Storyscape: all of the crunch, none of the spreadsheet work, says Laws.

Recently I had the chance to talk with Robin D. Laws, game designer and the mind behind the mechanics of Storyscape, the tablet-based RPG system that’s on its way through the mystic trials of Kickstarter as I type this. Laws is the fella who gave the world Hong Kong action game Feng Shui, investigative fun-fest GUMSHOE, Glorantha RPG HeroQuest, and substantial chunks of D&D’s DNA. At time of writing, Storyscape‘s looking for $96,000, has collected almost $15,000, and has 17 days on the clock.

Through the magic of words I can now pass on to you the wisdom of the ancients, but first a couple of notes for those of you keeping score: I have put some cash of my own into Storyscape, and I also write for GUMSHOE’s Trail of Cthulhu RPG. With that in mind, on with the show!

How did you get involved with Storyscape?

In 2012 I was doing a live broadcast of the podcast I co-host with fellow designer Ken Hite, Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, at Dragonmeet in London. One of the questions was ‘what would your dream project be?’ My answer was that I wanted to do something in the tablet space for roleplaying, because that really seems to be the next vista of where we can take tabletop. I envisaged an app which does the job both of automating resolution for you, and acts as your rules book. So it takes a lot of the figuring and rules-looking-up out of your hands, which from a design perspective allows you to do math that’s more complicated than you could ever ask a live GM to pull off. Turns out the guys at Slabtown Games were listening to that podcast, and got excited because that’s exactly what his group was planning to do! They got in touch, and we had a conversation that ended with me becoming lead designer for the roleplaying mechanics part of the project.

In your own gaming, you tend to be the Keeper rather than the player. From a Keeper’s POV, what do you see Storyscape bringing to the party?

It takes all the figuring, paying attention to rules, who-goes-next in a fight, who has what skill, and does all that tracking for you, so you can concentrate on the storyline. That allows you, if you wish to do so, to introduce a lot of older-school things that people thought were cool but have abandoned over time, just because they’re a pain to do. Encumbrance! People don’t do it any more; you have to really like math homework to keep track of encumbrance. But if the system is doing it for you, you can use it without it being painful.

You’re not forced to remember all the different factors that come into play in this situation, and that doesn’t stop at mundane things like encumbrance. So for example you can set each weapon in the game with a social valence, that if you carry a club it makes you seem like a barbarian from the countryside, whereas if you carry a rapier you seem like a nobleman. In your personal interaction scenes with other people, they will take what weapon you’re carrying into account. If you were doing that in tabletop, you’d have to go ‘oh, okay, what weapon are you carrying, let’s look at the weapons social values table, okay, that’s a plus two …’ That’s a huge pain to do, but the tablet can keep track of all that, and all sorts of other factors.

There’s more. When you play a really crunchy game, you want the feeling that there are a whole lot of things going on and being taken into account, but you don’t necessarily want there to be a physics engine. If you have a fight, for example, that works according to real world physics, that’s actually nothing like a role playing fight or a movie fight, or anything that we consider exciting, or fun, or fair. People just want to feel that different stuff is being taken into account, that the combination of a weapon and armor somehow matters. Because the system can keep track of a whole bunch of different tags, once you succeed it then chooses one and tells you which tag gave you the edge. You can bring that into the narration, so if you hit someone and there are six different factors contributing to your success, you then know which factor contributed the most. ‘My mighty weapon smashed through his weak armor!’ That gets you back to the core thing about tabletop roleplaying, which is description through narrative and collectively telling a story together. The app never tells the story for you. Instead it gives you cues, allowing you to continue telling it.

You’ve mentioned tags, one of the core Storyscape mechanics. How do they work?

A tag is any positive or negative attribute, and anything in the system can have a tag. A section of the map can have a terrain tag, or a weather tag. The weapons have tags, your character has personality tags, everything about your character is treated as a tag. Some tags interact with other tags, and that’s what gives you your list of pluses and minuses, which in turn determines the bonus you get or penalty you face. That gives you the decisive factor in your success or your failure. Anything that you care to bring into the situation as a possible factor in success or failure is a tag, in some way.

The main way that you bring new, custom tags into play is by assigning negative or positive consequence. If you succeed in convincing the Duchess to fund your mission, you would then get a tag called ‘client of the Duchess’. In most situations that would be a positive, but then maybe you go out into the wilderness and you meet the rival explorers who have been sent out by the Duke, who really hates the Duchess. ‘Client of the Duchess’ then becomes a negative in your interaction with them.

Tags are new for Storyscape. It’s something you could never implement in a straight-up tabletop environment, and that’s why I really wanted to be involved with this. I think that the person who succeeds in making this happen will not just be replicating tabletop rules, which are designed for ease of handling, but instead take advantage of the innate properties of this new medium.

What would you say to people who may be a bit nervous about trying a new system?

It’s way, way faster. That means a D&D fight which might take two hours normally is now much quicker, and plays out in a much more intuitive fashion. It’s doing a lot of the homework for you, in a way that makes everything easier. More importantly, if you’re someone who really loves your super crunchy tabletop system, but have tried to convince your friends to play, you know that they won’t all want to complete hours of complex spreadsheet work in order to achieve system mastery. With Storyscape you can just go, ‘here’s your tablet,’ and they can have a character as easy as hitting a couple buttons. It’s not only easy for you to play, it’s way easier for your resistant friends to play, and therefore much easier to get, and keep, a game group together!

Many thanks!

Thanks a lot! Take care!

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