Nov 122018
I vividly recall the smell of a book of memeographs. The tables, the tables, so complex and compelling.
I remember that the games were raw, unpolished. I remember how the publications were so simple in execution but carried a palpable weight of Importance. How to solve these mazes?!
I knew that I was just reading a book or an article, but I could sense the depth of thought behind it, and I could viscerally feel the compulsion to play, play, play. I was ten, and I woulda played all night. Dragon magazine often kept me up thinking about how to use (or, more often, fix) its additions!
Many memories of conventions: the hallways full of crazies, the lounge showing doctor who or something, us sequestered into a banal meeting room to play whatever got pitched by a guy who couldn’t even begin to sort out the rules (multiple sessions I played that weekend began and ended with character creation).
But that was also a big SCA con, and it also had the poor man’s solution (dowels, foam); and as much as we drooled over the armor, we could make boffers for a dollar. This was the same con where I wandered into a side room full of hardcore mini guys, and (a) they were dismissive (I was maybe eleven) and (b) their conversations were so deep into simulation numbers and states that I only now (2014) recognize the shit they was talking about.
Looking back, that was the con that owned me. UNCG gave me more than two Bachelor’s degrees (years later): they gave me a passion I’ll never lose.
Flash forward:
My friends and I routinely played all night at sleep overs. One night in particular, I recall that we played a horror game (well run by Steven) that left us so unsettled that nothing would do but a walk around the neighborhood during sunrise. I checked around corners on that walk. Seriously.
Flash forward:
I recall a convention game at UNCG where they used two DMs to handle multiple players in competition: we ran dungeon tournament simultaneously. We also played Toon. A lot of that Stellar Con is echoed in the photos I see of game masters running from a sort of stage. The dms were using a classroom, and it was so compelling!
My oldest friends (Trent and Steven) ran that game… and to their credit, they didn’t give a shit that they knew me: pure umpires. But this was also still early in the ‘pure dungeon’ times (1984?) and they were young, so they probably came to that rules-purity from first principles.
I recall puzzling over blue book. I recall writing solutions in the margins. I recall playing, being stupified, and spending hours, days, redesigning. I never had the balls to send a letter to Dragon… but I rewrote many AD&D systems (including my own mana system, before Gygax) before the age of thirteen.
The game store, 1980. Flashing back to Day One:
Wow. Chainmail right there in my face. [38 years later, the White Books fetch hundreds from collectors.]
These $3 books just sitting on a low rack with no significance: the proprietors paid bills with train and early R/C hobbiests. And in those days, there was overlap: minis guys used train stuff.
But dad’s wallet and a smart vendor prevented me from buying what I now realize was not a child’s game. Blue book was my Christmas present. Dad, did you have any idea how much you would influence your son with that $10?
Back in the store:
The light through the dusty, poster-plastered windows. The terrain tables and the gorgeous miniatures (for them, the default; for me, staggering).
Dad and I playing D&D on the front patio, sunbathing, rolling dice between the lounge chairs. Top ten happiest moments of my life, and I should let my father know how well he raised me.
But we were talking about the industry.
Those hobby stores were so weird. Stuffy. A plastic bag in a rack, however, might change your worldview so fundamentally that you’d never look back, even as you wondered who put you on this crazy train.
Apr 212017

A live-action (AKA “boffer” or “combat” or “paintball”) role-playing (LARP) system that is designed to be highly modular and therefore customizable for different playstyles, character-power levels, and setting tones. Inspired by HERO System and other influences mentioned in the Credits.
Available only as a PDF due to being too long to easily use as a single web page: Download a print-ready version

“LitRPG” – Game Text As Literature

 Criticism, RPG  Comments Off on “LitRPG” – Game Text As Literature
Jan 072009

From a post at

David Artman  Jan 7th 2009 edited
First, thanks for backing off terms… so let’s back off “what is art” as that’s never been answered by even Rhodes Scholars. 😉

Posted By: TomasHVM– And let us discuss how the games-format may influence the reading.

  • What kind of qualities are present in a game-text, and in the reading of it, that makes it a strong communication device?
  • How can we make really readable game-texts?

NOW, we’re cooking with gas: something we can attempt to enumerate, techniques of writing and what they accomplish. *puts on dusty old Lit Crit hat and robes*

OK, one thing RPG manuals tend to have is a structure which is influenced by the procedural nature of play: when do you do what and why and what’s next? Other than technical manuals (in all their forms, from “How To” books to IT manuals), no other “genre” of writing does that. What does that buy us? I’d say it brings a sort of formalism and pacing: aside from authorial voice and varied diction, they are going to give a sort of “march” feel to the work. Maybe even meditative, as the pace is felt and matched by the reader.

They also tend to present information in referential manners, be they summaries of procedures, or just your typical charts and graphs of laundry lists of shit. This referential format strips out every nuance, dictional curlicue, and “voice” to present the bare facts. In that way, they can be like the “HALT!” shouted by a drill sergeant, to continue to (ab)use my marching metaphor–the cadence breaks as we rattle off a list of terms or numbers or both, like presenting arms. Compare that to, say, those statistics list one reads that convey a message, e.g. (stats not real, but close):
* Billions spent on heart disease research in 2007: 45
* Number of American death from heart disease in 2007: 500,000
* Billions spent fighting terrorism in 2007: 300
* Number of American deaths from terrorism in 2007: 16

The point is made crystal clear (above: our government spending priorities are FUCKED), but with nary a jot of expression or style. Editorialized by the timing and choice of what is listed, not by the tone or mood conveyed in the writing of the list.

I’ll stop there, for now, to see if I’m spring-boarding the right way (or hieing off into the trees). For obvious reason, I won’t bother to address “game fiction” or “setting fiction” at this point, as it uses all the same devices of a novel or short story, and that’s of minimal interest to me (mainly because there’s already a HUGE body of work that addresses how to do those forms). Readability, I’d say, falls into the same camp: a readable game text has the same qualities as a readable magazine article, novel, or biography. Clarity, diction, etc (or the opposite, if you’re going all deconstructive on us). Become a decent writer–poetry, prose, manuals, whatever–and you will be a good game writer.

– And measured against “ordinary” literature:

  • Is it possible that a games-format is a stronger read than say; a novel, in certain aspects?
  • Could a book of game-texts be as good a read as any collection of short stories?

Stronger? hard to say–what’s the point, what’s the theme, what’s the message? Every format suits some deliveries more than others. I want to woo a woman, a poem is going to go better than an 800-page novel. I want to explore a nuanced and complex theme, through the agency of several interrelated characters? I’m at the least going novella.

As for the second question, I’m going to go cheap and just say, “Sure.” Particularly with game text of the type you’re most suggesting: the RPG Poems With A Message. Time and tastes play a big part in that, though: a book of fan fic shorts about Star Wars will probably bore me FAR more than some witty, thought-provoking, or saddening RPG Poems that hit me square between the eyes with issues current and near and dear to me.

So, really, the better (or more interesting to me) question is what things can RPG Poems do BETTER than existing formats; and I believe I begin to explore that above, by unpacking a bit what an RPG format is and what that does to the reader’s expectations and reading behavior. And, as I said above, I’d like to be sure we want to go there before I do that heavy lifting–being a game writer AND editor AND technical writer, I can go into a fair bit of depth about atonality, neutral (AKA common) diction, procedural presentation and structure, projecting attitudes, and “writing between the lines.” Hell, you’d be amazed at the sort of shit a Major Corporation has me do, to “write around” flaws of design without admitting them–that’s, basically, the exact tack, flipped, that Somalian Children takes.

(Sorry so long, but that’s what you get for intriguing me.)
[edited for clarity and corrections]

TomasHVM  Jan 7th 2009 edited

First out: David; this is pure gold to me! Really interesting discussion of the topic. Your thoughts on “the procedural nature of play” is good!
This is really good: This referential format strips out every nuance, dictional curlicue, and “voice” to present the bare facts. I see what you are aiming at here, and it tingles my brain! I would very much like to read your thoughts on atonality, neutral diction, procedural presentation and structure, projecting attitudes, and “writing between the lines.” ALL of it, and more, if you would … please!

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

Shit, I had to offer. KINDA busy, today, but I’ll get us started.

Baseline writing and what’s left unsaid

So I’m going to write a “LitRPG” (I need a shorthand). I can approach it like Somalian Children, with an essentially neutral tone–no rants, reads like a tech manual–and let its very starkness carry my meaning. Here’s a chart, roll your d10s, consult the chart to see your fate. BUT, if you know anything about math, you see that you’ve got a 1:1000 chance of surviving–that’s not said in the text, that’s left for you to realize. And the realization of the unsaid carries the message and theme and impact. Now you can re-read and the whole tone is changed; the cynicism just drips off the page. HOW? The text hasn’t changed. The tone is still there, sill consistent and neutral. But now, having “got it,” you can imagine the author staring balefully at you, accusingly, his voice so flat he sounds like the dead. Becasue isn’t that the REAL point: what have YOU done to help these poor children? Isn’t that the takeaway message, the unsaid?

Projecting attitude

That neutral tone, however, needn’t be the whole bag… in fact, more and more “RPG texts” are conveying a strong authorial diction and style, moving away from (and even mocking) the neutral tone of a tech manual. So our LitRPG can take that tack, and present a seeming “game,” but with an editorialized voice that shows it’s clearly not meant to be played and, rather, is meant to carry a message or cause a change of thought. I’ll bring up HoL, here, as an easy and obvious example of this (IMO). Yeah, sure, the game is somewhat playable, with a lot of rule repair and addition (or a freeform-loving play group), but it’s REALLY suppose to be a screed. It’s a punk zine disguised as a game which (it seems) takes the piss out of all the “structure” of gaming–could they be one of the first “system doesn’t matter” writers? Are they trying to say, “look, just have fun and fuck the details,” or are they actually MOCKING those gamers or that gaming culture which get so buried in stat and crunch that they get twenty minutes of WOW for every four hours of play? (Sound familiar? HoL authors as first Forrgites?!?) Or am I bringing my own experiences into the mix; am *I* the one projecting meaning and attitude onto the book? For the record, I’d say no in this case: I read HoL when it came out, WAY before exposure to all this theory, and I still saw it as taking the piss out of many contemporary RPG systems. But another LitRPG could well work with ambiguity, leaving each reader to project onto it their own interpretation and intent, just as much poetry does.


So above we have the two poles of a tonal continuum: writing between the lines and bitch-slapping with editorializing. But there’s a third path, an orthogonal axis: one can use shifts in tone in a LitRPG to really hammer a point. If I have you lulled into the meditative march of neutral tone procedural writing and then, WHAM, start off on a screed about how this fucking chart is WORTHLESS if you don’t have a heart to care about the children, you fucking DICK!

Well, you sort of snap to attention, no? Where did all THAT come from, what did I just miss? Is this guy schitzo? Etcetera. You, as a reader, have to engage different mental gears to address this shift in tone… and then engage still more when I drop back into a staid and steady, neutral tone again. Done poorly, this atonality will seem like Tourette’s Syndrome (just as bad atonal music sounds like folks in different rooms, tuning up or adjusting their synthesizers). Done properly, it can underscore the moments of consistency AND convey a message, via contrasting tone, with the moments of insanity (just as the completion of an atonal music progression can make all the disjointed notes attain a sort of “metaharmony”).


This one is the big one, because for all the talk of tone, it’s the order of presentation which carries at least half the weight. In a typical RPG, we often see a color piece, to establish the mood of play for the game, followed quickly by a series of definitional sections, so that one isn’t totally lost as to what to do when the procedural stuff starts using the game jargon. Suppose that was tossed out the door? Suppose an RPG was written like A Clockwork Orange, with immediate total immersion in a nearly thoroughly different language? What is said, by that? One has to read it twice, just to get the sense–or jump to the glossary in the back of some editions, to try to get a baseline. A LitRPG can do the same thing, by eschewing the standard structure of a typical RPG.

But what is said by FOLLOWING the typical RPG structure: intro, define terms, establish character, present procedures of play, flesh out setting (again, fiction or reference material or monster lists or whatever). That goes back to tone and diction: is it homage or satire? Or is the fact that it’s hard to answer that question part of the exploration of the LitRPG?

Or, rather than eliminating common structure or following it to convey additional meaning, what about a disjointed structure? Cart before the horse stuff–all the procedures of play presented before you even know if you are a character or in author stance or what; absolutely no information about setting in the presentation of what is clearly NOT a generic system? Can a LtRPG carry surprises, nestled in the sequence of presentation, just like a novel can use flashback to clarify what was, prior to the flash, a very ambiguous or downright confusing scene? What is meant when such structure conventions are violated? A whole branch of “LitRPG Theory” can grow out of just the considerations of structure and how it informs the piece, just has been done with conventional (and, moreso, experimental) literature.

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

(Damn, a BIT too long….)

Anyhow, just another nudge–that’s why it’s mostly questions and not a list of rules. There’s more LitCrit tools we can bring to bear, as either measures of a LitRPG’s merits or as guides to creating an effective one (I prefer the latter, but that’s also the only reason I studied LitCrit: to be a better writer, NOT a good critic).

David Artman  Jan 8th 2009

One more note on atonality, in conventional RPG (meaning non-LitRPGs):

We game designers use atonality all the time, but it’s to reinforce STRUCTURE, not theme or intent.

There is the cold and clear, neutral tone of a process or rule statement, highlighting its importance or canonical nature.
Then you get the more authorial and looser sort of writing which is, like, in sidebars or advice chunks or those little “talking head’ icons folks use to say, “Hey, now I’m just talking to you, to let you know what’s going on under the hood here.”
And, yeah verily, there be in-fiction tones that put thee into a mind to portray the shining heroes and scurrilous villains in a way which is meet.

See there? Three tones, each with a functional role in the text, but none of which is intended to layer on nuance of the overall book’s INTENT… because it’s only real “intent” is to teach you to play a game the way the author envisioned it. EVEN IF proper gameplay enables the underlying intent of a game to educate or inspire (think Grey Ranks, here).

But using atonality in a LitRPG would (should? could?) drive at the message, at the theme, at the takeaway of reading the text itself, without ever engaging in whatever “rules” or “procedures” are presented as carriers for that message.

OK, ’nuff for now. Your volley….

TomasHVM  Jan 8th 2009 edited

Baseline writing and what’s left unsaid

Posted By: David Artmanyou’ve got a 1:1000 chance of surviving–that’s not said in the text, that’s left for you to realize. And the realization of the unsaid carries the message and theme and impact.

Clear point, and very good!

I love the idea of readers discovering such content in the text, due to the instructive format. to have a table convey the central point, like in Somalian Children, is something I find very intriguing.

Projecting attitude

Posted By: David Artmanan editorialized voice that shows it’s clearly not meant to be played and, rather, is meant to carry a message or cause a change of thought.

An alternative, yes. Texts with attitude is nothing strange to ordinary literature either, of course.

To write games that are spitting at you, or teasing you to try them, or plainly have a laid-back stance to both you and itself … it is an idea that carries lots of opportunities.


Posted By: David ArtmanDone properly, it can underscore the moments of consistency AND convey a message, via contrasting tone, with the moments of insanity

I like this. It could be very effective in a text dominated by the neutral tone of rules.

As a game text is ordinarily broken up in more or less stand-alone elements, there is no saying how far you can go with this, both in the deconstructive and constructive way …


Posted By: David ArtmanCan a LtRPG carry surprises, nestled in the sequence of presentation, just like a novel can use flashback to clarify what was, prior to the flash, a very ambiguous or downright confusing scene?

I do think so! To play around with the structure in such a text can dig up many hidden effects, I think.

I really love the idea of going for instructions “in medias res”, and then informing about what this is all about. There is vast fields for fruitful misinterpretations here! I love misguided players!

David, I believe you have made a nice overview of the main elements at play in a literary game text. And you have made some very nice and thought-provoking speculations on what kind of tools and effects to be had for the avid writer.

Thanks to your analysis I now feel even more fired up on this idea! A thousand thanks to you for making the effort!

Mind you: I am not equaling this kind of game-texts with role-playing poems. The poems are made to be played. As such they are both interesting in themselves, with their narrow timeframe, and interesting as tools for research by designers. Writing role-playing poems are a great way for designers to test specific game-tools, and a great way for them to test how their writing in general translates into games.

Jul 172008
Download a print-ready version

An RPG that simulates roguelike game play, but using player empowerment, resource allocation, bidding, and instantiation to create the “random” adventuring zones for a single PC.

©Copyright 2008, David Carle Artman, david artman designs; all rights reserved.

Ralph Mazza & Mike Holmes – Tokens as narrative currency; Objections.
D. Vincent Baker – Freeform, flexible Trait dice.
Eric Provost – Freeform Zone creation.
Rogue, NetHack, ToME – Inspiration.
David Cherryholmes – General discussion and idea development.
“JoyWriter” – Helping me to the insight of using hidden bidding for Device instantiation.


There is no GM, only players.

Determine who will be the player that will control the Adventurer and that will create the Adventurer’s Talents and Gear.

All other players are the Opposition: they create Zones—dungeons, forests, temple chambers, castles—and create and portray Obstacles—monsters, traps, environs, and puzzles in Zones.

In essence, ASCII @HACK! is a competitive game between the Adventurer player and the Opposition player(s). Furthermore, the Opposition players are in competition with each other to be the one whose Obstacle finally kills the Adventurer. As such, there will be times when the Opposition players actively resist each other (or, at the least, do not cooperate in supporting each other) in order to hold off Adventurer death until their own Obstacle can be brought to bear.


Prior to actual play, the players must get together the tools they will use in play (Tokens and dice) and must create the game world.


Each player receives 20 Tokens to start the game.

These Tokens represent quanta of narrative control to instantiate Elements: Talents, Gear, Obstacles, and Zones.

The physical representation of Tokens may be coins, poker chips, glass beads, pebbles, or whatever other small, common object fits the tone and mood of the game world (or whatever is available).

World Elements


To begin play, each player—starting with the Adventurer—spends one Token to state an Element about the World.

A World Element could any one of these:

  • State the genre of the setting: fantasy, sci fi, western.
  • State something about the tone of the game: humorous, serious, doomed.
  • Set standards for the group’s interaction at the table: forbidding out-of-game chatter, no cell phones, no profanity.


If another player objects to a proposed Element—or to anything declared throughout play (for example, an invoked Trait)—that player must pay a Token to oppose the Token spent by the player that is stating the Element.

If the stating player really wants the Element, then that player must choose a number of Tokens, hide them in his or her right hand, then put them forward.

Without any further communication or coordination, all other players do the same with their own Tokens, hiding a chosen number in one hand and putting it forward (one may choose to put forward no Tokens).

  • If a player puts forward Tokens in his or her right hand, those Tokens are counted in favor of the stated Element.
  • If a player puts forward Tokens in his or her left hand, those Tokens are counted against the stated Element.

All players simultaneously reveal their hidden Tokens; the side with the most total Tokens wins the vote, with a tie going to the player that is stating the new Element (or invoking the Trait).

All paid and bid Tokens are lost by all players.

This hidden-bid process forms the core conflict mechanic of the entire game; all inter-player conflicts over narration are resolved with this process.


Players continue to take turns stating Elements until they either run out of Tokens or no longer wish to provide World Elements.

Each player keeps any of his or her leftover Tokens after all players have finished stating World Elements.

Power Level

The players determine how many Tokens are refreshed after the Adventurer completes a Zone, using this chart:

Power Level Adventurer Refresh / Escalation Bonus Opposition
Escalation Bonus
Low 3 / +1 10/# of Opposition Players +3 total
Medium 5 / +3 15/# of Opposition Players +5 total
High 10 / +5 30/# of Opposition Players +10 total

A low power level will result in a game with minimal Adventurer advancement and will require significant Opposition coordination to provide a challenge to the Adventurer.

A high power level will result in a more powerful Adventurer that’s strapped with great Gear and will free up Opposition to work at odds with each other, should they so desire.

Home Prep

Every Adventurer has a Home, which could be a town, the local lord’s castle, a monastery, or even a crashed spacecraft.

Whatever form the Home takes, it is a safe area in which the Adventurer may buy Gear or train Talents, with one restriction: Gear that is acquired at Home may never have a die value greater than d8.

Adventurer Prep

Refresh the Adventurer player with the agreed-upon number of Tokens.

The Adventurer player then spends as many Tokens as desired, to instantiate Talents or Gear and assign them a die value according to these costs:

Talent/Environ Cost Gear/Trap Cost Die Value Probabilities
1 1 d4 25% Success
25% Failure
2 2 d6 50% Success
17% Failure
4 3 d8 63% Success
13% Failure
8 5 d10 70% Success
10% Failure
16 8 d12 75% Success
08% Failure
32 13 d20 80% Success
05% Failure

Note that, because the Adventurer begins the game at Home, no starting Gear may have a die value greater than d8.

Talents are anything which in inherent to the Adventurer. Appropriate Talents include, but are not limited to, these types of Elements:

  • Archery, melee, wizardry
  • Nimble, strong, wise
  • Aimed shot, disarm, fire blast

Gear is anything which the Adventurer carries that provides efficacy (not to be confused with Consumables below). Appropriate Gear includes, but is not limited to, these types of Elements:

  • Fine bow, broadsword, quarterstaff
  • Leather jerkin, chain shirt, enchanted robes
  • Poison, potions of strength, manna stones

The die value of Talents or Gear will generally indicate its magnitude or quality, though it ultimately will always come down to the roll.

Inventory Limits

The Adventurer may never carry more than ten pieces of Gear.

Any time that the Adventurer is at Home, it may put Gear in the Home Bank and it may get Gear from that Home Bank.


Consumables comes in two forms: Sustenance and Illumination. Set two, different-colored d20 dice to 20, one for Sustenance and one for Illumination.

Every time the Adventurer enters a new Zone, reduce the Sustenance die by 1. If the Sustenance die reaches 0 then, every time the Adventurer enters a new Zone, the Adventurer player must choose one Talent die to reduce by a single die rank (i.e. a d8 becomes a d6).

Every time the Adventurer enters a new Zone, if any of the Opposition players spends a Token, that Zone requires Illumination: reduce the Illumination die by 1. If the Illumination die reaches 0 then, every time the Adventurer enters a new Zone in which an Opposition player has spent a Token to require Illumination, the Adventurer treats all Talent or Gear as if it is d4.

The Consumable dice can increase during play, for various reasons and by various means (see Exploration below).


Escalation represents going to “lower levels” of a “dungeon” or generally ramping up the challenge level to reach the end game.

Set a d10 to 1 and give it to the Adventurer player.

Whenever the Adventurer begins to exit a Zone, its player may elect to Escalate. The player increments the Escalation die and hands it to the Opposition; and the Adventurer’s Refresh increases by the amount indicated by the power level of the game.

When the Opposition has the Escalation die, they also may elect to Escalate whenever the Adventurer begins to exit a Zone. As above, they increment the die and hand it back to the Adventurer; and the Opposition’s Refresh increases by the amount indicated by the power level of the game.

Zone Creation

First Zone

The Adventurer player always gets to declare the nature of the first Zone that he or she is going to explore (but not its Obstacles). The Opposition is encouraged, during Home creation, to suggest some “local troubles” or other hooks to help the Adventurer player choose a style of Zone which everyone will enjoy creating and engaging. The first Zone is, basically, a signal to the rest of the players as to what kind of exploration or conflicts will interest the Adventurer player.

Quest Zones

Whenever the Adventurer is at Home, the Adventurer player may create a Quest, which is a special Zone (or series of Zones) in which the Adventurer player is able to define part of the Zone and Obstacles.

Every Quest has the same basic Goal: the Adventurer will visit every Zone and will defeat every Obstacle that its player defines in the Quest. No additional Zones or Obstacles that the Opposition adds to the Quest are required, though they could provide complications or barriers to completing the Quest Goal. If the Opposition adds to or increases the Traits or Gear of the Obstacles that the Adventurer player created, then the Adventurer still must visit every Zone and defeat all of those Obstacles. Quests which begin as trivial runs can be made into much tougher, long-term grinds.

Every two Tokens that the Adventurer player spends to establish an Illumination requirement for the Zone(s) or to create Obstacles in the Zone(s) is worth a single Token when the Adventurer returns Home after completing the Quest (in addition to whatever Tokens the Adventurer earns for surmounting Obstacles during the Quest). For example, if the Adventurer player spends 15 Tokens defining a Quest, when the Adventurer returns Home after completing the Quest, its player receives 8 Tokens.

Thus, the Adventurer player is able to dictate aspects of the encounters for a Quest in exchange for what amounts to a savings for the Opposition, who can then use Tokens to increase the difficulty or expand the nature of the Obstacles.


After the First Zone, the Opposition takes the reins and provides all further Obstacles (except those the Adventurer player defines in Quest Zones):


Created exactly like the Adventurer, monsters can be anything the Opposition imagines as an active entity trying to harm the Adventurer. See “Combat,” below, for details about how to resolve encounters with Monsters.


A trap is a Trait applied to the Zone itself, but whose dice can only be rolled if the Adventurer takes an action which triggers the trap; basically, a passive entity which will only harm the Adventurer under certain conditions.

The Opposition spends Tokens to both define the effects of the trap and the triggers: the effectiveness of the trap costs the same as if it were Adventurer Gear; and each trigger costs 1 Token.

When triggered (i.e. the Adventurer interacts with the Trap trigger), the Trap gets its die (or dice) and immediately rolls against the Adventurer, as in “Combat” below. The Trap, however, does not continue to fight like a Monster would; it can only be triggered by the Adventurer player’s narration of interaction with it.

To remove a Trap, the Adventurer player must invoke appropriate Talent and Gear dice and get enough net Successes to reduce the Trap’s die (or dice) to d4, at which point it is neutralized and the trigger may be used as normal in Exploration (see below).


Environs are a special case of traps which, basically, are considered to be automatically triggered upon entering the Zone. As such, the detrimental nature of the environ costs the same as if it were an Adventurer Talent.

Each Environ effect is only activated once per Zone entry, but they are activated every time the Adventurer enters the Zone. Normally, Environ effects can not be disabled, though a particularly clever use of Elements could remove them (with no Objections, of course).


A puzzle can come in two forms: a simple puzzle is a cost in Tokens for the Adventurer to pass into the next Zone; a logic puzzle is devised by the Opposition and provides Tokens to the Adventurer if solved, the amount of which is negotiated between all players after the logic puzzle is revealed.

A simple puzzle costs 1 Token per Token cost to bypass it; a logic puzzle costs nothing, but the Adventurer may ignore it with no penalties.


The Opposition describes what the Adventurer sees upon entering the Zone, taking into account Illumination (i.e. if it is required and whether the Illumination die is at 0). This description can be embellished with all manner of detail, but only that which is bought with Tokens will have any mechanical effect.


The last step for the Opposition is to determine how many exits there are from the Zone.

The exits may have colorful descriptions or might just be branching paths in a maze; and it is common for each Zone to have a logical flow to its exits (and next Zones).

A Zone always has one exit (its entrance), barring some nefarious trap. The Adventurer may create an exit by spending 1 Token and narrating how his Talents and Gear would help to generate a new path to (an)other Zone(s) (e.g. Pickaxe d10 or Find Secrets d12). Each approved invocation of an Element earns the Adventurer its dice; every roll of 4 or higher on those dice creates a new Exit. The Opposition and Adventurer then bid Tokens to declare into which Zone the exit opens: either a new Zone or a specific previous one. High bid wins and ties go to the Adventurer (as is always true, after World Element creation).

Returning Home

To return Home, the Adventurer must move through any intervening Zones. Note that a Zone that was “clear” the last time it was visited might have all-new Obstacles in place, awaiting a staggering and desperate Adventurer (i.e. if the Opposition decides to spend Tokens).

As stated above, Home is a place to safely buy, rather than “find,” Gear (up to d8 only) or train Talents.

Home provides a further significant benefit to the Adventurer: Tokens that the Adventurer bids to increase the Consumables dice are worth triple their value, as compared to Opposition Tokens. It’s just-plain easier to find lamp oil and good eats at Home.


Once an Adventurer has entered a Zone and it has been described, exploration begins.

The Adventurer player can begin to declare Elements (usually beneficial) that exist in the Zone, and where he or she finds them amongst the features described by the Opposition (often, this is a Trap trigger). If the Adventurer player narrates finding something useful, it’s the same as if he or she bought it as Gear during creation or at Home (but with no d8 limit).

Additionally, the Adventurer player may choose to increase the Sustenance or Illumination die by any amount that he or she wants; the amount must stated prior to changing the Consumables dice, and any Objection leads to a hidden bid (as always).

Further, the Adventurer player may pay one Token to find a Device—an item of Gear which would not logically get a die rank because it represents a non-quantitative effect. For example, the Adventurer might pay one Token for a “Scroll of Recall”—a Device which returns the Adventurer to Home without having to travel through the intervening Zones. As with World Creation, should any other player Object, that player pays a Token to start a hidden bid.

Of course, if there is a monster, it is very likely to attack the Adventurer long before he or she would have a chance to find any Gear, which means that the action in the Zone starts not with exploration but with….


Combat with a monster is broken up into rounds, during which range is set, Talents and Gear are invoked, and dice are rolled to see which side of the exchange wins the round.


Combat begins at Far range, which permits the use of ranged Talents and Gear without penalty. Close-combat Talents, obviously, may not be invoked if at Far range.

To change ranges from Far to Near cost 1 Token, and vice versa. This change can happen repeatedly at the start of a given round (i.e. setting range does not use the usual bidding resolution).

Once everyone agrees to a particular range for the round (by not spending any more Tokens to change it), then that is the range until after the resolution roll (the Pitch, below).


The Adventurer and whichever Opposition player is portraying the monster then take turns invoking Traits appropriate to the conflict, environs, Illumination, and any extenuating narrative circumstances.

If the Adventurer or monster tries to invoke ranged Talents or Gear at Near range, they are worth half their die value, rounded to the nearest whole die value (e.g. a d10 or d6 becomes a d4). Note that, because a “d2” could not ever roll a 4, d4 ranged Talents and Gear are useless at Near range.

Each side also may buy Stunt dice with Tokens, which costs a third of what they would cost if bought as Adventurer Gear (minimum of 1 Token). Stunt die invocation should be narrated during the course of other invocations, though it could also be a coup de grace move or a parting shot depending upon the circumstances of the narration up to this point. Once rolled, Stunt dice are lost forever (unlike Talents and Gear, which are only lost by die type reductions; see below).

If any player disagrees with an invocation, that player may Object by spending a Token. If the invoking player wants to insist on the invocation then that player must spend a Token, which then starts the normal hidden-bid resolution process (ties go to the Adventurer, as always).


Finally, both sides roll all of their invoked dice. Every roll equal to or greater than 4 counts as a Success for that side. Every roll equal to 1 is a Failure, which reduces the number of Successes for that side by one. You can have zero or negative Successes, if the number of 1 rolls equals or exceeds the number of 4+ rolls.

The difference between the number of Successes for each side determines these two things:

  • How many of the loser’s Trait or Gear dice that the winner may reduce, one die rank from one Element per Success.
  • The loser, who gets to narrate the resulting reductions in a manner which engages the invoked Talents, Gear, and Stunts of each side.

Note that this does mean that one side could have more Successes than it rolled, if the other side had negative Successes. For example, suppose that the Adventurer rolls 5 Successes with no Failures and that the monster rolls 2 Success and 4 Failures. The Adventurer then has (5 – (2 – 4)) = (5 – (-2)) = (5 + 2) = 7 Successes.


If one side of the conflict no longer has any Traits over d4, it is Dead. If it is the Adventurer… good game; try again. If it is the monster then it may now be used in the Exploration stage to provide narrative justification for new Gear or for increasing the Sustenance or Illumination dice. Also, the Adventurer receives half the Tokens (rounded up) that the Opposition spent to create the monster’s Traits and Gear.

If both sides still have Traits then the combat continues, unless one side Escapes.

To Escape, that side has to bid Tokens, which might be opposed by the other side: start by spending 1 Token, then proceed to a hidden bid if the other side spends 1 Token.

If the side trying to Escape wins the hidden bid, it relocates to a Zone connected to the current Zone. If it is a monster then, every time the Adventurer enters a new Zone, one of its Traits (but not Gear) is restored by one die rank, up to its original starting rank.


As the Adventurer exits a Zone, all players receive refresh Tokens equal to the value determined by the chosen Power Level for the game.

Note that the Opposition is not refreshed during World Creation or prior to or during the first Zone; this is the minor mechanical edge with which the Adventurer begins play.


As Tokens pile up on the side of the Opposition, the Adventurer is going to want to upgrade his or her Talent die ranks or add new Talents or Gear.

Within a Zone, the Adventurer may spend Tokens to restore Traits or Gear (“healing” or “repairing” them much like gaining new Gear through exploration). A piece of Gear, however, may never exceed its original starting rank, unless it is narrated in some way that delights everyone in the game. Traits may be upgraded at will.

To restore or increase the rank of Gear or Traits, spend Tokens equal to the difference in prices between the two die ranks (e.g. to restore or increase a Talent from d8 to d10 costs 2 Tokens).

Adventurer Victory

When the Escalation die reaches 10, the very next Zone is the Final Zone. As such, the Adventurer player should spend all Tokens possible, only holding back a few for Stunts.

Similarly, the Opposition should spend every remaining Token on the Final Zones Obstacles; it is traditional for one of those to be some kind of “final boss monster.” Because there is no exit from the Final Zone (other than the entrance, of course), the Opposition may not create a Puzzle; similarly, because the Adventurer will not do any further Exploration, there is little reason to create Traps. Environs, however, are common and utterly appropriate.

If the Adventurer clears the Final Zone, it and its player has won the game, defeating the Opposition.

Feedback Requests

  1. PLEASE playtest; full name (or handle), front-matter credit to anyone who provides solid feedback (i.e. I can use it or it effects a rule change)
  2. How is the Token economy working out?
    1. Do you find the game better if it is more lethal, like “traditional” roguelike games? Put differently, is it “OK” for the game to kill an Adventurer in, say, five times the amount of time it took to setup the World, Home, and Adventurer (e.g. 10 minutes of setup yielding “only” an hour-long game)?
    2. Should the core rules actually ramp up that ratio? For example: the Refresh starts at Ad5 and Opps15, but the Opps’ increases by 1 every time that the Ad returns Home?
  3. How might I handle “vulnerability” or “scoped” elements, like a Sword of Flames which is more effective against monsters vulnerable to fire?
    1. The only bonus I can imagine is either (a) a die type shift up the chart or (b) a +1 or +2 to the roll on the Gear or Trait’s die. +2 to the roll is VERY big bonus–only a 1 fails!
    2. What should such a bonus cost? It’s some kind of “tag” on the Gear or Trait, which is of limited utility (in fact, the Opposition could just avoid that vulnerability forevermore!), so it shouldn’t cost much. But a die shift can be worth upwards of 16 Tokens (a Trait going from d12 to d20).
    3. Conversely, how much Token savings would an Obstacle enjoy, if it took on a vulnerability? What’s to prevent a ton of “free Tokens” for the Opposition, if they start to define vulnerabilities that are “safe” for the Adventurer’s currently scoped effects?
  4. What didn’t you “get” or what was the one most difficult aspect of play based on the rules as written?
Jun 042008

Fuck You And Your Affirmation, Hippie!

A too-real game of dysfunctional relationships
A warm-up drill for role playing characters to use for establishing and exploring group dynamics

Play Start

FYAYAH! is played with a beer bottle, onto which the rules are printed.

  • Someone spins the bottle so that it points at another person (i.e. not at himself or herself).
    The person at whom it points becomes Mr. Happy Sunshine (HS).
  • HS spins the bottle so that it points at another person.
    The person at whom it points becomes The Drunken Man In The Corner (DM).

Play Cycle

FYAYAH! is played as a series of turn cycles, which can continue indefinitely.

  1. HS says the best, most positive true thing(s) that he or she can say about DM.
  2. DM says the worst, most negative true thing(s) that he or she can say about HS.
  3. HS, heartbroken, becomes the next DM and spins the bottle so that it points at another person (i.e. not the current HS or DM).
    The person at whom it points becomes the next HS.
  4. Return to Step 1. Repeat until catharsis ensues or everyone realizes that no one’s perfect.


FYAYAH! was originally conceived by Gilbert Kraag and Bolla Pinnsvin as two separate games. Its current, cynical combination and refinement is by David Carle Artman.

FYAYAH! is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Apr 252008

a game of addiction, abuse, desperation, and redemption

© Copyright 2008, David Carle Artman. All rights reserved.

Design and Layout – David Carle Artman, david artman designs
The Prime Directive – Meguey Baker, Fair Game
Refinement and Editing – David Walker; Rex Edwards;
“Rustin”; Ben Miller; David Donachie; Dave Michael

It was so simple, at first; so exciting and new. Never a problem, really… you get used to the assholes and the users and all of the downsides; and, man, are the upsides SWEET.

You can handle your shit….


For Mature Audiences (FMA) is a role playing game designed for adults. It deals with sensitive and taboo topics surrounding depression, sexuality, violence, abuse, addiction, and pain. As such, it is not recommended for persons under the age of 18. Neither the author nor anyone involved with FMA accepts responsibility for outcomes of play, the feelings of players, or resultant fallout. You have been warned. Put the book down now… it’s for the best.

No? Then buckle up. Don’t be afraid, your friends are with you. They care, and they will not abandon you….

The Prime Directive

The Number One rule of FMA is best-summarized by the phrase “I Will Not Abandon You.” Originally coined by Meguey Baker (see sidebar), it is one approach to serious, difficult role playing; its opposite is “Nobody Gets Hurt.” In FMA, you will get hurt. If you don’t feel angst, sadness, frustration, anger, or emotional distress then you have missed the point of play. This game is about finding those touchstones in you, the actual player, and exploring them to reach a deeper understanding of your actual life, through the lens of a fictional one.

But you will not be abandoned by your fellow players. This rule is inviolate, and those players who eschew it should be invited to leave the game. Then forced to do so. You must play FMA with people in front of whom you feel safe to break down, and who will be ready with comfort and understanding when that happens. Even when things become so intense that everyone needs a break for a few moments, no one is left to suffer such a break alone—even during an intermission, you will not be abandoned.

“More Alphabet Soup,” Meguey Baker, 2006

“I will not abandon you” does not equal “nobody gets hurt.”

In “I will not abandon you” (IWNAY) game play, the social agreements are:

  • I as a player expect to get my buttons pushed; and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when that happens. I will remain present and engaged and play through the issue.
  • I as a player expect to push buttons; and I will not abandon you, my fellow players, when you react. I will remain present and engaged as you play through the issue.

In “nobody gets hurt” (NGH) game play, the social agreement is that we know where each other’s lines are, and we agree not to cross them.

Both are reciprocal systems. If one person is pushing buttons and the other is supposed to just take it and not respond, then the button pusher is a bully and the relationship is abusive. Notice I’m not talking about the characters, here. This is all about the players at the table. In any game. I bet I could get just as hurt playing White Wolf or GURPS as I could playing Dogs in the Vineyard or Sorcerer.

It sure helps to be clear which kind of social contract is expected: If the players are not all clear, sooner or later you’ll run into a NGH player in a IWNAY game, and they will get hurt, sometimes in a big way. If you get a IWNAY player in a NGH game, that player will wind up transgressing other people’s boundaries and coming off like a jerk. That player may also feel like everyone else is pulling their punches.


Good NGH play: Jill has a hard line at kids-in-danger; Robin could make the victim a child, but doesn’t.

Bad NGH play: Jill has a hard line at kids-in-danger, and Robin makes the victim a child anyway. Robin’s obnoxious and Jill may stop playing—Robin has broken NGH.

Good IWNAY play: Jill has a hard line at kids-in-danger. Robin makes the victim a child, maybe even on purpose to push Jill’s buttons. Jill reacts but stays with it, Robin stays engaged, Jill gets to examine something about her issues with kids in danger.

Bad IWNAY play: Jill has a hard line at kids-in-danger. Robin makes the victim a child, maybe even on purpose to push Jill’s buttons. Jill bails out—either by actually leaving the game or by disengaging from it. Jill has broken IWNAY.

Bad IWNAY play: Jill has a hard line at kids-in-danger. Robin makes the victim a child, maybe even on purpose to push Jill’s buttons. Jill reacts but stays with it, but Robin can’t deal with Jill’s reaction, so Robin bails out—either by actually leaving the game or by disengaging from it. Robin has broken IWNAY.

There is a design part to this. When a game has solid support for handling highly intense emotional scenes (which are most-likely to trigger players, I suspect and in my experience), the tendency for the game to require IWNAY play (in order to be successful) is high. Here I think of DitV, Sorcerer, and to some extent Bacchanal. I mean mechanical support for getting into and out of emotionally charged conflict, and solid writing that lets the players understand the reasons why they might allow themselves to be pushed emotionally. This is where the designer gets to say “This can create heavy stuff. I know that. I’m prepared for that. Here’s where I’ve thought about it and how I recommend you handle it my game.” This is the designer saying I will not abandon you; I will give you mechanics to help deal with this when it comes up, I’m with you in this.


As should be obvious, this game is not for casual play with strangers or with passing associates. You won’t be playing FMA at a local gaming convention, unless you can find a very trusting group and a private space. Your fellow players must push you to your limits and beyond… and then be standing there, firm, to hold you up when you begin to fall. In doing so, they will become closer to you than you might ever have expected. Or you might lose them as friends forever, if you or they forget The Prime Directive of FMA.

Do not abandon your fellow players.

What Is Role Playing?

If you have to ask this question, please put this book down and find something more appropriate for your experience level. This advice is for your own protection. Inexperienced role players are far more likely to misconstrue the motives of their fellow players, interpret attacks on their issues as attacks on themselves, or abandon their fellow players when the going gets too tough. Conversely, an experienced role player can balance on the fine line that FMA asks you to walk between self-analysis and character embodiment. You are—and you are not—your character in FMA; and being flexible enough to flip modes when necessary is a learned skill that few possess intuitively.


The toy box was a calm, quiet place. Sure, the kid would occasionally dig you out and poke and prod and puppeteer you; but that was Before, when you were blissfully unaware, insensate. Then, on a dark night when the kid was at some sleepover… or in Daddy’s bed again… he showed up, bearing blood and the spike and gleeful enmity.

Oh, it hurt, that spike; it seemed to bore into your very soul and pin you like a butterfly removed too soon from the killing jar.

Being alive hurts a hell of a lot more….

[Image no longer available per artist’s request]
The Tooth Dealer, with a ready source of life’s blood for the spike.

In FMA, you take on the role either of the Tooth Dealer (known as a Game Master in other games) or of a Plushie: a character in the story that you will craft with your fellow players, which in the game fiction is a living doll or plush toy. Before you laugh, realize that your new life—or maybe unlife is a better word—is agony. You aren’t the first to awaken, probably won’t be the last. And the others want. They want everything you can give; they want to see you shriek—in joy or pain, no matter—and feed on your new-found, barely controlled emotions.

Basic game play occurs in discrete, sometimes-disconnected scenes; and control over the story and interactions with other characters is almost completely in the hands of the Plushie players. The Tooth Dealer’s primary responsibilities are to ensure that The Prime Directive is enforced and to administer Damage… but you’ll learn about Damage soon enough. More than you’d care to know, in fact.

In general, narrative control rotates around the group in turns; but once a game is well underway, turn order often takes a backseat to the direction in which the group is driving the story. At no time, however, should a Plushie be left out of more than two consecutive scenes—no one should be allowed to get off that easily—and the Tooth Dealer will take control of turn order if such marginalization (or shirking) occurs. In a way, enforcement of turn order is a literal interpretation of The Prime Directive.

The game has several end conditions, or none at all. The choice that the group will make emerges in play. Some groups might find that a handful of scenes is all that they need—or have time for, or can endure—while others might enjoy ongoing play, evolution of characters, and divergent story arcs. As such, FMA has no “final scene” or “climax” that doesn’t come about during actual play. You and your fellow players will know when you’ve had enough….

Beginning Play

Welcome, young one, welcome! Glad you could make it to the Night Party—we’re gonna do it up RIGHT to-NIGHT! Here, let me help you out of that confining coat—who dressed you, the kid? S’alright, s’alright, we’ll get you fixed up good, soon enough.

Soon enough….

FMA differs from other role playing games in that it does not use many of the usual trappings: dice, paper, miniatures, maps. Rather, it takes a very crafty approach—pun intended.

To prepare to play a Plushie character, simply go to a store, a fair, or your sewing room and acquire a plush toy, doll, teddy bear, or similar plaything. You are encouraged to minimize the cost of this Plushie, because game play will likely ruin it as a cute and cuddly familiar… it will become a stark reminder of bad times, if it is not virtually destroyed during play.

The one rule of Plushies is that they must be made primarily of fabric: no plastic or ceramic torsos, limbs, or heads; and no vinyl or leather coverings.

Your choice of Plushie should reflect the general mood that you want for your character… when it is introduced. That mood is doomed, but it should be obvious to all at the start of the game. Often, that mood will contrast the issue or issues that you plan to address; or the basic appearance of the Plushie can symbolize an idealized or archetypal representation of yourself or of your best aspects.

Alice is going to begin play with an innocent, young, girlie doll: delighting in the wonders of life and sensation, happy to help others, quick to trust. Alice buys a perky doll that looks like a cross between Betty Boop and Raggedy Anne.

The only other equipment that Plushie players need to begin play is a pair of unique, disconnected (i.e. not fixed-circular) knitting needles and a bold, permanent marker, like a Sharpie or a Magic Marker. Your knitting needles should be distinguishable from every other player’s needles, so you should favor unusual colors or use patterns of tape bands to make a unique “signature.” The color of the permanent marker is irrelevant, but you might choose a color that matches your Plushie’s eyes or that contrasts your Plushie’s skin or fur color. Getting the picture, yet?

Oh… and odds are good that a couple of handkerchiefs or a box of tissues would not go unused.

The Tooth Dealer has to bring very little to play. It is generally a passive role, until it becomes necessary to enforce the social contract and rules of play. But it is also a creative role, full of opportunities for improvisation and inspiration. The Tooth Dealer at times is called on to take the roles of characters other than the players’ (called “non-Plushie characters;” NPCs) or to reinforce the narration of other players with setting details and background information. As an NPC, the Tooth Dealer is tasked with pushing players’ issues just as much as other players are; and the Tooth Dealer will never abandon—nor allow another player to abandon—any other player.

And the Tooth Dealer has one, key duty to perform, at times. That duty requires a crochet hook. A nice, fat one….

Character Creation

Mmmmm… feel it flow into you. Life! The stuff of Life! So what if it comes from the kid’s sugar-gobbling maw? That’s the Tooth Dealer’s stock-in-trade, after all; he’s handled hundreds of ’em, will handle hundreds more before God or the Devil or whoever holds his soul comes to collect.

No, all you care about is the new rush, your new-found high.

Your lifetime high, as you’ll soon learn….

[Image no longer available per artist’s request]
The Tooth Dealer gleefully injects life into Alice’s dolly.

Once the players have gathered for a game session—ALL players must be present; it’s key to establishing Plushie relationships—the Tooth Dealer will ask each player one or more of the following, intentionally provoking questions:

  1. What’s your favorite bad or immoral or illegal thing to do?
  2. What situation will ALWAYS make you resort to violence?
  3. What group or class of people are you certain are inferior to you?
  4. When do you revel in others’ pain?
  5. Whom would you kill without hesitation or reservation?
  6. What situation would make you take your own life?
  7. A lifetime supply of…?

You are expected to answer as yourself, the actual person playing, not as some imaginary character. (But see Conclusion, below, for a way to play which could lead you to answer as “just a character.”) The Tooth Dealer should not try to lead you or shape your responses; rather, the Tooth Dealer’s questions should force you to directly address the issue that you most want to confront during play.

After you have answered the Tooth Dealer, he or she will propose your First Scar. A Scar has two parts: the mark and the meaning. The Tooth Dealer will discuss what he or she thinks your Scar means and will propose a way to draw on your Plushie with a marker, to designate the location of the Scar. The Tooth Dealer does not have the final say in this matter; it’s your issue to address, and you may approach it boldly or obliquely, as suits your needs. Thus, feel free to suggest a different First Scar, if the Tooth Dealer asks far too much for starters. But don’t be too much of a pussy about it.

(SIDE) List of examples of Scar marks and meanings, culled from playtester AP reports. (END SIDE)
Alice revealed some personal concerns about addiction and making bad decisions under the influence, and the Tooth Dealer hit upon that as a clear key to introducing Alice’s dolly. He proposes a Scar in the doll’s inner arm—track marks; fat, ugly venous swellings—and the associated meaning of “Junkie.” Alice thinks this is a bit much, and counters with the idea of a heart tattoo on her dolly’s upper arm, with the associated meaning of “Too Easy.” Seeing that Alice seems to want to more-indirectly explore themes of addiction—or maybe just wants to start off a bit more innocent than the average Plushie—he goes with her suggestion. Ultimately, he has no choice in the matter.

Either you or the Tooth Dealer may draw the Scar mark on the Plushie; but at no time should you write down the meaning. It will change, evolve, sicken, or swell over the course of play, even as your mark might change with new Scars adjacent to it. At this point—if you haven’t done so already—you must name your Plushie. Consider your First Scar, your responses to the Tooth Dealer’s prying questions, and your private goals for playing FMA. Some Plushies will start with cutsie, childish names; others will jump right in with ominous names that foreshadow the pain to come.

Alice thinks more about her Plushie’s “Too-Easy” Scar and possibly sex-addled origin, and decides that “Boop” is a perfect name: innocent-seeming exterior belied by a sultry, suggestive personality.

After every Plushie has received its First Scar, the Tooth Dealer will ask each Plushie player to declare his or her First Contact—which other Plushie in the game is the one that he or she first came to know, be it a mere exchange of names or an established relationship? Don’t take things too far, don’t write out some complex intrigues with other Plushies; let those emerge in play. Right now, you are just looking to hook into the “Plushie Community” under the bed, so that you are not floundering for evocative introductory scenes once actual play begins. And besides… betrayal and abuse are right around the corner; no sense entangling yourself too much with these other dysfunctional, pathetic souls.

Beginning Scenes

If they’d JUST leave you alone for a while, you could get a handle on this shit. Just a quiet corner of the toy box, just you and your needle and time to think.

But no, the party never stops, the dances never end, there’s always more to snort or shoot, and they can’t wait until you’re fucked up enough to get your clothes off and… well….

As explained in the Overview, FMA is played as a series of scenes, usually introduced by a Plushie player, in turn order. But it is not a hogde-podge, willy-nilly sequence of establishing location, introducing whomever, and dictating how each participant behaves and reacts. No, this is where the Needles come into play.

To initiate a scene, you must have at least one of your Needles free (at the start of the game both are free, of course; but that might not be the case later in the game). Take that Needle and Spike one of your Scars: literally drive the Needle through your Plushie’s fabric skin or fur, through the Scar mark. This Needle, and the depth to which you drive it, represents how that Scar is driving your actions and reactions in the impending scene. A shallow prick indicates that your Scar is merely suggested in the coming scene, an element of mood or tone hovering over what is to come. A firm Spiking that drives the Needle completely through your Plushie indicates that the Scar is paramount in the scene: the Scar’s meaning is going to be squarely in the foreground, your Plushie probably will be indulging as the scene opens… or fighting not to indulge.

If you have another free Needle, you can introduce another Plushie into the scene in one of three ways:

  1. You Spike one of its Scars, with similar connotations for that Plushie as if you Spiked your own Scar.
  2. You Spike an Unscarred spot on the Plushie, which is an attack on that Plushie, intended to Scar it further.
  3. You ask the Tooth Dealer to invent a character for your use in the scene (an NPC). The Tooth Dealer has exclusive control over the creation and play of the NPC through this scene and future scenes.

Based on how you’ve used your Needles to Spike your or another’s Plushie, you narrate the “opening shot” of the scene, and then you MUST say a line of dialog that the other Plushie simply could not ignore, shrug off, or dismiss. This is called a Volley, and it is the end of scene framing.

Chuck is playing a tough-as-nails teddy bear named Droog whose First Scar is “Sex Deviant.” Chuck Spikes his bear’s groin mark—a cruel-looking, swollen cock—and then leers at April’s Boop and Spikes her Unscared inner arm. As if it’s not obvious enough, he says, “OK, Boop, Droog has just fucked you sideways, upways, and endways. You’re hurting in places you didn’t know a bear could stick his dick. Droog laughs nastily and says, ‘Still like the smack, now that it made you do this?'” Boop is well on her way to a new Scar, probably with the meaning of “Junkie.” “Finally!” thinks the wicked Tooth Dealer, remembering Alice’s diffident First Scar….

[Image no longer available per artist’s request]
The teddy bear Droog has Spiked Boop, but good.

Note that you may open a scene solo, if you don’t or can’t Spike another Plushie. In such a situation, your opening statement could be a brief monologue or a description of your actions, either of which ends scene framing.

Edward is playing an open-hearted, naive sock man named Forrest whose First Scar is “Myopic.” Edward Spikes his sock man through his eye mark—a circle with an X in the middle—and then states, “I’m wandering around under the bed, smiling at folks and waving to Boop when I catch her eye.”

When it is your turn, you must begin a scene, even if you have no free Needles to Spike yourself. In such a situation, the Tooth Dealer must consider the three-way clusterfuck into which you’ve Stuck yourself, and may Spike you with a “virtual Needle” (no knitting needle required, in practice) in an Unscarred location. You won’t like what that means.

At this point, play begins in earnest as the scene is extended, other characters are introduced and exit, and Scarring or Damage—or the ever-rare Healing—occurs.

Extending Scenes

Oh, who have we here? Yes, I remember you… that party last week, right? So, how are things? Uh… sure, OK, I’ll try. What…? But why not here? It’s more fun here. Um… OK, sure, I guess. Lead on….

There is no formal process for playing and extending scenes. The Volley or opening dialog will lead you to your next line of dialog or reaction, which will lead to further exchanges. A scene could play out totally solo; it could be a conflict between two Spiked Plushies; or other Plushies could come and go, possibly choosing to Spike Plushies that are already in the scene, if willing and able. And it ends when it Feels Right… or Far-Too-Wrong.

Introducing Plushies

Should another player want to bring his or her Plushie into a framed scene, the player must have a free Needle and must Spike one of the Plushies that is already in the scene. Note that the player need not Spike his or her own Plushie, because the scene has already begun. However, as with beginning a scene, the player must make a Volley; and its target must respond. This exchange needn’t necessarily be hostile; but the Volley must be something that the target can’t ignore, shrug off, or dismiss.

As Forrest wanders around the party, Boop sees him wave and decides to jump in—it’s an obvious invite by Edward, after all. Alice Spikes Forrest in an Unscarred location—straight through the heart, driven DEEP—and says, “Hey, handsome, why’re you wandering all alone at this wicked party? Come here, let me show you something REALLY wild!” He responds enthusiastically—maybe even a bit lasciviously—and follows her to a pack of cigarettes that the kid stashed under the bed….

[Image no longer available per artist’s request]
Forrest nervously regards Boop’s new-found source of a rush.

Exiting Plushies


Should a player whose Plushie is in a scene want to make an exit, the player need only remove all Needles from his Plushie, returning them to their owners while narrating something that his or her character does or says to extricate itself from the situation. This process is by no means simple, however: each extraction opens the Plushie up to Scarring and Damage.

Forrest doesn’t like the looks of this Boop at all; he’s not ready to jump on the bus to Hell. So Edward extracts Alice’s Needle from Forrest’s heart and says, “Gee, Boop… I don’t think we should mess with stuff like that—it’s scary and you don’t know what it will do to me and I’m not that kind of sock!”

Exiting is primarily a way to bring closure to a scene and let the spotlight move off of your character. It is also, however, a way to back off of a painful situation, to gain some perspective and return stronger… or even Heal. Such a retreat should not be an abandonment of your fellow players; you stay engaged, and you let them stay engaged, and you all prepare to reap the whirlwind later.

Should no Plushie wish to risk an extraction to exit the scene, the scene ends with Stuck Needles (see below).

Scarring and Damaging Plushies

If a player whose Needle is being extracted doesn’t agree with or like the proposed exit, that player may declare a new Scar or Damage on the exiting Plushie. This is often done when someone narrates a retreat from the scene to lick wounds—think of it as a “parting shot.” But it can also be done to a Plushie that makes a “righteous” or “victorious” exit—think of it then as a future threat or a challenge left unresolved.

If the Needle Spiked a previously Unscarred portion of the Plushie then the Needling player may declare a new Scar, subject to the approval of the Tooth Dealer—but not subject to the approval of the Spiked Plushie’s player! The new Scar should extend existing Scars or reflect the player’s answers to the character-creation questions. The Tooth Dealer’s role as approver ensures that new Scar don’t come out of left field, forcing the player to deal with “issues” that they don’t really have and, thus, could not engage.

Alice isn’t letting Edward off that easily; she’s Spiked Forrest’s heart for a very good—no, not good; rather, a very CALCULATING—reason. She says, “Oh, no, Forrest, sweet boy. You aren’t walking away from my offer… my OFFERS… that easily.” And then Alice proposes that Forrest’s next Scar be Boop’s name, over his heart, with the meaning of “Infatuated.” The Tooth Dealer loves the idea; and Edward breaks out his marker, muttering under his breath.

Conversely, if the Needle Spiked an existing Scar then Damage is the inevitable result, and the Tooth Dealer gets out his Hook. Though the Tooth Dealer is the instrument (or, rather, his Hook is) it is always the case that the Plushie that is doing the Damage is to blame for the results.

The goal of the Tooth Dealer is to viciously drive the Hook into the Needled Scar and yank out as much Plushie stuffing as is possible with one pull. No matter which Plushie, no matter who did the Spiking: the Tooth Dealer is getting his payback for the life granted to the Plushies… and payback’s a bitch.

Because of the imprecision of the Hook, however, the stuffing ripped out could be just a bit of fluff, or it could wither a Plushie’s entire limb… or head. The player of the Damaged Plushie must narrate what this Damage means, as appropriate to the scene progression and the manner in which he or she tried to exit. No two instances of Damage will be alike, except in the way in which they rend and deform the Plushie. And as should be obvious, there’s no provision for re-stuffing a withered Plushie—life is hard, suffering leaves its mark, and all that we can be sure of in life… or unlife… is death.

Droog hasn’t taken a shine to Forrest since Forrest’s been seen ogling and wandering off with his new-found squeeze, Boop. Chuck frames a scene in which Droog Spikes the very Scar that Boop left on Forrest’s heart—a lovely, cursive “Boop” across his chest—and drags him into a violent scene of confrontation, threats, and verbal abuse. Forrest doesn’t go in for this sort of treatment one bit, and he extracts Chuck’s Needle from his Scar while declaring that he is stomping off in a huff, ignoring the brusque bear. “Nu-uh, nancy boy!” crows Droog, “You might love Boop, but I fuck her on the regular, now that she loves the juice more than herself… or YOU!” and he looks archly at the Tooth Dealer. With a slight shake of his head—impressed or chagrined, no one can say—the Tooth Dealer takes out his Hook, reaches quietly for Forrest… and literally tears his heart out.
[Image no longer available per artist’s request]
Forrest didn’t know what he was getting into with Droog until it was too late.

It is important to note that Forrest could have counter-Spiked Droog during that scene, to spread around the pain of exiting (if Edward had a free Needle). Perhaps Edward could have leveraged Droog’s “Sex Deviant” Scar to narrate an accusation that Droog can only control Boop with drugs, not with his presumed sexual prowess. Then, when he exits the scene, Droog is left to deal with that Spike until he attempts an exit; or he may leave it Stuck, to do its damage in a later scene.

So now that you’re ripped up a bit, you want out, right? If the Plushie who started a scene exits, its player may extract his or her own Needle with no penalties. You’re used to your habits; only others can make them hurt….

Stuck Needles

A scene usually doesn’t end until all Needles from other players are extracted from all Plushies in the scene. Yes, this means that Scars and Damage are almost guaranteed with each scene—it’s a nasty world full of broken toys.

However, if a scene simply must end at a certain point, because all participants feel it’s well-rounded or has reached a clear conclusion without commensurate extractions, then the Needles are Stuck. Any future scenes that begin with or introduce a Plushie with Stuck Needles will automatically begin with or introduce the Plushies of those players who own the Needles. In a sense, the previous, unresolved scene has forged a bond or a persistent relationship (or a grudge) between the Plushies; and only through a painful extraction will they be free to move alone in the world.


Like a new dawn, a spring rain… all your thoughts clear of pain… however did you live that life… whyever did you face such strife…?

Not every scene in FMA results in Scars, Damage, and tattered Plushies. It is possible that, through the course of narration and dialog, an epiphany can occur or a long-hidden pain can be exposed and purged.

A player may ask that a given Scar be Healed, if the scene progression or story-arc resolution warrants it. The player must make a formal, out-of-scene proposal to the Tooth Dealer and to the other players. Only though a unanimous decision by all players can a Scar be Healed—your fellow players aren’t there to make the game “easy” or “light;” and yet they will not abandon you, when you truly believe that it’s time that you grew. Never forget that FMA is primarily about guided self-healing. The group MUST recognize the real, actual player epiphany to approve of Healing—this is when they reinforce the personal insights that brought you to this point in play… and in your life.

In game-play terms, a Scar is Healed when the group ratifies the proposal. For ongoing play with the same Plushie, you must patch over the Healed Scar in some manner, be it an iron-on decal or a sewn-on patch or even a patch that perfectly matches your Plushie’s skin or fur. You may not, however, re-stuff your Plushie when patching over a Healed Scar; you can never completely Heal the Damage done, and you probably wouldn’t want to do so anyway—what if you forget and fall back down the rabbit hole?

Check that fucker out: Droog the bear has been played a time or two before the session shown in the artwork above; one might wonder what horrors he has Healed in the past, that he is nevertheless still such a vicious bastard….


You made it… this time. Next time, who knows? The Needles always make new marks; there’s always another monster under the bed; you’re never really safe enough to turn your back on the darkness. Sit back and smoke your last cigarette….

FMA is not a “fun” game, though it can be rewarding. Neither is it a “light” game, if played to the hilt; it is supposed to push you, the player, further than you are willing to go and then bring you back, shaken but not broken, to more-solid ground. If you want it to do so, FMA can put a mirror before your heart and soul and show you things about which you may not want to know, but of which you are best not left ignorant.

That’s not to say, however, that FMA can never be a light, fun game full of humor… albeit dark humor. The group’s choice of Plushies and starting Scars can lighten the mood considerably, sending signals to each other that this game or session is going to be less gut-wrenching. It is best to discuss such a change of tack with the group prior to play; otherwise, a real-life conflict can ensue as you find yourself playing at cross-purposes. Yet, even such “incoherent” play can be successful and rewarding, if you always follow The Prime Directive—even if you are playing “just a character,” it is very likely that another player will push you when you weren’t expecting it. Take it, stay engaged, learn something about yourself… and then push right back! After all, that bastard’s playing “just a character,” too, right?

Be safe, play unsafe, and do not abandon each other.


 Games, RPG  Comments Off on Stacktors!
Mar 202007

Roleplaying with Pyramids

© 2007 David Carle Artman & David Mark Cherryholmes, All rights reserved.



A role-playing game requires, at a minimum, Characters, Situations, a Resolution System, and Rewards for playing. In Stacktors!, the abilities of each player character (PC) are represented by a stack of pyramids. Each pyramid’s position contributes an ability, be it physical, mental, or social. A game group decides what sort of setting—game world, time period, seriousness—in which they wish to play; and then the game master (GM) presents the players with challenges, situations, and story lines in which they can engage. When there is a conflict of interest between characters, a resolution system determines the victor. To the victors go the spoils….


A character in a game—whether controlled by a player or by the GM—is comprised of a stack of pieces called a character stack, which is positioned on the game map. Similarly, objects—things that the character possesses—are represented by a single equipment stack, which is placed in front of the character’s player.

To indicate a piece’s facing or orientation, character stacks are built on top of a teardrop-shaped piece or paper. Alternately, a small marker may be placed touching the side of the stack which is considered the front face.

The position of a piece and its color determine what ability effect the piece provides to the character. The size of the piece determines its strength, value, or efficacy in such situations.

Piece Positions

A piece can be in one of four general positions in a character stack:

  • Brains – (optional) All of the topmost pieces of a stack that are above the neck. Brains typically provide mental or social abilities to the character.
  • Neck – (required) A small piece which divides the character’s brains from its guts. Necks do not provide any abilities. A gray neck (i.e. a Volcano Cap) indicates a player character; a black or white neck indicates an enemy or potential ally/burden, respectively.
  • Guts – (optional) Any piece which is not feet, brains, or neck. Guts typically provide physical or social abilities to the character.
  • Feet – (required) Any and all pieces in a stack which are touching the playing surface. As such, the minimum number of feet is one and the maximum number is three (a full nest). Feet provide movement abilities to the character. Note that equipment stacks do not have feet because there are no feet abilities granted via objects: all pieces below the equipment stack’s neck are guts pieces.
    Variation Note: If the playing group has access to a full stash of gray pieces then the GM may choose to use them for Feet objects.

Piece Colors

The following table shows the abilities that each piece color provides, for each position in a character stack:

Character Stack Abilities By Position

Color Brain Guts Feet
Clear Identify (special) 

Claim the piece(s) under a solid piece, once per pip.†

Perfection (physical) 

Attack – Automatically succeed with one attack, before or after resolution (if after, all committed pieces remain committed), once per pip.†

Defend – Ignore one attack, before or after resolution (if after, all committed pieces remain committed), once per pip.†

Agile (movement) 

May move partially, act, and then finish movement.

Note: Do not count clear pieces when calculating total movement points.

Red Intimidate (social) 

Force the defender to flee—move away from the attacker and its allies at its full movement rate—for a number of rounds equal to the pip value of the active red pieces.

Ranged (physical) 

Attack – Attack a defender that is a number of inches away equal to 3 + the pip value of the active red pieces.

Defend – Add the pip value of the red piece to defense against ranged attacks, without committing the red piece.

Fleet (movement) 

Move at double speed (i.e. double movement points), adjusted for the terrain in which beginning movement.

Pink Shrewd (mental) 

Exchange one of the attacker’s pieces with one of the defender’s pieces (attacker’s choice; must be at least one piece from each character), limited to a total pip value equal to or less than the pip count of the active pink pieces.

Flexible (physical) 

Attack – Your current physical attack affects multiple adjacent targets equal to the pip count of the active pink pieces.

Defend – Reflect the attacker’s result back onto it, once per pip per turn (refreshes each turn). Attacker may commit additional pieces to reduce the reflected result to zero (no effect).

Graceful (movement) 

Disengage from enemies without being at risk of a parting shot, once per movement. The number of enemies must be equal to or less than the total pip count of the active pink pieces.

Orange Persistent (mental) 

Immediately re-attempt a just-failed social attack, using the same committed pieces; the defender must commit different pieces to defend against this attack.

Dexterous (physical) 

Attack – Repeat your current physical attack twice, using the same committed pieces; the defender must commit different pieces to defend each attack.

Defend – Defend and counterattack as a free action immediately; the defender and attacker both must commit different pieces for the counterattack.

Nimble (movement) 

Change directions while moving without it costing a movement point.

Yellow Calming (mental or social) 

Force the defender to stop fighting for a number of rounds equal to the pip value of the active yellow pieces. Any attack on the defender during this time period will break the effect and allow it to resume combat on its next turn.

Medic (special) 

Perform healing a number of times equal to the pip value of the active yellow pieces.

Steady (movement) 

Move at normal speed when beginning movement in slowing terrain (e.g. ice, sand), instead of at half speed.

Green Persuasive (mental or social)  

Somehow convince a reluctant potential ally to join the PCs.

Hamper (physical or social) 

Attack – Rather than do normal damage, increase or reduce the pip value of one of the defender’s Feet by one (attacker’s choice), if that is possible with the available unused pieces.

Defend – The attacker immediately reduces the pip value of one of its Feet by one, if that is possible with the available unused pieces.

Dynamic (movement) 

Move at normal speed when beginning movement in cluttered areas (e.g. woods, factory), instead of at half speed.

Cyan Morph Other (social) 

“Heal” the defender 1 pip value, up to a number of inches away equal to the pip value of the active cyan pieces.

Morph Self (special) 

Change the color of one of your pieces whose pip value is equal to or lower than the pip value of the active cyan pieces, if that is possible with the available unused pieces. This ability also commits the affected pieces for this round.

Fly (movement)Move at normal speed through air, instead of at zero speed.
Blue Cunning (mental) 

Force a defender within a number of inches equal to the pip value of the active blue pieces to commit its pieces first, the next time it is defending against any attack.

Freeze (physical or social) 

Attack – Rather than do damage, force the defender to stay in its location for a number of rounds equal to the pip value of the active blue pieces.

Defend – End the attacker’s turn immediately, even if it still has available actions or movement.

Swim (movement) 

Move at normal speed through water, instead of at quarter speed.

Purple Compel (mental or social) 

Force a defender within a number of inches equal to 3 + the pip value of the active purple pieces to use its next turn to attack the character of your choice, moving into range if necessary (and possible).

Maneuver (physical) 

Attack – Instantly relocate the defender away from its current position a number of inches equal to the pip value of the active purple pieces, without it engaging or being obstructed by terrain, characters, objects, or challenges.

Defend – Instantly move up to a number of inches equal to 3 + the pip value of the active purple pieces, without engaging or being obstructed by terrain, characters, objects, or challenges.

Teleport (movement) 

Instantly move up to full movement points without engaging or being obstructed by terrain, characters, objects, or challenges. If teleporting while engaged, the teleporter may be the subject of an optional parting shot from the adjacent enemy or enemies.

Opaque pieces represent either objects—pieces that the player characters may add to their equipment stacks—or NPCs or challenges. 

Variation Note: If the playing group has access to a full stash of gray pieces then the GM may choose to use them to indicate objects which provide feet abilities. If so, all players must unground their equipment stack with any available opaque until a feet object grants a feet ability, after which time the object’s piece(s) replace the grounded opaque. Note that you might have to use an extra small opaque to make only the feet pieces grounded; often, however, you can simply rearrange your equipment stack guts pieces to unground any of them that are still grounded when on top of the feet pieces.

White NPC – If on top of a stack or used for a neck (i.e. a small), White indicates a potential ally. This ally might or might not require persuasion to accompany the players; or it might force itself on the PCs, thereby becoming a burden to protect for an undetermined period of time or until a specific goal is reached. 

Object – If on top of completely hidden piece(s), White indicates an unidentified brains ability (or abilities). A character must use the Identify ability to remove the opaque and claim the granted ability (or abilities), which the character may then put into its equipment stack (above that stack’s neck) or give to another character to do so.

Black NPC – If on top of a character stack or used for a neck (i.e. a small), Black indicates a potential enemy or a challenge (as decided by the GM and the situation). A challenge is further indicated by an opaque foot, called a base, which shows that it is immobile and which distinguishes it from an NPC. Sometimes, the GM may place pieces under the opaque base so that it simultaneously serves as an object reward for surmounting the challenge. 

Object – If on top of completely hidden piece(s), Black indicates an unidentified guts ability (or abilities). A character must use the Identify ability to remove the opaque and claim the granted ability (or abilities), which the character may then put into its equipment stack (below that stack’s neck and above its feet, if any) or give to another character.


† = When a “once per pip” ability is used, replace the pyramid with the next smallest pyramid. If it is already a small, remove it from the character stack. Also, such abilities may not be healed, though the character could regain them with additional CP expenditure.

Character Creation

A given play group will choose one of the following means to create characters, based on the game tone or player preferences:

  • Free Creation – Each player get [TBD] character points (CPs) to distribute amongst any number of pieces, to make a character stack. A piece costs a number of CPs equal to its pip value—1 for smalls, 2 for mediums, and 3 for larges.
  • Group Creation – Each player gets [TBD] CPs to distribute amongst pieces. Piece purchasing, however, follows a rotation, with each player choosing one piece at a time and paying its CP cost from the player’s total available CPs. This method allows for negotiation between players, to avoid overlapping abilities or to shore up abilities that are lacking for the anticipated challenges.
  • Unique Creation – To ensure a really diverse group, with little or no overlap of abilities, the GM might restrict the available pieces to those that come in one Rainbow and Xeno Treehouse stash. Following the above Group Creation method, with only the 24 transparent pieces available in one Rainbow and Xeno stash, will ensure that every character “trumps” the others in at least one ability category.

Character Evolution

Throughout the course of play, situations and challenges won and lost can lead to changes in a character’s total CP or to a character’s stack itself. For instance, a character might lose brains in mental conflict or guts in a social conflict. Likewise, a character might gain a new foot that ungrounds all the other grounded pieces: the new foot grants a (possibly new) movement ability, and all previous feet become guts abilities.

This direct coupling of stack changes to character changes informs most, if not all, of the dramatic outcomes of play. Stacktors! characters can go through significant losses, develop massive sets of talents through advancement, and even die, in the most extreme situations.

Notation Methods

For brevity, a number of notation methods are used to shorten character, challenge, and object descriptions. All notation methods write out a stack from bottom to top, which may seem counterintuitive but is the order in which a stack is built. In addition, various symbols delineate brains, guts, feet, and bases in the stack.

General Notation Guidelines

The color and size of a piece are shown in the following order:

  1. Color – (C)lear, (R)ed, (O)range, (Y)ellow, (G)reen, (Cy)an, (B)lue, (P)urple, (W)hite, and (Bl)ack
  2. Size – 1, 2, 3, or x (where x is any arbitrary value; see Challenges).

Character Notation

Follow the general notation guidelines above, putting a hyphen (-) between feet and guts (to make it easier to see how many are grounded) and between guts and brains (to represent the neck). Additional details may or may not be provided in a character description.

Example Soldier – G1O2-R3O2C1-R1

  • G1 – Dynamic: All those obstacle courses, all the calisthenics… they pay off.
  • O2 – Nimble: All those days marching… they pay off, too.

(feet = 3 MPs)

  • R3 – Ranged: Got a big old gun…
  • O2 – Dexterous: …and it’s a machine gun.
  • C1 – Perfection: Maybe it’s a flak jacket, maybe it’s a grenade—something in his arsenal will save his bacon or drive home damage.

(neck = any)

  • R1 – Intimidate: The grunt can be pretty scary to those dumber than he is (which isn’t many folks—but could include most burdens or any character who has already committed all of its brains!)

Challenge Notation

Follow the general notation guidelines above, putting parentheses or braces ({}) around the base (parentheses for white brains object rewards, braces for black guts object rewards) and an equal sign between guts and brains (to emphasize that a character may eliminate either guts or brains to overcome the challenge). Note that, because only the topmost guts or brains color is usually all that matters in a challenge, there is usually only one piece notation followed by any number, which is comprised of any available pieces. Additional details may or may not be provided in a challenge description.

Variation Note: Though none will be presented in these examples, a gray foot object reward is signified by putting double quotes around the base.

Example Locked Chest – (C2)R8=B5

  • C2 – Identify (because opaque base is white): A scroll will be found! Note that if this were C1, it would be a break-even proposition, as the object must be Identified, even if part of a challenge. Not much of a reward, then.

(base = white)

  • R8: It can be shot open…

(neck = black) Note that the neck will always be black, for a challenge.

  • B5: …or a Cunning character can figure out how to pick the lock.

Object Notation

Follow the general notation guidelines above, putting parentheses or braces ({}) around the base (parentheses for white brains objects, braces for black guts objects). Additional details may or may not be provided in an object description.

Variation Note: Though none will be presented in these examples, a gray foot object is signified by putting double quotes around the base.

Example Fine Bow – {R3}

  • R3 – Ranged (because opaque base is black): So well strung, it fires up to six inches away!

(base = black)

Turn-Based Resolution

A given conflict is broken up into rounds—a series of turns during which every character has a chance to act.

To determine turn order, each character totals the pip values of its brains or of its feet, ignoring all ability effects (e.g. Fleet). The character with the highest total may go first or pass; if it passes, the next highest character may go first; and the group continues to “count down” in this manner, offering the opportunity to act or pass. Once the character with the lowest total takes its turn—which it is forced to do when its total is reached, or it loses its whole turn—begin to count back up through the totals, offering the opportunity for those who passed to take their turn. If a character passes again on this “count up” stage, it has passed its entire turn away.

On a given character’s turn, that character may do any or all of the following, in any order:

  • Move up to its maximum range, determined by the medium or terrain in which the character begins its turn.
  • Make one or more actions, determined by the abilities that the character possesses.
  • Make a brief statement, usually limited to one sentence.


A character may move a number of inches equal to the pip value total for all of its feet (including those in its equipment stack, if any). This sum is called the character’s movement points. Note that a small on its side is almost exactly an inch tall; the sides of a large’s base are exactly an inch wide. Many GMs, however, will use battlemats, which typically have a grid of 1″ squares or hexes.

A character must use one movement point to change direction (unless it is Nimble), regardless of the new direction (i.e. a character may turn up to 180 degrees in either direction for one movement point).

A character may not split movement into two stages divided by actions (unless it is Agile); it must move then act or act then move.

Movement Abilities

Every foot color ability effect applies on every movement (including those in the character’s equipment stack, if any).

Example: A character has a large green, a medium red, and a small yellow foot. On its turn, it may move up to 6 inches (3 + 2 + 1) times 2 (because of the red), for a total of 12 inches. Plus, it may move that full value even if it begins its movement in or passes through slowing terrain or cluttered areas (because of the yellow and green).

Terrain Effects

If a character begins movement in terrain, an area, or a medium which reduces movement, it must adjust its total movement points to the fraction of their total, rounding up, as in the following list:

  • Slowing terrain (half MPs) – sand, ice, dense underbrush, highly irregular floor, shallow water.
  • Cluttered area (half MPs) – forest, factory, ship engine room.
  • Water (quarter MPs) – waist-deep or deeper liquid in general; shallow bodies of water are merely slowing.
  • Air (zero MPs) – any gaseous medium, presuming gravity is present; if there is no gravity, a gaseous medium is merely slowing.

If a character enters one of the above terrains during its movement, its remaining movement points are immediately adjust by the indicated amount, rounding down. This reduction can result in the character having no remaining movement points.

Encountering Enemies

At any point during a character’s movement, if it becomes adjacent to an enemy—less than 1″ away, or in a neighboring square or hex—then it must immediately stop. It is not required to attack that enemy (and the enemy is not required to attack it), but it is nevertheless considered engaged for the remainder of the round. If the enemy is somehow defeated or relocated before the end of the character’s turn, the character may resume movement, if permitted (i.e. if it is Agile).

An engaged character may move away from an enemy on its next turn, and can move freely around or past that enemy during that turn (i.e. the enemy does not instantly re-engage the character just because it moves into another adjacent position). The enemy, however, may choose to take one action to attack before the character moves away, even if it is not yet the enemy’s turn; this immediate attack is called a parting shot. Also, if an engaged character is moved away from an enemy by another character (i.e. with a Maneuver Attack) then the enemy may make a parting shot. The pieces that the enemy commits to a parting shot are unavailable for the remainder of the round (as is generally true of any committed piece).


Some actions occur during freeform narration, while others occur during conflict rounds. The guts and brains colors determine what actions a character may take.

Piece Applicability

In most cases—the GM will say when this is not true—a conflict engages only guts or brains.

  • Physical conflicts may only use guts.
  • Mental conflicts may only use brains.
  • Social conflicts may draw on either guts or brains.

A character may draw up pieces from both its character stack and its equipment stack, unless the GM says otherwise.

If there is any question about the applicability of a piece—say, if a recent loss of a piece in the stack changed some guts pieces to feet—then assume that the piece is only applicable based on its current position; ignore earlier positions or the timing of events.


If an action targets another character or a thing which has defensive abilities (i.e. it is created with some kind of stack, though that stack may or may not include feet and brains), then that action is called an attack, whether it’s physical, mental, or social:

  • The attacker choses which pieces in its character stack are contributing to the total attack value and states which type of attack is being done (i.e. which piece color is active). For the rest of the round, these pieces are committed—they may not be used on follow-up actions or for defense against other characters’ actions.
  • The defender then choses which pieces in its character stack are contributing to the total defense value and states which type of defense is being used (i.e. which piece color is active). For the rest of the round, these pieces are committed.
  • Neither the attacker nor the defender may activate more than one color per attack.

The total attack value for the action is compared against the total defense value:

  • If the attack value is higher than the defense value, the attack succeeds (see Damage, below). If the attack value is a whole number multiple of the defense value, multiply the effect (e.g. a 6 attacking a 2 does triple the effect).
  • If the defense value is equal to or higher than the attack value, the attack fails. If the defense value is more than double the attack value, the defending character may immediately counterattack as a free action—it does not cost the defender its action(s) later in the round, nor does it require that the defender not have acted yet this round, though the pieces that the defender uses are committed for the whole round.


An adjacent ally or player character (an assistant) may contribute pieces to either character in a conflict—attacker or defender—up to a pip value equal to the sum of all of the assistant’s brains’ pip values. In other words, the “smarter” or more “perceptive” an assistant, the more it can contribute in a given action; as such, NPC burdens typically have few or no brains. For the rest of the round, these pieces are committed.

Note that the contributed pieces need not only be brains (brains total pip values are merely the limiting factor) and the contributing character does not lose the pieces or give them to the acting character; their pip values are merely summed and added to the attacker’s attack value or to the defender’s defense value.


A successful attack forces the defender to reduce the pip value of one (or more) of its committed piece(s) by one pip value (more than one, if the attack value exceeds the defense value by whole number multiples). If the defender reduces a small piece’s pip value (reducing it to “zero”) then that piece is removed from the defender’s stack and the defender loses its associated ability.

In some cases, the attacker’s active piece will dictate the result, rather than doing damage. If so, do as the piece requires, with the restriction that the total pip value of all pieces in a character’s stack (except its neck) may never exceed the character’s current spent CPs.

Note: Hamper can result in a change of feet and, subsequently, guts.


Instead of moving or taking any actions, a character may choose to stay in place and heal in one of the following ways:

  • Add a small piece to its stack, out of the available unused pieces.
  • Upgrade one of its existing pieces to the next largest size, if that is possible with the available unused pieces.
  • Downgrade one of its existing pieces to the next smallest size, if that is possible with the available unused pieces. If there is no smaller size (i.e. the piece is already a small) then it is removed from the stack.

A character may not use any of the above healing methods to gain an ability which it did not have at the start of the play session. Note that Morph trumps this rule, allowing character abilities to change.

An ally or another player character may choose to use its movement and all of its actions for its turn to heal an adjacent character. Note that Medic trumps this rule, allowing the assistant to commit only its yellow guts piece(s) to perform healing(s) and leaving all other uncommitted pieces available to perform actions on its turn and move.

The total pip value of all pieces in a character’s stack (except its neck) may never exceed the character’s current spent CPs. Furthermore, these effects may not result in new feet or guts.


Some games might have options for resurrecting dead characters: for instance, allowing another character to heal the character (i.e. add a small guts piece) within a certain number of rounds.

Most games, however, will treat death as final. The character’s player should be allowed to create a new character using starting CPs, spent CPs, or even total accumulated CPs (if the GM feels generous), and that character should be introduced into the story as soon as is possible.

Extra Actions

If, during a turn, an attacker does not commit all of its applicable pieces, it may choose to use its remaining pieces for a follow-up attack. Use the same process as before, with only uncommitted pieces (which become committed when used, as with any action) and only one of their colors being active.

Note that this can result in an attacker possibly getting many attacks in a given turn, in particular if it is able to use Dexterous to double-up each attack. It is entirely possible for a character with three orange guts pieces to get six (or more) attacks in one turn! They might not be very effective attacks, though, if the total pieces committed in each attempt is low.

Special Abilities

Some abilities are marked as special, which means that they do not involve an attack but rather have some other effect.

Unless otherwise noted, the use of a special ability does not use up the character’s actions for a round. The use of a special ability does commit the active pieces, however, as with any action.


Making a statement can occur whenever the player or GM desires. For verisimilitude, it is recommended that such statements be limited to brief interjections, taunts, or commands; any drawn-out soliloquy or conversation should occur outside of a conflict or should be done as an extended conflict or should be broken up across several turns (the GM will determine which is appropriate for the situation).


A situation can be anything from trying to bribe one’s way past a guard to a series of combat maneuvers, attacks, defensive attempts, and injuries. The GM presents situations to the players; the players use their character stack abilities, ingenuity, and cooperation to attempt to overcome these challenges. Based on their success or failure, the GM then presents subsequent plot elements, which lead to further challenges; a story may or may not unfold, depending upon the whole playing group’s approach to stringing together these moments of conflict.

In some situations—usually mental, social, or minor in the “grand scheme of things”—the GM will simply narrate the situation and setting and allow the characters fairly free reign as to how they reply and react; timing, granularity of actions, and turn sequences are ignored in favor of conversational flow.

Once things get out of hand—when different GM or player characters are trying to do conflicting actions—then the situation is resolved with the turn-based resolution system.

Discrete Challenges

When the GM creates a challenge, it is represented as a challenge stack with an opaque base to show that it is immobile.

The topmost piece in a challenge stack indicates the color of the ability that a character must use to attack the challenge. If the challenge stack also has a neck, then a character may attack either the brains or the guts of the challenge stack, using the ability indicated by the topmost brains or guts color. Note that this makes the other piece colors in the challenge stack irrelevant, except as they contribute pip values when “defending” (or attacking).

If the attacker commits a sufficient number of pieces to exceed the total brains or total guts of the challenge stack, it does damage equal to the value of the excess committed pieces. Remove that many pips from the challenge stack’s attacked position—brains or guts—saving the topmost of either position for last. A challenge stack’s pieces are never committed during this “defense.”

Sometimes, the GM might choose to allow the challenge stack to make attacks as well, usually immediately after receiving an attack. The GM will often designate the topmost color as active, but he or she may also choose to surprise a defender by using one of the other (now not so irrelevant!) pieces in the stack. The GM will (typically) commit all of a challenge stack’s pieces to such an attack, and it is therefore (typically) only allowed one attack per round. Even if they have been committed to an attack, a challenge stack’s applicable pieces are always counted for “defense.”

When either all of the guts or all of the brains pieces are eliminated, the challenge is surmounted: remove all remaining pieces above its base from the challenge stack. The character that did the last point(s) of “damage” takes possession of any unidentified object reward that the GM might have placed under the opaque base piece.

Abstract Challenges

At times, the GM might want to represent a situation without actually building character and object stacks for everything present in the scene. In these cases, the GM might set up an abstract challenge, representing an entire scene with a single challenge stack.

The GM will inform the players as to how the challenge must be overcome, typically by separating it into stages or a series of discrete challenges. As a particular stage is overcome, the GM removes the top-most piece, revealing the nature of the next challenge in the series (i.e. what color ability must next be used to “attack” it).


Success in conflict will usually reap rewards for the PCs.

The GM might provide additional CPs, allowing them to be spent immediately (e.g. “healing” after a combat) or requiring that they be spent at a particular, later time (e.g. “training” to advance an ability).

Similarly, the GM might provide tools, equipment, or other objects that are beneficial to the characters. Such objects, once acquired, are represented by piece stacks in front of the character’s player.

The GM might also provide information—clues, maps, or world facts—that helps the PCs continue in an ongoing quest or overcome some later challenge.

While currency—in-game resources, money, and assets—might also be a reward for success, this puts a burden on the GM to provide a means to spend such currency in a way that is meaningful to the characters. Otherwise, currency becomes a sort of “scoring system” for the players to use to compare against each other (or other groups that encounter the same series of situations).