Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Prop Comedy

Here I will only mention The Campaign I'm running briefly, to say that I'm thinking about stuff to run after the "first season" concludes. And my fancy turned briefly to TORG, a game made more interesting with the inclusion of a thing called a "drama deck."

And it happened a few nights ago that I was scanning cards from Freemarket. There's not yet a way to buy new cards or decks if something happens.

The two thoughts collided, and realizations started cascading. I had to write them down. Or type them. Or something.

Here I admit to procrastination

In the middle of November, during the waning of the furor around the release of Gamma World, there was an excellent blog post titled When Cards Bring The Awesome. It was one man's reflections on TORG, a game which used a specialty deck of cards for many aspects of play—initiative, dramatic tension, subplots, and half a dozen other minor benefits. It was two parts history lesson and one part love letter to a game he played and enjoyed so long ago. (Perhaps that's why the write-up resonated with me? I mean, I have the game myself.)

I meant to write something riffing on that, but never did. This might be where I make up for it, with interest.

(If you're one of the few who are wondering what ever happened to TORG after the collapse of West End Games, note that the IP is now owned by a German company, Ulisses Spiele, who does have plans for it, but not until they get enough of the old printed materials from WEG's former principals to work with.) (Can't read German? Google Translate to the rescue.)

Really, is there that much to talk about?

Yes. In fact, that's what I want to talk about: how much there is here to talk about. Dice are the rule, but there are more than a few exceptions.

At the start of this post, I mentioned two games: TORG and Freemarket. There are many other games, and many other ways dice can be de-emphasized or cut out of the picture completely.

Cards and dice

TORG had regular dice to test for success and failure, but it also used a custom set of cards called a "Drama Deck" to flavor a lot of the action. I'd describe them to you, but Steve Kenson did that already in the blog post I referenced above. Just go back and read that if you haven't already.

And TORG was just the first of a family of games, including Shatterzone and culminating in West End Games' first attempt at a setting-independent system, Masterbook. Each had its own Drama Deck, with slightly different cards to fit each system. And yes, the games could be played without the cards, but they'd lose something. This suggested that the cards added something, and I'll get to that below.

And what inspired the blog post above: Gamma World. It uses dice for most everything, but cards have their place: every character has some special ability that will change randomly under special circumstances. Specialty tech can also grant special abilities, and those tend to come and go rather easily too.

Cards instead of dice

Castle Falkenstein used a deck of regular playing cards instead of dice in keeping with the Victorian-era theme (and that era's abhorrence of dice).

Primetime Adventures also uses regular playing cards instead of dice, and tends to go through a deck rather slowly. Story games in general tend to take liberties with systems, and tend to be scattered all over the spectrum of dice vs. dicelessness. I mention PTA here because it happens to be one of those that uses regular playing cards.

There's a game called With Great Power that doesn't just use playing cards for conflict resolution, it plays with at least six decks of cards in a dance of probabilistic wangling that would have most statisticians in the corner, in the fetal position, drooling to the point of dehydration.

And Freemarket, which I also mentioned at the top of this piece, has its own specialty decks of cards for conflict resolution. There are instructions for making your own decks if, say, you're working from the PDF, but the iconography of the cards in the boxed set are distinctive enough and fit so well with the rest of the game's printed materials that making your own seems like a half-measure.

And Even Stranger Variations

The original Deadlands used a deck of playing cards, and dice, and poker chips to keep the action lively. The playing cards determined initiative and the poker chips could be spent during play to improve improve rolls or afterwards to gain experience.

TSR once released a Rocky and Bullwinkle game that used spinners instead of dice.

The latest version of Warhammer Fantasy uses the worst of both worlds: specialty dice. Really, they have symbols instead of numbers. There are quite a few other things that make Warhammer Fantasy atypical; maybe one of these days I should get a copy and review it.

And you might well wonder why I'd be sticking Dungeons & Dragons down here in this memetic ghetto, right? Think about every game you've seen or played in 4th edition. Have you ever seen it played without a map? Most of the time it's played almost like a miniatures game. And given how powers are doled out by level, it's common for players to print their characters' special abilities by the sheet, and then cut them apart. It's a strange game indeed that encourages players to make their own decks of cards.

Like Baseball, but with Loud Drunken Fans?

Does roleplaying need fancy cards and dice? Here's the funny thing: the first thought should be "no," but with further thinking the answer diminishes to "why not?"

Smell like a Gamer

Look at your roleplaying game. Now look at me. Look at your game again. Now look at me again. (Sorry!) Dig down into it, and you should find a pattern like this somewhere:

  1. The GM explains the situation to the players.
  2. The players declare their characters' intentions and actions within the situation.
  3. The GM and/or players use resolution mechanics of some sort to determine whether the players' actions were successful.
  4. The GM takes into account how the characters' actions, whether successful or failed, affect the situation
  5. Go back to step 1.

This is what you might call the "standard usage pattern." That's high-falutin' talk for "they all work kinda the same way." The GM is the keeper of the situation and controls everything outside the PCs. The PCs each generally control one character within the situation. And the interaction between the two is a feedback loop that looks like that thing above. If you find a game that doesn't look like that, it's either not a roleplaying game or it's a horrid mutation of ruleset that I desperately want to hear about. Really, I would. Leave a comment. Right now. Because this is how I've come to understand it after looking at 100+ samples.

"Then a miracle occurs..."

100+ systems? All identical to that pattern? Hard to believe, I know, but there's more flexibility in that pattern than you might think. That step 3 is chock full of vague. Given that 1, 2, and 4 (and 5 if you're a pedant) are immutable, step 3 is the only place where changes can be made. Those 100+ samples? They all represent variations and re-imaginings of that third step.

Dice are not the requirement for step 3. Conflict resolution is the requirement for step 3, and that can be done through means beside dice.

Spreading the Card-Love

TORG is practically the poster-child of drama deck lovin'. And a funny thing happened on the way to this post: while looking up the blog post above, before I remembered the title ("When Cards Bring the Awesome"), I was searching for it on Google using various key words having to do with the Drama Deck, since that's what the post was about.

The search results surprised me. It turns out that some people have been using the TORG Drama Deck with games other than TORG. Star Wars has been getting some, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been getting carded, D&...

[insert record scratch sound effect here]

Wait. The TORG Drama Deck, used with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition? Okay, which of you guys divided by zero? Come on, 'fess up. You must have divided by a very large zero, because other people are getting that idea too as conversation on WotC's own boards suggests.

Let's face it. Dice tend to generate just numbers. Specialized decks of cards, judiciously applied, can turn a game on its ear and make it perform new tricks.

As it happens, I do have a "why not"...

There is a problem with designing a game around a specialty mechanic. This applies less to games that use regular dice and regular cards and regular poker chips, and more to those games that had to fabricate their own cards or dice or spinners.

How do people play the game when the specialty items get lost, get destroyed, or go out of print?

People are kind of getting by with printed PDFs of TORG's drama deck, but try printing your own dice for Warhammer Fantasy, I dare you. That's not to say it can't be done, but at what cost?

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