Friday, 25 January 2013

Tales From The Table: Firefly (Part Four)

The episode began with a quick montage of the player characters being captured by the crimelord's assassin. I had ended the last episode with a scene of the assassin appearing silently behind one of the PCs, aiming her sword at the small of the character's back. For all the players knew, this was their characters being killed one after the other.

The captain, Tess, awakened with a sack over her head and her hands bound. The sack was removed, and the found herself sitting at a table with an enormous spread of luscious looking food.

Tess realized that she was starving - she's probably been locked up for days without food.

The crimelord introduced himself with elaborate good manners, offering her tea, and hoping they could put the unpleasantness behind them with a nice meal. "But before we enjoy our food, we should conclude our business. I have just a few small questions for you, captain..."

And so it began, for each of the characters.

The crimelord brings them in separately, starving, and seats them at a table heavy with the most exotic and delicious food they can imagine. He is polite, he never raises his voice.

He asks questions. He begins to put pressure on the characters when they do not provide answers. Slowly, the pressure is increased until the pretense of manners is gone.

  • Tess, the captain, is threatened via her extended "family" of space gypsies. If they are part of the Underground Railroad, he will punish them. When she denies they are part of the Railroad, he offers her access to exotic longevity treatments that could save the life of Old Joe (whose health is deteriorating after exposure to a radiation leak).
  • Carmen, the pregnant Alliance war criminal, he takes a different tack. He tells her that he knows about her past, her deeds during the war... he is impressed by her ruthlessness. He offers her a position within his organization. A safe place for her child. A safe place from the Alliance.
  • Lena, the Quaker "Conductor" on the Underground Railroad, is given the most extreme challenge. He attacks her close-held religious beliefs. Will she allow her pregnant comrade to die on the cold floor of his prison, allow the child to die, to protect contacts she barely knows?  He sneers that her God is weak or does not exist, if the crimelord is allowed to operate and inflict harm on the innocent.
In each case, the crimelord offers them their freedom without condition or recrimination, on the condition that they turn over their contacts in the Underground Railroad.

The assassin lurks behind each of the characters as the interrogation unfolds, and the implication is clear: if they attempt an attack, the sword will flash out and they will be dead...

 Aside: The title of this episode was "Cold Tea Blues". It's worth noting that, a few years ago, I started using the convention of naming episodes of my RPGs using a protocol suggested (I think) originally by the formidable SteveD of He did an article about 32 Episodes of Firefly based on titles of Elton John songs, and I started using riffs on that idea during my American Nightmare game (in that case, I was using the titles of Bruce Springsteen songs). It seemed to me an effective way of creating a sort of invisible unifying thread -- a voice that resonates with the material of the game, in some way -- inside a series of game episodes.

It seemed appropriate to carry on the tradition for another game in the same universe as SteveD's original article. For Firefly, since we had an all-female main cast on the "show", I decided early on that this was going to be a game that was about women and female power. I always made a point of including female NPCs in positions of power (including a Kennedy-esque female Alliance governor, a female Alliance soldier on their tail, and a legendary Browncoat leader). It was not an accident that the crimelord in this episode was a male. 

My naming protocol for the episodes was to pick the titles of songs which had female vocalists - a strong "female voice" in the background of the series, if you will. The title of this episode is from a Cowboy Junkies song. Check it out.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Tales From The Table: Firefly (Part Three)

To paraphrase Bill Cosby, "I told you that story so I could tell you this one..."

The high point of our Firefly campaign was an episode where I stole a riff from the classic TV show, Homicide: Life on the Street. At the conclusion of the first story arc on that show, which had focused on the investigation of a young girl's murder, the detectives finally had a suspect in custody. The evidence was shaky, though, so Detectives Bayliss and Pembleton (the latter played by a young firebrand who went on to become one of the great actors of his generation, Andre Braugher) dragged the suspect into the interrogation room for an extended interrogation. For the characters on the show, the interrogation went on for hours; for viewers, it lasted almost the entire length of the episode. An hour of TV with three characters attacking each other verbally and mentally, breaking each other down in the most vicious ways imaginable. It was both great, landmark TV drama and a potent message about the potential abuse of police interrogations. By the end of the episode, we're not sure what the truth might be. And neither are the detectives. The suspect walks free, and the case is never closed.

Although the campaign, up until that episode, had featured some dramatic scenes and intense moments, I intended to turn the knob up to '11'. In this episode, I intended to have the PCs captured by a crimelord who planned to break the Underground Railroad that Megan's character Lena was part of. Like on Homicide, the crimelord's interrogation of the PCs would take up almost the entire three hours of the play session.

I knew this was a huge risk, because it flew in the face of one of the first things that young GMs learn: players do not like to be captured, and they sure as hell don't like to feel helpless. I knew that I was in dangerous territory, because I certainly didn't want to deprotagonize the characters, so I had to tread carefully. I set some ground rules for myself, one of which was that since I was already "cheating" them into this situation, I had to "play fair" during the interrogation. The villains - no matter how vile - could never resort to physical torture or the tyranny of dice rolls to force information or concessions out of the characters. They could only mount attacks that were psychological, pushing pressure points on the PCs' values and broader vulnerabilities.

I knew this episode could either be the high point of the campaign or a disaster. I worried about it for days, asking myself if it was really a good idea or whether it would sink the Firefly game... and maybe upset my friends, who I love. By the time that game night rolled around, my gut was tied up in knots.

I prefaced my session with some fumbling words about how we were going to try something a little experimental and new, and that it was going to be intense stuff. I told them that when we got into the intense scenes, we would switch back and forth between the players from time to time to give people a breather. If a player was feeling like the scene was getting to be too much, and they needed me to switch out to someone else for a bit, they just had to signal that to me with a hand wave.

There was a look of dread on my players' faces. Did I really just say that this roleplaying game came with a safety word? They didn't know what I was up to, and they weren't sure they liked where this was going. I could see that right away.

But we did keep going...

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Tales From The Table: Firefly (Part Two)

So: a gypsy, a pacifist, and a pregnant war criminal.

These three characters formed the core crew of the Fandango, the Firefly class transport at the centre of my game. Amanda's character Tess was the captain and main pilot of the ship, Megan's character Lena filled the niche of ship doctor and Colin's character Carmen was the engineer. I also decided, since my main cast was small, that we should have two more characters as supporting cast on the Firefly - a backup pilot and engineer. We developed them as a last step during character creation, and the NPCs we ended up with were Old Joe and Jimmy Woo.

Old Joe was a member of the same extended family of space gypsies as Tess, a crotchety old veteran spacer who had helped her acquire the Fandango -- which had originally belonged to Tess's brother -- when it mysteriously appeared in a salvage yard. Jimmy was a teenage runaway who was also a daredevil pilot. (Both were intended to back up Tess and Carmen, so that the ship could still function if one of them was separated from the small crew for some reason.)

The Fandango itself, which had a long history with Tess's family of space gypsies, also became a member of the cast much as Serenity is on Whedon's original show. Amanda decided that this was a ship that had traditionally carried families (which was appropriate to the themes of Firefly generally) and whose outer hull was marked with the painted handprints of everyone who had ever shipped out on her over the decades. The best episodes of the game unfolded almost entirely on this "set".

With these starting ingredients, I knew I was heading toward a game that I hadn't planned for. I couldn't simply give this crew standard "Let's go be bad guys" missions in the traditional Firefly style, as combat was not their strong suit. Unlike the Serenity game we'd played, this time around no one had been interested in playing a riff on Jayne Cobb, everyone's favourite amoral gunslinger and grumpy musclehead. (The last game, EVERYONE wanted to play some variation on Jayne, it seemed like. That didn't work very well.)

I knew that I would have to rely on challenges that were not focused on combat, but emphasized roleplaying and intrigue elements. Clearly, the characters themselves demanded certain things: some of the story must be about the gypsies, some of it must be about the rescue of slaves (and the repercussions of same), and part of the story would be Carmen's Alliance and family background and the responsibilities of pregnancy.

Slight aside: When Colin first floated the idea of being pregnant, he pitched it in a very non-committal way. His idea was that she was just in the early weeks, just on the edge of showing, and that this would be an issue that was mainly an abstract concern for his character - a motivation for choices about her future. I pushed hard for the idea that unless, over the course of the game, she really was visibly and physically changed by pregnancy - possibly giving birth over the course of the game - it wasn't as strong a story element. As the old saw in the theatre goes, If there is a gun hanging on the wall of your set, someone had better get shot by the end of the third act. Why have her be pregnant if she wasn't going to give birth?

Colin tried to back away from this, worrying that this was going to be a not-fun burden for his character, but we somehow talked him into going for it. I was glad that he agreed, because I think this made the character more interesting and unusual, and it raised the stakes much higher for the game overall. Also, given the length of time involved in travel through the Verse, it wasn't hard to imagine that over the course of a number of adventures, months of time would pass.

And yes, Carmen did give birth as an element of the last episode of the game, just as the Fandango was being stormed by Alliance troops.

To be continued...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Secret of Life, the Universe, and Everything?

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled nerdery for a special message from HTHD headquarters.

I'm 42 today. Yeah.

It's been another whirlwind year of highs and lows, amazing surprises and existential dread. Oh, and some great games. Always with the gaming.

  • We wrapped up SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED, a game I'm particularly proud of. Not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but had some powerful episodes and great moments overall.
  • We drifted away from our brunch-on-weekends place, the Westside, as the food hasn't been as good lately for some reason. 
  • ...But we discovered Billy's Deli downtown, which kicks ass in a satisfying-your-tummy way.
  • I continued to struggle along doing temp-work in lieu of a good long term job. The economy in this part of Ontario is pretty lousy.
  • ...But I got a nice long term contract with the Ontario government which paid pretty well and let me work with nice people in a low-pressure environment. Awesome.
  • And my friend Rob was kind enough to hire me on to do some freelance writing in the fall, working up a rough draft document of the augmented reality game he's been working on for several years now. Tecumseh lives!
  • I got to trade e-mails with one of my favourite comic book artists, Tim Truman! And he's going to be doing a special illustration for the aforementioned ARG!
  • The conclusion of Colin's long-running postapocalyptic game THE CORE. Farewell for now to Magnus and the gang. Sequel forthcoming?
  • THE AVENGERS! 'Nuff said.
  • I ran a satisfying second season of my Victorian vampire hunter game SUNSET EMPIRE, setting the stage for an epic finale this winter. 
  • Apple fritters at the fairgrounds. *sigh*
  • We got a terrific, super-tense new Andre Braugher series, LAST RESORT. Then they cancelled it. Argh.
  • Rob has been running the awesome COLD CITY. I get to be a Russian killing machine. Love. It.
  • Megan ran her first game. Holy shit!
  • After many years of idle chat, I started actually working on putting together a real, honest to goodness podcast with my friend Colin and my wonderful wife Megan. Soon.
  • Some other movies that I loved this past year: The Dark Knight Rises, The Cabin in the Woods, Cloud Atlas, Skyfall (I really think Ken and Robin missed the boat on this one). We also caught up with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, which is older but fantastic.
  • After a 20-year stretch as a guy with a goatee, I now have a full beard again.
  • I have a brand new iMac! So happy.
  • My parents bought me an iPod touch for Xmas, for the high tech double-double. So I now own a "device" that I can use for wireless internet, texting, all this stuff that The Kids have known about for years. 
  • I have embraced this technology and gotten way, way more interested in things like Twitter than is good for me. Oh, yeah, and I started a blog. 
  • I failed -- twice -- to get a RPG game going with the club on campus. Not enough player interest. 
  • ...But that made me investigate online "virtual tabletop" software like Roll20, and now I'm planning to run a game for some old friends who are spread around the country and haven't gamed together for almost 20 years. Wow. Technology is awesome. 
Through it all, I have had great friends around me on good days and bad, a family that love me, an orange cat who is always happy to see me at the end of the day, a grey cat that pretends to scorn everything I stand for (but curls up on my lap and purrs when no one is looking), and a wonderful wife beside me who reminds me every day that I am the luckiest guy on earth.

Sentimental interlude concluded. Tomorrow I promise to write about something very, very nerdy that would get me punched and my lunch money stolen if I were in a high school cafeteria and not in a bully-proof bunker.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Tales from the Table: Firefly (Part One)

I promised earlier that I would share a few tales of High Trust, High Drama in play, as an example of the kinds of game that we've enjoyed when HTHD hits high gear.

For the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to play in two regular groups - one of them on the weekend, the other on Wednesday nights. I initially started the second group as a means to get more time "behind the screen", a way to hone my skills and tell a few stories that I might not have time for in my weekend group. (On weekends, I trade off GMing duties with my friends Rob and Colin, and last summer my wife Megan took her first turn in the GM chair.) It was also a chance to game more regularly with our friend Amanda, who we'd been lucky enough to meet during a game at WARP, the local university gaming club.

Amanda is a Firefly junkie (and so are the rest of us), so our first Wednesday game was an easy choice. I'd had a couple of ideas about what I'd do with Firefly floating around in my mind - parts of the story that seemed unresolved at the end of the Serenity movie, and glosses of my own that I wanted to inject - so I was charged up to run this. "Easy" went out the door as soon as we sat down to make characters, however.

My concern about playing Firefly - because I'd already played in a Serenity game back in Kingston - was that we'd fall into the old RPG trap of playing a game that was essentially about heartless mercenaries. Murder hoboes on a spaceship, if you will. I wanted to tell stories that were deeper and more Whedonesque than that. I wanted drama and heartbreak, not cold negotiations over cash and contract details. So I came to the table with a simple demand of my players: their characters had to have one thing that they couldn't walk away from. They could be mercenaries in every other sense, but there had to be one thing that they cared enough about that no amount of money or danger could sway them.

My players took up this gauntlet, and then some.

The characters they brought to the table were:

  • Amanda was to play the captain and owner of the ship, who happened to belong to an extended family of gypsy-like spacegoers who made their life and living travelling from world to world. (This was her first game at our table, again, and this was the closest we came to a "standard" Firefly character or a straightforward heroic roleplaying type. And not that close at that.)
  • Megan's character was a Quaker pacifist, a "conductor" on the spacegoing Underground Railroad meant to deliver people from the slavery that seems common in the Verse.
  • Colin's character was a former Alliance officer who had committed a notorious atrocity during the Unification War, and now was on the run from her wealthy family. Oh yes, and she was very, very pregnant.

That's right, a gypsy, a Quaker, and a pregnant war criminal. Whatever I'd expected would come of this game, my players had also thrown down the gauntlet at me. I had been afraid of a game that was going to be all gunfights no heart, and the crew I'd ended up with were all heart and no gunfight.

And that was just the beginning...

As an aside, I think it's important to note that the size of your roleplaying group often has a direct effect on the quality of in-character dramatic play. Both American Nightmare and Firefly were three-PC games, and I don't think it's a coincidence that we got a lot of good, deep play -- we had lots of "spotlight time" to go around.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Back to the Drawing Board

The best-laid schemes of dice and GMs go often awry.

...Sorry. I know, it's another thousand years in the punsters' purgatory for me.

For the last while, I've been hoping to get a game going in association with the campus roleplaying club, WARP. I often run games at the semi-regular "mini-cons" and conduct seminars on GMing that are well-attended and usually get me good feedback. I had hoped that a game with people outside my usual "comfort zone" -- players who aren't completely on-board with my style -- would present a challenge which would help me improve my skills.

Unfortunately, I didn't get enough players to get a game started. I expected that I might get a little reluctance to join up with the game and concept I was selling -- a Wild Talents game of superhuman revolutionaries fighting against the super-villains who rule the world. Gritty supers games are, as Dennis Detwiller says in the introduction of WT, "a niche of a niche", and I knew players might be hesitant to jump into a game where the odds were stacked that high. Fair enough.

I've been champing at the bit to do some more GMing, and also to try some new things in gaming, and what I've decided to pursue is an online game instead of an on-campus one.

My previous experience with online games have been entirely text-based -- I ran a Rifts game and a Warhammer Fantasy game via e-mail / posts, and played in a Warhammer game via chat. Neither was entirely satisfactory, though we did have some fun there. Both of them ended up being less like tabletop RPGs and more like interactive stories.

This time I'm using a tool called Roll20 -- a virtual tabletop program which is currently in beta. Roll20 operates entirely within your browser, which makes it very accessible, and it includes lots of lovely bells and whistles such as video chat and built-in music and sound effects.

This is certainly an appealing solution for older gamers -- many of my old gaming pals are now spread to the four corners of the globe, and it would be great to sit down at the virtual tabletop with them and revisit some of our old games or try out new ones. I'm currently prepping a short Western game called Blood Money to give the whole thing a good test drive. I will post my experiences as they unfold.

There is a very good video introduction to Roll20 and the tools it brings to the party here:

Note: I should also mention that it was Jolly Blackburn who turned me on to Roll20 in the latest issue of Knights of the Dinner Table. I'd heard of Roll20 before, but Jolly was the one that got me to take a closer look. Another thing I have to thank Jolly for, in addition to many years of laughs. Thanks Jolly.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

We Don't Need No Steenkin' Badgers!

Another of my pet obsessions is comic books. I've been a comic book fan -- collector is probably not the right word, because I'm less interested in keeping my comics in pristine shape than I am in enjoying them -- since I was about six years old. I suspect that everyone believes they grew up in the greatest age of (x), through the lens of nostalgia, but in the case of comic books I really did grow up in a remarkable time.

In the early 80's, a lot of the artists who had been superstars in the 1970s -- guys like Mike Grell, Howard Chaykin, and Jim Starlin -- began dipping their toes in the waters outside the Big Two publishers. Some experimented with creator-owned material (it's hard to believe, in retrospect, that Marvel once had a creator-owned line back in the day) while others just sought out publishers willing to let them produce comics that were about something other than people in long underwear punching each other in the face. That brings us to First Comics.

For a while, it seemed like every exciting, edgy comic in the world was coming out of First. Howard Chaykin brought us his sexy cyberpunk dystopia American Flagg!; Mike Grell produced Jon Sable Freelance (one of my all-time favourites); John Ostrander and Tim Truman created the immortal John Gaunt, AKA Grimjack; and Mike Baron and Steve Rude unleashed the costumed-but-decidedly-unsuperheroic Nexus.

It is another of Mike Baron's creations that I wish to write about today, an oddity (even back in the day, it was pretty odd) called The Badger.

In an age where comics off-the-beaten-track were perhaps more common, and Mike Baron in particular was writing some pretty odd stuff, The Badger was the ass-kicking mayor of Oddtown. Baron complains in an early editorial column -- which may or may not be baloney -- that he had this awesome idea to do a comic about an ancient druid, but couldn't sell it without the presence of a costumed superhero. Now that sounds more like the comic world I'm familiar with!

And that brings us to the Odd Couple who headline this excursion to Oddtown: Ham and The Badger. Ham is an ancient weather wizard kicked out of England by his wizarding contemporaries for his ambition and overenthusiastic storm-making. Taken "over the edge of the world" (to North America) in a state of suspended animation, where he won't trouble his contemporaries any more, Ham slumbers the centuries away before awakening in a Wisconsin mental hospital in the current day. Well, it was the current day back in 1983.

Ham telepathically introduces himself to his next-door-neighbour in the nuthouse, Norbert Sykes -- or at least, that's the name on his neighbour's case files. Sykes introduces himself as The Badger, and a few issues in we learn that this is the name of the largest spoke in a wheel of many multiple personalities. Sykes is a troubled Vietnam veteran who was abused as a child by his stepfather, producing a profoundly damaged human being who also happens to be a world-class martial artist with the Dr. Doolittle-like ability to speak with animals. Oh, and The Badger calls everyone Larry (the name of his deceased father).

Got that? Ham's an ancient druid transported to the modern world -- The Badger's a martial artist with MPD that can speak to the animals -- THEY FIGHT CRIME!

Well, sort of.

Ham teaches Norbert how to talk his way out of the asylum by teaching him how to give his gullible psychiatrists all the right answers, convincing them he's made a full recovery. With The Badger free to act as his familiar and his bodyguard, Ham "recovers" from feigned catatonia and checks himself out of the hospital. Using his magic, he promptly wins the lottery several times over and builds himself a small fortune. He hires his psychiatrist, Daisy, to act as his business manager (she stays on largely to continue treating Norbert) and purchases a castle where he can pick up just exactly where he left off in 412 AD, stirring up wild weather (and trouble).

The Badger, meanwhile, has made himself a costume (which is, it must be said, pretty bad-ass) and set about the business of fighting crime. Well, like I said, sort of. See, sometimes The Badger beats up street criminals like muggers, rapists, and gang members who pretty much all comics would have us believe deserve a vicious beating by someone in longjohns. The Badger, however, often administers beatings to people who are merely rude or uncouth -- litterers, drunken frat boys, and people who talk during movies, just to name a few. He is also singularly stern with those who are cruel to animals.

Looking back, this is the thing that makes The Badger an unforgettable character -- he's a spinning-back-kick in the face of superheroes in general. It couldn't be much clearer that Baron wasn't interested in the traditional dynamics of hero-meets-villain, hero-wails-on-villain, the-Earth-is-safe-once-again formula of traditional comics. Here was a costumed vigilante who basically exposed the arbitrary and absurd nature of costumed vigilantes, and, as Alan Moore would later expand on at length (in a much more dour fashion), an acknowledgement that people who did these kinds of things would have to be crazy.

And The Badger is Crazy. Capital-C Crazy.

The Badger and Ham do eventually fight some oddball characters you might call villains, such as the survivalist douchebag The Hodag (he gets turned into a weird human-turtle hybrid by a native curse), but most of The Badger's rogues gallery are semi-anonymous goons dispatched quickly so the story can concentrate on other stuff. Baron would rather show us Ham and The Badger taking on corporate goons, or comic-burning religious types, or engaging in philosophical debate over a beer. Eventually, The Badger acquires a sidekick of sorts in the ghost of Warren Oates, who passes through Norbert's life dispensing boozy wisdom.

I was lucky enough to recently find the first 15 issues of The Badger at my Friendly Local Comic Book Store for an unreasonably low price. If you happen to stumble across it yourself, it's well worth your time. The Badger is the kind of thing you don't read every day, now or back in the more-innocent-age of the early 1980s. By turns hilarious, political, thoughtful, thrilling, and just plain unlike anything else out there you're likely to read.

Check it out, Larry.

Friday, 11 January 2013

What's In A Name? (Part Four)

So, that's a capsule history of the HTHD style. Let me try to bring this ramble home with an attempt to synthesize all this into a workable definition -- which is what I promised you on Tuesday. Okay, we took the scenic route. Cut a new blogger some slack.

High Trust, High Drama is a roleplaying style that embraces narrative and especially deep character play.

High Trust means that there is a heightened openness and collaboration between the players and GM, and among the players themselves. It is the job of everyone at the table to build and tell the story as it unfolds, to help set up dramatic situations, and to participate in the game as both actor and audience. (In the latter case, players must trust that "spotlight time" will be shared equally among the players, and provide their attention and patience when they are not center stage.)

In a High Trust game, there are no in-character secrets between the players. The players are all privy to the secrets of each of the characters.

It does mean that the GM is often given greater latitude to place the characters in precarious, even harrowing situations, with the understanding that the GM will not take advantage of this situation to cripple or deprotagonize the character.

High Drama means that the explicit objective of this style of play is to collectively create stories filled with intense drama and deep character development. Players are expected to "go deep" into emotional territory that is not traditionally associated with roleplaying games.

High Drama also embraces some elements that are associated with other forms of narrative media -- television, theatre, movies, or novels -- in a way that roleplaying games have not traditionally done. Scripted cut-scenes, dramatic lighting, music, props, even "staged" scenes prepared in advance  are fair game.

As the blog continues, I will probably talk about some particularly successful applications of HTHD -- the Firefly session that was a series of long, intense interrogation scenes jumps out at me -- but for now I think that gets the basics of the style down for public consumption, debate, and angry invective.

If you have any questions, comments, or requests for further discussion, drop me a line.

Note: We were supposed to record our first episodes of Shake, Rattle and Roleplay tonight, but a flu bug has knocked my wife Megan for a loop. So far I seem to be weathering the storm, apart from a series of not-fun headaches. Hopefully we'll be putting down tracks in the next few days and I'll let you know when the first episodes go live.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

What's In A Name? (Part Three)

American Nightmare was just the beginning of HTHD. It showed me that some of my ideas about what kinds of stories might be possible at the table were workable, with the right group, and gave me some ideas about what we might try next. Over the next several years, my regular group has pushed the style further and added a bunch of new tricks to our gaming toolkit.

My friend Rob introduced us to the world of indie RPGs, and ran us through a great Primetime Adventures superhero (actually, supervillain) campaign -- T.H.E.M.! Primetime Adventures introduced us to the idea of the GM sharing narrative control with the players; in PTA it's standard operating procedure for the GM and players to take turns calling for scenes, and when a conflict exists in a scene the game mechanics not only decide how it is resolved, but who gets to narrate the resolution. So, in a PTA game it's possible for a player to lose a conflict, not get what they want, but still be able to narrate the resolution in a way that helps them save face or otherwise change the tenor of that outcome. Pretty nifty stuff.

My initial stabs at drama-intensive roleplaying pretty much demanded that the players come to the table with a lot of the material which would help build drama -- because their characters were at the core of everything that happened -- but PTA helped us take it to a new level. Not only could the players build those important foundations for drama, they could take a hand in saying what scenes happened and how they played out! Genius.

Another important element that's become a signature of our play style now is shared campaign creation. We learned about it from the Dresden Files RPG, and my friend Colin was the first to make use of it to build his postapocalyptic game The Core. Shared campaign creation is terrific because it allows players to set up locations and characters that they want to be part of their stories. Like the Aspects that are so important to the Fate system, shared campaign creation lets the players telegraph what's important to them to the GM in very explicit terms. And it also helps establish common assumptions / shared knowledge about the game world which makes it much easier for everyone to participate in storybuilding.

I mentioned before that the idea of players as both actors and audience in the drama was important to our playstyle, and I'd like to elaborate about that a little more. The traditional style of RPG play tends to emphasize players almost always sticking together and operating as a team. They might be a crew of dungeon delvers searching for treasure, or a team of shadowrunners breaking into a high-tech research facility, or investigators struggling against the dire deeds of sinister cults... but the default assumption is that the players will mostly work together.

Since dramatic play doesn't work this way -- drama tends to function at its most intense and satisfying during scenes between a small group of characters -- it is a necessary element of HTHD that players must often take the part of audience for scenes that feature other PCs. This flies in the face of traditional RPG play, and conventional wisdom would suggest this is an easy way to lead to bored players fiddling with their cell phones. What we have found is that, for the most part, that isn't actually true -- if the scenes being played out are dramatic enough, they aren't a boring burden for players that aren't involved -- they're intense and involving, just the way a good TV show is. Players are perfectly able to "shift gears" and follow another PC's storyline for a scene in exactly the same way a TV show or film manages to juggle multiple storylines.

Furthermore, Colin also realized that it was perfectly plausible to get players to participate in other PCs' stories by sharing out the roles of supporting characters. With a little prompting from the GM, a player could take the part of what would traditionally be an "NPC" and bring it to life as part of the supporting cast. Some games refer to this as "troupe" play.

Since players in this model are intimately involved with the details of other PCs' lives, it's an important fact of HTHD play that there can be no secrets at the table between players. For players to be able to enjoy the adventures of the other PCs as audience, they need to understand what those PCs are struggling against. Again, the traditional RPG logic is that this breaks immersion, but in practice we have found that open secrets between the players means that everyone gets a better perspective on the overall story unfolding. It's very little fun for a player to have an awesome subplot involving their character if the details all play out in surreptitious notes passed back and forth with the GM or whispered scenes outside the kitchen.

Moreover, if the other players are aware of what's happening with a given character, they can help set up dramatic moments for that character -- exactly as the GM does.

To be concluded...

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

What's In A Name? (Part Two)

The very next thing in the script, of course, was the appearance of a title card reading SIX MONTHS EARLIER...

I knew it was a big risk starting off the game with a scene from the end of the game -- effectively suggesting that this was where the story would end up, no matter what the players did from that point. The players would either love it or hate it. If they hated it, this might've been the shortest game I ever ran.

My reasons for starting with such an incendiary prelude were partly to signal to the players that the stakes for this story would be high, and also to telegraph to Megan what I had in mind for her character Rosa. (And yes, to drop their jaws a little bit. It's always a good idea to start with your best Sunday punch.)

Rosa was a character careening heedlessly into danger, and what I wanted to do was change up the dynamic -- give her someone she cared about, something she might worry about losing, something to fight for.

The love interest who appeared in the second episode was a psychic named Eric Macon, a visionary who sought Rosa out because he'd been having visions of her death. (The scene from the prelude, in short.) This changed things in an important way, because now it wasn't just the players who had knowledge of the way the story was heading, but the characters as well. (The awareness of everyone at the table participating in scenes both as audience and actor would later come to be an important element of HTHD.)

This cast Rosa's story in an entirely new light. Now she had foreknowledge of her own death, and every action she took brought her closer to that moment. As Joss Whedon would have it, heroism is defined by the sacrifices you make, and Rosa went into the final battle knowing she would lose it all. In the last episode, she visited the church from Eric's vision, where she knew she would be killed. What had been a cool but bland character at home in nearly any RPG adventure became an unforgettable tragic hero caught up in the tides of fate.

Megan is fond of telling people that the end of this game -- American Nightmare -- was the first time (but not the last) that I made her cry during a roleplaying game.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What's In A Name? (Part One)

Okay, I promised an explanation of the blog's title in yesterday's inaugural entry. So what is "High Trust, High Drama"?

HTHD is a shorthand I came up with for a style of RPG play that we've been developing at my table for the last few years. I was trying to push roleplaying to resemble more closely the kind of storytelling found in the best TV shows, films, and novels. I'm sure somewhere there is an Angry Young Nerd puffing up his chest to bellow at me I should go write TV shows, films, and novels if that's what I really want, and stop inappropriately touching his beloved hobby. Yes, this is a playstyle that is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy a big scoop of deep character play in their gaming, drizzled with the hot chocolatey sauce of story, this is something that provides very rewarding games. It's given me the best games of my life over the last few years.

A number of years ago, I started writing short scripted cut-scenes for my RPG adventures. They started out strictly as a framing device, something that could get a session started in medias res and deliver the appropriate exposition to the players through their own mouths -- as they would take the parts of the characters in the scene. I didn't invent this technique, I stole it from Blood Brothers 2, a collection of "B-Movie style" non-Mythos adventures for Call of Cthulhu. Frankly, I didn't think it was used well in that collection, and I didn't think it would work well for me -- I fully expected my players to reject it. But the scripted scenes were embraced by my players (it helped that a few of them were theatre geeks like myself) and I continued to use and develop them.

Soon, I was using the scripts to include player characters in scenes with greater dramatic "heft". The scripts were a "safe place" where players could participate in scenes that might feel awkward in some games, giving the characters an opportunity to develop a depth not usually seen in RPGs. The werewolf private eye in the group took on a note of pathos when we learned that he was forever separated from his parents, who believed he had died or abandoned them. I started to wonder if you could do stuff like that in play. Sure, this is something that some players might take for granted, but where I come from roleplaying is mostly done for shits and giggles. Most sessions I had run or played in to that point were heavy on low comedy and combat, and I enjoyed them, but I wanted more.

A move to a new city to pursue my wife Megan's academic career connected us with a whole new group of gamers, and when I got an opportunity to run a game I planned to push the drama angle as far as I could take it. I was fortunate enough to have a small group -- three players -- which gave me the ability to give players lots of "spotlight time". I began to talk to the players, encouraging them to think about their characters in a different light. Character backgrounds would be included in the game as much as possible, used as material for stories. Character Drawbacks (in my experience, they're used to get some easy extra points for a character build and then mostly forgotten in play) would be used to generate conflict. I encouraged the players to trust me as GM (and their fellow players, by extension) enough to accept a certain level of vulnerability for their player characters -- these needed to be people who wanted things, struggled against things. Conflict and desire are the foundations of good story.

As an illustration, my wife Megan was reprising a character (Rosa) who had participated in an earlier game back in our home town. This character, in her words, was a "bad ass demon hunter" -- the kind of super-capable, unflappable hero that shows up in a lot of adventure fiction and roleplaying games in particular. I wanted to find a way to give Rosa a little depth, and I picked a Drawback on her sheet that said she had trouble committing to relationships. The way Megan had played it up to that point, that meant that Rosa slept with whoever she liked and never gave it a second thought -- like a demon hunting Latina James Bond. That is cool, but it's not exactly a Drawback; just another layer of awesome on the character. Emotional armour. I suggested to Megan that maybe we could take a more interesting tack -- that the Drawback was only meaningful if she met someone that she was interested in forming a relationship with.

Megan was initially resistant to this idea, as I expected that she would be. Roleplayers in general want their characters to be awesome and capable, and they shrink away from the idea of vulnerability. Why would she want to dilute her character's power and take on a subplot that was -- horror of horrors, in most RPGs -- romance?! It is a mark of my wife's courage and trust in me that she agreed to this idea, with some gentle encouragement.

And in the scripted cut scene that opened the very first episode of the game, Rosa was killed.

To be continued...

Monday, 7 January 2013

Secret Origin

My wonderful wife and several of my friends have been encouraging me to start a blog for some time now. I don't know why I've finally relented and chosen to write one -- perhaps the failure of the world to end in a satisfying KABLOOEY! a couple of weeks ago has put me in an optimistic mood. Or maybe blogging is something that I've managed to ignore for long enough it's gone completely out of fashion, and I find myself in the position of being able to enjoy it on its own merits.

It could be that I'm just contrary.

What's the idea of this blog? The title refers to a style of roleplaying that I've been developing with my friends for the past few years, so you can count on me spending some time talking about RPGs. (I will explain the title in more detail in another post.) Tabletop roleplaying games have played a big part of my life for almost thirty years, and I devote a lot of time to the hobby. Hopefully I've got a few thoughts on the games we play and how we play them that will stir up some conversation. I am also in the process of developing a podcast with my wife Megan and our friend Colin which might be of interest to you, if you like RPGs -- it will be called Shake, Rattle and Roleplay, and I'll let you know when the first few episodes "go live".

You can probably also count on me talking about other stuff here. I tend to have a lot to say about politics (and most of it is pretty snarky, if you like that sort of thing) and I lean toward the left end of the political spectrum. If you have an autographed picture of Stephen Harper on your wall that isn't currently being used as a dartboard, my writing about politics will probably make you irritable and weepy.

I will also share stories from my life and random neuron-firings that I hope will entertain or at least not bore you. If I've read a good book or seen a movie you might like, I will share my thoughts here. If there's a movie out there plotting to steal several hours of your life (I'm looking at you, Inland Empire) I will let you know.

And sometimes, because this is the internet, I will post adorable pictures of my cat.

Welcome aboard.