That said, I’ve never been able to make Monsterhearts work! But I think several things were in my way:
1) I dipped into it pretty early into my phase where I was getting comfortable with sexuality in my games (2012, I think, is when we first messed with it). I’ve learned a lot! And my friends have learned a lot!
2) I don’t know the supernatural teen genre that well. Clip my nerd card, but I just don’t like Buffy. Sorry. :-/
3) I wasn’t quite ready to embrace a PbtA game that wasn’t just a reskin of Apocalypse World. It took Sagas of the Icelanders to get me past that! Aaaand now I sort of hate just-reskins, which MH is decidedly not.
All that said, I’ve got mad respect for the game, the design, and for Avery. And I’m super intrigued by the list of updates, in particular revisiting how Strings work.
Don’t know that I’ll really run this much here at home, but maybe. Maybe. In any case, most definitely backed.
* Somehow archive the IGRC posts. I have no automated way to do that unfortunately, and I’m not a scripting person. I did find a decent Chrome app called Feed+ and I was able to pull down, like, 20 previous posts, and it’s aggregating posts going forward (and I have a way to turn them into permanent content on my end), but I’ve got hundreds of posts in the Collection now.
* Holding area for finished and WIP designs.
* Maybe sell stuff at some point and/or hype a Patreon. That’s stage 3, not even worth thinking about yet.
So I think we just finished our…fourth session? Maybe? We’ve finished 4 months of the strategic turns/campaign thing and they’re in the middle of their fifth month. Just realized I haven’t been talking much about this game.
The campaign rules are working fairly well. I secretly plan the Watcher moves — and I’m playing my hardest to kick their ass — and then the players plan out the Resistance moves. Early on, they lost a couple cells, which is brutal because that directly impacts how much they can get done each turn. There are also really big die pools getting tossed around, which makes the whole thing really swingy as well: they can pull waaaay ahead and recruit tons of cells! And then those cells can get systematically murdered/disappeared.
Overall, the campaign system feels balanced and maybe, just maybe, a little pointless. Some of that is on me: I’m fighting the urge to rush through the strategic turns, and I’m not using that scaffolding enough to shape the fiction inside the game. I mean it does come up on occasion, like Watcher-related consequences crop up in the habitats where the Watchers have been active. I aim consequences away from the Watchers where they haven’t been deployed. It’s subtle and I think the players don’t even notice. Maybe it’s enough. Dunno.
Another thing I had to come to grips with was the fact that the relationship map in MGA works differently than in MYZ. In Year Zero, the Ark is the center of the map, and there’s lots of internal strife and conflict in a more typical indiegame kind of way: factions and betrayals and all that. It’s more interpersonal, and honestly I prefer it.
In Genlab Alpha, the Valley is much bigger than the Ark, so I tended to not really think about interacting with the PCs and NPCs they’d called out during character creation unless the PC cell ended up at an NPC’s habitat. Bad idea! It’s fucking up their advancement, since the odds of earning XPs from helping/hindering their called-out NPCs is greatly reduced. Orrr they’re incentivized to go to the habitats where their NPCs are, which isn’t terrible but it often conflicts with the resistance campaign. Again, that’s not terrible, but it’s a thing.
Now, instead, I use the r-map to guide me when it comes to character appearances as a result of travel, or as social failure consequences when they’re otherwise on-mission. A couple sessions ago, they made a huge long journey across the Valley, from the Helicopter way to the west to the rabbit habitat way to the east. And you know what? It only took a couple days. That made me realize the Valley isn’t as big as I think it is. There are reasons for anyone to run into anyone anywhere, not just in their native habitats.
The travel grind is interesting and much less structured than in Year Zero. Instead of strict mile-by-mile blocks that need to be scouted and cleared, the players work out a route and then I roll for events based on environments they pass through. It’s subtle but very interesting! Like, if they take a road or a trail? They just roll the once when they’re on the path, deal with whatever, and then they’re free and clear. But if they’re sticking to the forest (the lowest-risk part of the Valley), they have to deal with crossing roads and trails, which triggers more high-risk rolls. Makes me think that pathway travel is mathematically much safer. But checkpoints suck and the actual event table on roads can be pretty scary. I like MGA style travel but it took some getting used to.
EDIT: Something I forgot to mention! Because the travel grind isn’t as structured as it is in Year Zero, the food/water/rest requirements feel sort of pointless at first. Like, it only takes a day to get nearly anywhere, big deal, just consume a food and a water. But they’ve also changed the recovery rules for Mutant, so now every point of damage requires a food and every point of fatigue requires a water. Now the grind is damage-oriented rather than time-oriented. That’s backported to Year Zero, and I’m super curious to see if it’s just too brutal. It was hard enough keeping up with food, water, rest and rot recovery!
If I’m iffy about anything in the game, it’s social conflict. It’s not especially well rendered in MYZ, and it is a teeny bit better in MGA in terms of PvP social conflicts, but it’s not awesome. Basically RAW says that the person making the ask rolls Dominate, and gains or loses their biggest benefit depending on the Rank differential between the characters. The defender rolls Sense Emotion. It’s a one-way test, basically either I got my way or I didn’t (it’s more nuanced than that but that’s the basics). I’m thinking about drifting this to allow Dominate vs Dominate when they both want something, and treat the Sense Emotion roll as the just-say-no option. I think they’ll go for that. Right now, you have to build new pools for the counter-attack and it’s pretty time-consuming. It’s a handling time problem for me, not necessarily a procedural/logical problem.
Something that’s really impressing me about MGA that I did not expect is how tightly planned the campaign is. There are eight habitats, five (?) of which are detailed for the GM with their own little substories. They’re very much like the “special zones” in Year Zero! But they’re so smartly written, and I haaaate “module” type content. Basically there’s a social obstacle to be overcome in each location, with opinions about the Watchers/Resistance divided in some unreconcilable way. Every time they’ve shown up at a programmed location, the provided material has worked great. Last night they brokered a coup between factions of the Ape Tribe, which is exactly what they wanted to do anyway.
Hm…what else. Combat is getting to be a little samey, and I’ve got five players at the table so it can be slow going. But everyone’s figuring out how to build their own die pools and needing fewer reminders that pushing the roll is a thing. Their talents and animal powers are starting to really ramp up now, too, and they’re becoming pretty formidable.
Last night’s golden moment: the polar bear Hunter swings between being totally bonkers about hunting/defeating dangerous prey — to the point of Dominating the party to go pick fights with giant Watcher bots they have no business fighting. Then he takes a ton of Instinct damage (doubt) and his healing regime is to wander off and be alone for a long while.
tl;dr tfw your five-second sight gag gets more than twice the pluses of the thing you literally spent all weekend on.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of being taken seriously in game design. What a rabbit hole! Mostly because, IMO, what that looks like is different for everyone.
So first off? Social media cues are a terrible metric for success. Too many variables, and folks use plus/like to mean so many different things. I did roll my eyes a little at the disparity between plusses on my Anthony Hopkins image versus a rough game design. But that’s where it stopped and I got on with my life.
But it did get me thinking about the question of seriousness from the perspective of a reader, player, consumer and opinion-haver. Here are the signals I respond to:
* Is there something worth exploring here? “Worth exploring” means, for me, a novel new way to look at something. That something might be fictional or procedural. But it’s gotta push my “hmm, never seen that before!” button. Lots and lots of PbtA stuff, for example, doesn’t push that button because it’s samey.
* Is it something I could reasonably expect to get to a table? Unfortunately this is a brutal filter. My convention library and my home library are different things. But unless I’m just reading and commenting, my interest stops if I’m not sure I could get it played. Stuff that helps me get games to the table: a really strong thematic hook, interesting procedures that aren’t too unfamiliar, presentation, turnkey print-and-play.
* Am I helping someone I know? I like helping people I know with playtesting, feedback, ideas. I hope they’ll return the favor someday but it’s not a requirement!
* Is it from someone whose work I already like? Tragic but true. I don’t know how to get around this other than via the next bullet.
* Have other voices I respect spoken well of the thing? There’s just too fucking much stuff and it just keeps coming. I need gatekeepers. I may even be a gatekeeper, but not of the first order. I have a list of folks in my head whose tastes I understand and whose judgement I trust.
* Personal reputation, which means lots of different things. If they’re already a designer type of person and I know what they’ve done, that’s a signal. If they’ve expressed passion for the material in other ways, that’s very appealing to me. If they’re “difficult,” well…I’m terrible at separating people and their work, and so many not-difficult folks also need time and attention.
From that POV, duh, no wonder I didn’t get the feeling that Robot Park was taken seriously, right? I wouldn’t have taken it seriously either! Next draft tho: print-and-play, baby. Clearer explanation of the ideas. Probably hit up folks whose reputations I respect in the hopes of getting mentions (and applicable design advice I guess).
Oh oh, and stuff that does not play into whether I take a game seriously?
* Whether it’s for sale. I…kind of don’t care. If it’s in my hands, it’s in my hands.
* Length. I have a need/appetite for convention-friendly one-shots! So stuff like Keith Stetson’s Seco Creek Vigilance Committee makes it past my filters even though it’s like six pages long and not especially well presented. But it is print-and-play ready, it’s procedurally novel, it hits subject matter that interests me, and I have a good shot at getting it on a table.
* Art. Different than “presentation.” When I see expensive-looking art already attached to an early draft of something, I get spooked out. But yeah, please do present the play documents in a way that helps me learn and run the thing.
Anyway. This is just me thinking about what hurdles a game has to jump for my brain to linger on it and want to know more. It’s probably so narrow and specific that it’s not especially useful, other than making me your target demo.
A draft of a game fell out of my head this weekend. Give it a read, play it or ask questions, whatever, I’ll keep doodling on it until it provides a tight and consistent experience.
I like to use pop-culture prompts to experiment with design ideas that have been bumping around up there. So in this case: GM-less asymmetrical PbtA! (Yes, I’ve read and have Dream Askew; my thing does it a different way.)
This is also my first complete Scrivener project! It’s very small and I barely used any of its functionality, but sure enough, it was very easy to organize my thoughts and move stuff around.
Or as the folks down in marketing call them, freeform games. Sometimes, depending. It’s the games where you play for hours and never touch dice, right? Insert wink emoji and a link to the DMG here.
Whenever I hit a big indie-friendly con, I get my annual dose of talky-talky games. I don’t get to play them a lot at home, where I prefer more traditional play and an extended campaign structure. So I don’t really play them a lot, but I get a lot out of them when I do. At BigBadCon, I got to present Rachel E.S. Walton’s Mars 244 and Christian Griffen’s Meridian, and play Steve Hickey’s Soth and Jamie Fristrom’s Superhuman, all of which are IMO in this gaussian design space.
Christian and I had a conversation recently about the fact that play skill isn’t something talked about much (as compared to GM and designer skill), in particular play skill in the talky-talky space. I have no idea if I’m the person for this, given my limited experience, but here are my thoughts anyway.
Settle on a couple character hooks early, even if you hate them. So what’s a hook? Might be a funny linguistic tic, or an idea about how the world works, or an attraction or resentment toward another character, or a profound character flaw. I say “even if you hate them” because you need to nail something down really fast, so the other players have something to play against. Nothing, I mean nothing, is harder in roleplaying than characterizing against the player equivalent of the Wilson ball. The easier you make it on the other players, the easier they can make it for you. I eventually find something charming about even the stuff I super-hate about my own characterization. Don’t know why, it’s probably just my ego.
Example: In our Mars 244 game, I played Saros, the ship’s human-seeming android. Totally a scifi trope, right? And I fell into the Lt. Data Star Trek thing pretty early: you know, the ridiculous precision and interpersonal cluelessness. I hated it but I stuck it out, because at least it was something for folks to play against. And then they gave me material right back to play against. And then it got better. I never stopped hating it but it worked, and I found other things to love about him.
Be obvious. I tend to play and run all my games in primary colors, so that’s true here, too. Nobody is psychic and almost everyone is so inwardly focused, that it’s really hard to suss out nuance. Ours is not a subtle art! Nuance is an indulgence I just cannot afford at the table, especially with strangers and limited time. Externalize those internal struggles! Take a small bit of characterization and broaden it.
Example: In Meridian, the Journeyer arrived at a location called the Court of Whispers. It’s full of weird little cliques of characters all judging and whispering and being Mean Girls, basically, but with dancing thimbles and snooty elves. So I played that waaaay up, with the pointing and the scowling and primary-color you are now being judged. Who has time to wait for the player to come to this discovery themself?
Pounce on provocative details. Every moment of play, listen for the new material that shows up that makes you think inappropriate thoughts, or squicks you out, or lends itself to an obvious joke, or really sends your judgy hackles up. Basically, if your ears perk up and your heart races a little, jump on that thing when you get a chance. The fancy word is “reincorporate,” but what I’m talking about is taking someone else’s thing and running with it as hard as you can while you can.
Example: In Soth, oh man…that game is rich with provocative details. Jeremiah Frye, the Keeper (gm/facilitator), is playing my ex-wife, upon whom I’m dumping my kid because I have to go end the world with a ritual. Jeremiah throws the “you’re a terrible father” shade at my character, and sure enough I get the little flutter and the heart rate thing. And, yeah, so I escalate my bad-dad thing hard! I felt provoked by it way more than anything we had established about the child.
Toss softballs. This is kind of the apotheosis of be obvious and pounce on provocative details: here’s a thing I heard you bring up, it caught my attention, so let me toss it right back into your lap painted in primary colors so you can give me more of that. Softballs are gentle and easy and the other side gets to look like a hero because they’re so, so easy to swing at.
That said, I also save the hardballs for when it’s time to break out the feels. If the whole game is wall-to-wall sadness, eh, that’s probably not a game I’m super into. But! When you’ve got a game that’s designed to play toward that, start with some softballs to get your target used to swinging at what you throw them. And to continue this wretched metaphor, when you throw the hardball, aim for their center of mass. This isn’t time to be gentle. It’s time to make them jump and swing hard as hell. And as often as not, they’ll hit that fucker right back at you and you’re the one who takes the hardball to the heart.
Example: Mars 244 again, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my sad robot story a lot since then. Saros has been observing Abigail, a teenage girl who was born on Mars and is not a prisoner, pining to become like the ship’s crew and wander the stars. She’s a secondary character, so in the Mars/Montsegur structure you don’t really stage them up with major scenes, but she’s gotten some quality play time from other players pulling her in. So anyway, Saros has just heard that the ship will be boarded in an hour, and everyone’s either gonna die or go to jail. He quietly invites her to the ship’s observation deck so he can show her the stars. I do the Data thing a little bit and then stop, playing up the self-awareness that it’s bad human interaction. Then I throw the hardball: “Abigail, do you enjoy this? I thought you’d better see the stars before you … cannot.”
Aiee! Is she gonna go to jail? Is she gonna die? And, yeah, I beaned myself pretty good with that hardball.
Play toward your worst choices and rely on the other players to rescue you. You ever see those goofy trust-building exercises where you’re supposed to fall backward and get caught? Just like that. And not just in Fiasco-y funny talky-talky games! In Jamie’s Superhuman game, oh lord, I was constantly relying on other players to get me out of bad choices.
Be brave with major authorship. This one’s pretty obvious for the GMs who play these games, and sometimes I think talky-talky games are written by and for GMs who never get to play. But, yeah: add something big, at least once in the game. Add a major location, a major relationship, a major bit of history, a major Big Idea. I think some games are better built to receive those major additions, and you have to be not-tone-deaf. It’s not a perfect technique! But when there’s space for something big, go big.
Another Superhuman story: Jamie had mentioned in passing something called “Project Utopia” in one of his scenes. Hackles went up when I heard it (provocative!). Softballed it a couple times. Then when it was my scene, I went ahead and defined just what Project Utopia actually was. Everyone jumped on it, and it felt kind of like a relief to have it out in the open and discussable, you know?
Anyway, I could go on for another thousand words but this stuff was rattling around up there. Hope it’s useful to someone.
A roundtable peer-reviewed IPA-fueled oral defense of our favorite PbtA games, with Jeremy Tidwell, Arnold Cassell, Andi Carrison, Gary Montgomery, and Jesse Coombs. Edit and the inestimable and thoughtful John Aegard! EDIT again and Tomer Gurantz! And probably a dozen more people. I’m the worst.
“Because it’s rad” being an unacceptable defense, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff about what attracts people to PbtA games. Learning learning, always learning.
Sagas of the Icelanders was mine, because SotI can’t fail, it can only be failed. But the most talked-about was Marshall Miller’s The Warren on numerous technical and thematic grounds.
I’m home, yay! And forgot I wanted to talk about one more game I played.
Jeremiah Frye ran a very amusing session of Steve Hickey’s Soth, the only event I formally registered for. The premise is total Fiasco: small town cultists are trying to summon forth something called Soth, and doing their level best to not fuck up.
Situation creation is pretty standard indie-style relationships with complications; literally everyone in your life is a liability when you’re a cultist fuckup. Then, one of the cultists is the leader and another holds the Tome, and everyone else is just out trying to end the world.
I don’t want to talk much about the actual sequence because there are some reveals, but events unfold such that eventually everything turns hilariously catastrophic. I have no idea what was going on on Jeremiah’s side, other than a constant uptick of a value called “suspicion” and designating some NPCs as “investigators.” I don’t super-love games that rely on GM opacity but I can’t think of any other way to handle what the game does.
My favorite player-facing thing about the game is the Mask of Sanity. As you do evil cultist shit and try to suppress your growing madness, a value called Clarity is ticking up. Meanwhile, you’re obligated to act out a behavior from a list that tracks alongside your Clarity. So initially, you might just express superiority or mention Soth in passing, but eventually you’ll end up acting menacingly toward, well, everyone (your spouse, kid, co-workers, etc). And if you don’t, the GM will say you did anyway but you don’t remember what you did.
Anyway, I think I want in on this game. Apparently there’s good replay value, which I was concerned about because there’s a good amount of information asymmetry.