Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Mathematica Power 19

Mathmatica is slowly emerging from the fog. Rather I should say it's emerging rapidly from the fog not unlike a dreadnought bearing down upon a lowly fishing vessel. I need to move fast to keep up with the ideas. System is not my bailywick, so while I think I'm quite capable of designing one that I'd love, I'm going to steal one I really like, The Solar System (AKA The Shadow of Yesterday).

So now, with thanks to Troy Costick, The Mathematic Power 19:

  1. What is your game about?

    Mathematica is about the War of Ideas, expressed as a physical, emotional, and personal struggle where Ideas are made manifest as technology, magic, and faith.

  2. What do the characters do?

    The characters take a stand for what they believe in, fight nefarious foes, and seek to resolve their personal issues on the way to a confrontation with a specific threat to their way of life.

  3. What do the players (including the GM if there is one) do?
    The players create and resolve the personal issues and beliefs of their characters (as expressed by keys). They use their characters to marshal resources against a particular threat within the framework of a sub-campaign (or Book) of defined length (1-10 sessions). The GM plays a small stable of characters whose fundamental goals stand against the stand the player characters have taken.

    Buying off keys is very important in Mathematica. A key buyoff needs to be set up in a particular way that invites other players, the GM in particular to get involved in the buyoff. A key buyoff also moves characters relentlessly towards the final conflict of the Book. This means that resolving a personal issue, even if it’s peripheral to the big battle, moves the action towards the climax.

  4. How does your setting (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
    The setting is a steampunk/magical renaissance Europe. The renaissance is a time of emerging ideas, where new ways of thinking challenged old to mold the shape of the world. Where you find a revolutionary idea in History (e.g. Da Vinci’s mechanics), in Mathematica you can create a radical expression of it (e.g. giant clockwork war machines).

  5. How does the Character Creation of your game reinforce what your game is about?
    Secrets in Mathematica are tied to setting elements such as factions and religions. In order to gain access to particular secrets, players will need to take keys that tie them to particular ideas. For example, The Ancient Church of Rome believes in a stable society where everyone has their place. This faction has secrets available to it that are tied to a hierarchy. The gain these secrets, a character will need a key that explains their relationship with this hierarchy.

  6. What types of behaviors/styles of play does your game reward (and punish if necessary)?
    Gameplay will reward players taking keys that motivate their characters, often driving them to extremes in defense of their beliefs. It will reward playing out their keys aggressively. For the GM, gameplay will reward pushing back hard whenever a player pushes on a key. Keys in Mathematica will be connected with a particular person, place, or thing, giving the GM something specific to threaten in relation to a key.

  7. How are behaviors and styles of play rewarded or punished in your game?
    The Solar System essentially does this for me. Characters have keys, which are motivations or goals. Whenever a character does something that hits their key, they get XP. Players can also get a big XP hit by “buying off” a key. This means somehow completing, overcoming, or abandoning what the key stands for in a dramatic way.

  8. How are the responsibilities of narration and credibility divided in your game?
    Most types of scenes in Mathematica will require another character. Playing these characters will be divided among the players, so a player always plays to someone else. Players will have some power in setting scenes, particularly color scenes that set up key buyoffs, conflicts, and so on.

  9. What does your game do to command the players' attention, engagement, and participation? (i.e. What does the game do to make them care?)
    The game lets them decide what they want to take a stand on. The stand is something that all the player characters and the GM’s stable are connected to by a key.

  10. What are the resolution mechanics of your game like?
    The Solar System has two levels of resolution. Any conflict can be decided by one die role. In addition, a non-GM player can choose to “bring down the pain”. This launches a more involved task resolution process. BDTP is like a whirlpool that tends to pull other players’ stories in and tie them together. I may include specific special rules for particular types of BDTP, such as large battles, debates, or infiltrations. Players can also create building scenes where they prepare for a future conflict, make a roll, and save up bonus dice for that conflict.

  11. How do the resolution mechanics reinforce what your game is about?
    Building scenes reinforce the epic component of the war of ideas. Those clockwork war machines? A series of building scenes is the way to get them into the game.

    Key buyoff scenes reinforce that this game is about individuals and what they care about. The way to advance the game is to care about something and then put it at risk.

    BDTP lets the game have hectic, involved conflicts about the most important things in the game. Everything else can be resolved quickly.

  12. Do characters in your game advance? If so, how?
    Yes. Mathematica will most likely slow down the default character advancement in the Solar System.

    In the Solar System, advanced characters can eventually “transcend”. The game will expand the SS rules for transcendence to show how transcending relates to the action of a particular Book. When you transcend, you don’t get to decide the fate of the stand that’s at the center of the book, but you do get to change it in some way.

    Since SS characters can advance to transcendence quickly, Mathematica has the idea that players may choose to change characters often between Books, or even in the middle of a Book. Transcended characters can come back later as NPCs. There will also be an option for bringing back a transcended character in an altered form.

  13. How does the character advancement (or lack thereof) reinforce what your game is about?
    I’m not sure yet. Transcending should give players a special opportunity to say something definitive about the war of ideas. I’m not sure how that will work yet. I think transcending says that your character is as important to this world’s history as Machiavelli, Queen Elizabeth, or Da Vinci is to ours.

  14. What sort of product or effect do you want your game to produce in or for the players?
    Epic but fast paced. Mathematica doesn’t need to follow every detail of an epic from start to end. It can just as easily be jumping into a greater epic at various times and places.

  15. What areas of your game receive extra attention and color? Why?
    Religion. Excepting Dogs in the Vineyard, I’ve never played a game I though made religion even remotely interesting. For example, the game should support playing against the backdrop of the conflicts of the protestant reformation, not as some kind of “us versus them” drama, but as one where individual people struggle to live out the dictates of their faith.

    Part of how I’m doing this is by “remixing” religions. For example, the Ancient Church of Rome isn’t Christian. It’s a centralization of the Pagan religion where power is granted to the high priests by the gods, then passed down the hierarchy through a form of investiture. This lets the players explore what it’s like to be related to this kind of hierarchy without carrying a lot of modern religious baggage.

    The Christians in this setting, on the other hand, are a loose confederation of local churches who are radically inclusive and believe crazy far-out things like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “forgive your enemies”. This lets players see what it’s like to have a relationship with that kind of belief.

  16. Which part of your game are you most excited about or interested in? Why?
    The whole game grew out of a desire to create a Tudor England espionage drama. It’s a historical period I’m really into. That setting remains always in the background in what I’m doing.

  17. Where does your game take the players that other games can’t, don’t, or won’t?
    Mathematica provides a crunchier Shadow of Yesterday, kind of a TSOY meeting Burning Empires.

    Mathematica incorporates some of what BE taught me about campaign stakes, but with a lighter ruleset.
    Methematica has a unique setting that encourages alternate history play (yeah, I know there must be other games that do this, but I haven’t seen them).

  18. What are your publishing goals for your game?
    Big pdf file available online. Small print run if preorders support it.

    I have two projects on the burner in front of Mathematica, so mo M playtests until they're done. They are Magicians of England and the City of Forgotten Gods Web game, both of which are ready for beta level testing.

  19. Who is your target audience?
    Role players with indie sensibilities and a taste for epic campaigns or set-length sets with a solid goal. Possibly some hippie-gamer and D20 crossover on the edges. It doesn’t show in this writeup, but hippie games like Contenders and Universalis are a major inspiration for this.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mathematica Incarnate

Several of my game design obsessions are starting to converge and it is good: Mathematica (discussed here and here, Campaign Stakes, and Renaissance England spy drama.

Mathematica is a game about the war of ideas set in renaissance Europe. But in this renaissance Europe, ideas are made starkly incarnate. This is a world where we might see Michelangelo building giant clockwork war machines, Machiavelli training eldritch doppelganger assassins, or Sir Francis Drake on a daring journey to Avalon to consult with Merlin. It's also a world about epic conflict: the Old Church against the upstart reformers, city states struggling for independence against central powers, threats of foreign invasion, the light of science against the dark of superstition (or vice versa).

In each 5-7 session set of Mathematica, the player characters will take a collective stand in the War of Ideas. The stand must be for some idea (e.g. freedom), as embodied in some institution (e.g. the Florentine city state, their family). This is what they are fighting for.

Their opponent (played by the GM), is some other institution whose goals and beliefs are contrary to those of the PCs, (e.g. The Holy Roman Emperor seeks to reunite the provinces of Italy under his crown).

This can be further refined by defining one or more battlegrounds. The battleground determines what kind of conflicts can be expected to play a central role. If the battleground is the hearts and minds of the people, social conflicts will be central. If it's political power, espionage and intrigue will be important. If it's control of the land itself, there will be battles.

Other people and institutions which are not at stake in the War can also play a role. Just because your game isn't about science, doesn't mean that you can't have Galileo in the game. In fact, part of the game will be deciding who the important secondary characters, historical or non, will be.
The fate of the PC's stand will be determined by a series of actions and conflicts that represent the back-and-forth of the two primary powers in the set. Each session will probably include a conflict that will change the battleground in some way. At the end of the set, the battleground will change permanently in some way determined by the winner. Naturally, sets can be played in series, or in a loosely linked ongoing campaign. You could be fighting the shadow war against the spies of the Old Church in Queen Elizabeth's court this month and fighting off the armies of the Khan next month.

The game will also include a scene economy. I'm taking ideas from both Burning Empires and Contenders here. Players will have a range of scene types they can engage in, each type providing them with a different kind of leverage on the game world. In a Eureka scene, a player makes some discovery that adds some new possibility to the War. Michelangelo inventing the tank is an example, or perhaps Francis Bacon discovers the mathematical premise for animating dead tissue with life. Building scenes can be used to make macro changes and apply ideas or skills, building a lunar vessel or raising an army are examples. Color scenes can be used to introduce things or people into the world without requiring a die roll (similar to BE), as well as battle scenes, conflicts, and so on. Renewal scenes will allow characters to heal by renewing their contact with their ideals, loved ones, and so on. Threat scenes will allow characters (the GM being a character) to place other characters' sources of renewal at risk.

The point of the scene economy is for the characters to determine what kind of conflicts the game is going to include and how those conflicts will play out. Let's say you want to play the last stand of a few brave knights against the undead hordes of Cardinal Richelieu. Here are some things you might have leading up to the battle:
  • A GM color scene establishes that there's an almost endless horde of undead.

  • A player building scene establishes the recruitment of a few of the finest knights in the land to stand against them.

  • A player has a renewal scene where they bid their family goodbye, possibly for the last time (healing some sort of damage from a previous encounter)

  • A building scene where a leader exhorts his fellow knights (negating the GM's "outnumbered" bonus for the upcoming battle

  • A threat scene where we see the poor of the city struggling (and mostly failing) to get out of town before the horde arrives

When a set is completed, based on the final result, the players narrate how the world changed as a result.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Now Playing: Burning Empires

We had our first play session of our Burning Empires game last week. Preparation and play involved a lot more rules futzing than I'd like, but I'm hoping this is a temporary phase as we get into the game. BE does so much that's new and different that I'm finding it a little hard to adjust my mindset. Nevertheless I am hugely enthusiastic about BE, and I'm hoping it lives up to my expectations. It delivers a bunch of things I've been wanting to see in a game for a long time.

I made a post a while back about campaign stakes. BE delivers the everything I was looking for in this post. The World Burner and Technology Burner deliver campaign furniture, campaign stakes are an intrinsic part of the game, and the Infection mechanic is a campaign mechanic if there ever was one.

I'm hoping that BE's commitment to campaign stakes will lead to the kind of epic sci-fi I've long been craving.

One thing I've already noticed about BE and me is that I tend to drastically overthink the game, only to realize that what I'm obsessing about is 90% covered in the existing rules. Almost anything you want to include in the game can be accomplished using building scenes or the technology burner.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Attacks plays TSOY

You know, we're doing all this great gaming, and we have a gaming blog, but we're not blogging about our gaming on our blog. We've had some really get-down-and-funky awesome gaming moments over the last year, and we should talk about them here. I'm going to make a quick digest of some of the discussions we've had about our games elsewhere.

Our group typically plays 5-6 sessions of a single game before we switch game system and mechanics. Three switches ago, John ran his Shadow of Yesterday variant Tales from the Aether, a science fantasy game with echoes of Barsoom. Philaros posted this AP of part of our series (The Thought Lords of Mars, by monicker).

We had such a good time playing Thought Lords, that the group prevailed on me to run a follow up called The Jovian Enigma. I wrote this short AP report on the Forge to highlight one twist I introduced into the game, running bringing down the pain as a dungeon crawl. A more technical discussion can be found here.

We also created a heap of new secrets and keys for our game. I do not have the character sheets handy, but I should be able to post some of them in the comments later.

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