A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.

Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.

Mid year review

At New Year I broke a habit of a lifetime and made some resolutions. I’ve never done it before, because I’ve always thought that you should either get on and do something or not bother at all. However, research has shown that you’re more likely to do something if you publicly state that you’ll do it, and that people who regularly set themselves goals get further in life than those who don’t. So what the hell, I thought.

Anyhoo, this is my review at the mid-point of the year of what the heck I’ve achieved from the list.

1. Play at least ten games (roleplaying or board) that I have never played before.

Since New Year I’ve played three new board games:
– A Game of Thrones board game
– Cosmic Encounter board game
– Qwirkle
…and six roleplaying games:
– Apocalypse World (sort of – I’ve played two first sessions thereof)
– Archipelago II
– The Extraordinary adventures of Baron Munchausen
– Lady Blackbird
– Microscope
– Trollbabe

2. play a full roleplaying session, not just a one to one, entirely over Skype (or G Chat).

Not done. In fact I’d forgotten about this one, which is a poor show on my part. Glad I had this mid-year review thingy.

3. Read at least ten sci-fi and/or fantasy authors I’ve not read before, including at least five women.

Since New Year I’ve read:
– Spin State by Chris Moriarty (technically I started this in 2011)
– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
– The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
– This Alien Shore by CS Friedman
– The True Game by Sheri S Tepper
– Faith and Fire by James Swallow
– The Windup Girl by Paul Bacigalupi
– Green by Jay Lake
– A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.
…and I’ve started Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey.

4. Write a complete roleplaying system.

I’ve been working on this with Frax and Chrestomancy. Project Quick Draw is currently in alpha playtesting.

5. Complete my murder mystery for Undying King games.

Not done. No progress made so far this year… but there’s plenty of time left.

In short I’ve made a lot of progress in trying new things and somewhat less progress in creating new things. Though having said that, I’ve also written a Fiasco playset (will be published here soon) and launched Black Armada, both of which probably ought to have been on the list. Fingers crossed I can complete the rest by year end.

Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone – Play Test Alpha

Recently I was lucky to run my new game, When the Dark is Gone, with four of the very finest Role-Players I know.

 

It was a short session but was incredibly good in a number of ways…

– Exceptional Role-Playing from all the Players…check

– Successful Proof of Concept for my two goals….check

– Great feedback which was both ego-boosting and helped clarify the game immensely…check..check…check

 

We got through character creation fairly smoothly although as the Therapist I ensured it took no longer than an hour.  I decided that the purely reflective nature of the Therapist doesn’t extend to the pre-game prepping and so took an active role in suggesting ideas and twists for the problems and relationships of the party.

 

We established some clear out of character ground rules.  Firstly a list of subjects to be avoided (one of the players had a phobia we didn’t want to trigger).  Secondly that if anyone felt the game was too intense they could get up and leave the room at any time – but by stating “I need to take a break” it meant that they were going out of character and did not want anyone to follow them IC.  With these house rules in mind the session began.

 

Very soon I encountered the first major challenge of the Therapist role.

 

Less is more.

 

In traditional games the GM monitors pacing and when awkward silences happen it is their job to fill the gap with noise.  In WTDIG the opposite is true.  The Therapist’s role is to say the minimum necessary to help the players draw out the story.  Sometimes this means allowing awkward silences to continue.  When I hit the first awkward silence I made a decision – I would allow the silence to continue for 10 beats longer than I was comfortable with.  This is when the magic happened.  Firstly awkward silences are quite normal in real therapy sessions.  This lent a sense of realism which helped the immersion aspect.  Secondly by allowing an awkward silence to continue, eventually one of the players couldn’t take it any more and started talking.  By this point the pressure had been increased nicely so that whatever they blurted out was usually more interesting and led to better stories and conversations.

 

Still it was a completely new way of GMing and very difficult. It required me to relearn the norms of GMing for this particular game.  In fact I am going to create a new term to describe this style – it is not GMIng it is GFing – Game Facilitator.

 

The other big difference I noticed was in attempting to end the game.  Unlike most games with WTDIG there is no planned end-of-level boss, no deliberate climatic scene you are moving towards.  The rhythm of WTDIG is totally different and it is likely you will find no obvious end point. Instead of trying to force a conclusion I simply used time.  I had a player needing to leave at midnight and so I wrapped up at 11.50pm.  In Character I announced that the Therapy session was nearly over and could we just take five minutes to go round the room and have everyone tell the group one thing which they learned today which was helpful.

 

This last question was to give everyone a small sense of closure and was, I think, vital.

 

The players enjoyed the short play test and the session was just as emotional and as intense as I hoped.  I felt very invested in their personal stories as the Therapist which was unexpected but awesome.  I got some great feedback which has mostly gone into WTDIG version 2 (already published here) and now have many other play tests being planned to further develop  the game.

 

There was one aspect of the session which was completely unexpected for me – this is easily a prep-less campaign setting.  All the players felt they could have done more sessions and I could see how the sessions would build up on each other to create more tension and more pressure.  Next time I test this game I’ll be doing it as a 6 session campaign…and if I can run an emotional, immersive yet prep-less campaign I’ll be a very happy Admiral.

 

Top tip – mood music during character creation was great (Depeche Mode and Portishead) but I made a point of turning it off when we timed in.  This made the contrast with the awkward silences more apparent and was much better for it!

Black Armada century

Yesterday we got our 100th unique visitor. Stranger, please identify yourself, and claim your prize of a brand new sportscar!

…just kidding. But we’re super excited to have so many visitors[*] two weeks after launching, especially since the stats seem to indicate that most of you aren’t our mates from facebook. Thanks for reading, and keep checking back as we’ve got lots more good stuff planned 🙂

[*] That’s assuming google analytics isn’t counting spambots, of course. We’ve had quite a few of those,too.

Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.

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.