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Author Topic: Arthurian GM-less RPG: Alpha Stages  (Read 1837 times)

Posts: 15

« on: January 30, 2009, 03:21:05 PM »

Contents of this post:
I.  General concept
II.  Rough structure
III.  Major unanswered questions
IV.  Links to referenced games
V.  For the future

I.  General Concept
For about two years now, I've been working and re-working my ideas for an Arthurian RPG.  It started off as a rather extensive mod of D&D, in a style that I would now say somewhat resembles Fudge, in an effort to render a more "mythical" feel.  I read a lot of mythology growing up, so I knew vaguely what I wanted (grandiose actions, stark opposition between heroes and villains, and a rather subjective interpretation of reality in terms of what is physically possible, time, space, etc).  As the project developed through a series of incarnations (many of which could spawn other games, including perhaps an amusing LARP) my ambitions grew.  I read the rules to Awesome Women Kicking Ass and thought that, if only to make a more interesting contribution to gaming, I would like to try my hand at a GM-less RPG.  This also fit my idea that while everyone knows what a myth is and how it feels, myths are always varying in their arrangement of elements.  However, unlike AWKA, I wanted my game to combine co-operation with an element of competition.  The object of this game will be to make your character the "star" of the myth.  I must admit a lot of my influences have come from a children's card game Quests of the Round Table, in which players take turns setting up quests and going on them to win honour and glory.

Character creation will be minimalist, limited to perhaps two or three descriptive sentences.  "Sir Bercilac cannot be killed except by his long-lost twin.  Sir Bercilac cannot lose a drinking contest."  If you've read a lot of Arthuriana, you'll find that the characters are pretty one-dimensional, with few if any traits to distinguish them from one another.  Often their distinguishing traits are identical to the distinguishing traits of others.  Malory mentions several knights as being "The greatest knight in all the land, except Sir Tristram and Sir Lancelot."  Tristram and Lancelot of course have reciprocal superlatives.

This RPG falls most neatly into the "narrativist" camp, though since it is also a card game (as you will soon see) it has its gamist elements.  As a mythic game, simulation is both completely disregarded and intrinsic.  Players do not simulate the real world, but instead do their best to emulate whatever feels like a myth.  The sky's the limit, really.

The only game component I have so far deemed necessary will be a deck of cards (plus the ubiquitous pens and paper).  In the final version of the rules, there will be an index linking each playing card to a short inspirational sentence, such as "A Knight in black armour, on a black horse with black barding, carrying a black shield, blocks the road.  Seeing you, he lowers his black lance, and with a kick of his black spurs charges you..."  I also intend to design decks of these cards complete with nice little illustrations that I will order from one of those suppliers of corporate gimmicks (I recently saw a Cleveland, Ohio deck of cards) which people can pay me money for if they feel so inclined.  This will be my only merchandising, as the rules will be available online with a GNU license, and I really don't mind if people design and print their own cards...

II.  Rough Structure

A.  Set-up
Players briefly describe their characters in a few sentences.  Everyone plays a knight of the Round Table, at least in Alpha.  As work progresses, I'll hopefully flesh out rules for playing an aspiring knight, a damsel, or a sorcerer.  Then each player draws a card from the deck to indicate a quest objective.  Starting with the high card (vote in the case of ties) and going clockwise, each player describes what the objective is.  Perhaps the high card is the Queen of Diamonds, which (after I make up a list) might indicate a rich queen or lady.  The drawing player might describe it thusly:

Queen Margause of Orkney has fallen under a dark enchantment, causing her to throw all noble knights visiting her court into her dungeons!  Arthur has commanded that his most noble knights must ride forth and discover the source of his aunt's bewitching and remove this vile curse from the land...

The lesser cards are similarly described.  The objectives are shuffled into the deck and each player is dealt three cards (this quantity will be experimented with and altered come beta).

B.  Sequence of play

Going clockwise, players take turns flipping the top card of the deck and interpreting its effects on the knights riding out from Camelot.  There should be a short description of the story.  Referring to the Black Knight, for instance, one knight might joust and fail, resulting in his imprisonment.  A second might defeat the Black Knight, winning glory.  The rest are now free to ride through the previously blocked road.  Any player is free to challenge the description of events (providing alternate descriptions of a single event, as in Carry).  In this case, all challengers (including the original drawer of the card) play a single card.  High card wins, the "story" card sets a suit for trumps.  Subsequently, players draw back to their regular hand size.

Players may, in their descriptions, invoke various NPCs.  Merlin may make prophecies, Lancelot may show up to defeat an otherwise unbeatable foe, et cetera.  If on a player's turn his or her character is in some way incapacitated, their descriptions cannot be challenged (providing an incentive for other characters to rescue them).  A player's description may NOT result in honour and glory, or other good things, for their own character (providing an incentive for co-operative story-telling), EXCEPT when the card in question is a quest objective.

Various story effects will result in various game effects.  Anyone winning honour or proving themselves gets to draw another card, increasing their hand size until further notice.  Dishonour has the opposite effect.  Being healed or cared for by good forces (the Arthurian universe is littered with holy hermitages and nunneries) allows players to draw several cards, then discard down to their regular hand size, allowing them to tailor a better hand.

C.  End of Play

The first time the deck is played through, only secondary objectives can be completed.  Once a joker is drawn the ultimate objective is ripe for completion.  Whenever an objective is completed, that player immediately wins honour AND places the completed objective face-up in front of him or her.  Once all objectives have been completed, the knights slowly ride back to Camelot.  Each player then takes on the role of Arthur, turning to the player on their left and praising their achievements, berating their failures.  The game is then complete.  If players wish to nominate a "winner" above and beyond whoever wins the most obvious praise, it is whoever completed the ultimate quest objective.

III.  Unanswered Questions

1.  What cards mean what?
I'm considering dividing up cards into suits, similar to tarot cards, with different symbolic meanings.  Spades/swords mean martial foes or (depending on interpretation) allies; diamonds for "wonders"; clubs for pagan elements (dwarves, giants, witches); hearts for Christian elements (the ace will almost certainly be the Grail).  Increasing card values will be increasingly dire or impressive elements.  I'm also wondering how detailed I should make card descriptions.  The black knight described above, for instance, charges the character.  But perhaps it's enough to simply supply a black knight and allow players to make of it what they will?

2.  What game effects can the story render?
Honour and dishonour, as mentioned, are the closest this game comes to experience points, adjusting the sizes of player hands and thus their potential to challenge one another.  "Resting" will allow players to tailor their hands, dumping out the twos and threes.  At the moment, I have the capture of knights resulting in a bonus to players, but perhaps it should be a bonus to challenges and otherwise their turn should be skipped.  Additional effects might allow players to shuffle or stack the deck, alter the direction of play, et cetera.  What might this imply in the story?

3.  What limits should there be on the story resultant for each card?
It would feel somewhat unsatisfying if a player could alter the balance of power in the game as much by a three as by an ace.  Perhaps certain game effects can only be incorporated into face cards?  At this point, this is a difficult question to answer.  If the two of clubs is a dwarf, for instance, then it will be quite straightforward that the story will NOT end with a knight of the round table being slain... though perhaps tricked or captured?

4.  Does this game sound exciting enough?
Will players be motivated to play with a degree of ruthlessness, making meta-game alliances to secure honour for themselves, only to save their cards to challenge one another over the final objective?  On the other hand, does it detract from the narrativist elements of the game for the winner of the quest to be decided by a single fall of the cards?  Perhaps certain situations should require multiple cards from challengers.

IV.  Links
Awesome Women Kicking Ass
Carry, a game about war
<a href="www.wizards.com/DnD/">Dungeons and Dragons[/url]
LARP (a wikipedia explanation of the concept)
Quests of the Round Table

V.  For the future
I will post a few drafts and ideas for card lists on this thread to subject them to critique, and eventually (in another forum) link to a beta version of the rules suitable for playtesting.  Until then, I welcome all input.

Posts: 83

« Reply #1 on: January 31, 2009, 03:22:28 PM »

Overall, the concept sounds interesting to me but I have a hard time equating "ruthless" with an Arthurian storyline. I wonder if the audiences who prefer one would dislike the other?

Marv (Finarvyn)
Sorcerer * DFRPG * ADRP
I'm mosty responsible for S&W WhiteBox
OD&D Player since 1975

Posts: 2233

My name is Raven.

« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2009, 02:46:13 PM »

It sounds interesting to me, and I definitely look forward to seeing further development on the game. I don't have much else to say because, not knowing the rules or potential rules as intimately as you seem to, I can't get a handle on whether or not what you have in mind will work in play or not. Definitely keep us updated.

Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Posts: 188

« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2009, 04:03:33 PM »

If I may be a Forge-ite for a moment, for the purpose of maximizing the usefulness of Creative Agenda theory...

To avoid further confusion, Bercilac, it sounds like the kind of game you're describing actually promotes Gamist play. If players are competing with one another, and the game has at least a potential end-point of Arthur declaring the best knight among you, then the game is about overcoming challenges. That's straight-up Gamism.

Not that your rules or even your concept are "strictly" Gamist in any sense; but if the point of play is declaring a winner (I detected the "maybe" there, but I suspect that's stemming from the roughness of the current concept rather than deliberately, forever-and-ever vague like that), and the players are all excited about that being the point of play, you've got Gamism.

Gamism does not inherently mean crunchy rules; it doesn't mean all-combat (or no combat, for that matter); it only explicitly refers to the point of sitting down together as a group. Conversely, Narrativism doesn't mean a certain amount of combat, or rules-lite vs. rules-heavy; such considerations, being tangential to the actual point of the game, are red herrings.

Narrativism, for that matter, sets up the point of play as the discussion, or argument, centering around a theme. A theme in this case is a statement or a question announced by the setting or the premise; in Narrativist play, player-characters are often conflicted or at odds about a particular ethical or moral dilemma, problem, or crisis. In the case of Arthurian-style myth, for instance, one could ask the question, "Can magic be used for the greater glory of Arthur's kingdom?" Wizards, strict Christian knights, pagan knights, and mythical beasts would all have different opinions on the subject, and they would also, alternately, represent different opinions or "takes" on the question.

The question of 1-D characters vs. more nuanced individuals is a red herring, by the way: greater complexity simply means that the debate on the theme goes on inside the characters themselves as well as between them; 1-D characters are, perhaps, a bit more like Greek drama-masks or, alternately, hardline positions debators stake out before they have their discussion. Of course my sanctimonious Christian knight feels the way he does; of course your troll-soldier feels the way he does; play is an exploration of how these viewpoints interact.

That being said, nice choices for what the suits represent! How exciting! And kudos to you for explicitly bringing Christianity into the game; it's something that I think a lot of movie treatments of the material like to leave out, although games like Pendragon seem reasonably comfortable making clear the heavy religious content of the material.

Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

Posts: 15

« Reply #4 on: February 05, 2009, 07:55:38 PM »


Thanks for your comments.

In all honesty, I AM going for a rather vague set of "victory conditions".  Most of the gamist elements here are additions to some previous drafts made on the advice of a friend.  He worried that my original concept supplied insufficient motivation for players.  But he's an experience-point hungry swine, so maybe I should take his advice with a grain of salt.  Still, I can see where his fears come from.

In its current incarnation (which is somewhat lacking in flesh and bone, as greyorm points out), the game is influenced by my reading of Levi-Strauss's structural analysis of myths, and a bit by Stalin's Story, a wonderful if somewhat traumatic game.  Essentially, both argue that a myth follows a very regular format, and ends predictably.  What makes one myth different from another, or different versions of the same myth different, is the way they re-arrange very basic elements to create different emphases and contrasts.  How does this apply to my game?

I don't really envisage this as a competitive game.  Perhaps I was a bit rushed asking for "ruthlessness" from my imaginary players, but I'm wondering whether other folks will see the fun in it otherwise.  I would like this to be a game about weaving a myth around very archetypical characters, whose epitaphs emerge only at the end of the game.  Perhaps an example of play might help:

Angus, Bruce, and Chris sit down for a game, playing Adam, Bors, and Calum respectively.  Their characters set off on the quest to slay the wicked Sorceress of the Faraway Castle, on the way investigating rumours of a holy man in the Very Very Dark Forest, and hopefully rescuing Princess Greatlegs, who is believed to have been abducted by agents of the Sorceress (my game not only includes Christianity, but misogyny in spades!).  Along the way, Sir Adam was captured by gutless ne'er-do-wells, who ambushed him as he lay asleep beneath a tree in the sweltering English summer (sweltering if you're in full armour anyway).  Sirs Bors and Calum continue on through the Very Very Dark Forest.  It is Bruce's turn to draw.  He draws, for instance, the Nine of Diamonds, bearing the description "A tree grows here, its roots burrowing into a solid granite boulder.  All of its leaves are of the finest gold, its bark of the finest silver, and its wood of the finest copper."  Bruce is worried what Angus will eventually do to him with his in-jail powers, so he gives this description:

"Sir Bors goes to the tree and fills his saddlebags with its gold.  Riding on, he soon comes upon a clearing where the bandits have hidden.  In exchange for the gold, the bandits agree to release Sir Adam, who immediately falls to his knees and praises Bors for his magnanimity [honour, +1 card]."

Chris decides to challenge that, and retells essentially the same story, but placing the emphasis on Sir Calum.

Angus issues his own challenge, a bit more creative than Chris'.

"Sir Bors approaches the tree and reaches to pluck its golden leaves.  But, as he does so, a terrible voice booms out 'YOU ARE NOT WORTH TO TOUCH THE TREE!'  Bors is immediately set upon by a knight in black armour charging from the underbrush of the Very Very Dark Forest.  Being as he is on foot and taken by surprise, Sir Bors is thrown to the ground by a mighty blow of the lance.  Sir Calum flees in panic [dishonour, -1 card].  When Sir Bors regains consciousness, the knight has vanished.  Bors mounts his horse and rides on, now seeking Sir Calum, ready to challenge his comrade over his cowardice."

The players then play a card, high card wins, diamonds are trumps.

After this, the journey continues.  Assuming Angus wins, Sir Calum might later redeem himself.  Adam may later be rescued (until he is, Angus will continue to dominate the game every time his turn comes around).  Bors might win some battles... or return to the tree determined to face the knight again, this time with his lance at the ready.

One thought I have had while writing this is that perhaps players should be required to weave the text on the card they play into the story they tell.  So for Angus' story, he would need a black knight.  It would also prevent Chris' weasel move.

These are just more thoughts, and I don't expect anyone to be able to give me more criticism at this point (unless of course you have some stunning revalation based on my blethering).  I've been quite busy lately, but will try to post a more refined draft of the rules shortly.

Posts: 15

« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2009, 08:00:01 PM »

Another possibility:

Rather than "challenges" simply dispelling other players' descriptions, perhaps they should be forced to add to them?

Bruce draws the nine, and sees the tree.  He plays a low heart (for Christian goody-goody-ness) for Bors to ransom Adam.  Angus would later play the knight who would catch up with Bors on the road, angry that someone had been picking his trees, and interrupt his rescue mission.

Posts: 15

« Reply #6 on: February 06, 2009, 05:08:04 AM »

Alpha rules
Jargon is in quotation marks for the first use.

Game for 2-6 players.
I.  Game setup
The game should be played about a round table.  Shuffle the deck.  Deal out 12 cards between all players present, starting left of the dealer.  Then place the deck in the centre of the table.  Again starting left of the dealer, players in turn read out a card from their hands and then use it to inspire a short description of their knight, which may never be proven false, or, alternatively, a prophecy about the knight which must be fulfilled should the opportunity arise (i.e. by that card coming up again in the course of play).  Descriptions or prophecies may be issued by NPCs, or simply stated as true.  These cards are then shuffled back into the deck.  Each player is dealt another card.

Continuing left of the dealer, each player chooses a card from their hands.  They read it out, and use it to narrate a quest objective.  The quest must be revealed by an incident or news at court, and receive King Arthur's endorsement by the end of the narration.  Players' knights may bring this news.  These cards are then shuffled back into the deck.

A card is dealt face-up in front of each player.  This is their "seat".  They are currently "in Camelot."

II.  Round structure

Play proceeds in "rounds."  In the first round, the player to the left of the dealer is "leader."  In each successive round, the new leader is the player to the left of the old leader.  Starting with the leader, each player takes a turn.  Turns also proceed clockwise.  Once each player has had a turn, the round is over.  On their turn, a round's leader does the following:
1.  Either play a card from their hand onto "Siege Perilous" (fancy-pantsy discard pile), OR one from the seat of any knight currently in Camelot (including their own).  They then describe a short narrative episode based on the card.  Narration MUST involve a knight if their seat has been played (they have just left Camelot), and it MAY involve any knight currently away from Camelot and not in "captivity".  They may, if they choose, invoke one of the card's powers on any knight suitably involved by the narration.
i.  Spades and Hearts may "honour" or "dishonour" a knight.  Any knight who is honoured immediately draws a card from the deck, any knight who is dishonoured immediately discards one to Siege Perilous.
ii.  Spades and Clubs may result in a knight's capture or rescue/release/escape from capture.  (This is an exception to the rule that characters in captivity cannot be involved in narration).  They return immediately to Camelot, though that journey may be narrated and they may pass other knights on the road.  Deal a card to their seat.  The player OF THE RELEASED KNIGHT (not necessarilly the player of the card) then narrates their knight's explanation of his capture and later release.  If the card is a Spade, that player may then allocate either honour to their liberator, or dishonour to any knight he indicts as responsible for his imprisonment.
iii.  Clubs and Diamonds may "enchant" any knight.  The player loses their turn this round.
iv.  Hearts and Diamonds may "restore" any knight.  That player draws as many cards as there are players, and then discards an equal number.
2.  The player either draws a card from the deck or (if in Camelot) from their seat, in which case it is immediately refilled from the deck.  They may NOT draw another card, from any source, if they played another knight's seat.

Turns then proceed to the left of the leader.  A player may either take their turn or pass.  In order to play, however, a player must either play the highest card yet played that round or play in the same suit as the leader.  All narration must in some way tie back to the leader's card.  Once every player has either played a turn or passed, the round is over.  If the deck is exhausted.

III.  Ending the game
Any time a quest objective is played, it is not placed on Siege Perilous.  Instead, it is placed face-up in a seperate area.  The first time an objective appears, the player narrates an episode in which the objective is nearly, but not quite, completed.  Once all objectives are in play, a player has the option, whenever it is his turn to lead, to play the lowest-numbered objective instead of a card from their hand or a seat.  At this point, all players away from Camelot and not in captivity secretly play a card.  The highest card wins, though cards the same suit as the objective trump other suits.  The winner describes the completion of the objective, invoking up to one suit power from every card played.  All free knights then return to Camelot (and have their seats filled) and draw a card, as described in II.2.

Once all objectives are complete, all knights return to Camelot.  Those in captivity at this time may either narrate a daring escape or a shameful release, depending on their own judgement of the situation.  Starting with the player who completed the last objective, going clockwise, each player turns to the player on their left and, as Arthur, commends their victories and condemns their failures.

The game is now over.

Crunchy bits to follow.

Posts: 15

« Reply #7 on: March 09, 2009, 04:04:44 AM »

Woah, time flies.  I've been quite busy and having a few computer troubles, but here's a sampling of crunchy bits.  Does this shed any more light on the type of game I'm aiming for?  Note that certain cards (particularly the aces) invoke some of the turning points in the Arthurian saga.  This may be a game best played by Arthur geeks.  I'm not sure.

Quotations from
Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur: the Winchester Manuscript, Cooper H. ed. (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

2. '"But what is thy name?"
"At this time I will not tell."
"It is an evil sign that thou art a true man, that thou wilt not tell thy name." -Balin and the disguised Merlin, 38
10.  "What dost thou on this mountain?  Though here were fifty such, ye were too feeble for to match him all at once.  Whereto bears thou armour?  It may thee little avail, for he needs no other weapon but his bare fist."  -regarding the Giant of Genoa, 88.
Q.  "And there she told them all ... of the treason of Morgan le Fay." -219.
A.  "So by her subtle working she made Merlin to go under that stone to let her wit of the marvels there, but she wrought so there for him that he came never out for all the craft he could do.  And so she departed and left Merlin." -The Lady Nenive (Nimue), 59

Q.  "I am come to my death for to heal you, therefore for God's love pray for me." -Percival's Sister, 386
A.  "They shall die many in the quest [for the Grail]. ..  I have great doubt that my true fellowship shall never meet here more again." -Arthur, in response to his knights' oaths, 318

4.  "He bade him turn, and so he turned and smote [the knight] so hard that horse and man he bore to the earth; and so he alit down and bound him fast and threw him overthwart his own horse ... , and so rode with [him] till he came to his own castle." -Lancelot vs Lionel, 96
A.  "Had that noble knight Sir Lancelot been with you, as he was and would have been, this unhappy war had never begun." -Gawain on his death bed, 508

2.  "Right so came into the hall two men well beseen and richly, and upon their shoulders there leaned the goodliest young man and the fairest that ever they all saw; and he was large and long and broad in the shoulders, well visaged, and the largest and fairest hands that ever man saw." -Gareth 120
6.  '"[That sword] ... shall be your destruction, and that is great pity."  So with that departed the damosel, and great sorrow she made.' -The sword of Balin, 35.
J.  "Sir, I have followed [the questing beast] long and killed my horse, so would God I had another to follow my quest." -Pellinore, 22
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