So our campaign is back up and running. And very nearly came to an end!
It was kind of a perfect session in some important ways. Like, the crew finally came to a head on the “what do we do with the Aleph Key?” question. Despite getting a super freaky psychic warning off their Entanglements roll last session (three 6es in a row got them to the top-tier table), they ignored the nightmarish visions and decided to see if they could open the ancient Ur vault it was supposed to go to.
They did everything right and yet they did everything so very wrong as well. Their Engagement roll set them up in a risky situation right out of the gate: an ancient Ur defense awakened by their sensor sweeps of the small moon. But they wanted ticks on their clock so the pilot pushed their risky to desperate to go for a better outcome. The die pool wasn’t huge, like 4 or 5 dice, but it came up with what I believe was our first-ever straight up failure: nothing better than a 3. The odds are really low for that sort of thing but it was gonna happen someday.
So the Ur defense opened a jumpgate at their ship’s midpoint and cut it in half.
I really wasn’t ready for such a dramatic turn of events but you have to follow the fiction, you know? There was some outstanding competence porn as they gently nudged the wreckage toward the moon’s surface to touch down, followed by dueling clocks to reach the Ur vault (6 slices) versus out of oxygen (4 slices, one for each character). The mad dash to the vault also came up a desperate failure. So I decided, rather than straight killing them, I’d simply remove the reach the Ur vault clock: that opportunity was gone. They were lost.
The session ended with the Mystic putting the whammy on his own crew and finally directly summoning help from his faction, a group we made up called The Dark. I kind of wish I’d understood the setting better because I would have preferred to have folded his faction into an existing group, like the Nightspeakers (thematically similar). I may yet just change the Nightspeakers into The Dark, still deciding. Anyway, the Mystic had wanted to get the Aleph Key to his group since session one, and things finally fell together to make that happen.
So they’re starting with a fresh copy of the Stardancer and a whole big set of “you owe us for your lives” obligations to a group they’re feeling pretty iffy about. It’s great! But it was a huge, huge turn.
Scum and Villainy starts again tonight. It’s been 3 weeks since we played, and there’s really no better way to get my head back in the game than to review the old notes and set up ye olde situation map. Or…smap for those in the know.
I took some pictures to help explain what I did along the way.
1 is my blank piece of butcher paper. I prefer butcher paper because it’s wax-backed and that helps keep my nice table from getting marked up with my colored Sharpies.
The blank sheet is also my first challenge: how will I organize the situation anyway? I’m borrowing from my experience with Space Wurm vs Moonicorn here, which similarly has lots of farflung locations and competing factions. So I’ve decided to set up a physical map of the Procyon Sector in the middle, and surround it with factions pointed into the physical location space.
2 is the map of the Procyon sector. I’ve also gone with black because it’s really not gonna change, you know? And green for planets because why not? I designed a simple iconography to indicate jump gates as well.
3 is where I needed to slow down and really think about merging S&V’s canonical faction stuff with our own game. I had the hardcover out and my notes, and lightly jotted around the edge where my most active factions were mostly clustered. It worked out that this was pretty easy for the most part. Also, I’m only using maybe a quarter of the factions available in the game? Not so many. I drew hexes in red around the factions, and drew red lines from the faction into the physical space map to note their influence in places. If they have a clock running, I wrote the clock down. I’m okay with the players seeing the clocks even if it’s stuff their character’s “wouldn’t” know. It’s fine.
Oh, I also drew pink lines to indicate established ally and enemy relationships.
4 is where I added NPCs and their last known locations. I drew blue triangles for them, and noted their faction underneath. That’s my least favorite part of this first design attempt, and the one I’m most likely to change with next week’s revision.
Normally I have spots on a smap for individual player characters, but since the crew-ness of the crew is so central to S&V (kind of like the Fellowship in The One Ring), I’m instead going to use a moveable marker to show where the Stardancer is in the physical map space. I think this will interact nicely with the sector sheets they have on hand as well.
So that’s basically my smap. It’s a sliver in time and it took maybe an hour the first time? And I will mark the shit out of it as things change this upcoming session tonight.
How is this not a relationship map, you dumbass?
That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked.
It basically is, if you consider literally any connection between anything and anyone a “relationship.” I’ve modified that idea a bit to emphasize instead that there are situations in motion in the game. A “situation” being, for my purposes, a magnet for interesting unanswered questions. If I’m not asking myself WTF is up with a faction or a PC or an NPC, then there’s no situation and it doesn’t make it on the map. The net result is gonna look a lot like a traditional relationship map, I’ll grant you, but this lets me see clocks and alliances and the actual space where play is taking place.
Now that you have this ugly thing, what will you do with it?
I will mark it up like crazy. If the ship moves or they run into an NPC, that stuff shows up on the map. If their connection to a faction changes, ditto. It’s not a piece of art for my wall, it’s a working document and it will be destroyed by the work.
Then, I will take all the changes, compare them to my written notes, and do it all over again for the next session. Since I’ve done the heavy logistical lifting of where and how to organize information, I won’t need to do that again. Next one might take 20 minutes instead of the hour.
Adam Day did the front and back art for my Game Chef submission so I thought I’d link to it once more in case anyone wanted to give it a look. That’s the absolute, positive last of the fiddling, I swear.
I’m super happy with this year’s submission and I’m already thinking about ways to expand this.
Of course the quick thing I rattled off in an afternoon would turn out to be the first contest design of mine that turned out to actually be fun. Ran a for-real playtest last night, found some rough edges, but the basic conceit is solid.
Today’s #rpgaday2018 thing is “Which game mechanic inspires your game the most?” Weird question once you get out of the trad/conventional play bubble, but it did get me thinking. Mostly I got hung up on “what even is a mechanic?”
My pedantic game-theory brain hates the word right out of the gate; it’s a mechanism not a mechanic. A mechanic is somebody who works on your car. That’s never caught on and it’s not really the hill I wanted to die on, so I’ve always fallen back to “procedure.” That also kind of opens up the topic in my head beyond, you know, death spirals and escalation dice and aspects and flags.
I think the one procedure, which is more like a guiding philosophy, I guess, that is most present in my mind no matter what kind of game I’m running or playing, is the idea of Radical Transparency.
This came to me via several concurrent threads I was chasing down, oh, maybe a decade ago. One thread was wrapping my head around the task/intent split in Burning Wheel, which absolutely requires the player be honest and explicit about what it is they want out of their effort. Another thread was a really great grid I saw someone put together that looked at explicit intent versus transparency, I think. Gosh, I went looking for it online but heck if I can remember how it went.
Anyway, the “procedure” (such as it is) is super straightforward: if you’re a player, let the other players know what you’re going for. If you’re facilitating, keep digging until you’re super clear on what the player is getting at. This sounds pretty fucking obvious but it’s transformational when you’ve been breathing trad air for decades. This means no more gotcha moments from the GM, no more acting pissy because you were trying to psychically project what you were going for but didn’t want to “break immersion” or whatever. My younger readers might be horrified to read that both those things are awfully common out in the big trad ocean.
This one change to how I approach play was probably the single most bad-disruptive event in my ongoing gaming scene. Players suddenly needed to take a lot more responsibility. Everyone suddenly needed to trust each other: nobody can “beat” anyone else at the game when there are no gotchas. And as the GM most of the time, I really needed to take player goals and desires into account rather than performing a (not really) “neutral” refereeing job around the pure physics of the game.
Ironically, some of my favorite current games actually don’t work that well with explicitly transparent intents getting spelled out. Apocalypse World and most of its offspring doesn’t need or care about intent: you just trigger the move, or the move is triggered, and fuck your intentions. And yet our local play habits have so thoroughly absorbed the lessons of radical transparency that we end up talking about intent in sidebar all the time: “Okay so what I’m trying to get Balls to do is just walk away from protecting the hardhold. I so do not want to start shit.” “Okay yeah then you’re really not gonna Go Aggro, right, you’re manipulating.” Whatever. That conversation happens a dozen times every night, no matter what we’re running.
What’s funny about internalizing Radical Transparency is that it’s so very obvious when you’re playing with someone who has not.
I had a gaming buddy, one of my best, playing with his wife and my wife in an Urban Shadows game before they moved to another state. And in that game, he was playing a ghost. Well, so as GM, I’m having to pay attention to a lot of stuff and I haven’t memorized everything about every playbook in the game. So we had this scene where a ghost gang basically cornered his character to beat on him. I know they’re all ghosts and the damage isn’t real or permanent, and I explain (for transparency reasons) that they’re really just showing him that there’s more of them and they’re tough guys. Anyway, when I ask what he does about he just says “nothing,” and sits back with a smug look on his face. I’m not sure what to do about this! So I’m like, “Um…nothing? Just take the beating? I feel like you’re not participating because you got cornered and outnumbered.” He just shrugs. Well, what I had forgotten was that ghosts always return to some anchor point in the world, rather than taking lasting damage. He figured out how to “win” the scene but didn’t want to say it out loud until he could show off that he’d outsmarted me, I guess.
It was a weird moment! Like, it was more important to him to win the scene than it was to just say “oh, I’ll just let myself rematerialize back at the church” or whatever. At least that’s how it felt. And that’s the big split when you’ve got folks who have not bought into the idea that Radical Transparency is how I’m operating. When you’re the transparent one and they’re not, it’s easy to feel taken advantage of.
I’ve had folks act surprised at this approach at conventions, which I’ve come to expect. Especially true from the mostly-Pathfinder folks who want to drop in on some weird indie shit for a session just to see. It doesn’t always work out; sometimes they don’t feel good about the lack of surprise and gotcha, the creative and intellectual combat mode of play between the player and the GM. I still feel like there’s a lot of good creative tension between both roles! But it doesn’t rely on opacity about intent.
I don’t know that this is a “mechanic” (mechanism, procedure) really but it’s what came to mind. Fight me.
Fact: I just don’t get many specific compliments, either while playing or facilitating. My players at home are pretty good about being appreciative. I don’t feel unappreciated, not at all. And I’ve gotten consistently high marks at conventions that have feedback forms (BigBadCon, NewMexicon specifically). So it might be that I just kind of breathe that air all the time, and I don’t really hear specific compliments because everyone’s already high-fiving me and everyone else. /humblebrag
In my perfect world, facilitators and players would get a hell of a lot more recognition, particularly on the con circuit. And maybe this is more of a thing in bigger con play communities, like Pathfinder and D&D. I wouldn’t know. I’m as guilty as anyone else: I’ll look for specific personalities at whose table I want to play, even signing up for things I kind of don’t care about just because I know they do care about it (say, Morgan Ellis running WHFRP, which is completely not my jam but Morgan is fun at any table so, sure, let’s see what he coughs up). But I won’t tell them that. I just show up and take the fun.
Good players, too, although at least in my own head I tend to conflate the two: If I know you’re a good facilitator I know you’re a good player. The reverse isn’t always true but it isn’t always not true, either. I mean, yeah, I’ve run into some rock star players who I’m pretty sure run games too, but I haven’t gotten to sit at one of their tables.
One of the best things I ever learned about the indie scene is that designers, the 1%ers who get 90% of the social credit, are frequently kind of crappy players and facilitators. No I’m not gonna name names, but they’re big names. I mean they’re never, like, socially toxic or total scene hogs. I mean they don’t have a lot to put on the table. They’re up in their own heads, particularly if they’re playing in their own game. I see tables instantly fill up when one of these big names is seen, but pro-tip for the noobs: you’re probably not gonna get as good an experience as you thought.
I do love to give unexpected compliments in games. There’s a truism about relationship maintenance that I learned at some point: don’t compliment someone about something they already know is good. Don’t tell the smart girl how smart she is. Don’t tell the strong guy how strong he is. Whatever. Gosh that’s proven true when I do a drive-by compliment in a game, too. If they’re doing a consistent accent, they probably know their accent is good so don’t just reiterate that. Compliment their, I dunno, commitment to principled characterization. Their clever combo. Their recontextualization skills.
I used to feel kind of bummed that I wasn’t getting compliments. Now the fact that I can fill a table at any event at any time to play literally anything I’ve brought is its own reward.
I get into so much trouble when I start thinking about my next game.
Like…right now we’re running Scum and Villainy. It’s fun! No complaints. I’m at a place where I need to start digging more into actual prep between sessions, and we’re going to have a 3 week break between sessions which usually kills a game for me. But I’m doing my level best to keep my eyes on the prize.
But then my brain’s like…hey, isn’t Legacy 2nd Edition gonna be cool when we start it?
This is deeply unfair to my players. I know it is! But they’re endlessly forgiving of my flighty interests, my shifting passions. It’s probably unhealthy, even codependent, but they’ll forgive nearly anything. To their credit, they know that I run my best game when I’m most enthusiastic. And I’m most enthusiastic when the bloom has not yet come off the rose.
I regret a few games having come to a premature end because something new and shiny came along: King Arthur Pendragon’s The Great Pendragon Campaign was going great through the Uther Era, but the last year of that pissed me off so I started looking for reasons to quit. I could have absolutely, totally found a way to fix the year where everyone’s scripted to die (spoilers, y’all, everyone dies at the end of Uther). I think Mutant: Genlab Alpha or something was the next thing. It wasn’t nearly as good.
I brought our Darkening of Mirkwood campaign to a premature end for similar reasons! Had at least a dozen sessions in, which is a lot for me, and I just got…itchy. I get the 12 Session Itch, which is my gaming version of the Seven Year Itch I guess.
So I’m looking at Scum and Villainy with every honorable intention. But my heart belongs to the next pretty girl who walks by, whose name is Legacy.