Great Expectations

So, there’s been an interesting discussion on UK roleplayers about how “mooks” are treated in RPGs, and why more GMs don’t treat their mooks as fully-fleshed out (well, not entirely faceless, anyway) NPCs. This led to an interesting comment about genre expectations, which I shall now shamelessly steal and riff off.

Genre is a great tool for getting your audience in the same headspace (or for deliberately creating expectations only to defy them in some sort of twist). The mooks example is terrific. As mentioned in the thread linked to above, it would be a dreadful violation of genre expectations if James Bond were tracked down and sued by the family of two heavies he shot in scene 3 of the movie. Doing this could qualify as a twist on the genre, but if so you’d expect it to be telegraphed in advance. Doing it thoughtlessly would destroy any sense of what the James Bond franchise was about, and most likely alienate the audience to boot.

The same is true for RPGs: you flout expectations at your peril. Indeed, the whole GNS theory of roleplaying is essentially about how we can sort it out so that our games reliably give us the experience that we expect/want. The reason the theory exists is because the authors felt that gamers were frequently not getting the experience they wanted, for predictable reasons. But I digress.

A theme that I’ve noticed in roleplaying discussions over the last year or so is that a good GM is constantly observing his/her players’ behaviour and adjusting the game to meet it. We are told that we should give the players the game that they want. It is bad GMing, we are told, to just plough on ahead without regard for the way the players are, uh, playing. But this is taken a step further by a school of thought that says: don’t plan your game at all, but create it in reaction to what the players seem interested in.

This is all well and good, but it has the potential to be the ultimate in genre expectations fail. You can’t establish a clear set of genre expectations if you’re waiting on the players to tell you (through their behaviour) how the game should be. Worse, it’s possible that different players have different ideas about how the game should be. How are you gonna deal with that, hot shot?

I’m not saying that GMs shouldn’t be ready to give the players what they want, or react to their behaviour. That would be crazy. But if you set out some clear ideas about what YOU want, in the form of genre (or clear explanation of where you plan to break from genre), then you stand a far better chance of your players giving you appropriate behaviour from the get-go. This also has the added advantage that if your players hate the game you’re describing they can tell you before you’re halfway into a campaign, and you can either adapt or find some other players.

What this comes down to is, I like to talk about my roleplaying. I like to discuss it with my players, and find out what they like (and don’t like), and I like to let them know the same in turn. Genre is a terrific way to shortcut that conversation, but the conversation is still worth having – and not just hoping that by masterful GM skills you’ll just be able to muddle through and somehow give the players what they wanted all along.

Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Roleplaying over the internets

Today I ran Disaster Strikes! over Google Hangouts for Indie+. I have roleplayed over Skype/G+ before, but never with anything more than a very rudimentary set of mechanics, and only with people I knew quite well. So this was a new experience for me.

I was feeling pretty trepidatious; nobody had signed up in advance for my Indie+ event. Was this normal? Would there be a last-minute rush, or would I sit like a lemon for fifteen minutes and then give up? It turned out partway between the two. A couple of minutes before start time I got my first sign up. Woot! And then a second very shortly after. I started feeling quite excited – maybe this game would go ahead after all. But I think maybe my second signup had come in via whatever the google equivalent of chat roulette is, because he signed off as soon as we started talking about the game. At least he wasn’t confronted by an image of a penis, which I gather is the usual chat roulette experience.

Undeterred, we decided to go ahead with the game with just one player. I was quite unsure as to whether this would work – the game is really designed for 3-4 people. Well, the good news is that after a fairly tentative start things took off pretty well, with explosion and killer AIs aplenty. Indeed, we had one of the more satisfying DS! finales that I can recall, as our intrepid fire safety officer put the lives of innocent bystanders first, getting them off the oil rig and only jumping into the ocean at the last, on fire and with several broken limbs. We even had the cliffhanger ending as the killer AI seemed to escape to attack the hospital our hero was installed in for the epilogue.

Anyway, I digress slightly. We were using an app called anywhereboardgames, a free google hangout app which I can recommend. It provides you with a virtual tabletop upon which you can create various game objects – in this case, playing cards and tokens. The game comes with a bunch of pre-created ones but it’s reasonably easy to create your own; all you need do is create images for each of the faces of whatever it is you’re using (front and back for cards, presumably multiple sides if you want dice or whatever). It will let you stack and shuffle cards, and you can create a screen to hide your cards/tokens/etc behind. Once one person has set it up in a google hangout, everyone else automatically gets access to it. Basically it’s your ideal tool if you need something more than dice (for which I gather that catchyourhare is considered the place to go). My only complaint is that it doesn’t work with internet explorer, although I may be the last person on earth who still uses IE.

I had hoped to get a sense of how easy G+ roleplaying is with multiple people, which I obviously didn’t do in the event. The brief chat session I had with my mystery person who disappeared seemed to be working ok, but it was quite short and not the best test. We also briefly had a fourth person drop in, which revealed how badly the sound can go if you don’t all have headsets – we immediately started getting echoes from his speakers, which had previously not been a problem. So I would recommend getting headsets if you want to try this at home.

All in all though I was quite pleased with the experience. It was disappointing not to get a full set of players, but getting to roleplay with someone in Latvia more than made up for it, and the game was great fun. Will probably give indie+ a go again next year if I have the time.

Vote for Black Armada in RPG Geek’s 24 hour RPG contest!

I’ve been meaning to take part in one of RPG Geek‘s RPG design contests since I found out about them, so when I noticed that their 24 hour RPG contest overlapped with my week off, I jumped at the chance to take part.

The result was Farmtopia. The game is about revolutions, and is (loosely) based on George Orwell‘s Animal Farm. You play farm animals who will rise up in revolution against the farmer, and subsequently have to deal with the moral, social and practical problems that arise under the new regime.

It’s a rules-light, GMless, zero prep game. The bulk of the game is concerned with providing a premise and structure for your game, the only rules being a very simple conflict resolution system based on voting and a status system which determines who is in charge in the farm and provides the potential for politicking and counter-revolutions.

It’s silly of me, but I’m most proud of the two-page spread listing all the farm animals you can play and how they might figure in a revolution. That and the art, which I did myself and some of which isn’t too bad if I say so myself.

Farmtopia is only one of 38 games produced for the competition, and they’re all available for free here. Some of them look quite good. Please do go and take a look, and vote (ideally for Farmtopia, but whatever).

If you’d like a look at the game but don’t want to vote, it’s available in our free games section.

Designer Diary: Quick Draw

I ran Disaster Strikes! at Furnace last weekend, and it was pretty successful. I used a new mechanic for the first time – the disaster pool. But before I can explain how that went, I need to talk about Quick Draw, the conflict resolution system I’ve been using for DS!

We at Black Armada have been planning to release a “generic” conflict resolution system which we can use with our games, and QD is our first attempt at this. It’s still somewhat in development, but I’ve been testing it with DS! because it seems to fit the game pretty well.

QD works in a similar way to many conflict resolution systems in that you say what you’re trying to achieve, identify the stakes of the conflict (i.e. what happens when you win, what happens if you lose), work out which of your character’s stats apply and then set a difficulty number. In most games you’d then go to the dice, but as the name implies, QD uses cards instead.

The player who is taking the action draws 3 cards, and the GM (so far it’s only been used with games that have a GM) draws 1 card. The player reveals his best card and adds it to whatever stats are in use, while the GM reveals her card and adds it to the difficulty number. High number wins, player wins ties.

What makes the system interesting is how face cards are handled. Forgetting Aces for the moment (Aces are special), face cards count as 5-point cards for purposes of working out the results of a draw. However, face cards can be played after other cards have been revealed as described above, to add a +5 bonus to the player’s side. Naturally, having a face card dramatically increases your chance of success.

However, in addition, playing a face card generates a consequence of some kind. The consequence is usually decided by the GM, and is generally something that the character on the receiving end will not like. It’s against the rules to overturn the outcome of the card draw (i.e. the stakes as agreed above), so consequences tend to mean a new event of some kind, which might or might not be related to the current action. Kind of like Leverage, this means that conflicts often generate spiralling sets of complications.

For DS! this is a nice property for a system to have, because it reinforces the sense that the disaster is raging out of control. The GM can use complications to activate aspects of the disaster in an unpredictable way, so that a seemingly straightforward challenge can turn into a cascade of pain. The Furnace session saw the protagonists hurdling rivers of fire only to be struck by an out-of-control rollercoaster train with a zombie on it, carried by the momentum to the ticket stands where a horde of zombies began pouring through the turnstiles, and so on.

The downside, though, is that it’s a lot of work for the GM to come up with consequences. When the players are firing on all cylinders as well, this isn’t too bad – the GM can take suggestions and avoid running out of ideas. But there can be fairly long moments where the GM is all “what the heck do I do now?”. This is especially a problem when multiple consequences come up in a single turn. Which happens more than you might think.

I haven’t yet figured out quite how to get around this problem. Maybe it isn’t a problem at all – it generates creative challenges for the group, and I don’t think I’ve ever found it literally impossible to come up with something. But I’m wondering if there’s a way to avoid breaking the action while the GM thinks of a consequence.

Next up: suits, player-generated conequences, and the disaster pool.

Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

Furnace rpg convention – review

Admiral Frax and I headed into the hills of Sheffield on Friday night for Furnace, a smallish (about 80 people) roleplaying convention focused exclusively on tabletop gaming.

We have been doing what we refer to as “the con”, a gathering of about two dozen of our friends for roleplaying purposes every year for about a decade, but this was the first proper convention we had attended. Furnace is a fairly intense affair – three gaming slots on the first day and two on the second, leaving the Sunday evening for everyone to race off home. This meant that the games were fast and focused, which was largely a good thing. Despite this, it didn’t feel rushed, and most of the games I played in found time for a coffee break or two.

I managed to play in four games using systems I’d never tried before, which was great for my new year resolution to try lots of new games, and all four were an excellent standard of both GMs and players. The venue was the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield, a former, uh, garrison on the north side of the city. The place is full of little nooks and crannies where gaming can happen in a relatively quiet environment (including some rather spiffy little jail cells which are just big enough for a decent sized tabletop and nicely separated off from the surrounding area, if slightly hard to extract yourself from when you want to go for a coffee break). It’s pretty labyrinthine, though by the end of the weekend we’d just about worked the place out. And the food is somewhat above mediocre, which is high praise when you consider how bad such venues can be. Also, their real ale menu is a big bonus.

Partway through there was a raffle in which, unprecedently, I won something – specifically, a copy of Apocalypse World. Yay! Frax also got given a free copy of Witch by the author, who I can only assume was so impressed by her enthusiasm for the game that he temporarily turned into Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of a Christmas Carol. Looking forward to giving this game a try!

Frax and I were both nervous because it was our first con, because we knew absolutely nobody who was attending, and because we had both decided not only to GM but to run our own games (When the Dark is Gone and Disaster Strikes! respectively). We needn’t have worried – Furnace is very welcoming, and we both got players who threw themselves into our games, as well as quite a few interested bystanders asking about our games in the sidelines. The con seems to be quite a tight-knit community, where everyone knows everyone else, but we didn’t find it hard to strike up conversations with people and by the end we didn’t feel like we were outsiders at all.

Games-wise, I played:

Hot War, a d10-based throw-in-as-many-stats-as-you-can type game, in this case set in the “ashtrays in space” (as the GM evocatively described it) setting of the Heracles corporate spaceship. Hot War seemed like a decent system, though I found out later its real strength is faction-based conflict, something which didn’t really leap out at the time. I had a lot of fun playing my bigoted (anti-replicant) security chief and shooting many people in the face.

Trail of Cthulhu, the cthulhu version of Gumshoe, in this case set in the WWI Royal Flying Corps. Lots of fun shooting at German planes and wrangling demonic creatures. I like the way ToC avoids dice rolls when you don’t want them by paying points from skill pools to auto-pass, though remain slightly suspicious that these pools tend to run out partway through leaving you a bit stuck, unless the pacing is just right.

Age of Arthur, a FATE-based post-roman pre-arthurian dark ages Britain game (due to be released this December). I really enjoyed this setting, which blended Roman-esque feel with low fantasy, exactly the kind of fantasy setting I enjoy. AoA includes a mass combat system which allows generals to duel at the strategic level while individual heroes strike decisive blows at the tactical level – a nice balance. One to watch out for.

Wordplay, another grab-the-stats-that-apply game (d6-based this time), in this case set in a sort of post-apocalyptic setting where it started raining one day and never stopped. Oh, and there were angels. I really liked the idea of this setting and I always enjoy a good post-apocalyptic game, so this was always going to go well. My english Clint Eastwood-type gunslinger got to do a lot of, er, gunslinging, which was lots of fun.

Disaster Strikes!, which you can read about elsewhere on this site. We ran a zombie plague set in a British theme park, a rather over the top schlock action fest, which seemed to be enjoyed by all concerned. I’ll write up the new mechanic I was testing, the disaster pool, in another article.

All in all, a great time was had. I’d recommend Furnace to anyone looking for a con where you can rack in more tabletop gaming than you can shake a very big stick at, all in one weekend, and for the very reasonable price of £20 (plus accomodation). Especially reasonable if you receive over half the ticket price in free games.

Black Armada at Indie+

So, I’m going to be attending Indie+, the online roleplaying convention, and running a session of my forthcoming disaster movie game, Disaster Strikes!. If you fancy a spot of roleplaying over G+ hangouts on the afternoon of Sunday 4th November, do sign up!

The game is at 14:00-18:00 (Western European time, which is 09:00-13:00 on the East coast of the US and somewhat less sociable hours if you’re situated further West). Details are here.

I’m also running DS! at Furnace. This will be the first outing for the game where the players aren’t all my friends, so I’m a bit nervous. Nervous, but excited!

Black Armada’s reviews

I’m thinking of revamping the way we do reviews here. I’ve done a handful of board game reviews, and I have plans to do a bunch of rpg reviews, but the one RPG I’ve reviewed so far (Microscope) left me feeling a bit dissatisfied, so I’ve paused for thought.

Fact is, Microscope is a really great game. I felt uncomfortable giving it great marks though, because I don’t think it’s particularly great as a roleplaying game. It’s just something else entirely.

Looking back, I should probably just have changed its category to “history building game” or something, and had done with it. But anyway, it got me thinking that a rating out of five really isn’t good enough for a nuanced review. The text helps to convey the detail, but I’d like to break the rating up a bit.

We already have “type” (strategic card game etc), # players and time to play, plus text on gameplay and components and a written summary.

Here’s what I’m thinking of adding:

Complexity, from 1 to 5. 1 is “you can pick this up and be playing it inside of 10 minutes”. 5 is “you’ll need to set aside several hours to read this game, and allow time at the start to explain the rules to the other players”.

Strategic/tactical depth, from 1 to 5. 1 is snakes and ladders. 5 is Go (simple but deep) or Game of Thrones (complex and deep).

Roleplaying advice (roleplaying games only), from 1 to 5. 1 is “tells you what a roleplaying game is and leaves you to work the rest out for yourself”. 5 is “devotes a chapter or three to advice on how to run and/or play the game”. (Could widen this to boardgames I guess – play/strategy advice?)

Production values, from 1 to 5. 1 is cheapass games. 5 is Fantasy Flight Games.

Cost. In £s or $s or whatever we can get.

I feel like there’s something missing here… maybe something about how well-designed the rules are for the game it’s trying to be. “Design”, perhaps. 1 to 5, where 1 is “the experience of playing this game is radically different from how it’s sold on the tin” to 5 “rules and guidance come together to produce a game which hits the desired play experience on the head”.

So anyway. Thoughts? What would you want out of a game review? Would the above help you to identify a game you wanted to play? Do you even want ratings, or would you just prefer a good writeup?

Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!