Game the Game: Imagine If: May the 4th

sw-splinter-of-the-minds-eye-4In the year 1977 the film Star Wars was released. Before the Star Wars Holiday Special, 1978 brought us the follow-up to Star Wars, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

The popularity of Star Wars led to the premiere of Battlestar Galactica. Sci-fi was reinvigorated.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was intended to be a low-budget sequel had the film not been so popular. At the time, there was no Internet, and no one had any way of knowing this.

But, jumping off from this, and imagining an alternate reality where Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was more canon than not, and Star Wars was a moderate success, what if the franchise was one and done in terms of films? What if a spin-off series aired on television.

What might it look like? Changes from the draft of the back were made because of budgetary constraints, Lucas was thinking ahead, so, sets and props would need to be reused from the film, and the budget would be mean and lean.

  • The series would start with an adaptation of the novel.MBDOUTL EC026
  • Main characters would be Luke and Leia (who are still attracted to one another, presumably, they are not related), Halla (portrayed by Francis Sternhagen), Hin or Kee, who would have been allowed to live in the adaptation, and then extrapolating and not-needing to reinvent the wheel, Dusque Mistflier and Finn Darktrin from The Ruins of Dantooine, Anakaret and Dannan Kelvan from Razor’s Edge; R2 and 3PO would have supporting roles, as their appearances were expensive.
  • There would be arena battles, space pirates, discos, romance, comedy, and drama!

3783663_origHow might you see what this series might be? Grab a copy of Retrostar and tune your dials to:

  • Thematic: 1
  • Plot: 3
  • Cheese: 3
  • Recurring: 2
  • SFX: 6 (Lucas’ idea of low-budget is very high for television)



Game the Game: GenCon Wrap-Up Part II: The Long Con and the Con Game!

I put a lot of thought into the games I run at conventions, this is my chance to meet some new players, and hopefully, entertain and be entertained. Three of my games had very definite structures:

An Infinivaders game (a Cartoon Action Hour setting by John Wick). The setting was outside my wheelhouse, but I appreciated being pushed to become more knowledgeable, and I came up with fun scenario involving two teams of PCs, each PC having a polar opposite. I wanted to create some tension “Working together, putting aside differences, we can be victorious” was the awesome jingle we came up with. My plot involved the Colossus of Rhodes, the people of Rome being given back their mighty kingdom, the shield Ancile, Apollo’s bow, as well as Cthulhu. There was a lot there. I like to be prepared. I like to deliver a standalone experience in the time allotted. The session closed with the samurai committing seppuku before the ninja could off him. A little bit dark for a 1980s cartoon perhaps, but that’s why we play the game, to see what happens. PCs fought, some came together, some had incredibly powerful and out-of-control abilities, and we all enjoyed sugary cereal on a Saturday morning.

Another Cartoon Action Hour game was next, this time of my own design; the Wu-Tang Clan as a 1980s cartoon! I wanted to offer a game that would be unique, even at a place like GenCon. None of my players had much knowledge of the Wu, but boy-oh-boy was it a fun time. When your session ends with the Almigty Yeezus and his witch-bride Kimye being defeated so that their baby could be saved, because “Wu-Tang is for the Children!” you know something went right!

Retrostar playtest required less prep, as the game is designed to be a far more improvisational. All the players seemed to really enjoy Galactic Run, my Convoy meets Smokey and The Bandit in space series!

For my CCVF games, players make characters at the table, and then we just go from there. I pick some villains, we have a fight so they can see how the mechanics work, the premise is they are on a reality TV show, so lots of producer–led shenanigans and false drama, but every time I run this “scenario,” awesome, memorable stuff happens, always driven by the players. Last year, it was one of the Heroes deciding he had a complicated romantic history with one of the villains. That threw everyone for a loop, and made it even more memorable. This year, one character decided he was the bumbling son of a Superman and Wonder-woman equivalent power couple, and that allowed me to use that to make that story personal and memorable and unique.

Enough about me, honestly, I don’t want you to think I am patting myself on the back. I do have a point here. I like creating snapshot games, a stand-alone session that delivers everything a game should- action, drama, humor (if applicable), danger, suspense, and surprises. When dealing with a 4 hour block of time, this requires some prep, but it is worth it. In my head-canon, all of this stuff happened. Last year’s America’s Next Super Team and this year’s team exist in the same universe.

I ran a CAH game last year: Ace Agents (Head of the Class meets Mission Impossible), one of my players showed up for several of my games this year. I like making that connection. He seems to be a big fan of Spectrum products, so I think he was most interested in playing those games. My friend Neal, who I have gamed with at two ConBusts, also showed up to play some CCVF, bringing along a friend. Also awesome.

As happens, post-game, one player and I got to chatting, he is very much an old-school gamer, runs 6 hour sessions of AD&D (1e) at GenCon, as he wants to get into some serious role-playing, and this is his system of choice. Even when things go awry, as one of his sessions did, he likes to enjoy the extended amount of time, and let things develop.

There is a group of gamers out there who enjoy long-con games, games with multiple sessions that take play over a convention weekend, having a beginning, middle, and end. This idea is great, but is not that new to me, nor is it that new to many GMs, some just approach it in different ways.

Saturday morning, I am in a room about as far from the convention center as one can be. I am there early, I have cereal on the table, offer it up to another table of gamers, who are extremely grateful, I doze a bit, and as I am finishing up my preparations, overhear another table (there were 4 in this particular room, only 2 of which had games going), I hear some familiar lingo, some familiar character names. When there is a break in the action, I walk over and talk to the GM. It turns out he has been running the same group of characters at GenCon for many, many years, advancing their story each year. My hat is off to Bob Karcher. I may try and get in on his game next year, if time allows. And, if you want an immersive old school AD&D experience, look out for Misa Bakracevski!

GAME THE GAME: GenCon and Me

I wish GenCon was an alien, and we were in a movie together, that was a schmaltzy ET ripoff.

My first GenCon I was a D&D guy. I got a picture with Gary Gygax, his Lucky Strike dangling from his lip. I played D&D games. To me, D&D was gaming. I even won a two part D&D tournament. I proudly have the certificate displayed.

But, I grew, as a gamer, and during what I would consider the golden age of printed product tabletop gaming (yeah, it’s a niche era), I remember roaming the dealer’s room, and picking up my copy of Underworld, and my copy of Orkworld, because they were both released at GenCon. My tastes had matured and expanded. I played Hong Kong Action Theatre and loved it, I loved roaming the hall looking for cool new games to try out!

GenCon was about trying new games, buying new games. But then… something happened. Even if this age of information accessibility and social media, I am having trouble finding details on what new products will be released at GenCon.

Full disclosure, I am now part of a Gaming Company, and we do not necessarily have awesome new products debuting.

But, we are running lots of games for our products, and will have the first public playtest of an upcoming game: Retrostar! Plus, hopefully, a legend of game design will be stopping by one of my games for a cameo. As King Missile might say, “that’s way cool.”

Is it wrong to want to spend money on awesome new games. I want to have an index card in my pocked with notes on which places to be sure to hit and what games to buy. I want to go back to my hotel room, and be flooded with feelings of “ohwowthisissocool, I can’t wait to play it.” Because, I still have Orkworld and Underworld, and they still get read by me, and I still love them.

Take my money, someone, please!

GAME THE GAME: Retrostar Design Blog #4: Starbuck’s Cigar

Retrostar is moving along, at FTL speed if you will. We have done a play-test.

Today, I’m going to talk about experience (XP). I wrote a superhero role-playing game. It does not have XP. This causes panic in many gamers. Lack of XP freaks people out. Even with the Indie Game Design Explosion, XP is still a thing.

Monsterhearts has very cool XP system, and in a game I was running I had big plans for incorporating it.

Marvel Heroic (not an Indie Game, but based in Indie Game Ideology) has an XP system, which on first read through is neat, but in practice is broken, and leads to some oddness: Kitty Pryde should be breaking hearts all the time, and after 5 sessions, Black Panther is now more powerful than way more established characters. Hmm… that didn’t work for me.

So, Retrostar v1.0 had no XP system. Mike and I discussed it, in the genre of 1970s sci-fi TV shows, XP wasn’t a thing. Then, we all sat down and played, an inevitably, the topic of XP came up. I am holding firm. There is no XP system. But, in the grand gesture of compromise, we are going to try something else.

Starbuck’s cigar.

Freud would raise an eyebrow and look at me, taking notes. Starbuck frequently had a scene in BSG: OS where he would grin, lean back and light up a stogie. Yeah, it was a different time, when characters were seen smoking, but more than this, this was part of who he was.

So, Retrostar does some things that are unusual. The GM creates about 40% of each character, defining their background. The players then figure out their traits and casting (who is the actor playing them: an grey-haired veteran actor with a voice that brings with it gravitas, or a former model with beautifully layered hair who looks great in a red swimsuit).

But, when you sit down to begin a series, some parts of the character will be undefined. We won’t know about Starbuck’s cigar until we see it in play. So, characters are going to define some of the other bits of their character, in keeping with the dials of a Retrostar series: Thematic, Recurring, Cheese, and Plot. SFX is already taken care of through k3wl p0w3rz and laser pistols and the like. So, Starbuck’s cigar becomes his recurring thing, and Apollo being a single dad becomes his Thematic thing. And it won’t always come up in every episode, but when it does, the player will get a cool bonus. Because, this is what made episodic television so comfortable, the familiar combined with the narrative.

So, there will not be XP, but there will be character refinement. And folks will complain. But I am confident trying this out to see how it works.

We want Retrostar to feel different from your sci-fi RPG of choice. We want it to feel like episodic television. This is deliberate, a feature, not a flaw. We hope that folks will embrace it. So, in the game we played one player decided that her character frequently disrobed, and another observed that her character would frequently do a cool karate kick. We have rules for that.

So get excited! Excited for a trip to the future: the year is 1993! The game is Retrostar!

GAME THE GAME: Retrostar Design Blog #3

“My old man is a television repairman, he’s got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.”

Why would I start discussing a 1970s sci-fi game with a 1980s teen movie quote? We had some Retrostar breakthroughs recently. We have the core of the Retrostar dice mechanic worked out. I won’t discuss too much here about how ADVENTURE, THOUGHT, and DRAMA will work in game, but I will say this:

-Retrostar will encourage players to share the spotlight, and sometimes force them to do things they might not be best suited for.

-Retrostar episodes will be constructed using Scenes, embracing the 5-Act structure common to 1970s television shows.

-The prep for a series will happen before a gaming group ever sits down. Once this prep is done, Retrostar games will be able to be run with minimal prep if desired, producing fun, exciting, and unique episodes.

But I digress somewhat, as we have been working hard on integrating all of these ideas into a cohesive whole, so explaining one without some information about the other is very difficult.

Let us get back to that awesome Fast Times quote, as I prepare to expand your consciousness (I was going to say blow your mind, but I am not sure that is 1970s appropriate, instead I am embracing some of the New Age-y type language).

In a Retrostar scene, there can be only 12 dice rolls. 12 dice rolls= 12 minutes. 12 minutes times 5 scenes= 60 minutes. Players will do 90% of the dice rolling. But… wait, you ask…. The quote…

So, in a scene, you might need to fix a doohickey. One of the characters, who might not be the best suited for the role (roll?) is one of the significant characters for this scene, so they should be encouraged to make the roll. If some sort of space cave needs to be investigated, instead of sending in all the PCs, send in only the ones who might be able to accomplish something positive with their rolls.

I am really excited to playtest this idea, but think it has amazing potential.

And when the clutzy character is the one trying to fix the unstable reactor core, now you know why!

GAME THE GAME: Retrostar Design Blog #2: Space Chickens and Galactic Eggs

I have been hitting my head against a wall for awhile. Cynthia, Spectrum’s Big Boss has told me she had the same problem when she was designing Slasher Flick and the Kill Scenes in that game. In college, my buddies Zach and Gerry came up with the idea that when you hit your head against a wall, often you need to look up to realize that you are on a huge step and need to pull yourself up to the next level. So, I have been trying to resolve a whole lot of Retrostar stuff, and I think I have finally pulled myself up to the next step.

Cynthia came up with the following stats: Adventure; Thought; Drama. We will be using those. They are different and cool, and jump you right into the proper vibe.

So, I have always been using those in the back of my head.

And I have been focused on the narrative elements of the game, and read through my very old copy of Hoyle’s looking for card games that might be fun, but it always felt a bit off. I love the poker showdown mechanic in Deadlands: Reloaded, it feels genre appropriate and is very cool in play. Does the card game pitch have anything to do with 70s sci-fi? I think “no” is probably the answer. But I really like the idea of the main prep for a game and series of Retrostar being coming up with a list of things. I think that is innovative and fun and different. I am still working on what exactly this will look like, but I think it will be something akin to the GM (called the Creator) dealing out 5-6 cards. Why 5-6? Research shows that most dramas in the 70s had 5-6 acts or scenes in them, so these 5-6 cards will power that.

For my other breakthroughs, I found inspiration in a couple games. In Battlestar Galactica, what makes Apollo and Starbuck different? In a crunchy system with defined skills, they would probably be pretty similar. In a more creative/ descriptive “skill” system they would still likely have a bunch of similarities. Then it struck me; it wasn’t so much about the skills as it was about the characters. We are trying to emulate a 70s TV show, so why not look to that? Indeed, there will be stats, and there will be “skills,” but what if there was also Casting and Role? Would this not have been a big part of a 70s TV show? Is this not how the two characters would be better defined compared to one another? Think as a TV producer would:

Role: Starbuck is a crack pilot, with a devil-may-care attitude, he is not afraid to stand up against authority. He is best friends with Apollo.
Casting: Roguish good looks, dirty blonde/ light brown hair.

Now, if you saw that on a character sheet, doesn’t that tell you something about the character?

Related sidenote: something I also want included in series creation is the clothing and appearance for the series and characters. The attire and styles of 70s sci-fi is certainly a big part of what made them unique: turtleneck shirts, awesome hairstyles, skin-tight suits, padded jackets, odd color choices! This, of course, is likely all just flavor, but who knows….

Back to the casting and role, another key element of 70s sci-fi series is that indeed some characters were the stars and other characters were the supporting characters. Now, who really wants to be a red shirt? OK, so maybe no one wants to be a red shirt, but certainly some characters were more significant than others. Players being players might all want to be the spotlight characters, so we will want some fun stuff to encourage players to be the supporting cast. I don’t think it will be anything as granular and crunchy as the rules in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. Of course, there will be episodes that focus on these background characters. So, stealing a bit from Hong Kong Action Theatre (1st Ed.) and Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3, there will be some sort of Star Power mechanic, possibly with some episodic adjustments. After all, as much as we might love Boomer, was he really the star?

My second “breakthrough” came in regards to the SFX pool. I have been focusing on one way to do it, and none of these rambling rumblings will necessarily negate any of that, but I want to think about other ways to accomplish this. My first way of thinking had players having individual pools, and coming up with neat and fun (and genre-appropriate) ways to increase the size of and replenish this pool. So, there would be a lot of exchange of glass beads or chits of what not. Not unlike Exalted. Then, I realized that a mechanic similar to the Escalation Die in 13th Age might also do the trick, after all, it would encourage the use of SFX to occur later in the game (IE later in a specific episode) as the story was drawing to a climax. So, I am toying around with this, making it more intuitive, more genre appropriate, less fiddly, and also encouraging the story to climax at the appropriate time!

I am getting really excited, and although there are established series I am looking at for guidelines on how to do things, I also have my own series that I am thinking about, because, as much as folks might want to come up with their own version of Galactica or the 10 Million Dollar Father and Son (two bionic characters, not just one), we also want to help provide a tool kit so that Creators can come up with their own original series. Mine will have roller skates as an integral part of the story. Don’t laugh.

Ok, you can laugh, but, know that it will all make sense! There will be a reason for the roller skating!


Game the Game: Retrostar Design Blog #1: Embrace the Cheese!

So, Spectrum announced Retrostar awhile back. The intention of it is to emulate the sci-fi shows of the 70s: BSG, Bionic Man, Buck Rogers, etc. Not the films of that era, but specifically the TV shows.

I have taken it upon myself to dissect this “genre” and my goal is to come up with a game the forces the GM and players into an experience that feels like a 70s sci-fi series, with all that implies.

Instead of designing a core mechanic that allows players to punch, and shoot, and pilot, I am starting someplace else.

What makes these shows special? What makes the 70s sci-fi experience unique? There are lots of systems out there that let players fight and shoot and pilot. I want the play session to feel authentic. Steve Austin doesn’t solve every problem by just using his bionics. The scenes with bionics are the highlight of the show. To use a cinematic example (I know this is about TV shows, but bear with me, this is a great example), we don’t see lightsabers in every scene.
Why? SFX budget.

So, one of my design goals is to have each session have an SFX budget.

Secondly, frequently these shows had some real 70s-isms in them, stuff that makes them feel dated and topical (and in this situation, usage of these terms is a positive). So, I want some way to bring these sort of 70s-isms into play, whether it is a discussion on race, or divorce, or a cheesy disco scene. We want to embrace these things and make it so that a session of Retrostar feels unlike any other sci-fi game out there. We do not want folks saying “man, this system is awesome, I can’t wait to run a hack of Retrostar for my hard sci-fi campaign.

Third, TV shows have certain tropes. An most episodes of BSG will have a dogfight, Steve Austin will have to run fast or jump high, etc. So, any series being played with Retrostar should have this built in.

These are my three primary goals for Retrostar, and I have been taking notes, and jotting down ideas how to make these be an integral part of the game. Referring back to Intention, Mechanics, Setting: I want them to mesh perfectly together. It’s a big challenge I have set for myself, and I really excited thinking about the possibilities. Will there be a core mechanic for fighting? Absolutely. But I want these three design components an integral part of the game, so I am starting there as opposed to having them be a secondary concern.

To give a teaser and peel back the curtain a little, one idea I am toying with is a card based mechanic that helps control the flow of the game, ensuring that each BSG episode would have a dogfight or two, and so on. It is an idea in the early stages of germination no doubt, but some neat ideas are coming out of the design process.

Please feel free to comment with your thoughts and suggestions! And know that I am not adverse to letting you on the design process as well! For now, my internal tagline is:
Science fiction- take a scientific principle; pose a question or hypothesis about that principle; and then explore the effects of that principle on society/culture. Now, add disco!