Tags: spirit of the century


Dresden Files (RIP)

Abruptly ceased playing tog42's Dresden Files game yesterday after something like 12 sessions plus character creation; it was a game which never really found its feet and I've been thinking about what could have gone differently.

Dresden Files uses a collaborative world-building tool, where the players and GM decide not only on a range of NPCs but on explicit themes for locations and for the game as a whole. The characters are then created in a manner similar to Spirit of the Century: in novel form, with cross-over novels intended to cement the working relationships of the characters. The GM takes all of this material, plus the character concepts, and crafts a narrative.

Just as with the quick-play advice for Spirit of the Century, I think that the intent is that the amount of front-loaded material should make the life of the GM easy. Instead of having to create a plot from whole cloth and sell it to the players, they should be given all the key points of interest up front, and the tagging and compelling of aspects should do the bulk of the grunt work on a scene-by-scene level.

I've played around with the concept of player-lead stories a couple of times as a GM, and once as a player when play-testing Smallville.

Firstly, designing the city up-front was a really big challenge. Acting alone, I would have found this difficult, because you're essentially creating a bunch of moving parts without much concept of what kind of mechanism they'll be used to create. I suppose the comparison would be if I gave you a pile of Lego and said: make something using these and only these parts. See usually when I make something with Lego I start off with an idea and then go scrounging for parts, I don't usually start with the blocks I need to use and find a shape they can be used for. I'm not saying one way is easier than the other, but that's not how my specific brain works.

When this process is then fed through an open collaborative process, I found it got exponentially more difficult. Each person wants to contribute something that is cool from their perspective, often because it is a piece of a whole-world conception that isn't shared by the rest of the group. I found it extremely difficult to try and navigate the process, both in terms of adding material myself, and in terms of trying to understand what the other parts were doing.

Just as with Smallville, I think that we created a world with lots of parts whose relationships and purposes were not clear. The addition "themes" for all these things was just more of a headache as far as I was concerned: vague emotive terms arbitrarily tacked onto story entities clouding the intrinsic possibilities, limiting them even.

For Smallville at least all of the story entities are described in the context of a specific relationship to the player characters. In Dresden Files, they rapidly became impersonal and distant.

eyes_of_winter did great job of subsequently integrating his character into parts of the setting and seeing in advance what kind of character would need what kind of story elements. I personally failed miserably at doing this, ending up with a character that I think was very interesting and fun in isolation. "In isolation" being the key words there - unattached to the setting in any purposeful way. The rest of the group were arrayed between my isolation and his integration.

When it came time to create the characters, I found that once again, without a specific directive of "form an active and purposeful group", the characters ended up with divergent talents and interests. The old faithful "thrown together by circumstances" may have a certain nostalgia value, but the mere thought of starting off a game like that now fills me utterly with dread. Within a scant couple of sessions it started to become obvious that significant meta-game effort was being required to align the characters inside the story, a problem which had moments of genuine solution, but which seemed to generally grow as the game wore on.

At the end of the experience then, I feel extremely disappointed. Not so much with the details of the game, but that this group and myself in particular, did not really learn from the equally luke-warm Smallville experiment. All of the mistakes I lamented for that game recurred in this game. So a handy summary so that I don't do this a third time.

1. The GM needs to provide a story spine before starting up on the "pre-game creation"

This does not need to be extensive, but it provides some kind of context for making the initial game design decisions. I think that this makes it dramatically more likely for a strong game to emerge.

Positive example: My Werewolf game where the official game line was "you are the heirs-apparent to your father's kingdom". This gave people enough information to make good decisions about their NPCs and circumstances without telling them what to do in the game.

2. The characters must be an identifiable group, or be strongly tied to a shared nucleus

For each player character, their default group of contact and assistance should be the other player characters. That does not mean they need to always agree or get on, or have the same objectives, but if the default set of people that a characters sees is the set of player characters, the game is far less likely to fragment.

Positive example: The characters in Gaslight, who were all strongly and closely tied together. They disagreed on a lot of things, fuelling great stories, but when things were going on, they were going on for everyone.

3. The NPCs and locations must be in media res and specifically related to the player characters

Too often you start off with a giant list of NPCs and locations and have no idea what any of them are doing, or what they'll bring to the story. At worst, this can result in them becoming inert flavourless background material rather than fuel for story.

Positive example: In my Deadlands game, the characters arrived in the town with its descent into Hell already underway, and with various factions already working towards either accelerating or escaping. There was no period of waiting for something to happen: everyone had an agenda already, and there was a need both to get on top of past events and try and direct future events.

4. Kickers

The Best Bit Of Gaming Advice Ever. Characters are only as good as their stories: I don't care how "cool" your character is, if they're not telling a story, they are not fulfilling their destiny.

Spirit of the Tentacle: Epilogue

(I was going to post the 4th part yesterday, and this today, so Matt could post uninterrupted tomorrow, but I didn't have time yesterday, and so the epilogue is following the main event closely. Best laid plans and all that.)

This experiment was an important moment for me. I have usually found that I need to make a concerted and sustained effort to manage high-intensity fun and action. A very insightful friend of mine, who played in the playtests, asked me why I wanted to run a game so much at odds with my GMing strengths.

I gave him two reasons. Firstly: I love pulps, and they're not represented well in the convention circuit. Neither, as it happens, is my other favourite genre of Westerns. And secondly: I aspire to being better than that. I hate the thought of being limited in the kinds of games I can run and play. It is important to me that I'm not a one-trick GM.

By running a successful pulp game at KapCon, I was both bringing an awareness of the game to the wider world, and prove a point to myself.

In the end, I think the game was successful. It was the only scored round I ran, and apparently I did well. The player feedback that I got was generally that the game was good. Obviously in the future the lessons learned will be helpful in assuring future success.

But what were those lessons? That's the disappointing thing about the experience for me. I learned that I can do Action, but it's tough. My very fun Parallax game based on Sliders kinda showed me that. I learned that Spirit of the Century is by a long way the best pulp game on the market. It wasn't a surprising lesson.

Ultimately, I was hoping for some kind of epiphany; and if part 4 seemed a bit limp-wristed to you compared to my pretty solid intro piece, I think that's the reason. There was no epiphany, just a bit of fun, and reinforcing some lessons about how to have it.

I plan to write the game up in full for this year's KapCon Scenario Design Contest. My previous attempts to write something haven't gone well, but for this it's just tidying the presentation of a game that's already written and thoroughly playtested. In the mean time, if anyone's interested in a group of 6 pre-generated Spirit of the Century player characters, let me know and I'll e-mail out the PDF.

Spirit of the Tentacle: Tearing up New York City

Pulp was not the first genre to play hard to get. Westerns have proved, if possible, even more difficult to run than Pulps. Both rely on a few key, but ultimately counter-intuitive, genre conventions. For Westerns, the challenge is to have successive confrontations which build up to the climactic battle. These scenes are very difficult, because any sensible character who meets the big bad for the first time will do their best to kill them in that first encounter. But if they don't meet the villain of the adventure before the end, then the big fight will often feel underdone.

Solving the problem of running Westerns was tricky, and I did it by writing a gaming system that modelled closely the narrative shape of the kind of Western story that I find most interesting. Thinking through those issues has really helped when running other games, like Deadlands. With KapCon looming, I had no luxurious time in which to write a game system to teach myself how to make the pulp game work, but I did have the chance to reinvent any part of the game, introduce any simplifications or rule alterations that might give me a better game.Collapse )

Spirit of the Tentacle: Scripting DOOM

Spirit of the Century is sold, and sells itself, as a "pickup game." The pervading sense in the text is that the game's intended to be low-prep for the GM: a game which writes itself. There are a number of tools included in the game for this, but the two most important are the basic story grammar, and the notes on utilizing character backgrounds.

At the risk of sparking yet another round of contentious debate on this, I see these two as being basically orthogonal, one powered by the story and one by the character. They can act in concert but they don't necessarily.Collapse )

Spirit of the Tentacle: Preparing the Monster

I've written a lot of CON games. A really quick tally sets it at 10. Oh, that's less than I thought. Nevermind: it feels like a lot. And the reason is that it's a difficult thing to do. You might have some ideas, but I've typically found that I've got only the barest germ, often no more than one line. And from this, I coax and cajole my story. It's all me in the writing process. In a campaign game, you've got 4 or 5 very able collaborators.

For this reason, I've tentatively, delicately, serenely and with all due charisma, tried to entice others into writing with me. For one or other reason, seldom to do with my picante humour I'm sure, it hasn't ever really worked out*. And so, like many before me, I've grown to place great reliance on the kindness of playtesters to iron out any little bugs in my games. Usually when they arrive I've got 5 characters that nobody likes, and a story that wouldn't be convincing to a stoned supermodel. And generally they leave me with an adventure that meets the basic requirement of: not sucking.

This background put into my mind the crazy idea of just not writing my Spirit of the Century adventure at all. The character generation is a wholly enjoyable experience in itself, and if I just put in the 20 minutes of preparation promised me by the game authors, I could just turn up at KapCon with an awesome game and zero effort.Collapse )

Spirit of the Tentacle: Hopes and Dreams

This is the first in a series of probably 4 posts where I'm going to discuss my experience running Spirit of the Century at KapCon this year. I've already made and circulated for comments the middle two parts. Once I've written this introduction and cleaned up those two, I'll write the third. We'll see how it goes.

Convention Gaming

Anyone interested enough in roleplaying to be reading this blog probably has some experience running and playing games at roleplaying conventions. It can be a very rewarding experience, or it can be fraught with difficulties. Usually it will be a mix of both depending on the group and the day. I have run only a few, half dozen or so, adventures at multiple conventions, or in multiple convention-like settings, and I'm perpetually amazed at the gulf that exists between each run through.

No game has been more different in successive runs for me than a TORG-inspired scenario where the characters wake up from their holiday and find themselves in a medieval kingdom instead of Scotland. The first convention group explored the details of their characters, had fun trying to explore the world, and had a moving mass death, trying to return to reality. The second group fished around a bit for an obvious story, and eventually just drifted into some kind of ending. Totally unsatisfying.

The key lesson I took from this was that any old game can be great if the group really pushes themselves to find entertainment, but that unless there is an obvious "way forward" of some kind, other groups will stall. The "way forward" is often characterized as the "tunnel of fun" but I think that multiple-divergent routes work too, provided that there is some or other clear set of options at every stage.

Providing a "way forward" is usually easy in adventure-style games. It's a lot harder in other kinds of games. In The Storm Breaks, my desire for a character-exploration adventure meant that I wanted all of the available "ways forward" to be: talk to one of the other characters. Which is difficult for the GM to prompt, and so I realized that it was naturally a difficult approach unless you can clearly signpost your desire in the game pitch, so people arrive at the game looking for that kind of entertainment.

The other thing you need, I've discovered, is a tolerance for "silliest way forward." I've noticed that, more-or-less irrespective of the game, people like playing characters that are "cool". They want to be better than the average person, more likeable, more powerful. When put into situations where it isn't obvious that they will be "cooler", people will usually resort to the backup of "funny." People can, and will, joke about anything at all, under the grimmest of circumstances. I've posted about this before. As a convention GM, you need to build your scenario so that it's humour-proof: that the scenario still works at some basic level if the PCs aren't taking it too seriously.

I think perhaps these two forces combine in a weird way to ensure that Horror remains popular, yet frustrating. The monsters powering your Horror story aren't affected by humour, and nor will they be de-railed by PC apathy. The discordance between a happy-go-lucky PC and their inevitable doom reduces the enjoyment of the purists, but isn't harmful to story completion.

Conventional Pulp

Given the discussion above, Pulps seem like they should be a sure-fire genre to offer at a convention. They are inherently non-serious, eschewing the moral angst that is the hallmark of their younger brothers: the super heroes, while utilizing their numerous traits of over achievement and pith.

But, I've come to realize, the "way forward" in Pulps is often a little random. I always interpreted this as meaning that whatever you try eventually works: you just have to try. But I think that many first-time pulpers don't know what to try and so do nothing.

Adventure! tried to get around this by using "dramatic editing", undoubtedly my first brush with "shared narration." In practical terms, when I was running it, I don't think it was ever used. And Adventure! leads me on to the basic problem which plagues both pulps and supers: the Super System. Almost universally clunky, detailed, and mechanic heavy... these behemoths really suck the free-flowing and insane action out of the game.

Of course, Supers have been saved by wonderful games like Truth and Justice and With Great Power, and when I finally got around to reading it, after months of Luke raving about it, I hoped Spirit of the Century was that game for pulps.

And for more, I'm afraid, you'll need to tune in again next time.

Six RPG Tools for the Price of One – Spirit of the Century

I am awaiting my print copy of Spirit of the Century, a pulp RPG. To assuage my hunger in the meantime, I thought I would wax lyrical about one facet of the game that really appeals to me and makes me think I may be one step closer to finding a commercial product suited to my tastes.

SotC uses FATE, a rule system based on FUDGE. As a part of the system it has a thing called Aspects. Aspects are the important narrative aspects of a character (and sometimes a scene). Each PC has 10 and an example, using Indiana Jones, could be “Always has my hat”. Aspects are a simple to use swiss army knife of RPG tools. They literally do 6 things that I really like that are often dealt with separately.

1. Helps to define memorable aspects of a PC

OK this is not that innovative. First and foremost, Aspects describe moments in which the PC will excel and get a bonus to achieve something. The part of this that I like is that Aspects do not just cover a PC’s abilities but rather those things that we find memorable in terms of that character. “Always has my hat” is a good example of a signature aspect of Indiana Jones that would not normally fit into any category in a PC.

2. Allows a player limited narrative authority

The next part of the Aspects is that they allow the player to make changes to the story in a limited fashion. A PC with the Aspect “a girl in every port” can add a girl when in a port. These are important yet minor PC traits that otherwise would normally be left for the GM to deal with and bring up. Aspects allow the player to have a direct say in it instead. In a way, Aspects act like Instincts in Burning Empires.

3. Rewards the players for taking a greater interest in the other players PCs

Players are also able to invoke the Aspects of other players PCs for the above effects. For example, Captain King could call upon the “Captain King’s sidekick” of another PC for a bonus or even have the sidekick PC appear with them when it wasn’t explicitly stated earlier.

4. Provides the GM with ways to compel the PCs

So, Indiana Jones is almost out of that awesome trap you created as a GM but you still want to add some more pressure. Guess what, he’s dropped his hat behind and the door is almost closed. Surely he won’t leave it behind! The Aspects essentially act as Kickers or in Burning Empires Beliefs. Ideally, each Aspect should be able to be dealt with in a positive and negative light. Want to spice up a PCs evening, well “a girl in every port” helps the GM know that perhaps a troublesome old flame is the way to go :)

5. Helps to provide more colourful NPCs on the fly

Players and the GM are able to “tag” NPCs with Aspects. This means that Aspects can be attributed to the NPC if the Aspect is consistent with how the NPC is being played with the GM’s approval. For example, the PCs meet a drunken man in a bar hoping to find information on recent murders by a shadowy cult. However, something just doesn’t seem right and the GM seems to be playing them as if he has some other motives. A PC can suggest that the NPC be tagged with “Undercover Cultist” or “Traumatised by a Cult Ritual”. The GM may not allow it but if it sounds good, the GM can allow it and all the other effects that Aspects have.

6. Provide a narrative style to scenes

The final use is one that I find most interesting, that is the tagging of scenes. Not only does this encourage the group to determine a certain style to a scene but it can actually replace the whole mechanic for adding modifiers in the normal way. Say a scene has “deep shadows” as an Aspect. That will provide a bonus to those people who wish to hide. It could also be used to compel the PCs into action when a player tries to shoot the bad guy but can’t make out if he is that person or another PC instead. Going for something more complex, you could try “high contrast black and white lighting” for a noir visual effect and see what the players do with it :)

Overall, this is one mechanic with lots of awesome applications. I really like how it is easy to use but helps the players realise their PCs, whilst also being mindful of other PCs, NPCs and scenes and gives the GM a way to compel the PCs, use player inspiration and provide atmosphere. It is exactly the kind of thing that started me on my path to looking at hybrid RPGs and one I hope to get lots of use out of. Looks like a lot of fun.