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.