Thursday, September 30, 2010

Home Is Where The Sword Is: Communities and Groups in RPGs

I like building games-- that is, I like games where the PCs build a place for themselves. That might be literal in the case of establishing a fortress outpost, or abstract in the sense of creating a fellowship. My campaigns repeat some themes and structures; building alliances and communities comes up often. At the climax, the players can win by bring together their allies. The PCs remain central, but their earlier choices and effort allows them to exert the influence over a wide range. They go from simply winning to winning big.

Accordingly I have a fondness for games which provide mechanics for actions and ideas at that larger scale. Even though I'm a mechanics-lite person, I love rules and systems. I scour games for how they handle these ideas. Usually games which have these rules follow at least one of three structures:

* Rules for building communities which serve as a background element-- but have a mechanical effect.
* Rules for players controlling groups as leaders (nations, armies, bands, companies, cults, organizations, etc)
* Rules for playing those organizations as a form of “player-character”

Below I present a few games that have such mechanics. I've only mentioned one military campaign specific book below. Usually I find that while those supplements have battle and resolution mechanics, they leave off interesting stuff about recruitment, day-to-day life, logistics and such.

Any input or suggestions for things I've missed is appreciated.

The Black Company
I'm sure a number of d20 supplements provide rules for handling the creation and maintenance of a military or mercenary company, but I'll point to just this one as an example. The game assumes that the players will take the role of officers and members of a company. That's more a factor inherent in the setting and campaign ideas than in the mechanics presented. The system does provide some rules for recruitment, supply, company structure and the hazards of war (like disease running amok in the camp). That actually takes up a rather slight section of the book. Instead it focuses more on handling warfare at several scales and providing the color and grit a GM needs to convey the idea of a military unit-based game. This served as the inspiration for my own Planescape game. In that case they had two characters each and we spent some time during sessions thinking about recruitment, divisions and organization.

Blood & Honor
John Wick returns to the samurai genre (having written Legend of the Five Rings) with this adaptation of his Houses of the Blooded system. Groups begin first by creating a clan for themselves, a collaborative process. They define the daimyo, holdings, aspects and so on of their clan. This in turn shapes bonuses and options for the PCs. It is a pretty simple and abstract system, but I can imagine porting to other games and developing it further. One of the key features for the game is that the players make up important people in the clan-- not the typical ho-hum samurai assigned to guarding a grain transport. PCs might be military advisors to the clan, oversee the secret informers, or manage the estates and holdings. From the beginning, the players invest in the community of their clan through ownership and participation.

The game functions in stories told per season. Each season the daimyo decides on season actions which can have effects on the clan as a whole-- increasing resources, involvement in political intrigue, preparation for war, and so on. Officers of the clan also gain season actions. As the clan expands they gain more possible actions. This system has a number of abstract sub-systems, including the role of warfare. I like that the players have a say in moving the course of their community. The system and mechanics presented here are abstract-- more of a framework. Groups desiring more crunch or detail could easily add to this. I think its a strong starting point for GMs thinking of how to handle these issues.

Ars Magica
In Ars Magica, the players serve as members of Covenants, essentially magical households. The rules provide mechanics for how the household is set up, what kinds of resources it provides, the character and tenor of activity and so on. The center of most campaigns will be on the lives of these communities-- carving them out, developing them, setting an agenda and so on. Each Covenant is in a “season,” describing how vital they are. A “Spring” covenant has life, youth and idealism, while an “Autumn” covenant has begun to decay and becomes set in its ways. The game provide for interactions between various covenants at regional gatherings and Tribunals, but the play focuses on the building game magical life.

Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth
An ambitious failure as an rpg, in Aria the players played nations, cultures and communities over time. Or at least they could-- that was supposed to the the intent of game. But reading through you might find that hard to discover. Aria came in two books Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth and Aria: Worlds. The main book supplies a dense and over-written basic fantasy rpg, with some suggestions on how you might run characters across several generations. These ideas seem sketchy at best. When I say over-written, I mean it. Every single game term and idea which could be given an obscure and pretentious name, has been. The basic book is huge (500+ pages) for the little you actually get.

The second book of the pair, Aria Worlds has mechanics for how to create a culture. Even with that as the focus of the whole book, the options feel pretty minimal. As a resources book for world-building, it might be useful. As a game to actually play out the interactions and history of those nations in a campaign...I'm sorry “Canticle” doesn't hold together well.

I'm still working through Reign but at heart it seems to do everything I'm interested in for handling groups and communities in games. The system works with the generic idea of “companies” across levels. To handle those it presents a set of rules which can be adapted to many games. Companies-- from religious cults to cities to business franchises to mercenary groups-- have stats and options. Player-level characters can interact and affect these companies. Companies can even battle one another in an abstract fashion. The focus of the game can easily shift— depending on whether the players are interested in their own actions within the company or more the meta-level groups interacting. I'm going to steer away from saying too much about this as I haven't had a chance to really wrestle with the mechanics. Those who have used it seemed really pleased, so I suspect it has systems which can be ported.

One of the lost settings of TSR, this one never caught on little the others did. I suspect because the game itself was most concept than actual setting. Few but the most die-hard could actually describe the details of the world of Aebrynis. I will admit I have some fondness for one area, described in Cities of the Sun, Khinasi a North African analogue.

The key concept behind the Birthright lay in players becoming regents of areas-- with each area having a powerful bloodline magic which could be captured and used. Those powers ran from the personal to the regional level. This power, called Regency, separated the PCs and potent NPCs from the population. The game included a system for expanding control, for actions on a multi-month scale which mirrored the standard combat actions, for grand scale warfare and for rulership. The emphasis lay on military considerations, but various expansions and optional modules added more to statecraft and commanding a community. Later supplements expanded the kinds of societies and ruler roles used. The setting has some great ideas, but with real military bent (supplements included army cards, battlefield templates and the like). It felt a little like someone had crossed Divine Right with AD&D. The setting also never really managed to sell to players exactly how a group would operate-- would they all be kings? What would the modules be like? A rich and interesting failure.

This Ghostbusters-inspired rpg handles the idea of community very loosely, In this case, it is the franchise which the players manage and run. But that company earns its keep by fighting against the supernatural. Mechanically each franchise has three aspects (Gym, Library and Credit Cards). Dice get divided among these and they can be called on during the game as a resource. The tension arises from the players trying to build up those dice and fighting against their depletion. If the players run out of dice, they're forced to take a bank loan of more dice. You end up with a light framing system for a fairly abstract game.

The second edition of HeroQuest converted the game to a generic version. However some of the roots of its Gloranthan past can be seen (beyond the bit of setting material in the back of the book). Glorantha as a setting focuses on groups and communities-- they essentially define the characters and often provide the frame for campaigns (especially for Orlanthi or Sartar games). Even characters outside of conventional kinship or other groups have themselves defined by that break. The Humakti Deathlord is a dangerous outsider not only because of his god, but because he has split from the ties and support that help explain a person.

HeroQuest abstracts many aspects. The system for community construction has some nice details which make it portable over to other games. Each community is defined by a set of abilities (Wealth, Military, Artistic Merit, etc). The players or group may set these aspects at the beginning of the campaign and assign them values. The abilities then provide a resource the players may draw upon to aid them in the course of their adventures. They have to be careful not to deplete or squander them, as there are consequences. The rules have guidelines for crisis tests, bolstering community resources and other factors. All in all it presents a decent (and simple) set of rules for GMs who want communities (of many types) as a presence in their games but don't want a lot of book-keeping.

Weapons of the Gods
Weapons of the Gods has two approaches linking players to communities. On the one hand, WotG “monetizes the setting” to use Ken Hite's description for it. During character creation (and later) players can buy themselves destiny connections with various groups, ideals, organizations, cults, and so on. At the lowest level you're a member or have friends in something-- or even perhaps a rival or enemy. At higher levels your destiny is tied in with the story of that group. In a sense you can buy into the plots, stories and backgrounds of the setting. In many cases this provides a measure of community connection and support. As executed it is both a fascinating mechanism and obscurely presented mechanic. I had to have Hite give me perspective on how it worked to get what was happening in the rules.

On the other hand, WoTG provides a system for grand-scale actions and play called The Great Game. This shows up in the Weapons of the Gods Companion. The system can be used to work out wars, but includes a component for shaping the destinies of regions, groups and kingdoms. Players can increase resources, set agendas, and play out diplomatic conflict-- though abstractly. The system assumes player management of a group or order-- such as a bandit rebellion ala The Water Margin. But it could also be played out as a tool for figuring out large-scale events in the game world.

Runequest Empires
This is an interesting supplement for Runequest II, Mongoose Publishing's revision of the RQ system. The new version of the Empires supplement seems to roll together information and ideas from the earlier Empires and Guilds, Factions & Cults supplements. I've looked at the previews and some reviews for this, and it is on my list of things to pick up in the future. Empires strives to provide rules for handling three levels. First, the rules can be used so that abstractly players play nations or groups as characters. That's a pretty ambitious project as we saw before with Aria. The rules suggest this might be done as a backdrop or meta-game for a campaign. That's an intriguing idea. I can imagine almost having a Play-By-Email or Forum game going on while the standard fantasy campaign would be happening. Events from that might trickle down to the players-- it might be a nice thing to combine with a mercenary company campaign frame...hmm...

The second level provides rules for characters who manage organizations and estates. They're given a framework and system for resolving affairs, dealing with conflicts and managing events. So I'd assume this would be more for later settled characters-- though again I can imagine an interesting campaign frame coming from this. Perhaps a Gormenghastian household of dueling administrators, seneshals, and butlers. The characters could band together to chart the course of the castle's affairs against rivals. The third level gives rules for building groups and organizations-- which seems to be what it takes from the earlier Guids, Factions, and Cults. I like the idea of players being given access to these kinds of tools and letting them chart the course. This uses Basic Role-Playing but I'm assuming could be easily and generally adapted elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spoiling the Setting? Thoughts on Player Knowledge

A rough draft of some thoughts about how much players ought to know about the game world before playing-- and spinning out of that the implications of player knowledge at the table. This is a start of some thinking about this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Changeling: Dead Giveaways
Changeling the Lost remains one of the rpgs I love and hate at the same time. To explain why I have to give a little background on the setting. In Changeling, the PCs take on the role of people who have been kidnapped from our world. Through trickery, bad choices or random happenstance, they have been pulled over by The Keepers into an otherworldly realm. The process strips away much of the victims soul, caught on the thorns of the Hedge they're drawn through. The Keepers represent dark and awful versions of the fairy stories and the fantastic. During their “durance” these kidnap victims become transformed by their service. Then, somehow, they manage to escape from their service only to return to the real world, a changed person. Time has passed, in many cases they've been replaced by a simulacra or Fetch. Now the characters must hide their changed appearance beneath a mask of illusion. The barely remember what they suffered in the Hedge, and when they do, then run the risk of a breakdown. They must run the thin edge between trying to adapt to human society and embracing their changed nature-- all the time living in fear that their Keeper may hunt them down and steal them back.

I think that's fairly brilliant and provides for a group of characters who begin literally and figuratively lost. Their quest to learn about that world makes for a fascinating campaign: discovering how Changelings in the real world work, finding out about the existence of Fetches, meeting other kiths and seemings, realizing the dangers inherent in the Changeling society, learning about the Courts, discovering what things pose a danger to their sense of self. I love the idea of exploring all of these questions-- except that the main book tells you all of that stuff. It spells it all out, gives all of the details, provides mechanics and seems to assume players will be playing characters who have been around for a while in this society-- a strange choice.

The materials here present the players with a set of expectations. They know about the Fetches from the start and the game provides suggestions on killing or dealing with one's fetch. It talks about the possible mechanical benefits a character can gain from doing that. Right away we've moved from this being an interesting exploratory device to a bag of points which have to be cut open like a magic pinata. The main book also provides a set of expectations about other mechanical options-- Changelings can attach themselves to a business to raise its revenue and be paid for that. I had a player say they wanted to do that-- when I asked them what that would look like, how it would play out they became irritated-- “the book said I could.” They never came back with a description of how that would work and so it fell to the wayside. Changeling also presents some thematic assumptions-- not least of which is that all Fetches are evil and will screw over the PCs. But everything seems to have that underlying poisoned nature to it. Everything interesting and magical, from the Courts to potential allies to the bargains of everyday life get written in the darkest, most paranoid way. Now obviously I'm not planning on running that way, but part of the problem is that “player knowledge” of the book that presents some expectations.

Now there's a bind here I don't have a definite answer for. I do like the mechanics and options the game system does provide, and I do want players to have access to the range of them. One approach to solve that might be to play with a minimal character set up at the beginning-- more of a sketch than a full character. Then after a couple of sessions of play, let the players actually make up their characters. This has the added benefit of the group play setting up some roles and giving people an idea about how they can find their place. I do a minor variant on this process in that after the fourth or fifth session of a point-based campaign I allow players to retool or re-spend their points.

I also don't necessarily want them having to constantly ask about basic details of the setting at the table. I want players to have an understanding of the basic shape and structure of the setting, but not the details. But I do think that some games operate better with minimal player knowledge at the start-- usually games involving some kind of transformation or entry into an liminal world. For example, I think the structure and background of the Vampire universe is more interesting when encountering it without having read any of the stuff. That's how I first hit it-- with that confusion a person in that situation would have and the frisson of discovery as we played along. People told me lies about how things were and I didn't know any better. Call of Cthulhu, Mage, Delta Green, All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Grimm all strike me as games which could benefit from this approach. The best Werewolf game I had was one where I'd forgotten most of what I knew about the Werewolves. I had some player knowledge, but it had been so long I had everything mixed up in my head.

Define Your Terms
In discussing Player Knowledge, I'm using the term in a slightly broader sense than we usually do in rpg discussions, so I'm obligated to provide a reasonable definition of it (per Brad Murray's excellent comments). Usually Player Knowledge refers to the act of ignoring certain things you've heard at the table because your character wasn't present in a particular scene. But I think there are a few broader levels to that.

Mechanical Knowledge means the rules themselves. We can assume equal access to this information among the players. That may not always be the case-- some players may have bought the supplements and others haven't, but functionally there's no reason why everyone shouldn't know the rules.

Story Knowledge means awareness of events which have occurred in the game with the players present. That knowledge may be unequal-- not every scene has every characters. Some players miss sessions. The GM may handle some things away from the table or via email. Some tables may be more or less strict about how a player can pass information. In our group for example, we use the shorthand phrase “Blah.” If a player wants to tell someone's character about a something which happened where that character wasn't present, but their character was, they Blah them. At times the GM may intrude to get some clarification about how that information gets spun or may require some elaboration.

Background Knowledge: can from the flavor, description and history text within the rulebooks (or from source materials). Often this can be kept away from the players. But, as I've suggested, some games build background knowledge assumptions into the rules themselves. Background knowledge also refers to the campaign world itself from other campaigns or outside of table play. The situation becomes more complicated as a campaign rolls on. Unless the story operates with a fairly clear and direct plot, a player entering later into a game may feel lost. Now, how much that will actually impact their effectiveness will depend on how the campaign uses background knowledge vs. event knowledge vs. mechanical knowledge. If the world has existed for several campaigns, the GM needs to be careful about how much they tip the hat to previous events and characters or risk alienating new players.

Games Requiring Player Information
Some games take a deep approach to the world. The question here isn't one of volume of information-- but rather how that game background and information gets played out at the table. The depth and structure of the system means Ars Magica is a high background game. The GM will likely assume players have a knowledge of what magic looks like (beyond the mechanical aspects), what the covenants look like and what wizards do. Depending on the GM, the players may also be thrown in situations which assume some knowledge of medieval culture and society. I think that kind of assumption makes people react negatively to the idea of a historical game-- the sense that they're going to be tested on the material. But Ars Magica's a fairly unique game and one which has built up a reputation as one for the more historically minded (along with others like Chivalry & Sorcery and Pendragon). Our group played and had some sense of that, but more focused on the fantastic elements of the life of the mages themselves.

Another kind of game which assumes some background knowledge on the part of the player is something like Legend of the Five Rings. There's a great deal of background-- much of it important to playing, depending on the campaign. At the very least the campaign assumes a familiarity with the codes and ethos of the setting. Unlike the historiocity of Ars Magica, L5R presents itself as inspired by history but with its own set of important in play, non-mechanics rules. Players who cross those lines suffer consequences. Mutant City Blues also requires players have some fairly technical knowledge about the setting-- however in this case it is the Quade Diagram, detailing the relation between various super-powers. When investigating a paranormal crime, players will deduce other likely powers (or flaws) possessed by the criminals. In all of these games, players will more often make contact with plots or interactions which presume a higher level of information on their part.

Conventional Knowledge
In some cases we have games that don't require specific knowledge of the setting, only a general knowledge of conventions. Most general fantasy campaigns fall into this category. Even with the extensive detail and world-building of Eberron and Forgotten Realms, I'd be willing to bet most players don't operate with a great deal of knowledge about the setting. The impact of this is that players aren't called upon to have a specific knowledge of the setting-- beyond the general outlines. They won't be penalized for missteps-- the GM will fill in those gaps. Something like James Bond 007 (and other espionage games) follow the same kind of format-- players know and understand the conventions, the get the basic mission details and get rolling.

Dogs, Again With the Dogs
Dogs in the Vineyard takes another approach to player knowledge and control. The premise has characters acting as agents of the Faith in an old west-esque setting. They arrive in town, suss out problems and trying to solve them according to the tenants of their faith. The game does a nice brisk job of defining the character's backgrounds- working those into their skills. There's also a personal trial that helps shape their focus. But the general background of the setting is sketchy-- almost like a second-hand story being told about a place. There's no map, no thick details for the lands the players move through. That's deliberate. The book provides a general sense of the laws, rules and tone of the faith. But it steers away from the specific scripture. Instead players play out their judgments based more on improvised approaches to that doctrine.

The first reaction one might have in hearing about this is an assumption that such doctrine would be absolute, fundamentalist and violent in nature. But the game suggests a goal for the players: the preservation of the community as a whole. The players have to find a way to do that in the face of escalating problems. And they may disagree on a solution which provides another source of interesting tension. I think this sketchy approach is an interesting one: it outlines things lightly not to provide mystery but instead room for the players to develop and create the setting. I imagine different DitV campaign would look and feel vastly different. The GM's actually told not to plan and create-- their job consists solely of setting up a problem for the players to deal with, and adding complications as they go along. There's no world-building in the conventional sense.

Other Approaches
As a middle ground, we might consider something like the toolkit which is All-Flesh Must Be Eaten. In a strange way, this serves a generic system-- but for doing Zombie games. Obviously you can detatch Unisystem from this, but there's no core Unisystem book. Of course there are completely open games-- ones in which the players build the universe as it goes along. There might be a few ground rules but you have a collaborative discovery and building. I've never played any of those (but I'd like to) so I can't really comment on Open Games

Mounting Spoilers on Samurai
Legend of the Five Rings has this massive problem with the mixing of GM and Player specific knowledge-- providing spoiler level info everywhere. In the early Way of the Clans series we get important player-oriented information and mechanics mixed in with revelation of secrets from the background. Even the later Secrets of the Clans series does this-- there's clearly player centered information in the books but also setting breaking ideas and information if the GM decides they want to use that as is. Walking the Way, one of my favorite sourcebooks for the series, offends egregiously on this count. Each spells receives a thick description and then on the page following, a short adventure or scenario. So if a player wants to read the spell material, the potential adventures a GM might use is right across. It seems like this could have been easily solved with a player and then a GM section breaking the two apart. That's never a great solution-- as putting things together invites the reading. But it is better than what we ended up with.

Some Responses
*Player shouldn't read the GM material. True, but the temptation is there. And in some books like L5R, the players can be reading along and suddenly hit things they shouldn't have-- without any real warning.

*Don't worry about it, players can play as if they didn't know. That's true, but if your goal is to make things evocative and interesting, then even the best play-acting in this case is stilted. As I mentioned with the Changeling material, I think it is hard to capture that wonder once the bottle's been opened.

*The GM can change things. Yes, obviously. But if the GM's has to change things, that sort of contradicts the point of actually buying the material. You might change a few things, with the idea that this approach will keep the players on their toes, but that creates a distracting guessing game. Players can get confused about what's changed, what's accepted and how to play. This can lead to them simply disconnecting from the setting.

*The Players shouldn't buy these things. There's a contradiction in that I'm actually glad that most of my players don't buy game materials. On the one hand, I want the game to succeed and sell books but on the other hand I'd like to be able to pull back the curtain on some things myself. There's a strange business contradiction in these game lines. If something's built for a GM, then you've only targeted a small portion of the audience. If it targets GM and player, then you run the risk of putting out info which can undercut the story. And, of course, player-centered information tends to be more rules and character creation options. There's the risk of rules and power creep if the companies continue to move down this path.

My Favorite Approach
A few supplements handles these problems with other approaches. TSR's Gazetteer series for the Known World provides one option. Most (but not all) of these folio supplements included a separate Players Book for the particular nation or culture covered. This provided a general background, map, cultural considerations and usually some mechanical notes for players coming from there. Since these books came saddle-stapled separately from the main book, they could easily be distributed to the players. That's not a bad approach-- and I've seen some PDF-only games which have done the same thing, either as a freebie or as one of several pdfs bundled together. City of Lies had a similar approach, but with a different frame. You have a player knowledge book, but one assembled from various in-game sources. It provided color within the context of the game and also suggested many mysteries. Half-the charm of this was letting the players tease out the secrets. Another supplement I've mentioned is the Kaiin Player's Guide. It takes an open-information approach with a description and discussion of the city-- there is no GM's guide. Everything is presented out in the open with the idea that players will grab on to the loosely described threads and bits to make them their own.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Filling the Empty Chair

Filling the Empty Chair is a 30 page pdf, slightly oversized, providing advice on how to go about finding new players for gaming groups-- predominantly role-playing. It comes from Johnn Four, of which provides a weekly ezine of rpg advice and ideas. That zine recently hit issue 500, so he's been at it for some time. I picked it up because I hadn't really seen anyone put together collective advice for how to find new players. I'd seen the topic often discussed on various blogs and forums, but I was curious about what a deeper look at the topic would do.

Eleven pages of the pdf present the “Best Gamer Finder Websites.” Four makes a point of ordering these in terms of potential reach and possible utility. He provides details for each one (kinds of board, kinds of likely gamers) and gives a few sentences of advice on how to most effectively use the board. Some of these sites I'd heard of, and some fairly obvious (WoTC, other industry boards) but a number I wasn't aware of. I think it is useful to have them together in one place for comparison and easy walk through. Given that these are websites, the author makes a point of suggesting that readers send him email to update him if any of these sites go dark or if they find new websites. He plans to issue updates as that happens. I did notice the absence of RPGeek or even BGG in his listing.

The next major section gives 28 suggestions for actually going out and finding a new player or group. Some of these are fairly basic-- Advertise in Stores, Talking to Strangers. But others seemed more novel, like the idea of making up business cards detailing your gaming interests or answering questions for rpg newbies. Four spend some time explaining each of these ideas, so with a few exceptions, they're not throw-aways. This twelve page section is followed by a little over three pages on how to create an attractive and interesting online profile.

I like that the pdf as a whole is well-hyperlinked, including links to Four's ezine where some of the ideas originally came from. I think the one thing to be clear about is that the product doesn't deal with the thorny issue of what comes after the meeting. Issues of how one tells if a player might be good for your group, warning signs for problem players, ideas for how to screen-- the book doesn't deal with that. I would like to see some of that to flesh out what is here. That's not necessarily a knock against Filling the Empty Chair, but buyers should be aware of tits limitations. Is it worth the $7 for the pdf? I'm not sure. As a general use item, probably not. But if you're in a isolated situation, having just moved or having had a group implode then you will find this handy.

It is an interesting book and given gaps in our group from more recent recruits leaving, probably timely. We've been talking about the best way to go about bringing new blood in. In our case, the question is more one of fit with an older crowd playing narrative games. We have a case right now of having not quite enough people to support two groups on one night, but more than can be adequately handled in a single game-- plus other dynamics at work there.

Additional Note 10/4/10
I should note that in my review I had a couple of questions- the author's done a really excellent job of answering those on his blog. It is a great response (and shows the potential of some e-publishing).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Random Campaign Kernel

Following up from a thought experiment Risus Monkey presented here. Pick three rpg books at from your collection and construct a campaign setting featuring all three. Three random items are:

Spycraft, Foundation Transmissions, and Goblin Markets.

REBELS OF SORCERY: At war with the magical surveillance state
The Empire of the Hours rules the land, controlling carefully the everyday lives of its citizens. By carefully and measured control of the forces of magic, the Empire maintains peace and extends the Encircling Wall slowly outwards, bringing new realms and lands under its sway. Guided by the Calculation Philosophies of the Foundational Prophecies, the Arcane Cabinet stands secure in its right and necessary success.

But not all magic lies under the control of the Empire. The Arcane Actuaries and Rectors of Mana cannot account for everything. While some sites and ways lie outside the Encircling wall, others bubble up within the Empire. Most dangerous of these are the Goblin Markets, moving sites of wild magic where creatures from the other side deal in terrible treasures and forbidden arts. Such things cost dear, but to those wishing to throw off the yoke of the Empire of the Hours must take such risks. Can the powers of cobbled together hedge magic stand against the systematized workings of disciplined wizardry?

Players take the role of either rebels from within the walls or agents from beyond. The group must uncover plots, release chained gods, find ancient artifacts, subvert the rituals of control, make contact with other cells, recruit new agents and so on. While they have picked up a scattering of skills and talents, which may not be enough. The Goblin Markets serve as places of refuge within the Empire-- doors appearing the uncertain alleys and abandoned sites. But even there they must be wary against the Empire's Rector-Informers and the native Goblins and other creatures. Gifts and powers may be available, but the agents must wager much to gain them.

Genre: High-magic fantastic espionage and subterfuge.
Style: Gritty to an extent-- heroic in the face of constant threat
Theme: Bringing down an Imperial central authority which has chained and controlled magic for itself, creating a planned and regulated sorcerous society.
Inspiration: The Invisibles, Perdido Street Station, Rats and Gargoyles, Face in the Frost, Children of Chaos, even Harry Potter

Disgraced Mystic: The character once served in the ranks of the Thaumatological Assayers, but a simple mistake combined with a lack of political acumen forced them out. Now they use their former knowledge against the Empire-- but their face is known making any move that take even more risky.

Prodigal Daughter/Son: Until the day they dragged her father away into the Ivory Vaults, she had no idea of his rebellion. That saved her then, but now she seeks to avenge that loss having found his secret notebooks detailing the atrocities and vulnerabilities of the Imperial forces.

Shamanic Agent: The Empires pushes outwards slowly and inexorably. Some have fought openly against it, and failed. Some have taken a more careful approach, sending in agents armed with subtle, different and powerful magics in the hope of finding some way to save their homeland.

Goblin Tradesman: A specialist in the art of negotiating with the creatures from the Other Side, loosely called Goblins. He's always managed to stumble into the market, no matter where it is. A risk-taker who fights against the wizards lords mostly because it is the biggest gamble of all.

Godtouched Noob: Even the divinities have been subject to the powers of the Empire of Hours. Some small gods fled and hid themselves away, to awaken later. This character finds himself on the run for reasons outside his control-- as the Conjurers Generale seek to rip out his god...and his soul with it.

Cursed Supernatural: Some wild magics still exist and manifest from time to time. This character has been struck by one of those-- perhaps suffering a transformation under the light of the full moon. Such uncontrolled manifestations are highly illegal and carefully watched for. Joining the rebellion offered the only possible safety for him.

Idealist Cell Leader: He dreams of a better world, where magic can be used freely by all for the common good-- rather than being controlled and regulated by the authorities. While he hopes to open everyone's eyes to the true face of the Empire he know that task won't be easy...or without blood.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Points, Dogs, October, Lists, and Anniversary

Giving Out Points
Back when I first started this blog I wrote a post on RPG mechanics that I always ignore, but keep popping up in rule books. I've got a new one to add to that list.

Variable Experience Rewards
The excellent Old School gaming blog, A Paladin in the Citadel, reminded me of this recently. He's been looking at early games at how the logic of their experience point reward structure impacts play and game. He's hit The Fantasy Trip and the Holmes Basic DnD for example.

I remember those things from when I played when I was younger, but I also remember those going out the window pretty early. Except in rare cases, whoever ran almost always just threw out either a lump sum to be divided or just an equal fixed number. Then at some point we started playing original Rolemaster. The GM who ran that (based in a Hârn analogue setting) always went through and tracked damage dealt, relatively levels, treasure found and distance traveled for individual experience. The system provided an unfortunate feedback loop which fed players who did well and screwed those non-damage dealing ones. Of course you'd see that as a problem later in some computer games and MMORPGs. The breaking point came for that system when he transported us to a Gamma World like setting and we went cross-continental in a hovertube. Immediately we demanded the experience associated with a journey of that length. Eventually since RM had development points per level spent on skills, the GM just gave out DP instead of Exp.

When we moved to games with points built in, like GURPS & Champions, the system became a little easier and we tended to have a single consistent reward for all players each session. Most games had individual mechanics for singling out and rewarding players. Usually we ignored those. In practice in long-term campaigns I saw one of two effects. If the GM gave out those bonus points, there sometimes arose a question of fairness-- and the GM would have to effectively rotate the gifting of those bonuses which negated the system. On the other hand, player vote systems really depended on the group. I saw groups which could handle it and rewarded well. On the other hand I saw established groups where the system rewarded on play of a certain kind-- only within the conventional expectations of the players. Any play outside of those lines became ignored.

Eventually I gave up on those totally when groups would actually track and realize that someone hadn't gotten bonus points and make sure those went to the person left behind. Again, the same effect as giving the same number to everyone. Now, for reward, I tend to use drama or hero points, a temporary resource. Since it is decoupled from power and relative ability, but has real effect, it doesn't create any tension at the table.

Vincent Baker
I think I mentioned that I picked up Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard from GenCon. It is a very interesting piece of rpg work-- Sherri really likes it. It represents a lot of the work going on in "indie" gaming today. In any case, all of Vincent Baker's games are currently available in a pdf bundle for $25.

Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Kill Puppies for Satan, In a Wicked Age, Poison'd and Mechaton

That last one may be of appeal to Kaiju.

I'm looking forward to reading through those. The great rpg blog Risus Monkey has been looking at Apocalypse World and it has me intrigued. I'm curious about what that's like. Vincent Baker's an interesting writer and I have the feeling that while these might not be games I'd run/play they will give me some ideas.

RPG Review October
Last year I spent a month of blogging and tried to write a game review every day. I'm going to do that again for the month of October. My goal is reviews of 900-1000 words. I many games I want to to reading overviews of: Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, various Roman rpg books, Changeling: the Lost, Nameless Streets, and so on. Wish me luck on that endeavor.

I should mention a couple of Geeklists over at RPG Geek. Over time, I've been posting the Planescape/Black Company session reports which Dave wrote. I put together a geeklist of all those I've posted so far. I also did a Geeklist on Magic Systems from my earlier post and people have added some new ones which hadn't occurred to me. Finally there's a great list on RPGs You Think Need A New Edition.

Wedding Anniversary
OK, last but not least by any stretch. Yesterday was our 14th wedding anniversary. We got married on a Monday-- because we thought it would reduce the possible size of the wedding and on the calendar it said Vernal Equinox, Japan (Tentative). How an equinox could be tentative is a question I still haven't hit wikipedia up for. It was also pointed out to me yesterday that Sept. 23rd is Nintendo's birthday. So, see...there's a pattern.

Sherri's my favorite gamer-- I love playing with her at the table. I remember roping her into the GURPS game back in 1995 and being shocked at how good she was right away. She put up with some terrible players at the table (*kof* Dave Fink *kof*) too. I was so used to characters who either had no family or a really problematic ones that her character Cedra Byrne having a solid and supportive one really threw me. Cedra remains one of my favorite PCs. Her character Tobias Crank in the Freakish Band of Adventurers campaign was another one of my favorites, a chummy and relentlessly optimistic dog-person. She ran a Rolemaster campaign that I really enjoyed-- with great backstory, excellent NPCs and a kind of unforgiving plot. Admittedly she was better at prep than table management, but it was her first game. I was sad that a couple of really terrible and ungracious players managed to ruin that campaign for everyone else.

We haven't gotten as many chances to play on the same side of the screen as I would like. Kenny ran a SWAT game that we loved and we really enjoyed playing off of one another. I'm hoping we'll get another good campaign like that in the future. I'm enjoying all the campaigns she's in right now and I have no doubt that she'd veto any attempt on my part to close up and of them.

That's all goofy games stuff, but the bottom line is that I'm incredibly lucky. We have a great and equal partnership-- both taking responsibility and keeping up the work while at the same time equally enjoying ourselves. She's got at holding back on the “I told you so...” even when they are deserved. She sees things more clearly than I do many times, but she still lacks an accurate sense of time. She's the person I most enjoying time with in the world and I wouldn't be anywhere near as happy as I am if it weren't for her.

/end over-sentimentality

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Laws of Magic: Unique and Evocative Magic Systems in RPGs

Most fantasy games deal with magic, and most of those have some form of spell-caster: mage, wizard, druid, sorcerer, cleric and so on. Many games follow a classic D&D approach: big lists of spells, some distinction based on caster type, but a fairly generic approach to the magic (even if some spells have cool names...Bibgy where art thou?). Later versions added things like feats, sub-types, class abilities and so on. A parallel track came from generic systems-- like GURPS and HERO-- allowing players to adapt the system to any purpose with a point build.

I want to talk about RPGs which do one or both of two things. First, they provided a new or novel mechanical approach to handling magic- not the basic spell list or generic track. As you'll see in some cases I'm reaching back a bit to look at games which affected later developments. Second, the magic system deepened the ideas, themes and background of the game setting. Instead of simply being a rules set, the mechanics and background in the game showed the players something about the world. Or, as they played out at the table taught a lesson (see Call of Cthulhu). Some games I've listed because they do one of these things, some rare games because they do both.

I've left a lot off because my experience with it suggested that it either wasn't particularly novel or interesting or didn't really support the unique flavor of the setting. For example Eden's Witchcraft, The Magic Box, and Dungeons & Zombies all have systems that seem pretty ordinary to me. They have some setting specific flavor in places, but not enough that the color my thinking about the setting. As opposed to that, classic Runequest had three types of magic in an attempt to provide some color, but it still felt close to conventional systems and much of the material got recycled from caster type to type. At least there was an attempt to tie magic closely into the cosmology and world background. Some may disagree with my decision not put that here.

I should also point out that I'm talking about spell systems, rather than just magical abilities. Exalted has a good deal of magic in it, but spells and spell casting represent only a fraction of that. The spell system itself takes a very small-list approach. Spells have strange, grand and powerful effects but there aren't that many to choose from. The rest of the “magic” of the game comes from charms and martial arts, which are effectively powers rather than spells. That's why I'm leaving off things like Changeling: the Lost's contracts or the alchemy of Promethean in that while they're magical effects, they aren't really spells. I'd say Scion, which calls some things 'spells', makes those just look like weak powers.

Obviously there are a great many games I haven't read or seen and that's what I'm curious about-- what is out there and good? Please feel free to comment on things you think should be here-- but say why they provided a new mechanical approach or deep setting experience.

Call of Cthulhu
Probably the first game to break the spell list mold. Dispensing with classes, anyone could learn spells but these had to be acquired during the course of play from awful named tomes. No game had approach things like this before. Even more importantly, the magic presented could easily annihilate the casters themselves. Spells in CoC destroyed sanity, often had other horrific costs and put the players in the path of forces they could not possibly hope to control. The magic system supported that a theme of players out of their depth. Later supplements and editions would make magic a little more common and books and little more readily available.

The original Elric rpg published by Chaosium in 1981 had a very different magic system than any game. Stormbringer came out in the age of completely random character generation-- you could end up a Sorcerer prince of Pan Tang or a degenerate dwarf beggar from the land of Org. Characters with the right background and decent stats had access to Sorcery which, rather than spells, involved the summoning and binding of things. Most basically, sorcerers could summon elementals (one type at the beginning and then potentially learning more later)-- so an Air Sylph, an Earth Gnome and so on. Each could produce a number of minor effects, but player could bind more to provide a pool to draw from, and multiple elemental could reinforce one another. The rules give pretty wide latitude in handling this, “Players may invent powers or attributes for their bound [elemental] so long as the invented use seems reasonable to the GM.” That's a pretty narrativist concept for a game from 1981.

But higher rank mages (you rose by casting magic and having your stats rise in the course of the game) could summon and bind demons. Characters learned how to summon one type at a time. Using them required a struggle for summoning, binding and control which a player could lose. Assuming a player bound a demon, they received got character points to make up their demon and create effects. Demons of Combat could be made into warriors or more importantly weapons for the PCs to use; the same with Demons of Protection but for armor, guardians and wards. Demons of Knowledge could be invoked for answers or teaching. Demons of Travel could move terrestrially or across dimensions. Demons of Desire could grant wishes or provide more carnal services. Demons of Possession could take over a body to control it. The system had plenty of room for abuse as well as a real flavor of the novels.

At the highest levels, the characters could call upon the Elemental Rulers, Beast Lords or even the Lords of Chaos and Law, a risky endeavor with pretty wide-ranging effects. Pacts and bargains were required, but promised a great deal to the PCs who had access to that. Imagine if you had to run Stumpy the Dwarf in a game where your fellow PCs had access to those abilities. When Stormbringer was revised and evolved into Elric, random homeland and occupations got taken out. But the magic system also got a hard reboot-- making it into a more conventional system, with classic spells and effects which could be learned. Summons and invocations remained, but became more difficult and secondary-- while at the same time the rules ended up smoothed out and balanced.

Ars Magica
I'd argue that this game spawned many of the later new and novel approaches to spells and spell casting in rpgs. While there'd been some add on materials for magic in the early days (Compleat Alchemist), some tools for building spells (Fantasy Hero) and some setting evocative systems (Runequest) before, Ars Magica set the bar for magic systems which allowed improvisation and construction; had logical and mechanical consistency; and provided magic which reinforced the setting. The first edition of Ars came out in 1987, but it hit more attention with the second edition in 1989. Reading through the various editions you can see the evolution from a game with a core magic system and a medieval setting, to a medieval game with a strong focus on the ideas and ways of magic.

There's a good deal to like in Ars Magica outside of the magic system (the troupe style, the world building) but magic system is pretty awesome. It has to be since playing mages and dealing with their researches and daily lives takes up the majority of the game. The structure of the Houses, more refined and consistent with each edition, gives depth to even the most basic activity. If you want a game where you can dwell on the fiddly, life bits, this is it. My wife spent hours working on various herbalism-based magical approaches in line with the rules of 3rd edition.

Wizards in Ars Magica learn primarily through developing ranks in two separate aspects. On the one hand, there are the five techniques: creation, destruction, control, perception and transformation. On the other hand, there are the ten forms (animal, air, fire, mind and so on). Spell effects work from a combination of a technique and a form. So a breathing spell might be Creo Aurum (Creation + Air). The spell's power and scope sets the difficulty. Mages learn individual and specific spells, but can also attempt to cast improvised magic with great difficulty. In addition, a number of medieval philosophical and cultural limits affect what spells can do and how they're conceived. Players can spend their seasons developing new spells, researching items, and a host of other magical activities.

If the game just had that central engine it would be pretty great. But it also provides a number of other sub-systems and modules within that. All kinds of classic wizard archetypal activities can be simulated in the game. Plus the game presents a rich political and social world of individual covenants as well as the order of mages. A number of supplements provide approaches to other kinds of very different magics as well: The Hidden Paths: Shamans, Kabbalah: Mythic Judaism, and The Mysteries for example are all worth reading for GMs. For any gamer wanting to run or play in a campaign centering on wizards and their lives, Ars Magica is a must.

Mage: the Ascension

When White Wolf first teased Mage: the Ascension back in 1993, I assumed it would be simply a modern version of Ars Magica. After all, WW had the rights to Ars for a while and you had the Tremere connection between the two. When it came out, we got something fairly different. We still had some tenuous connection of the historical line in the order of Hermes. But we got magic that worked from a completely different philosophical basis-- one with a post-modern approach. In M:tA, reality is consensual and Mages can manipulate and change that reality-- but using a distinct world-view arising from their tradition. In this they're opposed by enemies who want a static reality and by the universe itself. Mages can transform the world, but if non-mages see those changes, it creates paradox and a backlash. So the easiest magic is that which is coincidental, or done such that observers won't notice the effects.

The earliest magic system was kind of a mess, but the rules tightened and improved in later editions. Players could learn repeatable spells as rotes, but generally the system encouraged improvised magic. Where Ars Magica had set some standards for freeform spell casting, Mage took those a degree further with restrictions and balance built into the cosmology of the game itself. I'm a sucker for the Mage background and I think the system works-- and provides a great deal of color and freedom. I have looked at the nWoD version of this, Mage: the Awakening. While a number of concepts remain-- a universe which creates backlash against those who tinker with it too much-- it also seems to focus more heavily on set spells, rotes and established lists. Improvised magic ends up significantly weaker, which seems a shame.

Castle Falkenstein
This has an interesting approach on two fronts. On the one hand players learn magics from grimoires and through particular Orders. It falls into the category of games with a relatively small number of spells a player will actually learn. There's a nice sense of history and tradition to the magic there. Picking spells implies certain kinds of experiences, life and connections. It fits well with the alternate Victoriana Steampunk setting. The Book of Sigils, which expands the magic system, remains one of my favorite supplements and my hands down favorite fluff text.

But beyond doing a great job of reinforcing the setting, Falkenstein provides a new mechanics for magic. CF uses playing cards for numbers and resolution. Drawing cards from a separate deck represents the gathering of energy from one of the four aspects. Drawing takes time (two minutes) so magic ends up a more ritualized than instant affect. A mage can’t hold energy and mixing elements (based on suits) can create harmonic effects. Other details include battles of will, the use of arcane engines, artefacts, and magical thread unraveling. The system nicely echoes the existing system while providing easy mechanics that help define magic in this game universe as distinctly different from the usual fantasy game.

Legend of the Five Rings
I'm of two minds about the L5R Magic system and almost didn't include it here. I don't think it does anything particularly innovative. Shugenja learn a small number of spells, broken into five elemental types. Casting requires a test and casters can increase the effects and parameters of their spells by taking an increased difficulty. The overall system's pretty simple, so the magic system doesn't need a lot of mechanical chrome.

But there's a kind of mish-mash charm to L5R in the first and second edition of the game. As supplements and splat books came out the system tried to deal with the concept of the different clans having different approaches to magic. So we got the Unicorn and Crane clan working with different forms of item magic, the ishiken of the Phoenix, and the ancestor magics of the Kitsu. These weren't particularly balanced-- and in some case weren't particularly well described. The distinct magics of the Kuni and the Yogo for example ended up more hinted out than dealt with fully. But I think out of that mess arose a really interesting set of thematic elements-- creating a distinct feel to the magic of the setting. Beyond minor details like the need to cast from scrolls, mages from different clans could feel very different and might use different resolution systems. L5R also presented my favorite magic supplement, Walking the Way. They took the idea of a smaller spell list and ran with it-- giving each new spell serious attention with discussion of how a GM might integrate it into a scenario.

Unknown Armies
Unknown Armies has an approach to magic which mirrors the game's own insanity. The game presents two approaches to magic. The first and most readily accessible to PCs is the path of spell-casters as obsessed paradox inducers. Each kind of spell casting has a distinct set of spells, requirements, and taboos. For example the Dipsomancer has to drink to generate a magical charge, and to generate more potent charges they have to drink more or rarer forms of alcohol. On the other hand, if they sober up they lose all of their magical charges. The formula spells for Dipsomancy revolve around applying your drunkeness to others, seeing with beer goggles, drunken luck and so on. Plutomancy revolves around money (can't spend too much or lose their powers), Epideromancers scar their own flesh (for the power to manipulate it), Pornomancy does what you think it might. Each school also has some guidelines for improvising effects and the rules present suggestions for building paradoxical styles.

The book also allows players access to another form of magic, but one which grants access to talents and powers rather than specific spells. In this case the players follow the path of a magical Archetype trying to emulate those aspects and in turn gain influence from it. Mind you, the players can easily become crazy following that road. Unknown Armies in the first edition has a couple of really nice sourcebooks, Statosphere and Postmodern Magick. They're worth it for anyone interested in a set of ideas for modern magic which feels closer to John Constantine and W.S. Burroughs than Harry Dresden. I've used it as the basis for NPC magic in a campaign-- because it looks so crazy and insane from the outside. One of my favorite bits is a discussion of the advantages of a magical blast over a gun. Magic does less damage but you can sneak it in places and seeing people cast it forces a severe stress check.

The Black Company
This campaign sourcebook for d20 does reworks many things-- classes, damage, grand warfare-- for the dark and gritty settings. It does that for magic as well-- with a complete reworking of d20 magic. That system is at once risky, potent, grainy like the novels and at the same time one of the most flexible and rounded freeform systems I've seen. When Green Ronin adapted some of the M&M basics to create True20, they adapted this system over. The system can also be found in True Sorcery.

In short, being a magic user requires a particular feat. Mages (and I'm using the term generically) learn a Spell type (such as Afflict, Figment, Necromancy, Shadow Mastery and so on). Each type has some base effects and parameters. The mage decides what they wish to attempt and then calculates a DC for a casting test. That DC raises as the character increases basic effects (such as number of targets, range, damage, etc). Some spell types have different augmentations which be applied or are restricted. Casting time rises as the spell's difficulty increases. So does the spell energy cost-- which can be paid for from the caster's own pool or by the use of sacrifices. The system has a great deal of additional and relatively easy to apply color for things like Taint, True Names, and Blending Effects. It is a remarkably versatile magic system which is both internally consistent and also manages to capture the flavor of the original books.

GURPS Thaumatology
I ran GURPS pretty solidly and continuously from about 1985, when it was called Man-to-Man up until about 2005. By the end I'd filed off the serial numbers on the system-- reducing complexity and ignoring material that slowed things. But the magic system remained a problem-- while detailed, it ended up limiting mages. I could go on with this and I'm sure many will disagree. But the problem boiled down to magic been seen as potentially unbalancing at a tactical level and a host of mechanisms put in place to restrict and straight-jacket them. It made magic unfriendly for new players and really only effective in the hands of power gamers willing to sacrifice versatility and interesting approaches for the ultimate build.

When GURPS went to 4e, I hoped that many of those problem would be solved. However GURPS Magic was a hack cut-and-paste job from the previous books with the only changes being to correct a couple of mechanics shifts. By this time I'd given up on GURPS. But I still bought GURPS Thaumatology which promised to provide new variety. It does-- there's a lot of good material there and interesting approaches to magic. Spirit Magics, Rituals, Unlimited Mana, and so on. However the point costs and restrictions to everything, especially the freeform system still approach magic as something which needs to be hamstrung. The book has many good ideas, but there's a ton of mechanical stuff also clogging the works. I have to mention it as providing a unique array of approaches to the idea of magic in rpgs. However I think it is only useful for the most serious GM looking at magic systems or the die-hard GURPS GM..

I should point out there are some interesting variant magical approaches to be found in a number of the GURPs 3e supplement books-- ones which don't simply add new spells or modifiers: Celtic Myth, Spirits, and Voodoo for example.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Campaign State Update

Every few months I like to do a quick run through of the current state of my rpg campaigns. Right now I'm running four games, plus playing in one. Outside of that, I ran short Star Wars rpg campaign which I've already discussed here and here. We've had some player changes in a couple of games and had to reschedule several due to summer schedules. In some cases we've been able to work out make-up sessions, but we've had to skip quite a few. Generally everything plays every other week, usually starting about 7:30 (but actually getting underway at about 8-8:30). I'll admit to being old enough that 11pm is the new midnight, just as ten years ago, midnight was the new 2 am.

Libri Vidicos (Steampunk Harry Potter-esque ; System: Action Cards)
We're in the middle of Year Three of the campaign, which is about 3 ½ years of play in real time...maybe more. I always planned the campaign as having a five-part arc, so this represents the middle book of the series. That means it is perhaps a little boated, subject to exposition and potentially the the place for a darker turn. We've seen a little of that. At the end of the last school year, the Headmaster died and a new one (who dislikes the PC group) took over. That meant some significant changes. The group also had an extensive summer vacation adventure ending with them seriously injured and fleeing from a fight-- the first time they've encountered that. That had a serious impact on both the players' behavior, but also the characters'-- some have used it as an opportunity for development.

This campaign arc still has a looser feel (from my PoV) than the previous years. We have had several major elements: other schools visiting; the rival school of Codici Malefactus; an enemy agent instructor; the dueling student councils; a loose enemy necromancer; the Elves; and the Headmistress' plans. It will be interesting to see how those mesh together-- I also have a number of individual sub-plots that need some development. I'm working through some of the narrative pay-off for the classes they've taken, but I fear we're going to be in Year Three for many more sessions. That's not entirely a bad thing, especially it it feels like the plot is cresting a hill. Once at the top I can accelerate downhill for the rest of the arc. Recently, we had an interesting session where the group played other characters. Eventually I want to come back and blog about the results of that. Currently I've set up a field trip and a dance which I hope will cover most of the social interaction plots for a bit. That might let me move forward and get to the end of the first semester. Last session had the exploring of a town and two PCs participating in an underground student death race club.

Pavis (High Fantasy with Gloranthan elements; System: Action Cards)
We've moved on to the third major story arc for the campaign. The First Act gave background and brought the group together to gain revenge on those who destroyed their village. The Second Act revealed more details about the origins and goals of those enemies. In the Third Act they're confronting some of those plots more directly and gathering resources. We started the campaign with a full table of six, and later lost two players. One of them I simply wrote out-- the character never existed-- as it seemed the easiest way to handle that. The other I shifted to NPC status because I thought they might serve a useful purpose. However, I've done almost nothing with them storyline-wise. I might have been better off also retconning them out also, since that's a dangling thread.

The new player dropped in extremely well-- he follows a god of being overlooked which explains why the players kept forgetting about him for the first part of the campaign. That's a nice device and one which has been fun at the table-- it has given me some solid plots and material. I've done some more work with the individual stories and backgrounds of the PCs (with one exception that I need to fix). A couple of the characters have been working on a secondary communal project which I always like to see. The leader of the party has also been good about dealing with local bureaucracy and building a safe place for the group. I have let lie the idea of the players defining the stories of their gods for a while, and I need to bring that back to the front.

Right now they're out of the city on an extended quest to deal with another manifestation of their adversaries. Then that quest got sidelined by another sub-plot a player randomly sparked, leading to their ownership of a giant walking castle. We'll finish off this set of sub-plots and then get them back to Pavis, their home. They like the city and playing around there. I imagine that like a diver coming up for air, returning to Pavis refreshes the group. The city serves as a safe point-- I will threaten it, but it provides a secure place for the PCs for most of the campaign.

On a mechanical note, the game seems work well with the slightly revised Action Cards system. I still need to get the next set of profession tracks done, but everything else seems hold together. The magic system remains an improvement, but needs tweaking before the next version. I think a few more rules won't hurt it and some example spell building would help. The game continues to feel good at the table-- so my original sense of wrapping it up by the end of the year is probably off. I have spoken to them about what I have in mind to run after this: possibly a Lunar Empire campaign about the battles between noble houses; a reboot of my Exalted Dragonblooded Crux campaign; or another chapter of my Scion campaign. It is pretty good group and I think they are willing to try anything.

Changeling (Changeling the Lost; System: Action Cards)
This continues to be a really interesting and enjoyable campaign for me, despite a couple of bumps in the road. We had a player leave the game which required some reworking. Because I'd given that character ties and connections to a number of subplots, disentangling those has been difficult. My druthers would have been to edit the character out as I did with the Pavis campaign, but that wasn't feasible here. Instead I've been working to snip the threads of those plots or redirect them as much as possible. The character's essentially written out-- but I'm waiting on another PC to answer me about how they want to deal with those details.

On the plus side we added two new players which has provided some interesting moments. The campaign originally began with the PCs having to find their way in this strange, new world of the Freehold. Now two of those PCs have to serve as guides for two newer PCs going through the same set of problems they did when they first arrived. I think that's a great device to show the continuing PCs just how far they have come.

I should note that this actually works to fix a perennial problem. New players in existing campaigns often find themselves lost. They don't know the big plots, lack a sense of the geography or have no connection cast of characters. This approach embraces that uncertainty-- the continuing players have to explicate the ideas of the setting. The new players have the chance to play lost and willing to take action because they don't know better. This can prevent some of the paralysis players may feel entering into the web of plots of a long-term campaign.

I keep using the word plot, but as a recent blog post I read pointed out to me, I'm doing less plotting than creation of incident. The Changeling game's the least scripted/directed of the campaigns. Admittedly I plan out a few events, but generally I hope that the players will interact and change those. I try ti think of what will happen if those plots remain untouched-- then player contact whittles away or diverts them. In some cases the group deals with them, in others they don't. As I mentioned in my post on victory-- I think it is important but at the same time difficult to make it clear to players when they've affected things. The genre conventions of the Changeling game mean that a good deal goes on behind the scenes. I need to be careful about that and not conceal their successes.

That being said, I enjoy throwing new events and ideas at them. The group's also been good recently at deciding that they will follow up on something or create a new plot from whole cloth. I threw in an evil “Cancer Fruit” a goblin found as a random piece of color for the game. Sherri suggested that if there was a such a fruit, there must exist a balancing healing fruit out there-- setting up a future quest I hadn't even considered. I should also note I don't usually think of solutions or approaches when I put these things into play. Within ten minutes Shari had come up with a pretty brilliant solution to dealing with the Cancer Fruit itself that drew on some plot threads which we hadn't touched for a while. Good stuff.

White Mountain, Black River (Wuxia martial-arts fantasy; System: Homebrew)
I still really enjoy this campaign despite the fact that it has more mechanics than the other games (which throws me as a GM sometimes). Unfortunately it ends up being the campaign which gets bumped the most-- especially this summer. But the characters are great and I've enjoyed really reveling in the goofy wushu plots of this game. While there's some great over-the-top combat and magic going on, I do have a kind of central plot thread that I manage to push forward a little more each session. This is a more scripted game than the others. That being said, I do try to base what happens on the players' desires. As an example, this last session I'd mapped out an investigation with some core clues and other details. The players, after some bouncing around followed the trail. But then we got to a place where I'd figured their next step would be to move to Point B. Instead they dug in and played around with the scene, forcing my hand. I threw them the wild and wooly combat involving several dozen wushu “ninjas” they seemed to want. It was fun but something I'd planned.

I have some big and epic plans for the campaign and I do want to push things forward. Much like the Pavis game, the group is currently on an arc which takes them away from their home base city. They'll return to that eventually and I can move some plots there forward. I'm borrowing liberally from various wushu rpgs, most notably Weapons of the Gods for the idea of their being those kinds of weapons. However most of the wushu things other than that I've found provide little in the way of scenario or adventure ideas. Most of those they do provide are steeped heavily in the background of that particular setting. I'd like to see a product which has some wushu plot seeds-- not a full adventure but some inspirational material ala Eureka or the scenario constructs of Legend of the Five Rings.

I have been playing in Kenny's HALO game using Action Cards and have enjoyed that. I don't get much of a chance to play and I really only like to commit to things which I know will be short run. But I've liked that quite a bit. It may well be that this evening will be getting bumped as another GM may be taking over for a game I'm not invited to. We'll see what players are left if that happens and perhaps we can put together something else. On the other hand, I do play quite a bit and having some downtime is always good.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ethnicity and Fantastic Worlds

Ethnic Breakdowns
So on my most recent trip to Borders armed with a 33% off coupon I picked up a copy of Maximum City-- a writer's look at modern Mumbai. I like books about cities, but usually prefer histories. While I've only just begun reading it I've been struck by the diversity and detail density of the various ethnic and cultural groupings the author tosses around. They have their own roles, perceptions and independent life. That hit me coming off of a morning of hearing about ethnic grouping tensions in Pakistan and elsewhere. I can recall the arguments back from my college days about the relative importance of ethnic identity-- and the thinking that such identities would end up minimized in a modern, interdependent world. That's certainly proven not to be the case-- with the reduction of the bi-polar world we've ended up with the concerns of smaller and smaller groups driving major issues.

But I suspect I'm also reacting to how casually the writer tosses around these ethnic/caste names and assessments. Perhaps there's a touch of white liberal guilt there-- but I flinch a little when I see those kinds of stereotypes stated so baldly. The author's was raised for a good deal of his life in the West, so that's probably deliberate. But the whole thing struck a familiar chord with me as well. I'd seen that kind of treatment of cultural groups as absolutes before-- in game sourcebooks. Since sourcebooks have to carry information quickly and easily for the readers, they often deal with ethnicity or nations as monolithic. You'll get a weasel word like “typically” but general they stick with a shorthand description and characteristics.

Ethnicity and Fantasy
Of course that got me thinking about how I treat ethnicity and cultural identity within my campaigns, especially in the fantasy campaigns. Ethnicity has two major components in this case: history and cultural behaviors. At least those are the two that the players will most likely have contact with. I'll admit that in my games, these layers often get only minimal treatment for a couple of reasons.

First, players have map and navigate an alien world when they enter into the game. As GMs it is our obligation to provide some easy signposts and markers for the players. So generally, ethnicity is equal to nationality. If a person is from a particular country, then if there are cultural traits of that country they're homogeneous for that country. Those traits provide an “Ur” template which can be measured against. Players have a name for the country/nation and can assign values to those more easily. Unless the game will be long-term in a particular place or if the players have spent a good deal of time within the campaign world, I don't want to slice the groups up into further pieces.

Second, and not too far from that point, is that not dividing those areas up is easier for me. Just as keeping things limited in scope-- based around easy archetypes and stereotypes-- helps the player grasp the setting, it also makes it easier for me to remember what's going on and to sell a particular idea quickly and easily. World buildings a little easier when I can keep things on a nation/country scale. One of the problems with dealing with ethnicities, from my point of view, is the question of detail creep. If one country has a diverse population with several different ethnic groups, then what about others? How do those play into the history of the continent or region? We start getting into questions of dress, accent, cultural modes. I may move to these considerations, but only as they really serve the plot-- and only with some hesitancy.

Overdoing It
There's also the question of highlighting real world problems-- racism, cultural bias, religious tolerance, and even immigration-- in the context of a game. I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don't want to shy away from dealing with interesting and difficult questions. On the other hand, I also don't want to be heavy-handed or preachy about these things. Fiction, especially speculative fiction, often uses analogues to stand in for other social questions. The problem I have is that these are often so constructed, so built to avoid the difficult dimensions of a problem or situation that they lose power. Plus there's the question of complexities of the fantastic situation-- I mean, for example there's a certain amount of biology is destiny implied in racial behaviors in a lot of fantastic fiction-- how do we deal with those. What are the limits of determinism there? The flip side of this lies in some expectations on the part of players. Black and White morality is inherent in a good deal of classic fantasy-- LoTR for example-- and players enjoy playing within those codes. Having the classically “evil” creatures turn out to be good or at least morally neutral-- done as a surprise and with emphasis can be done every once in a while. It should be constructed for a particular moment. Having it happen all of the time, that can be a problem.

I guess the main detail here is about the expectations of the audience. How much of what I do in terms of GMing is for my own satisfaction about the world and how much to serve the player likes and dislikes. I think that's a slightly different question than the one concerning actual play at the table. At the table, I think player interests and desires trump GM desires. But in terms of building the world and developing background, I think there's a greater level of parity in terms of what I create.

I do worry about various events and structural set ups in my games being taken as advocating a political position. I don't want to be a heavy-handed moralist. I've seen and read too much bad sci-fi and fantasy that hamfistedly takes a real world situation. I don't want to do that-- in either direction. I don't want to sell a particular positive or negative perspective, but I do think there's an inevitability to some of my perspective bleeding through. At the same time I have to recognize that there's a real complexity of class, social heritage, history and so on. A game can only marginally touch on that.

Actual Play Questions
Beyond the historical backdrop there's some question of the actual play at the table. I'm a GM who likes to do voices-- but my skills are fairly limited. So I'm always afraid when I try to do a particular ethnicity. More broadly, I'll admit I'm a little more self-conscious about it when I'm trying to carry off an impression of a hoodlum gangbanger. But I think I'm more ludicrous than offensive.

But the genre and popular senses of it do seem to promote a pretty narrow vision of ethnicity. I hunt various art sites, like Deviant Art and ConceptArt to find images to use at the table to represent NPCs. Finding non-Caucasian fantasy character is really tough. I can find Asian characters-- but more often than not they're either bishonen or dressed in strongly oriental garb. Try finding a black or Hispanic character and you're generally out of luck. I'm more likely to find a character with solid blue or red skin. The problem's not as bad with modern games-- but again, most illustrations of black or Hispanic characters tend to be “street” or gang related.

That's a problem where I've established a particular nationality as having non-white skin. For example, in my campaign I established long ago that the people of Atlantae had dark skin. But that often got forgotten-- and once fantasy images became readily available on the web, I started to make significant exceptions. I tried to establish that the highest of the nobility have the darkest skin, so lighter skinned Atlantaens would exist but be marginal. However that's a kind of apology. It wasn't until Guild Wars: Nightfall came out that I had access to a wide variety of non-Caucasian characters in interesting fantasy costumes.

Nature vs. Nurture
I think the question of Nature versus Nurture lies at the heart of this. Most classic fantasy fiction seems to suggest Nature as dominant. That always makes me a little leery because of the way eugenics and sociobiology have read those ideas. But Tolkien, the grandaddy of fantasy fiction, seemed to hold to that. I think the LoTR movies skirts that, but we have a world were Elves are inherently good, with the “blood” of High Men dividing humans, and so on. I think once PCs come into contact with that world the situation actually becomes more complicated and real.

But I'll point at another game setting which seems to me to have a problematic treatment of heritage as destiny: Werewolf: the Apocalypse. The other big two major World of Darkness books have the players as transformed or educated into a group. If you're bitten by a Vampire of a particular type, you carry on that type. If you're trained by a certain Mage line, you probably take on those philosophies. On the other hand, in Werewolf, you're born into a family. Your line, tribe and type really determine not only your abilities but how the other groups will treat you. You also have issues of in-breeding and the Metis. What always threw me about that is how a modern, liberal perception of equality works out in that society. Not that everyone is equal, but that there should be an equality of treatment. How does that philosophy react when smashed into the hierarchical and hereditary determinism of that society?

In the End
I've run around this topic quite a bit. A game is an escapist fantasy on the one hand, but on the other I don't want an entertainment which reinforces dangerous philosophies. It might be a shallow response, but I do think being able to acknowledge and reflect that these kinds of problems can arise is a kind of answer. I knew of a person who wouldn't let their children read things like Lord of the Rings because it presented a black and white view on good and evil. I think that's more than a little crazy. I do think we as GMs ought to be aware in our world building. On the one hand we want an easily communicable world, but on the other hand we don't want a simplistic world-view.