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!