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.

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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

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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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Last Tuesday we played our fourth session of Forbidden LandsMy heart was — is — so heavy. But on we played.

Last week I decided to go all-in on FL’s procedural generation and ditch everything attached to the Raven’s Purge campaign. It eliminates my prep time and lets me discover the world alongside the players. That real-time discovery is fun. My players showed up on time like always, ate their gyros and Wendy’s chilis and Weight Watchers like always, joked and caught up. So great. It’s half the reason we’ve have a standing date on Tuesdays for the past, um, decade? More?

Mostly I just listened while they got their clipboards and notes and started studying the big map. Are we going to the woods north of the lake? Braving the swamps south of the lake? How much better kitted out can we get before we try this? And so on. They’re getting excited, probably. I just didn’t care.

Most of my players aren’t connected to internet RPG crises and have no idea at all of who’s behind the games we play. I talk about these folks from time to time, sometimes around new releases, usually after I get back from hanging out with them at conventions. But otherwise my folks are blissfully ignorant of anything other than the games and our experiences. I sat there mostly in my own head, stewing on bullshit that’s a degree removed from me but raining misery on folks I know. Other folks. Not my folks.

I’ve also been wading through a string of middling-scary health issues the past couple weeks, adding froth to the churn. I don’t talk about those a lot in public. They’re fine, I’m fine, but it’s made this week of pain and rage more than it would have been, I think.

The players settled on a game plan for the session: haul some rotten old shit back to The Hollows to sell or trade, rest up, head into the forest along the north of this lake they’re near because they’ve heard it’s full of interesting stuff. My folks are generally more interested in melodrama and big emotional arcs, so getting deep in the weeds of logistics and risk assessment is interesting to observe.

Do they enjoy it? I honestly don’t know. Because I can’t draw my magic circle.

They’re working out their carrying loads and I’m thinking about liberal circular firing squads forming up online to murder our own. They’re getting pumped about exploring a new chunk of map and I can’t stop thinking about the pernicious trap of moral purity tests and self-appointed inquisitors. They — we — are all investing real time and energy into this adventure, and all I can think about this adventure is, how utterly trivial this is. How utterly trivial we are.

Still: randomized numbers await my deft touch. Let’s begin the rolling of the dice and the connecting of the dots.

Back a couple sessions, when I’d run The One Ring and Forbidden Lands back to back, I found myself really missing the journey vibe from TOR. It turns out, once you get moving on the FL map a bit more, it deploys in a similar way, but from the other end of the telescope. Each terrain type has its own encounter table, and those encounters definitely bring a certain color, a certain vibe, to the terrain.

More travel also brings more rolling, therefore more opportunities to generate mishaps along the way. Our super-pathfinder, a wolfkin with two levels in the Pathfinder talent, fucks up his find the way roll and begins what will become an all-night fail train. His boots get ruined and he gets the Cold condition for as long as he’s not around a campfire, until someone can make a Craft roll and repair his boots. Spring nights still get cold in the forest, dog boy!

They run into a huge revenant knight wandering the forest for…something. Who knows? It’s weird and obviously dangerous and they do the right thing and don’t engage. But now they’re a little scared of what else might be in the forest. Then they run into a weird singing fox, which our poor cursed wolfkin decides needs a closer look-see and magically extends his senses at it. That breaks the illusion hiding a bored and dangerous demon, and it’s a shitshow of failed escape rolls and desperate death-avoidance until everyone can break free. The wolfkin also generates a magical mishap, costing him five nights of sleep. Because of course.

The players are breathing sighs of relief, high-fiving themselves for their lucky breaks, bemoaning their unlucky breaks.

I’m wondering if this aneurysm near my heart is going to explode tonight. Or tomorrow.

I’m thinking about friends tearing friends apart online, everyone’s head fucked up by an ugly pustule that’s finally been lanced.

I’m definitely not thinking much about the game.

Are these little maudlin interludes bugging you? Then know how I felt for most of Tuesday night. Get over yourself, self!

The young Elf fucks up their camp-setting roll and sets their entire site ablaze, damn near killing the poor wolfkin. Between the cold, the lack of sleep, and now smoke and fire damage, he’s ground down as close as anyone’s gotten to straight up dying in this game. He’s done nothing wrong! I feel a small pang of sympathy.

The halfling succeeds in patching up the wolfkin just enough for him to recover (everything but his Wits — being sleepless for days has put him right on the verge of breaking by then, despite the rest of his stats being reset with some rest). Their ambitious travel plans through the forest are torn asunder. What looked like an easy traipse across the map has turned into a death march. So delicious!

Wait.

Was that my magic circle appearing? Finally?

They push on. The human night watch stumbles across an encamped orc war band they’ve encountered before, and his Dark Secret drives him to try and slip into their camp and murder one of them. It’s a fuckup, per the session’s theme, and he ends up hiding in the moonlit woods as the warband turns the tables and starts hunting him. Stupid and hilarious and as close to a Burning Wheel style Trait event that we’ve had so far. (By the way: Burning Wheel Gold revised edition is on its way!)

We’re laughing. We’re laughing. 

They wrap up this leg of the journey by stumbling into a recently abandoned cottage. The less principled characters see a safe sleep opportunity. The more principled ones want to know where the inhabitants went off to. So they split up, the elf staying back with the cottage while everyone else follows footprints deeper into the forest. Slavers! The players feel good about ambushing the slavers to release the family, but when it comes time to deliver the final blows, well. The human, who fancies himself a Hard Man, fails to fail his Empathy roll (with two dice, even) and cannot do the deed. Which is great. The little halfling kid completely fails his Empathy roll (with four dice, even) and goes on a chilling killing spree. The family is more terrified of the bloodthirsty halfling teenager than of the fucking slavers, and they go screaming off into the night.

At just about the four hour mark, ahh. There it is. The magic circle is drawn anew. I’m in that space where I trust everyone here, I feel free to feel, I’m transported.

I’ve spent the past couple days thinking about this moment.

On the one hand, yes. Objectively, we’re doing something pretty trivial. Forbidden Lands is pure escapism. The game has no ambitions to be important. It’s not providing any kind of valuable insights or opportunities to empathize with real people and situations. It’s not woke (but to its credit, it’s also not horribly colonized, and there’s a thread of intersectionalism throughout).

On the other hand, no matter how aspirational or progressive or important — or lack thereof — all these games are the product of hard work, uncertainty, insecurity. Certainly much moreso once you get into the indie side of things, where we spend a lot of time in creative isolation. But the experiences we create with the help of this hard work and uncertainty, anywhere on a spectrum from absurd to heartbreaking, is meaningful, it is important. The older I get and the more real-world my concerns become (i.e. the world in which I’m raising my daughter), the more tempted I have been to dismiss all gaming everywhere as trivial.

I also think it’s tempting to dismiss that gaming but not this gaming. This gaming facilitates learning and empathizing about important real-world issues and that gaming is base empowerment fantasy. This gaming celebrates the DIY creative spirit and that gaming is an exercise in performative liberalism.

We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. I’m done doing this.

My heart is so heavy for the real pain folks I know and love are going through, and with the ongoing fact of my own mortality and the introspection (or self indulgence, you pick) that brings. But thankfully we can all continue to draw our magic circles because the circle is and always will be valuable.

Last night we ran our third session of Forbidden Lands. After hewing closely to the game’s campaign materials last session (The Hollows, a sample town in the Gamemaster’s Guide) and grinding against, well, everything about it, this time I decided to run the game more in the vein of Mutant: Year Zero. That is: zero prep, generate everything on the fly, see where the game takes us.

It was a lot more satisfying! And it got me thinking about two divergent approaches to GMing and why I’m attracted to one of them and repelled by the other.

(To be sure, there are lots more than two GMing approaches. I just wanted to talk about these two. Be calm. Deep breaths.)

Pull You

For the sake of a framing device, I’m going to call this first one the “pull you” school of GMing. That is: the GM is there to facilitate a grand design, a module, or some other flavor of pre-planned setting and plot. On the one hand, you can hope there’s been more thought and care put into work that’s been done ahead of time: the designer has worked out the bugs, the facilitator has internalized the material, it’s a shiny present waiting to be unwrapped. Those things may or may not be true but that’s the promise, yeah?

You need some specific tools or talents, I think, to make this shine. It seems to me like the big one is knowing how to sell someone else’s stuff. When I was spooling out The Hollows last session, a lot of my bandwidth was spent trying to present material I didn’t believe in in the best possible light. There were also some insurmountable organizational problems, along with the fact that it’s just not that good. But I think, if you’re a super-good pull-me GM, you’ve learned to make the absolute best of what you’ve been given.

I’ve never been a fan of modules, but I’ve put in my (decades of) time on prep, setting stuff, NPCs, “fronts” or whatever we called unresolved pressing issues before we had that language. Sometimes I find this kind of deep prep deeply rewarding! There’s a crapton of work that needs to be done before campaign-scale Space Wurm vs Moonicorn, for example. And fronts work per orthodox PbtA doctrine is the good kind of prep. But stuff like the Raven’s Purge campaign material is just not fun for me, as the GM. It’s too hard to use, it’s too inflexible, it’s too detached from the concerns of the PCs and the players.

The players are playing to find out, but I’m not. Which brings me to push me.

Push Me

The other approach I want to talk about I’m calling “push me,” mostly because it fits nicely with the Dolittle critter. This is pretty much the opposite of pull you: nothing is prepared, everything is improvised, and we’re all playing to find out. I like it because I like being pushed along with the players.

Obviously there’s a very long, fine-grained continuum between total-prep module-style games and zero-prep full-improv games. I get that, you get that, there’s no reason to get angry. My point is, this session of Forbidden Lands revealed to me that I’m so much happier on the push me end of the spectrum for this game in particular.

I have to think there’s a central tension to Forbidden Lands that’s almost certainly the same tension in lots of hexcrawl-y sandbox-y trad-slash-old-school games, yeah? You do all this procedural creation on the fly for journeys via tables or oracles or card draws, whatever, but that’s just kind of filler until you get to the carefully crafted adventure site where, one supposes, the “real” game lies. But jeez…maybe this is specific to how bad the Forbidden Lands campaign material is, but I’ll be perfectly happy never, ever revisiting the “real” game again. I’m just so bored, or maybe dissatisfied, trying my level best to present someone else’s materials in the best possible light.

In the end, I think it comes down to wanting to play with the players. I am much happier right there in the mix with them, struggling and improvising and fighting, really, to make this thing work. I could have stayed home and practiced my piece until it was perfect, but instead I’m in there playing my instrument along with them.

Anyway! The session!

Since this session ran in the vein of pure on-the-fly procedural creation (like most of how Mutant runs), I got a much better feel for the game’s mechanical ebb and flow this time.

The players decided they needed to start making some coin, so they looked around the map near their area and found a castle-type adventure site on the shores of Lake Varda (X-15 on the map). We were reintroduced to how small the Forbidden Lands are: about 300km east to west, maybe 250km north to south. A smidge bigger than Massachusetts. Yeahhh. There are some dissonances to reconcile once you realize how small that is. Like, why has nobody yet checked out this weird structure that’s literally 10-ish miles away from the town? You can get there and back by foot in a day. Heck, you can be back at the inn for lunch if you take a horse out there. Who fuckin’ knows? The lands, they’re forbidden.

One thing that popped out at me, now that we’re a bit into our campaign, is that this is the most play-the-day game we’ve done. Every day is broken into quarters, and every quarter every player must declare what their character is doing. So we’ve played, in three sessions, 5 days x 4 quarters: 20 increments of play. Lots of those just zoom by because everyone but the lookout is asleep, or everyone is doing support stuff (foraging, hunting, repairing) while the lookout rests up for his long lonely night. I like that, because it feels like the logistics of long through-hikes I’ve done: we get up at sunrise and need to be to the river by lunch, then to our campsite by six-ish before the sun goes down, then Paul and Andy set up camp while Bruce and Tina set up the kitchen and get us fed. Like, the scales are all pretty correct: you really can get in a not-brutal cross-country hike of 10 to 12 miles in a day, you really do spend a good chunk of your day with the tedious logistics of self-contained travel, you really do need to divide the labor, you really do need to get your sleep in.

I spent about 10 minutes generating the adventure site at X-15: an outpost-sized structure, built during the last Alder War (ie before the Blood Mist) by dwarves as a trade house, kind of a small caravansery. It got partially destroyed by raiders, and now it’s inhabited by a dozen skeletons trudging their way through the rituals of the living: some go on guard, others “till” a field outside with old rotted tools, others still sit three times a day at a table and “eat.” This weird automaton behavior keeps repeating through the day.

Meanwhile, camp is not uneventful. The late-night lookout discovers the Blood Mist itself has come roiling out of the dark forest that looms to the north. Yikes! This is great because this is the players’ introduction to the thing that kept their characters penned up in their various communities their whole lives. There’s a clusterfuck of Move rolls to escape, and Insight rolls to tolerate the Mist lest it saps their Empathy and leaves them broken and lost inside. After a couple Lore tests, I went ahead and revealed that the Blood Mist seeks out loneliness and homesickness. “But isn’t our party a community?” someone asks. Later on, that very same player declines to send his character into the heat of battle straight away. It’s a nice moment, joining those threads.

Oh yeah and of course the Mist has arrived in the night quarter. Everyone starts their next day Sleepy and fucked up, their first-ever Conditions. They spend another day rolling against their rations, slowly grinding away at their supplies, killing another day because they absolutely do not want to head into skeleton central at night. It’s still spring and the nights are still long.

The game provides zero support, none, regarding what might be found in an adventure site. Should there be an artifact? What about small or large treasures left behind? It’s entirely left to the GM’s discretion. My very smart players, realizing their characters have started out their lives woefully underprepared, realized the skeletal soldiers themselves were the biggest payday: they had a rip-roaring fight (the halfling sorcerer child busted out a six willpower Stun spell, rolled and overpowered it, taking out half the guards in one shout…and ended up Thirsty, the spell having taxed the poor kid) and scored a bunch of old broadswords, spears and leather armor. There was stuff left in the old outpost as well, again totally just eyeballed by me: some coins, a decent pair of boots, a couple bits of jewelry, and a compellingly mysterious old book.

One thing I didn’t realize until I was a ways into the game is that there aren’t any rules for magical artifacts, other than the artifacts that come listed in the book itself. There are no enchanted swords or potions or anything. I like this quite a lot, truth be told, because I also gave them their first artifact (an enchanted/cursed evil spear) and it’s special. Nice! I just had to get past the expectation that one could find the lands littered with old magical shit. Crafting talents (Smithing, Bowyer, etc.) let you build exceptional goodies with bonus gear dice. Those (wildly overpriced) artifact dice are hardly ever going to get rolled.

After our skeleton fight, we agreed that the card-based combat scripting game is too much overhead. That’s a shame, since the Legends & Adventurers supplement provides talents that rely on it. I had folks pick new talents so they weren’t saddled with bennies we’re never going to use. Just too darned much handling time. Maybe, perhaps if there’s an important fight with a major NPC we might try it out. I suspect Free League were trying for the Fight! scripting from Burning Wheel but I’m skeptical about using it there too.

The party ended up with a decent haul from this little outpost once they combined the weapons, armor, and various goodies. They’re struggling a bit with the logistics of hauling shit around, but they have horses so it’s not impossible. I think they’re working out an overall tempo of going out to an adventure site, grabbing what they can, and cashing out in a town. I wish there was better support for what happens in villages, though, because I can’t fathom that The Hollows’ various NPCs have unlimited funds with which to buy expensive trinkets. I’m already imagining that trade will mostly come down to barter, rather than passing through coinage first.

We’re playing again next week. I’m perfectly content to continue getting pushed along with the rest of the players into the countryside as it reveals itself. I might try to use another of the pre-created adventure sites at some point, but it’s not something that, in the words of Marie Kondo, sparks joy.

Yesterday I had an unexpected opportunity to run two similar games side by side. My friends Ralph Mazza (Ramshead Publishing, created Universalis, Blood Red Sands) and Jahmal Brown (indie con rock star, wrote Clockwinders for Fate Worlds, writing Cortex Prime: Supers) were in town for a week of gaming and escaping their icy wastelands. We had been batting around the idea of firing up a rolling campaign of The One Ring –– as in, whenever we’re together in the same place, we can pull it out, bring in some guest players, and have a session. I was inspired by Morgan Ellis’ (Atomic Robolots of other stuff) rolling Fate Star Wars campaign he’s been running for years. I got into that game at last year’s NewMexicon and it was super fun.

With practically no prep, we tossed together a couple Middle Earth badasses (the two super-classes from the Rivendell supplement), a standard-issue Wood Elf from the core rules for my buddy Robert to slot into (he probably won’t be present when we play again this April in Albuquerque), and we started into the campaign presented in Ruins of the North

But, being Tuesday, they played as guest stars in my ongoing Forbidden Lands game as well. Yikes! Ugh!

Running two trindie fantasy games side by side was super interesting! I had thoughts.

Characters

We made our Forbidden Lands characters a couple weeks ago, so the process was still fresh. In the interest of saving time and the challenge of playing something unexpected, we used the Legends and Adventurers supplement — everything randomized. The mechanical bits came out just fine, but now that we’ve made, what, six characters using L&A? The fiction it generates is just dumb. Ralph said it was pretty obvious that the mechanics, the backstory/setting folks, and the adventure folks almost certainly never talked to each other.

The Forbidden Lands conceit is that a vast killing curse has kept every settlement constrained to a day’s travel, right? Three hundred years have gone by. There’s nothing bigger than a village of perhaps a few hundred, and they’ve been incommunicado except where traveling minstrels and itinerant monks (the “Rust Brothers”) have somehow not suffered from the Blood Mist. Okay right? So one of our randomized characters turns out to be a human fighter (ho hum). We didn’t have any “old” characters, so Ralph went through and did that. Somehow, in five years, he had belonged to three separate standing armies, all of whom had been slaughtered to the man. And he’s “old!” As in, you know, he lived in some village somewhere until he was 60 or whatever, and the past five years apparently have been the entirety of his absurd career.

Pretty much every history that comes out of L&A is just dumb. It would have been trivially easy to have two sets of tables and have them stretch back in time, you know? The set everyone rolls on, young through old, is what happened in the past five years. The next set, for adults and olds, is what happened prior to the lifting of the Mist. Either the designer didn’t actually read the game’s premise, or they honestly didn’t think anyone cared about boring stuff like character histories.

The “how you met” tables are just as bad. Ye gawds. Not one item on that table feels like it could have happened in the Ravenlands.

But more to the point: in Forbidden Lands, your kin is your culture. Humans are alike no matter where you find them, as are Wolfkin and Halflings and Elves and all the rest. Their main difference comes in the form of a single kin-based Talent you get. Otherwise? You start the game a total blank and it’s your profession that shapes you going forward. There’s no consideration given at all to what your village might have been like, how you spent your days before the curse lifted, any of that. None of my players have any sense of where they’re from or what they should care about.

Our characters in The One Ring are, at least, more varied by culture. Every culture has a pick-list of starting abilities, and as you advance you continue to pick from your culture’s own set of stuff. There are a few general-purpose talents, but the good stuff continuously ties you back to you folk and your history. The two games couldn’t be more different. Then again, TOR has the advantage of thousands of pages of Tolkien to draw from and distill down. I get that, I do. But whatever the game’s starting advantages, it clearly cares more at the mechanical level about where you’re from and what you’re about.

Journeys

Both games have robust travel minigames, which I think is the place they’re most like each other. In The One Ring, there’s this elaborate interlocking system of needed equipment, road exhaustion, the change of the seasons, exploring and learning an objectively knowable map, and the constant struggle to maintain your Hope (an in-game resource) and keep the Shadow (an in-game bad-shit-happens countdown) at bay. Oh and if you use the Rivendell supplement, which I do, the Eye of Sauron itself is slowly becoming aware of the fellowship’s movement and activities, moreso if it’s comprised of Elves and if the heroes do anything involving magic. The themes of TOR are centered entirely on the journey, fighting exhaustion both physical and spiritual.

The travel game in Forbidden Lands is quite a bit more objective and straight survival-oriented: you need to eat, drink, sleep and keep warm or start suffering penalties. At first the penalties are small and the resources plentiful, but much like in Torchbearer, those grinds start to add up fast.

Our FL session last night didn’t involve travel, but they moved three hexes on the big FL map last session and it’s still fresh. Procedurally, both games are pretty similar! In The One Ring, as you get fatigued you might trigger a hazard, which targets one of four established traveling-party roles (leader, lookout, scout, etc.). Those roles are similar in FL (except they’re “actions” you choose to take each quarter-day) and events are generated there as well, on tables keyed to terrain types. The result is pretty comparable. I think I like Forbidden Lands’ version better, because there’s kind of an outline of little mini-stories buried in its encounter tables. You don’t just run into “a monster,” you run into a specific clan of orcs hauling a different clan’s orc as hostage. If you ever roll that result again, you’re instructed to pick up where the last bit left off. That’s nifty, feels more alive. When I generate a hazard in TOR, I’m either making Tolkien shit up (which is fine), referring to tables in Journeys & Maps, or interpreting a card draw from Hobbit Tales. It’s more, or maybe just different, lifting.

Adventures

In both games, I used pre-designed adventure material in part of each game. The differences become quite a bit more stark here.

In The One Ring, I’ve started the fellowship through the linked adventures in Ruins of the North, which centers the action west of Mirkwood in the Eriador region — you know, Angmar and Rivendell and the Shire, all that. I know the setting material less-well there, but Ralph, Jay and Robert all know Mirkwood too well, so this is fun for all of us to explore. The way C7 designs TOR adventures is that they’re usually kind of on rails: first act is when the fellowship arrives and susses out the situation, then something happens and the next act is triggered, then whatever happens the third act is triggered and so on. You can bend events such that future acts become irrelevant but as a practical matter that kind of doesn’t happen. When we ran The Darkening of Mirkwood a couple years back, the bigger danger was the accumulated impacts of each year’s vignette on future years — very much like how The Great Pendragon Campaign plays out. Major NPCs might have died or had their contexts changed too much, so I’d need to swap in someone similar. But history marches on, and events happen with or without the fellowship’s input.

I started Forbidden Lands with every intention of working through the Raven’s Purge campaign that came with the Kickstarter. It looks on its face to be kinda-sorta like how the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero spools out: a combination of physical artifacts, procedurally generated zone encounters, and pre-seeded map locations come together to unveil the storyline in a very organic way. It’s magical, it works great, I’ve never run into another game that does it. I thought that’d be Forbidden Lands, but it just … isn’t.

One big difference is that Raven’s Purge is bigger, more complex. It’s mostly delivered via “adventure sites,” where the characters learn legends surrounding places and artifacts, and slowly piece together the history of the land as it existed before the Blood Mist. It’s ambitious, but they’ve also made it too fucking complicated. There are numerous world-shaking players on the map, each with their own agendas. You can’t really know how things are advancing without fully internalizing all of Raven’s Purge, despite their best efforts to encapsulating that stuff. The storylines behind the eight campaign-important artifacts are, gosh, more complicated than I can keep up with. But the greatest sin the game commits is how they organize their adventure sites.

There are three such sites in the core rulebook and a bunch more in both Raven’s Purge and Spire of Quetzal. Each comes with a keyed map, a player’s version of the map, a GM-facing history about the place, an explanation of what all’s in the physical space, a breakdown of the NPCs, and then a list of events that could take place in the location. It’s quite different than a traditional D&D module, less detailed but also broken up really badly. Each time the players wanted to explore a place, I needed to flip between three different areas to get the full picture.

The goal, I’m sure, was to make adventure sites in Forbidden Lands flexible and dramatic, but as a practical matter, jeez, I have no idea what’s going on in any given location. I didn’t have this problem with the Special Zones in MYZ. I need to go back and see how they’re different.

After fumbling through the ostensible campaign start in a town called The Hollows, I thought long and hard about just running the game Mutant-sandbox style, randomly generating locations as the characters go, executing the travel grind, and discovering the world alongside them. Maybe the campaign will reveal itself anyway? I have no idea.

Theme thoughts

At some point, debriefing after the night was over, I said something like “Well, I feel like The One Ring supports its theme more tightly.” And then I had to think long and hard about whether Forbidden Lands has a theme at all.

It does, of course, but I’m not sure the game is about its theme in the same way. Forbidden Lands has a gritty survivalist vibe, not as desperate as in Torchbearer but in that vein. The world is out there for you to explore, and you can probably survive in it with a little forethought (unlike in Mutant: Year Zero, where events could very well conspire to kill you no matter how well you planned). Having a known, knowable map to touch helps that a lot. If the players didn’t have that to work from, and just traveled blindly from hex to hex, it would feel much different. Forbidden Lands doesn’t care if you murder and pillage your way across the land; it’s much darker than The One Ring that way. Amoral fortune-seekers versus deeply moral do-gooders!

I feel like Forbidden Lands is trying to serve too many masters, and thus far it serves none of them well. It splashes the phrase “old school” all over the place, but in actual play there’s not much old about it without outright ignoring its many indie inspirations. Other than the blank-slate characters whose backgrounds really have no impact, which is no small thing. Its adventure sites feel like they’re trying to be both “dungeons” and dramatic opportunities, but I can’t make both those things come together at once yet. Maybe I’ll learn! It might very well be that I came to the game with expectations that were not met, and I need to do a better job of meeting it on its own terms.

We’re still playing! Everyone was excited to get going last night, and despite a pretty mediocre session (beyond the adventure site problems, I was just flat exhausted) everyone’s good to go next week. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say The One Ring has reminded me just how freaking great it is.

A couple things have been nagging me about Forbidden Lands since our first session. They are entirely tied up with the fiction, not the procedures.

First: the creators went through a lot of trouble to design a multi-faceted, robust, living setting. It’s like a mini-Glorantha in some ways. There are detailed demographic breakdowns on the map, lengthy writeups about the various kin, deep history (1200 years worth!), and religion. The GM’s Guide tells us that religion, for example, is super important to everyone in the Forbidden Lands. But then there’s no on-ramp for any of that for the players.

We have one character whose backstory, generated via the Legends & Adventurers booklet, includes a reference to one of the gods. So, sure, I went ahead and read the bit about Clay out loud from the GM’s Guide. There isn’t even, like, a quick little breakdown of the religions in the Player’s Book iirc. I should probably just designate who worships what, following the kin and history materials, and provide that stuff to the players.

That’s kind of a theme of this game, and it feels a lot like their other games (in particular Coriolis): lots of talk about how important culture is, but very little to actually make that happen in the game. Not even a player-friendly setting dump. So the characters feel like fish out of water, rather than deeply embedded into the setting. Combine this with the lack of family or kin ties, and you’re left with either lots of GM heavy lifting or just letting the players discover the world as they go.

Second issue, much smaller: I have no idea what fictional justification there is for the big pretty map they have. In Mutant: Year Zero, only the GM has the full map. The players need to draw out their map as they go. But the big pretty map in Forbidden Lands is explicitly a player tool. Where did it come from? How do they have it?

Dunno. It just bugs me. They could and probably should have made ’em map as they went, maybe providing some ranged scouting like the zone stalkers can do via tall buildings and radio towers in MYZ: climb a very tall tree on a hill, or a mountain, or the walls of a major structure. That would change the nature of the food/water/sleep/cold grind a whole lot, though, especially since they don’t really have a home base to operate from (other than The Hollows, if you’re following the official campaign).

We spun up our Forbidden Lands game last night, creating four characters and doing some simple map-wandering to start shaking the system out. I think it’s gonna be pretty fun!

Characters

We added a fourth player to our regular group. It’s so interesting to me to watch how the interpersonal dynamics change from things like this. I feel like we had built up some bad/acrimonious habits throughout 2018 and I’m still thinking about why, but one of my end of year takeaways was that I wanted to start the year with a party-oriented, everyone-against-the-world-together kind of game.

There are, broadly, two ways to make a Forbidden Lands character. One is to just go through the book and build a character. You get the stats you want, the skills you want, the talents. It’s all very hands-on and conventional. And then there’s the “Legends and Adventurers” supplement, a slender volume that semi-randomizes your PCs (and has tables for monsters and legends). The L&A version is nifty to me because it doesn’t provide perfect control over your character: you get to pick your kin and your profession, but in both cases you follow those decisions with rolls on tables. If you’re a child, you roll a childhood event for your kin choice (which sets your stats and skills). If you proceed to adult, you roll on the profession event table (which sets the second set of skills, your talent, and some gear). The result, I think, really puts everyone in a head of not knowing themselves or this strange world. Top marks, I recommend it.

I totally get that this also frustrates players who came to the table with a firm idea of what they wanted to play. The player who usually grates against systems like this – he hated King Arthur Pendragon for similar reasons – grated against his fighter result. He wanted to be a big brutish Conan-esque figure, but ended up a fast, twitchy horseback rider better suited to scouting and sniping.

One twist to Forbidden Lands characters I don’t love but is probably necessary is the character relationship choices. Every profession has three starter ideas for relationships with other PCs. You know, stuff like “I fear X is drawn to the dark arts and I must save them” type stuff. Way back in Mutant: Year Zero, this helped shape your Buddy choice, and was tied into the XP system. Here, it’s pure color and eminently ignorable. Like, I had to remind the players to go ahead and write down their relationship narratives. Literally nobody ever referenced these in play, and I guarantee they’ll just be gone in a session or two.

There’s some nifty stuff buried in character creation, and I’d love to just make a shitton of characters to try it all out. Two of the characters start the game with Mounts, so we went through the card supplement and they picked out rides with names and stats and backstories – neat! We already have two NPCs mentioned as a result. Two of the characters (the Halfling sorcerer and the Wolfkin druid) use magic, and that’s nifty. And, because advancing magical talents is super-duper slow without instruction, they’ve already got incentives to seek out NPC mentors in the world. The other two characters are an Elven hunter and a Human fighter. Oh! Additionally, the Halfling and the Elf chose to start as children, while the Wolfkin and Human are adults. Nobody went for “old” and I has a small sad, but it’s fine. Someone’s gonna die early. I can feel it.

20190116_092713The Hexcrawl

We decided to start the game literally the morning after the last of the “how we met” rolls. So like: the Elf was the one character who didn’t roll (it’s a rule that, I guess, means everyone kind of accretes around them). The Halfling had survived a shipwreck with the Elf, then got picked up by a caravan where the Human was working as a scout, then they all got drunk together with the Wolfkin who had just found item #66 – the highest and most valuable item on some treasure table or another, a completely ridiculous gigantic silver statue – on the “valuable finds” table he rolled on from the professional events. It worked out great, kind of gonzo and funny, and they were off to the races. I offered a spot on the map in the plains that dominate the center of the map, alongside a river.

The hexcrawl grind of Forbidden Lands is at the core of the play experience, very much like the dungeon grind is in Torchbearer. It’s lifted straight from Mutant: Year Zero,  with the difference that there is no home to go back to and recover in. If you want to recover, you either set camp out in the world or you find a settlement. But it’s all very wandering vagabond type action, exploring and foraging and poking around where you find places.

This early on in the game, there’s a lot of ugly form factor in my face. Honestly, the learning curve feels a lot like learning my way through Zone exploration in MYZ. I learned it there well enough that I was able to create Zone areas on the fly, which was fun for me and the players. The grind is a bit more detailed in FL, though. Like, there are 10 different terrain types and that impacts hunting, foraging, movement, and the encounter table you roll on every quarter day. Well, maybe not at night. I’m not sure! MYZ was equally fuzzy on that. Probably you do, honestly, which is why you need to have someone on guard (thereby making Resting an important consideration). Oh, and there’s also the seasons, and that tells you which quarter-days are light and dark. It’s fussy but I think 100% necessary to get it all nailed down. This is where the bulk of your wandering-around story stuff takes place.

Anyway, that form factor. Forbidden Lands comes in two books, one for players and another for gamemasters. But marching-order rules (who leads, who is on lookout, etc.) and movement rules appear in the player book, while all the encounter stuff appears in the GM book. It’s a lot of two-book juggling. It won’t be forever, because next session I’m handing the player book over and they can figure out their own marching order stuff.

The point of our opening session was just to give the system a spin. They were 4 hexes away from the nearest village, which is great because they immediately discovered the map isn’t nearly as big as they thought it was – you cover 2 hexes through “easy” terrain on foot every quarter, which means you can probably get 6 hexes on foot each day. Happily the reality of the Blood Mist conceit, that you just fucking died if you were more than a day away from town, is reflected by the distribution of stuff on the map.

First quarter they did lots of foraging and scouty stuff. The Halfling learned all about the crafting rules, mostly discovering he doesn’t even have the tools necessary to make stuff! Which is just fine. He “discovered” he was a sorcerer maybe a week ago and washed ashore with almost nothing, so that’s great. The Elf and the Wolfkin both did the foraging and fishing thing, got to roll some dice, faced whether to push their rolls to start banking Willpower. We fumbled around looking for how to recover lost stat points, and I think it’s just a matter of resting or sleeping while not hungry, thirsty, or cold. So that’s a nice prompt to go ahead, what the heck, push a bit because it won’t be that hard to recover from that night. The hunter went poking around the hex they’d woken up in, and found a nice camping spot they probably should have settled in the night before, rather than partying around the only tree on the open plain.

But of course the next quarter of the day was more dangerous, and there were quite a few lowered stats they hadn’t had time to recover yet. Anything-grind games, I think, demand some real survivalist discipline. The lookout spotted a band of orcs hauling another orc tied to a pole, singing and bashing their shields with their swords. He tried to slip away but they noticed him and gave chase. He wanted to pull the whole warband away from his people, and I called that a Manipulation while he argued it was Riding. He missed that roll in any case, with half the warband splitting off to accost the Halfling and Elf kids and their Wolfkin grownup, and half the warband chasing the scout.

That gave us a chance to spool out the initiative system and experiment with conflicts. The orc warbands went first and closed distance from long to near, both against the kids and against the scout. The Elf tried to talk the orcs down but completely fucked it up. The Halfling just ghosted the whole thing, disappearing behind some nearby rocks. Finally, the Wolfkin offered their foraged fish if the orcs walked away, or death at the point of his spear if they didn’t. I liked that! And it fiddled with the Manipulate dice pool calculation enough that he ended up with a good-sized pool. He succeeded, the orcs failed their Insight resistance roll, so they took their fish and wandered off. It played out just fine, nice outcome, and it showed the players they can intermingle social and physical conflict in the same continuum. This is one of my favorite aspects of the MYZ engine, and I wish more games did this.

Hmm. Oh yeah, I had everyone roll Lore to know about the village just beyond the hills they were due to arrive at that evening. Everyone failed. The Halfling’s Pride was something like “I’ve read a lot of books” so he rolled his d12 on the push and failed that roll as well! So good. That means his Pride got erased and he’s going to have to write a new one, and go without his Pride next session. It also means he got an XP for using it.

There are a lot of character gewgaws to remember to use. The character sheets aren’t much help. Like, all your talents are on the back of the official character sheet. The Wolfkin remember to use Pathfinder while taking the lead, because that’s an easy +1d modification. But there were lots of other talents, both kin and professional, that nobody remembered.

Finally they arrived at The Hollows, a well built-out adventure location that is the notional start of the Raven’s Purge campaign. We stopped as they walked into town, reading the weird sign at the gate. I got to add the first map sticker!

You may also see in the picture that I’m adding a small ink dot to the corner of each hex they’ve been to. Going to hexes they’ve never been to is an XP, so it’s important they be able to track this. I really wish the hexes were numbered, too, so I could add notes about permanent features, like the old inn ruins they came across on that very first hex. That could be nice to remember in the future!

Denouement

I’ve always liked the checklist style of XP distribution in the Mutant games. FL has a pretty long list! Then again, advancement is relatively slower in FL than Mutant. Thank goodness, I found my players had outrun the world within about 8 sessions of Mutant. Don’t see that happening in FL, not only because of the tweaked XP scheme but because it’s very sandboxy. There are challenges in the world you just don’t fuck around with, even after lots of advancement.

The Halfling bought the Chef talent, which is 100% in line with his background, being a Halfling, and what we discovered during the hexcrawl – you really need a chef to render raw food “units” (which you just eat and erase) into better food resource dice (which you roll and only reduce on a 1).

And that’s that. I think we played, for real, about two hours. Hopefully our sessions will run 3ish hours in the future.

Last First Thoughts

Forbidden Lands feels a lot like my favorite parts of Mutant, and that’s very reassuring to me. It also tells me it’ll be three or four sessions before I’m fluent with the rather long formal punch-list of this game’s grind: all the hexcrawl stuff, all the terrain modifications, eating/drinking/sleeping, all that. It’s more detailed than Mutant but there’s also no Ark aspect. Well there sort of is once they build a Stronghold, but that’s a good long ways away.

I don’t love how well the game apes the fantasy tradition of relationships not mattering. Not only is there nothing mechanical to try and incentivize relationships, but the hexcrawl itself demands a lot of bandwidth and discipline. In that way, it feels most like Torchbearer to me. But in Torchbearer¸ there was the Goal, Belief and Instinct areas where you could pursue interpersonal stuff. I’m thinking (hoping!) relationships will emerge via the Pride system, which looks a lot like Burning Wheel type Beliefs.

I was so busy grappling with the procedures that I spent literally no time at all thinking about the campaign stuff. I’m going to need to read up on The Hollows before they dig in next week. There’s also the fact that players start with a very, very blank page setting-wise. I have no idea where anyone’s from. I have no idea if they have families or friends or, like, anything they might tap into through play. Another place Torchbearer does it better.

I’m gonna put together my own hexcrawl cheat sheet so I don’t have to go between both books to get all the rules in one place. That is by far the most irritating handling bit of the game.

A lot of the pleasure of the MYZ games is the mechanical stuff. I won’t lie, the dice are fun! Leveraging talents and skills and Willpower and pushed rolls, all that stuff comes together in a really satisfying way. It requires my players learn and master their options. That’s funny inside my head because we’ve come off a string of PbtA style games where the best advice is often “just talk and I’ll tell you when you run into a move.”