Planning to Fail: An Alternate d20 System

Failure. We fear it. We hate when it happens to us. It drives us to do better, to be better, to learn from our mistakes. Aristotle was the first western thinker to analyze dramatic theory and defined tragedy and comedy, but core to both expressive modes of narrative is the idea of failure. In a tragedy a protagonist is brought low by the extent of their failures. In comedy we laugh as we experience the protagonist’s story as a series of errors, mishaps, and misunderstandings. Failure drives them both, what is different is a matter of tone and perspective. A character who always gets what they want and nothing bad ever happens to them is both boring and totally unrelatable to us as human beings. So why should our D&D heroes succeed ad nauseam or constantly roll 2’s all night?

I love D&D and the d20 system, but sometimes I wish there was a little more dramatic control with our narratives. Why should a rogue fail at picking a lock because they rolled a 1 and a barbarian rolls a 20 and opens up the same lock that foiled the rogue? Why should a run of bad luck on several different dice thwart the super awesome plan that the party concocted to sneak into the fortress? Wouldn’t it be nice if when a certain conflict resolution was uncertain and required a die roll that the player could decide to succeed at some cost or play it safe and fail spectacularly?

Enter the mechanical genius of Phoenix: Dawn Command. In Phoenix: Dawn Command every player has a deck of cards that they draw from in order to resolve conflicts. The cleverness of the system is that when a player draws their hand they can see how likely they are to succeed in the conflict. If a player decides that the success of this conflict is crucial, they can decide to burn their cards in order to make sure that it succeeds. They can also choose to fail on less important tasks because they want to save their good cards for when they might really need them. I love this resource management and risk/reward system. It gives the players more control over the narrative and eliminates the sometimes problematic “swingy-ness” of d20 resolution mechanics. It becomes not a matter of if random dice rolls will fail you but when will you choose to fail in the narrative.

So with this in mind I’ve come up with a way to bring this resource management risk/reward mechanic to D&D. All you need is two decks of playing cards and your players’ consent to try something new.

Players share a deck of cards, the DM uses their own deck. Shuffle the deck and have each player draw a hand of 4 cards. The DM draws a hand of 7 (allowing for multiple NPCs/monsters). These cards are their possible “die results” for their next conflict resolution. At the start of every turn if anyone ever has less than 4 cards they redraw from the deck back up to 4 cards.  If, for some reason, you need to make a “d20 roll” and you have no cards (using a reaction, making a saving throw, attack rolls in excess of 4, etc) you draw from the top of the deck and must use whatever result you draw. When you use cards for conflict resolutions you discard them in a pile. When the deck runs out you shuffle the discard pile and create a new deck.

The cards equal the following “d20” rolls:

  • Ace: 1 or 20 (Player can choose a Natural 20 or Natural 1. In addition to the chosen result they also get an additionally benefit. Natural 20: immediately draw one card. Natural 1: they may immediately discard any number of cards from their hand and immediately draw back up to 4 cards.)
  • 2: Natural 20
  • 3: 3
  • 4: 4
  • 5: 5
  • 6: 6
  • 7: 7
  • 8: 8
  • 9: 9
  • 10: 10
  • Jack: 15
  • Queen: 15
  • Kind: 15

What this means is that roughly 38% of the cards will allow them to almost guarantee success (Ace’s, 2’s, Jack’s, Queen’s, and King’s) 15% of the cards (the 9’s & 10’s) will allow them to succeed if they have a good enough bonus, and 46% of the cards (3’s-8’s) will almost certainly mean failure. While this system does use random draws from the deck it isn’t completely random. Players always choose their cards from their hands, but about half of the cards mean failure. The players don’t get to decide if they fail but they do get to make many more decisions about when they fail.

According to the tastes of your table the players can either openly share what their hands are or this could be kept a secret from each other. Knowing that four aces are in the collective hands could make for some interesting strategizing of attack plans. Personally, I would allow my players to know each others hands and under certain circumstances (using clever role-playing descriptions) allow them to even swap one card with one player once a round.

On the topic of Advantage and Disadvantage there are few options on how to handle those mechanics in this system.

Advantage could either a) allow a player to draw a card from the deck and choose that card or a card from their hand, or b) allow a player to add two card values together.

Disadvantage could either a) require a player to discard one card chosen at random by the DM, or b) require a player to discard two cards and use the lower value.

How you handle Advantage and Disadvantage should be chosen with everyone’s consent.

Initiative in combat can be handled by everyone drawing a card and highest goes first (players chose outcome of ties) or by rolling a d20 and adding Dexterity as usual.

Everything else about the rules of D&D 5th Edition would remain the same. You still use modifiers and still roll damage dice when you need to. But the tone and feel of combat and role-play encounters would be very different. You won’t be on the edge of your seat waiting for the d20 to stop spinning, you’ll be looking at your hand and thinking “hmm, if I want to I could guarantee this guard believes my ridiculous lie, but if I spend my Ace now I’m almost certainly going to fail the next problem that might arise. Is it worth it?”

As a disclaimer I have absolutely zero play-testing of this idea. I’m interested in trying this out with my group and also hearing if anyone tries this out. It’s just something I came up with because of my annoyance with the sometimes “swingy-ness” of d20’s and because I love the way Phoenix: Dawn Command feels very heroic and dramatic. If you haven’t heard of it or checked it out it is well worth a look.

 

3D NPCs. Never name them “The Blacksmith.”

Recently I’ve been devouring the contents of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and some of its contents (NO SPOILERS) have inspired me to do a little ranting. The good kind.

Dungeon Masters love to go online and wail about rampant Murder-Hoboism in their group. There are a plethora of Youtube videos, articles, and forums discussing this “issue” at length. Usually I see that the discussions often focus around the Players and what they may or may not being doing. Categorizing problem players or bad habits. But it takes two to role-play a tango and the faults of the DM are too frequently overlooked. In my opinion it is a cardinal Dungeon Master sin to present players with 2D, boring NPCs. If you want your players to not murder everything with a pulse, you need to give them a reason to care. Make interesting NPCs and their first thought won’t be “I wonder how much gold he has and whether I can kill him before the guards find out.”

In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the writers/designers have done their due diligence in presenting interesting, memorable, and complicated NPCs. I’ve not yet read the whole book but by only Chapter 2 I am delighted with the role-playing possibilities it will afford me and our group. I will give one such example, without too much context, to illustrate my point.

Embric and Avi. A married couple in the city of Waterdeep. Embric is a male Fire Genasi, and Avi is a male Water Genasi. Together they operate an armorer and blacksmith shop. Their descriptions are very simple and to the point. Embric is descended from the efreet of Calimshan and is prone to mood swings. Avi worships Eldath, God of Peace, is laid back, and speaks plainly. And that’s about all that the book has to say about Embric and Avi. But immediately after reading these succinct paragraphs I was overwhelmingly inspired to role-play these characters. Inspired enough to make a blogpost about it. It also reminding me of an antidote to Murder-Hoboism.

Embric and Avi are interesting. I immediately have questions about them. How did they meet? How long have they been married? What does an argument look like between the two of them and what do they agree on? What does it look like when a Fire Genasi and a Water Genasi kiss? Are they very private when in their shop or do they show public affection? Do some patrons give them a wide berth and refuse to go to them? Do they play elemental pranks on one another? Wouldn’t their shop be incredibly steamy, what with all the moisture and warmth?

The fact that I have all these questions is a great indication that 1) I will enjoy role-playing them, and 2) my players will at least remember them if not fall in love with them. These are NPCs with gravitas, and with only 252 words the module has set me up nicely to almost completely rule out the possibility of a Murder-Hobo situation. Why?

Because the inclusion of diversity and complex social situations force players to play the game in a more “realistic” way. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier when NPCs are three dimensional. The Grognard might say “oh well that’s ridiculous a Water Genasi and a Fire Genasi would never fall in love.” and to them I would say your fantasy is painfully wrong. I would also say the cliche’ “Opposites Attract” and I would also ask them if they have ever been in a real human relationship.

Humans and relationships are messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. We say “I’m going on a diet” and then crumble at the sight of a red velvet cake. We say “I’m not going to call her.” and then we do in a moment of weakness. We do and say things that make no logical sense, spurred on by emotional undercurrents that are years in the making and sometimes can only notice their ripples in hindsight. Human interactions are varied, include subtext, and are almost never simply what they may appear to be. Why, as a DM, would you rob your players of the rich experience of meeting an NPC they actually care about?

Let’s talk about Panda for a moment.

Panda is a Giff gunsmith savant I created for my Spelljammer campaign. He is loud, boisterous, and has zero social tact. He always says the most obvious things at the most inopportune times. My players grew to love him and he made several repeat appearances. Later in the campaign, I had established our world as having “multiple timelines” existing concurrently and they could be glimpsed in weird ways. I hinted that in an alternate timeline Panda had joined forces with the heroes to thwart a great evil, and he had solo piloted a ship rigged with smokepowder into an enemy armada. He sacrificed his life in order to save them from an unwinnable scenario. My beautiful wife, playing two characters in the campaign, immediately wept in real life. She wailed “We don’t deserve him!” and continued to cry. Somehow I had stumbled upon a character that was real in our minds and we gave a shit whether he lived or died. We care about Panda on a very real and emotional level. That’s because he’s not “The Gunsmith.” He’s Panda. He is real in our minds because he has a past, he has hopes and dreams, and he has his faults and failings.

Next time you’re tempted to use a placeholder NPC with zero personality, probe deeper and try to figure out what makes them tick. There’s plenty of techniques to flesh out characters, but here’s four quick questions that might help you:

1) What do they want badly and are having trouble getting?

2) What’s a quirk or habit specific to them?

3) What’s one thing they want everyone to know?

4) What’s one thing they want nobody to ever know?

An Apology for Labels and Clubs *Or* Justification of Compartmentalization

300px-MagrittePipe
(Painting by René Magritte)
This rant of a blogpost was inspired by Full Metal RPG Episode 57 – “Heather, 5th Edition Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Requiem, Omega Zone Review.”
(You should check out FMRPG, they’re fucking rad)

I’ll start this philosophical bullshit with a strange question:

If we can play pretend for free and at any moment we choose, why bother paying a clerk in paper or electronic trust to deliver a packaged experience made by some far distant organization of people?

Plainspeak: Why bother buying RPG books when you can make it up yourself for free?

I see at least 4 great reasons: 1) people who write/create collaboratively for a living are more likely to create excellent content, 2) To have an agreed upon common language (aka rules/setting/character options), 3) to feel a sense of belonging to the group that uses this same common language, and 4) to commiserate with afterwards (between games) with people who speak the same common language.

We buy rule books because that’s the cost of entry into the gaming club. When players and game masters have rules to go by they have a social currency they can agree on, comprehend, and adhere to. It leads to an experience that can be repeated again and again, across the globe, regardless of personalities or circumstances.  It offers consistency, predictability, and comfort. It also offers a sense of belonging.

Twice in one week I was out in public with the common rabble of my fellow humans and I was called out for wearing symbols emblematic of my hobby interests. Someone spotted my d20 spinner ring and asked if I played D&D. Someone else spotted my “Lake Geneva Games” t-shirt and asked where I got it and if I knew any good places for people to run a game of D&D. The effect of both interactions was a surge of dopamine in my brain and a flash of smiling recognition. I immediately knew something about these people and they knew something about me. By no means was this a complete recognition, we might have argued over religion or politics or whether or not Dark Side of The Moon was the quintessential Pink Floyd album, but we had at least the common ground of Dungeons and Dragons and all that entails.

Without me wearing symbols of my interests and without companies creating rule books and people purchasing these products these moments would have never happened. I would know nothing of my connection to a wider world and human moments of empathy would have been lost.

A club can be used to fulfill the human need for belonging, or it can be used to bludgeon an “other” over the head because they don’t belong.

At their core, clubs and labels fulfill our brains innate desire to rationally comprehend the world around us. Flooded with sensory input from the external world as well as our own internal thoughts, in order to function we need to prioritize and compartmentalize information. If we refuse to do this or perhaps if our brains cannot do this for some physiological reason, we will quickly find ourselves unable to relate or cope with day to day modern human life.

Language itself is compartmentalized information. If we didn’t have language we could not express ourselves and meet our basic needs. I don’t see people scrambling to create a language revolution where we return to the good ol’ days of grunts and pointing. But people perennially love to discuss the oppression of labels and clubs. Personally, I think we’re having the wrong discussion. The oppression we should really be talking about is human cruelty. The insufferable insanity of crowds and mob mentality. The ever present evil of blindly following orders. The cults of personality and devotion that lead ordinary people to defend the honor and image of people they have never even met. Labels and clubs are not to blame for how people may misuse them.

I find it amusing that a podcast (FMRPG) that refers to its loyal audience as “cultists” recently discussed the sins of labels and clubs. This dramatic irony will not be lost on my friend Brendan of FMRPG. This isn’t me saying he’s a fool and a charlatan. I just like giving him shit. (I will admit, it’s easy for me to sit here and dissect and create points and counterpoints when I have the luxury of pausing and replaying the conversation on the podcast.)

The following is a brief transcription of the discussion in question (between timestamps 1:08:13 –  1:11:41)

Heather: “My biggest problem with vampire games is the way that they make you have to be in some kind of club…Why do vampires have to be in their own little clubs and fight each other?”

Brendan: “I think V5 acknowledges that…life doesn’t just get boiled down to what weird little group you’re in. I think that was a major failing of the original Masquerade material…it started out being this edgy different thing, ‘oh I get to choose a clan, and I’m part of a sect’ and these ideas of belonging that had never been expressed in roleplaying up till that point, felt very new and very fresh. But by the time you hit ’97 through ’99 people were starting to talk about ‘oh that character is the way they are because (and they would cite clan or cite sect).’ And then they started doing what I consider even more heinous things saying ‘this character can’t be because of clan or sect’ ‘Oh that characters not Brujah, Brujah would never be like that!’” (Alignment arguments anyone?)

Brendan: “This idea that you can break everything down into these finer and finer subgroups is actually destructive to creativity. It’s destructive to the way that games get played where everybody is always trying to analyze everything…what little nook can I slot you into?”

I agree with Heather and Brendan, but listening to the discussion I had my own thoughts I wanted to elucidate here. In my opinion it’s not clubs or labels that’s the real problem. What’s really to blame in these egregious situations is simply people being fucking shitheads.

I see where they’re coming from. I have been privy to conversations where people are diametrically opposed to what I believe or what I participate in. I have been “the other” in arguments that is bashed over the head with ideology and labels. I have bucked labels and tried to redefine myself. But in the end, all these years later, I realize how narrow my perspective was, and that I myself was conforming to just another set of rules and ideology. It’s like the person who says they want to rebel against society and its ideals of what is and isn’t acceptable and they purchase all their clothes from Hot Topic. It’s missing the point entirely.

The real point, as I see it, is that human beings can think stupidly and act outright disgusting to one another. When I was in high school I was abhorred that the “popular kids” started liking System of A Down. I didn’t want them joining my own edgy anti-establishment club of cool kids. Shouldn’t I have been happy that the band was succeeding in reaching a wider audience? Shouldn’t I have been using this common ground as an entryway for further understanding and empathy with my peers? Couldn’t I have just let it go and not be concerned with finding fault in others? Sure. But I wanted to throw a temper tantrum over what other people could and could not like based on my own prejudices.

“Oh you can’t play with us because you’re a (insert label here).” I’ve recently learned a little bit about this going on in the gaming community at large. I learned that we even have a label for this labeling. “Gatekeeping.” Keeping out people from a fandom or a hobby by direct or indirect means. This kind of behavior or language disgusts me. I want everyone to feel the rush of excitement I get when the final blow is struck with a critical hit against the Big Bad. I want everyone to feel welcome at my table and find a bit of solace from the too often confusing and chaotic real world. Not everyone needs to like what I like and everyone can find their own fun. Just don’t find your fun at the expense of others. Don’t be a wangrod to prove you’re right and others are wrong.

In summary: we need labels and rules and clubs to have a functioning society and in order for gaming to even happen in the first place. Just don’t be a fucking dick at/around/about the games we play. Fuck off with that shit.

The 12 Steps of Dungeon Mastery

platonic-solids-2

Step 1: We admitted our Players were beyond our control and completely unmanageable.

This is only 50% a joke. If you’ve Dungeon Mastered any group ever, you’ll see why this isn’t wholly a joke. It’s a lot like herding cats. While theoretically possible, more often than not it is practically impossible. You want them to go right? They’ll go left with an attitude. You plan for 6 rooms? They only get through 3. You want deep intrigue and role-play? They’ll spend three hours shopping and just being dicks to poor defenseless merchants. The less you try to control outcomes, the simpler your life will be. The more you merely react to their actions, the happier the table as a whole will be.

 

Step 2: We came to believe that a DM greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Inevitably, you will turn to the internet for answers. You will Tweet Chris Perkins, or read up on Sage Advice. You will listen to podcasts. You will watch Youtube videos. You will rant to Reddit, and you will talk to those you trust. “There has to be a better way,” you think, “If only I was better at this shit.” You start to see and hear experiences of happier, less frustrated DMs. Maybe there’s hope for you and your group after all.

 

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our stories and our craft over to the care of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it.

We know we have it in us. We know that this energy flows through the table when things are clicking. We’ve felt that electricity when we are brought to tears in character, when the whole table holds their breath on a single die roll. We have seen the greatness of gaming at our own table and the tables of others. We know that despite all our fears and failings, through all the drudgery of bad sessions, and all the times we ended disappointed, the love of the shared story keeps us going, keeps us prepping, keeps us dreaming up the next great campaign. This is the turning point. When we decide if we are Dungeon Masters or merely Players. When we decide to keep going, to listen better, to speak with confidence, to tell better stories, to be the best we can be.

Step 4: We made a fearless inventory of what we’re good at, and what we’re not.

Not everyone can act out NPC voices. Not everyone can craft unique and challenging puzzles. Not everyone can think strategically in combat. After all, there’s only one DM brain versus all those players. First try out a little of everything. Try character voices until it no longer feels goofy. Paint miniatures until their eyes aren’t googly. Read stat blocks till you find the hidden mechanics. Write descriptions till you don’t hate them. Then look back, take stock, and be honest with yourself. What’s your strongest tool? What’s your weakest link? Lean in to what you’re good at, and don’t try too hard with something you’re not proficient with.

Step 5: We admitted to ourselves and our players the exact nature of our wrongs.

If you made a bad call and you think you fucked up. Say it. Don’t hold it in. Your players will forgive you. And if they don’t, well, you need a new table because you were playing with assholes. We will make mistakes. That’s where we learn the most. I will personally never forget the one time I guessed the damage WAY wrong, and I let a single Ballista Bolt take out a Red Dragon. It was so painfully anticlimactic. I will never make that mistake again. And then there was the time I rolled initiative for 20 different Orc pirates on a ship and 10 different drunken Dwarven brawlers. Another time I did a round by round breakdown of a 2,000+ foot drop. You can’t know better ways to do things if you don’t do them horribly at least once. Cop to it. Learn. Move on.

Step 6: We became entirely ready for time and practice to remove our defects of DMing.

The only way to get better is to fail and do better next time. You will forget rules. You will wish you had not pulled punches in a combat encounter. You will fumble through endless notes looking for the details of an NPC you know are fucking somewhere. You gotta let that shit go. Do the best you can, and just like dice, roll with it.

Step 7: We humbly asked our players to help us improve our games.

When a session seems flat, or players seem disinterested, you have the power to ask for feedback. To poll your audience. Make adjustments based on their feedback and try to incorporate their ideas with your own. The more you do, the less work you will needlessly need. The more everyone will have more fun. A simple conversation may seem scary at times, but boy can it cut through the bullshit and wasted energy to just lay it all out on the table.

Step 8: We made lists of all the NPCs the PC’s had harmed and became willing to take revenge for them all.

Don’t just let things happen. Think of consequences for all their theft. Think of people who are jealous of all their gold coins. Think of people who want to spit in their faces for bringing death and destruction into their small town. We don’t play tabletop role-playing games so we can reload every dialog tree until we get the ending we wanted. We play tabletop role-playing games for that amazing sense of depth and consequence, the verisimilitude of a living breathing world. That feeling that “oh shit, once we do this, there’s no going back.” Don’t let those moments go unused. They can be glorious.

Step 9: We made direct revenge wherever possible, except when to do so would render the plot stupid and convoluted.

Not all bad guys know each other and work together in neat hierarchies of evil. Not everyone is part of the same massive crime syndicate that everyone knows but nobody can stop. Cut that shit out. There’s plenty of room at any table for diverse and varied villainy. Mix it up and bring them back only when it makes sense, if ever.

Step 10: We continued to take inventory, and when our rulings were petty we promptly admitted it.

Don’t make creatures auto-hit because you’re mad that the Paladin’s Aura of Protection gives everyone a +5 to all Saving Throws. Don’t punish your players because their characters are bad-ass or their hard work got them to where they are. Don’t take away Magic Items once you’ve given them. If things are going in unforeseen directions, follow that unknown path. In the words of Bear Grylls “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” If your PCs are strong you just need stronger monsters. Follow that murder-train until it’s the last stop. Just don’t take it personally when your Big Bad dies in one round. You’ve trained your Players to new heights of excellence. Be a proud Dungeon Master. Be a fan of their characters.

Step 11: We sought through prep-time and medias to improve our conscious craft of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it, praying that when the Players turned the plot we carried it out plausibly.

They will go often the beaten path. Follow them. React in ways consistent with the game world you have been creating together. Think of the game when not at the table. Research on Youtube, film, T.V., videogames, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Bring it back to the table and share the hidden gems you’ve found in your travels.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other DMs and practice these principles in all of our sessions.

I wish back in 1999 there were Youtube tutorials to watch. I wish I had an older brother who played D&D and taught me how the fuck THAC0 works. I wish there was Adventurer’s League in my hometown. I wish that Roll20 and digital tabletops allowed people to play across any distance on the globe. Today, in this new golden renaissance of tabletop gaming, there are more opportunities than ever. The internet, Twitch, PDF downloads, and increased societal acceptance have revolutionized the game. Go forth and play. And share your stories with each other.

Splinter: Fractured but not Broken

splinter

Splinter is an RPG by End Transmission Games that I picked up a year ago at Gen Con 50 in 2017. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame because of the conceit of the game. You play a “Player” in a dystopian future Earth where all of human society revolves around watching “The Game.” Equal parts Pro-Sports/Game-Show/Reality T.V. The Game is live (and recorded) broadcasts of Players porting into an infinite virtual reality world called The Splinter, controlling native inhabitants as their Avatars, and engaging in exploring this massive fantasy world.

Splinter (the RPG) has a lot of really unique and interesting hooks for players and game masters to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, sometimes in the core book there’s shards of poorly written and disorganized spastic thoughts that catch in your throat like broken glass. So here I am, compelled to share with you my thoughts about this great (and also terrible) rpg hidden gem.

It starts out great on the back cover: “YOU ARE THE PLAYER. Earth, 2471 AS. The only thing that matters is The Game. As a Player- a trained Professional or a conscripted Amateur- you Port into The Splinter with an audience of millions watching your every move. In a VR mega-dungeon of infinite size, you will struggle in conflicts dire, for your very life, and for the entertainment of the masses.”

And then: “YOU ARE THE AVATAR. The natives of The Splinter – taken by Players as their Avatars – don’t know it’s an ultra-violent spectator sport for Earth. To them, The Splinter is the True Realm: an ever-expanding, ever-changing, mega-dungeon labyrinth. The inhabitants of the Splinter are as strange as their environment: powerful shapeshifters gifted with the power to alter reality through will alone.”

And finally: “ON DYSTOPIAN EARTH, only the rich and famous can afford personal freedoms. And the only way to get famous is to put on the best show you can…or die trying. IN THE SPLINTER, everything’s out to kill you. Even your fellow Avatars. And when you die in the Splinter, you die on Earth. WILL YOU KILL YOUR WAY TO SUPERSTARDOM, OR WIND UP A SMEAR ON SOMEONE ELSE’S HIGHLIGHT REEL?”

fuck-ing-COOL. You got me. Shut up and take my money. This game is set in a weird world that feels like an insane mashup between Running Man, Death Race, The Matrix, Ready Player-One, Dark City, 1984, and Metalocalypse all rolled into one huge package. You have two characters, a Player and their Avatar. You get to roleplay in both sci-fi dystopia, and high magic fantasy. The two lives change and grow organically from one another. So for example a Player that develops their Earthside Strength will end up causing their Avatar to hit harder, and a popular Avatar that gets kills garnishes more Subscriber points for their Player which they can then spend on loot Earthside. And the two characters information can fit on a single 2 page character sheet (left side Player, right side Avatar). Like wtf!? This game is awesome!

Until you start to parse through the rules.

Page 1 rubbed me the wrong way:

CAVEAT If this is your very first RPG…put this book down, play another one first, and then come back. The weirdness will be waiting.”

Fuck you. Don’t tell me what to do rule-book. Tell me how to play your fucking awesome game and why I shouldn’t bother with other books. Don’t tell me I’m not smart enough for your game. Fuck you sir. BAD WRITING. TERRIBLE MARKETING. But it pissed me off enough to be determined to understand and master the “we’re too edgy for you” rules.

Then the first 18 pages are a short story. A vignette of what play could “look” like. Why? To show you how cool this game is but not tell you how to actually start playing.  Page 20 finally gives a solid setting to grasp. The Game is everything. If you don’t watch The Game you’re rebel scum. Cool. Great. HOW DO I FUCKING PLAY THIS FUCKING GAME?!

Page 24. Player Creation. Here we go again with shitty writing.

DON’T YOU MEAN CHARACTER CREATION? In most games you, the player, create a character. In this game, you, the person create a Player AND you create their Avatar, the “character” that they “play” inside the Splinter itself. Complicated? Yes. A bit of a mind screw? Definitely. But that’s the way we like it. Later on in this book, the word Player, when capitalized, in these rules refers to the character you play, who is, within the game, a Player. When we refer instead to you, we will do everything possible t make it clear; usually, we will just say “you”, not “the player”.

WHAT. THE. FUCK.

  1. Stop condescending your readers.
  2. Stop writing things 3 different ways explaining the same fucking thing.
  3. Nobody cares how fucking edgy you think you are.
  4. TELL ME HOW TO PLAY YOUR FUCKING GAME.

I will momentarily stop ranting about the poorly written arrogance of the author of this rule book and tell you now why I’m excited to run the game despite all the roadblocks of syntax and posturing.

Creating a Player you have 4 Attributes that factor into everything you could possibly do. You pick Skills based on a point buy system (deliberately open-ended so you can have a Bootlicking Skill if you really wanted it). As an Amateur you probably had illegal bacon that wasn’t approved by your corporate overlords. You get conscripted into The Game as punishment. You have no money. No possessions. You only matter if you can score some Subscribers (Twitch anyone?). If you live long enough and get enough Subscribers you can port back out of The Game in one piece. Maybe eventually make enough to even get a Mansion for 7 million Credits, a sweet ride for 60,000 Credits, and complete it  all with some Barbiturates and a High Class Escort for 5,000 credits a day. Live the rich life above the scum.

But then you have to eventually port back into the Splinter. Don’t wanna lose Subscribers because you got fat, sassy, and irrelevant. Playing an Avatar you have access to incredible Tuning powers that allow you to bend and warp reality. You can shapeshift between a Man form, a Hybrid form, and a Beast form. You play in Deathmatches against other Player’s Avatars, you try your luck in Escape matches where failing to find a working Exit Port by the time limit means instant death by poison. You rise up in Subscriber Points and can improve your Avatars stats by the experiences you gained staying alive.

But the Splinter is still a massive mystery to you and your corporate sponsors. And your corporate overlords keep pushing you into even more death defying shows. Maybe Guerilla Radio is right? Maybe it’s time to use your wealth and fame to overthrow Gamescorp. Self-destruct it from the inside. But how? The Wardens, their painless masked militia, will riot shock baton you to the ground in a puddle of piss before you even get to an Executives office. You’ll have to work hard to climb the ladder before you can set the whole thing ablaze. But when you finally have all that money and all that power will you really buck the system that made you?

This is why I’m prepping a fresh new Splinter campaign for next Thursday. This is why I trudged through the sometimes tedious and opaque rules of the core book. Because it is FUCKING KICKASS. If you can exercise patience and can forgive poorly formatted writing and layouts, Splinter is well worth the price of admission. I’ll make another post after our first session.

You can download Splinter here at DriveThruRPG https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/105066/Splinter