Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! …and you’re Dead.

I’m currently working on a disaster movie game called Disaster Strikes!, aimed at simulating the feel of classic movies like The Towering Inferno, Volcano! and many others. The basic setup is, a small group of competent, brave and selfless individuals find themselves caught up in a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a virus outbreak or an alien attack. They must somehow escape or overcome the threat, while saving loved ones and bystanders from certain death. It’s a no-prep game that will give you the structure and tools to create an action-packed disaster in a few hours.

I’ve run a couple of playtests and will report on them soon. But for this article, I’d like to share with you a mechanic I created for the game which has really shown its worth.

See, the thing about a disaster movie is that it comes with a high mortality rate. Sure, the heroes don’t usually die, but they can do. And part of what has made the game exciting in playtests has been the uncertainty over whether the players will survive or not, and the tension created by putting yourself in harms way in order to save the lives of others. The trouble is, if you die mid-way through that kinda sucks. Fortunately I have a solution.

Special: Dead. You are dead. Bad luck! But on the plus side, once per game, at any time between now and the end of the game you can trigger a flashback scene. You can use this scene to shine a light on your character and their relationships. However, in addition, you can use this scene to give another character an item, advice, or some other resource, and they get that to use in the game, right now.

The Dead special went down very well in playtesting. It was used to pull surviving character’s fat out of the fire, proving crucial to the successful defeating of the threat in one session. As well as giving the dead player something to do, it gives them a reason to continue to pay attention to the game rather than, say, going off and playing computer games in the corner. I’m going to want to playtest it some more, as it’s obviously potentially very powerful (and in some circumstances you may be better off dead than alive) but I’ve been really pleased with it so far.

Racist stereotypes in roleplaying

So, I have been keeping a wary eye on the discussion of Wolsung and with a deep breath I ploughed through the RPGnet discussion of it. Now, I haven’t read Wolsung and I’m not going to get into my opinions on the game. But there were some interesting arguments thrown around on RPGnet that I’d like to talk about here.

1. It cannot be racism if the target is a fictional, nonhuman race. This seems pretty obviously false. A blatant racist stereotype against a particular real life group remains just as blatant if you shift it wholesale onto a fictional race (particularly if you make the fictional race resemble the stereotype in question in an extremely identifiable way). Whether you did it on purpose or not is beside the point, though when the resemblance is very strong, people may find it hard to credit that it was accidental.

2. It isn’t racism if it’s about national culture or if national culture is just as important in the game as race. Well, ok, the term “racism” doesn’t apply to national stereotypes. This doesn’t make it better though. Cultural (and NB also religious) stereotypes seem to have somewhere along the line become the acceptable face of bigotry. But, you know, it’s essentially the same deal – painting an entire group with one brush, and a skewed and, uh, stereotyped brush at that. Focusing on the fact that genes aren’t involved is missing the point.

3. It’s ok because it’s an accurate representation of the historical period that the game is modelling (in this case the Victorian age). Well, this is kind of true. It’s true that some people, perhaps the majority, maybe even the vast majority[*] of Westerners in Victorian age held pretty horrendous bigoted views about foreigners. Note, of course, that the game permits you to play non-Westerners, so this argument is pretty much missing the point as well – why should the game be presented exclusively from the Western viewpoint? Indeed, why not select a few admirable exceptions to the (perceived) general bigotry to act as your perspective characters while noting, perhaps in a sidebar, the general prevalence of racism. In other words, why view the entire game through the lens of racism?

4. This leads me to a more difficult question, for me at least. Point 3 about is really an allusion to the fact that many of us like our fantasy worlds to model reality quite closely, warts and all. Now, the point has been made to me that if we’re happy to fill our games with orcs and airships, why do we suddenly insist on realism when it comes to racism? Well, I just don’t think the two things are the same; orcs and airships are essentially background colour, whereas realistic social behaviour is quite fundamental. I’m in the camp that tends to not want to gloss over real-life phenomena like racism. To be clear, my games have not been known for including racist themes or tackling racism – but I’d like to think I could do so, and I’m keen on the idea of games tackling such serious subject matter.

But it’s equally clear that if you’re going to tackle such serious subject matter in a published game, you want to do so in a careful, nuanced and respectful way. You should ideally have taken some serious study on the matter before charging into such murky waters. I’d go so far as to say that you should take this approach even if you aren’t publishing – if you’re just playing in your living room. If in our enthusiasm to be realistic, or to faithfully replicate a historical period (albeit with orcs and airships and so forth) we accept any old attempt at “serious” issues, even done in a cartoonish and badly thought-through way, then we’re pretty much betraying the principle of gritty realism in so doing, and we’ve trivialised the issue in the process.

One last thing. I think part of the reason people get so defensive about this is that they think “if this game is racist and I like it, then I must be racist; I’m not racist so the game can’t be either”. Well, racism isn’t like a disease that you have or don’t. It’s a spectrum of behaviours and cultural themes which permeate the whole of Western society. You are at risk of saying or doing stuff that’s racist if you don’t examine yourself, even if you yourself are not a racist. You can enjoy a game that covers racial themes, even in a ham-fisted way, without being a racist, but you owe it to yourself to give yourself some careful scrutiny before you do so.

[*] I’m really not sufficiently a historian to argue this point, but the idea that all Victorians were raging racists strikes me as also a possible stereotype.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

The Unspeakable Oath has an interview with Mike Mason and Paul Fricker, developers of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, here. In sharp contrast to previous editions (at least the ones I’ve encountered), this is not just a glorified reprint. Oh no. They’re bringing the Call of Cthulhu rules up-to-date with what sound like some really sensible changes. These include simplifications like eliminating al the myriad different “hit a dude with X” type skills in favour of a single fighting skill. But also innovations like a rather evocative version of fate points where you get a reroll, but at a cost. Quite similar to some of the stuff we’ve been working on Black Armada, in fact! (Needless to say ours will be even better.) Anyway, I’m super-excited about it. Cthulhu is one of my favourite games in principle, but the system has always been a source of annoyance. I’ll look forward to even more sanity-blasting goodness from this edition.

Plot overload

During a recent playtest I encountered some serious problems with plot overload. At the start of the game I threw too many things at the player group, causing them to become confused, and sucking up far too much time dealing with the chaos. By the end I was trying desperately to draw things back and get the game back under control, but it was pretty much too late and I ran out of time to fix the problem, leading to a damp squib ending.

Point is: it’s easy to assume that the more there is going on, the more enjoyable the game is likely to be. But there’s only so much stuff a group can handle at once. As a GM whether you’re running a planned storyline or a more spontaneous, low-prep game (this was the latter) you need to think about these issues. Figure a group can maybe handle a couple of things at once, in a long-term campaign, but in a one-off or introductory session, you probably don’t even want to make things that complex. One thing at a time is probably enough!

You might be worried about the players having enough to do, and that’s a fair point. Nobody said the problem couldn’t be multi-faceted. But don’t force the players to concentrate on too many threads at once or they’ll lose the plot entirely. At best they’ll be entertained but confused; at worse, you’ll lose their interest altogether.

House of Ill Repute

I have completed work on my Fiasco playset, House of Ill Repute. Set at the heart of the UK Government in Westminster, it allows you to play politicians, bureaucrats and journalists with big ambitions and poor impulse control.

For those not familiar with Fiasco, it’s a GMless game in which the players collaborate to create a train wreck story about big plans gone disastrously wrong. The game is organised into playsets (many of which are available free at the link above) which provide random tables of story elements to get you started. You spend the first half of the game making a (usually very bad) plan and the second half smashing it to pieces. Mostly, the characters come of very badly by the end.

There’s a great video of some sample play over at TableTop.

You can download House of Ill Repute for free from our Free Games page. If you play it, let me know how you get on.

 

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.

Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.