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Sunday, 17 January 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Daytrippers (core rules & gamemaster guide) PART II



So this is part II of my review of the RPG "Daytrippers"; this time I'll be looking at the Gamemaster's Guide.  If you haven't read part I yet, you may want to do that first.

The GM's guide, as mentioned in Part I, is made in a very similar format to the Core Rules, but it's considerably larger at nearly 120 pages.  But what does it offer?  Will it successfully fill out the setting touched on in the Core Rules?





When we open the GM book, the first thing we see is a two-page essay on surrealism and surreal sci-fi. The key here is that the designer intends for the surrealism of the setting is that "reality itself becomes part of the terrain being explored". He invokes Stanley Weinbaum (who was considered the first sci-fi author to create aliens that were intentionally incomprehensible), Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick, and others.  The designer creates a parallel between surrealist oracular techniques and RPGs' random tables.

A lot of this sounds very pretentious and the designer hammers this home when he says that what you're doing as a Daytrippers GM is "Art with a Capital A". We're suddenly very deep in Swine Country here, with this suggestion implying that by running an RPG you will be a modern day equivalent of a beat poet or Salvador Dali (or even Philip K. Dick). Why couldn't this just have been a fun little gonzo game about multidimensional travel without all the delusions of grandeur??

Everything that follows in this section is basically wrong. It presumes that the point of an RPG is creating a story, that the GM should act as a kind of automaton, throwing out story elements (that he at least concedes it is the GM's job to make sense) but that it is the player's "Art" (yes, players are also 'Artistes' with a capital A) is to be the ones who decide how the story goes, and that they should be the ones who have more control over the story than the GM.   There's even an appalling quote about this by Meguey Baker.

There is some talk of Immersion in this, but even here we can see how far the brain-eater of storygaming has gotten to the designer (sorry, the "Artist"). He uses a term, when discussing Immersion, he calls "Bleed", which is when some of the experiences of the character start to be felt by the player (for example, in a scary scene where the character is scared the player feels scared), or where the feelings the player has get directed to the character (for example, the player is pissed off today so the character is also pissed off). He suggests the former (which he calls "bleed-out", as in out from the character to the player) is a product of Immersion, while the latter (which he calls "bleed-in") is a result of a failure or a refusal to immerse.

He doesn't suggest that the GM should reject either, though, and instead should use these to aid him in how to direct the material for the players to 'create story' with.

It's all hugely pretentious; albeit with a touch of the mystical. He calls all this "Psychic Content", and says that a character sheet is a "psychic osmotic membrane".

This is starting to sound a lot like what happens if a guy does way too much DMT, reads some Peter Carroll or some Terrence McKenna without being too metaphysically grounded, and then got kidnapped by a bunch of Ex-Forgers and inducted into their cult.

The guide to play is basically an object lesson in how not to do it. Yes, it touches on some basic platitudes (listen to what your players are saying, note when the gaming experience is working or not), and he does say players shouldn't get to violate the laws of physics or of logic. But other than that it's a guide to how not to run things. He says to run play as a literal 'scene'; not in a world, but like a scene in a story, movie or stage play. He literally suggests breaking off a scene with saying "end scene!". He suggests that the players' reactions should guide the GM in terms of where they want the story to go. Its an exercise in near-schizophrenic alienation from the virtual reality of setting.

Of course, for the Artist/designer, there is no 'setting' really. Instead he uses that abomination of a word: "The Fiction". There is no such thing! Not in an RPG!  He even has a ridiculous Forge-esque circular flowchart for how to do a session 'scene by scene', with steps "Scene setting", "the Fiction" (barf!), "Action Resolution", and "Temp Check", all in a little circle. A "temp check", by the way, is the moment after the GM says "End scene!" and then the GM goes around asking the players how they feel. He suggests "you don't have to do this every time, and you shouldn't break anyone's immersion to do it" but at this point I have to ask how the fuck would there be any immersion going on at all?!

After all this, which gets us to about p.12, the book very suddenly switches over to a bit of pragmatic stuff, with a repetition of the action resolution rules from the core book, plus a guide through tables of what the probabilities of success are based on just how many dice you have versus the difficulty level. Useful.  There's some guides to running combat (that, again anti-immersively, suggests treating combat in a set of panels like in a comic book). Unfortunately, there's also a column of more drivel on "actions as psychic content", where you hear stuff like "When a player begins talking faster, that's a sign they're highly immersed in the fiction, imagining the scene with great drama and intensity.  These are key moments because neurotransmitters are running high; synchronicity and dice magic are often at their peak at such time".

Seriously, that's a quote.  And of course, there's that fucking bullshit word, "The fiction".  RPGs are not a fiction! RPG settings are not Fiction. This term was directly invented as a way to try to semantically hijack regular RPGs for the purpose of redefining the hobby as Storygames. FUCK THAT.

Of course, the next section is titled "Fiction Management". Seriously, motherfucker?!

In fact, this section just proves that there's no such thing as "the Fiction" in RPGs. The correct title of this chapter would have been "Setting Management", because all it has is stuff for how to run the world. It gives some basic and mostly sensible advice on things like money and costs, fame, downtime (including a fairly cool random table of stuff that could happen to characters in between adventures!), having a home base for the PCs, handling Slipships (including playing the ship's computer, which is a kind of AI), NPCs, the PC party running a slipship business, and how the PCs' activities can make an impact on the rest of the world. There's also a very short list of "undiscovered nodes" (locations) that the GM can have ready in case of some kind of emergency.

There's really nothing all that wrong with this section, other than its name.
  The Downtime events table is probably the coolest thing thus far in either book. Wish we'd seen more of that so far, and less prattling about storygaming nonsense.

After this we get to the section on "The World of Daytrippers".  The main world, we are told, is "kinda dull, sorta stupid, punctuated with ridiculous spectacle, festooned with corporate advertising, and dripping with irony". In a tone of by now unsurprising cynicism, we are told that makes this world "rather like our own". The designer says that the point of this is to contrast it to the colorful weirdness that happens in slipspace.

Well, ok. Fortunately, he does NOT go on to give us dozens of pages on the mainworld, if the point is not to spend a lot of time on it because it is boring. Avoiding that mistake, instead we only get a few pages of material, detailing a few institutions (many of which are the ones mentioned in the core book, like the church of OMG, only with a couple of paragraphs of additional detail).  The entries are given, in most cases, a little spin about how they could be applied to the setting. Some of it seems counter-intuitive; for example, it is suggested that the Church of OMG would be something that could be taken seriously and that their "personal spiritual assistant" apps would be something people would actually use and players could end up expressing their feelings and spiritual worries to. Only someone who is extremely out to lunch on how spirituality works could imagine that something like this could be taken with a straight face! WTF?!

There's also some examples of daytripper companies; these include a company that discovered the "mickey mouse planet" (featuring copyright-infringing inhabitants and their bizarre mating rituals). There's also the company that found an inhabited alien world that now trades with Earth in color-shifting plastics; wealthy and vapid heiress Scilla Sardacian who has a slipshipping reality show called "Follow my Ass"; and a couple of others.

There's also a list of available main world technologies, but this is literally just a list with some of the items priced.  So we know that you can purchase bionic ears for 10M ("megas", the game's unit of currency), but there's no details provided here of what they do.  This section is mainly a repeat of the similar table in the core rules.

The section on Slipspace gives you guidance to mapping the multiverse.  In essence, there's pretty much infinite possibilities of where to go. A lot of places have already been explored and mapped, but a hugely vaster number of places have yet to be discovered. Mapped 'nodes' have a set of coordinates. These coordinates are categorized by whether they're in "3space" (our universe), in time (T-space), or compound coordinates for places with multiple categories.  We get an example of five recently discovered planets.  Going to an unexplored location is obviously much more of a crapshoot in terms of worth or potential danger, but discovered areas are potentially already being exploited by someone other than you.

There are a number of potential risks of travel in slipspace: flux storms can knock a ship off course while en route.  What's more, being in a flux storm can affect travellers with a temporary mental confusion known as "the fuzzies".
The most important danger, after which the whole game is named, is that of missing your 24 hour window of time. If you are gone longer than that period, the multiverse adjusts to your dimensional anomaly by making you cease to exist.

Dream worlds, being the most surreal, have their own particular qualities. Characters in a dream world can end up suffering from "Subjective Dissonance Shock", and if they fail they suffer from temporary madness of a sort. Characters can also engage in lucid dreaming, trying to change the nature of the dream reality, which requires a skill check. Failure causes the aforementioned dissonance shock.

Beyond even the weirdness of the dream worlds, there's the "Multiversal Chao", which is a "limitless vortex of unstructure and semi-structured reality that can drive a person insane within minutes".  Here, dissonance must be checked against every 'frame' you spend in the space. Usually you can only end up in the Chao by accident (going off course); trying to return from it requires a very difficult check.  There can be a purpose to going to the Chao; within it can be found "Pure Objects", "symbolic fragments of dissolved dream worlds and fractured realities", so real that they can resist the Chao's effect. A kind of materialized symbol, or a platonic ideal. An example of a Pure Object that could be found in the Chao is Excalibur, but we're also told it could be something as innocuous looking as a lucky keychain.

Failing on a vector slip can land you in the wrong universe. If you do so, you can try to return home from there, or try a 'compound slip' which requires a slightly higher difficulty, to get to where you wanted to go.
We're also told about "Bay X", an emergency protocol station, programmed into every slipship, in case of someone missing their 24 hour window; people can be theoretically rescued by doing a temporal and compound slip, but requiring a second destination to avoid creating a paradox. Or to put it in layman's terms, it's still incredibly complicated.  I guess it exists as a last chance hail-mary pass to save characters who have missed their time limit window.

After this, we get into the particulars of Time Travel, which is yet another possibility in the game. As it happens, traveling into the past to change things is harder than it might first appear.  First, as soon as you leave the past, time will make an effort to fix any changes you made. This at least means you don't have to worry about the "Butterfly effect"; if you want to change the past you'd have to try very hard to do it.
But if you were to try very very hard, to make a change that can't just be covered up by the weight of the timestream itself (say, blowing up the statue of liberty, or murdering your own grandmother when she was still a child), what happens then is that you create a NEW timeline. This means your own timeline still exists, but you are now in a different timeline; and you need to do a "compound slip" maneuver to have a chance of getting home.
Travel into the future doesn't really have that problem of altering the present but it is still disconcerting.

The next section is on "Generators" (starting on p.33). This starts with a set of tables that act as a "mission generator" based on random rolls: you roll for the type of mission, the type of node you're going to, the various mission details, and the total of the rolls thus far serves as the payment offered for the mission.
There are subtables for generating "maguffins" (someone should have told the author they're spelled 'macguffin', but anyways, they're desirable objects, people, creatures or information), complications, perks, obstacles, and rewards. Further detail is provided for obstacles and opponents and how to quantify them. The author notes that the GM should feel free to change details rolled up if he's not satisfied with them.

Suddenly, the entire quality of this book changes!  The mission generator is quite fine, a truly useful mechanic for generating adventure frames.

Next there's a "Star Generator" and a "planet generator", for creating new worlds and systems you might travel to. Again, these are a series of cascading tables that  determine details; worlds get details on size, gravity, atmosphere, pressure, water, and biosphere (that is to say, if there's any life on the world, and whether its microbial, primitive life, animal life, sentient life, or an advanced civilization).

The Location Generator is a set of tables to create specific terrains: the surrounding landscape, local conditions, weather, amount of biodiversity, and color patterns of the area (that last one is a clever touch). There's also tables for Unusual Wilderness Features. Beyond that, there's also weird qualities, nearby objects, and what an inhabited location is used for (i.e. 'ruin', 'factory', 'temple', 'transit hub', 'court', etc.).

The life form generator lets you roll up all manner of creatures; rolling by core body type (conical, egg-shaped, trapezoidal, etc.), body surface (spongy, exoskeleton, hair, features, etc.), symmetry (number and location of appendages), sustenance (what it feeds on: photosynthesis, animal life, radiation, etc.), manipulators (hands, paws, tendrils, etc.), size, locomotion, basic senses, reproduction method, other characteristics, social group size, and a guideline to how to handle communication.
The tables seem geared to create, if used randomly, truly alien and weird creatures; which certainly makes sense for the setting.

The Society Generator lets you make an alien culture. It has tables for societal values, problems, tech level (with a subtable of what a given tech is used for, when you need to check such a thing), resources, and level of scientific understanding.

The Drama Generator is a set of large-ish tables that are used to roll random dramatic themes, random plot twists, or, if you want more detail, a table of predetermined Drama Templates, which basically provide the whole framework for an adventure.

The Character Generator lets you make NPCs, with their attitudes/reactions, feelings, what they're doing when encountered, what they want, what their archetype is (eg. hero, mentor, ally, trickster, etc.), or what their problem is.

The Alternate Earth Generator has a table to note the pivotal event that changed the course of this earth's history from the home earth, just how much was changed because of it (so in theory there could be a world where FDR died before becoming president and it led to a Nazi-dominated world, and another where FDR died and nothing much changed except for a different Democrat in office during WWII), and when the change happened (ranging from waaay in the past, to near the end of the universe; with the note that the GM should roll on the same table but with a different die roll (d6+7 instead of 3d6) if he wants the event to take place during human history).
This table is pretty broad, I guess most of the others are too, but in this case it leaves a lot more legwork for the GM to figure out the details; the tables don't say "FDR died" or something like that (just so there's no confusion about my example above), they just say "historical figured died or was never born", and you then have to pick a historical figure yourself. You have to fill in all but the broadest blanks.

The Dream World generator is perhaps the most vague of all, since Dream Worlds have the widest variance: planets have to follow our universe's laws, alternate histories still have to diverge from our own, but dream worlds can basically be any sort of crazy shit.
There's tables for type of divergence (vaguely speaking, what things are weird), 'scope of divergence' (just how weird), what the dream reality is like (free-floating space, a planet, a limitless plane, an enclosed space, etc.), how stable reality is, what the dream is about (babies, death, war, marriage, animals, chase dreams, travel, sex, religious, etc.), weird details of people found in the dream, weird details of the terrain, and weird details of objects in the dream.

The Multiversal Chao generator is even stranger, though slightly less vague. It has some highly surreal tables for the weird surreal things that happen in the Chao. The first two tables involve picking a thing, and then tweaking that thing, and making that the basis of the point in the Chao the PCs are at. There's a table for random 'tableaus' (moments of stability that appear for a brief time in the insanity), and of course a table for Pure Objects, namely what's remarkable about them.

The Time Travel Generator has tables for time travel goodness: random time periods, random social strata where you emerge, random cultural point of interest, random things going on, and historical ma(c)guffins.
There's also a table for attitudes and reactions toward the PCs.

A flowchart at the end of the section tells you which generator to use when, though I think that would be pretty self-evident.

The whole section on generators is about 55 pages, and by all means the best 55 page block of both rule books. If this GM guide was just these pages, I'd probably be praising it to high heaven.

Right at the end of this section there's a half dozen fleshed-out 'sample missions'. They were created using the generators.

The next section is on Creating DayTrips. Seriously? I thought that's what the "Generators" section was for!  If this was an old school game, that's what the last section would have been for, but apparently in quasi-storygameland, we need several pages on story, missions, structure, goals, acts, and some goofy frameworks to make it all more complicated than it needs to be.
And of course, it comes with jargon: "vertical control" (increasing or decreasing tension in story), envisioning the adventure as a three dimensional cube, 'beats' (key elements), etc.  We get shown the adventure in a "four act structure", because quasi-storygamers think that adventures are like a stage-play or a novel. We get the gimmick of a 'plotfield' ("a collection of narrative objects designed to cause a meaningful story to emerge through player actions" - which is of course not true for RPGs); and of "runsheets" (flowchart + note style diagrams of a plotfield). It is telling we are given sample 'runsheets' from "Romeo & Juliet" and "The War of the Worlds", which is telling because they are NOT RPGs. They are stories. There is a sample adventure provided as a 'runsheet'; frankly, I don't see how the runsheet was really in any way helpful, it certainly bears no relationship to how I would do an adventure.

At the closing of the section, the designer asks (for the reader) "do you really need to fill out all these forms"?  The good news is he does say "no".  The bad news is he also says that you DO have to "think like this".
He adds "you DO have to consider the Story as an emergent and unpredictable thing that grows out of player interaction with a Plotfield".

To which my answer is NO YOU FUCKING DON'T.
You don't have to think about story at all. You may or may not choose to have a plot, that's optional, some RPG games can have plot set-ups previously thought out by GMs, others (Sandboxes, for example) do not even need that. But under no circumstances do you have to, nor even should you, think about "emergent story". Story is a by-product!  It is completely irrelevant to what you are actually doing in the game. It requires no effort on the part of either the GM or players.

The GM book concludes with some conversion notes "for popular systems" though just which systems are not explicitly stated. There are tables for converting the basic mechanics to something called "PbtA" (no idea what that is, it might be obvious but I'm missing it), for "d20", for "1-20" and for "1-100". The last three at least are pretty obvious.  There's also some worksheets for adventures, worlds, and tracking PCs.

What to conclude about Daytrippers as a whole? If you look at the core rules, the system in its basic form is an RPG.  But the material gets riddled with layers of storygaming claptrap.  The GM's book is, for the most part, quite bad; except that the Generators are freaking awesome.

I think the best I could say is this: if you peeled away about half of these books' total page count (maybe just putting what's left in one single book) by removing all the superfluous Storygame stuff, you'd be left with a fine RPG.  Or to put it another way, if you ignored all the stuff that I'd suggest you peel away, you'd have a decent transdimensional adventure game.

RPGPundit

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5 comments:

  1. PbtA -> "Powered by the Apocalypse (system)", including Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and MonsterHearts.

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  2. It sounds like an interesting setting, if I have the patience to extract it from the pretentious nonsense that would irritate me along the way... which I probably do.

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  3. Thanks for your time and attention, Pundit! Yes, I knew there were parts of the rules that would rub you the wrong way, but (note to Knobgobbler) the rules are a "toolkit" and indeed everything is optional, left to the GM's discretion.

    I won't defend my use of the word "story" because we know how Pundit feels about that. I will just mention that DayTrippers is a "Genre-Sim" and the object is to produce something like a science fiction short story or a single episode of a SF TV show. One thing Pundit didn't mention was the reason for the narrative arc and the crises: each mission is intended to last a single session and culminate with a Final Crisis, and the slip Home. It's a system for one-shots.

    I view DayTrippers as a mostly Trad game, actually, operating within the structure of a narrative arc rather than a "dungeon" or etc. And it plays that way. Some elements of Narrativism are utilized, but everything is under the GM's control.

    Nuf said about that. I'm glad you took the time to break it down for people, Pundit. Very glad you liked the Generators - they're my favorite part too!

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  4. The generators were fantastic, and certainly some old-school writers could learn a thing or two from you with their example. I'll also say that your game can be entirely traditional, in the sense that if you were to purge all the storygame stuff from it you'd still be left with a complete and utterly regular RPG.

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  5. I'll take the word "regular" in its scientific sense, thanks! I appreciate your perspective. Because you make your preferences so clear and your definitions so strict, your review is a useful guide whether the reader shares your tastes or not. The strength of your opinion is what makes it valuable as an heuristic marker.

    Regarding the "storygame stuff"... Certainly other games work differently, including some of mine. But this particular game is about creating weird one-shots with narrative arcs, and without railroading. And of course, it's strongly GM'd.

    I think you'll agree that the "storygame stuff" is largely philosophical (which means it may be used or disregarded at the GM's discretion without affecting the mechanics). The narrative arc and the object-oriented PlotField are used to produce a one-shot with a sense of closure, but if played without these elements, the game still works; it becomes a huge open-ended sandbox, not unlike a Traveller universe. That is to say, pretty "regular" and populated by lots of gonzo randomness. On the other hand, if played using the "Collaborative Mission Rules" in the Core book, the game becomes much more storygamey, if that's your thing (I know it isn't). In other words, the DT "toolkit" is flexible enough to allow for various different approaches, depending on your personal style. Or at least that's the idea.

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