Roleplaying with my kid

I’ve started the inevitable experiments that all roleplaying parents must at some point attempt: roleplaying with my children. Specifically, my son R, who is five years old. It’s been pretty interesting.

I started out very informally with R – just telling him a story and testing out various interactive approaches. Describing a situation and asking him what he does, or telling a story but asking him to contribute details about the background or what happens next, were the two main ones. This was when he was quite young, and what I quickly discovered was that he LOVES having me make up a story (instead of reading him one from a book) and he LOVES to make me dance to his tune by telling me what the story should be about, or suddenly taking control of the story and then handing it back to me, or demanding that I insert some detail or direction that he’s decided on.  It was fun for him, but kind of exhausting for me, like those scenes in Whose Line is it Anyway? where the audience shout stuff out for the actors to respond to.

The most common of these is the “Hansel and Gretel” story, in which R lives with his friends Hansel and Gretel somewhere (a house, a village, a town), near some scary place (a forest, a cave, a mountain) where a bad thing (witch, vampire, dinosaurs) lives. The details vary, but always, their parents tell them they must never go to the scary place, because they might get got by the bad thing. Gretel always suggests that they should go to the scary place, and is told off by R who is a good boy. Gretel always steals away in the night, while everyone else is asleep, to the scary place, and R and his family always rescue him (Gretel is a he in these stories, confusingly). R loves this repetition, and gleefully demands these stories at all times of day and night. If I’m honest, they have become a bit boring for me. I wanted to get him into imaginative experiences that would be enjoyable for both of us, but he didn’t seem to be ready yet.

More recently, I’ve tried actual published games with him. The first of these, maybe six months ago, was a game specifically designed for parents to play with their children, Amazing Tales by Martin Lloyd. This is a very stripped-down roleplaying game with ultra-simple mechanics, an approach to running the game that encourages a degree of creative involvement from your child while retaining a basic GM/player setup, and lots of helpful setting material for several kid-friendly settings you can pick up and use. What was interesting about the experience is that R liked it, but wanted to take more creative control than the game was offering him, and HATED having the risk of failure from rolling the dice. Even quite soft failure was very stressful for him, and he’d insist on negating anything short of perfect success. So I tried something different: I let him GM.

Amazing Tales is so simple that it seemed like letting R GM would be a real possibility. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but wanted to try, because so far he seemed to mostly enjoy having direct input on the direction of a story, or inserting stuff into the game that would traditionally be the preserve of the GM. So we created a character for me, and off we went. R took to it like a duck to water, setting up a scenario for my pirate (buried treasure), and introducing dangers (a rival pirate captain). But once again, he seemed very uncomfortable with failure. I would suggest when to roll the dice, but if I failed he would immediately narrate an overwhelming success.

Still – the experience was better than previously, since he didn’t become upset or stressed, so I persisted, and gently reminded him that the game ought to be a bit difficult for my character, and that when I failed, bad stuff ought to happen. I told him not to worry, that this would be fun for me. I would always get out of it in the end. Gradually, he started to get comfortable with this, and we had a pretty cool scenario where my pirate captain rescued one of his friends from a red coat fortress, and even charmed one of the other prisoners into joining his crew. We were really getting somewhere.

Just this week I thought I’d try something different: Dungeon World. I liked Amazing Tales (and so does R) but I wanted something a bit meatier to get my teeth into, and I wanted to see if he could cope with it. Of course, DW is more complicated and I couldn’t see him GMing it, so we switched roles again and created him a character. We got off to a flying start with his character dropped straight into a tense situation. I asked him questions, and he gave dynamite answers – it was really going well. But interestingly, he continued to want to insert stuff into the story; while fighting my serpentine river monster, I mentioned it had a paralysing venom, and nearby he could see two people who it had already paralysed and dragged to its nest for food. Without missing a beat he said “it’s my father and sister”. Which is fine – but rather outside the way DW is supposed to be played. And again, though he rolled pretty well in this session, his levels of tension around the snake monster suggested to me that failure might not be something he’d cope well with. Overall it was a fun experience, but didn’t feel like we were really playing Dungeon World.

I asked him which game he preferred, and the answer was very clear: he liked Amazing Tales better. I suspect this is because he was allowed to GM (he desperately wanted to GM Dungeon World too), and therefore have the control and creative input he wanted. So we’ll definitely be playing more AT. Something else I want to try soon is to try running a game with another player. It should be interesting to see how that plays out – and no doubt I’ll be trying more games with him in future.

What have your experiences been running RPGs with kids? Has anyone else found that they want more control and creative input than a the player role traditionally allows?

How can we get more people playing RPGs?

This is the #RPGaDay2018 topic for day 8. I’ve answered most of these as simple social media posts, but felt like I had quite a bit to say on this one, so it’s getting its own blog post.

Let’s start by saying that “we” means a lot of different groups of people, who have different opportunities to bring new people into the hobby. I’m going to go through some of these groups and how I think they could help to expand the hobby.

Game publishers. Ok, so obviously game publishers have succeeded handily in creating games that attract plenty of gamers. But an awful lot of those games have been presented and pitched in a fairly similar way. They cover fairly similar territory in terms of genre and approach. To brutally oversimplify, most RPGs are about action and adventure, with sword/gun-toting heroes as the central (though not exclusive) focus. The art and style have a particular look. There’s historically been a focus on white male characters. Now, this is all fine and dandy. There’s nothing wrong with such games. (Ok, maybe not nothing, but I’m not saying “get rid of games like this”, is my point.) They’ve succeeded in attracting a particular audience; but if you want more people, one way to do that is to broaden your audience. Bring in groups who aren’t attracted by the usual formula.

The good news is, we’re pretty much seeing this happen. Games are increasingly stepping outside the boundaries of those usual approaches, focussing on other genres, other types of story, other characters, different art styles, and so on. Of course, by their nature these games are different to the ones that attracted the existing core market. They may not immediately be as popular as the old stalwarts, or even as popular as new games within the traditional genres. This is because the existing (large) audience that is paying attention to RPGs and willing to spend money and time on them need to be persuaded to consider something different, and the existing (even larger) group of people who aren’t paying attention or willing to spend money need to be persuaded to even take a look. So these games can struggle a bit. They are, as some people put it, “a niche within a niche”. But just as Vampire: the Masquerade opened the doors of the hobby to an entirely new audience, these games can do the same.

Meanwhile, the more traditional approach is also adapting itself to expand its audience. More inclusive art, more innovative approaches to the game – D&D and others are changing. And this is at least partly influenced by the less commercially successful games mentioned above. In other words, the hobby is growing and changing and that’s a good thing.

Game retailers. So guess what? It’s the same message again. Game retailers, by and large, present a particular look to the world. To caricature, it’s a seedy comic store look. Giant cardboard cutouts of muscular barbarians or armoured space marines. Model tanks and dragons. Boxes of cards and dice. Again, this is all fine. But what it does is attract the existing audience. The people who like those things, of course, are drawn in. If you want to expand the audience, you have to go beyond that. And in particular you have to project an image that is welcoming to other groups.

This is a much trickier job for retailers. They only have so much window space, and so much shelf space, and so many tables for your games night. You can either put a space marine in that spot by the door, or make space for something else. You can’t really do both. I don’t really have an easy fix for that. But I think the whole can be made attractive to other audiences without sidelining the things that the existing audience like.

There’s another issue, which is about how welcoming the space of the retail store is once you’re in the door. There’s something here about whether new customers feel safe and comfortable in your store. I’m not an expert in this at all, so I’m not going to sound off in detail, except to say that this is not something RPG stores have always been good at. But it is something that we can do. Just take a look at a typical modern Games Workshop store for an idea about one way to do it: they look like proper, professional shops. Yes, they still have marines and tanks and so on, yes (nearly) all the staff and customers are men and might project a slightly unwelcoming “who is this alien” look at women who walk in the store, so yes there’s still work to do. But they don’t look scary. They’re well-lit, well presented, places you’d feel comfortable leaving your eleven-year-old (which is the main GW audience, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Apart from, like, the playground, the RPG store is the primary way into games for new people. It is the literal shop window. So retailers can help get new people in by making it look good, and not just to people who already like RPGs.

Conventions and clubs. Can I say more of the same? Offer games that aren’t monolithic, create spaces that look attractive and welcoming. This is difficult stuff though – the games are mostly offered by volunteers who are already in the hobby,  and the room is mostly filled with those people. Sure, it would be nice if every club had a game of Monsterhearts (or whatever) and some women and PoC, and a welcoming atmosphere, but the reality is that you’ve got the attendees that you’ve got, and they want to play the games that they want to play.

So what can convention and club organisers do? Think about what would make spaces more welcoming. Tackle harassment. Have a decent welcome for newcomers in the form of a smiling, helpful human being who can help direct new attendees to a game they’d like or just find their way to the toilets. Have readily identifiable convention staff who are ready to help people in the same way, and who actively look out for newcomers looking lost, and not just chat to their mates. And project that same ethos to other attendees: tell them what a welcoming space you’re looking to create, how you want them to be friendly to newcomers. Choose a venue that looks clean and has space to move around, space to sit and take a quiet breather. Support new GMs/facilitators and new players, make space for them on the schedule. Support different ways of gaming, like Games on Demand for example.

Once again, at least some conventions are getting this stuff and doing it. More would be better.

Ordinary roleplayers. Nine times out of ten, a new gamer is introduced to the hobby by a friend. (I have no evidence to back this up, but I think it’s true.) So what can we do to help?

The absolute number one thing in my view is to talk about our hobby unashamedly and enthusiastically. Because we don’t do this, roleplaying has a stigma that has been hard to shake. People don’t know that roleplaying is fairly popular, and that normal people do it. It seems alien and sort of shameful or weird. We are the ambassadors for the hobby, more than anyone, and for the most part we shirk that role. Friendly, engaged people with an interesting hobby that they’re clearly interested in is what gets other people interested.

The next thing we can do is to treat each other decently, watch out for each other and come down hard on people in our social circle who don’t do those things. The hobby is plagued by, if not bad behaviour and social awfulness, at the very least the perception of those things. We have a reputation. And if we want to beat that reputation, we have to not just not be like that, but rise so far above that reputation that we break it. This will mean people are more likely to stay in the hobby, and more likely to join.

I absolutely think we can do this. I think many of us are already doing this. And we have a golden opportunity, because popular media is opening the door to our hobby as never before, whether it’s blockbuster fantasy TV shows, widespread superhero movies, or D&D featuring on popular TV. Let’s grab it with both hands.

PS I could have talked about gaming media. There’s great stuff going on here. The AP movement just won the Diana Jones award. I really am not an expert on this, and don’t have a lot to say about it right now, but it’s important and could be key to expanding the hobby.

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Bite Me! Update – Congratulations It’s a PBTA Hack!?

I am in full swing playtesting Bite Me! my Powered by the Apocalypse Game of Werewolf Pack dynamics.

About a year ago (despite all my complaints that I was bored of PBTA hacks!) I decided to write Bite Me! as a PBTA hack. Yeah, I know. But I really wanted the ability to sharply focus the gameplay on some specific elements of genre and PBTA is a solid template for doing that. So over a year later, I’ve got a basic game written, completed 2 one shot playtests and I’m in the middle of a 10 week long campaign playtest.

The core of the game starts with Moves and Playbooks/Skins as you would expect. But I really wanted to create a situation which cycles through two modes of play. Firstly the aggressive, domination riddled, toxic masculine play where things are feral and always on the brink of chaos and secondly, a close, tightly knit, emotionally close family.

The first environment creates the events and issues which will fuel the heartfelt conversations in the second. Behave badly, react with extreme violence to extreme events and then expect to get challenged on it by people whose opinion you care the most about. I feel that games need a more direct and mechanised link between character’s emoting and giving them something to emote about – this is what Bite Me! is squarely aiming at.

Nightwitches by Jason Morningstar has a similar (ish) mechanic with the Night and Day play styles. But I wanted something more organic and slightly less formal to mimic the ebb and flow of the pack relationships. So instead of separating the play into different formats I’m using a points mechanic – you get to spend points on taking powerful and tempting actions, in order to get points you have to call people on their behaviour, you have to express opinions and be vulnerable about your emotions. In fact before a big action scene (in which you’ll need some tasty points to spend) you’ll definitely want to clear the air with a big ‘ol secret revealing row.

So far this loop has playtested really well and I’m extremely pleased with the results. It has also helped me put into words how I feel about secrets at the table – something that will form core player advice for the game: “The point of a secret is to throw it in someone’s face in the most dramatic moment.”

Once the campaign playtest is finished I need to do the really hard bit. Write the MCing guidance. In a MC’d game guidance on doing it well is one of the most important and most overlooked sections in a traditional rulebook. Writing really clear, practical and specific guidance for MCing my games is vital because if anyone else is going to replicate the game in my mind I have to get it down on paper. That is the difficult bit, because there is always something you are doing when you run your own games that you don’t realise you are doing.

I’m hoping to get the next draft finished by the end of Autumn 2017 and release it into the wild for some external playtesting after that.

X Marks the Spot – call for playtesters

X Marks the Spot is a game of pedantry and quick-thinking repartee about drunken pirates planning a daring voyage to a dangerous land where buried treasure awaits you. I’ve just finished the latest version, following the first round of playtesting, and I’m keen to find people to playtest the new rules.

It requires 3-5 players, and takes about 2 hours to play. You’ll need paper and pencils, something to drink (which might be alcoholic) and some sort of dry cracker to eat.

The main changes are that the game has been simplified and streamlined a little. There is also now a win condition – you accumulate Doubloons when you win Challenges, and the person with the most Doubloons at the end wins.

If you’d be interested in giving it a try, please drop me an email (xmarkstheshot at vapourspace dot net) or comment here.

List of UK game designers

For those who haven’t seen it elsewhere – I have created a list of UK game designers. I have mostly done this because I intend to try and play and run more games by UK designers, and then… well, I got sucked into being completist.

Here it is:

List of UK game designers

Something tells me this list is neither complete nor 100% accurate, but it’s a good start. Let me know if there’s gaps or errors in comments!

Approaching the Problematic: Lovecraft and Me

It is important to be honest when something you love is problematic.

I love Lovecraft’s work and at the same time I hate his worldview.

I will not try to excuse the fact he was a bigoted racist nor that his outdated ideas about women, sex and mental health were hurtful and damaging. (If you are scratching your head thinking “what, Lovecraft, a racist – I would recommend this excellent article here by Nnedi Okorafor about Lovecraft and racism. ) And yet I’m co-writing and soon to be publishing Lovecraftesque, a game inspired by Lovecraft.

I’ve really grappled with this game on a personal level. Ever since reading Graham Walmsley’s excellent “Stealing Cthulhu” it has been clear that Lovecraft gaming needed a GMful Story Game variant. Not just needed, but the source material was perfectly set up to create such a game. As Graham reminds us Lovecraft’s stories are (almost) always about a lone protagonist uncovering something terrifying and being powerless to affect it. It also allowed Josh and I to experiment with writing a system for a satisfying investigative game which is no-prep, consistent and co-created. I think we’ve done a great job with that.

What draws me to Lovecraft is his fusion of the style and motifs of Gothic Horror with concepts that are pure science fiction. He creates a compelling and detailed universe which he then ruthlessly refers to again and again. Barely a story goes by without mention of the Necronomican or similar fan nods. But, and this is a big but… Lovecraft’s worldview is abhorrent and it leaks into his stories like bad guttering. Nasty remarks about people of colour in The Horror at Red Hook, parables against intermarriage and obsession with racial purity in The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and parables against immigration in The Street.

I struggle with it and I have every sympathy for those who do not wish to expend their energy on trying to reconcile with Lovecraft. Similarly the casual bigotry towards mental health problems, the ready slur that someone cannot be trusted because they are ‘mad’ is a constant feature.

This is not to say – “poor Becky, it is so hard for her”.  More that I don’t feel I should be writing or pseudo-promoting Lovecraft without an attempt to make the material more inclusive.  Without owning that something I like is problematic and challenging.  In particular I believe strongly that if you don’t look at his work critically then you are doomed to perpetuate and even expand on his racism – albeit unconsciously.  I don’t want to end up in that space.

 

That is why it was essential to Josh and I that, in undertaking this game, we took a long hard look at unpacking the problems with Lovecraft and writing game guidance on how the players can approach it at the table. I believe it is possible to have a satisfying game which feels like Lovecraft without the racism and by using a more inclusive and more sensitive approach to mental health. We have done a lot of thinking and listening and asking for help on these issues over the last few months – so many wonderful people in G+ have been generous in listening and helping us expose the problems and think about how to tackle them. Thank you everyone!

So here are a couple of the things we have incorporated into the game so far (more is coming!):

1. Firstly (and this applies to so many things!) get active consent. Have a discussion with your players, ask them what they are comfortable with and what they don’t want in the game. Don’t make any assumptions. Just because there was lots of racism in society in the Victorian age ( and you could insert any number of alternative settings here) doesn’t mean that people want to play through it. I can love the feel of Victoriana without wanting to play the detailed racism and sexism. If anyone at your gaming table has any issues with bringing racism etc. into the game (and I can guarantee you I would be one of those people!) then don’t do it.

If you are running a game for strangers who may not be comfortable with telling the table they want to keep sexism or homophobia out of a game then consider taking the lead and banning it anyway. Personally, I don’t know of a single game which was enhanced by casual thoughtless bigotry (unless the point of the game is to call it out and deal with it) but I’ve definitely played in games which were wrecked by it.

2. Secondly, getting consent sometimes goes beyond who is at the table – but where you are and whether you can be overheard. Are you at a Con or other public space? Does having racism, sexism and mental health bigotry in your game mean that passers by are going to get a dose of ‘surprise race hate’ they weren’t expecting. You probably don’t mean it like that – but in our community we have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Given the subject matter of Lovecraft I feel we have an extra duty to be better, to actively care more for each other.

Lovecraftesque will have sections dealing with both Racism and Mental Health in the game text and beautifully diverse artwork. If we can we are hoping to go into these in more detail in stretch goals… but that will depend on you backing us!

So watch this space!

For more resources on this check out:

Deeper in the Game blog by Chris Chin

Orientalism and Exoticism: How Good Intentions Go Astray by Mo Holkar

Mental Illness: Not a Flavour, Not and Excuse by Shoshana Kessock

Review: Dead of Winter

Summary

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie survival-themed game of resource scarcity. Players each control a band of survivors and take turns to move their survivors around, fight zombies, scavenge resources, and contribute to dealing with crises that affect the “colony” (the group of player-controlled characters and helpless survivors) as a whole as well as ensuring the colony has enough food to stave of starvation. The ultimate aim is determined by an objective card chosen at the start of the game, but this must be achieved within a fixed number of turns, and without colony morale being reduced to zero; and there are several competing problems to tackle at any given time, all of which threaten to reduce morale.

Gameplay

The focus of the action is moving your survivors around the board to fight zombies and search for resource cards. I’ll elaborate on this a bit below, but suffice to say there’s not much to these individual actions – instead, the cumulative effect of small decisions is what decides whether you win the game. Mostly this is a matter of how much effort the group as a whole puts into pursuing each of the various competing challenges. On which subject…

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, DoW is about resource scarcity. This is because multiple and competing pressures require you to burn through (a) the limited number of actions you can take on your go and (b) the limited resource cards available to you. These pressures include:
Zombies. If you don’t kill the zombies, they will kill your survivors. If a survivor dies, you lose morale. Plus you’ve still got a ton of zombies that will likely kill other survivors in future.
Food. If you don’t produce enough food (one type of resource card) to feed the colony, it starves. Starvation loses you morale. Plus starvation is like a wound, it sticks around and sucks away morale over time.
Waste. Every time you use a card it goes in the waste pile. If the waste pile gets too big, you lose morale. You can expend actions to reduce the waste pile, but it’s slow going.
Every turn there’s a randomly drawn crisis which you must feed resource cards to avoid negative effects. Negative effects generally means morale loss or the kind of things that can cause morale loss, like more zombies.
When a survivor is wounded, you can use resources to remove those wounds, which you hope will reduce the chance of their dying and… you guessed it, reducing morale. You can get wounded fighting zombies, but also merely moving locations exposes you to the risk of injury or death.
And finally, there’s always the temptation to use your resource cards to boost your actions, leaving you with less to feed the colony and/or fight the current crisis.

All this is made worse by the semi-cooperative nature of the game. The group have a shared objective chosen at the start, but everyone also has a personal (secret) objective drawn at random. Most players need to meet both objectives to win the game, though there may be a BETRAYER who needs only to meet their personal objective. All this means that there is additional pressure on resources from (a) people deliberately using their resource cards inefficiently because it helps their personal objective or (b) worse, people actively working against the group. Beating a crisis potentially means putting in more resource cards than are actually required to combat possible traitors in your midst.

On top of all this there are some random factors which can further hinder you. As mentioned before, fighting zombies and even movement carry a risk of injury. This is mediated through rolling an injury die, which can wound you, give you frostbite (which is a wound that continues to wound you every turn until you die) or 1 time in 12, instantly kills you and potentially others in your location too as the zombie plague rages out of control. Further, on every players’ turn there is a Crossroads card drawn which, based on a secret trigger, may unleash some unknown effect. The effects can be positive – we once had the chance to eat a horse we found lying around, for instance – but some of them are very negative indeed; one player in our game had two characters instantly killed by Crossroads cards. The Crossroads cards always give you a choice between two options, but sometimes one of the options won’t be available and you just have to suck up whatever nastiness the remaining option gives you.

So, you can gather from the above that DoW is a pretty bleak game. There’s a lot of factors going against you, and not much in your favour. I don’t yet have a sense of what that general sense of the world being against you translates to in terms of win/loss ratio. It did not feel as challenging on the first play as, say, Pandemic. But maybe we got lucky.

It’s worth a quick discussion of how this game relates to Battlestar Galactica. The two games have a lot in common, and I would be astonished if the designers hadn’t consciously built DoW on the foundation provided by BSG. In both games you have people who have their own secret objectives that cut across or go against the group’s objective; you have regular crises that require everyone to contribute cards to meet an objective, but during which it’s possible to secretly work against the group; you have the constant external threat (zombies or cylons) and you have the fight to avoid running out of resources. The two games are similar, but there are also major differences. In BSG the main focus is the crisis cards; they happen once every player-turn and throw in a random factor that makes it harder to meet the target number and easier for a traitor to cover their tracks. In DoW the crisis cards are less frequent and there’s no random factor, so you always know if a traitor has worked against you and, assuming there isn’t, you always know if you’ve beat the target. In DoW you have to work to get the resource cards to beat the crisis and feed the colony, so there’s a constant downward pressure on resources, while in BSG your cards regularly refresh so the focus is more on whether you can make it through the turn without running out. DoW is more deadly, but you get more than one character and if all a players’ characters die then they get a free replacement. In BSG it’s harder to detect a traitor and also harder to neutralise them, while in DoW there may not even be a traitor, but everyone has objectives that cut against the group slightly, while an exiled traitor (or an unjustly exiled innocent) is less disadvantaged and maintains a more constant play experience. Bottom line: if you liked one, you may well like the other, but don’t expect them to be that similar.

Overall I was impressed with DoW. I’m a big fan of BSG and I found DoW to be very similar, but refreshingly different. If you like cooperative play with a soupcon of player vs player paranoia, DoW is worth a look.

Investigating investigation

Due to popular demand (well, Blackrat demand), I am going to write a bit more about investigation and how it can be systematised.

Fundamentally, investigation in roleplaying is about searching for and discovering clues which can be used to draw conclusions about something happening in the fictional world of the game. If you over-mechanicise searching for clues (for example by making discovery automatic, as with Trail of Cthulhu) then you end up with something that feels like railroading. If you elide the discovery of clues and drawing of conclusions (something it’s easy for a GM worried about whether the players will be up to the task of deducing what is going on) then you end up with exposition rather than true investigation.

We can break it down further
– Following leads to direct the search for clues towards particular people, places, groups, events and so on.
– Finding the imprint left by the events one is investigating, especially if it is concealed (fingerprints, footprints, CCTV footage, a statement by a witness…)
– Identifying a pattern, an anomaly within a pattern or a definite lack of pattern (for instance, all the victims belonged to the same religion)
– Interpreting the imprints and patterns found so far to draw conclusions about what might have happened
– Making the link between an imprint, pattern or conclusion and a new lead, widening the investigation (a person whose fingerprints, footprints, etc were left at the scene; the local temple of the religious group being victimised, etc)
– Drawing a solid enough conclusion to allow a confrontation of some sort (arrest the murderer, grab the lost artifact, reunite the father with his lost daughter)

Each of these can in principle be broken down into appropriate skills or abilities (forensics, interrogation and so on), if the game system wishes, but most game systems don’t really use the above breakdown. Most systems concentrate almost exclusively on the second bullet: finding the imprint through awareness tests, while some that are more focused on investigation also move on to the third and fourth bullets, allowing skill use to draw conclusions such as “these footprints were made by a very large man”.

To me, at the heart of an investigation game is how you move through these steps, and how the elements highlighted in bold get you from one step to the next. What makes an investigation game enjoyable for me as a player (and vicariously as a GM) is taking those steps myself, not having the system do it all for me; but of course, since I am not in fact a forensics expert or arch-interrogator or whatnot, it must give me just enough information to make it possible for me to draw conclusions and decide on appropriate leads myself, rather than spoon feeding me.

Authorial boundaries

Many story games widen the scope of authorship beyond traditional boundaries. In Apocalypse World, the MC can turn responsibility for decision-making over to the players, asking them questions in a reversal of the more usual approach. In Microscope there is a highly defined process through which everyone playing the game can author almost any element in the fiction. But it is quite common to take a far less structured approach, leaving everyone to invent everything as and when they feel like it, and often blurring the lines between In and Out of character speech.

So for example, in a game of Fiasco I could start a scene by having my wannabe gangster tell his cronies “The plan is to knock off the Royal Bank of Scotland on Spencer Street.” Right there, I created a bank and a street – I didn’t need to tell the group about it Out of Character in the way that a GM might, my IC speech made it so. (Someone might reply “but there is no bank on Spencer Street”, which would confuse matters – improv actors would call this “blocking”, which is not a good thing at all.)

But my experience has been that when things are left unstructured and informal, not everyone will have the same ideas about where authorial boundaries lie. For instance, say I’m playing a character named Fred, in a scene with one other character, Lucy, while the third player character, Alf, is absent from the scene. I say “it’s such a shame about Alf’s drug abuse, he really is going off the rails”. Lucy might reply “yes, and that business with the prostitutes was unfortunate as well.” Maybe Alf’s player was expecting to play a rather puritanical, moral sort of guy. Now he has to decide whether to “block” these suggestions (which, because they were delivered In Character, means implying that Fred and Lucy are liars or mad or misinformed) or roll with it and change his character. Alf’s player will probably roll with it, but may not feel too happy at having his character – not his character’s situation, but the character himself – unilaterally and arbitarily changed from the character he had in mind.

Is this reasonable? There is no right answer. It comes down to violated expectations, something which is to be avoided. Story games thrive on the ability to introduce unexpected, unplanned fictional elements which each player can build on and riff off; but having a clear understanding of what we can and can’t do is vital to enabling everyone to participate fully in the authorial jam session. Your regular group probably has built up just such an understanding, through a mix of formal discussion and informal convention, and you may not even realise it until a new player joins or you play with a different group.

Some games provide useful ways to register an objection to content you aren’t happy with; Archipelago has its ritual phrases, Witch has “the alarm”. That goes some way to helping, and is a necessary tool in my view, but can be quite jarring (and in my experience not everyone likes having their creativity shat on in this way, either). For my money nothing beats having expectations clarified up front.

So what are the boundary questions we need to answer?
– Who can create fictional elements like characters, locations, objects?
– Who can make changes and elaborations to existing fictional elements? Is it only the person who created them, or anyone?
– To what extent can we author retroactive events e.g. “cut to a hill outside the city, which is now a nuclear waste” without us seeing the nuke get fired.
– Are any fictional elements privileged in the way that Player Characters are in a traditional game? Are there any limits on authorship?
– Who can set scenes, and within what parameters?
– How are the above done? Can we author stuff in-scene, or during set-up?
– What do I do if I don’t like what someone else authored? Do I have to roll with it, or can I challenge? How are disputes settled?
– Whose role is it to enforce the answers to the above questions?

In my experience a lot of games elide these questions, leaving it to you to decide. In turn, a lot of groups elide the decisions, leaving it to be settled through play – “let’s just start playing and we’ll work it out as we go”. Maybe I’m just stuffy and over-formal, but I find it helpful to have these questions clear in advance.