Everyone is John - microReview

Every week I delve into an indie game and report back with musings about what I found. Today I look into a small story game from 2002 about a person who hears voices in their head: 

Everyone is John 

Free pdfby Michael B. Sullivan

I kept hearing about (pun, not intended) Everyone is John around the internets for quite some time, but I didn't have the chance to check it out until last weekend. In this game, both the players AND the GM are John - an insane man from Minneapolis, who hears voices in his head. Players take the role of those voices and fight among themselves for control over John. Each voice has its own secret agenda (obsessions) and will try to steer John to do its bidding. GM is responsible for the world, same as in traditional RPGs, but also plays the role of John himself.

It is a interesting experience for everyone around the table to play the same person. GM is there purely as a moderator. He gets to play John and talk to the voices in his head, but the game revolves around the players. They are the ones who create the story. Each player has their own goals and will try to fulfill them to score the most points at the end of the game (yes, this story game has winners and losers). The game ends when John dies, usually because one of the voices told him to do something that leads to death. This ads a layer of gamism to the experience - do you think you have fulfilled enough of your obsessions to guarantee victory? Then, why not kill John now? The other voices might do it any second.

The game uses a very simple 1d6 mechanic, but introduces some board game elements into the mix - scoring and blind bidding to be precise. Because of that it can be used as a RPG/Story Game gateway for your board gaming friends. To be honest, I don't think the game would benefit in any way from a more sophisticated system. The mechanic, as is, feels chaotic and out of control. Just as one would feel if they were to loose their minds. 

This is another great pick-up game. It can be played while waiting for the other players to arrive for your scheduled session. Even if you are not familiar with the game, you can grab, read it (it's under 1000 words in length) and start playing in minutes.

P.S The game's official website got shut down this winter, but the game itself can be found on the internet (so can the website, thanks to internet wizardry). I wish the author would grab his old designs and release their updated/streamlined versions as "Pay what you want" pdfs.

What makes The Old Ones so incomprehensible?

Have you ever struggled with explaining why just a glimpse of Eldrich monstrosities shatters the mind of a player character? How a giant squid-dragon makes your mind switch off? Well, until today, so did I. Just minutes ago, I found a great resource, that will help you describe this madness, on Reddit of all places (coincidence?).

User mikekozar_work does a great job in describing why human mind just can't handle the sight of a great old one. I am coping it over here for your delectation, but make sure to check out the whole thread for more info. It is a mine of great eldrich ideas!

"Big ugly squid." I wish I was still that innocent, still unaware of what...they really are. Once you know, once you really understand - or if you are among those damned to witness it yourself - once you know, you will never forget. It keeps me up at night, and if not for my physician's pity I would never sleep at all.

Squids. It's charming, frankly - the Old Gods, with bloated and frowning faces writhing with tentacles like the beard of Neptune. Like a God of Egypt, with a man's body and an animal's head. A curiosity, and little more.
The truth...well, I cannot tell you the truth, not properly, as a man of science should. These things are beyond our science. Still, I understand things about them that explain some of the reports, and perhaps you can carry on my research now that I can no longer pursue it.

It comes down to dimensions. We possess three - height, width, and depth. Grip a billiard ball, feel your fingers wrap around it, and you will understand. Now imagine a creature that existed in only two of those three dimensions, in a universe that described a simple plane through our own. To that creature, the billiard ball would appear to be a simple circle, growing and shrinking as it passes through the plane of the creature's universe. Imagine how our hand would look - strange fleshy circles filled with pulsing fluids, shards of bone, glistening meat. The creature could never understand what it was really seeing, as it could no more conceive of a hand than it could imagine a creature like us, moving freely in three dimensions and gripping billiard balls on a whim.

The Abominations, as you aptly described them, are to us as we are to that benighted creature. They exist in dimensions beyond our own, whose nature we can hardly guess. When they appear to us, we see only fragments of their bodies - long stretches of writhing flesh, glistening with juices that should not exist outside of a body, which whip through the air and vanish back where they came from in a way that our minds simply refuse to accept. Witnesses have tried to describe these as great tentacles, words failing them in the presence of such incomprehensibility. Those who heard the stories seized on this, and explained them as resembling cephalopods. This is a comforting lie, as there is nothing in the most stygian depths of the darkest sea that is not our beloved brother compared to the horrors of the Abominations.

This is a creature who is incomprehensibly alien, and our only glimpse is a sickening flash of writhing, elongated flesh that slips into our world and back out. Worse than the appearance of the creature, though, is its disappearance - your mind knows, on some level, that this creature - this hateful, hungry god of a creature - is not moving it's body between "here" and "away", but between being a glimpse of a writhing horror, and a horror that watches unseen.

Imagine our two-dimensional creature again, and imagine yourself to be a cruel child. If you chose to torment the creature, it would be powerless to resist. It cannot perceive you unless you chose to intersect its plane - you can watch its every move, and it cannot hope to escape your gaze. It would be the simplest thing in the world to push a pin through it, like a butterfly on a card. Take a glass of water and push it into the creature's plane and it will find itself trapped, drowning, in an inescapable sea. The creature is entirely at your mercy, and always will be.
Same as you. Same as me

micro Review - Intro & InSpectres

I check out a lot of games. From RPGs, trough card and board games, down to video games. There isn't a week, that I don't discover and investigate some type of game. I am especially interested in small and indie productions. They are the ones that usually have some interesting mechanic or a gimmick, that catches my attention. Sadly, many of those games fly under the radar of most gamers. In this recurring segment I try to will give some sort of spotlight to those small games I discovered. This is not a full review, just my impressions in a few paragraphs... a micro review.


micro Review?

Yeah, I call it micro review. The plan was to call it "ยตView"  with the fancy micro symbol that looks a bit like "u". It was a play on words so, it will look like "U View". This was supposed to encourage you to go and check the game out yourself. The idea was scrapped, it looked silly and didn't display correctly everywhere ;) Anyway...
There is a lot of great games out there, and a lot of brilliant people who create them, that don't get enough recognition they deserve. I hope that this little section will introduce you to some games, that you would otherwise overlook.

I am planning for those reviews to happen weekly. The plan is to (re)read/try the game around weekend and write my thoughts and musings during the week. The aim is to introduce you to the game in a "elevator pitch" manner - quick and fun, with focus on highlighting its strengths. Those micro reviews will always have a link to the place where you can get the game, so you are only one click away from checking it out. While those reviews will center on RPG related content, all types of games are fair play here - RPGs, Story Games, Board games and even video games. All games are cool! So without further ado, I introduce you to this week's micro review.


InSpectres by Memento Mori Theatricks


A true pick-up game. Your scheduled session was canceled? Some guy didn't show up? Fancy some horror-comedy in the vain of Ghostbusters? Open this book, get some D6s and start playing!

Players are InSpecter agents who, much like the ghostbusters, specialize in dealing with things that bump in the night. The game is a rules-lite, lighthearted horror, where anything can happen, as both the GM and the PCs can influence the plot. This is the main strenght of InSpectres - GM doesn't need to prepare anything! Plot hook is randomly generated and from there the dice decide what happens. You rolled well? You can decide what happened. Rolled poor? It's GM's turn to decide. Because no plot was prepared for the session, neither players, nor the GM knows what will truly happen during the adventure - they just make it up, as they go. Playing this game will teach you about story creation and improvisation. Because InSpectres is a comedy at its core even outrages ideas can be easily incorporated and it won't mess up the game. 

If it sounds like some kind of story game, you won't be far off. But, contrary to the story games of today, this game still feels like a proper RPG. Characters have attributes, gain experience (trough expanding their InSpectres franchise), there's a GM and all that jazz. It is a hybrid of story/narrative games and RPGs. If you wanted to try story games, but couldn't convince your RPG pals to give it a spin, where curious about narrative games in general, or want to test and polish your improv skills, while having a laugh - you can't go wrong with InSpectres!

P.S. If ghostbusters-like horror-comedy is not your cup of tea, try out InSpace from Lame Mage Productions - a free supplement where you play a crew of a starship investigating strange phenomena in spaaaaaaceee....

Earthdawn style magic items in Savage Worlds

Oh, Earthdawn, you magnificent beast. Such an amazing high fantasy setting... with a system so crunchy, that a single battle can take hours. Yet, among this plethora of crunchy rules, there is one mechanic, that changed how I handled this particular aspect of gaming ever since... the rules for magic items.

Earthdawn's magic items are they own magical beings, created by heroic deeds, instead of a mage in his tower. This way, each magic item is unique, has its history and various powers that relate to it. 
You can't simply identify the item with a scroll or magic spell like it is done in D&D and other major fantasy RPGs. To benefit from the magic item's power you need to to magically attune yourself to it. It is done by finding a "key knowledge" about the item and spending some time and Exp. The key knowledge might be the item's name or part of its history. Even achieving a particular deed with the item can count as a key knowledge and unlock new powers.

Each item has a several levels of power and key knowledge requirement. So the first power might be unlocked by identifying the items name that was given to it by its original owner. Next, you might have to learn that the item was used to slay a particular beast. Then you have to slay the same beast yourself. This approach changes the magic items from simple tools, into plot hooks and I think would be a great addition to any fantasy campaign. This is my take on this system for Savage Worlds.


Premise

There are no "mass-produced" magic items. Each is a unique being with its own history and "soul". Those items have levels of power that can be unlocked. The character feels the magic flowing trough the item (knows that it is a magic item) upon touching it, but needs to learn about it before it can harness this power. The item can always be used as a mundane version of itself. As the characters learn the item's secrets, they can unlock more of its powers by attuning themselves to it. 

Power Level and Key Knowledge

Each magic item has various power levels (explained in its description). To unlock a power, the character has to learn the key knowledge of the particular level and spend a Bennie. The key knowledge can be anything from the item's name, history, name of its original owner, finding out the origins of the metal that was used in forging it. It can also be a deed, like slaying a particular monster or bringing the item to its original owner's resting place.
A low level power with an easy key knowledge will give the character small benefits, like +1 to a particular task, or making the sword's runes shine brightly and giving as much light as a torch. The higher the power level, the bigger the benefits. At third level the weapon can grant extra damage dice or shoot beams of light. The character who is attuned to an item at a high power level has access to a whole selection of powers. Achieving a higher level of attunement does not cancel the access to previously unlocked powers.

Heros of Legend

This is my favorite part of the system. Sadly I don't think it got much of a spotlight in Earthdawn. The idea is, that heroic or life changing deeds create magic items. After all, If there is magic flowing trough the world, it is only logical that some of it will get attached to the heroes... and their equipment. 
If a player wants to create a magic item after achieving something truly heroic, allow them to buy Trademark Weapon Edge next time they gain an advancement. The heroic deed filled the item with magic. The item will get +1 to Fighting if it is a weapon, +1 to Toughness for armor, or +1 to some applicable skill for other items. From now on, this item can gain Power Levels. Unlocking the new powers requires spending a Benny and completing another heroic deed. 
This doesn't change the game mechanics too much, but now, the player has a customized magic item. Spend some time with the player to create a new powers for the item.

***
This post is a translated and abridged version of my first blog post ever written on my old Polish-language blog: Nieregularnik Brawurowy. It is far from perfect, but I still like and use this mechanic...and I was feeling a bit nostalgic today.
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Savage Hexcrawl - Part 3: GM's Encounter Rules

The "joys" of life slowed the savage hexcrawl in past few weeks down to a crawl (oh, bad puns!). Nevertheless the series is not abandoned and is continuing today with the topic of encounters. We have touched on this topic in Part 2 - where we looked at what encounters are and how they fit in into a random hex. In the Part 3, GMs will get the rules (or perhaps guidelines?) on how and when to select the encounters.


Want the rules right here, right now? No problem! Savage Hexcrawl aims to be Fast, Furious and Fun! Read the TL/DR section for bare-bone rules summary. Read the whole thing for more in-depth explanation and other musings.

TL/DR: During a hexcrawl journey, PCs can stumble upon various encounters. GM draws a card (more, if the area is rich in encounters) from action deck for each hex the party enters and every time they camp in the wilderness. 
Face cards signify an encounter. GM will either roll on a table, or have an encounter prepared.

What does the GM need?

First and foremost, when running a hexcrawl (or other sandbox campaign) the GM needs to be prepared to improvise. A set of random tables can aid this improvisation, but is not necessary. Some encounters might be a part of elaborate plots, but players won't pick up on that. Others, will just be a random creations that players will want to follow and create an adventure out of it. Both are fine. Sandbox is all about the freedom of choice. Be prepared to let go of your crafted plots and improvise. The GM will also need a deck of...

Cards

Instead of dice for encounter checks - savage hexcrawl uses cards. Savage Worlds already uses a cards for initiative, so you should have a standard poker deck handy. During travel, draw card(s) for each hex the party enters. If you draw a non-face card (2-10) nothing happens, it is an uneventful leg of the journey. The party then moves to another hex and you draw again. Don't shuffle the deck if nothing happens - just keep drawing cards. It is not only faster than dice rolls this way, it also means that the chances of encountering something grow as you travel more. 
Drawing a face card (Jack, Queen, King, Ace or Joker) means that the party has encountered something. Now, you get to choose/decide what it is. We will leave random tables alone for time being (it is a topic upon itself) and focus on means of improvising the encounter. \
Now, look at the suit and color of the drawn card.

  • Card Color: Red cards mean that the encounter is beneficial to the players, black ones are unrewarding obstacles. Bear in mind, that the color dictates only the outcome of the encounter., not its nature. Even combat can be beneficial (loot, info, etc.) and a travelling merchant an obstacle (wants to travel with you, party will be more visible etc.).
  • Card Suit: Assign some keywords to each of the suits. Choose whatever fits your campaign most - there is no need for magical phenomena in a low-fantasy setting. The basic keywords I use are: Spades (♠) and Hearts ()  for travelers or creatures. Diamonds () and clubs (♣) for places and obstacles.
  • Jokers: Symbolize a twist of fate, something extraordinary and rare. Red joker means that something good happens to the party and black joker is an omen of something bad. Use Jokers for any idea that is too "out-there" or gonzo for your normal campaign.

Encounters

Use those rules to help you come up an encounter on the spot. If you are not comfortable with coming up with all of this in the midst of a session, feel free prepare few small encounters ahead of time. Create some villages, monster lairs, ruins, NPCs, events- anything that adventurers could find in the wilderness in your campaign. You don't have to decide where they sit on the map - you'll  plug them in wherever needed. Whatever wasn't used this session won't go to waste - note it down so it can be changed, tweaked and/or reused later.
When designing the encounter try to make it a natural part of the world. Ask open questions about the encounter. Places have reasons why they were built, NPCs have goals and needs.   If you add this connection between the encounter and the world, it will root the encounter in the setting and will make it seem like it was always there. Next, create few connections between your encounters. A bandit camp made out of a band of army deserters and a NPC royal investigator tasked with finding them and bringing them to justice create a great adventure hook. Will the players help the investigator and capture the bandits, or maybe they will side with the bandits? Maybe the bandits uncovered something about the local governor and that's why they are running away? What is the governor's secret?

Before you'll leave this post, think of a few encounters for your current campaign. Connect them to the world (why is it here? what is its purpose? How? What? When? Where?). Now connect it to another encounter and see how many plots you can create. Easy, right? Well, you just managed to improvise a good chunk of a session!