#12: Name an RPG, setting, or adventure you haven’t run or played before, but really want to try out in 2018. What particularly appeals about it?
Can I confess something? Just between us? Sit a little closer.
I’m feeling a little…unenthusiastic about roleplaying right at this exact minute. I don’t know what it is! I’m not hating on it, not at all. And when I’ve escalated my physical activity in the past, it’s always meant a reduction in mental and emotional energy for gaming. My gaming and physical lives have always been a zero-sum equation.
Some of it comes from a change in my local group’s makeup this year and headed into next year. One of my longest-run regulars moved away last year, which honestly has been a net positive because there was a lot of unhealthy history there. Time went by and the longer they’re gone, the more clearly I can see literally a decade-or-more of passive-aggressive nonsense that everyone’s play conformed around.
We added a couple new people this year and that has been 50% awesome. The other 50% has, unfortunately, just replaced my old problem child with a new one. I’m thinking through how to deal with that, in such a way that our good and healthy play culture doesn’t conform around the problem child. In a perfect world we’d find a way to bring the problem newb into our culture, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.
We’re also losing one of our best people in February as they head off to the Peace Corps. I say best because they’re also my very newest player. It’s so great to take a blank slate, especially when they’re eager to learn, and fill it with best practices and attitudes and not have to stumble around old, bad, ingrained habits.
Lots of changes. I’m feeling unsettled. So maybe that’s why 2018 doesn’t fill me with excitement today. Ask me again next week, you’ll get a different answer I’m sure.
That said, I do have some specific 2018 RPG goals:
My secret project is getting rolled out in force in 2018, and yes yes I’m looking at the full Kickstarter thing. It’ll probably come near or after the PbtA bubble bursts (which I predict happens in 2018), which is totally typical of my relationship with small press gaming. I love a lot about it but my naturally conservative, contemplative approach means I’m nowhere near the bleeding edge. So my big answer is: lots of gaming about knights who are also monsters.
We’re gonna wrap up our Apocalypse World campaign as soon as everyone’s post-holiday schedule settles out. I see it being 3ish more sessions. I haven’t tried restarting a campaign after such a long break so I have no idea if it’ll work or not. It might not! I’ll write about it. Love letters seem like the right way to go. I’ve never used them before.
I feel like AW2 has been heavy going so our next game will be a total space adventure romp: Coriolis. I’ve been legit jazzed about the setting and game and vibe since it arrived.
After Coriolis I’m pretty sure it’s The Veil. I’d actually go with it next but I try to break up my PbtA-style games with other stuff. Not sure if my players care or not. Just a thing I do, mostly for my own brain space.
Beyond that is a vast darkness. I have no idea what will catch my fancy. The newest iteration of Kult is coming, but horror is hard with my specific mix of players. Soth is coming as a 2-or-3 shot at some point. Lots of convention gaming. Paladin might maybe arrive in 2018 and my players have all been making noises about how much they enjoyed King Arthur Pendragon so that might be fun to get back to. I’ve been threatening a Wrath of the Autarch game for a while, and that might be interesting if we’re not feeling a strong pull toward heavy make-believe.
Hope y’all have a great holiday break/season/whatever.
I have no idea if I’ll have time to get to #12 but let’s hit #11 of the #12RPG thing.
Talk about a particular stand out positive experience of play (rather than running) an RPG in 2017. What was it? What was so good about it?
Oh maaan. Okay. 2017. Me, playing, this year. That’d mean a convention game because that’s just how it is.
I’ve looked back through my opportunities to play and it’s been a short list this year. And it’s gotten me thinking about the fact that I have literally no sense at all of how anyone else perceives me as a player. I’d point at the general lack of player recognition as part of this. Not really feeling especially insecure about it (I’m feeling quite insecure about it!), just a part of our thing I guess.
Okay. Best positive experience of play (rather than running) an RPG in 2017 goes to Morgan Ellis’ Fate-powered Star Wars game. He’s been running it for several sessions when the regular crew (+Marissa Kelly (whose account I can’t seem to plus in), Brendan Conway, and Stras Acimovic) find themselves in the same place. It’s an off-the books thing. Stras pulled in Jahmal and I got to ride in as part of his entourage.
I had signed up, intellectually, as a way to suss out how good Fate runs and looks. That’s my gearhead side talking. Emotionally, Star Wars is super-fraught for me because literally every iteration of it has sucked sucked sucked. Edge of the Empire sucks, Saga sucks, WEG’s thing sucks. They all suck because my Opinions about Star Wars can’t be reconciled with these publishers’ needs to extract profit from the majority-trad audience. So I hoped in my tiny shriveled nerd heart that a bespoke Fate creation for a very specific, sympathetic audience, would work.
It did. Morgan’s take on Star Wars was my absolute best starwarzy experience and my best playing experience of 2017.
I can’t say what specifically worked. Fate doesn’t work for me, still. It bugs me in ways I will never get past, which, whatever. Not everything can be my jam. The decision points and mechanical widgets feel arbitrary and my control-freak player habits chafe against that. “Just play and wait for the GM to tell me when and what to roll” is my least-favorite mode of play (even as I propose that to my players, especially when they just cannot internalize how PbtA style fiction-triggered moves work). And yet I submitted to that, mostly in the hopes that Morgan’s facilitation would highlight Fate best practices. I assume I’ve seen them, because the experience was great and I have solved why Fate isn’t for me.
Obviously a huge part of the positive experience was that it was a table of all-stars. There was interpersonal history, but not too much history and not too weird or specific. It was pretty easy for MadJay Brown and I to slot into their situation. Marissa and Brendan and Stras all bring their A game to everything all the time (I’ve played with all of them at some point), so I don’t need to shift to ringer mode. You know what I mean, right? Where your first priority is to support the GM, second priority is to toss softballs to everyone else, and finally, if there’s any time and bandwidth left, you can go ahead and do something for yourself? Yeah. That’s frequently me, especially at con tables. Playing in a largely selfish way was super nice. It renewed my appreciation for why selfish play is both very common and such a problem: it only works when you don’t need to toss softballs and coddle the facilitator and rein in the ideas that might throw others off their game.
I couldn’t tell you what all was so great about the experience. I know Morgan did a good job of sussing out my desire for my character, an aging senator who has thrown in with the Rebellion, to go out in a blaze of self-sacrifice. I know Marissa did a good job of understanding how I was trying to frame up our characters’ emotional high point, a passing of the torch from my old to her new. I know Stras brought enormous enthusiasm to every moment his character touched the fiction. I know Brendan’s quiet, steady play as Marissa’s personal servant was exactly what we all needed. And I know Jahmal shares my skepticism of Fate, which was nice because I didn’t want the baggage of being the one dude at the table chafing against the system. (I got to “enjoy” that privilege at Phil Lewis’s Dungeon Crawl Classics table at the same convention. Sorry man! I’m the worst!)
#10: Mobile phones and the internet in an RPG setting in the modern day would (perhaps with fantastic elements): discuss. What possibilities do they open up? What, if any, issues come up with them when it comes to RPG scenarios?
Kind of a technically specific question today! I can appreciate that though, it’s hard to come up with good ones every day.
The last time we played in something like the modern world was… Urban Shadows probably? I can’t think of anything else. Modern conveniences are just the air we breathe, so it’s not like it’s hard to integrate it. The GM-facing limitations are obvious and probably don’t need to be recounted: everyone’s in contact all the time, hard to leverage most mystery-solving tropes, research is mostly effortless, etc etc. I don’t remember the modern conveniences really coming up other than the fact it’s so easy to summon one another up, maybe with a keep your cool roll to actually make the call under duress.
I’m not feeling super inspired by this one today. I think the ugh with smartphones thing has been talked to death elsewhere.
Okay, we can do this. Question #9 of the #12rpg thing.
#9: You’re planning to run some science fiction, in a setting of your choice. Is there any particular technology you want to include because the possibilities intrigue you? Is there any standard piece of “future technology” you’d rather leave out?
Aaaaallright, I’m gonna be super ultra charitable about the trad assumptions Paul Mitchener is bringing to this question especially, because sci-fi is my jammiest of jams.
There’s a question, I think, at the core of this and #3 (the fantasy one) about the purpose of science fiction and fantasy. That’s some deep litcrit navel-gazing and there are others far more qualified than I am to answer it. But in the realm of RPGs, I have Opinions.
Since this particular question, and my approach to it, fundamentally requires understood and shared definitions, I’ll start with those. I have no interest in relitigating my premise, so if you want to participate or comment on these things as I see them I welcome you to it! Especially my women club members. Just like during #indiegameaday, I’m getting bummed out by the dude-heavy comments.
(Basically, if you’re a dude and want to reject my premise, feel free to start your own thread. I promise you do not need to pee in my yard. Plus me in! I’d love to participate.)
When I’m thinking about fantasy, the themes that come to my mind are exploration and psychology. Like, learning and building on what is known and understood. It’s an unearthing. I’m also generally more interested in interpersonal relationships and thought modes in fantasy. Fantasy has been a really great platform for me to think through how people got to be how they are today.
When I’m thinking about science fiction, the themes that come to my mind are about extrapolation and current events. Extrapolation is fun because it is, in my heart, an essentially hopeful extension of my own life. Like, I’ll never see interstellar travel but maybe my daughter will! Or my dad may never talk to a conscious AI but some kind of intelligence will probably aid him in his final years. You know, stuff like that. On the commentary front, I’m generally not super keyed into on-the-nose metaphors when I run games, but I think they inevitably find their way in. And current tensions in the world make for great inspirations if I want to run a science fiction game that cares about theme. Sometimes I just want a space adventure! Which I think moves it back into how I think about fantasy, above: exploration and psychology.
If I’m thinking about actual science fiction and not space opera or futuristic adventure, sure, there are some technologies that get me feeling extra-speculative:
* All the variations on non-realistic space travel, you know, wormholes and stargates and hyperdrives and jump lanes. All of that. Because the first place I go is the logististics of where the pain points play out in society. One of my favorite weird little Traveller bits was that you needed ships to haul mail (and data I suppose, never really followed Traveller in the internet age) between worlds. Neat!
* If we’re going realistic space travel, then inevitably you’ll need some small handwave to make it possible and interesting. So like the balance they’ve achieved in The Expanse, I dig that. The Epstein drive makes the solar system accessible, but it’s also limited. It’s what makes the three-maybe-four-maybe-five sided conflict in that setting possible. So that’s cool too, right up to the moment my science-minded players start picking apart the other science. Then it gets super not-fun.
(So basically bullets 1 and 2, “space travel,” is huge for me.)
* The notion of being able to move one’s consciousness into different bodies, or just generally treating it like a software problem, is super fascinating. Not a single RPG has taken this on in a way that interests me, though. (No, not even Eclipse Phase. Please stop recommending Eclipse Phase.) It’s probably at the top of my sci-fi premises that I’d like to figure out someday.
* I’m a huge goober for time travel, but I hesitate to call that “technology.” I mean it is, but that’s kind of not the point. My favorite abstract game design problem, because all the best time travel is entirely about the people doing it, not the tech itself.
* I confess I’m super jazzed about the focus on augmented reality in The Veil. Probably because it seems so inevitable from where we are today. Everyone’s an unreliable witness to their lived experience! Amazing. It’s gonna wreck civilization.
Stuff that just doesn’t get me going:
* Psionics. Mehhhh. Magic dressed up with science-y words.
* Cybernetics, I think, are just … generally not well handled. Superpower upgrades are just dumb, but so is cyberpsychosis. There’s gotta be a better way.
* Cyberspace feels overplayed and unlikely, at least in its 80s era Shadowrun style iteration.
In every one of these cases, though, I think it’s just that the topic hasn’t grabbed me long enough to think through how I’d make it my own. Honestly there isn’t a single showstopper tech or futuristic idea for me. Well, maybe psionics.
One thing this question’s trad assumptions leaves out entirely is the realm of social science fiction. I’ve been itching to get a game of Shock: up and going, because it’s just so clever. If you don’t know the game: you basically come up with a grid of technologies, rows and columns (two by two I think? Maybe?). The intersections create questions that you then explore through the society of your setting. So maybe your row is “immortality” and “generation ships” and your column is “self aware AI” and “suicide booths.” Then you’d have these intersections to play with, immortality vs suicide booths, or whatever. It’s the single smartest sci-fi authoring tool I’ve ever come across.
There’s also the freeform space that social scifi opens up. I’ve designed a few of them myself! Last year’s Game Chef finalist, Intake, uses a futuristic setting to dress up a contemporary issue (immigration). Rachel E.S. Walton ‘s Mars 244 is a terrific, wrenching melodrama in three-or-so acts between the crew of a rescue vessel and escaped prisoners headed to a bad end. I liked Montsegur 1244 but I loooooved Mars 244, I think probably because “futuristic” people have a more accessible contemporary head space. It takes less creative energy, I guess, than trying to internalize the values and beliefs of ancient peoples who actually existed – and of course the tension of “getting it right” and “not being a perfectionist.”
And in conclusion: I have a dream RPG I’d love to design someday. It’s dumb, though, because it involves a license and I almost certainly cannot make back what it would cost. Anyway! I’d love to someday build a game that uses the cards from Race for the Galaxy to create situations and settings. It is such a rich implied setting. It’d probably be more space adventure than Actual Serious Science Fiction, but it’s been niggling at me for a decade now.
Getting ahead since we’re headed into a weekend soonish. Number 8 is deep in my wheelhouse. Pull up a chair, I have things to say.
#8: Talk about your typical approach to preparation for running an RPG. Is there a particular method you generally follow? What use do you make of published setting or adventure material, if any?
I fucking hate prep. I just have no interest at all any more in building and balancing and tactical second-guessing and writing aaaalll that material that might be nice for me but will never make an appearance at the table. Any game I can’t comfortably improvise gets serious side-eye.
That said, I do like thinking about my games between sessions – and if I can’t, like if I don’t have a game going, I feel off-center and unhappy. So I guess that’s a kind of prep.
When I’m noodling between sessions, I think about interesting questions, not interesting answers. Interesting answers is their job, not mine.
Regarding the second part of the question: I super-hate published adventures, usually because they cheat or are not representative of how the game actually works. They also exist entirely outside the context of the characters at my table. My games emerge from the needs and priorities of the characters, so being shoved through a prepackaged situation is just awful.
There are exceptions! Like, the big arcs of The Great Pendragon Campaign and The Darkening of Mirkwood are just great: big enough to fit the character-driven stuff inside. I love that stuff. Sometimes it feels constricting, like, if the characters do something that contradicts the arc. We had a major-ish NPC in Darkening die at the hands of the characters, and it took some hustling to make it make sense down the road. The good big-arc setups will be robust enough to work with those events, because nothing sucks more than plot immunity.
An interesting prep-intensive variant on the big arc was Space Wurm vs Moonicorn. There is legit a lot of prep before the first session of play, although the other players are heavily involved in the initial creation of the game’s five Fronts. Johnstone did a good job of asking interesting questions of the GM to answer throughout play, without demanding it all be worked out in advance. It mostly works. The temptation to go down the prep hole is strong, though. The result is similar to GPC or Darkening: you know events are headed toward the titular characters pursuing their goals, and the rest of the game happens inside that.
I have no use for published setting material any more. If it’s a big canonical download, ugh, no thank you. Very few things aggravate me more than canon fights with players. This is what kills me about Star Wars games, although there are ways around it if you’re not playing a technically detailed game. Gosh, it’s been years since I ran a game with an important setting. Probably good old Rogue Trader was the last time.
I do kind of miss the lonely pleasure of reading and dreaming about elaborate settings. I used to love mining out situations and ideas from, say, Exalted. That’s definitely a legit mode of play, and a provocatively incomplete text can be tons of fun. It’s just not my jam any more.
Really, the only prep I do any more is related to the nontrivial task of getting everyone up to speed on a new tabletop game as fast as possible. My methodology there is pretty well established:
1. Read the rules. All of them. Once.
2. Read them again, this time jumping around as questions occur to me.
3. Flowchart the game’s reward cycles to help me understand the whys of how the game works. (Far less important in freeforms and larps and whatever). I can dredge up old posts where I show this in action.
4. Read the rules again.
5. Write cheat sheets for the game’s primary procedures, if they’re not encapsulated in playbooks or moves or whatever. The process of reiterating stuff in your own voice is my #1 prime learning trick. Teaching is learning, as they say.
6. Make characters and develop a premise from that process, probably developing a relationship map as part of that (but not always – some games aren’t concerned about relationships). I can’t think of the last time I wanted to pitch a premise and have characters made in response. It’s a legit approach, and maybe I should sometime, but I’m so service-oriented that I greatly prefer to wait ‘til characters are done.
7. Run a first session. Try out all the primary procedures, if it’s that kind of game.
8. Reread the fucking rules and update the reward cycle flowchart and cheat sheets, because game designers almost never understand their own games.
9. Optional: start a fight with the game’s superfans, who are convinced they possess special insight into the game’s secrets. Maybe learn something. Probably not.
Okay, I’m in before the productivity software shuts off my fun. Next question!
#7. Is there an RPG genre you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks? What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?
I love this question because it’s so obviously personal to Paul Mitchener’s experience. This is how I did #indiegameaday so I appreciate where he’s coming from.
Eloy Cintron had a really good answer about transhumanism, and I kind of echo his sentiment on it. But! I think it’s more because I have yet to see a system really tackle the interesting questions of the genre: Eclipse Phase has fascinating material but is totally trad in its approach (even the Fate version) and Freemarket has a fictional setup that I find hard to connect with. Or maybe it’s that the Freemarket system doesn’t hook into the questions that gnaw at me about transhumanism. I’m working on a post about fruitless voids and I’ll swing back around to this topic later.
So! Transhumanism isn’t quite my answer. No mental blocks, not really, just no good tools yet.
I think my answer for #7 will be: Heart-warming.
When I was between games about a year ago, I put together a list of things I wanted to run and let my players secretly dole out “votes” (everyone got 3) in any way they wanted on that list. It’s good, it’s democratic, everyone’s basically happy with the outcome.
One of the games on the list was Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. This damned game has been haunting me for years, in large part because its procedures are so strange. I have no precedent to fall back on and I can’t really read how it plays, even when its fans provide great AP talk.
What jumped out at me in my voting process was that a) it didn’t get any votes and b) two of my four voters both said “heart-warming sounds like a great break from the grim and the dark.” Fair cop: I can do grim and dark and heavy in my sleep. It’s easy, the drama is right there on the surface, it’s naturally and easily intense.
I have no idea how to wrangle heart-warming.
Let’s just say, for the purposes of this conversation, that it’s a genre. I know it’s not “really” a genre under most definitions, but you can add it to nearly any other genre so it’s a big Venn circle. Heart-warming fantasy, heart-warming space adventure, heart-warming exploration, etc. (Maybe not heart-warming body horror or heart-warming espionage.)
My mental block, per #7’s question, is this: How do I keep everyone on the correct tonal page? Everyone, in this case, includes me.
My gut says it’s because nobody, me included, is comfortable expressing soft emotions like friendship and care and concern and love at my table. The funny thing is, some of my favorite fiction provides a great model for heart-warming play! It’s not like I don’t know how The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet carries off heart-warming space adventure. I get it. Lots of affirmations and reaffirmations of friendships, honest sharing of worries and insecurities, less focus on plot development and more focus on emotional revelations.
All that stuff is so hard at my table. But you know what? I’d totally take a swing at it in a convention setting, with strangers. Somehow a con table with a big X card and A-game-bringing superstar players is a much safer space for me to spool this out than my highly curated home group, which has been meeting in some form in a nearly unbroken string for, jeez, 20 years at least. I don’t even think it’s been the same people. But pitching this stuff at home is hard for me. Even when I’m being told point-blank they’re up for it.
A good part of my “mental block” is that, since I’m not practiced at working and exploring the heart-warming subgenre, there’s no small bit of fear there. What if I can’t resist the siren song of high-intensity melodrama? What if my players start tugging toward a plot arc and I can’t nudge them back toward their emotional arcs? My players, like me, are so untrained in this mode of play that I’m sure they’d feel maybe crippling uncertainty about, you know, how to proceed. When you have an economy driving you toward things, you just need to do those things and the game runs itself. When you have a clear premise, you drive toward the premise. Even if we used a game that leveraged clear emotional arcs (like Chuubo’s, which really is perfect for this), there’s the great yawning unknown of what happens when you feel actual feels, and those feels don’t have anything to do with blinding rage or smoldering vengeance or idealistic fervor.