Tales of Terror

In the spirit of the happiest holiday of the year, here are my top ten red flags sure to scare me away from a table. All drawn from real life!

1) Oh, we don’t even worry about the dice. We just roleplay and have a good time! (Which is hilarious because I’m totally down with games where you don’t roll dice and just roleplay! But context is everything, and if I’m sitting down to Play A Game, I want to play that game and not skydive into whatever microcommunity understanding you’ve developed with your home crew.)

2) This is gonna be more of a demo than a game. (I kind of feel bad about this one because lordy knows designers/publishers need to sell their stuff for #latecapitalism reasons. I still want to just play and decide for myself.)

3) You can play anything you can think of. (Yikes.)

4) We’ve been looking for a publisher for 20 years now, but nobody wants to take a chance on us. (Oh my sweet summer children creaky old fossils encased in amber.)

5) I just picked up the PDF last week (alt: the Kickstarter just delivered a couple days ago) but it doesn’t look like there’s anything surprising. We’ll just look stuff up if we need to. (Please, please no. I’m begging you. Take a few days, honest, it’s okay.)

6) I’ve been working on this hack. It’s kind of a mix of Rifts and Savage Worlds and PbtA but it’s more complicated than that. (Errrr maybe? This is like that middle school haunted house thing where you reach your hand into a bowl behind a curtain and squish whatever’s in there.)

7) …4…5…6. Sure, we’ve got room for one more! (Nooo! Probably!)

8) “The rule of cool.” (Hard pass.)

9) We’re all about roleplaying, not rollllplaying, maaaan. (HARD PASS.) (Also see 1))

10) It’s basically Mouse Guard/Apocalypse World/Fate/Fiasco but I fixed the problems with it. (…orly?)

Have a safe and spooky one and see y’all when it’s safe to come out.

Psychic Position(ing) Revisited
Misery Tourism

Followup to the first post in this thread of ideas: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+PaulBeakley/posts/LnmV3v49goc

To recap for the tl;dr crowd: alongside fictional, social and mechanical (!) position(ing), I proposed that players have an internal emotional play-state I’m calling psychic positioning.

(Ground rules: THIS IS NOT AN INVITATION TO START A DEFINITION WAR. Nor is it an invitation to “helpfully” reframe the entire conversation into your preferred model. Neither of those things will advance this conversation. Don’t be That Person.)

One thing that’s been rolling around in my head is that, particularly in games I’ve played that are designed to fiddle with your psychic position, the position I experience inevitably is negative: sadness, despair, frustration, anger. I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking, when I read a phrase like “hit them in the feels,” feels is code for this position. I have to think this is related to the (gross and mischaracterizing) phrase “misery tourism,” yeah?

I have nothing, like, at all, against giving voice and freedom to these emotions through play. It’s even kind of a safe place to let that happen. Rather than, say, a random triggery event as you’re going through your day and are suddenly reminded of the death of a relative, or a difficult breakup, or an ugly disagreement, or some childhood trauma.

But it’s also got me thinking: what would it take, procedurally or mechanically, that is, within the design of the experience itself, to psychically position players toward positive emotions? Glee, happiness, love, satisfaction.

I do think that these psychic positions get achieved, but interestingly they’re not in the modes of play I prefer. Pattern completion can invoke a sense of satisfaction, for example. We get a little dopamine hit from intermittent rewards, which is the entire basis of the gambling industry. We also see these things in the traddiest of trad games: leveling up lets you pursue an optimal character build, and that shit is satisfying. I think that satisfaction can be frustrated by nu-wave Story Now type designs that trade in optimization for interesting new fictional opportunities. Like, a new move in Apocalypse World doesn’t necessarily make you badder-assed.

I feel like in some ways, it’s almost scary to allow a positive psychic position to take hold. Because then it’s something that can be taken away. Easy “feels.” Is it a cop-out? “Good drama?” I dunno. It’s probably a thing that happens throughout creative media, but somehow it feels more dangerous (to me) in our creative media, because in certain modes of play we’re invited to assume the identity who will experience those feels.

My Golden Cobra submission this year (https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BxZk7ypnJt47eDNpZ3NmYzlPY00) was built mostly around a gamified version of “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/no-37-big-wedding-or-small.html), mostly as a thought experiment along these lines. It’s a much, much harder target to achieve than it may seem! And I take it This Is My Power Button aims for that as well…but apparently leverages the positive bond the players build into the deep sads at the end. I’ve only read recounts of this (via Joe Beason’s ridiculously great writeup of his experience, might have been a private share) so I may be getting that wrong.

Anyway, just thinking about this. Wondering if it’s a cop-out that we can, fairly trivially, achieve the sads and mostly work toward achieving the happies just to have them cut out from under us.

#goldencobra #goldencobra2017

Design Woes

Now that I’ve got a page layout program I can work with (no starting this argument here! STFU!) I’m finally having to reconcile myself to the fact that my Secret Project is too damn big.

Too many rules.

The moves are too cumbersome.

Too many things to keep in your head at once.

Too much too much too much.

I’ve got enough design work jammed into this thing for probably five games. And then I’ve got a 8.5×14 sheet in front of me, physical paper mind you, thinking that little extra space might help store all the information (and folks were more than happy to buy legal paper for years before AW2E), but…no. Not even close.

Probably the most elaborate I’ve seen is Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, which is two sheets/four pages (standard) and might be maybe too much for some people. I’m not sure I’d want to put something out more elaborate than that. All the Magpie games (Urban Shadows, Epyllion, Masks) land at a solid two pages, with some nice layout to pad things out. The Veil is very tight, tiny type, maybe the densest layout.

I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me until right now to really take form factor into account. One of the killer apps of the biggest PbtA games is that everything a player needs is on their character sheet plus outside references. Apocalypse World kind of raised the bar with, what, 4 reference sheets for players?

This is what I get for putting my nose into Scrivener and not coming up for air for literally years. Maybe I can build four more games out of whatever I core out of it.

Hmm! I’ve always dreamed of creating a components-rich rpg. This looks interesting but I have no sense at all of how it plays. Seems like it’s in the same zip code as No Thank You, Evil! but maybes even more lavish and shallower design.

Money money money.


Humpocalypse Day
Session 2

My big to-dos for the second session were:

1) Integrate two new players, and
2) Start using my prep.

Atop our starting set of driver, chopper and battlebabe, our new players chose a savvyhead and a brainer. What an impact! Driver and chopper are quite conventional choices, which is great because it’s a very gentle on-ramp to start playing straight away. Everyone “gets” PA bike gangs and badass drivers. The battlebabe isn’t that far off-piste, mostly a showy, cinematic killer.

Adding Jonathan Perrine’s savvyhead upped the weirdness quotient a good bit, what with augury and the workshop and all that. Augury is very weird (not capital-W Weird but it’s also that) and just having that move looming in the background started shifting my headspace about the game toward a more uh supernatural vibe.

Oh but the brainer, good lord. Probably, In My Humble Opinion, the most distinctive wtf playbook in the whole basic set. I have no idea where the idea for the playbook even came from, I can’t track it back to my own literary/cinema database, but whatever. It’s very sci-fi, right? And sexy-kinky in a way nobody else really is. The battlebabe is empty eye candy but the brainer, well. Our player is also playing her in a very spacy weird way, which is awesome. Naturally her character knocked boots with an NPC to trigger the deep brain scan effect.

The Hx questions worked okay, not great, although everyone did pretty much get into everyone else’s business. Almost everyone has the “everyone else at the table” type effects, which helped. I think it’ll be no problem at all going forward.

Five players is…a lot of players. It feels extra-heavy because Apocalypse World is so action-heavy aaaaand there’s no formal spotlight-sharing procedure in place, ie an “initiative” system or whatever. It’s pure MC management, which is fine, even good since it’s more flexible for shaping interesting outtakes. But it’s easy to leave some players behind if they’re not shoehorning themselves into scenes. I think I did okay but first session’s players definitely got less spotlight time than our luxurious 3-player 5ish-hour start to the game last week. It’s fine, I’m back into one-shotty mode.

We changed around highlighted stats of course. First session, everyone did what they’re best at and leveled fast (a couple advances each IIRC). This session, I started picking not-quite-as-good stats. Some players took to this prompt really well — the battlebabe stopped relying on being cool and started socially hustling — while others felt dis-incented to roll anything other than their best stats. It’s a Thing about AW and not everyone loves it. Some minor grousing/wishing for DW’s XP-on-a-miss system, which is probably the most elegant and straightforward one out there. But I really did like seeing them roll for stuff other than their go-to moves.

My prep mostly worked fine, although I forgot to set up clocks and countdowns for the big/interesting crypto-Fronts. I think that’s actually okay for the second session, now that we have our full player load and everyone’s on-board with the setup and situation. But yeah, warlords warlorded, brutes were brutish, and the landscape…well, that was pretty spectacular.

There was a moment of play where the driver, chopper and battlebabe were all arguing at/past each other about the battlebabe’s scheme/mission. It was pretty great! They grabbed their dice and worked out their moves exactly right while I ran to the kitchen to refill my hydroflask. And when I came back, the driver rolled a miss while trying to hinder the battlebabe’s manipulate, which also missed.

So I took the first miss and introduced the unmistakable smell of an unkempt forest burning. And I took the second miss and put the fire right next to the most prized possession of this holding: a dozen filled fuel tankers.

In retrospect I could have maybe started two threads of badness and counted on future misses to get them both rolling. It felt a teeny bit cheaty to one-two punch with the back-to-back misses; there was, in my head, a teeny bit of retconning that the three-way argument had continued despite the whiff of smoke, and instantly fell apart when they saw flames licking at several thousand gallons of the most valuable substance in the southern Rockies.

Whatever, crosshairs, no status quos, let’s turn everything upside-down.

The characters lost their home base, saved the tankers (although who fuckin’ knows where they’re gonna end up, definitely not all where they’re supposed to!), and started a mass migration right into the home of their frenemies The Patriots (‘Murica! Fuck yeah!). I’m sure the half-dozen organized biker gangs will happily submit to the Patriots’ strict chain of command and hand over their tankers.


Apocalypse Tuesdays
Session 2 Prep

We got enough traction on session one that everyone is down for another session of ye olde Apocalypse World. This and future sessions require some prep, and this is where I find out that 2E is not so very olde.

The entire fronts setup is quite different in 2E! I’ve got 1E and 2E open side by side on my monitors so I can track the differences, because when I cracked open the book to doodle on stuff @ my daughter’s swim practice last week, mostly I was baffled and confused.

The differences start with the Threat Map idea, which honestly really is very much what I would call a situation map (yes yes a longer piece is coming I PROMISE): the threats are grouped geographically, which helps ground the game in literal geography (north/south/near/far etc.) and reminds me to have regionally adjunct threats influence one another. Regions entirely replace Fronts as well: just Threats attached to the Threat Map.

(NB: I think this is one reason I mentioned last post that I felt like the feeeels were missing: it’s not just the feels, it’s the overall abstraction, the … literary-ness, maybe? Fronts are purely a fictional construct to help keep theme on track, and this version gives no shits about putting its hands so directly on theme.)

So: no fronts, therefore no scarcities (and alas, no home Front: no safe space for you snowflakes). It’s all just Threats. There are more of them, and they all come with even more moves, and now I’m feeling honestly a bit overwhelmed by the huge array of potential moves available to me. I had already gotten over my early hesitation/problems/skepticism of the GM move list as being too limiting; this is the opposite problem, an embarrassment of riches, too much too much too much.

Also, literally every fuckin’ thing is a Threat. Under the Essential Threats list at the front of the Threats chapter, it’s all right there: the dirt they’re standing on, the truck they’re driving, their gang, every NPC, every local population. Every. Fuckin’. Thing. It’s great but also a bit overwhelming. I did the probably-obvious thing and picked out a fistful of Threats I felt like were probably the most uh threatening and detailed them a bit more with stakes questions.

My favorite prep question is: what kind of threat is the world’s psychic maelstrom? Really interesting! A couple PCs opened their brains on the first session, and thank goodness because now I have a tiny bit of guidance from the players. But what kind, right? Is the maelstrom an Affliction (the easy/obvious choice)? Or is it a Landscape? Potentially awesome, maybe weird given the Landscape moves that lead to Terrain threats and moves. Is the maelstrom a Grotesque? Weird! Maybe! I couldn’t wrap my head around Vehicle or Warlord as legit maelstrom Threat types but that’s probably just my limited imagination.

So, like, by the book? Prep is easier, finer grained, no authorial worries about lassoing maybe-disparate Threats under a single Front. But it’s also harder, maybe more chaotic, in actual play: way more moves, less thematic grouping other than whatever I work out in an ad-hoc way. I’ll find out tonight.

Positional Awareness

Fictional positioning, as I understand and use the phrase: establishing a clear, hopefully shared, understanding of the fictional context in which roleplaying happens. Moving the fictional elements in a way that everyone agrees to. Practically speaking, the most important factor in fiction-first play: if your character’s been disarmed, you can’t injure the armored monster until your character’s sword is back in hand. If you’re careening down a mountainside on skis, you can’t be reading your spellbook. To make road war moves, I need to be in a vehicle. And so on.

That may not be book-accurate to whoever cooked the phrase up the first time (probably Vx but I don’t know for sure). But let’s go with that for now.

Today I noodled on what other kinds of “positioning” I see happening in the course of play.

Social positioning: the at-the-table experience between live players while playing. Here I’m thinking about purposeful tension buildup-and-release – say, the one-roll resolution of “I Stab Them In the Face” in Burning Empires or the general structure of abstracted scripted conflicts in Torchbearer. Of course it’s good form to rationalize your decisions (“what does it look like?”) but it’s not being driven by the fiction itself. Nor is it supposed to be. I feel like a lot of the appeal of Burning Wheel for me is that a lot of what it does happens at the social level.

Psychic positioning: the internal experience of the players. The feels evoked in the player’s mind and heart, rather than those the player is projecting or authoring or whatever into their character. I’m not really qualified to make a blanket statement on this but my limited exposure to modern larp is that lots of what I’ve experienced is what I’m calling psychic positioning: the situations exist to push my, Paul’s, buttons. Some of the more purposeful feels-manipulating systems in tabletop games (intimacy moves in Urban Shadows, say) fall inside this for me as well.

Tactical positioning: Mechanical Positioning (see comments for clarification, what follows isn’t really what I was getting at): setting up the game-writ-large to get what you want, whatever that might be. Taking favorable actions that provide advantages down the road. Providing brief-but-meaningless explanations for dice you add to a die pool, or aiming your character toward procedures that’ll produce greater success even though it makes less contextual sense than another, sub-optimal choice. And sure, players regularly rationalize their choices to align tactical and truthful play. I’ve done it! I’m not even slightly suggesting this is categorically bad, either.

On that note, I want to make clear that none of what I’m thinking about is categorically bad or good or anything. Purely descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m just ruminating on the tools at hand. Some of that is a reminder to myself of what’s actually happening at the table, particularly in moments I feel dissatisfied. I think this is a place where, like, I wish Apocalypse World 2E had more ways to psychically position the players’ hearts, and that all the excellent fictional positioning that’s happening (because the rules require it) feels … I don’t know, maybe bereft of greater meaning (to me). Or our recent run through Torchbearer, which produces terrific at-the-table tension because lots of social positioning is happening, but can result in ex post facto fiction to rationalize the cards and dice-grubbing.

I feel like every moment of play, every decision we make, is probably made up of us positioning all these things: fictional elements, each other, our emotions, and our desires. Even the things we either have elected not to position, or we don’t have to because the procedures don’t require us to do so, are still present and factor into how we experience each moment. The rules give us more or less authority, depending on our real-world function in the game, over these positions at different levels.

Sometimes players without the authority will push and pull to position anyway! In a Star Wars Fate game I played at NewMexicon earlier this year, I spent a good amount of time/energy maneuvering my elderly senator into a position where not only he could have a touching pass-the-torch moment with another character at the table, but so I could dig into the feels of the character’s martyrdom. I wanted to feel that! And not just fictionally.

Obviously this is just one metaphor and there are a million other ways to interpret and internalize your experience. I’m just putting thoughts to paper pixels about my experience. Please think long and hard about why your first reaction is nuh-uh! if that’s where you want to go. I’m super not interested in alpha nerd posturing or clever intellectual combat! I’m saying this mostly to the dudes who read me.

Meanwhile Johnstone Metzger​ is somewhere in Canada hiding behind a wall of Space Wurm vs Moonicorn cases wondering why folks are ranting about him all over gamer media.


Amazing New Discovery
Transform Your Gaming With This One Weird Trick

So I don’t know if you follow small press gaming very closely, but there’s this very clever little game that came out recently y’all should know about. It’s called Apocalypse World. There’s even a second edition of it.

Right so at…I want to say RinCon this year, a bunch of us aging indienerds were lamenting the fact that good old Apocalypse World never really gets played any more. There is so damned much PbtA hotness swirling around, and indienerds seem to mostly have a thirst for novelty, so the great granddaddy languishes, beloved when we remember to feed him but mostly ignored in the attic.

I had three strong players and a very early Tuesday game day start (430! Unheard of!), so fuck yeah, let’s throw down.

I read through second edition when I got my paws on it, kind of skimmed until I ran into obviously new stuff (battle moves, road war), nodded yup yup yup, didn’t really notice the smaller details, the little gestures. Turns out Vincent Baker​​ EDIT *and Meguey Baker​*​ packed a lot of small adjustments into the new volume.

It’s been, jeez, five years or more since I actually ran Apocalypse World. I think my last touch was playing with MadJay Brown​​ at a BigBadCon several years back. The infrastructure of the game is lodged in there tight because I’ve been brining in PbtA juice for years now. But actually playing the new thing again was eye opening.

Thoughts in bullet point form for your potty reading pleasure:

* Apocalypse World is an adventure game. AW is far less feels-oriented than many of its excellent offspring. I’d go so far as to say that AW isn’t my favorite iteration of itself! That said, jeez, shit definitely snowballs quickly and brutally. It’s still a master class in compact design! But I was kind of surprised to find that there’s very little ummm emotional manipulation happening with the various economies and incentives.

* It is the fastest PbtA to deploy. I haven’t played all the PbtAs but I’ve played enough that I feel like I’ve got an informed opinion on this. One thing I’ve seen among the new PbtAs is ever more elaborate pre-game situation setup. Frequently there’s so much (Urban Shadows, Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, Headspace, etc.) that we’ve sold ourselves on this setup-is-play ethic. Especially true whenever I’ve spooled these games out in a con slot: yes yes I’d also rather be playing than setting up, but since that’s not happening let’s at least try to enjoy the prep.

But this game, jeez. One of my buddies was marveling that we hit the ground running and played hard for four or five hours. The only setup they had to do was the Hx questions, plus my further interrogations, plus some very high-gloss “so where in the country? Four Corners area? Okay great let’s go” type stuff. That was, I want to say, not more than 30 minutes from playbook selection to the first hard frame.

* So many little changes. Did you notice that help/hinder is different now? I didn’t. It’s a good change! Act_ Do Something Under Fire’s_ 7-9 has always been, I think, the moment of heaviest cognitive load in the game, but help/hinder 7-9 was right up there alongside. Now it’s a +/- 1 on a soft hit, or +/- 2 on a hard hit. Excellent, simple, straightforward. It produces less draaaama but it’s also faster handling time.

Another one: lots of options and ideas for how to interpret Seize by Force. Very welcomed. It’s functionally identical as far as I can tell but now there are explicit ideas of what all you can Seize.

The new MC worksheet for doodling out the relationship map is very nice. It’s kind of a situation map (smap!), which always excites me. They’ve added a physical component to mapping out the threats (north or south, near or far, internal or external, etc.) which I think very much helps ground the game.

Oh jeez what else? There are way, way more common moves now — that is, if you count battle moves and road war moves among them. I do. That shit is all pretty frequent (first use of the word) and everyone has access to them (other use of the word), so, yeah. Common moves. I’ve been auditing my entire PbtA collection for my own purposes and found that 8 or 9 common moves is the typical spread. AW itself has all those and several additional combat moves and road moves. It’s a lot of moves. It felt, in my opinion, foreign and unwieldy. But mostly just because I’m used to 1E.

The Battle moves are a welcome change in our group, by the by. The old Seize by Force stuff was definitely a speedbump for my people, so expanding on that and offering additional just-kill-em options are good for us.

EDIT: the only move subset I’m feeling iffy on is the Tactical & Support set: lay down fire, stand overwatch, keep an eye out. They feel…fussy, maybe. I get that folks who aren’t right in the shit making the actual Seize roll want to feel involved, but tbh I kind of preferred ye olde Help/Hinder for that. Stand overwatch in particular I found hard to implement well. The target takes harm and that’s that? Really? I suppose the counterbalance is that they’re rolling more and therefore risking a miss more. But stand overwatch turned our Battlebabe into an overwatch machine with his +3 Cool. Which meant he reflexively bowed out of being involved in anything but a supporting role. Still deciding how I feel about that.

* I remember the game having more feels than it does. I don’t know why I remember it different. I can’t point at anything in particular; possibly it’s the Hx questions. Or it’s the fact that my more-favorite iterations (Sagas of the Icelanders, Urban Shadows, Masks) have more gut punches baked in. I didn’t ever really feel the emotional content of our game. Either that or my bandwidth was just being taken up with all the new moves and I didn’t have much brain left over to push buttons.

* It is ridiculously well tested. I mean, yeah. Obviously there are a zillion committed players and a very active community. And Vincent EDIT and Meg are smart as hell. But, like here’s a small example: one of my players took the Battlebabe, I think because he eyeballed the playbook as “better” than the Gunlugger because of the Battlebabe magic (dangerous and sexy). He quickly discovered that the Battlebabe’s secret sauce is that they have to directly confront people: Battlebabe is all about Go Aggro, not Seize By Force. So next up he went for Ice Cold, which lets the Battlebabe swap in Cool for Hard when Going Aggro. Then he earned an advance and went shopping through all the playbooks for a move that’d let him Seize By Force with cool instead of hard. We can’t find it! I don’t think it exists, and thank goodness otherwise you’d have a mechanically boring advancement track for the Battlebabe, who simply ceases to be anything other than cool. He grumbled that the Gunlugger has the opposite effect — swap in hard for cool — and thought it was “unfair.” I was surprised because he’s usually not sensitive to minmaxing, but in this case I think he thought he’d found a useful exploit. But he didn’t, because AW is ridiculously well tested.

* Wow so many reference sheets. Way way more than before.

So anyway, yeah. Our particular apocalypse isn’t super inventive and that’s fine: warring biker gangs lurking around southwestern Colorado, battles on the open plains, badass road fights in the mountains, lunatic evil juggalo bikers, a big unwieldy gang for the Chopper, a cool-ass Driver who’s just revealed her homebuilt tank, a louche Battlebabe wandering from hardholder to hardholder looking for the laziest/easiest gig even as a three-way war is bubbling up.