Thursday, September 22, 2022

Failed Experiments, or, Slush Pile 09.22

Over the past year or two or three, I made and attempted to run a whole bucket of weird little experimental RPG projects. Most of them died. Here are some post-mortems.

#1: Harrowhame, aka "40-mile Dwarf Tunnel"

The pitch: I saw this old MERP map. Then I reread LOTR, which says that the Mines of Moria are about 40 miles long. You play the leaders of a dwarf expedition to reclaim Harrowhame, the totally-not-Mines-of-Moria. You start outside, work your way in, send out scouts, fight battles with the denizens, mine gold, build fortresses, and fix the train.

Sessions played: 4.

What went wrong: Two things: first, an overabundance of dungeon nodes. I was trying to run it like a huge pointcrawl megadungeon with hundreds of mundane nodes and a few spicy ones, when I should've taken a leaf from UVG's book and just had a few dozen really cool exciting nodes (some of which could be dungeons). Second, there was just too much management overhead from the players: they were tracking a dozen squads of 10 dwarves, their work assignments, resources (metal, gold, food, and fuel), and a bunch of other shit. It would be a sick videogame, but was basically untenable as a tabletop RPG.

What's worth salvaging: The pitch. That's about it, really. The idea's really cool but basically every mechanical angle I took with the project sucked.

#2: Ten Thousand Miles

The pitch: You play mailmen (of the "Special Mail Service") going on a 10,000-mile delivery most of the way across the world. Every month, me and kahva release another 500 × 500-mile topographical map (on patreon, maybe?), which knit together into one contiguous 500 × 10,000 mile map. (And then release it eventually on a fucking scroll, or something?)

Sessions played: 5.

What went wrong: Again, two things: first, it just took a lot of coordination and effort and work ahead of time for me and kahva, which is difficult to muster in the best of circumstances. Second, and possibly more damning, is that these were maps basically devoid of content. A big topograpical map is very fun and cool, but you gotta have things to do there besides just walking, and a big map (even with some weather and random encounter tables) just doesn't really provide that.

What's worth salvaging: The map-a-month subscription model. I also wrote a little language system that's kinda fun and will eventually go in its own post. Oh, also, I came up with this three-point Mail Service Code of Honor, which I love (as well as the idea of delivering the mail as a campaign pitch):
  1. The mail must go through.
  2. Never open the mail.
  3. Always hold yourself to highest standards of decency.

#3: Beowulf-3, aka "Mars Colony"

The pitch: An almost entirely rules-free (we used one basic PbtA-ish 2d6 resolution roll and nothing else) system set on an alternate-history '90s Martian colony (the mission you're on is called Beowulf-3). You're some of the first permanent colonists on Mars, and have to deal with the competing interests of NASA, the Clinton Administration, corporate executives, and the aftershocks of the Cold War. 

Sessions played: 1. 

What went wrong: Turns out that a lot of the problems Martian colonists face are extremely boring but also pretty relevant. Like, maintaining water filtration pipes is very necessary but hard to really grapple with in an engaging way without having a chemical engineering degree. You can kinda just skip from dramatic moment to dramatic moment, but we wanted more structural mechanisms for all the boring shit that's still important. 

What's worth salvaging: A very light core ruleset actually works super well for these kinds of community-drama focused games. With a little bit of tactical rules elision, I think this could really shine.

#4: PbtA Mutable Moves

The pitch: A Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset where every move follows the "10+: all three, 7-9: choose two, 6-: choose one" model (pioneered by moves like Read a Sitch). Every time you make a move, you cross out one of the options and replace it with one of your own design. Here's a version I made for a kind of Biblical-mythical Bronze Age-type setting.

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: Turns out game design is hard, kids. Even with a load of examples, coming up with new move options on the fly takes a lot of time and effort, so my players often ended up just resorting to shafting over other players or writing precisely what they wanted. Which was allowed and I sort of saw coming, but ended up being more an issue than I expected.

What's worth salvaging: Letting players modify existing moves—or write new ones—is an extremely potent tool. It's an amazing way to let them modify the game how they want, to literally rewrite the rules to better fit your game. I think as a playbook capstone, for example, or a once-every-5-sessions kind of move, it could work really well. 

#5: Downtime Grunge Heroes

The pitch: You play, like, a bunch of shitty college students living in a house together, but you also all have superpowers. Deal with your life. Here's the draft I started writing. One of my big-brain ideas for this was to reverse the downtime-mission emphasis: in lots of games, you play out the mission in detail, then roll to see what happens in downtime. What if it was the reverse here? You roll to see what happened on your mission ("ah fuck, I got blinded for two weeks by acid," "ah fuck, I totaled my car"), then play out what actually happens in the rest of your life in detail.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: What do you actually do in this game? What happens? If I don't want to write a whole bunch of weird emotional-tracker systems (a la Masks), what mechanics are there actually? Do I really want to play a game where you say "yeah I spend 3 hours of my sleep tonight to finish my homework" ??

What's worth salvaging: I think basically everything in that draft is actually pretty okay. Like, it's reasonably good, reasonably-gameable content. I dunno.

#6: PbtA Communal Cyberpunk

The pitch: Apocalpyse World, the original Powered by the Apocalypse game, is really interesting in that you-the-PCs essentially play the pillars of a community. Not the leaders, necessarily, but certainly the important people. Gang bosses, cult icons, weird freaks, all the movers and shakers in a given apocalyptic commune. It's something almost no PbtA game since has managed to replicate. What if it was cyberpunk?

Sessions played: 1.

What went wrong: It's just... Apocalpyse World but cyberpunk. It's fine. It's bland. (Also, my players didn't really seem to get the cool things I was trying to do with rules-lite cybernetics because they were all poisoned by storygames, but that's okay.)

What's worth salvaging: This was the start of my "holy shit god fuck I never want to write a system again" arc. Here's the existing rules draft (NSFW?), it'd probably be playable with a good 3 hours of work to fill out the classes. 

#7: Maximalist Ritual Spells

The pitch: What if spells were actually complex things you needed to learn? What if they were serious rituals that required study and time and effort? What if a wizard was not somebody who has four 1st-level spells per day and a Spell Save DC of 17 and whatever else, but somebody who was actually wise and knowledgeable? The idea was to write a whole bunch of complex ritual spells that could be hugely powerful but had tons of complex requirements. A wizard who knew one spell would be dangerous; a wizard who knew five spells would be immensely powerful.

Sessions played: 4 (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: It's kind of a pain in the ass, honestly. There's like a million things to keep track of as the GM, and I didn't have a good way to do that. It's also just a huge barrier to entry for the players. Turns out making magic really complicated means that magic is really complicated. It's also just an absolute fuckload of legwork on the part of the designer. 

What's worth salvaging: Here's what the Sleep spell might look like. Here's what a pyromancy spell list might look like (scroll down a bit). Despite the issues, I do think these might kind of work, and I may well return to them at some point. They're also just a fantastic way to do a lot of sneaky cool backdoor worldbuilding. In the meantime, check out Luke Gearing's much more usable version of basically this same idea (for the already-amazing Wolves Upon the Coast).

#8: Cyberpunk Lady Blackbird

The pitch: Lady Blackbird, John Harper's landmark focused-but-open narrative game, but done up in a cyberpunk style. The tentative name was "Blackbird Protocol," about escorting a revolutionary cell leader ("Blackbird") through the city to a corporate tower.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out Lady Blackbird actually just kind of sucks? It's a very fun concept and pitch, but there's just... nothing there? It gives you one macro map and a bunch of vague hooks, then says "go." If there was an actual adventure to it, more maps and NPCs and challenges and details, I think it'd be great. As is, it's a complete ruleset and barebones adventure masquerading as an entire world. If you're willing to improv the entire thing it's pretty fun, but that's true of just about any game.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? Honestly I'm not sure.

#9: Back Alley Razor Gangs, aka "Blades in the Dark but actually good this time"

The pitch: Take Blades in the Dark, another landmark John Harper joint, but add some actual backbone and procedure and content to it. Blades, as is, has the weird storygame problem of saying "here's a whole woooorld" and then basically just assigning all of it as homework for the GM. BARG was an attempt to fix that by adding district-generation procedures and adding some structure, primarily by using Tim Denee's really excellent Doskvol Street Maps. At some point it also turned into a rewrite of Blades (lmao).

Session played: 15-20, ish? A lot.

What went wrong: It had a really rocky start—we found that trying to take over an entire neighborhood when you're a bunch of nobodies is really fucking hard. (Let's just say both me and my players really earned a lot of respect for the Sopranos and the Peaky Blinders.) After some soul-searching and a big ol' timeskip, I just gave my players an entire neighborhood to start with. From then, it was actually pretty smooth sailing.

What's worth salvaging: Honestly, this project was mostly a success, it just needs an absolute fuckload more legwork and prep and work on my end before it can really be called finished. Here's the draft, though (and some very incomplete tables). Maybe keep an eye out for this one sometime next year or two, if you're interested. 

#10: LANCER Hexcrawl

The pitch: Make a big ol' hexcrawl for LANCER. Four or five regions, a half-dozen dungeon-type locations, three-ish factions, a handful of quest lists/lines, maybe 100 keyed hexes total. A fat zine's worth of concise content. 

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Turns out I really can't stand LANCER. It's far and away the game that I want to like the most, but the rules writing is just abysmal and the game offers absolutely zero guidance on how to actually balance it. While I really like weird mythic sci-fi mech about playing giant robots that fight each other, sitting through minimum one (more likely two-three) hours of really dense crunchy combat is my breaking point. It bores me as a player and taxes the hell out of me as a GM.

What's worth salvaging: The... pitch? What LANCER is really in dire need of is good old-fashioned content. (Or, at least, content that you can actually play, as opposed to whatever the hell Wallflower is doing.)

#11: Locks & Keys

The pitch: One of the cool things about Lady Blackbird is that characters all have these things called "Keys," like "Key of Secrecy: Hit your Key when you go undercover or lie to hide your identity." Hitting your key gets you XP and other stuff. Narrative triggers, basically. I made a bunch of these once for a classless-type OSR game: the keys are Keys, the associated perks you get are, hilariously, called Locks.

Sessions played: 3, I think (as part of another campaign).

What went wrong: On paper, nothing. These work as intended. In practice, though, it just feels pretty against the whole ethos to be incentivizing players like this. (We are against incentive here, after all.) 

What's worth salvaging: If you really love this idea, take it and go. This one basically works mechanically, I'm more just opposed to it on a, like, ideological level. 

#12: Forged in the Dark Scooby-Doo

The pitch: you play the Scooby Gang, pillars of the American mythos that they are. You go into a collection of places around town (the Abandoned Factory, the Seaside Cove, the Old High School) to solve mysteries. Here's the twist: when you go looking for clues (or otherwise touch the dice, really), there are two sets of clues per location-mystery to find:
  1. If you fail the roll (pretty common), your clumsy incompetence leads you to actually find evidence that it's Old Man Withers! Bank statements, machinery, human footprints, lost wills, etc. etc.
  2. If you succeed the roll (pretty rare), you find evidence that holy shit, Bigfoot is real. Once in a blue moon on a mystery, you actually see aliens, you actually talk to ghosts, etc. etc.
After finding all the clues from one set (regardless of how far you got on the other), you conclude the mystery.

Sessions played: 0.

What went wrong: Mysteries are hard, man. While Scooby-Doo offers the amazing affordance of not actually being about mysteries, really, it's still tricky. Is it too contrived? Is there any tension? Is it too weird to have the results of the mystery be based on fucking dice rolls? Isn't this whole twin-solution thing like way too meta anyways? All questions that vex me. 

There's also the issue of people trying to play as like, weird Scooby-Doo OC, which I am absolutely not here for—if we're playing the Scooby-Doo game, we're playing as Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby, goddamn it. (There's also the question of, you know, copyright? Unclear.)

What's worth salvaging: Thing is, I really, really love this one. Scooby-Doo is near and dear to my heart, and getting to kick off sessions by having the Fred-player say "Let's split up and look for clues, gang!" fills me with joy. God, maybe I need to make this game.


Okay. I think that's it. If you ever wonder why it's taking me so goddamn long to release Seas of Sand and Time After Time, it's because I keep getting distracted every five seconds with all of these (not to mention my projects that actually have released since starting, like Lowlife and The Big Wet). Ugh. A blessing and a curse, roleplaying games.

1 comment:

  1. I have wanted to play Lancer for the longest time. I felt the same way you did about it. With that being said, I did run a mini mecha campaign using Ternwillow. I combined it with some other zines like Prismot and Empty Sectors. Ran 5 sessions. Thanks for sharing all of your experiments.