Purposeful Play

The past couple weeks, Jonathan Perrine has been running Epyllion for us. We just wrapped our third session and we have one more to go before we lose one of our regulars. I don’t know what the plan is beyond next session. But whatever happens, another player in the group is starting his Burning Wheel game whenever Epyllion wraps up and I’ll be playing in that one as well.

This will be the longest stretch as a player in long-form games for as long as I can remember. Like, I literally cannot remember the last time I did this. Possibly a MET Vampire L.A.R.P. 20 years ago? A WOD mashup game around the same time? Hard to believe it’s been literally decades — god I’m old — but there we are.

I’m taking this time to really dig into a few things.

My favorite side activity is observing player dynamics on the player side of the table. Super interesting! Kind of aggravating! From the GM’s seat, I can enjoy the fireworks because I don’t have fireworks exploding in my face. Quite different when you’re operating in the immediacy of character play. I’m playing in ringer mode (mentioned before: there in a support role to help make the GM’s job easier via modeling play or whatever) so I’m keeping my own character and the rest of the table kind of at arm’s length. But I definitely feel the engagement/disengagement of each player in a different way when I’m among them, and not dedicating all my bandwidth to facilitating the rest of the show.

I’m reeling my play waaaaay in. I could probably shoulder my way into the action, but I’m trying to feel out new ways of being fulfilled by the experience other than by being the center of attention. The hardest part of this, for me, is fighting my worst Star Player urges (more: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+PaulBeakley/posts/8SL6oLMfz5n). The thing I mentioned in that old essay about Star Players generating energy but also demanding energy? Yeah, giving up being in the middle of everyone’s attention is hard. I spend a lot of time sitting and listening and trying to figure out to throw softballs to the other players. I’m kind of bad at being a helpful sidekick.

Another interesting thing for me is feeling out authority among my peers. An Epyllion specific thing: the economy of handing out friendship tokens. Quick version is, each character has a virtue, and the player hands out their tokens when they see that virtue played out by someone else. It’s a clever way to keep the players engaged in scenes they’re not in and to pay attention to each other. Our table is kind of terrible at it. Since I’m a fiend for reward cycles and chasing economic inducements, it’s actively aggravating when the table ignores it. A couple times I goosed another player about what it would take to get one of their tokens, which unfortunately also creates kind of bad or awkward feelings: nobody likes to be called out. This is something that jumps out at me as a player more strongly than it would as a GM, since it directly impacts my play priorities. I’m singing and dancing as hard as I can but I can’t get tokens from anyone! Anyway, the point of all this is that bringing this topic up as a player, to another player, just feels different than as a GM. In a perfect world we’re all perfect peers regardless of table role. We live in an imperfect world, though.

Oh, last priority of my purposeful play experiment: observing another GM’s craft. I kind of never do this in a one-shot convention setting where I’m a player, unless something really interesting shows up. But I’ve got time and space to do that in this game. One interesting bit I saw Jonathan do was take detailed notes about mechanical engagement, as in what widgets did we not use? That’s an interesting level of analysis. He noted to himself that my Crafter hadn’t had a chance to use his dris An Eye For Detail move and then muttered “that’s on me.” And I was like…maybe? Could be an interesting exercise in some future game I run to evaluate that sort of thing.

Anyway, it’s been in turns interesting, relaxing, and aggravating. I know for sure I’ll be raring to go once my vacation is over.

Kickstarter Interest Survey

Hey all,

Instead of rushing through one of my many, many works in progress design-wise, I think my first Kickstarter will be a print archive of my best essays posted in the Indie Game Reading Club itself.

First volume would be Year 1. I started March 2015, I think, so through February 2016. The content is all free right now and I won’t change that at all. But here’s where I’m thinking about the value-add:

* edited and updated to incorporate the best feedback that appears in the threads. I have no idea what IP rights anyone has to anything, and I’m not gonna print a thread, jeez, that’s goofy. But I would most definitely be updating stuff. I may also update based on the past couple years of my shifting perspective. If it’s interesting, I might annotate the updates with additional side comments, which is way easier to do in print than online.

* tag the contents along a couple different axes: games mentioned, topics (review, techniques, commentary, etc). That’d be useful in PDF and print index, and I could possibly maybe visually tag the book with those things.

* rebuild the Indie Game Reading Club website with the original essays and threads, with links back into G+ and also tagged per above. Right now it’s a bad, incomplete scrape of my posts and it didn’t start until early 2017 I think.

I think probably there are folks who think this is an easy cash grab. I can assure you it is not. Nothing I’m talking about doing here is “easy,” even if I already wrote the bulk of the content already.

Yes, I’m considering stretch goals too.

* the obvious one is to create new content, probably in a format I don’t normally work in. The big one I’d like to do is a video presentation of my much-discussed situation-map technique. I could see what I could do with an all-star table at some con, yeah? Get a couple cameras around/over the table, hire decent editing to get rid of the casual grossness ums and ahs. Open to other ideas as well — let me know!

* better trade dress of the print work. It would never be a PDF dump out of Word, oh my lord, but you know… better. Easier to read. Lots of white space. Maybe graphical tagging per above.

Actually that’s all I’ve got for now. I don’t see art being necessary, and in fact most of what I’ve ever illustrated my stuff with is not my work, and probably I can’t use it anyway. I’d just include some of the gags I’ve doodled up over the years.

One motivator for doing this is that I don’t trust Google Plus to be around forever. And even if it is, it’s very hard, maybe impossible, for folks to go digging through years of long posts and longer threads. It is a terrible archive solution.

Another motivator is, damn it, I’ve written a lot of good stuff. And I want it more accessible to the world.

I’m contemplating a Patreon on the side but honestly I’m not sure what value-add I can possibly provide there other than, like, an insider track folks could subscribe to so they could put their $0.02 in on editorial decisions. Probably worth its own thread, because I’ve struggled with that for a long time. The IGRC Year 1 Kickstarter seems much more obvious to me.

Anyway, if I feel like folks see this as indulgent and/or useless, no big, I’ll just keep trucking.

No Thank You, Evil!

Halfway through kindergarten and my daughter’s reading is good enough to level her up from the easy triangle to the middling square character sheet.

Differences are:

* an adjective tacked to the front of her character noun: now she’s a sneaky superhero (+1 Fast)
* she wrote down her superhero’s knack and knows how to use it (I think it was formally available at triangle but she’d never actually read the power before)
* her companion gets Treats (an economy for cycling Cyphers) and its starting Cypher (cool companion power, awful name, do we really need to market the Cypher System brand at 6 year olds?).

And I think that’s it! The conversion tired her out though so we’re not playing again today. :-/

Spent some of the day crashing up against the impenetrable fastness of InDesign for the first time. It’s not terrible! But it’s weird, relative to what I already know (Corel products). It’s weird that I can’t just ctrl-i and get italics. I have no idea how to set up a template to just pour stuff into. Lots to learn, high walls, and I’m the gentle waves.

It’s slowly dawning on me just how much frigging text there is to my game. Funny how it’s not really obvious until it becomes a physical artifact that someone might have to use, you know?

We restarted our Epyllion game a couple days ago, and I was marveling at both the generous white space on everything, and the extremely compact move set of the game. Maybe the most compact of all the PbtA games I’ve seen? Maybe. Everything is like one sentence (with conditionals and bullets), and there are only nine moves. So that’s pretty much a whole game’s procedures described in nine. Frigging. Sentences.

It’s Long, Get Some Coffee

A day or two ago Mark Delsing​ posted a link to an article from a um… very conventional tabletop roleplaying blog, let’s say, about this amazing idea they ran into of treating the narration in their game as if it were on film. It was a charming reminder of how big the gaps are getting between communities, that’s for sure.

Mark’s angle, because he’s #indieaf, went the opposite direction (let me know if I’m being uncharitable here, Mark!): that modern gameplay had become so completely dependent on the game-as-show metaphor that other approaches to getting everyone on the same page at the table were going unused. Unexamined. Forgotten. It was like the bizarro-universe version of that conventional ttrpg blog.

Anyway, in that thread I doodled out a very quick list of specifically filmic methods I’ve used, personally, to make a game feel more show-like. The point of this post isn’t the list but here it is anyway, so you know what I’m talking about:

* camera angles
* panning
* zooming in/out
* fading in/out
* smash cuts
* montages (training or otherwise)
* the “set piece” (I first saw mention of this in Feng Shui, one of the first explicitly filmic games I can think of, I think after Theatrix)
* specifying scene elements as thematically important
* cutting a scene
* second unit footage (landscapes that set the tone and convey setting assumptions, but not protagonists or plot)
* referencing soundtrack comments (scary tense music, the swelling theme, drum beats, your own heartbeat)
* the very notion of “screen time” as a persistent metaphor
* slo-mo
* handheld versus steadicam versus Michael Bay 360 shot (and other ways one might handle a camera and what is implied by them)

So this approach, it’s a continuum, right? If you don’t really go that deep into the actual metaphor of film, and just describe things in a maybe elevated or authorial way, well, that’s already much different than a DM moving painted figures around on crafted 3D terrain. I’m not implying one must go all-in to treat your game like a show. I’m also saying if you don’t use any of these tricks, then I think what you’re left with is generic play-the-day “how you roleplay” type default roleplaying.

(This is in no way an invitation to get into a definition war. God damn it! Fight the urge, friends. Fight it.)

But what really got me thinking about other structurally purposeful ways of synchronizing the shared information EDIT imaginary space. The SIS is the core killer app of tabletop roleplaying, yeah? But it seems weird, to me, that we haven’t really poked at this very much. I mean other than the language of television and movies, which has marinated so much of indie gaming that lots of folks aren’t even aware of other approaches. There’s an age/experience component to that as well. And it’s a point of friction between OSR types and storygamer types when either camp declares their way is “better.”

Like, say you wanted a game to borrow instead from novels, right? I mean chapters, scenes, narrow rules about point-of-view. Heck, you could get quite avant-garde if you wanted: what would a game play like if it was emulating House of Leaves? There’s some physical-handling stuff that House of Leaves pulls that one simply could not replicate exactly. But I’ll bet you could get close.

But even without avant-garde trickery, there are still fundamentals of novel writing I think one could apply:

* point of view rules: I could totally see the GM having to work in the constraint of third-person limited (or hell, omniscient, which violates all kinds of conventional RPG nonos but maaaaybeee the right game could pull it off). The players could have different rules, equally constrained. First person omniscient is the obvious choice. But you could experimentally pass around second-person limited as well.

* Scene breaks that feel different than cutaways on a show. The written word is generally not able to be as dynamic as visual media, yeah? So how might one narrate a novelic scene break? Probably more time spent explicating emotional stakes so you can have not-literal cliffhangers indicate the break.

* Chapters and Parts. Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine does the chapter thing, not really sure if that’s just a handy shorthand or if the game is trying to feel like how a novel is structured. It might actually be, especially given the pre-made character arc elements.

* Setting dumps. Setting dumps! Yes! Where someone just tells and doesn’t show and you have to absorb a bunch of maybe-useful stuff fast. Rules be damned, even good writers do this. It’s not just bad genre writing.

* Internal monologues. Michael Miller​ reminded me that With Great Power has physical thought bubble props, perfect for comics. Sometimes I’ll ask players to narrate their internal monologues, particularly in games where we need to externalize internal material: moldbreaker moments in Burning Wheel for example.

The other part of running and playing a game in a consciously novelic way would be avoiding other metaphors. Like film. Although, yeah, lots of novels use film language now.

Other storytelling media: stage plays. Radio plays. Actual written-by-vikings sagas. Oh god, musicals. How how how could we get songs that are both beautiful and convey new material about the characters or plot?

Now, I’m first in line when it comes to treating RPGs as unique and not derivative. But the arts have always, always shared among themselves.


Rage Against the Machine

For our pre-game game yesterday, my soon-to-leave-for-Zambia buddy and I took a second swing at the latest COIN game from GMT, Pendragon.

Last time, we divided the four factions between us in the obvious way: Britons (Dux and Civitates) for him, barbarians (Scotti and Saxons) for me. Fairly straightforward but, you know, first read/play is always tough. We made it about five cards into the game before we had to put it away.

This time we decided to give the NPC AI a go! Isn’t it silly how we call algorithms “AI” any more? Such scifi. I’ve had mixed luck sussing out GMT’s flowcharts in the past, mostly because they’re so frigging conditional in order to have the algorithm play as hard as it can. It plays pretty damned hard in Pendragon.

So I played the Civitates (Romanized civilian rulers, the folks basically learning how to be the aristocracy in a couple hundred years, dedicated to civilian rule and yearning to break away from Rome), he played the Dux (Romanized military rulers, still dedicated to Roman rule, total hardasses stomping around the island but inexorably losing everything). The AI ran both barbarian factions.

Really, the flowchart is mostly common-sensical if you know what the best plays already are. Like, you could convincingly play “against” yourself and it’d look about the same, right? The barbarians prioritize pulling their plunder back home to bolster their renown, or taking advantage of their best event cards if they have no plunder, or starting shit if they’re in a good position to do so, or raid, and so on down the list of all their options. The tiny conditionals that help you decide where they’ll hit, that stuff is fussy to get exactly right. But I had a better time, for sure, playing against the algorithm than when we combined forces.

This time we played about 3 hours and made it to the first Epoch (there are only two Epochs in the “short” intro scenario). That was really our goal, because in all COIN games the big “stop now and do a bunch of other stuff” rounds are mostly where the games are won or lost. It’s also why I mostly suck at winning COIN games even while understanding perfectly well how to play COIN games.

The Epoch round in Pendragon is pretty cool! You start out paying for all the foederati you probably stupidly hired up, and dealing with the fallout when you can’t or won’t pay them (spoiler alert: they wreck your shit), checking to see if the political landscape has changed (Roman to autonomous, military to civilian, or total collapse into fragmentation), then lots of maintenance dealies and kind of a map reset — Roman cav runs home, barbarian warbands return to their villages, stuff like that. It’s time consuming and involved enough that I feel like this is probably where a masterful player can snake a win without less-masterful players even knowing what’s going on.

Playing through their algorithm is also super-educational about what “good” play looks like. I had taken a swing at the barbarians last time and sorta-kinda felt out what they looked like, and the NPC algorithm both confirmed that and reinforced stuff I wasn’t sure of. Specifically, the value of settling down on the island.

I feel like at this point we could prrrrobably get through a two-players-two-NPCs short game in 5ish hours. Onboarding two other live humans, though? It’ll be a long day.

Pictured below: asshole Saxons putting down roots on the little spit of land that’ll someday become Kent. Canterbury I guess? It’s super fun to try and map the deep-history names to the modern.

Reading Time!

Very occasionally, the Indie Game Reading Club actually, you know, reads rules and then talks about them. Like in the good old days. Here’s what I’ve been reading the past couple weeks.

Ars Magica 5th Edition

Prompted by an interesting and ultimately aggravating thread hosted by Cam Banks​ — last week maybe, it’s still going — I busted out my 5th Edition copy of Ars Magica and started from the very beginning. It’s old-but-deeply-loved, much in the same social vein as King Arthur Pendragon and Runequest. Cam’s premise was that he doesn’t know what to do with the thing, since it’s pretty much played out and there are a zillion supplements and anyone who would ever play it already has, I guess. I haven’t! And I feel like I’m the target demo for this.

The book shows its age. The on-ramp has nothing to do with getting you stoked to play: it brags on itself about its amazing magic system and innovative troupe-style play. Whenever 5E came out, it was already nostalgic for itself.

Fine, whatever, I plowed on. Only in the final 20ish percent of the book does it finally start talking about campaign play, the constant what do you dooooo question that I bring to every reading. (I settled on five “o”s by the way, for those who want to use the phrase, cc:by and all that.) The on-ramp is littered with a hundred pages of spells and character creation (there are prebuilt templates of archetypal characters, and they’re marvelous) and systems and systems and systems.

And here I am, probably having read this 400-some page tome three or four times end-to-end in my life (I did skip the spells after a while), and I still have no idea how or why I’d ever get a game of it going.

The old die-hard fans are more than ready to walk me through it. I find that aggravating because that is not my jam. I’m a strict originalist/autodidact I guess. And given how I greatly prefer to approach games, it’s still impenetrable.

Still a project I’d like to take on at some point. KAP was a terrific experience and I sort of hope ArM delivers in a similar way. Dunno. I don’t even know how to sell it to my players, and the intro sales pitch in 5E is terrible.

Unknown Armies 3E

I guess Cam has a lot to answer for! Because when I first received UA3 I bounced off the first of the three books. Like, couldn’t penetrate more than about 20 pages before I shrugged and shelved it. Buuut I’m in the mood to figure it out so I have a lot more patience for the process.

Again, a perplexing approach to engaging the reader. The whole first book is just explaining the what do you dooooo. And while it’s an essential question: a whole book? Really? It is such a unique premise that I get having to explain it in detail. I do. And it got me thinking real hard about how short the on-ramp of all the PbtA games are: because they’re all pretty much genre emulation engines that leverage what we already know and love. I get that. I’m personally faced with a non-genre-driven PbtA design right now so this weighs heavily on me: how much front-loading can we ask of our audience?

The second book is the rules, and again: it’s editorially perplexing. Greg Stolze’s voice comes through super-clear because it’s written in a chatty, personal style. But lordy I wish I could get to The Rules in a more direct way. Even small procedures feel like they’re scaffolded to so, so much chat. Reminds me of Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish Granting Engine in that way. And most of the games of the’ 90s I guess. I’m so grateful that luke crane​ calls out his little chatty asides with a specific mascot in Burning Wheel.

I never got to the third book because I ran out of juice trying to decode the second book.

The three-book series feels, to me, like a challenge: can you handle all this? I think I’m up for the challenge but it doesn’t feel like an interesting challenge the same way BW did back-in-the-day. Like, I’m not the audience. I think the audience is probably old-skool UA fans who want lots more Greg chat and can quickly suss out the systems and how they’re different from earlier editions.


So my Tuesday crew wrapped up Apocalypse World a couple weeks ago (awesome) and we’re picking up on an old Epyllion game for a two-week run starting today. Then a buddy is running Burning Wheel for us. Then, at some point this spring, imma run Coriolis. So I’ve been going through it in detail for the first time.

New games are so much better an onboarding the reader. Really, the state of the art has advanced really dramatically the past twenty years (which further confuses me about the Unknown Armies approach, but I guess the creator wants what they want). You get right into the basics of the setting and situation, the rules are concise and rulesy and not at all editorial, or when there is an editorial comment it’s a sidebar and it’s kind of cool and impersonal.

What did jump out at me is how super-long the GM’s setting material is. It’s the back half of the book — I like that a whole lot more than front-loading all the readers, including the players — and it’s in the same vein as the provocatively incomplete text of Exalted’s first edition: tons of leads to be teased out, based on the crew type the players settled on.

It’s a lot to take on all at once for sure. I think my recommendation would be to stick to the first half, get the crew and characters sorted, then start picking at the setting buffet for bits and bobs that are relevant to what you’ll actually use. But I get the urge for completeness, I really do: while I’m digging around for archaeology-oriented leads, I’m trying to pack it all into my head in the hopes that second-order leads will pop out of the quantum foam of my brain. This is why I could never decode Glorantha: there’s no way I could ever read and keep the whole Guide to Glorantha in my head, and I’d hate knowing I was getting something wrong.

And in Conclusion

My goal this year is to play all of this! Coriolis is easy because it’s modern, it’s built on a familiar framework, and I’m already stoked. Ars I think will click with a session or two and, yeah, conceding to the wisdom of the old fans (apparently Faith and Flame is a strong representative campaign framework). Unknown Armies just pisses me off and I kind of want to hate-run it. (Not really, I don’t hate it at all! But I want to crack the code.)

What rules are you reading right now?