The game formerly known as Tension has a brand new look. We are proud to announce that Star Crossed will be hitting Kickstarter this April with a new name, a new logo by our own Brennen Reece, and new art by Ignatz Award-winning illustrator and graphic…

Tension is now Star Crossed

Roses and Thorns and Applause
Update Your Operations Manual

This is an official announcement from the Indie Game Reading Club. Please download the updated PDF and/or mark up your local play culture procedures manual.

Time to talk about being the change you want to see in the world, specifically regarding helping players do better.

Primetime Adventures has fan mail. Burning Wheel offers inducements for specific kinds of positive player behavior (embodiment, workhorse, etc.). There are others of course, but those popped into my head. Economic incentives are great and usually (!) actually incentivize. But you know what always incentivizes? Other people.

Recently I received heavy doses of indie game culture radiation (it’s okay, I’ll live, keeping my eyes open for nascent superpowers), during which I got to see lots of uses of roses and thorns. You know this one? Go around the table after a game and say one nice thing and one critical thing. Designers need it to help hone in on the ideal experience. GMs need it to help hone in their craft.

But it’s all trickle-up. Players > GM or Designer. Do the feedback thing, the top dog gets what they need, the players part ways or maybe they have a gushing debrief.

Please update your Local Play Culture Operations Manual with the following:

10.2.4.a – At the end of session, each player shall give positive recognition to one or more fellow players. This recognition shall herein be referred to as applause. It need not be long or gushing. Any positive acknowledgement will suffice. GMs will continue to receive feedback via standing roses and thorns procedures covered in the previous section.

Here’s what I’m thinking: unless the event was so unpleasant that you wanted to ghost the table (or scream, I get it), every player’s participation deserves to be noticed and you can find something nice to say about every player’s contributions. Believe me, I’ve been at some shitty tables. And I’m pretty sure I could come up with a moment, a gesture, something worthy of praise.

I feel like, culturally, we are in desperate need of more positive feedback loops around play, especially if there’s any belief that play is a craft and that its improvement benefits everyone. I do! I know I’m much happier as a player and as a facilitator with better players. And as a side note: loops need to go in a circle, so as players let’s also be listening for the positive contributions of other players, yeah? I don’t know what it is about playing, but gosh it’s easy to crawl up inside our own heads. That might be a result of the cognitive load of play itself, but I’m betting just about any neurotypical player can split off a little bandwidth.

One small positive thing. Every time. That’s all I ask. Your operations manual now mandates it.

A House Con

I spent four days in Boulder last week playing a lot — a lot — of elfgames. Too many games? Is that possible? It might be possible. I’m feeling overfilled and sloshy right now.

I posted a dumb thing a second ago mostly to help myself remember what all went down, because I lost my little slip of paper that guided me from slot to slot.

Everything I played was new or new-ish to me, or I was facilitating. And this kind of small event being what it was, there was definitely an eagerness to gnaw on the new and unfinished and not-quite-cooked.

My first game was playing WHFRP 1E, run by Morgan Ellis for reasons that continue to elude me. I went through this with Dungeon Crawl Classics too. There’s a very loud and insistent voice in me that pushes toward sitting down for the very oldest of schools, and thank goodness for friendship and fellowship because I keep not learning my lesson. Bring an epipen because my throat closes up with exposure to nostalgia. :-/ Totally me! I loved how aggressively MadJay Brown and Stras Acimovic glommed on and would not let go. (And a third player, damn it I don’t know their last name.) I was also still ramping up to SERIOUS PLAY TIME NOW mode, and my dadding schedule cut my legs out from under me well before we were done playing.

Started a morning facilitating another run through Inheritance. I think the folks with the founding vision behind this house con weren’t totally down with L.A.R.P. type events finding their way in, but luke crane has created the perfect transitional game between crunchy tabletop and freeformy larpy talk-and-feels games. I’ve only run/managed Inheritance, not yet played, but gosh is it neat to see how deeply replayable it is. Terrific mix of lean-in star performances and sit-back support, twists and heartbreaks and hear-a-pin-drop moments. I can’t say enough good things about the design, these players, this event.

Turns out the best part of having me sign up for a table is when I drop out of it. I’m ultraskeptical of PbtA games with more than four players, so my first opportunity to play the ringer (by GTFOing) was to get out of Kit La Touche’s run of Masks and instead run with Alex Roberts’ as-yet-unnamed scarequote-story card game, operating title The Queen’s Retinue. She has revealed to me a game format I didn’t know I needed: the feels filler. Maximum feels in the smallest possible footprint. This one is a deck of … I don’t know, 24ish cards? And you can dial it to play in whatever time you’ve got. We ran it for an hour and it was completely satisfying.

This particular feels filler is so very clever! Each player plays a character who loves The Queen, who is unnamed and off-screen, and she’s gathered us to accompany her on a journey to a distant land to broker a treaty with a foreign enemy. That’s it! You have no name or role or aaaanything. Then you start drawing cards and answering questions. And then at some point y’all get jumped on the road and either you stand by your Queen or … not. That’s it. That’s all the rules. But gosh is the question design clever. Like, roles just naturally bubble up from the answers you provide, right? And each time you get another question, your answer typically recontextualizes your previous answers (and reincorporates heavily, if you’re listening and give a shit). It was a very impressive game, my favorite event of the house con.

EDIT because I’m still very tired and I may never recover: another game in the feels category (but not a filler) was Krin Irvine’s WIP, Everyone’s a Suspect. GMless, answer questions about your role, invent/narrate scenes, all fairly conventional in the GMless space (and Krin even calls their game something like “a more structured version of Fiasco,” which is kind of perfect). The twist is in the title: you’re all acting suspicious. Each time you author your piece of an ongoing murder investigation, you play your role as squirrelly and guiltily as possible…right up to the line of confession without ever crossing it. After each round of questions — there are four rounds of scenes, guiding you through the arc of the investigation — you vote on each other’s guiltiness. The higher the suspicion at the end, the more agency you have in declaring whether you were actually guilty or not. I really liked the setting-making, and I super-liked getting to play NPCs in other players’ scenes. It’s gonna be cool!

The other game I ran was Mark Diaz Truman’s Cartel, the latest quickstart version from the Kickstarter going on. He’d run it for me at NewMexicon a year or two ago, and I’ve had ongoing interest in the project. The new version is tighter than the last one! And that tightness has revealed some ummm stuff about the overall structure of the game. A lot of my stumbling around I think was about mastering the tools at hand, but there are still some rough edges — the kind that are only revealed once the rest of it got so polished. (I’m not gonna share specifics except with Mark for now.)

Another morning, Tomer Gurantz busted out his Legos and facilitated The Deep Forest, a fantastical A Quiet Year hack by Avery Alder and Mark Diaz Truman. It was very amusing, particularly using the constraints and prompts of having Legos at hand. The picture I posted is of a magical gateway through which owlbears were invading our fantasy realm. I’ve never played A Quiet Year but I bought it and know how it works in principle. Our monsters (my contribution: “a group of wraiths” haunting The Well of Souls) did their level best to reclaim a haunted magical island but the fucking humans came back anyway and wrecked everything.

Midday game with a tummy full of food and beer and oh man beer at altitude why do I keep forgetting was taking a first run through Kit La Touche’s Arcadia game (his actual name is longer but nobody cares about all the Latin, just Arcadia plskthx). It’s a Regency-era-with-magic thing, very Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Kit and I have been talking about it for a good long time and was so fun and weird to have actual physical artifacts in hand. It felt playtesty/playstormy and that was fun, which is saying something because playtesting is usually not-fun. Love the premise, love where the system is gonna get us, gimme all the dueling wits and battles of manners and maybe the occasional midnight sacrifice in a graveyard.

Since this was my first F2F with Alex Roberts I wanted in on her other Big Thing, which was called Tension and is now called Star Crossed. Is there a hyphen? I don’t remember. It’s a game with a Jenga tower and specific constrained moves. There are two players, and they’re attracted to each other, but for whatever reason are specifically prohibited from acting on their attraction. In our game’s case (me and Kit, Alex’ dance card was filled), we were astronauts on a distant planet participating in some vague and slightly threatening “experiment.” The Jenga tower pulls happen under some circumstances, you just have to touch the tower when you talk, and so on. It’s procedurally very nifty! I’m kind of meh on Dread but, as Alex pointed out, she stole from other games too. 😉 Would very much like to play again. It feels like the kind of game you could get good at, and that is always attractive to me.

Last thing I got to try out was John LeBoeuf-Little and Stras Acimovic’s Scum and Villainy. Probably because it was ninth event and my third night of five-ish hours of sleep, I rolled up on that table with my internal battery blinking red with the little exclamation point. Forged in the Dark games already feel like they’re at the higher end of complexity for where my play brain is at these days, but oh gosh the S&V pages stared at me like I was trying to figure out a commercial jet’s controls. I had fun! Fun-loving criminals are always a blast! And I 100% had to rely on other players’ mastery of the FitD standard procedures and choices and whatnot. That’s a weird place to find myself, and I’m building new sympathy for my players who really just don’t want to have to master a game to have fun with it.

So, yeah. Lots of games, far more play than I ever pack into a more traditionally constructed convention. Honestly? I’m not ever gonna do a monster con like Origins or GenCon or Pax again and now I’m thinking really hard about the tier down from that, the BigBadCons and Dreamations and NewMexicons. Different events serve different needs, and I need to remember that. Not every event I attend needs to be so powerfully concentrated, and in fact it might wear me out faster in the long run!

My daughter is super jealous of the roles I got to play over the past long weekend at a house con: a hobbit, an astronaut, a bunch of ghosts, a park ranger, a lovelorn bodyguard, a pretty but useless con artist, and a magical Anglican priest VICAR jeez sorry Kit. ;-P

More details later.

More real safety talk, this time from Jason Morningstar . Good overview of the ideas underlying the benefits of safety awareness, especially.

I may have to start paying more attention to Gnome Stew.


I’m bored at the airport so my mind is wandering:

I think when I run Cartel we will use the Dos Equis Card safety tool. If you need to rewind something for any reason, you quietly take a sip. Or a swig if it’s a major no go topic. No questions.

Switch to tequila to signal yes more please.

May need to provide an alcohol poisoning warning before play.

Con vs Home Play
This Again

So there’s been this roiling shockwave of bullshit bouncing around the tabletop universe the past, oh, couple weeks it feels like. Best I can guess, it traces back to really ugly fallout on Facebook around a Canadian gaming con called Phantasm. I’m not even Canadian and the shockwave somehow reached me.

Okay so the roiling bullshit, right? It’s safety tools. Once again, it’s fucking safety tools.

I gotta say, I have no idea, none, why there’s still a hard little kernel of folks who are so freaked out, so completely wigged out of their gourds, at the idea of giving complete strangers a tool to opt out of a moment in their make-believe world. And not even a full opt-out! I’ve seen the biggest safety tools in use (the X Card of course, also the ummm….it’s a flower thing, red/yellow/green, can’t remember what it’s called), and not once, not ever has the presence of it fucked up a game. IME they get used like 5% or less (although someone at the table should go out of their way to use it, once, to normalize its use every game) in actual practice and when it’s engaged with in good faith, a little rewind time means everyone at the table gets to get full value out of their place at the table.

Somehow the idea that X Cards exist only so delicate players can domineer a game if they hear you say the word “poo” continues to have traction. I gotta ask: have you met actual human players? Shit, I’ve had the X Card specifically misused against me and somehow I survived. I came through intact! Turns out ideas aren’t that special or important. Get over yourselves.

Just realized I’m using the word “fuck” a lot. Because I’m fucking livid that this so-called commuuuuunity we’re all so eager to belong to continues to be utterly dysfunctional when it comes to putting their fucking MAKE BELIEVE in any sort of perspective.

I guess it comes down to avoiding emotional labor, right?

So let’s say you’ve got this rad idea, maybe it’s edgy but maybe not, but you really want to hit a particular topic at your con table. And you wrangle a bunch of complete fucking strangers into a four hour commitment at a three day event, at which there might only be five or six slots, into buying into your thing. That is a big commit for these strangers. The opportunity cost at any convention is very high. I suspect folks who freak out the loudest about using safety tools are utterly unaware of this.

So okay you’ve got this rad-maybe-edgy idea and you’ve convinced strangers to spend one of their five or six opportunities exploring it. I mean, unless you’re a complete asshole you’ve surely given them the elevator pitch so they can self-select, yeah? And as you play, something about what you’re doing is not what they wanted. Maybe it’s upsetting! I mean jesus, that’s the worst case, right? That they’ve just signed up for something that’s gonna upset them for hours at a time? And you’re going to insist that they have exactly one way out of this: they can fucking leave your table. They can just get up and go. Because that’s what a fully functional and complete adult would do, right?

The emotional labor of the safety nay-sayer works out like this: I’m going to do what I want to do, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off. It’s on you to walk away, even if it’s an event you’re otherwise enjoying with people you otherwise like.

Now this is where I point out that I have in fact ghosted tables. It wasn’t what I wanted, in a way that a safety tool can’t address. Like, it was just a badly run event. I had no chemistry with the facilitator. I thought the game worked different than it does, and I can’t see spending four hours bored out of my skull. That’s different. That’s not safety, that’s not wanting to waste my time at an incompetently run event.

Now, let’s say you’re generally on board with what’s on offer, yeah? You love Dungeon World but you never get to play it at home because everyone’s into Star Trek or Conan or whaaatever. This is your chance! And you’ve only got five or six of them, and maybe you only get one convention a year. But this Dungeon World table, right? The GM brings something into the game you really don’t want to address. No, I don’t want my cleric seduced in some hot lipstick lesbian fantasy you’re gonna rub one out with between sessions. Ummm no, I don’t feel like doing a revenge thing where my kid is kidnapped or murdered. Oh or hey, there’s this thing the GM does where they start describing my inner state. That is not okay with me! I want a way to communicate that and I want to do it in a way that is is the very least disruptive. Because up and leaving a table is gonna wreck this thing I am otherwise eager to engage with.

The safety tool of your choice isn’t there to break your game, dumbass. You absolute nitwit.

The safety tool of your choice is there so we can all have the best possible shot at continuing to enjoy the game. Because I WANT TO BE THERE. And I don’t know you.

I think one big part of this story is that supernerds cannot differentiate between their home table and a convention space.

My players don’t use safety tools at home, although once in a while I wish we would — particularly when we’ve added folks to the table and we don’t all know each other yet. Gaming, particularly issues-oriented or feels-oriented gaming, is a high-trust exercise. My tight inner circle of home players have that trust. We don’t need the safety tool. I don’t recall anyone, ever (please feel free to correct me with even a single example) saying anyone “should” be using safety tools at home.

But convention spaces, egad. Go to enough of them and you will run into folks of every stripe. You will run into fellow players who just rub you the wrong way. You will run into GMs whose techniques actively interfere with your play. Most important: You will run into other human beings who are dealing with shit you know nothing about. Nothing.

If you cannot come up with a way to deal with other human beings who are dealing with shit you know nothing about, you have no business being with other human beings. This is basic empathy.

A safety tool will not fix your lack of empathy, but it might help other people deal with your lack of empathy. Oh and guess what? There is not one single idea that you will ever dream up at any gaming table in the course of your life that is so fucking great that it’s worth for-real upsetting someone. Ideas are cheap. Tabletop gaming is supposed to be a good hobby for creative people, right? Create something new.

And if you would prefer not to risk being among folks who are dealing with shit you know nothing about, you’ve always got your home table to play at. If you don’t, well…maybe your lack of empathy is one reason you don’t.

h/t to Tomer Gurantz for the link. I don’t follow Gnome Stew for various reasons. Phil Vecchione did a nice job with this piece. And he says “fuck” a lot less than me.