Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bonus: Best Comics of 2013

I haven't written about comics here in a while, and I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk about the best stuff I've been reading this past year.

So, without further ado...

Astro City. I've been a big fan of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's superhero comic with a difference since it first came out. It's a great inspiration to me in gaming, because it's entirely character-focused, rather than spending all of its time on the big spectacles (the fights, the giant aliens, the gods, the crossovers) that often distract the Big Two publishers. It's still great after all these years.

Pulp Dynamite! Dynamite Entertainment has quietly been knocking out a lot of great comics lately, and a lot of the time I buy more of their books than anyone else. Why? Because I'm a sucker for the great pulp heroes, and Dynamite has acquired the rights to a lot of the big names -- the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Spider, and now the granddaddy of them all: Doc Savage. They're all solid books, with good creative teams working on them (Mark Waid's Green Hornet and Matt Wagner's The Shadow: Year One are particularly great) but my favourite is probably King's Watch by Marc Laming and Jeff Parker. Parker manages to give us the definitive modern characterization of the old "Defenders of the Earth" characters -- Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician -- wrapped up in Laming's gorgeous art. This guy deserves to be a superstar. If you like your heroes pulpy, check out Dynamite.

Everything's Comin' Up Chaykin! After a long period of turning out work for the Big Two, an old favourite of mine -- Howard Chaykin -- really swung his output into high gear this year. His black & white Satellite Sam (written by Matt Fraction, but it's Fraction channeling Chaykin's signature style) is a return to greatness -- a sordid tale of the early live era of television, sex (of course), and murder. Chaykin's art is terrific, and he's the perfect man to render this world of jazz clubs, dirty deals, and leggy dames. Image released this one, as they did an older piece of Chaykin's that I'd never heard of: Century West, a rollicking tale of the West in its final days, when the frontier was quickly disappearing. The art in this single volume gem is absolutely beautiful, and it's full of Chaykin's witty dialogue. Thanks for giving the world more Howie, Image!

New (Old) Teen Titans! I think it probably came out last year, but it was new to me -- Games, a long, long, LONG gestating New Teen Titans graphic novel by George Perez and Marv Wolfman. Reading this book was like a trip back in time, and I was quickly reminded of what made NTT and Uncanny X-Men great books, back in the day -- like Astro City, they used to be about characters. It's sad to me now to see how far the mighty X-Men have fallen, into a trackless sea of pointless "events" and new costumes. Marv & George show us how to do it right, with a story that is as moving as it is tense and dangerous. Thanks for this one, guys; it was worth the wait.

Fearless Defenders, We Hardly Knew Ye. One of the year's biggest surprises was Fearless Defenders, by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney. Yes, this was a big, over the top action book full of team-ups and slugfests, but at least this book had a new twist on the formula: it was a book all about the female characters of the Marvel-verse. I've long been a proponent of the "Why can't women just kick ass?" argument, something that is sadly still necessary to point out about the comics landscape of 2013. Here we have a huge roster of Marvel's awesome women characters going on rollicking adventures around the world, cracking wise and kicking faces in. An absolute delight from beginning to end, featuring a wide variety of Marvel women who deserve more attention: the bionic badass Misty Knight, Valkyrie (who got a very dark makeover here, in addition to a new Don Blake style arrangement with a mortal lover named Annabelle), and Dani Moonstar to name a few. Perhaps the high point of the series was an issue that shifted the focus to the heroines' male acquaintances, who have gathered in a bar to talk about how worried (and jealous) they are about their lady friends going off on exciting adventures without them. They are hilariously put in their place by the bartender, who turns out to be a long-forgotten heroine from the early 80's, Shamrock.

Fearless Defenders was not a deep or philosophical book, just a rollicking good time with a message. Of course, it was cancelled after issue 12. It will be missed.

Knights Hits 200. And speaking of books that don't get enough love, Knights of the Dinner Table hit 200 issues this year. That's nearly 20 years of indie goodness from the little company that could, who have now become the makers of unapologetically Old School games like Hackmaster and Aces & Eights. KODT is a comedy comic book about gamers, but that's just the surface of what has become a rather broad and complex affair over the (many) years. The cast has become massive, and the storylines have grown long and complex. It's still a burlesque of gaming-gone-bad, but there is enough genuine warmth and truth in this book that it's not a one-joke affair. The characters have genuinely grown over the years, and the book has grown with them in addition to cranking out the laughs. Oh, and for grognards like myself, the recent addition of Larry Elmore's SnarfQuest as a back-up feature is just the icing on the beholder-shaped cake.

That's it for 2013 from HTHD Central! Happy New Year, gamers and comic lovers!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

HTHD Year in Review (Part Two)

Two posts in three days? Outrageous. 

Part two of my year-end wrap-up is focused on goings-on at my own table, as opposed to general stuff in the industry worthy of my .02 cents. And I have to say, this was a year that was crammed with gaming, much of it good, some of it GREAT. It's a happy thing to have been in the gaming hobby for thirty-odd years and be able to say that I'm consistently playing the best games of my life right now. 

Game I’m Most Sad to See Go – SUNSET EMPIRE

Last summer, I closed the curtains for the final time on my four-year alt-Victoriana vampire slaying epic, SUNSET EMPIRE. The jams were thoroughly kicked out, the bad guys were thoroughly whupped, the price was occasionally gut-wrenching, and the world was left utterly changed. 

I loved this setting, loved the characters, loved the way my players really tore it up and made big, ambitious moves, loved the ability to go for broke and really smash up all my toys good. Bringing an epic story like this to an ending is tricky business, and I think I may have stuck the landing and brought the crowd to its feet. I feel pretty proud of this one.

Outstanding Achievement in Gaming Ambition – TIANXIA: THE BOOK OF CHANGES

Although it was a much shorter affair, and occasionally wracked by external problems, our playtest game of TIANXIA was a different kind of delight. We had a small, high-functioning group that were really in the driver's seat, staging bold, dramatic scenes and dovetailing them through three time periods in a way I've never seen before at the roleplaying table.

We learned a lot playing this game, and now the question is -- what's next?

Game That Was Totally Not For Us (But You Should Buy It Anyway) – TIANXIA: BLOOD, SILK AND JADE by Jack Norris

A wise person once said, "A man's got to know his limitations." For myself, I know that mastering the various moving parts of a crunchy system is not a strength I possess. Keeping track of a large number of elements in a rule-intensive situation during combat is an overwhelming, sometimes baffling, sometimes frustrating experience for me. So the extra layer of complexity that TIANXIA brought to FATE CORE (which was still quite new to us when we played this game) was a little more than I could comfortably handle. It may be that a longer-arc play experience would have meant more familiarity and more ease of play, but that is no longer the way we play games at my table (notwithstanding stuff like SUNSET EMPIRE). 

However, this book is still one of the best I've seen this year, and I am proud to have been a participant in a playtest for it. Jack Norris has produced what seems to me the perfect expression of what a core book should be -- it sketches out a setting in broad strokes, with lots of ideas, tools, and toys for the GM to play with, but doesn't bury you in unnecessary detail. The martial arts system is clear and evocative. The artwork is stunning. And the layout is gorgeous, clear, and readable. If you aren't already one of the people who bought into the Kickstarter for TIANXIA, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy when it is released. It's the bee's knees.

Game That Didn’t Happen (But Totally Needs To) – WILD TALENTS: TRUE BELIEVERS

I was literally ready to print out pages and make up characters for this game, which uses my beloved (yet dusty and unused) WILD TALENTS system to tell a story of "real-life superheroes", when we got the offer to participate in the TIANXIA playtest. It was a bittersweet decision to set TRUE BELIEVERS aside, but likely the correct one based on the amount we learned playing TIANXIA. 

One day, one day.

Gaming Takeaway of the Year – The Three-Round (Or Less!) Fight

Even in FATE, fights can really drag on sometimes. Part way through TIANXIA, I came up with the idea of abbreviating fights in much the same way that FATE runs Contests -- instead of letting two characters square off until one drops, essentially let things play out for three rounds and the person who has gained the upper hand (the best of three falls, essentially) "wins". This gave us the opportunity to get back to the drama quicker, and I think it's a handy trick for those of us who aren't really interested in the particulars of long fights. 

This doesn't work quite as well in a large-scale fight, but I think the principle is sound. 

As an honourable mention in this category, I think using the Bronze Rule to model larger-scale fights by statting them up as a single antagonist is a much easier, more streamlined way to manage a big donnybrook. I did that for the finale of TIANXIA, and it went much better.

HTHD Takeaway of the Year – Dovetailing Scenes

I've written on this earlier this fall, and I think it proved to be the most important storytelling tool we learned in TIANXIA. In playing out our story that involved elaborate flashbacks to different time periods in the lives of our three heroes, we developed the technique of riffing off things that other players had set up in their own scenes. When Quiescent Mountain was forced to care for a baby, another player set up a scene where the younger Mountain has just spoken to his lover expressing his desire to have a family. 

This technique really gets the whole table calling for scenes with a GM-like eye toward the overall story and creating an amazing storytelling harmony.

Game That I Totally Bungled - SHERWOOD

There's no getting around it. Although I still like the idea, my heart was just not in my tale of Rocket Robin Hood Redux. By the time the game swung into action, I was already dreaming of the third season of SUNSET EMPIRE, and that was pretty much that. 

Creepiest Line of the Year - “Hello there, Sugarplum.

I think I managed to push the pedal marked CREEPY all the way to the floorboards in our holiday finale episode of SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. My character, Cole -- who is the lead singer in a Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque southern rock band -- surprised everyone by eliminating the creepy groupie California who had been messing with his sister and his best friend's heads. It was a scene that started out sexual, and ended with cold-blooded murder. I wasn't sure I had gone the right way with it, but the rest of the cast seems to agree I've pushed the stakes way, way up and that's okay with me. 

Meanest Line of the Year – “I hoped you were."

Speaking of cold-blooded, Megan's character Death Onyx was undoubtedly the paragon of cruel and callous violence at our table this year. The last few sessions of TIANXIA were absolutely filled with scenes where Death Onyx said unbelievably hurtful things to her old friends, in a bid to get them to abandon her or kill her. In this case, her old lover Mountain had just said "I thought you were dead." Then, the stone-cold response. DAMN.
Darkest Character of the Year - Death Onyx

It's really saying something when the DEADLANDS campaign filled with characters with mass murder in their past (and in my case, my present) were just grey clouds compared with the pitch black killer called Death Onyx. What do you say about a character who murders her employers -- including children -- and then kills an entirely unrelated, innocent person to make sure there are enough bodies (because the Governor's teenage daughter was not in the mansion at the time, and Onyx won't let her be hunted down too)? There's dark, and then there's Death Onyx dark.

Largest Player Character Body Count – Yuri Brekhov

I'm not sure my character Yuri ever used a gun in our COLD CITY game, but he was an absolute terror with a big skinning knife. Yuri went through rooms full of KGB agents and East German soldiers like a buzzsaw, and even smacked down vampires. Hardcore.

Squickiest Fate of a Player Character – Yuri Brekhov

...but then again Yuri ended up warming Baba Yaga's bed for all eternity as a riff on Koschei the Deathless. So yeah, not all wine and roses for the immortal Ghost of Stalingrad. 

“Some Days You Just Can’t Get Rid of a Baby” Award – Quiescent Mountain

One more TIANXIA moment that deserves mention is Quiescent Mountain's long ordeal as the custodian of a baby, an element that entered the story at random (as the result of a bad roll by Colin) but had huge ramifications for the way the game ended. Mountain only had one functional arm, you see, so the fact that he had to carry a baby around with him meant that he was constantly at a disadvantage. He tried to pass the baby off on his mother (she refused), place "Little Monk" out of the line of fire during the big battle in the streets of Bao Jing (inadvertently placing him in the path of a poison dart), and ultimately played "keep away" with a room full of shadow vampires wanting to feed on the child. But keeping the baby safe meant saving his old lover, Death Onyx, from herself. This was an instance of serendipity completely changing the outcome of a game. And it was delightful.

So many other moments, so many great games. But I could go on for a long, long time about these things. And I think I'll save some of them up to tell you about in the new year. So until 2014, happy gaming. 


Bill Templeton

Friday, 20 December 2013

HTHD Year in Review (Part One)

            First, let me apologize for my long absence. It’s been a busy few months, and I’ve let my blog slip a bit. I will, as Warren Beatty once said to the Academy while receiving a lifetime achievement award, try to do better.
            This has probably been the busiest four months of gaming and gaming-related activity of my life. In addition to our “regular” groups on Saturday night and Wednesday night, and my online game alternate Mondays, I have been running a game on the other Mondays with players who mostly aren’t part of my usual gaming troupe. We’ve had some great games, but it’s also worn me down. All this on top of the burdens of full-time employment and the release of our podcast, Shake, Rattle & Roleplay, have been keeping me away from the keyboard. (Oh yes, and I’ve been working on my own storygame, Lost Pines, which I promise to tell you more about at a later date.)
            After some soul-searching, I’ve made some changes to my schedule which I think will give me a little more me-time and relieve some of my obligations so that I can do stuff like write blog entries and storygames. I already feel less like I’m about to blow a mental gasket, and that’s good for everyone who’s had to put up with my craziness over the past couple months. Again, I will try to do better. 
            I thought a good way to get back in the swing of things was to write a little wrap-up – a Gaming Year in Review, to go along with so many other columns out there in the blogosphere summing up the best movies, books, and embarrassing political gaffes and scandals of 2013. My wonderful wife Megan is producing a series where she pits the books she’s read this year in gladiatorial combat against one another to decide the best book of the year. There aren’t enough strained analogies to combat featuring gladiators, road warriors in the Thunderdome, kaiju, Pokemon, or martial arts masters for my liking, but you should totally check that out.
            So, without further yap-flapping…

            High Trust, High Drama

            2013 Year in Review

            I think the most sensible way to go about this is in two parts, the first addressing general trends in gaming, products I’ve liked, and such, and the second part will reflect on some stuff that’s happened at my own game table.
Most Game-able Movie of 2013 (Tie) – PACIFIC RIM / THOR

            There were some duds in the “nerd movie” sweepstakes this year, with Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 both underwhelming me thoroughly. But Guillermo Del Toro’s robust PACIFIC RIM more than made up for a dull summer, and as I’ve already observed, it provides a model of a very gamable mecha universe.
            I have to say that I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed THOR: THE DARK WORLD, but it managed to improve on the first film in almost every way. Asgard was full of rollicking action and derring-do, much closer to the high adventure exploits we expect from a superhero comic book than dour fare like Zack Snyder’s take on Superman. Is this so hard, people?

Gaming Thing Most Likely to Suck My Wallet Dry – BUNDLE OF HOLDING

            Just in case you haven’t already discovered it and seen your bank account depleted mightily because of it, Bundle of Holding puts together themed packages of indie RPGs and sells them at a pay-what-you-want price. The spoils are divided up between the bundlers, creators and the charity of their choice, and if you pledge more than the average you get bonus games. Not only is this a great way to check out a bunch of new games, it’s a great way to spread around some money in the industry and support good causes.

Shiny New Game System We’re Digging the Heck Out Of – DRAMASYSTEM

            I bought in to the Kickstarter for HILLFOLK, the new game from Robin Laws that acts as the flagship title for his new DRAMASYSTEM line. It’s a very sleek system that feels very close to Primetime Adventures, with a few extra bells and whistles attached (the procedural system, which gives a little more mechanical heft to things like combat or investigations). It’s also got a very insightful character creation method that builds characters who not only have strong relationships with one another, but fraught relationships. If you read Hamlet’s Hit Points, this is the game application of those ideas. It’s really nifty stuff, and we’re enjoying it.

Kickstarter Most Jam-Packed With Gaming Goodness – FATE CORE

            Evil Hat really knocked it out of the park with their Fate Core Kickstarter, which provided so much gaming goodness it’s absurd. Not only did it fund the core game rules, but a light version (Fate Accelerated), two books full of ready-to-run settings (Fate Worlds), a Fate System Toolkit, supplements for FC versions of Freeport and The Day After Ragnarok, and a totally awesome new Spirit of the Century supplement (Strange Tales of the Century) by epic nerd scholar Jess Nevins. Right now, Fate Accelerated is my go-to game, but with all this stuff you could build pretty much any version of Fate you like.

Indie HTHD Game of the Year – MONSTERHEARTS

            I am a latecomer to the *World line, but Joe McDaldno really produced what is for me the definitive HTHD version of that ruleset in MONSTERHEARTS. It refines the basics of the system down to focus tightly on high school drama with lots of sex and angst and bad behaviour. With apologies to Vincent Baker, this spoke to me in ways that Apocalypse World did not. If you’re interested in games with lots of drama and high emotional stakes, this is the place.

Most Game-worthy Game of the Year – FATE ACCELERATED EDITION

            FAE strips down the Fate Core engine to its sleekest, sweetest stuff and wraps it all up in a tiny $5.00 package that should be in every gamer’s bag. It’s clearly aimed as an entry level product, but for those of us who have been playing Fate for a while and like the game sleek, this is just what we’ve been dreaming of for a long, long time. If you don’t own a copy of this, you mustn’t have any interest in narrative and character-centric gaming. It’s boss, applesauce.

Coolest Monthly Injection of Awesome – KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF

            I was lucky enough to get a subscription to Ken Hite’s superlative series of articles through a Bundle of Holding. Each month, Ken takes a topic, monster, or setting and writes 8-10 pages of material jammed with the wild ideas and historical awesome that Ken does best. Absolutely unmissable for anyone who loves Mr. Hite or plays a game with the word “Cthulhu” in the title.

Most Awesome Game My Players Would Never Agree To Play – DARK STREETS

            Another goodie that came in a Bundle of Holding. This is a game where players play the Bow Street Runners in Georgian London, with a Lovecraftian twist. Definitely not an era that I’ve seen Cthulhued before, and one that sounds like a lot of fun. Kudos for Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton for finding a small corner of the world that hadn’t already been overstuffed with tentacles.
My players: NEIN.

Coolest Free Thing of the Year – MYTHENDER

            Ryan Macklin is a guy who doesn’t get nearly enough love and respect in the gaming industry. This year, he released a game he’d been working on for a very long time – MYTHENDER – for free. It’s a big, ambitious game about wailing the hell out of gods, and it’s well worth a look. It was an amazing and humbling gesture for the esteemed Mr. Macklin to release a game this amazing for free, and he deserves to be lauded for such a generous contribution to the gaming community. Also, he’s on his way to being married in the near future – so congratulations, Ryan!

Biggest Gaming Nuisance of the Year – GOOGLE+

            Most of these are raves, because nobody really wants to see any more bandwidth wasted on bitching about something that I don’t like. However, Google+ has been on my shitlist for a long time. I use Google Hangouts to run an online game, and Google+ does its very best to make it impossible for me to find a simple button that will take me into this feature. Although its online performance has improved over the last year, it’s still buggy and frustrating. The apps sometimes work and sometimes don’t, for no discernable reason. Players are kicked out of the Hangout or don’t receive an invite to begin with, entirely at random.
            It’s a little like being close enough that you can see the Dazzling Future World, just over the next hill, but for now you’re stuck in Sean Connery’s musty old red shorts from Zardoz. And they itch.

(To be continued)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

In the Words of Pablo Picasso... (Part Three)

Slight sidebar. Just in case any of you out there in RPGland who are reading this blog aren't also friends on Facebook or Twitter, I just wanted to let you know that the long-promised podcast I have been working on with my lovely wife Megan and our friend and co-conspirator Colin has finally gone live. It's called Shake, Rattle & Roleplay, and you can find it on iTunes or on LibSyn. Check it out. If you like what you hear, give us some feedback or write a review on iTunes. 

Sorry for the long gap since my last entry here. As you can probably imagine, the excitement around getting the podcast finally up and running has taken up a good deal of my time over the last week, and I also spent some of my precious downtime writing a Ghostbusters adventure for the Hallowe'en mini-con at the local university gaming club. Let's move on by talking about one of my very favourite games of the last few years.


My initial experiences with the Cortex game system were not good, but Cam Banks is such a nice fellow that he convinced me to give Cortex Plus (Cortex's more flexible cousin, if you like) a try. And I'm glad I did. Smallville is a little miracle of a game, filled with great ideas and indie RPG DNA. Cam and Josh Banks did an outstanding job, and they should be justly proud of this game.

Although from the outside you might mistake Smallville for a mainstream RPG, based on its slick presentation and production values, this game is subversive from the gitgo. It understands that the show it's trying to emulate is a superhero show, but it's not about people punching each other in the face -- it's about relationship drama. So the game does not include anything like a combat system. What other superhero game can you say that about? The stats on the character sheets are all about relationships and values, not who's the strongest or has the strongest heat-ray vision. 

Secondly, it smartly realizes that if you're doing a game that's about relationship drama, then by necessity the heroes of the game must have intense relationships with the villains, the way young Clark Kent does with Lex Luthor in the early seasons of the show. That means that the players are going to be taking the part of any main antagonists in the game, rather than have the GM control all the villains. This changes the GM's role from one of providing problems for the players to solve (or faces to punch) to introducing wedges between the characters which force their conflicts into the open.

The way the game smartly re-assesses traditional gaming systems and the GM's position at the table make Smallville a very useful and informative learning text on any GM's shelf. But the centerpiece of the game is its character generation system, Pathways, which is one of the most brilliant innovations I've seen in gaming for years.

Relationship maps have been around in gaming for quite a while; I think the first time I saw mention of them was in the early 1990s, when I picked up a Cyberpunk 2020 GM handbook called Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! (That book has gotten unjustly knocked over the years for its chapter on laying down the hurt when PCs get too big for their britches, but even if that's too adversarial for your tastes, it's got some good stuff worth reading.) The idea is to flesh out the cast of characters for your game by creating a flow chart that shows how they're connected, delineating the relationships between the characters in a way that encourages the development of PC relationships and conflicts. Pathways takes this one step further by making it the method by which players generate their characters, and by extension, the whole campaign.

At each stage of character creation, the players make decisions about their characters' lifepath, their values, and their relationships with the other PCs. What drives them? What do they think of each other? Each stage lets them add to their character sheet, and each stage pulls the characters more closely together. It would be almost impossible to come out of a session of Pathways without characters that are connected in interesting ways. Intimate connections and conflicts are the stuff of good drama, so this is GOLD.

The players also add organizations and locations to the game which are connected to the characters, fleshing out the world of the game with allies and enemies and "sets" where scenes can be played out. Once you're done an evening with Pathways, you've got a very complicated diagram that sets down all the important stuff about your game in a way that's dense with useful information. You need to throw two characters together in a scene? Just look at their relationships and figure out what kind of wedge you need to create dramatic sparks.

I have discovered you can also use the relationship mapping in Pathways as a diagnostic tool, "reverse engineering" the map from an existing campaign to reveal where characters need more connections and conflicts to draw them into the game.

Smallville unfortunately never made a big splash, but for those of us who discovered it we've still got a lot of love for it. It's well worth seeking out, as are other Cortex Plus games like Leverage (which powered our Cold City campaign) and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. The latter had a criminally short run before the license was pulled, but it was also full of interesting stuff. A long term project for me is to work at making a more streamlined "hack" of MHR that lets me play Marvel heroes with a little less crunch.

Monday, 21 October 2013

In the Words of Pablo Picasso... (Part Two)

So here's the first couple of good bits that are worthy of Picasso-ing from various games:


There is much to like about Jonathan Tweet's underrated classic, produced in the days he was working for Wizards of the Coast but before he was one of the main writers on D&D 3rd Edition. Everway was the first diceless game I got my hands on, and it's still my favourite (although I know Amber has its dedicated fans).

Two things jump out at me, however, as particularly memorable. Each character in Everway is generated with a Virtue, a Fault, and a Fate -- which are drawn from the Tarot-style Fortune Deck used to decide the outcome of actions in the game. You could choose them, if you want, but since the cards are fairly subjective in their meaning, randomly drawing cards is an easy way to create a "rounded" character with not only good points and bad, but something he is struggling against -- the "Fate" card is considered sideways, so characters are involved in a tug-of-war between the good and bad forces the card represents (depending on which way it lands on the table). Over the course of play, you can change your Fate, drawing a new card, if you feel you've confonted the forces that the first card represented. Pretty elegant, narrative-centric way of encouraging roleplay.

The second thing that impressed me about Everway was the method Tweet developed for quantifying powers. Each mythic hero had special abilities that set them apart, from the very, very small (such as being able to march all day, if you whistle while you're doing it) to the very large (such as wings granting the power of flight). Tweet set out a way of measuring powers by three metrics: how Frequently it would come up in the game, how Flexible it was, and how Major the ability was. So a power that was effective but rarely used would be scored lower than a power that was always useful and could be used to accomplish many things. This chain of logic, which boils down a vast number of possibilities to simple questions, is great design -- and I can see its DNA in a number of other games that have come along since.

I think what we can take away from these techniques is perhaps less a specific tool to use in your own games, but rather a way of thinking about games that's useful. Having a simple baseline for roleplay (and also a way of boiling down a potentially very complex issue like powers) is something you can bring to any number of games -- perhaps as a way of appending or altering existing systems, or as a way of measuring how effectively the games manage those issues.

Over the Edge

Another great Tweet game from the 90s was OTE, a game that is rightly being celebrated with a ritzy new anniversary edition and an open license for the system itself -- which, like Everway, is elegantly simple, flexible, and able to handle all kinds of craziness.

Although there is much to admire in the basics of this game, the bit I'm thinking of is from one of the supplements, Weather The Cuckoo Likes, which details the struggles of a group of superpowered Dadaist anarchist heroes called the Cut-Ups. We actually have Robin D. Laws, another great game innovator I'll come back to another installment, to thank for this supplement -- thanks Robin!

Robin talks about creating a "Cut Up Machine" as a way of randomly generating surreal stories for your game and injecting some Dadaist madness into the setting. The idea is to clip a large number of evocative, interesting words out of newspapers, magazines, etc., and mix them together in a big bowl (I used an empty peanut butter jar). Whenever you need a jolt of surreal energy, you draw several words and let them inspire what happens next.

My players at the time loved this idea -- which Laws borrows from William Burroughs -- and not only did we use it in our games, but it became a tool for our other creative endeavours as well. If I were to revisit the Cut-Up Machine today, I'd probably place it in the hands of the players, as a player-facing way of introducing chaos into the game. Let the players draw out the random bits, speculate about what they mean, and then look for patterns in the surreal events that unfold. Good fun.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

In the Words of Pablo Picasso... (Part One)

"Bad artists copy, great artists steal."

There is a common misconception among new GMs that they must re-invent the wheel. It's not good enough to work from existing game materials, they need to create everything from scratch. Head spinning with the creative rush of making their own game, they feel the need to invent a setting from whole cloth, with vast amounts of complex detail that will likely never figure into actual gameplay. Why use an existing rule system, even one you're familiar with, when you can tinker with it and add your own flourishes? Hell, why not invent a whole new game system while you're doing it?

The instinct to tinker under the hood with games is strong with GMs, right out of the gate. After you get a little more experience under your belt, you begin to realize that you really don't have to put that much work into a game for it to work and feel unique. Refining your games into a distinctive style is something that takes time and effort, and not a little candid self-reflection about what parts of your game worked and what parts didn't.

The experienced GM learns from playing different kinds of games and, as Picasso would have it, steals anything that isn't nailed down. Once you know what kind of games you'd like to run, it starts to become clear what kinds of techniques could help you refine your style. Like a guitar player, you pick up a riff here and there, expanding your songbook (or, if you prefer a different tortured metaphor, add new tools to your GMing toolkit) and becoming a real journeyman. You may not have mastered the craft yet, but you're in the game, learning, building.

I often say that gamers in 2013 are lucky, because they live in a golden age -- there are a greater multitude of different games available cheaply to GMs than at any other time in the history of the hobby. Not only are practically all the classics readily accessible, a wide variety of new and experimental games are out there with all new takes on how to play games -- or at least, how to play certain kinds of games.

The thing that seems to distinguish what we might call Indie RPGs or Storygames, as you prefer, is that unlike the games of yore (which tended to aim at producing large-scale rule systems to simulate everything a setting could throw at them, at least in theory) Storygames aim to produce a particular kind of game very well, and nothing else. If you buy a horror storygame, it's very likely not going to be hackable to run a Jedi vs. Sith campaign. And that's okay; better to do one thing very well than model everything under the sun in a middling way.

For myself, I read a lot of games and try to steal the best bits from a lot of them. In this series, I'm going to share with you a few of my favourite bits from a wide variety of games. Then you can go all Picasso on the bits you like best.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Dissenting Adults

I don't like arguments. I'm the sort of person who gets emotional about something easily, makes a snap response that's way too strong, then goes on to torture himself with guilt over it for weeks. Especially if it's something I'm passionate about -- and gaming would certainly qualify (as would politics and human rights issues).

Nevertheless, I got dragged into an argument on Facebook recently about different gaming preferences. I won't rehash it here, except to say that it boiled down to a hoary old argument -- what is the One True Way to roleplay? (I'm sure the gentleman I was snippy with doesn't see the argument this way, but as I've made abundantly clear, he is free to see it any way he pleases.)

The thing about One True Wayers is that they're not actually interested in engaging about what's the best way to game. They've already made up their minds. And it's really as simple as "My way, or the highway". From there, any argument boils down to "I'm doing it right, and the rest of you are doing it wrong."

This is not a useful way to think about roleplaying.

Roleplaying is a hobby that is negotiated between the players of countless groups spread out across the planet. There is no such thing as a universal truth of what's the best way to do something -- there is only what's best for your group, right this moment. Robin Laws has written at length about how to negotiate a game that's pleasing to the largest number of players, and I have opined that the clear way to have the most satisfying game experience is to start with a group of sympatico players. Common goals means you're all rowing in the same direction. This is helpful, whether you're interested in playing dramatic scenes or bashing some goblins real good.

What I'm coming around to is the fact that there are underlying assumptions to the style of gaming that I talk about here, assumptions which inform a lot of the decisions we make at the table. These assumptions drive HTHD play, and they'd be incomprehensible to people who weren't interested in what we practice -- or at least unrecognizable as "roleplaying".

One important assumption is that play time is limited. This is something that goes hand in hand with being an adult roleplayer -- I simply don't have an unlimited amount of time to invest in the hobby, the same way I did when I was sixteen. I need the time I invest at the table to be as productive and satisfying as possible. Players who proceed with the idea that games are long-arc affairs that unfold over years of play are simply not interested in the same things as a HTHD group who want to wrap up a game in six sessions; the time crunch means you've got to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible, and play hard.

It may be that an ongoing game could be truly dramatic without the pressure of a short arc of gameplay, but I doubt it. Limited time means high stakes scenes, characters that are forced to change, and the real possibility of breaking your toys. These are crucial for real drama.

Secondly, HTHD play assumes that everyone at the table is building the game together, both in and out of game. Although there might be a GM who still serves as the first among equals (I think of it as a position closest to a director in a stage play), everyone shares common goals as far as storytelling goes and helps each other build toward those goals. There's no question that the best decision to be made for a character is the most interesting one (and often, the most dangerous or consequence-laden decision) in a given situation; HTHD players don't worry much about which choice provides the greatest tactical advantage.

Thirdly, the goal of HTHD play is explicitly to create dramatic situations which involve players on a deeper emotional level than traditional RPG play. That means players have to create characters with driving passions, relationships that are fraught with problems, and the characters must have things in their lives they cannot easily walk away from. HTHD play is not interested in building a simulation of an ideal life for a character, but a life which is complicated at best and often tragic.

These goals would be anathema to a lot of roleplayers. And, as I said to my Facebook friend, that's okay. It would do me no good to deny the fact that other people get different kinds of pleasure out of a roleplaying game than I do with my friends and fellow players. The hobby is big enough and complex enough to accommodate a wide variety of different play styles, as it is large enough to include a multitude of different games. Each is as valid as the next.

Having a clear head about what you're trying to get out of a roleplaying game can be helpful no matter what style appeals to you, however.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Love Letter to Fate (Part Three)

From the player side of the table, there are a number of things that Fate does incredibly well.

Firstly, the almighty Aspect really makes you feel like you have a lot of personal control and creativity invested in making a character. There's just no comparison between a system where you write down a few numbers and perhaps choose a single special feature for your character and one where you get to describe a character in terms like I Have Seen the Dragon and Initiate of the Seventh Circle.

Writing Aspects for your character is also writing things that are now true about the campaign world. Maybe the GM never pictured there being a circle of wizards called the Seventh Circle, but now they're an important part of the world. Declaring that your Trouble Aspect is Nazis! I Hate These Guys! is a formal demand for the GM to include Nazis in the game, and for them to appear regularly. That kind of formal authorial power being handed to the players is really heady stuff, and one more games should embrace.

Secondly, character creation is also explicitly creating a group template between the player characters. The PCs must explicitly have connections between two of the other PCs, explaining how they know each other and perhaps what their relationship is to this point. That's a great starting point to creating HTHD play, and making a group that works together.

Thirdly, the way the game plays out encourages players to be creative and tackle problems in the way that interests them best. They can create Aspects on the fly that will help solve a problem in a way that the GM might never have expected, and that makes players feel good about their contributions. Caught in a dungeon with no visible way out? Create an Aspect called "Hey Guys! A Secret Passage!" or "I Wonder What Happens When I Press This Button...?"

Fourth, when the players are engaged in a conflict of some kind, they are encouraged to cooperate in order to take out the larger threat. The way things often play out in Fate is that the entire group will work at putting Aspects in play so that the person who's the prime mover in the conflict -- in a fight, it might be the best warrior -- can make a single, big hit (rather like a Finishing Move at the end of a martial arts video game) that takes the opposition out. Again, this lets people who aren't even that good at the conflict in question make a meaningful contribution to the action. When we played in Colin's post-apocalyptic monster hunter game The Core, my character Magnus was the only real fighter in the group. But whenever we got into a fight, everybody was able to help out by doing what they did best. That's nifty stuff.

So you say you're not one of the Fate faithful, after three days of me rattling on about one of my favourite games? Well, maybe direct exposure will change your mind. After a successful Kickstarter, Evil Hat has made the new line of Fate books -- including Fate Core and Fate Accelerated -- available on a Pay What You Want basis through DriveThruRPG. If that's not enough to get you to try out these games, I don't know what is. Pick up Fate Accelerated and give it a spin. You will be happy you did.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Love Letter to Fate (Part Two)

Another thing about Fate that I love is what players had been calling the "Fate fractal" before Evil Hat officially called it the "Bronze Rule". I think the first time I saw this put into large-scale application was in Starblazer Adventures.

The idea, essentially, is that you can stat up anything you like in Fate using the same structure as a character. Starblazer applies this to building starships, from something as small as a speeder bike all the way up to capital ships or even something as big as a dyson sphere.

The advantage of all this is that it keeps things simple, and familiar, at every level of a game. You don't need special rules to play out a scene of dogfighting starfighters, just the same mechanics you use in every other scene. If you understand the basics of Fate, you can build almost anything you want using only small variations on the core rules.

This starts getting really interesting when you apply it in more broad, abstract ways. You could use it to create challenges like a dangerous wilderness journey, allowing the players to create Aspects and use various skills to get them through a "montage style" sequence that still feels meaningful. You could stat up a temple full of traps as a character to be defeated by the whole group, inflicting stress until the temple is "taken out" and they reach the treasure.

I've used it as an abstraction of things like infiltration scenes, with the scene being "taken out" representing the players reaching their goal, whereas damage to the PCs took the form of security becoming more alert and dangerous. It also works as a way to simplify the already-simple process of a large-scale cinematic fight, allowing you to broadly describe what's happening while the players take out bad guys. (What's really cool about doing it this way is that because you're not tracking individual bad guys or mooks, you can always offer a Concession and end the fight when everybody's had enough shooting and punching, and you just want to move on to the next scene. NICE.)

You could use it to model interactions of organizations, like the Company rules in Greg Stolze's Reign, using the rules to meaningfully decide the interactions of warring armies or corporate negotiations without requiring a whole other rules subsystem to manage it.

The Bronze Rule is a powerful piece of rules-fu, something that can really supercharge your game.

Next, I'll tell you all about why my players love Fate.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Love Letter to Fate (Part One)

I've been one of the Fate faithful for a long time.

I found my way to it, as many did, through Spirit of the Century, Evil Hat's terrific pulp adventure game (which was conceived as a dry run at The Dresden Files, a project so long in gestation people were comparing it to Duke Nukem Forever). Dresden improved in many ways on the solid core of awesome in Spirit, and now Fate Core and its lighter, brighter cousin Fate Accelerated Edition have rolled out to delight the fans again.

Both of these games are very slick re-imaginings of the rock-solid basics of Fate. Chances are, if you're interested in Fate at all, you've already heard about these two. They're both great games, and the core rules are the same for both games -- FAE just strips Fate down a little further, pares away the high-level GMing stuff, and wraps it in a neat little package full of friendly art reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. It's a really good starter product, I think, to introduce new players to tabletop roleplaying. And at the price point -- $5 -- everybody should have one.

I'm here to sing the praises of the basics of Fate gaming today, though. The almighty Aspect.

I think Aspects are one the most powerful innovations in gaming of the last decade. Just in case you're not already one of the faithful, Aspects are a game mechanic that lets you draw attention to an element that's important to the story somehow. The best Aspects are short, evocative phrases that capture a complex idea in a small space. Player characters have a number of aspects that describe them, and either help them accomplish things or constrain their behaviour, or both -- if you're doing it right.

Example: the redoubtable Indiana Jones might be described as a Two-Fisted Archaeologist. This Aspect might be his "High Concept", an Aspect that describes the most important role he plays. Of course, we all know that he's got a special phobia which would be his "Trouble" Aspect -- Why Did It Have To Be Snakes? Indy probably has other Aspects like I'm Making This Up As I Go Along and Never Loses His Hat, or maybe It's Not the Years, It's the Mileage.

"But wait," he said, "there's more!"

See, Aspects can be on other things too. Aspects are an easy way of saying what's important in a scene. Indy might wander into an Ancient Chachapoyan Temple that's Full of Deadly Traps. Or track his nemesis Belloq to a warehouse that's Dark as Pitch. If he's trying to climb a castle wall in a rainstorm, the stones might be Wet and Slick. You get the picture.

You can even use Aspects as a way to encourage certain ideas and behaviours in your games -- as Campaign Aspects. Indy's game world might have rules like When In Doubt, Punch It In The Face or It Belongs In A Museum to encourage players to engage in lots of action and tracking down artifacts.

I have been using a suggestion I heard on a podcast (which has, regrettably, podfaded) called Actual People, Actual Play in my games for the past couple years -- allow players at least one free use of a Campaign Aspect per session. That way they're encouraged to use them.

Someone observed on Twitter recently that Fate makes it fun to stat up piles of bad guys, because you can be very creative with their Aspects even if they're faceless mooks. That's absolutely true, and Fate does a great job at making running action scenes full of mooks light work for the GM.

Absolutely the best thing about Aspects, though, is the fact that they are a subjective tool. When a player writes an Aspect down on their character sheet, it is charged with special meaning for them. That has a lot more impact and flexibility than something like a Feat, which applies only in a prescribed set of circumstances, and is available to all. Aspects are unique, and they're a great way to understand your character on a level that plug-and-play game elements can't match.

Writing a good Aspect is a kind of art in itself, because those of us who have been using them for a while have learned that the best kinds of Aspects are deep and flexible. They can tell your backstory, explain why you should get an edge in a situation, drive you to take an action that's not in your best interests, and give the GM material to build the game out of -- all in one concise, pithy package.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you all about what us Fate veterans call "the Fate fractal".

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

All That Jazz

Sometimes you just gotta brag on your group.

I recently played in a game that I thought really knocked it out of the park, and I got a glimpse of what a really high functioning HTHD group is capable of. We've had great moments, and great games, around our table before, but this was something else.

A little background: this is for the game that I'm not allowed to tell you much about, which is a kung fu epic set in ancient China. Well, that's not quite right. It's a kung fu epic in the mold of things like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. You know... the depressing kung fu genre.

Anyway, this is a game that has an ambitious framework. We are extrapolating on our friend Rob's idea to play out flashback sequences without actually knowing what's going to happen, as posited (but possibly not fully explored) in his recent Cold City game. In our game, we have three characters whose lives are thoroughly tangled up; in the past, their personal tragedies were all connected, and now they're all coming together again because of a wedding. The game interweaves action in the present and scenes in the past which fill in the gaps in what we know about the characters.

We started out deliberately avoiding creating a complete backstory for the characters, and concentrated on creating provocative gaps. We knew that Megan's formerly stoic warrior fell from grace and was horribly scarred, but not how or why. We knew that Colin's monk character had been a drunken, carousing thief, but not what drove him to a more reflective path. We knew that Amanda's blind warrior/seer was the child of the former (assassinated) governor, now grown, but not the details of how she managed to survive her family's death and lose her eyes.

I had remarkably little prepared when we sat down to play, and we simply went around the table several times calling for scenes. What I had imagined was that we would play a few scenes to find our footing in the game, to get to know the characters. I got a lot more than I expected.

Since each of the players at the table were playing characters that were closely connected, and they each knew the fragmentary back stories of the other players, what emerged was a game where we were able to build and riff on each other. A scene with one character in the present could hand off to a scene with that character and another in the past, which drew a parallel (or a contrast) to the scene we had just played.

If a provocative question was asked, we could jump in time to answer it. A character's state of mind in one time period could be illuminated by moving to a formative scene.

It was like jazz.

We all knew the main tune, and could let a given "musician" draw the music into an interesting digression, build on the digression, turn it around, then return to the melody. (I'm describing jazz badly, but you get the idea. We were entirely improvising, but around a shared set of ideas; the context let us set up scenes for each other which underscored something the other players had been describing.)

This is the sort of thing that pays off years of practice and trust at the table, not something that happens by accident. And I think it is not an accident that it happened with a group of only three players and a GM -- that makes for extra intimacy and understanding, whereas a larger group allows you to have more complex interactions and stories. Three was the sweet spot for telling this kind of focused story where all the characters were important in each others' lives.

And it was sweet, sweet music, brother.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Yoga and the Art of GMing

What does yoga have to do with GMing? Get ready for your Tortured Metaphor of the Day.

GMing is all about being flexible.

Anecdote: I just finished a campaign creation session for a new game I'll be running through the Western University Roleplaying club this semester, Carnaby Street.

I had always wanted to run a game that was inspired by the Beatles, in some way. When I was trying to come up with ideas for games we could play, to give one of the new incarnations of Fate a test-spin, I came back to that concept that's been on my "compost heap" for a while and tossed it around. The Swinging Sixties are a big, colourful era with lots of gaming potential, although I'd want to steer well clear of the Austin Powers take on the era (which I feel stopped being funny over a decade ago). Also, no camp please. I like the Adam West Batman, but in small doses.

I was probably affected on some level by the recent CENTURY storyline in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on some level, and I won't go into the details of why, but what I ended up zeroing in on was Harry Potter. The underlying concept of the Potter books is to take the setting of many classic British children's books -- the British public school system -- and add magic. What would happen, I wondered, if you took that premise and applied it to the world of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?

Carnaby Street. I was picturing something big and bright and stylish, something that borrowed heavily from Grant Morrison's brilliant comic The Invisibles (specifically, the look of the "Gideon Stargrave" and "Mister Six" digressions) and told a tale of magical youth kicking down the doors of perception. I started watching re-runs of the Diana Rigg incarnation of The Avengers as inspiration. (I'm not sure I actually got much for my game out of them, but I can't complain of an excuse to watch Diana Rigg look fabulous and kick people in the face. Also, the daffy implausibility of the plots is gold.)

I brought all that to the table. But my players took it in an entirely different direction.

Their Carnaby Street is a world of repressive government crackdowns, camps where young magicians are stripped of their power and reprogrammed into good citizens, and stylish young drug-experimenting magi on the run. Special Branch cracks heads and sorts out the "wrong sort" from tinkering in the domain of tweedy Eton types who run the country (the world?) from the oak-paneled back rooms of centuries-old clubs. But that's not stopping the young and stylish from taking a witch's brew of dangerous new drugs that help them stoke their magic and see into brave new worlds.

I'm not complaining. This is pretty cool stuff. And that's the tradeoff you make when you agree to collective campaign creation. You loosen your grip on the game world, let others play with it a bit, and see where that takes you.

Old school GMs probably get their knickers in a knot over this idea. And yes, it can be a nerve-wracking process surrendering a good deal of the design to your fellow players.

But the yoga masters? The flexible guys who go with the flow, they get paid dividends of buy-in by their players.

It's good to be flexible.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

To Crunch or Not To Crunch

There is an argument in the roleplaying community that is as old as the hobby: to what extent do rules affect the game you are running? Do rules count, or are they just a context for fiction created by the players?

In recent years, at least, I fall on the side of "rules count quite a lot". Which isn't necessarily to say that I think you need a very large, complex, or detailed set of rules to facilitate good roleplaying.

Rules condition behaviour, both from the players and from the GM. If a game system devotes half of its page count to detailed combat rules, it is a reasonable assumption to make that combat is intended to play a significant role in this game. Does that mean that you have to play the game in line with that assumption? No, but then again, if you are playing a game system that does not support the kind of play that you are inclined toward, one might reasonably ask "Why are you playing that system?"

Case in point: the Sanity rules from Call of Cthulhu. These rules reinforce the theme that investigating the Mythos is not only dangerous to life and limb, it can make you crazy too. It increases the feeling that the characters are fragile, that the forces they face are overwhelming (based on the number of things that demand a Sanity check in a typical scenario), and that the inevitable result of play is a downward spiral. Sure, there are plenty of players who play CoC in a more guns-blazing, pulp adventure mode, but there is very little support in the rules for that. You would have to be either very, very lucky or ignore a large portion of the game system to play a CoC game that rewards that mode of play.

And if you want to play a pulp adventure style Lovecraftian game, why not run it in a game system that expects and rewards that type of play? Such as Spirit of the Century (or more recent incarnations of Fate) or Adventure! or Hollow Earth Expedition?

The default mode of play in Dungeons & Dragons (which has, it must be said, remained popular for forty years -- so who am I to disdain it?) is killing monsters and accumulating treasure. Sure, you could use it for a highly political game of wheeling and dealing in the Game of Thrones mode, but there is very little support from the actual rules for that kind of thing. You might as well be using Big Eyes, Small Mouth.

Rules are not neutral, as we claimed Back in The Day. Rules are built around expected and implied behaviour from everyone involved. You could play a game of D&D that's high on drama and character development, but there is nothing in that system to reward you for making choices that are dramatically powerful or narratively interesting, as opposed to just hunting down some hapless orcs and taking their stuff. Killing monsters and getting treasure improves your character, letting you deal with bigger and bigger challenges, creating the framework for epic adventures. This is the point of the game design. The details have changed a bit over the years, but the focus is the same.

I'm not slagging D&D. It does (and has always done) what it does very well, and that's why it remains popular (as do games like Pathfinder or Castles & Crusades which borrow heavily from the D&D playbook). What I'm implying is that choosing D&D for your fantasy game is choosing a style of fantasy game. Choosing Warhammer Fantasy or Runequest changes what your game will look like in significant ways, as does choosing Everway or Amber Diceless or Burning Wheel.

Sometimes we choose a particular ruleset because it's what our group is familiar with, and that familiarity means that the rules have a certain transparency -- we're not thinking about how to do something, according to the rules, only about what our characters want to do. That's something that can't be underestimated, and sometimes the familiar choice is a good one. Having a strong foundation for your game came make the ambitious things you've got in mind seem easier and more achievable.

Sometimes we choose a game that's new, simply because we want to give it a test drive and see how it goes. Novelty has its own pitfalls, though on the whole I am a big booster for trying new things and seeing what they can teach you about different kinds of play. There's always something that you can steal, even if a game doesn't do everything that you want it to.

Once you've got a good background in different game systems, though, I think a GM must make the choice of ruleset very carefully, with an eye toward what kind of game they want to play. You can always change rules part way through, if the game's not doing what you want to, but sometimes it's very hard to change directions once your players begin to condition their play toward what the rules emphasizes.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A HTHD Manifesto

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to one of those articles that was allegedly for our betterment as human beings. It presented what it characterized as "hard truths" about life that were somehow supposed to improve our lives by stripping out dumb illusions. Really, it was just a screed of utter cynicism, and I have little patience for that sort of thing. "Why aren't you as cynical as I am?" is not a persuasive argument as far as I'm concerned, though there is plenty in this dirty old world to be cynical about.

Here's a song you can listen to while you sit in the dark and drink hard liquor and frown about how lousy it all is. Be my guest.

Cynicism isn't good enough for me.

Cynicism is lazy. It's the philosophy of "everything sucks, so fuck the world". Cynicism has nothing to contribute except a pouty face and the conviction that the knowledge the world sucks makes you dreadfully cool and smart. Cynicism doesn't try to change things or contribute something that doesn't suck.

Sometimes I'm cynical, but I try to do better. Today, I'm going to try to give you a shot of not-cynicism as an innoculation against cynical people who would rather you just sit in the corner with them than build something meaningful with your life. Call it an Anti-Cynicism Manifesto, if you like. I will frame it in terms of positive stuff you can do at the table to improve your HTHD play, but really it's intended as a means to live your life in a way that's more positive generally. Your mileage may vary. Here goes:
  • Be Honest, Trust Others
Creating an open, honest dialogue is a great way to create the conditions for HTHD play, and also a great way to live your life. I'm not advocating that you hand your wallet to everyone you meet, but it's an easy way to improve your relationships. Tell people what your thoughts are, rather than bottling them up. Let people into your life and they will begin to do the same. This is what friendship is all about, and it's easy to forget; we start to think that a relationship is about trappings like the things we do when we hang out, and not about the connection that makes those things possible. Deep connections are rewarding, and they start with openness and honesty.
  • Listen
Be mindful of the people around you, and the things they say. Even if you've got a good relationship with someone in your life (or at your table), sometimes communication is strained. Someone is trying to work something through, and it's hard to talk about. Or they need some help, and don't know how to ask. Or they flat-out just need another human being to really pay attention to them for a few moments and let them know that their little struggles matter. Mindfulness doesn't seem like a hard thing, but it requires work and patience.
  • Be Generous
Share the things that are important to you. Natalie Goldberg writes that it is a great kindness to take someone by the hand and show them something you love, something beautiful. At the table, a lot of the joy some players get out of gaming is what has been called "lonely fun" -- writing a detailed character backstory, world-building, that sort of thing. It's so important to get these things on the table, into the game, so that everyone can appreciate the things that make the game cool to you. The more you share, the more you get back; artists know this, because art can't exist without someone to appreciate it. And it's a great thing to do away from the table too. My wonderful, kind wife writes reviews of books she loves on GoodReads, and she makes a habit of giving away books she loves to friends. She wants people to share the awesome.
  • Be Bold
Regrets can poison your life. If I could give one message to my younger self, it would be that trying something and failing is not as painful as wondering what would have happened if... Life doesn't come with a safety line. You have to stick your neck out sometimes, to get what you want in life. Choose your battles, but keep striving. Ambition and self-improvement are one of the things that gives life a special flavour, and when you make a positive change in your life (or in your gameplay) it feels great. You don't have to have six-pack abs or an Olympic pole-vaulting record to enjoy exercising. Striving is its own reward.
  • It's Okay to Be Vulnerable
This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to learn, because practically everything in Western society tells you that this is not The Way It Is. People aren't supposed to tell each other what they feel -- a lot of common wisdom would tell you that it's a terrible mistake to let down your emotional armour even for a second. But this is exactly wrong. The way to have a deep connection with a friend or a spouse or a fellow gamer is to share those moments of vulnerability. There is nothing so powerful as the feeling that you have given yourself entirely over to another person, and they have not turned you away. The creation of a "safe place" in your life with your close friends, family, and fellow gamers means that you will feel more yourself, because you aren't hiding a large chunk of yourself away from the world. It's scary to be vulnerable, but it's okay to be afraid sometimes. Every intimate connection I have is all about the times I let my guard down and opened up my life to someone else.
  • Be Kind to Each Other
This is the bottom line for me. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, ' On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - "God damn it, you've got to be kind." ' Making art or building relationships is all about being kindness and compassion; so it is at the gaming table. Support each other and create safe places. Be honest and help each other be both vulnerable and bold. The world is improved by even a small kindness, cynics be damned. How many times has a single kind word or small good deed -- from a friend or even a complete stranger -- made your day better? When someone at your table has really gone for it, and stuck their neck out in a scene, let them know how much you appreciated it. Let them know it mattered to you.

Be kind. Make a better world.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Problem With Funny (Part Two)

The thing about good comedy is that it's usually got more content than you think. The best comedy is about something more than making you laugh; it is rooted in character, and often rooted in something that is painful or difficult to talk about.  

The World's End (which, by the way, was very good) is about both the classic conundrum of adults returning to the old haunts of their youth to find they don't fit in there anymore, and also about the tension between the freedom of youth and the burdens of responsible adulthood. Thankfully, it explores these themes in all their complexity, rather than making pat pronouncements.

Also, a lot of mandroids get bashed into goo.

I think this is true (the comedy has content part, not the robots bashed to goo part) of the best comedy roleplaying games too. Paranoia is about living in an Orwellian futuristic dystopia, and more specifically it's about roleplaying games themselves -- lampooning the "old school" style games where the GM was supposed to randomly visit misery and death on the characters. Many of the old Paranoia adventures even reference specific games.

Fiasco is a bit of a fringe case, because it straddles the line between screwball comedy and high-pressure drama. Although the tone of the game is usually over the top, and the overwhelming mechanical result of play is a series of hilariously tragic / ignominious endings for the players, it would be possible to see a Fiasco game played very seriously.

What I'm getting to here is that a good comedy game has a lot in common with HTHD play. Good comedy is about characters, the things they want desperately, and the actions they take to get them. All of that is true of drama too; the difference is in the tone. Good drama games and good comedy games have an underlying theme they're portraying. Comedy does not necessarily equal random goofiness.

I think it's significant that at least a couple of the example Series given in Primetime Adventures are comedies, especially the children's show "Moose In The City". The tools and the rules are the same, it's the authorial intent of everyone at the table that matters.

I think it's actually a potential pitfall of HTHD play that you begin to take yourself and your games too seriously at the table. Powerful, dramatic scenes are well and good, and for those of us that enjoy that kind of play, they are rewarding like nothing else. But there is also room for different kinds of games that aren't doom and gloom, aren't for the-world-will-be-doomed-if-we-fail stakes, aren't your usual cuppa. I found it very rewarding to deliberately aim my Firefly game toward a more upbeat and optimistic ending than my games usually have.

Mixing up the tone and content of your games is always a good idea, whether it's scene-to-scene, episode-to-episode, or passing from one game to the next. A one-note game is ultimately as unfulfilling as one with no content at all. Roleplaying can and should embrace all genres, borrowing whatever tricks it can to grow and become richer and more complex.

Why not play a comedy?

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Problem With Funny (Part One)

So we're going to see THE WORLD'S END today, the new Simon Pegg / Nick Frost / Edgar Wright comedy which mixes "lads at the pub" with killer robots. (I would provide a link to the trailer, but I figure if you're reading this you are probably already aware of it, either by dint of your hobbyist tendencies or the fact the commercials for it are running almost constantly.) Very happy about that.

This put me in mind of comedy in roleplaying games.

I have to say that, although I've played and read a lot of RPGs in my time, very few of them actually billed themselves as Comedy. The only ones I own are Teenagers From Outer Space, Fiasco, and Low Life (the Savage Worlds supplement of postapocalyptic fantasy where you can play a flatworm barbarian or a Twinkie weilding magical powers). I've played Paranoia, of course -- and that's the game most people think of when they think of comedy RPGs -- and run several games of Ghostbusters, but somehow comedy always seems a hard sell at the roleplaying table.

Some players seem to think that the act of actually sitting down with the intention to create a comedy game is doomed to fail -- that comedy is something that happens spontaneously while you're doing games that are mostly serious, or sometimes serious, or oh bugger it we're just arsing around with the dice and killing orcs so if we crack wise at each other cut us some slack, okay? In other words, that comedy is something that exists mostly in the realm of the players and not in the realm of the game setting.

Certainly, it's true that a good deal of the humour in roleplaying comes from spontaneous exchanges between players. Who doesn't have dozens of beloved, hilarious quotes from their games over the years? It's strange to me that comedy seems to be such a fringe part of the roleplaying hobby, however, because practically all of my experiences with it have been successful and good. Some are funnier than others, sure, but the same is true of dramatic games. Some nights you're just "on".

Perhaps part of that is self-consciousness on the part of the players. Saying that you're going to play a game that requires everybody to be funny can be nerve-inducing; but again, the same thing happens in HTHD games. I've written before about the difficulties with getting people to commit to scenes and really go after those moments of vulnerability and emotion. I suspect that this is a thing that becomes easier with practice, just as regular practice at improv scenes can loosen up those mental muscles and build skills at riffing off each other.

The other part of the problem is that roleplaying games are a time-intensive hobby. Players perhaps spend 3-4 hours at the game table, each week, in the groups I play in. I'm sure some of you still indulge in 6-8 hour marathons, but most adult gamers don't have the same luxury. (I remember the halcyon university days of playing D&D until the wee small hours of the morning, then trudging out through the Montreal snow for breakfast at Picasso's before finally stumbling home to bed. Ah! Youth.) People want to play a game with some "meat" to it, if they've got limited time, and somehow comedy -- playing a game that is explicitly comedy -- feels slight. Not worthy of your time. It's easier to play something that's more vanilla fantasy (or horror, or whatever) and toss in occasional wisecracks than it is to commit a lot of time to an ongoing comedy game.

Like the modern Cookie Monster says, comedy is more of a "sometimes" thing in roleplaying games.

But maybe we're selling comedy short.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Can I Get You Another, Guv'nor?

So what would a sequel game to Sunset Empire look like?

There are probably a lot of answers to that question. Our extended epilogue to the series explored the beginnings of a Strange New Century for London (and the world), one where magic and the faerie folk aren't just things that exist in children's stories.

What might the Great War look like with combat magicians, or infantry golems, or biplanes shooting it out with fire-breathing dragons? (It would look like Kurt Busiek's comic series Arrowsmith, which is well worth searching out if you don't know it already.) I mentioned that I can easily see a Weird War 2 game where our heroes square off with the Unseelie Gestapo and all manner of Teutonic strangeness.

My preference would be to stick to the "punk" aesthetics that boiled under the surface of the original game, however, which was intended to be a story about desperate, disenfranchised folk fighting for an Empire that has no place for them. The logical next step is to roll the timeline ahead to 1975, the era the Sex Pistols exploded on the scene, and do a game that explores the punk world straight on.

I'm a fan of Tanith Lee,  just in case I've never mentioned it, and for my proposed punk ("faeriepunk"? "strangepunk"?) game I'm stealing a name from her weird alternate-Victoriana book Reigning Cats and Dogs. In Lee's otherworldly version of London, the place names are familiar but slightly changed. Her name for Whitechapel, where much of the third act of Sunset Empire came to a head, is "Blackchurch". That seems to me a great title for a sequel game.

This time, the heroes would be street kids and squatters trying to survive with their wits, magic, and little else. The Royal Magisterial Corps has long since become the Establishment, another institution that is more interested in propping up the decadent reign of Her Immortal Majesty than the struggles of the people. They train the jackbooted thugs of Special Branch to crack the heads of any mouthy little prick -- human, faerie, or c) Other -- who attracts their attention. 

While the original game was, on one level, a procedural affair where the heroes investigated and mobilized and made war, Blackchurch would be a more intimate game. It would be about a community, a subculture, and above all the desperation and anger of the time. 

If it sounds like this is something more than another idea on the mental compost pile, that's only because I feel very close to the setting of Sunset Empire and slipping back into it would be easy enough. Whether that's a good idea or not is something that's debatable.

For now, it's just an idea.

Monday, 19 August 2013

That's a Wrap!

Last night was the final episode of my Victorian vampire hunter game, Sunset Empire. I am usually an advocate of short, sharp endings in RPGs, but this time we did something a little different.

The action of the campaign actually finished last session, and that would ordinarily be the place where I stop; in the past, I've felt that it's better to go out with a bang than draw out the goodbyes. This time, I opted for an extended denouement which took a whole episode. The bad guys were already all dead or scattered, the mission complete, only a few small details left to sweep up.

The reason I went for the longer ending was partly because of the scope of the story -- SE ran for three long seasons and incorporated a lot of story and characters over the course of four years of play. The other part was that from the beginning I'd wanted the players to have an opportunity to make bold moves and really change the world with their actions; would they prop up a corrupt and decadent empire that hates them, or leave it to die at the hands of a vampire god and his Unseelie allies? (As it turns out, neither.)

Making a big change in the setting at the end of the series means that you don't really get a chance to see how that's going to play out. In this case, the actions of one of the player characters tore down the barriers between the physical world and the Middlemarch, the otherworldly realm of the faeries. Victoria and Titania were now one powerful, immortal entity, and London was transformed into something new and fresh and strange. What would the new century look like? Only allowing the players to play out a few scenes would let us know that.

I had scribbled down a few ideas for what might happen, over the greater span of time, but it turned out that we wrapped up the denouement (on a particularly choice line of dialogue) just before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. That was enough time to chart the course of a changing world and say goodbye to one of the characters, a ghost who finally surrendered his hold on the world after his half-fae paramour's death. That scene had it all -- sadness, comfort, and a laugh-out-loud end line ("What could possibly go wrong?"). We cut to black, and in the end we didn't really need to see what a magic-injected Great War or a WW2 with Unseelie Gestapo looked like.

I had hoped to bring the timeline up to 1975, where our fae character would come face to face with his punk descendents -- Johnny Rotten and a faerie that looked suspiciously like Sid Vicious. But that's another one for the cutting room floor... something you've got to let go of at the end of a long, good game.

I'm not sure I would often go back to the "long denouement" model, but I think it was a good fit this time around, and it let the players write the ending for their characters that they wanted. Or at least the one that was the most satisfying.

And so Sunset Empire rides off into the sunset.

Good show, chaps.