wrong systems [g+ backpost]

Something +Paul Beakley said about genre in rpgs made me think:

People ask questions like: What system could I use to play Silent Hill?

One answer is ‘anything the GM (or players) is familiar with and won’t get in the way’ – a solution often offered by both traditional and DIY circles. ‘Anything’ in this case tends to exclude very focused games

Another answer is ‘this specific game, geared to closely emulate this genre or a cousin’ – the quintessential suggestion based on the System Matters philosophy that came out of the Forge

Another answer is ‘make a specific game that tackles exactly what you like about Silent Hill’ – an approach endorsed by both DIY and SM people, with the DIY people typically making the game their own in play, and the SM people doing it up front.

There’s another option that I think actually happens quite a lot, but isn’t one of the canonical suggestions:

Used a focused game that was NOT designed to emulate that experience, or one like it. Play a romance and dating game using Dread. Use Monsterhearts to explore life in an upbeat Valley startup. Play breaking the ice to recreate Ridley Scott’s The Duellists – too easy? Ok, Spielberg’s Duel.

Don’t think too hard about what works (beyond practical stuff like player numbers, sessions, etc) and see what new experience you produce by this. #gamingmishmash

gatekeepers [g+ backpost]

I’m seeing a lot of conversations about production of art and games that uses the term gatekeeping, eg when someone gives an opinion that one way of doing things is less good than another. It’s making me really question the worth of the term.

Gatekeeper seemed like a really good phrase to use in a 20th century context where a person – curator, editor, etc – could literally say ‘no you can’t put this stuff in’, just like a person keeping a gate.

But the 21st century is a lot less like that, and there are instead plenty of other ways for people’s work not to get a fair shake. In practice, unless you are trying to get your paintings into the MoMA, you don’t need to climb into institutions past gates, you need eyeballs in a world of finite attention. And people who have influence over this aren’t standing in front of a gate. There is no gate. There is a agora where everyone has little stalls or stands beside them with wares on the floor. Influencers are scowling as they walk past stalls and waving their hands at them saying ‘terrible idea! The very idea of this is disgusting!’ Or maybe selling maps of the souk that mark certain stalls as all being Powered by the Acropolis, which we can all agree could seem reason enough to buy there first. Or alternatively marching towards a far section of the agora with a flag held high saying ‘follow me to the innovative stuff – Acropolis stuff is very derivative, you know!’

A shopper interacting with any of these things is going to have their hour in the agora influenced, towards some stalls and away from others.

I think the word gatekeeper makes out that there is one kind of Bad influence which is someone using their reputation to shape our flow of attention and focus, and then the other kinds are all good. I’m not sure we can say that, I think that all these kinds of influence inevitably advantage some people at the expense of others, and without data – eg demonstrating what we in the field of work psychology call ‘Adverse Impact‘ – it’s hard to say that the maps are doing that in the Good Way and the flag guy in the Bad way.

It’s all just influencers guiding shoppers and walkers back and forth, shaping the time they have to stroll in the agora.

bees in games [g+ backpost]

So I was doodling with this last week and here it is for  #awesomegamerday  – a mini story about fauna (& flora) and a poison fit for most fantasy contexts. Add your own mechanics.

The Steward’s Tale

A beehive should last forever. Each queen is born, not alone, but with a sibling, its steward. She the life force, creating, shaping. They the preserver, possessing a gland on the undercarriage of their thorax, a gland that secretes an airborne elixir that permeates the hive, strengthening its hexed walls, catalysing its photosynthetic production of sugars, and revitalising the queen. The ‘worker’ bees are actually thinkers, born to ponder problems miniature and profound; the hive a scholarly seclusium of collective thought, renewing and building knowledge for the future.

That’s the idea. But before the first thinker reaches mentally maturity, the incessant inhalation of the smog of eternity sends the steward mad. They quit the hive, tear off the gland and deposit it somewhere unwelcoming, and dance to death amongst the flowers over months and months, leaving intricate pheromonal clues as to the gland’s location.

The desperate thinkers now devote their frail lives to tracking and decoding these clues, some which lead to the next, some that appear to contribute to a larger puzzle to be cracked. And some are chemical traps, co-opting the thinker’s nervous system to flinging it thrumming into the sky until it’s wings break from exertion, or kicking off an endothermic reaction in their blood until nuggets freeze and the body plummets. All this the thinkers brave, trying to find their way to the gland. In the rare instances that they do, of course, their efforts to graft it to one of their own ultimately just restarts the doomed process again.

So when you see a bee buzz from one bloom to another, know that they are trying to taste the flavour of a mad one’s laughter, doomed to fail their collapsing home of thoughts, and pregnant with profound thoughts that they will die on the wing before ever sharing.

Steward’s Blood

The steward’s body , ground into a paste and in solution, produces a poison of arresting effect. One afflicted is overcome with the need to divest themselves of their most precious item by hiding it somewhere. They are also compelled to leave a trail of clues, traps and challenges; the afflicted acquires the cunning of the steward atop their own and will be very effective at using every means to do so without detection.

Different temperaments will work at different timescales; a dull innkeep might pull an all-nighter to throw his silver into a sack, bury it with a bear trap atop, and whisper the landmarks to his three most violent customers; a cunning sorceress may spend a year or more developing an underground network filled with summoned keepers and violations of reality. The afflicted will never return to the precious item – they care not a whit for that any more – but will continue to be preoccupied by making the series of clues ever more involving and torturous, increasingly neglecting other needs to do so.

The rumours that the chemical traps rendered by the steward are also bequeathed to the afflicted are, of course, merely rumours.

(5 Aug 2014)

Character sheets [g+ backpost]

Shelving away a bunch of character sheets from the dungeon crawl we had in spare evening in India. I have quite a few character sheets from the last few years that I’ve hung onto. It makes me think of two things:

Firstly, I’d like it if more games that are aimed at one-shots did away with the character sheet. and explored more elegant ways to provide that function. This is both for the in-game vibe, and also to produce a single memento of the single shared experience, rather than a dog’s dinner of half a dozen identically printed sheets with minimal personalisation. I can point to The Quiet Year as a great example of success here, as we walk away with a single map which epitomises the collective session of play. Meaningful and potent.

Secondly, I’m ready again to play a game for long enough that a character sheet does have meaning; equipment aggregated and refined, character changes encoded, nicknames, mottos, pieces of history and reminders of ambitions dotting up the Notes page. I want to get sentimental about a character sheet. Somehow it feels that I can only get sentimental about the sheet if the play extends over many sessions, making the sheet the artifact of play that ensures continuity, that brings us back into the ritualised space.

Post-apocalypse [g+ backpost]

No apocalypse! But I enjoyed my apocalypse themed week, which was spent:

  • unRetreating with a set of devotional meditations aimed at aspects of the divine mystery (Deep Humanism stuff, solid)
  • taking Chinese herbs to revitalise the yang for the new 5th age (ancient herbalism, grim)
  • lucid dreaming the biggest discovery of 2013 by taking cognitive enhancers and setting a magical intent pre-bedtime (Yuschak/Barford method, ambiguous)
  • playing Monster of the Week with an apocalypse about to be triggered down the road in Aberystwyth (Sands, Powered by the Apocalypse, see link if interested)

And also watching films (Looper, John Carter Ted), drinking whiskey, walking on the beach and having my face licked by an enthusiastic dog, which aren’t apocalyptic per se. But fun.

Game report: Monster of the Week [g+ backpost]

I played Monster of the Week! It was super fun. A bunch of us have been hanging at the house of some friends in Wales, bedding in for the end of the world with some meditation, movies and munchies. We made characters one nights, and then played out the  mystery over the next two. I’m the only regular gamer, and three of the four others had never played before. It was nice to see how easily people got to grips with it. Some poor rolls at the beginning put the game in a bit of a slapstick mode, and we discussed after how the failure rate for the game felt a little high, with futzed magic rolls leading to mess, explosions and helplessness in scene after scene. I do recognise that I could have pushed the use of luck, which was deployed more later in the game; this happened to give a nice failure-to-success arc that made the last session feel gratifying.

As the Keeper, I felt the game looked after me really well. Mystery advice was generally useful, although I think I was making things hard for myself for trying to pull all the character backstory (which really emerged in early play) and feed it into the mystery, as I knew this was likely to be a one-shot and wanted to maximise the pay-offs.

My only area I struggled on was magic. My sense from the rules was that there is no division of playbooks into magic-users and non-magic users, and so in play all but one player elected to Use Magic during the game, generally in high-stakes fight-or-flight situations.  At times the use of magic felt like a get-out-of-jail free card, pulling off tricks that were otherwise impossible to do. I knew that I could counter that by upping the criteria involved in the magic, but that tended to feel arbitrary, a form of stomping on the player’s ideas. Yeah, the Expert can dispel the magic that is holding everyone in the air as the police are converging on the room… but it will take several minutes / a rare ingredient to do so. So I generally just acceded to the requests. Demanding an ingredient (sacrificing something alive) at one point led to a flubbed preparedness role by the Expert that nearly killed the momentum of the climactic sequence. In the end it became incredibly cool when the player decided to amputate their finger and get rid of that, but there was a cold moment where no-one wanted to let go of the idea  but felt stuck on how to execute it.

The team bested an attempt to reincarnate Y Mab Darogan, the Red Hand of Wales, a saviour predicted to crush the Anglo Saxons, manifested as, yes, a giant red hand. It was a fun finish in the Welsh Millenium Dome, the Spooky tk’ing cables to power up a speaker rig that the Flake ported ‘God Save the Queen’ through to paralyse the Red Hand with its former defeats ‘rung by the horns of the Saxons’, the Expert opening up a dimensional gate for the Summoned to fling it through, with the fallout of trapping forever the Expert’s enlimbo’d lover from her swinging 60’s dark past. The highlight of the game for me was an earlier attempt by the Summoned to cast big magic to find the lair of the Boggart minions, which I stipulated required a boggart skull to do so. The Summoned bulldozes through police lines to the location of their Boggart fight, to snatch a skull and run…. only at that point we all remember how that player beat me into agreement that his final blow in that fight ‘made the monster’s head explode clean off’. Cut back to Summoned laying down defensive fire while scrabbling for pieces of skull fragment embedded in the floor and walls…

Dec 2012

sinful characters [g+ backpost]

Hi gaming peeps

(I’ve just added back a bunch of people into my gaming circle – if you aren’t into that, please let me know.)

I’m toying around with a little technique to develop interesting characters that I’d love to get feedback on. I haven’t formally tested it yet, though it grew out of things I do semi-consciously on occasion. Also, I’m particularly interested in this as a stage technique for improvisation shows, and it may feel less useful/needed in some rpg contexts. But I reckon it may be relevant for any on-the-fly character generation.

This is intended to mitigate 1-D characters by dipping into charged and easily accessible human qualities, or as these are typically termed, sins.

The seven sins – wrath, pride, gluttony, lust, greed, envy and sloth – are fairly accessible in Western J-C culture. So what happens when we mindfully use them as a palette to paint our characters in, together with a set of guidelines for the kinds of results you are likely to get? I think fun happens! Here are the guidelines:

1. Different combinations encourage different roles

You want someone who performs a social role in the story/situation, but with a bit of definition:

A flawed paragon is markedly prone to a single sin

Examples: the priest who is pious but lazy, the artist who is selfless but obsessed with the greatness of their sacrifices.

You want someone who is pretty horrible – a real heel – but want to accent their self-indulgence with some iron discipline

A disciplined badass has several sins but is totally immune to one or more.

Examples: the greedy, wrathful priest who can never be tempted by sex, the artist harping on and undermining the success of others, too lazy to achieve it on his own merit, but cannot be bought off by any amount of coin.

You want someone who is colourful, you kind of hate them but just when you make your mind up you love them again.

A big-hearted scoundrel has several sins but also exhibits the polar opposite of one sin, to the extent that it kind of redeems them.

Examples: the lustful, lazy priest who desires the best for others at the end of the day, the artist perpetually drunk, full of pride, and wallops anyone who doesn’t appreciate expressionism, but is respectful, diligent, even courteous to the opposite sex.

(This is my favourite and the reason I started making this stuff explicit, after reading John Berger on Rembrandt: ‘no saint’, indeed)

2. Different specific sins have a different emphasis on plot vs immediacy

Firstly let’s unpack the sins a bit more. To my mind,

 –   Wrath can include irritation at small things, and great roaring enjoyable anger cf Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, a bellowing Falstaff.

 –   Pride can involve suffering when other people see the world other than how you do – eg how Roger Ebert probably feels about McG’s success.

 –   Gluttony includes boozing, drugs, all vices of consumption.

 –   Lust isn’t merely desiring sex but any example of objectification of other people.

 –   Greed involves any material advancement, including ambition/getting status. The ‘lawyer sin’, reptilian, whereas pride is more peacock, where you really believe it and can easily be wounded.

 –   Envy includes any wishing-ill on others, general grumpiness and zero-sum attitudes towards life (those immigrants get all the social housing!)

 –   Sloth encompasses laziness, unhelpfulness, and demandingness to others (clean my teeth for me!) – a classic nasty Master sin, for those familiar with the Keith Johnstone improv set-up.

So what’s this about emphasis?

The first two are energetic and egoistic. They make the character grow out and show themselves, their sensitivities and buttons to push.

The next two involve approach and physicality. They make characters approach immediate components of the world and grab things (or people) within reach.

The next two are more tactical and scheming. They might involve grabbing things within reach but can be a little more abstract, and execution is often a bit more considered. Think Iago.

To my mind, the first two are great, and the third can be tricky, risking putting players in their heads for the ‘right’ way to get their goals. Compare with Be Angry Now/Get My Mack On.

What about Sloth? To me, it’s a bit of a wild-card. On a stage, played well, inactivity can heighten immediacy and perversely, make stuff happen. This is trivially true if the character has a high status – the king that requires the retinue to carry him to his horse, or delegates all the important decisions to his page – but also for ordinarily low-status roles: the stable-girl who never carries out the orders of the (highly-strung) head of household. No surprise, really, who can care less is status, after all…

But! I think this may play very differently at a game table, where an inactive character can be genuinely forgotten about.

3. How it works

For me, the notion is simply to walk on stage, find reasons to exhibit a sin or two, and then elaborate on these in the context of your role in the story (find a reversal to show your scoundrel’s heart, for instance).

That’s it as it stands. I’d love to hear your thoughts, both from a tabletop and Larp perspective.

Nov 2012

Play With Intent – tools for open play

I’m super excited that Emily Care Boss  and Matthijs Holter have released their roleplay framework, Play With Intent, as an open document. It’s a customisable methodology that helps us make up a story as we go along. It can be used in a way similar to ‘tabletop’ play – sitting around a table and describing events – but encompasses acting out events live, using mime objects and environments, cinematic techniques (‘cut to…’) and so on. For improvisers it will feel familiar in some ways to what we normally do, but it can go to very different places and is forgiving of lack of improvisation training.

I played with it twice at the Solmukohta convention in Finland earlier this year, and it was a blast – particularly the first session, pulling off an involving melodrama between a group of people who hadn’t played before, going to emotional places and forming a truly unexpected but coherent narrative, played live before each other. Much credit must go to the other players, of course, but that was the point where I became satisfied that the framework is much more than a set of training wheels for improvisation.

After playing with it I became fascinated with the customisability, and wrote some notes on  comedic techniques that Emily and Matthijs have built into the framework. Fun! They are mostly taken from improvisation and clown training, and simplified as much as we were able. But comedy is only a small part of what we’re capable of, so have a look, and be ambitious with your imagination.

Play With Intent is freely available here.

Play With Intent – tools for open play

I’m super excited that Emily Care Boss  and Matthijs Holter have released their roleplay framework, Play With Intent, as an open document. It’s a customisable methodology that helps us make up a story as we go along. It can be used in a way similar to ‘tabletop’ play – sitting around a table and describing events – but encompasses acting out events live, using mime objects and environments, cinematic techniques (‘cut to…’) and so on. For improvisers it will feel familiar in some ways to what we normally do, but it can go to very different places and is forgiving of lack of improvisation training.

I played with it twice at the Solmukohta convention in Finland earlier this year, and it was a blast – particularly the first session, pulling off an involving melodrama between a group of people who hadn’t played before, going to emotional places and forming a truly unexpected but coherent narrative, played live before each other. Much credit must go to the other players, of course, but that was the point where I became satisfied that the framework is much more than a set of training wheels for improvisation.

After playing with it I became fascinated with the customisability, and wrote some notes on  comedic techniques that Emily and Matthijs have built into the framework. Fun! They are mostly taken from improvisation and clown training, and simplified as much as we were able. But comedy is only a small part of what we’re capable of, so have a look, and be ambitious with your imagination.

Play With Intent is freely available here.