need rescuing. Similarly, there's an "I'll check it out" move, where the Mundane gains XP for heading off on her own and investigating stuff.

We all thought it would be fantastic if having the Touchstone present when a companion died gave that companion a bonus to being resurrected. Something like "add your Hx with the Touchstone to your resurrection roll."

In general, we wanted the Touchstone to have more stuff that helped her connect with others, protect and help others, and support others.

Dungeon World / If I ran DW this weekend, what should I use?
« on: February 27, 2012, 11:28:07 PM »
I'm thinking about running Dungeon World at a house-con this weekend, but I'm a little adrift with the options. What would you recommend?

- Using the Hack with its playbooks (and making up some principles and DM moves of my own)

- Using the Hack and printing out the Beta playbooks?

- Buying the Basic DW .pdf?

- something else I'm unaware of?

$5 is not a huge deal, but I'm interested in whether I can get by without spending money, and how significantly the experience of running DW is improved by using Basic.

The Regiment / I'm hoping to run this next weekend!
« on: February 26, 2012, 01:02:17 AM »
Awesome to see a Regiment forum up here, guys.

I think I heard you had plans to release a playtest draft this week? If that's true, I'll try to run it at a house-con I'm at next weekend.

I have a vague memory of a thread from 2010 or early 2011 where someone (maybe Jonathan Walton or John Harper?) made a specific post about PCs raiding a compound, and how the MC built up the map based on fictional positioning and the story’s internal logic.

I remember this post felt like it had a lot of cool principles in it … but I have no idea where it is or how to find it.

AW Hive Mind: does this sound familiar to you?

(Also: I actually may have asked this question before, but a quick look through my previous posts hasn't brought anything up.)

Apocalypse World / Does AW have any guidance for when to end the game?
« on: February 15, 2012, 12:41:35 AM »
I'm working on writing about how to end my game Left Coast. It has some in-the-fiction events that act as indicators that you're moving into the endgame phase.

When I played Apocalypse World, our game felt the same. A lot of stuff was coming to a head and all of a sudden it became clear that a few key questions needed to be resolved in order to create a satisfying ending:
- Would we kill the NPC Hardholder who was making our lives miserable?
- Could we hold off the horde of psychic cannibals?
- Could we successfully complete construction of The Machine and then activate it?

Does AW have any guidance about when to end the game? I'd like to read its take on it and compare it to my own thoughts. I just had a quick skim through the AW rules, but nothing leapt out at me.

Apocalypse World / Some play advice for Apocalypse World
« on: July 06, 2011, 08:01:45 PM »
I played around yesterday and made this presentation: How to play Apocalypse World.

It condenses the big lessons I had to learn during our 16 session game, in order to get the most out of it.

The presentation's pretty rough (it's my first one), but I'm interested in your thoughts.

Threat Level is the hack I'm noodling around with for doing techno-thrillers and para-military action in the style of 24. My original thread for it is here: Threat Level (A '24' Hack)

The thing you should know: this thread is just me noodling around. I won't be updating it regularly, because there are three other deadlines I need to be hitting. But it feels like the right time to dip my toe in the water of testing out character creation and how the battle rules I've come up with might work ... so I'm going to do some of that solo playtesting that Ben Lehman suggested.

I'm gunna start out by making up a Field Operative.

Agent Janelle Myers

Force+3 (includes the Extra Force move, below)   

Okay. So I'll need to decide which stats are in and out, too. I'll also need to come up with options for the playbook's look.

Next: I get all the basic moves plus three Field Operative moves

Perfect Instincts (from the Battlebabe): when you've formulated a battle plan, and you're acting on the GM's answers, take +2 rather than +1.

Leadership (from various playbooks): when people fight for you, roll+command. On a 10+, hold 3. On a 7–9, hold 1. Over the course of the fight, spend your hold 1 for 1 to make your squad:
  • make a hard advance
  • stand strong against a hard advance
  • make an organized retreat
  • show mercy to their defeated enemies
  • fight and die to the last ???

Extra Force: you get Force +1.

I also get to choose a specialisation, and I want to choose Marine / Commando, but I'm not sure what that does yet. Need to think about it.

Next up, I need to choose gear and create the Oppositional move for the Field Operative playbook.

brainstorming & development / Threat Level: A '24' hack
« on: May 24, 2011, 08:09:42 PM »
I'm planning a hack which I'm calling 'Threat Level'. Essentially, it's 24 the RPG.

Here's what I think will be in it:

- - -   - - -

3 Playbooks (with general moves and specialist moves for each playbook)
  • The Field Operative. Jack Bauer. Tony Almeida. Renee Walker. (specialist moves: Sniper, Marine, Interrogator, etc)
  • The Analyst. Chloe O'Brien. Kim Bauer. Good with data and conclusions. I think this playbook has lots of moves, including some Savvyhead stuff.
  • The Administrator. Bill Buchanan. Michelle Dessler. Deals with hierarchies, competing priorities and decisions (has one or two beginning of session moves)

A mini-playbook: The Mole

Basic Moves that deal with gathering intel, asserting authority, evading and pursing, analysing data, and using tech.
  • The element of 24 I feel most uncomfortable with is the frequency with which torture and enhanced interrogation are used to advance the plot. While I think that'll be a component of this game, I want make it a lot more dangerous and problematic than the TV show presented it. I want to emphasise the downsides of these techniques: false intelligence, creating enemies, alienating allies, the moral cost on the torturer, and harm.
  • I'd also like to make planning and tele-conferencing into riveting, edge-of-your-seat scenes.

Battle moves for brutal improvised attacks, and co-ordinated assaults.

Conditions that can replace Harm at the player's discretion. Conditions include Captured, Off-The-Grid, Dead, Pursued, Out-numbered, Unwilling Accomplice, Tracked, Second-Guessed/Suspected, Replaced/Fired, Blackmailed, Alone)

Fronts and Threat Types: including Targets, Personal Life, Authority (Presidents, Chiefs of Staff, Foreign Powers)

Threat clocks - inspired by Mystery Clocks in Monster of the Week, these are equivalent to an episode of 24, centre around a specific crisis, and describe the 'What would happen if the threat isn't dealt with'
  • 3 sample Threat clocks (virus stolen; terrorist leader located; an AI has been released onto the internet)

Conspiracy Clocks - like Countdown Clocks (or Arc Countdowns in Monster of the Week). A season (or half-season) of 24.
  • 2 sample clocks showing how this works.

- - -   - - -

I've been sitting on this idea for a while. In the spirit of getting things done, I've just spent 10 minutes getting it down on screen, so I can get back to finishing Left Coast and work on this next.

Any thoughts would be appreciated!

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