I ran A Viricorne Guide recently, and even though I designed it, I found ways it was easy and fun to run that I hadn't expected

In my intro post I wrote that running my game A Viricorne Guide recently restored my faith in my design instincts after designing and playtesting a couple of other games that never came together as fun as I wanted them to be.

A Viricorne Guide in contrast was just fun and so easy for me to run. It’s intended as a one shot. Your characters are only allowed to stay in Viricorne for a short time. Afterwards I wished I could run it for more sessions. I’ve been thinking a lot about why it was so fun/easy for me.

I wrote it in 2019 for the #RPGenesis jam, 5000 words in a week, mechanical design plus writing and graphics and layout. There wasn’t a lot of time for me to overthink anything.

Player characters are traditional RPG adventurers who probably have killed other beings where they live and taken their stuff. And actually my vision for the game was that a group would play it as an interlude to their D&D or Pathfinder or Savage Worlds or traditional fantasy whatever RPG with those same characters, but with A Viricorne Guide’s own resolution mechanics.

I wrote in the voice of the guide, Sholor, the player adventurers hire for their time in Viricorne. It’s all stuff like:

“And what brings you to the Reborn City? You’ve come as a group, so likely you’re here to pay a fine for crimes committed as adventurers? You’ve murdered creatures protected by the Treaty of Manlikes? And you’ve taken their stuff? You will need help to find a Judge who will take your payment, and not curse you. Or perhaps it’s something else? You’ve inherited property you need to claim? You have a venereal disease and need a healer who is not a quack? You have been hired for some purpose and are here to meet your employer?”


“Notice my tattoos. It’s how you know you’ve hired the best guide, because I have the most. I can take you anywhere with my tattoos, because I have payed all the protection rackets. This one is so I can take you to the best prostitutes. This one is so we can even use the Corne of Transformation — or you can, I am already perfected.”


“In the food plaza, notice how some people have blue soot smeared on their lips? You can’t just purchase food from the sellers. You have to help. If a seller sees you without the soot, they’ll give you work to do. A series of several tasks probably. Cut some mushrooms. Carry some broth. Tend a fire. In the morning perhaps, help load a smoker. Filet some fish. Wash some trenchers. Harvest needed spices from one of the roof gardens around the plaza. Serve completed food to a customer. And when you’ve done your work to their satisfaction they’ll reach into their firepit for the blue soot and smear it on your lips — it’s from special coals they use in the fires — and then they or any other seller know you’re cleared to buy food, and the soot wears off when you eat. The tradition of doing some small work creates a wonderful, shared experience of human connection.”

And I don’t know, it all just worked.

The characters arriving by climbing the Touch-and-Go up the side of the rock face to Viricorne made it easy to presume they were hungry/thirsty. We all just knew they would be without discussing it. Then, the way the food market works, so they had to do tasks before they could buy food, made it easy to get them interacting with people. And it was so easy to just have people ask, “What brings you to Viricorne?” or “Did you have a nice day in Viricorne?” The context of Viricorne being a city that always had lots of visiting outsiders made that easy. It made starting conversations easy. It felt so natural, and it helped us get to know their characters.

And whenever I needed a bit of description, about the Corne of Patience, or Onsen Raba, or whatever, it was there in the text for me to read if I wanted, in Sholor’s voice, or to quickly summarize in my own voice.

That’s my natural style of running NPCs. Sometimes in their voice. “Tell me why you would leave your ancestral city for a dangerous life as an adventurer?” And sometimes in third person. “He asks about where you grew up.” I’m not sure how I decide. It’s a gut decision.

And the mechanics of sometimes needing a specific token to be contributed by another player made for lots of player investment in each other. When you help pay for someone’s outcome it can affect your character too:

“Ruin costs Kill and Release. It’s using your own power and judgement to negate an aspect of someone, or to end an institution. You’re tearing something down in hopes of something replacing it that suits you better. If you pay for it with both tokens yourself, then in the future you can do it again using any of your tokens you want, as if they were Kill and Release tokens. If another player paid one of the tokens for your act of Ruin, then both of you put any remaining Kill tokens you may have in the discard pool.”

I’m not active in Adept Play, but two of the players are, and the third is the partner of one of those two, and I know Ron pretty well from years ago. I know he’s big lately into the importance of players “knowing how to play”. You can make an incoherent stat+skill game from the 80’s fun if the players know how to play. And I think definitely some of the fun of this session of A Viricorne Guide is because the players definitely know how to play.

But also I think the situation of arriving at Viricorne and its customs and the places in it made it easy for me to draw the players in. By the end of the game the characters had visited Onsen Raba and I’d put the plaque of Body-swap into play, and two players had swapped bodies and had fun, really emotional interactions with NPCs. They took really emotional risks with their characters. I loved it.

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That’s a fascinating writeup, Paul.

I think I heard a little bit about this game elsewhere, but without a bit of an intro or summary, I only have a hint of what it’s like. I think it’s about being visitors or tourists to a fantastical city? Is there any more info on this game? I think you remember you also hinting that it’s quite a short-term game, not for long-term play.

I love the snippets of fiction here; evocative, colourful, and very memorable. Some lovely imagery and details; it really struck me.

I’d love to hear more about the design and what it’s supposed to do, if you’re willing to share!

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Always happy to learn more about experiences with Viricorne Guide. Can you add some more details on the session itself and, in particular, how the players showed they knew how to play? How do you expect the game to be hampered or enhanced by playing it online?

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This is tough to answer. One thing it felt like some RPG players started doing in the early 2000s was authoring their characters as if the other players were an audience, trying to affect them as an audience the way a book or movie would. It feels like a creative power game. “I will get you interested in my character.” “I will affect you with my character’s narrative.” It’s not fun for me as a player. What is fun for me, what does feel like “knowing how to play,” is when players let themselves get interested in the NPCs and world of a game, and in what its mechanics say about how the world works.

We live in a temporal world that tells us who we are, what our credit rating is, whether we’re a desirable mate, whether we’re a success in life or a failure. When a great RPG gives us mechanics and procedures that talk differently about who characters are than the temporal world talks about us, seeing a player invested in the adversities and opportunities of that, of being defined and valued differently, feels like knowing how to play.

I’m someone who designs for direct player interactions a lot, but we played using Miro, and it was pretty good. The only thing that didn’t really happen was the procedure where you can suggest someone take an action by silently putting one of your tokens onto the plaque for it while they’re playing, offering to pay that part of the cost of the plaque. It’s not as easily noticeable to do it on screen as it is if your whole hand and arm is reaching out onto a table, with your finger on a token you’re offering. So people discussed it, rather than making silent offers.

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That’s interesting. Thank you Paul for the account.

I was playing Hazim in this game. What I understand from what you say Paul about “knowing how to play” fits my own experience; In the early 2000s I was playing as you said - either as a GM or a player, authoring a character so I would entertain an audience.

When you talk about “knowing how to play” is relevant to the way I’ve changed how I play. I would phrase it like this:

  • “I will affect you with my character narrative” → is playing with the future in mind. When I did that in the 2000s, I was not trying to honore the content we were all bringing at the table. I was thinking about “what could be cool”, something tailored to specific players at the table. “If my character says she’s pregnant now, Tom will be amazed”.
  • By future, i mean expectations - “that’s the emotional effect I want”.
    While being invested in the adversities and opportunities is more playing with the past in mind. By past, I mean checking what happened in the fiction, which existing tensions exists, and responding to them by looking at the character I play, thinking how he will feel and act towards those already established facts.

When we arrived in the city after established that we came from the same caravan, it was obvious for all of us that we would want to eat something in a market and look for a place to rest. I mean, that’s what you do when you arrive somewhere from a long travel. “How is my character right now, knowing that we travelled a lot and arrived in this colorful city”. And yes it was nice to play with people while not even discussing that point.

I was surprised by how much Paul reading directly from the book was efficient. I’ve been trained to avoid those famous “box text” and have horrid memories of GM reading directly from the scenario. But I didn’t get this impression with that game. Paul could read description of a place and it felt just like the right information so we could process. It felt like playing. I bet that’s how you write the text Paul. Even if it’s evocative, it’s not an overwhelming prose of colorful details. It felt natural during play.

I enjoyed the mechanics too. It was interesting to see who wants you to achieve that specific action by putting a token with you. But it was also a bit strategizing. Hey I want to do that with that player! Ah she doesn’t have the complementary token anymore! It didn’t feel boardgamy at all, it just felt as a light and interesting constrain.

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Thanks, Greg. You solidified something that I was thinking about for a while. I refer it more as “playing in the present” (rather than “in the past”) as opposed to “playing in the future”. I think in Ron-speak this would be called “playing situations”.

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When I decided to do the #RPGenesis jam I felt I should focus on mostly setting, because it’s much easier to write lots of words about setting to hit the 5000 word goal.

The title is me having fun with the word “guide”. You think with a title like A Viricorne Guide that it’s a guidebook to a setting, but then it’s written in the voice of Sholor, the guide the player characters hire for their time in Viricorne. Sholor is the “Viricorne guide” of the title.

It is a one shot game. The player characters are visiting Viricorne and there’s a law that visitors can only stay three days. Though there is also a loophole:

“The Corne of Patience is a metaphysical structure of flicker and lime, thrusting down into the Rock rather than upward, and entered through a relief sculpted portal in the yard of a shadowed plaza. Its corridors are cool, and dry, and illuminated by glowing yellow fungus. Their alcoves are stocked with human corpses. The law in Viricorne is if you’re not a resident — by birth or marriage or inheritance — you can stay for just three days. But the exception is, if you’re performing an amateur investigation of an unsolved murder, you can stay for as long as you need. In the Corne of Patience you can buy the corpse of an unsolved crime. Take your pick.”

Curse the players for not having pursued this option. We could have played more sessions!

My thought for the game was that a group would play it as an interlude to their D&D or other traditional fantasy RPG with their same characters. Set that game’s resolution and character mechanics aside and use the ones in A Viricorne Guide for a one shot in Viricorne. The mechanics are a set of actions that characters can take by spending combinations of two tokens to do them, actions like murder, pay-off, ruin, lead, listen, magic, art, love, heal, all described in the text, and each with a unique token price. The tokens are kill, take, give, care, release. You play with a set of twenty of them, divided randomly among the players, so you’ll have multiples of some, and maybe none of some, which makes it interesting.

Here’s the Love action:

“Love is a human alchemical reaction that incites and thrills us with hope and energy. It costs Give and Release. If you pay for it with both tokens yourself, then in the future your tokens can count as anything needed when you pay one toward the cost of someone else’s use of a plaque. If another player paid one of the tokens for your Love, then you can do any future plaques by paying just one of the two required tokens.”

And then under some circumstances other actions become available. If you visit Onsen Raba and bathe with another gender a body-swap action becomes available. If you visit the southern promontory and interact with the Manalves, who fly on wings of wax and gut and stolen feathers, the fly action becomes available. If you watch the sun rise alone, one of several other actions becomes available.

I wanted it to be an unforgettable interlude.

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Thank you for expanding :+1:
And thank you to @Greg for joining this post.

My considerations for “playing in the present” as @Froggy mentioned are usually focused on reincorporating what other players at the table have contributed, which is a concept from improv theatre that I’ve been paying attention to. (It’s also a somewhat common design goal, we see it in games like Fate, for example.)

I’m not comfortable with playing online, but I’ve had some success with Milanote and their whiteboard might help with this specific interaction. You can see everyone’s pointer hovering the board, what they are clicking or selecting.

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What a wonderful and thorough reply, Paul. Thank you! There is so much to like about this game, at least from the description. And nice to hear that it’s working in play!

Are you interested in any outside playtests, by any chance? I have some friends who might like to play this.

I may be back with more questions later, if I can manage it (the rest of the week is looking a bit busy at the moment).

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Sure. My choice of “past” contrasting “present” is that: you are presently playing with previously established things. You can “play in the present” with your anticipation of what should happen in mind, “anticipated fiction”". What you highlight when saying “playing in the present” is that “the situation is what is played right now, presently” - which is different of what I’m trying to emphasize.

But I’m not picky about the terminology, the important thing is that we understand what we mean. So I won’t argue about that if my point is clear.

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Why playtest it if you can just play it?

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Thanks for the great post, Paul. It was a great game (I played Nimel), I had a lot of fun. I really like how some games just stay with you for a bit and, for me, it’s very often with your games.

I don’t have many interesting things to say but I remember very well that at the begining of the game I wasn’t very excited by the body swap thingy. I usually make characters I really like / would like to play for a while and I am not easily swayed in sharing them. I wanted to try out some other stuff but I am really happy that we got into it with the other player. It made so much sense. It was a joyfull moment, a tense moment too because it took this bit of trust, at least for me, “I give you something I made, I really like it, please take care of it”. I think, like Greg said, that the game is very evocative and when you get the “tone” right, the mood right with the group, it’s very satisfaying.

I wanted to say a small thing about knowing how to play and the following chat about playing with the past or the future in mind.

I try and play with a supportive mindset like most people. I don’t think I ever thought about trying to impress someone with something I said or did around a table. I usually do stuff because I think it’s something I am curious about or excited about without much thoughts. This game challenged me because I had to come up with a reason why I was displeased with a ruling that a judge made for my character (I initially just wanted to play someone petty, like you do). The others players got really invested in my pettiness, which was great, but then I had to come up with a reason why it made sense I was going to be petty about this. So you see, I play in a very impulsive and maybe selfish way (meaning I play in a subjective fashion, there is things I like, things I don’t and I am going to act on them). I often find other players really cool, doing things I never imagined we could do because the rules didn’t anticiped that and I try to support the energy around the table. It also the fact that went someone is excited, it’s really easy for me to get excited with them. All that make me a better player.

I don’t know if I can say I know how I can play A Viricorne Guide. But I knew I could trust the group, experiment, have fun. I knew the game was going to help us with that. I knew I wanted to play with them, trusting they would trust me back. And sometimes it’s enough to make a great game ?

Sorry for the long post :slight_smile:

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I took the liberty of quoting and translating some of the contributions I liked the most in this excellent thread on La Locanda. Please let me know if this is unwanted.

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I’m fine with it. :+1:t3:

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I ran the game a while back and posted about it on Adept Play. Some new thoughts are bubbling to the surface that might intersect with yours, @PaulCzege. Is that appropriate for this thread?

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I don’t know. Ron used to have a policy against resurrecting “old threads” at The Forge. People were supposed to create new ones rather than post to ones that felt done. And if you didn’t, Ron would split it. Does Wynwerod have a policy like this @Froggy?

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Nope, the opposite: necroposting is allowed and encouraged on all my forums. If I don’t want a thread to continue, I close it—there are features in Discourse to do it automatically for inactive threads, which I haven’t enabled. Consider an open thread an invitation to write.

If a thread goes in a new direction, I just split it.

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@Hans you never ended up posting your thoughts. I’m still interested!

The environment is different: nowadays, forums are the long term tool that shines by contrast with social media feeds.

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