I never managed to finish my Hamlet’s Hit Points inspired entry in time for Game Chef this year, but late’s better than never. Hamlet's Hit Points


This game is inspired by Robin Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points. If you haven’t read it, you should – it’s about beat analysis with special reference to roleplaying games. The book traces the development of the plot and the associated emotional arc in three famous works – Hamlet, Casablanca and Dr No, and discusses how to identify and use beats in roleplaying games.

This is an attempt to explicitly use beats to create story.

Beats can be upbeats or downbeats. An upbeat is one where the characters win and the players feel good – they win a fight, accomplish a goal, convince someone to help them, learn something important, have a laugh, have sex, get cool stuff. Downbeats are defeats or threats; the characters lose a fight, get hurt, fail to do something, get into arguments, lose stuff and other bad things.

In this game, by default, almost all the beat are downbeats. The world hates your character and wants him to lose.

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Gamechef & The Flavour of the Month

The annual GameChef contest has rolled around again. This year, the ingredients are CITY, EDGE, DESERT and SKIN. Normally, I’d leap at CITY, so I’m deliberately staying away from that – creativity through constraints and all that. I’m still fuzzy on what I’ll do with DESERT and SKIN (I’m considering a Moorcock-inspired surrealist fantasy involving a tear in the skin of reality in a desert, with lots of sitting around in tin shacks and truck stops on an infinite highway), but I want to make EDGE the core mechanic.

Enter Hamlet’s Hit Points, by Robin Laws. A while back, Robin did a beat analysis of Hamlet on his blog, tracing the emotional and procedural upbeats and downbeats of the story with special emphasis on its relevance to roleplaying games. The book discusses this technique and adds beat analyses of Casablanca and Dr. No. (It’s worth reading if you’ve an interest in narrative construction and writing. I got my money’s worth ten minutes in, at an observation about maintaining suspense in literary fiction which helped me crack an problem in a decidedly not-literary outline.)

Hamlet’s Hit Points has a whole list of beats – Commentary, Anticipation, Gratification, Pipe, Question, and most importantly Emotional and Procedural upbeats and downbeats. My initial idea for Gamechef is to create a system that uses beats. The basic idea – in a conflict, one side or the other has Edge. If you have Edge, you’re going to win. If you don’t have it, you’re going to lose.

The game’s called Beatdown. Getting it into a workable state in time for the GameChef deadline is unlikely (blame Halo: Reach), but I’ll kick it into shape regardless.

However, if you lose a conflict because of Edge, you get Edge in the next fight. The gimmick is that the PCs will have to suffer several defeats in a row to accumulate enough Edge to beat the big bad guy. Conflicts don’t have to be physical – you suffer a nasty emotional blow, and you get to kick ass next scene. If the mechanics properly balanced, you should get a nice emotional arc to the game.

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Dispatches from the Word Mines

When last we left our hero, he’d run a marathon. Other highlights since then:

  • The wedding (HUGE SUCCESS)
  • Honeymoon in Iceland (also fun; considerably less ice than expected though)
  • Intracytoplasmic sperm injection, as we found out we were extremely unlikely to have kids using conventional methods. Now, when a man and a woman love each other very much, they go and talk to a nice Chinese laboratory technician who claims his name is Sean… (current status: there are eight viable embryos in a freezer)

In between those, and the dog walking/house renovation/rolling family nonsense/ongoing rpg campaigns/xbox360 quotidien existence, I’ve been cramming in as much freelancing as I can manage. The Laundry just came out in pdf (print should be out in the middle of next month), and the first two supplements (Black Bag Jobs, an adventure anthology, and a player’s guide) are close behind it in the production queue. My first adventure for D&D, the Goblin Hole, came out in July; I’ve got another four Pathfinder articles coming out from Paizo in the next few months. I’ve also got two ongoing gigs – I’m updating Secrets of the Ancients for Mongoose, and I’ll be doing a series of short supplements for Pelgrane’s lines over the year.

Any gaps in my schedule, I’m planning to fill with my own material, like the poor neglected Milkyfish projects, but as my freelancing is our major source of income right now, I’m concentrating on work-for-hire that pays off moderately quickly.

The last six months were all about treading water while we survived the wedding; now, we’re finally moving forward.

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Things I think about when I’m running and everything hurts

‘It must be a great feeling’ said my aunt afterwards.

‘Not really,’ I said.

‘Everything hurts. I feel like I’m recovering from major surgery.’

‘Ow,’ I added. ‘Ow.’

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Not so much “up periscope” as “blow ballast tanks”

Certain people on twitter have taken to using ‘up periscope’ or ‘down periscope’ to denote going on or off the internet in order to get some work done. For the last few weeks, I’m not sure if I’ve been stuck at the bottom of the ocean or ashore on a sandbar; either way, blogging has been minimal. I look forward to July – after marathon, after wedding, after current deadlines – as a promised land of milk, honey and minimal to-do lists.

Currently, my main project is an adventure anthology for the Laundry, entitled Black Bag Jobs.  I’m also working on an adventure path for Traveller based on the old Secret of the Ancients adventure, and this weekend I’ll be rewriting and editing the special bonus actually-set-in-Arkham Trail of Cthulhu adventure to go along with the not-actually-set-in-Arkham-at-all-stupid-working-title Arkham Detective Tales. After that, I’ve got some more Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press work lined up (yet more adventures!), and many other projects (such as Milkyfish, finally).

We’re still on track for the marathon on the 7th of June. There’s still time to sponsor us, if you’re feeling generous. The last few weeks of training have been disrupted by stag/hen nights and illness, so we probably won’t have as good a time as we hoped, but we shall finish the damn thing or explode our tendons trying.

(I must also publicly applaud my best man, Aidan Rafferty. It takes a special kind of courage to let this interview get published on a weekend when, traditionally, the groom is supposed to be one who is mocked and humiliated.)

Back to work. Gotta keep the wolf from the door. (Actually, the wolf is pretty far from the door, but the deadlines are rolling closer….)

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Ephemerals, Who Strut Upon The Stage

As a spin-off from last week’s thoughts – one element that works well with antagonistic PCs is the concept of ‘temporary’ characters. If you kill off my 12th level D&D elf wizard who I’ve levelled up from 1st, that’s a big thing. If you kill off the elf wizard I came up with ten minutes ago, using something like Over the Edge where his stats are ‘Elf Wizard 5d6′, it’s not as big a blow to me. I don’t have as much time and effort invested in that character.

Future project: A semi-adversarial game where all the players have a high-level main PC, and scads of temporary ones. Your main PC is sacrosanct, but the temporary ones are fair game. (I’ve a Traveller variant based on this idea, where you’re all playing interstellar empires, and game turns are decades apart, but anyway…)

Temporary characters also solve the spotlight time problem. If PC#1 is going to be away from the rest of the group for a long time, then any time the GM spends with him is time spent ignoring the rest of the group. If, however, the GM can give the other players temporary PCs to go along with PC#1, then everyone’s still involved. It skirts the edges of collaborative play without actually growing its hair out and going full hippy. One potential problem: In my experience, temporary characters tend to be played for laughs more than long-running PCs. If I’m only going to be playing Bob the Redshirt for a scene or two, then I’m instinctively going to give Bob some absurd personality quirk or accent to give me something to hang on to.

To drag this tangent in the direction of Grognardia, have I just partially recreated the whole concept of Hirelings? How often did players roleplay their hirelings back in the day?

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The Party Dynamic, Continued

I asked if there were any games where the PCs are not working together, and a few examples were suggested. Cold City is a great example of how a strong group structure can be used in a game. All the characters are part of a secret police force set up to deal with left-over Nazi occult weapons in post-war Berlin. You’ve got plot hooks and a reason to work together right there. Each PC is from a different country (a great roleplaying hook) and has a secret agenda (conflict! betrayal! plot complications!). There’s a Trust mechanic to bind it all together and bring it to the fore in every game session.

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The Party Dynamic

Writing adventures (and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately), I was struck by the odd gap between the player’s side and the GM’s material. What’s the first or second chapter in most RPGs? Character creation – how to make your player character. Your singular, lonely, self-contained player character. Then, on the GM’s side, individual characters are hardly mentioned. It’s always plural: “the party”, “the adventurers”, “the investigators”, “the PCs” and so on. The assumption in most rpgs is that the player characters are working together as a group, an ensemble cast, and that the GM should treat this group as the primary focus of the game.

Yet, if an rpg addresses group character creation at all, it’s usually as an afterthought.

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Room 101

I’ve always thought that the desktop metaphor for computer interfaces was incomplete.

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In Memoriam

The Cork City marathon takes place on the 7th of June.

I’m running it.

In much the same manner that an oil tanker pirouettes, or a mountain gently bounces, I’m running it.

I have never been the most athletic individual, even for a gamer, and I still darkly mutter that the best way of moving forty kilometres is to put thousands of years of science to good use and use something with a wheel, preferably four of them and an internal combustion engine. Or, since the marathon starts and finishes in the same place, I could stay right there. Nonetheless, deli & I are going to run the damn thing.

We’ve another reason for doing this, beyond fitness and hatred of one’s own knee cartilage. My mother Helen Hanrahan passed away in September of last year. She suffered from a lung condition called sarcoidosis; it progressively reduced her lung capacity. In her last few months, just walking across the room would completely exhaust her, and she needed the support of oxygen machine almost 24 hours a day. The disease forced her to retire early, and then restricted her more and more until she was virtually bedridden.

Through it all, she remained herself – endlessly generous, scathingly intelligent, and thoroughly wonderful.

We’re running the marathon in her memory, and we’re asking for sponsorship. Any money we raise will be donated to the Irish Lung Fibrosis Association. The sponsorship page is here. Any donations or supportive messages will be immensely appreciated.

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