Reviewing the shelves
The One Ring

So we wrap up Motobushido, right? And the players are curious to hear what else I want to run. Right now my play list is:

* Cartel
* The One Ring
* The Clay That Woke

So I pull the TOR books off the shelf. I have the core book, Rivendell, Darkening of Mirkwood and Tales from the Wilderlands. Everything is beautifully produced of course. 

I open up the TOR books and start showing off the maps — there’s a neat metagame element to moving your company of fellows around! And we talk about the various cultures you can play! And I talk about the valor/will split when you meet someone new. All these little flourishes and gestures I’ve been picking up the past few months.

“So like…what do you actually do?” someone asks.

I stop. “Well I’d probably just run stuff from Tales. Here are some thumbnails. Let’s see…this one, you help some dude out of the forest. Here’s another one…something about a hobbit stew…hm.”

They’re staring at me. Eyebrows are going up. I start panicking, which means I start improvising. 

“Uh um well, I’m the first to confess that honestly I don’t know much about the Lord of the Rings stuff. So I’m relying on the system to barf up Tolkien for me. And so I guess you…walk around doing Tolkieny things?”

More staring. Then someone asks, “So is there a premise?”

Me: “Uh…it happens between The Hobbit and LOTR. There’s still a Shadow, there are still bad guys, but it’s not all-out war yet. Just spooky stuff.”

Them: “Are you standing up to the Shadow?”

Me: “I…think mostly you’re avoiding it. There’s lots of stuff about running away.”

Eyebrows are now going the opposite direction. Many furrowed brows.

Me: “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO WITH THIS GAME.” 

So The One Ring got shelved and the mean boys laughed at me for buying four books of a game they all know full well is not in my wheelhouse. :-/

Motobushido
Final Session

Decided tonight that I’d gotten what I wanted out of Motobushido. The tl;dr consensus from the table is that it’s extremely stylish, they loooove the card game, but the rest of the game is riddled with holes. I tend to agree.

The session itself was pretty decent: after narrowly escaping death after the big bike-on-bike duel last session, the Taicho is very nearly out of action and a power vacuum forms. He’s out of Ki so he requests a flashback. Kind of hard to run, and I have no idea how to assess whether fate or will drove a character through the flashback (you need to know this to determine how much Ki is recovered). Creatively I really like the flashback mechanism; as a practical matter I kind of wish there wasn’t any mechanical resolution inside it at all — after all, nobody can die since we know who’s alive right now. It felt constraining and artificial to resolve pointless little stakes-less conflicts. I get that a flashback also cycles the player deck and pulls Omens up faster; I honestly might just flip three cards and call it good.

Back in the current game, the den mother tries to step into the power vacuum left by the languishing taicho; she’s shut down by the enforcer. The little love triangle between those three characters is palpable and excellent. She doesn’t start a fight, but begins conniving to see the enforcer punished. 

Driven by his birth sign and pack triggers, the enforcer privately meets with the convalescing Taicho, complaining about the den mother’s meddling and demanding he make an example of her. It’s a duel! And the Taicho ends up strangling his own enforcer to death, which is delightful. When the game’s triggers are driving the PCs into each others’ faces, the game works best. 

Some of the tension in running the game I felt was from fitting every interpersonal conflict to the dueling system. There are areas of discretion and mandated right-now creativity that felt like a drag to figure out: what does a duel for blood versus a duel for influence look like? What does the Final Blow step of an Influence duel look like? Can I influence like…your whole gang or just you? What are suitable stakes? How do you start a duel for Honor, anyway? Makes no sense to me.

Some of that is sussing out best practices; I totally get that. Like…learning how to write a good, punchy Deed is about on-par with writing a good, punchy Burning Wheel Belief: it’s not as easy as it looks! I suspect the game would work fairly well with a group committed to fumbling through and figuring things out.

I think Motobushido has a lot going for it. We played through the end of the Willow Ridge scenario and I feel like it wouldn’t have been hard to set up another scenario. But I felt skeptical that the game would really stand up to long-term play. I suppose we’d eventually get a handle on the logical/creative holes, figure out our own table’s best practices. They were frustrating enough to me that I’m ready to play something more airtight.

The fiction, once we got around the rules, was good. Good story, good tension, nice little triangles. The table full of faction cards works quite well, a nice kind of ad-hoc relationship map for everyone to keep an eye on. If I had enormous time and resources I’d love to make them more visual: images of the bike gang for that faction, the spooky spirit woman from the springs, the terrifying brute of a man running the enemy gang. The game is begging for strong visuals.

Taking a week off the Indie Game Reading Club. In two weeks: Cartel!

Motobushido 
Samurai Tuesdays

Second session of the Willow Ridge scenario is in the bag. 

The game’s still pretty fun. Fussy as hell and boy do I hope I get more of it in my head soon. Many little details I would dearly love to get squared away so I never have to look them up again. The actual flow of the dueling, though, is pretty solid now and I gotta say, I really dig the tension and the interplay.

Tonight’s game was a continuation of last session’s setup: the gang is now in town, they’re looking for the Taicho’s ex-wife who has run off to be with this other gang and has stolen an important gang relic. They hang with the tea house owner and his wife, the scout chases the flirty pretty daughter around the county until they end up visiting a magical hot spring (and had an honestly romantic scene there, with the weird old sad spring spirit facilitating the hookup), and the enforcer heads into town to knock heads for supplies.

Well, the head-knocking turns out pretty ugly: doing so makes a Wave (i.e. a GM hard move kind of event), which brings the wrath of the townsfolk down on the enforcer and his cohort. It’s an ugly bloodbath, very nasty, lots of interesting favor and disfavor stacking up on the various involved factions (NPCs and groups). I like that mechanism too — you don’t often see a good model for split loyalties and mixed emotions, and this system provides for that.

The evening ended with a righteous and I think very archetypal bike duel out front of the old hotel where the antagonist gang is holed up. Lots of faction cards invested from both sides meant a really elaborate high-stakes duel, with the heads of the two gangs facing one another on bikes. I achieved a mutual death outcome but the bastard had a one-shot ability called Cheat Death lined up. So he lost but is badly wounded, and the other gang’s boss ended up dead under his wheels.

The one thing I’m noticing is very, very common is that the players aren’t using their abilities because there’s no central repository for the various text-heavy bits the characters accumulate. The two-sided character sheet I think hurts that as well, since all the text is on one side but the values are on the other. Everyone gets how the card game works and they’re ready and anxious to jump in and start throwing cards. But careful management of those abilities and their Ki reserve is where the game’s really at! But nobody’s paying attention to those yet. Nor are they hooked into their birth sign stuff — their Ki trigger and their Lesson trigger. That stuff should be driving play and it hasn’t quite gotten traction yet.

A couple of the characters did invoke their Lesson Triggers after the fact. When they use the system it produces interesting results. Sitting there thinking and talking about whether a character actually learned that “my sins will always come back to haunt the Pack” is an interesting exercise. 

I wanted to wrap up this scenario and move on to our own thing, but some wheedling and whinging from the Enforcer’s player got me to hold off for one more session — he has a couple things that punish him if he doesn’t achieve them in this scenario, so I’m bowing to his frustration with not really understanding this stuff and hooking into the behavior-mandating rules. Give me one more chance to start a fight with another pack member!

Next up, after this scenario ends, I want to see what scenario design looks/feels like. I had a very hard time tracking the various elements at work in the Willow Ridge demo scenario — there are more locations and NPCs than I was able to really internalize. It’d be easy as pie to run again but the first time through I missed some stuff. Nothing important! Just kind of rough delivery.

Things RPGs Get Wrong
Top Three

I’ve been thinking about this thread Larry Spiel started a couple days ago. It was about gear rules in RPGs. I don’t have a problem with gear per se except when it’s boring, but it did get me thinking about the top three things I don’t think any RPG has ever modeled or expressed or whatever to my satisfaction. Which may mean I just haven’t seen them! So tell me where to look for example of games that get these right.

Parenthood

Oh lordy, becoming a parent made it obvious that this is one of the Great Huge Topics that RPGs just haven’t gotten right. So, sure, pretty common to see “they kidnapped/murdered your child! Revenge!” Whatever. But the ongoing other stuff, as far as I can tell, is utterly unaddressed. 

I think it’s easy to express parenting-specific insights in the fiction of nearly any game with other parents. But on an intentional procedural level? Or as a core theme of a game? Never seen it done.

Travel

I’m really hoping Ryuutama changes this. I have the PDF but I haven’t read it yet (damn you Urban Shadows, let go of my eyeballs). But honestly, as someone who has traveled an awful lot, it is constantly dismaying to see how it’s treated in gaming. The One Ring has some interesting ideas that I’d love to try out: not just the map game and navigating your way across the countryside, but also in how you interact with strangers.

What I’ve found is really missing is the transformative power of travel. How seeing the world changes people. I don’t mean earning XPs, either. I mean more in the Mark Twain way: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Charisma

Was there ever a more badly treated subject in gaming? I think this reflects general social awkwardness that many gamers, I think, struggle with. So they treat Charisma as a superpower and/or a dump stat and/or something it isn’t, i.e. hotness. Hurr hurr look at that body, that’s what CHA 18 looks like yo.

Terrible. Embarrassing. The broader category of emotional intelligence (yes, it’s an imperfect term) just hasn’t been handled right in any game I’ve ever seen. I’d go so far as to say that the traditional approach has been downright bad for learning how actual people actually work.

My actual list is a lot longer but those are the topics that spring to mind hardest and fastest.

What topics do you think have been most mistreated in gaming?

Appropriation and History
Boardgames vs RPGs

I think some folks who follow the IGRC do not follow my board games community, which is 100% fine but what they haven’t seen is that I’ve been goobering on about the epic rerelease of Age of Empires III as Empires: Age of Discovery.

The premise is quite straightforward: you’re playing a European nation intent in exploiting the New World. Most victory points wins the game at the end of eight rounds. Easy enough.

But I couldn’t help noticing that I was getting sort of…I don’t know. Squirmy. Uncomfortable. I’ve been digging deeeep in my research of my hinted-at game about the settlement of the American West so I’m eyeballs-deep into this history, so I’m sure that has a lot to do with where I’m at these days.

So I’m looking through the rules — I’ve never played AoEIII — and I noticed that there’s this mechanism. You basically are exploring the New World, and you’re doing it with soldiers (because that’s what Europeans did) and when you reach an undiscovered place, your soldiers need to defeat the local population. And the more soldiers you bring, the more $$$ you get when you plunder the place. These aren’t perverse incentives (in the economics sense), they’re just plain old incentives: show up, tear the shit out of the place, head home with loot and let the pacifying begin.

I mean the whole game is totally unapologetic about colonialism. This is it! This is what you’re doing so suck it up. Show up, kill the locals, take their shit, get to civilizing.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen much talk around boardgames as it relates to the subjects of conquest, colonialism, and reducing the role of natives in these games to a) obstacles or b) exploitable resources. No desire, either among players nor designers, to really interrogate what colonialism is about (Archipelago being a hugely notable exception). It’s just not problematic. Nobody cares.

Meanwhile, this stuff can loom large in RPG-land and especially in small press RPG-land. Dog Eat Dog is probably at the front end of taking on imperialism head-on. But there’s been plenty of talk about recognizing traditional fantasy as coded racism, about the structure of traditional play (kill and loot) supporting fundamentally imperialistic values. I don’t know that many folks are quitting gaming because of this, but consciousness is elevated in a way that it doesn’t seem to be in boardgames. 

Should it be? I don’t know. I just thought it was funny and interesting when I looked at a Discovery chit, saw this generic round shield (https://img0.etsystatic.com/000/0/6379533/il_fullxfull.255864586.jpg), saw that the native peoples exist only as a speedbump toward the inevitable conquest, and I … kind of gritted my teeth.

Urban Shadows
PbtA talk
Elegance v Complexity FIGHT

So I’m about halfway through my deep read of Urban Shadows. It is a masterclass in mechanically elaborate PbtA design.

It eyeballs like it’s also good, as in functional, evocative, accomplishes its design goals. What it isn’t, is elegant.

I’m currently playing another inelegant, mechanically complex game (Motobushido). It also is functional and evocative and accomplishes its design goals. But things don’t fit together so smoothly. The learning curve is long. But it gives you a lot to hold on to, widgets to play with, buttons to push.

I dunno. Elegant design — to my mind, meaning it gets the most possible accomplished in the fewest mechanical steps — is intimidating as a creative goal. Emergent complexity out of a simple start, jeez, that’s great right? I know, as a nacent maybe-designer, it’s so intimidating that sometimes I just say fuck it, here’s another layer, perfect is the enemy of good. 

Probably most of the games I play are inelegant and mechanically complex. That’s pretty traditional design, right? I mean, lots of small press games are far more elegant than their hardcore trad predecessors, certainly. A tight focus helps achieve that.

So anyway Urban Shadows. I’m totally okay with how mechanically elaborate it is! The game feels sprawling and epic, like it can go pretty much anywhere you want to take it inside the genre. It’s like…as far from Sagas of the Icelanders as I’ve gotten within the PbtA universe. I would also, personally, characterize SotI as “elegant.”

I know I’m gonna start a lengthy bullshit argument about the meaning of the word “elegant,” and I totally do not intend that. I’m not saying this is how it is, nor am I making a case for this is how it should be. Game design can have many goals, and some of those goals may require a bit of inelegance.