Occupy Catan

I’m often writing about how games can be political. Like the CRPG about being a refugee, or the game about moving people to Auschwitz. Now we’ve got Catan: Oil Springs, which brings environmental degredation to the wonderful world of sheep for wood. (Note: link leads to PDF download of rules).

Preachy? Maybe. But you CAN still win as long as the entire island isn’t polluted. If anything, the game suggests that environmental destruction is totally an acceptable risk.

And that’s what games can and should be for. As Stephen Fry said, history is about imagination, not facts, about putting yourself in another time, place and position, in your heart and mind.  Games do that better than anything, by simply entangling your win condition with non-abstract goals. And politics is all about how the other half lives, and how we balance their needs with ours, and how we communicate across those lines.

The question isn’t can games be political. It’s why haven’t we noticed they’ve ALWAYS been political. Indeed, the first version of Monopoly was designed to be broken, to teach kids monopolies end up hurting more than they help. That’s WHY the gameplay sucks so much. Most people missed the point, of course, but I think the same could be said of say, Das Kapital.

Steve, putting the Revolution in the Dance Dance



Daughters of Playtest

I sometimes have Friday mornings free, as in the cats are alseep, the house is empty and I can sit in front of the computer without being bothered for more than ten seconds at a time. Thought this might be a good time to game. Keen to play DoE, or Smallville. Drop me a line below if you’re keen to join in. It’s, say, 8am to 12 noonish Fridays, GMT+9 (No Daylight Savings). That’s like 11pm-3am in London, 6-10pm NYC, 3-7pm Los Angeles. This time is not written in stone.

Portal 2, Puzzles and Roleplaying


So I’m playing Portal 2, up to chapter six I think and not unlike Portal 1, I’ve been thrown out of the simple fun of solving totally self-contained puzzles into a world of exploration of haunting environments, first-character roleplay and well-written plot. And while the environments are pretty and the writing good, I am cranky because all I goddamn want is my puzzles.

Why? Because puzzles are, ultimately, relaxing. Everything is known, except the solution. You have to move from point A to point B using only the tools provided.

But when you’re in Adventure Land, it’s hard to know where you have to go. It’s a big, beautiful world and there are no clearly marked goals or exits. Everything could potentially be a tool provided. Mark it too clearly and the story falls apart, it looks false. It has to be a seamless, realistic feeling world to explore and poke until you see the puzzle.

In other words, I just got shunted from a gamist experience into a sim one, much to my eternal annoyance.

And this is of course, why riddles and puzzles tend to suck in most RPGs – because they suddenly thrust players out of a nar/dram/sim environment violently into a gamist one. Now, in theory there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone enjoys each style equally and enjoys shifting between them. Generally, I go to rpgs to get away from puzzles and too much thinking, I want to explore and poke things and blow them up, and pose awesomely afterwards (which is also why I play City of Heroes).

What’s more, puzzles are very hard to do in RPGs because unless you really force your story into the kind of artificial environments seen in the Portal series, the whole point of these games in imagined realities is that you can imagine beyond the frame. You’re not forced to follow the rules of narrative or game. Portal tells me the only way out of the room is by opening the door, but you and I both know that if I pick up the bot and break off a shiv, I can hone it into a blade, pry open the lock mechanism and short-circuit the doors. And as tradition goes – and rightly so – any GM who says “no you can’t do that” deserves a good punch in the hooter.

This applies widely as well. Don’t design adventures like puzzles, with only one solution. By all means have the goal being to get the door open (figuratively speaking) but let them figure out how. Unless your players would rather be doing mind puzzles, of course. But I don’t think rpgs support them very well, because they are either massively forced to come into existence, or full of railroading to stop people imagining their own solution, or both. And thus most players find them unwelcome.

That’s not to say you can’t have a few tiny drops of gamism to add spice to a story, or indeed, have a fun plot ticking on behind your puzzles, like the start of Portal is. It’s the total genre shifts that suck.


Fragments from AusCon…

“Oh my god my life is a mess”
– freelance Voodoo priestess and ship’s cook, Eloise Laplace, on being in love with her mother’s ex-lovers’ brother, in Smallville (of course)

In reverse order:

Ran Smallville again. We barely had time to get one roll for everyone in because we were doing chargen for SEVEN! people. Madness. But gorgeous madness that everyone enjoyed heartily, I think. The hat-pulls were “Napoleonic Wars” and “1950’s B-Movie SF”, which led to an awesome alt-history where the Wars had gone into detente while Dutch, French and English scientist united to explore a common enemy – a deadly alien force from beneath the sea. More on that later. First pull was “Unruly Teens” and “Venice” which I loved – imagine mixing The Outsiders with The Libertine! – but people didn’t get a strong enough hook from Venice, and fair enough. Full Hat List below.

Ran Three Hours to Midnight, with four amazing minds and passionate hearts and created something new and wonderful currently called Hunter’s Dawn. The final version after three hours is complete and playable, if sketchy, not to mention clever and unique. It also hints at a much more developed and ten times more awesome second edition, which we intend to have prepped to demo at next year’s AusCon! Woot! We also, I think, all learnt a lot about design, as you always do in these things. Thanks to Natan, Bonnie, Gareth and Sam – I’ll be in touch soon, and my blog readers (all two of you) will know more soon too.

I entered “GM of Legend” and got handed three random words and about an hour to prepare (plus eat lunch) for a game of a bunch of people. The words were sphinx, caravan and adultery. As usual, speed forced me to fall back on my strengths and I wrote a little freeform/LARP/thing (ie pregen characters where everyone has secrets and conflicting goals). The characters were all royal sphinxes of the Great Sphinx Empire, and King Felix had heard rumours his wife was disloyal, so had sent all the eligible royal males away on a trade mission. The caravan had just returned from Greece – and shenanigans were about to break out. More on that later. I came second (DOH!) to the awesome John Reid but was told by one player he gave me full marks in every category, so that was nice. Keen to hear more about the other games, as John ran Dread, and other GMs ran Pathfinder and something else, and I’d love to hear what kind of D&D or Dread game emerged from those words!

And first off I did some seminars about being a GM and learning from TV. The former was well attended, and one person came back to hear it when we repeated it again later, so I think people are really keen to know about GMing stuff. The latter only reached two guys but I learnt a lot from expanding on my ideas. Please, if you heard a seminar from me, send me feedback because I love doing them and want to tailor them to what you want to hear. The final seminar was with my regular colleagues Timothy and Nathan, who are always intelligent, illuminating and excellent. We talked about how to finish and how to publish, and Nathan gave some excellent info on POD and Lulu (apparently, Lulu is the SHIZNIT). Timothy also made an excellent point about how e-readers may totally revolutionise the way RPGs are written because they can do maths for you as you read…

I also played a bunch of board games to find out how they worked, although very few reached completion. A Touch of Evil seems awesome, Hey That’s My Fish is cute but has too much set up, Torres BROKE MY MIND and may be too clever for its own good but boy is it clever, Ad Astra is like Settlers only it blows, and Small World is just as neat as advertised. Future sales will be based on these samples, perchance…

Wish there’d been more time for play and more people to play with, but we got chucked out right on five and numbers were a little low in general – but it’s a good sign that there was too much cool stuff to fit in (didn’t even get to fight zombies or walk them or whatever one does with them)…I think AusCons may run the distance and bring more awesome in the future!