Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Art and Roleplaying (Part Three)

Back to the questions:

Could a roleplaying game be Art? Should it? 

According to my modest definition of the term, let's see if a roleplaying game could fit. The first consideration is Craftsmanship. I think the fact that I'm writing a column about roleplaying establishes that for some of us, we put a great deal of thought into the techniques involved in the hobby, and indeed the possibilities that tabletop roleplaying presents as a narrative/performance medium. Look at great books like Graham Walmsley's PLAY UNSAFE and Robin Laws's HAMLET'S HIT POINTS, which consider the medium from the performance and narrative perspectives, and you'll likely agree that there are at least a handful of people in the hobby who really do think about the craftsmanship involved in a good game. 

Content. Although not all roleplaying games are going to fulfill this requirement, beyond perhaps exploring the human condition through the experiences of several characters, there are certainly games that explore central themes -- Kagematsu and gender, for example, or the way Tribe 8 explores religion. I also think that the improvisational nature of the medium means that some of the themes that evolve do so organically, through play and development, rather than as an "authorial intention" of the GM and players.

Audience. This is one of the things that makes roleplaying games unique, in that the artists and audience are the same people. Does that count? I would argue that it does. Roleplaying games don't make good spectator sports, in my opinion and experience, but there are many times over the course of an average session when a player is called on to pay attention to scenes where other players are playing out a scene, as opposed to acting in it himself. I have presented the idea previously that a high-functioning roleplaying group has much in common with jazz musicians, playing together and building on the riffs that each person brings into the mix, using the central song (the game rules would be the analogy here) as a springboard for personal expression. An improv theatre company probably operates in much the same way. 

So I think it's possible, according to this definition, to see a roleplaying game as Art. But should it be Art? 

This brings us full circle to the beer and pretzels guys, looking askance at anyone bringing deeper meanings into their goofing around, and the bashfulness that a lot of players feel for attaching that highfalutin word to the hobby. This, I think, is a problem not of the word or the hobby, but of perception.

People that don't like the word Art seem to think of Art as something remote, exalted, intellectual. Surely you couldn't call something that's fun and entertaining Art? Surely someone who's sitting at a kitchen table, possibly with a handful of dice close at hand, shouldn't be called an artist? 

But Art isn't just a word that describes dusty, fussy old statues in museums and experimental theatre performed by people in black turtlenecks. Art can be a crowd-pleaser, like Shakespeare or Martin Scorsese, or sublimely weird and sometimes goofy like Salvador Dali or David Lynch. Art is a window into a part of the human experience, the imagination, the spirit. It tells us something true about the world and about ourselves. 

I like roleplaying games that are full of laughs and goofiness. I like to roll dice and eat Doritos and drink beer. And I'm okay with the idea that a lot of people are going to scoff at the notion of roleplaying games as Art. I get that people don't think of themselves as Artists, even if you reassure them that Artists are people who eat Doritos and drink beer and enjoy goofing with their buddies too.

But I have played games that were full of powerful dramatic moments, like a good stage play or a televison show or a novel or a movie. I've walked away from the table some nights emotionally spent, exhilarated, sad, my head boiling with ideas. Just exactly what happens when I've enjoyed an effective piece of Art. 

You can call it bad Art, or low Art, or whatever you want. You can call it pretentious nonsense. 

But why not call it Art? Why not be an Artist?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Art and Roleplaying (Part Two)

Let's start by defining our terms, shall we?

I'm sure there are dictionaries out there with very clever and concise definitions of what Art is, but I'm going to stick with my personal definition of the term and leave the finer points to the pedants. This way, you know what I'm  talking about when I say Art. 

For me, Art encompasses several things:
  • Craftsmanship. The very word "art" suggests not just craft, but fine craftsmanship (which is why I think a lot of people are intimidated by the word in the first place). The work must show some knowledge of what constitutes proper technique in its construction, although we can leave aside considerations of what is "good" at this point. This implicitly includes knowledge of the field to which the work belongs -- that is, a novel should show that the novelist understands what a novel is expected to include and acknowledge these expectations, comment on, or subvert them in some way. 
  • Content. The work should be about something, with a layer of meaning that is implied by its surface but not explicitly spelled-out.
  • Audience. For it to be art at all, the work must be intended for an implied audience. 
I think that in defining art, as I have noted above, you must leave aside considerations of whether the art is "good", because these things are by their nature subjective and changing. And it's worth mentioning that there are things which meet the definition of art without a notion of longevity -- art does not need to be immortal or part of some vague notion of "canon" to be art. Many things that are unquestionably art -- dance, theatre, and some kinds of visual arts -- are intended to be experiences that are constrained in time and place. If you weren't there, you might not be able to say whether something was Art or not, but your non-participation doesn't mean the Art did not exist in its moment in time. 

Aside: Is a play (or, say, sheet music) Art on its own, without the performance to breathe life into it? Certainly; but it's a different thing than the performance of the same piece, which includes not just the "voice" of the original creator but the other artist-participants (dancers, actors) involved in bringing it to life. You can certainly take it on its own merits, but performance Art comes to life on the stage. 

Notice that the audience is a requirement of art - at least for me. At its heart, Art is all about communication and sharing with other people. The majority of Art, I would argue, is about the artist sharing their ideas with the entire world and not a narrow audience of intelligensia -- even if one doesn't pick up every nuance of meaning in the dialogue, Shakespeare is something that anyone can understand. Romance and murder most foul and dirty jokes are pretty much familiar to every human being on the planet. Good Art is accessible because it is designed to be shared, and while some Art may be more challenging than others, it is not meant for exclusivity. Art is, as some have observed of roleplaying, a conversation between the artist and the audience.

So what does this mean for roleplaying?

To be continued...

Monday, 24 February 2014

Art And Roleplaying (Part One)

There was scant interest in superhero roleplaying (or maybe it's Marvel superhero roleplaying?) last week, based on the feedback I received on my five columns, so let's change it up this week. How about I start out by throwing down a little ideological hand grenade, and we'll see where the shrapnel lands?

Roleplaying games as art. 

I recently introduced this idea on our podcast, SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROLEPLAY, (which, if you haven't been listening to it, is really smashing and full of lively discussion of roleplaying issues both provocative and practical) with a mention of that Pablo Picasso quote I love: "Bad artists copy, great artists steal." That was part of a conversation about borrowing techniques from various places as part of building a roleplaying style. One of my co-hosts was reluctant to accept the mantle of artist, or the idea that what we did at the roleplaying table was art.

A lot of people in the hobby feel this way. There seems to be a prevailing sense that people who look at roleplaying games as art (or themselves as artists) are Pretentious Arseholes who smoke Gauloise cigarettes and linger in coffee shops loudly declaiming the death of literature / film / theatre etc. This image was often attributed to those who dared to play White Wolf games in the early 1990s, and the way those games described roleplaying (which, twenty years on, seems less outre and pretentious, as many games have since acquired many of the same self-conscious narrative-building / drama-centric techniques that White Wolf was aiming for -- whether or not you think they "stuck the landing"). What seemed like heresy Back In The Day is now so common as to barely merit discussion at all, especially if you play any of the "storygames" that have evolved since -- but even mainstream games today readily acknowledge that they are about constructing a kind of narrative and provide tools to do just that.  

In short, there is a very large part of the hobby that considers itself proudly and firmly in the "beer and pretzels" camp -- they play roleplaying games to goof around with their friends (and possibly enjoy games that feature Killing Things And Taking Their Stuff) full stop. That would be fine, except that many who see the hobby this way also seem to be openly hostile to anyone who doesn't play games for the same reasons they do, the One True Way of Roleplaying. Curiously, those who claim to be most interested in the "game" part of roleplaying games are also the ones most likely to assume the mantle of oppressive orthodoxy. Your brand of fun is not sanctioned, heretics, so grab some polyhedrals and make with the ha-ha already; don't let the sun set on your "art" in these here parts.

I could go on about how this seems to be part-and-parcel of an insidious modern contempt for anything intellectual, and the curious fact that this attitude exists even inside a -- let's face it -- pretty nerdy, niche hobby, but let's stay on point.

What this argument seems to boil down to is two questions: Could roleplaying be art? And should it be art? (And, incidentally, we probably need to ask ourselves how we define art to begin with.)

To be continued...

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Marvel Alterniverses (Part Two)

And now for another Marvel alterni-verse series pitch.

My wife is a big fan of Kitty Pryde, the X-Men's air-walking phantom / teen prodigy. So of course I gave some thought to the idea of what kinds of game I could run that would include her favourite mutant, despite an urge to stay away from the core X-Men team (who I like, but feel are a little overdone these days notwithstanding the excellent FIRST CLASS movie). 

I collected X-Men comics for a long time, until Chris Claremont clearly burned out under the pressure of manufactured "events" like the Mutant Massacre and Inferno. After the former event, Claremont wrote Kitty and Nightcrawler into the leads of a British-based spin-off book called EXCALIBUR. Although I didn't care for it back in the day, because it felt a little slight compared to the core book's dramatic weight, I thought a revamped Excalibur game might work. But how to make it new and fresh?

I'm a big Anglophile generally, and my mind drifted to the revamped Doctor Who franchise and its spin-offs. What would EXCALIBUR look like, I wondered, if I re-imagined it as a British SF "TV show" in the Russell Davies / Steven Moffatt mold? 

I started to picture it, the pilot episode starting with a very young American student -- Kitty -- at an English university, arriving at the office of genetics expert Professor Moira MacTaggert. She needs help, but not with her school work. She is scared, because her mutant power has started to manifest herself. She doesn't know where to turn, and in this retelling of the story Kitty never had Charles Xavier as a tutor or a stint with the X-Men. (MacTaggert makes a natural Xavier proxy, though, and a perfect "mentor" character for the series's young heroes.)

MacTaggert takes Kitty under her wing, introducing her to something else she desperately needs -- friends. Thus Kitty is introduced to young telepath Betsy Braddock (aka Psylocke) and her handsome, atheletic brother Brian. Betsy and Brian are the orphaned children of a once-prosperous English family that now only has its titles and its land. Betsy has been helping Moira as a test subject.

Brian was an Olympic pentathelete during the London summer games, dubbed "Captain Britain" by the media for his amazing physical prowess and good looks. Brian isn't a mutant, like his sister, but he has his own secret -- a magic amulet that makes him incredibly strong, tough, and fast. 

As the series begins, the three friends investigate reports of mutant activity (and general weirdness) in the UK for Moira, very much in the TORCHWOOD or FRINGE mode, occasionally visiting her secret labs on Muir Island. Among the strange characters they encounter, early on, is a shapeshifter named Meggan with eyes for Brian. 

Eventually, they uncover an outcast society of mutants living beneath the streets of London -- they call themselves The Morlocks. This is where they make the acquaintance of a German mutant with blue skin and a tail who happens to be able to teleport. His name is Kurt Wagner, but the circus he escaped from called him Nightcrawler

The Morlocks are being threatened by the Russian mafiya, who plan to use their powers as muscle. They've already got a powerhouse working for them as a strongman, a handsome young farmhand named Piyotr who will do whatever he can to protect his sister Illyana. And since he can change his body to nigh-indestructible organic steel, the mafiya has many uses for him...

As you can see, it's not hard to spin stories out of the new framework and imagine them in a contemporary UK. This is one I'd still like to give a spin at some point.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Marvel Alterniverses (Part One)

Every GM has a pile of game ideas that aren't fully developed, but each of them has a certain charm that keeps us from tossing them aside completely. I call this my "compost pile", after Natalie Goldberg's description of the creative process. Sometimes an idea just needs to lie fallow in your brain for a while, breaking down, becoming fertile, before you can make some use of it.

This week I've been talking about MARVEL HEROIC ROLEPLAYING from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, but of course I've also given some thought to what kinds of Marvel games I might run in some happy alternate universe. I'm going to share a couple of my campaign concepts with you. Note that these concepts aren't necessarily wedded to the MHR system, just something that I developed while I was thinking about that game. 

Both of these ideas could be thought of as "What If...?" stories of a kind, as they're both re-framing of Marvel concepts from a certain newfangled perspective.

Today's campaign idea is essentially a re-working of the Marvel universe with more female characters at the centre of it. As I was tinkering with the MHR rules early on, and statting up some characters for a trial game, one of my first thoughts was that there were less female characters than I'd like in the main book. In working up stat blocks for some of the Marvel female characters outside the "heavy hitters" (including the likes of She Hulk, Sif,  and Tigra) I started to imagine a slightly different take on the setting as a whole. 

The beginnings of my idea are in Howard Stalk having a daughter, rather than a son, named Antonia (Toni) Stark. Other than her gender, she would very much look like her male counterpart (notwithstanding the moustache) -- a spoiled, rich brat with a taste for pretty men and fast cars, and a brilliant, inventive mind like her father. A shrapnel wound in Afghanistan or Iraq administered during a kidnapping by terrorists leads her to develop an armored suit -- the Iron Maiden.

In this version of the Marvelverse, Steve Rogers becomes Captain America in the 1940s and battles the forces of Nazi evil (including the Red Skull and the proto-Hydra faction we see in the first Cap movie) but does not survive his plunge into the freezing Atlantic. His body is eventually recovered by Howard Stark and an early incarnation of SHIELD, and eventually the secrets of the Erskine Super Soldier Serum are harvested from his cells. The second dose of Serum is given to the finest candidate SHIELD has -- Maria Hill. Captain America is born again! (I initially thought Carol Danvers was the perfect choice, but on reflection it would be criminal to lose one of the great female Marvel heroes by simply making her the new Cap, and besides I like her as Captain Marvel.) 

Thirdly, let us suppose that instead of Odin's thunder-wielding son Thor coming to earth, the Asgardian who journeys to Midgard is instead his friend and would-be lover Sif. Loki is hiding somewhere on Earth after doing something suitably dastardly -- let's say it is poisoning Odin -- and it falls to Sif to capture him. Thor is off somewhere else in the Nine Worlds searching for a cure, and besides -- Sif knows that Thor is still his brother. If it comes to killing Loki to stop him, she is more than capable of doing the job. Sif falling in love with a mortal also has a little more dramatic potential, as Thor always seems too busy for her -- but might take notice of a romantic rival. And nobody wants the God of Thunder as The Other Guy.

I'm not sure what changing the "big three" of the Marvel universe to women would do to the overall tone and content of the game. Perhaps nothing, but perhaps it would provide a different lens on the world. 

Something worth trying?

Thursday, 20 February 2014


None of these problems seem insurmountable ones, though. A little trimming here and there and we can have the sleek MHR Lite of our dreams. 

Aside: I should also mention there are some small issues with the resolution mechanics that I'd like to change, but these are something I'll come back to another time. Once the basics are in place, that's all just polish. Let's concentrate on the character structure for now.

Removing the two-tier Power structure is simple enough, you simply condense all the Powers into a single set and allow players to choose two for their pool. In the case of "Power bloat" -- where you've got a number of traits all describing a single idea (i.e. that Captain America is a Super Soldier, Thor is an Asgardian, or Black Widow is an awesome secret agent) I think it would be easy enough to simply fold them into a single, broad trait. You could call them Super Soldier d10, Asgardian d10, and Secret Agent d10, respectively. 

As for the FX, my main problem with them is that there are too many. What I'd like better is a concrete set of moves that are broadly applicable for characters "pushing" their powers -- Spend a PP, "bump" up a die type, as an example -- which can be described by the player in appropriate narrative terms. So Iron Man getting that bump might be re-routing power from his repulsors to boost his strength for a "Sunday punch", while Iron Fist might be focusing his chi into his fingertip for a nerve strike. 

Limits I think could work much the same, with a single set of rules describing the benefits which can be gained by activating a Limit, and a single rule for how to overcome a Limit once it's been activated. Each character might have a short list of two or three items that Limit them, which can be activated narratively as appropriate by the GM or the player as the game unfolds. 

The goal here is to keep the flavour pretty much as intended, but sleek down the character sheet as much as possible. 

Specialties are a case that might need a re-think, or re-balancing where certain things appear on the character. The easiest thing to do here is to fold a bunch of Specialties into a broader heading (i.e. Shadowcat's heap of Specialties could be reduced to "Teenage Prodigy" and Reed Richards would be "Genius Inventor"). The problem is that we'd be running into a bit of overlap here with broad traits (i.e. Super Soldier d10) under Powers. You could emphasize that Specialties have to be knowledge-focused (elminating things like Covert Master and Combat Master, unless they are describing the theory and background and not the actual implementation), which would reduce a bit of the duplication, or come up with a catch-all rule for this -- the knowledge and physical parts of the same broad trait (i.e. Secret Agent d10) need to be balanced in some way. Maybe Black Widow can have Secret Agent d10 as a physical Power, but if she uses it on the same turn as a Specialty she has to "step it down" a rank or two as a penalty. Again, broad rules and less clutter on the sheet are always better, in my book.

Milestones could work in a similar way to Limits, as described above, with the player setting down a brief description of what problems they want to be important to them in the storyline / Event (much like a Trouble Aspect in Fate) and getting paid off in XP when they come up in play. Sometimes it's not a good idea to try to re-invent something that's worked for many years in the hobby, purely for novelty's sake. There are things about having structured experience and "unlockables" that are appealing, but I'm not sure they work for me. 

Aside: Oh yeah! I totally forgot -- there are THREE stress tracks in this game. Do we really need these? I would argue that we don't, and that collapsing them into a single stress track would make fights faster.

Okay, that's enough nuts-and-bolts talk for this week. I've got a couple more Marvel-centric posts for you this week, but they're more focused on story ideas from my mental "compost heap" than the rules used to play them. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Today, let's talk about some of the rough edges on the character structure. I've got four axes to grind here with Marvel Heroic, so let's start sharpening, shall we?

Two of the issues I have are with the way the Powers are handled. Each character in MHR (well, most of them) has two power "sets", and the standard way of using powers in your dice pool is to choose one power from each set. This is fine as a general orientation in the game, but doesn't work quite so elegantly in practice. Sometimes the distinction between the power sets seems arbitrary, and characters who have a smaller number of powers feel like they're a little shoehorned into this structure. Secondly, there are a number of characters who have a wide variety of middling Powers that refer to above-average physical and mental traits. Okay, Captain America is strong, agile, and tough -- but do we really need three Powers to describe that?

Also, Powers come with additional bells and whistles called FX and Limits. These are "baked in" ways to push your powers in ways that are appropriate to the character, generating bonuses in specific circumstances, or (in the case of Limits) creating situations where your Powers fail or get stepped back temporarily. Limits help you generate Plot Points, which can be spent for all kinds of fun effects in the game. I like the idea of all this, except that there are way, way too many of them on the characters -- the sheet just gets cluttered with piles of tiny writing explaining how each FX and Limit works. 

Too much of a good thing is also the situation with Specialties, the system's way of handling skills. Characters like Mr. Fantastic or Shadowcat, who are supposed to be super-intelligent, or Black Widow and Hawkeye (who are superb, but not superhuman, physical specimens) end up with piles of skills to show their awesomeness. Isn't there an easier way to "beef up" the super-normals without putting all that system bloat there on the page?

Finally, we come to Milestones, the system's newfangled take on Experience Points. Each character has two Milestone "themes", which are appropriate to the character; when these themes come up in play, the character earns XP. XP can be spent on upgrades to the character, including new FX, and also story-centric upgrades (such as unlocking the ability to be an Agent of SHIELD for the story in progress, or gaining access to a particular character or piece of gear). Each "theme" has three "triggers", one (1 XP) that should be able to be triggered at least once per scene, one (3 XP) that should be triggerable once per session, and one (10 XP) that's once per storyline and represents a big change in the character. 

For example, Cyclops has the "Romantic Tragedy" Milestones path. He gains 1 XP when he chooses to express his affection for another mutant hero; 3 XP when he turns down aid in order to be alone with his chosen paramour in a dangerous situation; and 10 XP when he either watches his paramour take d10 or more trauma or breaks off their relationship in order to save them.

Milestones are intended to be very structured, working as part of the "Event" scaffolding that the game sets up for adventures. This is sort of an interesting notion, because it supports the idea that in a big Event storyline you're going to play in more of an Ensemble style, with each player perhaps taking the parts of various Marvel good guys during separate parts of the story. That's cool, and gives you a nice way of building the expansiveness of the setting into the game. I'm not sure it's exactly a good idea that XP unlocks various upgrades for the characters, in the style of a video game; sometimes it's just not going to make sense that the player characters become agents of SHIELD, I think, and if you really want The Sentry to show up in an adventure then it shouldn't be a story "switch" that's on or off, that should be important enough to be part of play. Making that character only available if enough XP are paid means that any previous encounters with The Sentry may be moot. His presence in the story is mechanical, not causative. 

The bigger problem with Milestones, apart from weird in-story effects being created by XP "purchases", is the fact that the example Milestones are sometimes geared toward roleplaying that is broad to the point of low comedy. Yes, it is an important part of Iron Man's character that he is an alcoholic, but setting up alcoholism as an in-story Milestone which pays off in XP for unlikely and irresponsible behaviour from Iron Man (showing up drunk to a fight, passing out) is not a recipe for satisfying roleplaying. And indeed, in an Actual Play podcast I listened to of the Breakout event (included in the rulebook), a player simply declared that Iron Man was doing those things to cash in and get an XP reward. This is the other problem with Milestones -- they are ripe for abuse. 

So, how do we sleek down some of the bloated parts of this character structure and get Milestones to work a little better? Stay tuned, True Believers!

To be continued...

Monday, 17 February 2014


I have been a fan of Cortex Plus games for a few years now, mostly because Cam Banks is such a nice fellow that he made me take another look (after having a bad experience with the SERENITY game a few years ago). LEVERAGE ended up being the engine which powered our COLD CITY game, after some early growing pains, and we've been stealing tricks from SMALLVILLE for years (although I've never actually gotten to run it as written, more's the pity). I've also written my own hack of the game to run GHOSTBUSTERS with, and enjoyed a nice amount of success with it.

Unfortunately, although it seemed to get a lot of forum love, the Cortex Plus MARVEL HEROIC ROLEPLAYING game wasn't around for very long. I think that boiled down to problems with the owners of the license not caring much about the RPG market because the money was only a drop in the bucket. It's too bad, because I think the game had a lot of things going for it. It seemed to me that a revision was needed to sand off the rough edges, but that you had a promising foundation there.

Note: Margaret Weis Productions did fund a successful Kickstarter for the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide and a standalone version of the rules (if I understand correctly) called simply Heroic Roleplaying. I haven't read those books, and they may indeed address some of what I'll be talking about here. 

There was much I liked on initially reading the rules for the game, which were presented in a stylish and colourful way -- MWP has always had pretty books, and the Marvel stuff had piles of good artwork. Firstly, they made the excellent choice to abandon the pretense of realistic detail and went for a system that provided broad benchmarks to model a wide range of abilities. The difference between gradations of ability is a die type -- so  Captain America has Enhanced Strength d8, while The Thing has Godlike Strength d12. There's no hand-wringing about the messy details of who can lift the most weight. This is a good thing.

The game keeps the idea of Distinctions from other C+ iterations -- these work sort of like Aspects in Fate, providing a d8 when they're advantageous, or a d4 when they're a problem. This is an elegant way to add some personality to a character.

The game also makes a point of including Affiliations on the character sheet, which basically defines whether the hero works best as a solo act (Wolverine), as part of a team (Captain America), or with a buddy (Iron Fist). This is evocative of the medium's storytelling conventions, so it makes sense, and it also lets players mix up their approach to an adventure -- otherwise, why would Wolverine ever sneak away from the X-Men to Do What He Does Best (And What He Does Best Ain't Pretty)?

Each character also has Powers (naturally), Specialties (a grab bag of skills), and what the game calls Milestones -- kind of a newfangled way of modelling Experience Points. I've got some issues with these things, but I'll come back to that next time.

So the basic mechanism of play is to form a dice pool which includes a die from Affiliations, one from Distinctions, one from each set of Powers (most characters have two), and one from your Specialties. So that's an average of five dice in your set, and you can add more dice based on Power Stunts (cool stuff you're doing with your powers) and Assets (stuff in the scene, such as a Lamp Post d8 you're using to clobber the bad guys with).

Here's where it gets interesting. In typical Cortex Plus fashion, you choose two rolled dice to add together for your total, and another die as your "effect". So if you rolled six dice and got 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, you could either choose to add the 8 and the 11 together for a total of 19, then use your next best die type (let's say it was a d6) as Stress inflicted on the bad guy; you could also add the 6 and the 8 together for an attack total of 14, and keep that sweet 11 (which would have to have been rolled on a d12) as an effect die. So there's some strategy involved, which is cool. And as always, it's just plain fun to roll a big pile of dice. We love our dice.

So far so good. Tomorrow, I'll talk about where the game gets a little cumbersome and clunky, and where I think it's gone right off the tracks in terms of supporting anything like actual roleplaying. (Sure, this was never going to be a HTHD game like Grey Ranks, but there are limits...)

To be continued...

Sunday, 16 February 2014

High Trust, High Drama, Long Winter

I know, I know. Like many people, my good intentions at the beginning of the new year have been circling the drain for the last month and a half. Well, no time like the present to get back to the blogosphere.

Like most of you, the length and misery of this winter is really starting to chap my ass -- certainly everyone I know in London is feeling a severe case of the mid-February blues. Nothing like cold, wet weather and sunless days to sap all your creative juices and make you gaze into the abyss.

So maybe it's the season talking, but lately I've been a little down on our usual style of dramatic roleplaying. It seems sometimes that playing games which are reaching for dramatic moments means sitting down to the game table and taking an extended visit to Misery, South Carolina.

The player characters are the most damaged, unhappy, dysfunctional people you could want to meet. And chances are, if you're visiting the beaches of Misery, you've dropped in on a day that one of the locals is having a Very Bad Day indeed.

It's been getting me down lately, and I'm usually a guy who advocates for this kind of stuff. Over the past few weeks, I've found myself on many occasions picking up very old roleplaying games on my shelf from the Halcyon Days of My Lost Youth, when character drama meant your Hit Points were running low and the Cleric had his hands busy turning a pack of wights. Oh, for the simple days of rollicking adventures and the happy clatter of dice on the tabletop.

A sensible voice in my head almost always talks me out of this kind of funk, of course, because nostalgia is a kind of willful fog that glosses over all the stuff that made us leave those games behind in the first place. Sure, I might long for a game that's got a bit of that old-timey feeling, but I'm not going to take a swan dive into the gravel pit of Encumbrance rules and Saves Versus Death.

The cure for depression is not more misery, I theorize.

I have also been paging through my vast stores of esoteric games on PDF, many of them the product of my Bundle of Holding "Problem" (although none of my players nor my wife seem to be organizing an Intervention just yet). There are a lot of small novelties out there in the roleplaying industry these days waiting for a disillusioned old man like me who's one gin bottle away from a Gygax bender.

I'm thinking here of new games like Golden Sky Stories and Sagas of the Icelanders, golden oldies like After The Bomb, or beloved games long unplayed such as Mutants & Masterminds.

It was cheering to play the first playtest session of LOST PINES recently, despite the sorta-kinda-depressing lives of the characters there. More on that as it develops.

What I feel like I'm really longing for these days is a kind of dramatic roleplaying that isn't always an exploration of the most depressing parts of the human experience. Characters facing adversity is good, but when you've got the Dials set to 11 all the time, the drama starts to lose its poignancy and become a dull, repetitive dirge.

Well, that was a lot of moaning, wasn't it? Don't mind me.

It's just the winter talking.