Tuesday, 28 February 2012

I don't have any answers

I'm not sure what spurred him on to writing it, but Zak S has a great post up on women in gaming. Go and read it.

Anyway, it got me thinking about discrimination law and gaming. There is a lot of discourse amongst both economists and lawyers on the value of anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation and what real effects it has. I've heard the argument made by those of the pro-market persuasion that ultimately discrimination law doesn't have a great deal of an effect beyond what can be achieved by the market: if you as an employer deliberately restrict your own access to huge pools of potential talent because you are sexist, racist or homophonic, you will pretty much by definition end up losing out to other employers who don't restrict themselves and will thus have more talent to draw on. Ultimately you will have to rethink your attitudes if you wish to remain competitive. This fact, coupled with the financial implications of regulation, make discrimination law at best irrelevant and at worst a net negative.

Whether or not this is true is by-the-by (it presupposes that all employers will not adopt discriminatory hiring practices, and it also presupposes that you could possibly hold enough other factors constant to be able to discover whether it was true), it's an interesting thought. Think about the RPG industry, such as it is: the people who are traditionally less participatory in RPGs (women, but also non-nerdish men, older people in general, people from certain ethnic minorities within the Western world, and members of the non-English-speaking world to a certain degree) are a huge and largely untapped pool of game-creating talent. Are we persuaded that game systems, gaming movements, or gaming companies which, for whatever reason, appeal to this largely untapped pool, are more likely to succeed in the long run than those that do not? Will we see a Darwinian process by which those systems/movements/companies which tend to remain the province of the nerdish male decline in comparison with those which extend beyond it?

[NB: I'm not saying anything about actual discrimination in the gaming industry here. When I compare those systems/companies which appeal to wider audiences to those which appeal mostly to nerdish men, I'm not talking about anything purposive - I'm talking about the way things appear on a prima facie level.]

I don't think it's a clear-cut case, because I think it's possible to construct the argument that the RPG industry is about niche marketing, and systems/movements/companies which either identify a certain niche or come to be associated with a certain niche can achieve greater success than those intended to have broader cross-market appeal. 

Anyway, discuss. What are you looking at me for? I don't have any answers.

Microscope Dungeon Creation

For people who mostly play "trad" games, the immediately obvious use for Microscope is to spend a session or three creating a setting and history, both GM and players together, and then using that setting as the backdrop for 'ordinary' games of D&D, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulu, or whatever. This sort of thing is apparently already going on, all over the place, and lends itself to 'troupe play' with rotating GM-ships and adventuring parties, a la Ars Magica.

Now I learn that it's being taken a step further and people are creating dungeon histories using Microscope. To which I can only say, "Cool, or what?" ("What" is the wrong answer. "Cool" is the correct one.) I wouldn't want to do it all the time, because let's face it, discovering the history of a dungeon (that the DM has come up with by himself, in a darkened room) is part of the joy of dungeoneering Old School Style. But certainly I think there's room for it in the kind of 'troupe play' I mentioned above. This would see the dungeon as being, basically, a shared world, which people could GM and run games in on a casual basis.

The USP, of course, is that you know the broad sweep of the dungeon's history, so you could have different adventuring parties exploring it at different points in the timeline. You could even have groups of adventurers discovering things the aftermath of previous forays by other adventuring groups from decades or centuries earlier. To which I also can only say, "Cool, or what?"

Monday, 27 February 2012

Vancian Detachment

I've written before in this blog about how much work and pressure gets put on the GM if everybody has unrealistic expectations of an RPG campaign being a 'story', and if everybody expects the GM's role to be about providing the players with 'fun'. That way lies a madness of scripted encounters, fretting over 'plot' contrivances, and obsession with balance.

I think here that "Vancianism" has been underplayed. People talk a great deal about "Vancian magic" in early D&D, failing to realise that Vance's influence is far more to do with mood and feel than it is about mechanics. I'm currently in the process of reading The Complete Lyonesse, and something I've noticed is that, like with the Dying Earth books, the feeling of emotional detachment from the plot allows you to put the thing down for a week or more without losing momentum, or your interest. (It is this which allows me to read other books alongside it.) The pleasure of reading Vance, I think, is different to the pleasure of reading most modern novels - fantasy or otherwise. It doesn't come from a strong emotional engagement in the characters and what they are doing. It comes from the strange people and locations, the wonderful dialogue, the remarkable efficiency of style and exposition, and the clarity of his vision. It's the opposite of what we think of as a 'page-turner' - you want it to last as long as possible, and the reading actually benefits from taking place in small chunks dispersed across days or weeks, letting you digest it and ruminate over it little by little. Here, the characters, the story, and the narrative are almost secondary to the other pleasures.

In other words, where other novels require a level of emotional investment in the characters and their story, which by turn requires you to read more-or-less every day to keep up momentum and remain part of things, Vance needs almost the opposite.

This is how I feel traditional D&D works, in comparison to the mainstream of modern games. While what the characters are doing in trad D&D is, of course, a big part of what goes on at the table, it feels less like the be-all and end-all than it does as a framing device for a lot of other things - strange people, locations, monsters and ideas; puzzle-solving; lateral thinking; exercising creativity; and, frankly, laughing at the awful mishaps that befall the protagonists at every turn. Rather than being about the characters, it feels more like it is about the players, the world, and the game, with the characters being merely the framework on which it all hangs.

This has far more in common with the atmosphere in Vance than it does in just about any author working in fantasy - probably, in any genre. And this is no doubt why it all feels very un-pressured in comparison with the mainstream vision which I outlined at the start of this post. In the same way that you can dip in-and-out of Vance, because it isn't predicated on emotional investment, you can take trad D&D as it comes, without it having to be wonderfully climactic and narratively important every single session.

This also means that you can dip in and out of trad D&D very easily. You don't need to play the same characters each week - you don't even need to play the same group each week. It also means you can alternate players, West Marches and Flailsnails style, extremely easily.

Of course, this isn't limited to traditional D&D. My campaigns veer this way almost regardless of system, but there are certain other games which lend themselves to Vancian Detachment - including Call of Cthulu (the mood is more important than the PCs, who are disposable and who go mad or get eaten by Shub-Niggurath almost constantly), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (ditto), and Rolemaster (roll dice, consult table, see how many arms your PC loses in the round). I wonder if it's any accident that these are probably still among the most popular systems being used today.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

[Inspirational Pictures VII]

Naoki Ishikawa's work combines beauty with melancholy and undertones of the purely sinister.

Ghosts of wilderbeast in the dusk. Do they want you to follow?

A path to God knows where, between trees hiding God knows what. 

Abandoned ships, like those at Moynaq. Full of forgotten, decaying cargos. And inhabitants new and old. 

You don't want to go down this path. And yet you must.

Statues of monks at a forgotten monastery. As you passed, you could have sworn you felt one turn its head to watch you. 

(Last Ishikawa-esque picture is by Sukree Sukplang of Reuters.)

Friday, 24 February 2012

High Concept: The Cassandra Syndrome

A random hipster story-game idea that came to me on the way home from work: The player-characters are Cassandra-esque figures, cursed to know the future but unable to convince anybody that they do. Every so often the GM randomly generates a future scenario for a randomly determined player-character - "Your wife dies in a car crash"; "The woman who lives next door to you gets murdered"; "An earthquake strikes" - and the players can do whatever they want with that information except convince any NPC that they are telling anything but lies.

Hell Yes

L'Ange du Foyer, by Max Ernst.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

On My Bookshelf

Are the following unread books:

  • On, by Adam Roberts.
  • Swiftly, by Adam Roberts. 
  • Embassytown, by China Mieville (both this and Swiftly are signed copies I got at Q&A/readings events at my local Waterstone's last summer, organised by a guy I play Call of Cthulu with on an irregular basis).
  • House of Chains, by Steven Erikson, which is half-read; one of those rare occasions I started a book and couldn't bear finishing it.
  • Acacia, by David Anthony Durham... which, I dunno, I bought because I suppose I thought it looked interesting - but obviously not interesting enough to actually sit down and read.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis.
  • Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra, which I've tried reading three times and never got past the first few chapters.
  • The Behaviour of Moths, by Poppy Adams - I try to make a point of not reading anything written by anybody called 'Poppy', so I don't really have any idea where this one has come from, but there it is, anyway.
From which we can only conclude that my pace of book-buying is not commensurate with my pace of book-reading.

I happen to be coming to the end of my most recent purchase (The Dervish House), so let's hear it: which of these unread books should I read next?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Citadel Combat Cards; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gutlagg the Ogre Shaman

When I was a kid my friends and I went through a period of playing the original series of Citadel Combat Cards. These were, essentially, a species of Top Trump made, as the name suggest, by Citadel Miniatures. They sprang unbidden into my mind while reading Jeff's latest entry, which had me recollecting my 11-year-old Warhammer-playing self; I hadn't so much as thought about them in years.

The concept behind the cards was simple. You deal out the cards between the players and each player takes it in turns to call out an ability from the card at the top of his hand (say, "Strength 10"). The other players have to compare the card at the top of their hand with this. The card with the highest score in that abililty "wins" and the others "die", being cast aside. The game ends when there is only one player left with any cards.

My best friend at the time had two brothers, and the four of us spent an inordinate amount of time playing Citadel Combat Cards. I'm not sure where we got the decks from, but we had 5 - Monsters, Chaos, Warriors, Space War, and Goblinoids - which we mixed together in one super-deck; it felt like games could go on for hours (especially if you played it like Top Trumps, where the winning card "captures" the losing cards each turn, allowing them to be re-used).

It turns out that somebody has posted slideshows of all the decks on youtube: Chaos, Goblinoids, Monsters, Dwarfs, Warriors, and Space War. Looking at them, it seems there was an entire subset of rules that we never used - underneath each picture you see sigils containing things like a bow and arrow, an explosion, fangs, and so on. Presumably these had some sort of meaning which we piledrived away.

The thing I most notice about the cards now is the names. There's a real charm in things like "Gutlagg the Ogre Shaman", "Zoat the Forest Guardian", "Klaus Half-man, Mutant Thug", "Drakarth the Ravening: Mutant Spawn of Chaos", "Narx the Whiner, Goblin Musician", and "Fungus the Snotling Brave". When did Games Workship and Citadel Miniatures products get so bland?

Parachuting from a Plane while DJ-ing

The set-up: the players in my Cyberpunk: 2020 campaign owe Gazprom £20,000, which has to be paid back in two weeks (this is because they got into a fire-fight and had to pull strings to get Gazprom to airlift them from danger). They're also being pursued by a nefarious and as-yet unidentified organisation, who might be connected to a security firm whose employees they killed "in the course of their investigations". They are also under suspicion from the police for the abduction and murder of a high-class call girl, with some justification. Meanwhile, they are trying to think up a way to get £200,000-worth of heroin from a cottage outside Douglas, on the Isle of Mann, to Liverpool, without being detected by the authorities, in exchange for 10% of the cut, for a Cameroonian pentecostal church leader-cum-drug baron.

Their plan? To parachute the drugs into an inner-city park. Under the auspices of a 24-hour charity gig performed by the rockerboy character (an East German DJ), the climax of which will see him parachuting with his turntables (containing the heroin) from a plane flown from Douglas to Liverpool, while continuously DJing. The theory being that, if you want something hidden, you should hide it in plain sight.

This is why I play role playing games. You never, ever know what you're going to get until everybody sits down at the table and starts play. 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Continuum: Bleary Friday Afternoon Thoughts

Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet was, for a long time, a bit of an obsession of mine. Well, when I say it was "a bit of an obsession", I suppose that implies that I was actually playing it. I wasn't. In fact, I've never owned a copy, and I've never even read it. And, since used copies start at US$325 on amazon, I'm unlikely ever to do so - at least legally.

I wanted to, though. Reading through the scattered resources that are available now on the internet, the game itself feels like some sort of lost artefact, some Necronomicum from a distant past, knowable only through vague and unconfirmed rumour. What strange property of the internet is it, that makes cultural items from recent history feel so ancient? Continuum was released in around 1998, but it almost feels as if it was created in 1498 for all the information you can get your hands on about it nowadays. (Old geocities sites have this same quality. But I digress.)

Anyway, some combination of factors made the game compelling to me. Part of it is the mysterious artwork, which really doesn't look what you would think of when somebody says to you "It's a game about time travel". Part of it is the assumption that time travellers would ultimately create their own societies and culture, which is something that I think is genuinely unique. Part of it is all the talk of time-travel combat: trying to "frag" your opponent by making him cease to exist due to historical discrepancy. And undoubtedly, a large part of the attraction was the air of enigma surrounding this apparently excellent but impossible-to-possess gaming grimoire.

Now I'm less interested in some aspects of the game, because reading through the Wikipedia article makes it sound in retrospect like its core assumptions would make it fall prey to that problem which Zak S once wrote an entry about that I can't find: it seems to assume that players are supposed to be the "good guys" who go about reparing problems in time - which seems like a recipe for GM-led railroading if ever there was one ("Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to solve problem X").

But Narcissist on the other hand, is something I could really get behind. Tell me you don't like the idea of this:

NªRCISSIST:Crash Free is the roleplaying game of alternating histories– Players take the roles of crashers, people who have discovered the means to traverse the multiverse, tweaking timelines and triggering gates in pursuit of their best destinies.
NªRCISSIST is the long-awaited sequel roleplaying game to CºNTINUUM.
Appearing only briefly as a pre-release in 1999 and 2000, the game was originally envisioned as a way of playing the opponents of the Continuum, weaker and more vulnerable at first, but with the chance to escape the Continuum's "clutches" and see other worlds.
But in many playtests extending over the last six years, NªRCISSIST itself has changed and evolved into a game of exploration, of success and loss, and of transdimensional intrigue. A new, completely revised edition of a NªRCISSIST pre-release, based on half a decade of notes, is planned for 2008.
Barring any unforseen changes, that is.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Microscope in Play

Last week I recommended Microscope on the basis of downloading and reading it. Today I can recommend it on the basis of playing it. A friend and I sat down for a couple of hours and gave it a run through, and enjoyed the experience.

A caveat: there were only two of us, and though the game works with two, you really need more than that for it to run properly. But in spite of that I felt that it came together surprisingly well: initial awkwardness about what to do during a "scene" - which is basically like free-form role-playing within a certain structure - quickly faded and we got into the swing of things very easily. The history we created charts the life time of a city, from founding to dissolution, and encapsulates a Mantis God, ab-humans, anti-daylight, Big Fuck-off Pterodactyls (BFPs), and street wars between merchant guilds. We filled out bits of it in detail, skirted over others, and left huge swathes unexplored.

I wouldn't call Microscope a role playing game. I'm not even really sure I would call it a game. (Not that it particularly matters.) It's more a set of tools for structured brainstorming: a means by which you focus your creativity like a lens on different subjects at a time and make them grow. And it is quite potent stuff. Properly guided, a group of people can come up all kinds of crazy and wonderful nonsense within a surprisingly short space of time.

This is why I think the potential criticism of Microscope - that you might as well just sit round as a group and create whatever your want; why bother buying the game? - misses the point: structure, to a certain degree, is important. It stops you meandering, drowning in a sea of too much choice and freedom. Microscope gives you just the right amount of discipline, providing a framework in which group creativity can flourish.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Why Didn't I Think of this Before?

In reply to this comment, I got this perceptive observation:

I've generally found that most nonfiction books were published first as articles, and that the book contains no more content than the article did but takes ten times as long to read. I've also found that huge numbers of novels were published first as short stories, and that the novel contains no more content than the short story did but takes ten times as long to read. I think the fact that every piece of writing has to be packaged as a book-length product in order to make any money or achieve any sort of public profile is a terrible shame, and makes writing a lot less fun than it would otherwise be, and leads to us readers wasting an incredible amount of our finite lifespans.

Which I agree with, on balance. As life goes on I get less and less patient with novels, especially long ones. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but for every novel-length book I read that I think deserves a novel-length exploration, there are probably 5 that could be reduced to a long short story or, at best, a novella if you sheer off the fat. I imagine a machine whereby manuscripts are fed on a conveyor belt into some sort of cheese-grater device which simply shreds away the excess and sends it to be packaged as hamster-bedding or compressed into MDF. (There are also incredibly long novels that could be reduced to merely averagely-lengthy novels by the same process: I won't name names, but one recent example I can think of begins with "D" and ends with "ance of Dragons".)

Anyway, it got me thinking about RPG campaigns. I've always been very much a less-is-more sort of person when it comes to sessions. Between two and two-and-a-half hours is the sweet spot for me; any longer than that and my attention starts to wander. Brevity is the soul of good orc-killing.

(Incidentally, there is another reason for preferring short sessions, which I call - I've just decided - the Ben Bova Principle. This is based on a bit of writing advice by Ben Bova, who said that he always tries to finish a day's writing half-way through a sentence, with ideas yet to be written down. This is so the next day when he sits at the type-writer he immediately has something to write, and this gives him the momentum to continue. The Ben Bova Principle apples to RPG sessions too; if the players still have stuff they want to do at the end of a session, it means they'll immediately have something to do when they start the next session.)

When it comes to campaigns, however, I think that this doesn't really hold true. Lengthy campaigns, I'd say, are usually really worth their length - in that length can also mean depth. The longer a campaign goes on, the more stuff is generated, the more bonds are tied, and the more players become invested in what is happening. And the pay-offs are greater, especially in games like D&D, Pendragon and WFRP, where advancement is not just fun for its own sake but actually makes play even more interesting by offering more options.

Indeed, I'd probably invert my rule-of-thumb observation about novels: for every 5 long campaigns that are worth their length, there is 1 that isn't.

But this presents us with a problem, alluded to in the comment above: Our finite lifespans. I have so many ideas for different campaigns that I want to play, and I want to fit as many in as possible. How does one reconcile these two conflicting truths: that both lengthiness and variety are basically unqualified goods?

An obvious answer leaps to me off the computer screen: Two campaigns per session. By extending the length of a session to 4 hours, I can run two 2-hour sessions of different campaigns a night. Why didn't I think of this before?

Monday, 13 February 2012

Fighting Fantasy has so much to answer for

Back when the world was young, I wrote this entry, which, to summarise, tried to contrast British and American approaches to fantasy by comparing Warhammer with D&D:

I believe that in many ways Warhammer and D&D can be taken as representative of the cultures which created them. On the one hand you have a cynical, nasty, bleak and darkly humurous setting whose dominant idea is decay. And on the other you have a game basically founded on the principles of rugged individualism and self-betterment - in which a set of characters fight to success all on their own, without much in the way of a helping hand, or else die trying. In a strange sort of way, you don't get anything more representative of British values than Warhammer, nor anything more representative of American values than D&D.

You can see this in Fighting Fantasy too. And the tone is set by the artists who worked on it. By coincidence, Zak, here, and -C, here happened to put up posts with two of the most prominent of those guys over the last 24 hours or so. They are, respectively, John Blanche:

And Russ Nicholson:

I'm sure you can see the connection here and the kind of tone that I'm talking about.

This vein in Fighting Fantasy art was a huge influence on me as a kid, and I think it's influenced me ever since. To this day images like these have always struck a chord with me, and I think when I imagine stuff that appears in a fantasy RPG - goblins, dragons, trolls, whatever - the visions that appear in my mind always manifest as Blanche- or Nicholson-esque in tone: a little bit dark, a little bit grimy, a little bit weird, a little bit twisted.

I strongly believe that art has a big but not well-acknowledged influence on gaming style. The sort of work that Nicholson and Blanche deal in just lends itself to my type of game, being more interested in strange concepts and grim vignettes than heroics and grand themes. The sort of person who really responds to Nicholson's art, I think, is precisely the sort of person who is comfortable with save-or-die; the kind of person who appreciates the picture of the halfling being abducted by goblins probably also has an appreciation for the abstract, detached and uncaring universe envisaged by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or OD&D. If you like one you'll probably like the other.

Maybe this could be a test I could use if thinking about introducing somebody to one of my games. Instead of an extensive interview process, I could just hold up a picture like this:

If you like it you'll fit in. If not, move along, there's nothing for you here.

D&D as Operant Conditioning Chamber

So Zak S put up this post, which contains this gem of advice from the 4e DMG:

If none of the characters in your 6th level party uses a long bow, don't put a 10th level longbow in your dungeon as treasure. A great way to make sure you give players magic items they'll be excited about is to ask them for wish lists. At the start of each level, have each player write down a list of three to five items that they are intrigued by that are no more than four levels above their own level. You can choose treasure from those lists (making sure to place an item from a different character's list each time), crossing the items off as the characters find them. If characters don't find things on their lists, they can purchase or enchant them when they reach sufficient level. Each set of ten treasure parcels includes one less magic item than there are characters in the party. That's not meant to be unfair, just to make sure that characters gain magic items at a manageable rate. Make sure that over the course of several levels of adventuring, you award items evenly to all the char acters, so that over the course of, say, five levels, every character has acquired four useful and exciting items.

And I thought this was a nice bookend to what I was writing about just 7 days ago.

Having players write down wish lists and then giving them what they want is just one of the many faces of the Give-Your-Players-Orgasms school of GMing. It's precisely the opposite of what should be encouraged: which is players trying to get what they want within the game, facilitated by the GM, and thus being its engine. If one of your players wants some Special Snowflake magic item, he should be trying to find out where one could be obtained, and then going out and obtaining it, in-game. He shouldn't be saying "Pwetty pwease" to the GM and looking at him with wide, innocent brown eyes, and expecting to be rewarded for being a good little boy and going through the motions of beating up some orcs.

I likened the 4e approach to Farmville in the comments on Zak's post. I was mostly being facetious - I recognise that Farmville is infinitely worse in almost every respect. But it attracted this reply [from Zzarchov, who I'm sure won't mind me reprinting it here]:

When I play, if I player says "I would like a box of Arm & Hammer" I think I will strive to ensure they have a 4/5 chance of finding such a thing after an epic and evenly balanced quest.

Which is a joke, but sort of hits the nail on the head. The 4e DMG advice sounds altogether too much like a Skinner box: put the D&D player in the cage; have him perform an "epic and evenly balanced quest"; give him a food pellet. Why do we encourage, and accept, such a reductive approach?

If your player wants "Arm & Hammer", it's his job to go out and get it. He needs to ask the GM if he knows of anywhere that might have Arm & Hammer. He needs to have his PC go out and ask around, and see if he can find somebody who might know. He then needs to get off his arse and go and get it. Isn't it far more fun and interesting that way? Doesn't it engage the player so much more? Doesn't it force him to invest thought and energy into interacting with the game world in an interesting way?

The approach I'm advocating isn't supposed to be some sort of Iron Man, macho response to adolescent wish-fulfillment. That's not my point. My point is that if players are the engine for the game - if they decide on their own goals and then work to achieve them - it makes everything better. It is, frankly, the best way to run D&D. Instead of waiting for the orgasms and food pellets like good little rodents, going through the motions of what the GM has put in place - which is essentially a passive approach, what we surely want is active, proactive players making things easy for the GM, and genuinely getting interested in the setting, by working to achieve their own goals. Isn't it? It's not about being 'hard core'; it's about what works.

I sometimes think that, actually, the real reason why RPGs are in a downward slump is because of the prevalence of the assumption that the GM has to lead the players by the nose, rather than the other way round. That puts pressure on the GM and incentivises passivity on the part of the players. It just isn't as good that way.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Traffic Diversion

Sometimes you read things that you agree with so completely you feel as if somebody has peeked inside your own mind and just written it down - and yet they've managed to say it much more eloquently than you ever could. That's what I felt reading this old post.

If the 5th edition designers take anything on board from anywhere on the internet, I hope it's this.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

How I Run Sandboxes in the City, Part III: Appendix N

Here is a list of fictional and non-fictional resources I look to for inspiration in designing a city-based game setting, and when fleshing it out.

  • Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Before David Simon wrote The Wire, he wrote this masterpiece of nonfiction. Ostensibly the account of a year spent with the Baltimore Police Department's homicide squad, it is so much more than a 'true crime' book: it is almost a social novel, encompassing every area of Baltimore life, with a cast of hundreds and dozens of plots and subplots, very few of which get resolved. It's also stunningly well written, once you get used to its detached, objective tone. The perfect description of a modern, developed-world city seen from the belly up.
  • Ian McDonald's The Dervish House. Set over the course of a few days in Istanbul in 2027 AD, the city is as much a character as the people themselves in this novel: there are few books you'll read which more accurately capture the complex, random fabric of city life than this.
  • Uncaged: Faces of Sigil. 40 NPCs to use in a campaign set in Sigil. If the unimaginative folks at TSR could come up with Big List of 40 NPCs to start off a game with, then you can do it too.
  • Time Out city guides give a great sense of what a city is like - charting their history, geography and social characteristics, as well as providing lists and lists and lists of restaurants, clubs, bars, galleries, shops, etc. If you can take in the information through osmosis, you can then pull it out when you need something like it to appear in your game.
  • Detective/police procedural fiction often relies heavily on a strong sense of the city as a living, breathing place. They also have large casts of interesting characters, with tangled webs of interaction. Reading a lot of detective fiction gives you a genuine sense for how complex settings work, and how narrative (or, in our context, the game) emerges from the interactions between different elements within them. I highly recommend Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Copenhagen), the Inspector Rebus novels (Edinburgh) and Gorky Park (Moscow) in this respect.
  • Many people have read his feudal-Japan-set book, Shogun, but Noble House is James Clavell's real masterwork. Set in a week in Hong Kong, you get to see every facet of life in that great metropolis, from the bottom (maids and prostitutes) to the top (stock market traders, corporate executives). It's also impossible to put down, despite being 1200 pages long.
  • I should also include William Gibson's Bridge trilogy, which is in a way an imagined city par excellence (even if it's sort-of based in Oakland), and many of my notions of cyberpunk cityscapes in particular stem from it. 
  • And finally, of course, there is Perdido Street Station, which as a novel I don't particularly like, but as a setting I think is wonderful. Again, it's an imagined city par excellence, complete with subway map and sprawling suburbs: if you're going to come up with a fantasy city, this really ought to be one of your starting points when it comes to inspiration.

Friday, 10 February 2012

How I Run Sandboxes in the City, Part II: In Play

So I have the Big List of NPCs, the Random Mission Generator, the List of Organisations, and the Relationship Hexmap. This is the raw material from which the game emerges. It's important to keep this vision of "game as emergent" in mind when running any sandbox game, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Anyway, how does it work in play? Like anything, it needs a bit of work from the GM and a bit of work from the players.

The GM

The GM's job is to use the raw material to improvise. This is more than just rolling on the Random Mission Generator. It needs him to constantly think about what's going on throughout the city, what the various actors are doing, and what the consequences of the players' actions are. This could be as simple as "the players have robbed a bank so the police will be investigating" or as complicated as "the players have introduced £2,000,000 worth of heroin onto the street - how does that affect the state of play between the different drug gangs in the city?" The Big List of NPCs and the List of Organisations help with this, because they provide motives for the different actors which suggest how they will react.

The GM also needs to be good at improvising. The nature of a non-linear game is that it's surprising, and a city sandbox has fewer anchors than a traditional fantasy one: there is no hexmap and there are no random encounters (at least, not how I run it), two things which are natural fulcrums for a GM to riff on. And the players are not constrained by geography, if it's a modern or futuristic setting: they can travel freely and quickly, wherever they want. This means the GM needs to be on his toes all the time - the players could do decide to do anything at any moment, and he needs to be able to make stuff up on the fly in response.

The Big List of NPCs naturally helps, here. Perhaps the players decide they want to get their hands on some horse anaesthetic? Check the list of NPCs, find a vet. Turns out somebody who they know knows him. Bingo. But it also helps to let the players know that you're making stuff up. I'm never afraid to be obvious about the fact that I'm making something up on the spot. An example from tonight's game: my players went to a bar to try to meet a politician rumoured to drink there. I had no idea they were going to do this. I needed to make up prices for champagne, the names for the politician's friends and floozies, the name of the barman, and several other things. I was perfectly open about plucking names from thin air, and rolling a dice to see how many drinking companions the politician had. They know it's a game: you're not fooling anybody by pretending you have it all planned out.

The Players

Correspondingly, the players have a big role. They have to be active. I'm blessed with really good players in this regard. They have ideas. They brainstorm. They want to interact with the setting - to meet new people and make contacts, to move things forward, to act. They are an engine.

But their actions are also food for me as the GM. By going to that bar that I wasn't expecting to go to, I now have four new NPCs for the Big List of NPCs. And each of them has a motive, a reason for existing. More flesh is added to the setting, and who knows when one of these NPCs will become relevant again?

Players also have a tendency to take a "bull in a china shop" approach (I'm sure this holds true across every game group that ever existed). To put it simply, they fuck things up, in good and bad ways. And their actions also feed into the setting: they attract the attention of the police, they make enemies, they kill people, they fundamentally change the economy and the physical make-up of the city.

All of this is gold for the GM, and it becomes a self-perpetuating process: the more the players do, the more they flesh out the Big List of NPCs and the List of Organisations; and the more this happens, the more stuff there is for them to do. Over time, the setting becomes far more than the sum of its parts.

What this means is that, the longer you play, the less time it takes for the GM to prep. Things begin to take on a life of their own. The players act, and their actions have consequences, and those consequences force the players to act, and that results in more consequences... and so on and so on and so on like a snowball. While the time investment before play began was big (say 5 or 6 hours total), the GM now spends about 30 minutes a week preparing for the next session - just statting up anything that needs statting up, ruminating over what the different NPC actors might be doing behind the scenes, and book-keeping. If you're a busy person with work, family and a social life, it's a no-brainer: the prep-per-minute to hours-of-enjoyment ratio is hard to beat.

For the final post in the series, I'll list some of the things I use for inspiration when I'm making things up on - either in the planning/setup stage or on the fly during play.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

How I Run Sandboxes in the City, Part I: The Setup

Non-linear game play is not the preserve of fantasy gaming, and a sandbox does not require a hexmap. This sort of game can take place in any setting, in any genre. I'm running such a game at the moment: it's a totally non-linear, sandbox campaign of Cyberpunk 2020 set in Liverpool, or "Cyberpool" as it has come to be known.

It occurred to me recently to write a series of posts on how I've gone about running this, and here is the first: The Setup.

If you are a player in my game and would not like to see "behind the veil" and thus realise that I am in fact no Wizard of Oz but a mere conjuror, stop reading now.

In setting up Cyberpool, I sat down and created three things that I consider indispensable:
  • A big list of NPCs, each with a plot hook/motive attached.
  • A table for randomly generating missions/tasks/jobs, linked to the NPC list.
  • A list of "groups/institutions/gangs/organisations", similar to the NPC list.
Then, with the help of the players, I created the icing on the cake:
  • The relationship hexmap. 
Let's take a look at these in turn.

The Big List of NPCs

The Big List of NPCs exists in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. At the beginning it contained approximately 30 NPCs, each with a Name, a Profession, a Description, and a Motive. Every time the PCs encounter somebody in the game and have an interaction lasting longer than a few sentences, that NPC goes into the list. It's now 63 entries long. 

I think of this as being akin to the hexmap that you might draw when starting off a typical D&D-style sandbox campaign. Rather than having a number of hexes filled with adventuring locations, you have a web of NPCs who will, if you like, provide the stuff of adventure. 

The Random Mission Generator

This is a more complicated, bespoke version of the Mr Jones Mission Generator. It is 20 entries long. I can roll on it at any time, and instantly come up with a link between two NPCs (if, for instance, I come up with "A pimp" "needs to" "kill" "a local businessman" I can within 10 seconds find that pimp and businessman on the Big List of NPCs and create a link between them. It's then a matter of a few more minutes' thought to come up with a backstory for the pair and why the former wants to kill the latter, drawing on their different motives and descriptions). Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I create a new NPC for one of the results and add him/her to the Big List of NPCs.

This is what you draw on when the PCs go out looking for work. If they know some of these NPCs, then work might come looking for them.

The List of Organisations

This is similar to the Big List of NPCs. It's a collection of organisations present in the city, each with a Name, Type, and Description. Sometimes the Random Mission Generator generates results that necessitate referring to this list - other times I use the list when I need to elaborate on the backstory for NPCs.

The Relationship Hexmap

This is the final piece of the puzzle. In our first "chargen" session, I sat down with the players and we created a web of relationships for the PCs and the people they know. Cyberpunk 2020 has a character generation system which by necessity gives each starting PC a certain number of acquaintances (teachers, friends, enemies, family members, ex-lovers, etc.). We put the names of the PCs in the middle of a sheet of hexes, one name to a hex. We then started adding acquaintances in neighbouring hexes, again at one name to a hex. If two names came to neighbour each other, it meant the two people concerned know each other for some reason, which we noted down. 

We also write down the names of other NPCs who emerge during play on this hexmap who are in some way "allied to" or at least in cahoots with this core group of PCs and their acquaintances. These, of course, also go in the Big List of NPCs. The Relationship Hexmap now looks like this:

Which might be a bit confusing to you, but does the job.

These are the basic tools from which the game emerges. The next post will look at how I use them in play.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Some Recommendations

I don't generally do reviews (mainly because nobody sends me game to review...), but I have two games to recommend:

First, I've been reading me some Microscope the last few days. It's one of very few gaming purchases I've made in recent years, and well worth it - I wouldn't call it an RPG, by any means, more a "cooperative creative endeavour", or something, but it's undoubtedly one of the most interesting games I've laid my hands on. Go buy it. It's cheap. And if you need a further recommendation, the creator was a guy who wrote something you have probably heard of.

Second, I've also been reading me some Adventurer Conqueror King the last few days too. As a genuine attempt to expand OD&D's "end game" into something interesting in its own right, I think it would be hard to better; and furthermore, as an application of real-world economics, history and sociology in playable form I think it's beyond reproach. I'm not a huge fan of some of the modernising elements when it comes to character creation and game mechanics, but that's a matter of taste. It's certainly the best thing since Birthright at answering the question: "What do I do with all these gold pieces now?"

Try them. You might like them.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Further You Get from the Sun

I've recently discovered a podcast called The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, which I can't recommend highly enough. With reasonably lengthy interviews with the likes of William Gibson, George R. R. Martin, Richard Dawkins, Simon Pegg, Neal Stephenson, and Chuck Palahniuk, and always-thoughtful-and-entertaining discussions on topics as varied as "Africa in Fantasy & Science Fiction", "Satan", and "Dungeons & Dragons", it's pretty much guaranteed to appeal to readers of this blog.

I'm slowly working my way through their back catalogue, and tonight ended up listening to to this episode. Once you get past the Catherynne M. Valante bit (which I confess did not particularly interest me; if there is one criticism of the show I would make, it's that there are too many interviews with Young Adult Urban Fantasy We're All Faeries in the City-type writers, who are not to my taste) the discussion moves on to the topic of "pulp era Venus and Mars". One of the presenters makes the interesting point that, to pulp writers, it was as if the further one got from the sun, the more ancient, advanced, and decadent things became. Venus, close to the sun, was a world of dinosaurs, oceans, and primordial wonder. Mars, far from the sun, was a place of antique, decaying civilizations almost given over to barbarity and scattered with ruins and remnants of forgotten societies.

This got me thinking: what if you were to take this further and expand it to include all the 9 planets for a solar system-spanning Sword & Planet setting? (If you feel yourself about to butt in along the lines that Pluto is no longer a planet - go to the nearest mirror and take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself whether you have made all the correct life choices.)

If the further you get from the sun, the older things get, Mercury would be the most primordial place of all, right? I picture it as a world of magic, thaumaturgy, elementals, and spiritual entities who are barely distinguishable from the stuff from which the universe is created - the phlogiston, if you will.

On Pluto there would naturally be nothing left alive, but deep, deep below the ice which covered it there would be buried the ruins of impossibly old cities with forgotten technologies.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are where it gets harder. But you get the idea. What do you want, something coherent on a Sunday night at 8pm?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

You are responsible for your own orgasm

There's a daily free newspaper here in the UK called Metro, which appears on buses and trains in the early hours of the morning in time for the morning commuters. When you get on your morning train to the office you're greeted with a scene like the aftermath of a gun battle - Metro are scattered hither and thither, strewn at random, like corpses littering a battlefield. (If you like your "going to work = going to war" metaphores, I suppose you would see this as making a cosmic sort of sense.)

Anyway, the Metro has a weekly sex advice column, which I always read. (Don't pretend you wouldn't.) The letters people write run the entire gamut from the boring ("I'm 26 and my girlfriend is 34, and I'm worried she's more experienced than me") to the stupid ("I can't figure out which hole to put it in") to the amusing ("I'm in love with my boyfriend's grandfather"), so you get quite a smorgasbard of advice being given by the collection of Agony Aunts on the payroll, but one thing I've noticed them say quite often is "You are responsible for your own orgasm". This seems to be a Sex Counsellor AphorismTM of sorts.

I think, as advice/aphorism goes, the statement is pretty idiotic stuff. But it works for role playing games, if you replace the word "orgasm" with the word "role within the game".

I'll explain further.

This morning I was moseying about on my feed reader and found a link to this blog. I've never read it before, but it appears to deal, in part, with role playing games. The title of the post in question is "How to Run a Successful RPG: Some Tips", which naturally caught my attention, given my recent spate of posts related to this topic. Anyway, it's all very well-intentioned stuff, but in my view it is fundamentally wrong - but wrong in that interesting way that things can be wrong, when they reveal something that is taken for granted but is horrendously damaging if you think about it for even a second.

The wrong bits are:
Make Sure Each Player Will Have Something To Do.  
Some of the most frustrating games I’ve been in were where I told the GM, “I want to play a sniper,” and all of the combat turned out to be in hallways, leaving all my skills to atrophy.
As a GM, I’d be loathe to let someone play a sniper – it’s the kind of role that invariably involves splitting the party, and it’s hard (not impossible, just hard) to come up with consistently interesting combat challenges for someone who works best from half a mile off.  But if you’re going to tell someone, “Okay, put all of your points into ranged attacks and a weapon with a slow reload skill,” then you owe it to them to put them in a situation where they’re often going to be useful.
It’s way better to veto a player’s choice than to get them all jazzed up for playing a ninja, only to discover this isn’t really a stealth game.  If you give someone a skill, make sure they have regular opportunities to use it.
Now, maybe you can see where I'm going with the post title. Why is it that we, as a hobby, seem to think that it is the GM who is responsible for making sure each player will have something to do? Why is it that, if we assume that the players at the table are relatively reasonable adults, the players don't bear any sort of responsibility for making sure they themselves have something to do? In other words: Why do we think the GM is the one who has to give the players orgasms?

My response to the "make sure each player will have something to do" advice is as follows: "Make sure the players understand that they are free to choose whatever character type they like, and that they have the freedom to go with it, and from there on they're on their own."

If you have a player who insists on playing a sniper, then it's his responsibility to be a sniper. It's his character's special skillset, so he should be playing with that in mind. If all combat is turning out to be in hallways, what the fuck is he doing? Why isn't he engineering it so that all his combats turn out to be in the middle of a huge meadow, except he's the one who's in a tree? Why is the GM the engine of his fun/success, and why isn't he thinking creatively and gaming in such a way that he can use his special snowflake character to do what he does best?

It's the same with playing a ninja "only to discover it isn't really a stealth game". Who says it isn't a stealth game? If one of the players is being a ninja, he should be making it a stealth game. He should be making his part of the game, his role within it, about being a ninja. He shouldn't be sitting around with his thumb up his arse whining because the GM hasn't designed an entire game to service his every little whim. Unless he's 8 years old, in which case he's forgiven.

You are an adult. You are responsible for your own orgasm. Not the GM.

What this piece of advice reveals about the hobby, of course, is that too many people still persist in seeing RPG play as linear. The GM thinks of a scenario that he believes will be fun, with a beginning, middle and end, and the players follow it through to its conclusion. If the players don't have fun, it's the GM's fault, because it's the GM's job to be on his knees under the table giving them orgasms.

All of this falls away if you pursue nonlinearity. This is the USP of RPGs: the GM creating a setting, with hooks to get the players involved, and the players going about their business in a way they deem best. Computers can't emulate this well. It's one of the huge advantages that pen-and-paper has over the computer game. And yet for some reason the vast majority of players still don't seem to have got the message yet.

Now, this isn't to say the GM doesn't have a role in this. If the player wants to be a ninja and is doing ninja-ish things, the GM needs to support him in that. When he makes ninja plans to ninja stuff the fuck up, the GM needs to interpret his ideas favourably, and certainly shouldn't be saying "Nah, you can't do that". The GM's job is to be the catalyst for, to encourage, creativity. But there's a world of difference between that and the GM engineering things to suit specific players.

To close with an example from the game I'm running at the moment: one of the players in the campaign has a "Rockerboy" character (it's Cyberpunk 2020). He's a superstar East German DJ who wears silver pantaloons. This isn't somebody who naturally fits with the other characters, who are more traditional noir-ish cloak-and-dagger corporate assassin/fixer types. But the player in question has become a huge part of the game by manipulating situations to his advantage (with the cooperation of the others). Almost every session he's at the centre of things, whether doing impromptu performances, arranging gigs, networking through his club contacts, or doing sham concerts as fronts for other activities. He's a massive piece of the group's armoury, and it's because he and the other players have been willing to think creatively. At no stage have I ever sat down to think to myself, "How can I make sure [x] will have something to do this week?" Because I know that he'll think of something.

You are responsible for your own orgasm, people. And don't you forget it.

Friday, 3 February 2012

On Improvisation and Getting Better

Let me begin by making a statement which I don't think will be easily contradicted: Improvisation of rules is perhaps the most important skill for a GM to develop.

Let me make a further statement: Improvisation of rules is not very thoroughly theorised, taught, or even talked about, whenever anybody grapples with the issue of "how to be a good GM" or, more fundamentally, "how to make games fun".

Let me make a concluding statement: There is a good reason for this.

In the intro to the 2nd edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, we find Zeb Cook giving probably the best GMing advice that I can think of:

The Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master Guide give you what you're expected to know, but that doesn't mean the game begins and ends there. Your game will go in directions not yet explored and your players will try things others think strange. Sometimes these strange things will work; sometimes they won't. Just accept this, be ready for it, and enjoy it. 
Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don't just let the game sit there, and don't become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can't figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.

To repeat: Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.

Coming as it does at the end of these two paragraphs, the implication of this sentence is clear: Zeb believes that becoming "a brilliant DM" is directly connected to having fun with the rules; adding, creating, expanding, and extrapolating; and making up the answers to things. I agree with this - it does. But there is another implicit question which Zeb doesn't answer: How is possible to get better at all of this?

That's not a question which is easily answered, because I tend to think that GMing is basically a form of tacit knowledge, and being able to improvise rulings is perhaps the area where this is truest. Improvising rules in ways that are fair, interesting, and workable is not a skill that can really be learned from a book. It's something that has to come through experience. To borrow an analogy from Michael Oakeshott, being a good GM is rather like being a good chef. There is a set of rules, which are like a recipe. But creating a really tasty dish is much more about the feeling and intuition gained from years of cooking than it is about slavishly following the recipe. Strict adherence to the recipe will get you so far, but proper chefs have the experience and know-how to take the dish to a level far higher, and often if you ask them why they are doing what they are doing, and what rules they are following, they'll find it difficult to tell you.

GMing is similar. A good GM probably isn't particularly aware why they are doing the things they are doing (beyond the obvious awareness that they're doing it "because it works"), and if asked to write down a "good GMing guide" they would probably not be able to produce anything particularly coherent or enlightening. This is especially true when it comes to improvisation. I'm sure you all know GMs and players who are good at this - but try asking these people to explain how they got good at it, or what principles they apply. Probably, they won't be able to do that. Probably, they're just good because they have a lot of experience in GMing, giving them an intuition for what will work, and the tacit knowledge of how to pull it off.

In a sense, this reinforces Zeb Cook's advice, and perhaps shows it in an even better light: Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one; or, in other words, develop your tacit knowledge and intuition for improvisation through continual play.

(Edit, because I think it was unclear in the original post: Let me emphasise that I am talking about improvising rules for situations not covered in the game text, rather than improvising content - like NPC personalities or settings. I think the latter is more easily taught than the former. The paradigm example of what I am talking about would be what crops up in this post: There is an elf who might try to sneak up on the PCs' campsite during the night. One of the players decides his character will put coins on the tops of rocks, as a primitive alarm system which will make a noise if the elf knocks them over. Rules improvisation on the part of the DM here is crucial - he needs to decide how he will adjudicate the success of this. And to do so successfully he needs tacit knowledge.)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Recommend Me a Game

Here is a list, off the top of my head (so probably not exhaustive) of all the games I own or have played:
  • D&D (all iterations and retro-clones)
  • MERP
  • Apocalypse World
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Risus
  • Microscope
  • Iron Heroes
  • Shadowrun
  • Cyberpunk 2020
  • Rolemaster
  • Werewolf: The Apocalypse
  • Changeling: The Dreaming
  • Amber Diceless
  • In A Wicked Age
  • ZeFRS
  • HARP
  • d20 Modern
  • Call of Cthulu
  • Unknown Armies
  • Blood & Honor
  • Traveller
  • Warhammer FRP
  • Pendragon
  • Dragon Warriors
  • Tekumel
  • ORE
  • Advanced Fighting Fantasy
  • Gamma World
  • Twilight 2000
Tell me about a game that isn't on that list that I should own/play, and why.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I scream, you scream, we all scream for GM screens

I listen to Fear the Boot every now and then; I'm not a regular by any means, but it's one of the few RPG-related podcasts I can listen to all the way through without wanting to gnaw my own face off. Last night I was on the look out for something to listen to in the gym, and came across their recent interview with Ken Hite (handily transcripted here); it made for interesting hearing, especially when it came to the future of the RPG industry.

But the issue of GM screens came up on a tangent during the course of proceedings. I was glad to hear that Ken Hite doesn't use them, and felt vindicated about that, because as a long-term naysayer about GM screens I sometimes wonder if I'm from a different planet to most people engaged in the hobby.

The case against GM screens is as follows:
  • It creates an artificial psychological barrier between the GM and players. I like to think that I'm gaming with friends, not teaching a group of schoolkids.
  • It makes the players wonder whether or not the GM is fudging. I roll all my dice in the open, and frequently tell the players what an NPC needs to score a hit or succeed on their roll. It's way more tense that way, and it keeps me honest. Rolling dice in secret would make the players suspicious I was cheating, either in their favour or otherwise.
  • Related to the point made above, a GM screen provides a constant temptation to fudge. If they players can't see the dice, there'll always be a small part of you that wants to change the result despite your better judgment.
  • On the rare occasions in which you want to roll secretly - for instance, if you don't want a player to know whether something has succeeded or not - you can just do it behind your hand, for Goodness' sake.
  • It sends out the unfortunate message that in order to GM you have to be some sort of all-powerful, pontificating svengali figure, pronouncing judgments from on high and subtly manipulating everything behind the scenes like a puppet master. Instead of just, you know, facilitating a game.
  • I was involved in a Call of Cthulu game with the least frightening GM screen ever invented. Me and one of the other players had a running joke that one of the sinister Cthuloid entities on the front looked kind of like the Blue Peter tortoise. It totally ruined the mood.
  • The table I use is a bit too small to set one up.
  • If you game in a public area, like we do, you look like a total nerd. Being an RPG nerd is bad enough without drawing attention to it.
The only case that can be made in their defence is:
  • They have pretty tables and charts on the back for handy reference.
Which certainly does not outweigh the points against their use.

Your honour, the case for the prosecution rests.