Human Intelligence

209666At this year’s Go Play I ran a couple of games on behalf of their designers. One was procedurally fiddly, thematically serious, and a beta that had never been run by anyone but its designer before. The other was light-hearted, mechanically simple, and was already published and available from DriveThruRPG. I was bracing myself for the possibility that I’d fail, hard, at the former, and expecting the latter to be a breeze. The latter was Emma Lloyd’s Human Intelligence.

HI is billed as a ridiculous, quick-to-play comedy. All the PCs are aliens who, unbeknownst to one another, have infiltrated the same human planetary-exploration mission. You are woefully unprepared for espionage, but since everybody on the mission is a secret alien with a hazy idea of what constitutes normal human behaviour, you might be able to get away with it. Continue reading

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Every year at Go Play NW you get a sense of certain games that are the New Hotness, recently-released or newly-rediscovered games that get played a whole bunch and come up in almost every conversation. This year Luke Crane’s Viking LARP Inheritance was pretty high on the list, right by that one about the mecha pilots who spend all their time flirting at parties. I highly recommend playing it if you get the chance, although I don’t think that new copies are presently available; regardless, I’ll try to avoid strong spoilers in the review itself. (No promises about the comments.)


Inheritance is a smallish-scale one-shot LARP; it’s made for nine players and a facilitator, is playable in about 3 hours, and – crucially – works totally fine as a pick-up game. (Usually I miss out on the LARPs at Go Play due to a chronic failure to plan ahead, so this was much-appreciated.) This size turns out to be a very sweet spot: a group small enough that you can quickly figure out who everybody is, but large enough to have several separate conversations going on at once, always give you another conversation you need to be having, allow for some fairly tangled intrigues.

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T.I.M.E. Stories

T.I.M.E. Stories is an adventure game in glossy board game packaging.

timestories_Like Pandemic Legacy, it’s a one-shot board game, near-pointless to replay once you’ve won; you’re engaged in investigation, uncovering fixed, scripted information. (Unlike Pandemic Legacy, the process of play doesn’t irreversibly alter the game pieces; you could trade it on afterwards). There are expansions using the same rule-set but with different settings, characters and stories, so potentially it’s a narrative game platform as much as anything. The box cover is mostly white space, emphasising the potential for varied future stories rather than any one story in particular. Continue reading

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Apocalypse Fuel, and early thoughts on Vorple

altcoverApocalypse Fuel, my Apocalypse World gang generator, is up to version 9 now. I’ve steadily been adding content to the thing for a while, but the additions between 8 and 9 are relatively modest.  The big difference is that it now uses Vorple, which makes it a lot more web-friendly. Which is a non-trivial deal for a thing that people might, for instance, be referring to on phones in the middle of a tabletop game.

Juhana Leinonen’s brainchild Vorple has been around for a while, but until recently it only worked for Undum (an attractive but notoriously awkward system that was briefly very exciting before Twine became a thing), and the relatively small games that Inform 7 can fit into the z-code format. But it’s now compatible with the much less limited Glulx, which – OK, it’s difficult to really express what a big fucking deal this is, especially if you want to avoid constructions like ‘holy grail of.’ But the short of it is that it enables a relatively casual coder (like yours truly) to genuinely combine the power and sophistication of Inform 7 with the standard web-dev tools of HTML, CSS and Javascript.

Apocalypse Fuel was an obvious choice to try Vorple out on, because it doesn’t gain anything from parser input; I just made it in I7 because I know I7 and it’s really good at text manipulation. Its control scheme is just a limited set of buttons to push; they still get translated into commands and passed through the Inform action sequence, but that’s all hidden from the user.

Vorple isn’t perfect. It has to be run from a server – when you’re testing you have to set up a local host, which isn’t all that onerous but is an extra step. This has a couple of effects: one, it breaks up the I7 IDE a bit, so you’re always switching back and forth between your Inform code, a browser, and maybe a text editor for your stylesheets. Two, it makes it awkward for players to download your game and play offline, which I maintain is pretty damn important (however many developers would prefer that it wasn’t). In theory you can code a game so that it works both with and without Vorple, but in practice this was a step I only used to make my testing easier. (If you’re keeping the parser, this would be a much smaller concern).

The other thing, of course, is that Vorple’s ability to make things pretty is limited by your own ability to use CSS (I am learning). My hope is that in the coming months and years we’ll see some plug-and-play templates for different presentations and kinds of game.  (If I get capable enough I’ll try to make some.) Twine suggests that, yeah, it’s nice to have a lot of control over presentation, but most people are still going to want to use something off the peg.

That said, from my brief time with it, I’m extremely happy with Vorple; I expect to use it for basically every new IF project for the forseeable future, and I’m thinking about converting a number of old ones.

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Cannonfire Concerto

promo480Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson) is a Choicescript fantasy piece about intrigue, music and war. It’s very good; if you’re mostly interested in the more writerly end of the Choicescript oeuvre, in courtly intrigue or in evocative worldbuilding fantasy, I thoroughly recommend it.

Its protagonist is a talented string player, engaged on a music tour through lightly-reskinned versions of eighteenth-century European states. Storm-clouds are gathering; a Napoleon analogue threatens to bring all analogue-Europe under his boot, a Russia analogue is his only serious opposition, and a lot of minor powers are jockeying for influence amid the turmoil. Courted by various factions, the player’s personal and professional life is inescapably tangled up with politics.

Certain people in this world are inhabited by Genius, a supernatural quality that involves a potential for great talent in some field. Genius is kind of like a psychic aura, recognising and interfering with the Genius of others, and slightly like a separate entity with its own wants and needs. Many, though not all, of the key players in politics have an apropos Genius: this isn’t quite as big a deal as in, say, the comic Girl Genius, where the strength of nations is primarily determined by the strength of their leader’s Spark, but this is definitely a world more driven by Great Man History than our own. Continue reading

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Apocalypse Fuel

Apocalypse World is a groundbreaking story RPG about a tropey, high-drama, fetish-masked, diesel-belching, psychic-maelstrom postapocalypse. It’s the founding work of the extensive Powered by the Apocalypse stable of storygames, which includes Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Night Witches, Sagas of the Icelanders, and an ever-expanding list of others. The second edition is in the process of coming out (at time of writing, you can buy the PDF but the print version’s not quite there yet). But I’ve had my hands on the Kickstarter-backer version of the PDF for a little while, and I am very excited about it.

So are other people! Cat Manning was planning for a campaign, and asked something like “does anybody know of a good system for building factions?” And I didn’t, but it seemed like an entirely too fun thing to do with procedural generation, so I made one.

altcoverApocalypse Fuel generates brief, sketched-out concepts for the basic social units of Apocalypse World: hardholds, Maestro D’ establishments, hocus cults, and assorted packs of violent bastards, as well as some basic character and drama hooks for you to build on. OK, it’s probably better if I just give you a example: the following is a basic gang.

the Axle Howlgirls are a faction within a larger hardhold. They are barely a gang – 5 or so no-account assholes. (The gang was nearly wiped out in a turf war, and they’re the last survivors.) They’re well armed, plus they’re all packing harpoons; and armored in sturdy work clothes, to which most members add a skirt. They are savage. They mostly care about conformity – they hate and fear anyone who’s not like them. They are under the brilliant leadership of Strong Marge. They’re planning a midnight raid on the encampment of Grave Hill, but someone within the gang is playing both sides against one another.

Notable members:
Digby: always horny
Hunter Shan Endocrine: unnaturally lust-transfixed on Horrid Blossom; has gotten drunk with everyone worth knowing in the waste
Stab Girl: loves their kid, to mutual destruction

The intended use is as an inspiration generator for MCs and players, a rough first draft for you to edit and build on; I don’t recommend that anyone use the results purely as-is. It’s designed to leave a lot of things that need fleshing out, to drop suggestive details and pose questions as much as it provides answers.

If you just need some quick post-apocalyptic names, it can do that. If you need stats for things in a hurry, there’s an option to turn them on (although that breaks up the text a bit, so the option is off by default). And if you don’t really know Apocalypse World but just want to giggle at silly procedurally-generated results, it does OK at that too.

It’s a thing that I intend to keep expanding, so suggestions, ideas and contributions are very much welcomed. The source code’s available if anybody wants to poke around in it. (Part of the design includes a way to add optional modules to the base content, in case you’re doing a campaign with a heavy focus on a particular biome or real-world region or theme, so if you’d like to contribute such a thing…)

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Assorted Cool Things about Dogs in the Vineyard

Dogs_in_the_Vineyard_cover_smallDogs can be something of a tough sell. It’s a bit mechanically heavy for storygames – lots of polyhedra, a fairly involved conflict-resolution sequence – but way too handwavy and narrative-oriented for people who prefer their RPGs to be mostly tactical combat.

Even more tricky, it’s set in a theocratic society with strictly established social roles, including very tightly-enforced gender roles; all sin ultimately derives from someone not properly fulfilling their role, from injustice in the Platonic sense. Sin literally brings demonic influence into the world. And the player-characters are in charge of enforcing it, of fixing it when it breaks down. They cannot be radical activists against the system; they have a great deal of flexibility and autonomy to interpret the Law (“the King of Life is occasionally a realist”) but, at heart, they’re more committed to the system than anybody. For a lot of players, that’s more than they’re willing to cope with.

But I love DitV. It’s one of those games which doesn’t just have one cool thing, but a whole host of them. Here are some of the ones that make me very happy. Continue reading

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