99 Problems and a Pitch Ain’t One

Random observations, a week out from NewMexicon and pitching games.

1) Players who respond to the game system being offered. Doesn’t matter who’s running or what it’ll be about, it’s the game itself. Oooh I want to know more about Velvet Glove! or whatever.

2) Players who respond to who’s doing the offering. I’m probably mostly either in this category or the first one. There are folks I know will bring the goods, no matter what they’re running and what they’ve prepped.

3) Players who respond to the pitcher’s particular creation. I saw this quite a bit out of the NMCon GoHs and it strikes me as a particularly trad thing that the indie world has kind of left behind.

I mean this without any aspersions cast! Like…okay. The first game I went for was Tomer Gurantz’s Lego Fallout Shelter. I didn’t respond at all to the creation aspect of his pitch, and in fact I was a tiny bit turned off. It was super fun, loved his creation, but it’s the fact that we’d chatted and he seemed sane and fair and, you know, a decent human being. I’m all in for tables with decent human beings!

But then later, Matt McFarland (one of the GoH) offered up very specific Chill scenarios. Here’s the dude who wrote that edition! Here are scenarios you can be sure are excellent examples of the system! I had a very hard time getting excited for those, and not because Chill isn’t indie hotness. I noticed the same reaction in my head to other specific “I made this, come play it with me” pitches.

When I look through big catalogs of events at cons like Dreamation, I usually don’t know who’s pitching. I don’t get a read on them and I have to rely on name recognition. So I’ve gone looking for that, right? Like, whatever she’s running, I’m going to have a good time at Rachel E.S. Walton’s table. And if I can’t find that, hey, I’ve always wanted to know more about Sig, let’s go check it out (never connecting in my head that creator Jason Pitre would be running it).

And yet I have a nearly allergic reaction to the hand-made scenario, the elaborate setup that someone’s put real sweat into. At some point I just stopped getting excited about them.

I wonder when I lost that. I know I used to go looking for it.

I mean, yeah, there are some obvious facts on the ground here.

For one, lots of the current generation of indie hotness is built with a strong “setup is play” aesthetic. It literally does not matter what the GM is bringing, we’re all gonna bring it together and then play. Pitching a scenario makes that impossible of course, and then I get frowny. Where’s my investment? Waah.

For another. these small cons are pretty intimate. I didn’t know everyone of the 70-ish people, but I probably knew half of them well enough to know which of them I’d have a good time with at a table. You strange people I don’t know, ugh, I don’t make friends any more. (Not true. (But it feels that way sometimes.))

I’m not offering up any special insights here. I’m day 3 into a burly head cold and just kind of killing time waiting to get well. It’s just some thoughts and a little bit of sadness in me that I kind of don’t care about all the artistry and craft that folks continue to put into scenario design. There’s probably a lot of great stuff out there.

Paul’s R-Map Method
Best Practices

I’ve long been a proponent of at-the-table relationship maps, and of setting them up with everyone’s participation at that table. It started as a thing at my home tabletop games, but I’ve been doing them at conventions for years as well.

Why oh why should you bother? I’m glad you asked. Here’s my case:

* Visual information is the strongest information (until I can come up with an r-map method that uses smell instead of eyeballs, then game on)

* It is a living document, easily changed and grown as the game proceeds.

* It is a central and theatrical process, which draws everyone’s attention to the table during creation and play. This last one I cannot emphasize enough.

This photo is from my Space Wurm vs Moonicorn one-shot I just ran at NewMexicon for Joe Beason, Tomer Gurantz, Patrick Riegert and Brendan Conway last weekend. It’s a good example because I use a lot of different methods at once on this one. The game also works especially well for relationship mapping; I’ll talk at the end about games that don’t really do great with an r-map.

Apologies that I didn’t do staged photos. I should sometime! Or maybe a video, when my voice doesn’t sound like Barry White with tampons shoved up his nose.

0) I either use my roll of butcher paper at home or, if I’m on the road, an easel pad. This one in particular is:


I also use a plain black Sharpie, not a ball-point or skinny felt-tip. At home, I’ve got a full-spectrum Sharpie set and I’ll use 2-3 colors. But not more! 3’s really the max IME.

1) I started with the most important character at the table, which in this case is Space Wurm (played by Patrick). That’s an artifact of the game’s structure! Not all games will have stars.

Character nodes get three things in my method:

* A circle shape around them
* A gender (including modifications for genderfluid, transgressing, or neutral options)
* Their age

Because a primary goal of this is to notate relationships, I then am careful to leave a lot of room between future circles.

2) I arrange all the other character circles around the r-map, but within the central say…half of the sheet. So! That means leaving about 1/4 of the sheet as a margin around the cluster of central PC circles. Everyone gets name, age, gender, maybe other notes as needed.

3) Specific to SW v M but a general Best Practice idea: I then add notes about factions or faction-analogues in that 1/4-sheet margin. I will note here that I’m now also narrating everything I’m doing. I don’t just write “Interstellar Transport,” I’m saying out loud “okay! Interstellar Transport is one of Space Wurm’s elements that he can control. Let’s talk about the elements and how much control…” and so on. It’s a chance to repeat rulesy things that I think will be important, whether it’s a con one-shot or a home game with old-timers.

Narrate narrate narrate. This is the central theatrical act that keeps everyone focused on the sheet of paper.

4) Now we start drawing lines between everything. In SW v M, everyone is connected to one of the factions/fronts so that kind of takes care of itself. But really the mission-critical bit here is to start asking for actual context. In PbtA style games that’ll be where we talk out Bonds, Hx, Strings, whatever. In Burning Wheel it might be Beliefs and Instincts. In Sig it might be the faction/community/career connections. If you’re doing this in a game that doesn’t have any explicitly mechanized connections, narrate through them anyway here: how did you meet? What’s your current relationship like?

Write a summary of the relationship along the line and draw an arrow to indicate asymmetry. Asymmetrical relationships are best in every game I can think of! Nothing is more tedious to me than “we’re each other’s best friends.” Blaaaah.

5) I will also notate game-specific things with their own shape on the sheet. In this game, there are groups (like the “Engineering Guild” and “Blood Cult” diamonds in the lower right corner) and there are planets (the circles with rings around them). They need to be different and quickly noted as such!

6) When I start adding NPCs, I usually make them rectangles. I screwed that up a little here because I was moving fast and I was tired, but they’re definitely different-looking than the PCs. They also get age and gender notes.

7) Once we’ve knocked out the mechanically important connections between PCs, NPCs, groups, fronts, and locations, I’ll then do another pass to draw connections that are merely implied by the stuff so far. This is a good place to use another Sharpie color.

Depending on the game, there might be a lot of implied relationships! So for example, Sagas of the Icelanders is all about families, right? When I ran it at Dreamation 2016, Mikael Andersson started doodling up a more traditional family tree to uncover the connections, and it was totally vital to help us remember oh yes, if I have an uncle and we’re cousins, then I guess that uncle is your dad! and other obvious-after-the-fact relationships. SWvM doesn’t need that so I don’t really bother.

8) Once the game is up and running, don’t be shy about adding new things to the r-map. Absolute worst case scenario, you draw a fresh one for your next session.

As characters die, X them out, big and bold. As we learn more about setting details (planets and fronts here), continue adding notes to them. As new NPCs get revealed, add them to the sheet and immediately start drawing connections to what’s already on the sheet.

And talk. Keep talking. Every time your pen touches the sheet, say out loud what’s happening. Engage a couple senses and everyone will (mostly) stay on the same page.

Disclaimer: There are players for whom this method totally does not work. I don’t know how to adapt it so it will. But I listen and check in once in a while to make sure we haven’t left anyone behind.


To recap: use a bold marker on a big sheet that everyone can see, narrate as you go, use different shapes for different entities, add synopses each time you draw a line, and check in regularly to make sure everyone knows what you’re doing.

Don’t Bother With This If…

I’ve run into some games where this method either doesn’t make sense, or is actively detrimental.

* Road trip games. I thought about setting one up for The One Ring when we were playing that, but it doesn’t really make sense there. The only continuous relationships are those between the Fellowship members, and they may go many sessions between locations. In my head, I have tiny r-maps for each town, with a single circle for “the Fellowship” and that town’s NPCs around it. It just doesn’t make sense given the additional load of maintaining a useful r-map.

* Tactical/mission games. Moooostly I don’t bother. I did one for The Sprawl, which is heavily mission-oriented, and it felt like more trouble than it was worth. But it did give me a place to add NPCs as they’re created by that game’s rules. So, maybe? Ehh. Ditto Blades in the Dark, although in that case I might do it specifically because it might take the players’ minds off the mission and help them think more about the larger context of their lives.

Aaaand I think that’s it. AMA.

The Secret Project

I did get a bit of playtesting in on my as-yet-unnamed game. I was feeling disappointed/salty about having kind of squandered an opportunity for a larger playtesting audience at NewMexicon, but a semi-disastrous run Monday night made me grateful I’d just played and had a good time tbh.

Then, moments after deciding my project was irredeemably flawed and needed indefinite shelving, I think we came up with what will be a very fun, very hot PbtA variant that handles PvP tension (the failure point of my design, which demands tons of it). Bidding! Bluffing! Full body engagement!

If 30-second “what if” test scenarios got everyone going oooOOOooo! I have to think it’s at least worth considering for a cornerstone procedure.

Which of course means I’ll be starting my… fifth, maybe, version. The premise is mostly unchanged but all that design sweat, aieee.

Sure makes me wish I had some kind of playstorming environment here on the regular. Ah well, just need to convince everyone to drop everything and fly out quarterly.

Indulgent and Tedious NewMexicon Debrief

Is nobody else also interested in hearing about this awesome up-and-coming regional indie-focused convention? Awesome, let’s begin.

MadJay Brown​​ and I hit this a couple years ago, when it was 35ish people. The hotel was nicer and the crowd was tiiiiiny tiny. Setting up games is a muster system, where GMs pitch their games and then wither under self-doubt and misery while they’re passed over for a Magpie Games​​ playtest or version 475 of Blades in the Dark or Jason Corley​​’s 15th consecutive Primetime Adventures slot. In 2015, the pitch space was so small that it fit inside, basically, a large hotel suite. And it was great! The games I arranged were generally strong and well-curated, I didn’t feel the need to run all my available slots, which is always a good sign.

Zip ahead a couple years. I skipped last year because I hit Dreamation in Morristown instead, so it was nice to see the large-ish time jump and what it had wrought on the con. Well it’s now twice as big and held in a total dive of a hotel, but to the hotel’s credit at least they’re willing to pull the beds out of the reserved game space: it’s 100% private room gaming, which has become for me my only Total Deal Breaker if I don’t get it. But, you know, the place is still rough. Upsides: a couple decent sit-down restaurants and a couple decent fast-food options within walking distance. That’s huge.

I got MadJay back in on road-tripping it out of Tempe, about a 7 hour drive from Albuquerque across the marvelously apocalyptic wasteland of Four Corners Arizona. Our common friends Jeremiah Frye​​ and Patrick Riegert​​ hopped on and so the four of us, all grayer and fatter and a few years closer to our Final Con Slot, headed out.

We pulled in a day early to hook up with event organizer, friend, and Licenced Good Guy Nicholas Hopkins​​. He was, of course, running around like a headless chicken because even a smallish event like this has a thousand moving parts and none of them are especially lubricated. We, stupidly, hung out past our welcome and then arm-twisted Nick and Phil Lewis​​ into a gratuitous game of Urban Shadows that ran well past 0100 Friday morning. We’re old men! We can’t do that! Dumb but fun.

Friday I’d arranged a private non-con game of my favorite-favorite one-shot game, Sagas of the Icelanders, with Ara Winter​​, his wife and sister (my requirement: Do not run SotI if it’s going to be a sausage fest) and the roadtrippers in the hours before NewMexicon formally started. It was great, six players and some of them had fairly minimal RPing experience. Really a wonderful experience. After listening to brutal criticism of my favorite-favorite game from Mark Diaz Truman​​ and Marissa Kelly​​, it got me thinking a lot about that funny division between the “play to the spirit the designer intended” indie cult and the “bring absolutely nothing but what the text says” indie cult. I’ll talk about that more later.

Friday night was Tomer Gurantz​​’s Fallout Shelter, this PbtA-esque adaptation of the app game thingie of the same name. But with Legos. Very cute, lots of novel presentation — character sheets and the map were all Legos, upgrades were little Lego bits, he must have put literally hundreds of hours into assembling the thing, never mind writing completely original rules for it. For all the love the OSR scene gets for its DIY arts-and-crafts element, this was really an astonishing work and entirely 100% Indie Approved.

It ran too late. I couldn’t sleep, used a sleep aid, woke up dizzy and spun out and ill Saturday morning. Boo. Ten billion grams of protein and fat at The Owl diner set me straight. I won’t poop right for a week (just saying).

Saturday morning was the expectedly excellent introduction to Joe Beason​​, who jumped on my Space Wurm vs Moonicorn one-shot. I’d never run the one-shot rules, which are … quite different than the full Dungeon World reskin campaign. Building a working game out of completely original playbooks and no common moves is audacious and genius and frankly I can’t fathom why every PbtA going forward doesn’t take this approach. Joe was great and a knitting fiend at the table, and had to Joesplain to me that no, dummy, knitting =/= checked out and bored. The experience was great, probably 50/50 worldbuilding and Actually Playing. The lack of common moves was surprisingly more robust than I was expecting. It’s definitely going in my one-shot con bag.

Saturday afternoon was I N H E R I T A N C E with nine total rock stars, and I know all but one of their names. First contact with the elusive feathered Sage LaTorra​​, who was cruising around with his NM posse Daniel Lofton​​, Isaac Milner​​, his extravagantly theatrical wife Jenni (is she on Plus?), Sage’s brother Whit LaTorra​​, uh uh uh Yoshi Creelman​​, Jeremiah Frye​​, Joe Beason​​ aaaaand the other woman whose name escapes me god damn it. I had no idea at all how it would play out and holy wow, luke crane​​ has put together a nearly flawless larp-in-a-bag experience, totally fun even for non-larpers. I think several of the folks who played were Not Larpers, in fact, and it was super-fun, metal, melodramatic, and snappy. Not once did it feel like the energy level ever really got saggy. Murder, so much murder. We debriefed after and at Bosque Brewing for literally two hours. That’s nearly as long as the event!

Saturday night I saw Phil Lewis​​ pitch a silly Dungeon Crawl Classics game that Sage LaTorra​​ and Daniel Lofton​​ and that whole crew jumped right on. Decision time! I’d just played with everyone else in the posse, totally solid folks and I’d go out of my way to play with all of them if I lived in NM. And DCC gets mad indie love for reasons I don’t really understand although I have both charitable and uncharitable Opinions about why that is. I’m probably wrong on both counts. The experience was fine, honestly, but I know for sure now that DCC is Not My Jam. I was probably that dick who should take advantage of an open door policy so as to not drag everyone else down. But! That crew is bonkers and fun and, honestly, totally worth sticking out a not-fun-for-me game experience for a so-very-fun-for-me social experience. I regret nothing, and I hope Phil et al don’t either.

Another night without enough sleep. No drugs. Suck it up Beakley, sleep when you’re dead.

Sunday morning was an off-the-books game of Star Wars run under Fate by Morgan Ellis​​, widely regarded as The Guy You Talk To When You Don’t Get Fate. And he is! Our hand-picked table (I say hand-picked but really it’s hand-picked and oh look, that loudmouth Beakley has invited himself, how mmmmmwonderful) had Stras Acimovic​​, Brendan Conway​​ and Marissa Kelly​​ reprising roles from two years ago (!!), and MadJay Brown​​ and I taking on new characters from a big package of pregens Morgan had put together when his campaign concept was, I think, not where it is now. But it was super-Starwarzy, he was patient with my petulance questions, and I can say it was my overall best experience of the con. Strong table and facilitation and all that. Just saying, being a pushy loudmouth pays off sometimes.

Sunday night was a really nice BBQ and Strong Gamer Opinions Fight Club session at Nick’s house. Chatted with Sarah Richardson​​ and boy am I glad I did. Her game Velvet Glove sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to following it. Kenneth Hite​​ was there out-opinioning Mark Diaz Truman​​, quite amusing. Excellent post-event unwinding to a good event.

tldr played games, will do again.

Some thoughts about the event:

* Pitching still seems to work at 70ish participants but boy howdy is it hectic and occasionally weird. You really need about a dozen games getting pitched every slot and pitching is its own skill.

* Adding larps to this event is exactly the right thing to do. Not too many, all good events (I heard only good things about the two scheduled events, and of course Inheritance was fanflippingtastic), and indienerds have heavy crossover with non-boffer larp. Yay, more of that.

* Not sure the convention actually needs guests of honor. It’s so player-facing, and totally lacking roundtables, workshops, panels, what-have-you. TBH I’m not even sure the guests had that good a time. Dunno, I’m always sensitive to that stuff. Personally I’ll never attend nor not-attend an event with GOHs, it’s just not a thing for me.

* As seedy as the hotel was, jeez, pretty much perfect for private room gaming. The rooms were a nice size, nothing was really far from anything else, private bathrooms were a non-trivial amenity.

* The organizers now have several years’ worth of experience and it shows. From where I was, there were no problems at all. Don’t know where the ceiling is before all the usual con problems start to crop up. Whatever that number is, let’s maybe not hit it? Depends on the goals of the organizers of course. I thought this was juuuust right.

And in conclusion, MadJay Brown​ and Jeremiah Frye​ joined our regular Tuesday night game of Spacewurm vs Moonicorn. I pulled playbooks from Johnstone Metzger​’s Dungeon Planet for single-session guest star purposes; they’re not nearly so specific as the remaining SWvM playbooks. They ended up playing the Technician (wizard) and the Engine of Destruction (fighter by way of giant robot).

I think our new players were shell shocked by the total freak show of a setting, which gets freakier every session. They also got first exposure to the novel new moves and economies of the custom books while the old players were pretty excited, I think, to see the weird moves adding all kinds of strange new inputs into the game.

Best development was finally, finally pulling our Space Void Madness danger into focus: they have actual plans on how to defeat the hunters and control the front. Rad, wish we’d had time to get all the way there tonight but six players is a lot of people to juggle.

It has been so great to have a week of non-stop lab grade gaming and now I’m ready to sleep for days.