I was very excited when BubbleGumshoe was announced because it seemed like the first iteration of the game engine that would be about detection first and foremost. What was the last roleplaying game you played that didn’t have a weird factor? Magic, super-powers, faeries, monsters of some kind: the weird is ubiquitous. Each of the iterations of Gumshoe so far has used the investigative chassis to drive some other kind of story, so that Fear Itself is really about survival horror, Esoterrorists is really about existential survival horror, Trail of Cthulhu is really about chthonic survival horror, Night’s Black Agents is really about vampiric survival horror… and BubbleGumshoe is really about surviving the horror of high school. In the formal modular structure of the game engine unspeakable horrors that haunt the nightmares are replaced by that bullying jock from PE 5th period. Investigators don’t bleed, they lose their cool; instead of toting Tommy guns, they remember that dress Ash wore to junior prom, you know, the hideous day-glow-orange number with the frills? When I think back on High School, I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather take my chances with a Shoggoth.

That’s a mostly-glib summary of one of the big design features of the system that’s been under-used in most versions of the game, which is its modularity. Robin Laws deliberately designed it to be a system where different kinds of things could be switched in and out to create a different genre feel within the same basic mechanical framework. But, just like most versions of d20 felt pretty much like Dungeons and Dragons Lite, especially most fantasy versions, most iterations of Gumshoe have felt very similar. I’ve never played Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues, which at least seem like they could offer quite a different experience from the base established by Fear Itself. Night’s Black Agents provides a tonne of useful advice for the GM in terms of structuring events in the game, but Hite’s system adaptations don’t really go that far - “Heat” for example, feels like an afterthought rather than the crucial metric of espionage success that it probably could have been (check out One Last Job for a version of the Heat mechanic that is integral and does ratchet up tension within scenes). BubbleGumshoe really exists to show just how adaptable Laws’ basic modular system can be, because it uses the core mechanics to provide a distinctly different experience at the table that very closely matches my genre expectations.

In summary, the key mechanic of Gumshoe as a system is that it’s about resource expenditure; the most dramatic resource is health and/or sanity, but every game-mechanical action is a decision about whether to spend resource to achieve a goal. This works very well for its original iteration Fear Itself which is pretty much about the characters running out of resources as they’re slaughtered by an unspeakable evil. There is a reasonable element of system mastery required to gauge how much to spend so that you neither running out of efficacy too early nor end the session with a string of failures but points left in the bank. The element of judgement, of careful resource husbandry, has always sat uncomfortably with Gumshoe as a free-wheeling over-the-top action adventure. This mechanic made more sense in genre terms to me in Fear Itself and Night’s Black Agents than in Trail of Cthulhu because in Trail I always feel like the narrative structure is for the characters to gain insight and support over the course of the adventure to the point where the characters confront the Monstrous Other at the height of their powers; in the old Call of Cthulhu you could think of this as exchanging sanity for the capability of dealing with the threat. Since this basic mechanism of the system is to break characters down as the game wends along I can’t quite imagine an iteration of Gumshoe for High Fantasy because it’s a genre that is inherently aspirational. On the other hand, it seems like a perfect fit for the Hard Boiled detective, and I cannot wait to give Cthulhu Confidential a spin. Thinking about whether BubbleGumshoe works as a game is partially about thinking about whether there is a resource that’s expended in the inspiring fiction.

The primary resources that are expended in BubbleGumshoe are “cool” and “relationships”. “Cool” is the analogue of “Stability” in other games, but what’s great about “Cool” is that it has a meaning within the fiction. This means that it is available for story purposes as well as a simple mechanical measure of stress. The leaders of school society have a high “Cool”, which they can then expend to go into grown-up spaces, or in contests for political supremacy within the school hierarchy.  But “Relationships” is where things get really interesting. As kids, the characters don’t have a range of skills and resources that the typically-adult characters have in other games; instead, they have relationships with a network of other children and adults with useful skills. One example given in the book is for someone whose parent is a coroner, which gives the character access to a suite of forensic skills, but at the cost of putting strain on their familial relationship. In terms of processing and following a sequence of clues, this is almost a simple equivalence: the relationship “Mom” instead of the skill “Forensics”. In narrative terms, however, it’s extremely powerful because it transforms a huge range of what would be simple skill checks into story possibilities. “Mom’s” matriarchal beneficence is a far more interesting thing than an abstract points-pool. This integration of the fictional lives of the characters with the mechanical lives of the players is a huge leap forward for the Gumshoe engine, because it becomes almost a self-perpetuating story: using the skills you need in order to solve a particular mystery generates the concomitant melodrama that is the substance of the characters’ lives and will be a substantial part of the activity at the table.

This flow and exchange is something that I think you can see playing out in some of the source fiction. I can’t think of anything like this in The Three Investigators or The Hardy Boys, but Veronica Mars “uses” her friends and family all the time, generating interpersonal melodrama along the way. The key is that the relationships in Veronica Mars are durable and persistent, whereas the kind of generic “contacts” used by the likes of Sam Axe in Burn Notice or the Winchesters in Supernatural are often not even named or featured on screen. Veronica’s relationships are key resources for her, but they are also important to her. System and narrative are in accord.

This makes BubbleGumshoe my favourite implementation of the mechanics, and so I was very keen to give it a whirl with a group that would grok both halves of the equation: the detection, and the melodrama. I found myself in Auckland recently and turned to a motley crew with, as the filth might say, “form” in the genres.

Despite knowing the group very well for a long time I started the session in a low-key way. I think we’re quite used to turning up to one-shot games and diving straight into the action, but the human brain, any human system really, needs time to acclimate to its new task and orient itself. We started with a quite casual discussion on teen detectives, and the discussion tended towards trying to think about groups of detectives. One fairly defining trait of most detective literature is the singularity of the detective - Veronica Mars, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer, and virtually any other detective you can think of, have friends and resources but professionally they’re very isolated. Even groups like the Three Investigators or the gang in Scooby Doo tends to split the actual detection a little unevenly. The discussion managed to avoid going to the obvious wells for groups, - Fighter/Wizard/Thief/Cleric, or Decker/Rigger/Street Sam/Mage, Ventru/Tremere/Toreador/etc etc.

The discussion very naturally pointed us all toward one of the school institutions which draws together a variety of different “types” - the school musical. I wish I could claim credit, but it was our youngest player who provided the real vision and impetus for the solution. The overt thread linking the characters’ lives was the school production of Hamilton. Lucretia in a single stroke of genius provided an overarching connection, a cast of characters (haha), and an obvious procedural target for the necessary maleficence. The different characters easily assumed different roles in the production, and I had the easiest part to play as the semi-disinterested teacher who hadn’t quite gotten around to reading the script and hence left the important decisions where it belongs, in the hands of the players.

Cobbling together a basic mystery was very simple. The trouble in writing mysteries for roleplaying games is usually in devising a sequence of clever, but not too clever, clues in a chain. The basic difficulty with Gumshoe has always been the difficulty of actually devising a sensible set of clues; it’s insightful approach of “no clue left undiscovered” can still easily have the GM devise a mystery impossible to solve. You see that all the time in the so-called Fair Play Mysteries from the Golden Period, where sometimes the solution was so ingenious that “only a half-wit could see it”. However, in BubbleGumShoe the bulk of the information is likely to be encoded in GMCs, and it’s a matter of social leverage to get the information required, allowing a healthy dose of useful interpretation to be included if needed. I had encouraged the players to leave unallocated a certain proportion of their points for buying relationships with GMCs in case they needed to create someone useful on the fly.

Once things got going, the game functioned very much like I thought it would from my reading. In particular, by encoding the clues in GMCs, the pursuit of more information was dynamic and entertaining rather than a series of static descriptive scenes: obtaining information from a GMC naturally means engaging them in conversation, whereas searching another crime scene for fingerprints is effectively passive reception of information. I had worried that “expending” relationship points to convince GMCs to do things against their overt best interests might feel too mechanical, but instead it added some mechanical heft to bolster the role-played experience. I can easily imagine developing this basic mechanism into a quite good relationship economy - you assist the helpless geek in recovering the lucky charm stolen by the jocks and are hence rewarded with a relationship point to be expended when you need that computer hacked, or, as probably, vice versa. By building the basic currency of the mystery into the basic activity of roleplaying a character you get a natural synergy.

In the end, the game delivered precisely the experience I’d hoped for. It was a slightly unfair test, in that I think the group I gathered most probably could have had a great time playing something truly unwieldy, but I think everyone left the game having had a good time and open to playing more. Even with the best intentions and best groups, that’s far from always the case. Unequivocally, this was the best outing that I’ve had for any variant of the basic Gumshoe game engine.


Archipelago Actual Play

Yesterday I went to a London RPG Meetup and played a session of Archipelago, a game whose name I'd heard but which wasn't familiar to me. It was pitched as a tale for telling Earthsea; style stories - a collaborative world-building tool with a story back-end. From the game introduction:

Archipelago is a story/role-playing game where each player controls a major character. Player take turns directing and playing out a part of their character’s story, leading them towards their selected point of destiny, while other players interact with and influence that story.

This puts it in the same game space as two games I like quite a lot, Microscope and Kingdom. These games are the ultimate in two-edged roleplaying tools, in that they provide a guiding structure for player interactions who are then completely free to run amok. I struggled a lot in this specific game and it took a couple of hours of wandering the city afterwards to get to grips with why. This post is one of those "memento" posts, so that hopefully I can properly contribute the next time I'm at a table like this.

Some basic parameters - there were 5 players, 4 of whom are regulars and knew each other well, plus me. The game took almost 4 hours, and about 90 minutes of that was creating the setting and the "elements". We played three complete rounds of scenes (i.e. 15 scenes) plus the brief epilogues. I didn't get too much intel on the other players' backgrounds, but at least a couple were native to the Indie world, without much experience of traditional gaming. I'd say the average age was late 20s, and we were all men. One little aside on that demographic was that 3 out of the 5 opted to play female characters.

The first step in these collaborative games is to pitch a setting, and the first suggestion out the gate was "Space Opera", which received muted reactions except for one person opposed to it. The second suggestion was "Dune", which somehow seemed to become the accepted premise even though it's an SF concept, and two players at the table expressed no familiarity with it whatsoever. I have read Dune, but nearly 25 years ago. I asked what kind of story we were supposed to have in "Dune-Archipelago" and I got 30-seconds of blank looks back, before someone tried to explain to me what narrative was. Their idea was that the kind of high-level "what is this story about" would emerge during play - a comment I've had a couple of times now in these indie environments - which makes no intuitive sense to me. We completed the initial premise by having it set on a water world whose economy was based around plundering ancient technology from a sunken ancient alien city. I asked if anyone had read Summertide, which has basically exactly this setup and premise, but nobody had. Dune struck and still strikes me as having gotten somewhat lost, if it was even present.

The next step in the game is to pick an "Element" each, which can be anything in the setting. The guidance in the rulebook is characteristically vague-Indie:

Decide what elements of the setting are central, and need someone to take ownership of them – someone who can say what fits and what doesn’t. This is to make sure that the setting has integrity, that there’s a uniting vision for these elements. Decide who owns what. Ownership is a responsibility, so make sure the right people own the right things.

How do you pick an element? What does "uniting vision" mean? What's "integrity" and does it really matter for stories?

We picked one element each. Perhaps symptomatically of the optimistic spirit of the game, two elements felt like they had a major impact on the game, while the other three provided mere moments of colour. In a short-run game there naturally won't and can't be time for everything. Even in our relatively simple and short game there were a few things which seemed to need constant protection on those key elements. For example, the "World is Inimical to Life", which we took to mean only human life, was constantly being transgressed - to the point where a population of native hunter-gatherers was introduced into the story.

Next came the characters, and the game design calls for these to be disparate.

Each character should have an indirect relationship to at least one other character. An indirect relationship means both characters are emotionally tied to a third character, event, place or other element. These ties must be meaningful and strong to your character. You can figure this out for each character in turn, or after some or all the characters are done, but you must have the relationships in place before the game begins. [emphasis added]

This insulates the characters from direct conflict, but it also means that in essence you have a separate story for each character- five parallel stories whose consequences are intended to ebb and flow indirectly. The world becomes a kind of matrix. I found this especially difficult, because I had such a tenuous understanding of the world, the meaning of the elements, the other characters, that it was hard to know what kinds of things would be interesting for the world or the other players. I had little sense of where the narrative might productively go, so made my best guess, which I don't think turned out to be all that good of a guess.

The final step of the process pre-game is for each character to be offered two possible destinies, written by the other members of the group. These are all, again, produced in isolation, inspired by the elements and locations. They proved the much-needed catalyst that allowed the game to assume some kind of narrative shape at the outset of actually playing scenes. For me, this was far too late, and I felt already stranded somewhat, because I couldn't see quite how to make good narrative decisions to lead me to my character's destiny. A failure of imagination, but I felt like the end-point for the character was essentially an amplification of the end point. A character described as a "prophet of doom" who ends up "destroying the city" - the route is so straight between those points it was hard to navigate. Ultimately, with only three scenes with which to work that wasn't a logistical problem.

I'm always reminded in that situation of (I think) Eisenhower's comment which is that plans are futile but planning is indispensable. They're the sort of games that are deceptive in appearing simple, and I've generally found them to be satisfying when I know all the other people at the table well, and where there's some really clearly stated guiding story thesis. The most satisfying experience I've had was with Nick and Steve a couple of election cycles ago where we used Kingdom to simulate the Republican primary cycle. The general run of these games seems to be predicated on the idea that "playing to find out" is something that just works, and awesome things emerge organically. I think the sophistication of genre understanding means this is the case for some games - we've all seen enough Coen brothers films that Fiasco broadly works as intended most of the time. For a game where the canvas is deliberately and extravagantly blank, I think I may always struggle. Nothing more terrifying than a blank page. This game really reminded me that a literary source everyone's read and understands is not a negotiable thing. This game, for me anyway, was always going to be a struggle, because I didn't understand what "Dune" meant to the half of the table to whom it meant anything.

Archapelago is an interesting game, but I think it suffers from not providing a strong set of tools for guiding collaborative play. A group already in sync can pick it up and I'm sure do amazing fun things, but for a new group the components of play are just so much arbitrary opportunity.

Full game available here.

Conpulsion 2016

One of my Oxford gaming pals e-mailed our short-lived Apocalypse World group and pitched CONpulsion to us as a little reunion. I chimed in with enthusiasm, but after a small but unavoidable delay the other three dropped out and by then I’d booked flights. I booked the time off work, and thought nothing more about it. Occasional e-mails arrived with con-relevant information which I basically binned without parsing. I decided to place my convention experience largely in the hands of fate rather than try and form expectations. Since leaving Aotearoa I’ve only been to DragonMeet, where I exclusively did panels and that worked one year and didn’t work one year, so the only vague idea I had in mind was that this time I should also do some gaming at the gaming convention.

CONpulsion is a mature convention, with an apparent c. 20-year history. My somewhat sketchy understanding is that it’s been inhabiting much the same geographical and gaming-cultural space for most of that time, in a general mix of ingredients that’s tweaked by the organisers each year by way of refinement. The “core” of the convention is the actual roleplaying; which is 5no. 3-hour slots over two days, including a mix of big bro Table Top and little sis LARP. There’s a hall of demonstrations where any kind of demonstrable game runs in cyclic rotation depending on who’s about and how long a demo lasts- in parallel to a board gaming area where there’s no development or selling, just whatever it is people do who don’t roleplay. There’s the trader’s hall, including a “bring and buy”. There are panels with guests who share their accumulated wisdom under the careful guidance of a moderator. And there is a minor stream of workshops and demonstrations, including how to fight, how to paint, how to write pick-a-paths, and so on. Collapse )

This structure really brought to mind Jane Jacob’s fantastic The Death and Life of Great Cities, in which she extrapolates a number of characteristic qualities of healthy cities. The key one I always think of is that spaces need to have multiple users in cycles that are out of sync, so that the best and maximum space is always available and in use. Cities that try and segregate their components stagnate, or are inefficient. The KapCon model, based around purely one activity, of roleplaying, has really huge dead patches. Arrive at 8:45 on the Saturday morning and you can barely move for gamers loudly exclaiming over whatever’s on their tiny minds. Arrive at 9:15 and the only soul you’ll see is the poor bastard tasked with making sure the furniture doesn’t feel lonely. It makes the convention a space that has to be navigated with very specific tactics, instead of providing a social facilitation space. At different times at CONpulsion I was able to find basically brand-new people with whom to converse, was able to hang out in an unstructured way with friends lent to me by Morgue, retreat completely into myself to recharge my social batteries, dicker with shopkeepers over their wares, buy food and alcohol, role-play, attend gaming-related panels, participate in a gamer-friendly quiz show, spent money on a hardback RPG I don’t need in a charity auction, and won a pub quiz - and had I wanted to play card games or boardgames there was ample opportunity. Missing round 1 on Sunday didn’t feel so much like a loss of gaming experience as a substitution for other kinds of entertainment an hour later when I had had that critical little additional sleep.

I played three roleplaying games, went to two panels, came second in “Hitpointless” and won the pub quiz. I also threaded in and out of a complex and multi-part/multi-phase discussion on sexual harassment in “our” community that fits snugly amidst the recently-shared posts on social media. This is an inadequate venue for dealing particularly with that latter topic, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that its a topic that still hasn’t had enough thought and exposure, so I will gesture in what I hope is the right direction at the end of this summary of CONpulsion 2016.

I didn’t particularly bother to read any blurbs before the convention. My long experience in the NZ convention circuit is that the quality of a convention game is largely determined by some kind of energy-alchemy around the table, with the GM’s game-management skills providing the largest share of the magic if it’s going to happen and player chemistry doing most of the rest. I’ve played some scenarios that on paper must look nigh-on unsalvageable but which were near-perfect at the table. The best example being Morgue’s A|State demo from a decade ago. And conversely, I’ve seen perfectly good scenarios crash and burn when inhabited by a group with the wrong fit for it. So I figured whatever I picked was a crap-shoot at best, and first up selected “Trouble on Ortuk” on the basis that I was interested in 5th Edition; there’s not much to say about the scenario - it was a novice work that had good and big intentions. 5th Edition itself felt eerily familiar - just like 2nd Ed, my third-favourite edition of the game.

The second game I played was Kaleidoscope, a Microscope hack where the group “remembers” an art-house film they watched. It’s a highly-structured narrative-design game, and the “art house” label excuses the non-sequiturs that inevitably arise from the deliberately fragmentary approach to allocating and designing scenes. We told the story of Boris’s battle with his nemesis “The Frog Stroker”, in a film billed as a mash-up between “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “James Bond” on “peyote”. It was apparently the most coherent narrative this GM had seen from the game, but it was pretty far out there even for the arthouse circuit. I had a great time, and would definitely play that game again.

The third game I played was “Archangel Fall”, which was approximately as surreal as the previous game. A group of archaeologists explore a cave complex as a flashback from their psychiatric ward. My shorthand for it was that it was a JJ Abrams game, delivering individually strong scenes, great visuals, and a compelling structural mystery that was never really explained.

It’s obviously a bit futile to try and extrapolate too much from my 3 direct experiences and a handful of vicarious experiences out of a slate of 38. The general information indicated that pre-generated characters were uncommon, scenarios wouldn’t necessarily have been play-tested, game-management techniques were not advanced. I want to think KapCon’s better - but I’ve come close to the top GM prize at least once and I’ve run games worse than any I played, so who knows?

The panels are where the UK scene absolutely destroys the NZ scene. I went to “Writing and Adapting for RPGs”, chaired by Cat Tobin and “Publishing RPGs” chaired by Gregor Hutton. There were a decent number of others I’d have liked to go to, but one can’t do everything. There were tonnes of snippets of interesting factoids in the two panels, including clear re-statements of what actually writing games entails. The one question that I think was asked and not answered was “what makes X property suitable for adaptation into a roleplaying game?”

The gender split at the convention appeared to be something like 1:3 or 1:4 in favour of guys; even more radically-so on the panels. I don’t have hard numbers handy for KapCon, but my impression was more like 2:3 in favour of guys, and at Chimera last year maybe even closer to parity. This was a topic that seemed to organically emerge into the conversation several times over the convention, in a fairly non-specific way, until the end of the convention when it was literally personified. I found it very difficult to engage in a productive discussion on behaviour of this one guy who was generally agreed to be perilously close to the limit, if not actually over, something like acceptable behaviour. I had met the guy very briefly earlier in the convention and I’d sort of filed him away as one of those socially-awkward gamers who was more-or-less harmless but obnoxious. Even with hindsight, I don’t think I actually saw anything I could or should have intervened in. What that made me realise is just how difficult a problem this is to really address - I mean, I’ve been primed by the internet over recent weeks to think about it, look for it, and do something about it if the occasion arises. Either this guy was well-behaved this con, or there were things totally below the radar. There was a wonderful contra-moment right at the end of the convention, where the central organiser was bidding farewell to the Irish group who were looking after me and she gave everyone a big hug until she got to me, looked me in the eye and we agreed just to shake hands, since I’m not exactly the hugging type and never with strangers.

CONpulsion was a really enjoyable weekend. I arrived in the gaming malaise I’ve been feeling in the UK. I wrote to a friend a few months ago and confessed that I was living clean, and didn’t miss it. And I hadn’t, until I went to CONpulsion. I think a straight gaming convention wouldn’t have made an impression on me - 3 games of the calibre I played would have been perfectly satisfactory but not inspiring. But CONpulsion showcases the entirety of the hobby, not just the pointy dice-rolling end. I got to remember the enjoyment of just gamer-friendly chit-chat, reminiscing about games, talk about the favoured games of yesteryear, and so on. CONpulsion - two thumbs up.

The Myth of the Fragmentary Story, Part 2: The Deep Blue Sea

Is anarchy the alternative to order? If we reject, implicitly, explicitly, accidentally, the imposition of either source of structure, what will actually happen at the table? If we are not playing Iconic characters, or if we are not engaging in a formulaic story, is there not a risk of becoming lost in the sea of non-genre melodrama, flailing about just hoping something interesting happens essentially by accident? That is the alternative that we fear. I’m sure I’m not alone in having played (and run) well-intentioned games that simply went nowhere because they lacked either an initiating spark or a collective capacity for finding a story.

Some early, delicate stage in a new non-structured game the Myth of the Fragmentary Story is part of a delicate meta-game negotiation, a buried conversation that’s as complicated as any human relationship based on the wants and needs of a half-dozen people trying to exist in harmony. The negotiation is this: What do we care about? Why? What is going to affect the things we care about and how? What do we want? How will we achieve it? What resources can we draw on for any or all of those?My least-successful campaigns have all failed to answer the most basic question that is inherently answered by a genre structure: What is the game about?

Crucially, we must recognise that whether we have a unified or disparate scenario, a failure to find story is collective. It cannot practically be the case that only one player succeeds and all the rest fail – and that includes the so-called “Storyteller” who manages the world the others play in. Everyone, or at least a critical majority, must all succeed together. To an extent, the group story paradigm discussed earlier allows a single point of failure to exist, where disengagement with “the story” is automatically catastrophic. The most hardy and adaptable games may survive a complete realignment in the middle of the action, but my experience suggests that most strongly shared narrative spaces cannot substantially alter the inherent momentum of the collective around the table. What inevitably gets sacrificed in this grind is any hint of individuality that cannot be fully integrated or sublimated into the main story.

By far the easiest way to fail collectively when stepping back from genre forms is to simply fail to generate a spark of action. This has been my experience with quite a few collective world-building game starting points now. The bitterest versions for me are Dresden Files and Smallville, because I have had the most fun using their world-creation tools initially. Somehow these games have kicked out starting arrangements which neither fully commit to truly individual stories, nor impose an overall story on the group collectively. Most often what seems to happen is that you end up with a disparate collage of ideas, where each individual has decided deliberately not to impose themselves on the group, and so each inert story element added in the creation process adds up to an overall inertia. Fragmentation allows the failure to occur, but it remains collective in a sense, a failure rooted in what you might think of as politeness.

This politeness effectively means hiding your own story needs and often it means not committing yourself to others’ needs as an alternative either; it is a problem exacerbated by our habit of trying to separate in-game and out-of-game knowledge in case some kind of cross-contamination ruins everything. Not making explicit your needs virtually guarantees that they won’t be observed and fulfilled, not paying attention to the equally not-explicit needs of others guarantees you won’t be part of fulfilling them for others. That, or any significant fraction of that, is a recipe for failure. The rule of all story is to show, rather than tell, but I think in RPGs the surest thing is to do both. Without exposition, it’s altogether possible that your first story salvo will be missed or misconstrued. There’s a host of tips’n’tricks for ameliorating that possibility that would fill an essay by themselves, all rendered redundant by being honest at the table about what you’re after, rather than making your fellows play an elaborate guessing game while you simultaneously play a guessing game yourself about others’ intentions. The shortest answer is to be as clear as possible in how you frame your wants.

Parenthetically, I think this is a lesson that also applies to what I’ve been calling the group story paradigm. I’ve seen games with a solid story chassis go wrong because the GM failed to really outline what they were after in a game, forcing players to play the guessing game about where their interests should lie. More problematically, I’ve seen more than a few players effectively “act out” by disrupting the game when they’re not interested in the central storyline and the response has almost universally been for the GM to crack down in some way, rather than risk altering their precious pre-scripted story to meet the players half way.

The risk you take in openly declaring your thirst for blood/romance/heists is a bit more complex. In part, it risks turning a negotiation into a demand. Perhaps the least satisfying experience I’ve ever had as a player came from a frustrated call from me to the GM for him to hit some, any, of my character’s designed-in story points; it was a FATE game, so they were literally written down in the form of my character’s Aspects. He rolled the story points I’d suggested out like clockwork with such naked efficiency that the game felt more like masochism than drama. Sometimes what you want changes, but having made one aspect of it explicit, it becomes set in stone. There are two obvious points to note. The first is, you don’t always get what you want, and not getting what you want is a real part of any collaborative experience because when you are prepared to meet others half way, you usually get something better. The second is, there’s nothing preventing you from simply re-expositing. Change is not only inevitable, but desirable, and as your needs and wants change you can change what you communicate to the group.

The potentially bigger problem, particularly with a non-genre paradigm is that you might not actually know what you want. I rarely arrive at a game with a check-list of things I want to see, because a big part of playing is in order to find out what‘s going to happen, even if that’s within a well-defined story-field (i.e. even when you “know what the game’s about”, you don’t necessarily know what’s actually going to happen). Some of the best and most satisfying experiences I’ve had at the table are when another player appears to read my mind, before I know myself what I’m thinking. It’s a hard road of getting to know people really well, and of not being afraid to trust them to do what’s best, not necessarily what you wanted in advance. We’ve all got those peculiar friends and have played with those peculiarly talented people who can fake it, who elevate any RPG from a sociable night out into tangible drama.

The successful strategy for counteracting the sensation of being lost or aimless is two-fold. The first part should be reasonably obvious by now – pick a direction and go for it, and tell everyone at the table that you’re doing it. This is a narrative version of either Newton’s second law or the second law of Thermodynamics. Every action you take has, or should have, a reaction. That is the very essence of storytelling of any kind. There are no stories about characters sitting at home doing nothing. Even in Seinfeld, the characters are perpetually in motion. If anything, Jerry and friends have an over-active engagement in the world around them. These actions and reactions all add together to form greater complexity, becoming open systems in which new possibilities are perpetually being created, rather than slowly winding down into the simplest low-energy state available (i.e. stories are non-entropic if you want them to be). Storytelling in a way is finding patterns in the shifting and moving of different elements, and to an extent the more elements in some kind of motion, the easier it is to pick out a solution.

The second part is to take equally seriously the energy of your cohorts. To a large extent, everyone’s in the same situation and they will be equally trying to find a story that compels them. If you and they are in separate story silos, with no obvious connection, that simply means that inside the fiction the characters are not connected. At the level of the play-group, however, everyone is still in the same environment and experiencing the same story milieu. This automatically makes the overall narrative into more of a true ensemble, and there are plenty of examples of absolutely compelling ensemble dramas to view alongside the more straightforward hero-protagonist model. The most popular at the moment is Game of Thrones, which I have yet to hear anyone describe as a fragmentary story. We all accept that while many characters have no direct and specific connection, they are all integral in the holistic picture of the world.

This requires a different discipline from the unitary adventurer split into 5 bodies that is the staple of the adventure or mission game, my “group story paradigm”. As noted, the practical time-split across characters in that paradigm means that in truth you each have an equal share of the spotlight time, which you retain in a more separate story silo. What needs to be jettisoned to make this connection is the traditional character/player divide, which in the Old School meant strictly acting on in-character knowledge only, in an arbitrary way unknown in other dramatic forms. Think about any narrative where a character has made a coincident decision – what is that other than their player reacting to a meta-game cue to link up stories, even if just for a moment.

Paradoxically, the benefit that accrues from a whole group of characters all actively pursuing story possibilities is a far greater story density and complexity than you get when all the characters are perfectly aligned inside, say, a mission-based paradigm. What you get, in effect, is every player contributing story elements and pursuing a story agenda. That increase in, if you like, raw story material, gives everyone at the table more flexibility and allows a much more comprehensive story field. This also distributes and shares the responsibility for generating story, meaning that the incidence of observer characters decreases. It has the real potential to increase engagement. Rather than fragmenting the story, it really expands it, densifies it and makes it more robust.

If we require a collective success for the group-story paradigm, in a so-called fragmentary story, then in the so-called fragmented story, we require only individual successes which can coalesce to form a larger complex (or complexes).

There are plenty of fictional examples available, but the most recent that I’ve been enjoying is Justified. There are essentially 3 main protagonists in Justified, with a small slate of secondary protagonists with various levels of importance – Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. At different times across the show these characters’ stories intersect and interact with staple secondary characters like Wynne and Dewey Crowe. The characters all share a basic story context – the season-arc nemesis – but surrounding and interpenetrating that shared element are their individual stories and tribulations. Often their stories intersect indirectly, as Raylan does something which interferes with Boyd’s plans, or Ava takes an action which requires a follow-up from Boyd. We end up with something approaching a true multi-faceted drama that is fascinating from each perspective. Reimagining the show following exclusively Raylan or Boyd or Ava would be to imagine a much poorer story field.

I think we can contrast with other so-called ensemble shows, such as Firefly. The drama each week in that short-lived bit of genius was compelling and interesting and we all loved the characters, but the stories themselves were always actually quite simple, even one-dimensional. The completely integrated story of the group-as-a-group meant that even episodes where there was split action, the main momentum of all the characters’ actions shared a through-line.

I’ve played in several games now which used a truly multi-character story platform. The first was a Lace and Steel game, where each of the three original players ardently pursued our own story agendas, completely disconnected on a fine granular level. I was just as fascinated to see how Lady Kirkbolton’s courtship played out around her official duties as I was to see how my own character’s career as a cat burglar progressed in the decidedly un-equal-opportunity world of 17th century pseudo-Europe. Being fascinated by the other characters’ stories made the moments of true confluence really crackle with energy. When Sebastian and Esmeralda staged a rescue mission to an Island Fortress to rescue Lady Kirkbolton’s by-then fiancé, it was a story pay-off of epic proportions, far beyond any of the run-of-the-mill mission games I’d played routinely in that mode in the decades previous. While “our stories” were all fragmentary and isolated, even ostensibly secret, they were really different parts of a larger narrative. When the rescue mission was required, I as a player didn’t turn to Lady Kirkbolton’s player and say “I’m sorry, but my criminal side-jobs have never been previously shown in a scene with Lady Kirkbolton, so I can’t help”. I, and Sebastian’s player, just grabbed the opportunity to cross the streams for glorious effect.

The key to making these multi-faceted stories work is to see beyond the myth of the fragmentary story – to place the characters into a larger shared context, so that while the immediate action in any givens scene may be disconnected from the other characters, the consequences are shared. It requires too that everyone in the game take a real interest in the others in the game beyond the simple mechanics of complementary actions. That is another seeming paradox at the heart of a game with multiple viewpoints: it requires the players to be far less selfish than they can be when all they need to worry about is mission niche protection. As a component part of an adventuring ensemble we are intensively trained to ensure that whatever function we fulfil is needed, but in an ensemble multi-perspective story, that freedom is automatic and the real interest must necessarily be focused outward, on the strengths of others at the table.

The Myth of the Fragmentary Story, Part 1: The Devil We Know

My new group in Oxford is at the start of an Apocalypse World campaign. The first couple of sessions of Apocalypse World are a collaborative world-building exercise and we’ve populated the world we built with some notable PCs, and now we’re poised at launching into the game proper. In the zero-session, the game follows the daily lives of the characters, allowing the GM to start looking for the story seeds. At the end of the session there was a fairly concerned discussion, because the four principal characters in the story had all essentially gone their own ways. This is the classic problem of gaming groups outside of the adventuring paradigms, a problem that is as as much about logistics as anything. The simple metric is that if you usually have a 3-hour session to tell your group’s story, you’re now potentially looking at four mini-stories of 45 minutes. Taken as an individual, that means instead of 3 hours of roleplaying, you’re doing 45 minutes.

I like to think of this as the Myth of the Fragmentary Story. Collapse )

Cthulhu Games: Why Investigators Investigate?

(cross-posted to Google Plus in my ongoing attempt to figure out a way to make the Gametime concept relevant to the web we have nowadays)

Today finished running the Call of Cthulhu adventure "Temple of the Moon" for my sunday crew. My first ever time running CoC, surprisingly enough; the first time playing for the whole player group. Last time, some players made comments that caught my attention - stuff like "hmm, I'm not actually sure why my character is going on this next bit of the adventure, given the weird stuff they've seen already".

This put my mind on one of the fundamental conceits of the game: why do the investigators investigate? Why do they go into the dark basement, instead of going home to have a cup of tea by the fire? Sure, it's easy to explain the first time a character digs into mysteries - but after they witness something horrible, why do they keep going?

I'm on a Lovecraft binge right now, reading the stories I've so far missed, and it seems that's a feature of what I'm reading - does the protagonist of a given story recoil from the truth and try to forget it, or do they become ensnared by it and dive compulsively deeper? The sheer magnitude of the horrible truth about reality seems like motivation for some, that they cannot resist wanting to pull back the curtain and see for themselves. But equally, that is a strong motivation to stop thinking too hard about it, to flee to normality.

In any sustained Cthulhu game you must always face this moment. A character who starts out naive and discovers the mythos might be naturally retired at the end of a one-off, but other than that, the momentum of the game encourages the player to keep them pushing into these dangerous mysteries. Suspension of belief can fray, although of course experienced players only create characters who might find motivation to look ever deeper.

It seems like a really important part of the game - something definitive that makes a person suitable as an ongoing character. So it seems odd to me that the books I've looked at don't give it much attention!

Call of Cthulhu (I have 5.1 edition) has the introductory text in "About Investigators", which seems to simply assume that knowledge will drive an investigator to fight against the Mythos:
"The single extraordinary thing about most investigators is what they come to know... Humans who come to admire or understand this alien Mythos are progressively changed by it... Ultimately investigators come to define their own limits... They may volunteer to sacrifce themselves, as do soldiers in war, or to retire from active struggle, as veterans."

(Have I missed anything elsewhere in the book? Does 7th ed address this?)

Trail of Cthulhu does the same:
"You are among the few who suspect the truth – about the mad gods at the center of the universe, about the Great old ones who dream of clearing off the Earth, about the extra-terrestrials who use mankind in their experiments, about the ancient legends of undying evil that are all coming true. You have to make sure nobody else ever finds out — or the world will wake up screaming."
(Again, have I missed anything?)

CoC D20 does address this in the Mythos chapter (John Tynes wrote this bit, right?):
"Every investigator reaches a moment when it is easier to run away, ignore the evidence of her senses, and let sleeping dogs lie. Cowards turn back, but heroes press on, challenging the darkness in terrible places where even angels fear to tread."
The context was "why do investigators fight when they have discovered that everything is pointless" but it works as a more general point about being driven to investigate. It's buried pretty far down in the book though, and it doesn't obviously present itself as an answer.

By contrast to the above, OGL Horror (by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and still an inspirational book to me) addressed this directly in the advice to GMs on campaign structures:
"In horror games, many of the characters are utterly ordinary people who do not want 'adventure' - and certainly not the ghastly cavalcade of death and torment that makes up most horror games... horror campaigns need more planning and groundowrk, because unlike characters in other genres, most horror characters cannot be just handed a plot and expected to play along." (This is followed by a bunch of excellent sample structures for ongoing games explaining why the characters continue to investigate.)
So OGL Horror nails it, but that's general advice, and the main driver of Lovecraft's investigative characters - a kind of obsessed urge to understand the true nature of reality - obviously goes unmentioned in Gar's discussion.

(I was also going to quote from Chill but all my Chill stuff is on loan right now. But there, the SAVE organisation is presented as a default neatly answering the question at character generation.)

So, yeah. I decided to start the game today by telling the group up front that I've been thinking about those comments, and about the characters in Lovecraft's stories, and how they pretty much all hit a certain point where they either backed all the way out or found themselves irresistably pulled all the way in. Their characters were at that moment. There are no rules for what they decide to do - it is up to the player and their vision fo the character.

All four characters survived the experience, and the way the players set them up for the future showed that they had each passed through that turning point. Maybe it would have been exactly the same without my comments, maybe not, but it felt to me like it served a purpose - by acknowledging that this point of awkwardness was actually almost the whole point of the exercise, the inflection point for their characterisation, it seemed to tie everything together on a character level.

So that's what I've been thinking about this evening. Cthulhu games would do well from directly talking about this. (Though if you're a indie forgey story game, obviously you want to turn this into a mechanic, right?)

True Love Match (Kapcon 2014)

I felt guilty, going into this game. If it worked - if it clicked - then five innocent people expecting goofy fun would get punched right in the feels.

The game was True Love Match, run at January's Kapcon in Wellington NZ. This was the game pitch:

Everything has been building up to this moment! Across this series, our lonely gentleman has farewelled sixteen beautiful ladies. Now only four remain! Across one whirlwind weekend it will be time to decide who the gentleman will choose as his.... True Love Match!
This game is inspired by the subgenre of romance reality TV, the most famous example being The Bachelor, with a side helping of the satirical Burning Love.
In True Love Match, one player will be the lonely gentleman and four others will be the ladies competing for his heart. Romantic developments between the gentleman and ladies will unfold using a version of Emily Care-Boss's Breaking the Ice; interactions between the ladies will use the rules of Gregor Hutton's Best Friends; the confessional-to-camera rules from Jared Sorensen's Inspectres might make an appearance too.
I have no idea if this is going to work. I guess we'll find out.


I mostly hate romance reality TV. I *really* hate The Bachelor. That show is inhumane and inhuman and actively harmful to the collective good. The show promotes the idea of "love" as a special, magical connection that you discover and honour. Nah. Love doesn't work like that. A lot of people think it does, though, and if you make life decisions based on that idea of love, you're setting yourself up for heartbreak.

We humans are messed up and permeable. We are not in command of ourselves; we don't know ourselves like we think we do. Our emotions happen for all sorts of crazy reasons, and we are useless at knowing why and even identifying what we're experiencing.

So, The Bachelor. you put two dozen women in a hothouse competition for a single man, and any chance of "authenticity" is gone. It's not about being fake or being real, those categories disappear entirely. There is no truth or untruth any more. There is no space for uninflected emotional response. The situation is all-powerful: these women are going to fall furiously in love with the bachelor, a man they just met, and all but one of them is going to get hurt.

The unseen, unspoken truth is this: situations have great power over us.

I wanted to see how powerful that truth was. If I recreated the situation as a game - a few hours, a few rules, and people who knew they were playing pretend - would it affect them?


Me, in email to Mash beforehand:

I don't know if it'll come together. I am confident it'll work fine as satire and humour if that's the way it goes, but I'll be disappointed if that's where it ends up - not disappointed in the players of course, just disappointed that the structure wasn't as strong as I currently assume it is.

In advance of the game I made the playsheets available. These contain full rules for the game. As mentioned, it's a mix of Best Friends and Breaking the Ice. BF was for the relationships between the women, and while it was a perfect thematic fit, I knew it was ultimately secondary. These rules were mostly a distraction, to hide the sucker punch coming in the other set of rules. In practice they were even less necessary than I expected. (Still perfect thematically, though. BF is a great game!)

While the Best Friends rules were simplified for TLM, the Breaking the Ice rules were so massively simplified that they don't look much like Emily's at all. Still there, mostly, is the dice transaction economy. At the start of a "date", both people get some dice to hold. During the date, when the other person does something romantic, you give them one of your dice. They roll it and see if sparks fly.

The first round of dates, people gifted dice a bit slowly. I told everyone they could chase, and give, dice a lot more freely, and in subsequent encounters loads more dice where handed back and forth. The lady players have mentioned just how much their experience began to revolve around chasing dice. The bachelor player said he could say any cheesy thing he wanted and he would be given a dice by whichever lady was next to him. After dates, all conversation stopped as the other lady players listened carefully for the clatter of dice, an indication of just how well that date had gone.

After the first run of individual dates, we had a group hangout session where only the Bachelor could hand out dice. Somewhere in there, the intensity racheted up. When we began the second (and final!) run of dates, I could feel the tension in the room. After that the Bachelor had to decide his final two, and then (after receiving advice from two unchosen) have intimate chats with both of them before deciding who he would propose to. We just followed through the format to the end.

The players were using coping strategies. Sudden outbreaks of exercise. People dropped out of character more frequently, as if taking a deep breath before diving back in. Several people expressed amazement that they were feeling this as intensely as they were. For my part, I was in a very weird space, carried along and guilty and excited, and I was genuinely moved to tears by one piece of character testimony.

When the final choice was made, everyone felt it.

Afterwards we had a debrief. (If you run this game DO NOT FORGET THE DEBRIEF.) Hugs and talk about what happened and why, a general comedown process to step back into normal emotional processing. And then we were done, off to the next game...

I've been trying for the last month to draw some useful lessons out of this. I haven't, yet. What happened in our game was so distinct to our particular configuration of people - all experienced, all confident playing emotions, most with enormous trust built up between them. And even then, if we had ended up with a different person playing the bachelor, we would have had a massively different experience.

I think it shows that situations have power over our emotions, sometimes, if we engage with the situations in such a way as to allow it. Would it work if the players didn't want to "go there"? Maybe, to an extent. I don't know that I'll ever find it. I don't think I'm going to run this game ever again. It's too mean.


Much love, of course, to the amazing players - Anna, Nikki, Muppet, Andrew and Jenni. Jenni took this pic of the rest of us:

Anna has detailed report of the experience on her blog.

Jenni covers it on her blog.


Do you want to try True Love Match yourself? Grab the playsheets. I also prepped a run-sheet to keep me on track, but it's basically all there in the playsheets - come up with an order of ceremonies that suits you. Will it work? I dunno. Hopefully? If not, hey, just lean into the comedy. At worst, you can spend a few hours viciously lampooning The Bachelor, and that's not a bad way to spend some time.

As mentioned above, the Best Friends stuff was pretty irrelevant to where the game really had power. Would I cut these rules? No, I wouldn't. They provide support if needed for whatever might happen in the mansion, but they also provide a bit of weight to the relationships between the women, something concrete and mechanical to balance out the concrete mechanical relationship with the bachelor. That said, if you wanted to cut them, would I try and talk you out of it? Probably not. Do it your way.

In preparation, Mash referenced Dale Elvy's amazing player activation stuff in his game EPOCH. This was definitely a useful suggestion, one I kept in mind as I got things going. I recommend checking that out.

(Curiously, TLM was one of two on this subject offered at Kapcon that year. Kapcon is a weird convention.)


This is not the version of this post I wanted to write. I had a longer - substantially longer! - version in the form of incoherent pieces and half-thoughts that needed full paragraphs to explore. I couldn't make that one happen. Partly because I need to get something down before this recedes in the memory, and partly because I couldn't manage to put those half-thoughts together right. This will have to do, for now at least.

Player Facing Scenarios

When the Forge spawned the "Indie Game Revolution", I was very sceptical. I took my line pretty far - I called out steve_hix over his award of "Best GM" at KapCon for his break-out Indie game, "The Lucky Joneses", a game about dysfunctional families that was finally released last year as Bad Family. I argued that the GM in Indie games had a much lower burden to carry than the traditional GM because the onus is on the players to make the bulk of the fun. Eventually, Dale found the perfect retort to that argument in his concept of "Player Activation", a core principal of his break-through Horror game, EPOCH. The core argument: causing players to make their own fun is harder than it looks. The concept of player empowerment, rather than GM storytelling, has gained an astonishing currency over the past 5 years, and everyone wants to get on board, and it's creating some interesting tensions in the way that games and scenarios are constructed - in some ways I think it's created an ideological tangle that I'd like to pull apart, at least a little.

I started out playing AD&D 1st Edition. I started RPGing just after 2nd Edition came out, but as kids we couldn't afford the current edition. I picked up my PHb at liquidation prices, and one of my regular players had parents who'd given up playing a few years before we began and had a stockpile of AD&D 1st Edition stuff. We spent a happy few years cutting our way through increasingly elaborate, but always implausible, dungeon complexes. The first game I ran that included anything I'd now recognise as roleplaying was Doom of Daggerdale, and it was a revelation. I mean that fairly literally, because the game is about a small town whose tangled and dark underbelly is exposed by the characters. There's a quite complex back-story about wizards who did bad things, and the people they loved, and betrayal and corruption. It made by 12 year old head absolutely spin. What strikes me about it now is that you don't even need the player characters for that story to be compelling. The player characters are disconnected from the action - they are disinterested parties, cutting through the tangle for profit. For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn't generate a story about themselves. It has taken the first step to being "player-facing" without being about the player characters.

The game had to be structured that way because there was no way of predicting what characters would encounter the game. I don't think anyone would have been able to write or sell an AD&D 2nd Ed scenario whose PC requirements were a group of human adventurers from a small town with an uncle who was a corrupt constable etc etc. What I learned to do, as I think almost everyone did, was to build up a stockpile of D&D adventures out of Dungeon Magazines, and file off the serial numbers as best we could to re-skin the scenarios for our specific groups. NPCs you'd used in previous games replaced similar characters in the present scenario. Doing that creates a sense of continuity where one doesn't exist naturally.

I think this is still the default design philosophy of most RPG scenarios. I picked up Night's Black Agents recently, and I absolutely love it - for me, it's the best implementation of GUMSHOE so far, and it does everything I could hope for in a Spy game. One of the big selling points of GUMSHOE is, and always has been, it's core idea that games shouldn't bog down in the investigative phase - clues are given out for free. This has often been expressed in terms of ensuring that the players can drive the action, because they're not waiting around for information. The GM advice in NBA calls for the GM to saturate the players with information to force them to decide what to do. Fear Itself is even more upfront about the centrality of the player characters as protagonists. Included in the core book is a starter scenario, "(S)Entries" to get you going - but the player characters enter the scenario in the classic role of adventurers dating back to the dawn of our hobby, as contractors coming in to explore the stories of non-player characters. It's a little disappointing, because I think the bulk of the GM and story advice in the book is aimed at delivering specific stories about specific characters, and it's almost all good advice. It's like a footballer tripping themselves up while doing their touchdown dance. To me, that just proves how insidious and pervasive the old story design paradigms are. The whole design philosophy of the system has been re-oriented around empowering and enabling the player characters, but when the rubber hits the road, the provided sample scenario still has the same basic problem as adversarial D&D's Doom of Daggerdale: For the scenario to work, it requires pro-active player characters, whose pro-activity doesn't generate a story about themselves. It has taken the penultimate step toward being "player-facing" without being about the player characters.

In EPOCH, I think this manifests itself in an emergent tension between the characters' stories as told through flashbacks and the Horror Track. I ran Road Trip yesterday for a group of neophyte gamers, and they grasped the core elements of the horror mechanics within a few minutes. They milked their injuries for dramatic potential, some of them used their flashbacks to evoke a sense of character, they got the drama of the hero/zero decision. At the end of the scenario, they'd gotten a "Hollow Victory", which is the basic result for a group that engages with the premise rather than ignoring it. To get a "Total Victory", they needed to investigate the back-story of a feud between two biker gangs and investigate the history of one faction's grizzly mascot: a mummified human corpse. The scenario background is all very interesting and evocative and all those good things but it's completely irrelevant to the player characters. In logistical terms, they need to set aside the time they're spending on their domestic family drama to explore someone else's.

Solving this problem isn't easy for the scenario designer, especially the EPOCH scenario designer where the possibilities for player character configurations are virtually unlimited, or for the contractor-style setup, where the premise of the game is that some disinterested contractors are going to come in and solve the problems for profit. I've addressed the problem in only two of my games, Succession and the forthcoming Death on the Streets, and then only by placing some pretty severe restrictions on the kinds of characters that can experience the scenario while simultaneously expecting the players to buy into the scenario premise.

There are is a simple thought experiment that the scenario designer can use to evaluate whether their scenario is really player-facing: what happens in the scenario if no player characters arrive on the scene? We're used to thinking about scenarios by setting up a story trajectory that the player characters disrupt. For example in Spirit of the Tentacle, if the player characters don't arrive, the cultists summon a tentacled monster who destroys New York. While running the game, the villains' timetable grinds relentlessly on. What that means is that in effect, the player characters are anti-protagonists. They're not trying to achieve anything, they're trying to just maintain the status quo (of a tentacled monster not destroying NYC). In contrast, in The Hand That Feeds, if the player characters never arrive in town, nothing happens: the situation remains as it is. In both, the characters are explicitly contractors, but in the Hand that Feeds, they characters are creating the story, which is inherently more empowering. If you can't even imagine your scenario without the player characters, then I think odds are good your scenario really has player-character protagonists driving the story.

Another technique is to think about how specific the constraints on the player characters are. Again, I think we're used to this kind of approach indicating robust design. Doom of Daggerdale suits almost any conceivable group of characters, and hence represents robust design. But the trade-off should be obvious: if the supposed heroes of the story are completely interchangeable, are they really the story's heroes? Specificity creates logistical problems for short-run games. I'm sure none of us wants to go back to the days when sitting down for a one-shot scenario required reading 10 pages of world exposition, character background and relationships, and a character sheet requiring a PhD to interpret. The 3 inspirational cards of EPOCH and narrative authority has solved a lot of ergonomic problems with short-run games!

There is no perfect game. There are always trade-offs in designing scenarios. I just hope via this post that one of the central design features in most commercial RPG scenarios is now at least a little clearer, and if you design a scenario with a strong NPC storyline, it's as a conscious design decision.

Providence Summer, 1961

Spend a summer in Providence, 1961! Bored teens and squabbling kids have to confront some hard truths as their comforting illusions start to break apart.

I'm delighted to release this series pitch for +Robin Laws's Dramasystem (a.k.a. Hillfolk from +Pelgrane Press Ltd). Inspired by the film "Stand By Me", it's based on a game I ran a decade ago that changed what I thought was possible in RPGs. That game was basically rules-less, but I'm confident Dramasystem would have made it a lot easier to hit that incredible sweet spot of character drama.

Grab it here

This series pitch has several unique aspects. Players own two characters, not one; the characters are not all known to each other at the beginning; and it has some (completely unplaytested!) rules that reinforce power inequalities. These features lean against each other to support a dramatic exploration of young people trapped in troubled family situations.

Big shout out to the Providence Summer players - Nancy, Kathleen, Brian, Steve and David - this release marks the 10th anniversary of that marvellous game. Here is the actual play account, for the curious...

Thanks also to Gregor Hutton for some uber-helpful layout advice!

I've forgotten everyone's LJ usernames sorry.

Activating Players

I am a huge fan of EPOCH, Dale Elvy's game of survival horror. In particular, I am a fan of his idea of "Player Activation" - the idea that the total game environment, from system to presentation, needs to foster an interesting and collaborative experience. Dale's advice in the rulebook itself can hardly be faulted, and much of that advice can be found free on either the EPOCH or his own blog. However, despite my respect and love, I find myself taking a slightly contrary view about this matter from time to time, and a recent exposition seems like a great focus for explaining why.

Dale advises GMs to Pimp Your Game. As Dale explains:
In EPOCH I argue there are no ‘bad’ players. Only players that are not ‘activated’ and that it is possible for a GM to activate almost every player using a variety of techniques. However, by far the most important technique is to ensure the players of the game are aligned with the style, an objective of the game that the GM wishes to run.
This is indisputably useful perspective on the game, but I think there is a conceptual pitfall that I worry about falling into: while this is expressed in terms of empowering players, what it can do is put more pressure on the GM to perform. There are no 'bad' players, only 'bad' GMs that fail to 'activate' their 'not-bad' players.

Dale's advice is excellent - up to a point. I like to think about this in terms of a critical minimum energy level. I've run several games, and played several games under Dale, where swift and incisive GM action has switched a player on, and kept the game running. However, when I think about the games that were great, instead of merely adequate, I can't think of an example where any kind of player activation was needed. So, even if we rule out 'bad' players that doesn't mean we should rule out 'good' ones.

But, actually, let's not rule out 'bad' players just yet. Instead, let's take a quick look at the types of trouble players identified in Greg Stolze's "How To Play Roleplaying Games." He identifies three main types, "The Overactor", "The Powergamer" and "Mr Lazybones". EPOCH's "player activation" is designed to remove the tools of the Powergamer - the system cannot easily be gamed in the way familiar to the master of a D&D3.5 feat tree. Similarly, Mr Lazybones will soon find himself out of outcome cards - but Dale's advice is broader than that, structured around eliminating this type of player.

The trade-off, however, is that EPOCH struggles to deal with the Overactor. Stolze outlines the key to rehabilitating these players:
Players like this need to understand that they don't call the shots, that the group isn't there to serve their pleasure at the expense of their own, and that it's okay for selfish, odd-duck characters to grow and change so that they work better with the rest of the party.
The problem is the EPOCH actually runs completely counter to this solution. Survival is based on "interesting" characters, and flashbacks are designed to put the rest of the game on hold while the character is explored. The voting mechanism may mean that a specific group rejects a specific over-actor's character, but I have just as frequently seen the reverse, where someone is rewarded for their bad behaviour at the expense of the scenario as a whole. Structurally, EPOCH is at best neutral in terms of helping a GM to contain an overactor - the GM must still exercise the usual array of psychological tricks and tools to keep things on track. That still puts it far ahead of the curve, however. Most games are susceptible in equal measure to all three of Stolze's trouble types.

Dealing with "Overactor" players in EPOCH scenarios is almost entirely in the hands of the group, but the GM can help in a few ways. The most important thing the GM can do is help redirect the player flashback toward the story of the game. It is all too easy for a player to become invested in some completely arbitrary back-story that lead to the character's formation, but which does not connect specifically to the situations that the characters are encountering. Perversely, the way to do this is to extend the flashback sequence, asking leading questions explicitly connecting the flashback to the nominally triggering event. Secondly, you can encourage other players to either join in or piggyback with their own cards. I think that a key way of getting flashbacks to work for the group is to frame them in such a way that joining on or piggybacking feels natural, and that inclusivity ameliorates the worst parts of the Overactor's usual behaviour.

The framework of the discussion so far has been about players, but the reality is that roleplaying is a group activity. If we accept that there are no 'bad' players, are there nevertheless, bad groups? I've had the experience a few times where one or two players was doing everything right, in terms of the system demands, and yet they were out of sync with the group, which meant that the games didn't work that well, but you couldn't point to any one character as being a problem by themselves. I've now seen this with both veteran EPOCH groups and neophytes, and I suspect that it is driven by the implicit competition for "interest". In the most extreme case, one played opted out of using a flashback when prompted by the GM because they felt unable to compete with the gonzo flashbacks of a couple of other characters. In some ways, the challenge for the GM in that came was de-activiting players on overdrive.

One of the great things about EPOCH's tools, especially in voting and in the details of the flashback cards, is that the onus for doing these things is shared by the group. Other players can take a role in activating their other players. In amongst the excellent advice for GMing in EPOCH and elsewhere, it is entirely too easy to overlook that the players outnumber the GM in most games, and so have the potential to have an even bigger impact than even the most adroit game manager.

I have often advocated EPOCH even to friends who are not particularly interested in horror, because I belive that the concept of "player activation" is transferrable to other games. This is always something that I look for when buying or playing a new game. Most of the forgettable, or memorable for bad reasons, games that I've played or run were that way because of players who were unengaged. Similarly, most of the really amazing experiences I've had have been in groups as a whole who really took the game and ran with it. This post has been intended to just point out one fly in the ointment, and suggest a way of fishing it out.