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Russell Collins
30 July 2008 @ 10:41 am
Dexcon was great. Which it has to be when we have such imaginative and friendly people in abundance. Though I was only able to play in one game of Carry (blackwell has some cool things to say) I ran four playtest sessions of Contract Work.

All of the sessions went off, which is a testament to the strength of the Indie Explosion at Dexcon. That both friends and strangers are willing to play with an incomplete game at a convention is really special. I mean, I once offered to pay someone to playtest and here we have people paying to be at the con and then playtesting. Pretty cool. More names on the Hit List.

Things are good with Contract Work. I think the mechanics are solid and the flow of gameplay is settling in. I made some tweaks to the endgame, copy/pasting some rules from elsewhere when I realized that consistency wasn't going to hurt anything. After the first two sessions, I had lots of notes about tweaking the rules to account for all the maybes but by the end of the second session I just crossed all of those out.

Now that the mechanics are good, I need to organize the rest of the game. The story side of a story game. I think of this stuff as the DM's guide. The PHB is the mechanics of character creation and interaction and the equipment list. It's the DM's material that builds a setting, organizes scenes and pacing and puts other bodies into the world so that the interactions go beyond numbers. That's something I need to devote myself to, now I know the numbers don't need quite so much tweaking.

I love Vietnamese food. I love eating it with friends. You guys are terrific. jenniferrodgers has some more photos of the event in recent posts, or page around the Flkr links from the devilishly handsome man above.
Russell Collins
15 July 2008 @ 10:36 am
Yes, I'm running 4 sessions of Contract Work this weekend at DexCon. I've trimmed down some of the dead branches that resulted from the last big rules changes and I'm happy with what I have. If you decide to play it you will find that the game is better streamlined and more intuitive, with a GM who remembers when to add color and when to crunch numbers instead of ignoring one of the two for the entire session.

I've also added some more "table business." A lesson learned from the better modern boardgames I've played; tokens that represent and reinforce the rules are always welcome. I'm not littering the place with miniatures or anything like that, but like the map/board of Candyland, a good visual layout of the game's events goes a long way toward motivating people.

Plus: Chalk outlines.

I always mention this stuff late because I'm still fiddling with the rules up to the last minute and don't feel ready to present the game to people. A sort of anti-marketing. I'm confident in this iteration though (revision 8,645) so it's time to get serious about making it a product instead of just a game.
listen:: Crocodile Shop :: Warheit
Russell Collins
21 April 2008 @ 11:30 am
Brett needs to live closer so we can game. Conventions are all well and good, but it's not the same. We meant to test Contract Work but I found another broken rule while reviewing my notes.

Do you die when your assets get cut down? Or do you die when you run out of cash? I'm beginning to like the latter. It reinforces the wagering mechanic. Besides, players survive by buying themselves back from their boss, not by hoarding money.

Instead we just relaxed, enjoyed food and watched movies. I did run my Tribe 8 as tSOY by him (an easy conversion) and he liked my idea that a player's first key (character's focus, or drive) should also be why they get exiled from their home tribe.

In DS news, I thought it would be neat to try out Brain Age since I had lots of fun with the puzzles in Professor Layton and the Curious Village. I'm now embarassed of myself and looking forward to tomorrow when I can get my copy of The World Ends With You and return to games that don't make me feel like an idiot.

The DS is officially the best console ever. Sorry, it just is.
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Russell Collins
Nothing else quite like the job search roller coaster. I spent the whole day in gleeful anticipation of an HR call that turned out to be a polite explanation of why I'm not suited for the position, or any position, at their company.

So. Fcuk. Back to and the rewriting of my resume every week.

I was seriously wondering if I should even be trying to get out of my current job earlier this week. I'm making enough money to survive, though not really to thrive, but hey, with a recession looming that's probably enough. We get our bennies, a pretty generous vacation calendar, and I can slip in late in the morning and work a little late in the evening without being hassled. Enough projects wither on the vine that I've learned what to avoid even beginning to work on. The boss I loathed left last year and hasn't been replaced, so I report directly to one of the okay people in the building. Until I scream racial epithets at people in the halls I'm not likely to be fired. I suppose this is what other people really want from employment.


In mood-related news, I'm so heavily into overhauling Contract Work that I don't know if I'm making good decisions or bad with the rules rewrite. Is it better to give the hitters their money up front, or does that encourage overly conservative play? Is it better to make them draw from a bank as a reward for each action, or does that allow for a single hitter to dominate? How about sharing resources? Can I split the difference?

I need to playtest each of these options to see what they mean, and that means effectively playtesting three different games, what with the rules being so varied.

Again with the meh.

To close this rambling and self indulgent post, who among my singerly friend types is interested in joining a choir based in Ewing? Rehearsals on Monday nights. Conducted by Chris Loeffler. Yes.

I'll post about that again when the lines are clear.
listen:: Ministry :: Rio Grande Blood
Russell Collins
29 January 2008 @ 11:36 am
Dreamation was awesome. At this point that almost goes without saying. It's like "the sun is hot." I feel spoiled by a convention in which a night of copious vomiting is immediately forgotten under the weight of great conversation with stimulating, like minded individuals and their impressive and emotive games. Favorite moments? Wow. I don't know. Maybe the "What are you doing fighting a fox?!?!" thing. That had me crawling out of my skin in the best way possible.

Rather than retread the ground of other con delights already expressed by more eloquent and faster-on-the-draw posters, I will write about my playtesting and GMing experiences.


So, Contract Work. Hmmm. These were the roughest playtests I've done so far. Nearly every modification I made since the last major draft was shaky at best. Here are the issues I encountered.

I sped players through character creation. In the second playtest I put all 4 players in the same organization. This created a false expectation about the focus and led to confusion.

I should emphasize the networking of hitters. They come from all over the world and from differing backgrounds. "Ronin" was an influence on this element. I must reinforce diversity and allow them the same starting value, regardless of who is a mafioso and who is a government assassin.

The reward split. At present, all involved receive the same pay at completion. I had a rule that made players who didn't participate pay more active players. My first playtest of the day (the solo Hitter, the mission in which this rule did not even apply) pointed out that I was using this mechanic completely backwards. Punishing the brazen rather than the cautious.

Gone. In its place, I will create rules whereby the players are paid for their level of participation. Players must stake their claim in segments of the job. Perhaps as they are determined. If a player botches a segment, it passes to a different player covering for the mistake, claiming that reward.

I want the game to move faster. Which is odd, since the average playtime is 2 1/2 hours, character creation included. Confrontation exchanges lag. One character is the lead so others wait. Not unlike a lengthy, detailed, wavering combat turn in D&D. If I want to create independent movement among the players, I can't afford to let them sit around. This also leaves more time to narrate a confrontation; usually truncated since I feel the need to pick up the pace.

This is the biggie. I need to streamline the core mechanics of confrontations. An all-or-nothing approach was suggested which would ratchet up the tension (maybe allowing other players more cringing involvement which will fill in the gaps in their own action.) Narration could be improved if I have the players narrate what happened on each bid and raise. (I had that in my drafts from 2006 and lost it in the shuffle!)

While typing below I had another idea for this. I'll write it up elsewhere.

Preparation trade-up. Players plan out the job from the hit, backward in time as they explain what they did to prepare. The hitters spend money to collect the advantages that they must spend to do the Hit. Now players can make any action an attempt to gain a preparation as preps trade-up and roll into each other. This nullifies the need for an actual Hit action as preps are already cutting the target's defenses effectively.

A) The GM decides if a confrontation is a hit and makes players use preps instead of gaining more. B) A phase with a cut-off to gain preps and another to use them. C) Abolish the Hit actions and let there be one kind of confrontation.

A cuts the players off from possible narrative approaches. Is kidnapping the target's bodyguard a hit because it diminishes the target's ability to strike back, or a prep because that bodyguard might have a key to the house? B can break the phases by the money spent. A "what did you do?" and "how did you do it?" segmentation. C: Hit actions were created because using money on the target makes less sense than using preparations instead.

Also, instead of combining preps on a single hit, play each preparation out in a series at the Hit. This happened in a playtest when the players wanted a Plan B.

Debt threat and the campaign cycle. The long game. Over a Hitter's career, they must avoid accruing debt. Too much debt makes them a target. At the same time, they must end their career by paying off the reason for their hitter's life and getting out when debt does rise too high. Playtests show the current economy gives a hitter a lifespan of about 10+ jobs. This may be too long. The tension of increasing debt needs to be more prevalent.

It's hard to say how this plays out. In a one-shot playtest, why should a player avoid debt on a character they will never play again? I may be getting artificial results.

The real problem is how to adjust. This means fcuking the entire economy of the game. The player needs time to pay off their character so that they could survive the end of their career.

I based the difficulty of jobs around the pay and target's budget so that an easy job allows for low bids and low risk on the job but slim rewards at the end. This may tie in to adjusting the resolution mechanics if I end up diverging from the simple bidding system.

One quick thought is to eliminate the player's cash up front for the job. They bid only against their debt. If they win a confrontation, they recover the bid, plus the preparation or damage to the target. If they lose, that's the money that goes on debt. That needs a lot of thought.

The reason for being a Hitter and career's end. This is supposed to be the most important bit of background. It is the character's motivation and foreshadows the events it will take to get the hitter into retirement without a bullet in the head.

Again, in the original draft, one example character needs money to get through school (!) and start her own business. Another wants to fund his revenge against the guy who's blackmailing him back into the life of a hitter. Telling us what is happening under the hood and what getting out means. I can fix this if I return to my original notes and communicate this properly in playtests.

Trust mechanics? I see these in a lot of similar games and I've wondered about adding to mine. (No one has directly suggested these, just my own curiosity.)

FCUK THAT! My models at the start of designing were "Joey the Hitman," "The Mechanic" and "Hitman: Codename 47." These people are already beyond morals. They do not show remorse or confusion. This is a job. My players are allowed to glory in being a person who has trained themselves to kill. Forgive me Father.

If I remember to set up the network concept, the players recognize they don't trust each other. They use each other. "You have to trust me" should be followed by the thought "where's my money?" They don't need to be at each other's throats so long as they have the common goal (everyone suffers if the job fails.) They are not required to do anything more and can get more money by doing more of the job. If they want, they can share at the end, but too much camaraderie needs to be discouraged by the risk v. payoff. More immediate danger of failure may help this as players recognize who takes point and who does not.

How to be a Total Bastard. The GM had no bite in the first iterations of the game. The GM now has more ways to strike at the players, creating increases in difficulty, making players acquire liabilities that will hold them back later in addition to GM assaults on preparations. The GM uses Risk tokens to call on these effects. In my first game, the solo play, I didn't get many more than the starting tokens and in the party game, I had too many and not enough time to spend them.

In the hands of a sadist, this may be enough. I don't really fall into that category when running CW. I need to take the option of being a bastard out of the GM's hands and make the rules do it. Maybe secretly distribute the GM's Risk tokens ahead of time, as the job is being created. They are fixed to events and the player who steps on them is hit by the trap. Possible bonus: If they beat the confrontation, they collect the token and THAT tracks their reward.

The GM must also be allowed to trigger liabilities, increasing the threat they represent.

Maybe the GM needs to be able to lure players off the job in addition to pushing them. Then again, maybe not. If the debt threat is high enough, dropping loyalty to the client may mean a quick turnaround into being a target.


I'd like to thank everyone for their recent playtesting help, both at the con and before: Aly, Tim, Don, Jo, Blake, Brett, Jon, David, and . . . Oh sh*t. Blake, please save me here. I have her badge number and a blank where the name should be.

As always, the indie round table is a great source of ideas. I went through a great deal of trimming and it seems a lot of useful ideas hit the cutting room floor. I'm going through that mess now.

My run of Don't Rest Your Head was a well developed story I felt. Suitably spooky and so engaging I entirely forgot my promise to keep it brief since it was a midnight game. Oh well, sleep is the enemy of fun.
Russell Collins
As I had hoped, two sessions of Contract Work are planned for the Saturday of Dreamation, the 26th. I will be running the game in the 2PM and 8PM slots. You can register for the convention here.

Contract Work:

So, you think killing someone is easy? Believe you me, pal, there's a lot more goes into putting some mobster down than just walking up to his front door with a heater. It takes risks, patience, craft, brutality, and money.

Lots of money. And if you're killing people for money, you must need it bad.

You got what it takes? Are you a Heavy Hitter, or just another punk getting sized for cement shoes?

This is part of an ongoing series of playtests for Contract Work. I'm pleased with the adjustments I've made since my last test, so please help me further refine them. What am I talking about? Come find out.

Also, for you night owls, I'll be running a session of Fred Hicks' excellent horror game of insomnia Don't Rest Your Head at midnight on Sat. Stygian: They never sleep. Neither should you.
listen:: Gunshots by Computer :: Saul Williams on Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D
Russell Collins
03 January 2008 @ 10:47 am
For those of you who aren't already a part of the indie crowd/mob/gang/consortium/coven . . .

Come to the 2008 Dreamation gaming convention! Besides being a friendly convention of open-minded and rock-star gamers, Saturday will feature a(t least one) session of Contract Work. The convention goes from Thurs. the 24th to Sun. the 27th and is being held in Hilton Woodbridge in Iselin. (I've been told there is excellent Indian food to be had there.) More details.

Contract Work will run on Sat. either afternoon or evening slot. Maybe both if the lord smiles.

Development on the game has surged forward lately. With a real deadline and no classes to teach I've been able to give it priority. Some unnecessary rules have been axed, the GM has some teeth now, and the players have the opportunity to "deal" with loan sharks.

Be seeing you.
listen:: Drew Neuman :: Eye Spy (The secret score to the Aeon Flux cartoons.)
Russell Collins
23 July 2007 @ 03:15 pm
I ran a play-test session of Contract Work on Saturday. The AP is on the Lucre Press blog, here. Comment away.

If you know nothing of this game (likely, considering my silent running of the past 6 months,) here's a summary:

For any first-time readers, Contract Work is a game of Debt and Hitmen struggling to pay that debt. You don't become a Hitman for fun, you do it for money. (And if you did come to the business for fun, it's not long before a mobster, the law, or a black ops program has a huge investment in you.)

Players are called Hitters and the GM is the Interrogator. The game is played as the Interrogator leads the Hitters by way of question and answer through the job, starting from the kill and tracing back the path to it. Cul-de-sacs and lies are just as much a part of the game as truth as Hitters narrate their successes and failures to satisfy the Interrogator. Is the Interrogator an FBI agent, ready to send the Hitters away for the rest of their lives? Their lawyer hoping to make a convincing case? The Boss wanting the seedy details of the job he ordered? Only the end of the job will let us know.

The game system is about resource management. Every aspect of the mechanics reflect money. Time is money, effort is money, growth is money, cash is money. Characters are built in a point buy system and wagers are made with poker chips to resolve Confrontations that are determined by how much the Hitters and Interrogator wagered on attacking their foes and defending themselves. There are Free Action tokens that allow them to act covertly and hold an advantage over the Interrogator and Risk tokens that let the Interrogator push back.

Hitters get some money up front for a job and try to make the Target spend all his money so that there's nothing left to pay for security that can be used to stop them. After the job is done, the rest of the pay is divvied up and the Hitters pay an upkeep for their abilities (called assets) to reflect the work they do on downtime to stay in shape.

Injury to Hitters raises their debt toward a credit limit created by the Boss's investment in you. If a Hitter exceeds that limit, they are worth more dead than alive and become a target themselves.

A campaign follows the life of the Hitters as they try to earn enough money to buy their way out of the business before they outlive their usefulness.
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Russell Collins
Contract Work playtests Sat. afternoon (2) and night (8) at Dexcon in East Brunswick.

Ever wondered if you could make it as a hitman? Come find out.

Since the game is on the lower level, I may even be able to sneak you in without a badge. I'm just sayin'.
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Russell Collins
29 January 2007 @ 11:48 am
That was fun.

Leading into the convention was a week of hell. This week following looks just as appealing. But the weekend was a great vacation. Therefore games are escapist fantasy.

Jenn and I still think we need a "Jenn-con" when the indie developers meet up just to go restaraunt hopping. If you REALLY want to talk about games between vindaloo and dumplings then you can, I guess.

The Contract Work playtest went very well and I've got a good number of changes, adjustments, and tweaks to sift through. I'll be posting details at the Lucre Press blog once the hours allow. Then it's time for a more complete draft and another round of playtests. Be warned, you can not afford to say "no" this time.
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listen:: Gary Numan, "Crazier"