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.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Gumshoe: Watching the Detectives

Step One. The Case.
  • Get four to six people who want to play around a table.
  • Take a piece of paper that's been ruled into three columns and as many rows as there are players. The first column is "Name"; the second, "Case"; the third, "Votes."
  • Pass the piece of paper around the table. If there's a question about what order to go in, go in the order of whoever's birthday comes next.
  • Next to your name, write a potential problem, mystery, or other isuse that you want to drive the case. It can be whatever you want.
  • Once everyone has written something next to their name, everyone secretly votes by ranking everyone else's proposed cases. Use an index card and reveal your preferences simultaneously. Tally the votes. If there are ties or other ambiguities, the person with the fewest votes gets to resolve them.
For example, imagine there are four players named Alex, Bob, Chip, and Dana. They pass around the paper and write their cases. Then they vote, secretly assigning points to the cases in their order of preference: three points to one they like best, two to the next, and one to the least preferred (in every case excluding their own). In this hypothetical example, here are the results:

Name Case Votes
Alex Wife is missing 0 + 3 + 3 + 2 = 8
Bob Murdered prostitute 3 + 0 + 2 + 1 = 6
Chip Who's following me? 2 + 2 + 0 + 3 = 7
Dana Crooked politician is intimidating rivals 1 + 1 + 1 + 0 = 3

Since "Wife is missing" received the most votes, it's now the case.

Step Two. Deal Out the Cards.

The player whose case won deals out a hand of cards to each player.
  • Four players: Each player gets 13 cards.
  • Five players: Each player gets 10 cards, discard the bottom two cards on the deck.
  • Six players: Each player gets 8 cards, discard the bottom four cards on the deck.
Each player sorts his or her hand into four piles by suit. You have to reveal which pile is which suit; other players are allowed to know how many cards in a suit you have, but they can't look at your cards, of course.
  • Spades are muscle; play a spade to resolve a situation by force, violence, coercion, physical threats, or intimidation.
  • Hearts are looks; play a heart to resolve a situation by charm, intimacy, emotional appeal or sexual attraction, or other passionate drive or impulse.
  • Diamonds are money; play a diamond to resolve a situation by the use of wealth or its perquisites.
  • Clubs are brains; play a club to resolve a situation by the use of knowledge, wits, street smarts, and so forth.
Step Three. The Gumshoe and the Client.
  • Everyone gets a number of chips equal to how many votes their case got.
  • Starting with the person with the most chips, bid some number of chips to take on the role of the Gumshoe or the Client, or pass.
    • The Gumshoe plays the character whose responsibility it is to solve the case, whatever it might be and whatever form it might finally take. The Gumshoe wins if he or she can solve the case without giving up too much.
    • The Client plays the character who sets things in motion; the Client player has a lot of power to establish what it takes for the case to finally be solved. The Client [player] wins if the Gumshoe fails.
  • You can try to outbid another player to take on a particular role.
  • Bidding continues until at least one chip has been bid on each role and everyone passes in order.
For example:
  • Bidding starts with Alex, who says, "One for the Gumshoe" (she's got 7 left).
  • Bob says, "Two for the Gumshoe" (5 left).
  • Chip says, "One for the Client" (6 left).
  • Dana says, "Three for the Gumshoe" (0 left).
  • Alex says, "Two for the Client" (5 left).
  • Bob says, "Pass."
  • Chip says, "Pass."
  • Dana says, "Pass."
  • Alex says, "Pass," and bidding is over.
So Alex is the Client and Dana is the Gumshoe. Bob and Chip decided to hold on to their remaining chips because they can be used during play.

Step Four. Enter the Gumshoe.

The Gumshoe player establishes his or her character's name and so forth, framing an introductory scene that generates that character's secret.

Step Five. Enter the Client.

The Client player frames a scene where the client meets the gumshoe. Other characters are identified.

Step Six. Regular Play.

The Gumshoe, through interaction with the other players, tries to solve the case without giving away too much.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gumshoe: A Game Noir

Gumshoe is going to let players create a story that's like the film noir of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, or like the stories of Dashiell Hammett or James Ellroy. You've got hardbitten detectives walking down mean streets, where everybody wants something and everybody's got something to hide.

Right now, I see the game taking the following form:

(1) The players get together and specify a locale and a time period, like 1950s LA or Depression-era New York. It may or may not be necessary at this point to go down another level of specificity: okay, it's 1950s LA, but is the story centered around a movie studio or a precinct house? At some point, location cards get selected and laid out; the location in which a scene gets played out will have some effect on conflict resolution. The selected locale will have an effect on what location cards are "playable."

(2) Players come up with potential cases framed as situations or facts of the the case, writing them down on index cards. "My wife is missing," "There's a man who owes me money," "I want to get away from my violent pimp." Players then vote on which case the game will be about. I envision a kind of bidding, in which players distribute six points among three cases (i.e., 3, 2, and 1, or 2, 2, 2, or even 4, 1, 1), not including their own. The case with the most points is the one the game is about.

(3) Now roles need to be assigned to players. One will be the Client, who plays a large part in defining the initial situation of the game. Another will be the Gumshoe, who is most active really only at the end; the rest of the time, he's just going around enabling other characters to define themselves, and position themselves with respect to other characters. Other players take the roles of various antagonists and supporting characters in the story.

It's important that there be a chance for any other player to be the Client or the Gumshoe; the way to do this I think involves another round of bidding in which you allocate the points you got between Client, Gumshoe, and other roles. This gives the player who got more votes an advantage, which may require outlawing 2, 2, 2 as a distibution of votes, since one is motivated to do that by the strategic concern not to disadvantage yourself by giving someone more votes than you're likely to get.

(4) Once roles are assigned, the Client starts things rolling by framing a scene with the Gumshoe in which the basics of the case are outlined. Then other players can specify their characters, including their Secrets and their Desires (or maybe the client parcels those out based on another round of writing).

(5) Other players get to frame scenes wherein they encounter the Gumshoe. Statements are advanced, subjected to doubt and verification, or revealed to be lies by the mechanics of game resolution.

(6) The Gumshoe gets to frame a final scene in which the central conflict or mystery of the game is resolved.

That's what I've got so far. Stay tuned!

Ganakagok: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game

Ganakagok, my Iron Game Chef game (runner-up, I should say) from 2004 is finally published. That's a long time to be working on a project, but of course my dissertation took longer.

Two other games came out of that contest (last year) that I'm aware of, Ben Lehman's Polaris and Tim Kleinert's The Mountain Witch. I like to think that that puts Ganakagok in august company.

Of course, putting something up on Lulu isn't quite the same as fronting for an actual print run, but I'll be hauling copies to Dexcon this year and to other cons down the road.

This is the first thing I ever wrote about Ganakagok, once the Iron Game Chef muse spoke to me:

For a thousand years, the stars have shone down on Halakat, the Sea of Tears, burning brightly in a sky that was always dark. Now in the east the horizon has brightened to grey, and the stars have begun to fade. The shamans of the People speak of the rising of the Sun.

For a thousand years, the People have lived upon Ganakagok, the Island of Ice, in the midst of the Sea of Tears. This mountain of ice, floating in a cold sea, has been carved into soaring spires and dizzying stairs, immense caverns and intricate labyrinths. The legends of the People speak of the Ancient Ones who carved it so, to escape the falling of Night.

Dawn is coming to the Island of Ice. The stars are fading. The sea is growing warmer. The world is changing. Will the People survive the change?
So what's Ganakagok like to play? (There're actual play reports from last year's Dexcon here and here). In essence, it's like any other roleplaying game: you create a character who is then located in a particular in-game situation to which you react, making reference as you do to the game's rules for resolving character actions. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Character creation begins with a draw of three cards from the Ganakagok deck, which is essentially a normal 52-card deck in which the normal suits have been replaced with Tears, Flames, Storms, and Stars and the face cards with Ancient, Man, Woman, and Child (so you draw the Ancient of Tears, not the Ace of Spades). Each card has additional motifs (so the Ancient of Tears is also called Anuk, meaning "Polar Bear" or "to overcome or master"). The suit and value of the card can also produce an oracular meaning (see the description of the deck in the preview in Lulu).

Each player reads his cards to come up with a "truth-vision" (what convinced him that Ganakagok was changing), a change-hope (what he hopes the change will bring), and a change-fear (what he fears likewise). Once the player has done that (and it sometimes takes a lot of coaching to enable a player to make the leap to "just reading the cards"), the character is, oh, 90% complete. There are still some in-game and mechanical choices to be made (the character's name and identity, his stats and "Gifts"), but once you've figured out your character's backstory, the rest is easy. And figuring it out is the first thing Ganakagok makes you do.

Based on what the players come up with in terms of characters, the GM fleshes out the situation, coming up with an "imagined cosmology" and mechanical rules to rules to support it (the Metaplot); these are largely cut-offs and thresholds for determining who gets to say what happens at the end of the game. The GM also frames the initial situation for the tribe and for each player individually each turn. Ganakagok cards play a heavy role here as well.

Each turn, the GM draws and reads a Ganakagok card to determine a character's basic situation. The character acts in response to that situation (the player describes his pursuit of a particular goal or course of action) until the GM decides that things have reached a crux: it's time to roll dice. Stakes are set by reference to a card, and the roll of the dice determines the initial trend of the action (good or bad) as well as who gets to narrate the immediate situation (player or adversary). At this point, people get to "react," going around the table in order invoking Gifts to shift dice up or down and thus change the outcome or narration rights or both. Once everyone is finished reacting, the consequences are narrated and the player assigns a kind of "fallout" by specifying how the Good and Bad Medicine of the action manifest.

Each player-turn takes a while, but because other players can participate through their reactions, engagement stays pretty high.

Over the course of the game, Good and Bad Medicine totals will build up for each character, for the People as a whole, and for Ganakagok (i.e., the world). At the end of the game (after a certain number of turns or a specified time interval, e.g.), if you have more Good Medicine than Bad, things go your way; otherwise, they don't. Of course, if things turn out bad for Ganakagok, having things go your way may just mean the best seat in the house at the Apocalypse, but that's part of the fun. The "final fates" of Ganakagok and the People get narrated based on the Metaplot rules the GM created, and players get to narrate their characters' final fates in line with what has already been narrated.

And that's pretty much the game.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Rune Saga: Narration Constraints

It's probably worth it to think about how to establish bounds on what can be done by the narrator (that is, the person with narrative control at a given time). The issues that matter I think include the following:

(1) Is the narrator acting as PC or as DM? That is, is he thinking advancing the dramatic interests of a particular character or about providing adversity to that character?

(2) Is a particular character involved in the narration the creation of the narrator or of somebody else (and was that person involved in the contest for narration rights or not)?

(3) How does the narration implicate the character's, um, character? That is, to what extent is the narration something happening to the character or something chosen by the character? Call the former "external locus of control" and the latter "internal locus of control." Internal locus narration creates the character's persona, and this is [unexamined assumption] something that probably belongs to the character's "owner" (that is, creator) [/unexamined assumption].

(4) To what extent does the narration extend or contradict what has been specified in previous turns? Or, better, how consequential is the narration?

So in the post from Jan 19, Joe's initial narration invokes Andaman, Melina, and the Heartshard. He's bringing them into the scene in order to frame up some possible tough choices for Daemien. Joe leaves the specific threat unspecified; Andaman may be going to kill or hurt Melina, or maybe he's a romantic rival. But it's clear that Joe is acting as the DM. Andaman and Melina are characters he created, and so he has "ownership" of them. The Heartshard is something I created, and so I guess I have ownership of it. Should I be able to veto Joe's assertion that the Heartshard has the power to lead its possessor to that which is alien to the Wild Wood? I want to argue that the DM-function trumps ownership in this case--especially because there is a runic motif that Joe is invoking to justify the inclusion of that element in his narration (i.e., ghot luemas, a thing of blood). The narration ascribes intentionality to Andaman (he is tracking something) and emotions to Melina (she's lost and afraid), which is something that's okay to do with a character you created.

So now when Andaman comes face-to-face with Daemien, who gets to say what happens, and what are they allowed to say happens? Winning the die roll is important, as is DM/PC role assignments, as are character creator rights, as is adherence to the meaning of the runes and glyphs involved in the narration.

DM wins roll for own character -- very strong narration rights.
DM wins roll for other character -- strong narration rights.
DM loses roll for own character -- strong veto.
DM loses roll for other character -- moderate veto.
wins roll for own character -- strong narration rights.
PC wins roll for other character -- weak narration rights.
PC loses roll for own character -- strong veto (internal locus)
PC loses roll for other character -- weak veto

This still needs work.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Rune Saga: The Heart of the Wild Wood

Let's stipulate that if you continue a story after some interval (as in a "campaign," e.g.), you throw in your hand and deal out new cards when you get back together to play. So imagine Joe and I are going to continue the story of the Wild Wood after having to deal with the real world for a while. We each get three cards.
My hand: Lady of Stars, Tree of Coins, Mount of Staves.
Joe's hand: Man of Stars, Tree of Staves, Child of Stars.
On my turn, Joe is DM. He flips the top card of the deck; it's Sun of Stars (ghot luemas), which can be read as an artifact of blood.
The whisperings of the Heartshard lead Andaman to his quarry; the ancient heart of the forest can sense that which is alien to it. He comes upon Melina, lost alone and afraid, in the dark of night.

I see what he's doing; does Daemien come to Melina's rescue? Does she even need rescuing? Hrmm. I want to use my Stars, since it produces the best glyph (Increase) but I probably won't get control. But I'll play Lady of Stars to establish as a character the she-wolf that befriended Daemien.
There is a growling in the darkness as Andaman nears the firelight of Melina's rude campsite, and he pauses in shadows. Glittering green eyes stare out from the trees. A great grey she-wolf, larger than a mastiff, pads forward with tongue lolling out of her grinning jaws. Around her neck is a silver chain that Melina recognizes as one that she'd given her prince Daemien.

I roll a 3; Joe gets control. But the glyph is pretty positive for me: ghot bes (Increase) He gains advantage by his action, and his fortunes increase.
"Who are you?" says Melina to the she-wolf. "Do you know my Daemien? Will you take me to him?" The wolf makes a noise like a sneeze, and Melina laughs. She follows her away from the firelight and deeper into the woods. "Isn't this lucky?" she says to the wolf, though she expects no response. "Both of us who love him are coming to him." Andaman smiles mirthlessly as he follows.

Now it's Joe's turn; I'm the DM. I think it should be a rule that if you start your turn "on the scene" as it were, you can play a card to immediately continue the action, reading the glyph that intervenes as well as the rune you play. So Joe plays Tree of Staves to create the glyph "Ambition" (Andaman's). His Virtue is 3 and he rolls a 2, so gets to read it; he describes Andaman's desire to fulfill his oath to Melina's father. I make him say that he hurries after the wolf and the girl; he isn't careful, and he doesn't pay attention to the quiet rustlings around him. This is to include the meaning of overreaching that ambition contains. Andaman bursts into the cave where Melina is kneeling beside Daemien; he recognizes the prince.
Now there are two primary characters in the same scene. Do we need special rules? Or are the special powers afforded the DM enough?
Have to think about this.

Rune Saga: Joe's Turn

There are only two players, me and Joe. I've just taken my turn. Now I'm the Demiurgical Mediator (DM--get it?) and he's the PC (principal character).

Joe needs to create a character. He draws Man of Coins, Tree of Stars, and World of Swords.
  • Man of Coins cadhtaenas King (Escape). One who is contented. Event: Someone evades pursuit.
  • Tree of Stars dinluemas Thought (Counteraction). A church, sect, or cult; a faction committed to a particular means or end. Event: A hero learns of a means to redress an act of villainy.
  • cadh din Arrival The one who acts comes to a stopping-place. This place may not be the end, but a leg of his journey is complete.
  • World of Swords hinsothas War (Death). An evil place; a time of grief. Event: Something long awaited comes to pass; old things pass away; an era closes.
  • din hin Strength The one who acts, by virtue of his strength, achieves a great success.
His character is Bravery 3, Cleverness 3, Virtue 3, Wisdom 2. Joe decides that he wants to play one of the hunters sent out by Melina's father. He names the character Andaman the Bold.
Andaman the Bold leads the chase through the Wild Wood, but Daemien evades the hunters [Man of Coins (Escape)] when the wolf-spirits of the forest harry them through winding and tangled thickets and underbrush [Tree of Stars (Totem-Spirit Maze)]. Winning free of the green labyrinth, Andaman and his companions face the Dark Heart of the Wild Wood [cadh din (Arrival)], an ancient and evil tree spirit that descends upon them in a frenzy of thorns that tear at their flesh and vines that bind their limbs. The other hunters are killed in the fight against the creature [World of Swords (grief)], but Andaman finds the resinous pulsing red crystal at the core of the Dark Heart and crushes it by main strength [Strength (great success)].
Joe discards his cards and draws three new ones (Mount of Coins, Child of Swords, and Tree of Swords). I draw a card to serve as his initial situation, and it's Mount of Coins (ethtaenas Treasure (Receipt of Gift). A secret. Event: A hero receives a helpful gift). I decide that the card represents the Heartshard, a splinter of the Dark Heart of the Wild Wood.
The Heartshard pulses with an evil crimson glow; it is an irregularly shaped globule about the size of a man's fist. A whispering, half-heard voice seems to come from nearby, speaking urgently but just below the threshold of perception.
Joe needs to decide what to do. Playing Sun of Stars gets him Sanctuary, but only a 33% of winning narrative control. Playing either of the Swords gets him a 50% of winning control, with Child of Swords becoming Adversity and Tree of Swords becoming Respite. He decides that the notion of a struggle between Andaman and the Heartshard makes the most sense, so plays Tree of Swords.
The obscene jewel colors Andaman's vision like blood, and the evil whispers become clearer, full of putrid corruption--atavistic desire--seething rage. Andaman claps his hands to his ears to shut out the insane mutterings. "Get out of my head!" he screams.
He rolls a 2 and so wins narrative control. He says,
The effort of will brings him respite, and he wraps the Heartshard in bloody cloth cut from one of his dead companion's cloak.
And there the turn ends; we draw cards to bring our hands back up to three and shuffle our discards into the deck.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Rune Saga: What a Turn Might Look Like

It's my turn; I'm playing Prince Daemien. Another player (the person whose turn is next, let's say, or better--the person directly across the table from me, or the [N/2]th player from me, rounded down) draws a card from the rune deck and reads it as something relevant to my character.

Let's say Joe draws besothas, the Lady of Swords.
Lady of Swords [besothas] Maiden (Departure). One who is in danger; one who experiences grief or misfortune. Event: A hero leaves his home or proper place.
Joe likes the notion of a grieving maiden; he imagines the girl Daemien has left behind. He introduces her as a character, an innocent hurt by Daemien's abandonment.
Damosel Melina, the daughter of rich noble family, had accepted her betrothal to Prince Daemien at a midsummer festival before his departure for the wilderness. Their courtship over the next few weeks had made her happy beyond her dreams, and his disappearance has weighed upon her. She has decided to leave home and search for him, despite the wishes of her father that she accept a new suitor.
I have a hand of cards:
  • Mount of Stars ethluemas Guidance (Violation). An expanse of water. Event: A hero violates an elder's interdiction (perhaps unknowingly).
  • Child of Staves aelmaegas Seeker (Reconnaissance). One who desires knowledge. Event: A villain deploys minions against a hero.
  • Sun of Staves ghotmaegas Discovery (Remediation). A scroll, book, or map. Event: A hero finds something that is needed or has been missing.
I need to play one of them as a "response" (even if only indirect) to Joe. I'm interested in Damosel Melina, and think it'll be interesting to follow her on her quest to find Daemien. I decide to play the Child of Staves:
Damosel Melina leaves her home and journeys to the wood where Daemien was last seen. Her father sends his best huntsmen to find her and bring her home.
Now there's a moment of resolution. The glyph in question is produced by the two cards that have just been played: Joe's situation card and my response. The glyph is besael.
bes ael Folly The one who acts is led astray by his choice. He makes himself vulnerable to the stratagems of his enemies.
Who gets to decide what this means? Either me or Joe, based on the roll of a die. Since my response was a Staves card, we use Daemien's Wisdom as the target. If I roll 4 or less on a six-sided die, I get to narrate what besael means here. If I roll a 5 or a 6, Joe does. Let's pretend I roll a 5. Aargh!

Joe says, "The folly is not Melina's--it's Daemien's! All this is about his choice to go haring off into the woods instead of trying to get home. As Melina flees from her pursuers, searching for her lost love, she is spied by Daemien, who is skulking around there. He lets her pass by -- a big mistake! -- and is spotted by the huntsmen, who start chasing him through the woods."

And that's the turn. The next player gets a situation card, and play proceeds from there.

Rune Saga: Attributes

There are four attributes whose function in play is to influence narrative control.
  • The attribute associated with Swords is Bravery.
  • The attribute associated with Coins is Cleverness.
  • The attribute associated with Stars is Virtue (or Piety).
  • The attribute associated with Staves is Wisdom.
The value of an attribute for a character is equal to 2 plus the number of runes of that suit in the character's pentad. So Prince Daemien (with two Staves and a Coin) has Bravery 2, Cleverness 3, Virtue 2, and Wisdom 4.

I'm still reading and reading about Greimas, so let's see if we can map the four attributes into the semiotic square.

Remember that a semiotic square is constructed like this:

S: semantic category

s <---> non s
~(s|non s) <---> s & non s

~S: semantic anti-category

that is, a positive term contrasts with a negative term (the top row), each of which has a corresponding complement below it, consisting of contradictions of both the positive term (both positive term & negative term)and negative term (neither positive term nor negative term).

S: 'Honor' ['Valor']

bravery <---> cowardice
foolhardiness <---> prudence

~S: 'Survival' ['Discretion']

Rune Saga: Creating Characters

To create a character, draw three cards from the rune deck (making sure to note the order in which they were drawn). Three cards produce a “pentad” consisting of three runes and two glyphs. The first glyph is produced by the first and second runes. The second glyph is produced by the second and third runes. These oracles are read in order, i.e., first rune, second rune, first glyph, third rune, second glyph. You “read” or interpret this “pentad” to create a coherent background.

Example: A player draws Sun of Staves, Moon of Coins, and World of Staves, which produces the following oracles.
  • Sun of Staves [ghotmaegas] Discovery (Remediation). A scroll, book, or map. Event: A hero finds something that is needed or has been missing.
  • Moon of Coins [feltaenas] Credulity (Unfounded Claims). A beneficent spirit, a guardian angel. Event: A villain pretends to be a hero, and receives acclaim.
  • ghot fel: Sacrifice. The one who acts gives up a precious thing.
  • World of Staves [hinmaegas] Nature (Transfiguration). A fiery or chaotic place. Event: Someone changes their aspect, or receives a new appearance.
  • fel hin: Abundance To him is given great wealth, as a lord his due.
The player uses this sequence of oracles to construct this background for his character:
PRINCE DAEMIEN is the son of a mighty king. He was given the task of charting the land on the frontiers of his father's kingdom [Sun of Staves (Map)]. He set out with local guides through a wild wood, but out of spite they tricked him into taking a cursed path where he wandered for a long time, hungry and alone [Moon of Coins (Credulity)]. Befriended by a cunning she-wolf, he gave up his human ways to live like an animal [Sacrifice] and roamed freely through the forest [World of Staves (Nature)] as a prince among the wolves [Abundance].

Rune Saga: Eight Signs and Four Sigils

Here is an image of the signs and sigils as I've imagined them. They could be used to create playing cards for a rune deck.

You can think of each sign as consisting of three lines each, some of which are straight and some bent. Ael, with three straight lines, represents zero and thus both nullity/absence as well as beginnings or initiations; hin, with three (overlapping) bent lines stands for the number seven as well as completion, fullness, or manifold existence. You can I think see the beginnings of a Oerish numerology here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Rune Saga: The Glyphs

This is where things get a little opaque but hopefully oracular. There are 64 combinations of the 8 signs; these combinations are called glyphs. In the play of the game, the combination of an acting and reacting card or rune create a glyph that helps "resolve" what happens. In point of fact, one player is charged with interpreting the meaning of the glyph. Winning the right to interpret -- "narrative control," if you like -- is the game.

ael ael Ignorance The one who acts sets forth, as on a journey, but the way is dark. His knowledge is insufficient to the task he faces.
ael bes Initiative The one who acts strikes the first blow or makes the first move. His action brings some advantage.
ael cadh Seeking The one who acts searches, as for a treasure. There is little progress.
ael din Approaching The one who acts draws nearer to a goal, but the way is long. Still, the end he seeks is in sight, albeit from afar.
ael eth Refuge The one who acts finds refuge along a perilous way, as shelter from a storm. He is safe in repose.
ael fel Struggle The one who acts is beset; he engages with his foe directly. The advantage lies with the foe.
ael ghot Victory The one who acts advances, and the crown is his. There is great progress and success.
ael hin Strong Defense The one who acts attains a strong position of defense. He has shored up a weak point.

bes ael Folly The one who acts is led astray by his choice. He makes himself vulnerable to the stratagems of his enemies.
bes bes Temptation The one who acts is torn by a fateful choice. He may be led astray, as only a superior man is able to resist.
bes cadh Hidden Depths The one who acts possesses reserves of strength that may now be called upon, or may now be hidden away.
bes din Ambition The one who acts overreaches as his ambition drives him forward.
bes eth Retreat In adversity, the one who acts must withdraw.
bes fel Escape With proper action, he thwarts captors and pursuers.
bes ghot Good Advice The one who acts takes counsel, and gains advantage thereby.
bes hin Power The one who acts gains strength or influence by his action.

cadh ael Windfall The one who acts is granted good fortune serendipitiously.
cadh bes Overcoming By dint of his efforts, the one who acts overcomes an obstacle.
cadh cadh Peril The one who acts is surrounded by dangers. If he lacks virtue, he may be overcome.
cadh din Arrival The one who acts comes to a stopping-place. This place may not be the end, but a leg of his journey is complete.
cadh eth Stasis Action brings the one who acts no advantage; all remains as it was.
cadh fel Poverty The one who acts faces that against which his resources are inadequate. He is constrained, or has been refused.
cadh ghot Generosity The one who acts drinks his fill, as from a well. The willing gift of another is granted unto him.
cadh hin Perseverance The one who acts continues in his course. His efforts are not yet in vain, but neither do they bear much fruit.

din ael Labor The one who acts, by dint of his efforts, earns a small reward.
din bes Self-Reliance The one who acts merits a small advantage by his virtue.
din cadh Avarice The one who acts is bound by material things to his disadvantage.
din din Tree of Life The one who acts encounters a source of great gifts.
din eth Study The one who acts takes pains to remedy a lack of essential knowledge, which is is near.
din fel Progress The one who acts makes small advances in his efforts.
din ghot Keen Senses The one who acts discovers a weak point by his action.
din hin Strength The one who acts, by virtue of his strength, achieves a great success.

eth ael Adversity The one who acts is beset; his position becomes untenable.
eth bes Stalemate There is no advantage in action; all remains as it was.
eth cadh Heartache The one who acts faces a loss.
eth din Respite The one who acts pauses in his action.
eth eth Labyrinth The one who acts is ensnared as in a maze.
eth fel Empty Victory The one who acts finds any gain to be illusory.
eth ghot Sanctuary The one who acts arrives at a place of safety.
eth hin Hidden Perils The one who acts moves past an unseen enemy.

fel ael Restriction The one who acts is fettered; there is difficulty.
fel bes Nightmares The one who acts is beset by fears.
fel cadh Ruin The one who acts is stripped of fortune.
fel din Quick Thinking The one who acts achieves progress and success.
fel eth Rapid Advance The one who acts makes progress in his chosen course.
fel fel Guidance The one who acts finds guidance.
fel ghot Solitude The one who acts walks alone.
fel hin Abundance To him is given great wealth, as a lord his due.

ghot ael Contemplation The one who acts prepares; he is moved to some undertaking.
ghot bes Increase He gains advantage by his action, and his fortunes increase.
ghot cadh Celebration The one who acts celebrates good fortune and success.
ghot din Discontent The one who acts is discomfited; he has reason for dissatisfaction.
ghot eth Mourning The one who acts mourns his loss.
ghot fel Sacrifice The one who acts gives up a precious thing.
ghot ghot Doom The one who acts is subject to a malicious fate.
ghot hin Delirium The one who acts, lacking focus, is led astray, even unto madness.

hin ael Change The one who acts, indecisive, reverses his course.
hin bes Fulfillment The one who acts is satisfied with his acheivement.
hin cadh Abandon The one who acts is not steadfast, but pursues diversions.
hin din Friendship The one who acts is aided by allies; there is progress and success.
hin eth Calling The one who acts is called to love or duty.
hin fel Nurturing The one who acts engages in painstaking preparations.
hin ghot Prudence The one who acts acts prudently, and it is well.
hin hin The World The one who acts is granted a great boon.

Rune Saga: The Runes

The combination of sign (face value) and sigil (suit) produces the rune; there are a total of 32 runes, each with a number of alternate meanings. The table below is illustrative.


Child of Swords aelsothas Innocent (Masking). A child; an heir; a fool; one who is under constraint; one whose identity is hidden; one who acts naively or without forethought. Event: Someone takes on a new guise or semblance.

Lady of Swords besothas Maiden (Departure). One who is in danger; one who experiences grief or misfortune. Event: A hero leaves his home or proper place.

Man of Swords cadhsothas Warrior (Pursuit). A captain or leader of warriors; an athlete; a contentious person; one who comes to do harm. Event: A villain chases or hunts a hero, or vice versa.

Tree of Swords dinsothas Battle (Struggle). An army; a path strewn with obstacles. Event: Antagonists clash.

Mount of Swords ethsothas Fortress (Difficult Task). A wall, barrier, or mountain. Event: A hero faces or learns of an obstacle or challenge.

Moon of Swords felsothas Cowardice (Branding). An evil spirit or malicious spirit. Event: A hero receives a mark, brand, or scar.

Sun of Swords ghotsothas Valor (Victory). A weapon or instrument of harm. Event: A hero vanquishes a villain with whom he has clashed.

World of Swords hinsothas War (Death). An evil place; a time of grief. Event: Something long awaited comes to pass; old things pass away; an era closes.


Child of Coins aeltaenas Trickster (Trickery). A clever person; one who speaks glibly but without real knowledge. Event: A villain tries to deceive someone.

Lady of Coins bestaenas Queen (Complicity). One who is a joy to others; one who is beloved. Event: Someone is fooled or fails to exercise good judgment.

Man of Coins cadhtaenas King (Escape). One who is contented. Event: Someone evades pursuit.

Tree of Coins dintaenas Trade (Arrival). A family. Event: A hero arrives at a new place.

Mount of Coins ethtaenas Treasure (Receipt of Gift). A secret. Event: A hero receives a helpful gift.

Moon of Coins feltaenas Credulity (Unfounded Claims). A beneficent spirit, a guardian angel. Event: A villain pretends to be a hero, and receives acclaim.

Sun of Coins ghotaenas Justice (Exposure). A crown or royal jewel. Event: Unfounded claims are revealed, or a disguise is penetrated.

World of Coins hintaenas The City (Union). A prosperous community. Event: Two people are joined as partners; or, a child is born.


Child of Stars aeluemas Pilgrim (Absentation). One who travels, as by water. Event: An innocent or beloved elder departs, perhaps unwillingly.

Lady of Stars besluemas Priestess (Assistance). One who blesses or anoints. Event: An elder provides assistance in a time of need.

Man of Stars cadhluemas Hermit (Interdiction). One who suffers or is made to suffer for his principles. Event: An elder forbids a course of action for his own reasons.

Tree of Stars dinluemas Thought (Counteraction). A church, sect, or cult; a faction committed to a particular means or end. Event: A hero learns of a means to redress an act of villainy.

Mount of Stars ethluemas Guidance (Violation). An expanse of water. Event: A hero violates an elder's interdiction (perhaps unknowingly).

Moon of Stars feluemas Wickedness (Villainy). A compulsion, geas, or quest. Event: A villain prospers by a selfish, destructive, or evil act.

Sun of Stars ghotluemas Compassion (Mediation). A ship, conveyance, or vessel. Event: A hero is made aware of an act of villainy.

World of Stars hinluemas Temptation (Punishment). A virtuous people. Event: A vanquished villain gets his just deserts; or, an ironically appropriate event occurs.


Child of Staves aelmaegas Seeker (Reconnaissance). One who desires knowledge. Event: A villain deploys minions against a hero.

Lady of Staves besmaegas Crone (Delivery). One who knows or possesses knowledge. Event: A villain ascertains a hero's weakness.

Man of Staves cadhmaegas Scholar (Testing). One who brings disorder, change, or novel ideas. Event: An elder tests a hero.

Tree of Staves dinmaegas Vision (Recognition). A school or conclave. Event: Someone penetrates a disguise.

Mount of Staves ethmaegas Lore (Solution). A mysterious stranger. Event: A hero learns how to overcome an obstacle.

Moon of Staves felmaegas Foolishness (Lack). A fiery spirit; an inspiration or enthusiasm. Event: Somebody loses a needed or beloved thing.

Sun of Staves ghotmaegas Discovery (Remediation). A scroll, book, or map. Event: A hero finds something that is needed or has been missing.

World of Staves hinmaegas Nature (Transfiguration). A fiery or chaotic place. Event: Someone changes their aspect, or receives a new appearance.

The Narrative Game

But are we not already guilty of an insulting limitation in calling storytelling a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these two categories as Muhammad's coffin hoverd between heaven and earth? Is it not a unique bond between every pair of opponents, ancient and yet eternally new; mechanical in its framework and yet only functioning through use of imagination; confined in geometrically fixed space and at the same time released from confinement by its permutations; continuously evolving yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere, mathematics that add up to nothing, art without an end product, architecture without substance, and nevertheless demonstrably more durable in its true nature and existence than any books or creative works? Is it not the only game that belongs to all peoples and all times? And who knows whether God put it on earth to kill boredom, to sharpen the wits or to lift the spirits? Where is its beginning and where is its end?
— Frank McConnell, “The Playing Fields of Eden” (1989)

McConnell is playing a game of his own here; this passage is actually a quote he has taken from somewhere and replaced with "storytelling" where the original had chess. He wants to suggest that stories have structure, but that those structures are like the patterns of chess play--moves and possible moves, lines of action that exist in potential (and potentially denied or deferred as some moves are made and others avoided).

Taking this notion seriously is the goal of Rune Saga. Each move in the game is a narrative move, mediated through the play of runes and serving to constrain or enable further moves potentially in opposition. Even in the solitaire version I intend to start with here, there is an imagined audience, a hypothetical "opponent" whose interests must be considered.

The nice thing about this passage is how it sublimates the whole "narratology/ludology" debate that seems to have informed at least some early work in computer game design.

from The Gods of Pegana


In the mists before the Beginning, Fate and Chance cast lots to decide whose the Game should be; and he that won strode through the mists to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI and said: “Now make gods for me, for I have won the cast and the Game is to be mine.” Who it was that won the cast, and whether it was Fate or whether Chance that went through the mists before the Beginning to MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI—none knoweth.
— Lord Dunsany, “The Gods of Pegana”

Rune Saga: Oerish Runes

The Oers (say "WEERS") worship the Spire of Oeris and the Flame of Anala. Their legends tell them they were born of that flame and descended the spire into the Silver Sea (Sunderro), living for a time there--a golden age!--until cast out and upon the shore of the isle of Oeria, where they now live. They are prone to mysticism, but their women are wise in lore and their men are hardy farmers and fishermen. From their villages, looking out across the sea to the north, they can see the low-hanging effulgence of Anala and the sheer mountainous spire of Oeris.

The Oerish runes are their creation--they credit Oeris, naturally--and are used in rituals of divination and prophecy. One's fate and its possible permutations are visible to the Wise in the fall of the runes.

The Oerish runes are actually inspired by the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the Chinese divination method in which "hexagrams" of solid and broken lines provide oracular readings of subtle and sublime character. Not so elegant, the Oerish "rune deck" consists of four suits of eight cards.
  • The four suits, or sigils, are sothas, taenas, luemas, and maegas, or Swords, Coins, Stars, and Staves respectively.
  • The eight values, or signs, of each suit are ael, bes, cadh, din, eth, fel, ghot, and hin, or A through H, respectively.
Individual cards, or runes, are referred to by their sigil and sign, either in English or in the in-game fantasy language (called Oerish in these rules; individual DMs should feel free to assign a different name more in keeping with the epic backgrounds they plan). Thus, the card “Child of Swords” can also be called aelsothas or A-Swords.

A deck of normal playing cards can be used as a rune deck by using ace through eight of each suit as ael through hin, with spades for Swords, diamonds for Coins, hearts for Stars, and clubs for Staves. A tarot deck will also work, with swords for Swords, cups for Coins, pentacles for Stars, and wands for Staves.


The four sigils are sothas (Swords), taenas (Coins), luemas (Stars), and maegas (Staves). Each has a number of different symbolic associations, as shown in the table below. The types of meanings associated with each sigil include, for example, actions (doing, talking, judging, and knowing), principles (evil, good, fate, and chaos), emotions (grief, joy, love, and hate), natural elements (earth, air, water, and fire), precious metals (copper, silver, quicksilver — not mercury, but oricalce or “mythril,” a light but hard metal with arcane properties — and gold), base metals (lead, bronze, iron and cobalte — a poisonous silvery metal that glows with an eerie blue radiance), atmospherical elements (lightning, wind, rain, and sunlight), elements of the body (flesh, breath, blood, and bone), modes of thought (instinct, passion, contemplation, and reason), and celestial bodies (the Earth, the Moon, the Stars, and the Sun). Also linked to the sigils are the Planets (four divine astrological powers, named Promus, Danala, Tsangra, and Thomir) and the various types of spirits (demons, angels, anima, and the fey).
  • Swords (sothas): physical acts (action); evil, grief, earth, copper, lead, flesh, instinct, lightning, winter, dusk, the Earth (Uerlan). Sorcery (the invocation of elements). Morgo, Giver of Strength [Cerolian]. Merciful Promus, the Red Planet (Evening Star) [Oerish]. Dhrugal Clubfoot (warrior) [Tuvarian]. Anuris, God of Death, Eater of Souls [Lannish]. Demons.
  • Coins (taenas): social acts (talk); good, joy, air, silver, bronze, breath, passion, wind, autumn, dawn, the Moon (Lunil). Conjury (the summoning of spirits). Ashima, Giver of Glory [Cerolian]. Life-Giving Danala, the Green Planet (Morning Star) [Oerish]. Rroskan Silvermoon (trickster) [Tuvarian]. Rahn, Lord of Life [Lannish]. Angels.
  • Stars (luemas): moral acts (judgment); fate (causality), love, water, quicksilver (oricalce), iron, blood, contemplation, rain, spring, midnight, the Stars. Wizardry (the act of prophetic judgment). Zerasho, Giver of Insight [Cerolian]. Justice-Meting Tsangra, the White Planet (Pole Star) [Oerish]. Khazun Stonebinder (just king) [Tuvarian]. Madez, Lady of Mysteries [Lannish]. Anima (Totem-Spirits).
  • Staves (maegas): intellectual acts (knowledge); chaos (chance), hate, fire, gold, cobalte, bone, reason, sunshine, summer, noon, the Sun (Oeris). Enchantment (the binding of attributes). Katala, Giver of Power [Cerolian]. Far-Seeing Thomir, the Blue Planet [Oerish]. Urdin the Wise (sage) [Tuvarian]. Karan, Warrior-Maid [Lannish]. Fey.

The eight signs are ael (Child), bes (Lady), cadh (Man), din (Tree), eth (Mount), fel (Moon), ghot (Sun), and hin (World). Again, each has a number of different symbolic meanings. At the surface level, each sign stands for the thing it names. Beyond that, various metaphorical meanings emerge as shown in the table below.
  • Child ael (Hero) a novice or newcomer; one who is subordinate to or guided by someone or something else; a thing produced by other forces or agents. Planets. Emotions.
  • Lady bes (Innocent) a victim or one who is blameless; one who is characterized by a stereotypically feminine property (e.g., intuitiveness, empathy) or principle (e.g., motherhood). Modes of Thought. Elements of the Body.
  • Man cadh (Elder) one who is experienced; one who is characterized by a stereotypically masculine property (e.g., aggressiveness, ambition) or principle (e.g., leadership). Actions. Atmospherical Elements. <>
  • Tree din (Faction) a group or collection; a pattern or web; any more-or-less stable system of relations or connections; a path, a maze. Seasons. Times of Day.
  • Mount eth (Location) a mountain; an obstacle; a more-or-less compact aggregation of undifferentiated material, i.e., a pile; a specific landmark; a perspective or point of view; a preconception. Precious Metals.
  • Moon fel (Spirit) a disembodied spirit; a void, lack, or absence; self-serving or self-aggrandizing actions or intentions. Base Metals. Spirits.
  • Sun ghot (Artifact) a tool, instrument, or weapon; a vehicle; a monument; a building; any positive goal, aspiration, or ideal. Principles. Natural Elements.
  • World hin (Area or Region) the totality of circumstances or conditions; the surrounding environment; any varied expanse or encompassing terrain. Celestial Bodies

About Me

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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.