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

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rune Saga as Structured Freeform

"Rune Saga" was the game I was working on when I discovered The Forge, and I drew from it in order to create the tarot-like Ganakagok deck. In the comments to a previous post, Bruce mentioned that he'd like to see some further work on the game, and I'm inclined to agree. A lot of work went into creating the Rune Saga deck -- I'll call it semiotic heavy lifting, if you know what I mean.

In the interim, however, Vincent Baker wrote In A Wicked Age, which occupies the space that Rune Saga was aimed at: oracular indie-tabletop sword-and-sorcery story-game. It seems to me that the world doesn't need two such games. Why write an IAWA heartbreaker?

The one thing that I've been trying to do in my post-Ganakagok designs is make space for role-playing. In other words, narration-intensive play, as in Ganakagok, is just that: heavy on players narrating what happens rather than role-playing their characters. The effect is, I think, somewhat distancing. In other words, I'm looking for techniques to facilitate player engagement with their characters without sacrificing the narrative coherence that oracular mechanics provide.

This is where the emerging design philosophy of structured freeform offers a potential solution. My first experiment with this method was the "jeepforged" version of Ganakagok, which I playtested at Knutepunkt in April 2009 and will run again at Camp Nerdly at the end of May.

A jeepforged Rune Saga would use the 32-card deck not as the territory upon which narrative control could be contested; rather, the cards are played as prompts for role-playing as well as beats in a narrative.
BEGIN THE GAME by dealing out two cards from the Rune Saga deck. The entire group discusses potential meanings of the individual cards and their combination and consensually decides the initial situation that it signifies.
DETERMINE WHO GOES FIRST by dealing each player a single card. The player with the "lowest" card goes first (with card values rankedael, bes, cad, din, eth, fel, ghot, and hin and card suits ranked swords, coins, staves, stars). The player with the "highest" card becomes the Demiurgical Mediator (DM) for the episode.
Don't worry; we'll figure out a way to make each game relatively short, so the DM role shouldn't be terribly onerous. Additionally, the suit of the card the player receives might suggest a goal for the player: death confronted for Swords, love requited for Coins, innocence lost for Staves, evil averted for Stars.
THE DM DEALS THREE CARDS TO EACH PLAYER after shuffling the cards back into the deck. 
PLAY THEN PROCEEDS with each player on his or her turn becoming the Player in Charge (PC). The other players are Not the Player in Charge (NPCs). The DM doesn't take a turn; instead, he or she is allowed to react in specific ways to the actions of the PC.
  • Play a card to introduce a new character. Take an index card and give the character a name as well as a type: innocent, hero, elder, or villain. Record the card that created the character, and the character's active and reactive qualities based on the suit of that card (see below). Deliver a monologue as the character to introduce him or her and give his or her perspective on what's going on in the fiction of the game. The DM may at his or her option take the role of a supporting or minor character (a servant or attendant; a soldier, guard, or functionary, e.g.) to introduce the glyph formed by combining the last card played and the new card as the new character's immediate prospects.
  • Play a card to introduce a new in-game feature, such as a location, artifact, obstacle, and so forth. Take an index card and record the name of the feature as well as the card that created it. Provide a description of the feature via some in-game persona; e.g., a sage, scholar, or other knowledgeable person; a victim or eyewitness; a local; etc. At his or her option, the GM may take the role of some interlocutor (a querulous rival, a skeptical student, a curious traveler or bystander) to interrogate the PC and introduce the glyph associated with the last card played and the new card as the feature's immediate prospects.
  • Play a card to start a scene. Frame a scene in line with the event on the card. Give NPCs characters to play or features to represent in the scene (neither the PC nor the DM play characters in the scene). Typically, a "scene" consists of an encounter between two characters, or between a character and some in-game feature.
  • Discard a card and draw a new one. This amounts to passing  your turn.
DURING A SCENE, the NPCs take the roles of the characters they've been assigned. They try to behave according to their qualities, as determined by the cards used to introduce them.
  • Swords. The character acts by demonstrating cleverness. The character reacts by showing grief, sorrow, or fear.
  • Coins. The character acts by demonstrating bravery. The character reacts by showing happiness, elation, or joy.
  • Staves. The character acts by demonstrating wisdom. The character reacts by showing anger, rage, or jealousy.
  • Stars. The character acts by demonstrating virtue. The character reacts by showing calm, serenity, or patience.
Once a character has acted and another has reacted, the GM may intervene by reading the glyph formed by the combination of the acting and reacting characters' governing runes (i.e., cards). The GM may do this by directing one or both of the characters to act in a way consonant with the glyph, or by instructing another NPC to enter the scene either as a main or supporting character with a role or purpose appropriate to the glyph. The GM may do this "on the fly" by whispering into one or more character's ears, or tell the players to freeze and giving more general stage directions.
The PC may intervene in a scene at any time by interrupting the action to give one of his or her cards to an NPC who is already in the scene; this changes the suit of the card that "governs" the character the NPC is playing. However, the GM is allowed to intervene by reading the glyph formed by the combination of old and new card, and directing the character's fortune appropriately.
Any NPC who is not in the scene already may discard one of his or her cards to pick up a previously defined character who is not in the scene and make an entrance with that character.
THE EPISODE ENDS when no one wants to play any more cards. Discard any cards that you may still hold. If there is time and inclination, shuffle the deck and play a new episode.


Bruce said...

Hi Bill

I'm really happy to see you're taking another look at Rune Saga. Excellent! I'll be following closely and look forward to further developments.

Freeform/jeepforge is somewhat outside my comfort zone but I'm very interested in your efforts to develop "techniques to facilitate player engagement with their characters without sacrificing the narrative coherence that oracular mechanics provide."

One or two things that came to mind while reading your post, if you don't mind continuing to indulge my lengthy questions and ruminations. Do let me know if I'm distracting you from more important things. I'm merely interested and curious. Hope that's OK?

Firstly, to my mind, the tarot-based oracular game mechanics make Rune Saga unique so I wouldn't worry that In A Wicked Age occupies the same "space". I think the two games are very different despite the fact that they are both "sword-and-sorcery story games".

Secondly, for me a major appeal of your designs is the support they provide to situation generation during play.

Generally RPGs rely on the DM and players to decide what situations the PCs are presented with. Mechanics are provided to determine success or failure and to arbitrate conflicts; guidelines may even be provided such as "threaten PC beliefs" etc; however it's largely down to the DM (or other participants) to come up with interesting situations which advance the fiction.

In your designs the participants aren't asked to determine "what happens next?" they're asked to interpret the cards. This is easier somehow and works surprisingly well considering there's no 'architect' guiding the story. There's a degree of 'magic' being employed here I think.

Anyway, I'm curious, did you consciously aim to target this in your designs or has the added 'support to situation generation' arisen out of other things?

Your Fourth Age D&D rules would appear to address this specifically for D&D. In your words turning it into more of a "pick-up game"

Thirdly, I wonder if you might divulge any elements of the process you went through to establish the card meanings in Rune Saga and Ganakagok? Do I detect some of Vladimir Propp's narrative functions? I'm intrigued and fascinated. The symbolism which you've assigned is not only very effective but resonates quite strongly with me personally.

Many thanks for your time


Bill White said...

Hi Bruce -- These are great questions and useful comments; I'll deal with them a full post rather than here in the comments, if that's okay. -- Bill

Bruce said...

Yep, that would be great. Whenever you have time, I'm all ears.



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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.