Monday, 29 August 2016

Convention Games

The 2000s were a bit of a desert for me in terms of tabletop roleplaying. I wrote and ran and played loads of freeform larps, but no tabletop. And while I love freeforms, tabletop roleplaying scratches a different itch, so I’ve been trying to do a bit more.

Over the last three years I've made an effort to do more tabletop. As I don’t have a regular weekly group, this has been mostly at conventions and GoPlayLeeds every month. And I've been reflecting on the difference between the games I've enjoyed, and the games I haven't.

Here's what I've learned.

Invested in my character


It doesn't seem to matter which system I play, or who the GM is, the more invested I am in the character, the better the game is. This works best when I have some involvement in creating my character. Hillfolk is supremely good at this, because my character and his/her relationships with the other PCs is developed collaboratively during the the pre-game workshop.

It doesn't have to be as extreme as Hillfolk, but please give me a bit more than a sheet of numbers. Give me some backstory, a sense of how my character fits into the world.

And let me customize my character, even just a bit. So in FATE let me decide an aspect, or choose my last stunt (from a list). The Apocalypse World games do this well.

If you do just have a list of numbers, then please spend half an hour before we start playing to flesh out our characters. Here's some examples that have worked well:


  • During my first experience of D&D5 (about a year ago), the GM had three questions for each of the players as part of the set up. The questions were tailored for each player. I was a ranger, and mine were: What was remarkable about your tribe? What is your spirit animal? What got away from you while hunting? (That last one turned out to be the best for me, and lead to a nifty resolution at the end of the adventure.)
  • On the other hand, in a recent Masters of Umdaar FATE Accelerated game, the GM got us to create a shared background by asking each player to describe a key scene from the previous adventure - which he used to create team aspects.


(Oddly, I find this very hard as a player to do this without the GM's direction. I've no doubt that says something about me, but I've not seen other players force this either. We obviously need the GM to do this sort of thing.)

Characters that fit the scenario


This really shouldn't need saying, but if you are preparing pre-generated characters, make sure they fit the scenario. If you are giving the players a choice, what happens if they don't pick the character that has the skills to make your scenario work?

More than once I've played characters that didn't fit into the planned scenarios. Unsurprisingly, they often aren't very satisfying sessions.

During play, ask reflective questions


All tabletop roleplaying games are about answering questions (‘the troll charges towards you, what do you do?’) but I’ve particularly enjoyed games when the GM has asked reflective questions such as:

  • How do you feel about that?
  • Who do you think is the leader of this party?

I also like it when I get to describe the outcome of my actions - so when I dispatch an enemy, let me describe the outcome. When I roll a critical, let me say what happens.

Again, this is something as players we could do ourselves. But for some reason we choose not do.

Keep to time


The best GMs know how long they have got, and leave you wanting more. On the other hand, if I’m not that engaged in a session I don’t really mind if I have to leave early.

So you need to know how long you’ve got. Do any of the players have to leave early? (This is particularly important at an event like GoPlayLeeds where the sessions don’t really have a defined length. They can run on into the evening if everyone wants. So there’s not always an obvious pressure to keep the game focused.)

Similarly, it’s best to keep it focused. A con game should be a short, intense experience - it’s not the start of a lengthy campaign. So the players should be crystal clear on what they need to do. Don’t let us wander for too long without finding the scenario.

Limited mechanics


In a four hour game, I’ve noticed that there’s really not much time for more than three sets of complicated mechanics - whether that’s combat or some other part of the game system. Combat is  particularly time consuming.

The problem for me is that the best part of a tabletop roleplaying game is when I’m not rolling the dice. I play these game to make tough decisions, to talk to players and non-player characters, and to figure out the puzzles that stand in our way. I like banter and angst and creating a story.

When I’m rolling dice I’m getting none of that.

My plan for the future


So if you’re running a tabletop game, that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.

And as I’m hoping to start running tabletop con games in the near future, that’s also the kind of thing I’m going to try to deliver...

Monday, 18 July 2016

Writing Mars Attracts

Mars Attracts is a freeform larp exploring the nature of romance and space exploration for 12 players. It was written at Peaky 2015 by Graham Arnold, Kath Banks, Graham Charles, Mo Holkar - and me.

I've just made it available online, and this is the story of how it came about.

Before Peaky


About a week before Peaky 2015 was due to kick off, Graham C posted on the Peaky mailing list that he was interested in exploring the romance side of freeforms. He explained that romance was often very mechanistic (matching cards, completing tasks) and didn't reflect what romance is really like. He also suggested using Nordic techniques (workshops and the like).

(There are a number of traditional freeform larp romance mechanics here.)

I had two conflicting reactions to that. It seems to me that there's always talk about immersion and bleed whenever someone talks about Nordic games. I don't have much experience of Nordic games, so this could be complete nonsense, but it makes me very wary of signing up to such a game. But on the other hand I'm curious to know more.

So I decided that unless something else really blew my socks off, I'd try to be part of Graham's group. That way, I could find out more and remove the risk of actually playing the game if I didn't like the direction it was going in.

And as there wasn't another game I liked the sound of more, I joined Graham C, Mo, Graham A and Kath. That was a really nice writing group - I've only written games with Graham A before, so it was nice to be working with other people. The group was really supportive, and although we all had strong opinions, we were all pulling in the same direction and it felt effortless.

Friday night - talking about romance


Once we'd formed out group, we didn't get out the computers at all on Friday (which is unusual for Peaky - I've usually started writing by 10pm). Instead we discussed what might be in a romance game, and what we thought was romantic. Here's a sample of the things we discussed:

  • We talked about when romance had worked in other games. I suggested that it was often where the players had chemistry, rather than anything that the game did.
  • The game would use player-generated character creation much like Picking up the Pieces.
  • Romance is often about making your partner feel special. Can we create that in a game?
  • We wanted to include same-sex romances. Or at least, not exclude them.
  • There would be workshops to get the group to bond.
  • We would have a honeymoon workshop/session where the idea was to make partners feel special.
  • We didn't want to emphasise sex - this was about romance, not the physical act of sex.
  • We talked about oxytocin and the chemicals of love.
  • We talked about the power of touch and looking into your partner's eyes - although we didn't do anything with either of those.
  • We talked about arranged marriages and how we might use them.
  • We talked what we might do if we were writing a traditional game, and Graham suggested Jane Austen. Thinking about that, I could imagine a "traditional freeform" with lots of different characters with different aspects of romance.
  • Everyone needed a right of veto, in case play was touching on trigger points.
  • And probably other things that I now don't recall.


But by the time I went to bed (early Saturday morning), we had no idea what the game was going to be about. We didn't know what framework or setting we were going to use for our romances.

Saturday - writing our game


By the time that Saturday morning arrived, we had a solution (which I believe Kath proposed early Saturday morning). Our game was about selecting "stable" partnerships for a mission to Mars. Our players were going to be potential candidates for the first manned mission to Mars. As the mission involved being cooped up in a small space for a very long time, partner compatibility was key, and thus this became our game.

We talked about the structure of the game for a bit, and ended up with the following.

  • Character generation
  • First workshop - training session
  • Second workshop - final few exercise (romantic partners would be in the same group, but at this stage they wouldn’t know who they were partnered with)
  • Honeymoon debriefing
  • Half hour meet and mingle
  • "Shit happens" - six months has passed and not everything is rosy
  • Resolutions
  • Self-evaluation and the decision on who is going to Mars.


(I've made it sound as if we arrived easily at the structure. It wasn't like that - we went around in circles a bit.)

We also came up with a title, Mars Attracts.
Writing Mars Attracts - overacting
for the camera

Character generation


We based character generation on Picking up the Pieces. We assigned roles to our players - these were Pilot, Navigator, Counsellor, and so on. The players then had to choose:

  • A Mars role, such as Geologist, Town planner, Poet.
  • A reason for going to Mars, such as because it's there, to become rich, to find a second home for mankind. (Each of these had a supplementary question to reflect on.)
  • Emotional baggage, such as divorced, sibling rivalry, married.
  • What they're looking for in a significant other, such as a best friend, someone to rescue me, a soulmate.

We hoped that the players would use these to inform their character. What they chose to do with their emotional baggage, or reason to go to Mars, was up to them. We weren't enforcing anything.

These lists didn't take us very long to produce - we had them complete in under an hour.

One of the things that I really don't like about some freeforms is being told how I am to play my character. Personally, that's something that I feel that I should bring as the player, and I know that I don't play "perky" or "energetic" very well. So I was keen to avoid anything like that in the lists. Happily the rest of the group didn't feel strongly otherwise.

First workshop


For the first workshop we formed small groups (that we had prearranged) for a training exercise. The groups had to decide on something that happened that had got them to bond as a team. And each group member had to tell the other members: a) what they really liked about that member and b) what they felt was would be beneficial about that person in a relationship.

The purpose of this workshop was for the players to start practising complimenting each other. We also wanted them to start forming bonds within each other, and to start feeling good about their characters and each other.

Second workshop


The second workshop mixed the characters up and we told each group that their romantic partner would be part of that group. The participants had to explain what had happened in the previous workshop, why they wanted to go to Mars, and find one thing they liked about each other member of the group. Again, this workshop reinforced the good feelings the group was hopefully reinforcing.

The players were encouraged to roleplay this as much as possible, rather than just answer questions. (Because, you know, we were supposed to be writing a roleplaying game.)

The Honeymoon


At the end of the second workshop, we told everyone who their romantic partner was, and told them they were going on a romantic trip for two weeks to properly get to know their partner.

The couples then had to spend ten to fifteen minutes answering a few questions about their honeymoon. The couples decided where they went and what they did, and we gave them questions prompting them to say nice things about their partner. Some examples.

  • Name three good things about your partner
  • What did you do to make your partner feel special?
  • What made you laugh together?

After this, we're hoping that the players will feel good about themselves and their romantic partner.

Entering the space


With the honeymoons over, it’s time to enter the simulator and meet everyone else (kind of like a cocktail party). We instructed our players to introduce themselves and their partner to the rest of the crew. This was the start of the game proper - 30 minutes of roleplaying.

Shit happens


After about 30 minutes, we planned to introduce some complications ("shit happens") representing complications that had occurred during the six months of the simulator. This was done with more bits of paper - these were things like "I think the relationship has gone stale" or "I worry that I'm not very good at my job". Affairs are often the meat and drink of a romantic freeform, and so we included the possibility for one affair, but one only (and it required two different people to choose that particular complication).

The final 30 minute session involved resolving the shit (one way or another), ideally by getting advice from another player (rather than just keeping it in the couples).

The shit happens complications were the last thing we wrote. We actually worked out the game resolution first so that we knew where we were aiming for. Once we knew that, the complications themselves almost wrote themselves.

Resolution


At the end of the game we find out who is going to Mars. We did this by asking everyone whether they want to still go to Mars with their partner, how well they rated their relationship, and to draw a smiley face reflecting that relationship. If the faces on both partners were smiles - then we decided they were compatible and they were off to Mars.

So that's where we were headed with our romantic game.

Writing and printing


And that was about it. Over the course of a couple of hours we had scribbled this down on a couple of sheets of flipchart paper. It was time to type it up.

While the rest of the group typed it up (it didn't take long), I organised how the games would be run on the Sunday and who would be playing in them. This wasn't straightforward, and I think for the first time ever at Peaky I ended up not actually typing anything towards the game itself.

We (and by that I mean everyone else) printed the game on different coloured card to make everything stand out. I thought it all looked rather fine.

Casting


Organising the games wasn't easy, but when everything was done we had seven players sign up to our game. (I don't think we sold it very well - the title, Mars Attracts, probably didn't send the right message. We also had three drop-outs from Peaky by that point, which didn't help.) So with three of the writers playing, we planned for ten players.

As I said at the start, I was worried about the direction a romance game might head. Having seen it evolve, I was now keen to play it as I thought it could be something special. So I ended up playing.

Once we knew who was signed up, we needed to work out who was going to be paired up with whom. We had already decided that the romantic partnerships would be decided at the start. For example, character A was always going to be with character F, and we told everyone which group they were in for each workshop. But how to decide who gets to play characters A and F?

We ended up doing it semi-randomly. We had four females and six males playing, which meant that we definitely had one same-sex partnership. Knowing that this might be a hot-button topic for some, I checked with a couple of players first to see if they would be happy with a same-sex partner. Once they had agreed, everyone else was assigned randomly into opposite-sex couples.

Uneven workshops


Our original plan was to have 12 participants. That gave us four groups of three for the first workshop, and three groups of four for the second, and was nicely balanced.

With ten players, that became three groups for the first workshop (3/3/4) and two (4/6) for the second. (We wanted the romantic partners to be together in the second workshop.)

Inevitably the larger groups took longer to complete the exercises than the smaller groups. This wasn't ideal, and I think in future I would add optional questions in the workshop for speedier groups. I was in the larger group for one exercise, and it felt important that we finished it.

Playing Mars Attracts - creating characters


I found creating a character quite hard. As players we could choose the categories in any order, and I ended up following a particular path that made sense:

  • Mars role - I chose publicity officer as a relatively neutral role. I was tempted by philosopher, but wasn't sure I could do it justice.
  • Reason to go to Mars - to be the first
  • Emotional baggage - I can never please my family. I decided I came from a large family and had many brilliant brothers and sisters who I could never compete with. Apart from going to Mars.
  • What I'm looking for in a relationship - someone to grow old with, which I felt was one of the more classically romantic options.


I liked how my character shaped itself as I chose the cards. In the feedback, someone suggested that the emotional baggage should be random. I'm not sure if I would have liked that - I was deliberately shaping my character to help the process, and a random baggage forced on me might not have helped. But I think we can have both - if someone wants random baggage, they can close their eyes and pick one (or pick three and choose one). And for those that want to choose, let them choose.

The workshops


I know that workshops aren't everyone's thing, but I enjoyed them. I'd recently done a postgraduate certificate in leadership and management and there were similarities (perhaps deliberate) between some of the work I'd done on the certificate and the workshops. Knowing what we were trying to do with the workshops helped when it came to participating.

I liked how I changed my behaviour as the workshops progressed. For example, in the first workshop I was part of the bridge crew, and in the first workshop we agreed that we had bonded as a team during an exercise in the zero-g tank (ie underwater) that had gone wrong. The pilot said that he liked that I was very communicative and kept everyone informed during our crisis. As a result, I found in the next workshop I was more communicative than I might ordinarily be, and I shared my emotional baggage really early. (And shortly after, someone else then picked up on that and said that they liked that I was very honest.)

Honeymoon debriefing


The honeymoon debriefing was lovely. My partner (Traci) and I spent ten or so minutes building this lovely romantic story about a holiday in the Alps in summer, hiking, enjoying the scenery and sharing bottles of wine in the evening.

Some of the feedback suggested that the honeymoon could have been done in-character, and not as a series of questions. But to me, just because they were questions didn't stop me from being in-character. I never felt out of character during that session.

And after all that ego-stroking, I probably felt higher then than I did all weekend. At this point, the game was doing everything I hoped it would.

Entering the space and the meet and greet


The meet and greet/cocktail party was okay. It was a good way to meet everyone and find out who everyone was and where they had been on honeymoon, and it was a pleasant half an hour. But I'm not good at that sort of thing in real life, and I probably found myself waiting for the next session sooner than most.

6 months later and shit happens


At this point in the game, I realised that my relationship was probably more important to me than going to Mars. Mars was important, yes, but I really didn't want to ruin the relationship. So when it came to choosing a Shit Happens card, I avoided those that threatened the relationship and picked one about confidence - "I'm not very good at my job".

(There was also some discussion as to whether these should be random, as they might be in real life. Well, maybe. I'd let the players decide. While I carefully selected my complication, at least one other player picked one completely at random.)

Final session - resolving shit


I resolved my confidence issue with another player, who boosted my confidence. My partner had a bigger problem though - she'd discovered that our relationship was getting very samey. So we talked about that, and agreed that we should open ourselves to new experiences, and that it was important that we talk about issues before they become bigger problems.

Self-evaluation


Then it was just the final self-evaluation questionnaire, and the relief of discovering we were both off to Mars.

Not everyone did go. There were two couples who split up - and a new couple formed from that split. (So there were two people who didn't go to Mars from our group.)

Overall


I'm very happy with the whole experience. It was a delight to write, and a delight to play.

It can be difficult playing a game that you've written - I've found that you can end up being a background character and facilitating other people's play (because you know all the game secrets). That certainly wasn't true this time. While I think that I had an advantage in that I knew what was going on (in that I knew what to do in the workshops), it's also true that knowing what was in the game didn't help me as what happened depended very much on the other players.

From Peaky to published


As with pretty much any Peaky game, the published version isn't much different from the Peaky version.

Apart from some instructions, the only real change I made was to what I considered to be some of the sillier job descriptions (such as poet) which didn't feel right for the first mission to Mars. Personally they don't feel "realistic" to me. One player created a comedic Scientologist character, which wasn't the effect we were aiming for. I don't know if that was a reaction to "unrealistic" job titles, but I don't suppose it helped.

I would reinstate them if we changed the game to be about the first Mars colony rather than the first Mars mission. Maybe.

Beyond Mars Attracts


Some of the lessons from Mars Attracts I'd like to take to other games (and beyond):

  • I think the biggest thing that I've taken is to make romance in freeforms special. It's not just about matching cards or performing tasks, we've got the opportunity to do something different. Matching cards might be the start of it, but we can also ask our players to consider what it is about their new partner that attracts them? What are they doing that makes them feel special? Those are easy questions to ask (and this thought fed my all-purpose romance rules).
  • I should do more Yes and-ing. I was better at it when I was younger.
  • And I can imagine adapting some of the workshops for team-building exercises at work. (Probably not with the romantic emphasis, but maybe in terms of finding good things about each other.)


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Secrets of the Ancients

In 1984 I left school and started university. I had discovered roleplaying three years earlier, seduced by an advert for Traveller in (if I remember right) Starburst magazine.

I was a science fiction fan, which is why I was drawn to Traveller. And what I really liked about SF were the aliens, particularly enigmatic long-dead aliens who would leave behind grand structures and other mysterious traces of their advanced civilisations for us to stumble across.

My favourite books were Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Arther C Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, and Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang. My favourite thing in Alien is the space-jockey. I loved the sense of wonder and mystery. I still do: as I write this I am re-reading Peter F Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star - more enigmatic aliens with their grand structures.

So I loved Traveller’s Ancients. I thought Twilight’s Peak was amazing, although I don’t think I ever ran it. I loved the hints about the Ancients that appeared here and there through the background material. I wanted to know more.

Looking back, Traveller, for me, was about the Ancients.

I don’t remember much about how we played Traveller. I remember running Annic Nova (ooh, a mysterious alien ship), and I remember playing through Shadows (ooh, mysterious alien pyramids). But I don’t remember playing through many of the other adventures. I bought quite a few, but I don’t remember running them.

Although I loved Traveller, by 1984 I was moving away from it - I had discovered Call of Cthulhu.

Looking back on it, and with this in mind, I wonder now if Call of Cthulhu satisfied the sense of awe and wonder that Traveller wasn’t giving me. I’ve never found Call of Cthulhu particularly scary, and to me the Cthulhu mythos is often more SF than horror, full of ancient cities and enigmatic, technologically advanced aliens.

Which brings me to Secret of the Ancients. First published in 1984, it was a crushing disappointment to me for at least four reasons.

First, Secret of the Ancients was a bit of a let-down. That was perhaps inevitable, as it had been hyped for years. But even so, I wasn’t very inspired by Grandfather and his pocket universe.

Second, it felt if Marc Miller was shutting down the Ancients. It felt very final: the last Ancient  was tucked away in his pocket universe and that was that. No other Ancients anywhere. Period. So as a committed fan of the Ancients, I was never going to sign up to anything that ruled them out from the rest of the game.

Third, the adventure was such a railroad (although I probably didn’t call it that then). There are no interesting player decisions whatsoever.

Fourth, Secret of the Ancients reads more like a set of adventure notes rather than a published adventure. I know that the Traveller adventures were sparse, but Secret of the Ancients is ridiculous, particularly when compared to things like 1982’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or even 1983’s The Traveller Adventure.

Secret of the Ancients wasn’t quite the last Traveller book I bought, but it signalled the end of my days as a Traveller fanboy. I watched from the sidelines as MegaTraveller arrived and the Imperium was turned upside down. Not, from what I could see, for the better. (Although, to be honest, I didn’t look very hard.)

Time passed. I ran and played a lot of Call of Cthulhu. I ran Traveller 2300AD for a bit, I played in one of Dom Mooney’s Traveller games in the mid nineties, still one of my favourite tabletop experiences. I got some articles and scenarios published here and there. I published Tales of Terror. I got into freeform larps and even started Freeform Games, a business selling freeform larp-style murder mysteries to non-gamers.

At one point I thought writing a three-part Traveller freeform/scenario. If it was as good as the idea I had in my head, it would have been epic. It would start with a freeform, during which decisions would be made. Those decisions would then affect the next stage, a traditional tabletop roleplaying session (several games played simultaneously by the freeform players). This would then be followed by another freeform, dealing with the consequences of that tabletop scenario. My working title: Return of the Ancients… But it wasn’t to be; I never found the time.

Which brings me to Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients

While I’ve been looking elsewhere Traveller has carried on fine without me: GURPS, Mongoose, 5E… It’s fairly bewildering.

And while I’ve not been looking, Gareth Hanrahan has taken Marc Miller’s 1984 rough notes and turned them into an epic ten-part campaign brimming with wonder and awe and gives the Ancients the send off they deserve. It’s a reboot to be reckoned with.

Superficially, Secrets of the Ancients follows the same path as the original. A relative dies and leaves an inheritance to one of the player characters (I almost typed “investigator” there…) which leads to an Ancient ship deep in a gas giant and from there to Grandfather’s pocket universe.

But there the comparisons end.

Hanrahan’s adventure has more of pretty much everything:

  • More pages: The original was a 6x9 48 page booklet, the reboot 202 pages of A4.
  • More detail: Hanrahan’s version includes many non-player characters, ship plans, locations, and masses of adventuring detail. The reboot takes place over ten chapters, each taking two to four sessions to complete (according to the introduction at least).
  • More Ancients: As well as Grandfather, Hanrahan introduces Seven, one of Grandfather’s children hellbent on destroying him.
  • More secrets: Note the extra ‘s’.
  • More epicness: Seven (who isn’t your standard Droyne), augmented human agents of the Ancients, family archives, an epic trip through the pocket universe...
  • More Traveller: Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients even has time for nostalgia as at one point the adventurers end up in the Gaesh, the Kinunir class prison from 1979’s Adventure 1: The Kinunir. The Darrian star trigger (or one like it) even makes an appearance.


Hanrahan’s brilliant conceit can be broadly summed up in two words: Grandfather lied. The Ancients’ war isn’t over, but it’s now fought covertly, in the shadows. It’s a cold war, fought with augmented puppets.

In Secrets of the Ancients, the player characters become caught up in that war, as the cold war turns hot as Seven and Grandfather fight it out to the death. Only one will survive…

So there’s loads for me to like about the new Secrets of the Ancients. It pressed a lot of my buttons.

There are also a couple of things that could be improved. I found the adventure flow a bit clunky at times. It wasn’t always clear on a first read why the player characters would go to a particular location or visit a certain person. A few signposts would help, and the Ancient ship would have benefited from a diagram.

But these are quibbles. Gareth Hanrahan’s Secrets of the Ancients is one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve read. In my opinion it’s up there with Masks of Nyarlathotep...

But then I am biased: after all, Traveller, for me, is about the Ancients.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Updating Venice

I’m curious to know what’s the least I have to do to make a game written at Peaky presentable.

I’m not talking about endless rewriting, or honing it to within an inch of perfection, but presenting the game with minimum rewriting so that others can see the kind of thing we get up to at Peaky, warts and all.

I’ve written about the Post-Peaky Writing Process before, following my update of The Highgate Club in 2010, but I now wonder if we needed to go that far. I don’t begrudge the changes I made to The Highgate Club, but maybe I didn’t have to do that much.

My thinking about this was prompted by this NZ rant. I don’t want to present the raw Peaky files (as that would be dreadful), but I want to see what can be done with a typical Peaky game without spending weeks on a rewrite.

So I thought I’d give it a go.

Venice


I’ve decided to develop Venice, a game from Peaky 2013 for 15 people that I wrote with Tym Norris and Kate Dicey. We had a bit of help from Debbie Hollingworth on the Friday night, before she had to drop out.

Inevitably, the nature of three people writing a 15 player freeform doesn’t result in a densely plotted game. Instead, Venice is what I think of as a ‘factions’ game. In this case, the factions are Venice’s ruling families, and the prize is power (as measured by status).

Benchmarking


I can’t remember exactly what time we finished writing. But a typical Peaky Saturday include starts at 9am and finishes at 10pm, with two hour long breaks (lunch and tea). That’s 11 hours of writing each, or 33 hours. So my challenge is to get Venice into shape in less than 33 hours. (Or preferably, no more than the 11 hours I’ve already spent on it.)

First, though, I needed to work out what Venice looked like. We wrote it in 2013, and I’ve slept since then. And looking at the files in our Dropbox folder, they’re a bit of a mess. (Lots of duplicates.) So I’ve spent a bit of time sorting them out. I’ve not included that in my hourly log, as I figure that ideally I’d do this straight after Peaky and with a bit of luck I’d still remember everything.

Scope of the work


So my base plan is to make Venice presentable - which means checking on errors and typos. I am not going to write any significant new plots, or add any characters. My starting point for this is that the game as played at Peaky is just about there. (That may be an assumption too far, but bear with me.)

But because I am me, I cannot bear to leave well enough alone. So I’m making a few changes:

I want to make it easy for people to improve Venice: My plan for Venice is to stick it on the Internet and allow other gamers to download and run it for free. If they want to amend it and add extra characters, then great. I might also want to do that when I come to running it again, and I want to make it easy. (And I’m hoping that they will share their ideas as well, and help make Venice even better.)

Player involvement: I want to include a couple of ideas I had for Venice following What Happened in Blackpool. I wrote about these here, but essentially I want to let the families to decide why they hate their rivals, and I want everyone to publicly state what their overall goal is. Neither of these are big changes, but I suspect they will have an impact on play.

So here’s what I did


Checked with the other authors: I made sure that the other authors were happy with what I proposed. Happily they were.

Recreate the Information sheets: When we wrote the game, we created lots of sheets of information - for the Inquisition, the Navy, the Heretics, and the like. Because we had a bit of time, we folded these into the characters. However, because I want to make it easy to adapt and expand, I wanted them separated again.

So that’s what I’ve done.

(I understand the school of thought that wants such sheets embedded in the character backgrounds. It means that you can tailor them exactly to the character, and makes printing the game easy. However, in my experience there often isn’t all that much tailoring done (certainly not for Venice) And burying them in character sheets makes it much harder to make changes - if you want to add another Heretic, or change their objectives slightly, you’ve got to remember to change everything or risk continuity errors. It is, however, pretty easy just to stitch pdfs together if you want to create a single character sheet with everything in it.)

A side effect of this is that it makes the game very flexible. If you don’t have 15 people, you can drop one and just move the information sheet over to another character with minimal rewriting.

A sprinkling of formatting:I don’t think we had any formatting for Peaky, which is a shame as it wouldn’t have taken much (but can be a real pain when you’re juggling files). So I’ve added a light sprinkling of formatting - a nicer font, a background image for old paper (that I originally used for Pirate Island), a front page for each character. But that’s about it.

Adding a cast list and rivalries diagram: I’ve added a cast list, and player feedback suggested that we include the rivalries diagram that we used to help us write the game. So that’s been added.

Moving status rules to general rules: We had secret rules for managing the family status (all the families have a goal to maximise their status). I think it is more fun if the families can see how they can influence their status, so I’ve added them to the player rules.

Adding an introduction: I added an introduction, with the rules and notes about casting and the game timetable. I’m not expecting anyone to run the game as it is, but they can if they want to. I’ve also taken the opportunity to talk about things that could be developed further - should anyone want to.

Corrected some errors: I spotted a few errors as I went through the files. I’ve sorted those out as I’ve found them. No doubt there are still some in there.

Released it under a Creative Commons sharealike licence. This licence lets anyone publish and use Venice, providing that a) anything they do is attributed back to the original authors, and b) anything that they further develop is also released under the same licence.

I’ve done this for a couple of reasons. One, I’d like to encourage others to amend Venice to suit their taste, and this licence seems a good way of promoting that. Two, it also allows Peaky Games to publish Venice, should they decide to do so.

What I haven’t done


And here’s what I haven’t done…

Rename the characters: The family names all suffer from a bit of Peaky-itis: the Corleones, Sopranos, Capones, Montagues and Capulets. They give the right idea (powerful families), but in my opinion only the last two really give the flavour of mythic Venice that we were aiming for. The character’s first names are a bit too modern for my liking, as well. But I haven’t changed them; they’ll do.

Adding characters or plots: I haven’t added any new plots or characters. That’s deliberate, even though I know that some characters are weaker than others. (That’s another advantage of splitting out the information sheets from the characters - it becomes really obvious who the weaker characters are.)

I do think it would be very easy to add more characters or plots, I just haven’t done it. That’s not the goal of this exercise.

So how long did it all take?


I kept track of time and I reckon it took me about eight hours to do all this.

It may not be perfect, but I’m pretty sure even with no further development Venice will entertain 15 players for about 2.5 hours, which isn’t bad return on effort.

What next?


I’m quite happy at how this has turned out.

I now want to run Venice again at some point, to see how my changes to the introduction impact on play.

And given that it didn’t take me that long to do, I’m sure it won’t be long before I give the same treatment to another Peaky freeform.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Peaky 2016

Peaky is the annual freeform (larp) writing weekend held in April in Derbyshire. It is organised by Peaky Games. Games are written on Friday evening and Saturday, and then played on the Sunday. It's been going since 2001 and is my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

From what I saw, and judging from the very subjective measures of "energy in the room" and "post-game frothing,” ReGenesis looked to me as if it would be heading the pack if we had a "Best Peaky Game of 2016" award. (We don't.)

Obviously I'm biased as I was on the writing team for ReGenesis. (And two of the games I only heard about, so I could be doing them a huge disservice.)

AIs learning who they are in ReGenesis

But, for me, Peaky 2016 was also very disatisfying, and for at least two reasons.

But before I get to those, here are some thoughts on the games I played.

Trenches was written by Ben Allen, Alli Mawhinney, Ric Mawhinney, Rich Perry and is set in a trench in the grim universe of Warhammer 40K, on the eve of "the big push", a probably suicidal charge to capture an enemy stronghold. It mashes Blackadder Goes Forth with Warhammer 40K.

I played Corporal Booker, one of the unfortunate squaddies. We had a clueless commander, a scary psyker, a political officer and a whole bunch of grunts. It was dark and intense, and we filled it with gallows humour. Unsurprisingly, it didn't have a happy ending. Some died, and those who lived had an uncertain future.

Personally, I don't think it needs much more than a light edit (to make sure those unfamiliar with the background aren't left floundering). It will never appeal to everyone, but as a dark antidote to all those other cheerier freeforms, it's ideal.

Miss Maypole and the Case of the Wretched Admiral was written by Graham Arnold, Nickey Barnard, Natalie Curd, Clare Gardner, Abi Kirby, Sue Lee. Set in the same world as the 2010 Peaky game (Miss Maypole and the Christmas Pudding Affair), this game involved a 1934 Scottish country house, a dead body, mysterious rituals, a nearby Naval base and other mysteries.

I played a school physical exercise teacher who is coaching an ex-pupil to become an Olympian. I ran out of plot relevant to my character fairly quickly and gravitated to whatever interested me. I had a nice enough time though and with a bit of development it will be a fine ‘traditional’ freeform.

My biggest issue with the game came in the debrief, when the main plot that I thought was going on, the murder, turned out not to be a murder at all. (I felt not having a murder was a bit of an omission when the whole game is set up to feel like a Miss Marple murder mystery.) But it's only the first draft, and maybe they'll put a murder in. I would.

ReGenesis


So, ReGenesis. ReGenesis was written by Theo Clarke, Tony Mitton, Tym Norris, Mike Snowden, Karolina Soltys, and me.

It concerns four scientists working on developing six humanoid AIs in an isolated Finnish complex. The four scientists have slightly different agendas, while the AIs are discovering their place in the world and learning emotions and skills... What could go wrong?

A combination of me being very tired on Friday evening (by about 9pm most of my energy was spent) and organising the Sunday game timetable (plenty of that below) meant that I didn't always fully understand where we were going with the game, and drifted in and out. (The game was inspired by Ex Machina, which I've not seen, so that didn't help either.)

Hard at work writing ReGenesis

I think my input was some proofreading of the scientist characters, a few paragraphs of text about what the scientists knew about each other, and I wrote the mechanics for the AIs learning new skills.

So although ReGenesis appeared to be a resounding success, I didn't contribute as much as I would have liked.

And it certainly wasn't perfect: our biggest problem was that the poor scientists had a multi-page character booklet to absorb and didn't have anywhere near long enough to absorb it. In an ideal world they would have had a 20 minute head start on the AIs, but that's not something we were able to give them. (We hadn't recognised beforehand that it would be necessary.)

We also have a naming issue. ReGenesis is also the name of another larp. We'll change the name of ours if we ever do anything with it. (And I’ve just learned that it’s the title of a tv series. Welrd.)

The Sunday Game Timetable


My other challenge was Sunday's game timetable.

At one point, it looked as if everything was going to be just perfect for Sunday. We appeared to have games of the right size, and enough players that everything would just slot together nicely.

Oh, how I was wrong...

Peaky had 29 attendees this year. Experience has told us to keep writing groups to no more than five or six writers (in general), and with 29 that results in five groups of five, and a group of four. (We don't always stick with this, but it's a good rule of thumb.)

Assuming that all the writers are available to play (and also want to see the game they've written being run), then that means that they will typically have about nine or ten players from the other groups available to them. If they need more players, it's up to them to source them (we usually do this by having the writers play characters).

Organising the game timetable means juggling the needs of the writers (in terms of needing players for their games) and the available players. The two don't always match.

This year, my first iteration was pretty good. Everybody would be happy - there were players enough for everyone.

And then I went to share the timetable, only to learn that five players were leaving mid-afternoon, which meant that there were only 24 people for the last slot of the day. I reshuffled the timetable and re-ran the casting, and inevitably one of the games now in the last slot did not have enough players. Unfortunately, they couldn't make up numbers from their writers, and they weren't able to drop characters at that stage (about 9pm Saturday).

We ended up with a compromise. By taking 15 minutes from lunch, the previous games, and the comfort breaks between games, we created a fourth slot and only finish an hour later than normal. This wasn't ideal - the day was even more rushed than it usually is and I think all the games could have done with longer, both during them and in the breaks.

So all this took several hours to figure out on Saturday, made me grumpy, and took me away from writing and preparing ReGenesis.


What I've learned


So here’s what I’ve learned.

A more robust process. I'm going to think more about the process of organising Sunday. It will always involve judgement and seat-of-the-pants organisation, but I really suffered this year by not having all the information I needed. So I have set up an Excel file to remind me to capture everything. (And I'm doing it now while it is fresh in my mind!)

I'm not expecting this to solve all the problems, but I want to be able to identify them early so that we can discuss them in good time.

A slicker process should mean that I spend less time firefighting and more time writing.

Visual management: I sorted out the changed running times first thing Sunday morning, and wrote it all up on a flipchart and taped that to the wall. I found it very useful, so I will do that again.

Be popular or be flexible! And when I'm writing a freeform, it needs to either be popular (which means writing a compelling description that appeals to those present) or flexible (to manage variable player numbers). Or ideally, popular and flexible.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Icerigger

Icerigger by Alan Dean Foster

Nearly 40 years ago, I discovered science fiction. I discovered it through the Star Wars novelization in the summer of 1977, and I must have read it four or five times before I saw the film itself. Shortly after, I came across Alan Dean Foster's Bloodhype in the occasional school bookshop. That was my first entry into the Humanx/Commonwealth universe. Although Bloodhype isn't the easiest of reads, I was hooked.

(It was years later that I discovered that the Star Wars novelization had been ghost written by ADF.)

I guess I read Icerigger a year or so later, and I'm sure I've read it since then, but I'm sure it's been at least 25 years since I last read it. We've been clearing out junk, and I came across Icerigger and thought that before I pass it on I ought to re-read it.

Icerigger follows a half dozen humans castaway on the icy planet of Tran-ky-ky. There they encounter the primitive Tran, fight off a vast horde, encounter enormous whale slugs, build an enormous clipper-style ice ship (the Slanderscree, the icerigger of the title), and eventually make their way back to civilisation.

It's harder to read than I remember. ADF's writing style is slightly archaic, and scattered with obscure terms that I occasionally need to loo up (or more likely, just ignore). These days I wouldn't normally have the time for it - I don't like having to struggle over the writing style. The plot isn't earth-shattering, but I really like ADF's Humanx universe: aliens, mysteries, and larger-than-life characters.

The plot uses a lot of standard ADF tropes:

  • Intriguing aliens, evolved for their environments (in this case the Tran, whose claws evolved into skates and have a wing membrane that allows them to skate across Tran-ky-ky's ice). If I had a criticism of the Tran (and other ADF aliens), its that they aren't very alien - but there are few SF authors that truly manage that.
  • Immense, indestructable creatures (stavanzers, a sort of jet-propelled whale-slug). These are sometimes used as a weapon by our heroes as a weapon against another unstoppable foe (in this case against the Horde, in Midworld, one column of Akadi is used against another).
  • A journey, peppered with encounters (a lot of ADF's novels work like this - it's perhaps most obvious in the Spellsinger series).

As far as gender equality goes, Icerigger is a product of its time. There are three named female characters in the entire book - and none of them are particularly strong or have significant presence. If Icerigger was a movie, it would fail the Bechdel test.

Science fiction often underestimates advances in computing power, but this isn't an obvious flaw with Icerigger. After the first few pages, our heroes are stranded and spend their time with the primitive Tran, so I didn't miss the lack of processing power.

My copy of Icerigger was published by New England Library (NEL) in 1976 and features a cover by Tim White. One thing I really liked about NEL's treatment of the ADF novels was their consistent presentation: they used the same font and general cover design, and most of them had Tim White covers.

I enjoyed reading Icerigger again. I was initially frustrated with the way it was written, but I soon overlooked that as I became caught up in the plot. When I first picked it up, I thought it unlikely that I would enjoy it enough to read the sequels (Mission to Moulokin and The Deluge Drivers), but I'm pretty sure I will be reading them soon.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Creating a freeform economy

A good freeform economy will create tension and conflict amongst the players. A careful balance of demand and supply should ensure that there isn’t quite enough money to go around – and that in itself can drive characters and plot through a game. However, creating a good game economy is not as simple as just adding money...

There is no need to include money in a game if nobody has anything to spend it on. Just collecting money for money’s sake isn't a particularly worthwhile goal for anyone – even in the real world people accumulate money because they want to buy things. So if your game doesn’t need money, don’t include it.

If you’re not sure whether your game needs money, here’s a few that do and don’t:
  • Hollywood Lies – money is needed to pay off blackmailers, finance movies, pay for scripts, etc.
  • Death on the Gambia – money is needed for airline tickets out of Gambia, pay off debts, bribe policemen, etc.
  • Death in the Fast Lane – money isn't needed in Death in the Fast Lane as contracts are more important (in the game at least) than the actual exchange of money. So Death in the Fast Lane doesn’t include money. (Note Death in the Fast Lane is no longer published by Freeform Games.)
So assuming that a game has a need for money, here’s a simple way of working out how much you need.

In a spreadsheet create a table with three columns. In the first column enter the name of someone who needs money, in the second enter the details of why they want it, and in the third enter the amount they want. So it might look a bit like this.


Bob Pay off gambling debts£5,000
Sheila Get a ticket out of here £1,000
Tina Raise money to invest in business £3,000

(In general it’s important that the figures are in the same ballpark so that everyone can trade equally with one another. If someone is much richer than other characters, it can cause problems with the game balance.)

Then you need to create a table for the supply. This time you are including all the money that the characters are starting with – along with any other sources of income.

(Other sources of income might be, for example, prize money in a competition or buried treasure.)

Marge £1,000
1st Prize Snail Race £3,000
2nd Prize Snail Race £1,000

The important issue is to ensure that the demand is less than the supply. That means that although in theory everyone could end up with the money they need, it’s more likely that there will be winners and losers at the end of the game. That means that the players will be negotiating and bargaining with each other to try and achieve their goals, which is what I’m looking for.

In general, I try to aim to have a demand that is about 20%-50% higher than the supply – although there’s inevitably some judgement involved in that figure. Ultimately, the only way to find out if you’ve got the demand/supply ratio correct is to test the game.

Other things to watch:

  • Rich characters should generally be looking to spend their money, and poor characters should generally have things (items, information or skills) that other people want.
  • Don’t create a character who is so rich that they can solve all of their problems by paying for them.
  • In historical games, you may need to explain some typical prices so that everyone knows what money is worth.
  • Be wary of having things that are so expensive that they unbalance the game. There’s nothing wrong with having them, just be careful of the effect they can have on a game economy.