Saturday, 20 May 2017

Limited Words

I love writing, but I don’t have unlimited words. So I tend to abandon my blog when I have other projects on the go.

So here are some recent projects that have distracted me from writing anything here:

The Peckforton Papers: I proposed a couple of ideas for The Peckforton Papers, a larp project. Both were accepted. While one paper was ‘just’ a revamp of an old article, the other was a discussion about Peaky, and completely new. The first draft of both are finished, I’m letting them rest for a week or two before revisiting.

Murder of a Templar: I’ve been really enjoying running The Bone Swallower, an urban fantasy Fate Accelerated game recently (although for various reasons we haven’t played for about six weeks now so it’s not quite finished). So part way through, I started thinking about the next installment, and because I like to prepare by writing out the scenario, that’s just what I’ve done. I’ve hit a bit of a stumbling block, which I’m currently working through.

The Reality is Murder: This is the current game I’m editing for Freeform Games. It’s a game that was submitted an embarrassingly long time ago, and I’ve finally decided to pull it together.

The Peaky Files: Volume 1: I’ve just finished putting this together for Peaky Games. It contains three complete freeforms and you can buy it from Lulu. (This is the only one of these four projects that I can say is actually finished…)

Stuff that I want to write about, but need a bit of headroom before I can fit them in: the gender agenda and freeforms (which follows on from Peaky), attention and addiction (I’ve recently read Irresistible, and I’ve had to uninstall World of Tanks), my house rules for board games, reflecting on The Bone Swallower (when we’ve finally finished), a review of Solo Build It (for Great Murder Mystery Games and then here).

And some stuff coming up that may distract me from that lot: Getting Sword Day (a freeform) into a publishable form, editing When in Rome (for Freeform Games), developing Second Watch (the freeform I co-wrote last Peaky) for Consequences, Volume 2 of The Peaky Files.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A return to convention GM-ing

This summer, at Continuum 2016, I ran my first tabletop roleplaying game for complete strangers for absolutely ages. I can't remember the last time I did that - in the late 90s, I think.

So I don’t run tabletop games often enough to be completely relaxed about it.

I have slightly higher standards when I run a con game compared to running one at home. At home I’m with friends and family, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. And while a con game doesn’t need to be perfect, I do expect to bring my A game when I’m running at a con. Players have paid to be there, I’m putting on a show. Things had better be slicker than at home.

I know, all of that is in my head. I’ve played in as many average con games as I have great, and I’ve conveniently ignored that fact that usually GMs don’t get much of a reward. (Perhaps the deeper question is why, as a player, don’t I always bring my A game to the table? That’s a thought for another day.)

So all that adds up to a whole heap of unnecessary and self-inflicted pressure, which is why I don't run many games at conventions. If I did more, I think I’d be more relaxed about it, which is why I want to do more. (So a bit like presentations then…)

(And yes, I have the same nerves with a freeform. Despite two and a half decades of experience, knowing that it will all turn out okay, and players can be trusted, I still experience pre-flight nerves.)


So I eased myself back in gently and I ran one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenarios: In Whom We Trust. I first wrote this as a tournament scenario in 1996 (twenty years ago!) and it concerns an expedition in the Amazon. It’s a mashup of Arachnophobia, Outbreak and The Thing - and once it gets going it pretty much runs itself. It’s also been played a whole bunch of times at other cons, so I know that it’s pretty solid.

I ran it on Sunday morning, which isn’t the best time to be running Call of Cthulhu, but was the only time I could do to fit in around everything else I wanted to do.

I had six players, which was the most I can reasonably handle. For tabletop, I prefer no more than five (and three to four ideally - but that’s a bit too high a GM:Player ratio for most cons). I don’t think six players was a big problem and I tried to ensure that everyone had enough of the spotlight.

I learned a long time ago (before Gumshoe came along) that investigators can’t solve the mystery if they don’t have the clues, so I don’t make players roll to find the handouts. Except, for some reason I’d left something in the scenario that you could only find on a successful roll. Succeeding wouldn’t have changed anything, apart from adding a bit of colour (and possibly mystery), and after they’d failed the roll I kicked myself. So I’ve now edited that out: the next group will find everything...

Apart from that minor glitch, the game appeared to go well. I don’t think anyone was actually scared, but things went from bad to worse and there was a frantic shootout in a mysterious temple. I had three survivors, which is a pretty high for In Whom We Trust.

In terms of how I ran the game, I noticed that I had to stamp on my instinct to ask the players to roll dice for trivial actions where failing the roll wouldn’t have been interesting. For example, if a door was locked I didn’t make them roll to see if they could unlock it or break it open, I just let them succeed with whatever action they were trying to do.

Do as I say or do as I do?


In a previous post I talked about what I thought made for a good convention game experience as a player. So measured against that, how do I think I did?

Invested in my character: I could probably have done better on this. I used the original characters, which were just basic Call of Cthulhu characters. Each did have a goal that ensured they kept with the scenario (rather than turning and fleeing like any sane person). The only activity I asked of the players was, after they had introduced themselves, for them to state out loud who at that point they trusted. I’m not sure if that had any impact on play, but the players gamely complied.

Characters that fit the scenario: Yes, absolutely. I wrote the characters specifically for the scenario - they all have goals driving them forward into the mystery.

During play ask reflective questions: While I like this as a player, it’s not a GM habit for me yet. Must try harder. I could have asked, part way through, who they now trusted.

Keep to time: Yes, no problem here. I had a three hour slot and we were done in just over two hours. I heard later that the players were amazed that we’d fitted so much into only two hours, and I think they were pleased to have a longer break between this and the next game.

Limited mechanics: With only one real mechanic-y section (the shootout at the end), perhaps that’s why we finished so soon.

So overall I’m pretty happy. I need to ask more reflective questions, and maybe think about other ways to get the players invested in their characters. That’s not something that “classic” Call of Cthulhu was that good at - and I’ve not seen 7th Edition.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Peaky 2017

After a slightly shaky start, Peaky 2017 was the easiest Peaky for me for a long time. Here’s what happened.

Upper Rectory Farm Cottages, home of Peaky

Six games


Six games were written and tested. Here’s what we wrote.

  • Second Watch SF horror on a space tug,. For 10 players.
  • It's Everybody's War 1940s English village, war propoganda. For 13 players.
  • The Apocalypse Agenda Torchwood meets Laundry Files meets Warehouse 13. For 12 players.
  • Luck be a Lady 1950s Las Vegas "Come for the show, stay for the mushroom cloud". For 12 players
  • The Root of all Evil Pressures of money and blood. For 12 players.
  • Mean Street Inspired by Dollhouse and set in the future. Come and play in the mean streets of 1920s New York. For 12 players.

I’m sure most of these will be developed further and will get a second or third runs.

A shaky start


The shaky start I mentioned happened on Friday night, when it seemed to take an eternity to sort out the games we wanted to play. We started off with over 30 ideas - more ideas than we had players.

Inevitably, it took a while to work all that out, but by 9pm we were done (quite a bit later than usual).

Second Watch: the writing


I co-wrote Second Watch, along with James Bloodworth, Alli and Ric Mawhinney, and Laura Wood. I’ve not written with any of them before, and James and Laura were both newcomers to Peaky (and this was only Ric’s second Peaky).

Laura had pitched an SF horror game, so we kicked around ideas involving Alien, Prometheus, Event Horizon, Sunshine, and similar movies. We ended up with Second Watch, where the relief crew awakens from cryosleep to discover that the First Watch is missing, and things aren’t quite right…

Writing Second Watch was a delight. It seemed really easy - I think that was because from the very start we had a strong idea of what we wanted to do. Sometimes at Peaky the writing groups take a while to form behind an idea, but this seemed to just fly.

It went so smoothly that we were done by 9pm on Saturday evening, which left me plenty of time to finalise Sunday’s running order (more on that below) while the others played games. I went to bed at 11pm, relatively early by Peaky standards. (I had had a dreadful night’s sleep the night before, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.)
Second Watch, all printed out and envelopes stuffed

Playing the games


Second Watch was the first game on Sunday (up against It’s Everybody’s War) and seemed to go really well. Despite a few of the inevitable glitches, the game seemed to go really well and we got some good feedback. We’ll take that on board and improve it for the next time (possibly Consequences).

The main things items we need to address are:

  • The queue for the GMs, we need to get the players to self-manage more of the investigation.
  • More and stronger links between characters. (I could say that we didn’t have time to write that - but hey, we finished at 9pm instead. It wasn’t a critical loss, but more links would have been better.)
  • The ending. Personally, I was hoping for a very downbeat ending where surviving players have to decide between several miserable options - but the players confounded us. Must do better next time!

The Apocalypse Agenda was written by Emory Cunnington, Ann De Vries, Max De Vries, Martin Jones and Tony Mitton and was a mash-up of Torchwood, the Laundry Files and Warehouse 13. I played a military chaplain from Section 13, clearly based on the Laundry Files. During the game we met two other teams and were forced to work with them, which led to some nice tension (as we all came from very different organisational cultures).

The Apocalypse Agenda went really well. It was split into several scenes, with short intermissions between. It seemed quite action packed and intense - it would clearly benefit from longer than the two hours that we had at Peaky. (The writing team did admit that at the start, so we were warned.)

A couple of things need a bit of looking at. The team-building workshop didn’t quite work, which made me wonder why. It was fun to do, but I don’t think it had the intended effect. (It has made me think about workshops and how to make them work in a freeform context. I’d like to see a good example.) And I think a bit more could have been made of the differences between the groups when we were supposed to be bonding.

Sunday’s final game (for me) was Mean Street, written by Nickey Barnard, Nick Curd, Philippa Dall, Clare Gardner, Megan Jones, Max Powell. Inspired by Dollhouse, Mean Street included strong themes and involved some abused characters.

I played Joey, a cigarette seller and I don’t want to say too much. Mean Street was intense, and the time seemed to fly by. My main concern is that towards the end of the game, I didn’t have any story left - once my character had worked out what was going on (and as a player I had worked it out sooner - but I had a good time playing being confused), then there was little I could do to influence things. It wasn’t a problem in a two hour Peaky game, but might have been a problem if the game was longer.

I didn’t experience It's Everybody's War, Luck be a Lady, or The Root of all Evil but it sounded like they went well.

The gender agenda


The gender agenda was more prominent this time at Peaky, notably with the presence of three members of the LGBT community. Emory produced a very useful Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity Cheat Sheet, which clearly explained how diverse diversity really is.

That had an interesting effect on the writing:

  • In Second Watch, we decided to make all our characters genderless. In keeping with the genre, we just used last names throughout.
  • My character in The Armageddon Agenda, if I remember right, didn’t feel sexual attraction to anyone (I can’t remember the technical term). Along with all the other characters, I had a gender neutral name.
  • All but one of the characters in Mean Street were gender neutral, but they had a nice touch of putting “he/she/they” underneath the character names on the name badge. As a player I got to chose my pronoun.
  • I didn’t play the other games and I don’t know what the impact was, but from a distance they appeared to have the more usual freeform gender split.

I found the gender agenda quite thought provoking and I’ll write more when my thoughts are a bit more coherent.

Game wrangling


Game wrangling was a huge improvement compared to last year. I think that’s because of three things:

  • I checked with everyone early to find out when they were due to leave. (And we didn’t have any last-minute drop-outs, thankfully.)
  • I worked out in advance that on average each group could expect 11 or 12 players, and I made sure that everyone knew that. (Everyone took note, happily.)
  • After last year I put together a spreadsheet that let me work out the options, and that worked really well.

So that was Peaky 2017. Still my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

Approaching Peaky

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Player created NPCs

One of the easiest methods I’ve used to get players invested in a game background is for them to create contacts for their player characters. This works particularly well for urban settings, and it gives the sense that the PCs are part of the world.

It also helps me in several ways:

  • As sources of information and clues (“Hmm, that sounds like something your ex-boss would know something about”)
  • As emotional hooks - if the players have created the NPCs, it’s likely they care about them. And if they care about them… (“I thought you ought to know, Sam is missing.”)
  • Fleshing out the world in ways I hadn’t thought of (“So there’s a cobbler on Grape Lane, I didn’t know that.”)
  • Interesting NPCs allow me to have a bit of fun roleplaying.
I also do this for my pre-gen one-shot games. For example, I am currently running The Bone Swallower, a Fate Accelerated urban fantasy adventure set in London (inspired by Neverwhere, Rivers of London, and anything else that has taken my fancy).

I gave each character a list of three contacts, and asked them to choose two and also to define their relationship.

Contacts (Choose two)

  • Jet Brewer: Half-fae pavement artist, usually found near Trafalgar Square. Relationship: Jet is my lover / mentor / ex-pimp / ______________.
  • Mr Spleen: Enigmatic shopkeeper who runs the Old Curiosity Shoppe, a general store and magic shop of no-fixed location. Relationship: Mr Spleen is my advisor / ex-boss / rescuer / ________.
  • Ted Neath: Lord Boston’s tough troubleshooter. Relationship: Ted is my father-figure/ teacher / enemy / ________.


Because this is a one-shot (and because I will publish it online in due course), I’ve developed each of the NPCs so that someone else can use them. (If these were player-generated, I would expect them to do as much of this as possible.)

Tiberius
Immortal Roman Centurion, Lady Serpentine’s bodyguard, hunting my true love’s murderer
Skilled (+2) at: Fighting, killing, protecting. Tracking, finding Other London’s hidden spaces
Poor (-2) at: Modern technology, falling ill, holding my liquor
Stress: O O O
Tiberius was born in 80AD, and simply didn’t die. He served on Hadrian’s Wall, and stayed when the Roman forces withdrew. In 1668 he lost his one true love, Serena, to a vampire called Zerkisti, and has been hunting it ever since. Tiberius has been serving as Lady Serpentine’s bodyguard since 1888, when she sought personal protection following the Ripper murders.

As for The Bone Swallower, the characters have already visited one of their contacts - they did it in the first session.

Note that I didn’t do this for The Crasta Demon nor In Whom We Trust because in both cases the scenarios involve the characters going into the wilderness and leaving their contacts behind. Adding contacts would have been a distraction. When I come to write a follow up to The Crasta Demon set in the great city of Broken Arch, then I will give the characters contacts.

(And I didn't do it for my older adventures because I hadn't learned this trick then.)

Why don’t we do this more often?


I find that creating NPCs is such a powerful tool for creating plot, background and helping the characters get involved in a setting, that it seems a bit strange to me that we don’t do it more often.

But maybe that’s a result of our wargames heritage - it seems to me that many tabletop rpgs are little more than thinly-disguised miniatures wargames with hero figures, but that’s a topic for another day.

(Ironically, given what I said about sandbox games previously, this probably works better for sandboxes than it does for adventures.)

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hopeless at creating characters

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’m not very good at creating characters for tabletop roleplaying games. I don’t mean I’m not very good at rolling them up, but I mean that when given a blank canvas, I struggle to come up with an interesting character concept and backstory.

For example, recently I played in a Star Wars game (using Fate Accelerated). The premise of the game was that we were a couple of guys in a spaceship in the Star Wars universe. So did that mean we were bounty hunters? Criminals? Traders? Rebels? Imperials? Something else?

The GM really didn’t mind - it was up to us, the players.

So between us we created a small crew of a trading spaceship and we set off in search of cargo to trade (and inadvertently running the risk of turning the game into Traveller).

But I found it hard to create a character I was interested in.

Story not sandbox


I think the problem for me is that I want to see a story, not just a sandbox. In fact, I’m not even sure I particularly like sandbox play (if I understand the term correctly).

I really want my games to have a beginning, middle and end. And I don’t want that middle to be wandering around the game world poking the scenery with a sharp stick to see what happens. (Okay, that’s perhaps extreme, but I’ve seen it happen. That’s not the case as far as our Star Wars game goes.)

And when there’s a strong story, in my experience you need characters suited to that story.

I think my gaming history has lead me in this direction:

  • Call of Cthulhu: I played (and wrote) far too much Call of Cthulhu in my early, formative years. And as Cthulhu tends to be all about the mission/scenario, I kind of have that in my blood. (I can’t imagine a Call of Cthulhu sandbox…)
  • One-shots: These days I play in (and run) a lot of convention one-shots. They tend to be mission-focused, due to the nature of a short, one-shot game. They also tend to have pre-generated characters designed to suit the scenario. (At least, the best of them do - but I’ve talked about that before.)
  • Freeforms: I play in (and write) a lot of freeform larps. Freeforms are often little more than a bunch of pre-written characters put in a setting and told to get on with it. So I’m either used to being given a character that suits the game, or I’m writing characters that I know will be fun to play given the game I’m writing.
  • Sandbox inexperience: When I look back, it turns out that I’ve not played in many true sandboxes. There has always been a point to the adventures. (And the last sandbox I played in was over 20 years ago.)
  • Short games: I prefer short games. I’ve never run or played in a long campaign - 10-12 sessions is the absolute most I’ve played or run, and 6-8 is probably more common. I don’t think I’d want to play in an epic campaign - there are too many games out there that I want to play.

Solutions


I like it when a GM gives me some guidance as to what sort of character suits the game we’re going to run. For the Star Wars game we did some collaborative world building, but looking back the key bit we missed was to define the issues that the game was about. We didn’t follow the Fate Core or Sparks process, and maybe if we’d done that I’d have a clearer idea of the character I wanted to play.

And I really like pregenerated characters, although that’s more work for the GM. And it’s nice to be able to tailor a pregen, so the PbtA playbooks are pretty close to perfect, and I’ve started using that basic idea when writing pregens for my games. (Some excellent examples here for Fate.)

Friday, 17 March 2017

AireCon

Last weekend I visited AireCon, the new Yorkshire-based games convention. Technically I think this was the fourth AireCon, but given that the first was in one of the organiser’s houses, and the previous two were in Bradford, but I missed them completely. But given that AireCon is rapidly expanding and its new home was the Harrogate International Centre, I thought I’d support it this time.

I bought a full ticket (Fri-Sun), but I ended up unable to go on the Friday. But I was there for both Saturday and Sunday.

Spacious!
Anyway, a few thoughts:

Location: Harrogate International Centre is a really nice venue. Large, spacious, on-site catering (and although the food was expensive, it was pretty good.) There was some unused space as well - three spare rooms that didn’t seem to be used much (the quiet play area, the large games space and the event space). The quiet area was used by some people to eat, and the event space had some people in it on Saturday but was empty when I popped my head in on Sunday.

Boardgames: tabletop games were really well presented. Huge versions of Ticket to Ride and Pandemic, a comprehensive games library, many games designers demoing their wares. And lots of people playing games. It was an awesome place to play new games, but not quite so good for meeting new people to play with. (I played Pandemic, Star Realms and Crabz.)

Family friendly: Loads of families with kids, whether playing giant Ticket to Ride or just looking at the stalls and playing with their mums and dads.
Giant Pandemic (we lost) with giant Ticket to Ride in the background
Some tabletop rpgs: The tabletop roleplaying needs a bit of attention and clearly isn’t as well developed yet. Paizo sponsored the marquee, and there was a “how to learn Pathfinder” GM, along with some other GMs, including Simon Burley and John Dodd. there. There were other GMs as well, and I played a SF horror game by John Dodd and an introductory Pathfinder adventure (more on that below).

I think the tabletop roleplaying still needs to develop. There’s an intriguing difference between regular tabletop convention goers (not many at the convention) and casual boardgamers who might drop into a game. The regulars want a four hour slot, the casual boardgamers want something that will take about an hour or so (like a regular boardgame). I’m sure there’s a solution in there somewhere.

(The AireCon website doesn’t help - it’s not very tabletop roleplaying friendly.)

GoPlayLeeds: I attended along with a few others from Go Play Leeds, but it wasn't a great success for us. We weren't really organised, and so I don't think we drummed up any new players. (But then there were many more boardgamers than roleplayers present.)

We also didn't advertise ourselves very well. There was a community area which I found which we could have advertised on, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't directly linked from the AireCon website so I didn't find out about it until too late.
AireCon community noticeboard - which I didn't find out about until too late

Pathfinder: I played in an introductory Pathfinder game, a simple adventure involving finding a teenager who had run away and gotten a bit in over his head. I’ve not played Pathfinder (nor much D&D for that matter), and to me the switch between character interaction (what I think of as roleplaying) and the tactical miniatures game for the combat (never my favourite bits of tabletop rpgs) was a bit of a clunky switch.

But the GM was lovely (I'm sorry, I didn't catch his name), and I can really see the appeal of the Pathfinder society. The teenager in me thought that was great.

Mugs! AireCon’s mugs are really nice. For £6 you get a nice souvenir and £1 off tea and coffee at the drinks counter. They even come with a stick of chalk so you can write your name on the side so they don’t get mixed up.

Deodorant: One thing that made me smile was seeing three cans of deodorant in the gents. I’ve no idea if they were used, but it was a nice touch.

Friday, 10 March 2017

DramaAspects in Play

So the other night I once again inflicted "DramaAspects" on my players (previously discussed here and here). I'm still experimenting as they're not as easy as I first thought...

I created pre-generated characters for the adventure with multiple-choice drama aspects. I did this because recently I found myself in the position of creating a drama aspect for my own character, and I found it surprisingly hard when faced with a blank piece of paper.

So I took a leaf from the Apocalypse (and Sophie LagacĂ©’s excellent Fate of the Inquisitor playbooks) and went for a multiple-choice approach to my pre-generated characters, including the drama aspects. (Why I find my player characters so hard to create yet pregens so easy may be a topic for another time. But never mind.)

Player characters


Of the five pregens, Jon chose Ezekial Gunn (overconfident student of cat magic) and Terry Chose PC Simon Ironwood (lazy half-fae career constable).

Their drama aspects, were, as presented to them:

  • Gunn: I need ____________ to [teach me to _____________ / let me protect them / forgive me for scarring them] but he/she won’t because _______________________
  • Ironwood: I need ___________ to [support my promotion request / let me teach them to See / respect me as a policeman] but he/she won’t because _________________

Invokes and Compels


Drama aspects are all very well, but the point of an aspect is being able to invoke and compel it. For many aspects invoking and compelling is obvious, but I’ve found that one weakness of drama aspects is that I don't find them as easy to invoke or compel. So I'm taking the time now (between sessions) to think about that in advance.

In essence, I see it that the drama aspect can be invoked to help with the thing that the character wants, and compelled to encourage the character to overcome the objection.

Ezekial Gunn: I need Ironwood to let me protect him, but he won't because he's never trusted anything to do with cats.

Gunn can invoke this aspect when he is somehow protecting Ironwood.

This aspect can be used to compel Gunn to do something that will persuade Ironwood that cats can be trusted. Such as:

  • Trusting a cat not to kill an important mouse
  • Trusting a cat with an important task (like that’s going to go well!)

PC Simon Ironwood: I need Ezekiel to let me teach him to See, but he won't because he believes that if he learns such fae blood magic then his totem cat spirit (that grants magic powers) will leave him.

Ironwood can invoke this aspect if Gunn is present when he is Seeing, and Ironwood explains what he is doing (i.e. is teaching).

This aspect can be used to compel Ironwood to do something that will persuade Gunn that Seeing won't affect his magic powers. Such as:

  • Capturing his totem cat spirit and demonstrating that Gunn's magical powers are unaffected by its absence.
  • Doing something that removes Gunn's cat magic (and thus the obstacle to learning).
  • Getting Gunn to learn some other fae blood magic first to demonstrate that it doesn’t affect his cat magic.

I haven't discussed these ideas with Jon and Terry yet, and I expect that they’ll have other, better, ideas.

Character flaws


I haven’t seen anyone use a character flaw as a reason for refusal yet. That may be because when players are choosing their reason, they don’t want to project onto the other character, so they pick a reason internal to their character.

I think the way for that to work is that to phrase it so that it’s a perceived character flaw, not necessarily a real one.

The keywords being “...because he/she thinks that I…”

 So: ...but she won’t because she thinks that I [ can’t be trusted / am too immature / am too bookish / am not worthy.]

These can then be used to compel a character to do something foolish/dramatic to show that they do not have the character flaw. (“I am not too bookish, I’ll show her…”)

Looking ahead


Next time I do this I will try to remember to ask the players to think about compels and invokes when they write their drama aspects. And I might nudge them towards “he/she thinks that I…”

(I’m sure this will all get easier with practice.)

The next thing to think about is resolving a drama aspect, but that’s a subject for another time.