2018-07-19

Hacking Lasers & Feelings

I am a huge fan of the elegance and simplicity (and play value) of John Harper's Lasers & Feelings.

In a nutshell, L&F is a one-page game inspired by Star Trek and the music of The Doubleclicks. Character creation takes only a minute or two, each player choosing a few descriptors and setting a single character stat on a continuum between 1 (Feelings) and 6 (Lasers). This effectively means the character has two stats, because you have to roll under your number to succeed at Lasers (science & reason) and over your number to succeed at Feelings (rapport & passion). You get extra dice to roll if you are an expert or prepared to do the thing you describe, and the number of success you roll matters. There's a bit more to it than that, but not much.

Game play is a bit like a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game in that there are multiple shades of success, all rolls are player-facing, and the GMing advice echoes PbtA - play to find out what happens, use failures to push action forward, etc.

I have no experience with the game in long-form, but as a con game you can run in as little as 2-3 hours, it's fantastic. I've probably run it two dozen times that way. It's also a great game to hack and has inspired numerous derivations. I am going to write about some of the better ones in another article, but I want to go into the why and how and hacking L&F here.

Why is Lasers & Feelings so hackable?

  • It's fast and light, so it's a perfect way to play a setting that attracts you but either doesn't have a system yet or is tied to a system that's too heavy for your taste. Especially if you only want to experience the setting for 1-6 sessions. 
  • The text is short and most of it is universally applicable (e.g. GM advice), so you only need to re-write bits and pieces.
  • John has kindly released it under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, so you can make your hack public as long as you give John credit, don't charge $ for it, and share it under the same license.
  • It's a really fun game! (Who wants to hack a game that isn't?)

What do I have to change?

There are two levels to hacks, "re-skins" that just change the setting and "derivations" that mess with the mechanics. 

Re-Skins

To re-skin L&F you need to change three things:
  1. The dice poles. You do this by asking yourself how characters in your setting cope with challenges. You are looking for two complementary/opposite methods of dealing with the world. For a fantasy game it might be Might (fighting, feats of strength, hardiness) and Magic (lore, spellcasting, charisma). For a Lovecraftian horror game it might be Books (scholarly pursuits) and Bullets (action-oriented stuff). Keep in mind that your character will always have at least a 17% chance of succeeding at their worst pole. So a warrior in the aforementioned fantasy game could still attempt Magic (e.g. spell-casting or maybe just trying to use magic items). Honestly, setting your dice poles is probably the hardest bit of hacking you will do. You want something intuitive, meaningful, and cool. By setting your dice pools you are literally deciding what your game is about and what characters do in it.
  2. The character descriptors. This is really several things in one. In L&F you have descriptive characteristics: Style, Role, and Goal. Each is represented by a list of choices, e.g. "Choose a style for your character: Alien, Android, Dangerous, Hot-Shot, Intrepid, Savvy, or Sexy." You also have a few lists that describe the characters as a group or their key asset, the ship. The important thing is that these are all just lists of descriptors. Re-writing the descriptors and possibly changing the labels for the categories will give you a whole different feel. Think of this as the chrome of your setting. Want to create a L&F hack loosely based on the videogame Joust? Your roles might be: Knight, Bird-Tamer, Daredevil, Scout... Want a Fast & Furious hack? Your styles might be: Family, Sexy, Smart, Fearless... Be careful about descriptors that are vague or broad. You may find that they apply more often than not to actions, which can make them boring.
  3. The adventure generator. In L&F you have four random tables of six items each. Together they form a sentence that is the thesis or central problem of each session. Rewriting these tables (and possibly how they fit together to form the idea) describes some of the possible narratives in the setting, so it's worth taking some time here to think about variety. Try to make the combinations take you down a number of different story "types." A bad fantasy generator, for instance, would just tell you when and where you fight monsters. A good fantasy generator might have you intervening in a lover's quarrel between warring tribes in one game and digging up a dangerous artifact in another.
That's pretty much it for a re-skin! You can repeat John's excellent advice text or modify it to suit your tastes. 

Derivations

Some things you might change if you want to go deeper and make a derivative game:
  • Add "levels" or some other support for long-term play.
  • Mess with Laser-Feelings so that when you roll on (not over or under) your number something happens other than gaining insight. 
  • Swap out the adventure generator for something that works differently. I have seen some neat collaborative map-building things in this slot.
Some things you probably don't want to mess with:
  • Adding more ways to get dice. Adding dice dynamically ups the character's success rate. It's already fairly easy to get at least a mixed success, so keep it challenging.
  • On a related note, adding skills or stunts or spell lists or magic items. Essentially anything that would undermine/trump the descriptors as the thing that makes your character an expert or prepared.
  • Having more than one stat/two poles. Once you go with a third stat, you have essentially broken one of the game's core concepts. I have toyed with the idea of a second continuum that is "perpendicular" to the first. For instance you might create an Avatar hack that forces you to set a number between Fire and Water, and one between Earth and Sky (air), for instance.
  • Adding damage (hit points and weapon damage).

In any case, derivations need play-testing. The base L&F system is a tight design. If you monkey with the bones of the game you might throw the game play off kilter. Just be ready to re-balance the mechanics to keep the game fun and true to the original spirit. Or, if you are departing from the spirit of the original, think about where you are headed and how you are going to get there. Don't just bolt on mechanics from your favorite games. L&F is so lean that it could be like putting a snowplow on the front of your bicycle.

2018-05-18

Plundergrounds 6.5: Plundered Pages 1 (Free!)


Download: Screen - Booklet 

This 32 page zine compiles all the extra materials for Plundergrounds released to date, with revisions and lots of new content.

Inside you'll find:
  • Items, locations, monsters, NPCs, and effects that supplement the themes in issues 1-6 of Plundergrounds. 
  • Maps for Ape City and Kazarak, drawn after those issues were released. 
  • Fan-sourced content, like cool breath attacks and hoard curses for dragons, a plethora of dungeon doors, and three sample entries for ...
  • The Alpha World challenge! A creative exercise for making up more interesting fantasy settings.
  • Toolbox essays and commentary that were cut to make room for more adventure content. 
  • A dwarf shrine (move, spell, and item) that was first published in The Gauntlet Codex zines: https://www.patreon.com/gauntlet.
  • Brand new material centered around art that I commissioned but which went unused, including… 
  • A new map-based one-shot adventure, The Giant's Rest, featuring flora and fauna mutated by a magic pool and a dead giant's skeleton.


2018-04-24

Plundergrounds 6: The Black Gate


Plundergrounds is a series of theme-forward zines devoted to Dungeon World adventures. Each 24-page issue features a new and different setting with enough content to keep a group of players happy for 1-5 sessions.

Character death is a part of Dungeon World and the Last Breath move is one of the game’s signature elements. But what if death were the focus of a session or three? What terrible purpose would cause characters to journey in Death’s realm? What strange things lie beyond the Black Gate? How would they escape Death’s greedy clutches?

Journeys into the underworld are as old as literature, literally. Gilgamesh enters the land of the dead hoping to bring back the secret of immortality. Odysseus, desperate for advice, sailed to the edge and poured out libations to the seer Tiresias. Finding himself lost in the dark valley, Danté navigated the rings of hell to find a way back out. And those are just a few stories from Western culture. Look up Yudhishthira, Izanagi and Izanami, the hero twins of the Maya, Kaknu, and King Gesar!

“Appendix N” works for this issue are:

The Earthsea Trilogy (books, 1968-72), Ursula K. Le Guin. In Earthsea, dead spirits go to a dark valley under strange stars. That was my starting point.

City of the Singing Flame (short story, 1931), Clark Ashton Smith. I have always loved stories about magic portals and this story haunts me with its alluring, immolating column.

The Passing of the Grey Company (chapter in Return of the King, 1955), J. R. R. Tolkien. The tone of Aragorn’s ride to call out the oath breakers is so freaking awesome!

What You Carry (200 word RPG, 2017), Evey Lockhart. First line: “Awaken and fall through the bottom of your grave.” It’s amazing; read it and others at https://200wordrpg.github.io.

To purchase this issue, visit the Plundergrounds Back Issues page.

2018-02-27

PocketMod Games

PocketMod is a one-page, book fold format. It's a little tricky to work with at first, but the format is really pleasing for writing microgames. Here are some folding instructions and a couple of PocketMod games I made.


Space Trucker
http://www.rayotus.com/jsg/pnp-spacetrucker-pm.pdf
Space Trucker is inspired by 70s "trucker" stories/music - with a dash of Kung Fu, Space Opera, and Funk thrown in. The system is Minimal d6 by Norbert Matausch. The format was inspired by Sean Wills' Thronelands.

Flash Fantasy
http://www.rayotus.com/jsg/pnp-flashfantasy-pm.pdf
This game is an expression of the Minimal d6 system, by Norbert G. Matausch, suitable for playing OSR modules. Or at least that was my goal; you can decide if I succeeded.

Extra Funk, a Little Punk, and Disco Hobo Drunks
http://www.rayotus.com/jsg/pnp-spacetrucker2-pm.pdf
Space Trucker fan Greg Gelder created this cool supplement. It includes more characters, more trucks, more maniacs, more minions and monster, more planet names, and more missions! It also has a list of cool truck stops, a Galactic Citizen's Band radio jargon glossary, and a list of Swag/Style elements. Greg's purpose here is to expand on some of the promise of Space Trucker that didn't fit into the original PocketMod, specifically to add some funk, punk, disco, and hobo elements.

2017-12-19

Plundergrounds 5: The Far Erinyes


Plundergrounds is a series of theme-forward zines devoted to Dungeon World adventures. Each 24-page issue features a new and different setting with enough content to keep a group of players happy for 1-5 sessions.

The Far Erinyes is a crossroads - something that I think every GM can use. It's a city that sits at the nexus of several adventure worlds:

In This Issue  

  • The Olvani Spire is an island-city where people from all over the known world might run into each other. However, it's also at the edge of the known world and a secret world lies inside of the spire, so it might also be a place where people go to get lost. 
  • Of course the seas that surround the Erinyes provides grand opportunities for sailing adventures, and...
  • The Luminferous Ether is a jumping off point for sword-and-planet stories; swashbuckling in fantasy "space."
  • Finally, the mysterious world under the waves awaits those who might attempt to invade the realm of the Tritons!
In this issue you'll find lots of great questions and impressions to get things started, new monsters, new mini-systems, lots of quick NPCs, and three dangers in which characters might become embroiled.

To purchase this issue, visit the Plundergrounds Back Issues page.

2017-08-15

Plundergrounds 4.5: Pack World (Free!)


Download: Screen - Booklet

This 20-page free zine is a system-neutral, collaborative, campaign frame. It was originally intended to be part of issue 5, Rakka's Raiders, but the concept was a pet project for me and I wanted it to have its own space.

Pack World will help you quickly generate a campaign setting about a "pack" of riders who are devoted to each other and to their remarkable animal friends. Inspiration comes from The Dragon Riders of Pern and Elfquest.

Please! Feel free to share this post. I'd love to see it get into a lot of hands.

2017-08-01

The Easiest of Physical Zine Formats!

Are you intimidated by the idea of creating a physical zine? I am, or at least was.

I recently learned of a few, wonderful zine formats that greatly lower the fear factor. It's true that small successes breed larger ones, so I think I'm going to give one of these a try in the near future, hoping that it will give me courage to start sending out my digest-sized zine, Plundergrounds.

The Letter Zine
When I first learned of Christian Walker's The Tolling of the Great Black Bell, it blew my mind. Christian's zine begins as a hand-written/drawn artifact on both sides of one page. He copies his original onto colored paper, tri-folds it, and mails it in a standard envelope with a single stamp. He can even slip in several "back issues" without raising the postage, so let's say his cost per zine is something like 50 cents for postage plus maybe 15 cents a page for copying and paper stock, maybe another 10 cents for the envelope. Outside of his time, Christian is making and delivering a physical zine for 75 cents an issue. Brilliant. Easy. Useful!

I think my own mental block was that I always imagined a zine to be like a magazine or a book. It never occurred to me that a zine could just be a single page.

Black Bell (front/orange), What Danforth Saw (behind/yellow)

The Mini-Comic 
Another small zine I recently purchased was a comic called What Danforth Saw from artist Sean Poppe. I was expecting a digest-sized thing, so when I got a 3.5" by 5" envelope from him in the mail I was a little surprised. Inside was a blank piece of paper folded over a tiny booklet. The booklet was/is 3.25" x 3.75" and 20 pages long. (That number includes the cover and both sides of every page. IOW it is 5 strips of paper, printed on both sides and stapled/folded in the center.) The hand-feel was a bit like one of the old (horrible but also clever) Jack Chick tracts. It didn't even occur to me to feel "cheated" by the size. For one thing, I paid almost nothing for it. For another, the small format just seemed awesome! What a great idea to make the zine so that it fit in the kind of envelope that Thank You cards often use.

My one concern here is how to easily create the zine in this format. It seems like it would involve some fussy printing and cutting. One solution might be to use the PocketMod format. A PocketMod uses one sheet of paper, printed on one side only, to produce an 8-page pamphlet about the size of a playing card.

What's So Easy About These?
Both of these formats solve one of the biggest problems of the physical zine ... distribution. By exploiting standardized envelope sizes and mailing rates, they ensure that getting your zine to a reader will be easy. For your convenience...

USPS Size/Weight Limits
Domestic First Class
International First Class

EDIT: Follow Up!
So, it turns out that a 28 page zine the size of a half-page of US letter paper (5.5" x 8.5" tall) will fit into a mailing envelope (like this one) that conforms to the USPS requirements for a standard envelope! That means a single stamp. I tested it and it arrive at a friends house (on the other side of the US) in about 5 days. YAY!