Monday, 22 December 2014

HTHD Year in Review (Part Two)

I realized, a few hours after posting the first part of my year-end wrap up that I made a very important omission from my list! So I'll start with that, before jumping into the Great Moments At Our Table 2014:

Great Fate Game of 2014 -- No, Wait -- GREATEST THING EVER: ATOMIC ROBO

I honestly don't know how I missed it. I pretty much love everything Fate, but Atomic Robo really hit the sweet spot for me. It's not only a great new Fate variant that serves its source material (which I also unabashedly love) well, it's got a lot of cracking good, useful material for those of us who've been lurking around the Evil Hatverse for a while. It's the best looking book Evil Hat has done so far, and that's really saying something after the Dresden Files books and the crisp, clean look of the Fate Core material. It does a better job of explaining Fate than anything else I've ever seen, using bits of AR comic as though they were a game in progress. It would also be at the top of my list as a replacement for my beloved (but dated) SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY -- this version of Fate is just about perfect for pulpy adventure. Honourable mention to JADEPUNK, which was maybe the biggest surprise of the year in the Fate world -- a tasty new FAE variant that perfectly models the kind of world you played through in Bioware's classic CRPG Jade Empire.

'Second Verse, Definitely Not The Same As The First' Campaign of the Year: 'ROUND MIDNIGHT

The follow up to Megan's game where Jazz era Chicago collided with the world of the faeries wrapped up after a nine-ish episode run. I'm not sure she was 100% happy with it, but for those of us on the playing side it was a satisfying affair. I got to take my magic trumpet man Silk in an entirely new direction, with a real substantial change as the game went on, and played some very exciting scenes against Amanda's changeling character Joy.

Dave Palpatine Award for Outstanding Achievement in Villainy: BILLY SATURDAY

Oily Southern charm that can pivot into vile racism at the drop of a hat. That's the villain of SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA in a nutshell, a nice little old man who just wants to help people realize their dreams. And imprison their souls. And isn't adverse to maybe arranging a few deaths to hurt those who don't follow his orders.

You Can't Always Get What You Want Award: LOST PINES

I still haven't written a full-length treatment of the game yet, but we playtested my long-gestating homage to Twin Peaks this year. Mostly the feedback was good, which didn't surprise me because it was aimed squarely at our group play style. Interestingly, there were always at least a couple of players who didn't like the idea that it's designed to be played up to a cliffhanger which is unresolved. People were quite cranky on that point. But I'm okay with making a few people unhappy with an aesthetic choice -- if you're not making anyone upset with you, you're probably not doing anything new. We'll see if I can make them angry with the new game I'm noodling away on, but I'll tell you more about that in the new year. Until then, I'll leave you with this: it's a Motown cyberpunk game. How's that for a cliffhanger?

How You Like The Taste of that Irony Award: VANGUARD

The only thing I told my online group I didn't want for my online "superhero" game Vanguard was urban fantasy. What did I get? A game full of monsters and ghosts and wizards. Ah well, shows you what the GM knows. We did have fun with it.

Fan-Favourite NPC of the Year: DORIS FROM ONTARIO

There have been a lot of NPCs populating the world of my pulp epic SEVEN STARS OF ATLANTIS, but none have inspired quite so much delight as Doris, a woman travelling from Hong Kong with her father that the PCs encountered while fleeing the sinister Dr. Song. She assured our blue-haired reporter Teddy that he was "very famous in Ontario", and insisted on showing him all of her clippings. This escalated to Su Li attempting to poison the wholesome small town girl, only to accidentally give the entire ship a painful case of diarrhea.

Oh, what the heck -- one more product:

Gaming Thing Most Likely To Suck My Wallet Dry: FATE DICE

Seriously, Evil Hat -- give a brother a break. These things are like beautiful gaming crack. And, like Pokemon, you gotta have 'em all. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

HTHD Year in Review (Part One)

Has it been twelve months already? Hard to believe, what with the sporadic posts and all, but here we are again at the end of the year reflecting on the gaming that's happened in between.

Most Game-Able Movie of 2014 - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Here was a movie that practically everyone with any sense at all loved, because it did one thing better than just about any genre movie in recent memory: it was flat-out FUN. This is something that HTHD gamers need to be reminded of, from time to time -- although we like our Serious Fun that involves tough emotional decisions and pain, sometimes it's just what the doctor ordered to embrace the fun. I've been running a Fate Accelerated game using this as inspiration, and it's been just as delightfully goofy as I hoped.

Shiny New Game We're Digging The Heck Out Of - DUNGEON WORLD

Speaking of fun, here's an Apocalypse World variant that packs pretty much everything I remember loving about classic D&D into the most efficient package possible. Like most *World games, where it really comes to life is in the unexpected turns the narrative takes based on the dice. I've been running this lately for my online game, and I recently came to the virtual "table" with about ten minutes of material, figuring my players would lead the way for the rest. And so they did, leading to an entirely satisfying (and tense!) gaming experience based entirely on *World's "something always happens" rolling mechanic.

Oddest Gaming Confection of the Year: GOLDEN SKY STORIES

As a palate cleanser after a number of fairly heavy games, this was just the thing -- a Japanese game that's about shape-changing animals helping people. No conflict, no fighting. Just friendship and kindness and a pastoral rural setting. We were less enthusiastic about the system (I would probably use a variation of either Token Effort, from Greg Stolze's great IN SPAAAACE! comedy space opera, or else the venerable but delightful TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE), but the overall gaming experience was good. A lovely reminder that games can also be satisfying when they are about the "softer" kinds of stories and emotions. More games could explore this territory. And should.

The D.B. Cooper Memorial 'One That Got Away' Award: APOCALYPSE WORLD

I was all set to run this as a follow up to GSS, but unfortunately that particular gaming group imploded before the first session. One day...! Honourable mention also to TRIBE 8, a game I've got a lot of love for, but one that I ultimately decided wouldn't be a good fit for the Saturday crew.

Not-Exactly-New Game I Dug The Hell Out Of: BLOWBACK

I'm a big fan of Burn Notice, the great rollicking spy-in-exile TV show that inspired Elizabeth Sampat to design this terrific espionage game. It captures the feel of the show better than almost any other genre adaptation I can think of, albeit with the numbers largely filed off here. She comes up with an elegant way to introduce the extended family characters that make Burn Notice so great (each player takes on a "main cast" character and a dependant character) and builds in elegant ways to place the supporting cast in peril and manage exciting spy derring-do. Great stuff.

Surprise! It's Awesome! Award: BASE RAIDERS

I've just recently been getting back into listening to a lot of podcasts, including RPPR (Role Playing Public Radio) and its sister podcast that focuses on Actual Play. That introduced me to Base Raiders, RPPR mainstay Ross Payton's game of superhero "dungeon delving". That high concept didn't really sell me initially, but when I learned the details -- this is set in a world where all the high-end superheroes and villains have vanished in some kind of cosmic Event (which would likely have 'Crisis' in the title, were it on the shelf at your local comic book store), leaving their secret bases full of weird Silver Age technology and magic secrets up for grabs. The more I thought about this, the more I loved it, and now it's something I'm thinking of pitching one of my groups in the new year. I'm picturing a game that's about low-rent crooks trying to make it big -- Tarantino-esque shenanigans in a world dripping with the trappings of comic books. Sounds like a winner to me.

Online Gaming Innovation of the Year: ROLL20 ADDS CHARACTER SHEETS

The Roll20 VTT continues to be a great way to play games online, and the addition of pre-generated character sheets -- which often look a lot like their tabletop counterparts, with dice rolling functionality added -- makes setting up a new game a whole lot easier. These guys continue to hit it out of the park with great new features.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Quick and Dirty: FateSystem

One of the coolest things Robin Laws did with his excellent, now award-winning, design for DramaSystem was to make the parts modular: if you don't like the "procedural" rules that he includes for doing things that aren't engaging in high-stakes drama -- and, with respect to Robin, I don't -- you don't need to use them. The rules for dramatic resolution work perfectly well as an overlay on your favourite set of RPG rules, and that's a big feature for me. If the purpose is to encourage people to try out playing in a style that includes more drama, why not allow them to do that with their favourite game system? How about a little drama with your Pathfinder, or Traveller...

...or Fate?

Anyone who's read this blog before or listened to the podcast I do with my friends knows that Fate is a favourite in these parts. It hits the sweet spot in terms of tight, flexible rules that aim for narrative collaboration and heroic action. Fate fits a lot of the games we play just like a glove. 

In Fate as written, you use the same set of rules to model conflicts whether they are physical or social. Indeed, using the Fate "fractal" (or, if you prefer, the "Bronze rule") you can model any number of interactions in a game using the same basic rules. That's a lot of power. 

I've used Fate to run full-on social combat before, playing out pivotal interactions in a way that was, I must admit, pretty satisfying. When we talk about social combat, we're usually talking about a conflict playing out between a player character and an NPC, and you could still do that if you want in a scene where you're playing out a high-stakes argument to change a character's mind. Well and good. The most important purpose of using the DramaSystem rules for dramatic conflicts alongside Fate would be to model interactions between two player characters, however. As I've said before, something we've found after years of HTHD play is that dramatic scenes tend to happen most often between two PCs. These are the foundational conflicts and deep interactions that form the basis for our play style, and the fact that players are at the center of that has everything to do with why it is so rewarding. Like the main cast of a television show, the player characters are the ones whose stories and relationships are the most important. That's as it should be.

The dramatic resolution rules in DramaSystem are so light as to be almost non-existent, and I feel like they'd do well in terms of running a game where you often want the rules to fade into the background. That's pretty much how it goes in an HTHD game. Most of the time, you want to concentrate on the people and their problems. When you need a little crunch, you can go to the full Fate system and roll some dice. And, unlike some story gamers, I still likes my dice. 

If you were to do this, I'm picturing a Fate Accelerated variant that models jobs (much the way that Jadepunk does) so that it's clear those rules are there to handle procedural stuff specifically, not social interactions. Running something closer to Fate Core would require stripping out some of the social skills. I'm not sure off the top of my head what other implications that might have. 

The only part of this that demands a little thought, or perhaps some experimentation, is whether the tokens you receive for agreeing to a petition in DramaSystem could be interchangeable with Fate points on the crunchier end of things. I suppose it comes down to how much you use the two systems. If they're well-balanced, with equal parts drama and action playing out, then you probably don't need to worry about drama tokens throwing the Fate point economy out of whack. Accepting a petition might effectively become a kind of "compel", for which you get rewarded with a point as usual. It might be easier to keep them as discrete units which do their own things, on the whole, but as my friend Rob has observed, there is a lobe of the human brain that likes things tidy, dammit, and do we really need to have two different point economies side by side instead of one?

Has anybody tried this?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Rise to the Challenge

I was talking with friend recently, one who's often been part of the best games I've run / participated in over the past few years. She was grappling with something that I think a number of gamers struggle with from time to time, on both sides of the screen, feeling the lack of challenge in her gaming life.

We all fall into our comfortable little ruts in the hobby. As a GM, we pick a particular game, or a genre, or a style of play that suits us and our players, and we keep on keepin' on. As a player, it might be a focus on a particular type of character that we keep coming back to or playing different riffs on. For some people, that's all they want out of their gaming life: the same thing that's given them pleasure and escape for many years continuing in exactly the same manner, sometimes without even the intrusion of a new rules edition to rock the boat.

And there's zero wrong with that. Pepperoni pizza is like that: even if it's not spectacular, it's still pretty good. There are very few pieces of pepperoni pizza I've walked away from feeling disappointed or filled with malaise. And sometimes what you want is the old standby.

For those of us who try to push things, sometimes it's the opposite problem: obsession with novelty. You're always looking for the shiny new thing, the new rule set, the untapped genre or character concept, the twist that will give it extra zing like a splash of sriracha on your pepperoni slice. Novelty often ends up disappointing you in the end, because few games really deliver on the promise of a new experience that's fully satisfying. Often, they have a few good ideas that are fun for a while, then become small footnotes in the accumulation of a roleplaying style.

I'm talking about deeper challenges than this sort of thing, and real challenges involve a not-inconsiderable about of soul-searching.

For a player, you have to look at your previous characters and be able to critically assess them. Why were you attracted to that character type in the first place? How did it change over play? Is there something in particular that worked, or gave you particular pleasure/satisfaction in the development of that character? What didn't work, or what things were you trying for but didn't quite stick the landing? Was there something you wanted out of the character that you veered away from in play, either because you changed your characterization in play (perhaps only to fit the game as it evolved) or because you backed away from it?

And if the character was a "type" that you come back to, again and again, why? I have a  tendency to like playing both soulful tough guys and wily, philandering sneaks. I think the former is perhaps a wish-fulfillment version of myself -- everybody likes to imagine they're a classic movie hero like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood -- and the latter is a wish to be something opposite to myself. I think it's totally true that a lot of players gravitate toward certain kinds of characters to work out or explore something they can't in their day-to-day lives. If you're big and clumsy, like me, it's fun to wear the skin of someone who's small, graceful, and stylish. If you have no outlet for anger and outrage, it's fun to be someone who gets right in people's faces and lets them have it.

If you know why you're returning to the same well again and again, it's easier to know what you get out of that experience at the table and perhaps chart a different course with a new character. Maybe you figure out an angle on that "type" you've never played before, or deliberately take something opposite to your "usual" to get away from familiar things.

What were your best moments as a player? You know the ones, the character moments that still thrill you to think about them. The stories you tell again and again.

What moments fell flat?

Often, character emerges most tellingly in the deep interactions you have with other players. If you develop a character with another player in mind, as an important relationship with your character, you're going to have someone to play off of and apply pressure to you from different angles, or support you when you're backing away from the challenge that you set yourself. Open and frank conversations with your GM and the group early on can help with this too -- if the GM, in particular, knows what you're trying to get out of the game, they can provide the adversity and support you need directly.

The GM may be looking for different kinds of challenges. One might be simply trying to nail down a genre or style that they haven't been completely satisfied with in the past, or adding a new flourish to their toolbox such as more improv, more collaboration, less authorial control. Maybe you're trying to make the jump from drama-heavy tabletop to full-on freeform or LARP play. Or you might be dealing with a different challenge, such as integrating a new player into the group, or re-setting after a long break.

The process is much the same. You need to look at what you've been doing recently, and ask yourself honestly what it is you've done well, what you've done poorly or could improve at, and most of all why you run the games you do? Is there a particular kind of thrill that you get from running horror games, or tense crime dramas, or sexy romances? What are the rewards you get out of that, and is there another angle on it you haven't been able to explore? Is it played out? Is there another genre or ruleset that could help you develop some aspect of your play?

One angle of the GM challenging themselves is to ask the same kinds of questions about your players. Do you have ideas for new material that could push their game in useful ways? How will your new game satisfy their appetites as players, and how will it challenge their palates? Are there things that could improve the group as a whole, and give it new tools to work with, or is this game more about novelty and change for change's sake?

I think I'm pretty good at running games that have moments of high emotional intensity, whether that happens to be straight-up drama, high octane thrillers, or horror games. I'm most happy when my players are pushed right to the edge and can feel it crumbling underneath their feet. I could definitely do better at the mechanical parts of the gaming experience, and also at allowing my players greater latitude in pushing the game forward. Some of me will always be rooted in the "old school" way of thinking about games, where the GM is expected to entertain the players and bring a lot to the party in terms of prep and story. I have played long enough that I know the pleasures of arriving at the table with no idea what's going to happen, but I'm not convinced it's always the way to go.

What challenges have I got on my workbench? I'm interested in rehabilitating the idea of the comedy game, inasmuch as it's a genre that players seem to feel is slight or unrewarding. The current game idea I'm toying with is a bit of a Quentin Tarantino crime comedy set in the world of Ross Payton's Base Raiders. Silver Age superhero trappings meets colourful, possibly not that bright crooks engaged in high-stakes heists. I'd be borrowing broadly from both the trappings of the superhero genre and those of the Fiasco style crime-gone-horribly-awry. Marrying those two genres and finding both dramatic and comedic challenges for players is enough to keep my gears turning.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Quick and Dirty: Hacking Fate Accelerated

Getting back into running Fate Accelerated again has me thinking of other ways I could use this game system. The Approaches are a nice broad way of talking about ways that you can have characters take action, and a quick re-skin could give you an easy "in" to create themes for a particular setting.

On the bus, the other day, my brain was wandering around the idea of what it would look like for running a game focused on Game of Thrones-style court intrigue, treachery, and knives sticking out of people's backs.

The Approaches might look something like this:

Calculating (Careful)
Canny (Quick)
Cocky (Flashy)
Covert (Sneaky)
Cruel (Forceful)
Cunning (Clever)

Why all the 'C' words? No particular reason except that there are a lot of splendid ones.

I've also been toying lately with the idea of pre-defined Consequences along the line of Conditions (as they appear in the Fate Toolkit). In a game like the above, you might have social Conditions like Embarrassed, Humiliated, and Disgraced.

If we were to do away with the Stress track altogether, things could get ugly fast, with a Success with Style leading to immediate humiliation.

And if I wanted to make violence as dangerous as possible? Have physical conditions, but make them Wounded, Maimed, and Deceased.

Note: I'm trying a few different things to keep me writing in this space on a more regular basis. You may see more Quick and Dirty pieces like this, and maybe things like game reviews as well. Any ideas or requests are welcome.


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

And On The Seventh Day, They Rolled The Dice...

This past weekend, I sat down to the first session with a new group of players, and we collectively created a setting for a game. The experience was very good, as it usually is, with all the players bringing a lot of fresh ideas to the table and the final game product feeling very charged with imagination and energy. I think we're all going to have a good time with this game, if the first session (which was brief, outside the discussions about setting and character creation, which always takes more time than you'd hope) is any indication.

Yesterday I was transcribing some of the material we developed into a more formal document for my own benefit, so that I could keep a lot of the details straight -- that can be tricky, if the GM isn't actually the expert on the setting that they might be in a more traditional model, or drawing from something published. You gotta keep the canonical stuff straight.

It made me reflect on the process of collective setting / character creation, which has been an important part of the HTHD style for the past few years. It has a lot of virtues to recommend it, and a few pitfalls, and it's worth being aware of them all before you dive face-first into a problem if you've never tried this.

The first, and maybe most important virtue to this sort of thing is that players will invariably bring a lot of wild and interesting ideas to the table if they're allowed to. The characters and world that emerged from our discussions yesterday was unusual and flavourful, full of weird, cool stuff such as fishlike humanoids who "swim" the spaceways and mine the sun, and living starships shaped like trees. There are strengths to playing games that constrain the kinds of character types that are available, limiting choices or arranging them by theme, but without someone to hold their hand and tell them that a setting is such-and-such, players bring the Flava.

Unusual settings are super-cool, because if there's one thing the world doesn't need, it's another vanilla fantasy game or Star Wars clone. This can be a fun journey of discovery for the GM, if they're willing to hold their contributions to the game very lightly and go with the flow of the discussion. It's a recipe for frustration if you've brought a bunch of your own ideas, or perhaps ideas that are too developed or structured, to a creation session like this -- you need to recognize that once you're into an open discussion of what the game is going to be, things will change and you may not get everything you wanted or imagined would be in it. And that's okay, as long as you get a few things you like. Everybody should get to contribute something, and the final result should be something that speaks to everyone. For myself, I didn't bring a whole lot to the table except a few loose story structures that might work for an SF game: Funky Space Gods. Space Rangers. Galactic Outlaws. The players liked Cosmic Rebellion.

The result of trusting your players enough to let them contribute fully to the creative end of game preparation is that you get yourself instant buy-in. Everyone should have roughly equal shares of investment in what you end up playing. This requires every player to share and be honest with each other, and hold their own ideas lightly (just as the GM does), so that everyone gets that sense of buy-in. Some players also fare less well than others at coming up with ideas out of the blue, so it may take a bit of gentle discussion to get them feeling comfortable and creative. Megan is rarely good at that sort of thing, but once she figures out a context for something she's good. She had an idea for a Star Dance-esque spacegoing humanoid, and I tossed her the idea of having tropical fish-like camouflage (which I borrowed from a recent viewing of Jodorowsky's Dune). Once she had that idea, the Sun Miners came together pretty neatly.

Another important pitfall to remember, and this goes for everyone but might have the largest importance from the GM's perspective, is that you need to be honest if things are moving in a direction you're not interested in. A friend tried to get a superhero game going last year and found herself in a tight spot when a major theme / story element of the game that emerged was something that she had no interest or investment in. GMs especially need to feel like the finished game is something they can run, so they need to make sure they're either getting stuff they connect with or steering discussion in productive directions (rather than saying No to specific ideas or shutting them down, which can kill the creativity).

I also think it's true that GMs need to be working with a rule system that supports what they're trying to do, and the more wide-open the discussion is going to be, the lighter and more flexible system you need to aim for. I was using Fate Accelerated, the lightest version of Fate I've got, which was just about in the sweet spot for rules weight. Collective creation would work fine for rules-almost-nonexistent games like Primetime Adventures or DramaSystem, or games whose rules model story without specific reference to setting requirements (like a lot of particular skills and trappings). You might be in for headaches if you were using a big toolkit like GURPS for something like this, if you left the gates wide open to different genre trappings (rather than limiting it to a sourcebook or two on hand).

Collective creation also feels like a great thing to do for a group that's still getting to know one another. It's a good trust builder, and lets everyone know implicitly that the table is going to share and value each other's ideas.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Changing the Stakes in Fate Combat

Fate is a terrific game system, one I've been strongly enamoured of since I first read Spirit of the Century many years back. A lot of things about it hit the sweet spot for me, especially the way it uses Aspects to highlight the most important part of a game, and also the way it explicitly gives the players a more authorial stance during gameplay. (The meta-thinking about the game that Fate encourages is an irritant to some players, but those guys wouldn't be interested in this post anyway - carry on.)

If there's one thing I'm not crazy about in Fate, it's the conflict system. Not that it's bad at doing what it's designed to -- to the contrary, it perfectly models the interactions of "competent, proactive" characters it's supposed to. Characters slugging it out are supposed to be important and capable -- otherwise, they'd be mooks. That's well and good, but sometimes Fate conflict tends to drag on long past the time that me and my players are having fun with it. Sometimes you just want to roll some dice, trade a few blows, and move on to more dramatic things.

In last year's playtest game of Tianxia, we found a comfortable middle-ground method of dealing with "named character" conflicts without the marathon. (I remember tossing this idea out myself, but my players may remember it differently. Whoever came up with it, I think it's a good idea worth repeating.) Instead of the usual trading-blows-until-someone-drops-or-offers-a-Concession rhythm of Fate conflicts, which admittedly would be less of an issue if my players were inclined to offer Concessions, we changed the conflict into more of a Contest. Best of three rolls won the whole fight.

This allowed the players to "go hard" for a few exchanges, spending Fate points and leveraging Aspects to hit as hard as possible, with a specific finish line in sight. This was particularly useful for Tianxia, because the conflict might have been prolonged by players trying to find each other's vulnerable points (as that game features different martial arts styles which interact in complex ways).

As in a regular Contest, this worked because in the player-vs.-player situation that was unfolding, neither player was especially interested in inflicting lasting harm on the other's character -- the confict was perhaps required by the story and the history between the characters, but it wasn't really about beating someone's face in. In a typical Conflict, however, the situation is a little more pointed. Characters go into Conflicts wanting to hurt the other guy and leave a few bruises, at least.

An idea I'm mulling over to use this model in more typical Conflict situations where satisfying honor might not be enough is to bring an element of wagering into it: Stakes. That is, the players decide before they begin the exchange what the Stakes for the battle will be -- are they fighting until someone walks away with a short-term Consequence, or something more lasting? This need not be a physical Consequence, as someone taking strictly defensive actions to win might leave someone with the Consequence "Humiliated and Outmatched" if they weren't able to overcome their opponent.

The Stakes would be based on the severity of the Consequence, or perhaps of the Condition inflicted by a loss. Since agreeing to this style of Conflict resolution would include a tacit agreement to accept that the winner of the best of three or five (or whatever, flavour to taste) exchanges would win the combat and the other character would effectively be Taken Out, Fate Points would be given to the loser as though they had agreed to a Concession. The Concession in this case would be built right into the terms of the Conflict.

I got to thinking about this while reading through the Fate System toolkit by Rob Donoghue and the gang, and mulling over the Conditions rules as a way of streamlining Consequences in a Fate build. I'm in favour of sleeking down Conflict as much as possible, and would take out the Stress tracks as a means to go directly to the juicy Consequences/Conditions.

Fate Core (and particularly the Toolkit) is full of delicious bits that us tinkers can poke and play with to mod our own versions of the game that Fred and Rob built. If you don't already own it, you need to rectify that situation right now, mister.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Build Your Own Apocalypse

I was literally hours away from running APOCALYPSE WORLD this summer when the group that would have played it flew apart. That was tough. I'd already invested a lot of time in preparing for that game - such as you can, in a game where you are expressly forbidden from preparing specific material for the first session - and all of that evaporated in a puff of changing schedules.

Well, why not make my loss your gain?

One of the few concrete things I could do to get ready for that first session that never happened was to write up a list of questions that I could ask the players during the first session, to get things rolling and begin collaborative worldbuilding during play. I think some of them are pretty good, and maybe they'll be useful to you if you're running your own Apocalypse World game or something similar.

  • What does your living space look like?
  • What small, personal object do you have in your living space that no one else knows about?
  • What's the tallest object in the area?
  • What does the sky look like today?
  • What do you see when you open your mind to the Maelstrom?
  • Who is the first person you see?
  • Is there anyone you're close with? Anyone you love?
  • Do you have any living family?
  • Is there anyone out there that scares you or creeps you out?
  • Is there anyone you hate or would like to hurt? Anyone you'd kill if you got the chance?
  • What's the ugliest place in the area? The creepiest? The most dangerous?
  • Where do you go to be alone?
  • Do you have a secret place known only to you?
  • Do you have many lovers? Anyone special? Anyone you want more from? Who turned you down?
  • Who are you sleeping with now?
  • Who's got your back when the shit hits the fan?
  • Who do you trust to always tell you the truth, even if it hurts? Who lies to you for shits 'n' giggles?
  • When was the first time you killed someone? Who? Did people look at you differently afterward? Are they scared of you?
  • What's your group got going for it? You don't have everything, but you have a few things you need and you can barter for others.
  • Who's the biggest wheel in the area?
  • Who's willing to do anything to get in the game?
  • Does your group have any rules or taboos? 
  • Who is the smartest or wisest person in the area?
  • There's a place you have to go sometimes that's really dangerous and scary. You never want to go there, but you always have to. Where? Why?
  • Does your group have any weird superstitions?
  • Who was the last person to die? How?
  • What do people say about you when they think you're not listening?
  • What's the most beautiful or amazing thing in the area?
  • What does it smell like here?
  • Was there anyone in your life that made you genuinely feel loved? Who turned their back on you when you needed them?
  • One of these motherfuckers stole something from you. What was it and what are you gonna do when you find out?
  • Who taught you every important thing you know? What happened to them?
  • Are there any families - with children - in your group? Have you ever thought you'd like to have kids?
  • Is there someone you won't let yourself be alone with any more? Who and why?
  • Where is the safest place in the area?
  • What do you wear on your body - or mark yourself with - as personal style?
  • What happens to those who don't follow the rules?
  • Tell me a secret.
A lot of the questions are meant to tease out details about the characters, especially pieces of their inner life and / or telling details about themselves. Some are meant to establish parts of the setting, of course, including other characters who could be part of the game, friends, enemies, lovers.

Of course I wouldn't actually ask each character all of those questions, although some would probably get repeated. Asking them of the other characters would likely get the other players thinking about that question for themselves, however, and that's the important thing. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Little Engine That Could (?)

A few months ago, I wrote a couple of posts about the Apocalypse Engine / *World games, which I was devoting a great deal of thought to. Since then, I've tried to get a full-on game of APOCALYPSE WORLD going -- that group sputtered and flew apart like a Sopwith Camel augering into the French countryside after the Red Baron popped by -- and also started running DUNGEON WORLD for my online group. It's fair to say that this gaming system, or perhaps its semi-formalized style of play, continues to occupy my imagination.
The online game has really just started, but so far we've had a lot of fun with it. Although my original opinion of DW and many of the other games that have spun off from Vincent Baker's original game has not changed -- that they're not about something in the same way that AW and the excellent MONSTERHEARTS are about their subjects, merely applying a new ruleset to traditional procedural concerns -- I have to concede that DW works, and works well. Perhaps it is enough that it helps a group re-frame the experience of playing a vanilla fantasy game in the Old School style that us grognards rhapsodize. Certainly, I enjoyed the fact that it made me run a session a certain way, and encouraged me to adopt best practices behaviours in running even modest encounters. I'd say my players are sold on it.

I was taking a leisurely stroll through the playbooks for MONSTER OF THE WEEK last night. The game is a *World variant dedicated to monster hunting in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Supernatural mold, and looks pretty spiffy. It's already available, though I may wait a bit for the super-deluxe treatment it's going to get through Evil Hat Productions in print (and those guys know how to make great-looking books, I tellya what). There are a lot of great builds using this rules engine, big and small, published and fan-made. It speaks to the power of this style of play that so many people have embraced it and found ways to use it for Their Favourite Game.

Although I've so far resisted jumping on the Kickstarter bandwagon (and let's face it, it's because I have no cash), I was delighted to see a new *World game being pitched recently called Spirit of '77. This game could have emerged directly from my id, as it bears a more-than-passing resemblance to a campaign I ran a couple of years back called THE STRANGENAUTS. Basically, it's a high-action game that embraces a lot of the cultural tropes and imagery of the late 1970s. Although it looks like the basics of the Apocalypse Engine are the same here, the game constructs characters in a more do-it-yourself fashion that's pretty interesting, instead of the usual playbook ready to run.
There's a pretty cool demo adventure here that has pretty much everything you need to play, including a pre-made character who bears a strong resemblance to Colonel Sanders. Also it has the Love Boat and zombies. Carry on.

Like I said, despite some re-skinning with awesome 70's style (the ranged attack move is called Smoke His Ass), most of the basics are the same in this game, but at the beginning of the demo the creators throw down what I think is a very interesting idea: that since the roll 2d6, 10+ is full success, 7-9 is partial success, and 6 or less is bad mojo rule structure of *World is the basic skeleton of the whole system, for those who want to play it super-loose, you could play a game using only that basic rule with nothing else.

Outta sight!

Of course, this is assuming (I think) that you're going to be adjudicating the game using something very like the principles and GM Moves that also exist in all of these games, or it would be a very slippery slope toward the same old problem of GM Fiat that *World is designed to avoid.

The idea is an attractive one, though. As a go-to system that requires very little prep, it could fit a lot of game groups well for nights when the regularly scheduled nerdfest doesn't come off for some reason. Just grab 2d6 and go. Players could just write down a few notes about their character -- possibly assigning bonuses and penalties to broad traits (which might end up looking like Fate style Aspects or PDQ Qualities) and be ready to play. Best of all, the very structure of the system means that a pick-up game would be driven by the players from the gitgo.

Has anybody out there tried this?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Vox Populi






One of the big stories this week, of course, is the referendum on Scottish independence. As someone whose roots go back to Bonnie Scotland in days of yore, I have been following the story with some interest and strange mixed feelings. On the one hand, the idea of Scottish independence is exciting and exhilarating, even if it's something that the No side argued could lead to financial difficulty both for Scotland and the UK. In the end, the argument of the bankers and bean counters who stood to lose money on the prospect of an independent Scotland has prevailed. More's the pity.

On the other, I remember living through the Quebec 1995 referendum, and the whole Scottish adventure gave me weird flashbacks to that other democratic spin of the wheel and the dread I felt that Canada might be torn apart.

Like most things in life worth talking or writing about, it's complicated.

So what's all this got to do with that most democratic of art forms, roleplaying?

Like Scotland, the hobby seems full to bursting with factions that have a particular idea of what the proper way forward is. Some are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have it, fully prepared to declare certain parts of the hobby illegitimate or heretical. Sometimes the divisions are about when you came into the hobby, what games are acceptable, or how much certain groups are allowed to participate or make their mark on the culture at large.

The strange thing is that the deep divisions that occasionally stick their heads up in roleplaying seem to be about orthodoxy -- the idea that there is one particular way to play, one particular kind of player that is most welcome, one particular rule system that is right and others that are certainly wrong. One true way.

I say it's strange because the idea of orthodoxy runs entirely counter to the way roleplaying as a hobby actually functions, which is as a series of very small, democratic, independent units. In my experience, each individual group negotiates the proper rules of conduct and interprets the rules of the games they agree to play according to their personal preferences. If something isn't to their liking, they adjust it to taste, amending their play until the table is happy with the result. If players aren't satisfied, they vote with their feet and find another group that is closer to their preferences. What is anathema to one group (whether that means diceless play or using miniatures and battlemaps depends on the table) is ambrosia to another.

Where groups often run into problems is where things that they haven't talked about -- or maybe haven't talked about recently, as people's tastes change (or their tolerance grows thin) -- cause conflict. The ongoing discussion about what's allowed and what's not allowed is what modern groups call social contract. When there's a problem with social contract, things tend to escalate quickly. Gamers might see some surprising parallels with the smug, dismissive early tone of David Cameron's UK government turning into wheedling and bargaining in the later days of the campaign as the reality and determination of the independence movement began to sink in. The Group might break up over this!

Sure, for the hobby, there are fashions that come and go, and clannish divisions that emerge over a particular game (or edition, or game mechanic). There will always be loud dissent over various issues and gamers willing to shed their last hit point to defend a point of view that seems myopic and even childish. Time makes fools of them all, though. Yesterday's heresy is often over something that's become so common it's taken for granted by later generations of gamers.

In the meantime, a million tiny grassroots democracies continue to negotiate the borders of their tables. Like the Scottish referendum, social contract discussions are messy, loud, passionate affairs. They can strain friendships at times.

But the discussion is everything. The discussion lets us know that democracy and the collective good is alive and well, and everyone gets a vote.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Gaming the Nolanverse (Part Three)

Back in Part One, I mentioned that it's worth considering the ensemble characters in a game like this. The reason for that is that your Dark Knight-esque heroes need to have intimate characters in their lives that they can talk to. Dialogue is the only elegant way of seeing the inside of a character's mind at the roleplaying table without resorting to things like an INSPECTRES-style monologue -- but that breaks us out of the realistic mode we're trying to set with a game like this.


After all, what would Batman be without his Alfred? Having a mentor / best friend who stands by the hero throughout her ordeals and acts as a sounding board for their problems is essential. Lovers and allies are important too, because they're the ones most likely to be asking difficult questions of the hero, like Dig and Felicity do to ARROW's Oliver Queen. (Well, Felicity and Ollie aren't an item yet. But give them time.)

It's worth noting here that although it's a superhero trope that we're all familiar with, I don't recommend using the extended cast as easy pickings to be made hostages or victims by the hero's Nemesis. This is something that's been overplayed in roleplaying games, to the point that many players are wary of having their characters make any intimate connections at all. If you threaten their supporting cast, you need to do it very sparingly if at all.

And for those of us familiar with high trust, high drama play, they can apply all kinds of pressure on the hero just by being a part of their life. Sticks and stones may break your NPCs' bones, but words will hurt the PCs like a sonofabitch. The supporting cast are the ones who will be expressing doubts about the necessity and methods the hero takes on. They'll be the ones begging them to just walk away, come back to a normal, safe life. They'll be the ones saying they can't do this any more, can't watch them destroy themselves, can't pull one more bullet out of their shoulder.

Now that's painful, if you've done a good job of giving the hero friends and lovers that they actually like and want to hold on to.


One last thing to consider, for your Nolanverse-inspired game, is what rule system to use. Although I've mentioned SMALLVILLE here, and it would be perfect for the interpersonal stuff, I don't think it's quite gritty enough for the Nolanverse. The same goes for MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS, although it gets top marks for being able to model the best Batcave and Batmobile of any supers game I'm aware of.

Long time readers will be unsurprised to learn that I think WILD TALENTS would be tops for this. WT is as gritty as you'd want for the material, absolutely -- this is a system where you can definitely be badly injured and have that injury stick around for a while. The "only roll when it's important" ethos would lend itself well to a game where you want to encourage interpersonal drama, as well.

It's the Will / Motivation system that would make WT shine for a Nolanverse game, however. Simply put, heroes have a reserve of Will points that powers their super abilities, even if they're just exceptional (but mortal) fighters. That Will can be used to mitigate injuries and drive them to succeed against the odds, but it's a finite and fluctuating resource. It can be sapped by interpersonal strife or villains who threaten the hero's values as much as their physical wellbeing.

For those of us who want a supers game full of high emotional stakes, that's GOLD. (And, to be fair, they do say right in the book that they're aiming to do stuff like The Dark Knight out of the box, so props to them. Would I use WT to do Iron Man or The Avengers? Maybe not.)

Enough talk. There's the Bat Signal, shining on Gotham's twin towers.

Time for action.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Gaming the Nolanverse (Part Two)

Let's get some more mood music going all up in here.


Ah, that's better. Now I'm feeling Zimmer-y.

So as I was saying, this is the important thing about a Dark Knight-esque superhero game -- you have to remember that the game is as much about Bruce Wayne, past and present, as it is about his gravelly-voiced alter ego.

Without grounding the game in the psyche of the heroes, exploring their obsessions, the things that drive them, the things they can't let go of, the lines they will and won't cross, you're really cutting out most of the juicy material your campaign could thrive on. Punching villains in the face is just a sidelight, a symptom of the deeper psychosis that drives characters like Batman.

It makes a lot of sense to structure your game so that flashbacks are used liberally to place a hero's drive in context. The childhood scene in Batman Begins where young Bruce tumbles into the bat cave for the first time and his father asks him "Why do we fall down?" pays off beautifully in The Dark Knight Rises when an almost-broken Bruce must escape from the hellish pit of a prison Bane leaves him in. Maybe you won't be as meticulous as that, because games shouldn't plan that sort of thing out ahead of time (since it kills a lot of the thrill of discovering moments like that during play), but as I've discussed during my entries about TIANXIA re: dovetailing scenes, knowing that you're looking to connect certain dots during play can mean you recognize the opportunities when they present themselves.

Then there are the villains. I have a couple of observations about the villains that I think are useful, starting with the fact that we've got three kinds of villains here throughout the trilogy: first, Gotham's mobsters, who form the majority of the Dark Knight's clientele; then, the flamboyant Nemesis villains who form the crux of each of the three movies; and finally, we get recurring low-level villains in the form of The Scarecrow, who appears in a small part in each of the films.

Thinking of the villains as separate elements of story is useful from a gaming context, I think, because they suggest structure that you can build story from. The mobsters are always going to be there, more a symbol of the corruption and rot in Gotham than developed characters; these make handy throwaway villains for the heroes to swat at will. Mob bosses will come and go, but having a few low-level villains who come back (or, if they have a high mortality rate, perhaps it's their schemes or style that recurs) grounds the campaign and gives it a sense of continuity and forward momentum.


The Nemesis villains are a whole other thing. They act as dark reflections of the heroes themselves, suggesting what might happen to the Dark Knights of the story if they allow themselves to slide too far into the shadows. Ras Al Ghul is Batman without his sense of compassion; The Joker is Batman without his self-imposed limits; Two Face is justice made capricious and ugly; Bane is like Batman twisted into a figure of cruelty and destruction.


The villains definitely require serious thought and probably some up-front discussion with the players, so that they can build a satisfying enemy to confront. There might be room to steal an idea from Greg Stolze's BETTER ANGELS and have one of the other players take the part of a Nemesis, as in that game the other players take the part of demons inside another character's soul. The GM might maneuver the Nemesis's actions most of the time, then have the player take over when the Nemesis appears "on screen". And, as observed by my friend Rob, the way to make a villain important and relevant is to find a way to have them appear on screen interacting with characters as much as possible.

Next, I'll talk a little about what kind of rulesets might work best for this.

To be continued...

Monday, 8 September 2014

Campaign Workshop: Gaming the Nolanverse (Part One)

It's no secret that I loves me some superheroes, both on the comic book page and at the game table. And as a moviegoer, it's been an embarrassment of riches the past few years for superhero fans -- these days Marvel is hitting it out of the park, but the current Renaissance began, for me, with Christopher Nolan's dark, realistic take on Batman.

The Dark Knight was in pretty dire shape as a movie franchise before Nolan took him over, made increasingly ridiculous by a series of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies. The former couldn't be bothered with more than creative design work, ignoring the fundamentals of story and character. Schumacher couldn't even manage the visuals. When I heard another adaptation was on the way in 2005, I was skeptical at best. My heart had been broken too many times.

Nolan got it. He understood that the Batman comics were not about bizarre villains and design aesthetics, they were about Batman. The main character's dark obsessions have been fascinating for almost a century, and yet in the 90s films Batman is almost a non-presence, a second banana to lesser characters like Vicky Vale and villains that are alternately comic and creepy. Making Batman the solid, emotional core of the films and setting his story against the background of a Gotham City that seemed real and contemporary, not merely a collection of baroque matte paintings, was the first of many good decisions that make the Nolan movies so great.

So of course I've given a lot of thought to what a Christopher Nolan-like superhero game might look like. (And sound like: Another great decision was using Hans Zimmer to craft a memorable soundtrack. But I digress.)


The foundation elements of making a game like this work are not trappings like realistic combat, so much as the acknowledgement that this would indeed be a High Trust, High Drama game -- one that's all about getting deep inside the heads of the characters and examining the reasons why they do the things they do. The second would be an acknowledgement that this game demands a certain serious-mindedness from all the players involved. Although a lot of games have their comedy digressions, that could be poison to a Nolanverse game -- everyone would have to be on board with the idea that this is serious business.


Another important element is working out the "realism" of the game so that all of the players are on the same page. Saying 'It's like Christopher Nolan's Batman movies' is fine, but as always the devil's in the details -- especially if all the player characters are going to be superheroes. Do they wear costumes? If so, are they all basically jet black S.W.A.T. team outfits like the Bale Batman wears? How realistic are the gadgets that they use to help them fight crime? Where do they get these wonderful toys, if not from a billionaire's mad money? Importantly, if you're talking about a group of obsessed vigilantes, do they even work together at all?

Two options that might solve the too-many-nuts-in-long-underwear-to-take-seriously problem might be a) getting the players to work as a team but possibly not put all of them in combat -- it may be that they take turns wearing the cowl, which the criminals / public assume is all one person, or (if players are okay with it) some of them are straight-up support to a single vigilante (as on the TV show Arrow); the b) option would be to take a SMALLVILLE RPG approach to the material, where the players take on the roles of supporting cast and villains rather than simply play the heroes. This would be a game where you'd have someone maybe playing a Commissioner Gordon type, someone as a romantic interest for the hero, and possibly someone taking on the role of nemesis.

You can also plug all of these important roles into the extended cast of the game by using an ensemble style, where each of the players takes the part of at least one supporting character in addition to their "lead". Elizabeth Sampat's excellent BLOWBACK RPG does this elegantly, having each player take on one 'professional' and one 'civilian' in the Burn Notice mold, to create a delicate balance of personal and professional entanglements.

It should go without saying that Batman wouldn't be the same without his Gotham City, and that Nolan did a lot of work establishing it in his movies as a realistic place. Gone were the claustrophobic, overdesigned sets of the Burton days in favour of shoots on real city streets. I think this approach is very important to grounding a Nolanverse game, and if it were me I'd set it in a real world city entirely (like Chicago, where The Dark Knight was filmed) rather than a fictional one. Or else call it by a fictional name but use a lot of real-world detail from a "model" city.

To be continued...

Friday, 5 September 2014

For the Love of Dice

A visit to Kingston to spend quality time with friends and family is never complete without a visit to the Kingston Gaming Nexus, the store that will always be my favourite FLGS. There's never a shortage of the newest and shiniest game books there, usually more than my modest budget can manage, and this trip was no exception -- I snapped up a copy of Weird Wars: ROME from a display of recent Ennies winners, and could have gone home with many other tasty gaming confections.

What else did I get? Dice.

These ones. Pretty. Green (my favourite colour!), dark translucent blue, and purple (my wife's favourite). Sweet!

I already owned a nice set of Fate dice, the "Winter Knight" set inspired by the Dresden Files game. That one has fiery orange-red dice, icy translucent light blue, and opaque dark blue. Also sweet. (I also have a set of Fudge dice that have fallen behind a large, heavy piece of furniture which I need to extract at some point when my back is feeling up to it.) I didn't strictly speaking need a new set of Fate dice, because I'm not actually running Fate as an ongoing game right at the moment.

There's just something about dice.

Gamers of my vintage know the maxim You can never have enough dice. Back in the day, they were actually somewhat hard to come by, and the quality has improved exponentially over the years. The earliest dice I owned were the crude "mud dice" that were included with my first Basic D&D set; ugly brown and orange dice with rough edges. You had to use a crayon to fill in the numbers of those proto-dice, wiping them clean with a Kleenex. Still, in an age when polyhedrons with more or less than six sides were rare, they got the job done.

Later, we got an assortment of more aesthetically pleasing opaque and translucent dice in plastic tubes, in a wide variety of colours. The collections of dice that we proudly carried with us to game day in a repurposed Crown Royal bag or a peanut butter jar began to have real variety. At a certain point, it wasn't enough to just have a set that you could play with, you needed a particular set. Colours that spoke to you. A certain mojo you could feel when you gave them a roll.

They were like a handful of gems scattered across the kitchen table. Magical.

All dice were not created equal, of course. There was the hated d4, the lamest of the damage dice, which could paradoxically inflict great pain on your feet if it managed to secret itself somewhere within the folds of the carpeting. There was the seldom-used (but very nice-looking) d12, the almost-as-lethal-as-a-d4-caltrop d8 (which always seemed to be in short supply), and of course the workhorse d20. Everyone back in the day had a good mittful of those, with a few special favourites they used for specific tasks or when the chips were really down.

And the d30. The golf ball-sized cold sore of the dice-slinging world, whose usefulness eludes me after d30+ years of gaming.

d10s have their own special importance, the alternate workhorse to the beloved d20 for games like Call of Cthulhu, Wild Talents, and the White Wolf titles. I like me some d10s, though they don't quite have the same satisfying hand-feel as a d20 when you're making a roll. d20s may bring more randomness to the party, but baby, they roll just right. Maybe that was one of the reasons I loved Mutants & Masterminds so much -- every roll depended on the die that I loved best.

Modern dice are not just more precise and aesthetically pleasing than the neanderthal dice of the 70s and 80s, they've made the leap to full blown art object. One of my players collects obscure kinds of dice, and he has sets of d6s made of heavy marble and volcanic rock. I've also seen metal ones with sharp edges that make those early foot encounters with plastic d4s look like a mercy.

I like a lot of games that use playing cards as a randomizer, and a fair number that use no randomizer at all. But dice are still my favourite. Sometimes I'll buy a new set to go along with a new game I'm running or playing (I got slick gold-with-black swirl d6s in celebration of my pulp game), and sometimes I'll buy a set just because they're cool.

Maybe they're a symbol of a bygone era of gaming, when things were simpler and dungeon crawls went on all day long. When there was no problem so great that a longsword +2 and a lucky roll couldn't carry the day.

Rolling your dice was where the drama began.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Blog: The Backening


Hello constant readers, occasional visitors, kindly staff from the NSA baffled by this roleplaying nonsense but curious if it might be a terrorist plot, and wayward travellers who set out looking for porn but somehow ended up here.

It's been a long time. My apologies for anyone that's been missing High Trust, High Drama -- it's been a busy and stressful summer, and this blog is the thing I kept putting on the back burner for lack of energy.

One thing a busy and unfulfilled summer of work has convinced me of is that I need to get back to writing regularly, and pronto. I have never found summer to be a good time for me creatively -- my thesis advisor remarked on this once, agreeing that he needed the "long shadows of September" to get his creative juices flowing. I prefer that explanation to my having been conditioned by many years of schooling into only being productive during months when yellow buses are on the roads.

So what's next for HTHD?

Firstly, I will be returning to the subject I started writing on with "A Safe Place", but it probably won't be for a couple of weeks. One of the reasons I got out of the habit of writing this blog was that the latter piece was a difficult one, and I found it took a lot out of me producing it. I'm glad I did, especially when I see the current shitstorm circling Anita Sarkeesian. Same misogynist shit, different day.

Secondly, I'm going to be working on a series of articles that will be discussing campaign building in a concrete way, much in the same way that I discussed planning my pulp game before it swung into action. I've got a handful of games I'm planning for this, but I would be happy to bat ideas around with any of you kindly folks reading this (more on that in a minute).

Thirdly, I'll be writing here and there about games that I'm reading as I go through them. This won't take the form of reviews, so much as reflections and stuff that I latched on to while reading them. If there's stuff I loved or hated, I'll probably say that too.

As always, I'll talk about games that I'm currently playing in, starting with a half-time report on the ongoing pulp game, SEVEN STARS OF ATLANTIS. What's working? What needs a tune-up? I'll talk about all that and try not to spoil anything for my players, heh heh.

Lastly, I would love it if this space became more of an interactive one -- and this is where you guys come into the picture. Please feel free to comment as much as you please, and let me know if there is stuff you want me to write about. I'm game to turn HTHD into more of a dialogue than a monologue, if you like, and see where that leads us.

For those of you who are returning to these dusty old rooms, thank you for your patience.

For anyone jumping aboard now -- welcome.

Let's talk about some games!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Watch This Space!


Hey gang.

I know it's been a while.

After a long, hard summer it's time to talk about some games.

Stay tuned after Labour Day.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Safe Place (Part One)

I was eighteen years old as the winter of 1989 began. A high school senior, looking ahead to a university career studying English Literature and Creative Writing. I had a part-time job at the mall selling stationery that kept me in gas money and the occasional night out at the movies (which were still pretty cheap on Tuesday night). I was single and nerdy, and like most teenagers I spent a good chunk of my time depressed about one or the other of those things. Still, my life was pretty good. I wrote my stories, got okay grades, had friends, a job, had worked my way up to the good parts in Drama Club, and there was still time to play long sessions of AD&D or Villains & Vigilantes on weekends. My life was stable.

That changed on December 6.

As stories of the massacre at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique began to reach me, like everyone else, I was horrified and angry at the awful violence. How could this happen? This was the sort of thing that happened other places, not mild-mannered Canada.

I also had an eerie feeling that, somehow, this was connected to me personally. I was hoping to be accepted into a university in Montreal myself -- not Ecole Polytechnique, but Montreal -- and the violence I was seeing everywhere on the news seemed like an awful sign of what was waiting for me in the outside world. I remember my mother saying something like, "What kind of awful place allows things like this to happen?"

I'm not sure whether this was aimed at me, something my mom said to maybe make me change my mind about where to go for my university career, or just an idle remark by someone else overwhelmed by barbarity. As the days went by, and the world tried to grapple with what had happened at Ecole Polytechnique, I fought to justify that choice in my own mind. I was headed for one of the best Creative Writing programs in Canada, after all, in one of the most culturally rich cities in North America. Montreal was the place to be. And after all, it couldn't happen again, right?

But it did.

It did happen again, only two and a half years later, and this time it happened at my own school: Concordia University in Montreal. This time it was an attack perpetrated by a member of the Engineering faculty against his colleagues and employees of the department. I had often used the computer lab in the Engineering department where the tragedy unfolded, and again I felt the eerie sense of awful horror touching my life... closer, this time.

For my roommate, it was much closer. He was studying Engineering, and some of the victims were familiar faces to him.

And now, it's happened again. In California this time, the tragedy perpetrated by another deranged young man furious at women for denying him sexually. Anyone who's been paying attention knows this is not the only act of mass murder perpetrated in the twenty-two years since the Concordia tragedy, it is one of many. Numb, we stagger from one atrocity to the next, turning them into statistics, political debates without resolution, place names now spoken in whispers: Virginia Tech. Columbine. Sandy Hook.

Ecole Polytechnique.

That name has become synonymous with tragedy in my mind, like many people of my generation who went to school in Montreal, and it holds a special weight for nearly every woman I know. Many communities in Canada have a small memorial to the women who died in the December 6, 1989 massacre. We have one here in London, which seems very distant from Montreal to me, in a quiet corner of Victoria Park. Occasionally I will pass it, in the midst of one of the raucous summer festivals that bring the park to life in July, and my thoughts will for a few moments drift from summer days and loud music to a cold winter night in 1989.

For the women I know, December 6th is a day that has become filled with dread. It is a day not only about remembering the lives of young women brutally ended too soon, at that Montreal school, it is a day they remember acts of violence that have been perpetrated against women since that day. Always, there have been more women murdered for no crime except their gender, raped, brutalized, kidnapped. The statistics are painfully clear and chilling.

My wife posts a simple memorial every December 6th on her LiveJournal: the names of the women killed at Ecole Polytechnique. Many Canadian women do this. And there is always some young(?) sociopath willing, on that most awful of days, to respond to even the most innocuous of memorials with a litany of hate against women. So it is for women all over the internet, when they remember December 6th, or speak out in anger over the California massacre, or in fact voice their opinion about just about anything under the sun. There's always a guy there to shout them down, scream NOT ALL MEN, and then in the same breath unleash more threats of violence and rape for any woman so uppity as to exist.

Even though the killer himself posted videos full of misogyny, the denials were quick in coming. This wasn't about women, some dudes were quick to tell us, it was about someone with mental health problems yadda yadda yadda. This couldn't possibly be something that has implications for us, the dudes said. We're nice guys, see. Nice guys don't do things like that, and here's a list of the things we'll do to you women if you say we do.

Yeah. Men were saying that back in the early 90s in Montreal too.

A number of women have chosen to speak out this time, under the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. I encourage you to read their stories. Listening to women's experiences of casual misogyny and violence in their lives is sobering for anyone who thought incidents like this were isolated or unconnected, and not part of a larger pattern of behaviour that touches all women. As a man, no one has ever shouted sexual things at me on the street. But that's happened to my wife. No one has ever posted a response to one of my blog posts or Tweets with a rape threat. But that happens every day to countless women on the Internet.

And here's the thing, guys, women are asking us to step up this time. Step up and listen to their stories, without feeling the need to get our two cents in. Step up and let other men know that the kind of casual misogyny that poisons our society and breeds tragedies like the one in California (or Ecole Polytechnique) are not acceptable. Women are people, and they need to be treated that way. Always. Doing any less than that makes you an accomplice.

Let me leave you with this thought:

I told you about my own small connection to two horrifying acts of violence in Montreal, and the feelings of dread that it inspired.

Women carry this fear with them all the time.

Every day.

Think about that.

I'll be using this space over the next few days to talk about ways that the gaming hobby can be made more inclusive, a safe place for women and something we can all be proud to be a part of.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Stranger Engines

Hours after releasing yesterday's post, I realized that I hadn't talked at all about one of the most interesting hacks of the Apocalypse World engine: SAGAS OF THE ICELANDERS, by Gregor Vuga.

Now here's an amazing and fascinating oddity in the world of roleplaying: a game that rejects a lot of the typical trappings of what a RPG is, including Awesome Powerz and Buttwyth Magic (mostly - there is some stuff in there, but it's 98% more subtle than most historical settings in roleplaying... we're looking at you, DEADLANDS), so that it may tell a straightforward historically-based story about settlers in Iceland. Well, it helps that settlers in Iceland were Norse -- because Vikings are awesome. But still, this is cool stuff worth a look.

SAGAS has an angle on the Apocalypse World engine that no one else has come near. In addition to the standard Moves and special Moves (which are attached to individual playbooks), this game includes Gendered Moves. This is a game about ancient Icelandic society, and part of how that is modeled is by representing different Moves for men and women in society which emphasize their gendered roles. Fascinating stuff that most games back away from as quickly as their pegasi mounts can flap their lily-white wings.

"Norse men and women are largely treated with equal respect, but their roles in society are strict and narrowly defined. Mothers and fathers pass their skills onto children of respective gender from a very early age. In spite of this a woman may sometimes run a farm or go into battle, while a man might take on the practice of seiĆ°r or magic. For women, taking on male roles is often not an issue, but the transgressions of men are often seen as dishonourable."

Most of the presence of the supernatural in the game is more associated with superstition and societal ideas about fate, rather than big set piece battles with trolls and dark elves.

While most of the AW hacks are fannish adaptations of people's Favourite Games to the new rules, without a whole lot of consideration for what you might actually make such a game about, SAGAS dives right off the dragon-headed prow of the longboat into unique material I've rarely seen games take on at all.

If you like the AW engine, or you're just interested in what a serious, no bullshit historical RPG might look like, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

This Strange Engine

I've been doing a lot of reading lately, trying to absorb everything I can get my hands on that uses Vincent Baker's APOCALYPSE WORLD engine. It's weird, because my first reaction to the game was not a positive one. The first impression I got was that AW was way too structured for my liking, putting up very rigid rules for how things were done on both sides of the GM screen. How was this a revolution in storytelling, as it was touted in the indie RPG world?

Sometimes you find your way to something via the Robert Frost memorial Long Way Round, however, and eventually I came back to AW via one of its many children, MONSTERHEARTS by Joe McDaldno. What seemed like an unnecessary structure in AW really took off for me in MH, because of that game's laser-focus on the messy lives of teenage monsters.

The sex moves -- which I didn't feel AW made a good case for, despite the fact that play at our table often involves sexytimes (though often offscreen) -- really made sense and added something in MH.

I don't know. Maybe I just plain liked McDaldno's writing better than I liked Baker's.

After playing a couple of MH one-shots, which produced good, tense short-term play, I started exploring the wide world of AW hacks. I probably have Sean Nittner to thank for that, because he kindly shared his APOCALYPSE GALACTICA hack with the rest of us, and really got my engine running for this stuff. I've also got excellent hacks of DEADWOOD and UNKNOWN ARMIES (via Peter Goderie's superlative THE WORLD OF OUR DESIRES hack). The latter is very near the top of my list of stuff I'd like to run, because it does a better job than the original game of explaining what an UA game should look like.

Some of the AW engine stuff I'm not so sure about. I've heard almost universally good stuff about DUNGEON WORLD, which I purchased recently and eagerly read through. It seems like a fun game, sure, but the thing that initially turned me off about DW and other games like TREMULUS was that it didn't seem to be about something the same way that MH is about being a horny, screwed-up teen. They just used the rules as a different kind of procedural system, which in my estimation is not quite enough to justify their existence. Perhaps I'll feel differently after I've played them, as opposed to just reading them. Or maybe it's just that I happened to start with an outstanding game that makes the others seem pale by comparison.

It might be that.

Here's where I am with the ruleset as a whole. I think, like many "indie" games, AW intended to teach us how to play games in a certain way. That was AW's spine -- the player-facing rules, constraining the MC to a set of highly-defined "Moves" and explicit principles of action, all in the service of driving the fictional side of the game. The engine makes it concrete that players drive play and the GM cannot abuse his power because his actions are limited to a set list of possibilities. For someone who tends toward shared narrative and emergent play as a general policy, that may be why AW initially felt too constrained. Why did I need all this structure to help me do something I was doing anyway?

But then again, Vincent Baker wasn't necessarily aiming his game at my head. Well, maybe I might get paranoid enough to think that if I had enough coffee in me.

I think those goals of play are satisfying enough to a wide enough range of players (who might not necessarily play games that require so much shared input from players) that we have all these hacks -- some of them marvelous. And yeah, maybe each one doesn't have to justify its existence thematically beyond a commitment to playing in a certain kind of game space.

I'm still left with the feeling that DW and TREMULUS could have done better, though, with a McDaldno-like mind at the helm. A new set of rules for Lovecraftian horror? Fine and dandy, although there are so many now you can't swing a dead shantak over your head without hitting one. A new game that re-frames Lovecraftian horror, and explores its themes -- like Sanity -- from a new perspective?

Now that's a hack I'd like to see. Or maybe Peter Goderie's already written it...?

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Buttwyth Magick

I try to keep it positive in these pages, for the most part, but today I'm straight-out bitching about something that I'm tired of in the hobby. If you'd prefer to avoid negativity, carry on  looking at kitten memes. The rest of you, strap yourself in. It might get all snarky in here.

When I say "I'm tired of" this, I really mean something closer to Every time I hear this phrase I want to seize someone by the throat and toss them into a wood chipper as a lesson to others.

You know this phrase. I'll bet someone has pitched a game at your table using it in the last few months. First, they'll launch into a description of a concept that's actually pretty interesting, like "I'd like to run a game set in early America, before the time of the revolutionary war..." or "I'd like to run a game set in a dark, cyberpunk future where human freedoms are trampled underfoot by all-powerful corporations..." or "I'd like to run a high-school romance game full of comedy and awkward relationship moments..."

Then comes the Wood Chipper Moment.

"...BUT WITH MAGIC!"

Is there anything more cliche in roleplaying? Sure, I like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as much as the next person, but for the love of The Amazing Randi, guys, can we stop this? Stop it now, before I'm forced to jam a phoenix feather wand through your eyesocket and into your brain while shouting "EXPELLIARMUS!"

I know, I know. Magic has been part of the hobby since the early days. Y'all can't crawl through dungeons and punch dragons in the speedbag without a wizard or a druid who's got your back. Having characters who can cast spells is as familiar and comforting as a big glass of hot chocolate with marshmallows shaped like little homunculi floating on the top. And oh, us gamers like to have our Awesome Powerz.

See, the problem is this: gamers tend to think of magic as the all-purpose spice of gaming. If a setting needs a little BAM!, you just sprinkle a few magicians in there. Voila! A tasty dish of Moo Goo Guy Gandalf.

They think that. What it's usually more like is ketchup, though. You squirt a big red blob onto something that was once food, and now it just tastes like... ketchup. I like ketchup on my burgers and fries, but I'm not sure I need it on my steak or my fettuccine alfredo or, god help us, cheesecake.

Magic often just makes things murky, and it's a distraction from the things about a setting -- especially historical settings, but others as well -- that make them interesting in the first place. Westerns are plenty interesting without adding in hedge wizards riding tall in the saddle. The American Revolution would not have been more dramatic if there were sorcerers at Bunker Hill. If you want to make a game about relationship drama, then make a game about relationship drama and set aside the notion you need to BAM! some magic in there because... reasons.

I own a lot of games, but I can count on one hand the number of RPGs that I own that actually do a good job of making magic an interesting part of the system or the setting. EVERWAY, FOR FAERIE QUEEN AND COUNTRY, and UNKNOWN ARMIES -- you get a gold star. As wise game designer Greg Stolze says in his wonderful, underrated fantasy game REIGN, the trick is to give careful thought to what magic actually does and how it works in your game. What are the implications of magic? How's that change the world? If your setting is only different cosmetically from the genre / historical era you're playing in, maybe you don't really need that big blob of red ketchup in there.

Next time you find yourself, or someone you love, attempting to invoke the dark power of Buttwyth Magick, ask yourself: Is this really adding anything to the game? Or is it just there because magic is always in roleplaying games?

I'll be standing in the corner, ominously pointing at the wood chipper.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Four)

So, to recap: 10-12 episodes of pulse-pounding pulp action, with just enough drama and character development to please Lawrence Kasdan, possibly involving a globetrotting quest for treasure and secrets.

But what else does a pulp game demand?

I've said before that a good deal of the appeal in this game is in the era itself -- the golden age of fedoras and cars with running boards. At least a portion of my responsibilities behind the screen will be about portraying this world, even if we're traveling to remote and fantastical parts of it. I think the talented Mr. Jess Nevins has provided me with enough background in STRANGE TALES OF THE CENTURY to be well prepared for globetrotting, lucky me, though I'll probably have to do a little research on my exotic locales week by week. That's probably okay -- I like to be engaged and busy when I'm running a "meaty" game like this. Learning new stuff is part of the fun.

The PDQ system also includes ways for players to make broad declarations of facts in the game world, which means that things could certainly go in unexpected directions.

Something I'm anticipating will shape the course of play is the presence of the villain or villains of the piece. A group of high-flying heroes may have their own particular cast of characters that enter the action, including a nemesis that also has his monocled eye set on world domination. How strange do we want those villains to be? How far are we traveling down the path of super-villainy?

Although they are the villain that people associate the most with the pulp era, do we want Nazis to punch? (I say yes, but for some this could be a thorny issue, and it's one worth talking about. Using them means that I can use a lot of riffs from Ken Hite's awesome book on THE NAZI OCCULT.)

And if we're talking about super-villains, what about super science? How much does the world of our Pulpverse resemble the real world of the early 20th century? Is this a world of soaring airships and rayguns and dodgy robots with flailing clawed hands? Or do we want to keep things more grounded, with the only changes residing in the world-shaking secrets Our Heroes are chasing from ruined temple to hidden city to secluded fortress?

Then there's the matter of what scope we want the storytelling to exist on -- do we choose our favourite pulp era (probably the Dirty Thirties if we want Nazis for our punching convenience) and stick with that, or do we really want to think big and sprawl out a story over the thirty years of the entire pulp era? Imagine the CITIZEN KANE of the pulp adventure genre, looking back from the Fifties over episodes in the lives of men and women who strode like Titans through their world. That could get confusing, if we were jumping around in time as well as in geography, but I like a challenge. As we did with TIANXIA, the players would likely need to sketch out the edges of the timeline and leave big gaps to fill in through play.

I'm ready to drag this one out of the endless, dusty warehouse it's been hidden away in for so many years and finally crack the crate open.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Three)

There are two other modes of play for a pulp game that seem very workable to me, and they are related, or at least distant cousins.

For anyone who grew up thrilling to the adventures of Indiana Jones (or, depending on your vintage, to the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his daring nephews on DuckTales), the pulp adventure par excellence is a globetrotting adventure to exotic locations in search of lost treasures.

To even think of Indiana Jones is to remember a red line creeping its way over a map, leaping from dot to dot until it settled at some remote port of call.

This is certainly the style of the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, which is much more pulp adventure than cosmic horror. In that cultist-punching classic, heroes start in Manhattan and follow a trail of clues around the world to London, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even Australia. The HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS adventure, as well as the CURSE OF CTHULHU mega-adventure, also fall into this style.

That this mode of campaign is evocative of the modern classics of the genre suggests that it's probably the best mode for a pulp campaign, and it's my favourite of the "top three". A game that jumps from location to location means you're always going to have new opportunities for breakneck chases, mysterious temples and hidden tombs, and sinister bad guys who want the same gold-plated geegaw that Our Heroes want -- except they think it would be niftier to use it to Rule the World, ha ha ha ha ha!!!

A traveling campaign also presents an opportunity to spin character drama in a non-linear way, as player characters encounter personal "baggage" from past adventures (in the form of swarthy bad guys or lost loves, or possibly angry exes skilled at drinking Nepalese strongmen under the table). Any number of triggers for flashback scenes or bold declarations about a character's colourful past could be presented as the characters race from place to place. This could turn the traditional problems with such a campaign -- the lack of a stable "hub" for the game with familiar sets and supporting characters -- into a dynamic advantage.

The third mode is a more focused version of the second -- the expedition. In this style of game, rather than visiting many locations over the course of ten-twelve episodes, the players would plan and execute an expedition to a single exotic location they would explore in some detail. This is the mode of HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION, although there are so many "niche" adventures in that setting (dinosaurs! Atlanteans! mole men!) that it might as well be a globetrotting game. Another classic Call of Cthulhu adventure, BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, may be the perfect example of the form.

This would be more like a campaign-scaled version of the Cairo segment of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. You could possibly run two or three episodes of set-up and background, then run the bulk of the campaign at whatever exotic location the player characters are searching for lost treasure / civilizations / their Nazi occultist counterparts. A nearby city or port of call might form the base for several expeditions into the wilderness on the trail of glory, providing that stable "hub" I talked about before, with lots of swarthy NPCs and seedy dives for fistfights.

Focus works to increase realism, I think, because you've got more opportunities to layer in particular details that make your setting vivid. (As I said in an earlier post, however, realism isn't as much a concern for me in this game.)

Next Episode! Will Dauntless Donovan escape from the whirling sawblade trap of the mad Aztec warlord Professor Mictlan? And what other pulpy goodness can we jam into a campaign? How big should we go? STAY TUNED!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Two)

As genre pedants are eager to remind everyone who mentions the word "pulp", that word can mean all kinds of different types of stories. In the early days of publishing, "pulps" were cheaply-printed magazines that tended to have lurid and sensational subject matter. There were all kinds of different magazines that would properly be called "pulp fiction", including detective magazines, the exploits of proto-superheroes like The Shadow, cowboy magazines, romances, science fiction, horror, and on and on. The important thing that distinguishes the medium is its cheapness and the exciting content.


"Pulp" as it applies to roleplaying has pretty much always been understood to mean an adventure game set in the 1920s or 1930s, with two-fisted heroes in the Indiana Jones mode, weird science, lost cities, ray guns, zeppelins, mole people, martians, and intelligent apes. In short, a grab bag of the medium that jams all the most sensational parts into one strange hodgepodge and screws a fedora on its head.

I'm fine with all that, actually -- I don't need my pulp to be as realistic as Indiana Jones, he said, hoping the audience wouldn't think immediately of that episode where Indy somehow survives a nuclear blast inside a refrigerator. Damn, they made those things to last in the 50s.


Still, although my game will probably include a lot of outre elements that would probably make a pulp pedant tug at his soul patch in frustration, there's something to be said for having a focus to hang all the sensational bits on. One of the decisions I made early on was that I probably needed to focus on one of the pulp styles as a framework for the game. Although practically all the pulp games I've seen include options to play both a masked avenger and a globetrotting archaeologist, I'm not entirely convinced those characters need to exist in the same story.

I should say that I eliminated certain possibilities up-front, especially the more outlandish stuff like an SF-style alien invasion game or something in the mode of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers that takes place on another world or in the distant future -- even if it's the future as imagined by the 1930s. That has its charm, but for me this game is all about the era -- I want my fedoras, dammit.


Let's start with the masked avengers. One kind of pulp adventure that is remembered in modern media is the pulp Mystery Man archetype -- here we're talking about early takes on what would later become the modern superhero, often clad in a trenchcoat or cloak, battling the forces of crime and corruption on the means streets of America's cities. For a while, heroes like The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Spider, and many others with "the" in front of their names, seemed more relevant than the costumed heroes that succeeded them at the magazine stands. While Comics Code-bound superheroes punched out the baddies and dragged them to prison, every issue, the likes of The Shadow dispatched them with blazing .45's. Mystery Men had the same gritty appeal as characters like Batman or The Punisher, but without the burden of brightly-coloured longjohns.


It would be easy enough to play a Mystery Men themed pulp game, set in a sprawling American metropolis. Superhero games are one of my favourites, and it's been a while since I've had a full-on supers game (as opposed to an action/adventure game with characters so over-the-top that they may as well be wearing costumes). Collectively creating a city and populating it with gangsters, corrupt politicians, bent cops, mad scientists, and deranged killers with strange facial deformities (in the Dick Tracy mode) would be a simple enough exercise. This kind of game would likely take place in the 20s and 30s, the golden age of crooks with tommyguns running bootleg liquor. A latter-day Mystery Men game might deal with Ratzi saboteurs and spies in the 40s.

Pulp games are, as observed in one of my many pulp books (it may have been ADVENTURE!), not Noir, so that might be a distinction that needs to be made clear to the players. A game in this mode might also see some duplication of the kinds of action seen in Megan's faeries-in-Roaring-Twenties-Chicago game 'ROUND MIDNIGHT; I hate to tread over the same ground, whether it's in one of my games or someone else's.

Note the title of the top story - "A Corpse Grows In Brooklyn". Ha!
There are several virtues to the Mystery Men framework. Firstly, it would provide a stable (if large) setting to play out a series of adventures, with a set cast of characters and locations that can be developed in depth. Secondly, it provides the best opportunity to examine the world of the Jazz Era in any depth -- a globetrotting adventure would by necessity have little time for details. Thirdly, the superhero genre (which Mystery Men definitely fall into, in my mind, even if they tend to gun down the bad guys without much self-reflection) is something that a lot of players understand, even if they have little experience of characters like The Shadow or The Spider. Most people who've read a comic book in their lifetimes instinctively understand the concept of donning a weird outfit and taking to the streets to battle the forces of evil.

Stay tuned for an adventure that will take you to exotic ports-of-call around the world on a thrilling quest for lost treasures and the mysteries of the ages!