Petition roundup

So, the D&D Petition is going strong at nearly 600 signatures thus far. Several blogs have given help with boosting the signal on this – go have a look at what they’re saying if you’re interested in this issue.

Admiral Frax just posted about it on Gaming As Women, the Ennie Award-winning feminist gaming blog.

Smiorgan has posted about it on the always-interesting roleplaying and geeky bibble blog Department V.

YA author Rhiannon Lassiter posted about it on her blog.

Oxford University academic and senior Oxford roleplaying society member Mason Porter posted about it to his blog.

This is in addition to the many people who have shared the petition through social media. Many thanks to everyone who is helping to support the petition. Please do let me know if you know of anyone else who has been promoting it.

Leverage: Points of drama

This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).

The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.

I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.

For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.

For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.

Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.

September Blog Carnival: Running Games In Established Settings

This post was written for September Blog Carnival, hosted by Dice Monkey.

The meat of any game session is what I refer to as “plot”. This could mean a pre-written storyline which the players move through, a series of characters and events which the player interact with in line with what they take an interest in, or even the events which spin off from the player’s own agenda and actions.

I contrast this with the setting, by which I mean the geography, culture, religion, major characters and so forth which make up the game world. You can’t have plot without setting (even if it’s only implied), but it’s not the focus of the action in a game session. It stands to reason, then, that any prep the GM does should focus on plot rather than setting, and that published settings should therefore be an ideal aid to the GM, allowing them to skip creating the setting and get on with preparing plot.

But the fact is that I love creating setting. I find the business of drawing maps, creating political factions, the sweep of history, strange fictional races, magic, gods, and so forth one of the most enjoyable parts of being a GM. When it comes to thinking about actual gameplay, I tend to procrastinate, obsessing over details and time-wasting by… creating more setting detail.

Anyway, it should be obvious from the above that pre-written settings are even more valuable for me than the average GM. Yes, I like to create my own settings, but rather like a drug addict, I should not necessarily be given what I like.

So what do I like in a published setting? I’m a fan of “dark”, be it dark fantasy, dark futures, horror – you name it. You can probably deduce my favourite settings from that straight away. The Warhammer 40k universe, Dark Sun, Call of Cthulhu, all big favourites of mine. But at the root of this, I’m looking for a setting that inspires me. For some reason I find darkness inspiring, go figure. But it isn’t the only thing I like; one of my favourite settings is Immortal: The Invisible War, which is more baroque than dark. Whatever the setting, I’m looking for something that’s going to trigger a torrent of ideas.

I pretty much never use published settings as is, though. This is a point of pride. I feel the need to put my own spin on it – often ironing out annoying inconsistencies in the background (and then reintroducing them through misinformation and rumour), and adding in major historical events that I can tie into my plots. Call me a snob, but I regard any GM who doesn’t introduce their own ideas into the game world as not really trying, even if this does slightly defeat the purpose of a published setting.

Bottom line: published settings are an incredibly useful shortcut to enable the GM to skip world creation and focus on what really matters. But I imagine I’m not alone in thinking that this also means skipping a big part of the fun of being GM.

Paranoia and paralysis

It is a perennial problem in games I’ve run and played in that players (myself included) are prone to sudden bouts of paranoia, leading to the inability to take decisions. I call it player paralysis.

Player paralysis can waste hours of game play. I say waste: if you enjoy watching while the players second-guess themselves, it isn’t a waste at all. Many games rely on paranoia for their appeal, and the odd session of this kind can be enjoyable. But for the typical gaming group, pressed for time, probably only able to play once a fortnight or less, provided everyone’s free, etc etc – it’s a pain in the ass if nothing happens because paralysis has set in.

The primary type of player paralysis I’d like to discuss today is the kind that is generated by the perception that the enemy has the group outgunned or outflanked. There are other types of player paralysis, such as too-difficult puzzle paralysis or over-planned mission paralysis, but I’ll save those for another day.

As a player, it’s a good idea to be watchful for player paralysis, and prepared to occasionally take action despite your misgivings. But of course, some times paranoia is justified. Maybe the bad guys really are that bad-ass, and maybe it’s better not to take them on. In that case, don’t just sit there worrying about it – take alternative action. Running away is an option, as are trying to find ways around the baddies that don’t involve fighting them. Presumably that’s what the GM had in mind when s/he set you up against such a challenging adversary. If in doubt, it’s reasonable to ask the GM: are you expecting us to fight this? You might not get an answer, but you’ll probably at least get a hint of some kind as to whether your foe is beatable or not.

As a GM you have more opportunities to tackle the problem. You have a lot of tools at your disposal here:

– Rumours and reputation. You can prompt paralysis by bigging up an NPC’s reputation as a bad-ass killer who is immune to conventional weaponry, and you can help to puncture it by allowing the group to hear of the NPC’s defeat, or some mistake he has made, or a weakness.

– Reinforcements, resupply. If your players are quaking in their boots, you can give them some back-up. Maybe the local militia offer to help, or they acquire a better weapon, or some other boost to their capabilities to improve their confidence.

– Reduce the threat. Maybe the bad-ass NPC has to send some of his minions somewhere else, or perhaps he turns out to be vulnerable to kryptonite.

– Prompt alternative action. Either through an NPC, or prompted Intelligence checks, or straightforward GM hint, you can help the players to spot alternative ways to solve the problem. Is there a way the players could avoid confrontation with this overwhelming foe? Perhaps there’s some source of information they haven’t consulted. Find a way to let the party know.

– Take the heat off. If the group is feeling under pressure to the point where they can’t think straight, give them some breathing space.

– Put the heat on! It’s difficult to stay paralysed when you’re in a plummeting elevator. Have something happens which forces the issue, and maybe the group won’t procrastinate so much next time they get a little breathing space.

You have to be very careful with all of the above. It’s natural for groups to want to spend some time planning and discussing – it only becomes paralysis if it goes on for too long and it’s clear the group are jumping at shadows. Similarly, the group may become frustrated and apathetic if they feel like every time the going gets tough you’ll bail them out with some reinforcements or a heavy-handed hint. If you are patient at first, and use a mix of the above tactics when it’s clear the group really is suffering from paralysis, then you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Above all, learn from your mistakes. If the group becomes paralysed, take some time after the session to think about what prompted it and what you could have done differently. As much as anything this is about understanding the personalities of the people who make up your group. Perhaps they don’t react too well to a particular type of situation, or maybe it’s one individual you need to keep an eye on; it may even be that an OOC chat is called for if one person keeps locking things down.

Player paralysis isn’t something you can entirely banish. If you adopt a flexible approach and get to know your group, you can keep it to a minimum.

A deadly game

In my ponderings around combat systems, I have realised something that somehow escaped my notice previously. Virtually every combat system I know of is designed with just one thing in mind: implacable foes beating seven shades of hell out of each other with the intention of killing their opponent.

Most systems give some consideration to unarmed combat, and usually to grappling too. Knocking an opponent out is covered perhaps 50% of the time, and is often accomplished by simply beating the target character with your fists until they run out of hit points and collapse. These options are usually significantly harder to achieve than a kill, which creates an incentive to resort to lethal force.

Capturing an opponent is usually not considered at all (beyond the grappling system), nor is the possibility that an opponent will decide discretion is the better part of valour and try to surrender or run away. Systems often include a mechanism for a character to exit melee, but that isn’t quite the same thing – and again, it’s often much harder to escape combat than it is to carry on fighting. Surrender and flight are generally left to the GM to decide on, with no guidance given and no mechanic for helping to decide when an opponent might decide to flee. All this alongside systems which are often ludicrously detailed about wounds and death.

Why does all this matter? Well, the result of this bias towards lethality is that most fighting in roleplaying games is, well, lethal. Yet the most interesting stories we read, and many (not all) of the movies we watch involve trying to capture rather than kill the main villain, and a satisfying outcome often involves an antagonist being surrounded, pinned down by gunfire and forced to surrender, rather than taken down in a hail of bullets. This leaves open more possibilities, too: interrogation, escape, recurring villains (you can’t have a recurring villain if the villain is killed at the end of every story). I’ve lost count of the number of times that key clues have been lost in games I’ve run because the players shot the clue-bearer. Games have become so deadly that some of my GMs have been forced to resort to giving every villain a teleportation ring or similar so that they can live to fight another day!

I want to see more systems that include express consideration of, for example, how to handcuff the villain. That include mechanics for (or at least consideration of) morale, and grappling mechanics that don’t cause my brain to explode. I want games where killing is the last resort rather than the normal modus operandi.

Wimping: the black hole of GMless games

I’ve been playing a lot of GMless games lately, and because of the absence of a pre-written plot, these games have a lot in common with improv. In improv, there is a term called “wimping”, which is when one of the actors – without explicitly blocking what another actor says – effectively reflects it back at them without adding anything to the conversation.

There’s an excellent example given here, which I cannot add anything to and so shall quote wholesale:

JEFF: Oh my gosh that thing is big!
MEL: Yeah! It’s really huge!
JEFF: It’s getting bigger!
MEL: It sure is!
JEFF: My goodness, it’s eating the dog!
MEL: The poor dog.

See how Jeff is making all the running in that exchange? Every new element is created by him and merely restated by Mel.

Now, in GMless roleplaying there is typically shared responsibility for creating plot and background elements, so what we have is essentially improv. Each player can add new elements at will, and when someone else adds an element they can either accept it but not do anything with it (wimping) or take it and run with it in an interesting way. It’s not exactly news that the latter is a better way to go, and if you’ve played GMless games you’ll probably be familiar with the situation where someone is throwing out interesting material and it is essentially being either ignored or, at any rate, not added to by others.

There’s a more pernicious form of wimping, where nobody is really creating new material. This becomes an empty conversation, like those awkward exchanges where you just talk about the weather because you don’t want to risk putting anything more interesting into the pot. I’m not sure there’s a term for this: I’ll call it the double-wimp.

This doesn’t happen much in roleplaying because, after all, you’ve usually got some helpful mechanisms and a shared agenda of creating drama, which push you to create stuff. But roleplayers have their own special kind of double-wimp. Many of us have grown up on GM-created mysteries – the black box containing the plot which, as players, you struggle to uncover. The GM knows what’s in the box, but the players don’t. The interest for the players is discovering what the GM has invented.

Now think about GMless games. I’ve more than once seen a player create a black box in a GMless game. It could be a mysterious object (in a recent game there was a literal box with something in it … but nobody knew what it was, even the person who introduced the box), or it could be a vague reference to something that sounds intriguing but which is left undefined. What they’ve done is effectively wimped on their own narration. They’ve supplied what should be an interesting plot element, but left a blank where the interest should be. They’re hoping someone else will fill that blank, but all too often no-one does. In the absence of a GM who knows what the mystery really is, it becomes vacuous, a cipher.

Moreover, roleplayers are used to the concept of ownership. My character is my character – you don’t narrate his actions. Likewise, in more traditional roleplaying the person who introduces a plot element owns it, so others refrain from acting on it. When someone introduces an undefined mystery element, this compounds that natural unwillingness to mess with “their” plot, because nobody is quite sure what it is in the first place.

What you’re left with in this situation is a black hole. By its nature it is intriguing and makes the characters want to interact with it, thus sucking the story into its gravity well. But there’s nothing there to interact with. To overextend the metaphor slightly, the plot is crushed to death with agonising slowness as the flow of time itself is distorted around it. At least, that’s how it can feel at times.

If you’re playing GMless games, my advice is to avoid this phenomenon like the plague. Do not introduce mysterious elements if you can help it. If you must, don’t throw in a mysterious element unless you know what you’re doing with it. You shouldn’t be so committed to your idea of what the “truth” behind the mystery is that nobody else can come in and change it, but don’t just throw it in and hope someone else will run with it – be ready to run with it yourself. And take the earliest opportunity possible to reveal what the mystery is so that others can more easily play off it. It may even be worth telling the other players out of character what the mystery really is, even though their characters don’t know, just to avoid the black hole effect.

Diverse Dungeons (& Dragons)

I have started a petition at care2.com – why and what I’m calling for is below. The petition is here – if you agree with what I’m saying, please sign it, and please share it with your friends. We know that WotC don’t respond to reasoned argument alone, which is why it’s vital that we show them how many potential customers they’re pissing off.

Summary

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the single most famous roleplaying game in the world, the route most people got into the hobby, and the flagship of the hobby. So it’s a tragedy that the game is pushing away potential fans through artwork and even game text that is overwhelmingly focused on one customer: the white male. This petition calls on Wizards of the Coast to improve this for the next edition of D&D.

  • We want to see artwork that reflects the diversity of the real world
  • As a minimum, 50% of people depicted should be female
  • As a minimum 20% should be non-white (in line with the population of the USA)
  • Such characters should be portrayed as no more submissive or weak on average than white male characters
  • WotC should lose the text that describes demihuman races as exclusively pale-skinned.

Please sign this petition if you agree.

 

More detail for the curious cat

60% of images in D&D 4th edition (specifically the DMG, PHB, PHB2 and Adventurer’s Vault) were of men[1]. On a range of measures designed to pick up on sexist depictions (active vs neutral stance, whether the character was fully dressed and whether the image was sexually suggestive) D&D scored badly, with well over a third of images hitting any given measure of sexism[1].

There was only one image of a non-white human character in the D&D 4th edition core books[2], and across the core books of all four numbered editions of D&D only two non-white human characters depicted [2,3]. Even the nonhuman races seem to be dominated by paler skin tones; looking at the playlet material for D&D Next, the nonhuman races available to play were stipulated as having skin tones consistent with a white human, with the possible exception of dwarves who are permitted to be “light brown”[4].

It’s only a fantasy. But it’s our fantasy and we can make it whatever we want. Everyone should be able to open a D&D book and not feel excluded. Wizards of the Coast are very likely saying behind closed doors “white male heroes is what our fanbase wants”. Well, then it’s up to us, as the fanbase, to tell them they’re wrong about that.

D&D Next is in development right now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the game. Most of the buzz has concentrated on mechanics. But there’s no reason why the game can’t take leaps forward on diversity as well.

What we are asking for

We the undersigned call upon Wizards of the Coast to make D&D Next at least as diverse as the real world. We want to see men and women of all colours in the artwork. And we want the fantasy races to reflect the full palette of human experience, too. Even though some of us are white men, we aren’t going to be put off our hobby by images of people that aren’t – in fact, just the opposite.

The USA represents the biggest market for D&D at the time of writing. As such, this petition proposes a minimum standard that reflects the demographics of the US. 50% of images containing a humanoid creature should be female, and where applicable 20% should be non-white. It is also important that these images should avoid displaying these characters as submissive or weak, or at least no more so than white males. Finally, text describing demihumans should be rewritten to make them as diverse as the people who play the game – not restricted to white skin-tones.

[1] From Anna Kreider’s article here: http://www.pelgranepress.com/?p=3501

[2] Robert Sullivan’s video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utsvMDewdUA&feature=plcp

[3] Chris Van Dyke’s article here: http://raceindnd.wordpress.com/2008/11/18/nerd-nite-presentation-november-18th-2008/

[4] Chris Stone-Bush’s article here: http://www.doucheydm.com/?p=1043

Managing campaign endings

I was reading this article on Gnome Stew about keeping your campaign alive during the inevitable breaks you’ll be taking when holidays, life events and other momentum-breaking occurrences happen.

Loss of campaign momentum is a perennial problem. It is typically the result of one or more of the group losing interest in, and energy for, that campaign. If it’s a player, they start becoming harder and harder to schedule in, they stop paying attention in session, and they generally start to make the whole experience feel like a drag. If it’s the GM (and it often is!) they find it harder and harder to motivate themselves to prep and to book the sessions. This invariably gets transmitted to the players, who can tell the GM’s heart isn’t in it. The result is a zombie campaign that nobody is enjoying. To mix my metaphors, such campaigns often suffer death by asphyxiation – without the oxygen of the group’s interest they just wither, and one day nobody books the next session.

image
Image by ChaosRampantKaryn

The Stew article presents some great ideas for avoiding momentum loss during a hiatus, chiefly to do with stirring the pot during the break and avoiding shiny distractions that divert you from the campaign. But to some extent this relies on the group still having momentum; nobody will be bothered to take part in between-sessions activity if they aren’t feeling the love.

For me, the way you avoid losing the big Mo is by keeping the campaign within defined boundaries. Nothing can go on forever; we see this in all walks of life, not just gaming. How many times has a TV series overstayed its welcome by one or two seasons, leaving the whole thing feeling tarnished? Well, unlike the TV networks we aren’t in this to make money so there’s no point in keeping going past the point that we’re having fun.

So here’s my suggestion. Plan your campaign in self-contained chunks. 8 weeks seems to be a good number, but YMMV. Choose a period of time where everyone can largely commit to attending sessions, and in which a decent arc of the campaign can be played through. (You may find that things don’t quite go as you expected, and you need a session or two more – that’s fine! Better to exceed your budget slightly than to not have one at all.) Now everyone knows there’s a defined end-point, and everyone is working to reach a satisfactory conclusion in that time-frame. You’ll be more disciplined about your play, focusing on the stuff that really gets you going.

When you get to the end of a campaign chunk, you can pause for reflection. How are we all feeling about the campaign? Is there something else we’d rather be playing right now? Are we keen to continue, and if so what do we want to do in the next chunk? Is there anything we could change to keep the campaign fresh? My group has developed a tradition of going out for dinner once in a while for campaign reflection, and this would be a lovely way to mark the end of each campaign chunk.

Moreover, the end of a chunk gives you the chance to manage transitions and endings more effectively. Does anyone need to step out of the campaign for a bit – maybe someone has had a baby or is going through a busy patch at work? If so, this change will be less likely to break your momentum. Are people looking to try something different? Because you’ve built in a break-point, you’re managing the tendency for campaigns to peter out, and if/when the campaign finally does end it’s more likely to be a nice, satisfying ending that avoids a zombie campaign or death by asphyxiation.

Four types of post-apocalyptic character

Just something I’ve been thinking about. In fictional worlds like those presented in the Survivors, the Road and the Parable of the Talents (to name a few at random), there seem to be four broad character types:

Scavengers. People who are trying to make a living through picking over the bones of the fallen civilisation. They tend to be nomadic because the resources in any given area run out fast. They live hand-to-mouth and, in consequence, can be fairly suspicious of strangers who they may perceive as likely to take what little they have. On the other hand come scavengers might do odd jobs for settled communities they encounter. These people will value portable goods and food the most.

Settlers. People who are trying to make a living in a fixed location, through farming and perhaps trade. These people will value practal skills and re-usable resources (like farmland) most. They may engage in limited trade with other settled communities, if there are any, and may begin to develop the trappings of a fledgling civilisation as a result. They are nevertheless primarily focused on survival.

Predators. People who are trying to make a living through preying on others. Slavers, raiders, groups of armed men who seek to conquer settled communities. These people value strength and weaponry most of all, and are always on the lookout for someone weaker than them to dominate. Ironically their desire to rule could lead to the development of a basic civilisation – they will inevitably seek to dominate or destroy other groups who might threaten them.

Seekers. People who are seeking something more than simple survival. Sometimes they want something quite specific – perhaps they are looking for their lost daughter, for example. Often they are seeking to build something greater than a small farmstead or similar, either through building up infrastructure, trade and alliances, or perhaps through spreading a religion or philosophy. Despite the fact that their eyes are fixed on something more than survival, seekers will often turn out to be the most practically minded of the lot, never content to settle for scratching out a living by hand if they could be ploughing their fields with horses or a tractor.

Am I missing any important categories here?

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! : The Doomsayer

My personal favourite mechanic from working on Disaster Strikes! is the Doomsayer, aka the Cassandra. They’re there in every disaster movie[*]. The person who repeatedly warns that everything is about to go belly up, only to be ignored until it is far too late. Charlton Heston in The Towering Inferno, Ripley in Aliens, Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak!.

DS! turns this into part of the game rules. One person has the job of being the predictor of the doom to come.

Special: Prediction. During the first Act, your protagonist makes dire predictions which will come true, but which everyone else will ignore. At any time during the first Act you may make an In Character statement pointing out a risk, a weak spot or possible threat. Your statement is true. In this way you can help foreshadow the threat and what will happen in the second and third Acts. Don’t forget to stay consistent with what’s already agreed – no fair turning the volcano into a flood, or whatever. And of course, you must not use this ability to weaken the threat – your role is to enhance it.

Note: during the first Act, nobody except the person with the above special is permitted to attend to the threat. They either fail to notice it, ignore it, discount it as not as bad as it seems, or focus on other priorities. Meanwhile the nature of the disaster will be such that if the Doomsayer tries to stop it by themselves they will certainly fail. On the plus side, the disaster is only embryonic and certainly not out-of-control at this point.

Meanwhile the DM and the players have a perfect view of what is coming – just as they would in a disaster movie. The Doomsayer is handing opportunities to the DM for dramatic situations in later Acts, and to the player to figure out how they might deal with them. Not to mention getting to take part in the creative process like no other player – apart from the DM.

In DS!, Act I is for introducing the setting, the characters and their relationships, and foreshadowing the disaster. The doomsayer plays an important role in that. The remaining specials are chiefly concerned with Act II – when the threat kicks off in earnest. More on this soon.

[*] Possible hyperbole alert. I haven’t watched all or even most disaster movies. Yet.