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.

Lovecraftesque – Behind the Scenes of a Kickstarter

We’ve been hard at work prepping to kickstart Lovecraftesque.  Exciting times!

Although we’ve both been gaming and designing for a long time we’ve never undertaken a project to make our games available to other people for cold hard cash.  It has been an incredible experience and one we are still living moment by moment.

It even included an instructive interlude last week when this modest website got hacked.

We are about a week or so off our Kickstarter launch so now seems like a good time to do a quick update about where we are, some news about our layout artist and artist and some behind the scenes bits.

Firstly I want to share our cover art by Robin Scott which is gorgeous and better in every way than we could have imagined.

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Robin is an amazingly talented person bringing an incredible level of detail to her pieces.  That firelight on snow effect in the cover, want to know how that happens, how the shadows are just right…

Robin built a model!

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Secondly I want to give a heartfelt thanks to our layout artist Nathan Paoletta.  Not only has he done a great job on our sample pages but he has been exceptionally generous in sharing his knowledge about kickstarting generally and various printing options.  We have learned a great deal just from him and I hope we get the chance to give back to newbie game designers in the same way. Here is a sneaky peak of his layout.

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We are so excited that this is the level of detail and finesse going into the artwork for our game.  Also you have no idea how grown up it feels to commission art… serious proper adulting happening over here.

Next is a couple of photos we took at our video shoot. We are lucky enough to have a great video guy for a friend who helped us sort it out.  We cleared out our dining room for a morning to set everything up and had to hang a makeshift ‘autocue’ off the camera rig with a coat hanger.

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Lastly, if you’ve ever met me in real life, no doubt you will watch the video surprised at how tall I’ve grown.

Such is the trickery of video…

 

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Kickstarting has been a totally different experience to simply writing and playing games.  There are finances to work out (so many hidden costs and risks to factor in – Kickstarter fees, shipping, Kickstarter processing fees, international shipping, EU VAT, US Sales Tax and even currency fluctuations). There is a video to shoot, art direction to provide, layout proofs to review, stretch goal writers to approach (we have a total dream team lined up, I can’t wait to tell you about it!) project plans to create and enact and then the thorny problem of how to get the word out there and hope that enough kind people have it in their hearts to back us!

It has dawned on me that running a Kickstarter (even an unsuccessful one) requires you to get familiar with a whole load of new skills which go well beyond writing, playing and running games.  Obviously I really hope we fund, but even if we don’t I feel like our skills have taken this amazing leap forward.  Either way my respect for people who do crowd funding projects is immense, these people aren’t just game designers, they are totally multi-talented, and in ways I probably have yet to discover.

We’ll be announcing the Kickstarter launch really soon so check back on the blog or follow us on G+ to find out when.

Approaching the Problematic: Lovecraft and Me

It is important to be honest when something you love is problematic.

I love Lovecraft’s work and at the same time I hate his worldview.

I will not try to excuse the fact he was a bigoted racist nor that his outdated ideas about women, sex and mental health were hurtful and damaging. (If you are scratching your head thinking “what, Lovecraft, a racist – I would recommend this excellent article here by Nnedi Okorafor about Lovecraft and racism. ) And yet I’m co-writing and soon to be publishing Lovecraftesque, a game inspired by Lovecraft.

I’ve really grappled with this game on a personal level. Ever since reading Graham Walmsley’s excellent “Stealing Cthulhu” it has been clear that Lovecraft gaming needed a GMful Story Game variant. Not just needed, but the source material was perfectly set up to create such a game. As Graham reminds us Lovecraft’s stories are (almost) always about a lone protagonist uncovering something terrifying and being powerless to affect it. It also allowed Josh and I to experiment with writing a system for a satisfying investigative game which is no-prep, consistent and co-created. I think we’ve done a great job with that.

What draws me to Lovecraft is his fusion of the style and motifs of Gothic Horror with concepts that are pure science fiction. He creates a compelling and detailed universe which he then ruthlessly refers to again and again. Barely a story goes by without mention of the Necronomican or similar fan nods. But, and this is a big but… Lovecraft’s worldview is abhorrent and it leaks into his stories like bad guttering. Nasty remarks about people of colour in The Horror at Red Hook, parables against intermarriage and obsession with racial purity in The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and parables against immigration in The Street.

I struggle with it and I have every sympathy for those who do not wish to expend their energy on trying to reconcile with Lovecraft. Similarly the casual bigotry towards mental health problems, the ready slur that someone cannot be trusted because they are ‘mad’ is a constant feature.

This is not to say – “poor Becky, it is so hard for her”.  More that I don’t feel I should be writing or pseudo-promoting Lovecraft without an attempt to make the material more inclusive.  Without owning that something I like is problematic and challenging.  In particular I believe strongly that if you don’t look at his work critically then you are doomed to perpetuate and even expand on his racism – albeit unconsciously.  I don’t want to end up in that space.

 

That is why it was essential to Josh and I that, in undertaking this game, we took a long hard look at unpacking the problems with Lovecraft and writing game guidance on how the players can approach it at the table. I believe it is possible to have a satisfying game which feels like Lovecraft without the racism and by using a more inclusive and more sensitive approach to mental health. We have done a lot of thinking and listening and asking for help on these issues over the last few months – so many wonderful people in G+ have been generous in listening and helping us expose the problems and think about how to tackle them. Thank you everyone!

So here are a couple of the things we have incorporated into the game so far (more is coming!):

1. Firstly (and this applies to so many things!) get active consent. Have a discussion with your players, ask them what they are comfortable with and what they don’t want in the game. Don’t make any assumptions. Just because there was lots of racism in society in the Victorian age ( and you could insert any number of alternative settings here) doesn’t mean that people want to play through it. I can love the feel of Victoriana without wanting to play the detailed racism and sexism. If anyone at your gaming table has any issues with bringing racism etc. into the game (and I can guarantee you I would be one of those people!) then don’t do it.

If you are running a game for strangers who may not be comfortable with telling the table they want to keep sexism or homophobia out of a game then consider taking the lead and banning it anyway. Personally, I don’t know of a single game which was enhanced by casual thoughtless bigotry (unless the point of the game is to call it out and deal with it) but I’ve definitely played in games which were wrecked by it.

2. Secondly, getting consent sometimes goes beyond who is at the table – but where you are and whether you can be overheard. Are you at a Con or other public space? Does having racism, sexism and mental health bigotry in your game mean that passers by are going to get a dose of ‘surprise race hate’ they weren’t expecting. You probably don’t mean it like that – but in our community we have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Given the subject matter of Lovecraft I feel we have an extra duty to be better, to actively care more for each other.

Lovecraftesque will have sections dealing with both Racism and Mental Health in the game text and beautifully diverse artwork. If we can we are hoping to go into these in more detail in stretch goals… but that will depend on you backing us!

So watch this space!

For more resources on this check out:

Deeper in the Game blog by Chris Chin

Orientalism and Exoticism: How Good Intentions Go Astray by Mo Holkar

Mental Illness: Not a Flavour, Not and Excuse by Shoshana Kessock

Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone

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A long time ago I asked on Story Games for people to recommend their top books about role-playing… which were not actually books about role-playing.  Simply any books which had rich ideas which could enhance the hobby.  I asked the question because at the time I was doing an MBA and my major area of interest was (and is) organisational culture.  I have used quite a few techniques and theories regarding organisational culture in my role-playing and I was sure that there would be other  disciplines out there which might have similar insights.

I got a fantastic list of books and now my MBA is in the bag I’m making the time to read some of them.  Starting with Impro.

It seems obvious that books about acting might hold some vital lessons for Role-Players but Impro has particular relevance to story games and GM-less story games in general. Admiral Rabalias has already written here about how common problems in improvisational acting are also common in GM-less RPGs.

I would go further than Admiral Rabalias. I think that as traditional role-players coming into GM-less games we have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about improvisation.  There is a temptation to assume we know it all – after all “we never have a script we improvise all the time”.  But in a traditional game this is only true in a very narrow sense – in a traditional game it is very clear who has creative control over which sections of the game, players improvise their character’s thoughts, conversation and actions but by constantly bouncing off the content created by the GM.  In fact much player improvisation is interrupted by the need to ask question of the GM e.g. “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?” “Is there a door in here?” Many GM-less games have techniques for dividing up creative control and this always puts a greater burden on the players than traditional games.  Therefore problems such as a player’s creativity drying up or a lack of confidence often leads to the classic improv problems of blocking and wimping become more acute.

I think we need to starting using and practising improvisational techniques more widely and writing them into our games.

Impro is a great sources for ideas and exercises on improvisation.

But to the book review itself:

I shall be honest and say that the personality of the author is very strong and quite ego-centric.  Indeed the entire first chapter is auto-biographical.  I don’t think I would want to work with the author in real life but if you like his style then you will enjoy this section, if you don’t like it then the other sections are interesting enough to persevere.

It is easy and quick to read with lots of clear examples and good suggestions for easy exercises you could use in a gaming group of almost any size.

The book has 4 main sections about 4 different ways and theories concerning improvisation.  Briefly these are:

1. Status – how feeling stuck in an improvisation can be unlocked by deciding on whether you are playing high or low status – especially in relation to the people you are playing with. I think this could

2. Spontaneity – This chapter goes into more detail about what blocking is, how to recognise it and and how to stop it.

3. Narrative Skills – This section is about making up stories and perhaps more interesting to the role-player, drawing stories out of people who think they can’t make them up.  It explores techniques which revolve around asking smaller questions to build up a story as it is often easier to make up lots of little facts and weave them into one narrative than create one seamless entirely improvised story.  This is not dissimilar to some traditional GMing roles, where the players ask clarifying questions about the scenarios such as “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?”.  However it made me think that we could use these techniques of asking questions about small details to help players who might be floundering a bit in GM-less games. The technique breaks down the amount of stuff players have to invent into small manageable chunks. Some GM-less games have codified systems for this such as Durance which is very helpful but it could be used more widely.

4. Masks and Trance – this was a very odd chapter, it was semi-spiritual and it really read like the author had half an idea, had jumped to some odd conclusions and didn’t really know what they were trying to say.  I think that there might be some parallels here with bleed but nothing terribly helpful is drawn out other than that masks might help people to establish characters and bleed.

In conclusion: There are a lot of useful tips and ideas in the book and also some half-baked, unhelpful pseudo-spiritual ideas.  I would recommend people read the chapters on status, spontaneity and narrative skills for the most useful bit and ignore the auto-biography and the chapter on Masks.

I shall trying out some of these exercises with my gaming groups and writing variations on them for some of the games I am currently designing. I’ll update if anything interesting happens in those sessions!

40 Days of Role-Playing

 

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They say it takes 40 days to form a new habit.  *They* also say 21 days, 1000 days and a lot inbetween.  But 40 Days sounds like long enough to be challenging, but short enough to be manageable.

Inspired by the 40 Days of Dating project I got to wondering what I would like to do for 40 days solid (and be public about doing it).  Well obviously the answer is role playing and I got to thinking how I would also like to spend 40 days creating and role-playing in a shared world. So along with with Admiral Rabalias and Black Rat I will be committing to a tweets worth of role-playing related content every day for 40 days from 7th September 2013.  We will be running the project over on G+ in a specially created community here.

We have drawn inspiration from games like Microscope and Archipelago II for a shared world creation system but also left ideas for character creation and scenes fluid to allow us to experiment with the format.  I have no doubt we will be using the opportunity to micro play test bits of system we have been toying with for a while. I can’t say a great deal more as we haven’t formally started yet but there are already a few posts up discussing rules and admin.

The one thing I can say is that we have chosen a genre of Star-Spanning Cyberpunk.

Please drop by, have a look at the project and read the post on public participation here.

A tweet might not seem very much and I am hoping I’ll write a lot more than that but at the moment my days are erratic, sometimes I have lots of time and sometime my laptop gets soaked in baby vomit and I have to let it dry out.

How to GM a GMless Game?

Ok, so this is a deliberately misleading title and could probably be more accurately described as how to facilitate a GMless Prepless game.

Originally I was skeptical of GMless, Prepless games but there are so many great examples of how to share creative control (e.g. Fiasco, The Trouble with Rose, Witch, 1001 Nights and A Taste for Murder) that I am far from worried that a GMless game world will feel flat and paper thin.  However I have noticed there is another aspect of GMless games which needs to be discussed more openly. This is the problem of “mental responsibility”.  Mental responsibility is the phrase I’ve coined to refer to many things in life such as who notices when the toilet roll is about to run out and ensures it is replaced before disaster strikes.

 
Mental responsibility for ensuring a game runs smoothly in GMed games is obvious, it rests with the GM.  The GM ensures a session is organised, that people know what to expect from the game, what dice (or not) they may need and it is the GM, ultimately, who takes responsibility for pacing the game.

 
There is no such obvious role in most GMless, Prepless games and there needs to be.  Just because the creativity is more equally divided up between the players doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for someone to take mental responsibility for the following things:

 
1. ensuring everyone understands the rules;
2. taking everyone though character and/or game world creation and answering questions;
3. noticing when pacing slips or rules are not being used properly and steps in to correct it;
4. actively setting an example of keeping people to a particular tone or ambiance in the game; and
5. noticing when one player is not getting sufficient screen time and bringing them back into the game.

(I am sure this is not an exhaustive list)

This doesn’t mean that you need to do all these things, just take responsibility for making sure they happen i.e. getting someone else to explain the rules.

If I introduce a GMless game to my gaming group then I always ensure I have read the rules, got the right amount of dice, dominos, character sheets and props and then manage the game to ensure it happens according to an agreed vision and in a way which maximises everyone’s fun.

Ultimately this comes down to the old and boring idea that things work more smoothly when one person is actively co-ordinating them. Unfortunately this means that someone has to do all the boring administrative work without getting the cherry of the creative control a GM enjoys. But I don’t think it is really that much of a hardship as you still get to play in a fun game – just one you have put slightly more work into than everyone else.

So my advice for GMless Prepless games is that GMless doesn’t mean rudderless or a total free for all.  GMless means no one person has overall creative control – but you still need to a pick a facilitator to carry out the background tasks which make a game happen smoothly.

My rule of thumb  – if you propose the game then you run it, where running means either GMing or facilitating.

 
This stuff might sound obvious but I have seen even the best written GMless Prepless games flounder without someone taking responsibility for getting it right. It is easy to assume someone else has taken on that role when they haven’t.

 

Bite Me! – A game of Werewolf Pack Dynamics

[Taken largely from a G+ post I made a couple of weeks ago]

 I love Werewolves.

There, I said it.

I love the inner struggle of humanity against feral instinct but most of all I love the idea that Werewolves don’t have to do it alone.  They have family.  They have Pack.

Sadly, in all the years I have been role-playing, I have never played in a werewolf game.

The White Wolf systems have tended to leave me underwhelmed.  Not least because I have found that the system’s complexity gets in the way of the personal horror and community aspects of the werewolf myth that I find so compelling. In recent years my favourite treatments of the Werewolf mythology have been “Being Human” and Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series.

I have been thinking more and more that when (not if) I run a werewolf campaign it will follow much of the pack model established in Women of the Otherworld. To me the real crux of a Werewolf game should be how all the action and plot are viewed through the lens of the relationships between the Pack members and the group culture of the Pack.

 I want to build in mechanics for how loyal your character feels towards the Alpha and the Pack which will, in turn, get you some mechanical benefits but also creates plenty of space for emotional interaction and interesting conversations.

As I said before the action of the game should viewed through the lens of your relationships and the Pack.  So the example I gave to a friend recently was as follows:

Scenario: The Pack Alpha gets kidnapped.

We play through planning and executing the plan to get the Alpha back. But this should played out with plenty of intra-Pack conversations and dialogue and space for emotional interaction around the following:

a) how the Pack deals with the loss of their leader and driving force – do they fracture with no-one taking control, does another character rise up to take up the reigns of leadership, how do the pack respond to this?  Are the Pack grateful that someone has filled the vacuum or do they resist the new leadership?

b) personal distress of the characters – who feels guilty that the kidnap resulted from their failing to protect the Alpha?;

c) if the Alpha is recovered does the temporary leader want to relinquish control – does the Pack view the Alpha differently
because they were “not strong enough” to resist capture?; and

d) how will the Pack process what happened.  Will they emerge stronger as a group? Will they seek revenge?

The idea that when stuff happens you aren’t just thinking about “how do we solve the plot problem of recovering the Alpha?”, but also exploring what this means for you and your Pack.

I’d almost certainly employ Vincent Baker ‘s amazing “ask lots of questions” technique from Apocalypse World, in drawing out this aspect more heavily.

This is a further development of the way in which I run Amber Diceless – where the theme is again Family.  Everything is viewed through the lens of Family.  In Amber the family might do horrible things to each other (as per the books) but they can’t shake the fact they share a heritage and it just keeps pulling them back into each others lives.

As an aside one of things which used to fascinate me about Jerry Springer and related TV shows was the way in which people couldn’t just leave each other alone and move on with their lives.  Despite some of the terrible car crash relationships some people just didn’t seem to be able to pull themselves out of the destructive spiral they were in together and I was always intrigued as to why. Maybe I am just writing games to answer that question?

Bringing you the Links that are not about Role-playing…but really should be!

I am terrible for wasting time surfing the internet. In my travels I am always finding articles, new stories and snippets of idea that make me think “I have to run a game about that!”  This is clearly just a wafer thin excuse to justify my web addiction.

Here are my top articles for inspiring RPGS this week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19049254 – beautiful and yet haunting, abandoned City scapes in China.  If I described a vast city with no people in it during an RPG then no-one would believe that it was due to poor city planning and bad transport links, not the Apocalypse.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19248230 – Insects who have their behaviour programmed from birth by a song.  You cannot make this shit up!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19244888 – I can’t leave out some news from the Curiosity Rover. Funny thing, the idea of the Mars landscape is so embedded in my mind from films and sci fi novels that the first colour photo looks a bit cliched and derivative.

Read this wikipedia article about the family who invented Nutella very carefully.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferrero_SpA

I have always thought that this phrase in particular…

“The company places great emphasis on secrecy, reportedly to guard against industrial espionage. It has never held a press conference and does not allow media visits to its plants. Ferrero’s products are made with machines designed by an in-house engineering department.”

had great potential for sparking ideas for a role-playing game. Okay, in my head it is obviously a Cthulu game where the Ferraro plant houses a Great Old One. But your mileage may vary.

If any of these ideas make it into your game then please comment below and let me know – I really want to know I am not the only one who thinks like this!

Styles of Role-playing: expanding the model.

About a year ago I finally caught up with the Forge theory of role-playing and the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist styles of play. I spent a while attempting to categorise my own experience on this scale and felt I sat unhappily between Simulationist and Narrativist. I wanted enough internal consistency and simulation to create the suspension of disbelief I needed but I also wanted to drive the story my way and have my character’s own personal arc unfold. I said I sat “unhappily” though because I never felt that the 3 categories properly spoke to my own experience.

When I role-playing I do want an interesting story driven by me, the other players and the GM working together. But more than this I want to be emotionally touched by the experience of the story we create and during that creation I want to engage in interesting, stimulating and revealing conversations. I have written here about Conversationalism in role-playing games I run and the best sessions I have participated in have always been deep and meaningful, and changed the characters participating. Sometimes I role-playing just to enjoy inhabiting an interesting character and viewing the world through their eye. This style probably has more in common with Turku or Jeepform role-playing but I believe it is time to expand GNS to include Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

Therefore I propose two new classifications.

Emotionalism: your agenda when playing it to experience emotions thought the story and your character and facilitate other players experiencing emotions.

Conversationalism: your agenda when playing is to participate in and create an engaging conversation which deepens, expands or changes the relationship between the two characters involved.

Whilst Conversationalism has a passing similarity with Narrativism in that the course of the conversation will create a form of organic story, it is difference purely because the aim of Conversationalism is to enjoy the conversation not the creation of the story.

A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.