Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Building a GM's Oracle

The GM is arbiter and referee, making decisions on how rules are executed. We tend to call these "rulings"; some, often dismissively, call it "fiat".

(I'm saying GM because it's the familiar paradigm; this all encompasses solo or GM-less games too, the role is just shared or has new context.)

The GM also makes decisions on a fictional level. They're not just telling you to roll double damage against the orc-chief cos a die came up 20, they're also deciding how the orc-chief's untimely demise will affect the world around you.

When a player asks a question or their character does a thing, the GM must have a response, just as the players respond to the world put in front of them.

The GM's job, chiefly, is answers.

An illustration from one of the helpful diagrams in GoGoGolf
(what, did you miss last week's post? get on it!)
Human beings are brilliant at questions, but not very good at answers. We're just not that smart.

So, a GM defers. They may not have all the answers they need, but they're not expected to. They can consult their rulebook, notes, the adventure module. Some ask the players, take suggestions.
They're still making up their own mind in the end, but with these foundations the process is eased. The fact that any given decision is not all on one mind, but also guided by a set of rules and established ideas, means it's possible to make hard and fast decisions in a meaningful and effective way: just leave it to the dice.
Decisions we defer, consult for, have gravitas. We like consensus, we like The Rules, we like coming down from the mountain with a stone tablet from on high saying "this is How Things Should Work". That's why, say, mechanically enforced lethality (an HP system f'rinstace) is good. Death has weight, becomes an effective antagonist and motivator, when it is an answer given not by the human at the table, but an uncaring god.
(Of course, in this neck of the game design woods we want our stone tablets to be concise doctrine over bloated dogma - if Maze Rats is the ten commandments, something like Pathfinder is all that stuff about wearing mixed fabrics or having to pronounce your Latin right so the demons don't take your bad prayers down to Hell.)
the demons in question! called a "tutivillus".
i like how one has pants.
Deferral of decision making is not only good for rulings, but that "fictional level" stuff as well.

This is why we love a random table (if you don't yet, try starting here). It's like a horoscope or tarot reading; no higher power truly exists, but when we play pretend at deferring to some greater wisdom, we find said wisdom in our own imagination. The power was inside you all along ya dingus.
So, to wit: the game is the people, the mechanics are an Oracle, random tables are horoscopes and Maze Rats is a damn good game.
(Further reading: Luka elaborating on the dice as an Oracle.)
With all that in mind...
Let's make a GM's Oracle. Basically, a randomiser to consult for inspiration. (I'm not coining the term or idea btw, just going through my own process. Ironsworn is just one game that already does this with random tables; the new Skyjacks podcast from Campaign uses Illimat cards in a similar way.)

First off, we need some raw materials for the random generation. Dice are classic, tarot would be a fun gimmick - but hey, any opportunity to use something really weird instead, right?
So I recently got Dragon's Crown on PS4... (Yes, this is the bit of the recipe blog where I tell you all about my travels and how I fell in love with food; skip to the next image break if you want.)
The fancy Special Deluxe Collector's Edition was going cheap and it comes with seven cards, these royal-card-meets-tarot-looking dealies that are kinda cute. There's one for each of the game's archetypes, plus a "common" card.
Also, me and my partner have been listening to the audiobooks of His Dark Materials, and if you haven't read them, oracles are a biiiiig thing in the trilogy. There's a cool steampunk ouija/tarot pocket watch, and it's got a bunch of symbols like the Major Arcana, but this is fantasyland so they're all like The Beehive and The Anchor and The Chameleon. I love that kinda bullshit.
I'd tried to make an Oracle before using the royals from a playing card deck, worked OK but I wasn't super into it and it got shelved. Not weird enough for me probably.
Now that I have these funky lil game cards though... It's on.

So basically I'm making up a fortune telling system using these weird video game merch cards.
This is the heart of RPGs for me. That LEGO-set feeling of taking raw mechanics and ideas, tools from whatever I have to hand, and repurposing things to my own ends for the joy of not only the creation process but a playable end result.
Playable how? The crux of it is a bit like that mood board we did last month, in a roundabout way - deferring creative decision making. I'll be assigning meaning to these cards as if they were constellations or entrails, then constructing gameable systems of procedural idea generation.
OK enough preamble, I'm just gonna do it. You'll get the idea.
Hopefully this'll make you want to make your own GM's Oracle! If you want to use the one I made but don't have these cards, take seven ordinary face cards and, if they're symmetrical, mark one side so you can tell which is the inverse.

First off let's consider some higher-level meanings for each card. All the Major Arcana, for instance, have broad connotations about different Big Concepts - facets of the world, the soul, human nature, love, life and death - and between them they sort of cover all the bases.

Our cards don't come with any attached meanings, but their names and images are archetypal enough that they can evoke certain themes or ideas, which is a good place to start for making up our own connotations. Think broad and general.

Now's also a great time to introduce the coolest aspect of this process - the in-universality (or "thematic resonance" if you wanna get nasty) that you can incorporate into your oracle.

Take for example our Elf card. When considering meanings the first idea that might come up is probably "nature". A bit more thinking and stretching of the imagination may yield "age" or "beauty", because of the LotR/D&D default elf that is our modern cultural archetype.

But! Consider your world, your game - what is an elf to those people? What is an elf, in its essence, in your mythology and across your various cultures? This can yield meanings you wouldn't've thought of otherwise.

And! This can be a great way to decide what an "elf", as a concept, means in your game. It's almost a worldbuilding exercise. Throw in a random meaning - "reflections" or "fire" or "bad weather" - and then think backwards to work out why your world associates that meaning with The Elf.

And I'm not just talking about how your in-game cultures think about things. Remember that gods and fortunes and all that are immutable truths, as real to a fantasyland as the laws of physics - the associations your cards make are facets of reality on a cosmic level. Each of my cards could be one of the gods, f'rinstance.

Pick obscure meanings, or ones that don't make sense at first or contradict one another. Not too many of these; reading your oracle still has to be intuitive, not an exercise in "hmm, hang on, which of these did I say means "disaster" again...?". But mixing things up at this early stage, throwing in your silliest ideas or your most weirdly specific connections, will imbue uniqueness into your Oracle and your world. (Also: separating similar concepts across different cards calls their subtle contrasts into focus.)

Nobody else will make associations between ideas in the exact same way you do - that is your advantage, in this as in all things.

Here are the "high-level" meanings I came up with for my set of seven cards. If you have more, these concepts might get more specific or more spread out.

I didn't have a world in mind when I started this, so I built ideas out of the cards and their art rather than matching them to existing notions - although I did lean into the base worldbuilding assumptions I tend to use in my D&D games, so this should mesh ok with any other fantasy content on my blog if you want to use it in parallel.

Each card has a different face depending on which way up you turn it, so I gave them all "inverted" meanings, kinda like in tarot. As long as I remember which face I chose to be the inverted one I'm peachy.

Amazon: Challenge, honour, sex, summer. Inverted: Passion, wrath, instinct, the 6th day. Common: Luck, change, death, autumn. Inverted: Greed, omens, spirits, the 7th day. Dwarf: Plenty, art, discipline, patience. Inverted: Gluttony, masculinity, jealousy, the 1st day. Elf: Nature, water, defiance, spring. Inverted: Time, sloth, loneliness, the 2nd day. Fighter: Family, humanity, past, fire. Inverted: Recklessness, wrath, lust, the 3rd day. Sorceress: Magic, femininity, community, love Inverted: Illusion, envy, apathy, the 4th day. Wizard: Knowledge, travel, winter, discovery. Inverted: Hubris, teaching, future, the 5th day.

These aren't set in stone, and this isn't the stuff we're actually going to be using most of the time, but it helps to have these general concepts sketched out in your mind.

You'll notice parallels within mine, like how each has a connotation with a particular Deadly Sin. This is good and can make the later steps easier. Since there are seven I also gave each one a day of the week, which I dunno, might be useful for something. Clearly what day it is has some cosmic or magical importance in my setting; I'll decide what later.

It's perhaps important to note these Big Ideas should never be a constraint, and you can always extrapolate to get more concepts - entries for masculinity and femininity doesn't mean androgyny isn't a concept in this world, just that it straddles those two cards.

There are also no judgement values here; Gluttony sits alongside Masculinity because the Dwarf represents both, not necessarily because they're linked to each other, and most of these concepts are meant to be read as ambiguous rather than inherently good or bad. Likewise, the "inverted" side of a card is not the "evil" version.

Look, just... just study tarot and steal ideas tbh.

Mainly just for fun, at this point I'm going to play fortune-teller and make up a way to do a reading. I don't tend to do prophecies and fortunes and things in D&D games because what even is fate in a game where you roll a 20-sided die for the outcome of any important event, but this is an exercise to help me think about my oracle so far and get in the zone.

Let's say a fortune is 3 cards - what will happen, what change it will bring, and what can be done.

I draw... Amazon Inverted, Fighter Inverted, and Sorceress.

Now just do some improv or bullshitting or storytelling or whatever your preferred term is. Hmm... looks like following my instincts will lead to recklessness, and the solution is to remain apathetic? Or perhaps my passions will incite lust, but someone involved will become envious?

Ha! it already sounds like the right kind of bullshit. Love it.

Ok, a more gameable version - my players are headed into some woods and I have no ideas for what might be there! Let's draw two cards to spark inspiration.

I draw... Elf Inverted and Amazon Inverted.

That's enough inspo for an encounter, right? Maybe a wandering knight, lost in the fey wood, has become mad with loneliness and accosts the party?

Or let's take the Time and Instinct meanings - if the player wait too long in one place here, they'll become like animals, slowly transforming (that's gameable too - many a PC would risk it trying to hang around for just long enough to get some cool beast ability.)

Ok, we're getting somewhere.

But it's not gameable enough yet! Having a wishy-washy mood board for ideas is all well and good, but at the table I want results, dammit!

Let's get results - random table results.

Make some random tables - the kind you would in any game. If you like making tables for strangers encountered on the road, do one of those. If you need a wandering monster table for a dungeon, do that. Festivals happening in town, quest generators, weather tables, NPC name lists, whatever.

The only difference - and this is the cool bit of this whole idea, not whatever I said was the cool bit before - is that each entry will be thematically linked to the oracle. We're not rolling dice for numbers, we're drawing cards, and now that we've decided these cards mean things, we can tailor our entries to those meanings.

This a) makes it easier to fill in your tables in the first place, b) ensures each has a variety of disparate entries, and c) links every aspect of your world back to its core themes and concepts. If every draw on a random table could be the Sorceress, that means every randomly determined thing in your world has a chance of pertaining to, say, magic or illusion or femininity. This solidifies these as themes inherent to your game.

You can do single entries, or tables that cross-reference different card combos. The inverted thing also means I can do tables with either 7 or 14 entries, which I like. (Ooh... I could run an OSR game where each card is a character class... hmm...)

Anyway, let's try all this theory out in practice! Here's an example table (again, worldbuilding on the fly, here. It's the only way to go.)

Encounters in the Woods
A fey prince, furious at your trespass in his grove, challenges one of you to a contest (whoever most looks like a leader). He is feeble but sly; win and the fairy maid reluctantly betrothed to him will, blushing, request you take her favour (be careful - love and the fey realm a potent mix).
Common: This tree grows chattering skulls like fruit. Each was a warrior who fell here and now repeatedly whispers their life's last words - only one had her wits about her at the moment she fell, and tells the way to some treasure in a nearby bathhouse.
Dwarf: Goblin-men have set up something resembling a gallery, taking turns to display useless trinkets and appraise them through stolen monocles, nodding sagely. They are angry at your approach, unless you act like their art has some value to you. They will trade for fruit, of which they already have much (beware the fruits of goblin-men).
Elf: A gang of elf-children live in a tree, recalcitrant squatters disobeying the fat local fairy lord, whose obsession with cultivating and expanding his lush garden is upsetting the woods' wild heart. (Elf-children are not young elves, as elves are all full-grown; they are actually a type of fairy.)
Fighter: A human youth, troubled deeply behind his wan but handsome features, has fled to live in these woods but is unable to cope and close to starving. He does not wish to go through with the wedding his rich father has arranged.
Sorceress: A witch lives here, they say. Disturb her dawn walks as she sings to the plants, or interrupt her dancing naked beneath a full moon, and she will enact a quick, cold sentence upon you - death, or perhaps transforming you into a toad if she's feeling playful. However, knock on her cabin door while she is home and she welcomes you to stay and rest. Or, enter the cabin while she is away - there are many odd things to steal.
Wizard: Travelling your way is a wizened old hermit with only an owl for company. Ask him to join you, show him kindness and give him time to grow comfortable, and he will divulge that the owl is really a transformed monarch from a strange land. He is on a quest for the spell that will restore his companion's form - or perhaps he is a madman with an owl.

I like the feel that's emerging, classic D&D with a kinda gonzo-Arthurian meets Angela Carter does Grimm-ness to it.

And that's what, under 10 minutes' work for 7 whole quests? And it'll only get easier the more you use your oracle over time; fleshing out more and more gameable content for your campaign, keeping it all thematically linked and havin' fun doin' it.

Try it out! Any other ideas on how to make or use one? Try those out too!

Sidebar - Dragon's Crown is fun so far. I know I'm not a video game blog but it's pretty OSR actually (there's even xp for treasure!) so I thought I'd share my thoughts.
If you'll recall, Japanese fantasy owes its lifeblood to D&D, and the lineage here is something like: D&D > Wizardry! > Dragon Quest > Fantasy hits Japan > D&D books reillustrated for Japanese market to ape Toriyama's style > D&D arcade games from Japan like Shadows Over Mystara use said style > this game is a tribute to those games. OSR af.
Anyway, it's got a cool art style, almost Frank Frazetta meets Kinu Nishimura - two of my fave art icons so I'm a happy duck. Everything is hand drawn, 2d graphics on parallax planes like intricate cardboard cutouts - it's all v v stylish.

The characters are fun, hyperstylised fantasy tropes; I've tried and enjoyed playing both the beginner-level Fighter with his wardrobe-wide shoulders, and the more complex playstyle of the willowy goth-boy Wizard, while my partner gravitated toward the Amazon's chainmail bikini and thunderous thighs. Each uses a fairly simple control scheme, similar but different enough to the others to feel fresh.

Gameplay is very much like those old arcade beat-em-ups but also an RPG kind of. It's got drop in co-op both online and off - I love couch co op options! My feeble wizard can better hold his own when he's got an Amazon taking the front lines (there are NPC allies too, but that system works a little differently).

Negatives: - All the hallmarks that make this a solid arcade game could be seen as negatives if that's not what you're looking for - this game makes no bones about what it is, like it or lump it. - Although its sexualised aspects are mostly fun and campy, and there are cool female characters with agency, things still feel quite, uh, old-fashioned. - The translation is largely fine but has moments that really needed proofreading - although the patchiness makes it almost more endearing?

Worth a look!

Cool concept art, right?
Except this is the *in-game character select screen*.
This game is gorgeous.

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