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Messages - Steve Hickey

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I'm going to bump it up slightly to $6.99.

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)

Thanks, James. I can see that I haven't clearly explained how those part of the system come in to play and interact with each other. That will definitely go into my 'changes for the next draft' list.

Let's see if I can explain it more clearly, here ...

The intention is that you play the game in two phases: a conversational, back-and-forth exchange of Goes followed by a period of downtime (called 'Evaluation'). Evaluation is the primary source of Stress and Insight for characters.

When you're having your exchange of Goes, you're as in the fiction as possible, trying to create the reality of this Manager-Employee relationship.

When the exchange of Goes come to a natural end-point (or if neither of you are sure what to do next), then you go to Evaluation. That's where you assess how much Stress the Employee just earned and how much Insight they got into the bullying dynamic of their relationship. The players can then take the Stress and Insight with them into the next exchange of Goes and spending them to unlock new abilities.

Both characters can also earn Stress and Insight when the employee takes 'damage' from what the bullying manager has done to them (that's the 'Broken' and 'Transformed' stuff you pointed out, James.)

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Man, I hope that's clearer (I have a head-cold at the moment, so I have no idea!) I'll take a look at the rules and see how I can make it clearer, there.

Thanks, James. I appreciate you taking a look at it.

I'll add that correction to my list for Draft 2.

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)

Based on all of the above, I'm starting the next phase of planning with two fronts and the following ideas for events

Front 1: The Fall of the TARDIS
+ Wake up and TARDIS crashing
+ Realise the TARDIS is out of control and can't be fixed
+ Realise one of the companions appears to have done it
+ The Silent manipulates the TARDIS' spatial configuration functions to keep the companions from solving the problem

Front 2: Earth attacks!
+ Orbital defences open fire on the TARDIS
+ The TARDIS enters Earth's atmosphere
+ The TARDIS crashes

What's struck me so far is that I haven't really needed a fundamental scarcity in order to come up with ideas for these fronts. Maybe that's my familiarity with the process for designing Monster of the Week mysteries.

After looking at Apocalypse World and Monster of the Week, I can see that they're fairly similar in the steps that they take. It's just that MotW's mysteries use the actions of the monster as their starting point, and AW using the fundamental scarcity.

So, applying Apocalypse World's methodology:

Let's say the Silent is representing something that wants to keep something hidden. A fundamental scarcity called 'Secrecy'.

I'm going to say The Silent on the TARDIS wants to destroy it and the companions in order to keep the secret. I'm also going to say there's a broader conspiracy … but I'm not sure what that is yet. So, I'll add that to my TARDIS Arc.

The next step is to create a threat. The Silent needs to have a a type and an impulse

I feel like the Silent is a Manipulator. It hides and acts in the forgotten moments it creates. And it has a reason for doing things. What would its impulse be? I'll go with something obvious and see how that works out—Impulse: to ruin the Doctor's legacy.

(An alternative, from Monster of the Week, might be Destroyer (impulse: to bring about the end of the world). That feels like a more specific and good fit for this particular Silent.)

Now I'll take my initial ideas for Front 1 and see how it gets fleshed out.

Start: The companions recover their awareness and realise that the TARDIS is crashing
3:00 Realise the TARDIS is out of control and can't be fixed without a part that's gone missing
6:00 Realise one of the companions appears to have done it
9:00 The Silent manipulates the TARDIS' spatial configuration functions to keep the companions from solving the problem or to imprison the companions
10:00 The Silent implants post-hypnotic suggestions into some companions to get them to fight each other
11:00 The TARDIS enters Earth's atmosphere
12:00 The TARDIS crashes and is destroyed

That was a little difficult, and some of the elements of the countdown feel a little arbitrary, but it'll do for now. In particular, I felt like there were problems with:

+ Front 2 having the same ending as Front 1 (I decided to swap it out)
+ Front 2 lacks specificity about what Earth is afraid of (I think this front will be improved by figuring that out)

Time for some more thinking about Front 2 and about a custom move to represent the Silent's abilities.

OK, so let me try and put this together.

What are some of my favourite episodes at the moment?
Midnight. City of Death. Earthshock. The Name of the Doctor. The Day of the Doctor. The End of Time. The Doctor's Wife. The Eleventh Hour / The Impossible Astronaut.

What are the things in those episodes I'm excited about?
- The Silence. Specifically, the fan theory that there was a Silent on the TARDIS when Amy first boarded.
- The TARDIS as a labyrinth.
- Scaroth: a villian split through time.
- A spaceship crashing in to Earth.
- The monster in Midnight and the idea that it's still out there.
- The Timelords, trying to come back from their war.

I love all this stuff, but I'm particularly drawn to:
- A Silent on the TARDIS (which is all about a place we think of as safe being invaded)
- A spaceship crashing in to Earth (love the ticking clock)
- The return of the monster from Midnight (this could represent the Doctor failing to permanently fix something)

I think I'll combine ideas 1 and 2 and put a Silent on the TARDIS, which is going to crash into a planet. That will probably give me a good in media res opening for the adventure. I also suspect that this will be a simple adventure with only one or two fronts.

So, when I asked myself, "What aspect of the Doctor's legacy do you want to focus on?", I chose an adversary and a location (and left out 'a society' and 'a decision he or his companions made').

Next I'll choose a place and a period.

'Place' is easy: the TARDIS and I guess, near-Earth orbit. The period, I think I'll make 'the near future'. I'm thinking of an Earth surrounded by orbital defences and ready to see the approaching TARDIS as a threat. (I'll jot that down for my front that deals with the TARDIS crashing.)

At first I thought I didn't need to answer “How the period and place changed since the Doctor's death?” … but upon reflection, I'm totally wrong.

Earth is obviously far more militarised and paranoid. Afraid of some threat from space. That seems like a good piece of a bigger picture that I can hint at during the game.

The TARDIS … This will be the first adventure that's set fully in the TARDIS, so I'll have to do something thinking about what it looks like post-Doctor's death. That's an important piece of colour but it's not something I've given any thought to before.

My villain is going to be a Silent. So I'll have to stat that up.

I think their Dire Ambition absolutely needs to be something like 'Destroy the Doctor's legacy'. I think that neatly motivates their actions of infiltrating the TARDIS, sabotaging it and aiming to destroy it.

(This is an area that I think I'd need to think about more. Is that actually a Dire Ambition, or just an expression of it? The way I see this game, the Doctor's legacy is actually something that could be a huge part of things … or depending on how it plays out the campaign could just a series of mostly-disconnected adventures.)

Now I need to ask: What is the Silent's primary driver? What three things would they do under that?

OK, primary driver: crash the TARDIS.

Three things they'd do about that?
1. Implant a post-hypnotic suggestion in someone to sabotage a vital component and … hide (?) it deep in the TARDIS' bowels (leading to the characters at some point realising one of them did it).
2. Separate someone who's getting too close to the truth and trap or destroy them
3. Change the TARDIS's desktop theme, jettison some of its rooms or expand its rooms and corridors to near infinite size in order to separate companions (which implies that one of the companions has been manipulated into giving the Silent access to the TARDIS' controls.

Now to think of an opening scene (the hook): what do the companions see that reflects the destabilised situation?

Well, I'd like to start this in media res with the companions realising the TARDIS is out of control. Probably lots of violent shaking and unsteadiness. Loud complaining noises coming from the console and interior. The companions don't know it but they're just coming out of a Silent-induced memory fugue.

I'll have to work up the fronts now and the custom moves (of which I think there are things like 'When you travel through the TARDIS' and whatever the Silent can do). And I'll have to define the Silent as much as I need to.

So, more thinking to do but this has been fun!

Fair points, Anaphory.

---  ---  ---

I've finally got a bit of time to follow up on this. Here are some other thoughts I've put together about adventure design: these are leading into more of a process, which I'll probably play around with next time I run the game (as I'm running out of pre-written adventures!) ...

Do a remix

Taking one tip from Stealing Cthulhu:  Take your favorite episode and use a different enemy at the center of it. You can start your adventure and countdown in the aftermath of or the lead-up to your favorite episode.

Creating your own setting

Choose a period and a place

- Earth
- a spaceship
- an alien planet
- extra-dimensional space
- an alternate history

- the past but with a science fictional element
- now
- the near or middle future
- sometime during the course of human expansion throughout the galaxy
- the far far future

How have the period and place changed since the Doctor's death? How is it getting worse? Here are some of the recurring motifs in Doctor Who stories:
- Repressive government
- Parasitical ecology
- Aliens interfering in history
- Meddling with dangerous technology
- Exploring a forbidden place
- Stumbling upon a disappearance
- Dysfunctional or abusive power relationship

Choose one species or villain (or combine aspects of multiple villains).
- A monster (look at Monster of the Week?)
- Humans (look at Apocalypse World?)
- An alien (an existing species, the antithesis of an existing species, something non-organic/non-traditional lifeforms, something from another sci-fi property)

Choose a motivation
- What is their dire ambition since the Doctor's death?
- What is their primary driver? What three things would they do under that?
- Rewatch relevant episodes for details. (Optionally: look for something the Doctor casually mentioned and make that your situation).

What has just happened OR how does the TARDIS' arrival destabilize the situation?
How will the Doctor's enemy react to the appearance of the TARDIS?

Think of an opening scene (the hook): what do the companions see that reflects the destabilised situation

Decide on some significant places in the setting.

---   ---   ---

The TARDIS' arc can also inspire adventures. At the end of each session ask yourself what plan of The Doctor's is it trying to achieve? What have you learned about the Doctor's death? What is the greatest danger that has been revealed so far?

In fact, I think there might need to be another MC move--something like "Hint at a greater danger happening far away from here".

Hmm. Just had a thought: What if the fundamental scarcities were the same as the emotional keys? That would give the players with those keys a thematically interesting place in each adventure.

For instance, a society with a Fundamental Scarcity of ... uh, Courage might be cowed under the rule of a totalitarian dictator in an Orwellian society. Players with the Courage emotional key would be rewarded for standing up to the government or acts of kindness that go against the law.

So I'm starting to draw some of this together in my head. I may post replies to myself over the next few days as time allows and if inspiration hits.

Here's a possible starting point for designing an adventure:

Ask yourself, "What aspect of the Doctor's legacy do you want to focus on?"
- an adversary
- a location
- a society
- a decision he or his companions made

Ask yourself, "How has the situation gotten worse since the Doctor's death (or since he was last here)?"

Ask yourself, "How long has it been since the Doctor got (or will be until the Doctor gets) involved in this situation?"

Read up about your chosen aspect of the Doctor's legacy on wikipedia or re-watch the relevant episodes.

Ask yourself, "If the Companions never arrived, how would this situation get catastrophically worse?" Create a countdown from that. I'd apply some of the advice from Monster of the Week to this.

Remember these are just first draft thoughts!

I was thinking that the scarcity of Free Will might be something like a Borg-like society, or a cyberman invasion / conversion factory. I guess it's also a scarcity of freedom (as in totalitarian governments or societies run via game shows).

Safety is a bit weak but it could refer to environmental dangers: a science lab on the edge of a black hole or underneath a volcano; a planet that's tearing itself apart; perhaps it's a colony that shares its world with an unwilling indigenous lifeform or culture?

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

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