Black Armada Tales

We have started an actual play podcast called Black Armada Tales. We’re playing indie TTRPGs with a group of friends, and having an excellent time doing it. Our first game is Apocalypse Keys by Jamila R Nedjadi, a very cool game about a team of monsters whose job is to investigate and prevent apocalypses from coming to pass. The game mixes up action and investigation with the drama that comes from their own relationships and the knowledge that they, too, may one day become harbingers of the apocalypse.

You can find Black Armada Tales on a wide variety of podcast providers, and we’ll also be publishing the episodes to our website here.

News from Black Armada

We’re picking up our tools again after a bit of a Covid-induced hiatus, and there’s a few things we wanted to let you know about.

1. We published a new resource on the website, titled making your game fun for everyone. It’s a primer on tools to help focus your game on the things your group enjoys, covering everything from CATS, the same page tool and lines and veils, through the X Card and Script Change, through to feedback and the debrief. It covers a lot of stuff that is often included under the rubric of “safety”, but we’ve tried to take a wider perspective on what these tools can be used for, as well as some ideas of our own.

2. Last Fleet is available for pre-order! If you missed it on Kickstarter, it’s a PBTA game about the last of humanity fleeing across space from the alien Corax. You play brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists struggling to fend off enemy attacks, alien infiltrators, discord on the fleet and the growing pressure on themselves. Basically if you liked Battlestar Galactica, you might like this. Link here: https://lastfleet.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders

3. Our patreon is up and running again!

  • Our newest game is HISTORY DIG LIVE!, a tribute to the UK tv show Time Team, where you play TV archaeologists and (in flashbacks) the historical characters whose lives they are digging up.
  • $3 gets you access to the game, as well as our previous one The Great British Snake Off, where you play contestants on the reptile kingdom’s premier baking show. Win on technique or by trickery!
  • We’ve got a whole bunch of excellent games coming up too, from the GMless mystery game Elementary, through the solo journaling card game Wreck This Deck, and more. Come and join us!

Getting from an idea to a first draft.

This is a companion piece to Josh’s blog about curating ideas.  My method of curation is slightly different to his; but I wanted to talk first about my process getting from a game idea to a first draft. 

Full disclosure… I am an incorrigible consumer of productivity systems and books about ‘getting creative work done’.  I love reading about how other people ‘get shit done’ so I can constantly refine my own methods.  If there is a book about creative productivity, then the chances are, I’ve got it.  Not all systems work for me (not all systems work at all!) but there are two things that I use pretty much constantly to support me in getting from idea to first draft. 

Firstly, I keep a bullet journal.  I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now and it is really valuable to me.  I don’t have one of those pretty artful bullet journals that look adorable and perfect.  I have a boring A5 notebook and a couple of pens that are comfortable to write with and I scribble in it.  But I use it every single day. And I put everything in it: I log my goals, lists of the games I want to write, plans for my kids birthday parties or the vegetable garden, design notes, daily gratitudes, I sketch out rough weekly diary spreads, long lists of things to do and notes on my life.  I put it all in one book where I can regularly reflect on it.  I mix up all my game notes, with everything else and I organise it using the bullet journal method.   

This means that I have one physical book that is with me all the time; a book I’m checking and reviewing several times a day.  Games and ideas don’t get shoved in a folder and forgotten about – as I leaf through my book they are there reminding me and poking at me to get them written. Those ideas sit in the middle of the sprawl of my life allowing me to make connections I would never have otherwise seen. The bullet journal system gives me confidence that nothing will be forgotten, and that in turn allows my brain precious breathing space. 
 
If you’ve been put off bullet journalling because you can’t or don’t want to spend hours drawing instagram-worthy spreads then do not fear! That isn’t the core of bullet journalling and ignore all that stuff and just write in a scrappy ballpoint pen. 

Why not use something like Evernote or some app?  On a personal level I love the tactile nature of a physical book. I love that it is dog-eared, covered in scribbles and notes and stickers and that it looks used.  I enjoy having a tangible artifact of my life in that way.  

But there are advantages to me outside this much more personal preference. The main one is that there are no distractions.  It is just me and the paper. There are no email alerts, no temptations to check social media and no getting sucked into a rabbit hole of TV tropes or and then forgetting why I’m here.  It is a clean room for me to sketch out ideas and log the little pieces of insight as they strike me. 

But that is only half the story.   

Getting from that book to a first draft is a different beast entirely, it is something that requires time and time is hard for many of us.  This is where I will give my one and only recommendation for a creative, productivity book – ‘Growing Gills by Jessica Abel’.  This book has lots of really good insights and support but one killer technique was life changing for me.   

The technique is this: for 2 weeks you write down everything you do in a day in 15 min increments.  It sounds nightmarish, I know.  But I honestly did that.  I have a job, two kids and various other commitments and I did my two weeks of logging every 15 mins. This process forced me to confront a couple of things.  First, I ended up with hard data on where I spent your time and when it was being spent.  I knew roughly how much much tv watching and internet surfing I was doing but after two weeks I knew precisely.  No hiding. But  I also knew that the 10 mins I spent standing at a bus stop checking my phone on a Thursday morning couldn’t really have been used any other way.  But the clear block of 2 hours I spent surfing the internet on a Friday evening could have been spent writing. 

This gets you to the second thing. 

Where do I really want to spend the precious time I have?

As I said before, I have a job, two kids, hobbies and a vegetable garden.  Up until about 6 months ago I had precious little writing time.  So, I got really clear on my priorities.  Sometimes I really did need do nothing but watch You Tube and surf Pinterest for an evening. Maybe I was exhausted, maybe my mental health wasn’t that great and I needed to check out for a bit.  But other times I decided that I wanted to write more than I needed to check out. I could see from the data where I had timeslots that I could spend on writing and then I wrote a date and a time in my diary (which is in my bullet journal) and treated it like any other appointment. 

So that is what I do.  I put time aside for writing and make it a priority – but I make it a priority based on having a really deep understanding of my habits, my schedule, my needs and desires.  In the early days that time slot was only 1 or 2 hours a week (remember I have young kids!) but that 1 hour a week was a lot better than the 8 potential hours a week that never happened for me. 

I guess this is a pretty boring blog post.  It is like when people ask ‘how did you get fit’ and the answer is – I exercised a bit and ate more vegetables. 

How I turn an idea into a game is really boring – I write down all my ideas in my journal (the same one I write everything else in), I organise my journal so it is easy to find information again.  Then I’m ruthlessly honest with myself about what time I can put aside for writing and I diarise it as an appointment in my journal. Then I turn up with my journal and my laptop and I do the writing.  I do it even if I’d rather knit and watch Netflix.  I do it whether or not I feel inspired. 
 
And then I end up with a first draft ready for lots of shredding and rewriting. 

This article is supported through the Black Armada Patreon

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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.

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 RPG 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!

Book Review: Impro by Keith Johnstone

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A long time ago I asked on Story Games for people to recommend their top books about role-playing… which were not actually books about role-playing.  Simply any books which had rich ideas which could enhance the hobby.  I asked the question because at the time I was doing an MBA and my major area of interest was (and is) organisational culture.  I have used quite a few techniques and theories regarding organisational culture in my role-playing and I was sure that there would be other  disciplines out there which might have similar insights.

I got a fantastic list of books and now my MBA is in the bag I’m making the time to read some of them.  Starting with Impro.

It seems obvious that books about acting might hold some vital lessons for Role-Players but Impro has particular relevance to story games and GM-less story games in general. Admiral Rabalias has already written here about how common problems in improvisational acting are also common in GM-less RPGs.

I would go further than Admiral Rabalias. I think that as traditional role-players coming into GM-less games we have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about improvisation.  There is a temptation to assume we know it all – after all “we never have a script we improvise all the time”.  But in a traditional game this is only true in a very narrow sense – in a traditional game it is very clear who has creative control over which sections of the game, players improvise their character’s thoughts, conversation and actions but by constantly bouncing off the content created by the GM.  In fact much player improvisation is interrupted by the need to ask question of the GM e.g. “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?” “Is there a door in here?” Many GM-less games have techniques for dividing up creative control and this always puts a greater burden on the players than traditional games.  Therefore problems such as a player’s creativity drying up or a lack of confidence often leads to the classic improv problems of blocking and wimping become more acute.

I think we need to starting using and practising improvisational techniques more widely and writing them into our games.

Impro is a great sources for ideas and exercises on improvisation.

But to the book review itself:

I shall be honest and say that the personality of the author is very strong and quite ego-centric.  Indeed the entire first chapter is auto-biographical.  I don’t think I would want to work with the author in real life but if you like his style then you will enjoy this section, if you don’t like it then the other sections are interesting enough to persevere.

It is easy and quick to read with lots of clear examples and good suggestions for easy exercises you could use in a gaming group of almost any size.

The book has 4 main sections about 4 different ways and theories concerning improvisation.  Briefly these are:

1. Status – how feeling stuck in an improvisation can be unlocked by deciding on whether you are playing high or low status – especially in relation to the people you are playing with. I think this could

2. Spontaneity – This chapter goes into more detail about what blocking is, how to recognise it and and how to stop it.

3. Narrative Skills – This section is about making up stories and perhaps more interesting to the role-player, drawing stories out of people who think they can’t make them up.  It explores techniques which revolve around asking smaller questions to build up a story as it is often easier to make up lots of little facts and weave them into one narrative than create one seamless entirely improvised story.  This is not dissimilar to some traditional GMing roles, where the players ask clarifying questions about the scenarios such as “Where is the red wizard in relation to the windows?”.  However it made me think that we could use these techniques of asking questions about small details to help players who might be floundering a bit in GM-less games. The technique breaks down the amount of stuff players have to invent into small manageable chunks. Some GM-less games have codified systems for this such as Durance which is very helpful but it could be used more widely.

4. Masks and Trance – this was a very odd chapter, it was semi-spiritual and it really read like the author had half an idea, had jumped to some odd conclusions and didn’t really know what they were trying to say.  I think that there might be some parallels here with bleed but nothing terribly helpful is drawn out other than that masks might help people to establish characters and bleed.

In conclusion: There are a lot of useful tips and ideas in the book and also some half-baked, unhelpful pseudo-spiritual ideas.  I would recommend people read the chapters on status, spontaneity and narrative skills for the most useful bit and ignore the auto-biography and the chapter on Masks.

I shall trying out some of these exercises with my gaming groups and writing variations on them for some of the games I am currently designing. I’ll update if anything interesting happens in those sessions!