Recalibrating

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.

1459846_1.jpg
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.

20190223_204856.jpg
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.

20190305_202423
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.

4 thoughts on “Recalibrating

  1. Hey Paul,

    I’m a relatively new reader — this is the first time I’ve posted here.

    My question is a bit orthogonal to your overall point: I’ve been interested in the Fria Ligan games for a number of years and was interested to note that you and your group seemed to think very highly of Mutant: Year Zero and Mutant: Genlab Alpha but much less so of both Coriolis and Forbidden Lands. Is it possible for you to unpack some of the differences and what made the Mutant games work and the others less effective for your table?

    Best,

    Robert

    1. Sure!

      The short version is, Mutant: Year Zero does a few things right that they failed to replicate in their other games. The big one is the overarching MYZ campaign. It spools out really smoothly and organically, and takes nearly no prep at all beyond seeding your city map with the “special zone” locations. Once you’ve done that, you just start playing. They’ll stumble across the various campaign bits in a number of ways: by wandering into a Special Zone, or rolling up an encounter in the Zone, or randomly drawing one of the campaign-relevant artifacts while exploring. It just happens and it’s really sweet.

      The other thing MYZ did right was the Ark game. The Ark development projects aren’t perfect (one of my players built out a gorgeous spreadsheet of what every project did and how the interacted, and he revealed some … problems with the RAW). But the projects, combined with the Ark Crisis deck (or roll, whatever), set a very different tone for the game when they’re home, versus the procedural, technical grind of exploration. We put that division to very good use in MYZ. Less so in Genlab Alpha, and I didn’t really like the tactical minigame that was supposed to provide a similar campaign scaffolding.

      Coriolis failed for us in a number of ways. Darkness Points are just flat busted; I’ve written about that at length. That’s the biggest and most painful problem with Coriolis, and it would have been so easy to have done something different. I’ve even thought about hacking out my own solution and playing again, because I ADORE the Coriolis aesthetic. I also love, love, loooove the space combat system. Terrific, top marks. But DPs, nope. They also changed the die-rolling odds to make simple success more difficult (presumably to drive players into the DP economy via prayer, but it’s busted, so that’s A Bad Thing). I would have greatly preferred it if they’d stuck to the normal rich-dice system they use everywhere else.

      There’s a lot to like about Forbidden Lands, at least on the system side. No complaints about the system. It’s entirely about the setting (super weird and nonsensical when you start digging), the campaign (I despise how they organized the setting information, breaking everything into three sections makes it completely unusable to me), and ultimately the play premise. D&D style “we adventure because We Are Adventurers” is just not something my players can engage with, as I mentioned in the post. System-wise, though? It’s hot. I would strongly consider doing my own setting and premise and strapping FL to it.

      Hope this helps, Robert.

  2. Yeah, that was definitely helpful, thank you. I am sorry to hear that you ultimately didn’t like the Genlab: Alpha strategic mini-game either; I just picked up that book and was hoping that the mini-game might provide interesting random inputs into campaign play (assuming I get it to the table).

Leave a Reply