I’d been running on pure PLAY PLAY PLAY energy since I posted Saturday morning. Apologies for not keeping up my correspondence from the ground. I’m still recovering from lack of sleep, spine-crushing sitting stretches and oversalted road food.
First game Saturday was Inheritance, a larp from Burning Wheel creator Luke Crane. It’s a Viking blood opera for nine players. I’ve facilitated Inheritance three times, I think, but never played it. It was a huge help to already have the sprawling relationship map in my head. I played the grumpy dad of a family gathered to make claims on the estate of the grandfather who just died. I played him as the Ultimate Toxic Patriarch, which was both ironically amusing and sort of horrifying on the spot. I’d take up way too much room everywhere I went, man-spread my own wife almost out of her chair at dinner, and pretty much only focus on the last thing that made me mad, over and over, forgetting the last thing when something new made me mad.
Several of the players were Pathfinder/D&D folks who had never played a live-action game before. Inheritance is as good an intro to larp for trad players as Burning Wheel is an intro to storygame-y ideas for trad players. I think everyone was blown away, there were nothing but great performances, and even the shy players got in on the fun. My asshole paterfamilias got knifed and totally had it coming. Laying on the floor “dead” and watching the family proceed to ruin everything I’d built was top notch fun. I’m looking forward to trying on more of the roles at future events.
My Saturday afternoon game was Good Society, a Jane Austen-inspired romp featuring love triangles, romantic tension, misunderstandings, and tons of social maneuvering. For whatever reason, I’ve got tons of Regency romance in my head: the tropes, the style, the expectations. No idea where it came from. It was the game that left me with the most design-oriented feelings afterward.
Our GM had already built a couple playsets for the con. One was romantic tragedy and super-patriarchal gender roles. The one I played was romantic comedy and full-on ultraqueer, like, gender literally doesn’t matter in any way at all.
Turns out Recency romance gets weird when you take gender out of the equation. Not bad! And by no means not fun! But also: much of the tension baked into the genre has to do with the expected roles of men and women at the intersection of class and means. Finding new sources of tension to replace that was an interesting exercise. I played a low-class hedonist (who controversially wore slacks, since we decided clothing was gendered, sure, fine) and formed a marvelous love triangle with a high-class heir (whose father disapproved of our relationship and would not grant the inheritance until he found an suitable spouse, but definitely not my hedonist) and a younger society lady (who didn’t know the heir and I had secretly engaged once and desperately wanted my advice on how to land him). My character ended up feigning a terrible illness and manipulating everyone around her. Romantic comedy!
I mentioned designy thoughts. For me, the genre of Regency romance relies a lot on unspoken gestures and coded action, and the lack of ambiguity about those things to the audience because dramatic irony is a fundamental tool of the genre. When I make a glance and quickly look away, the reader is most definitely aware of it in reader-land. But in roleplaying-land, opaque intentions are murderously hard to play toward. I’m not persuaded Good Society fully addresses that design problem.
One very nice bit of design in Good Society is that everyone has one Monologue token. During play, when you absolutely positively need a straight answer out of someone, you can play your Monologue token on someone and listen to their true inner thoughts on any given topic. “How do you really feel about your little sister’s love for that stuck-up heir who is clearly too high-stationed for her?” And so on. Monologues are great! And they do achieve that meta-release of information to the players so they can triangulate and clarify all this vague, in-genre hinting and muttering. But it’s incomplete, maybe on purpose! There were a couple moments in play where someone would demand I provide straight answers about my character’s schemes and I’m like…can we play to find out? Please? That aggravated them because they had no idea how to plan out their own play, and it aggravated me because I’m trying to engineer a Big Reveal. I’m on the side of explicit intent in most roleplaying experiences, so I can totally appreciate that drive. But I’m also eager to play toward the Regency thing that all will be revealed in good time and there’s a happy ending for everyone.
There is a lot of other neat stuff in Good Society and I encourage anyone with a fondness for Austen et al to give it a look.
My Saturday night was, alas, mostly fueled by gin and tonics from the cash bar they’d set up for the con-goers. So of course I fell into a game of The Dark of Hot Springs Island running on B/X Essentials.
This was my third go at OSR-y play in as many years. Twice now I’ve come away bored, angry, confused or utterly neutral. Third time wasn’t the charm (spoilers!) but Hot Springs Island is a super interesting experience. It’s a hexcrawl game, where you poke around a map and find interesting things. I learned a lot about a whole style of OSR product/experience, of which HSI is apparently only one of many. This is not my jam but the things I liked about playing were: monster factions with motivations and needs (i.e. the default mode isn’t to just murder them), the very old-school value that only GP are XP, problems can be solved by rolling against your stats, and random tables generate most of the play content.
Hot Springs Island consists of a very large, beautiful book for the DM filled with a gazillion tables, lush (frequently porny) art, maps, lots of tools. But the killer app is that the players also get a book. Diegetically it’s notes about the island purchased by the characters, and it’s super detailed, interesting, illustrated, confusing, and fun to read through. We spent a good bit of time listening to monster descriptions and then fumbling through the book to find the notes. It was fun! And I don’t know that I’d ever run it. But I’m looking forward to returning to the island next year with these players.
New Mexicon: Sunday Sunday SUNDAY
Sunday is a one-slot day at New Mexicon, from 10 to 2 pm. I had been weighing what to run, kind of half-convinced that I’d tapped out my facilitation batteries for the duration. But the folks who show up to muster Sunday morning (rather than nursing hangovers) tend to be the ones ready to play hard.
I’ve been hauling around a printed, trimmed, ready-to-play set of materials for Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne for a couple years now. I first learned about it at Dreamation 2016 via multiple rants and swooning reports so I bought a copy but never felt like I had the right crowd to run it with.
Let me tell you about Witch.
The game is freeform tabletop, meaning you’re on your butt but doing larp-y things, i.e. talking and describing and emoting, not rolling. This is not me asserting a label! Just an explanation of what you actually do.
The premise of Witch: tRtL is that, in 1305, the Church has captured a young woman and declared her a witch, indeed the very cause of the plague that’s ravaging the land. Five men are escorting her to Lindisfarne, where she will be burned at the stake, thus cleansing the land of her satanic touch and ending the plague. Tl;dr it’s about patriarchy.
The game is comprised of characters on six slips of paper, a “map,” and a pair of cards that basically say “guilty” and “not guilty.” The witch player’s character slip has lots of special instructions and cues, but at the table it looks like she’s playing out pretty much like everyone else. Everyone else is a dude: a monk, a deserter from the Crusades, an old untested knight, the old knight’s young squire, and a shifty guide who’s probably a scumbag. The dudes all have three traits to play toward and three questions you’re trying to get at, and hopefully answer, by the time the game is over. It’s a fairly typical structure for talky freeform games, but this was published in 2012 so my sense is that it’s one of the earlier ones in that mode.
When you start, the very first thing the witch player does is decide whether the witch is guilty or not. The player puts their choice in the middle of the table, next to the “map”. I keep scare-quoting that because the map is just a visual reminder of the five-ish acts you play out en route from London to Lindisifarne. You move a little token as you play.
Everyone but the witch then has an introduction scene. Look at how relatable my dude is! We’re already looking ahead at our list of questions and trying to lay down the groundwork to answer them later.
The next three acts are steps along the journey, with a little thematic/mood tag to guide everyone. In London, heading out on your journey, you’re “hopeful.” Later, in the Hangman’s Wood, it’s “threatening.” Then you get to the Cliff Top Pass and the tone is “tumultuous.” Finally you arrive at Lindisfarne, which is “decisive.” Besides the tone guidance, there are additional instructions for everyone, the order of play flip-flips, and so on.
Basically the whole game is one long exercise in emotional manipulation. It’s very effective. What I’m saying is, if you’re not up for that manipulation, this game will not be your jam. I’m a huge sucker for that but I’m also too open to it (being a dad has made me sensitive and weepy, dealwithit.gif), so I have to be careful about when I play these and with whom.
I was a total wreck at the end of Witch.
The most difficult bit of the game is the Absolution scene. Each player, in order, is faced with a decision: read a passage describing your complicity in burning this woman, or do something else. I was second in order and I didn’t have the courage to try and save her, despite the revelation that she was my sister. I’ve been sitting with this scene for days and it’s still gnawing at me. The young squire, who had once tried to marry Eloise (the witch), breaks ranks and claws at her on the pyre. The two old knights drag him off and scold him for his outburst. Pretty much the most toxically masculine things we could do. It was a very powerful sequence.
I think the very cleverest psychology/design bit of the game is that just before each man decides to burn the witch or act, Eloise finally gets her introduction scene. Only at the end do we get to see her as human and multifaceted and relatable. And our particular witch player nailed that hard. Here’s Eloise playing with the squire’s sister. Here’s Eloise sneaking a kiss with the squire. Here’s Eloise getting beaten by her father for sneaking off with that boy. Oh my heart.
Then the witch revealed that she was in fact guilty all along.
Oh my god.
It was my most impactful session of the convention. I can’t accurately call it “fun” but I’m so grateful to have finally played it. I think it was even more impactful than my one run through Montsegur 1244, a feels-forward game in a very similar vein.
And Then Even More Gaming
Remember that ongoing campaign of The One Ring I mentioned last post? Yeah. So that happened after the final Sunday slot. It happened for six more fucking hours. The hotel was empty, one other crew of ultranerds were banging out a game of Masks elsewhere in the big vacant hotel restaurant, and there we are. Not going home. Not sleeping. What is wrong with us?
Now that we’ve had a bunch of hours of exposure to the TOR rules, I’m mostly caught up again. Unfortunately it’s all gonna go away in the months it’ll be before we play again. The big chunk we all had to digest was how to integrate a slew of new rules from Adventurer’s Companion. They’re mostly combatty things: roles you can take in a battle (which adds a cinematic layer to the fight) and new maneuvers you can undertake while fighting.
(Yes, this was an massive – and necessary! – tonal shift from my Witch beatdown earlier. In fact my immediate debrief was to sit in on a game of Warhammer 40,000: Wrath and Glory. Kill monsters! Fascism! But I digress.)
What I’ve really enjoyed about the rolling TOR campaign concept and the folks who have signed up is that, absent anyone’s iron grip on system mastery, talking through all the vague bits that are part-and-parcel to trad/trindie games never feels like a heated argument. It’s more like a bunch of deeply educated, opinionated rabbis discussing the Torah. We can go way deep down rabbit holes of design intent and procedural patterns, bounce stuff around, and nobody is invested in Winning My Way.
My band of merry ultranerds spent an hour fiddling around with the after-adventure phase in TOR, the Fellowship Phase, where the characters will chill out for the winter in Rivendell. But we got all the way through the first complete adventure of Ruins of the North and will be able to start anew with whoever we care to recruit to our table next time. Fun format, wish I’d thought of it sooner.
I am so very tired now.