Cranium Rats Review Answers.

Posted: April 24, 2006 by Guy Shalev in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Dotan Dimet(themoniker) had been kind enough to post his review of Cranium Rats Beta 1.1 here.
I need more reviews people. I need playtests, I really really do, but right now even thorough read-through questions/reviews(like Dotan provided) are of much help.
They certainly beat nothing.

Italicized material between quotes preceeding normal text is quoted from the link given above.

“This is a review/critique of Guy Shalev’s game Cranium Rats. My comments relate to the draft labeled 1.1 (beta version), which he was kind enough to give me a printed copy of at Bigor 6.”

Has nothing to do with nice, just pimping my game, scavenging for replies. But thank you, once more.

“The 3 aspects the players portray are called Rat, Dirt and Water. Rat is probably the easiest to intuitively understand, and therefore roleplay: it represents animal urges, raw survival instinct, and a direct, visceral approach. Dirt represents stability, stasis, and a cerebral approach. Water represents dissolution, change, but has a very passive, path-of-least-resistance side to it. On first read it seemed that Rat is the fire under a character’s behind, with the other aspects dragging him down; on second read, it looks more like Rat as instinct vs. Dirt as reason, with Water a third wheel or hindrance.

This is exactly true. Both what the first reading should look like and what the second read should look as, except Dirt is always Change.
I thought of chucking out Water, but then the whole threesome model doesn’t work. Try playing a multiplayer game(Babylon 5 CCG) with two players, it looks completely different, and once someone begins dominating luck alone can save the player left behind.
I decided to keep Water, and yes, it’s there as a “Balancing Factor”, it also fits the in-game logic. Also, it does not matter if your Water is “uninteresting”, you still have two other characters where you play Dirt and Rat.
See an additional idea below, regarding Water and Narration.

“Each Player (not Aspect) is also given 3 Tokens (and the GM is given 5) per session, which can be used to aid or bribe other players or the GM. I understand this to be a player-to-player reward mechanism, like Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures.”

No. The Tokens are a game-resource, to be used competitively(most of the time), they are a tool by which the player can affect change and show what he cares about. It is traded by players, but usually you give it to someone in exchange for getting something from him or doing something he is against, it is not “Reward to” by any form.

“One thing that confused me was inconsistent terminology, in particular that used to describe struggles between Aspects. The rules for this appear under a heading called “bidding”, but the struggle is also referred to in various places as a “flood scene”, which I think is the preferred term. A flood scene is one in which the three Aspects battle for control of the character, and also try to strengthen themselves either at the expense of the other Aspects – by “attacking” an Aspect and (if they win) stealing a “dot” from its rating, or by competing for unassigned dots.”

As you note, Bidding and Flood Scenes are not the same. Bidding is when you try to gain control of the character and dictate its goals during the scenes(and perhaps narration rights), Flood Scene is a sub-set of Bidding, where you fight for an Aspect Dot. I combed the game for consistency in terminology, or so I believe.

“I felt that some of the rules were either murky and confusing, or evoked a “what’s the point?” reaction.”

I could really really use a line-by-line breakdown of these if I am to rewrite and clarify.

“so too this game doesn’t need an option to “rack up the stakes” (by spending a token) to zoom in from Conflict Resolution (Win/Lose) to Task Resolution (Hit/Miss). While that might be a nice feature in a heroic action game, I think in this game it would just bog things down – with the multiple options for internal and external conflict, prolonging external conflicts seems to me to be too much of a hassle.”

I am fiddling with how fiddly the system can be, what is the line between too many things to remember and take into account and what is still acceptible.
I had a specific reason to add the “Rack up the stakes”, this was not part of the original game text. I was worried about game-length and looked for a way to bring about multiple dice-rolls within one session, and this came up. I think you are right, I will store this aside till playtesting gives some answers regarding play-length, if that is any issue at all.

“In the indie RPG spirit, you’ll also find a discussion of scene framing (which reminded me of Primetime Adventures) and a distinction drawn in both types of conflict between which player wins the conflict and which player narrates the results. I think the latter can be jettisoned without taking away anything from the game (and giving the players one less bit to remember).”

I think you are right, and this gives us a possible answer to the Water “situation”. Have all actions be Narrated by the Water Aspect, unless someone wants to buy Narration Rights. This will also tie in with the Water Narration of “Enlightenment” as putting the Water as the Scene setter, and of Cosmology creator for that character. I still want people to push, and push hard when describing results(or fallout) of conflicts.

“Other fiddly bits I’d question are:

I’d try to answer these, mostly by bringing up the “Meta-chanics”, the why these bits are in the game at all, to begin with. I agree that most are indeed (needlessly?) fiddly, but they serve a reason. Once again, I am testing how much fiddliness one can keep in the game with it being manageable.

“Aspect ratios – the relative strengths of the 3 Aspects cause bonuses and penalties in both external conflict and flood scenes (I think).”

Yes, they also affect Bidding(and by effect Flood Scenes). These were a way to tie the “In-between” section to the game mechanically. The nature of Aspects tying to the Conflict. This may or may not be too fiddly, but I want to actually test these. Look at the first two Aspect Ratios:
“· Water is higher than Dirt; Rat gains a Die when Defending, loses a Die when
Attacking(Initiating).
· Dirt is higher than Water; Rat loses a Die when Defending, gains a Die when
Attacking.”
Now, they’re also there to make the Aspects desire other Aspects to be at certain levels. Rat always wants to be higher than both Water and Dirt, but depending on the “How” and where it is right now it may rather have one of them higher than the other!

“who can use what tokens (you can use other players’ tokens but not your own); what tokens are good for (there’s a rule where you can give a player or the GM a token in return for narration rights, but they aren’t obliged to accept it); a tricky rule for “stealing” dice which costs you a token and a die (so how is that stealing?).”

Regarding Tokens, first thing first, look at this thread on The Forge where I discuss Tokens and possible changes.
Now, who can use what Tokens was added for purely “Gamist” reasons. I wanted to add another axis of complexity to Token resource management. It may very well have to go away, seeing as no game cares if it’s my Sheep or one you generated(Oy, does that sound bad..). I’ll deal with that later, though I wish to see it in play as well.
What Tokens are good for, well, need to list that 😀
“Stealing Dice” is “Taking dice away from your Reservoir”, it requires a Die so you won’t be able to pull it if you have no dice in your Die Reservoir, because of the whole reason it is there. If someone has 0 dice in his Reservoir and you “Steal” from him you bring about a “Flood Scene”. That’s the whole reason it’s there. People have to get new dice, or other players(or even the Enlightened) will force a Flood Scene!

“and the rule about success in external actions, which states that “an Aspect rolls an an amount of dice equal to his Dots, each die that comes up equal to or lower than the relevant Trait is a success. If the number of successes is a multiplier of the Aspect (not including Aspect=1) then multiply the number of successes by that multiplier.” Since the number of successes will be less than or equal to the Aspect, one wonders how it could be a multiplier; although I realized that this might be possible by adding dice from advantages (GM call), specialties (the character’s skills), contributed tokens and the Aspect’s dice reservoir, I still found this confusing.”

Very confusing rule, I’ll prolly jettison it. It’s in in order to fight Death Spiral. The rule for setting a static size for all Aspect sizes will probably remove the need for this rule(if I do introduce the rules from that thread…).
Considering it requires you to use extra resources in order to be useful I’ll prolly remove it. It’s mathematically unseemly. Also, the (proposed, along with other Dice modification) rule where you now gain dice equal to your successes over opposition also acts against the Death Spiral, making this rule even further unneeded.
One last and very important thing. The GM never suggests “Advantages” for the PCs, he only approves them. He only suggests Advantages for NPCs, which the players can probably veto.

“Besides issues with unclear text in the rules, the big weakness of this game is the players’ goal. The introduction (which cites films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as inspiration) and the example of play (on page 4) give the impression that the focus of this game is characters in crisis, and the gradual breakdown of their personalities. But the next sections, Background and In Between, seem to take the game elsewhere. Background consists of 4 short fable-like vignettes, while In Between describes the 3 Aspects, or rather tries to make you “grasp” them intuitively. Together, they provide an ethereal weave of pseudo-mystical, quasi-mythic ideas, which I am willing to accept as “background”, but which I find sorely lacking as “setting”, which apparently is what they are intended to be. The whole thing is too subtle for me.”

Very true. I accept it all.
I should probably put in some “Setting Generation by asking Questions” into the game. The “background” I gave is that. I’m trusting entirely on the group and the suggested influences(Guy Richie, Quentin Tarantino, etc.) to have them generate a situation like that presented in the Play Example. The “Background” is me giving the cosmological background, the metaphysics of the Aspects(which again aren’t elaborated much, more is untold than is told, leaving it to the players{and the Water Aspect especially} to define what exactly is going on, metaphysically.
There is conflict, externally, to be generated by players, who usually have much experience in that field. I mostly worked on the internal conflict, which is neglected by other games, and by turn I worked on the internal “Setting”.

“this lead me to be confused by the next section, Rules, which open with a mystifying glossary – an unhelpful slew of terms which really need to be defined in context and in a logical order, not as disconnected items.”

I did indeed do a Very Bad Thing(TM), I introduced some rules only in the Glossary, or only explained them fully there, making it an integral part of the rules. I will stop doing that in a much more advanced version of the game, currently it is a more space efficient way, especially for bits that I am not yet sure where they belong.
I’ve tried to semi-organize the glossary terms according to content, I may add sub-headers.

“In particular, I was confused and annoyed by the term “Enlightened”, which is the game’s term for GM, but also a bit of superfluous setting-related terminology. Apparently, the characters in play are divided into those seeking Enlightenment (and being manipulated by the Rat/Dirt/Water Aspects) and the “Unseeking” (NPCs).”

There may be Seeking NPCs. Unseeking is just the majority of beings.
I used the term “Enlightened” specifically for the “GM”. It adds another layer to the cosmology for the group to decide. Enlightened is those where the “Character” won and not the Aspects, and now the Enlightened sets the “setting” up, what does it mean, what does it say?
I meant to say more regarding Enlightenment and Solipsism in the background section, but forgot that once I began using the Fable-like layout. I do indeed need to add that back in, even if only as dictionary entries.

“I really think the game lacks a good discussion of the idea of a quest for Enlightenment, because it turns out to be a central idea of the game: while each player will be striving to increase their own Aspect, this will end up dooming the character – when any of the Aspects reaches 10 or 0, the character is destroyed (perhaps only metaphorically). On the other hand, if the character’s Aspects remain equal after 5 different flood scenes, the character becomes “Enlightened” and “wins” the game. In fact, each time a struggle between the Aspects ends with the three in balance, the character advances – gaining one dot in a trait, assigned by the player of the Water Aspect (thus fulfilling this Aspect’s role as the “force of change”, and perhaps compensating a bit for this role being the most passive as far as goals and narration are concerned).

The clash here between player (Aspect) goals and the good of the character is the key dynamic of the game, I think. Do the players pull together to save the character, or focus on winning and watch the character tear apart? Both options will probably result in some good stories.

See above for possible fixes to Water regarding Narration, also regarding Enlightenment.
Also, the players can’t force Enlightenment, it still requires a Flood Scene, where more than likely things result in balance being lost. Enlightenment happens in spite of the Aspects'(and players’) actions, not because of them. Also note that the Moment of Enlightenment is also narrated by the Water player.

“Overall, I found this an interesting game, with an intriguing idea and comprehensible mechanics, which could benefit from a tighter focus on “what this game is about?” and a good rewrite of the rules. The “setting” material, while colorful, should perhaps be reworked or countered with a stronger emphasis on “people in crisis” rather than the quest for enlightenment (or, enlightenment should be framed more strongly in terms of personal crisis and sudden moments of clarity).”

All of those suggestions are taken in and considered, thanks!

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Comments
  1. themoniker says:

    E-mail style quoting here:
    >> I felt that some of the rules were either murky and confusing, or evoked a “what’s the point?” reaction.”
    > I could really really use a line-by-line breakdown of these if I am to rewrite and clarify.
    I have lots of comments marked on the paper copy; if we meet face-to-face it will be easiest to give you this feedback (and return the hardcopy with the “WTF???” remarks).
    >The GM never suggests “Advantages” for the PCs, he only approves them. He only suggests Advantages for NPCs, which the players can probably veto.
    One thing that seemed oddly missing was any suggested cap on total advantages. I realize this can be left open for the group to decide, but until they get a feel for this, I think this could cause some miscalculations and imbalances. I guess total advantages would never be higher than max Aspect dice (5?), and if the only difference between a trained fighter/experienced politician/chief surgeon and joe shmoe is one speciality dice, advantages should probably give no more than 1-2 dice. But I want some advice from the rules text here.
    >I’ve tried to semi-organize the glossary terms according to content, I may add sub-headers.
    I suggest you tear down the glossary, rather than fixing it. Move each term to a paragraph where it is first or most fully defined; change rules masquerading as definitions to proper sentences and move them out of the glossary and about until you find the right place for them. For example, the first item, “Aspects”, doesn’t explain what Aspects are – it gives rules about maximum Aspect rating and such.
    I think much of my objection to the term “The Enlightened” to describe the GM comes from stumbling across it in some of the very terse rules text in the glossary. So my problem isn’t with the term’s use, it’s with the grammar of the text it appears in. While navigating the Glossary, I felt assaulted from all sides by terminology, and this frustrated me a bit.
    Re: The Water player and narration, is this a move to remove the GM/Enlightened out of the game, or just giving the player more to do? Does it now go from “Water player can’t frame scenes” to “Water player does all narration”, or is the Water player just the narrator of conflict outcomes?
    I’m actually surprised by your statement that “Dirt is always Change”, because I pictured it differently. When you equate the Rat/Dirt/Water triad with the Lovecraftian Octopus/Coral/Slime (which I found delightful), I thought that maybe Dirt/Coral represents the urge to Build – a constructive drive that builds relationships, homes, careers, but has as a flip-side a resistance/fear of losing what was built. This contrasts with Rat, which is all about satisfying basic urges like Fear/Hunger/Anger/Laziness/Lust, and Water(Slime), which is about dissolution, letting go, breakdown of existing structures – all of which are vital for change to happen. Maybe this split is too philosophical and abstract.
    Wondering if Procreation and protection of your children is more a Rat goal (every animal prioritizes this) or a Dirt goal (something to do with building), I asked myself how you’d use this game to run something like the movie Long Kiss Goodnight. One cool thing about that situation IMO is that Geena Davis’ character has two very different personalities, but the split doesn’t correspond nicely to the Rat/Dirt/Water split, so the three Aspects would encourage some things in one personality, other things in the other…

    • Guy says:

      E-mail style quoting here:
      Obvious, how could I forget it? Edit:Because line-break forces you to only use it for the first line!
      >I have lots of comments marked on the paper copy; if we meet face-to-face it will be easiest to give you this feedback (and return the hardcopy with the “WTF???” remarks).
      Next convention I guess 🙂
      >One thing that seemed oddly missing was any suggested cap on total advantages. I realize this can be left open for the group to decide, but until they get a feel for this, I think this could cause some miscalculations and imbalances. I guess total advantages would never be higher than max Aspect dice (5?), and if the only difference between a trained fighter/experienced politician/chief surgeon and joe shmoe is one speciality dice, advantages should probably give no more than 1-2 dice. But I want some advice from the rules text here.
      Really unsure about this. Advantages both increase player interaction and imagination use, and are self-limiting, some Advantages contain others.
      Also, you’d note that what matters most for PCs is the Aspects, which drive the PCs. For NPCs all Aspects are at 5 so what matters are their normal capabilities(Traits). Real world conflict really isn’t the focus of the game, at least mechanically, so it’s more or less glossed over.
      >I suggest you tear down the glossary.
      >I think much of my objection to the term “The Enlightened” comes from stumbling across it in >some of the very terse rules text in the glossary.
      Noted and makes much sense.
      >Re: The Water player and narration, is this a move to remove the GM/Enlightened out of the game, or just giving the player more to do? Does it now go from “Water player can’t frame scenes” to “Water player does all narration”, or is the Water player just the narrator of conflict outcomes?
      Giving Water more to do. He just gets to narrate conflict outcomes. He still doesn’t get to set scenes and the GM/Enlightened is still there.
      Thoughts?
      >I’m actually surprised by your statement that “Dirt is always Change”, because I pictured it differently. When you equate the Rat/Dirt/Water triad with the Lovecraftian Octopus/Coral/Slime (which I found delightful), I thought that maybe Dirt/Coral represents the urge to Build – a constructive drive that builds relationships, homes, careers, but has as a flip-side a resistance/fear of losing what was built. This contrasts with Rat, which is all about satisfying basic urges like Fear/Hunger/Anger/Laziness/Lust, and Water(Slime), which is about dissolution, letting go, breakdown of existing structures – all of which are vital for change to happen. Maybe this split is too philosophical and abstract.
      The terms Slime, Octopi and Coral sprang from Eric, their context changed a bit immediately afterwards though; Coral became Earth for which the Cthulhuoid Slime Octopi vie.
      You may think of it as Wyld/Weaver/Wyrm. The Wyrm is Water, yes.
      The Weaver is Dirt. I see progress as change. The constructive drive that builds… to me, that’s change. Wyld is creator and Weaver is shaper, but to me they’re both changed, merely structured and unstructured. Or unstructured change and structured shaping.
      Resisting change is also a “Change”, but then again, we’re going into abstractness here.
      >Wondering if Procreation and protection of your children is more a Rat goal (every animal prioritizes this) or a Dirt goal (something to do with building), I asked myself how you’d use this game to run something like the movie Long Kiss Goodnight. One cool thing about that situation IMO is that Geena Davis’ character has two very different personalities, but the split doesn’t correspond nicely to the Rat/Dirt/Water split, so the three Aspects would encourage some things in one personality, other things in the other…
      Procreation probably falls under Rat, to me.
      Rat=Animal side.
      Dirt=Human Experience(and all it has).
      Water=Getting out, as it were.
      This does tie nicely into your next question. I say Procreation is Rat, you say it’s Dirt. And you know what? Both are possible, which enables a bidding.
      If something is clearly of one Aspect, there’s no Bidding even possible, Bidding is only possible when it is not clear. Who the default is depends on GM call.

  2. themoniker says:

    I like the fixed order of GM/Dirt/Rat frames, Rat/Dirt pick goal/conflict, [bidding; winner rolls; success/fail], Water narrates outcome. It sets a rhythm (one less thing to look up), and forces Water into action but in an overtly passive (and thus Waterish) mode.

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