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!

List of UK game designers

For those who haven’t seen it elsewhere – I have created a list of UK game designers. I have mostly done this because I intend to try and play and run more games by UK designers, and then… well, I got sucked into being completist.

Here it is:

List of UK game designers

Something tells me this list is neither complete nor 100% accurate, but it’s a good start. Let me know if there’s gaps or errors in comments!

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

Review: Dead of Winter

Summary

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie survival-themed game of resource scarcity. Players each control a band of survivors and take turns to move their survivors around, fight zombies, scavenge resources, and contribute to dealing with crises that affect the “colony” (the group of player-controlled characters and helpless survivors) as a whole as well as ensuring the colony has enough food to stave of starvation. The ultimate aim is determined by an objective card chosen at the start of the game, but this must be achieved within a fixed number of turns, and without colony morale being reduced to zero; and there are several competing problems to tackle at any given time, all of which threaten to reduce morale.

Gameplay

The focus of the action is moving your survivors around the board to fight zombies and search for resource cards. I’ll elaborate on this a bit below, but suffice to say there’s not much to these individual actions – instead, the cumulative effect of small decisions is what decides whether you win the game. Mostly this is a matter of how much effort the group as a whole puts into pursuing each of the various competing challenges. On which subject…

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, DoW is about resource scarcity. This is because multiple and competing pressures require you to burn through (a) the limited number of actions you can take on your go and (b) the limited resource cards available to you. These pressures include:
Zombies. If you don’t kill the zombies, they will kill your survivors. If a survivor dies, you lose morale. Plus you’ve still got a ton of zombies that will likely kill other survivors in future.
Food. If you don’t produce enough food (one type of resource card) to feed the colony, it starves. Starvation loses you morale. Plus starvation is like a wound, it sticks around and sucks away morale over time.
Waste. Every time you use a card it goes in the waste pile. If the waste pile gets too big, you lose morale. You can expend actions to reduce the waste pile, but it’s slow going.
Every turn there’s a randomly drawn crisis which you must feed resource cards to avoid negative effects. Negative effects generally means morale loss or the kind of things that can cause morale loss, like more zombies.
When a survivor is wounded, you can use resources to remove those wounds, which you hope will reduce the chance of their dying and… you guessed it, reducing morale. You can get wounded fighting zombies, but also merely moving locations exposes you to the risk of injury or death.
And finally, there’s always the temptation to use your resource cards to boost your actions, leaving you with less to feed the colony and/or fight the current crisis.

All this is made worse by the semi-cooperative nature of the game. The group have a shared objective chosen at the start, but everyone also has a personal (secret) objective drawn at random. Most players need to meet both objectives to win the game, though there may be a BETRAYER who needs only to meet their personal objective. All this means that there is additional pressure on resources from (a) people deliberately using their resource cards inefficiently because it helps their personal objective or (b) worse, people actively working against the group. Beating a crisis potentially means putting in more resource cards than are actually required to combat possible traitors in your midst.

On top of all this there are some random factors which can further hinder you. As mentioned before, fighting zombies and even movement carry a risk of injury. This is mediated through rolling an injury die, which can wound you, give you frostbite (which is a wound that continues to wound you every turn until you die) or 1 time in 12, instantly kills you and potentially others in your location too as the zombie plague rages out of control. Further, on every players’ turn there is a Crossroads card drawn which, based on a secret trigger, may unleash some unknown effect. The effects can be positive – we once had the chance to eat a horse we found lying around, for instance – but some of them are very negative indeed; one player in our game had two characters instantly killed by Crossroads cards. The Crossroads cards always give you a choice between two options, but sometimes one of the options won’t be available and you just have to suck up whatever nastiness the remaining option gives you.

So, you can gather from the above that DoW is a pretty bleak game. There’s a lot of factors going against you, and not much in your favour. I don’t yet have a sense of what that general sense of the world being against you translates to in terms of win/loss ratio. It did not feel as challenging on the first play as, say, Pandemic. But maybe we got lucky.

It’s worth a quick discussion of how this game relates to Battlestar Galactica. The two games have a lot in common, and I would be astonished if the designers hadn’t consciously built DoW on the foundation provided by BSG. In both games you have people who have their own secret objectives that cut across or go against the group’s objective; you have regular crises that require everyone to contribute cards to meet an objective, but during which it’s possible to secretly work against the group; you have the constant external threat (zombies or cylons) and you have the fight to avoid running out of resources. The two games are similar, but there are also major differences. In BSG the main focus is the crisis cards; they happen once every player-turn and throw in a random factor that makes it harder to meet the target number and easier for a traitor to cover their tracks. In DoW the crisis cards are less frequent and there’s no random factor, so you always know if a traitor has worked against you and, assuming there isn’t, you always know if you’ve beat the target. In DoW you have to work to get the resource cards to beat the crisis and feed the colony, so there’s a constant downward pressure on resources, while in BSG your cards regularly refresh so the focus is more on whether you can make it through the turn without running out. DoW is more deadly, but you get more than one character and if all a players’ characters die then they get a free replacement. In BSG it’s harder to detect a traitor and also harder to neutralise them, while in DoW there may not even be a traitor, but everyone has objectives that cut against the group slightly, while an exiled traitor (or an unjustly exiled innocent) is less disadvantaged and maintains a more constant play experience. Bottom line: if you liked one, you may well like the other, but don’t expect them to be that similar.

Overall I was impressed with DoW. I’m a big fan of BSG and I found DoW to be very similar, but refreshingly different. If you like cooperative play with a soupcon of player vs player paranoia, DoW is worth a look.

Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.

A stone’s throw away from the answer

An analogy I often come across when describing investigative games is the “trail of breadcrumbs”. That is, a linear series of clues each of which points to the next in the series. It’s an approach that reaches its apex in the Gumshoe system, which advises the GM to write a “spine” of scenes, each of which contains a core clue which is necessary to progress to the next scene. The game makes discovery of core clues automatic for any character with the relevant skill, solving a genuine problem with investigative games, which is that they can stall when the players miss an important roll.

This is not an approach I subscribe to. Notwithstanding the fact that the “trail of breadcrumbs” is rather demeaning towards the players, suggesting they are simply mindless birds pecking their way to success – well. That is exactly what they are in Gumshoe, it seems to me. The system deliberately removes any element of challenge in the process of discovering the Truth, leaving the players with the job of describing how they do it. Whether they peck at the breadcrumbs furiously or idly, I suppose.

Let me give you my own pointless metaphor for the process I follow. Imagine the villain of the piece is standing on the shore of a lake, throwing stones. The stones create ripples, which spread out in all directions and persist for a long time.

If the stones are the villain’s actions, and the ripples are the clues they leave behind, then you should start to see where my analogy is going. The players are presented initially with some information about the “ripples” – the key evidence that starts their investigation off. Now they are in a position to look for more ripples. They begin to be able to piece together where some of the stones fell. If they are watching closely perhaps they can even spot some stones landing. But I as GM don’t plan out which bits of the ripple they’re going to find, or which stones they will discover the location of. Or in other words, I don’t know which evidence they will discover or what clues they will deduce from it.

Instead, I make sure that there are plenty of stones being thrown, with a varied size of ripple, so that I can be reasonably sure that they will eventually figure out who is throwing those stones. Finally, the stones continue to be thrown as the investigation is ongoing, generating still more ripples. By which I mean:
– My villain is doing lots of stuff
– He is, therefore, leaving lots of evidence behind for the players to find
– Some of it is really obvious, some less so, so there is room for skillful play
– My villain carries on doing stuff while the investigation is going on, so the trail never goes completely cold, and (this is important) there are consequences to failure

Think about the difference between these two approaches. Under the Gumshoe approach, no matter what the players do, they will uncover the mystery, and without any role for intelligent deduction, clever investigation or even just plain good or bad luck. The game (I read Trail of Cthulhu) strenuously denies it railroads the players, but this feels like a game on rails to me. Even a standard “trail of breadcrumbs” (not Gumshoe) game will feel a lot like this.

Meanwhile under my approach the players are required to use their eyes and ears and brains to piece together what happened. They don’t get any free passes. There is scope for them to solve the mystery slower or faster, and there are consequences if they fail. It is unlikely the players will fail because there is lots of evidence and the villain doesn’t disappear off the radar, but they can still screw up properly, allowing the villain to commit more mayhem, and conversely they can score a roaring success, catching the villain early.

A trail of breadcrumbs investigation means you are roleplaying an investigation, but not actually doing one. The stones and ripples approach means you get to actually investigate, not just go through the motions.

Final thoughts: my approach is not without problems. It’s a lot of work, and it requires the GM to think on her feet about every player action and what clues it might uncover. It can mean an unpredictable game length. The GM must pay a lot of attention to whether there is enough evidence to go on (so they will probably succeed) but not too much (so it just feels like childsplay, ruining the challenge). I think these are a price worth paying to get an approach that feels like real investigation.

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.

Mini-Apocalypse World hack

When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp.

On a hit, you can ask the MC questions or propose an answer of your own. If you propose an answer the MC will either agree it, agree it with a change or two, or give a different answer.

Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers or your own answer, where the MC agreed it, take +1. On a 10+, ask or answer 3. On a 7–9, ask or answer 1:

• where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
• which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
• which enemy is the biggest threat?
• what should I be on the lookout for?
• what’s my enemy’s true position?
• who’s in control here?

This is in response to a friend (I forget who – if it’s you, feel free to take credit in comments) who commented that Read Sitch meant the MC spoonfeeding the players tactical advice instead of them thinking for themselves. This allows players to say what they think the answers are, for the MC to correct their understanding (if needed) and for them to still get the bonus.