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.