Tags: roleplaying


A Princess of FATE

A year or so of craft beer obsession and a couple of disappointing St Patrick's day outings in past years had me unenthused about my usual cross town Irish pub expedition, so Morgan's invitation to play a St Pat's one off for Actual People, Actual Play was an excellent substitute. We had all recently seen John Carter and were in the mood for some planetary romance, so Morgan's brought out his FATE emulation of the genre, Spirit of the Red Planet.

I'd had a great time playing Cyrus Turner, the John Carter guy, when I played this game at Neoncon 2010. This time I played his rival for the heart of the princess, Kalyan Akash, the Martian Sky Pirate.

Episodes of Actual People, Actual Play are recorded immediately after the game finishes; they start with a description of the game and are followed by a discussions of selected topics inspired by or arising from the game. It was a lot of fun to participate, and now you can listen:


It's So Cold in Alaska

This was a great game. One that has consumed much of my thought over the past few week and demanded a more detailed discussion than my usually short con game descriptions. One of the greatest things about it was that I had heard such good things about it going in, yet it lived up to my high expectations. I could talk about the many artistic reasons for my appreciation of the game*, but the two things that contributed the most to my desire to race about this game are its emotional impact and the fact that it has spent so much time resonating around my mental space since I played it. These are related, but to clarify, the first is emotional and the second is intellectual. Not that I subscribe to a strict dichotomy between those two spheres, but as a classificatory scheme, it's a convenient distinction.

Alaska was fantastic example of a game with character descriptions that get you into the head of a pre-generated character. My character, Marc Taylor, a Clinical psychologist with a preexisting undisclosed relationship with the central NPC, resonated with me personally in several ways and made getting into character both pretty easy and quite an emotional experience. For several days afterwards, I was still mulling over the game, my character and my decisions and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the experience.

Part of the appeal of story games was the chance to have some deeper rpg experiences than my previous history with traditional gaming had provided. Several years later, I now think the main reason for the problem was a mismatch between some of the things I wanted out of gaming and what the rest of my group wanted.

Elsewhere, I've described the game as inspirational. Obviously not because of the content, but rather because of the creative process. I found out afterwards that both music and personal experience were central to the genesis of the game. I've written here before about how those two factors have been major parts of many of my most satisfying GMing experiences. It's both gratifying to see that I'm not alone in this, and and exciting challenge to see if I can produce a game that can produce this kind of response in players.

There has been discussion of the ethics of eliciting emotion in players and whether it is voyeuristic to do so. I'm on the side of Games as Art, and one of the points of art is to ellicit emotion, so for me, the idea of a game that isn't designed to elicit emotion in some way is odd. The most usual emotion, and the easiest to generate, both in my own experience, is excitement. That's great, and I love exciting games, but it's kinda like the gaming equivalent to just adding a lot of sugar** to something. Reliable, but samey and with diminishing returns.
drbunnyhops' use of trigger warnings in Alaska was great for a few reasons: First, if you don't want to be confronted with a hot button topic, like child abuse, then you must be allowed to avoid it. Playing "gotcha" in this sort of situation is cheap and could completely ruin the game for everyone. Second, it lets people searching for interesting gaming experiences know the kind of things they'll get in a somewhat-non-spoilery way. Thirdly, a lot of people just don't want that out of their gaming, and it should be the goal of a game blurb to give as accurate a description as possible of the kind of experience that players are signing up their valuable time for. I want my games to be full, but I want them to be full of people who want what I'm handing out.

I don't see roleplaying games as being significantly different to movies in this regard. I'm signing up to have my emotions manipulated in various ways. As long as the manipulation matches my expectations, I'm good.

Being on the same page as your players is good practice for any game, but especially if you're going to deal with seriously emotional topics. And it goes both ways. If you as a player don't want to be forced to engage with certain issues, don't sign up to do so. The Sorcerer idea of lines and veils is a great tool here: lines the players don't want to cross, and veils behind which action is not described. I've certainly not thought about this enough in the past, so Alaska was a good reminder.

I can't speak for everyone else, but I signed up to be put through an emotional wringer. I'm not really a horror fan, but Alaska has definitely illuminated the attraction.

*In fact, some of these do come up here, but not in depth. Briefly: prep, props & performance. I couldn't run this game.
**I was originally going to go with bacon, but quality variation in bacon diminishes the metaphor somewhat.
For my reference: Broken People, Failure through Success.

Being a Fan

Also from Gregor at Red Moose Games, a selection of quotations on the GM as MC.

Here's Jeff Rients:
Always Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing... Your players are rock stars and they're here to rock your house. In this paradigm your job is to be the roady and the manager and all the other people who make the concert possible.

Here's Vincent Baker:
Why we play: because the characters are fucking hot... You are a master of ceremonies... Be a fan of the player's characters.

That whole thing? A manifesto.

OrcCon Wrap-up

Last year, every con I went to was fantastic. I came out thinking each one was as good as the last. While I had a great time at this one, it wasn't as good. I think because I couldn't get a room, had to commute and most of all had to pull out of the first three sessions.

Still, I am excited for the next one. That will be either Hyphen-con (one day of RPGs, one of boardgames, in San Diego), Nerdly Beach Party VIII (two days of story games at a camping ground near the shore in San Simeon National Park) or Day of Games! (one day of games on demand in Wellington). If I'm lucky, it will be all of them, but it depends how dates shake out. I expect to miss Gamex at LAX in May and Buckets of Dice in Christchurch in June, and whatever happens, I certainly won't make both of those!

Tonight's Dresden Files was canceled due to the GM moving, Monday's D&D was canceled due to Christchurch moving, on Saturday night I'll be board gaming. Fingers crossed.

Dresden Files: Out in the Cold in L.A.

Last night was my first night playing in the Dresden Files campaign I've just joined. My character is Mešlamta-ea, the emissary of Nergal. I'm going to mostly give s story hour in this post, but I'll intersperse that with thoughts on play and the game.

I've played with all the people in the group before (except perhaps Andrew?) at the Strategicons. Colin has a very particular GMing style, especially in the way he hits compels (he often GMs FATE) and aims right at your character's fracture points and demands you make hard decisions. He started the play by summarising the situation each of the characters found themselves in, focusing on the decisions they'd made and the trouble it had got them into. It's a much better system than my usual attempt to get the players to do it for me. Lets face it, as the GM, I've thought about the game more over the time since the last game more than the players have.

Mešlamta-ea's prelude of sorts was set at a block party held by a popular local wizard, Ignacio... I had been send to Los Angeles on the trail of Warden Gabriel, the man who trained the State Department necromancer whose demon I destroyed at Tell Ibrahim, Iraq. We had arranged a deal when the Red Court attacked. Ignacio and I fought as best we good, but when the Red Court Vampire known as the Blood Madonna offered Ignacio the chance to come quietly and spare his family, he surrendered.
"Who are you?" she said.
"I am Mešlamta-ea. ... I serve a god."
"There is only one God. Kill him."

I was swarmed by a pack of vampires, but they couldn't stomach my dusty dead flesh and Supe, a huge infected El Salvadorian gang member, shot me in the head, my face frozen in a dead laugh.

Dead in character creation. Dead in the first session. I did know how this was going to go, which let me make some not so subtle references to my immediate fate in the conversation with Ignacio.

It was a long walk back down the 15, to the 210, to the 2, to Echo Park. I'd exchanged most of the desert sand for rubber particles and exhaust fumes by the time Zac picked me up on his Vespa on Alvarado. We arrived back at the apartment where they were staying just as Chuey, my war buddy and Ignacio's nephew, was explaining to Marcus about the Red Court house in the Hollywood hills and the ambulance loads of Skid Row homeless one of his fellow EMTs had been delivering.

Mešlamta-ea/Mike had met the rest of the PCs when he first came to Los Angeles of Gabriel's trail. That was a few days before the party massacre of his prelude.
  • Jesus "Chuey" Alvarado (Andrew) is a muscle-bound, clean-cut Hispanic EMT, and fellow veteran. He couldn't save Mike after the IED in Tell Ibrahim.
  • Marcus Franklin (Morgan) is an ambitious African American graduate student from south of the 10, and a wizard
  • Zac (James) is a hipster wizard. I guess I didn't take good notes on Zac!

I've probably spelled a few names wrong too.

A house in the hills which had just taken delivery of half a dozen homeless meals and which was probably also a prison for some of Chuey's family, still missing after the party. We briefly considered making a plan. Well, Marcus did.

Colin compelled the rest of us. Chuey has the aspect "Half-cocked" and Zac had something impetuous. I forget what he compelled me with. We all accepted like the good little fate point junkies were are. Marcus didn't feel like arguing.

So we rolled up into the hills in Chuey's monster hunting ride and an ambulance to bust up some El Salvadorian blood-suckers. Chuey went in disguised as a gang-banger, but he took longer than we expected, so we went in to back him up. Zac and Marcus were disguised as EMTs and I was disguised as an extra homeless snack. We discovered the house was full of guns, drugs, infected gangbangers, drained corpses, and Red Court vampires, and who should wander up, but Supe.

I declared that at the first sign that he recognised me, I'd crack him with my mace. Colin offered me a fate point: "Why wait?"

THWACK! I smack Supe in the side of the head with the Mace of Irkalla. "I'm here for the monotheists." The house is filled with Supe's gang so Zac pulls down a visual and auditory veil and Marcus pulls his Browning Hi-Power and unloads into Supe. Supe slams me against the wall trying to pin the mace, but I drop under his pin and smash his knee, putting him on floor. Zac channels the power of an earth ley line into him, fracturing his skull, and Marcus finishes him off with a stomp to the head. We hide the body before the veil lifts.

There was a cool interchange here where Colin asked James if Zac was trying to kill Supe with his magic. As I understand it, it's a violation of the laws of magic to kill a human with magic, so the question was, did Zac think Supe was a monster? Supe had been a recurring bane of the group's existence in the preceding sessions. Zac tried and failed to kill him with magic. Colin then asked Morgan if Marcus thought that Supe was a monster and what did he think of what Zac had tried to do. It made the death of this NPC a real moral issue for those two characters, and and intensified the scene by raising the issue of the justification of force and the dehumanisation of an enemy.

Chuey, veiled as a member of the gang, had continued further into the house and found members of his family in a basement - some infected, some not. The Blood Madonna had just turned of his cousins, she came after him and there was a fight. That attracted a crowd, which we followed just as the victorious Chuey encountered the crowd of infected gang members. I pulled out a cuneiform tablet and summoned the molten sand of Nurgal. Panic ensured, as the air filled with fire and a stinging sandstorm, but the Blood Madonna saw us and flitting through the chaos, confronted Chuey: "I have your family", she licked his face with her narcotic tongue and vanished into the sand. We hauled ass.

The next stop was the Muchada house, the arcane boarding house at which Marcus and Zac had stayed before they were betrayed and forced out into the cold.
The current Threat of the campaign. A Warden, Michelle, was watching the house. She didn't take too kindly to me at first, but she came 'round. Intimidate. Marcus had seen the ghost of the house's owner who was missing presumed dead. He wanted to be sure, and I could do that. So with the help of Marcus and Zac who had performed a blood bonding ritual with the woman in question, I made a spell-tablet to draw her spirit from the underworld. It turns out, there was a space for her prepared, and her name was entered on the tablets of Nergal, but she wasn't where she was supposed to be. But something answered the call and earth cracked at its coming...

In Honour of Kapcon

I'm around 10,800km, 15 hours and $2000 away from Kapcon 2011, so a gaming related post is as close as it gets:

  • If I'd thought about it, I would have posted Ryan Maclin's exposition on the very American sounding seven layer convention burrito before Kapcon. Yeah, that would have been more helpful. Its a succinct description of the process of running a con game. It doesn't really contain anything revolutionary, but it's all stuff that can get lost in the shuffle. I'll have to remember to reread this closer to Orccon.

  • Social conflicts should be resolved with dice like any other RPG conflict. It's a point that's been made before, but I was taken by the way it was made here: A Character You can Roleplay.

  • In Kapcon tradition, I'll put the LARP in the middle. In this case a review of a British Crime LARP, Diamond Geezers.

  • Morgue's post on the sexism evident in Dragon covers got a name check (and a link) in this article on The Depiction of Women in Gaming which did the rounds in December. Well, over on her blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, wundergeek has continued her analysis. She doesn't bring it out, but the first of those links also touches on exoticising racism in the depiction of "monstrous primitives". This firm and well argued rebuttal of the apologist line that "gaming is just as 'sexist against men' "(sic) gets a virtual, distance high five from me. There's lots of good stuff on that blog; check it out.

  • In much better news, John Harper reports that Kirin is continuing Red Box Hack as Old School Hack! I haven't read it yet, but RBH was money.


In Deep with a Dead God

It's been a couple of years since I made a character for a campaign (since mashugenah's Space Western game, I think), so I was excited to make one for a Dresden Files game last night. I think it was also the first time that I've made a character without looking at the book beforehand, so it was a good reminder of the evocative power of a well written game book.

I'm playing Mešlamta-ea, an emissary of the Babylonian god Nergal, formerly Michael Novak, an Ocean Park skateboarder and Private First Class in the US Army, KIA by an IED in the vicinity of Al Ḩillah.

High Concept: Undead Emissary of Nergal
(Serves Nergal in his role as gatekeeper of the underworld, sending back things that have escaped or been stolen from death)
Trouble: In deep with a dead god
(Nergal is implicated in the Oblivion War)

Prince of Dog Town
(A carefree skateboarder from a run-down beach community)
Enlisted Grunt
(Joined the army and served in Iraq where he was caught behind enemy lines with his buddy Chuey in the fierce fighting around Al Ḩillah)
Born-Again Hard
(Killed by an IED in the main temple complex of Nergal in Tell Ibrahim (ancient Kutha) and raised by Nergal to destroy a demon: "When a Babylonian demon escaped from the underworld, Mešlamta-ea was sent to bring back the demon, but will he succeed when he discovers that the necromancer responsible is a State Department operative?")
Armed with the Sceptre of Irkalla
(Bears this stone mace, a symbol of Nergal's power)
One does not simply walk out of Irkalla!
(Tasked with retrieving those who escape from the underworld and punishing those who steal them away, Mešlamta-ea is back in L.A. on the trail of the man who trained the operative)

Item of Power: Mace: Inhuman Strength, Marked by Power (1)
Sponsored Magic: Rituals (2) (Underworld: Dead & Demons, fire and sand themed)
Living Dead (1)
Inhuman Recovery (Catch: Contact with Water) (1)
Ghost Speaker (1)
Adjusted Refresh: 2

Superb (+5): Weapons, Might
Great (+4): Lore, Intimidation
Good (+3): Endurance, Contacts
Fair (+2): Alertness, Athletics
Average (+1): Guns, Survival

8 Potion slots (4 Item Slots)

In poor light, Mešlamta-ea is a guant, Keith-Richards-esque figure, in good light he has a desiccated look, definitely unhealthy, probably unnatural. He usually dresses like a homeless veteran; dirty white robes over a mix of army issue desert camo, all festooned with various accessories of an ex-military nature and what looks like crude pottery. A weighty duffle bag is slung over his shoulder.

2011 Gaming Resolutions

I made some resolutions for the first time last year. Gaming Resolutions. Hey, I didn't do as bad as I thought! I remembered these a couple of months ago, but only partially.

  1. Play the RPGs I have with me in LA that I have yet to play.

  2. This was the only part I remembered and I flunked this part. The only game unplayed game I managed to play in 2010 was Dogs in the Vineyard. I carried Contenders around a lot... which is kind of like... nothing. The motive behind this goal was that I was accumulating games at a rate much faster than I was playing them, so in that respect, I did okay. I only bought Diaspora and Fiasco (both of which I have played) and was given Hot War and Cold City (neither of which I have had a chance to read properly yet), so my unplayed pile didn't get much bigger.

  3. Do something with A Certain Kind of Decision.

  4. I made some movement on this early in the year, but ran out of steam. I've had a could of ideas since and am keen to get back to it, but I have a couple of other RPG projects that are pushing my buttons first.

  5. Learn, play and teach Race for the Galaxy.

  6. Well, I learnt and played it a lot, thanks to drowninghail introducing me to the PC translation, but I have yet to introduce it to my local group. I think I hooked Rob though ;)

  7. Prevent a US-based "Shelf of Shame" by painting all the figures I have here.

  8. This went pretty well. I mostly finished my Parthians from the CWC DBA championship in July and haven't bought a pile of new lead.

  9. Attend at least one LA con. I don't think any other domestic cons are achievable this year. I'll be at Buckets.

  10. Pwnage! In a patchy year personally, my con gaming experiences were without a doubt the things I look back on with the most pleasure from 2010. I hit all three LA cons, and Neoncon in Vegas. I made Buckets in Christchurch, but missed Confusion in Wellington. I'm thinking I'll try for Big Bad Con in October in Oakland in 2011; probably at the expense of Neoncon, but you never know.

  11. It might be a pipe dream, but it would be nice to do some sort of systematic review and collation of campaign ideas. I think mashugenah gave me this idea, perhaps on gametime?

  12. Nothing doing here. This one was always a bit amorphous, but I think Mash's idea in the comments has a lot of merit.

So, for 2011, I think I'll recycle these, with a couple of additions:

  1. Play the RPGs I have with me in LA that I have yet to play.

  2. Get A Certain Kind of Decision to the external playtesting stage.

  3. Submit Echoes to the 2012 Kapcon SDC.

  4. Play more board games than 2010. That won't be hard.

  5. Finish my Parthians and paint one more army.

  6. Run at least one prep intensive game per con.


Orccon 2011: Advance Thoughts

Christmas in Los Angeles is a like a gaming exile compared to Christmas in New Zealand. This is probably a combination of the relatively restricted pool of my gaming friends here, and the greater distances that people have to travel to see their families. But at any rate, I'm in Saratoga, CA, not Los Angeles at the moment. I know some gamers up here, but it's not really convenient to try to set something up. I'm hoping I'll be able to hook a few games up when I'm back in LA after Christmas, but in the meantime, I can think about my plans for the next Strategicon, Orccon in late February.

I have signed up to run Smallship Troopers, Starship Troopers run with the Smallville RPG (Ogrecave has a review here), as part of designer Josh Roby's plans to flood Orccon with Smallville. I haven't seen the rules yet, but this far out from a con, that's not unusual for me. At any rate, Josh is going to be running a demo for a few of us, and I grok systems quickly. I'm particularly looking forward to re-watching the movie(s*) and working out the relationship map for the characters.

After helping Mike Olson almost win Game Chef, I mentioned him that probably I'd run his Action City! 80s action movie emulation game. I'd like one more crack at the game before I do that, and to talk to Mike about polishing up the rules a bit before then, but I should have time for that in the next two months.

I had spoken to Mash about working up Echoes as an entry for the Kapcon Scenario Design Competition (SDC), but the deadline came and went well before I was finished with the end of semester. But I have started thinking about how I could adapt that for the abbreviated Wellington gaming format (3 hour sessions) perhaps for next time. The two ways to do that are a) truncating the introduction to frame the characters into the action immediately and b) dropping Diaspora as the system (possibly in favour of a Lady Blackbird-esque Shadow of Yesterday hack. A lot of time can be saved at the start if I don't have to explain the system and setting of Diaspora. A couple of tight intro scenes should convey the tone and setting and introduce the characters more quickly than explaining it. While the setting plays an important part in the action and decisions at the end, an infodump isn't the best way to convey that. I can also cut down the character aspects to reduce the initial load. If I can get this all done, I could run it again at Orccon and be most of the way to submission for the Kapcon 2012 SDC.

Finally, I plan to run Psi*Run which I've signed up to playtest. Playtesting will officially be over by that point, but everything I remember needing tidying from my previous runs of the game under the old Moore and Linger ashcan has been tided up in the current Baker version, so it's ready to go as far as I'm concerned.

Strategicon gives free entry to tabletop GMs offering 48 player hours worth of games. I usually run two games in four hour slots for six players each. I'm not so keen on six player games so offering four games would easily allow me to cut that down to four players per game (or even fewer if I wanted). That said, while Psi*Run and Action City! work very well with four players, Echoes was designed for six and Smallship Troopers will be dependent on the number of important movie characters, so we'll see how it works out. At any rate, I have some other ideas as well.

  • I have an idea for a Fiasco playset that I'd like to work on.
  • 3:16 with 40k Orks.
  • Since Colin mentioned that Mouse Guard is really a horror game, I've wanted to investigate its potential for Chocolate Chips Now.
  • My Deadlands/FATE hack has a lot of potential, but needs a lot of work.
  • And of course, I really should run A Certain Kind of Decision before much longer.

But I can't run all of these because I want to play a few things too! Especially Leverage (reviews here and here).

I've been thinking about some of these things since Neoncon, and some of these projects can be easily shelved for later cons. I'll see how I feel about the others as the weekend approaches.

*Yeah, I'll probably watch the two sequels too, if only for comparison.

Get me everyone!

It's been a good day on livejournal:
  • grandexperiment alerted my to an exciting RPG development, Far West. There's some art and a link to a mailing list signup here; the website will be live at some point this month apparently. A few years ago I started making notes on a Wild West/Far East mashup, so I'm happy to see that someone will be doing the hard work for me. Hopefully they'll do it well! I'll probably hack the setting to a different system, definitely if they use Savage Worlds. I don't plan on buying another generic system.
  • winneganfake has posted a nice bunch of videos this morning. Including this gem: