Several years ago, I wrote an essay about introducing the intensity of one-shot play to your ongoing home campaign/season/whatever. It’s a good essay, I still stand behind it, but my good intentions are coming back to bite me in the ass in our new Urban Shadows campaign.

A couple bits, for context: 

First, I’m still coming off running Forbidden Lands, Fria Ligan’s Mutant-based fantasy game. I was really in no mood to run either a prep-intensive game or their baked-in campaign, so I was happy to lean into the various random tables and procedures to discover the map alongside the players. There’s no real narrative continuity in a game like Forbidden Lands, and campaign-type continuity (where on the map are you? What NPCs have you cheesed off? Have you run into this encounter entry before?) takes much less to think through. 

Second, this is the middle of my convention season. I went to Dreamation a few weeks back, the Arizona Game Fair is coming up in a few weeks, and the week after that is NewMexiCon. And that means running lots of 4-hour con slots. New players, new rules every time (because I’m a glutton, don’t @ me as the kids say), never look in the rear view mirror. 

These things have left me poorly equipped for games that are centered on their stooooories. This month at least.

Actual footage from inside my brain

The biggest problem with the one-shot aesthetic in an ongoing storygame is that my instinct to juice up the interactions means I’m not really thinking through causes or effects that much. I’m drawn to what’s hot with alarming frequency. That means lots of ex post facto rationalizing during the intervening week. 

This is just made worse by the tendency I’ve found in PbtA games toward hotness. Moves snowball, and if you don’t watch yourself things will continue snowballing because snowballing generally leads to hotness: chaos, ever-rising stakes, a breathlessness to play as I egg the players on to react more and respond less

Perhaps unfair to my many shelves of games

I think I also live in … fear, maybe? If not fear, then grim resignation: we don’t run games for much longer than 10 or so sessions. Realistically? More like 5 or 6, although my run times have been slowly stretching out the past year or so. So I want to escalate to the “good stuff.” But that means I’m escalating so fast, sometimes, that I don’t have a lot of ceiling. To wit:

Last week was our first full-length (which here means 3+ hours) session. Week before was picking playbooks and doing Session Zero stuff: following around our characters, feeling out the setting, exploring the narrative terrain. I did for-real prep for the game, doodling up Threats and Storms (ie Fronts, in Apocalypse World-speak), which revealed themselves to be really badly constructed once gameplay started. But I had a bunch of levers I wanted to press on and it was better than nothing.

That meant the Tainted’s dark patron tasked her with collecting the soul of a cartel boss’ pregnant wife. Why? Who knows? It was high stakes and I don’t want to waste time on establishing shots. That was a mistake, drawn entirely from leaning into my one-shot instincts. Now that it’s done (for content warning reasons I won’t get into details but it was gruesome), I really need to nail down the dark patron’s for-real goals. Which need to be more/better than “to freak out the Tainted’s player because I’ve only got four hours and this one stuffy room and I’m never gonna see this player again.” 

That also meant thinking through why, exactly, did this important NPC wizard grab an ancient valuable bible the Scholar had been chasing down throughout the session. In the moment it felt like a hot choice: the wizard is obviously planning something in the setting, and he’s one of the two main Power-faction personalities, and Power’s theme is plans-within-plans so, you know, totally easy to rationalize in the moment. I think there’s even a Faction move that fits. This one’s not so hard but by just throwing intuitive shit out there, I’m kind of making planning a little harder on myself.

Oh and then the poor Vamp! The player did a marvelous job of painting his own character into a corner, pitting both the cartel and the entire fae community against his plans (which will work great to build the Vamp’s web down the road), but hey: one-shot escalation, baby. Put it all on the table. Moves snowballed and snowballed until the Vamp found himself cornered by scads of heavily armed cartel Bad Men and ended up rolling a miss at exactly the wrong time. I’m pretty sure “describe the mythology of your playbook as you go” doesn’t include “oh and vamps are totally immune to bullets,” so he ended up having to take a Scar to live another day. Hot but…too soon? Don’t know! I’m looking forward to seeing how he drinks his way back to health now. 

So, some takeaways heading into tonight’s session:

“Be true to your prep” is well and good unless your prep is shit, then, well: get better at prep. I’m still shaking the cobwebs off.

Campaign-scale intuition frequently leads me toward being too conservative with my assets, but my one-shot intuition is to treat my NPCs like stolen cars that are also on fire and filled with sharks, and I want to rid myself of them fast fast fast. 

For good or ill, not thinking through hot choices paints me into corners. Sometimes that’s good! I like the creative pressure. And sometimes it means pushing ahead as fast as possible and hoping nobody digs too deep into these weird plot holes I’ve left behind. This is probably how the Lost writers felt most of the time. 

My buddy Jahmal Brown is running his first ever Kickstarter as part of their Zine Quest promotion, an adventure/campaign/culture booklet for Burning Wheel (and Dungeon World, via stretch goal by Johnstone Metzger) called By Aecer’s Light! It’s a setting, a cultural writeup, and a campaign frame all in one. The cool angle to the whole thing, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is that it’s about marginalized fantasy races. Yes: Roden (rat people), Wolfen (you can guess), Rakshashi. No: mainstream elves, humans, dwarves, fuck those guys. He says “outsider,” not “marginalized,” but BAL! is right there in the same lane as the X-Men.

I’ve watched Mad Jay run this countless times in his role as Burning Wheel ambassador (an informal role taken on by him and him alone, he’s a superfan like me) at conventions all over the country. It’s a better self-contained romp through Burning Wheel and its various systems than any of the adventures you get in the Codex.

I’m sure plenty of folks are wondering why any self-respecting indie gamer should still bother with Burning Wheel, yeah? It’s pretty long in the tooth. For my money, though, BW is still best-in-class for a particular kind of adventure fiction, and it’s still a powerful model for play shaped by incentives. It’s the most important indie game I’ve ever played (by a pretty big margin), and I played a lot of them.

Anyway! Do yourself a favor and back this cool ass zine. You can even plug it into your Dungeon World game if you’re not persuaded to take on the big spicy meatball that is Burning Wheel.

Has it really been a month since I last posted?

I swear, there’s something about running the Indie Game Reading Club Slack channel that consumes whatever bandwidth I used to have to make longer posts. By the way: if you’re riding out the GPlus diaspora along with the rest of us, drop me a line if you want an invitation to the Slack. If we’ve never talked, I’ll want to know a little more about you. But it’s a busy, vibrant place and I’m very happy it’s there.

The past couple months have provoked a broad recalibration of my gaming brain. We’ve changed games, I’ve had to relearn to enjoy prep, and I’m working out how to balance the blog, the Slack, con play, thinking about small upcoming Kickstarter projects of my own and, well, pretty much every aspect of my relationship with the hobby I’ve been doing for nearly 40 years.

We decided to stop playing Forbidden Lands a few weeks back, to very little fanfare. The game is fun for what it is — you know, crawling around a map discovering the world, stealing shit, killing scary things, occasionally running away from too-scary things. But we were all, I think, generally dissatisfied with that mode of play. I think it was a good experience, though, both to deliberately play an us-against-the-world game and to remind ourselves that we are all more on-board with melodrama and emotional through-lines and, you know, just great stories about great characters. And Forbidden Lands isn’t specifically about those things.

In this case, we un-chose it. It un-chose us?

If Forbidden Lands has a fatal flaw for us, I think it’s baked into the very premise. There’s no built-in consideration at all as to why these weird, diverse characters are wandering around the world. I mean other than D&D reasons: to get rich and “have adventures.” Obviously this is more than adequate reasoning for 90% of the roleplaying world, right? “Have adventures” is great! But gosh, we just don’t look at our time spent playing RPGs through that lens at all. It’s weird and interesting to remember that we’re the minority, that the players who share our tastes are pretty much a rounding error. If you’re reading this, that’s probably you as well.

Looking out across the vast expanse of RPG-oriented Discord servers that have sprouted up, it’s a small, lonely place to be. And the imminent closure of Google Plus is about to make it a lot smaller and lonelier.

Ghost my game, whatever, but the new cards for The King is Dead are badass.

I thought going to Dreamation this year would have reminded me that it’s less lonely than I think. It did not do that for me. It was so great to see so many friends again, to make new friends, to generally bask in one of the few indie-friendly events in gaming convention-land. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how same-y the games feel to me now. Or how I can run a really great session but feel no real accomplishment because all my sessions are generally pretty darned good-to-great. Or that I’m probably 5 to 8 years behind the leading edge of play and design, that smarter, younger folks have already been where I’m at, and I’ll always be 5 to 8 years behind. I’m kind of a prisoner of my tastes, and of my relatively conservative approach to introducing new play ideas to my home group. This was also the first year I had folks drop from my events (one was a medical emergency, totally understandable, they made the right choice; the other was just a couple folks who ghosted because they found something…better?), and that put me on my back foot a bit. Some games just run better with more inputs, and those two games in particular (Space Wurm vs Moonicorn and The King is Dead) were the two most susceptible to that.

It was weird to spend more time thinking I’d rather be sleeping in my own bed, or strongly considering just not playing some sessions, than living in the moment of the convention and enjoying myself. Is that burnout? I don’t know. I didn’t think so, but maybe. Maybe. It has everything to do with my head and nothing to do with the event, which is lovely, beautifully run, and I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to attend it or something like it (ie BigBadCon in Oakland, NewMexicon in Albuquerque, Forge Midwest in Madison, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting).

I’m thinking strongly about my relationship with convention play going forward. Another recalibration.

Here at home, we started a season of Urban ShadowsIt’ll be my third campaign of it, which is pretty epic because I literally run nothing more than once or twice. I learned a lot from my first couple runs, and it’s all showing up at the table for this run. But it’s also the first long-form game I’ve run in a while (well, since Legacy last year, and Scum and Villainy before that), and between the ultra-prepless play of Forbidden Lands and brining myself in 4-hour con slots, I’d kind of lost my taste for indie-style prep.

I’m going to share a funny story about my dumb brain. It’s been on my mind because it happened at the last Dreamation I went to, in 2016.

Urban Shadows had just come out, maybe in 2015 but it was still pretty new. I had stumbled into Andrew Medeiros, the game’s co-designer, in a hallway and wanted to chat about the game. At some point — and honestly, I don’t even remember the context leading up to this bit — he said something along the lines of “oh yeah, Fronts. I don’t ever use them but we needed rules so I did something up.” My takeaway from that was well shit, if the designer doesn’t even use them then I don’t need to either. And for a couple years going forward, I didn’t bother with prepping for any PbtA game I ran. Mostly that was fine because I mostly just ran one-shots at cons of all the big hits (Apocalypse World, Sagas of the Icelanders, Night Witches, and Urban Shadows itself; can’t think of any others I’d have put on the table).

I think I took Front/Threat prep seriously the second time I ran an Apocalypse World season. Second Edition had come out and it had revised ideas about how to prep, and this time I decided to follow them really precisely. I gotta say, it made my game better in the long run. And I learned a lot about how the PbtA prep philosophy ties into the principles and even the GM moves. You can’t be “true to your prep” when you haven’t done prep. It’s a cop-out and I can 100% feel it at the table.

There are moments in the game we’re playing now where I cringe, in a good way, at the prep I’ve done. Even though I set up the threat clocks myself and I know exactly what they say, when we play to find out I’m also finding out what’s triggering them and what the fallout is, and it’s great. I realized I was robbing myself of those good cringes by just winging it.

I suspect more than one PbtA game out there was designed without really deeply considering the prep element. I look askance at that now. But if they haven’t done a whole lot to reinvent the idea I plow through anyway. Urban Shadows, for example, pulled almost everything from Apocalypse World whole-cloth, adding just a couple gestures (multiple threats surrounding a “storm,” which is pretty much just a Front) and mixing up the “threat types” to match the genre.

Glorious, glorious situation map. Already marked beyond recognition after this.

Our current game is going pretty well! Everyone instantly settled into the familiar move sets and knew early on what the vibe would be. They’re engaging with the game’s Debt economy much more than the first time I ran it with this crowd, to the point where they’ve already sussed out which playbooks give away Debts and which playbooks attract them. They’re playing a Tainted (demon servant of a “dark patron,” very direct and jobs-oriented), a Vamp (ultra-political and, as it turns out, not an unkillable supernatural superhero like you might play in a White Wolf game…as the players discovered last night), and a Scholar (a new mortal playbook from the Dark Streets supplement). It’s a good combo, the situation map is solid, and most important from my end of the table: I’ve been able to bake their playbook stuff into my prep in a way I know I wouldn’t be able to pull off on the fly if I was trying to be prepless about it.

So: lots of rambling, sorry it ran long, but I’ve had a month of stuff built up! Hope your games are going well, whatever you’re playing and however you’re playing them.