Sunday, 11 October 2015

Playbook Games

So, it turns out I really like games with playbooks: ever since Apocalypse World came out and encouraged lots of hacks to be produced, I've been fascinated with the idea of compressing all you need for a game into a set of playbooks. There's just something about holding that unique character archetype in your hands, with all its promise of exclusive special abilities and tailored story hooks, that piques my interest and heightens my engagement with the game.

I've written three small games that depend on playbooks for their game structure, all of which are now available on Drivethru as Pay What You Want games; they tackle the design goal in different ways and produce quite different play experiences as a result.

Secret Dossiers

This game consists of a set of eight characters for an espionage and action-themed design, where each of the eight playbooks contains the following:
  • An outline of the character for you to build on and flesh out as you play.
  • The characters abilities and what they bring to the team for the mission.
  • The complete rules for playing the game.
It's GMless game, where the players create their mission and resolve it by taking turns to describe the obstacles they face, for everyone else to then decide whether they are going to help overcome that obstacle or complicate the mission further. There is no separate rule-book or guide, the design goal here was to compress all you need to play into one pamphlet, so any set of 3-5 pamphlets from the 8 would be sufficient to play the game for any given group of 3-5 players.

I did something very cheeky for the first playtest of this game; it was at the London Indie RPG Meetup and I took along the 8 pamphlets with me, placing them on a table with the fliers for other events and menus for the pub we were meeting-up in. When it came time to pitch games, I said "There's a game on the table there if anyone wants to play it, but I'm going to play that," and promptly walked up to someone else to join in their game (note: I really did want to play that other game, this wasn't a piece of theatre). For whatever reason, Piers and others did indeed play the game and gave me some good feedback on it too.

First Issues!

This is a simple, superheroic storygame: using just a pocketful of change and your imagination, you can create your own comic book adventures featuring the eight superheroes provided, or you can even make up your own superhero.


The game includes eight ready-to-play characters, a blank template for creating your own superhero and a brief guide to running the game for the GM.

Dynama: Unstoppable Woman of Energy!
Dr. Fauna: Master of the Animal Kingdom!
The Haste: The Man Who Can Outrun Death!
Hotwire: Mysterious Alien Mistress of Science!
Ms. Mob: The Invincible One-Woman Army!
Photus: Mightiest Mechanical Marvel of the Age!
The Seraph: Angelic Defender of the Downtrodden!
The Witness: Sharp Suited Spectre of the Streets!
Hero Template: A blank playbook for creating your own characters.
Letters to the Editor: Rules explanations, guidance and tips.

For the first draft of this game, I did try to compact everything into the playbooks, including rules and guidance for the GM: the intent was for most of the players to take on the roles of the heroes of the story, while the GM played the villain. In practice though, there was more that the GM need to think about and know about the game, so I compromised and wrote a small guidebook to accompany the game. Each time I've played it, I've gotten very different results: the last time, we managed to get through about 4 or 5 comic books worth of story in around 3 hours, in what turned out to be a very fast-paced, almost competitive game.

Monster Force Terra

This game uses the Apocalypse World Engine to tell tales of giant monsters who terrorize the Earth but also just happen to save the human race from an even worse threat in the process!

You take on the roles of the kaiju in this game, going about your own business of seeking food, shelter and a mate, when disaster strikes! In getting back to the normal order of your lives, you inadvertently find yourselves becoming the heroes, though you may never be aware of what you've done. You play your monster as a pawn in the story, using them to achieve the goals that you want, by having them stomp, steal or investigate the story's obstacles.

The game includes twelve different monster playsheets:
The Avian: a giant flying creature.
The Bug: a giant insect.
The Critter: a giant mammal.
The Crustacean: a giant crab or lobster.
The Digger: a giant burrower.
The Glob: a giant mess.
The Lizard: a giant scaly creature.
The Mech: a giant robot.
The Plant: a giant vegetable.
The Simian: a giant ape-like creature.
The Swarm: a giant colony life-form.
The Unspeakable: a giant horror.

You'll also need the Monster Force Terra core rule booklet, a mere 10 pages long, including tips for the MC on running the game. The genesis of MFT goes back long before Apocalypse World and started life as a more trad RPG with boardgame-like elements: the core concept of the Size of the monster's determining most things was always there and was used to calculate their strength, speed and the amount of collateral damage they did to the city they were in as they moved and acted. It was a fun design which I played about with for years, but eventually gave up one because I couldn't resolve the interaction between the monsters and the hazards they faced in a satisfactory way, an issue that still gives me problems when dealing with trad-style design.

The game concept got a fresh start last year though, after various changes to my Just Heroes hack for AW: that had originally been a one-stat game, but I expanded it out to four stats as the game gained depth. I still liked the idea of having only one stat in AW though and something clicked when I recalled that MFT had always been intended to be a one-stat game. The AW framework also solved a lot of other problems with the game design, so a few weeks and a playtest later, I had the version now available.