Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Quick & Dirty Gaming: Game as Personalized Act of Service

Monday Night marked the third week in a row that players had to skip out on my Lowlife 2090 game. I have players with chronic illnesses and extremely high demand jobs. This is never surprising, but it is frustrating. Especially as life getting in the way has shrunk my group down to a delicate three player balance. At three players, I hate to do anything if one of them sits out. And in a Cyberpunk & Sorcery game like Lowlife 2090 crews of two or less are actually pretty hard to make work... at least in many class combinations.

My home game has suffered due to my wife's busy schedule as well. it is harder and harder to get in the gaming I would like. Thus my sudden interest in Solo play. But for me, the biggest joy still comes from playing with others. What I need more than ever is faster play.

That is why I started playing OSR games again in the first place: I needed a rules-light system that was designed to play fast. More than that, I needed a rules-light system that was low on BS like performance reviews and player voting at the end of the session. Many story games like Fate and Dungeon World tend to add so much needless quasi-mechanical stuff to the game in sessions it slows them down. Fast and furious Old-School games like Knave, ICRPG, and The Black Hack, or going back to B/X D&D, for that matter, have sped things up a lot. But not enough for my current needs.

In Search of The 45-Minute TTRPG

I need a D&D-style game that can run a satisfying campaign with less than 2 hours per session and only 1-2 sessions a week right now. My ideal would be to be able to pick something up, play, and put it down in 45 minutes and feel completely satisfied, And I fear that I have gone as light as I can go comfortably. Game systems like Tiny Dungeon 2e, Cha'alt, and Troika! are at my lower limit of crunch range. And even they are at times just taking up too much time for what my players need.

I honestly cannot find games that run faster. And so I have realized that my problem is, well, me.

If I really want to create a 45-minute D&D, I need to change how I think about DMing.

I had a breakthrough on that front, as I was talking to the two players that could make it at the end of my game session. We wanted to try something that felt new, but was easy to pick up. Not too difficult in the world of OSR retroclones, of course: you can find a retroclone optimized to do almost anything while still speaking the lingua franca of TSR-era D&D rules or d20.

The idea of playing a post-apocalyptic game set in a radioactive wasteland seemed appealing to my friends tonight, so I ran them through generating characters in The Wasted Hack (I could have gone for Death is the New Pink... but I had a hunch about what kind of characters they wanted. And I was right, as I was swiftly presented with a pair of Infected mutants with mind control powers and absurd personalities: Big DeLott and Superstore DeLott. Mutants with psychic powers, but extremely tenuous grips on reality.

Some nights that would have been enough for me. I would ask for time to plan and sketch out something built on the 5-room Dungeon. Maybe roll something up randomly if I had the time, and do so carefully.

Headlong into the Game 

Monday, though, I decided to just push it. When their characters were ready, I had them standing sentry at an old NASA facility that ghouls have lived in for generations, when machinery, dead for centuries comes to life. Ancient locked doors can suddenly be unlocked at their terminals, and machinery is suddenly coming to life.

My players immediately ran to the control tower, and began pillaging anything they could find. The Maintenance closet was a treasure trove (although they missed the hidden stack of X-rated magazines that was the most valuable treasure in the location.)

As they were exploring that, I decided on why I wanted the lights to have come on: the facility is trying to automatically receive an asteroid core sample from a probe launched hundreds of years ago... one containing gold, and that offers clues about the lost Space Stations above earth.

They PCs resolve to get "whatever it is" from the sky. And they seek the mysterious System Administrator that the ancient computers now all command them to contact. They will run into scavengers with robots and raiders trying to find and claim the same prize, and maybe some wild monsters.

Game as Personalized Service 

The ideas were been flowing to me Monday: locations, inventories, strange quirks, possible adventure hooks. They were all just coming because I wss thinking about what I want to accomplish from the game vis-a-vis the Players. 

I knew that Player D was happiest when he could joke around and play the fool. I tossed plenty of metaphorical lampshades in there for him to put on his head. I knew that Player M wanted to just spend time with good fre, and so I gave him room to play off of D., and a few goals his character could fall for. I know that I enjoy running games as an Act of service, and am. Happiest when players come away better for having been at my table. So I insisted on getting some play in, and not just a dreary session 0.

And in doing so I was locked on to what would make it "a good" game experience. It is an inspirational mode of thought: it gives you purpose and direction iyour creativity in a way trying to "Build an Adventure" does not. 

Even writing this, I have decided that a hidden high-tech colony wants to hide the fact that there are still advanced human machines, and possibly humans, in space... and who will wipe out their home to keep their secret. And the radiation from the canister might cause new mutations to occur. it might be the source for a new super-mutagen.

Paradigm Shift

The key here was that I let go of the need to facilitate results and I trusted to Chaos and Player Ingenuity. I stopped caring if the PCs found the princess in the proverbial castle or not, or even if they can. I didn't care if I had a big, workable event map or fronts: I gave them a strange event, and a mystery to solve. Give them that, and players will give you a lot of time to think. will do a ton of that work for you. You can buy time to expand your thoughts once the players are entertaining themselves.

And in the end if they miss the princess, it still is good fun in a different way.

Because it was made for them based on what, in the moment, I detected that they needed, and knowledge of their goals as players

And I don't think that this needs to be confined to improvisational play. If one plans in this state of mind,  if I were to draw a map of the wasteland while imagining what would give both of them the kinds of experience I know thay would be happier for having played with, I could populate it very swiftly. 

We got characters done, played through a small adventure site, got a few hooks in hand, and let my players explore and improv until they knew their characters. Between sessions, all I really need to do is come up with a few encounters to block their path and an idea on how they can get the space pod back if they don't get it first. And maybe a few backup ideas in nothing more than point form about what else is out there for them to find if they don't pick up a hook.

This may be one of the keys to faster gaming for me. 


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    3. Hey, Joseph, I was sorry to see you delete these! I was looking forward to reading them very carefully, giving you a response, and pitching featuring it in an article. If you are game, let me know.

    4. aha. I was afraid I was spamming. I'm sorta skittish online.

      Here, I'll post them again...

    5. I play with a lot of kids and non-gamer parents. I know of a bunch of easy and fast rule sets, like Searchers of the Unknown, Into the Odd, etc...but I wanted to introduce the d20 system so I could still call it D&D (since they know that name) and so if they wanted to delve deeper into rule books and such, or play online, it'd be an easy transition.

      This is what I cut, and it's still a blast:
      -Cut hit points, everyone starts with 1 hit, and gets one more hit per level.
      -You can pick any character theme or background you want, and you gain your BONUS in whatever that type of character is good at.
      -Bonus is the same as your level.

      Character creation takes about 30 seconds.
      -what do you want to be? Don't know? What's in your hands, a sword, a wand, pet rat? What are you wearing? It's very quick to find your theme. This takes someone experienced in the genre tropes (fantasy in this game), but it's pretty easy.

      As the game continued, I tried to introduce ability scores for an extra bonus to some actions, but they didn't get it.

      Players drop in and out all the time, and the world is our region but with fantasy stylings. We are in the Pacific Northwest, so there's the King in Portland, feuding with the King in Seattle, and we are currently located in Hood River, etc...

      In the game currently is a Caveman (+clubs, +cave lore, +survival, +feats of strength), a Viking (axes, sailing, pillaging), Druid (bear shift, lay on hands heal), Goblin (sneakery, skulldudgery, something with food I forget), Elf Ranger (shooting, wilderness, see in the moonlight), Gnome Guide (map knowlegde, ability to go unnoticed)...there are more I just forget.

      Note it's low powered, character creation is almost instant, so people drop in and out all the time and it's fine.

      Zero HP is a knock out. Your friends can save you, and wake you up after the fight. Or you can get captured if they have to run away.

      We had one player die because I told them that unlike a video game, they can do whatever they want. So he stabbed himself to death, in the heart. We had another char going about a minute later. Lol.

      For the 1-2 hour sessions, I plan 3 encounters. Based on what they told me they wanted to do at the end of last session.
      0 - Last time we did X, since then Y has happened, right now you are in Z situation, what do you do?
      1 - Social (which often turns into a fight. This is the door guard in the 5 Room paradigm).
      2 - Challenge (If #1 wasn't a fight, this is a fight, the baddies guards maybe. Else it's a challenge, pit, trap, lava, puzzle, whatever...)
      3 - Climax (usually a fight with a tough boss, multi state, threats, speaking, etc...)

      If I need a bit more, there might be a wandering monster or random encounter.

      Turn order is passing a giant d20 around. We only use the d20. They CAN alter the turn order if they want, but they never do, they just go in turn.

      Complex things like conditions, like poised or stunned or whatever are simplified to lose a turn (stunned, knocked down), lose a hit, or roll with disadvantage for a bit.

      I give advantage if any player can tell me a cool plan, any cool plan, that's advantage. This is my roleplay carrot.

      anyway, that's the gist. If they want more complexity, it's easy enough to start adding things like attributes and powers/abilities.

      Oh, leveling is +1 hit, and of course +1 to whatever you are good at. Your level bonus. You level every 5 XP, It's 1 point for surviving (which means you had to show up!), 1 point of the whole group survives, and 1 point for completing the night's mission, and sometimes an extra point for Awesome Player of the Night but that one can cause some friction, so I switched it to an extra point for completing a major epic win.

      For Difficulty level, I think it's CR in 5e. I do 10 for easy, 13 medium, 16 hard, 19 epic.

      Meh. Hope that helps. Probably not. Lol.


    6. ------------------------------------------------------

      So, like an enemy would be:
      -Skeleton: Hits 1, Damage 1, Difficulty 7 (that's the 'to hit' number, but I often just do a scene number, like in ICRPG).

      -The Necrodancer: H 6, Dam 1, Dif 16. Raise Skeletons (1d6 Skeletons appear), Raise Dead (Ressurect, takes hours, the revived come back flawed). Powers are based on dancing.


      So like, a whole night's session would be a random encounter in the woods on the way to the Necrodancer's house, an empty house you can search to find the underground tunnel to her ressurrection chamber. If you aren't quiet, she'll ambush you with skeletons, if you can sneak in, you can catch her before she raises skeletons.

      Lol, okay, I'm spamming now. I'm just saying how I do it. With 8 year olds, grandmas, and a rotating group.

    7. Note I don't have any dedicated casters, but if I did, they'd memorize 1 spell per level, roll to cast, lose a hit if they fail at casting it due to exhaustion. So yes, you can fail a cast and KO yourself/pass out.

      When I do get a dedicated caster, I'm going to do a magical mishap table for critical fails. Because those are tons of fun. Roll multiple times if you are wearing anything metal!

    8. Okay now I'm really spamming, lol.

      I just wanted to add that I do ALL the math for everyone. They don't track anything, I just do it. It's simple enough. Difficulty rating minus any bonus they might have from their character. But even that is too much for some people, so I just do all the math and tell them what to roll.

      Also, hard rule that doesn't make sense to some, I don't split the party. We play cooperative, and if a player wants to do something that's going to send the whole party on a tangent, like trying to assassinate Lord Algood during dinner or some such, the group has to decide on it or we don't do it.

      Okay, lol, that's enough.

    9. Okay, on more. Lol. Initiative.

      The players go first, unless there's a reason they don't. No rolls or anything. If they walk into a room and don't look up, well, the giant spider on the ceiling rolls first. If they are trying to talk their way passed the goblin guards, and fail, well the goblins will attack while the players are still jibber jabbering. Lol.

      I honestly have no idea how to run 'real initiative' like D&D does. Even when I ran Red Box back in the day, this is how we did it. Players go first, unless they don't. :-)

    10. This is a great, lightweight system. I can totally see using it for a library club or community center. I think you have something really worth sharing here.

      Would you be comfortable with me sharing it as a post?

    11. Yeah no problem.

      I'll get it boiled down and up on drivethru at some point, but right now I'm in the middle of a novel, so who knows when I'll get to it.

    12. Dude one thing I stumbled upon without even knowing what I was doing, was making the setting be the surrounding region.

      Everyone knows the major landmarks. Columbia River, Willamette River, Mt. Hood (where the Dwarves Live), Mt. Saint Helens (aka Broken Top, where dwells the Lava Lord), Elves of the Olympic Peninsula, etc...

      Not needing to really lore dump anything is a HUGE boost for speed, clarity, noobs, was totally on accident, I just knew it was easy for the kids and parents.

    13. A couple of more things from my notes:
      -Little kids can roll their age as the difficulty number. this makes our 6 year old an MVP. Lol.
      -You keep both dice with Advantage, so you can hit twice. This is my fav rule and I'm surprised I forgot it. I use advantage to promote roleplay, creative play, so I really give oomph to this. It's one of the only rules players need to know. First, how many hits do you have, and what that means, and 2nd rule to know is if you are creative, or just explain to me what and how you are goign to succeed at a thing, you get to roll 2 dice.
      -Double damage on nat 20, of course. We haven't had any double nat 20's yet from an advantage role, but I can't freakin' wait for that.
      -Lose a turn on a crit fail, or disadvantage next turn. I usually narrate it as a slip and fall. Stumble, etc...
      -Fleeing is usually automatic.
      -Whoever lands the death blow on a boss type creature gets to narrate it if they want. That's more of a DM thing that broadly applicable, but it's especially fun for younger kids.

      Lol. I do believe that's it. :-)

  2. Great write-up, hoss! Those x-rated mags would be a treasure, indeed. You have fantastic stories happening, so I'm not worried about your campaigns... gaming finds a way.

  3. O/T - Got a new rule for the cyclopedia. Self made. (Sorry to post it here.)

    Every time a d20 is rolled for combat, saving throws, or skill checks, roll a d12 Karma die alongside it. This includes monster/NPC attacks.
    Regardless of the outcome of the d20, apply the Karma result.

    12: Something good for the PC happens. This could be anything appropriate to the situation. DM fiat, but occasionally offering the player a choice can be entertaining. (Would you like advantage on your attack next turn, or advantage on the damage roll right now?)

    1: Something bad for the PC happens. This could be anything appropriate to the situation. DM fiat. (PC gets disadvantage, monster gets advantage, drop a weapon, armor or weapon is damaged, break a tool, jam a lock, attract unwanted attention, wandering monster arrives, monster attack cuts off coin purse, the seduction attempt works way too well and you gain a stalker or STD, your dagger gets stuck in the monster, etc.)

    A Blessing can increase the "something good" to a roll of 11-12. Blessings can stack to a max of 9-12, but must be from separate sources. Blessings last until removed (however that may happen). Don't annoy the priest!

    A Curse can increase the "something bad" to a roll of 1-2. Curses can stack to a max of 1-4, but must be from separate sources. Curses last until removed (however that may happen). Be careful striking down a witch - only she may know how to remove that curse!

    A character can be both cursed and blessed. They do not offset each other.

    Cursed or blessed magic items like a pet rock or lucky socks are entertaining. It's even more entertaining if the item has some condition (petting the rock for 5 minutes, not washing the socks) to enable the karmic increase. It's possible for an item to bestow either a blessing or a curse, depending on how the player/PC treats it. (A depressed or angry pet rock is a terrible burden, especially if you try to abandon it.)

    As a further option for role playing, roll Karma at dawn each day. That is how the PC's day is going to go. Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of the bedroll. Some days, opportunities just seem to fall into your lap.

    1. Sounds like a great way to add a little extra chaos into a game.

  4. "And I don't think that this needs to be confined to improvisational play. If one plans in this state of mind, if I were to draw a map of the wasteland while imagining what would give both of them the kinds of experience I know thay would be happier for having played with, I could populate it very swiftly."

    This is my process, more or less. Once I learn a group of players and the sort of things they like to interact with, I can build campaigns a piece at a time and mostly stay ahead of the players without working up a lot of stuff they aren't interested in.