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.

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’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?

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.

Bringing you the Links that are not about Role-playing…but really should be!

I am terrible for wasting time surfing the internet. In my travels I am always finding articles, new stories and snippets of idea that make me think “I have to run a game about that!”  This is clearly just a wafer thin excuse to justify my web addiction.

Here are my top articles for inspiring RPGS this week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19049254 – beautiful and yet haunting, abandoned City scapes in China.  If I described a vast city with no people in it during an RPG then no-one would believe that it was due to poor city planning and bad transport links, not the Apocalypse.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19248230 – Insects who have their behaviour programmed from birth by a song.  You cannot make this shit up!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19244888 – I can’t leave out some news from the Curiosity Rover. Funny thing, the idea of the Mars landscape is so embedded in my mind from films and sci fi novels that the first colour photo looks a bit cliched and derivative.

Read this wikipedia article about the family who invented Nutella very carefully.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferrero_SpA

I have always thought that this phrase in particular…

“The company places great emphasis on secrecy, reportedly to guard against industrial espionage. It has never held a press conference and does not allow media visits to its plants. Ferrero’s products are made with machines designed by an in-house engineering department.”

had great potential for sparking ideas for a role-playing game. Okay, in my head it is obviously a Cthulu game where the Ferraro plant houses a Great Old One. But your mileage may vary.

If any of these ideas make it into your game then please comment below and let me know – I really want to know I am not the only one who thinks like this!

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.

DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling the bones… or not.

I have noticed recently a trend for using electronic dice rollers in place of, you know… dice. Now, while I can fully understand the desire to make things simpler in roleplaying games[*], this is not the way, people.

 

Maybe I’m getting old, but the feel of the dice in my hands, the noise they make when they roll (no, electronically simulated dice-noise does not count), the ability to superstitiously pick specific dice to roll in the hopes they will provide a better result… it’s all part of the experience. And just clicking on a screen – if I wanted to do that I’d be playing World of Warcraft, or Portal 2, or whatever it is people are playing now. Insert recent game here.

 

Come to that, why are roleplaying game designers creating games that are so complicated and/or require so many dice that people even contemplate using a computer to make the roll? I mean, mentioning no names *cough*Exalted*cough* but I’m pretty sure when you have to pick up more than 10 dice – and individually count out the results on each one – you haven’t written a roleplaying game, you’ve written a computer game. So logically, you need a computer to play it. I hate to undermine my own argument, but while playing a certain game recently I found myself so frustrated with the mechanics, and so embarrassed at how long the other players had to wait for me to count out my dice, that I caved and used the e-roller. Yes, I admit it. But that’s not the worst of it. Because we only had one computer in the room, I ended up getting someone else to click the roll button for me[**]. Think about that for a moment, and tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little sick inside.

 

So come on, roleplayers. Come on, White Wolf. Let’s drop electronic rollers and the games that make them necessary. That, or give up and play computer games instead.

 

[*] I’m fairly sure nobody would be stupid enough to design a system for a board game that was complex enough to drive people to this sort of behaviour.

[**] Incidentally, an interesting fact: Bad luck is capable of detecting not only who is rolling the dice, but also who is clicking on the e-roller, and whose skill check they are clicking for. Not that I’m bitter.

Welcome to Black Armada

Black Armada is a small press publisher and blog about roleplaying and board gaming run by Rabalias and Frax. Between us we have over 50 years’ experience of playing and GMing. That means we really like it, and we really like talking about it too.

We’re the publishers of games such as Lovecraftesque, Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, and Bite Me! – you can buy them in our store.

You’ll also find gaming tips, discussion articles, reviews and free games and game modules here, together with a significant quantity of random game-related bibble. We welcome comment and discussion so please feel free to contribute.

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