Warning: This blog entry is going to criticize a PTA game (Powered by The Apocalypse). If historical precedent holds, this means PTA fans will fall upon it and its author like jackals upon a luckless gazelle. This is fine. I do however ask that said jackals (1) be literate in English, the language in which the entry is penned, and (2) then actually use this ability to read the entry before leaving comments. Thank you. -Zookeepin' Zak
It was part of the PTA family of games--that is, Powered by The Apocalypse--meaning a game mechanically inspired by Apocalypse World*. It was a pro wrestling themed game.
Jeff is a big wrestling fan and we all had fun inventing wrestlers, including a juggalo wrestler who hit people with bottles and Jacques LaRoque, a proud Quebecois separatist lumberjack. I played The Leviathan--a phlegmatic mountain of muscle (Power +3) who, behind-the-scenes, was a cerebral, introspective man who disdained the showmanship and foolishness of the circuit but kept on in order to put himself through his PhD.
We all liked our characters and had fun playing them but, as expected, we agreed afterward that the game system seemed to do nothing at all worth doing--and we cast about for other systems we could use.
What Went Wrong?
Part of it has to do with the set up of this particular game. The idea is fine: you don't play Hulk Hogan (a character in the ring) you play a guy named Terry trying to become successful as a professional wrestler. We liked this idea. I might repeat that a few times, since PTA fans are, by and large, kinda slow and may read this: we liked this idea, we liked this idea, we liked this idea. The biggest problem was twofold:
-The main action of the game set-up (PTA games are much-vaunted for requiring little or no prep) is in the ring. That is, a series of matches.
-Wrestling is fake.
Inside the ring, on top of the usual oblique bunraku-show of storygame combat (Am I rolling vs Work or Power? Can I redescribe what I'm doing so it's about Power, since that's my good stat? Is there any reason to ever not?), you have a match where you have no goal other than serially doing moves (which, if impressive, gain Audience--the xp stat). So while cool wrestling moves are one of the high points of the game (as Jacques LaRoque came toward me with a sliding kick, I swatted his foot aside, spinning him 180 degrees on the mat and grabbed him by the hair in an illegal maneuver) there's no mechanical incentive to describe a cool move (you're still just rolling + Power) and a mild social disincentive to do it (the faster you shut up, the faster other people get to play, including the 3-4 players that aren't even in this match).
Outside the ring, where our characters should be genuinely interesting (The Leviathan, being a postgrad, is actually fairly sympathetic to Quebec separatism and dislikes the frog-baiting that his manager encourages him to do on-screen) there is no support at all:
You are all entertainers competing with each other to gain Audience and become more popular than the other wrestlers--that is the goal. Yet....on top of all the other problems with PTA games, this means that there are very few incentives to do anything behind the scenes with other PCs besides:
-Injure them (which takes your friend out of the game so socially sucks).
-Get into fights with them causing you to gain "Heat" with them. (Which means that there is no reason to do anything but have a conflict, but nothing about the conflict matters so long as it doesn't escalate to someone getting injured.)
Like, after the match...
"I hate you, Jacques Laroque!"
"I hate you as well, Leviathan!"
Ok we both got 1 Heat from that, unless one of us wants to hurt the other one in real life and sideline the next player for an entire session, there's no further mechanical purpose this behind-the-scenes encounter can serve. At this point we can and will keep having fun acting but.....this needs and has no rules? And every second we do this just delays arbitrarily the point at which we switch to the actual wrestling matches and involve other players.
Acting out of the ring (like cool moves in the ring) is the point--and the system disincentivizes it.
Means-Incentives vs Ends-Incentives
In a way, PTA games are pro wrestling: it matters that you dazzlingly leaped through the air onto your opponent--it doesn't matter if that is actually a way to hurt a guy in that situation. The system doesn't care about effectiveness, it only cares about the spectacle. You are only incentivized to do the move not think about what would work and engage the inventions born of necessity.
It speaks to a larger problem with PTA games for people who have played traditional ones or for people who play them as their first game. To back away from the white-hot-button of claiming PTA games are imperfect (I can already hear the trolls going "Zak says PTA is pro wrestling but OSR games are real lol" which I do hope no-one reading is stupid enough to believe) I'll use an example of a game everyone agrees is a mechanical disaster: the original RIFTS:
RIFTS, like most Palladium games, had xp for good plans--if I am right in quoting from memory A critical plan or action that save the entire group or a large number of people: 15 xp. I remember because it was a relatively large reward and so I was always angling for it. The (mild) problem with this well-meaning reward is that it is redundant: your fellow PCs not dying is its own reward, and saving people already has a separate reward.
So the game rewards the means (the plan or action) and the end (everyone being saved). So you get rewarded for both and that's not necessary, it just inflates the math.
All kinds of games have rewards like this where you're essentially rewarded for doing things in the genre instead of-, or in addition to-, successfully achieving the goals that characters in the genre want to achieve. And, of course, old-school D&D and its ilk instead successfully incentivize all kinds of emergent lunacy by the simple expedient of handing out xp for gold or defeating foes.
We can call these rewards-for-steps-along-the-path "means rewards" and call the simpler ones "ends rewards".
Storygames are especially fond of rewarding means-over-ends, because, so far as I can tell from their discussions online:
-A disproportionate number of them are afraid of dying, so the games make it hard to die and "Do this cray thing 'cuz it'll keep you alive" won't work as an incentive
-A disproportionate number of them aren't very intelligent, so the connection between "Get into the spice merchant's good graces" and "Steal the spice ship and its cargo" isn't really apparent to them, so they need to be told they get rewards by saying things like "You are a rogue, every time you deceive someone, gain xp!", and
-Despite being unintelligent, a disproportionate number are dimly aware there is this thing called capitalism that has contributed to them being unintelligent and they get that that's bad (all true), so the idea of granting mechanical advancement for gold sounds a lot like bad capitalism which is bad and bad but also bad, so they never really wrapped their precious lil storygamer heads around how goal-incentives work
Scenes themselves have no end goals (unlike many trad RPGs where they could end with an advantage or disadvantage developing for you during the scene), you can't get anything out of them unless you trigger a move.
-Like Apoc World you have a long or generalizable move list you kinda need to remember in order that scenes are constantly triggering moves so you make mechanical progress--and you need to always interject the moves at the right moments to make progress, or
-Like the wrestling game, you haven't got many moves so you have a lot of scenes which not only aren't mechanically helpful to you but you know at the beginning aren't going to be mechanically helpful and so now you're just outside the action of in-game progress and delaying the time until you get to the scenes that do create in-game progress. i.e. a strong mechanical and social disincentive to roleplay.
Meanwhile in a trad RPG the goals of your player and that of the PC in a scene often align, so that there is a strong incentive for both of you to get whatever it is the PC wants to get during that scene. Taking actions which seem like the kind of thing your guy would do isn't the point, simply getting the thing that player wants in the scene is the point and the tropes happen as a result.
A really good design doesn't reward Peter Parker for angsting about his personal life, it rewards him for, say, trying to meet commitments and punishes him for failing so the angst will just happen--along with a lot of other things characteristic of the genre. It requires some insight into where a story comes from, not just listing tropes and incentivizing them.
Turns out the implied trad engine "Decide what you want, when you get it gain xp" is actually tremendously flexible and powerful for both action and drama.
Ok, but who cares?
Lots of people like PTA games and are perfectly happy with means-incentives. So what's the problem? Nothing if you're them--but if you like games that push you to do things you wouldn't do without the game or have a lot of emergent mayhem, they can be a little thin. Means incentives don't push invention beyond the expected limits of the genre--any invention is mere gravy. Ends incentives tell you "The standard trope didn't work, think harder".
In other news, INTERNATIONAL LOTFP FANS: if you buy a shirt before wednesday you get free shipping WORLDWIDE on everything in the package INCLUDING BOOKS.
It is said that among the Jews there were once wizards who, after creeping from the beds of Christians, smeared fluids vital--still fresh from these fornications and interfaith adulteries--across the graven faces of their golems while whispering words from the Zohar, thus imparting movement and intellect to these stone mockeries of the will of the Creator. Speaking as a Jew I can tell you straight up: it’s all true. (Place campaign mcguffin here) has been with the Jews since before the age of the First Temple where it was once held within the sacred Kodesh haKodashim, and the witch’s notebooks found therein illuminated to only the holiest and most learned rabbis the true nature of reality. It is now housed on the lowest and most hidden level of the library beneath the Synagogue of the Levantines (or El-Geniza) in Fustat, Egypt. Few attend this ancient library, as those who would seek the most esoteric knowledge hidden there must contend with golems left by the kabbalists and baal shem of the distant past.
These golems resemble the gargoyles of medieval architecture, human-sized, save that each has a Hebrew name of god engraved on its forehead. Each can use a different spell associated with that name at will. Inside each golem’s mouth is a yad (a wandlike object with a carved hand at the tip used to turn the pages of the Torah) which, when the golem is destroyed, can be used to turn the pages of the texts that teach the spell associated with the golem (though these texts may be in any of a hundred languages). Without the appropriate yad the text is unreadable. There are dozens of each golem throughout the forgotten halls of the library.
Encounters on levels 25-35, roll d100, or d10 on levels 34 and 35:
6-El Shaddai golem
8-Roll d8 twice on this table
9 Degenerated Baal Shem
10-14 Red sunset cobra
15-19 d4 eggshell scorpions
20-21 Jackal eating dead Baal Shem
22-00 No encounter
HD 12HP 70Speed 120’ Armor 20 (18 vs blunt weapons, 16 vs pick-axes or similar point-force weapons) Attack +10 choke/claw d12 or by spell as 12th-level caster:
YHWH God's Eye (level 3 cleric)— Range: touch. Duration: d4 rounds+cleric level. The eye of the cleric's god falls upon the target. The target must strictly obey the tenets of the god's faith and holy teachings at all times or suffer d8+(cleric level) damage per round of disobedience.
ElWarmask (level 3 cleric or m-u)—Caster cuts the face from a slain foe (this takes 1 round and a successful Dex check). The face then will magically adhere to the face of the caster or a target and grant them the physical (str, con, max hp and combat and damage bonuses), mental (int, magic-user spells) or spiritual (wis, cleric spells) of the dead foe for one round per level of the caster. The target or caster must have slain the foe.
EloahDivine Lacuna(level 2 cleric)—No save. Range: Touch. A single god chosen by the caster cannot see the target. The target cannot be directly helped, harmed, or in any way affected by any cleric spells cast by a devotee of that god's faith or otherwise relying on the power of that god.Lasts a number of days equal to the cleric’s level.
ElohimTwist of Cain (level 3 cleric)—Range: 100’. No save. Target briefly sees an apparition of every being s/he has slain. The target is stunned until s/he makes a successful save. The save is made at a minus equal to the number of digits in the total tally of the target's kills.
ElohaiZealous Repetition(level 1 m-u)—Range: 20' On a failed will/save, the target must repeat that action every round (s/he may change targets) until s/he succeeds on a save.
El ShaddaiObsession Curse (level 2 m-u)—Range: Touch. Failed save means the target becomes obsessed with an object of the caster’s choice. The target must do things like make a will or spell save to get away from the object and otherwise avoid acting all Gollum about it in any other circumstances. The target is at -4 in combat if not touching the object on account of being distracted unless it is actively fighting to secure the object in which case it is at +4.
Tzevaot Total Empathy (level 4 cleric)—Range: 20 feet. No save. Two targets are chosen: a "donor" and a "receiver". The receiver becomes completely aware of the donors struggles in life on the most visceral level. The receiver knows the donor's most powerful desires and fears but will not consciously act to exacerbate the donor's situation. Unless the donor creature is suicidal, the receiver cannot harm the donor in any way. The receiver may, if s/he desires, make a will/spell save to stop the feeling once every 24 hours but the knowledge gained remains.
Degenerated Baal Shem Wizard-scholars who never escaped the library, now hideous: they crawl on bellies and have legs and tails like desert lizards. They are otherwise unarmed, unarmored magic-users or clerics of level 2d6.
Red Sunset Cobra—a species of spitting cobra, likes to hide in the stacks
HD 1 HP 4 Speed 90’ Armor 14 Morale 8 Attack Bite +2 to hit d4 (can spit up to 8’) and save vs Poison each round until a save is made, taking 1hp per failed save. If any saves are failed the affected body part will swell grotesquely and the character will take 4hp every morning until it is treated.
HD 1 HP 3 Speed 120’ Armor 13 Morale 9 Attack +1 to hit d4 plus Save vs poison or go blind until you save.
HD 1 HP 5 Speed 120’ Armor 15 Morale 7 Attack +1 to hit d2hp.
Connections: If the locals get the feeling the party are adventurers, they’ll tell them the legend of Zirzuuza (G12). Local Jews may ask you to take letters to relatives in Prague (D3).
(This is one of 100 adventures from the upcoming module Violence In The Nympharium from Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
You get 10 skills, they are each linked to a stat and work like that stat + your Level. Right now that's +1.
What skills? ANY SKILL YOU WANT. This is a good opportunity to world-build--if you get "Technomancy" congratulations you just put technomancy in the setting.
But, like stats, if you invent a stupid skill the GM doesn't like--in the bin. No replacement.
Items: you get 2d6 items, you must be able to carry them and find a picture of them in a Rifts book. They cannot be a unique artifact. Once rolled, you will lose d6 random ones.
You get d4 Special things. Mutations, innate powers, spells, claws, vehicles whatever it is that makes your kind of race/class interesting.
Again: if you invent a stupid one, the GM can veto it.
Whatever you like. If it's stupid, the GM is allowed to reskin you into a pre-existing Rifts base class (psi-stalker, cyberknight, etc) of their choosing.
Here's the first ever character for Trash Rifts, made by Jeff Gameblog:
Skizzo McGirk, drifter
Dumb Luck 16
Brute Force 11
Common Sense 9
Drive Wicked Cool Land Vehicle (Deftness)
Jury-Rig Stolen Equipment (Ingenuity)
Punch Goon (Brute Force)
Avoid Automatic Gunfire (Deftness)
Lay it on Thick with the Ladies (Charm)
Survive on a Scavengers Diet (Brute Force)
Make Promises You Can Actually Keep (Common Sense) (I may veto this one)
Recruit Banditos for Daring Raid (Charm)
Turn Death into a Fighting Chance For Survival (Dumb Luck)
Sneak like a Fucking Ninja (Deftness)
Flunked out of Skull Boy officer school but still knows a lot of their protocols and procedure
Used to run a bloodmobile on the Mexican border - friendly with several draculas
Never met a drug he didn’t like
Vibro-Claws (if you think I’m going to pass on a small chance to be Megadamage Wolverine, you are crazy) --------------------
And one by Geist. Giles De Rais MK 2 Summoner
Low Cunning: 10
Social Competence: 6
Self Esteem: 6
Compel Obedience (Low Cunning)
Barter (Social Competence)
Argue (Self Esteem)
Avoid Consequences (Luck)
Smash Someone in the Teeth (Violence)
Know About Demons (Low Cunning)
Communicate with Ghosts (Willpower/Social Competence)
Skull Bedecked Body Armor
Megadamage Samurai Sword
Demon summoning tome
Splurgoth Staff Special:
Immediate Comprehension of Written Word
Psionic Manta Ray Mount
art by shawn cheng
And one by me: Slith —serpent mutant
Investment in this situation 8
Lifting thingss 7
Noticing stuff 6
Clossssse combat 16
Fixing things 13
Tending woundsss 13
Hunting beastss 16
Pilot things 13
Seek Bargains 8
Pair of vibro katanas
Congealing spit (medical)
Preview Edition of Luka Rejec's Witchburner Adventure . Luka did the best One Page Dungeon and it looks to be a nice Warhammer-style adventure a little off the beaten path. Full of interesting NPCs. And....I won't give it away. But it's got a good twist.
A new OSR D&D podcast... Our aesthetic ideal is The Eric Andre Show plus Hard to be a God plus I Hit It With My Axe. Episodes will never have ads, will never be longer than an hour, and will always contain vulgarity, disregard for plot, and whimsical acts of pointless violence.
Vertical Slum is no joke. A weird sci-fi city in exotic detail featuring "The God Who Dreams in Pillars and Is a Boy" "The God Which Pulses Quivers And Collecs" and more. A bit like Carcosa meets Vornheim? I'm liking it and trying to figure out how to adapt it for my game. And I dig the character sheet.
In fairy tales magic is reliable: if the leprechaun wants you to be a donkey, you're gonna be a donkey. No save.
Magic in that context is just the continuation of Nature by other means. And Nature is, if not exactly Good, then at least implacable and to be respectd.
In D&D, it's somewhat less reliable--the sufficiently tough, clever or spiritually advanced can escape it, sometimes you even have to target it and land a hit as if it were a mere superpower, like Superman's heat vision.
It's still way more reliable than combat (as "caster supremacy" conspiracy theorists are quick to point out).
In classic pulp stories and in games that try to emulate them like Dungeon Crawl Classics, magic is extremely unreliable. It is Things Best Left Untouched By Mortals. Results go all over the place, they can fizzle or backfire or result in discoveries.
As usual, the Rosetta Stone here is Tolkien vs classic pulp (Lovecraft, Lieber, Vance, etc):
Tolkien lays out a fairytalish paradigm of magic as primarily a moral force: creatures who use it are in tune with higher things. Magic does what it says on the tin because it is the tin: the way the world is supposed to be working itself out. Magic only goes wrong and becomes weird when in the hands of the unworthy (like The One Ring). (As the OSR Discord reminds me, Dr Strange, Dr Fate and The Force in Star Wars also all work on this paradigm.)
The pulp paradigm doesn't so much posit a difference in magic itself as a difference in who a protagonist of a story could be: the unworthy--for whom magic is a risky proposition--are generally the focus.
So you have Lovecraft characters trying to use forbidden lore to gain knowledge and power, Lieber has the morally somewhat Grey Mouser as a sorcerer's apprentice who can't always get a spell right, and Vance has the inimitably amoral Cugel as much abused by-, as using-, magic.
Tolkien might agree they were getting what they deserved from magic, he just might not agree they were fit subjects for a story. At least not one of his.
In that context, it's easy to see why the game with the famously unreliable magic is also the one where it says right there on the book that you're no hero.
Question: Does this mean cleric spells should be inherently more reliable than wizard ones? My instinct is yes.
Ok, so using Angus Warman's new toy, you can turn a page of your blog into a custom DM screen for any setting or module you happen to be running.
I shall demonstrate.
Right now I'm running Maze of the Blue Medusa, so...
In less than 5 years, if they're smart, every WOTC module will have one of these available on mobile designed specifically for that product (in Ravenloft? Here's an encounter table full of werewolves and pitchfork villagers and a treasure table with coffin nails on it). And in less than 12--if they're smarter--they'll have a simple template to build your own with graphics and little buttons with pictures of potions and crap on them. Until then: DIY.