Saturday, June 3, 2017

An afternoon with ICRPG

I spent some time with my boys playing Index Card RPG this afternoon. ICRPG is a new RPG published by Runehammer Games. It is the work of Hankerin Ferinale (NB: yes, I am looking for an excuse to cite him by that name in a research paper), who is most well known for his YouTube series, Drunkens and Dragons. I've watched a few of his videos, mostly those about storytelling and DMing. Even if you're not into the hobby, his recollection and historical overview of Mazes & Monsters provides a nice, short  insight into Hank's background, style, and ethos. Index Card RPG is thus named because it is designed for use with illustrated index cards in place of grids, terrain, or theater of the mind. You can get a quick look at it in this video. I was immediately intrigued by the abstract use of space presented in ICRPG, and so when Hank announced the release of his ICRPG Core Rulebook, I decided to pick it up. The book distills a lot of the ideas that are covered in the Drunkens & Dragons YouTube series, presenting them in a concise manner with explicit encouragement to pick and choose parts of the system that are of interest.

One of the hallmarks of the ICRPG system is the use of Effort. For those familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and its relatives, it is as if all tasks have "hit points" that must be overcome. For example, picking a lock is not a matter of just passing a check: a player must pass the check and then roll effort to see how much progress is made on the lockpicking. This combines with fast-paced, round-robin turns to give a very different sense of time than in conventional tabletop RPGs. The Core Rulebook also includes a few other tricks and suggestions to add tension to adventures, many of which come back to this concept of spending sustained effort on tasks besides just whacking ogres.

The Core Rulebook includes three "trials," which are relatively simple scenarios that a group or an individual can run through just to get a feel for how all the pieces fit together. This sounded good to me, so I rounded up a some of my boys and we set to character creation. The trials could be done without any manipulatives, but the players all enjoyed picking out miniatures from their collection for themselves, and I spontaneously created two index card drawings to provide some of the setting.

Although the Core Rulebook includes some suggestions for a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world as well as a futuristic science-fantasy world, I decided to let my boys approach it carte blanche; after all, the goal here was to get a sense of the system and have some fun, not to start worldbuilding or begin an epic campaign. Character creation took about an hour, but this was really due to distractions and the kids' ages, and my need to explain all the rules, since the youngest of the three players does not read yet. The trial itself took about another hour.

Boy #1 created Kartlack, a mantid soldier/guard. This guy reads a lot, and I don't know if he picked up "mantid" from one of his books, but it was essentially a humanoid mantis. The first step of character creation is to assign six points to core attributes, and he allocated points to strength, dexterity, constitution, armor, basic work, and weapon damage. You can see that ICRPG unapologetically reuses the attribute system from Dungeons & Dragons, which makes for easy pick-up to someone like me who spent many years with D&D. We decided that mantids should get a bioform ("race") bonus to armor and dexterity. For his starting loot, he wanted something to increase his constitution, but the ICRPG Core Rules starter loot "Trusty Mug" didn't match his character concept: would a mantid even drink from a mug? I suggested a box of grasshoppers, such that if Kartlack eats one each day, he stays tough and healthy, and so was born the Hopper Box. Kartlack also started with miner's gear, steel claw sheathes as weapons, and 50 coins. The player explained that Kartlack's people lived underground like an ant colony, and hence the miner's gear. I pointed out—to a kid who honestly knows more about insects than I do—that praying mantises don't live underground. He justified it by pointing out that it's just a fantasy game, so they could live underground. How about that?

Boy #2 created Klac, the kobold healer. I think this may have been the name of one of the miniatures they have acquired from a board game or the local game shop, but this was not clear to me. The player put points into dexterity, wisdom, basic work, and magic effect. Kobolds also were not defined in the ICRPG Core Rules, so we decided that he'd get a bonus dexterity and armor, for his scaly skin. He took a Healing Touch skill, as described in the Core Rules Priest class, along with a dagger, healing herbs, and a hiding cloak. We made up those last two items, the former granting +3 Wisdom to heal checks and the latter giving +3 Dexterity to hiding checks.

Boy #3 is a preschooler, and he really wanted to join in. His inspiration was to be like a character from The Adventures of Loupio: The Tournament, a story where young squires form teams and compete in a tournament. I asked if he wanted to be a child in the game, but he said he wanted to be an adult. Unfortunately, we couldn't find our copy of the book when he looked for it to show me the inspiration. I asked if his character was a knight or a page, but he insisted that these were not right. In the end, Boy #3 chose the class "Grown Up", which quite pleased him. He ended up with Eagle, the human grown-up, with one point each in strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. As a human, we gave him a +1 wisdom and a +1 to weapons use. (Actually, the rulebook suggests +1 intelligence, but I remembered it wrong at the time.) His starting loot and equipment comprised an armor kit, armor, a bow, and a longsword.

That was a lot of words with no pictures. Here are the character sheets.
I chose the first trial presented in the book, which has the players escape from a burning complex. I suspect the trial was not intended for a group of three, but given their ages and inexperience, I was fine if we traded away some tension. The trial has three parts: overcoming or avoiding two archers, dodging crumbling walls, and getting past a locked gate while poison vapors threaten to overcome you. In the first part, Kartlack charged the archers while Klac hid and healed and Eagle fired volleys of arrows. Everyone got to feel like they contributed, and Kartlack even rolled a critical hit. The second part was a simple series of dexterity checks, which at this point the players had a handle on. The last part was interesting, as it was the first time they had to deal with Effort, which I described above. Klac went first and decided to start picking the lock on the gate, and he succeeded but only rolled two effort on the attempt for a task that would need ten. Kartlack tried to help but, with his low dexterity, failed to make progress. Eagle decided to try climbing the wall but could not get a foothold (i.e. failed his check). On Klac's next turn, I explained that he could keep working on the lock, but he was confused: hadn't he already picked it? I explained again that he would need to get a total of ten effort to finish the job, pointing out the d10 I had set out to track his progress. Now he understood, and he and Kartlack both tried to finish the job. Better than that, the players all decided to work together toward this one goal rather than having one trying in vain to climb the wall. A few attempts later and the lock was open, the heroes winning the day.

I asked the boys what they thought about the game, but they sort of fogged up at the question, so I asked instead what parts they especially liked. Boy #3 said he liked that no one got killed, paused, and then added, "except the evil guys." Boy #2 told me that it was fun getting through the wall. This was interesting to me since this was a non-combat conflict, but they still enjoyed having to overcome the obstacle while being in danger from the airborne poison. Boy #1 astutely observed that the increasing difficulty was enjoyable. I hadn't mentioned it above, but each scenario has a Target number that is used for all rolls: combat, dodging, picking locks, climbing—these are all made at the same target. I've never played a game with this approach, but it really was smooth as silk, speeding up play. The three encounters that made up the trial used Targets 10, 11, and 12, and Boy #1 has a good enough intuition for math to see how this increased the tension and excitement.

I asked them then if there was anything that they didn't like. Boy #2 would have liked more enemies, more combat, and he thought that a literal dungeon would be fun. Dungeons feel so cliche to me, but of course, he's a little guy: he would be perfectly happy with a senseless underground romp. I should make one. Boy #1 said that he missed the accurate sense of distance one has in games like Frostgrave, which we played some months ago, or miniature-based boardgames like Descent. I thought this was interesting since I found the loose, gridless, abstract space to be quite freeing, but of course the trial did not really express that: there was neither vastness nor claustrophobia in the trial, and it really could have been played just as well on some Descent tiles as anything. I bring this up to say that even though I think we all got a good understanding of the mechanics of ICRPG, I don't think we got a full picture of its aesthetics.

I believe this is my first d20. I don't remember where I got it, but I've had it for what seems like forever. Even my captions can be a bit wordy.
Last week, as part of my summer goal to play more tabletop RPGs with my family, I played a session of The Princes' Kingdom with my two older boys. I had played this once before, many years ago, and had a desire to try it again. I may tell that tale another day, but I wanted to briefly touch on the contrast between the two rulesets. The Princes' Kingdom uses an interesting conflict resolution system whereby the Guide and the player(s) roll a handful of dice and then take turns "seeing" and "raising", until one side wins. This leads to extended back-and-forth for the conflict, each side narrating what they do to push toward their goals. It's a slow oscillation, however, especially when playing with kids who need to try to imagine and then describe how they are making progress without yet succeeding—something made more difficult when describing non-combat conflicts, such as in our game, when convincing a character to give up a stolen item. This stands in stark contrast to the lightning-fast turns of ICRPG, whose fast and loose structures are clearly designed to keep the game moving. I would be curious to re-run the Princes' Kingdom adventure I designed for ICRPG, since it was really designed as a mystery, but of course it wouldn't be the same with my boys, since they've already solved it!

I had been thinking of dusting off PDQ, which I think is a brilliant little system that I wrote about almost three years ago. I think its learning-from-failure system is more philosophically and pedagogically sound, from the perspective of someone who wants my sons to learn something valuable while they're having fun. ICRPG's take on character advancement is, by contrast, wholly materialist: you are what you have, and you get more by having more. On the other hand, every time I sit with the PDQ rules, I have to re-read them, and designing adventures takes longer than I would like. For Princes' Kingdom too, I had to spend a lot of time reviewing the rules and writing up character templates for my single-island adventure. The fact that ICRPG draws on D&D tropes means that I never have to doubt which attribute I'm testing, and because there are no skills or proficiencies or any of that ephemera, it always comes down to a test of one of the six canonical attributes. I would like to try my hand at putting together some small adventures for ICRPG, since it seems like it might be just the right size to fit into the time I have available for it. Sometimes I'm not sure if it's the tabletop roleplaying that I miss, or the uncountable hours I had to spend on tabletop roleplaying and dungeon-mastering that I miss. There's no DM to tell me if I'm playing my Human Grown-Up correctly. I'll write a blog post about that someday.

I enjoyed reading the ICRPG Core Rules, particularly as someone who reads many more rulebooks than I do play games. The organization is a bit haphazard, but there are lovely thoughtful nuggets within, and I appreciate Hank's visual style. The Game Mastery section has an interesting oath that makes explicit many of the values of being a good GM, and the Dynamic Dice section contains great little tidbits that can be easily added into any tabletop RPG situation. I hope to return to ICRPG again later this summer, and it might even provide a good, lightweight system I could use to introduce fundamentals of RPGs to my game design students. As much as I loved Phoenix: Dawn Command, it was a huge investment of my time to get just half the class through it.

Thanks for reading!

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