The League Presents – Actual Play with a difference

We’ve started a new Actual Play podcast where game designers play each other’s games! This is the first series: we’re playing Bite Me!, our game of werewolf pack dynamics that’s currently on Kickstarter.

The game is being GM’d by me (Josh), with an august group of designer-players including Becky Annison (the designer of Bite Me!), Grant Howitt, Jay Iles and Chris Longhurst. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out – feral werewolf action and intense relationships, just like the game intends.

Here’s the episode blurb:

A werewolf pack in suburban England walks a razor-thin line between the hunters of the city and the things that live in the forest. It’s a tough life, but made a lot harder when your pack alpha is bleeding out on your kitchen table…

Note: we went through game setup in a bonus episode. It’s not needed to enjoy this, but check it out if you want to hear more about Bite Me!

Listen to the first episode above, and back the Kickstarter campaign here.

By the way, the podcast is being created under the auspices of the UK Indie RPG League, a band of game designers who are sharing our knowledge, supporting each other and attending conventions as a group. Watch out for future episodes, where you’ll hear the hottest new and pre-release indie games being played by their designers.

Flotsam is available for pre-order

If you missed the Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars Kickstarter, you can now get in on the action by Pre-ordering on Backerkit.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You play through their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small-scale drama in the Below, a dangerous world where poverty, social strife and gang conflict sit side-by-side with alien technology and supernatural weirdness.

Imagine the Belters of the Expanse watching as Earth and Mars shape their lives, the civilians in Battlestar Galactica living with the decisions made by the military and the folk of Downbelow in Babylon 5, abandoned to destitution and squalor by those who built the station. This game is about characters like that.

The game is GMless and diceless, with rules that point your characters at each other and bring their relationships into sharp focus. They help you create a rich setting, flawed characters, and charged relationships which develop over time. You’ll watch your characters evolve and change before your eyes. It’s really cool.

Pre-order Flotsam Now



Bite Me! is coming to Kickstarter – Get on the Mailing List Here!

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

The Bite Me! Kickstarter is getting closer and closer, practically snapping at our heels over here at Black Armada.

Bite Me! is a Powered by the Apocalypse Game of werewolf packs and it is a full throated emotional howl into these cold Winter nights.

If you want to know the instant the kickstarter emerges naked and bloody into the world then sign up to our mailing list here:

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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?

Indie games aren’t all about narrative

I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.

Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.

With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.

But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.

PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.

The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.

So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.

But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.

I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.

So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.

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.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars is now available to buy in our store. You can also find it on DrivethruRPG, on itch.io and in gaming stores worldwide.

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You play through their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small-scale drama in the Below, a dangerous world where poverty, social strife and gang conflict sit side-by-side with alien technology and supernatural weirdness.

Imagine the Belters of the Expanse watching as Earth and Mars shape their lives, the civilians in Battlestar Galactica living with the decisions made by the military and the folk of Downbelow in Babylon 5, abandoned to destitution and squalor by those who built the station. This game is about characters like that.

The game is GMless and diceless, with rules that point your characters at each other and bring their relationships into sharp focus. They help you create a rich setting, flawed characters, and charged relationships which develop over time. You’ll watch your characters evolve and change before your eyes. It’s really cool.

“Josh has put together something really interesting here – there’s glimpses of a larger setting through the world, but it only comes out through the lenses of the characters. Very clever stuff.” 

– Grant Howitt, co-designer of The Spire RPG

Black Armada mailling list

We now have a mailing list! If you’d like to get news about Black Armada’s games, including forthcoming products like Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars and Bite Me!, you can subscribe to the list using the form below. We anticipate sending emails to the list around once a month.

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Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 4)

This is part 4 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This time, we’re talking about the quality of the product and the post-kickstarter phase.

Delivery phase – quality

Quality-wise, I couldn’t be prouder by what we achieved. The game has met with a very positive reception, including several award nominations. I continue to get a massive buzz every time I hear about people playing it. I believe it stands up in comparison to any other horror game out there.

The production values met our very high standards. The book is beautiful, filled with gorgeous art and an evocative yet readable layout, both of which mirror and reinforce the structure and themes of the game. The physical product looks and feels great.

Image of a library. A woman in a wheelchair looks over her shoulder, holding a gun at the ready. Behind her, a monstrous praying mantis lurks amongst the bookshelves.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

I also want to say here that our stretch goals massively enhanced the game. The finished stretch goal material was high quality, incredibly evocative, and provided a powerful set of diverse support materials for the game. We had one review whinge that the game itself was just a third of the book: but that really fails to recognise the benefits of these extra materials. The book has a massive 17 scenarios – you have so much choice, and they’re all so good; many people have commented that the quick-start scenarios are their favourite way to play. Plus the essays, which offer a really in-depth analysis of how to handle race and mental health in Lovecraftian games – issues which were a major focus of the campaign, and very dear to our heart. So the stretch goals were a major success for this project.

Post-kickstarter phase

Honestly, we didn’t really plan for what would happen after the kickstarter. That might seem funny given all the detailed planning described so far, but we really were focused on the campaign.

After the dust settled, we set ourselves up on Payhip, on DrivethruRPG, and (using Paypal buttons) on our own website to directly sell the game to customers. We reached out to Indie Press Revolution in the US and Esdevium in the UK, to get the books out to retailers.

All this basically worked ok. However, one thing new game designers should know is that retail distributors ask for a very hefty discount in the region of 50-55% on your product. This is because retailers ask for a 30-35% discount. I’m not being critical – retailers and distributors have costs to meet and presumably try to make a profit too. It can be pretty tricky to make any money on sales to retailers if you haven’t factored this into your planning – which we hadn’t. At one point we realised that we would make a loss on US retail sales, and had to make some changes to keep this viable. It would have been better if we’d planned that in advance – and it’s another reason why a print run would probably have been a better choice for us, since we’ve sold hundreds of books this way, many at a negligible profit margin. We’re glad to support retailers, and have the books out there, but next time we’ll do better out of it too.

I’ll also mention accounting. Once you make money, you’re going to have to report it to the authorities. In the UK that means submitting accounts and a self-assessment tax return to HM Revenue and Customs. This is a faff. Even if you pay someone to do it, in practice you will do a lot of work. If you pay someone, it will cost you, and probably more than you think. Just, you know. Think about that, and plan time and money around it.

Just for fun, here’s a graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter. It includes PDFs, but is I estimate over 80% physical copies. You can see that retailer sales are a large share of post-kickstarter sales, which makes my earlier remarks about planning for those even more salient.

Graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter

 

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – kickstarter in July

I’ve been working hard to get Flotsam ready for kickstarter, and it looks like it’ll be ready to launch some time in July.

Flotsam is a game for 3-5 people about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You focus on their everyday lives, their relationships and small-scale, interpersonal drama.

You could play:

The cast-off, an ordinary person fallen on bad times;

The Thunder, a tough ganger who makes the rules down here;

The Voice, the charismatic leader of a cult or community;

The Spider, a ruthless trader or spymaster;

The Sybyl, a prophetess with uncanny powers; or

The Hybrid, part human and part something else (alien, AI, god… there are lots of options).

The game is GMless: Each player gets one Primary character to play, as well as one Situation that they help to develop and push forward when not playing their Primary. That can be a lot to juggle, so the game has a simple, streamlined system that’s geared towards giving each player maximum control over the pacing of their own scenes, so you can have quiet, tense emotional scenes when you want them, or high-energy, threatening scenes when you feel like hitting the gas.

The game’s system pushes you to focus on your relationships and personal flaws, to move your character out of their comfort zone and develop them. Over time you’ll see those relationships and flaws change, and your characters grow. As such, it’s designed to work best in campaign mode. Over a handful of sessions, you’ll get to see real evolution of your character and their relationships.

Nonetheless, I wanted the game to be playable as a one-shot, so the game will include rules for quick-start play, using simple scenarios with pre-generated characters and situations. These will be designed to kickstart play with relationships that are already on the point of change, and problems at the point of exploding. It’ll mean you can play the game in 3-4 hours.

I’m excited to share the game with you! If you’re interested in this project you might want to follow the Black Armada kickstarter account here, so you’ll get a notification when the campaign launches. If you have questions or would like to talk to me about the project, you can comment here or contact me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

Finally, I couldn’t end this article without sharing the work-in-progress cover art by Anna Landin. It’s only a sketch and it’s already looking great! Honestly, commissioning art is one of my favourite things about being a game designer.

Four people stand around a makeshift table converted from a piece of industrial machinery. One of them leans forward, entreating another, who watches with interest. In the background we can see a round window, through which is stars and space, and a spaceship flying by.
OMG I love this sketch