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.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Stealing a Riff from Philip K. Dick

This Wednesday night, we'll be starting a new game that I can't say anything about. The group is involved in a playtest for a game that I'm bound by NDA not to say anything about, except that it's really cool and you're all going to love it.

Our particular game is going to focus on the events around a wedding, which reunites three characters with a long and bumpy history. A good chunk of the game is going to play out in flashbacks, following in the footsteps of what my friend Rob did with his Cold City game; we've set up connections between the characters, but haven't nailed down a lot of the details specifically so that we can discover them by playing out scenes in the past.

One of the characters is a kind of visionary, someone who is very attuned to the flow of energy around her (despite her being blind, like all good mythic seers), and this got us discussing divination in the setting. That made me remember a discussion I had with Megan about a book she recently read and reviewed on GoodReads, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

Dick's novel uses the I Ching as a story device, and Dick may have used it in writing the novel -- consulting the I Ching at points where the characters did so, then allowing the reading to direct where the story went next. I thought this was a device that might have possibilities in a roleplaying game.

Since we're playing a game that is Fate Core based, I proposed that we consult the I Ching at the end of each session to develop an Aspect which influences the next session. The Aspect should theoretically tie together (or perhaps provide contrast for) scenes in the present and in the past.

This allows us to have a kind of open structure where we all know the basic elements -- the wedding frames the whole story, and we move back and forth in time to fill in gaps in the history between the characters -- but still have an element in the game that is out of the control of everyone at the table.

It's an experiment. It might not work. But I always feel throwing something off-the-wall like this into a game gives it some vitality. Trying something new and unpredictable is always a good idea in gaming.

Thanks Phil!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Spam in a Can

Every GM who's been sitting in the Big Chair for a while develops a few scenarios that they use over and over. Part of that is laziness lack of time, but mostly it's because these scenarios work. You just plug in some characters and you know you'll have a good session.

This is one of those that I like to call "Spam in a Can", after a friend's monicker for horror/suspense movies where the characters are all trapped in a location being picked off by the monster/killer/alien one by one. Ridley Scott's Alien is the classic, of course, but this genre would also include stuff like The Thing, and any number of slasher movies.

The essential idea here is that the player characters are somewhere they can't leave, preferably someplace where you can apply pressure to the characters. The ideal situation is a setting which is just a little too large for them to be able to keep the whole location secure. They have limited resources -- including things like access to food, weapons, communication, security cameras... all the stuff that make players confident they can weather the storm.

The Antagonist -- and this could be a lot of things, from a single big threat to a horde of minor ones (like, say, zombies) -- is free to strike at them from any angle. It has more freedom of movement than the player characters, and makes aggressive moves to threaten and divide them. Throughout the scenario, the Antagonist is mostly unseen, lurking in the shadows, leaving signs that show his presence (sometimes uncomfortably close to where the PCs have been).

The power of the Antagonist is psychological: the idea here is to make the players worry about what he's doing, and what he might do next. Their minds will make a scarier scenario than you could come up with anyway. Steal a trick from good horror / suspense movies and let their imaginations psyche them out.

The GM has to be clever and cruel here, figuring out ways to strike at the players and make the situation more and more threatening, while reacting to whatever measures they take to secure the setting. Cutting off the power (plunging them into darkness) works well, as does creating diversions / feints in different parts of the location that force the player characters to divide their attention. These don't have to be ambitious -- a small fire, or an explosion, or even a mysterious sound is enough to get their attention.

Something I've found works very well is to create an environment that's uncomfortable for the player characters in some way. A flooded room with dark, cold, nasty-looking water is very threatening. Anything could be down there. A hand could grab at a submerged ankle. Making the overall environment colder than the player characters would like -- say a complex in the Arctic with no heat, and the outside temperature plunging as night comes on -- also works very well. Sensual details have very strong effects on players, because they can imagine them clearly. Smells are especially effective.

Ideally, if you can get one player character alone, that's a perfect time for the Antagonist to attack. Suddenly, he's there, and there's no one nearby to help. If you want to be really cruel, you set up the attack and then cut away from the scene to someone else, building the anticipation of what's going to happen. Players literally squirm in their seats when they don't know what's happening to their characters and the stakes are high.

Sure, it's a cheap trick. But the lesson of horror gaming is that cheap tricks work.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Mixing Up the Menu

This weekend, I was spending some time thinking about my just-finished campaign, Sunset Empire. Despite all my fancy talk last week about the Short Campaign Model, this was a big game. It sprawled out over four years and three seasons (with any number of different games interspersed between them) and incorporated a huge amount of Victorian ephemera, characters, and storylines.

It went on long enough that my style of preparing for games actually changed over the course of its run. I went from a research-and-written-notes-heavy style early on, which I felt was important to get my head into the setting -- by making sure I had the details right -- to a more open prep style where I'd come to the table with a few handwritten notes for scenes, and sometimes that was all.

Early episodes were expansive affairs involving detective work, exploration, and travel. Season two spent more time focusing on character development, with plot details more loose and flexible, and in the background I was slowly building to the vampire attack on London. The finale was something I ran with my hand firmly on the tiller, driving us from scene to scene as fast as I could; although it's not usually my style, I had a bunch of combat and dice rolling, to keep the stakes high and push the characters to their limits.

Looking back on it now, I pretty much used every trick in my GM tackle box in this game. I had traditional adventures that would look very familiar to trad gamers (especially to players of Call of Cthulhu), and loose, improvised excursions that were almost entirely player focused and driven. And here's the thing: none of those styles or techniques are objectively better.

I play a lot of indie games that put a lot of the power in the players' hands, and it's true that my sympathies lie strongly in that direction these days. For HTHD play, there is simply more support in indie games (or storygames, or choose your euphemism) than there is in trad games. That's a fact. You could do HTHD play using a trad system like D&D 4th Ed (just as an example, not because I'm particularly picking on D&D), in much the same way that you could use a peanut butter sandwich as a brake pad. Perhaps it would work, but there isn't much support for that.

But I feel like there is still a lot of value in the way traditional games do things. It is still unquestionably a lot of fun to roll dice and not know how they will change the story's direction. It is rewarding for players to use all the tools at their disposal (i.e. on their character sheets) to solve a problem in a way you weren't expecting. It's cool to play through a mystery story, turn up the clues, and nab the perp at the end.

Here's where I'm going with this. I feel like one of the things that made Sunset Empire great was that it embraced a lot of different kinds of play, and borrowed freely from both the old school and the hippie games we love at our table. And that's really an important thing -- GMs should be able to develop games that are big and rich and complex on every level. If you don't roll the dice for a few sessions, and just play out scenes essentially freeform, that's fine and good. That doesn't mean you can't go to the rules when you need to.

Rules matter. Rules are the players' primary way of interacting with the game world, the way they put the choices they make into effect. Sometimes it's cool to make those rules as loose as possible, giving the players the authority to do whatever they want. Sometimes it's cool to have rules that are tight and demanding, because that mechanically increases the tension for the players.

The important thing for me is being conscious of what's necessary in a given situation. A lot of the time, I get by with a very light touch. As others have observed, if you apply the logic that you should Say Yes Or Roll The Dice, you can actually get a fair amount of juice in your game by just giving your players exactly what they want. (Well, it helps that my players have a real masochistic streak. They like it when their characters are miserable.) And being able to turn up the crunch occasionally is important too.

I guess what I'm arguing for here is complexity. Games can be short, focused, drama laden affairs full of conflict and activity. They can also be experiences that develop over a longer period, with more room for a multifaceted approach. Note that I'm not calling for the old-style endless campaigns here, just for a longer arc (or arcs).

Let's see if I can reduce this to a tortured metaphor:

Games can be a light snack (a one-shot, or convention game), a weeknight dinner (a short campaign model game), or a lingering affair with multiple courses. All of these things have value, bringing different pleasures to the table, and being able to cook them up using a multitude of tools and techniques is something a GM should aim for.

Friday, 2 August 2013


I wrote last week about coming to the end of my multi-year, multi-season campaign Sunset Empire. It's been a great ride, a game that's had lots of extremely good bits, characters we got to know and love very well, and stuffed to the seams with every piece of slightly dodgy Victoriana I could get my mitts on. I loved it to pieces.

Now I'm in the position of having to come up with a new game to run which will somehow fill the big London-sized hole in my creative world. I suspect this will be a tall order, and like with all big projects which have finally come to an end, I will wait for a while to dive into something new. It helps to give yourself some distance from a long, successful campaign before you try the next thing.

So, you ask, your eyes full of childlike wonder (or is it the dewy sheen of Too Much Whiskey?) ...where do campaigns come from?

One of my writing mentors described the process of coming up with the idea for a project as "composting". Maybe you scribble down a thought on a piece of paper. It seems promising, but it's not fully-formed yet. You throw it on the heap in the back yard of your creative process, and just leave it there for a while to break down a bit, get funky, and if you're lucky it will eventually become rich and fertile. Something that a story (or a campaign) could grow from.

Our amazing brains somehow have the capacity to work out ideas while we're not actively thinking about them. I will sometimes go to bed still not sure how to solve a particular problem in a piece, then wake up the next day (or the next) and realize, while I'm showering, that the answer is now quite clear. So it is with long term creative projects -- a lot of times you'll come up with a good "seed", but it will need some time on the compost heap before it adds up to anything. I have a hard drive (and many notebooks) full of scraps of ideas. Some of them will blossom, a lot of them won't add up to anything... or they'll change into something I wasn't expecting at all. None of that is wasted energy.

Being creative, whether you're an artist or a GM looking for a new game, is sometimes a process of nurturing your compost heap with the right ingredients. Watching movies, television, playing other games, reading books, listening to music, and even just being out in the world... it all goes on the heap.

I am very lucky that I have a wife who is incredibly supportive, even when I spend too much money on gaming books. It's true, over the course of my lifetime I may never get a chance to run all the games I own right now. But this probably won't stop me from acquiring and reading more game books. All of those books, which I read (or just nibble at) all the time, are ingredients for my creative compost heap. I had been collecting books of Victoriana for years before Sunset Empire. (Of course, as my friend Rob observed of his own Cold City game, it seemed as though the really useful stuff for my game happened to come out after I was well into the fourth year of playing. Oh well, the new edition of Cthulhu By Gaslight was really excellent and worth the wait.)

Gamers are in a unique position creatively because they enjoy a hobby which produces a great quantity and variety of material that is intended as a toolkit for creating games, in a dizzying number of flavours. And sometimes that's where I'll start as a GM approaching a new game -- wanting to try out a specific rule system, or explore a particular genre or setting. My players are encouraging me to consider actually running Primetime Adventures for the first time. And we have two new iterations of Fate to kick the tires on. And I've been talking about running Everway for a long time. Or Jon Tweet's other rules-lite classic, Over the Edge.

And there are those other games...

For now, it's all about sitting in the back yard, putting my feet up, sipping at a bottle of Waterloo Dark, and wondering what will eventually emerge from the compost heap.

That shiny new game, small and green and fragile, pushing its way toward the sun.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Short Campaign Model (Part Five)

As an example, let's have a look at a proposed GHOSTBUSTERS game.

In the game I pitch to my group, they will play the part of the London franchise of Ghostbusters. I'm probably picturing something that follows the basic arc of the movie: an escalation of supernatural events in the city that build to a big crisis event that could destroy the city -- and the world! As a subplot, again straight from the movie, we see the franchise struggling to exist financially and gain the respect it needs from the city authorities.

Based on that basic outline, the Story Arc of the series might look something like this:

Although this is a very structured outline, notice that it does not make many demands of the players -- it assumes that two conflicts will be created, and that the players will grapple with them throughout the series. They players are not required to react in a particular way, or constrained in their activities. The GM can adjust his perspective on the series on the fly, if the PCs manage to perform particularly well and keep in the city's good graces, for example, perhaps changing the conflict to "the London Ghostbusters are so tight with the City they're heavily relied-upon, and under constant pressure to perform". This could have the same end result of a blow-up and reconciliation, like in the movie.

Structure is not intended to limit player behaviour, only to make sure that each episode has plenty of content. The best way to do this is by creating multiple layers of story, with the most important layer being focused on the players.

Knowing this, I would have a conversation early on with my players about what their characters were like, what was important to them, that sort of thing -- trying to find places where there are conflicts to build story with.

In our example, let's say that my players come up with the following scenarios, roughly based on characters that are close to the characters in the original movie:
  • One player, taking the part of PETER, wants his character to be involved with a romance storyline. That's straight-forward enough.
  • EGON's player is more interested in the weird science side of Ghostbusting, and he requests a story that focuses on the ethical implications of Ghostbusting.
  • RAY is the team's occult expert, and his player says he wants to have a storyline that focuses on his character having some kind of dark and mysterious past. 
  • WINSTON is a blue collar character, and that player requests a story that includes his family in some way. 
The GM plugs that into the overall design, which ends up looking something like this:

Again, each story idea for the four characters -- which each have a "spotlight" episode that forms the body of the series -- is only a starting point, not a railroad. The Winston episode assumes only that he will interact with his family, while the Ray episode has him discovering a dark secret -- not assuming how he will react to it.  There is no need to micromanage things further than this; throwing the characters into a situation that requires they participate in a conflict is all that's required to make a solid session.

Painting in a little more story in each episode, using the overall arc of the franchise battling the supernatural Big Bad and the city's bureaucrats gives just enough depth to create the illusion of a highly constructed story.