Man this looks good. A poor fit for the IGRC collection but what the hell, it’s based on the best stuff that ever came out of Games Workshop. I wonder if they’ll do one for Necromunda as well?

Blood Red Sands

So I just came across this in the “what you need to play” section:

Total dice needed for a full game of five players: 25d10, 25d8, 25d6, and 25d4 for a total of 100 dice.

I’m sure the fake die-rolling noise emanating out of my phone’s Edge of the Empire die-rolling app will feel and sound just as satisfying.

Random Sleep Deprived Thoughts

* What all are y’all hyped to play these days in small press-land? My Urban Shadows game is on extended hold (one of my players is unavailable and I really don’t want to proceed without him) so my next-play list so far looks like Fall of Magic, Blades in the Dark, Ryuutama and maybe Blood Red Sands by Ralph Mazza. I’m reading BRS for the first time and it’s interesting! More on it later.

* I’ve been thinking about OSR games a little lately, and a recent thread by Marshall Miller brought two resources to my attention: Brent Newhall’s OSR Handbook and another one called Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, which is a freebie on Lulu. I downloaded the Quick Primer and it’s kind of the nail in the coffin for me on OSR. There is literally nothing I’ve read out there — I haven’t read Brent’s thing yet! — that isn’t rife with ideological posturing. The Quick Primer is no exception: while it tries really hard to be even-handed and objective, the core problem is that every time the writer refers to “modern games” he’s referring to the most recent edition of D&D. It’s a completely unexploded perspective on where roleplaying is these days, so everything once again is couched in a strong us-vs-them reactionary way. So I think I’ll look at Brent’s next (it’s at RPGNow for $7 or something) and cross my fingers, but I think it’s gonna be just impossible to research the topic without the eye-rolling attached ideology.

* I was kind of skeered about starting up an RPG run with just two players, but as Jason Morningstar pointed out to me, that’s actually a pretty luxurious setup for certain kinds of games. I think it’s suboptimal in some ways, because the character interplay is pretty narrow, but the players get so much development and screen time. I think Blades in the Dark is gonna be juuuust fine with two. Ryuutama as well I think/hope.

* So I have this infrequent family RPG night I’ve put on a few times, right? My wife, my brother, his daughter and his girlfriend. It’s nice! Because two of them are noobs (wife and niece) and two are noobs to modern small-press game design (brother and his gf). We ran a couple sessions of Firefly, but lordy they could not get their hands around the widgets. I’ve always felt a little trapped talking about Firefly because I have both Cam Banks and Mark Diaz Truman in my world, and I think I’ll continue to be circumspect about this iteration of Cortex Plus except for this: I’m super interested in hearing what folks think is the very best iteration of Cortex Plus. Marvel? Smallville? I’m looking for like…the Platonic ideal of what Cortex Plus can accomplish, here. I feel like Firefly is not that ideal. 

* Hey so anyway, that family game night. Thinking I’ll put them through an evening of Urban Shadows. Super accessible theme (esp for a one-shot, which I have to assume it may be), a little mechanically fussy, especially for my niece, but I think the game runs well even when the players aren’t carefully managing resources and economies. Maybe even better! I’ve had some Urban Shadow shenanigans crop up with my supersmart play-optimizing regulars and they don’t break the game, but they push the game riiiight to the edge of it. It can be dizzying dealing with interlocking intimacy moves, corruption, and debts.

* I made the mistake of joining the Powered by the Apocalypse Community recently. There’s a ton of talk in there about how to do a PbtA western (Keith Stetson is working on one, but there are several other threads talking about it) and it makes me so itchy. I get itchy because I know they’re talking “western” in terms of literature and film. And my New American West history studies fire off a million alarms because western literature is almost completely unrelated to the actual history of the American West. I’m also working on a super-sekret PbtA western project, but it’s a rejection of the literary tropes in favor of actual history. And it’s hard to maintain excitement for the project when I know the buying public wants gunfights and stagecoach heists more than they want super-intersectional frontier communities and brutal colonialism. Hopefully there’s mindshare for both! 

Enough rambling. Y’all have an awesome and safe holiday.

Photo is unrelated. Iris says hey to the indie nerds!

Fall of Magic

It’s here! Surprisingly long box, but it does have to hold a scroll. There’s literally no place for it at all on any of my shelves, so it kind of has to sit weirdly atop other stuff. Whatever, it’s art!

Everything inside is lovely, can’t wait to give it a spin at some point. I thumbed through everything and, sure enough, I can see the Life on Mars fingerprints all over it. Easy enough, just have to find a chill evening.

World Wide Wrestling

Finally, finally finished reading this last night. I bought a copy off Nathan Paoletta at NewMexicon a few weeks back and it’s been languishing on my shelf since then. :-/

I think my favorite bit of the book is all the essays. There’s one that’s kind of an overview of professional wrestling, starting in the 1970s and going forward. Then there’s one about RPGs. Those two essays basically set up a reader who’s familiar with one zone to get familiar with the other zone. Then there are some neat personal essays talking about wrestling fandom, including what feels like a pretty deep dive by Ian Williams.

I think the game would be a ton of fun to play with fans of professional wrestling. I’ve heard nothing but good stories about how the game really really speaks to existing fans, and that non-fans can have fun with the game as well. But I gotta say — and this is not a criticism of the game at all — as a non-fan of wrestling, hooking into the game feels really hard EDIT: without the enthusiasm of a fan to drag me along.

This is all going to be Wrestling 101 for the in-deep fans and I don’t know that I need further selling from/by those people. I’m just going to talk about my impressions of the thing. Again, please, for the love of God, nobody get all offended. 

The thing I’m having trouble hooking into is the second-order meta-ness, the uh self awareness required to play the game. It is a game about telling the story of storytellers whose only tool is violence. You play a character who plays a character, with this super-weird vagueness about the reality/contrivance of the feuds being played out.

My relationship with wrestling is tenuous at best. I got lassoed into watching it in the late ’80s in college with my gaming buddies (who were telling me the exact same thing nearly 30 years ago: this is exactly the same as an RPG!). I couldn’t really connect with what was going on, because I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy the action and athleticism. I’d ask “so these guys are performers, right? So we’re basically watching a TV show with the narrative pared down to the fights?” Which is right-ish but also completely misses the point, I suspect.

Then I got interested in the backstories of extreme sports people, not just in wrestling but across all kinds of athletics. The Wrestler was exciting for me to watch because the stakes seemed more emotionally real. I think that part of the story was interesting to me because my own grandfather was a luchador in southern Arizona in the early 1950s, and his stories about everything happening outside the ring were always more interesting to me than whatever happened inside the ring.

But World Wide Wrestling does not tackle that at all. Or rather it does, but it never breaks the kayfabe, the fiction of the sport/show. There are literally no rules for dealing with conflicts outside the ring. Some moves inject back-stage actions but the fallback is that you talk it out without rolling or, if you want a system to mediate the conflict, you go into the ring and fight it out. It is a perfect implementation of the “real world beefs are played out in front of an audience” aesthetic of the game.

The place my head just cannot get me is that I can’t figure out how real-world stakes get any kind of resolution in the make-believe land of the ring. That’s so weird to me, but that’s because I’m trying my damnedest to jam The Wrestler into the game, and it does not belong there. Different story and it would take different tools. It’s entirely on me.

Which is why I say I’d love to play with fans of professional wrestling. I’ll bet the excitement is infectious and it would become completely clear to me. It also makes me wistful for my college buddies, nearly all of whom have moved on and away (but one of whom is one of my very best friends). 

Other notes and thoughts:

* Now I see why Nathan says PbtA-style Fronts are Bangs. They totally aren’t but at least I understand where he’s coming from. Between sessions in WWW, each player puts a feud or issue “on deck” to be resolved in an upcoming session. It’s a terrific way for the players to drive the action and take most of the planning load off the GM/MC. Buuut that’s just jamming Bangs into PbtA; they’re not a direct replacement for Fronts. The front is there to drive forward the big-picture narrative, which might or might not directly challenge a character with a right-now problem. In fact they mostly don’t. 

* I’m super curious to see the Kickstarter-only Season One gimmicks (playbooks). The game itself comes with a really nice array of styles, including a non-wrestler, The Manager, who apparently can get sucked into the ring because that’s a thing that happens in pro wrestling? 

* I would have been interested in seeing more talk about outside-the-ring personalities and how they can impact the storyline. Everyone’s called a NPW, a non-player wrestler, with the implication I suppose that literally anyone and everyone can end up in the ring.

* One of the players whose character is not currently wrestling is designated as The Announcer. I like that! I’m not totally sure what I’d do with a mike if it was handed to me. This is actually the thing where having pro wrestling fans at the table would probably be the most awesome. Same with the “cut a promo” move, where your character grabs a mike and rants at The Audience about whatever. It’s there to reinforce the roles (good/bad guy) and gimmicks (playbooks) while juicing the various economies at work in the game (momentum and audience).

* I really like the competition for Audience. That feels like where the stakes of the game actually lie. Everyone’s incentivized to juice their Heat (the kayfabe conflict between wrestlers) so that they improve the odds of gaining Audience. Neat. Also very meta!

Anyway, interesting game and I’m glad I have it. $20 is a steal, too. Learn more:

Most Instructive RPG Failures
Part 1

I think most of my most effective teachable moments in gaming have been when I have screwed up the worst. Here’s a sampler!

* Trying to use in-game, in-fiction events to fix interpersonal dysfunction in the real world. Players A and B are making C, D and E completely bonkers? Oh I know, I’ll have the wise old man insist they set aside their differences so they can continue their journey and succeed. <- Don’t do this.

* Thinking it’s going to be so great when the characters stumble upon the fact they’re actually living within a very convincing simulation (no, you stole that from The Matrix) if only they bump into that fact right…over…just look behind the counter and…just look…they didn’t look. The reveal is ruined. Literally nothing would have been lost by just saying “and as you poke around the lab, you make the big discovery!” (h/t to Michael Prescott for reminding me of my final pixel-bitching fail, yes it’s a terrible turn of phrase.)

* Grinding through incredibly tedious procedures without really evaluating why those rules are in place. Most notably, the travel rules in Skyrealms of Jorune. Roll every day, twice a day, for a two-week journey. Lesson learned: decide for yourself how to put the rules to their best use, don’t just do them and hope it works out okay.

* Starting IRL fights between groups of friends because it’ll be “really intense” in the RPG. Don’t let them in on that manipulation. Keep secrets, single out players, make everyone an unreliable witness, basically gaslight the players. Leverage everyone’s insecurity and paranoia until they can’t do anything without a fight breaking out. <- Don’t do this either.

* Get pouty when the players don’t show sufficient gratitude for all that prep you did that they never saw. Put it to use or don’t bother, good grief, but passive-aggressive self-pity gets you nowhere.

I’m trying to remember my very latest chagrin-laced gaming memory. Honestly I don’t think I have them much any more. It might be when I quit Mutant: Year Zero before I was really ready to, because I wanted to play with a shiny new toy. That’s worth filing away, too.

The Real Reason

I have been banging on the promotional drum for Headspace a lot over the past year. This is partially because of some clever game design work, careful playtesting, and an established friendship with the designer. All of those things only take it so far. 

Mark Richardson could have made a simple game about cyberpunk operatives kicking ass, solving every problem through violence. He could have made a white-washed game, where the grizzled male protagonists fight to serve the corporations for the next paycheck. He could have focused the game on Seattle, birthplace of so many cyberpunk games. He could have made technology and cybernetics dehumanizing forces. He could have made all of those easy decisions. 

Instead, Mark designed a game that assumes the competence of the operatives and focuses instead on the emotional consequences of their actions. His art direction explicitly embraces diversity in protagonists and an international focus of play. Technology is redefined as a tool of communication and interaction that enhances the humanity and emotional vulnerability of the characters. He made a game about real people who made terrible decisions and seek to make the world a brighter place.

I’m proud of Mark Richardson and so happy that his kickstarter campaign is going so well in the last 36 hours. I encourage you to take a look, if you can.  You won’t regret it.

The Story/Board Game Divide

So I’m bashing my brains out on a cute little deduction game called Tragedy Looper. Weird name but appropriately Engrish-y: it’s an import from Japan about looping through time trying to avert a series of tragedies. Each time you pass through the loop, you pick up more hints about who or what is behind the tragedy. Eventually you either succeed in maneuvering the situation out of the inevitable terrible situation (and no joke, they’re triggery as hell: violence, suicide, etc.), guess all the game-functional roles held by all the characters present, or you just can’t figure it all out in the loops allotted.

As a deduction game, it looks pretty tight. I haven’t played it yet. There are three economies that trigger three different things, and by observing what the Mastermind is doing and the results, you can piece together — hopefully! — what has to not happen, thereby foiling the Mastermind and ending the tragedy.

So the game has these specific rules the Mastermind has to adhere to when executing and discussing the game, right? “You died, start the loop over” is what you say, not “ha, the serial killer got you all!” or whatever. Information control is key! 

As you play through a loop, there will be a few Incidents that occur. An Incident might be a murder, or a sudden spike in paranoia, whatever. Every incident has a culprit, who is the personality responsible for the incident. If they’re alive and they’re paranoid (stressed) enough, the incident will take place.

Oho! But then there are things that might happen that make the incident get triggered but not take place. And that flag is important for the deduction game.

That is so fucking weird.

It’s weird because as I’m reading through this game, I’m evaluating it as if it were an RPG or storygame or whatever. Like…what does that look like in the fiction? It took place but nothing happened? What the fuck? And the Mastermind literally cannot say “a murder was attempted but the cop stopped it,” which is a chain of events that can take place in the game but saying so outright undermines the deduction game.

But, like, because it’s a boardgame, it doesn’t matter at all what it looks like in the fiction. It can look like nothing. It can be a logical construct, not a fictional one. The GM could just as easily hold up an “Incident Foiled” card and say nothing at all. The fact of the foiling is what matters in the boardgame, not the reasoning behind it.

And yet Tragedy Looper also flirts with the Mastermind role narrating events just the tiniest bit. But I gotta say, I have no idea what to make of “an incident takes place but nothing happens.” The game is messing with my head in the worst way.

I think about this stuff a lot as folks start adding more boardgame-y elements to their RPGs. The moment the fiction doesn’t matter is the moment I probably stop caring. And yet there’s so much in an RPG that doesn’t look like anything in the fiction: the player receiving a Persona in Burning Wheel did that because they authored their character into a qualifying situation, for example. Or like when my players built a Slave Market in their Mutant: Year Zero game — that has to matter more than just getting some food and warfare bonuses.

Might turn out that I’m making a big deal about nothing. We’re playing tomorrow night, so I’ll see firsthand how it looks/feels to play out this whole “the incident took place but nothing happened” business. Even typing it makes my eyelid twitch.