In just under two days, the Big Bad Con Kickstarter will close. We’re really close to hitting our 20k stretch goal and I’m feeling very confident as well as very loved.
Big Bad Con has changed a lot for me, from an event to host great games, to a place to foster community and growth. I love the event and I love even more that the attendees, the GMs, the volunteers, and all our backers support it as it evolves and improves.
Thanks to everyone who has supported the con in any way so far. Without all of you, this would just be my blue sky dreams.
If you’d like to have a hand in the process either by attending yourself or pledging so that others who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the costs can make it out, I welcome you to participate. I hope that the work you do, and the work you help us do, is as rewarding to you as it is to me.
Several people mentioned that they’d like to hear my thoughts on how to talk about their game sessions online. I’ve had pretty good luck talking about my game sessions. It’s not easy! So let me warn you about that up front. You’ll fail a lot, but you won’t even know it because folks are generally polite. Think about what your goals are: better conversations, self-improvement, bragging, pluses, social cred, relationship building, therapy. They’re all legit.
Know Your Audience
Who exactly are you talking to when you write up your AP? If you’re keeping notes for yourself (which is a great idea) then you’re the audience; anyone else who happens along and likes what you have to say is gravy. That’s not what I do, and since folks are asking me to tear down my methods let’s just get that out of the way.
My audience is imaginary me, fifteen years ago. I think a lot of trad-rooted players in my life (atoms and bits) are in a similar place. They’re fans of different games than me, but they’re walking a similar path. That’s who I write for. I’m not actually writing for myself but for those players and GMs.
More broadly, I’m writing for roleplayers with an active interest in self-improvement. I bring a hyper-critical eye to my play that probably most people don’t. I speculate that most GMs are satisfied with where they’re at, and most players don’t really think about what they do as a particular craft. And that’s absolutely fine. But for those who want to improve, I’m sharing my war stories. That requires honesty about your fuck-ups. It also requires a level of introspection/navel-gazing that borders on narcissistic. (Borders?)
Welcome to high school! Your first writing assignment goal is to identify your thesis.
What salient points do you want to get across? I usually focus on a specific thing that the session brought to mind: an observation about gaming in general, or about a particular dynamic at your specific table, or something about the human condition – no really! If I’ve got several points I want to hit, the very first thing I’ll do is list them out, just words, then backfill and try to connect the ideas. For example I might think through my last The One Ring session and quickly doodle down:
* Player who wants to beat the system
* What are incentives for winning?
* Incentives other than winning?
* Are Tolkien characters incentivized or are they just following along where the writer points them?
* Is avoiding Shadow an actual incentive? For everyone?
You can probably see the beginnings of one of my posts just from those bullets. Well, that’s how I do it. I start with freeform bullets, start looking for connections, then start filling in. (Yeah, I’ll probably write that post at some point.)
Facts about your game’s storyline are not interesting to anyone but the participants; roleplaying is not a spectator sport. There are some detail-oriented APs out there that are inspiring, but I guarantee they don’t inspire through blow-by-blow recounting. The reader needs to relate to what they’re reading.
This is where you need to stake out your Opinions (capital O, it’s important). Those might be contentious, or they might just be wrong. Whatever, doesn’t matter. You need an editorial viewpoint here: I think playing within a license has this effect on players’ decisions (oh yeah, when I played Doctor Who I saw the same thing!); I think my ongoing games burn out because my players stop doing emotional labor at the table (oh yeah, I haven’t checked in with my players for a while!); I think roll-under sucks the joy out of play (oh yeah, nobody in my group likes that either). I think, I think, I think.
Find the experiences you’ve had you think others can relate to, and talk about that.
But you need to establish context, right? So look at those relatable themes you want to hit and think through the bare minimum you need to talk about that. Don’t be like that funny dude in Ant-Man who can’t explain his caper.
So: use the broad outline of your session as an illustration of your theses, your salient points. Did your last session of Dresden Files make you think about how the session doesn’t really reflect what’s in the books? Talk about that, not the details of the session. The details are boring. Are you finding it really hard to get characters pulled together in Urban Shadows? Use the at-the-table experience, not the in-the-fiction details, to illustrate that point.
This is more related to my personal goals in writing about my gaming, but I think it matters: learn about RPGs. That means playing more than what you’re used to, playing stuff outside your comfort zone, really learning about the scope of gaming. Stretch. If you think you’ll reach a place where your experience will become unrelatable, you’re wrong. Stretch forever.
The reason you want to do this is to increase your relatability (above), therefore expand your audience (also above). If you only know how to talk about a particular sliver of gaming – D&D-style or metaplot-splatbook style or Fate or freeform or whatever – anyone who lies outside your points of reference won’t have anything to hook into. That of course means it’s on you to relate your experiences back out in a variety of ways.
This means not only keeping it short, but keeping it information-dense. For practice, try this:
1) Write your thing the way you want, following my audience, structure and relatability ideas above.
2) Cut it in half, still keeping your audience, structure and relatability in mind.
Believe it or not, this is the method I used on this very piece. For my bigger pieces, I absolutely draft in Word, let it percolate a while, then start cutting, and then post.
Like I said in the intro, it’s not easy work. If you want easy likes/pluses/upvotes, post funny gifs. I also have many decades of professional writing experience (games, feature writing, marketing, etc.), and I don’t want to downplay that. But I’m convinced the vast majority of AP writing out there would be improved by taking into account:
You know what I miss on the Plus these days? Game talk.
I miss hearing about people’s games.
I miss hearing about problems they had and how they got over them.
I miss hearing about how a successful session felt.
I miss the drifts and weird little hacks and rationalizations therein. The maps and doodles and tables and whatever. Hell, I even miss the photos of supernerd tables tucked into a long flopsweaty session of whatever.
What became of the game talk? If I wandered into Plus for the first time today, I’d assume it just wasn’t happening. Then I guess I’d start looking in on the communities and cross my fingers. Is that where it ended up?
Maybe I’ve been missing out on specific individual folks I should be following. Who can you recommend? What collections, maybe, should I be following? Let’s share the wealth here.
Or it may be inevitable that every social platform eventually devolves into an open-air bazaar (thanks, capitalism! /marx). Surely I can’t be alone in noticing that.
Or the glow of sharing has worn off and there are now social media winners and losers. Man I can’t wait to cash in my FollowerBucks(tm) for that 3-day weekend at a bed and breakfast. It’s a very modest B&B. Actually it’s just being homeless urban camping for a couple days.
Now before someone goes all “be the change blah blah” on me, I’d like to point out that I have a modestly successful game-talk collection. I’m trying to be the change! But I can’t do all the game talk around here. Well maybe I can, but Plus will have to support the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.
We had what I think was my very favorite session of The One Ring last night. Lots of things worked out really well. And we had both our first retirement as well as our first refusal to retire. Terrifying and fascinating. Notes and thoughts in bullet form as always for your bathroom reading pleasure.
* Our dwarf finally got his fourth and final PC-side dark trait: Murderous. And it was so great. The session was 2951 of Darkening of Mirkwood, with Ceawin trying to appease the uneasy spirits south of his lands in the old barrows. Instead of making it an off-screen NPC thing, I had the dwarf himself actually craft the offering to the uneasy spirits: a beautiful and expensive helm to be placed in the barrows.
So they need to get the helm from the dwarf’s workshop (outside Woodman Hall) over to East Bight, yeah? They’ve figured out that the “short cut” through the Narrows is a terrible idea, so they’ve established a fairly safe route down around the bottom of Mirkwood. It takes like 2 weeks by horse to make the trip but whatever, they’re not getting poisoned by the Shadow along the way.
But they are well exposed to bad apples out of The Toft, this creepy town that was once enthralled to the Necromancer. I build the place up to be like a really creepy rural village you might not want to stop in on a long road trip.
So, anyway, since they didn’t really take any precautions to be secretive about their trip, word gets out that they’re moving this expensive bit of treasure. The hobbit lookout gets 3 great successes to spot the bandits, and I give them plenty of time to make a plan: stand and fight, or try to disappear in the woods (which are Southern Mirkwood, which is pretty much the most evil place in Middle-Earth other than Mordor itself).
Well, when they all made their awareness/hunting/whatever rolls to spot the bandits, the miserable Dwarf rolled an eyeball. And his scene was about his Murderous trait.
Something I’ve always been a bit skeptical about in The One Ring is that the GM takes over for the bout of madness. Ehhh…I’ve seen a couple times that neither the player nor the victims seem to really own their actions. When the elf decided to slit the throats of some of Mogdred’s men instead of bringing them back to Ingomer for questioning, that was me. And sure enough, neither the elf’s player nor anybody else in the party really holds him accountable for that. Weak.
This time, I asked the dwarf player who he felt most needed to be murdered in their company. And it was perfect, perfect for the game because he made a choice and everyone knew it.
He chose the hobbit, who has enjoyed a charmed life all game long. He’s never gone mad, he’s been miserable or weary maybe once each, he wisely took Confident as his first virtue when he had the chance, and he’s been extraordinarily lucky in our fight scenes. So the dwarf, overcome with jealousy, is sick of the little showboat’s bullshit as he once again tries to make (entirely reasonable and smart) plans about these bandits. He dives across the tiny campfire and lays into the character with his axe.
* One thing The One Ring doesn’t really do well is PvP combat. Related to that is that the game also doesn’t really handle non-combat actions that well. There are a few baked-in options (awe, inspire, defend, escape) but if you want to do anything other than stand toe-to-toe, well, you need to get creative if you want to stay within the framework.
We ended up structuring the fight around the Dwarf basically being an NPC, with the rest of the company positioning against him. It worked quite well, actually. And there were some great mechanical/story twists within the fight! Like, the dwarf is actually the hobbit’s focus character! So the hobbit’s player does not want the dwarf harmed, because that’ll mean taking a shadow point. So when it’s the Barding’s turn out in the open to try and wear down the dwarf (hopefully not wounding him but you never know, shit happens in combat), the hobbit in defensive drew the Barding’s attack to himself! I couldn’t figure out why that’d be illegal, so we rolled with it. Totally fascinating.
The hobbit’s plan was to draw the dwarf away from the rest of the company so nobody would get hurt. That’s pretty tricky to do within the Battle rules, which as a baseline offer nothing more than positioning for the company to defeat a group of enemies. But what The One Ring does have is its Trait rules, which I’m now convinced are the killer app of the game.
The most interesting Trait rule, IMO, is that you can use a Trait to make a common skill roll where you normally could not. So that’s what they did, injecting skills into the combat sequence where normally they’d only be allowed to make weapon checks (or the special actions attached to each combat position). This is totally genius! Because, guess what, not everyone’s gonna have the right tool for the job. The Barding, for example, is this smooth talker but has literally nothing available to stop a fight and get some words in edgewise. So trying to talk the dwarf down didn’t work. But the Hobbit, well, he’s True Hearted, so yeah, absolutely Persuade the Dwarf to ignore the rest of the company as you run away.
I have more thoughts on just how powerful the Trait rules are, but for now this is my current favorite thing about them.
* Eye of Mordor rules, wow, the game is fucking grim now. Since the Enemy has retaken Dol Guldur, I’ve activated the Eye rules from Rivendell. They’re fantastic! Basically you come up with a baseline value for the company based on who’s in it (the Eye ignores hobbits but takes special interest in elves, for example), what they’re carrying (oh all those Famous Weapons you’ve been picking up with your Valor increases, yeah, the Eye finds them very interesting), who they are to the people in the area (helloooo Heroes of the Woodmen!), and so on. Then as the game proceeds, that value gets a bump every time the company gains Shadow, rolls an Eye, uses “magical” virtues (elf magic, dwarven “broken spells,” etc.), and so on. When the chase number equals the target of the terrain they’re in — it’s an inverse of the regular terrain TN table, with free lands having a very high chase value and the darklands obvs being very low — there’s a Revelation. The Enemy takes direct action against the company, or the company experiences supernaturally shitty luck, or whatever.
Combined with my “everything is blighted all the time” rule w/r/t Shadow gain from the terrain, that’s a fucking lot of bad-guy pressure applied to the company at all times.
The net result in our game was that the Revelation happened while the Hobbit recovered from his wound delivered by the dwarf. They’re chilling in East Bight and everyone wants to use their two-rolls-per-day option while they’re just sitting around. Okay, cool. So they’re investigating stories of orc attacks in the area, as well as the lights/voices of the uneasy dead. Then the roll an Eye, the Enemy reveals itself, and a Great Orc with a band of soldiers springs its trap on the company.
The game feels really dangerous now, I think.
* Fellowship phase after everything that went down was bittersweet and difficult and actually pretty amazing. I was saying that The One Ring doesn’t really pump me up but I gotta say I’m feeling pretty pumped now!
The Hobbit, having been nearly killed by someone he considered a dear friend, took the “There and Back Again” option from Rivendell: he left the company, went home to the Shire, and spent it with his family. He gained a permanent Shadow but got back like 6 Hope. Really the narratively perfect choice.
The Dwarf, looking down the barrel at his fifth and final bout of madness and with Murderous, Spiteful, Brutal etc on deck, realized he’d be a terrible danger to everyone. Without apologizing or explaining, he’s withdrawn to his workshop outside Woodmen Hall, his adventuring days behind him. Hobbits are not allowed in his workshop. No idea what the player is taking next, but he’s looking at the cool Rivendell options as well as a straight Woodman (which tbh they should have, given the focus of Darkening of Mirkwood).
The Barding, though, whoo boy. Miserable for almost the entire session, he decided to try and heal his Shadow through craftwork at his home in East Bight (where he’s been married to Ceawin’s daughter and now has a kid). Not only did he fail to do so, he rolled an Eye. While miserable. In the Fellowship phase. Boom, now he’s Treacherous. So he snuck into Ceawin’s hall and murdered him, freeing the clan from weak leadership. I think he’s just taken over the clan, actually. But talk about weak leadership! He’s only got status 2, and there are plenty of clansmen NPCs who surely must have higher status than him. Then there’s the matter of answering, or not, difficult questions about the death of Ceawin: lying and deception gets you 2 Shadow, after all. Tick tick tick.
Oh, and where the dwarf knew enough to retire before he hurt someone? The Barding says fuck that. They basically have a villain in the company now. Yowch.
* Magical Treasure rules from Rivendell are actually pretty neat. I wanted the elven weapon the hobbit retrieved from Dol Guldur last year to be magical thing, so I built it. And sure enough, he’s really anxious to discover/unlock the two hidden weapon goodies. Hard-pressed to find a Loremaster, though, and they haven’t set Rhosgobel up as a sanctuary yet, so… I’ve got goodies built for everyone else now as well.
* Status rules are starting to make a difference. Everyone has 1 or 2 status now, and they’re all starting to embellish the end-of-year stuff quite nicely. The elf, for example, has started formal patrols in Mirkwood of mixed human and elven troops (with her in command, since she’s Arrogant and all).
* The retirement/inheritance rules are ridiculous. We’ve played 7 sessions and they’ve earned, I think, a total of 18 XPs. The dwarf’s successor will only get 2 free XPs to start! The table goes to 250 XP, which by my calculations is about 100 sessions of play. So, you know, two solid years of weekly sessions to max that out. Come on.
* A recurring meta-problem has raised its ugly head again: the fact that my attention span typically limits the game to 10ish sessions. Well, we’re on #7 right now and thus far I don’t feel any itchiness to move on. But maybe! Anyway, that fact kind of fucks up games that rely on loooong reward cycles. For example, the dwarf burning out in 7 sessions: I’m not so sure the game is actually built to do that, you know? But maybe! Dwarves are exceptionally goth in the Tolkien as well as in The One Ring, and he did take the “get a bonus to common skills equal to your Shadow” virtue, so maybe? It certainly played out that the Dwarf blew out first, the human may blow out next, the elf is riding a very fine line and the Hobbit will hold out a good long time.
This happened in our Urban Shadows game as well: one of the players decided to go all-in on gaining Corruption, “knowing” the game wouldn’t last long enough for him to actually suffer for it. That’s kind of a bummer. I have no idea what to do about it. Probably nothing.
Video Games Make Me Feel Weird Meandering Thoughts, Mute Nao
I’ve been playing the bejeezus (for me, i.e. a couple hours each night) out of Stellaris of course. Kind of forgot what vidja games do to me! Mostly I get weird and antisocial and I spend all my brain cycles grinding on the game. It’s sorta-kinda intellectually satisfying but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t just kind of a pacifier for my brain to chew on. I’m just talking about me, here, don’t freak out.
Tonight we’re playing session number… seven or eight, maybe, of The One Ring. It’s been a really interesting ride so far. It’s a nice game. Flawed, but no show stoppers. It’s fun, but I don’t get super-pumped about it. The sessions are always interesting but rarely, as a GM, do I feel like things are building toward anything. It’s a slice of Middle-Earth life, way more simmy (in the “right to dream” kind of way) than my typical fare. Like, the drama is neat when it happens but there’s no purposeful building toward drama: shit just lines up where the players suddenly need to make a hard decision. I kind of like how those moments sneak up on everyone, but it means I need to be vigilant.
Mutant: Year Zero is very similar, and I needed to be similarly vigilant when it came to noticing meaningful character statements being made. Without incentives baiting the players or structural prompts mandating that An Ethical Statement Be Made Now, those moments are purely aesthetic. “Wow, things really lined up for you, here’s two Fate and a Persona for that moldbreaker” just feels different than when the fiction has to stand on its own. I’m totally not making a value judgement; my players continue to itch for the incentives because they like to win more than they savor the drama. And that’s okay.
Probably my favorite part of playing games like this (setting aside the loaded language of a term like “incoherent;” let’s say instead “broadly appealing”) is that there’s always something for someone eventually. The best practice here being sensitivity to what those somethings may be, and letting them happen. I’ve sucked at that in the past (me: “I’m super bored by this, I’m skipping over all this shit you want to roll dice for, can we please focus on the storyline instead?”), and it’s a skill I continue to hone.
I’ve got a few games I’m already thinking about trying soonish! Alas, they’re mostly in the PbtA camp. I think my players are feeling burned out/meh, and I blame myself partially. I realize that my one-shot style of PbtA facilitation makes long-term play hard. When everything is high stakes, nothing is high stakes, you know? So my personal skill development wish list is to better modulate the stakes, so I don’t rush to the hard moves and I let the players drive toward their stuff a bit more. I too would feel burned out if my play was largely reactive.
Anyway, my try list right now is:
* Playtest Keith Stetson’s Seco Creek Vigilance Committee …takes a lot of players, and that’s hard to pull together until The One Ring is over (sorry Keith!)
* Uncharted Worlds
* My super secret American West game
* My super secret time travel game
* Dungeon World (for real!) + one of the Magpie setting books. They all look nifty. Makes me wonder why nobody’s done a series of Apocalypse World setting books, tbh. Probably after 2E hits.
* The Clay That Woke. My big bag of wooden chits is looking forlorn and unused.
I also picked up No Thank You, Evil! for me and the kiddo, but she’s probably a couple years away from playing it still.
A couple weeks off the game but we’re back in the saddle. It was our come-to-Jesus session, where the Company faced a for-real existential crisis and came to grips with the fact that belonging to a Company means sharing goals. The last session, everyone was flying in all different directions and there was tons of (really interesting) Shadow-driven internal drama.
First decision was whether to winter together or apart. Wisely, I think, they went their separate ways, licked their wounds so to speak. One of the characters achieved his first level in Standing! Neat. One of them tended to their holding, the hobbit went back to the Shire and was graced with his culture’s Lucky Armour (terrible name), and the elf continued to withdraw and hold everyone at arms’ length.
Notable stuff that I thought was notable:
* Since rereading The Hobbit, I decided to put that knowledge to good use! So they had a chance to make some Explore rolls in search of ancient ruins and, perhaps, treasure. It turned into a neat scene: traveling through the east nether vales en route to Rhosgobel, they went to visit the Kingstone (+3 Hope! Once! I decided not to make it a Fellowship action since they’d gone out of their way to make the journey), and then continued down to the Great Anduin River to poke around the ruins of a funereal … funerary … hell, I don’t know what to call it. The pre-mausoleum prep area before the ancient Northmen of the river valley sent their honorable dead down the river in a boat. Turned out great.
* Followup to the previous bullet: What’s the carrying capacity of a horse? They pulled a lot of treasure out of that structure, and I love the idea that encumbrance is the limiting factor to treasure-hunting, but if horses can, you know, carry hundreds of Encumbrance then the point is kind of moot. Or more likely, I keep horse-accessible barrows low-stakes.
* I’m really enjoying the existential dread that the Dwarf player is now feeling. He’s got 3 of his 4 shadow traits, he’s at 10 Hope and 18 Shadow (and of course 3 permanent), and every roll is a chance for him to invoke “Murderous” as a trait in a shadow scene. Terrifying. The player kind of bounces back and forth between happy nihilism (yay, I’ll play a different dude) and omg it’s going to shit everyone’s gonna dieee. Good! I think there’s a lot of very effective black magic baked into the particular sequence of shadow traits you pick up. It ramps up expectations really well.
* My Burning Wheel addicts are grumbling that their shadow traits don’t earn them XPs. That way lies madness! I agree that the roleplaying has been really great; they’re more than happy to proactively indulge their shadow traits. But it’s pure roleplay, not an incentivized economic decision. How interesting that that decision is a-ok in BW but I feel like it would be all wrong in TOR.BW wants to reward character-driven play while TOR wants to reward companionship. It is surprisingly and sometimes hilariously difficult to get them all on the same page.
* They just finished the last good year before the Shadow reappears in Middle-Earth. I struggled not to laugh and laugh as they looked at their burned-out husks and said those were the good years? I think my personal take on Middle-Earth is way heavier and grimmer than maybe Tolkien’s, especially in the years after The Hobbit, but whatevs.
I’m thrilled to announce Big Bad Con is happening October 14-16! This year we’re moving to a new hotel, the Walnut Creek Marriott, which has some amazing amenities including more private gaming rooms, much better access to local eating, and beautiful spaces for both gaming and socializing.
We’re also adding a new gaming track this year, Big Bad Teens. For the first time gamers 13-17 will be able to join in the fun at Big Bad Con. Plus we have some amazing special guests like John Harper, Donna Prior, Jason Morningstar, and Tanya DePass.
If you’re already planning to attend, hop over there and you can buy a badge along with some other perks added in. If you can’t make it but want to support the con, either by adding to the scholarship fund (with backing levels starting at only $10) or as a sponsor of some of our gaming spaces, your contributions would be greatly appreciated!
Finally, we’ve got a couple pledge levels that offer rewards outside of the con. You can play an online game run by one of [how many?] amazing game developers through the Big Bad Online backer level. And by backing at Baba Yaga’s Mystery Box, you will receive in the mail a box of goodies curated by game designers, authors, artists, and other awesome people.
Big Bad Con 2016 is going to be amazing and I really hope you can be there! Thank you for all your support!