Some games just give you a cool world and rules to resolve actions within it. Like a large box of generic Lego, how exactly they are to be used is left to the GM and the players. Other games are more structured. The game might provide clear guidance regarding what the player characters are expected to do, instructions on how and when to transition between scenes, a default framework for how adventures unfold or even subsystems to manage and track longer term goals.
Looking at the games released as Polar Blues Press, I can see I flip-flopped a fair bit on this issue.
Of these games, Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wastelands clearly has the most complete structure of play of the lot. Bounty hunting, as a core activity, provides a clear role for the party and a built in framework for inserting adventure hooks. The gradual deterioration of players’ equipment, the vehicle upgrades and Mad Max roadwar encounters provide an additional framework with alternate goals and rewards for play. And the way these two frameworks interact is significant.
I was pleased with the design but from watching other GMs run Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wasteland and odd bits of feedback, these frameworks largely seemed to get ignored. Most GMs seemed happy with the action resolution rules, but in practice already had their own way of running games. They didn’t need or want the extra layer.
So when it came to Cyberblues City I changed my approach. Initially I just provided the bare bones action resolution rules. There were a few suggested concepts for the party, but no hard and fast instructions about what the characters do in the game. It was very much a box of Lego kind of game.
That might have been the end of the story, but a year or so later, I came up with a setting idea for Cyberblues City. It was a gonzo future London ruled by a cyborg queen Victoria. This could have been packaged as an expansion for Cyberblues City; making it clear it was a possible setting for the game rather than the setting. But, in a free PDF, it seemed to make little sense to split the rulebook from the setting, so I bundled them together in Cyberblues City Deluxe. To this day, I still don’t know if that was the right call. It makes the product both better and worse at the same time. At least the illustrations are better in the new edition and it is still the funniest thing I’ve ever written.
The point being, Cyberblues City really has no inbuilt framework for play at all. That makes it bit harder to just pick up and play, even for me. To run it I need to sit back, come up with a fresh premise and some sort of adventure all by myself.
Which leads us to Lawmen v Outlaws. I wanted to do a Western. At first I found it a bit daunting because it is such a broad genre. The key for me was to narrow it down to stories of lawmen chasing outlaws and of outlaws evading lawmen.That instantly provided a clear answer to the question “What do the characters do in this game?”.
I still didn’t have much of a framework for how Lawmen v Outlaw adventures were meant to unfold. I tinkered with some town creation rules to support play, but that wasn’t going anywhere (though I may revisit it).
In the end I landed a very ridiculously simple formula around which to structure lawmen style adventures. And it all hinged on these two simple sentences.
“It was an ordinary day like any other when…” followed by “Turns out that…”
What this captures is the simple universal truth of a lawman adventure – there is a status quo and then something happens to disrupt it. Thus the initial call to action is set.
The “Turns out that…” part is a reminder that what is introduced in the call to action, isn’t the whole story. There needs to be a twist or complication otherwise all one is left with is a very short and predictable adventure.
There is more to Lawmen v Outlaws adventure framework of course. All this illustrates is that , flimsy as it is, this is still a functional framework which, for the time being at least, seems like a happy halfway house between the comprehensive structure of play in Bounty Hunters of the Atomic Wastelands and the absence of any such thing in Cyberblues City, especially in the context of rule light, pick up and play style of games.