Iron Game Designer 2016: How Did We Get Here?

Iron (Chef) Game Designer lay dormant from 2009 to 2015; this was the first year we’ve had it run with such momentum from the last. And it worked again, and worked better – we had 50% more people, bigger teams, bigger games and bigger enthusiasm. We’re now looking at doing it again in Sydney in July and also talking to some teachers about running IGD in schools.

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Chairman Kaga welcomes everyone to Boardgame Stadium

But IGD would be nothing without its participants, the brave people who create the amazing work in so brief a time. I’m now cutting together the video we shot on the day (last year’s video is here) and this time I have a tripod to stop some of the shaking (although we had a much smaller, louder venue so the sound may be worse). In the meantime here’s a quick wrap up of the excellent work we saw. Last year’s games explored “Home is Not Safe”; this year’s theme was “How Did I Get Here?” and seven teams explored that in seven different ways…

What Went Wrong was a story-telling card game not unlike Once Upon A Time, where gangsters have to explain to the boss why the heist they just ran went wrong. Like OUaT cards represented ideas (and the teams , but unlike OUaT having a boss adjudicating things, rating responses and throwing out the heist components provide a different kind of concrete basis. That plus the crime theme and the frame of an argument shifting blame made it stand alone and be quite fun. It needed a bit more robustness but this was probably the most playable game of the day, and produced a lot of laughs in all its playtesting.

Journey was the opposite, probably the least developed and complete of the day because I think the boys on this team changed horses with under an hour left when their first idea collapsed. Their quick alternative was a card game about colour matching – each card had a colour of its own and one or two colours it could match to, and the idea was to play along those lines while trying to build up sets of matching locations and matching emotions. It might not have been more than the sum of its parts but the experienced folks in this team made the parts very good: each card had a power as well as a set, so you had to choose the best power, best set-match and make sure you could keep playing cards onwards with the matching. Plus the emotional aspect added something very new to storytelling. Why is the ocean serene or the desert sad? Suddenly things had power. I think this has legs.

The Hero’s Journey shared a name with the former but nothing else because the theme was just the right level of strength. And although the name and Joseph Campbell are very familiar, the angle of this game was like nothing else. Here the players took the roles of mentors guiding the hero through nine life challenges, hoping that he recalls their lessons they raised him with, not those of others. By playing cards to challenges they could direct the hero towards good, evil, chaos and law and hope he ended up in the quadrant that matched their hidden identity. This was still clunky at its core but the storytelling potential and the unique approach of character position made this my favourite game of the day and I hope it goes further.

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Hard at work figuring out how they got here

“I’ll Never Drink Again, Officer” was not unlike Journey in that it was about colour matching, only here your pattern was hidden and you were playing cards to your tableau from a shared deck being passed around, as you struggled to sort out your memories from everyone else’s after a bad night out. What sold this game was the outstanding quality of the cards in question, grouped into suits of meeting celebrities, eating food and breaking laws. The juxtoposition of the cards helped create stories; having “Let the Lions Out of the Zoo” next to “Ate Roadkill On A Dare” made you wonder about the fate of the lions. While the writing was first class, the flaw in this game came in the mechanics – there was no choice in what to play. The crew had spotted this and brainstormed on how to fix it, but never found it. How do you get past blocks like that? I think in 150 minutes, there may not be a way…

Voices in the Forest was hands down the strongest idea mechanically, providing a new twist on the hottest new genre, communication games. You’re lost in the forest with only a few items and three voices on your radio. One you can trust, but the other two want you to stay in the forest and die. Borrowing a bit from Codenames the speakers have a hidden diagram of safe spots and not-safe ones, and a start and an exit, but the 5×5 grid is full of information not for the wanderer but for the clue-givers, forcing them to limit what they can say or how they say it, like the rounds in Monickers. A bluffing hidden-role communication game is a perfect storm of hot new trends. These guys finished earlier, again stuck on how to really develop it to perfection, but also because they really nailed something strong.

Space? was the name and space was the subject, in the sense of travelling through it in tiny vehicles which had random levels of propulsion, trying to avoid crashing into randomly moving wormholes (or make them crash into others). The randomness of this was both a weakness and a strength; it was part of what made the game fun and I think would also help it appeal to younger gamers who like just having the experience. They also wouldn’t mind drifting randomly until a leader emerges to attack; for older players though the first act was a bit empty. This was also the game that would have the longest play time and the prettiest, most exploratory world, and so suffered most from a short pitch with low tech in this format. And super props for using the Trivial Pursuit pieces, turning a bad game into a good one!

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For a blue piece of pie, which bit of space holds my next artifact?

Lastly we had The Walk of Shame which returned to the theme of recovering after a hell of a night out and trying to piece together what you did. Unlike I’ll Never Drink Again, this was an old-school board game with roll and move, tracking back through Brisbane, complete with familiar landmarks on spaces. To balance out the luck of (the these days much-reviled) roll and move you could choose long or short paths, with longer paths allowing you to pick up (but in character spend) extra cash. The winner being the person who spent the most cash the night before and retracing their steps through vomit-stained gutters and prison fines. The reversal of players getting money to represent what their character spent made it nice and kinesthetic, and the Brisbane locations made it wonderfully atmospheric. It was simple but the kind of people keen to re-enact a pubcrawl LIKE simple. Thus I believe this was most marketable game on the day. You could sell it at pubs.

I say it at the start of every competition: I organize this event because participating would be too scary for me. But every year we see bright, enthusiastic faces, excited by the prospect and fearless to the core. Somewhere around the middle they get a bit weary and a bit worried but by the end I see those same smiles, that same enthusiasm and excitement, filled with awe at what they have created and eager to take it further. Is it crazy? Yes. Is it all a bit silly? Yes. Does it make people do things they never thought they could and create excited gamers dreaming amazing new dreams? Oh yes indeed.



Queen For A Day: A DramaSystem Session

“The difference between you and me is I want to be the guy, and you want to be the guy the guy counts on” – The West Wing

Despite contributing to the immense Hillfolk kickstarter (by setting appears in Blood on the Snow, the companion volume), I have never had a chance to play the Drama System contained within – until last weekend. Even better, it was with five amazing players and a brilliant, unexpected set up: instead of a setting, we were given the lyrics of all the songs off Queen II, an amazing concept album of fairies, ogres, white and black queens and the seven seas of Rhye. With that as our palette, we painted.

I took the role of The Master Marathon, and decided that I wanted to be a character who had what everyone wanted – or wished he did. I decided he was the keeper of the power of Endurance, that all who wished to Suffer And Go On owed homage to him. Another player crafted Mother Mercury, also an elemental power, but in charge of hot and cold, now lost in an endless winter from which she seemed unable – or unwilling – to awaken, despite her need to be rekindled. We soon learned she was the ex-lover of the Fairy King, ruler of all the lands of fairy, but weary of his throne and eager for his son to replace thim. That sond was Sir Tristram, a young prince called the Killer of Queens. He was cursed to love the White Queen while the prophecy spoke that if he married her, she would die. Last was General Grimtooth, the King’s trusted long-serving general, also keen to retire so he can spend time with his grandchildren. King and General and Mother and Son, all waiting, all wanting things to finish forever, or start at last, but stuck in time until then, and Master Marathon keen to sell them suffering so they needed him more…

Convention Rules for DramaSystem involves setting up each character via introductory scenes where they ask another character for what they want from them. We began with General Grimtooth asking the King if Grimtooth could train his successor. Grimtooth’s player asked if the King had a name, and someone – doing that fantastic ingame improv worldbuilding that works so well – said “If you knew his name, you wouldn’t have to ask for freedom”. Boom, world creation. The King, by the way, said, in his usual wishy-washyness that it was okay but there had to be contest first to make sure Longfang was the best choice.

On the verandah of the King’s hut, styled not unlike a viking longhouse – Master Marathon begged Mother Mercury to make winter go on forever, for cold men need endurance. She said maybe, if there were other ways to awaken her senses – and what she meant was a rekindled love from her once-husband, the King, but though she begged by the frozen stream’s side, he could not give it. Meanwhile the King begged his son to either marry his love or cut her loose, so he could take the throne unhampered, but Sir Tristram refused, not while the curse hung over him and the Black Queen was still at large, plotting. He went to Grimtooth’s cave to ask the ogre for an army to crush the Black Queen, but Grimtooth refused.

Generally, as is the way of DramaSystem, everyone was being a dick.


Master Marathon, a god who just wants you to want him and needs you to need him

The GM lit the fuse by announcing the Black Queen was coming to seek alliance and continue the ongoing peace, and in the King’s ear she whispered that this would be best sealed by her marrying Sir Tristram his son. Looking down on the two royals meeting in the throne room, Master Marathon whispered to Sir Tristram that what instead was being said was the words of lovers, and Sir Tristram should urge his father to love the Black Queen freely. On the other balcony, knowing the King would visit the Black Queen to cement the peace, Grimtooth demanded Mother Mercury – for her own safety – be his spy within the Queen’s Obsidian Castle. She agreed, fearing too that the Queen would steal her King. To guard against that, she begged the King to let her accompany him in his private pegasus-drawn carriage on the journey, but he said propriety would be violated. And since he was now committed to affairs of state, seeing in their settlement a way out of his eternal agony, he summoned Sir Tristam and told him once and for all to choose the Black Queen or the White Queen, or no longer be his son. Tristam promised to choose by sundown tomorrow.

Huffy and annoyed, Mother Mercury and Sir Tristram made plans to ally against the Black Queen. Mother Mercury then found herself summoned by the White Queen, who begged Mercury for her Winter Touch to end the love Sir Tristram has for her. She had already asked Master Marathon for a gift of strength to lend Sir Tristram which he gleefully gave (for Master Marathon wished Sir Tristram to be slain by the Black Queen, causing his father to be heirless and be forced to go on forever enduring). Sir Tristram, having pledged to choose Black or White needed to ensure he would, if he wed his White Queen, not take her life, so the next morn as the procession of pegasi flew to the Obsidian Castle, he ordered Grimtooth to promise one act of total obedience when called upon. Grimtooth promised his obedience, but bristled at the order.

Seeing his bristling, I (Marathon) suggests that to protect a king’s life, it is no treason to kill a prince. Grimtooth is not at all happy about that, either. Scurrying for protection I decide to ride by the King, who orders me that, when instructed, I pass his Immortal Heart to his son. Pretty sure that the prince will be dead soon I promise to do so. Grimtooth leaves the travelling party and seeks out Longclaw, his best soldier, and orders her, if he moves to strike his masters, to stop him any way she can.  Longclaw knows the only way to stop Grimtooth is with the Sea of Winter, one of the Seven Seas of Rhye, held deep beneath Two-Way Mirror Mountain, and he sends out the Blue Powder Monkeys to find it.

Having reached the Obsidian Castle, Sir Tristram walks the gardens in his grief for his terrible choice – marry the queen he loves and be sure to kill her with his hand, or marry the queen he does not and kill his love with a broken heart. But the White Queen appears and tells him his pain will end if he kisses her. He refuses, even though she says he does not love her if he denies her. Then Mother Mercury joins the party and tells her step-son to kiss for his stepmother, if not for his love.  Forced to it, he kisses his love and Mercury’s spell cools his ardour. Cut to him in his father’s guest chambers in the Obsidian Castle: “I will marry Black” he swears.

Night falls and the silver moon makes the Obsidian Castle shine with black light. I find Longclaw on the parapets awaiting word of her Blue Powder Monkeys but the truth is, I tell her, that I possess the Sea of Winter. Marathon launches into a big thing about how Longclaw will dance for him but Longclaw is a soldier and just beats up Marathon and takes the chalice. Marathon however is not without back up plans, and in the Throne Room that evening he demands either Fairy King or Black Queen deliver justice against uppity ogres who dare assault his regnant person. Sir Tristram gives his Black Queen a proposal gift of Longclaw’s head, after taking it from Longclaw’s shoulders. The Black Queen accepts. Grimtooth grimaces in agony for Longclaw was his daughter

Grimtooth now begs his King for release so he can turn on Sir Tristram. I point out that Grimtooth has no successor now and her soldiers are unruly savages who attack their betters, so the King cannot let his servant free. Grimtooth loses his shit at the traitor Marathon and begins beating the living hell out of him. The King begs us to stop and I see my moment and tell Sir Tristram that Grimtooth will never be his obedient servant when he is so wild and urge Sir Tristram to establish his new kingly reign with proper justice. Sir Tristram challenges Grimtooth to a duel – and uses his promised favour from earlier to force Grimtooth to comply.

But Sir Tristram wonders if the bloodshed is too much and hesitates in battle. Grimtooth smashes the young prince’s sword and mortally wounds him. Seeing his son dying, the King orders me to transfer his Immortal Heart into his son, and I must obey. I lose the chance for the King to go on enduring, but perhaps the now scarred, dark, immortal Prince Tristram will need aid in his endurance. Determined never to harm a Queen with his hand, and shocked at his murderous ways, Prince Tristram adds to his stigmata by ordering Grimtooth take his victory prize by severing Prince Tristrams hands. Grimtooth obeys, but having harmed his prince, ignored his king and lost his daughter, Grimtooth then cuts off his own head.

In a lake of blood, the lack-handed but immortal Sir Tristram marries the smiling Black Queen, free of his curse but shrouded in blood and darkness, and with Master Marathon as his mentor.

But not all is sadness. Freed of his Immortal Heart, the King’s heart of flesh beats anew. And he leaves the Obsidian Castle arm in arm with his old love Mother Mercury, leaving the responsibilities of immortality and reigning behind to love her again. Mother Mercury is reborn, the snows break, and winter ends. What then, of the summer to come?

Perhaps that tale will be told elsewhere.



Niche product producers will not find much joy selling their webspace to internet advertisers. Numbers from a Secret Squirrel RPG Industry Mailing List. Approximates of course.


To give you a rough sense of the math:

1) 40-60% of your audience will use Ad Blocker. They cannot be meaningfully monetized.
2) 30-50% of your audience will be international. They cannot be meaningfully monetized.
3) At less than 1 million ComScore uniques, you are too small for direct representation or notice by ad agencies. You can, at best, get remnant advertising or small direct deals.
4) A typical remnant ad will pay $0.50 CPM for an above-the-fold placement. A typical direct deal for a niche property will be $2.00 CPM for an above-the fold placement. You will get half this for below the fold, or worse. (CPM means cost-per-thousand).
5) You can probably have 2 above the fold ads and 2 below the fold ads per page.
6) You will probably sell only half your inventory directly, at best.
Therefore, imagine you have 200,000 page views, 40% ad blocker and 30% international. You have (200,000 x .6 x .7) 84,000 page views to sell. You will have 84,000 x 2 = 168,000 above the fold ads, of which 84,000 will sell at $2 CPM ($168) and 84,000 will sell at 0.50CPM ($42). You will then have 168,000 below the fold ads, half at $1 CPM ($84) and half at 0.25 CPM ($21), for a total of $315.
If you increase your traffic by tenfold and reach two million page views per month, you are still too small for the economics to change, and can make about $3,150 per month at best – enough to pay one editor a working-class wage. But very few blogs ever approach that level of traffic.
And this does not even take into account the possibility that fans may access your account via mobile or Facebook, where the economics are even *worse*. It is, simply put, impossible to make money from free content at anything short of titanic scale.
You are far better off availing yourself of Patreon and similar services to directly monetize your fans. They will appreciate you not annoying them with ads and you’ll make more money.

A is for Apocalypse

The 200 Word RPG Challenge is crazy. And silly. But all these kinds of contests are crazy and silly. That’s the whole point. By doing something crazy and silly, you shut off the safety-brain that slows you down, and learn how to do that for bigger projects.

Anyway, here’s my entry!


A is for Apocalypse is a roleplaying game for one or more players. It is a simple game of letters.


One player begins by saying “A is for Apocalypse”,and then they describe the nature of the apocalypse. It could be a world-spanning catastrophe, a small domestic one or even an internal one. Use no more than one sentence. Talk for no more than one breath.


The second player (or the first, if playing alone), responds with “B is for But” and explains how they have, at least at first, survived the onslaught.


Players then proceed like this through the alphabet, starting each new sentence with a subsequent letter. Each odd letter introduces a new fact about the apocalypse or a situation within it, an outside effect applying pressure upon the protagonist. The even letters describe how the protagonist resists or overcomes this struggle.


The purpose of the game is to tell the story; the odd sentences should never be so fearsome as to obliterate all hope. Likewise, the protagonist should never become so powerful as to obliterate all doubt.


When you get to Z, the game is over and the story finished.
Advanced Rules: Make each couplet rhyme.

The Sword of Stone

So last year I submitted a story for the Swords Against Cthulhu anthology from Stoneskin Press. It did not make the cut, although they said it came close. I’ve since shopped it around a bit to try and sell it but after a few rejections I’m done with that. I don’t need the money but I do need people having emotional reactions to my work. And also, it’s not my BEST work, which makes it harder to keep selling. And I’m not going to try to fix it because I’ve moved on. So now it’s yours. It’s about 4000 words so I’ve put it in this Read More thang  I tried to but I couldn’t get it to work so just scroll, babies, scroll.

Continue reading

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an old wizard in possession of a rumour must be in want of adventurers. A lot of this applies to all of Austen’s work, if not all of Romantic Fiction (not to be confused with romance fiction, which is something else entirely). I chose Pride and Prejudice because it’s probably the most famous, although personally I prefer Sense and Sensibility and the Ang Lee film of it is amazingly well done. Trick your nerdy friends into watching Austen by running an Ang Lee marathon of Crouching Tiger, Hulk and Sense and Sensibility tonight! And then start learning that:

1. Evil is Petty

Ms Jane is an observational comic, and she observes humanity to mostly be a bunch of mindless, gaggling simpletons so coked out of their brains on banality, supposition, trivialities and misconceptions of their own importance they can barely keep themselves from exploding and Jane’s insert characters can barely keep from vomiting all over them. And everyone’s like this, because this is a Romantic novel; it’s less about who is and isn’t petty but who triumphs by rejecting it, and who is dragged down by their surrender to it. Which means her villains are some of the most recognizable in literature: they are all of humanity’s smallness writ large if you’ll pardon the expression. Which feels far more realistic than the villains in fantasy and much of genre fiction, where the villains are drawn from history and are evil because they will sweep out destruction like Genghis Khan or bring down Empires like the Goths. Austen’s villains are powerful and engaging not because they are dark gods who want to crush the whole world beneath their feet but because they are ignoble prigs who want to crush everyone they meet beneath their feet because those poisonous petty reminders of how much better they are than other, lesser, people are how their dead souls sustain themselves.

Now I know what you’re thinking: you run adventure fiction, genre fiction, not a drawing room comedy of manners; you need vast sweeping villains out to conquer the universe to drive up the stakes, you need Darth Vaders and Merciless Mings. Yes, but remember that both Ming and Vader aren’t scary because they can/do wipe out planets (Earth/Alderaan) – planets are too abstract. They’re scary because of their emotional beats where they behave like children, playing with people like toys, lashing out with murderous force at anyone who makes them feel small. Don’t forget to do that, to make your evil petty as hell. To have them lash out like whiny babies, to demean and undercut their allies and staff, to put their own petty vendettas above the needs of the many or the plan. Not only does this help us hate and pity the bad guy, it helps plots because it gives the bad guys Issues (see point 4 here).

2. Duality Rules

Romantic novels, gothic novels, romance novels, actually this runs in a lot of literature, but Romantic 19th century stuff loves this technique more than most: the way to talk about an issue or a philosophy or a concept or an aspect of human character is by presenting two sides. Jane is simple and beautiful, Lizzie is plain and complicated. Lizzie won’t marry for comfort but her friend Charlotte will. This is emblematic of the duality within characters, of course. Lizzie is prideful, and wishes at times she could be more accepting of the world as it was, like Jane or Charlotte. She hates Darcy for his prejudices but she also finds herself drawn to him because she’s equally disdainful of the world that fails to meet her standards.

Again, I know what you’re thinking: how does this apply to adventure fiction? Because good writing applies everywhere. And it also makes playing a dynamic, interesting, dramatic character easier if you set up a key character element that’s got two competing poles. Conan hates the complexities of civilisation but he is drawn to it over and over again. Batman believes in justice but has to break the law. Hamlet wants to do right but not what people tell him is right. As a player, this is a simple trick to make every character decision entertaining and easy to roleplay out. And as a player or a GM, you can build great dramatic interplay by looking at the duality in your party. Are you the law-abiding paladin? Then yes, your scene arguing with the thief can be boring as hell if it happens in the tavern but if you make it happen in the final approach about what laws to break as they bring down the evil cleric running the town…now you’ve got a game. Back in the tavern, your paladin who loves wine should set up duality by drinking with the straight-edge elf who needs no human stupefactions.

3. Have a Ball

The essential difference between abstract/pure combat games, and games with story is that story involves interacting with the world of the game and the people in it, and the only way to interact with those things is with culture and society. Since Austen is always about culture and society, her big moments tend to be based around big societal and cultural events events: weddings, parties, anything. Those are the times and places where the game of culture raises the stakes and society plays for blood. And it’s not just the big events (culturally or narratively): tilt points are picnics and pony rides, conflict happens when you visit for tea and love blooms when you stay for dinner, and you always, always end with a wedding – or weddings, if possible.

Again, how does this fit in with RPGs, where adventures almost always focus on characters at the edge of society, who leave it behind to go to dark places where the only culture is the stuff you smash to get the gems or how you tell which ork is the mage. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but even in that model you start in a tavern and end around a campfire, and that’s society. And there’s great flavour to be had in the gem-holders and the ork costumes. Don’t skimp on either of these. If you have a tavern take the time to figure out the details of that social ritual, and why it matters and who has status and who doesn’t. Working out what your paladin drinks and the elf doesn’t and bickering about it will make those moments when you save each others lives outside of society matter more, and show the duality of your lives – society where drinking matters and adventure where you’ve got each others backs. At the campfire, think about not just who keeps watch but how beds are prepared and who cooks dinner. That way, again, when you do throw them into a fancy ball or bring emotional plots crashing up into a wedding, you’ve laid the ground work. It doesn’t have to be fancy, either – a campfire with just your crew can build to a sleep out with the hundred miners you just rescued or the elves you are visiting…which ends up being a dance party or a troll wedding.

4. Not All Evil Can Be Killed

Once you have society and culture you have rules. Rules that keep the people in power where they are and stop anyone else from doing much about it. Austen likes to run her withering gaze over these rules and their external manifestations in parallel with her examination of how those rules run internally in her characters. And these kind of codes, internal and external, are just as much a part of adventure fiction as well – a lot of them have the simple Batman formula of something that desperately needs killing and a reason it can’t be killed. The difference in adventure and escapist fiction, though, is usually this has a solution, where the (typically male) hero transcends either the problem or the morality to stand triumphant. Jane’s world is one where this doesn’t often happen and sometimes can’t happen. It’s a feminine reflection on endurance and toleration in a world that keeps your hands tied. But again, our genre fiction doesn’t have to skimp on this lack of resolution. Batman’s constantly finding himself stuck with the rules that bind him; crippled by his devotion to life, wondering each day how can he go on trapped between two worlds, a crime-breaker hunting criminals like a woman against marriage in a world that demands she marry.

Players are even more menschian than genre heroes, because this is a game, it is participatory and we like to win. So if something gets in our way or makes us feel bad or does us wrong or wants to blow up the universe, we get mad then we roll initiative, and by the end of it, the bad guy is dead. If he gets away we call the GM a cheat, punking us when we totally made that roll to kill him as he rode away. Players: don’t do that. You’ll get your chance, promise. But stories are more interesting when this doesn’t always happen, because you get stuck in those Batman/Lizzie Bennett dilemmas. GMs, your job is to make things which are evil which can’t be killed, and that’s why the society and culture matters, because those things keep those people around. Worse, they make you have to associate with them and suck up to them. Drink at a tavern to find jobs? Maybe the bartender is a racist against elves. Maybe the wizard who gives quests forces you to call him His Eldrtich Majesty. Maybe Cyber-doug in the corner keeps broadcasting porn into your cyberdeck but isn’t worth killing because he’s not “part of the adventure” (or you’ll get jumped by the watch and outlaws don’t get jobs). Until that one time you find out the bartender has a half-elf daughter, the wizard flunked out of the academy and that Cyber-doug works for your Big Bad. Nothing annoys like the mosquito, the background buzzing that you cannot stop. And this builds into a larger issue which is…

5. Impotence and Ignorance Are Fire and Oxygen

A great deal of Romantic fiction – and its modern descendant, the soap opera – depends on these twin dramatic pillars: the sense that something horrible has happened or will happen or might be happening now, but no way to find out if it has and no way to do anything about it. When Mr Bingley goes to London, Jane has no word from him and has to wander around trying to find him. When Whickham runs off with Lydia, they’re just gone. They’re out there somewhere, being married, and nobody knows anything or can find them. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor aches inside for news of Mr Ferrars, and finds he is betrothed to a woman she swore to support, and she can’t even tell anyone or do anything. Like all writing tricks it’s a cheap trick but it works. We ache to know, as audience, which connects us intimately to the characters who ache.

Players HATE this. If there’s something they don’t know, they want to find out. If there’s something working against them, they want to destroy it now, and if there’s something preventing them from doing that, they’ll knock it out straight away. As such, a great deal of roleplaying narrative is just running the group in circles “investigating” until they can find the straight line to the XP pinata/Big Bad. The solution is for players and GMs alike to look for what they call Superman solutions. Superman is so powerful a hero that a lot of the plots he’s in can be finished in seconds if he wasn’t suddenly depowered, constrained or occupied elsewhere or far away (or confused, the “investigation” angle we use too often). You’ll see this in Matrix: Reloaded, too – Neo is very far away and trying to do two things at once, to stop him going all Superman. This is a concept I call “narrative distance”, and if you do it well it doesn’t appear forced, and it gets what you need: ignorance and impotence.

And the fact is that most fantasy worlds (and post-apocalyptic ones and far-flung space ones) have communication systems that are in far more disarray than the postal services of the 19th century. If PCs leave town for any reason they should have no idea what’s going on, which allows for fait accomplis to be presented when they return. Or, set up conflicts the moment before the wizard gives them the quest (which has to be done before the moon rises or whatever) so the whole time they’re trying to get the spiritstone they’re wondering if there sister is marrying Cyber-doug. That makes doing it on time far more pressing than this vague threat of the world ending, because as we pointed out in point one, we humans think small. But you can reverse it too: give them the choice: retrieve the soulstones before the Dark Lord’s agents do, or go three towns over to find out why sis is marrying Cyber-doug before the wedding. But not both.

Now sure, they may split the party. But as I talk about in point five here, that’s even better because then you move half the party off stage and what does the other half get? They get no idea of what’s going on with their friends, and no way to help. Impotence and ignorance. And the only way they’re going to see them again is they arranged to meet up at that social location or cultural event, full of people they hate. And the bad guy knows they’re stuck, and he’ll turn the knife and tell them his men are already putting bombs around the wedding altar because he’s just the kind of guy to ruin a wedding and destroy the world. Heroes will be torn in two, right down their dualities.

And all while in a dungeon fighting dragons. It can happen.





Five Things Gamers Can Learn From the Marvel Cinematic Universe Arcs

With Civil War getting us all tingly right down to our Spiderman underoos, time to take a look at what clever little tricks went into making the series so successful as we move into the third chapter of a powerhouse franchise. Pow!

1: Have a Plan and Show Your Working

Sure, things were a little on the QT in the early days but the moment Iron Man was in the bag, we got news of the Big Picture. We got an outline of how it was going to play out – a series of stand-alone films introducing each hero, leading to an ensemble piece bringing the Avengers together. The dates were flexible but the structure and the elements were set. It was a risk that could have backfired – one flop, one contract disagreement, the slings and arrows of art and performance that no amount of lawyers, fans and money can compensate for, and Marvel would have had egg on their face. But it paid off hugely. It built in to the audience a sense of heightened expectation. They knew they were going to get more and more so each bite could be savoured as part of a banquet. That also made them more forgiving of mis-steps, more patient for developing arcs, more excited by easter eggs. They knew these things were seeds going to bear fruit, so the seeds themselves were much more exciting.

As I’ve said over and over again, metagaming is your friend. And the players can’t metagame if they don’t know the plan. Far too much is made in GMing about the importance of secrecy, of the thrill of being the audience. But one look at the MCU shows that that thrill has nothing to do with the unknown. Audiences LOVE structure. It’s why fantasy comes in trilogies so often. It makes us more likely to read. So plan your campaigns out in advance. Identify the key arcs, the season-shifts, the sweeps episodes, the cliffhanger endings. Write down who the big-bads are, the main themes and thrusts and sets. And then show your players. If they’re supposed to end up fighting dragons in series four, tell them that first up so they can write hints of that future in series one, and it will feel like awesome seeding AND also like a prologue moment (because prologues are awesome).

2: Tell Individual Stories

Patience, grasshopper, is the key. You can’t go straight from Superman to half the Justice League. It’s too much. It’s very difficult to tell a deep, engaging story with an ensemble cast who all need a backstory, a denouement and a narrative purpose. And even if you pull it off (see, say, Mystery Men), it never feels as resonant because you have so little time. Marvel was clever to make sure they did the solo films first, all free standing, so the group moments could work so much better. (Plus it helped with the structure, as mentioned.) And each individual story is really strong and vital and important; so much so that Avengers feels like a worthy sequel to at least Thor and Hulk.

RPGs are a group activity and you want to engage everyone at the table. Everyone likes to have a chance to do something each game, fight and scene. That’s why we have initiative, after all (well, one of the reasons). But you can tailor each of your sessions or scenes or stories to focus particularly around one character. I don’t mean solo-play with the GM, the others will be there as well to support the development of this story. And because you’ve told them all in advance what the plan is in step one, there are no hard feelings when one player gets the spotlight. Especially since the background players know that every tiny thing they do is laying seeds for being greatly expanded when their turn comes along. Yes, some games are better at this than others, and it may feel artificial to some keen on simulation but the truth is you’re probably doing this a lot anyway, because social adventures will naturally favour the bard and the trip to Venus is going to bring up the Venusians backstory. The vagaries of random dice rolls means you can’t always guarantee who deals the killing blows, but you can adjust for that with actual mechanics, if you want to go so far. It’s actually far more natural a story to observe and create than one trying to share everything perfectly equally down the initiative order.

3: Point Then Swivel

Since the days theatre was invented by the Ancient Greeks, there has been one big problem: big world, tiny stage. How do you fit great armies and battles and landscapes on stage? The tried and true technique of pointing off stage at something that can’t be seen. Stories that are doing seed work do this all the time. Sometimes they deliberately lay seeds that will never grow because that makes things seem ancient and mysterious, like when it was better how we never knew what the Clone Wars were. Other times they hamfistedly try to point at other things we’ve never really heard of or will hear about to show the “wider world”, like the crappy altered end to Return of the Jedi. We didn’t care about Coruscant cheering because who the hell are they?

Building a universe is a two-step process. You point, then you swivel. Point at something off stage, then in a scene/movie or two, move to that place. That one-two punch mimics the way to we discover the world in reality so it works on an instinctive level on us. It gives us the hint of the unknown and mysterious followed by the wonder of recognition and understanding. Marvel’s been really good at it, every step of the way, in big and small things. It’s weird and mysterious when Coulson brings in a guy with a bow to watch Thor’s hammer, but then at the start of the Avengers we see him in his place again and get our little nod of understanding. Full circle.

Shakespeare, by the way, is amazing at this too. He’ll have a scene where they talk about a place or a person, and then cut to that place or that person. Wind up, delivery. It’s classic technique and it works well for character as well as world building. Archer too, likes to switch on the very moment of dialogue; cutting from someone asking about Mallory to Mallory reacting as if she was there. You can snap-cut, too, but that’s hard to do on the fly. For worldbuilding, though, and narrative progress, this is your go to. Whatever small things come up in your adventure, don’t wait too long to bring them forward. As soon as possible, swivel to show them. We’re simple creatures. We like the payoff and if we wait too long we forget or get bored. Point, then swivel.

4. Teams Exist Against Outside Forces

RPGs throw four to six character together and expect us all to get to know them all at once – big mistake. The other thing they typically do wrong is expect them to glom together for no reason, or not a strong reason.

Marvel could have been lazy. It almost looked like they were going to be – that the Avengers would exist just because Stark and Cap and Thor were around and superpowered and dangerous. And having that architecture helped a lot to make the story happened. But the Avengers come together because the big bad is PC1’s brother, mind-controls PC2’s best friend and impersonates PC3’s greatest enemy (and his plan depends entirely on PC4’s energy source). And they stay together because there’s a whole goddamn scene about that which I think you remember. Fury knows in-world what Joss knows about writing: teams need a push to make them stick.

You could be lazy, but your campaign won’t be as strong if you are. Push the characters together with external enemies and hardship. Like Gaean Reach, give them a shared enemy, and make that enemy mess with them in very specific and personal ways. The enemy can even be nature, with the stranded in the wilderness trope – shared trauma is a bonding experience. Although nature can be escaped at which point bonds can fall away, which is why it’s important to choose a force that can keep being reapplied. Villains that don’t die, organizations that are like cockroaches, distant forces in play, anything that can simmer in the background so any time they start to lose their binding you can push them back together again.

Oh, and if you can’t think of something that would bind all the players together, ask them. That’s point one again. They’re there to help you. Use them.

5. Team Stories Are Interior Stories

This is such an easy mistake to make and it’s a credit to Joss’ skill that he avoided it twice. There’s a tendency among writers to use individual stories to probe into the inner mind of the character. After all, they’re centre stage so now is the time to find out what makes them tick. Then, the big ensemble pieces where you haven’t got time to probe their hearts and minds, just focus on a big complicated external problem so everyone has something to do.

It actually works much better the other way around.

Think about it. Think about say, the amazing scene in Iron Man 3 where he saves Pepper in the missile attack, and the incredible flying rescue, and the multiple unit showdown at the end – all cooler than solving the exploding city problem at the end of Age of Ultron. And where are Tony’s emotional beats? Walking through the snow was hard but it didn’t cut to his core. That moment happened in a barn with Fury in Age of Ultron. Cap met a lot of bad guys in The First Avenger, but the first person to get under his skin and show him what he really believed in and didn’t believe in was when he met Stark on the helicarrier. Thor is the exception, he had to do a lot of growing up in his debut but he left the proper yelling at his brother until Avengers.

Individual stories are best used to show what you do and how you do it, but team stories are where you poke at WHY you do it. So after laying the ground work with your one-on-ones, make sure your big team adventure is full of why moments. That may mean things get bogged down in in-player fighting which you feel is bogging down your story but that IS your story. And the plot can always wait. Remember, there’s always time to bicker.

Your players will still get to the big bad. After all, he’s put them under huge external pressure to keep them glued together, so they have to deal with him. And they’ve been aching for this through all their individual stories, all the breadcrumbs dropped through point then swivel, and since you first showed them you ten session plan with “Final Showdown” written in red under session ten. All that expectation means the plot will run itself. Better instead to focus on the character moments so the plot matters so much more. Yes you want to dazzle them with your apocalypse, but you much more want them to dazzle you with being always angry and puny god quips. They’re superheroes: their job is to entertain you.

Let them, and they will.