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[OtE] Dice for the Masses

Started by Joel P. Shempert, October 17, 2006, 03:50:18 AM

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Joel P. Shempert

I ran Over the Edge with my group last week, and it rocked hard. I unveiled and implemented a set of changes to the Experience Dice system that I discussed awhile back. Briefly, it breaks down like this:

Old Way:

  • Get dice at the end of every session, from a list of reasins kinda like Vampire
  • Spend a bunch of 'em permanently to raise traits or buy new ones, but increasing very far requires extensive in-game training time
  • Spend one of 'em temporarily (refresh per session) to gain a bonus to a roll, but justify why the roll's important to your character

New Way:

  • Get dice on the spot, for the same stuff as the list, plus anything else that makes the GM go "cool"
  • The players all have "Gift DIce" a la TSoY, to award each other likewise
  • Spend 'em permanently to raise/add traits, but without the strenuous "justification" process
  • Spend as many as you like, permanently, to add bonus dice to rolls; still give a justification, but only to inform the narrative

A couple of details: I got a couple of bricks of mini D6s, and little dice bags for everyone, to facilitate the changing hands of EDs. It adds a cool tactile element and gives more puch to the "here, have a die" moment in play. As far as Gift Dice go, I opted for HALF the number of players, per person, a decision based on our group's pacing.

So, the session "popped" pretty well. There were five players out of the 7 who've been showing up regularly. I started with a scene carried over in a cliffhanger from our last session, with two characters being offered an invitation to a secret society, the members still awaiting an answer. They asked questions, got answers, and both joined. The rest of the session consisted of  quick-cutting between the other three PCs as they pursued various ends. As I've found before, things work out great with only 3 or so participants, all actively engaged in what's going on. Even though the three characters never met up (2 started together, then quickly parted ways), everyone was attentive and digging everyone else's scenes.


  • Photographer PC being followed by goons related to his Big Secret (he's the man who Saw Too Much)--he evades pursuit by ambushing his "tail and blinding him with a point-blank camera flash, kicking him in the groin, and running. He goes underground looking for another PC (player not present) and runs into said PC's subterranean-tribe allies, does an amusing job of trying to leave the PC a message that doesn't come out "I want him to come with me to the evil sorcerer who needs to perform unspeakable rituals on him to stop the dead Satanist he killed from possessing me."
  • Young Archeology Professor PC asks a rich antique dealer/collector to look at an ancient stone slab he's studying; there's writing from about every ancient culture on earth, including a totally alien language. Antique guy has a vase with same language. professor buys it from him with University funds, and it has pictures carved on it too, which are (unclearly to him, as yet) a brief history of ancient events pivotal to the human race.
  • Psychic superspy PC gets a call from a P.I. she hired to find a missing kid, fellow agent's son and her godson. Kid's trail leads to the Island's wierd, non-Euclidean airport, where the PC has several friendly contacts. She goes to the eccentric architect and tells him his security commish may have her godson, he asks her if she's willing to risk an unpredictable alteration to save him. She says yes, and he has the otherdimensional beings that he designed the place through mess with her brain so she can navigate non-Euclidean space (Euclidian space, well, that may be a different story now).

These were all scenes of various import and various seriousness, but they were all fun for everyone present. The Gift Dice appear to be a success; most of them got given out, and folks had fun doing so. The photog guy got a bunch just from the funnyness of his actions. And he actually gave ME a die, for putting his character through such entertaining adveristy, said die "to be used at the best point to screw my character over," he said. So now I'm thinking, why not open up the whole experience die thing to the GM? It'd be a way to do exactly what the players are able to do with their dice, namely say "this here conflict is important to me to win." And I'll only be able to come by this resource by doing stuff in play that the players groove on.

I liked the freewheeling, unplanned nature of the session. I had already planned the "your Godson is in the hands of the organization of your closest friends" Bang for the psychic chick, but I had no idea how she'd choose to handle it, or, when she went straight to the top, what the architect would do bout it. But when it came up, it was so right and natural, in terms of what she wants (and how far she'll go to get it), what the Architect wants (someone who can understand him and appreciate his Lovecraftian masterpiece of beauty as he does) and what would make an exciting direction in the story. Everything that happened to the Photog guy was off the top of my head; I was constrained somewhat by the fact that the other character's player wasn't there, so the photographer couldn't find him, but the player and I made it work without getting dead-endy or thumb-twiddly. And I had no idea what the professor would do, so all that stuff came in on the spot, based on the sudden realization that of COURSE the stone slab (a player invention) would have that language on it, which can lead to all sorts of cool intersection of plotlines (the events depicted on the vase have bearing on the organization that was following the photographer, for instance)

I enjoyed all the players' input, but I was just plain pleased with mySELF for coming up with such spontaneous input that effortlessly highlighted the elements of the setting that I want to bring to life, at the same time putting awesome pressure (or setting up for future pressure) on PCs. Historically, I've had a hard time with the setting material, mainly 'cause I kinda worshipped it and was paralyzed by trying to get it "just right."

I came away very deeply satisfied with this session. That's NOT a common occurrence for me. It's interesting because really, this wasn't a really exciting, climax-y session, more of a low-key story portionsetting up elements for more explosive stuff later. But the point is, I can see the stuff setting up, and get an inkling of just how it could explode, and build from there.Awesome.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.

Ricky Donato

Hi, Joel,

First, sounds like an awesome session.

Second, I wanted to ask you about something you said:

Quote from: Melinglor on October 17, 2006, 03:50:18 AM
I enjoyed all the players' input, but I was just plain pleased with mySELF for coming up with such spontaneous input that effortlessly highlighted the elements of the setting that I want to bring to life, at the same time putting awesome pressure (or setting up for future pressure) on PCs. Historically, I've had a hard time with the setting material, mainly 'cause I kinda worshipped it and was paralyzed by trying to get it "just right."

I'd like to know more about this issue. Specifically, how did your "worship" affect your ability to play, and how were you able to get around that this time? Can you give specific examples?
Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli

Joel P. Shempert

Hi, Ricky!

As I said, the "Worship" was felt by me as a sort of paralysis, a stage fright or writers' block, stemming from two sources:

  • I've always had a hard time "getting in character" and especially doing dialogue because I want to get it "just right." It probably stems in part from my earliest roleplaying days, when I first tried to talk in character, and got teased about how fruity and affectatious it sounded; my guy was supposed to be a silver-tongued devil, and instead by other players' informal evaluation he became "that long-winded guy who we don't like much and love to ridicule." So ever since I've always been really invested in getting across to everyone how my character is really supposed to be, and getting frustrated when my performance is lacking.
  • With OtE, I had been a fan of the card game first, and really fallen in love with the setting and its edgy, offbeat style of characters, with some particular favorites. So when I got the RPG, I was excited to be able to "share" this awesome setting with my new gaming friends (I was just joining my current group at the time). My brothers who also joined the group knew the CCG, but no one else did. So it was (of course!) incumbent on me to show them just how cool everything was. And to top it off, all I had to go on was the terse descriptions in the book, and the cards with their evocative illustrations and only hints at the totality of the character. Now for some GMs, and for me now, I think, this would be more than enough to riff freely and improvise and utilize as desired. For me then, it was a template for getting it "right." Any gaps in the template had to be made up bo ME, which was terrifying. It was kind of like trying to run Star Wars or something only the other players have never heard of SW, and you yourself only know it from the gamebook and movies stills, and you're trying to get Darth Vader or Han Solo just right. Stupid way to play, and probably ulcer-inducing, but that's what was going on. Sometimes I was on, which was a releif at best, and sometimes I was off, which was disheartening and frustrating.

So how did I break free? In part it was a gradual process, a combination of both getting better at describing things as they are in my head, and a growing realization that I didn't have to get it "just right," or adhere to any set conception of this ideal, perfect character or setting detail. I could make it my own.

In part it was a stark realization and sudden paradigm shift, as I realized (thanks in large part to the Forge) that I wouldn't get what I want the way I was going and needed to change technique to do so. A lot of stuff about Bangs, Flags, Scene framing, etc. has given me a much more powerful understanding of how to riff off of players, both by challenging the characters in cool ways and springboarding off their actions instead of trying to herd them into my idea of how things should go.

I'm not sure if I can think of a good specific example, since it's not any one specific thing I'm doing different. Closest I can think of, the Photog PC was asking around a bar in his search for the other PC, and came upon one of my "pet" characters (favorites from the existing setting background) despondent and drinking himself stupid following life-shattering events last session. Whereas before I would have struggled (p[robably with lots of awkward pauses) to get his dialoge, personality, physical details and everything just right, this time I found I could play him effortlessly, conveying what he's feeling as well as satisfying the player's requests for information, and it all came off completely naturally and believable. Another player felt really sorry for him and wished her character was there to comfort him. Now was my aim the same? Yes (to portray the character believably and engagingly, highlighting what's cool about him). But by loosening up and letting go in a way of my desire to do so, I could paradoxically do it so much better.

I know that's all kind of vague and longwinded, but I hope it helps.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.

Ricky Donato

Joel, thanks for the details. I've suffered from the same problem in the past. I have since been trying to change that, and I've noticed the following differences:

1) I realized that there is no One True Way to play the game. Therefore, I am much less worried about getting things just right; instead, I recognize that I have to keep the game moving, regardless of how I do so. Your previous thread A Paper Trail to Nowhere was really helpful for that, because it introduced the idea of "ninjas through the skylight"; in other words, throw Situation at the players right now, and work out the details later.

2) I started taking player input seriously. This is related to #1, because I realized that there is no One True Way for the other players to play the game, either. That means that rather than being paralyzed by unexpected player response, or railroading my players, I can take whatever they throw at me.

3) I used a "lighter" system. In this context, "light" means that I can interact with the system quickly, so if I need to (for example) create a new character on the fly, it will take me a minute or two, rather than an hour. This means that if the game takes an unexpected turn, the system does not make it difficult for me to go with the flow.

I would be interested in knowing whether you have noticed any of the above in your way of thinking as well.
Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli

Joel P. Shempert

Hi, Ricky,

Yes, this lines up pretty well with my thought processes. It's funny, when I said "Ninjas through the skylight" it was a frustrated, desperate, fecetious comment, intended to generate a counterproposal to bail me out: like "OK, of COURSE not Ninjas through the skylight, but how about THIS?" But it seems people thought the Ninjas Through the Skylight (henceforth known as NTtS) were a pretty keen way of spicing things up, especially in OtE where any sort of wierd violent things is pretty justifiable. So people's reaction to my spurious snark caused me to loosen up my expectations and conception of what's right and proper to do. NTtS is A-OK now as a potential option. I mean, it can be a more intelligible version: "The crazy magic-cult guys who don't want you to get too close to discovering what they're really about" is still NTtS, just tailored to the character's personal story, which has got any sitch it gets thrown at.

On your points:

1) This was my big revelation in the Paper Trail thread as well. If someone does something you didn't expect, roll with it. If they do something you think is silly or just plain don't like, eh. Don't quash their input, run with it and spin it into something that you do like, hopefully which everyone will enjoy. None of this "I want to make it fun but my players won't let me!!" bullshit. I'll be responsible for my end of it and if they don't want to jump in the deep end, oh well. Case in point, after Paper Trail, next session I started with the paperwork guy, had him roll his investigative trait, and based on his roll gave him a new connection from viewing his evidence that his character hadn't seen before, one which connected his PC buddy to the big mystery he's pursuing. I figure, if a guy wants to do paperwork, fine, I'll ake the paperwork as awesome as possible.

2) Ditto. I had just discussed Flags with the player group at the beginning of that session, in fact, so I had no excuse not taking a player's input as indication of interest, eh? ;) And in terms of how to "take whatever they throw at me," I've gotten a lot of inspiration from a couple of sources. First, in Chris Chinn's Flag Framing, he says that when you hit their flags, "The players will react, and whatever happens, you react in return. How should you react? Roleplay your characters! It's just like what the players are doing!" I got a huge lightbulb off of this: just play your character. of course! It seems so obvious. It's kind of like Vince Baker's "Fit Characters in Rising Conflict" maxim. The NPCs have to be "fit" too; when they are, you just play 'em and the whole thing runs itself.

3) Over the Edge is delightful for this purpose. I just have to know what the character is about and what he/she can do, and I'm good to go. When he has to roll for something, I'll just know in the moment that it's a "Don't take no lip from no Punk-ass Burger" trait at 4 dice, and go with it. Going back to Vincent, in his Things on Character Sheets, he starts out with the exercise:

Imagine Thatcher's London. Imagine a person in Thatcher's London who has everything to lose.

That's a character. That's a whole, playable, complete character. If I ask you to speak in that character's voice, you can; if I present some threat or challenge, you can tell me easily how that character will react; if I describe a morning and ask you what that character will do in it, you'll know. Take ten minutes to think and that character's as real as can be.

Later on he expands on his sample character, and adds: "Look, just look: the character has no "character sheet," but he's a whole character, fully realized. I can play him effortlessly."

This one was another lighbulb. "I can play him effortlessly." Anymore, that's what I aim to do. To think of that Thatcher's-London character, and how easy he is to play, because he's a person, and then remember that all these characters of mine are people too. Some of, say, my D&D characters are a bit harder to overhaul in this way, since motivation in D&D tends to spin off into "Well, he's a servant of Heironymous, and he's also loyal to the Dwarf Nation, and he doesn't get along with Chaotic Evils of course. . ." but I find if I really stop and think about the person hiding behind all those Spells and Feats, it all becomes clear. It's so refreshingly free of all that race/class/alignment/breed/auspice/clan junk.

So yeah, I think we're on the same page and going through the same processes, which has kind of got me jazzed. In fact, while we're on the subject, let me just pause to let this fact sink in: Someone else has found one of MY threads helpful. Aaaah. That feels nice. Seriously, it's great to see that my postings around here are starting to move beyond the realm of mere self-diagnostic and into genuine insights and breakthroughs that are helpful to others. I can't help but think that that shift is no coincidence in light of the shift in play that we've been talking about.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.

Ricky Donato

"If a guy wants to do paperwork, I'll make the paperwork as awesome as possible."

That is such an insightful and valuable sentence.
Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli