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?

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.

Bite Me! – A game of Werewolf Pack Dynamics

Update: Please note that Bite Me was renamed to Bite Marks, after the campaign closed. The game can now be pre-ordered from Backerkit.

[Taken largely from a G+ post I made a couple of weeks ago]

 I love Werewolves.

There, I said it.

I love the inner struggle of humanity against feral instinct but most of all I love the idea that Werewolves don’t have to do it alone.  They have family.  They have Pack.

Sadly, in all the years I have been role-playing, I have never played in a werewolf game.

The White Wolf systems have tended to leave me underwhelmed.  Not least because I have found that the system’s complexity gets in the way of the personal horror and community aspects of the werewolf myth that I find so compelling. In recent years my favourite treatments of the Werewolf mythology have been “Being Human” and Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series.

I have been thinking more and more that when (not if) I run a werewolf campaign it will follow much of the pack model established in Women of the Otherworld. To me the real crux of a Werewolf game should be how all the action and plot are viewed through the lens of the relationships between the Pack members and the group culture of the Pack.

 I want to build in mechanics for how loyal your character feels towards the Alpha and the Pack which will, in turn, get you some mechanical benefits but also creates plenty of space for emotional interaction and interesting conversations.

As I said before the action of the game should viewed through the lens of your relationships and the Pack.  So the example I gave to a friend recently was as follows:

Scenario: The Pack Alpha gets kidnapped.

We play through planning and executing the plan to get the Alpha back. But this should played out with plenty of intra-Pack conversations and dialogue and space for emotional interaction around the following:

a) how the Pack deals with the loss of their leader and driving force – do they fracture with no-one taking control, does another character rise up to take up the reigns of leadership, how do the pack respond to this?  Are the Pack grateful that someone has filled the vacuum or do they resist the new leadership?

b) personal distress of the characters – who feels guilty that the kidnap resulted from their failing to protect the Alpha?;

c) if the Alpha is recovered does the temporary leader want to relinquish control – does the Pack view the Alpha differently
because they were “not strong enough” to resist capture?; and

d) how will the Pack process what happened.  Will they emerge stronger as a group? Will they seek revenge?

The idea that when stuff happens you aren’t just thinking about “how do we solve the plot problem of recovering the Alpha?”, but also exploring what this means for you and your Pack.

I’d almost certainly employ Vincent Baker ‘s amazing “ask lots of questions” technique from Apocalypse World, in drawing out this aspect more heavily.

This is a further development of the way in which I run Amber Diceless – where the theme is again Family.  Everything is viewed through the lens of Family.  In Amber the family might do horrible things to each other (as per the books) but they can’t shake the fact they share a heritage and it just keeps pulling them back into each others lives.

As an aside one of things which used to fascinate me about Jerry Springer and related TV shows was the way in which people couldn’t just leave each other alone and move on with their lives.  Despite some of the terrible car crash relationships some people just didn’t seem to be able to pull themselves out of the destructive spiral they were in together and I was always intrigued as to why. Maybe I am just writing games to answer that question?

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

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!

Styles of Role-playing: expanding the model.

About a year ago I finally caught up with the Forge theory of role-playing and the Gamist, Simulationist and Narrativist styles of play. I spent a while attempting to categorise my own experience on this scale and felt I sat unhappily between Simulationist and Narrativist. I wanted enough internal consistency and simulation to create the suspension of disbelief I needed but I also wanted to drive the story my way and have my character’s own personal arc unfold. I said I sat “unhappily” though because I never felt that the 3 categories properly spoke to my own experience.

When I role-playing I do want an interesting story driven by me, the other players and the GM working together. But more than this I want to be emotionally touched by the experience of the story we create and during that creation I want to engage in interesting, stimulating and revealing conversations. I have written here about Conversationalism in role-playing games I run and the best sessions I have participated in have always been deep and meaningful, and changed the characters participating. Sometimes I role-playing just to enjoy inhabiting an interesting character and viewing the world through their eye. This style probably has more in common with Turku or Jeepform role-playing but I believe it is time to expand GNS to include Emotionalism and Conversationalism.

Therefore I propose two new classifications.

Emotionalism: your agenda when playing it to experience emotions thought the story and your character and facilitate other players experiencing emotions.

Conversationalism: your agenda when playing is to participate in and create an engaging conversation which deepens, expands or changes the relationship between the two characters involved.

Whilst Conversationalism has a passing similarity with Narrativism in that the course of the conversation will create a form of organic story, it is difference purely because the aim of Conversationalism is to enjoy the conversation not the creation of the story.