Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Technolust (by Dave Petroski and Bill White)

It’s a dark future where the boundaries between human and machine have blurred…or fused. Today, cyborgs are real…and they’re everyone. But no one started questioning what happens when your body becomes more machine than flesh. Until now. We call it technolust: The more you “mod,” the more you want to mod. And the more you mod, the more the mod is you.

And technolust can drive cyberdaddies and moddie mamas to disturbing, even gruesome extremes. The body puritans--we call them “meatheads”--use words like “perverse” and “blasphemous” to describe the new cyborg culture. The buzzing heads and the crawling newsfeeds in the media spout statistics about rising crime rates and disintegrating families; the edutainment blogs tell sensationalistic stories about modmad tweens selling their organs for upgrades and steel-knuckle 24/7 cage-matches between cyborg fighters on cognitive autopilot. Some radical New Age geeks have even started to preach that it’s all a sign that the Singularity is near, and soon humanity will move to a new level of machine-enabled consciousness. But the meatheads mock the cyber-Rapture as just another symptom of the hallucinatory delirium that is known to be a side effect of too-extensive body modification.

In Technolust, you play a citizen of this slowly distintegrating world. You are caught up in the throes of technolust, and it may be pushing you to do things that would make you blush--or maybe turn white as a sheet--if you were thinking straight. Can you hold on to your humanity when all around you everyone else is surrendering theirs?

Setting Up

One player is the “Dealer” (GM). He or she should have two or three decks of cards (shuffled together) and a bunch of poker chips to serve as “social capital” markers. There should be at least two other players, and preferably more, up to about six.

First, the group establishes the setting for the game, settling upon a few sentences that describe the basic situation. All of them will be members of a futuristic social circle that is characterized by intense status competition: high school students; hovercar sales reps; ambitious megacorporate executives; holovision porn stars; asteroid miners--whatever the players think is cool. The underlying metric that drives the status competition needs to be established as well, e.g., “popularity” for high school students, “sales” for hovercar reps; “profit” for executives; “sexual performance” for porn stars; “ore strikes” for miners--whatever seems appropriate for the kind of people the characters will be.

Second, each player creates his character. The Dealer gives each player two cards, one face up (the Dream card) and the other face down (the Nightmare card). Interpret the dream card using the motifs charts. For example, if the characters are used hovercar salesmen, and a player receives the Ten of Diamonds as his character’s Dream, the player could read it as, “This character wants to sell the Big Lemon on the lot to show that he can sell anything,” or even as, “This character just wants to make it to his retirement.” Do the same thing with the Nightmare card, inverting the meaning appropriately to show what it is the character is afraid of. If the same character draws the Five of Clubs, it suggests that, “This character is afraid of being left out of the loop, of not knowing things that other people know.”

Suit Motifs

Spades represent the body and physical action. As dreams and nightmares, they suggest physical achievement or failure. Played as base, define them as related to “normal” appearance and ability (e.g., “a great smile”). Played as mods, define them as performance-enhancing, functional prosthetics (e.g., “diamond-sharp teeth”). Technolust fever in spades is violence, physical competitiveness and belligerence. A spades Singularity is a robot uprising.

Hearts represent the emotions and personal relationships. As dreams and nightmares, they represent intimate, domestic or family situations. Played as base, define them as relationships with other characters (PC or NPC). Played as mods, define them as appearance-altering cosmetic enhancement (e.g., “mirror eyes”). Technolust fever in hearts is hedonistic self-indulgence. A hearts Singularity is a nanotechnological nightmare, a Grand Guignol of grey goo.

Diamonds represent personality and social identity and rank. As dreams and nightmares, they suggest social achievement or failure. Played as base, define them as “normal” personality traits (e.g., “ambitious”) or social roles (“nerdy guy in back of classroom”). Played as mods, define them as behavior-modifying implants or personality chips (e.g., “an Elvis karaoke chip”). Technolust fever in diamonds is extreme emotional outbursts or personality fugues. A diamonds Singularity is a bizarre hivemind that wants to assimilate those which suit it.

Clubs represent the mind and intellectual efforts. As dreams and nightmares, they suggest intellectual or cognitive achievement or failure. Played as base, define them as property: places or things the character cares about (e.g., “my old H.S. varsity fusionball jacket”). As mods, they are computational or cybernetic enhancements (e.g., “satellite survey uplink”). Technolust fever in clubs is single-minded paranoid obsession. A clubs Singularity is an omnipotent AI with its own agenda.

Card Motifs


primacy, mastery


a partner, a complement


a successor, a student


stability, order


centrality, membership


change, novelty


wonder, strangeness




progress, movement


completeness, fulfillment


submission, learning


nurturing, fostering


ownership, dominance

Next the dealer gives each player a hand of five cards that he or she should play right away as “base” (human-normal abilities and characteristics) or “mods” (cybernetic, prosthetic, and other enhancments). Use a big sheet of paper in the center of the table to record all of the choices being made, producing a big social network that includes characters and their relations to each other and the things and places they care about.

Everybody makes up a name for his or her character and takes a number of chips equal to the value of the cards assigned as mods (with J, Q, K = 10 and A = 1 or 11 at player’s option) and the number of cards assigned as base (i.e., base cards have a value of 1 here). This pool is the character’s “social capital” (SC) and represents all manner of resources, from cash on hand to favors receivable.

The Dealer lays out cards equal to twice the number of players in the game, including himself, face up in the middle of the table, receiving SC equal to the sum of the card values there. This is the “Mods Market.”

You are now ready to play.

Playing the Game

At the beginning of the game-turn, the Dealer adds new cards to the Mods Market to bring the total up to the original total. Any cards that have been “tapped” during the previous turn are now untapped.

Play proceeds in order of SC from highest to lowest as of the beginning of the turn. Each player gets one free action, and may take additional actions by spending SC equal to the square of the number of additional actions desired (so 1 SC for the first additional action, +3 more for the second (=4), +5 more for the third (=9)).

(1) Sacrifice a base card to gain SC equal to the value of that card, minus any damage on it. Describe how the character makes the sacrifice or suffers the loss.
(2) “Buy off” a Nightmare by spending SC equal to its value plus any SC on it and drawing a new card to replace it. Describe the character confronting or otherwise overcoming the fear.
(3) “Cash in” a Dream that has SC on it exceeding the value of the card, taking 1½ times the value of the card into the character’s pool. Depending on how the Dream has been defined, either keep it or draw a new one. Describe the character’s accomplishment and/or transformation.
(4) Purchase a mod from the Mods Market by spending SC equal to the card’s value. Define the mod and put it on the character sheet.
(5) Spend SC to remove damage from base cards.
(6) Start a scene by indicating where his or her character is goes, who else is there, and what is going on as the scene begins. He or she will also define the scene as involving either pursuing or avoiding some character’s Dream or Nightmare. Characters not included by the scene-starter may be introduced by spending 1 SC and interjecting the appropriate narration.

At the end of each player-turn, any player may untap tapped cards by spending 1 SC per card (Remember that cards untap automatically at the beginning of each new game-turn).

At the end of the game-turn, if a player’s mods in a suit are of higher value than his or her base in that suit, the player will lose SC equal to the square of the number of such suits unless the character participated in a scene during the turn in which the player role-played technolust fever appropriate to the suit. Dealer will judge. A player who has any mods who did not buy at least one mod during the turn loses SC equal to the number of mods he or she has. A player who has SC on his or her Nightmare card exceeding the value of the card loses SC from his or her pool equal to the difference between the value of the card and the accumulated total. A player who can’t pay his SC losses takes “damage” to base cards; if he or she has no base cards to lose, the player loses. He or she should narrate an appropriately gruesome and grisly end for his or her character during any scene of the next game-turn.

Before proceeding to the next game-turn, the Dealer draws the top card of the deck. If its value is greater than the number of game-turns that have already been played, the Singularity occurs and the game ends. Otherwise, add one to the number of completed turns and start a new game-turn.

Running a Scene

Starting with whomever the scene-starter designates, each player describes his or her character’s relevant actions in turn, “narrating in” mods and base and “tapping” (i.e., turning them sideways) them in order to do so (Other players can call b.s. to veto; the Dealer gets to be the final arbiter), and explaining how the action contributes to advancing or frustrating the Dream or Nightmare at issue. The scene-starter can assign NPCs to the Dealer or to other players as desired and as seems logical. The Dealer can spend 1 SC to tap any cards in the Mods Market as mods to reflect NPC actions or reactions, even if other players are playing them. During any given player-turn, he can’t spend more SC than there are players to do this.

Once every player has had a chance to participate, determine the winning side, the winner, and the narrator.

The winning side is the side that has the highest value, calculated as the value of tapped mods of the relevant suit plus the number of tapped base cards (i.e., base cards have a value of 1 for the purposes of this calculation). It will be oriented toward advancing or frustrating a specific character’s Dream or Nightmare.

The narrator is the player who has tapped the single highest-value card of any suit, whether a base or a mod. Suits are ranked in order from Spades to Clubs, but the suit of the Dream/Nightmare card at issue “trumps” other suits in cases of ties. He or she narrates the success of the winning side, changing the in-game situation as seems appropriate. The narrator does not have to belong to the winning side.

The winner is the player who has tapped the single highest-value card of the relevant suit, whether a base or a mod. He or she receives SC equal to the value of that card and may distribute this SC as desired: to his or her own pool or to the pools of others, or as “damage” to base cards. At least one SC must be allocated to the Dream or Nightmare at issue, in the appropriate direction (i.e., adding or removing SC tokens appropriately).

The Singularity (Ending the Game)

The game ends when only one player is left; that player is the “winner” of the game. If the Dealer runs out of cards or chips, the remaining players share a victory.

Otherwise, play continues until the Singularity occurs. The player with the most SC gets to narrate how the Singularity comes about, in accordance with the suit of the Singularity card. Each player then narrates what happens to his or her character in the Singularity, happily if there is more SC on his or her Dream than on his or her Nightmare and unhappily otherwise. In such circumstances, there is no winner.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ganakagok at Dexcon: Legacy of the Ancient Ones

In a fit of what may best be described as hubris, I ran Ganakagok at Dexcon for a group of 7 people. The game rocked, but it was completely and totally draining for me as the GM; it takes a lot of energy to run it, and I was lucky that the players were just so damn good. As one of the players says on his livejournal, by the end we had created “an authentic folkloric fantasy tale about eskimos on an island of ice.”

In this game, players are members of an Inuit-like culture who live on a fantastical iceberg in a world where the Stars are revered because it has never known daylight. But now the Dawn is coming, and no one knows what it will bring.

Bret Gillan played Akchuaq, an arrogant young hunter in love with the chieftain's daughter Moaqua (NPC), even though she despises him. She has been promised by the village elders (against their better judgment, we found out later) to Nefanganuk (played by Dave Petroski). Akchuaq is best friends with Muargulik (Andrew Morris), a timid hunter who is the younger son of Millilani (Mel White), a wise woman of the tribe whose eldest son, Kahupulu (NPC) has been lost on the ice. As a result, Millilani became embittered and turned away from the Stars. Akchuaq's grandfather, Patiaq (Alexander Newman) is an ancient oracle who reveres the constellations of the Walrus and the Great Feathered Eel. Muargulik's teacher is a clever hunter named Varlogtoq (Bob Manning), whose brother-in-law Qalaseroq (Kristina Evanouskas) is a resourceful gatherer who had learned everything he knew from a mysterious wanderer/teacher named Chitoruq (NPC).

All of this background information was produced by players each reading (interpreting) a hand of three cards from the Nitu Tarot, or Ganakagok deck. Dave Petroski had spent a lot of time over the past year and created a stunning set of cards that really added to play. They created a map of the social network of the Agluvu clan whose connections as always helped drive play. This time, Bob Manning also looked at the map of the area surrounding Agluvut and decided to spend Lore to place “the Great Cave” out in the ice fields.

My explanation of the game mechanics at this point in the session needed to have been smoother, as several players pointed out after the game. Part of the problem was me: I was not practiced enough in delivering the explanation. But another part was that there's some awkwardness in the rules themselves. They can be cleaner, especially in the structure of Mana and Medicine, and that's something that I want to fix for Dreamation in January.

The game began with Nefanganuk out on the hunting floes by the Sea of Tears and the other hunter-gatherers (Akchuaq, Muargulik, Varlogtoq, and Qalaseroq) at a hunting camp near some open water amid the ice plains of Ganakagok. Millilani and Patiaq naturally remained in the village of Agluvut.

Since Akchuaq was the youngest character, play began with the four hunters at their hunting camp, where they were sitting around their tent-stove talking over the disturbing indications they'd seen in their hunting. Animals were on the move, changing their patterns of behavior; the ice itself seemed to be shifting and losing its stability; what was to be done? Akchuaq decided to set off to the lands of the Ancient Ones, and Muargulik wanted to go with him. But Akchuaq forbade him to go and set off alone. Naturally, Muargulik followed him, secretly, and Akchuaq, perceiving that he was being followed, went back to where Muargulik had stumbled on the ice, tended his injury, and let him join. One of the source's of Akchuaq's reluctance was a vision (helpfully provided by Alexander, playing the ancient oracle) of Muargulik's death if he followed him. And (how cool is this?) the vision totally came true! (I didn't even realize it at the time).

Meanwhile, Qalaseroq went back to the village to try to get the People to prepare for the worst, but he was met with skeptical resistance on the part of some and panic on the part of others. For his part, Varlogtoq went hunting in his kayak and had to call upon the mana of the Ancient Ones to weather a sudden storm. He returned to the village with walrus meat to sustain the People.

In a very cool subplot, Nefanganuk approached the elders of the tribe with a brace of seals to demand the hand of Moaqua in marriage, but the elders were resistant. They (led by Patiaq, whose grandson was also one of the girl's suitors) ultimately relented, deciding to leave the choice up to the girl.

Meanwhile, Millilani approached Varlogtoq to try to cajole him to go back out on the ice and find her son Muargulik, but was coldly rebuffed, causing much bad blood within the village.

Patiaq was not going to let the fate of the People hang on the whims of a silly girl; he summoned Moaqua to his tent and browbeat her into doing what was best for the village, even though she hated Akchuaq and maybe loved Nafanganuk. Alexander did a great job using his Lore to establish tribal mores and customs that demanded that choice from her, and provided what I consider to be the second-best bit of narration in the game: Moaqua leaves the tent, weeping, to go tell Nefanganuk using the ritual words of the People that she rejects him; the tears freeze on her cheeks just as her heart hardens in her breast.

Out on the ice, Akchuaq and Muargulik find an ancient ice-crystal palace of the Ancient Ones and enter; there they find Kahupulu, transformed into a horrible monster, an orca that walks. They fight, and Muargulik's love for his brother reverses the transformation. Kahupulu tells them that an act of self-sacrifice is required to bring about the Dawn, and the two brothers vie to be the one who does so. An icequake separates the two, leaving Muargulik free to journey deeper into the structure and Kahupulu outside with Akchuaq.

Qalaseroq finally gets the People to take her seriously, and they journey to the Great Cave where they find sanctuary against the storm and a path to the land of the Ancient Ones.

At this point, we were out of time, so we moved rapidly into end-game. Ganakagok split into fragments and was destroyed, but the People were saved, following the path and taking up the mantle of the Ancient Ones as demiurges of the new world. Most of the characters had happy endings, but Patiaq drowned, unable to follow the path; Nefanganuk was revealed to be a bear-spirit in the form of a man who, denied a human wife, was forced to return to bear-form. And Muargulik (in what I thought was the best bit of narration) sacrificed himself to bring about the Dawn. He was fated to burn forever in the sky, screaming in an agony he'd chosen for himself.

Wow. Awesome.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fundamentals of Story Logic

I'm beginning a new scholarly project that involves reading Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson for its philosophy of science. My initial investigations have got me reading A.J. Greimas, the French semiotician who is mentioned by one of the characters in the novel. It's dense, dense stuff, but one of the things that Greimas does is reconstruct Vladimir Propp's morphology of the folktale in order to develop a mode of narrative analysis. Greimas's "structural semantics" seem to me to have a nifty application to role-playing games.

Characters (Actants)

Characters are defined in terms of the roles they fulfill; these include Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, and Opponent. Notice that these roles aren't absolute; they are defined in terms of their relations to other character-roles. So every Subject has an Object (of Desire), a Helper, and an Opponent; and every Sender has an Object (of Communication) and a Receiver.

So in the story of Luke Skywalker, the helper is Obi-Wan Kenobi and the opponent is Darth Vader. The Object (both of communication and of desire) is the Force, whose sender is Ben and whose receiver is Luke. Or else its Princess Leia, whose sender is the Rebellion and whose receiver is Luke. Or it could be R2-D2, sent by Leia and received by Ben Kenobi.

Or is Luke the Object of Communication between Kenobi and Vader?

What this suggests to me at least initially is that there can be a lot of overlap, and a lot of contestation, in terms of what character gets assigned which actantial role. Which means that a game is possible around those contests.

It's also true that "actants" aren't necessarily characters in the traditional sense; an actantial role can be fulfilled by some attribute of a character, so that for instance the Sender role for a particular set of relations is the Subject-character's own ambition.

So any given character can be defined in terms of his or her relations to some set of other characters and attributes (e.g., Han Solo: Subject [Object = Leia; Helper = romantic chemistry; Opponent = Luke], Subject [Object = make a living as a smuggler; Helpers = Chewbacca, Millenium Falcon; Opponent = Jabba the Hutt]).

The Object though is always doubly articulated, so that any Object is simultaneously a Subject's object-of-desire as well as the object-of-communication between a Sender and Receiver. There are a couple of ways that that can manifest itself.

Subject/Sender <--> Object/Receiver [When my longing for you is fulfilled, you are transformed]

Subject/Receiver <--> Object/Sender [When my longing for you is fulfilled, I am transformed]

Subject/Receiver <--> Opponent/Sender [When our contest is resolved, I am transformed]

and so forth.

So my read of the "object-of-communication" is that its receipt is somehow transformational. I am relying on a notion of communication that emphasizes communion rather than transmission, but I suppose a more prosaic interpretation is possible, e.g.

Death Star Plans [Object: Subject (Darth Vader); Sender (Princess Leia); Receiver (Rebellion)]


Functions assign attributes to actants in a verb-like way. When I say "Peter hits Paul," I'm distributing the attributes "hits" and "is hit" to Peter and Paul respectively. In most cases, there is that sort of complementary action/process relationship: one actant does something while another undergoes something. The answer to "What did Peter do?" is "He hit Paul," and the answer to "What happened to Paul?"is "He got hit."

The interesting thing that Greimas did was to systematize Vladimir Propp's morphological functions of the fairy tale to show how they fit into a larger pattern. Any given narrative event can be described as a configuration of one of several "metafunctions" whose precise manifestation depends on its placement within a character's heroic arc. So, for example, an object-of-communication may initially be that which enables a villain to identify the hero as a threat, but eventually it becomes that which allows the hero to be recognized as a hero. Think Harry Potter's scar.

So imagine a game where a "move" is to establish characters as actants in relation to other actants, and the point of narration is to use functions in such a way as to move the action in such a way as to get your hero to his desired end first.

An important aspect of the game will be that character attributes will largely be a product of antithetical comparisons to other characters. More on this later.

About Me

My photo
A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.