Wednesday, 13 December 2017

#RPG12 Q7: RPG Mental Blocks

Is there an RPG genre which you sort of like but gives you severe mental blocks. What do you like about it? What are your mental blocks?

I can’t get over the fact that superhero stuff is, basically, silly. But I’ve never really liked superhero comics, so it’s not really my thing.

And I don’t really do the murder-hobo thing. I like my actions to have consequences (so be warned if you end up playing in one of my games). But that does mean that as a player I tend to be looking for the “realistic” option when perhaps I should be thinking of the murder hobo option.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

#RPG12: Q5 Historical Games

You’re running a historical or alt-historical game. What place and time in history do you choose? Are you including fantastical elements of any sort, and if so, what?

The Ring of Brodgar
I always prefer to run modern day games because I’m mostly lazy, and the modern day sorts out most of the background for me.

But having said that, I want to develop a game set in Neolithic Orkney. It will be set around the time that Maes Howe, the Ring of Brogdar, Ness of Brogdar and so on were occupied. It probably would have fantastical elements, simply because I don’t think I’d enjoy doing something without fantastical elements.

If I didn’t have the odd ghost or monster then I’d probably have to obey my impulse to make it more “authentic”, which means doing way more research than I can really be bothered with. But fantastical elements would be low key and rare.

The other problem with being too realistic is dealing with slavery and the role of women. (Okay, that’s two problems.) There’s no clear evidence of neolithic slavery, but as an armchair observer of human nature it seems likely to me that neolithic man probably took slaves. After all, someone had to construct all those stone monuments… So I’d need to treat that carefully.
Ness of Brodgar, 2016

As the role of women, I think I’d have to just ignore the fact that women would most likely be spending all their time at home being pregnant and raising kids. (Again, the view from my armchair suggests to me that it is very unlikely that neolithic times were a period of great equality.) I don’t think making the game “realistic” would be that much fun, so my neolithic tribe would be a paragon of equality.

Skara Brae
My current thoughts are that the PCs are vying to become apprentices to the tribal shaman, but that’s pretty much as far as I’ve got.

(Orkney is amazing though. You really should go.)

Bonus answer: English Heritage

I love visiting English Heritage properties - castles, earthworks, Roman fortifications, stone circles (and a cold war bunker, in York). Their guidebooks are full of useful information - and maps.

I’ve often thought that it would be cool to set a simple RPG scenario at such a site. My idea would be a lightweight RPG containing pregens and simple rules, plus a scenario set at the location. If you wanted to make it educational you would make it historical - but if you just wanted to use the location then it could be fantasy.

I often use such locations in my games. The Crasta Demon’s climax uses Dunstanburgh Castle, I used Lindisfarne Castle in The Bone Swallower, and I'm currently weaving the York Cold War Bunker into another scenario.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

#RPG12 Q4: A character

Tell me about your character in an RPG you’re currently playing, or have played this year.

I’m currently playing Kozlov Artemovich, a sniper in Jon Freeman’s flintlock fantasy Shardland game. We are “wolves”, which makes us like elite guards, or something.

I’ve included a DramaAspects in my character: I want Neshka to teach me the words of command (but she won’t because she doesn’t know if I’m yet worthy). So far, my experience of DramaAspects with my players has been a bit hit and miss, so I figure it’s time to try them out myself. I’ve tried to pick one with potential - and as Kozlov has just been attacked with magic I’m going to take this up with Neshka and see what happens.

Jon isn’t aware of this right now, but I’ve also created three NPCs (because this) that Kozlov knows: a gunsmith, a trapper (who taught him to shoot), and a street urchin. I’ll try and bring them into the game at some point.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

#RPG12: Q3 Fantasy settings

You’re building a fantasy setting for the RPG of your choice. Which ingredients do you put in? Which “standard fantasy” elements would you choose to leave out?

The fantasy work that The Craster Demon is set in (I’ve never come up with a name for it that I’m completely happy with) is inspired by a Rodney Matthews painting (The Granite Curtain - in Last Ship Home). It’s also a moebius strip, and has some other oddities. There’s a kind of twisted logic in that I know what’s going on (I guess in a way the whole world is almost a giant puzzle.)

It’s more Westeros than Middle Earth. Mainly humans - no elves, orcs, dragons or hobbits. (I threw some goblins into The Craster Demon as an easy first encounter that I didn’t have to explain, but I’ve never been happy with that decision.) Magic tends to be rare. The world is magical, but there aren’t many magic users.

Anyway, that scratches my fantasy itch; I can’t imagine creating another fantasy world.

(And if you're wondering what happened to Q2, I skipped it because I didn't have anything to say.)

Saturday, 2 December 2017

#RPG12: Q1 New Players

In the spirit of RPGaDay in August, Paul Mitchener has started an alternative set of daily RPG questions - the Christmas dozen, one every two days. His argument is that 31 questions is too many (and for me, August is holiday month so it's doubly bad).

Even so, I've found 12 questions fairly challenging. I think I'd prefer one a month...

You’re running an RPG to introduce new players to the RPG hobby this month. Which game and genre do you choose, and why?

Although I don't do it often, I love introducing new players to the hobby. But, I find that I do put myself under a lot of pressure to make sure that they have a good experience. The last thing I want the game to be is a disappointment. (It’s a bit like running a convention game in that sense.)

And I’d always run a one-shot to show off roleplaying, rather than drop a new player into a campaign. (Not that I run campaigns these days…)

So while the system is easy (Fate Accelerated - it’s my current go-to system, it’s simple, and character sheets are easy to parse) the genre depends on who they are.

If I felt that the players were up for fantasy, I’d run something like The Craster Demon. If I thought they would be more likely to enjoy urban fantasy, then I’d run an Other London adventure for them. Both of these are my own settings, and both are things I’m comfortable running.

I have a feeling that Ben Robbins’ Follow would be a good introduction to roleplaying, but I’ve yet to play it.

Looking back

And having said that, I thought I’d look back at what I’ve done when I’ve run games for new players in the past.

In the dim distant past, I have used Call of Cthulhu as in introductory game. Call of Cthulhu has lots of bonuses - it’s set in the “real world”, so that removes a lot of the learning and geekiness (which was more of an issue back in the day). And everyone understands horror. These days I’d be more likely to run Cthulhu Dark than Call of Cthulhu, simply because Cthulhu Dark is simpler (although I need to get a few games of Cthulhu Dark under my belt first).

Megan's first character sheet
The first game I ran for Megan, my daughter, was Faery’s Tale. But she was only five - and I was targeting the game to my audience. (I ran a rescue scenario. Megan played a fairy who had to rescue Jack from the giant in the clouds, and she invented a "mechanical Jack" that would replace Jack so that they could escape. I was so proud.)

On the other hand, I ran the D&D starter set for my two nephews Ben and James and their father, Simon. This must have been about the time of D&D v3, and  we were in Travelling Man in Leeds and, out of the blue, Simon decided to buy the boys the D&D starter set for Christmas. I quickly read up on it overnight, and the following day we played through the introductory adventure.

As an introduction to D&D it was really good, although it wasn’t really what I think of as roleplaying (too much combat).

Shameless self promotion

Way out West
Looking slightly beyond the table, I set up Freeform Games with Mo Holkar to bring freeform style roleplaying games to normal people. We don’t tell people that they’re playing a roleplaying game, because we don’t want to scare them off.

But I estimate that most of our customers are new to roleplaying, so I think that counts.

If you'd like to find out more, you can get a free murder mystery game (Way out West) by signing up to our newsletter.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Over the Edge: too many words

My formative RPGs were Traveller and Call of Cthulhu. While Traveller now has a vast background, at the time when I first started playing (in 1981) it didn't.

Both games are mainly character creation and rules, and in Traveller's case I learned about the Third Imperium from snippets here and there from the adventures, supplements and the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society.

So it never really felt like learning lots of background. It was just stuff that I learned as I was going along, and it was never hard work.

(Call of Cthulhu obviously uses real history, mixed with the monstrous. There's a small amount of backstory regarding the war with the elder things and shoggoths, but that's in Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness rather than the rulebook.)

And the other contemporary games of the time (the early 1980s) were mostly the same. AD&D was just rules. Tunnels and Trolls, and GURPS, likewise. I never played RuneQuest or Empire of the Petal Throne, the two background-heavy RPGs of the time. 

Somewhere along the way (I guess in the mid 1980s with the arrival of Skyrealms of Jorune and MERP) increasingly detailed backgrounds became vogue. I remember in the 1990s remarking that I didn't like reading RPGs because they had too many words.

On reflection, it wasn't that they had too many words. After all, I still read novels.

But I really didn't want to have to learn another set of complex rules that didn't really change how the games are played. As far as I could see, there really wasn't that much difference in terms of the Chaosium system, the Traveller system or the AD&D system. They were all rules that just governed whether you succeeded at doing something, and one was pretty much like another.

At the time, I was also heading towards simpler systems. I realised that most dice rolls in RPGs were just answering a yes/no question, and I ended up running my games with players rolling two dice to see what happens. At the time, this was a bit weird. Now I run Fate Accelerated, which has a little more structure, but not much.

I also didn't want to have to learn a complicated new background - not when I could have just as satisfying games set in worlds I already knew.

I guess I don't have the temperament for system or background mastery.

Twenty years later

Twenty years later, my views on RPGs haven't changed.

I know this because I recently bought Over the Edge (OtE) and various supplements from Bundle of Holding. I had high expectations because OtE has a great reputation, but I'm afraid I found it full of words.

OtE rules: surprisingly complicated

Character generation was okay, although more fiddly than I was expecting. The simplicity that I recall from the reviews at the time (3 traits and a secret) is complicated with fiddly rules for hit points and optional rules for experience dice.

The rules were also more complex than I expected. The rules for most things are fairly simple - roll some dice to beat a target number, where both the target number and the dice you roll vary (but not by much). But combat, inevitably, takes up several pages and contains range tables and special cases that, for me, do not appeal at all.

Background: blah blah blah

Then we hit the background, and goodness that's a pile of text I will never, ever read. There are descriptions of people, factions, places and more. There are maps, and room-by-room descriptions of some key locations. Some of these are annoying - such as the room-by-room description of a hotel. I know what a hotel looks like - what I really need to know is why this one is different.

(It's this kind of thinking that lead me to create Tales of Terror, which is nothing but story ideas.)

I know a lot of people like this sort of stuff - and it leads to system/setting mastery which is a draw for some. But for me, mastery is in simplicity - what is the least I have to do to run a compelling game session. I'm all for being prepared, I can improvise most things as long as I know the key points. But that's all I really want - the key points. Unfortunately I found the key points buried in OtE.

To be clear, I don't mind learning background. But I want to do it as I'm doing something else (enjoying a novel, watching a movie, reading or playing a scenario), not as an infodump.


For me, OtE also suffers for not being clear as to what the PCs are up to. I suspect it's a product of it's time (and was also a problem with Traveller and, to a degree, Call of Cthulhu) so I think this is only something I'm noticing from 2017. I suspect that most of my games these days are convention one-shots means that I'm looking for more direction here than OtE was ever going to provide.

To be fair, OtE does have a go, by encouraging players to give their characters reasons for being on Al Amarja (OtE's fictional Mediterranean island). But that's something that needs to be done as a group, and for me I'd rather the game was narrower in scope and gave player characters a defined role.

So overall

So there we go. Over the Edge has too many words for me, but I accept that I'm a bit unusual in that department.

Maybe one day I will play it, but I'm unlikely ever to run it.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Addicted to World of Tanks Blitz

I have just uninstalled World of Tanks Blitz (WoTB). Again.

My brother introduced me to WoTB a couple of years ago and I’ve been playing it on and off ever since. I find it ever so addictive, and what happens is that I install it, play it a lot (and become quite grumpy when I do), and then uninstall it to break the habit.

And then, a couple of months later, I reinstall it again...

So I was extremely interested to listen to Adam Alter's Irresistible, which talks about behavioural addiction of various forms, including computer games.

Alter defines addiction as something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term — but that you do compulsively anyway. (It seems that most of us have a behavioural addition of some sort.)

Six ingredients

Alter says that: "Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections."

I know I find computer games addictive. I always have. (For example, last time I uninstalled WoTB I found myself playing Star Realms over and over on my tablet.) But WoTB seems particularly insidious - and that may be because it includes all of Alter’s six ingredients..

For example:

  • Compelling goals that are just out of reach: Grinding to get the next tank, playing in events, trying to complete missions.
  • Irresistable and unpredictable positive feedback: the various medals, achieving mastery in a tank (which compares your performance against everyone else’s).
  • A sense of incremental progress and improvement: the slow rise in win rate, learning maps and player behaviour, learning each tank’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time: Climbing levels is easy to begin with, but takes longer and longer as you climb the tiers.
  • Unresolved tensions that demand resolution: I must complete that last mission, I've lost three games in a row, just one more before I quit.
  • Strong social connections: Platoons, clans, team chat, in-game friends.

A rare mastery for me
So WoTB is designed to be completely compelling, and I’ve been suckered. (My wife is less enthralled, to say the least.)

I think there’s an additional factor to addiction - and that’s appeal. For example, despite being highly addictive, I’ve never smoked. It’s never appealed. WoTB, on the other hand, is all about something that’s fascinated me since childhood: tanks, and WW2 tanks at that.

Undermining my long-term wellbeing

I’ve already mentioned that WoTB can make me grumpy, but there are other things it does to undermine my long-term wellbeing.

Playing WoTB means I spend even longer on the computer than usual and can interfere with my sleep (especially when I was playing it on the tablet - I now won’t play it after 9pm). It also stops me from doing more positive things, such as writing or playing boardgames.

At least I’ve stopped playing it on my tablet - that gave me headaches and tense shoulders as well...

Making it harder

Alter’s advice to overcome a compulsion is to make it harder to get to the thing that’s addictive. I thought that by moving it from the tablet to the PC would help that, but it turns out that I just spend more time on the PC instead. (Worse, I find the PC controls much easier than the tablet…)

I’ve tried using a kitchen timer (or my phone) to limit my games and avoid the "just one more game!" syndrome. That only works occasionally, and the best solution is to completely uninstall WoTB, but that means not playing it at all - and I like playing WoTB.

So I haven’t figured out a good way of managing my time while it’s installed. The best thing is to uninstall it, which is what I’ve done.

But I have no doubt I will install it again at some point...

Further reading

Click here to read a New York Times article on Irresistible.

And here’s an extract from Wired.

And relatedly, a piece by Google’s “design ethicist”.