August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
Which RPG provides the most useful resources?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for this question, since most of the RPGs I use provide the same basic resources, and the ones with more than I’m aware of, I haven’t actually gotten to use in-game.
That said, I can talk about some resources I like, and which I’d like to use in my own games—but resources I’d like to make and use myself, if I could figure out the logistics well enough:
1. Resource/Condition Cards.
I don’t know what to think about cards as a combat resolution mechanic, because I’ve never actually experienced that kind of system before. Likewise, while I think the Arkana Cards from the original German-language game Engel are beautiful, I don’t know how well I like the idea of pulling cards to resolve conflicts or combat or other character actions.
On the other hand, I really, really like the idea of using card for other things, like as resources and as condition-markers.
Resource Cards, I have a bunch of: they came with the Gamma World 7E game I mentioned earlier (and I mentioned someone having the great idea to mine out the ideas from those cards to make Numenera cypher cards, presumably to supplement the official card set put out by Monte Cook Games). There are two kinds of cards in the Gamma World set: the cards that identify character mutation powers, and the kinds that identify technological artifacts (as opposed to “junk”).
Now, part of the logic is that in this edition of Gamma World, mutations change after every combat encounter, and artifacts also have a pretty good chance of being used up during any encounter in which they’re used. That is to say, the cards partly exist to reinforce the notion that mutant powers and artifacts are temporary: rather than writing anything down on your character sheet, you just use cards that provide you with information on each mutation. or artifact for as long as you need them, and then discard them when you’re done.
Still, that idea of playing card-sized reference materials is appealing. If a character has object X, the player gets the card for X. She or he doesn’t have to look stuff up, and when the item is lost, the card goes back into the deck. When a player has some kind of special ability that others don’t, she or he gets a card. (And when a character gets random special abilities—like a mutation or a random special side-effect of being a member of an abhuman race—this prevents overlap as well giving you a way of having players get the random ability: they draw a card to find out.
It’s even more appealing when you’ve randomized basic things like character species/race/type, as in Gamma World 7E. If you’re committed to that idea—and the people in your group are willing—why not just go all the way and have a deck of cards for character origins, and reference cards for the associated powers those origins confer? That’s what a bunch of Gamma World players generated in 2010. Here’s an example I posted earlier in this series:
I think reference cards like this could be useful in any game, to be honest: I’ve seen plenty of players running demihumans or abhuman characters forget about the racial abilities (beyond the infravision those races had in AD&D), but cards could easily be used as reference for those things. Then again, I think playbooks can also solve these kinds of problems, if you’ve got a limited number of PC races, classes or archetypes. (See #2, below.)
Condition Markers are an idea I hadn’t heard about before backing The Yellow King RPG, but they seem like a good idea. In the Yellow King, Robin Laws’ idea is that you have condition cards for various states of shock or trauma: they could, in an FRPG setting, range from developing an unnatural fear of magic to being badly wounded in the leg and stuck at half your movement rate until you’ve regained X number of hit points.
Trauma cards would be conditional: a PC might be unable to use a certain power until she’s done something she personally needs to do, like visit her hometown and confess her sins to the pastor there, or visit her hometown and kill the wicked, plotting pastor there. Phobias, mental tics, and the like are possible. I think of the traumas that characters can develop in Darkest Dungeon as a good example of using this kind of mechanic in a fantasy setting:
Of course, it requires a certain amount of preparation: you need cards for all the major special objects, traumas, and injuries possible in your game. I can see that becoming a bit GM-overloading, especially if you wanted good-quality cards, since it’s not like you can just print off good ones one your home printer, and while Print on Demand cards can be affordable, there’s still the work of laying out the cards using software. (nanDeck is all I can find to use for Mac, and learning to use it takes some work. Oh, I guess there’s also Strange Eons, but that, too, seems like a lot of work, and to require a plugin to pull off a different style.)
I think the way to minimize that is to go with digital cards that need no printing, and which players can access on their mobile devices during gameplay—if you can find a way of handling them that’s accessible to everyone. It’s possible in Google Docs, but I’m thinking about maybe taking on the task of coding an app that can do various typical things with a set of digital cards: display a hand, draw randomly from a GM-defined deck (and return cards that are used up to the deck), display a gallery of cards held, allow players (at the GM’s discretion) to pass cards to one another, and so on. This, at least, would cut down on the overhead by removing printing from the equation.
That said, I think printing will always have a place. When I do eventually run Ghostbusters, I want to have physical equipment cards on the table (including some homebrewed ones for new gadgets that may or may not work) because I think they’ll add to the fun of the game. (And, to be honest, I’m just as tempted to try code up a good WYSWIG card editor app for Mac OSX, since none exists right now, from what I can tell. If you know different, let me know!)
Playbooks have been around for a while, I think. My first encounter with them was in a borrowed copy of Apocalypse World, though I think they were also in Beyond the Wall and in some other games. They’re a great idea. Check out this example, from the Apocalypse World system (and taken from this freely available file):
Just for the sake of a couple of examples of how these things can be organized, here’s the 2nd edition Apocalypse World version of the same Playbook (with a lot more white space, and folded into a booklet instead of a pamphlet:
… and while the playbooks from Beyond the Wall seem not to be freely available for legal download online, fan-made examples are easily found online. Here’s one (in the form of a blog post) for the Self-Taught Mage archetype (click on the image to visit the page and see the playbook):
Depending on their design, playbooks can solve all kinds of problems, perhaps in a way better than cards can: they aid in character generation, for one thing, by listing off character class options, cataloguing the available specializations and abilities that the character has, but this is also handy when the character levels up. (In that sense, they also aid in character development, being a resource for when characters level up in games that use class/level ability changes.)
Also, since they can be used as character concept options during character generation, you can print up a limited number of specific classes or character types, thus ensuring that you get a party with some variety, while also giving players a sense of freedom to choose their character type. They also can reinforce a given character’s specialization, providing a sort of niche protection… though of course that shouldn’t be used to, say, block a group of players from running an all-Rogues party, if everyone’s amenable to it.
Playbooks can also serve in other ways, though: they can be used as a reference sheet for the special abilities the character possesses, preventing the need to look things like that up mid-game. Though I’ve never played the game, I think this is probably the major strength of the playbooks in Apocalypse World: you basically have everything you need to run your character, including mechanics stuff, right in front of you in the playbook.
But the playbooks in Beyond the Wall show that a playbook can also be used to help players conceptualize their characters background, or provide options for a vague, “wireframe” backstory (meaning a backstory that’s vague but can be used in play without much work), as well as showing how backstory can influence a character mechanically—a kid who worked with the local Blacksmith gains some points of Strength, a kid who spent years reading at the local sage’s house might gain Intelligence, and so on.
If you are using House Rules in your game, they can help with those, too: where house rules apply to your character, these can be of help not only to newbie players but also experienced ones who’re accustomed to other rules. If you use alternate or homebrew classes or races, this also helps nail down that stuff for the players, since that information is likely otherwise on your website, or in your head. Likewise, if you’re running a game where the PCs are unusual and not customary for the setting—say, time-traveling mid-20th century military personnel in a traditional historical fantasy setting—playbooks can help iron out the kinks and answer questions the players won’t even realize they have until a few sessions in.
The other great thing about playbooks is that they’re not extremely prep-heavy. There are templates out there for some systems, but if you’re at all decent with MS Word or Excel, you can do up something passable just by looking at an example you like and emulating that. It’s not even that hard to, if you want to. They would involve some work, but once they’re done, you’re good… and you can add more to your set as you like, slowly expanding player options, but you don’t need to do so: a well-made set of playbooks can provide years of variety for a group.
All this is nice in theory, but how would I actually put it to use at the game table?
Here’s an example of how I’d implement this in a real game, in this case, a campaign using the old West End Games version of Ghostbusters, but with a certain degree of houseruling and modernization.
If I were running Ghostbusters, my concern would be:
- Players implicitly understanding their gear-availability and -bearing limitations: How much gear can I carry on this mission? How many proton packs does our franchise have? Can we get more?
- Players understanding the characteristics of their gear: What does a proton pack do to a ghost? Can it hurt a demon? What die do I roll for damage with this thing? What’s the difference between a Standard Muon Trap and a Prototype Super Muon Trap?
- Creating roleplaying consequences for various events: What happens when a ghost kicks the characters’ asses? What about when a character gets caught alone with a ghost and attacked? How about non-spectral setbacks and traumas?
- Overlapping character archetypes: everyone deciding they want to run their character like Bill Murray’s ghostbuster Peter Venkman, or maybe like Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon’s crazy character in the Ghostbusters reboot).
My solution to these concerns would be as follows:
Playbooks would serve as mechanics references, character sheets, and character archetype templates all at once. You could ensure an array of different character types, give different characters their own archetypal niches, and help diversify the group of characters a bit. Not everything would be randomized: in fact, I feel like a job application questionnaire component would be fun—with questions setting up character info, like in Dread—and I’m happy to let players do a little “choose one of the following” point-buying for aspects of their characters’ skills, knowledge, and background.
Gear Cards would serve not only as a resource management game—as in the original West end Games Ghostbusters RPG, where PCs could choose which three gear cards they want to carry on a given mission—but also as mini-references to the characteristics of the gear, including whether it’s a stable or prototype model, how it’s used in terms of game mechanics, and so on. I’d also allow players to suggest new gear cards for their franchise, though of course they’d need to spend the R&D funds and have a PC capable of doing the necessary research and prototyping (i.e. one character built using the Techie Nerd or Geek Genius playbook), and with the caveat that the gear would be prototype gear until they were tested in the field a few times. (Cue hilarious misfires and unintended consequences, shades of R&D in Paranoia.) Likely I’d end missions/sessions with the query as to whether there’s any prototype gear they’d like to try have the character create before the next mission, and have the player make a secret roll (result known only to me and the player) as to how the R&D process works out. Likewise, players would occasionally stumble onto new gear, reference books, and so on in the course of their adventures, and I’d be responsible for making the cards for those items.
Consequence Cards would outline the most common consequences for battling ghosts: specific traumas and mental problems that impede characters but can be overcome through a specific in-game success of some kind, specific physical injures that raise the stakes in-game, and so on. They would remove the burden of creating negative consequences for PCs from the players, who after all are usually not eager to harm or inhibit their characters voluntarily, and also see it as mean when the GM does it specifically.
The nice thing about this is that the Playbooks serve as stable character sheets, while the Gear Cards in use would probably (or at least are free to) change with every mission, and don’t need to stay associated withy a given character. Consequence cards might, but if that became an issue and I didn’t have a digital/app solution for it, I think I’d probably start using a card pocket sheet, placing consequence cards associated with a given character in the pocket assigned to that character between sessions.
I guess that’s it for today!