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May 27, 2006

Welcome, Seth

At around 1.30 AM Friday, young Seth Bowman was brought into the world by his mother Jodie. At birth, he weighed 2.72 kilos (6 pounds, 9 ounces) and was (and probably still is) 52cm long.

Here's a picture taken not long after Seth was born, with the bub in the arms of one of his proud grandmothers.

Mother, father and kid are all great. This morning we popped in to the hospital to visit Jodie (who's acceding under protest to the general consensus and staying another night) and she and Seth are doing well. The youngster slept, stirred a little, pulled some faces, gave Vickie and I some curious looks and passed some gas while each of us held the little tyke. I figure that halfway makes me a granddad; while he did chuck, I wasn't holding him at the time. Vickie was, though none of it actually got on her. (Does that make it almost official?)

Tonight, Vickie and I are off over Karl's place to help him move their stuff out of the granny-flat and into their place. Which reminds me; I must take some pictures of the "granny-flat".

May 23, 2006

I Have Failed To Motivate Pvt. Gamer Pyle!

Well, one might've been enough for me, but it certainly wasn't for some people. Check these chuckle-worthy motivational lithographs out:

UPDATE 25 May 06 5:00PM:

Clouds and Sun

Last Thursday evening, Vickie and I went to a wine and cheese night organised by a friend at work. We had dinner at the Courthouse, and I went to put my briefcase and her shopping bags in the car, which I'd left in the Casino car park as usual.

On my way back out of the Casino, I was looking nervously at the clouds coming in from offshore - heck, the whole sky was pretty much overcast. I'd forgotten to put the big umbrella in the car, so we were stuck with the smaller handbag-size umbrella Vickie had beought with her into town.

Then - I don't know exactly what it was, surely a combination of things - the clouds diffusing the half-light of evening, the wind lightly stirring the palms, the not warm but not cool either night air, the lights coming on around town - I found myself feeling good, and even the slowly commencing rain couldn't dampen the sensation. Now, I count my blessings for being able to live in Cairns on a fairly regular basis, but looking about me that Thursday night as I walked along the Esplanade, I really felt as though I was really here in the tropics, that I'd hit the jackpot.

This morning, I too advantage of morning tea to nip out of the office and get a quick trim at the nearby barber shop. Walking back after my haircut, I found myself minding that Thursday evening. I took another look about me; granted, I was a block-and-a-half away from the Esplanade, but in the bright, warm morning light, I found myself thinking with a mental shrug, "yeah, Cairns."

Isn't it odd that I need an evening with impending rain to really appreciate this place?

May 21, 2006

Germans and St. Bernards

Well, Rhys, Kev and I had our second game of InSpectres today, and Vickie joined us for her first! (Well, first since 2003.) With the team turning a loss on the books, RPI owner Albert dcided to bring in some new blood; specifically, Lieutenant Ingrid "Iron Maiden" Irony, German Army Logistics Corps (Retired), to bring things into line and get the firm turning a profit. We kicked things off with an Employee Interview; as Albert was busy, he got Jim-Bob and The Shark - the two people Ingrid would be whipping into shape - to interview her. (Interesting, RPI now employs two ex-armed forces types - army and navy! I smell future rivalry...) Things went pretty smoothly; I must admit, I partway left Rhys, Kev and Vickie to it while I rolled the dice and consulted the Client Contact table.

The results were "Angry, Government Official, Abnormal Weather, In a Sketchy Neighbourhood." A little thought gave me Gary Pitsley, Councilor of Urban Management for Cairns City Council, that kind of bull-necked political shit-kicker who's always having a bad day and lets everyone know it. The abnormal weather was a blizzard (which is about as abnormal as you can get in Cairns), and the sketchy neighbourhood was the back-end of Parramatta Park.

Okay, some highlights:

  • The new troubleshooter waking Jim-Bob and the Shark at 5.30 AM, even disassembling and re-assembling the Shark's front door lock (roll of a 6 on Technology).
  • Unfortunately, Ingrid's attempt at motivational music didn't quite work out; the Kombi's stereo system played her cassette tape of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" veeeerrrrrry sllloooooowwwwly, spitting tape everywhere as it went.
  • The decision that the RPI offices were atop a call centre, with lots of fatigued operators milling about the front, coffee and cigarettes in hand.
  • First reaction on getting the council job? "Call the press!" They managed to sell the exclusivity rights on their story to a local TV station (I should have immediately seized on the whole "COPS" angle and ran with it; I'll save that for next time's Interview phase) who sent a mobile crew out to cover the story.
  • The Kombi van was almost immediately equipped with a set of flamethrowers (to clear the drifts of snow, you understand) and a snow-plough. (The RPI logo was still scratched to buggery, though.) The PCs also decided to explore the snowdrift in appropriate cold weather gear - wetsuits.
  • The Shark put the moves on the reporter, who, as it turned out, was married to the cameraman, who broke his arm after trying to punch the Shark's lights out. (Lesson: do not mess with the Shark's mad kung fu). If I start playing the reality TV angle, reporter and cameraman are going to be recurring NPCs.
  • The spectral figure of a climber in cold weather gear, who could be seen at varying stages by Ingrid, a St. Bernard (who appeared out of nowhere, but turned out to be the climber's dog, whom he'd left behind on his last trip) and Jim-Bob. At one point, the dog was even possessed by the ghost of the climber.
  • A mad dash down to Sydney to recover the climber's body - he'd died during an assulat on Everest and had been buried in Parramatta instead of Parramatta Park - which was promptly cremated upon returned to Cairns and buried in the ground beneath the centre of the blizzard. Problem solved.
  • Gary Pitsley losing his job after the TV station turned RPI's story into a council slum clearance scheme, complete with flamethrower-touting van spewing flames in the general direction of derelict (albeit snow-covered) housing. (He is so going to be a recurring NPC.)
  • After Cleanup and Vacation, the company wound up back on the six Franchise dice it started with (plus one St. Bernard, who does regular runs to the local bottle-o to top up his supply of brandy), and the Shark managed to earn himself a Cool die!

Now a couple of notes:

  • The session was fun, although it didn't quite fire as well as the first one. I think I wasn't exactly driving things as well as I could have. Throwing yeti at them right off crossed my mind but - silly me - I mentally vetoed it before it got out of my mouth.
  • I think that maybe the earning of a heap of Franchise dice in the client contact session didn't help. I'm also wondering whether it's possible to manage the opportunities for dice rolls early on in the session; after all, if conflict resolution holds that dice should only be rolled when there's genuine conflict of interest between characters, and the client wants the RPI lads to solve his/her problem, there's no need for a roll just yet. On the other hand, it's rather hard to imagine an Academics or Technology-related situation that's also a "conflict of interest". (Then again - evil machines...)
  • Finally, not one single person used a Confessional this game. Again, maybe it was a result of the not-quite-firing thing; I'd also made it known that going for the "scaredy-cat" confessional after losing a Stress roll was a no-no. Still, playing up the reality TV angle might encourage the post-job-intreview mood some more.

What will I try next time?

  • Coming up with Stresses on the fly was a little awkward last session. I might try rolling the client contact chart beforehand, come up with a basic idea and a few Stress situations related directly to it. I'll also come up with some generic "small business problem" type Stresses, you know, audits, ISO certifications, fun stuff like that, and possibly drum some personal-life-related Stresses up for the PCs.
  • The aforementioned reality TV angle - maybe even kick off with an intro by the reporter and a theme tune of some sort. (Hey, Vickie, Rhys, Kev: Any suggestions? Ideally something Australian.)
  • Having a good look at my players' characters and coming up with some Stress situations relating directly to them.

Or I might just wing it again. InSpectres is heaps of fun as is, and I don't want to choke it by over-preparing.

Monster Rock Smashes Eurovision

Holy shit. Lordi. Lordi, right? Been in the news lately? Finnish monstermetal band? Went into the Eurovision Song Contest, whose luminaries have included Abba, Bucks Fizz, Johnny Logan (you know, "Hoooolld me now, don't cry, don't say a word, just hooooolld" yeah, him), even Celine Dion?

Won. Fucking won.

I say, if they can do it, let's export TISM to the UK, see if they can get a foot in the door.

May 20, 2006

What I Learned from Roleplaying Games

Okay, so there's this thread on RPGnet asking people to Photoshop their own RPG-related motivational poster. You know those motivational posters - ahem, sorry, lithographs, right? You've probably seen them at work, even if only in the overbearing, power-slogan-spouting boss' office. They've been sent up left, right and centre, and now it's the RPG crowd's turn.

Of course, I had to weigh in (thanks to a neat little tool found here) with one of my own.

New eBay Auction: Feng Shui RPG Pack

Once again, I'm selling off some more of my RPG stock on eBay. This time, it's my collection of books for the Feng Shui Action Movie Roleplaying Game. Please take a look; if you're interested, have a bid, and if you're not but know someone who might be, can you forward the link onto them, please?

UPDATE 28 May 06 6:35PM: As the set didn't move, I've relisted it with a starting bid of $75 and a Buy It Now price of $90. Please click on the above link if you're interested.

May 17, 2006

Transform and Roll Out!

Thanks to Gav, who sent me an e-mail with this link this very day, IMAGinES is proud to link you to a (purported) CGI test reel made for the TransFormers film. Now, if rumour is correct, this reel was for a rejected bid.

So hopefully the computer generated TransFormers in the film (which is apparently due to start principal photography soonish) will somehow look even better.

May 15, 2006

Campaign Design: Goal vs. Games

Previous: Forming a Goal

UPDATE 16 May 06: On re-reading the "Game Design as Process" article, it seems that identifying mechanics - i.e. the set of rules a given game will make use of - should be left until after a play group is recruited and play strategy has been determined. This runs counter to conventional gamer wisdom, which holds that the GM usually picks the rulebook before recruiting players.

Personally, it's a little hard to imagine getting people intersted in a game based solely on the goal and the key indicators of what I want out of the game - there doesn't seem anything particularly "cool" that can be discussed with or shown to a potential player in order to hook his or her interest. People who've never played in an RPG might be mystified by the well-intentioned yet broad statements, while experienced gamers may well want to cut the bull and start looking at books, rules, fiction and pictures so they can get jazzed (or not) on the idea of the campaign.
Then again, maybe the goal needs to incorporate items like intended setting elements and such.

Still and all, I think the below text accomplishes something constructive in terms of getting me and my "fun-to-GM" campaign closer together, so I'm not taking it down.


In the past, I’ve selected a game book to base a campaign around based on its pretty pictures of cool machines – see, for example, Bubblegum Crisis, Heavy Gear and Starship Troopers. Now that I’ve had some more experience with various systems and how they aid (or not) a gaming group produce fun (which, for these purposes, I’m defining as engagement and satisfaction, including but not limited to the happy/joy sensation commonly associated with the term) and a goal for the next campaign I want to run, I want to take a look at the games I could use as the basis for my next campaign and evaluate whether they’d meet the goal.

I’ll start with a list of games I’ve been kicking around lately:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Heavy Gear 2nd. Edition
  • InSpectres
  • Primetime Adventures
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Sorcerer
  • Starship Troopers

Now I’ll examine each individual game through the filter of the campaign goal I’ve written. Just a reminder: “The goal of this campaign is a set of interwoven stories (with beginnings and endings) created as the campaign progresses, not beforehand, by all of the participants at the table. During the process of creation (i.e. the campaign), each participant will have been engaged in not only creating his or her character’s story - the character, the challenges it faces and what the methods it uses to overcome those challenges mean to it - but also assisting the other participants in creating the stories of their characters.”

Let me also explain some terms I'll be throwing around:

  • Concept: The basic “idea” behind the game, usually the job or task that player characters will perform (i.e. soldier, explorer, paranormal investigator).
  • Conflict of Interest: Explained best here. Pretty much what I'm after.
  • Player Input: The amount of control that non-GM players to have over the shared imaginary space of the game; in this case, how much more players can do than just announcing what their character will try to do next. As a GM, I want as much player input in my campaign as I can get.
  • Scene Framing: This is a technique borrowed from television and film, where the GM and players select, set and play out the “important” events, usually where the lead characters learn something or are at serious risk. Framing a scene usually defines where it’s happening, the important people there and when to end it. It's a neat feature I'd like to use a lot, as it'll help cut down on extraneous stuff like shopping for equipment and random encounters.
  • Spotlight Time: Time when a given player character gets more attention than the others, usually to highlight a critical event in that character's development. See, for example, the episode "Jaynestown" of the TV series Firefly. Management of spotlight time is going to be crucial when everyone at the table has a story to develop.
  • Structure: The rules or guidelines around what’s expected to happen in each session. Starship Troopers has a fairly loose structure (get briefed, perform mission) open to some customisation. InSpectres is the opposite; each session has the steps Getting the Call, Investigation, Suiting Up, Fieldwork, Cleanup and Vacation. Having a clear end to each session (with a progression leading to it) makes explaining the absence in the next session of a PC whose player couldn't make it much easier.

Now onto the analysis:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
    • Pros: Dogs has a pre-existing setting, but it's written in broad strokes, giving the group freedom to make their own yet still recognisably Dogs world. The role of each player character and the PC group as a whole is similarly well defined, yet loose enough to allow a group to build their own stories. Each session of play is meant to explore and judge a single town, so characters of absent players can come and go in between towns. The rules allow players to define characters by who they are as much as what they’re good at and what they have, and give pacing and drama to any serious conflict of interest. GMs need not prepare anything prior to the start of the campaign, and once characters are created, a town for them to explore and basic stats for townspeople can be created within half an hour at the most. Finishing the stats for townspeople during a game - even during a conflict - is quick and easy; there's virtually no need to actually manage NPC stats or resources during the game.
    • Cons: Dogs doesn't provide any real sense of where the group can or should end the campaign, instead encouraging the group to talk about it at the end of each session. The rules don't really support governing spotlight time or scene framing. Finally, the core premise of the PCs passing moral judgment on the townfolk may be a little too intense.
  • Heavy Gear 2nd. Edition
    • Pros: A well-developed, broad and detailed setting, with clear rules compared to other traditional roleplaying games.
    • Cons: The setting is almost too developed; deciding on a concept and the setting elements it requires is a task in itself. It also features a "metaplot", an ongoing story written by the authors of the game which players might want to explore (or feel restricted by) at the expense of their own stories. The rules only start pacing the game during combat and other story concerns or areas of player interest are not really supported. Combat which can easily kill any character not thinking tactically; even its Emergency Dice dont improve the odds of PC survival greatly. It has no rules support for governing player input, session structure, spotlight time or scene framing, instead using a traditional setup where the GM has unspoken yet firm control over these elements (if they're even acknowledged). Significant pre-campaign and pre-session prep work is required, as is in-game management of NPC stats and resources, especially the titular Heavy Gears.
  • InSpectres
    • Pros: A very clear, easy-to-grasp “one mission per session” structure where each mission has defined “phases”, aiding (but not explicitly) scene framing. PC stats barely change and each player can maintain a roster of PCs. The rules primaily govern player input (mainly player vs. GM). Its concept encourages wackiness by default but can be made more serious to taste. No GM prep work is required beyond creating initial “client contact” situation each session; the rest is created by the GM and players on-the-fly. Also, there are no NPC stats / resources whatsoever.
    • Cons: The spotlight character in any game is pretty much the franchise, the pool of resources all characters can use. The course of the campaign is governed entirely by the franchise's viability, which can only expand or crash. There is no rules support for spotlight time.
  • Primetime Adventures
    • Pros: The game is built from the ground up to support spotlight time and campaign length via its “Season arc” rules; participants can choose season length, plan for the end and decide whether to do another season afterward. Player absences can be got around by choosing another episode on the season arc. Conflict resolution rules govern player input and anyone not involved with the scene can contribute if they have Fan Mail; the character losing his or her goal is optional. Fan Mail points encourage players to reward each other for coming up with cool stuff. Scene framing and session structure are also major parts of the system; each session is a single episode of TV with defined phases. No NPC stats are required.
    • Cons: The resolution system is rather broad and offers little pacing to conflicts. There's no default setting or concept to grab players' attention; a group is expected to come up with the basics in a pre-campaign "pitch session”.
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
    • Pros: Like Dogs, TSoY has an existing fantasy setting defined in broad strokes which can be detailed by the group as it goes. Character creation uses "Keys" that reward players XP for following the Key's behaviour (Key of the Conscience, Key of Bloodlust, etc.) - effectively encouraging players to pick Keys that interest them and steer the game toward hitting those keys. Keys also help manage character story arcs, as they can be bought off and changed when the player wishes. "Key Scenes", created by the GM, encourage scene framing with XP rewards and pull the session toward an ending. General campaign pace can be set by altering the number of XP required to buy a character advance and the overall PC story end can largely at each player’s discretion. The "Gift of Dice" allows players to reward each other for cool play. Players control the pace of conflicts depending on how interested they are in them. Finally, the rules and setting are publicly available under a Creative Commons license, so all participants can easily access them.
    • Cons: Beyond Key Scenes there's no session structure. Non-Player Characters need to be statted up prior to each session, plus some pre-campaign prep based on the players' character choices. The rules don't support governing spotlight time.
  • Sorcerer
    • Pros: Sports a solid central idea for building a campaign around, and the basic setting is the modern day. Character creation is based around what kind of character interests players. The central statistic Humanity helps govern campaign pace. Each character has a "kicker", a player-created event the character can't ignore but isn't forced to deal with in a specific way; resolving it effectively ends the PC's story. Players are encouraged to develop their characters' actions by earning bonus dice for clever and/or highly appropraite embelishments.
    • Cons: The core setting ideas need some pre-play GM development. NPCs and demons require some prep and in-game management, and each PC can have more than demon (all controlled by the GM). The turn order system means cool combat action ideas can be overruled before they have a chance, even with bonus dice. The rules don't support governing spotlight time and scene framing is mainly driven by the GM though the use of bangs (a GM-created event the character can't ignore but isn't forced to deal with in a specific way). Individual sessions don't have any existing structure or end-point. Finally, the game is directly about how far driven people will go (including making pacts with demons) to get what they want, which can be rather intense.
  • Starship Troopers
    • Pros: This game has a clear central concept. The setting, based on around three primary sources, can be modified to taste. It uses a clear structure; the session is a single combat mission from briefing to retrieval, which means player absence can be easily accomodated.
    • Cons: The central concept and rules are heavily focused on combat-specific challenges and managing tactical options, rewarding players with increased tactical options so they can face face bigger combat challenges. Non-combat story concerns or areas of player interest are between-mission and not really supported by the rules. Like Heavy Gear, the game uses a traditional setup where the GM has unspoken yet firm control over PC input, spotlight time or scene framing, elements which have no rules support. Although the basic mechanic is simple, the extensive rules-tweaks in the form of feats and equipment require significant prep time, and a fairly hgih level of NPC stat management is required.

Dancing With the Games: The first games I’d eliminate from my list are Starship Troopers and (sorry, darling Vickie!) Heavy Gear. While they could be shoehorned into doing what I want, probably by borrowing rules from other games, I’d prefer not to waste time doing so when said other games are more directly geared for my goal (in fact, I’d almost suggest running either setting using Primetime Adventures). I’ll also cross Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard off; while I see and admire what the “macho Narrativist yangers” are getting at, I’d prefer games that didn’t strike quite so immediately at the raw, bleeding heart of the human condition, at least until I’m a little less worried about driving my newfound gaming friends away. (I think DitV would make a good fill-in game, though.) That leaves three games: InSpectres, Primetime Adventures and The Shadow of Yesterday.

On one hand, this is actually a pretty good number; I feel comfortable working up separate pitches for each of these games, as none of them require much pre-recruitment preparation (especially InSpectres). On the other hand, I think I’d also drop InSpectres; it’s a little too loose for what I’m really after, and it tends to be a bit more competitive (who can get away with using the company’s limited resources without stuffing the company) than cooperative. Again, like DitV, it'd make a good fill-in if half the group can't make it.

Based on those criteria, Primetime Adventures or The Shadow of Yesterday come out rather even; while they address a lot of things in similar ways, each one’s unique strengths tend to map directly to the other’s weaknesses. In the end, though, if I were to try and pitch just one, I’d go for The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s got enough character advancement to keep old-school gamers on familiar turf (even if they are just progressing toward transcendence and the end of their character’s story), it has an existing setting instead of needing the group to build one from scratch (a bonus for some but a pain for others), I like its Bringing Down the Pain rules and on a personal note, Vickie once said she liked the idea of going on adventures. I think The Shadow of Yesterday hits those notes better out of the box, as it were. Now all I need are some Fudge dice...

Campaign Design: Forming a Goal

Previous: Items of Play

Now that I've identified some indicators that what I want out of an RPG is actually happening in play, which of them best represent what is desired in the game?

Of those nine indicators, I think four stand out as primaries:

  • Ongoing emphasis on what and who characters are and how the events of the campaign (including but not limited to physical conflicts) change the characters personally.
  • Moderated kibitzing (suggestions / ideas / etc.) from non-involved players on the action between the “acting” players.
  • Identification of potential end-points (i.e. Sorcerer’s Four Outcomes) and players driving their characters’ stories toward them.
  • Statements from players regarding what interests them about the kind of people the characters are, including revision as play progresses.

The next step in Jere's guidelines is to "incorporate each of these indicators (there may be one or quite a few) into a statement that tells what the game will do." Here's my shot:

  • The goal of this campaign is a set of interwoven stories (with beginnings and endings) created as the campaign progresses, not beforehand, by all of the participants at the table. During the process of creation (i.e. the campaign), each participant will be engaged in not only creating his or her character’s story - the character, the challenges it faces and what the methods it uses to overcome those challenges mean to it - but also assisting the other participants in creating the stories of their characters.

Going back to Jere’s notes, I find:

As a last step, examine the goal statement and ask yourself this: If the game achieves or demonstrates each of these would you agree that the game achieved its goal? If the answer is yes, then you have clarified the goal.

By “each of these”, I assume Jere is referring to the statements that best represent what’s desired. Let’s review them in light of that goal:

  • Emphasis on character and character change (or, maybe more accurately, character revelation, revealing who the character really is) during the campaign – Yes. I think this is an important part of meaningful story.
  • If the participants ensure the kibitzing assists the action without drowning it out, that definitely meets the goal of engagement and will assist the interweaving of stories, even if the characters never meet each other.
  • Figuring out where the campaign might end for the PCs meets the goal of story with beginning and end, not beginning and long, agonising peter-out (which will eliminate engagement).
  • Participants taking an active hand in what they find interesting about their characters is probably the biggest single factor in keeping everyone engaged.

Right; I have a goal which has been clarified. Or at least I hope it has - if you're reading this, would you care to comment or e-mail me and let me know whether the goal and the clarifications make sense to you, and if not, where the problems are, please?

Still, at this point I think I can use what I have to evaluate game rules and/or worlds in order to determine which would best meet my goal.

Next: Goals vs. Games

Campaign Design: Items of Play

Previous: Analysis and Considering Goals

After I wrote the last Campaign Design article, I realised I missed a step from Jere's notes, and that step (with a little editing from myself) is to "indicate the type of play that would demonstrate that that goal was working." With that in mind, I went over the list of "What I Want" and tried to summarise what would happen in play for each item if it were happening:

I want everyone at the table to be engaged, even when the current moment mightn't be about their character.

  • Moderated kibitzing (suggestions / ideas / etc.) from non-involved players on the action between the “acting” players.

I want everyone at the table to have the opportunity to contribute to and build upon the game world during the session and right there at the table (even when the current moment mightn't be about their character), not in a wiki or blue booking session between games.

  • Players creating specific set elements / items / NPCs on-the-fly based on broad-strokes GM definition of scenes / sets.

I want the campaign concept and action to flex around absent players with minimal "injury".

  • Each sesion has its own beginning and ending (i.e. resolving an episodic problem) allowing character absence next session to be more easily explained.
  • Flexible “team” concept with built-in plug-points for player justification (i.e. got off at Bathgate Abbey) or "split team" with unconnected individuals / small groups and "spotlight time" governed by scene-framing.

I want to give players the opportunity to create interesting and engaging characters.

  • Character sheets that clearly indicate items of player interest.
  • Statements from players regarding what interests them about the kind of people the characters are, including revision as play progresses.

I want to give players the opportunity to drive their characters via interesting and engaging situations.

  • Incorporating player suggestions for scenes, or giving players authority to set scenes.

I want the important, engaging, interesting stuff in the campaign to be about characters, not fights (not saying there should be no fights, but fights should be a function of character and not vice versa.)

  • Ongoing emphasis on what and who characters are and how the events of the campaign (including but not limited to physical conflicts) change the characters personally.

I want the campaign to have an identifiable point at which it can end on a good note instead of dragging on for ages out of inertia alone.

  • Identification of potential end-points (i.e. Sorcerer’s Four Outcomes) and players driving their characters’ stories toward them.

I want Story Now.

  • Moments of player emotional, gut-level engagement (“Oof” or “Holy shit! What did we just do?”) due to PC choices and actions during play.

The next step is to "sort through the statements for those that best represent what is desired in the game (and) incorporate each of these indicators (there may be one or quite a few) into a statement that tells what the game will do." More on that in a future post after I've done some more percolating over this list.

Next: Forming a Goal

May 13, 2006

Dressed to Kill

Around mid-to-late last year, I splurged on the independent roleplaying game, Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. I'd read recommendations on it in most of Jared Sorensen's work, in Dogs in the Vineyard and on The Forge to make me think it might be worth getting, and the way it was discussed led me to think that it might have some interesting and heretofore-by-me undiscovered techniques for and insights into roleplaying.

I remember reading it and being, well, a touch underwhelmed. But as it sat on my shelf, I read a few Actual Play threads and rules discussions - and things started to percolate. I helped assemble a couple of resources for it on the RPGnet Wiki. One of them, "How To Run: Sorcerer," I put together with the explicit intent of creating a coherent, step-by-step process that I could use to build a Sorcerer campaign concept.

That was a few months ago, and it's only been in the last week that I've been able to get over the first hurdle: Coming up with a definition of Humanity personally interesting enough for me to run. (I've read a couple of play reports that have suffered problems because Humanity and the circumstances which would prompt a Humanity gain or loss check were hazy and ill-defined.)

The result is a work-in-progress that I'm calling "Dressed to Kill". If it interests or intrigues you, why not get in touch? I'd love to organise a game. (You can also find "making-of" notes here.)

May 11, 2006

Symbol of an Angel - or Entry to Hell?

"I have seen the future," I say, "and it has become my own."

You stand, casting your eyes over the blasted, desolate plain, and slowly turn toward the sound of my voice. I am there, covered in the wind-driven dust of this lifeless place.

"The visions were incomplete before," I say. "I thought I could avoid my terrible fate. But I have been offered a glimpse into what is truly to come, and there is no escape. I have accepted my destiny."

"Rob," you say, "You are a total sucker. Utter and total. Sucker. You do know it, don't you?"

I cast my eyes downward at the objects in my hands. In my left, like a white stone tablet, is an Xbox 360. In my right, a copy - quite probably the expensive collector's edition - of Halo 3.

"Yes," I reply with a sigh born of centuries of despair, my soul sold of my own free will to a merciless overlord (you might know him as Bill). "Yes, I do."

Campaign Design: Analysis and Considering Goals

Now, if you're keeping up with this web log, you know that things have been looking up lately RPG-wise, with Simon and Cristel moving up from Brissie, Rhys' co-worker Kev from Canada turning out to be a gamer and getting Rhys interested in the hobby (again, as it turned out). You've probably even read my murmurings about various campaign ideas.

A couple of days ago, I saw this slightly older article over on The 20' by 20' Room about campaign design and setting goals. Since then I've started to think more ruthlessly about the whole campaign idea. Instead of starting at "Hmm, which of these books on my shelf will form the basis of a campaign?" I'm approaching the idea more along the lines of, "Now, what do I actually want out of a campaign?"

I'm doing a few things in order to try and answer that question. One is to think about the last and first real campaign I ran, the Black Talon: Corsairs campaign using the Heavy Gear 2nd. Edition rules and source material and figure out what worked and what didn't. I've seen some interesting and insightful adventure / campaign post-mortems on The Forge recently, so I set up a thread over there about the campaign. So far, it's had a decent amount of interest and some thought-provoking commentary.

Another thing is to turn the basic question on its head and ask myself, "What don't I want from a campaign?" Here are the answers I've come up with so far:

  • I don't want to be bored. So what bores me?
    • Juggling statistics.
    • Combats which come down to "I Roll, You Roll."
    • Games where the only meaningful action is combat, and the only meaningful risk is the player's continued participation.
    • The sense that, while things are happening, Nothing's Really Happening.
    • Rolls that result in dead ends if the result is negative.
    • Heavy pre-session preparation.
    • Dicking with the rules so that they do what we want.

  • I don't want to be frustrated. So what frustrates me?
    • Being unable to work around someone's unfortunate absence when the unavoidable strikes. (Corollary: Locking players into an ongoing, multi-year commitment with attendance at each session also sucks and is impossible to achieve.)
    • Procedures (like combat) that sacrifice engagement and excitement for checking modifiers and balancing tactics against risk in the name of "realism" or some such.
    • Being tied to a game line's "metaplot".
    • Getting bogged down in making sure all details are known and / or factored in before making a roll.

Now what answers to the original question do those negatives indicate? What do I, as a GM, want out of my campaign?

  • I want everyone at the table to be engaged, even when the current moment mightn't be about their character.
  • I want everyone at the table to have the opportunity to contribute to and build upon the game world during the session and right there at the table, even when the current moment mightn't be about their character, not in a wiki or blue booking session between games (or at least, as well as in a wiki or whatever).
  • I want the campaign concept and action to flex around absent players with minimal "injury".
  • I want to give players the opportunity to create interesting and engaging characters.
  • I want to give players the opportunity to drive their characters via interesting and engaging situations.
  • I want the important, engaging, interesting stuff in the campaign to be about characters, not fights (not saying there should be no fights, but fights should be a function of character and not vice versa.)
  • I want the campaign to have an identifiable point at which it can end on a good note instead of dragging on for ages out of inertia alone.
  • Heck, quite frankly it's safe to say I want Story Now.

One thing that article on The 20' by 20' Room doesn't have is an example campaign design document and goal, so until the author can create one, I'm going to have to cobble my own together. So, can I sum the above up in a Goal of no more than two sentences?

Hmm...

P.S.: If I hear anyone so much as mumble "mission statement", I'll shove my Dilbert books right up their swivel-chair-spread behinds! So there!

Next: Items of Play

May 10, 2006

A Name For A Granddad To Be

Here's a little something that'll bring a smile to your face, I hope.

On this web log, I don't often mention our Queensland family, simply because they don't often intersect with the portion of my life that I tend to ramble on about in this web log, i.e. gaming. So let me break from tadition and tell you a little more about Vickie's youngest child and only son, Karl. I've mentioned him now and again on here (do a search for his name on the log if you like). Back at the beginning of 2004, he married his longtime girlfriend Jodie, and seven or so months ago, Jodie discovered that she was pregnant with their first child (yes, you remeber right, it was Jodie's baby shower Sunday week ago). With the bub due to drop in the next couple of weeks, Vickie raised the question no one else seemed to have thought of, which is, "What does the young 'un call Rob?"

Now, according to Vickie, Karl and Jodie's baby will be my first official grandchild. I'm not quite sure how that works, as there's no connection by blood. Still, Vickie's not fond of "grand-dad" or "grandfather", mainly because I don't look like the stereotyped image either term conjures. Vickie mulled a few alternatives - I think "Da" was in the running for a while - until she hit upon the perfect name:

(You ready?)

"GM".

Yep, "Nanna Vickie and GM Rob."

Typecasting, I tell you.

May 01, 2006

Not Just One, But Two - And A Half!

Looks as though the curse has been broken, folks - Rhys, Kev and I didn't get a single session of gaming in yesterday, we got two, and Kev's talking about running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for Rhys and I! (He even borrowed my 3.5 Edition books!)

The lads got over here a little late. I figured it was a sure sign Rhys was becoming a gamer (see various prior comments re: herding cats), but later I discovered that Rhys had in fact tried a game out at one point, but was presumably bored to tears - as I was dropping Rhys off last night, Kev made a comment along the lines of, "See what I told you, it can be fun with the right people."

Per my last post, I decided to run InSpectres for the guys. Of the two games, InSpectres was easily the most fun. Our boys were Jim-Bob Smith (Kev) and Steven "The Shark" James (Rhys) of RPI (Randomly Precise Investigations), Sheridan Street, Cairns. Here are the things that really stick out in my mind:

  • Rhys detailing the corporate vehicle: a battered, gunmetal Kombi van with "RPI" spraypainted on the sides using a crude cardboard stencil. During the course of the job said van got a rather nasty gash down the side thanks to a botched Stress roll and very nearly had a tree fall on it.
  • Kev introducing the Mystery of the Plasma Rifle, an advanced piece of ghostbusting tech that somehow appeared in the Kombi one day. (This is yet to be solved.)
  • My detailing (after a bad Technology roll) that Albert, the CEO of RPI, had horrid mental scars from a bad experience with a DOS-based IBM XT computer back in the late eighties, refusing to equip the office with any computer more advanced than a scientific calculator as a result.
  • All of us creating a working adventure based on nothing more than the characters, the franchise and a roll of "Frantic, Monster, Infestation, Underwater" on the Client Contact table, which became a bunyip evicted from its home in Copperlode Dam by the sudden appearance of voracious beasts with big teeth.
  • Jim-Bob hauling the industrial-strength vacuum cleaner (ostensibly ghostbusting equipment) down the stairs to the underground bunker-cum-library of Musty Tomes to do some cleaning. Sadly, vaccuming was all the vacuum cleaner was used to do this time around.
  • Both Rhys and Kev using Confessionals to slap "Scaredy-Cat" characteristics on each other after some nasty Stress rolls.
  • The defeat of the nasty monsters using water-balloons, acidic pus and a self-propelled giant cattle syringe (yep, the Plasma Rifle never got used).
  • Lots and lots of laughter at the absurd situations we were all creating for Jim-Bob and the Shark.
  • Oh, yeah, and my turning Albert the CEO into a caricature of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (the distinctive and oft-lampooned mannerisms, not the rampant paranoia and abuse of authority - although there's an idea there...).

In short, we definitely want to follow the progress of RPI, and I'm hoping the firm can hire Vickie, Simon and Cristel soon! It'll be interesting, as the firm, which started on six Franchise dice, wound up with only five after clean-up and vacation, even after a six was the high die on two Bank dice rolls (which nets the franchise an extra Bank die each time). Can the new blood turn a profit?

In slight contrast, our second game, the Starship Troopers module "Ice Station Zebra 24", was good, but not quite great; after having shared the GM weight around in InSpectres, the "Source of All Knowledge and Arbiter of The Rules" position given to the GM in traditional RPGs felt more awkward. Still, we had a good time as Privates Doyle and Choy explored the ice planet base and fought off attacking Bugs in a frantic attempt to escape. I managed to work in the Ideal Intro, complete with time-shifting, but I think it would work better as a PowerPoint presentation or some such.

Although I was on better GM form than the session with Vickie, Simon and Cristel, I still feel as though I have a lot to learn, both system-wise and GM-rolewise, when it comes to a more traditional game like Starship Troopers. Combat felt a bit, "You Roll, I Roll, You Roll, I Roll, Hey, You're Out of Hit Points", not helped by the fact that even the Warrior Bugs weren't able to beat the MI Troopers' substantial Defence scores. On the other hand, this was probably because I kept having the Warrior Bugs make straight attacks, not Grapples, which have a +14 to hit instead of the straight +4. Although I cooked up a rules summary for the players, I think I need one for myself as well, with things like Initiative, Fear, Special Attacks and Bug special qualities. Maybe the game would be more interesting if I didn't pull any punches.

(UPDATE 2 May 06: Actually, it turns out I was only using the warrior's base attack score, not the +9 it should have had from its claws, and I completely forgot about its Lethal Grapple ability - you know the bit in the movie where the Bug gets the FedNet field reporter? Yeah, that.)

Also, I really think Starship Troopers needs at least four players to really cook, especially in combat. I'm really not sure whether I'll do a campign soon; I loaned Kev Primetime Adventures in the hope of selling him on it. I think it's a nice middle-ground between a trad-RPG and the utter zaniness of InSpectres. Still, a Starship Troopers campaign with a focus on character, not just combat, could be good, and I have some ideas distilled from hanging out on The Forge and reading games like Sorcerer on how to make that work. Maybe more on those later.

Still, it looks like I'm going to get some experience as a player after a long while, what with Kev's campaign and Gaming Night at Trinity Bay SHS coming up this Friday (yep, the organiser is trying another one). I should be learning some interesting stuff about the D20 System from the other side of the GM's screen!