For years I’ve wanted to run a game set in the world of Labyrinth, because it is awesome and the essence of faerie for this child of the 80s. At first I thought of using Changeling: The Dreaming (CtD) because of the obvious connection with faeries, but I never quite grasped what angle to approach this from.
When Changeling: The Lost (CtL) came out, I got the sense that this would be the right game to handle adventuring in the Labyrinth. The plot of the movie is, in essence, a classic changeling scenario, except that someone goes into faerie for the baby,[ref]We’ll leave the Labyrinth-as-sexual-coming-of-age discussion for another day[/ref] so we could use characters that had been taken to the Labyrinth, escaped and had to go back for whatever reason, or even use a regular human like Sarah.
I’ve never done either of those. CtD simply had a different vibe that was directly tied to the faeries in the mortal world, and CtL, though it was certainly dark enough, had a bit too much going on for my tastes.
CtL, however, has one bit that REALLY got me excited, the idea of Contracts as the source of changeling magic. Now we’re talking. I would strip that game of all the other simulationist stats and get down to a few essential pieces of game mechanics that truly speak to what a changeling is, highlighting the Contracts.
So this is what I would do for my Labyrinth game:
Here is the next The Breakfast Club character converted into Lady Blackbird-style stats for my hack. As with Bender, if you are familiar with Lady Blackbird (and if you’re not, go get it now), you will see pieces work with each other. I’m hoping you can also start to see how the characters interact with each other a bit. It should be fairly obvious by looking at Bender and Claire that inter-player conflict is a big deal in this hack. Not all conflicts need to be problematic, but certainly it is the way in which the five kids challenge each other. Let me know if you have any feedback about Claire; she was fairly hard to figure out, game-stats wise, but I think I captured her essence.
Here you go, the draft character sheet for Bender. If you know how to play Lady Blackbird, you’ll understand how the pieces work. Of note, you’ll see there’s references to conflict between players; this will be a main feature of this hack, unlike in Lady Blackbird where there are no explicit rules for it. The conditions are also different to fit the theme and setting, and at least one of them can be suffered multiple times (in Bender’s case, 8 times – you figure which one out). I will keep working on the others; they are a bit harder to figure out than Bender.
Last week at Gen Con, I had a chance to both run and play Lady Blackbird once more, which was just great. I played this little game extensively a couple of years ago and it never ceases to amaze me how much a few pages can deliver. After running it, I was talking to some friends at the lobby of the Embassy Suites about the game, comparing notes on how we ran the game, and I made the observation that for me, Lady Blackbird really sings when you have all the characters in one location, with their agendas out in the open where they can see how much at cross-purposes they are. After that it’s just a matter of seating back and enjoying the ensuing show.
Later, as I went back to thinking about Princess, Jock & Nerd, it occurred to me that the Lady Blackbird format would be a really amazing and simple way of doing this The Breakfast Club game since that is exactly what the movie is about: putting these characters in one location and letting them interact with each other. This was confirmed in my mind as I played the game on the last day of the con and then spoke about it some more with more people, including some of my players from the weekend.
I mentioned this on Twitter and immediately the idea was both liked and supported. It makes sense; Lady Blackbird is an experiment on character interaction at its core and fits well the theme and format of the movie.
So that’s what I’m doing now, turning The Breakfast Club into a Lady Blackbird hack that can be played quickly and in a short period of time, which fits my design goals to a T. In addition, Sean Nittner of the Narrative Control podcast issued me a challenge to have this done by the end of September so he can run it at Big Bad Con in Oakland, CA, which works for me as it lights a fire under my butt to get this done quickly. To that end, I’m just gonna go straight into writing, as opposed to blogging the process as I go along.
I’m starting it all by cheating, though.
I’m a child of the 80s, raised on a steady diet of romantic comedies and high school movies, king among them being The Breakfast Club. Movieland High School is as mythical a land for me as is Middle Earth or A Galaxy Far, Far Away; it bears little to no resemblance to my own high school experience, but it captures my imagination as if there were dragons or lightsabers. Naturally, it has always seemed to me to be a perfect setting for a roleplaying game.
I’ve been aware of fellow blogger Michael Wolf (Stargazer’s World) has a free game called Warrior, Rogue & Mage in which those three words are the characters’ stats as opposed to their class. MWP’s Leverage also does this with the roles of Hacker, Hitter, Grifter, Thief & Mastermind being also character stats. Given how in Breakfast Club the whole point of the movie is that the characters are/are not the stereotypes of a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, it seemed riffing off the roles-as-stats idea in these two games was the way to go.
Thus I came up with Princess, Jock & Nerd.
I always had the vague notion that what I had termed Joys and Sorrows was where the core of this game I’ve been working on lied; in a game about the loss of Humanity, the loss of the Self, Joys and Sorrows represented that which defined what was being lost. But for some reason that I couldn’t pinpoint I wasn’t entirely happy with the mechanic (and I call it that only as a technicality, as it never really became part of a moving system but remained only a cog off to one side).
A few weeks ago while at work, I had a small Eureka moment in regards Joys and Sorrows and the central place I wanted them to have but hadn’t quite achieved. The game, in essence, is about the loss of that which makes you Human, and the stories that emerge from that downward spiral. I was on to the right idea with Joys and Sorrows in that these are player-created statements that describe that which is important and connect the character to their Humanity, as well as defining where the sources of interest and conflict will lie as the story develops. But it was still clunky. I hadn’t found a way to express mechanically, on the physical game level, the loss of these bonds.
And then it hit me.
A statement from my latest post on Rebuilding Vampire about the Vampire: The Masquerade character sheet turned into an all-day Twitter discussion about character sheets in RPGs in general. It was a good series of chats, actually, but it highlighted very quickly that I was talking to two different groups of people and that what I wanted to convey about why I said what I said about the VtM sheet was not clear at all for those who lacked a certain context. This post is me trying to explain my views on character sheets and what I see is their role in an RPG. I would love it if from there we can launch a greater conversation about RPG character sheet design in general.
In 2008 I listened to episode 54 of the Master Plan podcast, in which Ryan Macklin interviewed Daniel Solis. The name of that episode, and the idea that was hashed out over the half-hour interview, was that “A Cover Is A Promise.” Briefly (and really, you should listen to the episode to get the better explanation), Daniel poses the idea that when looking at the cover of an RPG, it gives the prospective customer a solid idea of either what you will do in the game or an emotion/theme that the game will create; the cover makes a promise of what’s to be found inside and in play. That phrase has stuck with me since then, and I have brought it up in various conversations ever since because it speaks to me, and solidifies a feeling I have had about roleplaying games that I simply had no way to voice. Following that line of thought, when I think of character sheets, this is the statement that comes to mind:
A character sheet is a map.
Over a year ago I wrote about two traits I wanted to focus on in my vampire game, traits I called Joy and Sorrow. These were to be brief phrases that described something that brought Joy to the vampire or cause her Sorrow; either way, they were emotional triggers that kept the vampire connected to her Humanity in the face of the imminent loss of it to the Beast.
Through all the various thought processes, version of the game I’ve assembled in my mind, playtest drafts, moments of frustration, through them all Joy and Sorrow remain at the core of my design. It’s simple why, really: to me, they are the fuel for conflict in my interpretation of the vampire myth via a roleplaying game.
Since V20 was announced, my mind has been churning old thoughts around on the back burner (I am in the middle of classes, after all), stirring them over low heat. Every so often a bubble escapes and a half-formed thought comes to the forefront, teasing me with things I won’t have a chance to pay closer attention to at least for another month. This past week, it was Joy and Sorrow. Again.
Yes, I know that I wrote a goodbye post to this series earlier this year, but what can I say, events in the last few weeks have conspired to bring this back from the dead (pun firmly intended). I’ll talk about the biggest one now.
White Wolf has surprised the gaming world by announcing a very special project to be published later this year, the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, to be released at the Grand Masquerade in September.
This quote from the Basic Design Directives for V20 by Justin Achilli sums it all up beautifully:
Vampire is our crazy ex-girlfriend and we’re scrawling her a handwritten note confessing a desperate, to-hell-with-everyone-else kind of love, and she’s agreed to give it one more go with us.
Last week, Phil Reed mentioned on Twitter and Tumblr that he’d been thinking about the Battletech CCG from the mid-90s. I recall it perfectly well; I was working at Hobbytown USA at the time and sold it, as well as played it a bit. I like Battletech a lot, and I agree that the CCG was a fun way to engage in the game without the need to have minis and terrain and all that. But then as now, I greatly disliked the collectible aspect. So my reply to Phil on Twitter was, “That’s one game I’d like to see in a complete set, not collectible. Maybe deckbuilding?”
Deckbuilding is a type of card game that appeared recently with the game Dominion. In it, instead of starting with a deck of cards and then playing, the object of the game is to build your deck from a common pool. Effects and exceptions make up the rest of the basic idea of this type of game. I played Dominion a couple of times last Gen Con and overall liked it. Since then, there’s been a few more deckbuilding games published and now the deckbuilding idea is being applied to dice and other bits as well.
As I said, I liked Dominion just well, but it left me wanting more. When I heard “deckbuilding,” the impression that I got was that we’d build the deck then fight it out. Not the case. Dominion, at least the version we played that night, had very little interaction between the players, if at all. It was like a game of 3-way solitaire. I want more. I want conflict in my deckbuilding game.