Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a website about roleplaying and board gaming run by Rabalias and Frax. Between us we have over 50 years’ experience of playing and GMing. That means we really like it, and we really like talking about it too.

You’ll find gaming tips, discussion articles, reviews and free games and game modules here, together with a significant quantity of random game-related bibble. We welcome comment and discussion so please feel free to contribute.

You can find Rabalias and Frax on Google Plus far too often.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (pt 2)

This is part 2 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we worked to support diversity and inclusion, and tackle Lovecraft’s bigotry; and how we ran the Kickstarter campaign itself.

Diversity and inclusion

One of our goals for Lovecraftesque was to be an exemplar on diversity and inclusion, in as many ways as we could. Aside from this aligning with our politics generally, we specifically wanted to punch Lovecraft’s bigotry in the face – to make the kind of game he would have thoroughly disapproved of.

We did this in a number of different ways:

  • We directly addressed Lovecraft’s racism and the attitudes towards mental illness that are embodied in his writing and (to a much greater extent) Lovecraftian roleplaying games. We had written some basic guidance on this ourselves, but included as stretch goals more detailed work on this, which (once funded) we included in the game book.
  • We included in the art specification a requirement that the art be diverse, showcasing characters who are female, ethnically diverse, LGBTQ and disabled. We specified ratios for these characters to deliberately put white dudes in a minority in the book’s art. We also asked our artist to avoid casting these characters as weak, submissive or sex objects – although the nature of the game meant none of the characters were kicking ass, as all were potentially going to be victims of something nasty.
  • When advertising for artists we specifically asked PoC and LGBTQ folks to put themselves forward. When approaching individual artists and writers, we aimed to draw on a diverse pool, again keeping white dudes in a minority. We weren’t sacrificing quality to do this – there is a great pool of diverse talent out there.
  • We paid all of our contributors the same highly competitive rates – well above what we understand to be the industry average – because we’d like roleplaying design and writing to be something people get properly rewarded for, especially for people who don’t have the privilege of a rockstar reputation (i.e. most of us).
  • Although we didn’t exactly set out to do this, the diverse team we’d recruited was probably directly responsible for the very diverse set of scenarios that came with the game – from those with a fairly traditional Lovecraft-ey setup to stuff HPL would never have dreamed of.

To judge by the enraged response of some less reconstructed gamers, and those who affect to be tired of political correctness, we succeeded in branding the product as diverse, inclusive and tackling bigotry. I believe we did more than that – we embedded those values in the game itself.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: a priest stands amongst the pews of a church, comforting a visibly stressed man, in whose lap is a notebook filled with drawings of a scary figure. In the background, the same scary figure is just visible pressed up against a stained glass window.
Did I mention I love our art?

The Kickstarter

Thanks to Kickstarter preserving everything in aspic, you can go and look at our campaign page now if you like. We tried to hit all the information someone might want to understand the product, get enthused and feel confident in us. So: a clear pitch that highlights what the game feels like to play, what makes it different, and what makes it fun; a clear explanation of what you’ll get if you back; a simplified version of the game for free download, to try-before-you-buy; samples of art and layout work; a detailed explanation of how we planned to spend the money; and an explanation of the risks including how we planned to mitigate them. Plus a video, because apparently that’s a good thing to have (I personally am not at all motivated by videos, but statistically I’m in a minority apparently). We got feedback from friends and more experienced people on the page prior to the launch and made changes in response. You know, this stuff isn’t really rocket science, but you do need to check these boxes to maximise chance of success, and we did.

We worked hard to publicise the game from a relatively weak starting position. We had established a presence in Indie G+ circles, over a period of 2-3 years, so we weren’t exactly invisible. Even so, as far as I can tell, we weren’t well known, nor did we have (much of) a following. So we wanted to counteract the newcomer disadvantage.

One way that we did that was by approaching people who were better known than us for stretch goals. This conflicted a bit with another goal of ours, which was to have a very diverse stretch goal team. Early on we deliberately went for an approximately 50/50 split between people with star power and other designers – all of whom, to be clear, we had chosen primarily for their talent and the fact we admired them. We also leaned towards people who seemed interested in horror gaming. I think the presence of both of these groups will probably have helped to generate interest from a broader community than we could have reached ourselves. The “star” writers will have reassured people who like reliable industry quantities. In addition to helping fulfill our mission to create a diverse and inclusive Lovecraft game (see above), the broader set of writers probably attracted backers who like to see a diverse team and who were fans of the somewhat more niche indie game design community.

Another thing we did was to approach a wide range of podcasts and blogs. In retrospect, I wonder if we actually undersold ourselves here. Having seen a friend’s recent media engagement plan, it was significantly more wide-ranging than ours. Possibly we didn’t reach as broad a roleplaying audience as we might have. But that’s not to underplay the level of activity – and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine how we could have done much more than we did, given the stage of life we were at (tiny children limited what we could realistically do). We are enormously grateful to people who hosted us on their shows or interviewed us for their blog, and I strongly suspect that this had an impact on our support – though I can’t prove it. Also, talking to people about our game was fun!

On top of that, we managed to attract interest from some big-name websites including the Mary Sue, Boing Boing and (after the campaign) Geek & Sundry. It’s still a bit of a mystery how we did this, other than having the bare-faced cheek to ask. I suspect the concept of a Lovecraft game that tackles diversity and inclusivity head-on helped. With that said, I saw precious little evidence in our referral data that these websites had an impact on our sales. We had google analytics set up on our kickstarter page, showing where people viewing the page had come from, together with kickstarter’s own analytics saying where our actual backers came from. So for example, Boing Boing got us a whopping 600 website referrals over the course of the campaign – but to judge from Kickstarter’s analytics, zero backers. On the other hand, the Mary Sue got us 160 views and 17 backers. These media splashes widened our reach beyond our wildest dreams, and probably did get us some backers (after all, some may have come back to the page later on, rather than being directly referred by an article). But it didn’t generate the deluge you might imagine, perhaps because they mainly extended our reach to people who weren’t that interested in roleplaying games – and so less likely to actually buy a copy.

While we’re on the subject of where backers came from… where did they come from, anyway? About 250 of our backers had got there from Kickstarter itself: the search page, the “discovery” pages, other campaigns, and so on. That’s nearly half our backers. We also got a lot from G+ and Facebook; some of these will have been friends, but not all. Again, not knowing if people were coming back having seen the campaign through a link but then looked it up later on, means we can’t be confident how they originally found out about the project.

We aimed for a steady flow of activity during the campaign, including stretch goal announcements, interviews and so on. We tried to strike a balance between regular updates, keeping things ticking over, and not overloading our backers (and social media feeds) with constant Lovecraftesque stuff. Again, this didn’t really have a visible impact on our stats, which conformed closely to the standard pattern, i.e. a big rush at the start, a lot of people jumping on at the end, and a pretty steady (low) rate of uptake in between. Again, we’re enormously grateful to everyone to shared our campaign and contributed to the buzz by talking about it, and I assume it had some impact. But nothing we did showed up in our stats particularly.

So… did any of this publicity work help? I mean, in a way it must have. Clearly, if you don’t talk about your game, nobody will know about it, so nobody will buy it. But despite collecting lots of data, there is very little evidence on which of this activity had an impact, and which didn’t. So I can’t say we really learned much, other than that the campaign obviously succeeded, so we got something right.

One thing we did not do is advertise. I’ve noticed recently some Kickstarters showing up as adverts in my Facebook feed. And I know at least one designer who has had some pretty good sales figures (not on Kickstarter) from advertising their RPG that way. We did consider doing this, but decided that spending a non-existent budget on advertising probably wasn’t the best plan. But I do wonder, having seen other people’s success, whether this was a mistake. It’s certainly something we’ll consider for the future.

One final interesting thing to ponder is the grabbiness of the game. People say that you can sell roleplayers anything with Cthulhu on it. We were in the weird position of effectively saying “Come and buy our Cthulhu game! Surprise, it doesn’t have Cthulhu in it, and it doesn’t work like a normal Cthulhu RPG, and we spend a big chunk of the text criticising and addressing HPL’s bigotry.” We know that at least a few people bought the game having not looked beyond the Lovecraftian brand (though we were excruciatingly clear on the campaign page what we were selling) and were then disappointed when they got the product. We could equally conjecture that some people were put off by the Lovecraftian brand, not having registered the ways that the game addressed the things that give Lovecraft a bad name. Still other people may have been drawn in by Cthulhu and not backed us when they saw what the game was really about.

In the end, we just don’t know how these things interacted. We had a very successful first Kickstarter, and we’re delighted by that.

In part 3, we’ll look at how we delivered our successfully funded kickstarter.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective

Just over 2 years ago, we launched the Lovecraftesque kickstarter. If you didn’t follow it at the time, it was a success – we raised £15000, over triple our funding goal. As we’re slowly moving towards a position where we might kickstart some more games[*], it seems timely to talk a bit about what went well, and what went less well.

It turns out there’s quite a lot to say, so this is part one in a multi-part series. Part two is here.

Design phase

We started writing the game a good year before the kickstarter. We had a clear concept, and clear design goals.

We were very fortunate to get a lot of interest from potential playtesters, many of whom actually playtested the game. We asked clear, focused playtest questions. As a result, we got great feedback which allowed us to refine and streamline the game. I think this is visible in the quality of the design.

We already had a completed draft ready when we launched the kickstarter. I suspect that knowing the game was written was a selling point, for a debut project. It also meant that we had one less thing to worry about in the delivery phase.

Planning phase – printing and shipping costs

We put a great deal of thought into planning the kickstarter.

We identified potential printers, and took quotes from a few.  We plumped for delivery through Drivethru‘s printer, Lightning Source aka Ingram Spark. (We went direct to the printer rather than through Drivethru because the prices were slightly lower.) We’ve been delighted by the quality of the books they produced, and the price was reasonable – albeit a lot higher than if we had done a print run. They ship directly to customers, which is keeps things simple for us logistically.

In retrospect, however, we may have got this wrong. We now know that we could have got a significantly lower price per unit than we actually got if we had gone with a print run instead of POD. The sample of non-POD printers we looked at didn’t appear competitive, but perhaps our sample was too small, or maybe we should have asked for recommendations. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; for smaller numbers, which is what we had anticipated, Print On Demand makes a lot of sense. It reduced our exposure to the risks entailed by up-front expenditure. It allowed us to produce as many copies as we wanted after the Kickstarter, because we didn’t have to decide on a number of copies in advance. However, knowing what we know now, we probably could have saved £1000s with a print run. This would be particularly true if we had gone for a single format rather than offering both softcover and hardcover.

Specifically: we priced our initial funding goal for just over 100 physical copies. In practice, we funded at triple our goal, including 400 physical copies. But perhaps more importantly, we underestimated the number of copies we might sell after the campaign. As of now, we’ve sold 1100 copies, and are still selling a steady stream. That’s easily enough for a print run. This would have entailed an up-front cost. But the cost reduction per unit (excluding shipping) would have been huge, at around a £5 saving per unit. A print run of 1500 would not have been much more expensive than producing 400 copies by POD. This excludes shipping, so may overestimate the benefits of a print run: but the lesson is that you should think ahead and at least consider whether a print run might work out better for you.

On which subject: the huge plus of using Lightning Source was that their shipping costs were very, very low. We had done our research and got the message: shipping can be expensive, especially international shipping. Lightning Source delivered to anywhere in the world (with a very small number of exceptions) for about £2-3. If we had a comparably successful product in future, this would be the one factor that might decide in favour of POD over a print run.

Planning phase – art and layout costs

For both art and layout, we researched and selected a shortlist of 3-4 individuals to approach for a quote, based on work they’d done before. We actively solicited a diverse pool of artists to shortlist from – something I’ll cover in more detail later on. For layout artists, this was based on looking at games we owned; for illustrators, we looked at the artist’s online portfolio. We selected partly based on price, and partly based on how much we liked the artist’s work. They were all great, or we wouldn’t have looked at them. We are really happy with the work our artists did.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: three children and their dog swim in a deep blue waterhole. A massive alien eye lurks at the very bottom of the picture.
I love commissioning art SO MUCH.

We set specific goals for book length, and number of illustrations, for our basic funding goal and each of our stretch goals. took into account the extra printing costs that this would mean, and got specific quotes for each goal, including for extra illustrations, scenarios and so on, from our artists, so that we knew in advance exactly how much we would be paying, even for stretch goals that we hadn’t set at the start of the project.

Planning phase – other stuff

We had looked at a dozen other (completed) RPG kickstarters of a range of types, to get an idea of what the likely distribution of rewards chosen would be. We had a good idea of what percentage would be PDF-only, softcover, hardcover and so on: and these predictions were largely right. This helped us to ensure we were setting the correct funding goal, because the amount of money you keep varies by reward level (simply put, PDF has no print or shipping costs, so you keep 100% of the money, while physical copies vary in their costs).

We sought advice and views from lots of people in the run-up to the campaign. The biggest source of advice was Google Plus, where people generously gave their views on a wide range of issues we were worrying about – including many experienced people sharing their knowledge of how to run a kickstarter. We were super-grateful for all the advice we got, which hugely enhanced the research we ourselves had done.

We approached a handful of designers we knew and admired to write scenarios and essays for our stretch goals. We were gratified by the response – almost all said yes. We had set ourselves a goal to offer rates that would be significantly above the market rate for RPG writing, which may have been a factor in people accepting work from a couple of randos they’d never heard of. We set a word limit for our stretch goal materials, and stuck very closely to it, which meant that again, we knew in advance how much we would be paying for this work.

Finally, we had a contingency fund of 10% of our total funds raised, to cover stuff that might go wrong. This was a very good decision that we took early on, and – by fluke – we spent it almost exactly. (I’ll mention here that we’d planned to give an equal share of any remaining contingency money to ourselves and our artists. It didn’t happen, because there was nothing left, but we still think it was a pretty good idea, and will likely take the same approach in future campaigns.)

Next: How we ran the campaign itself – and how we supported diversity and inclusion.

[*] Yes, plural.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – playtesting

I’ve just completed a full version of Flotsam for external playtesting!

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, misfits and renegades living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. The focus of the game is on interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community that lacks the basic structures of civilisation.

System-wise, it was originally a Dream Askew hack, but has wandered a great deal from those roots. It owes quite a bit to Hillfolk and Archipelago, too. Everyone gets to act like a GM some of the time, controlling one aspect of the game setting and the threats it contains, and everyone gets to play a Primary character some of the time, exploring their life and relationships.

If you like the sound of that, and you think you might like to give the game a try, please get in touch by commenting here or emailling me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

PBTA – Moves overload

Part of the job of a game designer is to consider the level of cognitive burden and handling time required to run a game, and pitch that at a level which works for the intended audience. I have been noticing recently how that counts in spades for PBTA.

The player-facing side of most PBTA games consists of a series of Moves, each of which has some sort of fictional trigger, and then mechanical steps you execute whenever that trigger occurs, which in turn feed back into the fiction. It’s the first of these – the fictional trigger – that makes cognitive burden a particular challenge for the PBTA designer.

The reason is that, because each Move has a fictional trigger, and because that fictional trigger is (typically) a fairly specific circumstance occurring, you have to constantly scan the fiction as it develops to check if that trigger has happened. Most PBTA games take as fundamental “to do it, you have to do it” and “if you do it, you do it” which is PBTA-speak for “if the fictional thing happens, the Move is triggered” (and vice versa, though I’m less interested in that here). This means you can’t just wait for someone to decide they want to use a particular Move and call it out – their actions in the fiction may mandate that Move.

Take a typical example from Night Witches “when you act up (by acting like a hooligan, by acting like a lady, by acting like a natural born soviet airwoman). This Move requires you to notice when someone is acting outside their normal social boundaries, and then decide whether that acting out fits with either of the three categories (if not, it doesn’t trigger the Move). So it’s a fairly complex, nuanced decision you have to take. You could miss a moment where the Move should have triggered, if you don’t pay attention.

All of this is therefore inherently cognitively burdensome, and the designer must therefore consider in each case whether that level of burden is worth the benefits delivered. Sometimes a complex, nuanced Move is worth it, sometimes it’s better to go for something simpler than might not be as precise.

Of course, it’s not just the complexity of individual triggers (though that is a factor), it’s the sheer combined weight of all the triggers that have to be considered. You could write a PBTA game with 100 basic Moves, but nobody could play it; they’d constantly fail to notice when they were triggering Moves, even if they were fairly simple.

This leads me to some critique of PBTA games I’ve played recently. They’re games I like and have enjoyed, and which are pretty popular, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not going for a take-down of anyone’s game here. I’m using them as examples of an issue which needn’t be fatal to a game, but which I find difficult in play.

The first example is Sagas of the Icelanders, a game which attempts to emulate the eponymous stories of the early Icelandic settlers. In doing so, it imposes some quite restrictive roles on the characters, specifically relating to their gender. If you play a man, your Moves are focused on physical feats and (rather more complex) defending your honour and attacking the honour and dignity of other men. If you play a woman, your Moves are focused on influencing other characters (particularly, but not exclusively, men) through reason, emotion and sexual attraction. (The way this is set up creates a focus on male characters that is interesting but not the focus of my critique.)

Whenever a character takes action in Sagas, like every PBTA game, you have to mentally compare what they did to the Moves to see if one was triggered. Of course, you first have to focus on the correct set of gendered Moves, since actions that would trigger a Move for a man won’t necessarily do so for a woman, and vice versa. So gender introduces an element of complexity up-front. But – particularly for women – the specific triggers are quite nuanced. You can raise your voice and talk sense, but only to player characters. You can goad to action, but only aimed at a man. And because of the very specific and culturally relevant triggers, many things that intuitively feel like Moves aren’t. All of which is fine, but kind of hard work to parse in play.

Next example is Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows has Moves which are somewhat more intuitive (for me) than the likes of Sagas, which is a plus. Many of the Moves only trigger in fairly well-defined contexts (more on this in a moment). However, it has a lot of Moves. The Urban Shadows Basic Moves sheet has 15 Moves on it, not counting the rules on advancement. That is a lot of mental checks to go through every time someone does something! It’s a lot of possible mechanical triggers to remember, full stop. [Edit: discussion elsewhere has reminded me that the theoretical limit of human short-term memory is seven items, plus or minus two.] On top of that, there are four different triggers for advancement, and a trigger for corruption, that you have to keep an eye on. Again, this is fine, but kind of hard work.

So what can you do about this, if you’re designing a game? Well, the obvious stuff is:

– Keep your Moves simple, with straightforward, intuitive triggers that don’t require a lot of thought to judge.

– Try to keep your Moves list as short as you can. This in turn means…

– …focus on the Moves that really matter for the game you’re trying to write. Don’t waste your players’ mental space with Moves that aren’t all that important – PBTA lets the players and MC negotiate the fiction pretty well even if a Move isn’t triggered.

Another trick is to try and group your Moves by the context in which they occur. Apocalypse World, for instance, has Battle Moves. Including them roughly doubles the number of Moves in the game, taking it from a pretty simple half-a-dozen Moves up to more like a dozen. But you only have to think about the Battle Moves if you’re in battle. If nobody has any weapons out, you needn’t waste any brain space thinking about them. Similarly, Night Witches divides its Moves into day and night Moves, and in almost all cases you therefore only have to think about half the potential Moves at any given moment.

You might think that the Sagas approach is kind of like grouping Moves by context. Well… I don’t know what to tell you. That’s not how I experience it. Two characters are having a conversation, one of them starts to talk sense, and then I realise that person is a man, so the “talk sense” Move doesn’t apply. That small mental effort, repeated several times a session, is burdensome in a way that “am I in a battle right now” isn’t.

None of this is to say that you can’t write a game with complex, nuanced Moves. With lots of Moves. With Moves that only apply in specific circumstances that require a bit of thought to judge. All of this is permissible, and can be good design. But it is a cost that you are making your players pay to play your game. Make sure you’ve chosen punchy Moves that deliver something worthwhile, so that it’s a cost they’ll be glad they paid.

Some thoughts about GMless gaming

I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless[1][2] gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.

This is the good shit

So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both[3], but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.[4]

There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.[5]

Issues with GM’d play

There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.

Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.

Problems with GMless play

Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.

Direction, energy and structure

There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.

Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:

  • For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page.[6] Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
  • For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
  • For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
  • (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
  • A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.

Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes

By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.

Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.

Role hopping

Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story”[7] or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.

This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).

Too much like hard work

A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.

I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.

Final thoughts

I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.

Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.


[1] “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.

[2] As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.

[3] Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.

[4] GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.

[5] There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!

[6] These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.

[7] I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.

Bite Me! Update – Congratulations It’s a PBTA Hack!?

I am in full swing playtesting Bite Me! my Powered by the Apocalypse Game of Werewolf Pack dynamics.

About a year ago (despite all my complaints that I was bored of PBTA hacks!) I decided to write Bite Me! as a PBTA hack. Yeah, I know. But I really wanted the ability to sharply focus the gameplay on some specific elements of genre and PBTA is a solid template for doing that. So over a year later, I’ve got a basic game written, completed 2 one shot playtests and I’m in the middle of a 10 week long campaign playtest.

The core of the game starts with Moves and Playbooks/Skins as you would expect. But I really wanted to create a situation which cycles through two modes of play. Firstly the aggressive, domination riddled, toxic masculine play where things are feral and always on the brink of chaos and secondly, a close, tightly knit, emotionally close family.

The first environment creates the events and issues which will fuel the heartfelt conversations in the second. Behave badly, react with extreme violence to extreme events and then expect to get challenged on it by people whose opinion you care the most about. I feel that games need a more direct and mechanised link between character’s emoting and giving them something to emote about – this is what Bite Me! is squarely aiming at.

Nightwitches by Jason Morningstar has a similar (ish) mechanic with the Night and Day play styles. But I wanted something more organic and slightly less formal to mimic the ebb and flow of the pack relationships. So instead of separating the play into different formats I’m using a points mechanic – you get to spend points on taking powerful and tempting actions, in order to get points you have to call people on their behaviour, you have to express opinions and be vulnerable about your emotions. In fact before a big action scene (in which you’ll need some tasty points to spend) you’ll definitely want to clear the air with a big ‘ol secret revealing row.

So far this loop has playtested really well and I’m extremely pleased with the results. It has also helped me put into words how I feel about secrets at the table – something that will form core player advice for the game: “The point of a secret is to throw it in someone’s face in the most dramatic moment.”

Once the campaign playtest is finished I need to do the really hard bit. Write the MCing guidance. In a MC’d game guidance on doing it well is one of the most important and most overlooked sections in a traditional rulebook. Writing really clear, practical and specific guidance for MCing my games is vital because if anyone else is going to replicate the game in my mind I have to get it down on paper. That is the difficult bit, because there is always something you are doing when you run your own games that you don’t realise you are doing.

I’m hoping to get the next draft finished by the end of Autumn 2017 and release it into the wild for some external playtesting after that.

X Marks the Spot – call for playtesters

X Marks the Spot is a game of pedantry and quick-thinking repartee about drunken pirates planning a daring voyage to a dangerous land where buried treasure awaits you. I’ve just finished the latest version, following the first round of playtesting, and I’m keen to find people to playtest the new rules.

It requires 3-5 players, and takes about 2 hours to play. You’ll need paper and pencils, something to drink (which might be alcoholic) and some sort of dry cracker to eat.

The main changes are that the game has been simplified and streamlined a little. There is also now a win condition – you accumulate Doubloons when you win Challenges, and the person with the most Doubloons at the end wins.

If you’d be interested in giving it a try, please drop me an email (xmarkstheshot at vapourspace dot net) or comment here.

Lovecraftesque scenario competition – winners

Lovecraftesque can be played entirely from the febrile imaginations of your group of players. However, it also has the option to use short scenarios to kickstart things with an enticing menu of inspiring elements that you throw into the bubbling cauldron of your story.

The rulebook contains a host of excellent scenarios. With our scenario competition we aimed to expand that, and we were delighted with the results: 20 varied and flavourful packs of story seeds for your group. I’d urge you to go and check them all out.

Even so, this was a competition. We anonymised the scenarios and shared them with two independent judges, Cat Tobin and Mo Holkar, and compared notes. With the coming of the solstice, we are now ready to declare some winners. Let’s start with the runners up:

Bringing New Life by Elizabeth Lovegrove. The setting for this scenario – the maternity ward of a hospital – is hardly a traditional one for a Lovecraftian tale, but instantly conjures ideas of horror. The scenario delivers on this promise.

Cold Steel by Fred Bednarski. A Nazi-occupied Polish town is the location, an evocative setting which is supported by a compelling set of steely clues.

Rare Antiquities by Oli Jeffery. Exploring the labyrinthine back-streets of Brighton, this scenario gives a pungent sense of place, and a unique set of rather sordid themes for a Lovecraftian tale.

The Huston Veil by Devon Apple. In 19th-century London, an East India Company ship returns from distant lands. We loved the way this twisted a fairly traditional Lovecraftian premise into something fresh and different.

All four runners-up are terrific scenarios. There was, however, one stand-out winner, which was unanimously selected by the judges:

The Wilder Parts of the Forest by Oli Jeffery. This was a completely unexpected concept for a Lovecraftesque scenario: Narnia. And yet, reading it you can immediately see how suited it is to creeping cosmic horror. Oli twists the elements found in a children’s fantasy story and leaves you wondering if, indeed, HPL was the secret author of the tale.

Congratulations to the winners!

The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Roleplaying in Chesterfield, Derbyshire

With apologies to regular readers, this is an advert for my local gaming club.

Refugees from Reality
We are a Roleplaying and Board Gaming club in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. We enjoy a wide variety of games, from indie to the big names. We welcome new players and are always open to trying something different. Find out more on our website or drop us a line if you’re interested in coming along.