Links for Discussions – Circle of Power Google +

Christo Meid 7 May 2017 
Loss of language and assimilation?
I know this didn’t come up in the game I played of Circles of Power at Dreamation, but this piece by Alex Roberts got me thinking about assimilation of cultures by another and how that might play out in Circles of Power. It could be slow, poignant and nostalgic, brutal and harsh, or something else altogether.

To play out the longer types of assimilation and the resistance to, I would expect time would have to fast forward, with scenes jumping…and perhaps power dynamics changing and new Circles appearing.

Kind of scary, but what a powerful tale it could be.

Jason Pitre 30 Nov 2017

An interesting article which is relevant to the themes of Circles of Power. It presents one of many messy, hard problems that the game hopes to explore.

Jason Pitre

This post from +Curt Thompson does an amazing job of communicating the heart of circles of power, in my eyes. It’s a game about people who are left on the margins of an oppressive society, but whom receive magic as a form of activism and restorative justice. It’s power for those who need it, not for those who have it in plenty.  Good stuff.

Originally shared by Curt Thompson – 36 commentsI was working on something this evening that made me consider my default assumptions about fantasy and urban fantasy in particular and thought it was interesting enough to share.

I realized that I have the subconscious association of magic and magical empowerment with the ‘other’ in society. With women and people of color, queer people, trans people, people with variant neurochemistry and such. Not just because I identify with the outsiders, but because (and put on your flame-retardant shorts, this is where I’d get trolled if my comments were still open), magic is not, as Warren Ellis once suggested, the ‘cheat codes of the universe’. Magic is more akin to socialist revolutions.

Things like the Hermetic type of magic in World of Darkness games and D&D’s rote magic have never set my imagination on fire. Mind you, I don’t think they are bad, exactly. They just never rang ‘true’ for me. They never had that sense of verisimilitude that never has anything to do with reality, but rather how real something feels.

And magic in the hands of the already enfranchised never feels ‘real’ to me. Why would a guy like Harry Dresden need to search for another source of power, for instance? He’s a white, straight, good-looking dude. He’s 99 percent of the way there. Or Harry Potter for that matter? Or Dr. Strange? Yes, they have challenges. But in the context of the greater society, their challenges are ones that almost tailor-made for resolution within the existing power structure.

No, in my head, in my game settings, magic is in the hands of the bent-backed old washer women, the failed suicides, the gay uncles and aunts, the junkies and the drag queens, the choir leaders who have to schedule time for two funerals a week because of gun violence, the ones who hear the voices and see shadows out of the corner of their eyes, the AIDS activists and the transfolk.

Because those people, unlike the ‘White Council’ (indeed) are the ones who would be searching for and dedicated to looking outside the existing power structure for themselves and their communities. Like Russian and Chinese commoners, these are the people who would be willing to tear down everything, if it evened the scales a little.

For me, magic is rebellion. Magic is punk, a giant middle finger to a world where reality itself is stacked against some folks. Magic is power to and of the people. It’s gritty, it’s bloody, it’s sexy and scary and it might just do more harm than good. Like all revolutions.

And I am always surprised to see a metaphor that rich almost always co-opted to make a character who was already born on third base that much cooler as they slide home and claim the win.

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Implied and Implicit Setting – Circle of Power Google +

+Mark Diaz Truman raised an excellent point with regards to the role of the setting for Circles of Power. The apprentice edition was very intentionally designed with a relatively bland, fill-in fantasy setting in the form of the Steel Throne. I wanted people to provide feedback on the broader structure (mechanical moves, communities, etc), rather than on how a specific setting is designed. That said, the role of setting is an important one and I want to figure out what approach is best for this specific game. There are two major approaches I have seen for settings for games powered by the apocalypse.

The Implied Setting: Many games, such as the Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and The Warren, have a great deal of implied setting but very little hardcoded. Certain playbooks might identify particular NPCs which exist, or name certain factions, but these get interpreted at the table. Some of these have explicit settings which you can choose from, such as Polygon Wood for The Warren. These ones tend to avoid providing much in the way of history or proper nouns, assuming that people will come up with it at the table. The advantage of this approach is that you can have more buy-in at the table, and you get more of a sense of ownership of the explicit setting.

The Explicit Setting: There are a handful of new PBTA games which are more explicit about describing the settings for people. Masks has information about A.E.G.I.S., specific NPCs you can call on, and a fixed setting in Halcyon City. Epyllion describes specific events during the War of Shadows, and also introduces more of a fixed cast of NPCs. Sagas of the Icelanders is always set in Iceland, and you can never “plug in” an alternative setting option. The advantage of this approach is that you can be a lot more subtle with some of the metaphorical issues. By providing a robust fictional foundation, a lot of interesting stories can be provided in the book itself.

I would love to hear your respective thoughts on the two approaches, and which of these you personally believe would be more beneficial for this specific project. Shared publicly•View activity

Christo Meid

I’m for implied setting or even no implied setting, with seeds for settings being supplied but not fleshed out, perhaps in examples to the text. This game could be modern with psionics instead of magic, or Egyptian, or Atlantean. I worry if you define the setting too much, it could limit the game. Granted, if you Kickstart it, settings could also be stretch goals, which would be wickedly enticing.

Mark Diaz Truman

I think all of the games you’ve listed under “implied” settings are much more stringent with their actual play than you’re implying. 😉

Take AW, for example:

– there is a psychic maelstrom
– everyone has trouble finding food/water
– there are very few people in the world
– the name lists and weapon lists

It’s subtle, but the setting is there. And if you try to play against that setting (i.e. it’s AW, but it’s set in 1970s Baltimore!)… the game will fail.

I think of this like a spectrum: Cartel/Sagas/Masks have a really specific setting because each game benefits from that setting. Epyllion sketches out some big stuff… but then leaves all the details up to the players. Urban Shadows is set in cities, but leaves the actual generation of those cities entirely to the players.

I think Circles of Power needs a really sharp “dominant” community, one that is internally consistent and not a cartoon. It’s hard to take oppression seriously when it’s not serious.

At the same time, I think it’s really easy to leave blanks. If you say that the foreign people are all “X,” say Qunari, the players still get to say a ton about their own people and how they behave. But you need to give them some touchstones on which to base their fiction!

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Circle of Power – Google + Breakout 2017 Feedback

Breakout Playtest Feedback

I ran two excellent playtest sessions of Circles of Power over at Breakout 2017. While the hour is late, I wanted to capture the most salient points and share them with the community.

Session 1 consisted of a group of the Wise who struggled against the ever-hungry Giants. The Burdened Community was forced, by the laws of the Dominant Society, to live outside of the great city walls. This meant they were the first to suffer from a Giant’s attack, and they were caught up with a misfired fireball. +Michelle Lyons-McFarland tried to conjure a water elemental to douse the flames, but a botched spell called forth a rage-filled fire elemental instead. She created a new spell to bind the fire elemental and send it to fight off the giants. Now, the errant fireball also severely burned the group’s illusionist, so +Alex Trépanier the necromancer created a new spell that transferred grievous injuries. This invariably led for the wound to be transferred to the necromancer’s brother, slaying him in the process. By the end of the session, they had convinced the dominant society to allow for the construction of a secondary wall around the burdened encampment, offering some measure of additional security for both parties.

Session 2 was far more grisly. The Doom consisted of flesh-burrowing abominations which puppeteer their victims. The Diviner tried to fight against the Doom by helping refugees from her Foreign community escape the carnage, and accidentally invited in seven infected hosts. The blind Evoker created a Force Scalpel spell for surgery to remove parasites, while the Transmuter invented vicissitude. There was a tense discussion on whether to use one marginalized group (The Native) to hunt down the infected hosts (from the Foreign), to prevent the hatching abominations from attracting the wrath of the dominant society. They discovered, by the end of the session, that the Doom was actually a marginalized group that was fleeing an even nastier threat. Granted, the people of the city were less pleased being the food, shelter, and clothing for these refugees.

Next post, I will discuss the feedback received from those games and lessons learned.

Breakout Lessons

As mentioned, I have gotten some excellent feedback with regards to Circles of Power at Breakout Con. I thought I would dig into it, both to solicit insight and to share my thoughts.

1) The spell lists need to be described more clearly. Circles of Power, and the spell system on a whole, revolves around the distinction of Drawbacks (negative consequences to avoid) and Enhancements (extra benefits to gain). The real challenge is that this distinction is not explored in other PBTA games. I need to do a better job of communicating this distinction, so that others can more easily understand how spell evolution works. The current version is usable and people figure it out after I run a session, but the text is clearly doing a poor job on this point.

2) The game currently produces exactly the desired emotional experience, which is a mix of schadenfreude, existential horror, and righteous anger. It seems that multiple people at Breakout listed Circles of Power as one of their most engaging games for that reason, and this mix works well. Specifically, the process of collaboratively customizing your horrific and oppressive society does a good job of reminding players who they are standing against.

3) The 7-9 result on researching a spell (at the interlude phase) falls flat. The intent was to replicate the frustration of poverty in a capitalist society, requiring the Wise to spend valuable favour with the dominant society if they want do to some research. It didn’t quite work out as well as I would hope, so I plan on reworking that.

4) There is a subtle and complex issue with the hierarchy of communities. The intent of this mechanic during setting creation, was to establish that marginalized communities often harm each other due to the hierarchical pressure of the dominant society. From the lens of the dominant society, the mechanic was perfect. The problem was that it also led to “oppression olympics”, which is problematic for several players. I would welcome feedback from others on this front, as I am still mulling over the issue.

One of the fine players +Megan Baxter from Breakout wrote up one of the sessions. Take a look at the fine account, if you want to find out more about the game.

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After the War – Playtest Invitation

After the War is science-fiction horror roleplaying game, set on the frontier world of Polvo in the aftermath of a galactic conflict. This is a game about people who lost their homes and their families in the war and have come together to rebuild their lives on this rough, frontier world. It’s about diverse communities of Terrans, Martians, Belters, and Aliens, who come together to build a new home for themselves. When the seductive Song or brutal Tormenta threaten your settlements, it’s your job to protect your new world.
Your story is centered on the settlement that you now call home. You work to build, strengthen, and grow their fledgling home. You deal with internal disagreements and external threats, because this is the only place you have left.

Coming to Kickstarter in Fall of 2018

Playtesters Wanted

We are looking for playtesters for After the War, and we hope you are interested. If you would like to try out the game and give us valuable feedback, please click on the image below and fill in the quick google form to provide us with key information. Once that’s done, you can download the quickstart for free and get access to our private playtest community.

Thank you for your time, and welcome to Polvo!

Quickstart Available

Just want the quickstart without signing up for the playtest?  Check it out at


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The Four Structures

Every failure has made me a better designer. Seeing the fail states if games, either in playtesting or after publication, has shown me a dozen different areas where I can hone my craft. Recently I decided to step back and look at the broader patterns which highlighted four different core design structures that need to be carefully tended in order to produce a compelling outcomes.

Every game can be viewed as a combination of four distinct structures, and the balance of effort among these areas will vary greatly depending on the nature of the project. How you combine these elements is an important decision for any designer and it’s worth your attention. Two of these structures (System and Setting) are well trod territory, but I rarely see mention other two (Situation and Subtext) and wanted to share my framework more broadly.

System consists of the rules and procedures of play. This is all about how you play the game, and how the person at the table will interact with the fiction you create. Rules mechanics and resolution systems all fall into this structure. A weak system tends to result in a game experience that depends on the personal competences of the participants in order to create a compelling play experience. The expression of a game “so good that we never touched the dice” dice stems from weak systems.

Setting consists of the fictional context for play. A setting can be as broad as a galaxy, or as small as a tiny pub where everyone knows your name.  Setting often represents and existing genre of fiction, but there is plenty of room for innovation in this realm. A weak setting feels bland and generic. There is no flavour to play, and the narrative is shallow.  Indistinct character personalities and lack of immersion into your roles are symptoms of weak settings.

Situation consist of the inciting incidents and the purpose of play. This is all about why you are playing the game, why your characters matter in the setting, and why the system will help them shape the narrative. A weak situation feels aimless and undirected. The participants have no strong direction or guidance in how they should be acting or what they should be doing. If the players are purely reactive to the GM’s plot or the fiction feels “on the rails” it’s a sign that the situation isn’t giving motivation.

Subtext consists of the deeper meaning and symbols associated with the game. Every game is a reflection of the real world in some way, and the subtext is all about intentionally crafting the messages and politics encoded in play. A weak subtext feels unintentional or unimportant. The participants are driven to achieve their practical goals, but those goals don’t align with the player’s personalities or passions. If a game that feels uncomfortable to play, or seems to accidentally perpetuate harmful philosophies, it might be a sign that the subtext is unintentional in nature.

An example in action. My first game was titled the Spark Roleplaying Game and it was a mixed bag. The system was fairly robust and moderately well implemented in hindsight. It didn’t have a single cohesive setting, but did give some amazing tools for creating your own settings at the table as a group. The lack of a singular setting led to very weak situations and only allowed for the simplest of subtext. The game had all of the basic functionality necessary to play, but that game itself wasn’t compelling  enough to stand out from the crowd.

The 8 Structural Questions.

Consider answering these questions to explore how these different structures fit into your own game projects.

1.       What does your system encourage players to do at the table?

2.       What is the most important mechanic, rule or procedure in the system, and why is it key?

3.       What about your setting is mundane, relatable and human?

4.       What about your setting is wondrous, fantastic, and exciting?

5.       What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with each other in play?

6.       What is the situation that encourages the players to interact with the setting in interesting ways?

7.       What kinds of player behaviours are encouraged by the combination of system, setting and situation?

8.       What is are implications, morally or politically, of those behaviours?

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