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.