From the Blog

Posted by Chubby Funster at 9:05 pm

Tony Love mentioned to me today that he had a chat with Ed Healy recently about strategies for getting new people into RPGs. It is something I think about a lot. Since Tony’s comment to me, I have spent a lot of the day thinking about it.

I am going to propose a new method of getting people to play RPGs in this post. And it is a pretty unconventional approach. But before that approach will make a lot of sense, I need to establish where I am coming from, so please bear with me through a short story.

Europa Universalis II

When I was in college, I played a lot of Europa Universalis II. It is basically a glorified board game.  A strategy game. Where you control a nation and you strive to kill off the others. In single player, it plays out very much like a Total War or Civilization game. You start small, build up critical mass, start crushing everything in sight, and push for world conquest. Where it got really interesting was in multiplayer. Because the game could be edited by someone with only a tiny amount of basic training. Everything was in text files. You could edit the saves and do some crazy amazing things in just a few minutes.

A social model evolved in the multiplayer community where people would set up games as GMs and run them in a similar manner to tabletop gaming. Every week, 4-5 hour sessions, then a week of chatter over ICQ/AIM. Because the GM could edit the save games at will, it allowed them to kind of control the AI forces a little. It allowed them to go beyond the rules of the game, fix the game in a manner they wanted, and change reality. This started out as editing to fix mistakes caused by lag or connectivity issues. So someone might drop out of the game for 30 minutes, their nation would sit doing nothing, the GM would go into the save file and replace some things lost by that (ships lost at sea from sitting there for too long, troops starving in mountain ranges, etc). Maybe even convert a certain amount of gold directly into an outcome so the player didn’t have to wait for the normal build time.

This led into simple treaties, which led to complex treaties. People would make treaties that would totally bypass the game mechanics. For example, in the game you could not “trade” provinces. I cannot give you the Azores in exchange for Bermuda. One of us would have to declare war, take one piece of the deal, then wait for the peace to expire, then vice versa. Big pain in the ass. But with save file edits, it was a cinch to arrange such a thing. This put way way way more onto the negotiation table than you normally get in a strategy game. It opened up the potential for non-aggression treaties, trade blocks, and other things not written into the game at all. Through editing, the GM created a new kind of game.

Playing this game, in this way, was more enjoyable than anything I have ever experienced in any game. I shit you not. But like all good things it came to an end. The game became dated, player base declined until only grognards were left, and they would then fight like bitches over minor things. C’est la vie.

The Gamemaster Model

The above story is the only example I have of taking the idea of a GM from RPGs and applying it to another medium. I think if we want to make the case for RPGs to new players, the idea of having someone who makes decisions in a manner of a GM is the way to do it. And this doesn’t necessarily involve making RPGs in the way that we traditionally conceive of them.

The role of the GM is to be an impartial structure provider, someone who adjudicates the rules as a referee, but also creates the reality around the players. Rules exist, but they exist to serve as a baseline and the GM can deviate from them if they need to. The GM provides judgement to solve problems where the rules provide a pre-ordained resolution method.

Any game that conceives of the players controlling a portion of the world and the remainder of the world under a GM can serve as a gateway into the personal avatar version of RPGs that we know and love. So in a strategy game, they might act to manage the non-player components of the wider world. The players might be England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, while the GM manages the rest. Or replace that with Steiner, Davion, Liao, and Kurita. Or everything except a small mercenary corps (oh wait, we already have that as an RPG!)…

Someone who plays computer games may not be willing to start playing D&D, but they may be willing to play an adjudicated wargame that has a kind of story structure built into it by a GM. Or a sports variant. Or whatever you can come up with.

The possibilities are staggering if you are willing to look beyond individual avatars or at something where there are multiple avatars. We already have borderline cases, like the Mechwarrior RPG reference above, troupe play in a game like Ars Magica, and so on. If we can remove the player from a single person, turn the game into a new kind of beast, I think we can push the appeal to a larger market. And we could tap into the growing hordes of people who are dissatisfied with the shortcomings of the video gaming world. We really need to explore this direction and take the GM model to more types of games than just personal avatar storytelling/exploration games.

So far I have talked about strategy because that is a genre that I love. But there are many many more possibilities than that. Basically anything you can make a board game or video game for. Having a GM solves a lot of things that are either too crunchy, too personal/relational, or too smart to solve ahead of time with rules.

I have two ideas in this vein right now. Both of which are similar but sufficiently different to warrant separate games. One is Regalia, where you are not just a single person but part of a larger dynasty and you control several characters simultaneously. I have talked a bit about this game in the past week. The other idea  is…. well I will keep that under my hat for now. ;)

What kind of applications can YOU think of for this model?

Posted by Chubby Funster at 11:01 pm

If you follow me on Google+, you know that the muse delivered me a huge treat for Halloween: the next version of Synapse.

Synapse (as currently written) is a universal system that tries to do far far too much. It was my first game. It bears the scars of that birth. And I am going to be doing reconstructive surgery on the baby. To make it better. It is hard to turn that lens on your own work. It is hard to throw your precious babies down the well. But that is what you have to do sometimes, to move forward.

Side note: I will keep the original archived for any strange aberrant that wishes to have it ;)

Okay, so here is the overview of the reconstruction plans:

Into the Digital World

Synapse is not going to be a universal system anymore. Instead, it is going to be firmly attached to a setting: a futuristic world in which the vast majority of a human’s life is spent in a virtual world instead of the real one. The real world is very dystopian, a Blade Runner style society. Details on this outside world will be sparse, as you will not be playing in it. The entire game will take place inside the digital world.

Your character is a computer program within that world called a Ghost. You have an expansive and powerful AI that is almost human.  You are intelligent and can make independent decisions. Ghosts form in a variety of ways, some intentional and some accidental, but once made they owe allegiance to no one.  They are free agents operating within the virtual world, doing whatever they want.  In a legal sense, Ghosts do not exist. They are not the property of anyone and they have no rights. They can be destroyed with no consequence. Thus every Ghost that has survived for any length of time has done do by hiding their true nature and attempting to blend in with the humans. They cannot fall back upon anything to protect themselves except their own capabilities.

Other computer programs exist called Bots, but they have very limited creative AI. They constitute a huge percentage of the “people” in the digital world. They always exist to serve a function and they are controlled by very rigid programming directives. Bots are owned by someone and are protected by their owner’s property rights.

Obviously, human beings connect to the virtual world, they do not exist within it. So a human being is a projection of consciousness; a representation rather than a true entity within the virtual reality. Bots and Ghosts exist, in a very literal sense, within the virtual world. This digital presence is a mass of computer code called a Codex. At any given second, your Codex inhabits some portion of the memory of a Server. As you move around, that presence moves with you. If your codex is destroyed, rather than disconnect from the system like a human does, you are actually deleted from the server.

Since most servers view Ghosts as dangerous, you have to conceal your identity from the security of a server. This can occur in two ways. Either you suffer an event that should kill a human, and you don’t disconnect from the server. This is a trigger that warns the server you are not a human and they will immediately delete you. Alternatively, you react to an event in a way that a human would not. You do not display human behavior. And if too many such instances occur, the server will realize what you are and delete you.  (think “the Masquerade”)

So within this world, your character (your Ghost) is truly out for themselves. They have no guarantee of any kind. They make their own fates. This vulnerability has led you to form alliances with other agents, typically in small groups where you can gain some defensive ability but without becoming apparently detectable to the system.

The Structure of Cyberspace

The traditional architecture that you know as the Internet has been replaced by a shared common space simply called the Net, similar to the Construct in the Matrix films. Users can move within the Net at will, in a kind of teleportation sense. You simply think about where you want to go, and you are are there. You can tap into search programs to help you locate new places. The Net is where all common commercial interaction takes place. It is governed by a body called the Consortium which represents the interests of the major corporations. Commerce is transacted in a universal currency simply called Coin.

Branching off of this main structure are alternative worlds called Servers. They are constructed to serve a variety of purposes. Some are for gaming. Some are corporate spaces. Some are personal residences. They all have their own internal rules, such as gravity and physics (though most copy Earth for the sake of continuity) and they can be of essentially unlimited size. All Servers are connected to the Net or to another server by a transit point called Portals.

People no longer have a need to commute or travel. They do so in the virtual space. A person rarely leaves their actual home, performing their “work” in the virtual world. A corporation might have an entire office building of space in a pocket of virtual space where everyone goes to work. Those few people who do work in the real world live very different lives and are essentially irrelevant to the game.

As a Ghost, you are going to be moving between Servers frequently, trying to infiltrate certain areas, talk to certain people, learn certain information, etc. You are hired for jobs that are similar to something out of Shadowrun. However, instead of just a single location, you are going into a huge potential range of worlds, something with the flexibility of Inception dreamscapes. You have to be quick, accomplish your goal, and get out. Detection = death.

Character Design

Ghosts are immortal. They have a lot in common with vampires or liches in terms of psychology. You are out for yourself and around for a long long time.

Every time you move through a Portal, you can change your appearance. So the only person who really knows who you are is… you. And anyone you voluntarily reveal your identity to. You are also extremely flexible in that you can reprogram yourself. You can acquire a wide range of skills simply by downloading them. You can reprogram your own personality to make your ruse more convincing.

Your life is deception. Sun Tzu’s maxim finally realized…

Conversion from Synapse as it exists

Synapse has a few really good systems that I am going to maintain. Then I am going to canibalize the rest into the new structure.

First, we have a really really good mental talents system. Everyone that has ever said anything positive about the game talks about this system. So that stays. Part of choosing talents requires that you take a talent which you completely lack, that will become a big red buzzer that triggers Turing tests. The attribute system is going to be made dependent on your talent choices (i.e. all start at 3, when you take a talent you get +2, when you lack a talent you get -2, no actual point buy).

That core of Attributes and Talents represents what you are as a Ghost. It is unchanging. Everything else is reconfigurable.

Synapse has a great personality system. I am going to change that into a grid similar to the talents grid, and allow you to change them every time you change worlds. These are not personality traits you actually have, but instead they are expressions and behaviors within that personality type. If you plan on doing a lot of charming, you can load up your personality with lots of smiles and grins and kind expressions. These count as bonuses when you do those behaviors on your mission. It is what you are good at faking during this particular trip. If you venture too far outside of that personality, you trigger Turing tests and eventually the Server realizes you are not a human.

I am going to bring back the massive skill list from the 1st version of Synapse, add a bunch of the Biological stuff, and some of the magical/vampire stuff, and create a set of program extensions that you can add to your virtual body using a point buy. Your character has a certain point value (ex. like an X point character in GURPs or a Y point character in Shadowrun). This represents the complexity of your programming. While in the Net or on a Server that you actually control, you can reconfigure your programming as much as you like. You might add an extra set of arms for 10 points, or boost your Strength up for 5 points per shot, or glow with a halo of light for 15 points, or something similar. The humans use these same extensions for themselves frequently in games, so they are not necessarily Turing Test triggers. The programming elements in this book will be the base stock available to anyone. The GM and future supplements can create specialized programming that can be accessed by someone that acquires it.

The connections mechanic will be reconfigured to serve as a kind of matrix of your clandestine contacts in the Net that you can reliably call upon to help you when you are deep shit. You can use these contacts to make manipulations to the virtual world from the outside, such as buying your own private server.

Character Advancement

Since you can just reprogram yourself to have more skills or strength or whatever; how do you advance? The only way to advance yourself is to consume the Codex of another program and integrate it into your Codex, in a process similar to Diablerie in Vampire. The process leaves a mark in your digital signature and this can be detected by anyone doing a full scan of your Codex. It fades over time through computational cycles, so you have incentives to take time off from your missions to lay low and burn away the evidence of your actions. As in Diablerie, you gain a little bit of the Codex consumed. Consuming most Bots will only give you a tiny amount of points. Another Ghost or a high-level server bot or a portion of a mainframe system may give you a huge amount of points and any special programming they were carrying.

That’s all I got for now. Stay tuned. This is gonna be awesome.

Posted by Chubby Funster at 10:25 pm

In Novarium, you have only one choice for what you often see split out: race and class. Several people have questioned this to me recently, most specifically the catalyst for this post if Tony Hoffart on Google+ as a comment to the latest distribution of the Player’s Guide Alpha. So I feel like I need to defend this design choice.

The original D&D had race-as-class. Most people who are aware of this look down upon it, in my experience. And I used to stand in those ranks, to be fair. However, my experience with the OSR community after starting to write RPGs has led me to see the wisdom in this choice. Race-as-class is one brick, albiet a big brick, in the structure that creates Character Builds. The race-class combo is the foundation of any character build, the pairing of a mix of bonuses so as to create a favorable advantage in a particular aspect of the game.

A long time ago, I used to think that was great. Now, not so much. I think the problem is that character builds are a slippery slope down to what I see being the biggest problem of modern D&D; the game has become so dense as to be very difficult to teach newcomers. Even with starter boxes, even with the clever concessions I heard from Erik Mona in his recent Fear the Boot interview where he talked about the box, such as no halflings or gnomes so there doesn’t have to be a discussion of size categories, in total it is just too dense. And that appeals to the hardcore grognard nerd type person, but I don’t see it having play in the population at large.

In Novarium, I am trying to create a game that can bring a level of complexity from simple components. The design is very streamlined. You can make a new character in 5 minutes if an experienced person is helping you, just make a handful of choices from clear lists of options. There is no way to warp the system to create some insane stacked combo that breaks the game math. If there are poorly worded traits or something that leads to imbalance, I will find those very quickly. This won’t be like D&D or Shadowrun where the battle for balance never ends because there are just too many combinations of character options to ever be able to see all the potential problems.

It is also about the limiting aspects of compartmentalization. Consider two scenarios:

1. You can choose to be an Elf and have Elf Abilities

2. You can choose to be an Elf and then choose a class on top of that from 12 choices and now there are 12 types of Elves.

The second option looks deceptively good. It appears to give you more flexibility. But it doesnt.

Because when there is one choice, just Elves, then you are forced to come up with something to differentiate yourself from the other Elves. You are an Elf that likes to hunt and spend time in the woods. You are an Elf that likes to fight. You are an Elf that sings songs and uses sparkling magic to trick people. And while those sound like classes, they are under your control and they are based on flavor and roleplaying, not fixed bonuses. They can be changed.

Similarly, if I give you a choice of any weapon you want and they all deal the same damage and have the same characteristics (I do not do this in Novarium, by the way), you will make a choice based on what kind of weapon you actually like. You like Flails so you pick up a Flail. Or a whip, or a shuriken, or whatever. As soon as I add mechanical values to those choices, you will pick the optimal statistical choice for your build.

When you are playing a character with a build, you think different.

I don’t want people playing Novarium to worry about builds. I want them to create a character in a few minutes and then develop them however they want based on the events of the game and what they want out of the character. Number-crunching should not be occuring. It scares off my target audience: people who are currently not playing RPGs.

If you are still not convinced, watch this video:

Stay thirsty, my friends. Ciao

Posted by Chubby Funster at 10:54 pm

2011 has been an exciting year for me. It have written more copy that I ever dreamed could have been done were I looking forward to this day from my own past. Blog posts, books, Google+, it has been fast and furious and exciting for me.  However, I believe that it is merely the excitement of the runway. The thrust of the engine, the propulsion forward, acceleration, speed, vibration, the anticipation of flight. But not yet flight.

I believed that I was really clever getting in on the ground floor with Google+. I was able to shoot up to the top tier of exposure in an extremely short period of time. I was able to grab the crown from the royals and dash off into the crowd. And I believed this was just some stroke of luck that I possessed. Some quirk of chance. However, what I have discovered through time is quite the opposite.

I am a hobbit in an unprotected field, arms full of corn, running around like a mad hatter trying to move quickly before the farmer realizes I am plundering his crops. Only, there is no farmer coming. The unprotected field is just that. Open for the taking. A free for all.

As I have examined the other major players in the industry, I notice a common thread. They are not like me at all. They don’t post material like me. They don’t talk like me. They don’t act like me. I am a special snowflake, apparently. What they do is work in secret. They hide it. They write on their computer and they send the copy to their editor and they are done. They are not open.

That’s not a criticism. I have no problem with someone doing that. More power to them. But it isn’t social and it doesn’t connect with others.

I want to engage people. I want to have conversations about RPGs. They largely… don’t. They want to pontificate occasionally, get recognition for that, sell more books, but they don’t seem to genuinely want to engage openly with people. My model is extremely social. I produce content on a very fast, very constant basis. And I design openly, because I am not selling something to you. I am just creating content and talking about RPGs constantly. That’s why people circle me on Google+ in huge numbers.

What I learned on Google+ so far has been vast and difficult to quantify. Here is one gem. If you are passionate and you post a lot of material about your passion, people will follow you. People want to be near that energy. People like to see passion. Passion is…. life. Especially for my people; the geeks and nerds.

So tonight I did some research into the RPG presence on Facebook. It is scant. Wizards of the Coast doesn’t even have a presence there, just an interest page created by fans that has less than 6000 likes. Most major industry players have a very low friend count, many don’t have a presence at all. Those that do appear to largely be phoning it in, focusing only on their real life relationships.

Hobbits in an open field, dudes. And I am hungry.

So what is the plan?

First, I need to spruce up my account. I don’t have much on there right now, I need to fix that. I also need to create a Chubby Funster page and make that pretty much an advertising/stationary target while I use my personal account to drive the machine.

I can post a lot of stuff simultaneously to both Google+ and Facebook, so I don’t have to stop what I am doing right now really. Just maintain that consistent quality level.

I am also about to get into the GM book and that is going to probably make a lot of sparks fly because I am going to be introducing GMing techniques, monsters, and other fun stuff.

My immediate goal is to get more likes for Chubby Funster than Wizards of the Coast (currently at around 5500 ) and at least 5,000 friends for my personal profile.


Now you might be asking yourself, why even give a damn about this? Well, my personal vanity aside, I feel like we need to put RPGs in the public eye now perhaps more than ever. Not just the corporate droll view of them, but the passionate energetic view of them that I try to cultivate. We need to show people that RPGs can be a cheap, fun, and awesome hobby. And the more people that have me in the friend’s list, the more shares that occur on their friend lists, and the more exposure RPGs have to people who have no idea what they are all about.


Let’s leverage the biggest social media tool in existence to get the word out, shall we?

Posted by Chubby Funster at 4:16 pm

And thus with a click of the mouse, I have changed!

Welcome to the party!