My buddy Jay and I were speculating (well, dishing, complaining, bemoaning) on the Slack today about what it is that leads a player to be a lone wolf at the table. I’m not even sure this is an “indie” or storygame topic so much as a fact of life at many tables. Without even a faint hint of snark, here are some ideas that came to mind:
1) Desire to not have to share spotlight
I can kind of get this because I love spotlight time, but structurally privileging your own spotlight time is a dick move. Come on.
2) No interest or capacity for interpersonal scenes
There may be legit damage here, yeah? “No interest” is antisocial but “no capacity” might be a scenario too. Or it’s rooted into simpler “why I like to play” stuff, which has nothing to do with chitchat and “fluff” (barf) and everything to do with beating the game.
Yeahhhh. Not at my tables please.
3) Fear of rejection at the table
I have the most legitimate sympathy for this one, and as I was typing it out memories of exactly this thing happening crept up on me. Creative or interpersonal rejection sucks, yeah? And it’s a very nice aspiration to play only with friends who love and respect you. But we’re not all wired to give or receive those things. I’ve disinvited players for just that, after lots of talk and struggling and unpleasantness. Therapy is for therapists.
I have an even greater sympathy for this scenario in convention spaces. Safety tools don’t even begin to address the underlying fear. Some, like the X card, might be seen as facilitating rejection. Not that it’s really ever used that way, but I know that the X-Card haters bring this up as a big argument against it.
4) Fear of having fictional stuff threatened: family, friends, social connections
Yeah. There are shitty GMs out there. Sorry that happened to you. I have no idea what to say to that other than “play with different folks” and/or “flag the shit out of this as a no-go zone.”
5) Bad nerd wiring about “heroism”
Lots of really misguided ideas out there in nerdland. It’s coming in from games (rpg, board, video), from many kinds of genre fiction, or just plain lack of critical evaluation of heroic fiction. If all you’ve watched is John Wick, you know, you might want to expand your horizons.
6) Internal fantasy space about the nobility of the misunderstood loner
This one has hit home a few times in my own life. I wish I had a better grasp of exactly what the arc of the misunderstood loner was supposed to look like, because that might be a legitimately interesting thing to explore. I really dig the feels-forward playbooks in games like Monsterhearts and Masks that get at that. But in both those games, the holding environment of the game jams you up against not-loners. The character concept only works in the context of a broader community.
7) Missing some empathy circuit or gamer training that identifies people as enmeshed with communities
This is at the very edge of one of my darker theories about what’s wrong with (bad) gamers. I won’t get into it now. But: if you literally have never thought about who raised your character, who their friends are, who their rivals are, who they’ve loved, who they’ve lost…that’s weird, okay? At the very least, it means you have no interest at all in engaging with the fiction as anything beyond a tactical game. (I don’t care who my Grim Dawn character has slept with, either.) Which leads me to a more charitable take on a similar speculation:
8) Inability to engage with the game space as “fiction” and/or a preference to engage with the game space as “where the game happens”
I get it. I do. I think inability and preference are two different things on the inside of your skull, but on the outside they kind of play out the same. Happily the most popular RPGs in the world work quite well in this mode!
I’d been running on pure PLAY PLAY PLAY energy since I posted Saturday morning. Apologies for not keeping up my correspondence from the ground. I’m still recovering from lack of sleep, spine-crushing sitting stretches and oversalted road food.
First game Saturday was Inheritance, a larp from Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane. It’s a Viking blood opera for nine players. I’ve facilitated Inheritance three times, I think, but never played it. It was a huge help to already have the sprawling relationship map in my head. I played the grumpy dad of a family gathered to make claims on the estate of the grandfather who just died. I played him as the Ultimate Toxic Patriarch, which was both ironically amusing and sort of horrifying on the spot. I’d take up way too much room everywhere I went, man-spread my own wife almost out of her chair at dinner, and pretty much only focus on the last thing that made me mad, over and over, forgetting the last thing when something new made me mad.
Several of the players were Pathfinder/D&D folks who had never played a live-action game before. Inheritance is as good an intro to larp for trad players as Burning Wheel is an intro to storygame-y ideas for trad players. I think everyone was blown away, there were nothing but great performances, and even the shy players got in on the fun. My asshole paterfamilias got knifed and totally had it coming. Laying on the floor “dead” and watching the family proceed to ruin everything I’d built was top notch fun. I’m looking forward to trying on more of the roles at future events.
My Saturday afternoon game was Good Society, a Jane Austen-inspired romp featuring love triangles, romantic tension, misunderstandings, and tons of social maneuvering. For whatever reason, I’ve got tons of Regency romance in my head: the tropes, the style, the expectations. No idea where it came from. It was the game that left me with the most design-oriented feelings afterward.
Our GM had already built a couple playsets for the con. One was romantic tragedy and super-patriarchal gender roles. The one I played was romantic comedy and full-on ultraqueer, like, gender literally doesn’t matter in any way at all.
Turns out Recency romance gets weird when you take gender out of the equation. Not bad! And by no means not fun! But also: much of the tension baked into the genre has to do with the expected roles of men and women at the intersection of class and means. Finding new sources of tension to replace that was an interesting exercise. I played a low-class hedonist (who controversially wore slacks, since we decided clothing was gendered, sure, fine) and formed a marvelous love triangle with a high-class heir (whose father disapproved of our relationship and would not grant the inheritance until he found an suitable spouse, but definitely not my hedonist) and a younger society lady (who didn’t know the heir and I had secretly engaged once and desperately wanted my advice on how to land him). My character ended up feigning a terrible illness and manipulating everyone around her. Romantic comedy!
I mentioned designy thoughts. For me, the genre of Regency romance relies a lot on unspoken gestures and coded action, and the lack of ambiguity about those things to the audience because dramatic irony is a fundamental tool of the genre. When I make a glance and quickly look away, the reader is most definitely aware of it in reader-land. But in roleplaying-land, opaque intentions are murderously hard to play toward. I’m not persuaded Good Society fully addresses that design problem.
One very nice bit of design in Good Society is that everyone has one Monologue token. During play, when you absolutely positively need a straight answer out of someone, you can play your Monologue token on someone and listen to their true inner thoughts on any given topic. “How do you really feel about your little sister’s love for that stuck-up heir who is clearly too high-stationed for her?” And so on. Monologues are great! And they do achieve that meta-release of information to the players so they can triangulate and clarify all this vague, in-genre hinting and muttering. But it’s incomplete, maybe on purpose! There were a couple moments in play where someone would demand I provide straight answers about my character’s schemes and I’m like…can we play to find out? Please? That aggravated them because they had no idea how to plan out their own play, and it aggravated me because I’m trying to engineer a Big Reveal. I’m on the side of explicit intent in most roleplaying experiences, so I can totally appreciate that drive. But I’m also eager to play toward the Regency thing that all will be revealed in good time and there’s a happy ending for everyone.
There is a lot of other neat stuff in Good Society and I encourage anyone with a fondness for Austen et al to give it a look.
This was my third go at OSR-y play in as many years. Twice now I’ve come away bored, angry, confused or utterly neutral. Third time wasn’t the charm (spoilers!) but Hot Springs Island is a super interesting experience. It’s a hexcrawl game, where you poke around a map and find interesting things. I learned a lot about a whole style of OSR product/experience, of which HSI is apparently only one of many. This is not my jam but the things I liked about playing were: monster factions with motivations and needs (i.e. the default mode isn’t to just murder them), the very old-school value that only GP are XP, problems can be solved by rolling against your stats, and random tables generate most of the play content.
Hot Springs Island consists of a very large, beautiful book for the DM filled with a gazillion tables, lush (frequently porny) art, maps, lots of tools. But the killer app is that the players also get a book. Diegetically it’s notes about the island purchased by the characters, and it’s super detailed, interesting, illustrated, confusing, and fun to read through. We spent a good bit of time listening to monster descriptions and then fumbling through the book to find the notes. It was fun! And I don’t know that I’d ever run it. But I’m looking forward to returning to the island next year with these players.
New Mexicon: Sunday Sunday SUNDAY
Sunday is a one-slot day at New Mexicon, from 10 to 2 pm. I had been weighing what to run, kind of half-convinced that I’d tapped out my facilitation batteries for the duration. But the folks who show up to muster Sunday morning (rather than nursing hangovers) tend to be the ones ready to play hard.
I’ve been hauling around a printed, trimmed, ready-to-play set of materials for Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne for a couple years now. I first learned about it at Dreamation 2016 via multiple rants and swooning reports so I bought a copy but never felt like I had the right crowd to run it with.
Let me tell you about Witch.
The game is freeform tabletop, meaning you’re on your butt but doing larp-y things, i.e. talking and describing and emoting, not rolling. This is not me asserting a label! Just an explanation of what you actually do.
The premise of Witch: tRtL is that, in 1305, the Church has captured a young woman and declared her a witch, indeed the very cause of the plague that’s ravaging the land. Five men are escorting her to Lindisfarne, where she will be burned at the stake, thus cleansing the land of her satanic touch and ending the plague. Tl;dr it’s about patriarchy.
The game is comprised of characters on six slips of paper, a “map,” and a pair of cards that basically say “guilty” and “not guilty.” The witch player’s character slip has lots of special instructions and cues, but at the table it looks like she’s playing out pretty much like everyone else. Everyone else is a dude: a monk, a deserter from the Crusades, an old untested knight, the old knight’s young squire, and a shifty guide who’s probably a scumbag. The dudes all have three traits to play toward and three questions you’re trying to get at, and hopefully answer, by the time the game is over. It’s a fairly typical structure for talky freeform games, but this was published in 2012 so my sense is that it’s one of the earlier ones in that mode.
When you start, the very first thing the witch player does is decide whether the witch is guilty or not. The player puts their choice in the middle of the table, next to the “map”. I keep scare-quoting that because the map is just a visual reminder of the five-ish acts you play out en route from London to Lindisifarne. You move a little token as you play.
Everyone but the witch then has an introduction scene. Look at how relatable my dude is! We’re already looking ahead at our list of questions and trying to lay down the groundwork to answer them later.
The next three acts are steps along the journey, with a little thematic/mood tag to guide everyone. In London, heading out on your journey, you’re “hopeful.” Later, in the Hangman’s Wood, it’s “threatening.” Then you get to the Cliff Top Pass and the tone is “tumultuous.” Finally you arrive at Lindisfarne, which is “decisive.” Besides the tone guidance, there are additional instructions for everyone, the order of play flip-flips, and so on.
Basically the whole game is one long exercise in emotional manipulation. It’s very effective. What I’m saying is, if you’re not up for that manipulation, this game will not be your jam. I’m a huge sucker for that but I’m also too open to it (being a dad has made me sensitive and weepy, dealwithit.gif), so I have to be careful about when I play these and with whom.
I was a total wreck at the end of Witch.
The most difficult bit of the game is the Absolution scene. Each player, in order, is faced with a decision: read a passage describing your complicity in burning this woman, or do something else. I was second in order and I didn’t have the courage to try and save her, despite the revelation that she was my sister. I’ve been sitting with this scene for days and it’s still gnawing at me. The young squire, who had once tried to marry Eloise (the witch), breaks ranks and claws at her on the pyre. The two old knights drag him off and scold him for his outburst. Pretty much the most toxically masculine things we could do. It was a very powerful sequence.
I think the very cleverest psychology/design bit of the game is that just before each man decides to burn the witch or act, Eloise finally gets her introduction scene. Only at the end do we get to see her as human and multifaceted and relatable. And our particular witch player nailed that hard. Here’s Eloise playing with the squire’s sister. Here’s Eloise sneaking a kiss with the squire. Here’s Eloise getting beaten by her father for sneaking off with that boy. Oh my heart.
Then the witch revealed that she was in fact guilty all along.
Oh my god.
It was my most impactful session of the convention. I can’t accurately call it “fun” but I’m so grateful to have finally played it. I think it was even more impactful than my one run through Montsegur 1244, a feels-forward game in a very similar vein.
And Then Even More Gaming
Remember that ongoing campaign of The One Ring I mentioned last post? Yeah. So that happened after the final Sunday slot. It happened for six more fucking hours. The hotel was empty, one other crew of ultranerds were banging out a game of Maskselsewhere in the big vacant hotel restaurant, and there we are. Not going home. Not sleeping. What is wrong with us?
Now that we’ve had a bunch of hours of exposure to the TOR rules, I’m mostly caught up again. Unfortunately it’s all gonna go away in the months it’ll be before we play again. The big chunk we all had to digest was how to integrate a slew of new rules from Adventurer’s Companion. They’re mostly combatty things: roles you can take in a battle (which adds a cinematic layer to the fight) and new maneuvers you can undertake while fighting.
(Yes, this was an massive – and necessary! – tonal shift from my Witch beatdown earlier. In fact my immediate debrief was to sit in on a game of Warhammer 40,000: Wrath and Glory. Kill monsters! Fascism! But I digress.)
What I’ve really enjoyed about the rolling TOR campaign concept and the folks who have signed up is that, absent anyone’s iron grip on system mastery, talking through all the vague bits that are part-and-parcel to trad/trindie games never feels like a heated argument. It’s more like a bunch of deeply educated, opinionated rabbis discussing the Torah. We can go way deep down rabbit holes of design intent and procedural patterns, bounce stuff around, and nobody is invested in Winning My Way.
My band of merry ultranerds spent an hour fiddling around with the after-adventure phase in TOR, the Fellowship Phase, where the characters will chill out for the winter in Rivendell. But we got all the way through the first complete adventure of Ruins of the North and will be able to start anew with whoever we care to recruit to our table next time. Fun format, wish I’d thought of it sooner.
I’m in Albuquerque at one of my favorite indie-spirited roleplaying conventions, and reminded that I might be getting too old for this nonsense.
My tradition with this event is to road trip out from Arizona with a good friend, get here early, and start gaming early. So we played through a bit of a long, slow playthrough of The One Ring that I bring out sometimes. Nice! I’m leaning hard on the adventures in Ruins in the North, which is…fine. It’s not as good as Darkening of Mirkwood.
My first formal event I ran was The King is Dead, which after four plays continues to be my favorite con game. I have a strong aesthetic need/desire to have a mix of men and women at all my tables, but in particular TKID, so I asked for that and that was maybe weird to do at NMCon’s muster style pitch without discussing it with the organizers first. Still processing a better way to get that in the future without the weirdness.
My second game was Seco Creek Vigilance Committee, a very loose freeform about justice and vengeance in the old West. I had a super strong table of players, and great players are irreplaceable. A fine time filled with tragedy and grim satisfaction.
More tomorrow! I’ve already died once in Inheritance, the awesome Viking larp from Luke Crane.
This is a guest post from Aaron Feild, who has an amazing talent for tracking down one- or two-page one-shot storygames. Print all these out for your go-bag and never be bored at a con again!
Hello, my name is Aaron Feild (@turgidbolk1 on twitter if you must), here are some microgame one-shot suggestions. I’ve played all of them to good effect at cons, though I’d suggest test-driving them with a home group first if you get a chance.
“Microgame” means the rules are small enough to be printed out entirely, most can be played quickly enough that you can play again or play another microgame afterwards.
Most of these require just a few reference pages and some index cards. I assume you have a selection of dice. Usually there’s no prep needed, however the creative lift is offloaded to the players at run time. I’ll note exceptions or other requirements.
Collaborative sci-fi horror mystery generator that turns into “guess my explanation.” GM-less, everyone plays the same protagonist. You don’t even need to read through it first, but do. Plays in 2 hours tops. (Btw the protagonist will probably have strangely contradicting aspects, e.g. a man named Jennifer, a lower-class doctor, etc.; this is intentional, normalize it.)
Minimalist sci-fi RPG, mechanical precursor to Fall of Magic, take turns selecting and answering simple prompts. You’re on the first crewed mission to Mars, what’s that like for you? GM-less. Sadly the physical version is out of print, so get yourself 5 nice unique tokens.
PbtA where everyone plays clones created and enslaved for one purpose. Two moves – if you are designed to do it, you do it. If you aren’t designed to do it, roll, and maybe you can do it now or maybe you never can.
Scripted structure around freeform dialogue of the Avenger interrogating suspects and deciding whether to kill them. GM-less, sword and sorcery. Print out two copies so people can pass them around. Needs a deck of cards (but really only 6, you can make your own set from index cards). If you’re facilitating, do not play the Avenger, and start as the Narrator role.
Take turns making up fantastical sword and sorcery stories of your travels, but beware the judgment of your fellow players who represent the court of the capricious Silent Emperor. GM-less.
https://ufo-jay.itch.io/ghost-squadron Otherkind, Psi*Run, Ghost/Echo style dice. You died but your brain was scanned and conscripted to fight via mechs, which damages your few remaining emotional memories. Print a copy for each player. It can help to imagine a few possible military missions/alien planets ahead of time. (One rules tweak – change the Failure under Attempt to “Player says what they’ll need from another character to succeed.”)
Editor’s note: Aaron ran this for me at the Arizona Game Fair and it is super neat! I think one more round of development would be nice. I hope Jay considers doing so!
Part of a microgame collection, although I haven’t tried the others yet. Simple dice and narrative scenes plus a little meter/xp tracking, GM-less. Snakegrinder is a Sliders-style time traveling 80s glam metal band that have to fix someone else’s problems to get home! Think Bill and Ted. Actual guitar picks preferred, but cut-outable ones are included. Strong facilitation helps.
Simple scene-setting with narrative resolution, with a clever cliffhanger mechanic, and collaborative alien creation. GM-less. Expansions available but not necessary. Sci-fi/Space Fantasy ship of prison escapees on the run. Strong facilitation helps.
Probably the most well-known on this list. Simple dice pool-building, plus narrative Keys. Space / Steampunk Fantasy. Lady Blackbird hired a smuggling crew to help her escape an arranged marriage and meet her lover across the solar system, but you start off captured. Strong GMing required.
Weird phrase interpretation mechanic needing a novel or other tome. You play priest/esses interpreting gibberish divine speech from an oracle. PvP – each player has a hidden agenda, and interpretations are vetted by majority vote.
Borderline entries with slightly more rules and longer play time:
Narrative scene-setting with one player judging/reacting secretly to the others. A woman player plays the man Kagematsu, masterless knight, who happens upon a war-torn Japanese village with mainly women left, under (supernatural?) threat. Other players play the village women trying to convince Kagematsu to stay and defend them. Will he love or pity them, or both? Try to work your way up the ladder of affection – or jump ahead at your peril. Technically GM-less, but strong facilitation helps. (I have not tried it, but if you don’t dig the woman player restriction, there’s a KaGaymatsu hack: http://www.gentechegioca.it/smf/index.php?topic=9371.0)
Role-playing card game. Special cards required, which you can buy or print yourself. GM-less. Civil war betrayers try to make it back to friendly lines from their former homeland of North Carolina. Every one will die, except perhaps one. Technically competitive, but more focused on trying to work prompts in to the narrative. Eliminated players become ghosts who may larp haunting the survivors.
I got to scratch a big title off my storygame bucket list last weekend.
I came to the storygame/indiegame thing late-ish. The first game I’d call “nonconventional” (because I think terms like “storygame” and “indiegame” are invitations to pointless arguments, and “narrativist” drives me into a fury) was Burning Empiresin 2006. Loved it, hated it, it confused me, it broke my brain, I wrote many words about it. Half my players quit on me and I can’t even blame them. Made new friends, rebuilt my brain’s needs and expectations, and here we are, 13 years later.
By the time BE came out, The Forge had been doing its thing since around 2001. Quite a few “nonconventional” games came out of the early scene and I sprinted to catch up, five years in. Of the eight listed at Wikipedia, I’ve played all but My Life With Masterand Donjon.Sorcereris sort of on that list as well, in that I’ve only played it via a Barsoom-flavored sci-fantasy variation called Dictionary of Mu at a convention several years back; straight Sorcerer remains a mystery. Those games are the beginning of my storygame bucket list.
I attended the Arizona Game Fair last weekend because I had heard they’re trying to build out their roleplaying offerings. And they are, but in very conventional ways: more Savage Worldsand Shadowrunand D6and World of Darkness. So, you know, fine. It’s not (just) ballrooms of Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. But it’s still pretty conventional, because cons have bills to pay and for whatever reason, metro Phoenix continues to be a black hole when it comes to anything approaching a storygaming community. The con had nothing to offer me roleplaying-wise beyond tables and air conditioning, but my buddy Aaron Feild was attending. He has an amazing talent for finding and rolling out what he calls “microgames.” That is, complete RPGs, storygame-style, that usually take up just a page or two and run great in a one-shot format.
The game I got to scratch off was Swords Without Masterby Epidiah Rachavol , which bills itself as a swords-and-sorcery game. It’s literally a couple pages of player-facing material. As of right now, it’s available only as a 30ish page magazine article for $4, are you kidding me with this. It’s just barely “a game” at all, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t count as one for that ballroom full of conventional convention players. But it does what it does very well.
The basic structure goes like this: everyone looks at inspirational art, called “eidolons,” to come up with a little seed of a character concept. Everyone is supposed to default to a Conan-esque setting filled with characters who have no master (hence the title): peasants serve the nobles, nobles serve a monarch, the monarch serves the peasants and nobles, but the characters are masterless rogues, free to do whatever they feel like. Then you write a name on an index card, doodle down a couple distinctive nouns that are hands-off for everyone else at the table (say, a distinctive sword, or an implacable foe, or a secret palace), as well as a couple other descriptors. That’s it. That’s your character.
Honestly, that first bit is the only thing about the game that structurally says “swords and sorcery” to me, the rootless wanderers at liberty to find trouble. Once you get past that bit? SWM is a set of tone management and pacing facilitation tools. It’s a storyboarding metagame. And hooboy is it a treat to play.
Mechanically, there are very few ideas but they’re very nifty. The basic game offers three kinds of phases: discovery (add to the world), rogue’s (show off your character being awesome), and perilous (show how your rogue gets out of trouble). Each phase plays out in a different-but-similar way, with players rolling to see if their contribution will be “jovial” or “glum.” And those terms are ultra-loose, there only to nudge the players toward divergent tones for their rogues.
There is a GM-ish role, called the Overplayer, who’s responsible mostly for tone management and starting phases. The phases play out until someone hands the dice back to the Overplayer, who is then responsible for moving folks to another phase.
In play, the game feels a lot like you’re scripting out a show in terms of where you feel the investment: as an author, I thought, more than as the rogue. There’s no success or failure, not really. The characters move through their stories, occasionally facing setbacks but never really failing as one might in a conventional RPG. That said, it’s also a system (or methodology or whatever else you want to call it) that you can get better at. I’d love to take a second shot at the game with players who are comfortable with their options and have a firm grasp of the game’s patterns.
I’ve only experienced SWM as a con one-shot, but there’s a robust campaign mode as well as several options for advanced play. Would it be enough to bring together players for weeks on end? Certainly. Months? Depends on the players.
The Rest of the Bucket List
My storygaming education is pretty complete, but I’m always on the lookout at conventions for well-run tables of (in no particular order):
The greatest gaming lab ever created is the Las Vegas casino industry. That lab’s most significant finding is that humans crave two things in games: pattern completion and intermittent rewards. I’ve been thinking lately about how my favorite games leverage both of those monkey-level impulses. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how the very best games provide many different ways to achieve both.
Probably my favorite-favorite bit of running a PbtA style game is the little biochemical hit (dopamine? serotonin?) my brain gets at the intersection of pattern completion and intermittent reward. Many, many PbtA games set up a few different kinds of incomplete patterns just on the GMing side: rules that fire when a trope is triggered, genre-appropriate GM moves, fronts you’ve created yourself just waiting to tick down. I think those things all feed into my feeling that PbtA style games are the apex tabletop technology for genre emulation games, which is both a strength and a broadly unacknowledged/unrecognized shortcoming.
The bit where that pattern completion comes full circle for me and delivers the Vegas-style hit is the intermittent reward of a player’s missed roll. Whenever I think to myself, man, this sequence was just magical!, it’s those two things coming together, from different angles, and making the outcome feel both organic and fated.
In our ongoing Urban Shadowsgame, a couple sessions ago ended with a horrific running gun battle in downtown Miami, as a player manipulated a caravan of cartel thugs into a showdown with the city’s SWAT team. The lead-up barely matters: a cool let it out move here, a cashed-in debt there, two snowballs colliding, boom a hail of bullets and blood. Dead cartel goons and a major NPC that had been a thorn in everyone’s side, done and done. Yay!
Of course this being Urban Shadows, this isn’t necessarily the end. My prep between sessions led me to doodle down a new threat: what if that NPC is now a ghost? OOOH. I did up a quick clock to spool out what his vengeance from beyond the grave might look like. Then I filed it away.
The following session played out in the aftermath of this godawful event. Huge media coverage, all the mortals of the city are up in arms at this audacious violence, something must be done, good good, yes. My supernatural scumbags are back to living their shitty lives in the shadows. Worst off is the Vamp, who got caught in that hail of bullets and ended up with a permanent scar (lost a stat rather than straight-up dying). He’s prowling the streets in search of a meal, fucks up a simple feeding, and resorts to seeking out an NPC to square away a more-certain victim. He cashes in a debt with that NPC and persuades him to point out his least-valued goon. The Vamp has irresistible, which turns misses into soft hits with the addition that you “attract the attention of a rival or an enemy.” Because he’s been on the fail-train all night long, he misses and gets that. I file away the “attract the attention…” bit for later in the scene. Because I can feel the first tickles of pattern completion at the back of my brain. Something buried in my prep.
So there’s this great procedural pattern on the Vamp’s playbook that gets invoked every time we see feeding on-screen. It’s actually a two-parter. First, there’s the eternal hunger move, which is terrific: unless you roll a 10+, shit always goes sideways when you feed. Maybe the Vamp won’t care! Like, your victim might die unless you go out of your way to keep them alive. The other half of this is the Vamp’s corruption move, which ticks a Corruption every time you feed on an unwilling victim. Combined with the Vamp’s various incentives to prey on need, the whole playbook is a really unpleasant meditation on consent.
Yeah, well. The Vamp just straight misses eternal hunger. This is one of the few moves with some specificity around missing: “on a miss, something goes terribly wrong.” That’s different than baseline missing! I’ve been hammering home with my players that missing usually just means the GM gets to make a move. So misses that specify badness? That’s special.
I swing back to that “attention of a rival or enemy” bit. I close the loop on my prep and, badabing, his victim has been possessed by that godawful cartel NPC everyone thought was dead. Pattern: completed. And I chose that moment to complete it because I got the intermittent reward of a player’s miss. If someone was running an MRI on me at that moment, I’d be lit up just like I’d pulled three cherries on a slot machine.
Straight PbtA doctrine gives the GM lots of leeway for when and how to make moves. It looks constrained and formalistic but the “golden opportunity” and “when they expect you to say something” codicils makes these game act like any other conventional RPG. But there’s that extra psychic juice built into the intermittency of missed rolls, I think. It’s like permission to make a harder move. It’s a miss that everyone’s already acculturated to receive as a failure even after repeatedly training players otherwise. I know I definitely shrug and blame the dice for bad shit, even thought I could have inflicted that bad shit all along.
The Big Picture
I think where games work or don’t work for me is in how much they push the patterns/rewards buttons. Burning Wheel is all about both of those things: BITs and tests both set up patterns just waiting to be completed; rolling dice is the obvious intermittent reward, but it gains extra oomph both from gambling away your artha and in feeding back into the advancement cycle (itself yet another pattern to complete).
There are lots of procedural patterns to complete in Forbidden Lands but it’s missing a meaningful holding environment, which is any game’s primo A-1 pattern. There weren’t enough other patterns to complete (cool ability combos earned via advancement being the big D&D-style pattern) to hold anyone’s interest. Pushing, one of the Mutant engine’s killer apps, is a terrific intermittent reward though. Maybe it was that the stakes were too low because our particular group likes patterns in the fiction more than patterns on the character sheet.
Or sometimes we just can’t sense any patterns at all. The playbook moves in The Veil are designed to be open to many fictional interpretations, for example. But they are so devoid of guidance that we couldn’t complete any patterns with them. The moves didn’t “feel like” scenes from the movies or books or comics we were carrying around in our heads. But I know these games have their fans, which tells me they’re bringing their own patterns to those moves better than we could. Can’t win ’em all.
None of this is intended as scaffolding for some grand theory on game play or design. I do find it helpful in my own head, though, to spot the patterns my brain craves, to spot the patterns my players are craving (and are oblivious to), and to pay attention to the intermittent rewards being generated by the game and the vibe that comes with them. The intermittent rewards in a freeform game like Montsegur 1244, for example, arise from the inputs thrown your way by the other players, and those carry just as much psychic juice as rolling snake-eyes or a natural 20. And some players absolutely cannot perceive patterns in the fiction. Or in the rules. Or at the table, where we are all repeating patterns for comfort or pleasure: not just who handles what functions, but all the other rituals we enact to draw the magic circle around the table.
Several years ago, I wrote an essay about introducing the intensity of one-shot play to your ongoing home campaign/season/whatever. It’s a good essay, I still stand behind it, but my good intentions are coming back to bite me in the ass in our new Urban Shadows campaign.
A couple bits, for context:
First, I’m still coming off running Forbidden Lands, Fria Ligan’s Mutant-based fantasy game. I was really in no mood to run either a prep-intensive game or their baked-in campaign, so I was happy to lean into the various random tables and procedures to discover the map alongside the players. There’s no real narrative continuity in a game like Forbidden Lands, and campaign-type continuity (where on the map are you? What NPCs have you cheesed off? Have you run into this encounter entry before?) takes much less to think through.
Second, this is the middle of my convention season. I went to Dreamation a few weeks back, the Arizona Game Fair is coming up in a few weeks, and the week after that is NewMexiCon. And that means running lots of 4-hour con slots. New players, new rules every time (because I’m a glutton, don’t @ me as the kids say), never look in the rear view mirror.
These things have left me poorly equipped for games that are centered on their stooooories. This month at least.
The biggest problem with the one-shot aesthetic in an ongoing storygame is that my instinct to juice up the interactions means I’m not really thinking through causes or effects that much. I’m drawn to what’s hot with alarming frequency. That means lots of ex post facto rationalizing during the intervening week.
This is just made worse by the tendency I’ve found in PbtA games toward hotness. Moves snowball, and if you don’t watch yourself things will continue snowballing because snowballing generally leads to hotness: chaos, ever-rising stakes, a breathlessness to play as I egg the players on to react more and respond less.
I think I also live in … fear, maybe? If not fear, then grim resignation: we don’t run games for much longer than 10 or so sessions. Realistically? More like 5 or 6, although my run times have been slowly stretching out the past year or so. So I want to escalate to the “good stuff.” But that means I’m escalating so fast, sometimes, that I don’t have a lot of ceiling. To wit:
Last week was our first full-length (which here means 3+ hours) session. Week before was picking playbooks and doing Session Zero stuff: following around our characters, feeling out the setting, exploring the narrative terrain. I did for-real prep for the game, doodling up Threats and Storms (ie Fronts, in Apocalypse World-speak), which revealed themselves to be really badly constructed once gameplay started. But I had a bunch of levers I wanted to press on and it was better than nothing.
That meant the Tainted’s dark patron tasked her with collecting the soul of a cartel boss’ pregnant wife. Why? Who knows? It was high stakes and I don’t want to waste time on establishing shots. That was a mistake, drawn entirely from leaning into my one-shot instincts. Now that it’s done (for content warning reasons I won’t get into details but it was gruesome), I really need to nail down the dark patron’s for-real goals. Which need to be more/better than “to freak out the Tainted’s player because I’ve only got four hours and this one stuffy room and I’m never gonna see this player again.”
That also meant thinking through why, exactly, did this important NPC wizard grab an ancient valuable bible the Scholar had been chasing down throughout the session. In the moment it felt like a hot choice: the wizard is obviously planning something in the setting, and he’s one of the two main Power-faction personalities, and Power’s theme is plans-within-plans so, you know, totally easy to rationalize in the moment. I think there’s even a Faction move that fits. This one’s not so hard but by just throwing intuitive shit out there, I’m kind of making planning a little harder on myself.
Oh and then the poor Vamp! The player did a marvelous job of painting his own character into a corner, pitting both the cartel and the entire fae community against his plans (which will work great to build the Vamp’s web down the road), but hey: one-shot escalation, baby. Put it all on the table. Moves snowballed and snowballed until the Vamp found himself cornered by scads of heavily armed cartel Bad Men and ended up rolling a miss at exactly the wrong time. I’m pretty sure “describe the mythology of your playbook as you go” doesn’t include “oh and vamps are totally immune to bullets,” so he ended up having to take a Scar to live another day. Hot but…too soon? Don’t know! I’m looking forward to seeing how he drinks his way back to health now.
So, some takeaways heading into tonight’s session:
“Be true to your prep” is well and good unless your prep is shit, then, well: get better at prep. I’m still shaking the cobwebs off.
Campaign-scale intuition frequently leads me toward being too conservative with my assets, but my one-shot intuition is to treat my NPCs like stolen cars that are also on fire and filled with sharks, and I want to rid myself of them fast fast fast.
For good or ill, not thinking through hot choices paints me into corners. Sometimes that’s good! I like the creative pressure. And sometimes it means pushing ahead as fast as possible and hoping nobody digs too deep into these weird plot holes I’ve left behind. This is probably how the Lost writers felt most of the time.
My buddy Jahmal Brown is running his first ever Kickstarter as part of their Zine Quest promotion, an adventure/campaign/culture booklet for Burning Wheel (and Dungeon World, via stretch goal by Johnstone Metzger) called By Aecer’s Light! It’s a setting, a cultural writeup, and a campaign frame all in one. The cool angle to the whole thing, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is that it’s about marginalized fantasy races. Yes: Roden (rat people), Wolfen (you can guess), Rakshashi. No: mainstream elves, humans, dwarves, fuck those guys. He says “outsider,” not “marginalized,” but BAL! is right there in the same lane as the X-Men.
I’ve watched Mad Jay run this countless times in his role as Burning Wheel ambassador (an informal role taken on by him and him alone, he’s a superfan like me) at conventions all over the country. It’s a better self-contained romp through Burning Wheel and its various systems than any of the adventures you get in the Codex.
I’m sure plenty of folks are wondering why any self-respecting indie gamer should still bother with Burning Wheel, yeah? It’s pretty long in the tooth. For my money, though, BW is still best-in-class for a particular kind of adventure fiction, and it’s still a powerful model for play shaped by incentives. It’s the most important indie game I’ve ever played (by a pretty big margin), and I played a lot of them.
Anyway! Do yourself a favor and back this cool ass zine. You can even plug it into your Dungeon World game if you’re not persuaded to take on the big spicy meatball that is Burning Wheel.
I swear, there’s something about running the Indie Game Reading Club Slack channel that consumes whatever bandwidth I used to have to make longer posts. By the way: if you’re riding out the GPlus diaspora along with the rest of us, drop me a line if you want an invitation to the Slack. If we’ve never talked, I’ll want to know a little more about you. But it’s a busy, vibrant place and I’m very happy it’s there.
The past couple months have provoked a broad recalibration of my gaming brain. We’ve changed games, I’ve had to relearn to enjoy prep, and I’m working out how to balance the blog, the Slack, con play, thinking about small upcoming Kickstarter projects of my own and, well, pretty much every aspect of my relationship with the hobby I’ve been doing for nearly 40 years.
We decided to stop playing Forbidden Landsa few weeks back, to very little fanfare. The game is fun for what it is — you know, crawling around a map discovering the world, stealing shit, killing scary things, occasionally running away from too-scary things. But we were all, I think, generally dissatisfied with that mode of play. I think it was a good experience, though, both to deliberately play an us-against-the-world game and to remind ourselves that we are all more on-board with melodrama and emotional through-lines and, you know, just great stories about great characters. And Forbidden Lands isn’t specifically about those things.
If Forbidden Lands has a fatal flaw for us, I think it’s baked into the very premise. There’s no built-in consideration at all as to why these weird, diverse characters are wandering around the world. I mean other than D&D reasons: to get rich and “have adventures.” Obviously this is more than adequate reasoning for 90% of the roleplaying world, right? “Have adventures” is great! But gosh, we just don’t look at our time spent playing RPGs through that lens at all. It’s weird and interesting to remember that we’re the minority, that the players who share our tastes are pretty much a rounding error. If you’re reading this, that’s probably you as well.
Looking out across the vast expanse of RPG-oriented Discord servers that have sprouted up, it’s a small, lonely place to be. And the imminent closure of Google Plus is about to make it a lot smaller and lonelier.
I thought going to Dreamation this year would have reminded me that it’s less lonely than I think. It did not do that for me. It was so great to see so many friends again, to make new friends, to generally bask in one of the few indie-friendly events in gaming convention-land. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how same-y the games feel to me now. Or how I can run a really great session but feel no real accomplishment because all my sessions are generally pretty darned good-to-great. Or that I’m probably 5 to 8 years behind the leading edge of play and design, that smarter, younger folks have already been where I’m at, and I’ll always be 5 to 8 years behind. I’m kind of a prisoner of my tastes, and of my relatively conservative approach to introducing new play ideas to my home group. This was also the first year I had folks drop from my events (one was a medical emergency, totally understandable, they made the right choice; the other was just a couple folks who ghosted because they found something…better?), and that put me on my back foot a bit. Some games just run better with more inputs, and those two games in particular (Space Wurm vs Moonicornand The King is Dead) were the two most susceptible to that.
It was weird to spend more time thinking I’d rather be sleeping in my own bed, or strongly considering just not playing some sessions, than living in the moment of the convention and enjoying myself. Is that burnout? I don’t know. I didn’t think so, but maybe. Maybe. It has everything to do with my head and nothing to do with the event, which is lovely, beautifully run, and I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to attend it or something like it (ie BigBadCon in Oakland, NewMexicon in Albuquerque, Forge Midwest in Madison, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting).
I’m thinking strongly about my relationship with convention play going forward. Another recalibration.
Here at home, we started a season of Urban Shadows. It’ll be my third campaign of it, which is pretty epic because I literally run nothing more than once or twice. I learned a lot from my first couple runs, and it’s all showing up at the table for this run. But it’s also the first long-form game I’ve run in a while (well, since Legacylast year, and Scum and Villainybefore that), and between the ultra-prepless play of Forbidden Lands and brining myself in 4-hour con slots, I’d kind of lost my taste for indie-style prep.
I’m going to share a funny story about my dumb brain. It’s been on my mind because it happened at the last Dreamation I went to, in 2016.
Urban Shadows had just come out, maybe in 2015 but it was still pretty new. I had stumbled into Andrew Medeiros, the game’s co-designer, in a hallway and wanted to chat about the game. At some point — and honestly, I don’t even remember the context leading up to this bit — he said something along the lines of “oh yeah, Fronts. I don’t ever use them but we needed rules so I did something up.” My takeaway from that was well shit, if the designer doesn’t even use them then I don’t need to either. And for a couple years going forward, I didn’t bother with prepping for any PbtA game I ran. Mostly that was fine because I mostly just ran one-shots at cons of all the big hits (Apocalypse World, Sagas of the Icelanders, Night Witches,and Urban Shadows itself; can’t think of any others I’d have put on the table).
I think I took Front/Threat prep seriously the second time I ran an Apocalypse World season. Second Edition had come out and it had revised ideas about how to prep, and this time I decided to follow them really precisely. I gotta say, it made my game better in the long run. And I learned a lot about how the PbtA prep philosophy ties into the principles and even the GM moves. You can’t be “true to your prep” when you haven’t done prep. It’s a cop-out and I can 100% feel it at the table.
There are moments in the game we’re playing now where I cringe, in a good way, at the prep I’ve done. Even though I set up the threat clocks myself and I know exactly what they say, when we play to find out I’m also finding out what’s triggering them and what the fallout is, and it’s great. I realized I was robbing myself of those good cringes by just winging it.
I suspect more than one PbtA game out there was designed without really deeply considering the prep element. I look askance at that now. But if they haven’t done a whole lot to reinvent the idea I plow through anyway. Urban Shadows, for example, pulled almost everything from Apocalypse World whole-cloth, adding just a couple gestures (multiple threats surrounding a “storm,” which is pretty much just a Front) and mixing up the “threat types” to match the genre.
Our current game is going pretty well! Everyone instantly settled into the familiar move sets and knew early on what the vibe would be. They’re engaging with the game’s Debt economy much more than the first time I ran it with this crowd, to the point where they’ve already sussed out which playbooks give away Debts and which playbooks attract them. They’re playing a Tainted (demon servant of a “dark patron,” very direct and jobs-oriented), a Vamp (ultra-political and, as it turns out, not an unkillable supernatural superhero like you might play in a White Wolf game…as the players discovered last night), and a Scholar (a new mortal playbook from the Dark Streets supplement). It’s a good combo, the situation map is solid, and most important from my end of the table: I’ve been able to bake their playbook stuff into my prep in a way I know I wouldn’t be able to pull off on the fly if I was trying to be prepless about it.
So: lots of rambling, sorry it ran long, but I’ve had a month of stuff built up! Hope your games are going well, whatever you’re playing and however you’re playing them.