DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE

I recently ran a game of Dogs in the Vineyard at a roleplaying con. But I wanted to run something a little different. Now, I’ll be honest, the basic game background doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I wanted to see if I could run Dogs but in a non-religious setting, without sacrificing any of the moral judgement that (as I see it) Dogs focuses on. My game went quite well as a game, but utterly failed in that objective. This article discusses why.

I attempted this through a game I dubbed DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE! featuring a small colony on a distant world, struggling to survive a drought that had left them short on supplies. The players were important local people with an interest in keeping the colony from self-destructing, and the stuff that was going on in the colony was twofold:

1. A young woman from the colony, Isabelle, had fallen in love with one of the Wallas, local aliens who sort of looked like wallabies (hence the name), and started having a love affair with him. Another colonist called Peter who wanted to woo her had attacked and killed the Walla in question. In turn, the Walla’s daughter was on the warpath, demanding reparations and a trial by combat for the murderer.

2. The colony was very short on food. Rations had been cut, and particularly severely for the Drones, cloned humans engineers to be stupid but strong and unable to reproduce, and generally treated like cattle by the colony. One of the Drones’ keepers, Ethan, decided that this was unjust and started stealing food for the Drones. In turn, one of the senior keepers had started a petition to have the Drones culled, to help the supplies last longer. It would be only a matter of time before Ethan found out about this and went off on one.

Not this kind of Dog In Space. Image by Bobbie Johnson.

Now, there were several bad decisions in this design process, all of which I was aware of but (mistakenly) thought I could get away with.

– The players all had formal roles in the community (mayor, sheriff, priest, guildmaster). This led to a certain amount of hierarchical behaviour. It wasn’t always problematic, but it led to the sheriff deferring to the mayor on an important decision, which was sub-optimal.

– The colony was in a survival situation. Food was scarce; at the start of the game, a supply ship got destroyed, straining supplies still further. Moreover the Wallas represented a potential existential threat to the community, and I had made them seem overthreatening by referring to early conflicts between humans and Wallas when the colony was formed.

The combination of the two things above led to people acting more as politicians than moral decision-makers. They were far more concerned with the colony’s survival than whether they were doing the right thing. This made for an interesting and tense game, but one that didn’t feel all that much like Dogs game.

There were some good Dogs-esque bits though. The first was that the players spent a good deal of time debating whether it was ok to hand Peter over to the Wallas to face their justice. They knew anything less would enrage the Wallas, but handing him over could lead to unrest in the colony. In the end they copped out and handed the choice to him, but the debate was interesting and in a campaign I could have returned to that theme later on. The second was that there was real concern about the status of the Drones and whether they could indeed be treated like animals. This was somewhat drowned out by political concerns, but again, perhaps I could have returned to it at a future date.

I’d like to try this again at some point, but the concept needs some work.

Designer Diary: When the Dark Is Gone – Concept

If you remember my last Designer Diary Post I set myself two challenges:

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

Goal number two: design a game with no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

I decided that both these goals hung on the right sort of game premise.  So I took an old idea I had been playing with for years and revamped it.

I started with my favourite childhood books.  I loved Narnia, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Five Children and It by E. Nesbitt and the Box of Delights by John Mansfield.  All involved young children from mundane worlds finding magical people, lands and items and having the most amazing adventures.

But what happened next?

What happens when the dark is gone?

How do you go from ruling as a Queen in Narnia to wartime rations and maths homework?

I imagined a situation where a group of children (the players) enjoyed magical adventures in a mythical land and then understandably failed to readjust to “normal” life.  All the children almost entirely repressed those memories and ended up self-destructing somehow.  All of them ended up in a Group Therapy session together, trying to recover their memories, deal with their psychological disorders and heal themselves and their relationships.

I am a huge believer in strong story scaffolding for prep-less games.  Indeed it is vital and WTDIG is no exception. Story scaffolding happens in two stages firstly the players agree their characters, their relationships (including how they have betrayed and hurt each other) and their psychological problems which have brought them to therapy.  Secondly the players decide on a number of agreed details about the magical land.  These details are the only agreed “true facts” of the game.  Both the character details and magical land details are there to give the players inspiration during the session for creating their repressed memories as they go.

The aim of the game is for the players to resolve their psychological problems and relationships using the memories of the magical land as a tool to help them.  The aim of the game is NOT to write wonderful stories about the magical land (although that may be a happy by-product).

How does this fulfil my goals?

Firstly the session is obviously and sharply focussed on their characters and their feelings. This is a game where creating emotionally charged conversations is the only thing happening in session. In case you didn’t know I run games mostly to find those interesting conversations.

Secondly the setting is a Therapy session.  Verbal conflict is encouraged and mediated by the Therapist (standing in for a GM but a very different role as I’ll explain below), it is resolved in the same way that people resolve real world conflicts in therapy. By talking them out.

Sadly we don’t get to roll dice in arguments with our real life partners 🙁   (Hmmm… hang on a minute?)

If the players disagree about what happened in the magical land…well here is the really clever bit.  They just disagree.  Memory is fallible.  The only truth that matter is your truth and how that helps your healing journey. The players talk through their mismatched memories and use the fact they are mismatched to create more story and more interesting emotional interaction (there was a wonderful example of this in the play test which indeed resulted in a better story and more satisfying experience for the players involved).

There are other advantages to the therapy session conceit in this style of game:

1. awkward silences (which occur more often in prep-less games where people can go dry easily) are perfectly normal for a therapy session and nicely amp up the atmosphere.
2. the Therapist role is a fascinating and easy way to help draw out the story if the players are having trouble.  Rather than acting as a GM and dictating plot etc.  the role of the Therapist is purely to reflect back at the players encouraging them to create everything.  The Therapist asks questions (e.g. Lucy can you tell me how you feel about what Edmund just said?) and ensures that the spotlight is evenly distributed amongst the group. For this reason I think of the role as Game Facilitator rather than Game Master.

Right that was a much longer post.

Next time… results from the Alpha Play Test are in!

[Don’t forget to pick up a free copy of the game from here if you haven’t already.]

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.

The Trouble with Rose (a walkthrough)

The Trouble with Rose is a GMless, prepless, indie roleplaying game by Todd Zircher. It is in the style of a parlour game and falls in a similar category as Fiasco and Durance as games which divide the control of the narratives between all the players.

I first found it via the Story Games Forum and found the idea and Shakesperian flavour very hard to resist.  As I said, it is a similar style game to Fiasco but without the explicit car crash atmosphere, and so is better suited to my tastes.

The premise is short and sweet.  There is a person called Rose, they are in trouble.  You are playing their friends and family and your job is to build up a story about Rose; why s/he/it is in trouble and what happens next.   The simplicity of the scenario means it is easily adaptable to different genres and styles (there are a large number of playsets supporting the basic system). Rose could be a Fairy Princess, an AI deep in the Net, a schoolgirl, a pirate ship or as Todd suggests, Plutonium Rose, a rock star on the run from his groupies and the Mob.

 

The system is fairly simple, once a scenario has been agreed the players choose a character each, writing down six character attributes, 2 of which are in some way negative.  Some of our attributes were “own’s most of MadeUpShire” and the servant girl’s “total belief in the class system” but you might want to go for something simpler like “crack shot” or “very agile”. You then randomly choose 5 dominoes.  Each domino has 2 sides with 2 numbers on it (blank – 6), you take it in turns to direct a scene with your character in and choose a domino to represent the character attributes you will be displaying in the scene.  Blanks are wildcards and automatic failures, a double blank is played in the last round and always means that character will be removed completely from the action e.g. death.   You go round the table directing scenes 5 times. Lastly everyone draws a playing card which represents your character’s hidden agenda.

Things that worked well

The dominoes provided a good amount of story scaffolding and we made good use of a reflection period after each directed scene to tie up loose ends, discuss where the story was going and evaluate our progress.  Because of this there weren’t too many awkward moments where people go dry and the flow of the narrative fails.

 

Things that worked less well

We all felt a little pressured to bring in large amounts of other characters and NPCs into each scene.  This was to ensure we were giving each other enough to do.  However this meant we occasionally tied the plot in knots and strained the story. In future I would make more use of cut scenes, short flashbacks and internal monologues to flesh out characters and individual relationships, rather than making sure each person is talking in each scene.

Things we did differently

In the original game there is a means to judge each other’s role-playing prowess and award points on how well you brought your character attributes into the scene.  The person with the most points got to narrate the Epilogue. We agreed at the start that we didn’t feel this added anything to the game and that there were better ways to encourage and reward the same behaviour.  We ditched this aspect and I felt that was the right decision.

Secondly, whilst the game was GMless I feel (in all these types of game) that someone must take mental responsibility for managing the game and making sure things happen.  I made sure we had dominoes and copies of the system.  I guided everyone through character generation and actively facilitated the session, providing suggesting and prompts and encouraging others to do the same.  I’ll write more on managing GMless games later though – that is a whole topic on its own.

 

You may be wondering who our Rose was…she was the Scarlet Primrose, rakish hero to the French Aristocracy having rescued many of them from the Guillotine in the years after the French Revolution.  Half our characters were her family who believed her to be a ditzy dilletante, the other half were from her network of undercover contacts – much amusement and drama ensued when her two worlds collided.

I really enjoyed this game, it was great fun and we created a story which was engaging and interesting.  I still love the idea of entirely prepless games and GMless games and I think the Trouble with Rose is more the style of GMless game I want to play.  Best of all it has inspired me to write my own version of a GMless game.  So a big thank you and thumbs up to Todd Z.

Oh, I didn’t mention the best bit…it is free…go here to get your copy.

New Year resolutions

Play at least ten games (roleplaying or board) that I have never played before.

Play a full roleplaying session, not just a one to one, entirely over Skype (or G Chat)

Read at least ten sci fi and/or fantasy authors I’ve never read before, including at least five women.

Write a complete roleplaying system.

Complete my murder mystery for Undying King games.

I reckon if I finish all that lot I have a right to be pretty pleased with myself. Let’s see if I can manage it!

Speaking out

I have been roleplaying since I was ten years old – that’s over twenty years – and it has formed the core of my spare time and social life for most of that time.

It all started when a guy named Peter moved into my neighbourhood and brought Dungeons and Dragons with him. Yes, Dungeons and Dragons – much mocked, little understood. It was great. My limited social circle were basically only interested in football at that point. And I. Hate. Football. Suddenly we had a regular social activity that I actually enjoyed. Together we beat up carrion crawlers, troglodytes, dragons – whatever random monster of the week came up. It wasn’t really much more than a board game at that point, but it captured my imagination.

Since then I branched out, always creeping closer and closer to the kind of gaming I wanted to do, the kind that was about characters and epic stories, the kind that matched the exciting descriptions you heard about in the marketing blurb for virtually any rpg you might happen to read, but which were a million miles away from the games I played as a ten-year-old. Don’t get me wrong: I like beating up a dragon as much as the next nerd, but it wasn’t what I wanted the core of my gaming to be. Still, it was the thing that brought me and my small circle of friends together in secondary school (which I hated, and which roleplaying made bearable). Oddly enough, I didn’t do much *actual roleplaying* during this time. I devoured dozens of massive textbooklike roleplaying books, learning arcane trivia like what “SCUBA” stands for and the furthest distance anyone has fallen and survived.

It was when I got to university that the hobby really exploded for me. I joined the Oxford University roleplaying games society, and was united with dozens of fellow gamers, all bright, enthusiastic and energetic. They ran games. A lot. I found myself trying out LRP – stood up, in a room full of strangers, physically pretending to be my character. Really it wasn’t any different from an amateur dramatics night, I suppose, but it was very exciting for me. At OU RPGsoc I ran the first proper campaign (in the sense of one that ran for more than a handful of sessions) of my career thus far, a game about an attempt at space colonisation gone horribly wrong. I learned how to manage difficult players, how to manage a team of referees, and I saw some fantastic roleplaying.

I have dozens of friend from OU RPGsoc who I am still close to. It gave me the foundation of the next ten years of roleplaying. Because of it, I had the confidence to show up in London and recruit about a dozen complete strangers to play in First Born, an epic fantasy game. It’s funny, but I don’t think I appreciated at the time what a big thing that was. Thanks to First Born I met dozens more roleplayers, and was introduced to their strange world of 24-hour roleplaying. (Think Blair Witch Project… on second thoughts, don’t. Ask me if you’re interested.)

These days I don’t have time to run LRP events for dozens of players, as much as the idea frequently tempts me. But my entire social circle, more or less, is made up of roleplayers, and an awful lot of time I spend with them is spent playing a fictional character of one kind or another. And it is still the most fun you can have for the cost of a train fare and some snack food.

Strangely enough, my work colleagues are not aware of my hobby. For whatever reason, I have felt that talking about it with them would be A Bad Plan. Every time I go roleplaying I tell them I’m just hanging out with friends, not really doing anything. They must think I have the most boring life ever. I occasionally tell my fellow gamers that I can’t “come out” because I’m a manager and it would undermine my authority if people felt I had a nerdy hobby. Whatever, it’s probably just an excuse. I’m pretty jealous of Admiral Frax, who told her colleagues when she joined her company and has never looked back. If I told people now it would just look weird that I never mentioned it before.

Anyway. Thankyou roleplaying, you’ve been a positive presence in my life all this time and still carry on giving. And by the way, thanks to all the fabulous roleplayers I know, who have made it all so much fun.

This has been my contribution to speak out with your geek out. A day late. Meh, whatever.

Final Friday #1

It’s Friday, Friday, gotta play games on Friday… yeah. This is the first installment of what will hopefully be a series of writeups of Final Friday. What is Final Friday, you ask? Final Friday is an event I’ve started whereby a randomly-generated group of my friends come round on the last Friday of the month to play a new boardgame or RPG, or to try out an experimental game concept or mechanic – in short, to try something new.

I must admit, my first Final Friday was not exactly well-attended. It didn’t help that I announced the idea two weeks in advance. Oh, and not technically on the last Friday of the month; I’m on holiday then. What can I say, I just couldn’t wait until September. So in the end it was only Ben, Kat and me who sat down on Friday night. That was easily enough people to create a very fun evening.

We decided to try out Fiasco. For those who don’t know it, Fiasco is a GM-less roleplaying game in which, with the help of some skeletal setting material and some random tables, the players work together to create a trainwreck story on the lines of a Cohen Brothers movie.

Now I should say here, to my knowledge I have never seen a Cohen Brothers movie. And I’ve never played a GM-less game. So there was clearly the potential here for a little trainwreck of our own. And indeed, it took us a while to get to grips with the concept. But after a slow start we got into it.

We decided (against my express wishes – nobody listens to me…) to play the Ice Station playset. Ben was Archie White, an introverted trucker who ended up at MacMurdo Station when his wife Elena (Kat) moved there. Now divorced, his only real friend at the station is The Voice, a mysterious presence at the end of a CB Radio who is blackmailling him into smuggling illicit goods in and out of the base. Archie has become dependent on their relationship for human contact – he needs to hear a voice… anyone’s voice. Unbeknownst to him, The Voice is actually Gilbert Stringer, an embittered naval comms officer who dreamed of making Admiral but never made it past Ensign. The loops is closed when we learn that Elena has asked Stringer to help her move some stolen experimental material from her lab, with which she hopes to make her career away from the stultifying grip of the MacMurdo hierarchy.

Image by ~meh-301

It’s difficult to explain exactly what happened in the game. Things came to a head when Archie, already some distance down the road out of MacMurdo, gets a call from The Voice, demanding he turn his truck around and return the package to the base. Elena, who for reasons of her own had stowed away in the truck, overhears the conversation and steals the package back, heading out into a blizzard with it in her clutches. Stringer, hearing that the package has gone, goes off the deep end and comes after Archie on a skidoo, ending in a shootout, then a second shootout at the MacMurdo airstrip where Stringer tries to stop Elena leaving by airplane. The story ended with Elena flying away in her plane while both Stringer and Archie lie in pools of their own blood on the airstrip.

I really enjoyed our first outing in Fiasco-world. I really want to give some other playsets a try, in particular the suburbia playset, because I think with some of the others there’s too much of a temptation to play off the setting rather than focusing on character interaction and pure mayhem. If you don’t like the idea of having no GM and no real rulebook to fall back on, and just improvising wildly to produce an interesting story, Fiasco may not work so well for you. For this group, this time around, it worked well. We got a good mix of poignant story that we had deliberately made happen collaboratively, and random chaos that emerged through play.

By the way – epilogue to the story: Stringer wakes up paralysed in hospital. He is alone, except for a CB Radio. The last thing we see is Stringer picking up the radio to call Archie, just to hear his voice… anyone’s voice.