The Forge Forums

General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Ron Edwards on March 24, 2010, 09:51:17 AM

Title: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 24, 2010, 09:51:17 AM
Hi there,

I've written about Legendary Lives in both Fantasy Heartbreakers ( and More Fantasy Heartbreakers (, and as time went on since those essays were placed, I finally got around to prepping and playing a bit with this game. I'm very late in posting about it, mainly because I'd hoped we'd be able to play it for a while. As it turned out, our game was scuttled by not one but two of the group members each having his third child.

I want to talk about the essays first, because Legendary Lives helps to clarify them and also I'll be amending one claim I made about that game in them. One reason it's a good one to start with is that it's arguably the single strongest of the bunch - in fact, a genuinely excellent game.

Why is it a heartbreaker, then? Doesn't that mean "sucks, or mostly"? The answer is no. If I could hammer an iron thought-spike through the head of anyone reading my stuff on the internet, it wouldn't have anything to do with the Big Model or GNS. It'd be, "The fantasy heartbreaker games were the 1990s revolution that died in the womb. Play them, recognize and get past whatever was uncritically retained/recapitulated in them, and learn from what they are."

Regarding the definition, I can only point to my extensive clarification that opens the second essay, which includes nothing about how good the game is, or how much good there is relative to how much bad. I don't think I ever used the phrase "nugget of gold in a pile of shit," which seems to be the current paraphrase, and which in my opinion is both insulting and inaccurate as a blanket definition. (Granted, that phrase does describe a couple of heartbreakers, but which ones is probably a personal call.)

Legendary Lives is a heartbreaker because of its reliance on D&D fantasy for its foundational content and the nigh-inevitable economic consequences. That doesn't change the fact that it's a tremendous game, far at the top end of games that I think of in that category (and better than most games published right now in the independent scene), and as such breaks my heart even more than the others do.

The good news is that it's available for free at the author's website: Legendary Lives ( I also recommend looking up all the Williams' games there, especially Khaotic. I have some views on his depiction of his company's publishing history and Legendary Lives in particular, but that's probably for another thread.

I missed the boat in the second essay, too, when I was critiquing the way religion was typically presented in the heartbreakers; LL is the exception in this case, not because its treatment of religion is profound or historically plausible (for those, see Fading Suns, any Glorantha material, and Center Space), but because it's uniquely fun, relevant, and playable and remarkably integrated with every other aspect of the fiction and rules.

My first setup for a game of Legendary Lives dates back to almost three years ago, with Tim Koppang, Tim Alexander, and Christ Weill, but my first play was a quick run with Ralph Mazza. The game with the three guys got steamrolled by kids being born in two of the relevant households, and I haven't been able to get back to it until a rather solid evening session at Forge Midwest last weekend.

Basic mechanics
You can pick a character race or roll for it. Each character race has a series of fixed numbers for the many attributes, to which you add the result of a 1d6 roll for a final value. So there's a little, but not much differentiation within each race. The values, fortunately, are used directly in play in a simple way: to use a skill, use the number associated with its attribute; if you don't have the skill, use half that number for most things. Resolution itself is based on a percentage roll, with the number in question setting the various ranges associated with qualitative result levels from Catastrophic to Awesome. It's a lot like the Marvel Super Heroes system, actually. A lot of the time, you roll vs. a set success level, and the relevant value is the amount of columns you make it or miss it by.

But that's not the meat of character creation, which is very nearly all roll-driven ("no fault character creation" as Chis called it). After getting your attribute values, you roll for a few physical basics like height and build (qualitatively described), and your family background which establishes your initial funds and a couple skills. Then you choose a Type, subject to minimum Attribute scores. A Type is very much like character class, with the interesting clarification that this is your character's personal zone in life, regardless of actual in-game profession. That's kind of cool, because it corresponds perfectly and only to "level 2" in my breakdown of character class in The class issue ( Since that level is both crucial and the easiest one to get confused about, I think Williams was exceptional in defining Type as he did.

OK, Type gets you more skills, some useful values-based guidelines for play, and crucially, a Devotion value. More on this soon, but you should know that all characters can call for Miracles based on this score. You now know you have a Netherman Knight or a Draconian Conjurer or whatever. You can now round out your skills, and in many games, this is where play would begin. Well, it goes on a bit more; you now roll for Eye Color, Hair Color, Hair Style, what the character Values, whom he or she Idolizes, what he or she Treasures, a Distinctive Feature, and two Personality Traits. You can alter the results a little to suit your concept so far, or even reject them to pick one, but you can't just start by picking them. And in most games with this sort of thing, now you'd begin ... but ha ha, you are playing Legendary lives, and the treat is just beginning.

First, you roll on the Religion table to find out how your character relates to his or her species religion(s). In some cases this is very complex and others quite simple, but the point is that you can be "heretic" or "fanatic" or whatever no matter what the religion is, or how complex ... and most interestingly, regardless of your personal Devotion score. You then roll five times on the lifepath (called Lifelines) table, and as with the Cyberpunk and previous lifepath systems, some of the results have sub-tables. When you’re done, you put the five events in order as you see fit to make a character back-story.

And before you scoff and say, "I've seen all this before," I don't think you've seen it done this well. In Legendary Lives, you get a combination of events which usually problematize and/or explain every single thing about your character's race, religion, personal socioeconomic class, emotional life, personal flair and style, and Type. I don't think I've ever seen a roll-driven character creation system which always yields a unique, perfectly functional, and interesting character. Note that the only times you don't roll are (1) optionally choosing a race rather than rolling it, (2) choosing a Type, and (3) optionally rejecting a roll about the various observable character features.

He made up a Firbolg knight, whom we promptly dropped into a cemetery to fight a ghoul. Combat is an interesting sub-routine to the general roll table (the ART as it’s called in the rules), adding Hit Location, Armor Defense, and a return to quantitative effects on the hit location. But the interesting things are how they’re ordered in terms of real-people action; how character actions are ordered, which seems a bit loose but works well in practice; and how foes’ bad-assedness is quantified.

1. When a foe attacks, the GM rolls Hit Location first. That allows me to say, “The ghoul strikes directly for your chest with its claws!” I do not roll. You roll your armor defense for that location, which has a rating like a skill. If you beat the qualitative descriptor column for the ghoul’s claws (Good, Passable, whatever), then the armor stopped it. Otherwise we do a couple more things (based on how much you missed it) to arrive at a qualitative descriptor for the injury your chest suffers.

2. Character actions are ordered quite loosely. Basically, the GM choreographs, and then uses “common sense” to say who goes first. When it’s ambiguous, use a quick Quickness contest, but this is tricky because foes have no listed Quickness. So my understanding is that you do that only when player-character action ordering is under question, and the foes’ ordering is simply under GM control. That’s a bit too much work for me sometimes if I have to come up with it whole cloth in the middle of a fight. As long as you play with a lot of scene-description, and allow for skill checks by players in order to validate their character concepts (i.e. familiarity with this kind of terrain could factor into one’s defense rolls), then it works well.

3. Foes have a few important things listed, such as how good their attacks are as mentioned above, but the main thing is a simple list of the qualitative descriptors of the outcomes of rolls. A foe might have: Passable, Good, Good, Excellent, Awesome. What this means is that your attacks have to hit one of those results to hurt it. If you roll Passable, check off the Passable. But what you really want is to get higher results, because you check off all the ones below it too. So with the list I just wrote, the foe can be taken out with one Awesome shot. It shouldn’t surprise you that the list for a dragon is four or five Awesomes, and that’s it.

Ralph and I were both surprised by how logically and cinematically the fight went. The knight killed the ghoul, but it was close and exciting. At one point the ghoul slammed him down on his back with a strike to his chest, and then gnawed on his leg, but when the knight got his bearings, he beheaded it cleanly. There’s a nice mix of action without much damage, scary bits with damage, and occasional cool moves. This is hard to do with percentile dice systems.

OK, next post is about the first try at an ongoing game.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 24, 2010, 09:51:48 AM
The guys: Tim K, Tim A, Chris
I had to twist their fucking arms to get them to play a fantasy heartbreaker with an extensive character creation system. In fact, I had to say, “Look, make up your characters, and then if you say you don’t want to, we won’t play.”

We ended up with Lisster the Draconian Demonologist, who illustrated (as also seen in the Forge Midwest game) how significant it is to have an overweight character; Yaali the Hillman Scout, who was a whole Njal’s Saga of feuding and torment all by himself (note that Tim K refused to use the recommended Hillman name list like Jeb and Joe-Bob); and Emil the Gypsy Spiritualist, who to my surprise gave me a whole cool dead NPC Entomolian to play all the time as his spirit guide.

I hardly know where to start in describing these characters, but effectively, all three were on the run, there were mothers and girlfriends and daughters and lost fathers and problematic friends all over the place, and each character could easily have been a central villain in any more standard fantasy gaming scenario. I was particularly happy with each character’s back-story relative to religion, including a persecuted minority-faith (Yaali), a dismissive personal split (Lisster), and a nostalgic longing (Emil).

And that’s what hit me between the eyes in prepping. Whoa – all this fucking awesome Color deeply integrated with Character, a relatively clear if rather simple Setting … and somehow, no Situation at all. That’s a Big Model hiccup right there.

So how does the GM prep for play? Does he plan an adventure, complete with steps and a planned climax, for characters to be dropped into? That’s pretty much advised in the text, and there are some practical points for doing so, without ever really saying it outright. Or does he comb the extensive back-stories and associated NPCs for a situation which arises from the characters’ pasts? Rather than have all the characters’ Color turn into only Color (the “Village People go on an adventure” effect, especially prevalent in playing Everway), I opted for the latter. Obviously, given Colorful Character and Colorful Setting, excellent Situation is possible. But constructing it was wholly from the ground up, and genuine work!

This is exactly what got me eventually to post about Color-first character creation in Endeavor; that thread was steamrolled by the bith of my third child, but some day or year, I will follow up on it. Vincent’s already been doing so at Anyway, which is excellent. It’s also cool that Clinton independently used an LL character for that thread, too, and I’d like to know more about the experiences he and others have had with the game.

Fortunately, there was a shared element from the characters themselves: death and more death. Yaali worshipped the Hillman death-god and his Religion roll said his personal worship was persecuted, so that translated into some Setting stuff going on. Death is easily mapped to demonic stuff, so that was a cue for Lisster, and the whole Gypsy spirit thing is pretty much necromancy anyway, so that works. Plus, Emil was raised by hill folk, and hill folk territory borders on Entomolian territory too. So at least they were all plausibly there, if not a group. I was able to reach for a couple good monsters, the zombies and this thing which traps souls, as the basic foes of the scenario.

The first session brought Lisster and Yaali together with the latter basically working for the former, going to a powerful death-shrine and running into a variety of Hillmen drama about religion. They got to fight zombies. I found there were some tricky things about playing friend NPCs, especially because they are so common. The only rules recourse is basically to use them like Allies in Hero Wars – you describe their actions and get a “bump” in your roll results, with no rolls for them.

The second session brought a bit of solo time for Tim A, playing Emil. There was perhaps too much fun with the Sanity and madness rules, which are pretty devastating. Emil was basically stone crazy by the end of the session. The spirit guide rules are really cool.

Chris noted a couple of things about running down one's Spell Points ... it ties right into the improvement system by making Catastrophic results more likely as time goes by and hence checks for possible improvement of that magic skill. So late in an adventure, magic-slingers may well be generating catastrophic results left and right (always fun for the GM) and beefing up those skills.

Sadly, that was it for the game. I have carefully preserved the notes and sheets for some unknown day in which we'll pick it up again. Next post, I talk about playing at Forge Midwest and, um, well, Jews and Arabs. But it wasn't my fault this time!

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 24, 2010, 09:52:22 AM
Forge Midwest! me, Ben, Larry, and Willow
These guys actually rolled for the races, although I encouraged Larry to re-roll the first Viking result. Larry had Gootch the Brownie Assassin (forgetful and serious; unhappy with Luck-based religion). Ben had Ra'ed bin-Akbar the Nomad Demonologist (innovative and spendthrift, if I remember correctly; fanatic about Islam Nirin but with a low Devotion score). Willow got Ctine the Serpentine (morose and gullible; committed to a political group which gave her thief training plus generally religious).

I think character creation worked its usual magic, but I want the others to post about what they think.

Now is the time for the Racism R Us discussion. I want to distinguish between the descriptive text and how it manifests in play. So, textually, and a bit provisionally because I haven’t done this with a fine-tooth comb yet, I can break the character races into groups.

1. What looks like unadorned fantasy but isn't, because it’s sort of like a snapshot of white American society. The dwarves are wage-slave laborers with their upper-class exploiters, and whether the “Be productive! Work is happiness!” slogans on their factory walls are lampooning capitalism or socialism is, I think, answered by “both.” There are various elves which are effectively the whole range of ins-vs.-outs American political parties, even including the National Security Council and a kind of rogue/usurper CIA.

It’s notable that the Elven Empire is the social center of the setting, with a light but rather hard-hitting history; the Draconic Empire is isolated and dwindling, and the Easterling and Nomad Empires are largely off the map such that characters from there are supposed to be travelling to the game setting. Also, all the human races/cultures are fully marginal, socially, culturally, and economically.

There’s also an underclass in this category, including the Hobs (orcs, and more about these later), Ratlings (thieves), and Goblins (skulking troublemakers). I'd love to play a full-on game with many players, using only these races

And also, the fascinating detail of Elfins, who are nominally half-elves but highly specified to be more human-like, in fact – modern humans, in full, including wholly modern names. I think these are the gamer "You Are Here" characters. We speculated that Williams' convention play might well include Elfin characters who just happen to have the names of their own players.

2. Astonishingly pointed ethnic stereotypes. They include the Nomads, who are orientalist Arabs to a T, more-or-less as construed by Crusaders and early-20th-cent. Brits; the snake-people Serpentines, who are the early 20th-cent. Jews (Chris read the relevant stuff and went, "Ssssshalom!"); Brownies, who are particularly cute and potentially menacing Irish as construed by the English; Easterlings, written especially to make Ben moan and gnash his teeth as the ultimate pan-Asians; and in this category as well, the Hobs, absolutely unmistakable as American black people as construed by white culture in, say, 1940. Three of which were represented in this very game, as it unexpectedly turned out. The very extremity is jaw-dropping, but there’s a punchline that I’ll talk about later in the post. (Also, for reference, see my comments about fantasy races and ethnic issues in [RuneQuest: Slayers] Skulls, blood, other body fluids ( and the embedded links.)

It’s 100% clear that the current Nomad Empire, which is mainly “off the map,” is the former home of the Serpentines. Did I mention that the Serpentines are mercantile masters who secretly control most of the commerce in the various cities, working through front organizations?

Somewhat along the same lines, there are also light-genre humans: Vikings (from Erik the Viking), Corsairs (Errol Flynn pirates), Gypsies (more spiritual than thieving, but still thieving), Hillfolk (hillbillies), Foresters (same hillbillies, different terrain), and Barbarians (straight from the Conan movies).

Oh yeah, and there a few interesting exceptions: the Bushmen and the Nethermen (rather accurate Neanderthals), both of whom are depicted with considerable dignity.

3. And finally the few outliers who don’t really fit into the setting well, or at least not as stereotypically-fitting participants: the very interesting and powerful Draconians, the bland but reasonably playable Wolflings, the almost-entirely bland Entomolians, and the very bland and annoying Avians. I’d recommend throwing all of them out … but then you look at the Draconians and only an idiot wouldn’t want to play one someday, so I can’t toss any group out on the basis of this ethno-stereotype variable.

Ben nailed it: the very pointedness of the stereotyping is not finished content, but essential setup for problematizing the stereotype with your specific play. And if you happen to end up with a basically stereotype-confirmatory character (rare but possible), then he or she becomes a foil for everyone else’s messiness.

situation: putting it together – this time, I actually planned to do a more text-based adventure prep and simply decree “you’re a party,” but as it happened, the Color-Setting thing kicked in so hard for the characters, that we could not imagine playing anything but a dramatic, open-ended interplay based on their back-stories. In more detail, when Ben and Larry had made their characters, we'd pretty much decided on a "party" context with the Brownie being the Nomad’s slave/pet, but Willow's character was riddled with too much direct conflict to shoehorn into that, so we said she and the Demonologist knew each other but weren't a team.

Well, now I had to do some thinking. We had the back-stories, we had the player goals (which I asked be very specific tasks), we had the place (Baye in Brownie Country), and we had a couple of details like the circus and a Serpentine Alley. The NPCs and goals included:

- Ra’ed’s derelict friend and dead girlfriend enemy, who I decided was kind of a combination Phantom and Vampire from the foe list: his goal was to kill the girlfriend again, which Ben apparently forgot all about once his character got blue balls from their not-quite-done sex scene. Ra’ed turned out to be a chubby, bald-on-top with flowing black hair demonologist who worked in the circus, disgruntled with his family and with a bad romantic triangle in his past concerning sex with both a man and a woman.

- Gootch’s debts and returned girlfriend (Hootchie Koo): his goal was to earn her forgiveness, which was an easy GM call considering he’s an assassin. The target was Seth, described below.

- Ctine’s Zionist political group with thief training: her goal was basically an assigned mission, to hijack a Brownie mechanical superweapon. Her boss was Asp, whom we all kept calling "Seth" and I swear it was by accident every time. Willow’s whole scenario hook was that she approached Ra’ed to swindle him into using his magic to help her, even though the whole point of her political group was to ravage a Nomad village (formerly a Serpentine village).

Play is tough on GM! Or rather, on the GM I am now, as this stuff used to be a main concern for me but is now too draining relative to where I’d prefer to put my efforts. I had to move things along all the time, with rolls being a good baseline but also with NPC activity. The real signals are found in rolled Catastrophes and Awesomes, which are in fact reasonably frequent. If this is what you mean "good GMing" (and it is a skill, constant and genuine Participationism leadership), then the game knocks it out of the park.

The main thing was the interaction between Ctine and Ra’ed using the Sincerity and Lying skills.
Fun twist is Gootch successfully killing Asp (gunch! Stabbed right through the eye), and how no one quite understood that he did it, and him not knowing that Asp was central to what the other two characters were doing it until too late.

I guess it sort of turned into the plot of Pulp Fiction, if one of the characters had killed Marcellus Wallace through a series of interesting misunderstandings.

Gootch realized what a pickle he’d created and ran off with his girlfriend and Ra’ed’s money. Ra’ed bound Asp’s spirit into the machine (hilariously, using Gootch’s knife without knowing Asp was ultimately his employer for this very job), then was killed by the vampire chick and the now-vampire ex-boyfriend (shouldn’t have played such a lone hand, Ra’ed!). That particular outcome wasn’t the certainty that this summary implies, but Ra’ed got hosed when the boy vampire delivered a critical to his head. Ctine did successfully steal the machine and ride it to battle and out of the story, but she also mistakeny co-opted it under her control, so her interactions with the spirit of the probably-very-resentful Asp and the machine o’destruction are left to theoretical later play.

Sadly, we all forgot about Miracles, which would have been especially interesting in the vampire scenes. The Miracle rules are universal in mechanics and effects, which I think is a nifty concept given the diversity of religions, although you’re supposed to stick to the given religion’s Color for narration purposes.

Best, Ron
all the edits were to add boldface to the headings - RE

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on March 25, 2010, 10:55:08 PM
The whole "tons of material for inspiration, no ready-to-go situations" thing definitely sounds familiar.  And that familiarity's centered in early '90s publications for me too -- AD&D2, Marvel Superheroes, Rifts, Cyberpunk2020, Shadowrun, Vampire, and Werewolf, mainly.

Part of the fun of GMing these games, for me, was getting to take all that inspiration and create situations.  It was fun!  Whether that's an awesome thing these games helped me do, or a gross oversight of theirs that I bailed them out on, I couldn't say.

Things tended to work out when I pitched the game to people after I'd already decided what it was going to be about.  But on those occasions when someone else had already read the book and formed their own impressions, there was a lot of gap to bridge.

Ron, I enjoyed reading about the Legendary Lives characters and setting and factions and color, but I was stunned by what you chose to do with it at Forge Midwest!  Here I was getting all pumped for perspective clash in the pressure cooker of a group mission (a la my Werewolf game that we had those long threads about), and you guys did this maze of ordinary personal growth, color grab bag of spirit/machine/vampirism, solo bits, and killing each other?  I mean, that sounds fun, but after reading everything that led up to it, it caught me completely by surprise.

Perhaps that's one of the big risks of Fantasy Heartbreakers?  If you don't bring your own "get on the same page" skills, no one agrees on what play's supposed to be like?


P.S. I love that qualitative "hit points" list for enemies.  Sounds like it would enable you to really customize the color and experience of fighting different foes.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 26, 2010, 07:07:07 PM
Hi Dave,

I GMed as you describe for decades. I was really, really good at it. Here are some of my thoughts after all that time.

1. The more my desire for us to produce "a good story" was developed in this fashion, the less the other people's similar desires found ways to get integrated into play, aside from pre-game programmed setup. The ideal player for such a GM is acquiescent, thespian, and not particularly assertive regarding what his or her character actually wants and does. The worst possible player is someone like him or her, artistically speaking.

2. It was work that over time, did not pay off creatively. The effort "worked" insofar as my prep was so good (in this sense) that everything turned out like it should, including the subroutine bits that had been included as "well, this bit can go one way or the other without causing problems." It also worked insofar as I ran regular player polls to keep abreast of what everyone else liked and wanted to follow up on. The net effect of "working" like this is simply wearing-out, especially after several repetitions of upping the scale of the conflicts without seeing much difference in what they were like as a fun activity.

3. I hate missions. I dislike mission-based stories, generally. I don't see them as pressure cookers, but as an uninteresting venue for characters to posture at one another (Snikt! Hey, Wolverine, sheathe your claws! ... kill me now). When there's a mission in a story, and I like the story, one of the primary features I've noted is that the mission has largely been abandoned or utterly subverted by a fairly early point in the goings-on.

Now, all that said, I actually did intend for our Legendary Lives game to be pretty straightforward in terms of a few allied characters in a tight situation. When Ben and Larry made up their characters, I simply said, OK, we have a sinister foreign demonologist, and a native assassin, and the latter as a race relish being slaves as long as they get well-treated. Fine, Larry, your guy is Ben's guy pet. But when Willow came along and the luck o'the dice provided a Serpentine right here with our Nomad ... and then it turns out that she's totally a member of Irgun this political organization with criminal and violent tendencies ... well, we decided that the two knew one another, but that it would be stupid for them to be a bunch of drinking buddies and fellow "adventurers."

Your summary of our game is incorrect in one key point: no player-character killed another, nor attacked or threatened another, at any point. Asp was an NPC. This wasn't Blood Opera, and the various possible conflicts of interest that arose could well have turned in different directions in play, depending on how certain rolls, deceptions, and decisions went.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on March 27, 2010, 08:52:56 PM
Hi Ron,

Different worlds, man.  "Produce a good story" was never a high priority in my groups.  This means I never experienced some of the difficulties you mention (like "How do other people contribute to my good story?"), but we also never had story-creation as glue to allow us to use other techniques you've certainly gotten great mileage out of.  For example, with our focus on virtual experience, it became problematic to split up the characters, because if your guy wasn't in a scene, you felt like you weren't playing any more.  I still have "keep the party together!" instincts, and it's always fun to step outside of those when playing with folks who are good at cutting back and forth between characters' scenes.

I still like my missions, but nowadays I always integrate them with character goals.  If the characters have a reason to want to do the mission, and success or failure repositions them with respect to stuff they care about, then the players can dig in and not fall back on crap like the posturing you mention.  Giving the players the option to pick and initiate missions also makes a big difference, I've found.

Sorry about the misreading on character murder.  Honestly, your Forge Midwest session sounds equally fun to me either way!

I'd be curious to hear your take on the relative virtues/vices of Legendary Lives' state of "it's up to you to decide and communicate what your game will be about, but we've given you tons of jumping off points!"  Not sure if I'm whiffing on the intended purpose of this thread, but out of the Fantasy Heartbreaker talk, that's what grabbed me.


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 30, 2010, 07:13:23 AM
Hi Dave,

My call is that Legendary Lives doesn't give you jumping-off points. There's a distinct and procedurally-bounded gap between the end of character creation and the phase that might be called "practical prep," meaning preparing to play with these characters and these people as the first or next actual session.

As a contrast, the original Cyberpunk was a little different: you had some similar stuff in character creation, with lifepaths and all - but given that the text was extremely specific regarding what play was like and what characters did, and most importantly the creative goal of doing so, there was only a little "jump" between the end of character creation and the combined prep-and-then-play phase I'm talking about. As I recall, all you really needed was for everyone to know what sort of immediate environment the characters were in, what sort of group they were in (if there was one), and who might be in authority over them.

Granted, that game wasn't entirely seamless at that point, and there were in fact breakdowns in groups whose members (meaning people, not characters) couldn't arrive at a local mix of certain fictional and thematic variables, much as in Champions. I won't list the details because there are several issues to talk about at once and that gets confusing. My current point is that in prepping and playing Cyberpunk, the characters' personal back-stories and color could conceivably and procedurally feed into the next practical step in getting to play. But in Legendary Lives, the gap at that moment yawns open into a black hole. I have no doubt that the Williamses have their own way of hopping it. But what that way is, I don't know. If the GMing text in the game itself is an indicator, then it seems to be along the lines of a fairly step-by-step adventure into which any characters can conceivably be dropped. But GMing text in rulebooks is notoriously untrustworthy in terms of what the authors actually do in their own games.

Don't get me wrong regarding the Legendary Lives text. The GMing material is very lucid and helpful if one is making an adventure into which to drop a grab-bag of colorful and eager player-characters, for players who are happy to enjoy your adventure. It's simply unknown whether that's what the Williamses do in their own games, and that's not a criticism, that's normal for our hobby.

To sum up, I think your summary is too simplistic, for a crucial bit of create-and-prep-and-play which has received almost no critical attention in discussions to date. I've just tried to describe two games which on paper look quite similar in terms of character creation and what tools are available, but in practice operate differently. If I can spot the difference between just those two, then clearly there are vast differences and a much broader range of tools to discuss.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Larry L. on March 30, 2010, 04:36:14 PM
What Ron doesn't mention is that I almost jumped with glee when he pulled the Legendary Lives book out of his bag. I've been wanting to play this since I read a review in Dragon 195. (That's 1993!) Thanks for running this, Ron.

As fondly as I remember the lifepaths in Cyberpunk... Legendary Lives blows Cyberpunk out of the water.  Ben managed to turn a bunch of random rolls into a pretty fucked-up sexy backstory. I got a character with a ton of personality. (I missed Willow's chargen because I was off printing the very necessary character sheets.) This is stuff you don't come up with from scratch. This is old-school "emergent" table-rolling at its very best.

Hey wait... were there actually two separate Serpentines named Asp and Seth, Ron, or are you continuing to get the name confused above? Cause it occurs to me maybe I should have gotten that little detail nailed down a little more solidly before stabbing some dude in the face. Oops!

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 30, 2010, 05:35:57 PM
Hey Larry,

Thanks for reminding me about that! It was great to have your enthusiasm about the game at the table, and I hope this thread inspires some more people to try it out. "The further adventures of Gootch" would make a fine saga.

As far as plain content is concerned, yeah, Legendary Lives has the best lifepaths I've ever seen. But in terms of translating that material into "what're we gonna do?" at the practical prep level, the first Cyberpunk was a lot more straight-into-it (although not 100% smooth).

Asp was the character's name, going by the range of name options given in the book for Serpentines (and Willow's character's name, Ctine, was an excellent and in fact very pretty example of working with that range). "Seth" came into it when I half-exasperatedly said, "We might as well call him Ssssseth, though," strictly as an aside. There wasn't any Seth in the story actually.

So yes - you had Gootch stab Willow's boss right in the eye. The same one who instructed her to get Ra'ed to steal the machine. And whose soul Ra'ed then ended up binding into the machine from Gootch's knife, making a nice savage outcome that Asp did, indeed, get his machine after all.

My favorite part of all this concerns the various Lying and Sincerity rolls conducted among the three characters (Ra'ed and Ctine, then Gootch and Ra'ed), which in combination had everything to do with what each character knew or believed at any given moment. That's really what made our story.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Christoph Boeckle on March 31, 2010, 04:27:15 AM
Hello Ron

You got my attention where you state that what this game's rules achieve in combat is hard to achieve with percentile dice-systems. I know you've got a lot to say about how dice are used since before the "System does matter" article (BTW, any chance we'll see the dice discussion taken from the Sorcerer mailing list you had on the old version of the Sorcerer site again?)
I suspect that you're not just saying, "percentile sucks", since Legendary Lives is a percentile dice-system. How come this one managed it despite the d%? Are there other dice-techniques that inherently start better off to achieve such logic and cinematic results in combat, given similar overarching structure of resolution? If yes, how?

I enjoyed your detailed comment on this game's very rich and interesting character creation system, and how it stops short of generating Situation.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 31, 2010, 09:58:46 AM
Hi Christoph,

I'm not sure how much of the quick summary I'm about to give is known to you, or standard knowledge for everyone reading. I apologize in advance for any inadvertent patronizing. I'm also limiting the discussion to very basic, long-standing methods of rolling dice in role-playing games. So the first thing is setting up a simple contrast.

- Flat. The chance of getting any single value is the same for every value. The most common example is rolling a single die for its facing value. Using two d10s for a d100 role is flat too.

- Curved. The chance of getting a value in or near the middle of the range is higher than getting a value at either end. The most common example is rolling a fixed number of dice (more than one) and adding up the pips for a total.

(I am leaving out all other ways to read dice, especially those for which many dice are rolled and successes are rated per die and then accumulated, as in White Wolf's mechanics or Fudge dice, and also those which use highest-value, like Sorcerer and many games since its publication, and single-die rolls subject to re-rolls as in Dying Earth. They are relevant to this discussion but have various curves of their own, especially when the target numbers vs. opposed rolls issue is brought into the mix.)

I'm not saying one is better than the other, but their distinct properties are consequential. It's not surprising that both were retained through what I think of the three "tracks" of RPG design throughout the 1980s: flat in the form of d20 for various permutations of D&D, and also in the form of d100 for BRP games; curved in the form of Tunnels & Trolls handful o'dice and The Fantasy Trip's 3d6 (roll equal to or under a target), immortalized by Champions and GURPS.

Anyway, perhaps best illustrated by Rolemaster, the flat method includes a huge pitfall awaiting the uncritical game designer. In Rolemaster, the far ends of the spectrum (close to 01, close to 00) led to rolling on further tables, the critical hits and critical misses ones. And those as well featured a variety of mild-to-extreme results, with the latter at the "ends" of the numerical spectrum. The problem is that when rolling "flat," getting a number at the far end (03 out of 100, say) is just as probable as any other. If we're talking about many rolls (to hit with a sword, say), then yeah - having 75% skill is better than having 35%. But if we're talking about a single roll, not only the chance for success but especially the chance to jump to the critical tables based on rolling a particular value, then the difference in skill is totally irrelevant - especially in terms of whether you're going to the gruesome-miss table or the awesome-success table.

Early BRP had similar problems, but it's more complicated because (i) it was really a d20 roll rather than d100 because the units were always in 5% increments and (ii) the damage was a separate roll. But this is why early RuneQuest was quickly nicknamed "LimbQuest" because so many characters lost limbs in the first combat of play, and why Rolemaster's critical hit tables are so notorious. Especially since those games featured customized, rather laborious character creation, it was pretty grim to see one's guy mutilated in ways which - although not necessarily understood in full by players - were obviously orthogonal to whatever the high numbers on one's sheet were supposed to indicate about the character. The late-80s game Justifiers was insanely prone to this problem.*

(Interesting aside: this is exactly why in the brands of D&D that I played back in 1978-1982, one's roll to hit was not particularly valued as a score to want to improve - it was the damage one tried to boost and make most reliable, favoring multiple-dice damage rolls for consistency and lots of pluses to avoid the dreaded hit-for-one-point anticlimax.)

(Interesting aside II: Unknown Armies uses percentile resolution. Its "criticals" are found in doubled digits: 11, 22, 33, and so on. Since the roll is flat, the difference between this mechanic and putting the criticals at either end is negligible in terms of probabilities, but it's easier in terms of handling time. More on UA in a minute.)

OK, so for percentile or any flat-based rolling to work, here's what comes to my mind to avoid the pitfalls.

1. Since the differences in percent between two characters with the same skill/ability will be manifest only over many rolls, not a single-roll-each comparison, if you want that difference to mean something, then the consequences of any single roll should be relatively minor, allowing for lots and lots of instances of rolling without getting, for instance, decapitated on the second one. Designing mechanically-minor but narratively-forward-moving consequences becomes the primary design challenge, and if that's too hard (as I think is indicated historically), then points 3 and 5 below should be maximized.

1'. Which is also related to what die or method you'll use in the first place, specifically how many units. The rule of thumb is that you'll need at least as many instances as (for dice) sides of the die in order to discern the probabilistic differences. So this is why d100 gets such a bad rep - you need more than a hundred sword-swings to see the higher chance for success actually manifest itself between two characters. (If this seems wrong to you based on your experiences, it's likely that you perceive the higher-skilled character's success at any point as validating the higher score, and the converse with the failures of the lesser-skilled character, cognitively diminishing the contrary results as "less important.")

2. The characters' differences in ability should be expressed in terms of how many units of the spectrum are different from character to character, and this should be more nuanced than merely success vs. failure, or also, in the case of BRP, more consequential than the difference between 5% vs. 4% for a fumble. For instance, in Legendary Lives, each gradation of one's score (1 to 20) is not itself a probability; it's a line of the resolution table which expands and contracts all the various ranges of the standardized qualitative results within the 1-100 range. The link in my first post takes you to the game, so you can check this out yourself and I won't try to describe it fully here.

3. The roll should be modifiable through immediate play, whether just before or just after, to affect the chances. Legendary Lives does this with column shifts, due to played circumstances and also set-up augmenting rolls, and Unknown Armies does it too if I recall correctly (flip-flopping, but when/how you get to flip-flop, I can't remember). Any number of bonus-y techniques and associated fictional content are available for this purpose; my point is that all rolls of (for instance) to-hit are not narratively equal, so sometimes, saying, "Well, I missed this time, but in the long run, my 75% will show up as a high level of skill," is not enough. When this roll is more important, different logic applies in terms of personal-enjoyment. A lot of mid-80s play utilized a "burn experience for a roll bonus" house-rule for just this reason. Unknown Armies has its flip-flopping, for instance.

4. Deeply reconsider utilizing opposed rolls, and if you do, then have a really operational, tested-for-fun reason. Legendary Lives was one of the first role-playing games for which the GM never rolls (you know, I keep thinking I remember one before the early 1990s, but then I forget again - can anyone help with that? Or am I remembering only almost-RPGs, like Fighting Fantasy?).

5. Failure needs to be interesting. In both Legendary Lives and Halmabrea (which also uses d100), the instructions for the GM are helpful regarding (i) a failed roll may not mean actual failure of the intended action, but some delay or problematic elements along with the success; and (ii) catastrophic failures should be very distinct plot-moving moments, not merely graphic depictions of the character's ineptitude. Legendary Lives also has the skills improve with either maximal success or maximal failure, so that the latter feeds into the reward mechanics just as much as the former. A little more subtly, the ordering of successes and failures can also impact the character, as with the direction your character slides on the Madness Meters in Unknown Armies (am I remembering that right? something like that, anyway).

Anyway, that's what I came up with for now. Christoph, is that helpful or interesting? Too basic or obvious maybe?

Best, Ron

* I bring this up to point out (i) I have in fact played Justifiers by the book, for which I expect some relatives were released early from Purgatory; and (ii) I GMed a very satisfying Justifiers game at Forge Midwest, using Levi Kornelsen's The Exchange. That'll be a thread soon.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Lance D. Allen on March 31, 2010, 02:59:33 PM

Your last post is deeply important to me, as Mage Blade uses a single d20 roll -vs- target number (roll under, though I doubt that matters much) but I'm having a very hard time grokking everything you just said.

Most specifically, what I don't get is how on a single roll a difference between 35% and 75% is irrelevant. If you need to roll between 1 and 75 as opposed to 1 and 35, it seems like this difference, even on a single roll, is pretty important. I get that it is statistically identical to roll a 99 as it is to roll a 1, but it's not the specific number that matter so much as which side of a dividing line it's on. There are 75 possible chances to succeed in the former case, and only 35 possible chances in the latter. Please explain to me what I'm not understanding?

Also, I've heard your opposition to opposed rolls before, but I've never understood it, either. Mage Blade also makes extensive use of this.

If it's an important datapoint, in most, if not all, instances, the difference between the target number and the roll is important. This is true even in the case of opposed rolls.

As this isn't talking about Legendary Lives precisely, I'm perfectly fine with taking this to another thread if you feel that's appropriate. I have been expired to gank me a copy of Legendary Lives to see what about the lifepath system is so spectacular, though.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 31, 2010, 05:10:04 PM
Hi Lance,

This is a fine topic to stay within this thread, no big deal.

The difference between 35% and 75% using a flat technique is indeed enormous ... given a lot of instances to compare. The trouble is that it's practically impossible for the mind to not think in terms of lots of instances; we're hard-wired to do it even when thinking about "this one time." Even saying "the chance" implies a whole bunch of instances.

If we're talking about how well a character swings his or her sword, rated in percentage terms, then I dunno what to tell you, except that the human mind snaps so hard into thinking about "over time," "in general," "overall," and basically "a single instance in the context of many," that we practically don't even have the language to talk about this one time as an isolated event.

All I can do is talk about the numbers. Craps is the perfect game for this point - you can't play Craps with just one die. It relies heavily on the minor but definite bell curve of possible results on a single roll. You can get a 7 by rolling 6+1, 5+2, 4+3, 3+4, 2+5, and 1+6. By contrast, you can only get a 2 by rolling 1+1. So within that single roll, the chance for a 7 is higher. That's what makes a curved method. It matters to that one roll. That's why you can bet on Craps as it stands, but no one, even in the throes of the various gamblers' fallacies, would bet on Craps played with a hypothetical 11-sided die numbered from 2 to 12.

I understand what you're saying about success being 1-75 rather than 75 all by itself. I'm saying that when you say, "the chance," or refer to more than one number possibly being rolled, i.e. the range, you're automatically talking about "over many instances." So everything you're saying is right - over many instances.

I get the impression you think I'm saying flat methods are bad. They're absolutely not. They simply have characteristic pitfalls if they're designed without understanding these points, at least intuitively. I even provided a number of ways in which historical RPG design has made flat methods work well - Legendary Lives is a good example of thoughtful design, and there are others. I should point out as well that in Call of Cthulhu, the most important roll, the Sanity Check, is a flat method like all other resolution rolls in that game ... and it works well because no single roll smashes the character down from max to nothing. Losing Sanity and not losing it, in CofC, is a matter of repeated rolls - which matches to my point #1 for making such systems work.

If you design Mage Blade with a good flat-method resolution rolling method, then that's excellent. I look forward to it. (I also agree with you that over vs. under is not an issue.)

I agree that using the roll for further information - degree of effect, not merely success/failure - adds benefit and makes immediate use of the existing range. That would be another whole variable to talk about too, 'cause people have done it in so many ways (with or without a second roll, for example, and if with, whether the first roll influences the second). I restricted my points in the above post almost entirely to raw success vs. failure, and the associated detail of extreme versions of either. I did not talk about degrees of effect at all.

And simply to close the door on further confusions, I could go into further detail about various hassles with the curved resolution methods too, with examples of crappy and good applications. Choosing a curved method does not automatically make the rolling mechanic good. I'm talking about flat methods in this thread because that's what Legendary Lives uses.

And since you brought it up, I don't know where you get the idea that I disapprove of opposed rolls. Sorcerer relies only on opposed rolls, as does It Was a Mutual Decision and (somewhat more slowly) S/Lay w/Me. Trollbabe and Elfs don't. I've written about how combining target numbers and opposed rolls has led to needless woes in many game designs, but that's a nuance, not a criticism of opposed rolls in and of themselves. And I've even seen some versions of that which have ended up working, as long as they have some supportive mechanisms along the lines of my #1-4 points, Hero Wars, for instance.

My advice was not to avoid using opposed rolls. It was to use them with concrete and coherent reasons for why in this particular game, they (and their associated mechanics) are fun.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Callan S. on March 31, 2010, 05:54:22 PM
I don't think there's anything wrong with a single roll that smashes someone down from max to nothing - you just have to decide as designer if you want a game that could very well end in two minutes flat (or even less).

One would need to look at maintaining regular social dynamics though - you can't have one guy basically lose the game alone, then sit there, locked to his seat by social manners after being killed in the second minute, while everyone else plays for hours. One way out is if someone gets their head lopped off or goes entirely insane in one roll, it's game over for everyone. Again, if a two minute game session is okay for the design, then this is okay.

Though that's an interesting thing to note - most traditional game sessions end when everyone decides the session ends, rather than a mechanic saying 'this session is over'. There's alot of 'play as long as we want to' attitude out there with roleplayers, rather than 'play until the game says it stops' (though really they are the same - you can just start up another game when one session of it ends, so it's kinda a pointless attitude).

Also come to think of it, alot of boardgames and cardgames have people sit out - but it's usually not for a disproportionate time - people might drop out three quarters of a game in in something like the card game 'lunch money', not in the first minute. Also these games usually don't go for hours (though monopoly does).

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 31, 2010, 06:44:59 PM
Moderating: Callan, that post reads like free-association and doesn't contribute to the discussion.

This thread is about the Legendary Lives games I've played and various issues that crop up from that. I'd like to stick with them.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Trevis Martin on March 31, 2010, 08:58:03 PM
This is a terribly interesting thread Ron, thanks for sharing it.  I went to the website, downloaded and read both Legendary Lives and Khaotic!

There was perhaps too much fun with the Sanity and madness rules, which are pretty devastating. Emil was basically stone crazy by the end of the session. The spirit guide rules are really cool.

I couldn't find anything for spirit guiding or Sanity aside from a chart in the lifepaths section of the game.  Maybe it's something not included in PDF he has posted that was in an earlier published edition of the game.  What are the spirit guide rules like?  What was it you liked about them?

Reading Khaotic, the color of the game really hit me in just the right spot. It's like a combo of Bliss Stage, Quantam Leap, Cyberpunk, and a few other things for good measure.  I notice that the author changed his method from the ART table/percentile to a 6 sider roll under where you roll your total Attribute + Skill and only add up ones twos and threes which then corrosponds to the success scale.  Since Khaotic! was the last game produced I don't know if he was just trying to streamline the Legendary Lives or just trying a variation for it's own sake.  Do you have an opinion on one vs the other given that you've used the Legendary Lives system?


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Trevis Martin on March 31, 2010, 09:00:32 PM
Sorry didn't quite complete my thought there.  I mean it looks like he switched from a flat system to a curve between the two games even though he had made the flat mechanic work well in LL.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 01, 2010, 11:11:57 AM
Hi Trevis!

The Sanity rules are included in the description of the skill Sanity, on page 136 of the PDF. I followed that text very specifically during the game with Tim, Tim, and Chris, including circumstances and modifiers for the rolls. My conclusion was that if you don't get Sanity through your race and Type, then bloody well use a free slot to buy it.

I didn't use those rules in our game at Forge Midwest. That was an oversight on my part, probably because I had been shaken from my "this will be a straight-up adventure" plans into the "whacked characters doing orthogonal whacked things" mode. Considering that Ben's character was a demonologist already, I should have called for a Sanity check when his vampire girlfriend showed up but given him a bonus. Plus Ctine should have had to make a check when the phantom snakes attacked her, or maybe when they all disappeared. I don't think Gootch encountered anything a veteran assassin wouldn't have seen all the time anyway, though.

The spirit guide rules aren't a special rules-set, but if you know the game and then read the Magic section for each of the character's magic skills, then cross-reference with the character's race and religion material, then there's a hell of a lot of second-order rules-application waiting to be discovered for any spell-using character.

In the case of the Gypsy character, the rules for the Spiritualist say the player rolls for many features of a developed NPC, including race and Type, and in fact, all those various detailed personality and lifepath features as well. This has potential for some wild contrasts, especially since the character and the guide are mandated to be very, very close emotionally and to be utterly devoted to one another. In Tim's case, his rather mild, victimized, and moony-eyed character had a bad-ass Entomolian Warrior for a spirit guide, which allowed me a metric ton of fun role-playing, and also allowed for the character's magic to butch up his otherwise feeble combat potential.

I pleasurably shudder to think of a spiritualist character who, through the luck of the dice, ends up with someone like Gootch for his spirit guide. If "guide" could even be considered an appropriate term, in that case.

I'd like to play Khaotic, one of these days. It seems to me to have a lot of potential for Cold War fallout thematic content, given the internationalism of the player-characters - I remember reading the mandate in Cold City for the characters to represent the various post-WWII power-player nationalities and saying, "Cool, this is like Khaotic." As far as the system goes, I'll reserve judgment until I see it in action, especially since now I know that a Williams game exhibits a lot of interconnectedness among its parts.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Larry L. on April 04, 2010, 03:18:00 PM

Whew. That was my understanding of the whole "Ssseth" thing, too.

Now that I'm clear about how things actually went down, here are some observations.


From my perspective, the story was a dark comedy of errors. I'll recall it here (in a very me-centric way!) because it illustrates certain GM techniques Ron was using. This is mostly stuff he lays out in the various Sorcerer books, but it might be helpful to someone to see how they're used in a non-abstract way.

I had rolled up a guy who a) was an assassin, b) valued love above all else, and c) had recently gotten back together with a former lover. So Ron frames a scene where I'm hanging out with my sweetie, and she mentions that her Serpentine master is cruel to her.  I figure this situation has a pretty obvious solution for this particular character. So I endeavor to murder this Asp guy.

Ron cuts to a scene with Willow, and she's having a conspiratorial conversation with her Serpentine boss guy. Wait, what did you say his name was? Asp? Oh! I see. Fun moment of character knowledge vs. player knowledge. This is going to be interesting.

I head off the the forest to gather some poison -- Legendary Lives has an absolutely wonderful list of semi-realistic poisons, all with interesting effects -- but I get a crappy roll, so I decide to move forward with good old-fashioned stabbing. There's a pretty amusing encounter with me using my charm power just a little too well on a Hob (see racial stereotypes, above) who helps me get into Asp's house.

I'm sneaking around in Asp's house looking for anybody, but I get a bad sneaking roll, so Ron declares I trip over what he describes as some kind of intricate model. I decide I better try to fix it, but roll a little low on my repair skill, so Ron decides that means I manage to put it back together... the wrong way.

There's another scene with Willow, where they're discussing how Asp in in possession of this war machine she's supposed to acquire. And I'm like, wait, would this war machine look anything like the "model" I tripped over? And Ron grins and says yes, it does. Oops!

Asp comes home, and is angry that his Hob let a brownie into the house. I flee to under his bed, and Asp follows like he's chasing a stray kitten. "Come here little brownie..." Then I decide to leap out and stab him. It's right about this point where I realize this was strategically about the dumbest thing for me to do, because by sword skill is a whopping 3, really terrible. Oh hell, I'll roll for it anyway.

I rolled a 100. This turned out to be, literally, "awesome." I'll break this down a little later. For now, we figure out this means Asp is killed instantly.

Then Ctine and Ra'ed show up to grab the war machine, and I'm acting all sweet and innocent. Ra'ed wants to do this ritual to bind a spirit into the war. It binds the last victim of a weapon, so Ra'ed asks his trusted brownie for his blade, which Gootch offers up. We roll to see if Ra'ed gets suspicious about the blood and all. Nope! He takes my lame alibi at face value. So he summons up the spirit of a Serpentine, which all the players realize is actually Asp, but Ra'ed and Ctine are completely oblivious to. Funny stuff. The captive spirit possesses the war machine, and starts wheeling it off to do destruction.

I had kind of been looking forward to developing the misanthropic buddy relationship between Ra'ed and Gootch. But this was just a con game, so I decide to go for a punchier ending. I check with Ben about dicking his character over. "What did I ever do to you?" Nothing of course, I just need a patsy. So Gootch emerges from the crime scene, finds the nearest Hob -- who turns out to be the same Hob from earlier -- and proceeds to make up a total lie about how I was just sneaking around trying to find a treat and witnessed some Nomad murdering the Serpentine!

Before the angry Serpentines catch up with Ra'ed, I stop by and ask him to spot me some cash. We make some rolls, and while Ra'ed is convinced the war machine will make him rich beyond measure, he's not going to give me any cash. So instead I convince him to let me run back to the tent and use his money to stock up on provisions. I steal all of this money, and use it to run away with my girlfriend. What a little bastard Gootch is!

Not portrayed in this game, but left for an implied epilogue, is Ctine bringing forth the war machine, willing to destroy the brownie village as collateral damage, but finding it doesn't work for some reason.

I sort of felt like the spirit of In A Wicked Age was watching over our game. The way the character interaction drove the game forward reminded me of that game for some reason. This was undoubtedly actually just Ron's mad GM skillz at work, but it probably speaks to something that IaWA does by design to create this sort of play.


As mentioned, the resolution system creates some interesting opportunities for the GM. There's a chart with skill levels running up to about 25, which are cross-referenced with a percentile roll to determine a category of success or failure. Somebody compared it to the old Marvel Superheroes RPG. This also makes having a character sheet, with this resolution table printed on it, more or less essential for smooth play.

In the situation above, my roll of 100 still resolved to the best success category, which is called "Awesome." How cool is that? I can actually say I "rolled an Awesome!" The wound system is also described in terms of these success categories, and after a little rules-reading, we determined an Awesome hit scratches out Awesome and all the lower categories. In this case it meant my foe was dead, even though he had the better-than-average defense list of "Passable, Good, Great, Superior, Awesome." (But not in all cases. Some superior monsters have unusual wound lists. Dragons are "Awesome, Awesome, Awesome, Awesome," meaning you actually have to land an awesome attack just to hurt them.)

There's a surprising variety of skills used for social situations, which pairs with the conflict system in really fun ways.

One interesting note is that the game explicitly assigns all dice-rolling to the player side. The GM doesn't roll dice when interacting with the conflict system, he just narrates the outcomes. While this is not as revolutionary a thing as the author seems to think it is, it is an excellent example of game design around a particular set of gamemastering skills.

There's still a little more handling time than I might like. There was one point where Ron got a little flustered trying to look up a particular rule. The starting number of spell points is kind of buried in the text. Having the searchable PDF on my netbook managed to smooth over a few bottlenecks.


This is about the only thing going on in Legendary Lives that would keep me from making a universally positive recommendation. Looking over the text, it's not quite as in-your-face as we make it sound, but you read between the lines and piece some things together, and it's clearly there. It's a little more directly based on real-world stereotypes than the standard Tolkien or Forgotten Realms type cliches. And in the right hands, there's clearly an opportunity here to tell some powerful stories about race and stereotypes. But I can't help but wonder if this had fallen into my adolescent, not-so-worldly hands years ago if I wouldn't have gotten some funny ideas.

It potentially makes for some uncomfortable situations. In my case, near the end of this game I seized on an opportunity to cover up my romantically-motivated murder. Then I thought through the racial analogies involved. I realized Gootch had framed his buddy as the perpetrator of a racial hate crime, just to cover up his own misdeeds, and thought about just how heinous that situation is when it occurs in the real world, and felt a little pang of nausea deep down inside. I've had a fair number of characters who do really bad, fucked-up things, and it mostly plays for entertainment, but this was genuinely disturbing.

Mostly though, there was a story a how a series of simple misunderstandings played into the context of the larger animosity between Nomads and Serpentines. Despite the comedy involved, it's possible to reflect on how this is like certain real-world cultural conflicts, how individuals acting on limited information are perceived as actors in a larger clash. To this extent, this game contained "the stuff" which makes a role-playing session seem worthwhile to me.


Ben's character was, for the bulk of this game, wearing either no pants or no shirt. I just wanted to share.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Millsy on April 05, 2010, 03:33:29 AM
Cool thread - I've had Legendary Lives for years but never played or run it - and it made me dig it out again and look it over.

With reference to your earlier point about it building characters with lots of cool background but no in-built situation, have you seen Lost Souls? It kinda conveys the same thing - you randomly roll up your ghost/spirit/haunting and get lots of detail about your past life, how you died, why you came back, etc, but not a lot of information about what your options are now. If I recall correctly, even the sample adventure in the book required one specific character type of one of the players (these are randomly-rolled character types, remember), so they could solve the problem associated with their death.

At least with Legendary Lives you could always ignore the background and run a 'straight D&D' game while the GM gets up to speed with the characters backgrounds from lifepath - but I filed Lost Souls away in my youthful mind as a game that looked awesome but that would never work. What you've done with Legendary Lives makes it seem more playable - but it's taken a long time to get here, hasn't it? I can't imagine that, when LL was first published, there were that many GMs running it in the style you've described - it's like, whenever I played Cyberpunk in the mid-90s, you'd come up with all this awesome background, and then the GM would be like 'Right, you're all part of a special ops team, hunting Androids in the slums,' and you'd forget about all your background.

What I guess I'm asking about LL is, to what extend do you think that the interaction and depth of background were planned to impact on the game? Or were they just there to provide colour while you went to the dungeon and killed the dragon?


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 05, 2010, 09:07:06 AM

Larry, that was definitely an aggravating moment about the Spell Points. Since I'd spent all my prepping for Forge Midwest on Justifiers/The Exchange, I hadn't done any thinking about Legendary Lives mechanics for months until we sat down. Especially since I'd run into the same snag about the exact same issue back when we played the game almost two years ago. As a public service: despite the text's use of the term Spell Cost in points, which is not in an of itself a problem once you understand it, the spell-using character in Legendary Lives does not have a pool or bank of "spell points." What the term means is a penalty to that particular magical skill roll which will not go away until the adventure is over. So you propose something to do with your (for instance) Conjure skill at (say) 14, and I as GM say, "That'll cost you 3 Spell Points," and if you choose to go ahead, after this roll at 14, your Conjure skill will be 11. They only go down; you don't get them back until the adventure is over.

At first, this might seem like a death spiral, and it sort is, except for a few details. First, you have at least two and perhaps as many as five magical skills, so racking a couple down isn't so bad even early in the adventure. First-prime, magic skills in Legendary Lives are very, very open-narration in terms of what the player proposes might happen - there are no spell lists, just the skills and whatever the player suggests might happen through their use, at that moment. Second, since all dice rolls in Legendary Lives arrive at a qualitative descriptor ("Mediocre," "Great"), the GM has a pretty good opportunity to make every spellcasting do something, and the basic rubric in this game is for the GM to use failed rolls to turn plot-corners anyway. And third, if you keep using a diminished magical skill, then your chance for Catastrophic results goes up, and hey, what's a little magical catastrophe among friends if (i) it makes neat story-things happen (see the previous point) and (ii) gets you checks to advance the skill? In the game with Chris and Tim and Tim, Chris found himself looking forward to later-stage play rather than dreading it because his character's magic would go all funny, and he'd get advancement checks.

I completely agree with you about the themes and issues of our game. Comedy and extravagantly colorful fantasy work best for me when they riff off something real, and I think we all entered into the real-stuff as a shared punchy-consequence context for whatever we did. Which is another vote in favor of the scary-extreme ethnic stereotyping, in this case.

I was looking forward to the long-term consequences of Gootch screwing up the plans for the machine, but as it turned out, and probably due to the one-shot context of play, events of the game turned faster, more important corners before that had a chance to develop.

Guy, that's a great post, full of stuff to talk about. This is exactly what I was aiming at back in my truncated Color-first character creation ( endeavor (which was interrupted by the birth of my third kid). To start: I've read both Lost Souls and Khaotic pretty carefully, but haven't played either. Only the authors can tell us for sure, but I think the basic idea is that the GM does in fact have his adventure, period, and the players "run through it," period, and all the life-history stuff is raw color for how you make them talk as they do it. ... Which still strikes me as a bit weird. The lifepath techniques in Legendary Lives, to my eyes, are just crying out to be used as central prep features for unpredictable-outcome scenarios, especially for long-term play. If I get a chance to talk with Joe and Kathleen Williams some day, I'm going to ask whether the texts display a tension between what they'd like to play vs. what they think gamers want to play or are capable of playing.

Regarding Lost Souls, I also find it the least compelling of the three, partly because the contrast between "we're a group, we have individualized powers, we run missions / have adventures" and "we are dead souls, active as ghosts" is an ongoing conundrum for me in role-playing games, to the extent that I simply jettison the former (I've discussed this regarding both Ghost Light and Wraith in the past). Which is weird because again, you'd think that the back-story for each character would be the real meat of any play concerning ghosts. The combination of cartoony and grim-dramatic doesn't gel for me as well as the cartoony + fantasy-rich does in Legendary Lives. In Khaotic, my mental jury is still in deliberation. The characters' back-stories are nicely nuanced, being full of conflict but allowing you a lot of room to round them out, but exactly how that relates to the two settings (either on-mission in the monster body or back-home in your real bodies) is utterly opaque. Especially in combination with this text from the game:

The first goal of a player is survival. Yes, your character can die during a mission, and a dead character is gone. You cannot play the deceased PC
ever again. There are other goals beyond mere survival. Every mission has its own objective. To “win” you must accomplish the goal of the particular mission. By doing this, you will gain skill points, which may be used to increase your characters’ abilities.

Khaotic is a team game. You and your friends must work together to solve the challenges presented by the referee. You’ll either win together, or lose together. The fun comes from interacting with the other PCs and the imaginary world of Xenos.

The referee’s goals are different from those of the players. It doesn’t matter if non-player characters die--there are always more where they came from. A referee’s objective is to stay one step ahead of the players, keeping the game running smoothly while making the mission as enjoyable as possible. The referee is not the players’ opponent.
... and in the next section:
Any action a player tries has a whole range of possible results, giving the referee greater flexibility in deciding what happens and making the game
always unpredictable and exciting.

... which may work for many GMs, but which I find nearly impossible to implement in terms of what I want from role-playing, and what the folks I tend to play with want. It worked really well for us in playing Tunnels & Trolls, but that game is unabashedly Gamist and the GM is goddamned well the players' opponent - which is a play-mode that is explicitly disavowed in the Williams games.

And to follow up in a different but relevant way, I also pulled out my old 1989 Cyberpunk rules (including all the first printing errata - yay!) to review those lifepaths. A few things occurred to me.

1. Most lifepath techniques build the character's skills, literally composing the character's life so far in a "build it as you go" fashion. Legendary Lives doesn't do that - the religion table roll and the five lifeline rolls are carried out independently of all the other details. Also, there isn't a special Draconian lifeline or Priest lifeline or whatever; everyone uses the same ones, which is also the case for the various individual features tables and the personality table.

2. Related to #1, instead of "living" the character's life to date sequentially roll by roll, you put the lifeline events in whatever order you'd like, shaping their details to other aspects of the established character as seems most coherent.

3. There's no rolling involved in terms of carrying on to another roll or in Traveller terms, "mustering out," or whether you do or don't get the benefits of that particular step.

I'm not saying the LL method is automatically better or worse than the method established by Traveller and utilized in many games since (Cyberpunk, Mutant Chronicles), but it is clearly a bit different when you consider all those. And strangely, I think that it works for Legendary Lives but - again, without playing so this is speculative - seems a little unwieldly or not-quite-fitting for both Lost Souls and Khaotic.

Best, Ron
edited to fix a link - RE

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Larry L. on April 05, 2010, 10:18:09 AM
Oh yeah... I'd be interested in hearing Ben's or Willow's version of "what the story was" if they have a chance. I didn't completely put it all together, just caught some interesting parts.

Hi Guy,

I played a whole campaign of Lost Souls! I didn't even realize these games were related until I had the character sheet printed out, and then I was like, "I've played this game before!" Same resolution matrix, same big list of attribute-keyed skills.

In that game, situation did not spring from character as awesomely as it did with LL. I'm not sure if it's actually a difference in the games, or if this system just generally caters to a certain set of GM talents, and if you're the GM who has them, it works. Someone on described Lost Souls as "the Beetlejuice RPG," which in hindsight seems like it would have been a helpful creative focus.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Christoph Boeckle on April 05, 2010, 03:34:02 PM
Hi Ron

I wanted to get back to thank you for the detailed reply, but also to post about my bewilderment at the same comment that had Lance react.
I don't get your point about the skill rating not being relevant to one given roll when using a flat method. I have literally worked on that comment over the last days, tried to wrap my head around it, and... I just don't get it.
It's the craps example that confuses me since there you say that it makes sense to bet on a "7" when rolling 2d6, but not particularly when rolling 1d11+1. To me, that's because a "7" on 2d6 is roughly a 16.7% chance (and other sums are lower) whereas a "7" on a 1d11+1 is a 9.1% chance (and other results are equally probable).
But man, having a 75% rather than a 35% (with a flat & roll-under method) reads to me as to be same feature that makes you bet on a "7" in your craps example rather than a "2", because the chance for a "75 or under" is higher than a "35 or under" even for that single roll. The flatness or the bellness is relevant for how to calculate the probability of an event and other crunchy stuff like mean value and standard deviation, which one should take into account, but once you have the probability of a given event (the "7" in craps, the "75% or under" in the percentile example) then that's that.
A thought that just occurred to me is that Legendary Lives indeed uses a d%, but the result is mapped to a not-so-flat distribution in terms of what is really used ("Cata" to "Awesome"). This actually supports your idea that the way one generates randomness is heavily influenced by how it is factored into the resolution procedure.

Of course, in a game where a critical hit (which really is what you focused on) is only on a "00" on a percentile die, then skill rating is indeed irrelevant for determining critical hits, and it makes a lot of sense to me to point out such a fact given the history of systems where that really shapes combat. However, defining a critical hit to be a "12" on 2d6 could be just as problematic. The problem there seems to me in how the critical tables are evaluated. It's the disproportion of decapitating vs knocking off a few HP that makes combat resolution very unreliable.

So, am I making sense or is there a crucial fact I missed in your point?

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Paul T on April 06, 2010, 09:23:11 AM

I wonder if you could expand a little on what you're pointing at here:

Especially in combination with this text from the game:

The first goal of a player is survival. Yes, your character can die during a mission, and a dead character is gone. You cannot play the deceased PC
ever again. There are other goals beyond mere survival. Every mission has its own objective. To “win” you must accomplish the goal of the particular mission. By doing this, you will gain skill points, which may be used to increase your characters’ abilities.

Khaotic is a team game. You and your friends must work together to solve the challenges presented by the referee. You’ll either win together, or lose together. The fun comes from interacting with the other PCs and the imaginary world of Xenos.

The referee’s goals are different from those of the players. It doesn’t matter if non-player characters die--there are always more where they came from. A referee’s objective is to stay one step ahead of the players, keeping the game running smoothly while making the mission as enjoyable as possible. The referee is not the players’ opponent.
... and in the next section:
Any action a player tries has a whole range of possible results, giving the referee greater flexibility in deciding what happens and making the game
always unpredictable and exciting.

... which may work for many GMs, but which I find nearly impossible to implement in terms of what I want from role-playing, and what the folks I tend to play with want. It worked really well for us in playing Tunnels & Trolls, but that game is unabashedly Gamist and the GM is goddamned well the players' opponent - which is a play-mode that is explicitly disavowed in the Williams games.

It seems like a little aside, which you turn to and quickly away from, that is a really important point.

What is the challenge, how is it implemented well by some, and why is it nearly impossible for you?



Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 07, 2010, 09:06:45 AM
For Christoph only

Think in terms of knowing that you might roll an 11 on 3d6. You are making this roll with a skill of 13, so if you get 13 or less, you succeed. Perhaps this is quite crucial at this moment of play, too. Anyway, although you might roll anything from 3 to 18, 13 or less has a special status (you want it), and 11 falls into that range. What I'm saying applies very well to 11, so let's focus on that. Handy utility: Statistical Tables for Dice Rolling (

For this one roll, you have lots of ways to get an 11. It's not 1/16 (6.25%) out of 16 possibilities. It's actually twice that because the three dice can come together to make an 11 in tons of different ways. Whatever you roll on one of the dice, the other two can come together to make an 11, and even that two-die consideration has many ways to do it too.

You have a higher chance to get that 11 than you do to get any one of the failing values. (In fact, at 14 or less, you have more chance of nailing that 11 than you do of getting all the failing values combined! So 14 is the "done" value for improving rolls for a 3d6 and under system.)

If you rolled a hypothetical 16-sided die marked 3 through 18, that would not be the case. Your chance of nailing that 11, or any successful value, is 6.25% and that's the same as nailing one of the failing values.

Now, this same point can be extended to almost all of the values under 13, with the only exception being an outcome of 3, although the "goodness" of each value does decrease as you go down the scale.

This point has literally nothing to do with the fact that when you compare 13 or less on 3d6 with ~84 or less on d100, you are indeed looking at the same chance to hit across the long-term history of rolling this skill for this character at this ability score. That is indubitably true. But my claim is that you will experience the consistent betterness of 13 or less, on 3d6, as opposed to 8 or less, meaning sooner and more reliably, than you will see it by shooting for 84 or less on d100, as opposed to ~26 or less on d100. Even though, yes indeed, 100 or 1000 or infinite rolls will show that the percentages are the same.

I will return to the actual point I tried to make earlier in the next post.

Best, Ron
edited to fix the link to the probabilities page

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 07, 2010, 09:07:30 AM
Well, I'm starting all over, because I caused trouble in trying to talk about too many aspects of the numbers at once. I'm going to jump to the point I really wanted to make.

OK, let's talk about a flat method in terms of how you "go up." It might be during the course of play, advancing the skill or whatever, or we could be speaking more abstractly, running up the scale mentally, whichever. The units of "going up" are the same as percents, and the important thing is that whether each unit is 1% or 5% or any other %, when you "go up," you go up by that much. In old RuneQuest, when you went up from 20 to 25%, it's adding the same amount of the 1-100% spectrum as when you went up from 50 to 55%. (And even adding a slight random element, like in the old Stormbringer game when you rolled d10 to see how many % you go up, doesn't change this much.)

But now, in a curved method, the units of the readable values "contain" variable amounts of percentage. So if we're talking about 3d6, sum the total, try to roll some number or under; then when you go up from 8 to 9, it's not as much of a jump in your chances as going up from 9 to 10 is. Think of each advancement, point by point, as being different in terms of how much percentages it captured. At low values, you don't get very far which each improvement, but on the "slopes" of the curve, each readable-unit gained is a very great improvement in your character's chances. As veterans of Champions and GURPS well know, the sweet spot begins at 10 or less and proceeds through 13 or less. At 10, each bump up grabs a solid percentage, and at 13, you've "captured" the bulk of the hump in the bell curve. Various different dice combinations yield different "flatness" at the top of the curve, so some include a plateau effect there and some don't. 3d6 and 2d10 seem to be rather good for the top of the bell not being a plateau, so the sweet spot can be enjoyed throughout the upward and downward slopes; the latter method is especially well done in Pocket Universe.

Finally, the point! I'm really really not talking about the basic chance to hit in this thread. I'm talking much more about qualitative aspects of both extreme success and extreme failure. What I'm saying is that Legendary Lives' ART (Action Results Table, on page 152 of the Legendary Lives PDF ( actually overcomes the lack of sweet spot that characterizes many flat methods. To understand this table, you should know that the column on the left is the character's score in say, Sword. (It says "Roll" at the top of that column, but that term is actually pointing to the right, at the boldfaced outcomes across the top.) So if you have 7 in Sword, your percentile range for Catastrophic result is 1-8%. But focus especially on the distinction between Passable and Poor, which is the default success/failure division in this game unless some particular target outcome is specified. See how radically it changes at the low and high ends of the spectrum, and how it plateaus in the middle? That's neat! Not only did he impose a different-percent-per-improvement curve onto a flat-method roll, he also chose a different pattern from what you get with (say) 3d6!

What I'm sayin' is that Legendary Lives presents a quite distinct relationship between dice method, extreme result values, and improvement/change in a skill. Not only does it tie into general character improvement, but also to the drop in ability associated with repeated use of the spell skills that I described above. As you drop in the ability through the course of a spell-heavy adventure, your chance for Catastrophe not only increases, it increases dramatically and differently per unit decrease in the skill.

Point for clarity: I am not talking about the or the best technique in terms of comparison among games. I'm talking about how this particular thing is suited well to the other aspects of what I call Exploration or the SIS (character concept, setting features, color, the immediate situation), for this particular game.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on April 07, 2010, 10:05:30 AM

Your AP account under "Techniques" is fascinating.  Reading it felt like watching someone draw a relationship map.  That's a stark contrast to my experiences with relationship maps, wherein they've been drawn pre-play, not during play.  I'm thinking mainly of Ganakagok and How We Came to Live Here.  In those games, it was fun to collaborate openly on proto-situation building.  In your LL game, it seems a very different sort of fun, watching to see how the GM is going to forge maximally juicy situations out of all the characters (aka connect the nodes on the map via relationships).


Did you do most of this pre-play (in your head or on paper) or ad-libbed in response to the play you were seeing at the table?  The former strikes me as easy ("Okay, I'll make up an NPC, give one character a reason to work with him, and another character a reason to kill him") and the latter strikes me as pretty hard for someone not used to it ("Okay, in this scene, I'll take the breaking of the model from last scene, and impart it new significance by revealing that the model is a sought-after war machine!").

I'm not saying it doesn't sound doable, it just doesn't strike me as markedly easier than a lot of the traditional GM stuff that seems to burn a lot of folks out (tweaking adversity to sustain drama in missions, pressuring characters into cooperation, etc.).  Or does the sort of map-weaving from this LL game tend to occur primarily in the first few scenes, and then the GM gets to lay back and let the situations run themselves thereafter?

Anyone who played,

Did the situations and color of the scenes derive heavily from the book's setting material?  Was that material felt in anything more than the specifics of the characters?  From Ron's initial description of the game, I figured, "Hey, tons of inspirations for play, there!" which he seemed to disagree with me on.  But hearing now about sneaking into creepy dudes' houses and tripping over their war machines, I wonder if that was all you guys, and all the situations implied in the book went ignored. 

By "implied situations" I'm talking about stuff like where the V:tM book says "Clan Ventrue wants to control the vampires through manipulation and organization, while Clan Tremere believes their magic is vampires' key asset" and the GM goes, "Cool, we'll play a bunch of Tremeres undermining and supplanting Ventrue leadership."


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Willow on April 07, 2010, 05:23:54 PM
Larry's plot summary is astoundingly accurate, I really have nothing to add.

I recall authoring the war-machine thing myself, though it turns out brownies have some sort of clockwork engineering.  Essentially, I wanted my character to get her hands on a WMD.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 08, 2010, 08:51:02 AM
Hi Dave,

I have to clarify my position on our dialogue. To me, the Legendary Lives character creation process does indeed seem chock-full of scenario prep material, stuff that I as GM would be practically obliged to incorporate into my preparation, or even use as the primary components. However, nothing in the pretty clear and extensive text about scenario prep and play in the book is consistent with that. Is that making more sense? I'm not talking about what I can do with such material; that's not hard. I'm talking about looking at (i) highly personal, quirky, probably neurotic, NPC-heavy character-centric conflicts, saying, "Whoo yes!", and then running into (ii) absolutely assumed/non-negotiable group/party team membership, linear adventure preparation, and instructions for how to utilize roll outcomes to ensure the story goes smoothly. Running into as in, a brick wall.

Did you do most of this pre-play (in your head or on paper) or ad-libbed in response to the play you were seeing at the table? The former strikes me as easy ("Okay, I'll make up an NPC, give one character a reason to work with him, and another character a reason to kill him") and the latter strikes me as pretty hard for someone not used to it ("Okay, in this scene, I'll take the breaking of the model from last scene, and impart it new significance by revealing that the model is a sought-after war machine!").

The distinction between the two isn't quite that sharp in this case, but essentially the answer is the former. Let's start simply with putting the characters onto the map. None of the characters had anything to do with the primary setting-based conflicts concerning the Seelie Court, so the Elfin Kingdom wasn't too important to consider. I wanted to stay pretty close to the Nomad lands, due to the Serpentine/Nomad conflict, and it so happens that Brownie Country is right next to that area. And there's a town in Brownie Country called Baye, "where the Circus Circuit meets" according to the book, and the final step in Ra'ed's lifeline was working for a circus. So it instantly fell into place, as if this town had been invented for the purpose of observing the shenanigans of these particular characters. That was all pre-play.

One of the features of character creation, and the only one I see which links that specific character to what is about to be presented by the GM, is a stated goal. I asked the players to provide very concrete, immediate goals, something their character was determined to do right now. Ra'ed's was to kill his undead girlfriend, Gootch's was to reunite with his lover, and Ctine's was to build a war-machine, as Willow described. The first two simply tightened up existing NPCs and issues from character creation, and the last introduced a new component into play. I already had the NPCs I needed. Easiest: Ra'ed's girlfriend (and former guy-friend), right there to be used in the back-story and in the goal. Slightly more needed: Brownies like being slaves, but not if they're mistreated, so Hootchie Koo had a ready-made problem for Gootch to consider, requiring only that I identify her owner. And the most needed (not much): there needs to be a Brownie war-machine for Ctine to find, and a Serpentine NPC to boss her around.

Some things did get teased or snapped into place during the course of play. I deliberately kept Ra'ed's former friend, the guy, on the shelf, not deciding to bring him in (as opposed to deciding not to). I made up the war-machine model in Asp's house right when Gootch sneaked in, but this wasn't about planning to have it broken or stolen or understood or anything like that - it was about what might be found in Asp's house, period. That's how I do it, stuffing a new scene or circumstance with things which reflect the various relationships and activities going on. What happens to them and what that might mean for future events is left to play without planning.

I'm not saying it doesn't sound doable, it just doesn't strike me as markedly easier than a lot of the traditional GM stuff that seems to burn a lot of folks out (tweaking adversity to sustain drama in missions, pressuring characters into cooperation, etc.). Or does the sort of map-weaving from this LL game tend to occur primarily in the first few scenes, and then the GM gets to lay back and let the situations run themselves thereafter?

You've answered your own question. This kind of GMing is stunningly easy by comparison, although your "lay back and let the situations run themselves" is missing the key components of scene framing and of playing NPCs as characters rather than covert plot-movers.

Did the situations and color of the scenes derive heavily from the book's setting material? Was that material felt in anything more than the specifics of the characters?

Heavily from the book! The location on the map, the town we were in, the various racial-cultural details of everyone, NPCs included. Like "Serpentine Alley," the street in the Brownie town where the Serpentines lived, and Asp's hob sidekick. I can't think of a single thing in our game that wasn't directly linked to setting material and/or the specific outcomes of character creation process. For example, Willow's war-machine was perfect, not only because of the Brownie clockwork-engineering, but because her secret Serpentine society was criminal, nationalist, and thievish, and that tied into how Ctine and Ra'ed both had a cultural stake in the Nomad town that she planned to destroy with it.

Modestly speaking, I think our group really seized upon and celebrated the game's canonical content.

Best, Ron

P.S. Paul, I owe you a reply. I'm working on it.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Larry L. on April 08, 2010, 10:17:53 AM

I don't believe any of the players had even seen the book before we played. Therefore, all of the setting material was filtered through Ron for awesome. He had already taken the trouble to figure out, for instance, that the elves were really interesting, or that the insect men were actually kind of boring. He really nudged towards spellcasting types, because the magic system was interesting and worth checking out -- I believe "bad-ass" was the actual word he used.

The character generation was essentially random, and therefore didn't require any prior knowledge of the setting, with the tables pointing everyone the the necessary entries in the book, which were sufficiently evocative we could start cracking jokes about the obvious stereotypes they were invoking. One or several of the five life events generated for each character suggested an interesting way to incorporate into the budding story. (But not all the events! Some were, of course, overlooked for not seeming relevant. We didn't go to lengths to force these details into the game, of course. The process by which some creative avenues are ignored and are soon forgotten might be an interesting thing to observe in and of itself.)

I can't speak for Ron, but I did observe that he didn't break out, like, a secret GM playbook or a relationship map or anything.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 08, 2010, 10:31:28 AM
Hi Paul,

What I see as the challenge - and here I stress the negative usage, meaning "pain in the ass" - is as follows. I don't know if this is the best way to explain what I mean to you, but at the moment, I'm coming up with an artsy analogy.

If we went out to the back yard and played any game involving a rubber ball, like bouncing it back and forth in foursquare (which I don't know how to play), or just tossing it (if for example my little kids were involved) around, or something as complex as basketball ... then I want that ball to bounce. Bouncing means it gains momentum from something in addition to what a given person provided in throwing it. It means sometimes, the ball is going to seem to "behave" on its own, spinning or going somewhere different from what one thinks. It means that people's use of it is going to vary, not only from person to person, but along the history of how one person uses it. It means that when the ball goes from one person to another, there's going to be a little difference from the last time it went from that person to that person.

So when I GM, I want our game to have some bounce to it. Whatever GMing means in that game, whatever player statements mean, whatever the mechanics do ... they should generate outcomes and effects which escalate our interest, develop the imagined material, close the door on some things, and open the door on others. With a bouncy system, things that were introduced as Color become crucial components, or things that were crucial components meet fates which themselves are consequential. System, Character, Setting, Situation, and Color all become a kind of moving thing. I'm not talking about the pace of play - what I'm talking about doesn't mean frenetic action - but rather about the degree of attentiveness involved, as well as the continued interest in utilizing mechanics, and enjoying what happens.

There are a lot of games that are full of dice rolling, full of tables, full of point systems, full of character types, full of maps, and full of long-winded discussions about how to play ... which lack bounce. For me, Rolemaster is one of them, and Vampire is another. These are useful to mention because getting my character's throat cut by a sword-slash in Rolemaster is too easy, and lacking in any reason why it happened this time based on what was just played. And based on what I see and read, a lot of Vampire play (and Shadowrun too) is characterized by massive flurries with too little effect. So I'm saying there are lots of ways to fail to bounce, including both arbitrary extreme effects and softened-up, minimal effects. And that's just one variable; I'm also thinking about games which rely on so much consensus and consensus-checking that they become either endless committee meetings or dictatorships. They too lack bounce.

It's like standing around playing any of those back yard games I mentioned with a flaccid, deflated ball. You can play catch with one of those ... but it's annoying. The ball itself won't do anything. If it hits the ground, then it stops there, and you go exactly there, and you pick it up, and impart every bit of the "content" of your throw to the next person. When they catch it, and hold it, it doesn't matter whether they caught your throw or picked it up off the ground. It's as if, in order to continue, the game must return to its starting point (kinetically speaking) with every single throw.

Does that make any sense?

What Williams is describing has no bounce, to me. I am the story-guy. They are the don't-die guys. It looks as if it might have some bounce, if I keep using player-character actions (and especially rolls) as inspiration for what I have happen next, and yeah, that can spice things up a little. But notice that I, as GM, am the only person who's making that happen. Their job is to stay alive, individually, and to work as a team ... but a team that does what? Not to defeat me in any way, because it's not a competition. But to enjoy what I give them, and to be cooperative enough to enter into whatever I give them.

Granted, if they do stuff that engages hard with what I give them, then they bounce the ball back to me a little, but only a little. I am in charge of keeping it in the air, in charge of where it goes, and most especially, in getting it back and throwing it again. The players are kind of like my slightly obstreperous group/team partner in catch, and although they may jump around and yell regarding the ball I throw to them, it gets returned to me the same way every time - a limp rag, handed back over to me. They're further kept occupied by adding a built-in attention-absorbing detail (individual character death, which is totally not an issue for me), and the events as they move forward can only go the way that I make them go, scene by scene, on and on. I don't think I'm parodying Williams' text which I quoted. I'm describing how I experience that kind of play when I put it into practice.

I'll revisit your term "challenge." It's not a challenge. The problem is that it's not a challenge, and that my biggest concern is making sure that everyone else is entertained enough to keep paying attention to me. That's not only boring, it's annoying. When I play a sport with other people, I don't have to worry about whether the way I'm playing is "making" them interested. I simply know they're interested in playing too, from the get-go. My concern is to deal with them in the context of this wonderfully-bouncing ball.

That's what we did with Legendary Lives, played it with bounce, by tossing any notion of "my adventure" out the window and focusing instead of simply playing out what was already there to be played based on the characters' backgrounds, given only a little more "go" by their stated goals and how I played the NPCs. The thing is, for that game in particular, the bounce is in fact there if this is how you choose to play it. It can be found in the character backgrounds, obviously, but also in the consequences of rolls. The best examples are the various Lying and Sincerity rolls we did, which defined the environment of decisions for every character, and resulted, just as Larry described it, in a dark comedy of errors with a rather punchy thematic core, when all was done.

I knew it at the time, that in that one particular way, we had gone off-text in terms of what the game book provides for people to do.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on April 08, 2010, 01:50:19 PM
Thanks, guys!  I think I get it now.  I've played some PtA convention one-shots that developed in a vaguely similar way.  Ron, I hear you about playing NPCs as characters.  This is after said NPCs have been designed as situation generators (via hitting character issues), right?  The playing seems easy to me; the designing, less so, but ultimately manageable.

Scene framing seems trickier.  My con games have had plenty of abortive "Oh, gee, I guess there's not much conflict here" scenes, as well as plenty of pre-scene pondering and discussion in an effort to avoid that.  I assume "find the conflict" is a learned skill, and I wonder how much that learning curve varies.

Perhaps I'm biased by my own techniques for working characters into missions.  I try to create reasons why they'd want to do the mission, rather than reasons why they have to; and within the mission, I try to introduce the same sorts of issue-hitting conflicts you've described (though at a less regular pace).  Like, if we're on a mission, and there are two doors leading to the objective, and one door is guarded by a slaver, and the other is guarded by a wife-abuser, then the characters get to argue about which one to kill and which one to bribe etc.

If Legendary Lives advised such techniques, thus wedding the setting- and character-based inspirations for play with the prescribed mission-based activity of play, would it cease to be a fantasy heartbreaker?  I mean, that sounds pretty functional to me (though no doubt less fun for your particular group given your success with other methods).

I also wonder whether I would have latched onto "highly personal, neurotic, PC-centric conflicts" from amidst LL's sea of possible inspirations.  Ron, do you think you focused on that because the book focused on it, or because you recognized it as grist for the sort of play you already knew you could do well?

I've tried to keep this post short because there are tons and tons of topics here that I could easily go off on for pages.  Fun stuff!  Anyway, I hope the trimmed-down version makes sense; please pardon a few oversimplifications.


P.S. Regarding bounce, I find that succeed/fail and survive/die tend to fall short if that's all there is in a mission.  However, supplement that with some real choices about where the characters go, what they do, and how, and I really enjoy riffing off that as GM.  "You decided to interrogate that guy?  Huh!  Neat!  His perspective will give you a very different take on the Main Badguy you'll face later."  I wonder how close that is to the intent behind the Khaotic text Ron quoted.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: JoyWriter on April 16, 2010, 06:50:13 PM
I like the stuff about bounce, and emergent effects, because I hadn't really considered how player roles fitted into that before:

If a bouncy system is bouncy because it has a bit of "little details amplify to big effects" in it, and those details can come from all over the place, then players have to be providing details in all those different areas for the system to work.

One way you can do this is put that kind of creativity in as a constraint within the system; you make it so the tactics and choices that players make, though directed to a mundane end are so twisted by the mechanisms of the system/the dynamics of the challenges, that they end up reproducing the same interesting effects as if people were doing weird throws. For another analogy, sort of like those play-doh extruder things; the interest is in the pattern created when amorphously flexible potential is pushed up against pretty looking constraints.

If this was such a system, then it could be a system for packaging uninspired players so that a inspiration hungry GM can play with them.

Reading through Khaotic, it doesn't seem to be so much like that; resolving conflicts is resolutely straightforward and there is no expectation that the players will build on their characters quirks. It's sort of like the game will hopefully slide them into a more experience based or celebratory mode just by virtue of their existing investment in the peculiarity of the characters.

Legendary Lives seems to be more happy for players to play around with their characters, even as they follow the pre-arranged track. I notice mentions of "after you've played published adventures" in there, and I presume this is where the different extrusion-molds are supposed to be found, although given the time it was written I doubt they mesh with the inspirations coming from the character creation. It'd be interesting to see if it's possible to make "adventure books" that mix seed content and resources with a style of interpreting the player's created background, so that they change substantially with different characters.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 19, 2010, 05:45:36 AM
I think that's extremely insightful, Josh. I don't have much to add critically speaking, but I wanted to post to acknowledge that I think you've phrased your points in a very helpful way.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Paul T on April 19, 2010, 08:01:07 AM
Great. The "bouncy ball" analogy resonates very strongly with me; reflecting both my good experiences and the bad ones.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on April 19, 2010, 02:12:01 PM
the tactics and choices that players make, though directed to a mundane end are so twisted by the mechanisms of the system/the dynamics of the challenges, that they end up reproducing the same interesting effects as if people were doing weird throws.

Huh.  I get this only in the abstract.  Can anyone share an AP example of this in action?

The Lying and Sincerity rolls in this Legendary Lives game weren't covered in enough detail for me to grasp it there.

I can think of tons of examples where a game system guided and inspired me to throw the ball weirdly, but none where it did that for me.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: JoyWriter on April 22, 2010, 08:51:03 AM
Sadly most of my actual play for that is second-hand and woolly, I've been trying to recall information about this vampire larp where the GM did this role between players; where they twisted and obstructed everyone's strategies so they were forced to play clever and political (including playing along with the characterisations done by other players) to have any chance of success in a pretty straightforward feud. I can't remember enough of the detail of that to really get into it, but if there were systematic rules to how people do that kind of thing, then perhaps it can be done as a default rules requirement, leaving the GM to just follow the rules and enjoy what the people are flinging back at him.

Maybe someone else can give a clearer example?

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on April 27, 2010, 06:49:21 AM
Hi David,

I'm sorry to say that your post left me semi-shocked into silence. I really don't know where to start, although your point goes a really long way to clarify for me why our exchanges here have required such detail.

Don't get me wrong - they were all productive and fun threads. My point is that now I understand better why certain things I was writing seemed to me to be bouncing off some kind of wall. I'm glad you posted it because it may prompt a very useful discussion - essentially the heart of "system does matter."

I'll try to reconstruct the sequence of various Lying and Sincerity rolls in our session, because I think it will be a good example for you. If one of the other players could post too, that would be excellent.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on April 27, 2010, 10:27:04 AM
Hi Ron,

Cool.  Looking forward to it. 

Regarding my last post, I hope my "guiding" vs "doing (bouncily)" distinction won't lead us down a road of semantic fuzziness.  I've been trying to think up better terms, but no luck thus far.

Possibly relevant: personally, I tend to like guidance-oriented play procedures.  Randomly picking words in Sign in Stranger, interpreting cards in Ganakagok, mapping dice color to fictional color in PIE -- these all get me more excited than any succeed/fail task resolution mechanics I can think of (e.g.).

As for a larger-scale disconnect between us, I'm curious about what you're seeing.  I can't put a finger on it, myself.


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Larry L. on April 30, 2010, 09:43:40 AM

I've been trying to reconstruct some of the "social" contests for a few days now. I remember observing at the table that these were pretty nifty, but I can't recall exactly why these were more interesting than what has been described above. Which honestly sounds like every other system with a skill for "diplomacy" and what not. Gootch had pretty excellent scores in most of these skills, so I used them a fair amount.

If it jogs your memory, one such exchange was used when I convinced Ben's guy I didn't have anything to do with the dead serpentine, despite having the bloody murder weapon right there in my hand. There were a couple amusing interactions with that hapless Hob. Another was when I was trying to talk Ben into "loaning" me all his money.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: JoyWriter on May 06, 2010, 07:05:11 PM
Looking back at my pseudo-example, I think I made what I'm thinking of sound too advanced; a more mundane and incomplete version of that kind of thing would be tagging strategies with ethical connotations, like computer games are currently doing, and then having ways to let those influences play out. By giving the players with choice over this stuff and some insight into it, then their strategising can be indirectly engaging with social issues. At the same time, if there are ethical tags linked to their characters fundimental strategies, then players following those strategies will be automatically exhibiting a worldview (as systems that give people bonuses for acting in accordance with a certain concept do more explicitly).

Still no concrete real world example yet, but that method can be seen in any game that ties setting constraints and symbolism as an extra weight of decoration to the axe that someone just wants to split things with. The next stage is to insure you suggest ways for that decoration to become an active part of the system, so it's not just dead weight, but a curiously functioning additional property of the axe, which influences how you cut with it.

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Ron Edwards on June 10, 2010, 12:32:05 PM
Hi David,

Here's what I was thinking about when I wrote about the "bounce," for this game. After the introductory scenes, in which Ra'ed almost had sex with his dead girlfriend and in which Ctine faced off with phantom snakes, the two characters met. Ctine used Sincerity to explain to Ra'ed the help she wanted from him, to steal the Brownie device. Ra'ed used Lying to her to assure her that he would do exactly as she asked. Her roll failed. His succeeded.

What that means, fictionally, is that both characters went into subsequent play with misconceptions, Ra'ed because he didn't believe the truth she was telling, and Ctine because she believed the lie he was telling. The neat thing is that the rolls could have gone in four ways:

- Ra'ed believes the truth she tells; Ctine sees through his lie about it.
- Ra'ed mistrusts the truth she tells, thinking it's a lie; Ctine sees through his lie about it.
- Ra'ed believes the truth she tells; Ctine is fooled by his lie about it.
- Ra'ed mistrusts the truth she tells, thinking it's a lie; Ctine is fooled by his lie about it.

Each of these outcomes would generate a very different basis for the decisions each character would make, not least about what action each would take next, and also not least about what precautions or defenses or counter-moves each would (or would not) set in place for the other. Since the fourth was the case, Ra'ed went and did something overly sneaky when he didn't have to, and Ctine was too trusting. That's exactly what led to the "dark comedy of errors" that Larry was talking about.

The fun thing for me as GM is that any of the four outcomes is OK; all I have to do is scene-frame and play NPCs so as to generate more stress upon the player-characters anyway, and enjoy whatever happens, and do it again.

Now, given the later events of play, the whole thing was compounded further when Gootch successfully Lied to Ra'ed about not killing anyone on his mission, which means Ra'ed bound Asp's spirit into the machine without ever realizing it was exactly the same person who'd commissioned the machine in the first place.

So that's what I mean by "bounce," specifically that any of the four outcomes of the initial meeting scene would be functional both in story/fun terms and in practical terms, itself both in how-to-GM and what-my-guy-does-next terms.

Let me know whether that makes any sense.

Best, Ron

Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: David Berg on June 11, 2010, 10:53:26 AM
Hi Ron,

Thanks for that account.  That absolutely sounds fun and functional to me.

As for the role of the game system in this bounciness... 

It looks to me like you guys looked through some setting material and latched onto the specific bits of it that would help with "highly personal, neurotic, PC-centric conflicts", which in turn led to framing scenes with PCs at cross purposes.  So then you have PCs trying to convince each other to do consequential stuff, with the GM (having no preconceived plot) prepared to facilitate fun from any outcome. 

This sounds like a win-win to me.  I'm trying to think of what would make one resolution method more "bouncy" than another in this situation, and all I'm coming up with is suspense, and accordingly, uncertainty.  If we don't know who will convince whom, and we pick up some dice, and we shake them, and the rolls really will resolve some uncertainty (no 99% success rates), then we're building up some energy and anticipation!  We roll!  Boom!  Payoff!  Bounce!  Right?

Conversely, a resolution system where the group just discusses "what would make the most sense here?" and agrees on the outcome... while that maintains "four different paths to different fun", picking a path isn't a "bouncy" experience.

So a game which (a) helped you frame scenes where PCs try to convince each other of important stuff, and (b) helped you roll with any outcome of said convincing, would be ripe with potential to bounce.  And then (c) a fortune resolution system for "who convinces who?" would realize that potential.

Are we on the same page here?


Title: Re: [Legendary Lives] Three games to talk about
Post by: Paul T on June 14, 2010, 05:19:04 AM
It sounds like this "bounciness" in this case is some combination of rules which move the players in directions they wouldn't themselves:

1. The System produces outcomes that the players would never consider on their own (e.g. one side doesn't believe the truth AND the other trusts an obvious lie--simple negotiation might have brought such a situation back to a compromise, not allowing both sides to be mistaken).

2. The System limits options moving forwards, providing creative constraints for future input.

I think that in a lot of play, various cues provided by the game's structure help to inspire and motivate fictional input. For instance, Keys in the Shadow of Yesterday help remind players of options they might not have considered (in this situation, you could take the cowardly path and stand down... OR you could be so cowardly as to put your friend in danger... OR you could reveal that your character is no longer a coward! -- all interesting options it's easy for a player in the heat of play to forget about).

So, are we all talking about the same thing? That's how I interpret this "bouncy" concept of play, in any case.