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.

DramaChar

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.

 

The Hard Six Problem in Gaming

Tennis is ruled by the Rule of Three and Five, which states that whenever you try to organize a game of tennis, you will inevitably have three or five people, ie the wrong number. American Doubles (2 vs 3) was invented to try and fix this problem but it’s one of those solutions that instead of solving anything just highlights how prevalent the problem is.

Whist, Bridge, 500 and other four-player card games have the same issue, and similar poor fixes. 3-handed and 5-handed 500 are terrible alternatives. Luckily, there are whole genres of 3 player games using a standard card deck (“solo” games, they are called), and alternatives for 5, too. Board games are much alike. If aliens found nothing of our culture but our board games (or their outside boxes) they would rapidly conclude we gathered in groups of 2-4 players. 2 CAN be problematic but whole genres and classic games exist for such times (the oldest games like draughts, chess, backgammon, go and mahjong are all 2 player). 5 too can be problematic but there are enough entries in that field to keep things going.

And by the time you get to 7, you engage the party game space. 7 is enough so team size difference no longer matters (4 vs 3 works much better than 2 vs 3), and is enough for their to be a good rabble of shouting. 3 people feels like a team, not a partnership. 7 is also enough to split into two games of 3 and 4 without feeling like two people have to play the less attractive 2 player game. 7 is enough for Arkham Horror to feel epic. 7 is enough so even though you probably don’t talk to the other people at the other end of the table, they have enough people to talk to on their own. 7 is a party game, 5 is a board game.

Which means whenever you get people together to play board games you will inevitably have six people. This is the rule of Hard Six.

I’ve spent the last few years gaming every two weeks and the number of times we have hit the Hard Six goes beyond the realms of statistical likelihood and into the suggestion of a cruel and malicious universe. I have moved between cities and states and countries and this issue follows me everywhere. I have, over the years, bought several games precisely because they go to six (and I hit 5 often enough to not buy most euros). Betrayal at House on the Hill, Seven Wonders and recently Colt Express, were all bought because they allow 6 easily without the game suffering, and they get played the most because they work like this. Shadowrift and Yggdrasil and Arabian Nights are also on my shelf not least because they allow six. We even play History of the World more than Clash of Cultures because the former allows 6. I’ve made my own rules adjustments and player materials for Dead of Winter to allow 6 (and for things like Suburbia to allow 5) and will always pick up the extra-player expansions for games that tap out at 4 or 5. I’m also the guy who will offer to “GM” the game for 5.

The Rule of Hard Six is not necessarily a flaw in game design; it is dealing with social and mechanical constraints that are difficult to work around. Human beings have limited abilities to communicate. We run out of social energy around about five other people. We can watch about four things before we run into multi-task issues. It’s difficult to build an engine that allows six players to interact, compete and share mechanical and social space in an equal and interesting way; soon enough somebody will get excluded, or lost in the shuffle, or it will turn into a race. And heck, we run into this limit in racing anyway – there’s a reason most track events only host 8 people – our brains just tap out at that point.

And maybe I’m the only person who runs into the Hard Six. I know many couples or buddies who run into the 2-player doldrums (and me and my gamer buddy do, and I need to marry someone who will fix this, ladies, call me) but I don’t see a lot of people complaining about the Hard Six. Maybe I am under a dark curse to always have five other players. Maybe I have too many friends. Maybe there’s a genre of gaming I don’t know about. Maybe all the Germans are laughing at me because they have 2.1 children or have the lovely couple next door over. Maybe personal devices will help by keeping the sixth person occupied. Maybe we need to get better at dealing with the still somewhat taboo idea of splitting the group up for two separate games. Maybe we should not have rooms with one big gaming table but two smaller tables, as with the old days of Bridge.

Let me know if you run into the Hard Six issue so I know I’m not alone, or what solutions you’ve found to deal with it. Or let me know I’m crazy. Or if you know anything about the dark curse.

Little Bit Of Smallville Chargen

I do love chargen: you start with a blank page and you end with a story. Or in this case, several intersecting stories. Our setting idea was some sort of grand shadow-government alien-fighting conspiracy. Like the kind of people investigating the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Top Men are working on it. TOP MEN

The Cells Episode Two: Drink To Remember

“I just bring you ideas. I leave the execution to you.”  Agent Quiver

The Citadel at night. A sepia tone tells us it is the past. Young Zak and Umbrito are boosting rundown tenements. A siren rings out and the two burst out of the door of their target. As they run, Umbrito yells “If Mok ever finds out this was you, you’re dead”

Roll credits.

The same street, maybe, but the time is now. A spirit of Carnivale lingers on the streets of the Ditchers, still recovering from the Band-Aid-esque event. “What’s Up, Ditchers” t-shirts wave in the wind – and the face on them is Zak, who walks the crowd with his white suit and his bodyguards. Zak is spreading good will and food tokens, a new system to try and curb the abuses of food banks, and Zak is the perfect face to hand them out to ditchers. But then there’s Umbrito and Joanne on his arm. They embrace and Umbrito says they should go catch up. Zak throws his remaining food tokens into the air and ditches his security in the fracas – the party boy is still here.

Back at Central, it’s also a bleary early morning. Hal and Kate sit in the dining room, having Awkward Pauses for breakfast. If their marriage wasn’t perfect before the war, and before the cells, it’s gone into a kind of shock now. Kate directs the conversation onto the suffering of the city, and how, although Hal has done some good work so far, a city has to do more than just survive but thrive, as Pavani had said at the press conference (before rushing off to find her girlfriend, or something – quick cut to Pavani finding an empty room and a left note). Hal takes this as a personal slight, and decides Kate is suggesting he resign. He ponders a sense of fated failure and stares at the bottle of bourbon on the kitchenette shelf.

Close up on the bottle, now with less in it. Reverse to show sitting opposite is now Quiver, in Hal’s seat (ahem) talking to Kate. Quiver is trying to deal with the PR SNAFU that Hal retiring would cause and asks her if she can change his mind, because their secret could push him over the edge. Kate demands he stop thinking about PR for once in his life and give a damn about her, about their future, and until he does, she will be elsewhere. After she leaves, Quiver slams his palm down on the table and the glasses clink. It’s the first time we’ve seem him anything but worried or oleaginous.

The glasses clinking mixes over to the same at Zak’s impromptu party, which has turned from a reunion of old friends into a warehouse festival. Zak is the returned hero, festooned with women and flunkies. The 37s – as they are known – are flying high: their favourite son is running the city, and there’s talk of them being deputized like other gangs to help with keeping order. On the other hand, this doesn’t look like a very upstanding gangland. There’s an extra roughness to it. We pivot from a 37 tattoo to the same sign spray-painted onto a house perhaps not far away, where Knight-Father Paige is leading a new Citadel Police Force in dealing with gang activity. The dialogue indicates that there’s been a rash of murders turning up in the Ditch and the 37s are believed responsible. Paige dismisses his crew saying he’s going home, looking at a house at the end of the street.

Back at the party, the big black cars pull up and Quiver enters, uncomfortable and unable to hide his anger as he jostles through the crowd. He tries to be polite and get Zak to cut things short before the press turn up but Zak can’t go against the flow of so much belonging. Quiver snaps and tells Zak he’s being a child and he’s sick of cleaning up after a spoiled brat. Zak gives him a push to suggest he calm down and Quiver pushes back. Zak falls off his seat and Zak’s crew respond by jumping Quiver and beating him down. Zak stumbles up, looks at the situation, and decides to go with the flow and let Quiver suffer, suggesting the gang go hoist him up a flagpole. Umbrito smiles and tells Zak to follow him. Zak grabs a drink and does so, only to be jumped from behind and thrown into a car boot.

The thump of the boot matches to the thump of the door of Paige’s house closing behind him. The house is domestic and tidy. Polished. To the point of being unlived in. The pictures on the wall show a family – Roland and his husband Alex and their daughter Joanna growing up together. Then Alex’s ashes. We follow Paige through the kitchen where he grabs a bottle of bourbon into the bedroom where he sits and drinks and pulls a picture from the nightstand and starts to talk to Alex in a broken voice.

From the quiet to sudden noise: a room full of movement and noise. Computers churn, printers bubble and data is mined. The extent of cameras and maps reveals the true extent of which the city is under surveillance. And being given a guided tour of Central Data is Lazarus Moore, who has spent the last few days finding this place, a place kept secret from the five by the General. Who sits amongst it and succeeds mostly in hiding his displeasure of seeing Lazarus. The two trade barbs. Lazarus reveals he is decades older than he appears but the General is not cowed by this and buries Lazarus in pointless data, leaving him to slip off and be briefed about the mysterious vial.

Zak’s kidnapping ends at a danker, nastier, more crime-purposed warehouse and he is dumped in front of Mok, a more tattooed and more pierced 37er than we’ve yet seen. He accuses Zak of killing his brother, but Zak says he loved Mok’s brother much more than he ever gave a damn about Mok, and suggests that Umbrito did the hit because Joanna also loved Mok’s brother. Umbrito spits daggers at Zak but Zak sells it – when his life is on the line, Zak will sell out his old friend to save himself. The gunhands turn their attention to Umbrito and a haunted-looking Zak slips away.

Meanwhile a haunted Hal drinks in a seedy bar – the seediest bar closest to Central, anyway. He finds a one-armed veteran to talk to and tries to reconnect with the city and its people, but they get stuck in the same veteran’s loop of being able to do nothing but share war stories.

Back to Zak, he runs into the street to find Lazarus in a Big Black Car waiting for him. Zak seems changed, subdued now his old life could get him killed. He apologises and confesses to Lazarus, who is playing the confessor and mentor. Zak directs the car to retrieve a bound and gagged with tape Quiver, who is being hoisted by a crowd. Zak tries to connect as the ganger of old but the wind has gone out of his sails and – on Laz’ advice – sends in the government goons to clear them out instead. Desperate for new friends in his guilt, Zak becomes the government man.

Back at the house, Roland hears someone enter and draws his gun reflexively – but it is Joanna and Umbrito, on the run and arguing. Roland dismisses Umbrito and has a big old shouting match with his daughter. He’s trying to make it what it was, but to Joanna it was broken then anyway, because she got the parent she didn’t like raising her and the one she did absent, and it certainly can’t go back now anyway. Roland accuses her of forgetting her values, her religion, her upbringing, and that of course, is her point too: she’s a different person than he wants her to be. She leaves, with no sense she will return.

Back at Central, Lazarus pours Quiver a drink as the nurse finishes his stitches. Lazarus is curious as to why Quiver is tense and offers himself to hear a confession. Quiver tries to hedge around the details but then it all comes out, the truth about him and Kate. And in the end, Lazarus offers no help or absolution, just enjoys the new information. Quiver storms off and runs into Zak. There is a soulful apology and reconnection. Zak says he’s ready to play ball. Quiver says he’s on Zak’s side, that’s his whole job. Zak says there’s a man called Mok who has taken over the 37s and needs to be stopped. Quiver says that revenge by the ex-bad boy looks bad, but suppression by the saintly soldier Roland looks good. Quiver assures Zak that the best story of all is a redemption story, about people who have done bad things but are more than their sins. He’s not talking about Zak.

Lazarus provides – somehow – a lock on Mok’s location. Quiver takes his idea to the bar where Roland has joined Hal to drink. Hal says it has to be done by the book, with a trial. Quiver says “We will make sure we have all the evidence we need” because Quiver loves double meanings. Roland likes it, he wants order. The decision is made. Quickly we cut back to Lazarus working angles, and meeting with the Cardinal (who gets a first name now, Erasmus) – he’s found out the General’s secret. We cut to the General recruiting someone explaining he has a special demolitions job for him.

Back to the operation, which is shot in parallel with Quiver performing another insurgency: a romantic dinner and seduction of Kate. A search light flashes on, and Quiver lights a candle. Roland and others point at maps, Quiver sets the table. Roland gives the “go” signal, Quiver presents dinner with a flourish. SWAT teams move in, one places a finger on his lips, and Kate does the same to Quiver. A 37 goon guard is taken out with an arm around his neck pressure hold, as Quiver moves his arm around Kate from behind. They cut the lights on the gangsters, and Quiver flicks off the light. A gangster gasps as a shot takes him in the chest, and Kate gasps for different reasons. And then an interlude.

Later, Zak stands outside the jail as the perps are led in in cuffs. Zak has moderated his rebellious white suit with an official flak jacket. Mok is the last to walk in, and the two lock eyes and stare. Back at Central, Hal pushes open the door and locks eyes with the man in his wife’s bed.

Roll credits. Zak’s theme here is Sabotage.

Next time on The Cells:

  • Quiver blinded by the flashbulbs of the press, raising his hand in defense.
  • Behind a chain fence, a protest reminiscent of Occupy shouts and marches. A reporter is heard saying “Jason King has galvanized the ditcher community”
  • Quiver arguing with Mr Grey. “Dammit, these are good people.”
  • Zak strutting in Central, in a grey suit, looking at home with power. He comes into his room to find a woman holding a baby and his jaw drops.
  • Mok threatening Joanna across a prison meeting table. “This goes further than you know” he says.
  • A building explodes in fire.
  • Livinia standing at a grave. She says “I’m still going to go through with it”
  • The General stands in a hospital room. “I might have found a way”

WFRP on Storium: The Storium So Far

A few people have asked for the rundown on the WFRP campaign I’m playing in, and also my thoughts on Storium as a system, so here’s both, in that order.

The title of our adventures is “A Mark On the Empire”, and our initial pitch would be us coming together to ferment rebellion against the Powers That Be, in our home town and elsewhere. Our brave protagonists are:

Violet, kicked out of the Roadwardens for being too relentlessly upbeat
Kannter, House of Cards Francis Underwood crossed with a Mummerset pigfarmer (me)
Wilhelm, ex-soldier with a dark past and grim demeanour
Faragast, paranoid prognosticating Wizard who cannot tell a lie

Violet, Wilhelm and Faragast are all relative strangers to our town of Schoppendorf but no strangers to rebellion and a sense that the Powers that Be shouldn’t. Getting a tip off about a secret society dedicated to ousting the Emperor and his fellow travellers, we met at a farm one morning only to find a dead man and an assassin waiting for us. Killing the assassin in cold blood to cover our tracks let the conspirators believe we hadn’t killed the corpse of their members so they told us their plan: infiltrate a nearby Nurgle cult to steal talismans that spread disease, then use them to poison the highest of the high during an Imperial retreat. We had little choice but to accept and take up rooms the society provided at the inn. Unfortunately we were rumbled there by our local Witchhunter and had to kill him too, then hide the body. Without doing anything revolutionary at all we were up to our necks in it.

The plan was sound but we quickly realized things were far worse in Schoppendorf than just being run by bastard guildsmen who took all the money: there was a cult of Bauseele that had sprung up and was making everyone super-healthy, due no doubt to their being a front for the Nurglites in the forest. But that was also our way in: by pretending to be innocent Boesee cultists from the next town over we could find their contacts with Nurgle. Meeting the head cultist, Tim Berr and some of his young acolytes Andric and Tamla, we went the latter two into the forest to scatter the ashes (Bauseele worships wood and fire, life and death symbolized, we burn wood then we scatter the ashes). There the two young-uns were greeted joyfully by a cellar full of maniacs: Nurgle cultists raging with disease and having the most disturbing birthday party ever. After a hearty game of Pass The Balloon of Diseased-Pus they ripped off Tamla’s skin and applied some hideous goo which caused her to start screaming and sicken. We decided to leave and lock the cultists’ hideout behind us, hoping to come back later with reinforcements. Unfortuntely when we got back to town Witch Hunter Captain Slovane was setting up camp and arresting everyone and we knew we were likely to be burned or hanged by association.

We took cover in the house of one of Vi’s ex-lovers, who wasn’t impressed despite his awesome hat and our adorable piglet companion, but when Tamla worsened we had Andric take her straight to the Sisters of Shallya and went back to Kannter’s to plan. But before we could do much of that the guard was heard in the streets painting doors with plague signs and shutting down the city. We hid in a pigpen until dawn then scampered back to the Sisters only to find Tamla dead and Andric heartbroken. The Sisters thought us suspect so decided to boil us alive as a test of our fervour but around 80 degrees we convinced them we were legit. Finally having the assistance of a group that doesn’t want to murder us (for now) we were granted access to the library to research our enemy…..

As for Storium: I like it. It’s not the second coming but it makes a lot of things easier for online gaming. Since you can ignore the system entirely, I would never play-by-post without it, because it helps you organize EVERYTHING. The only problem is, as its set up, it’s weirdly blurring the role of GM and game designer compared to traditional games. Basically you tend to get rules and world and even adventure-skeleton in one inseparable bundle, so you can’t use like the Warhammer world to do your story the way you can in traditional RPGs. I’m not sure what that does to gaming, but it’s interesting, and I’m interested to see where it goes now the KS is over and they can develop it from beta.

It also has some issue with the formality of it – it’s harder to chat casually in character – but that’s an artifact of all play-by-post, I think. I have some personal issues with the system, but that’s just taste, so I won’t get into them here.

Six Things to Remember When Writing a LARP

Back in 2009 I wrote a Warhammer LARP (aka freeform, although it had a few simple rules) for GenCon Oz called Sunset Claws. You can download a zipfile with all the documents to run it yourself here. Participants continue to rave about it as the best LARP they have ever done, and I’ve run it twice since and there is demand to run it again at another local con. Recently word reached my ear that it has been translated into French and run at the Croisades d’Unnor convention in Lille, France. All of this has prompted me to start work on a sequel, and as I have done so I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons I think the last one was so successful.

1. Give Everyone Something To Do

Socializing isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you’ve just stumbled in from a four hours session of Warmachine and don’t know anyone around you. Yet LARPs thrive on socializing as much as possible. You have to grease those wheels. Costumes help add to the mood as does setting but people socialize easiest when they have something to do. Drinking and eating are two simple examples. I had a game of Pass the Pigs going on (in setting) as well. It was a small thing, but it helped. I also had one character make a speech, so everyone had to gather and listen. Thinking of good things for this example is hard, though, so if you have any ideas or examples of your own, put them in the comments!

2. Give Everyone Something to Talk About

Again, socializing is hard to do, and one easy way to break the ice is to give people things to talk about. That’s what the things to do are of course there for, but barring them, everyone should have big things on their mind. It’s not just another party, or even the highlight of the season, the room should be abuzz with the tempora and the mores going on outside. In Sunset Claws we had the annual pig tossing competition, a serial killer amongst the tavern guests, a masked vigilante causing chaos and a gigantic undead army massed outside the city waiting to kill everyone at dawn. Oh, and the hostess was someone everyone liked to gossip about, because her place was like Ric’s Bar in Casablanca, and word was she had the escape route from the army. Nobody had trouble finding a topic of conversation.

3. Give Everyone Shared Goals

LARPs depend a lot on secrecy which inevitably means a narrow focus. You know what you’re doing but you have no idea what anyone else is, and you miss out on a lot of the story as a result. Yes you can imagine the Scarlett Pimpernell is up to something and some are charged to stop him but it doesn’t effect you that much. In Sunset Claws, with the army outside and the serial killer being hunted down, everyone had an idea of what most people at the tavern that night was after, and almost everyone was involved in those things. In the sequel, a battle has just finished and everyone wants history to remember that they were the one who won it. This makes the game feel like a race, and everyone’s working for the finish line. It engages them with each other and with the over-arching plot. It also makes it easier to find allies because everyone needs one and is on the same page. And you can’t do anything without allies, which brings us too:

4. Give Everyone A Sense of Who Might Be Their Allies and Who Might Be Their Enemies

Everyone knows characters need lots of goals to achieve to keep them busy but too many LARPs devolve into desperately trying to figure out whom, if anyone, might even know what your side is, let alone be on it. Eventually you randomly trust someone and hope it involves only a moderate amount of betrayal. You can’t outright tell people who is on their side or it gets dull (indeed, nobody should be entirely on anyone’s side!) but you should give everyone a road map. Here are people you know you can trust (or so the GM has told you, anyway), here are people you know are likely to be set against you, here are people, based on your best information, that will be able or predisposed to help. A lot of LARPs give people goals with no idea how to complete those goals. Players, I think, like a mud map of how to get there.

5. Give Everyone A Reason To Talk To Everyone, and an Understanding of How They Would Talk To Them

Our LARPs are often filled with people who would naturally group together and some they would exclude, but that makes for terrible game play and it ignores the reality. LARPs start with everyone just standing around and it is literally completely random which PC you will be standing next to. Sometimes you may have a superior or an ally to go and seek out but that player might have arrived late or still be talking to his buddy or any of a million things. Staring at you right now is a guy is a stranger. You need to find something to talk about. You’ve got the tempora and the mores for small talk, and the shared goals. He might be a potential ally. He might be an enemy. He might be neither. But whichever one he is, your character sheet needs to tell you who he is and what you think of him, and how he might be remotely connected to your plans, in even the slightest way. Maybe you have a common bond or a shared enemy. Maybe you hate/respect/fear/love/are easily seduced by people of their class/profession/race/gender. A good character sheet will tell you. Nobody should be uninteresting to you.

6. Give Everything Character

One thing players keep complimenting me on is how their character sheet gave them their character’s eyes. As I said in number five, the sheet should tell you enough information about who you are and how you see others so you know how to react to everyone. All of that information should be coloured with character. Sometimes you want to talk directly to the reader, out of character, when you want to give them directions on how to play something or what kind of role they play in the narrative, but wherever possible, you want to avoid that and speak in their character’s voice. You want to tell them what they think is true as if it is true, because of course they believe it. Your choice of language and style provides them the goggles through which they see the universe and that not only helps them keep and stay in character it helps you write interesting interactions. You don’t say “Your relationship with your husband is failing so you are having an affair”, you say “Your husband ignores you and you’re worth more than that, so you are seeking a new lover, one you deserve.”. And on the husband’s sheet, you write “You love your wife more than anything but can’t find the words to tell her, but deep down, you know she knows – or you really hope she does.” Both players got the same kind of information (the marriage is in trouble) and they have a shared value at stake…but both of them operate in completely different universes with completely different truths.

That for me is the heart of LARPs and indeed non live-action scenario design, or at least, how I do it. Everyone shares goals and stakes, but everyone sees those shared things completely differently. That’s where the friction comes from.

 

The Stevies for 2013

Yes, it’s that time again, where I fight the holiday blues by viewing the year through a lens of terrifying meritocracy to sift out the very best things it had to offer. And as always, the rules are simple: it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter what year it was made or released, it matters when I encountered it. These are the best things Steve found this year.

Best Science

This goes to isolating the Higgs Boson. Finding the electron made the modern age possible. This sucker could give us a future we literally cannot imagine. Honorary mention to the fusion drive engineer and the people working on warp speed, just because of the enormous “fuck you” to people who said they were impossible.

Best Politics

Malala Yousafi, Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, it was a hell of a year for politics. But behind it all was grass roots stuff and the power of Twitter and social media. Thanks to those, millions of people around the world witnessed someone change the official time record to try and shaft Wendy Davis. And it was the engine behind taking Indi away from Sophie Mirabella and into the hands of Cathy McGowan. It’s not the only solution and the big players will try to turn it against us but it’s changed the landscape. Some more examples of grass roots power from the excellent twitter-warrior Van Badham are here.

Best Movie

A great year for SF, and a special note must go to Elysium for generating more irony in audience reactions than a gigantic furnace of pure irony-burning-coal, but this goes to Gravity. Simple, perfect, wonderful. Powerhouse performances for a gorgeous story in a genre oft-forgotten but one of my favourites (man vs nature). Nothing more to say.

Best Comic

A great year was some truly amazing stuff landing on my bedside table. Special props to Saucer Country and Letter 44, for both being about aliens and American politics in two completely unique and compelling ways and blowing my mind both times and demanding I read the rest. And yet, pipped at the post this goes to CHEW by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is hard to explain. It’s basically a dark police procedural set against a conspiracy landscape in a world where chicken is outlawed and food is a metaphor for everything, but it’s also a silly story about a psychic who can tell you everything about whatever he eats. It combines two of my favourite genres: the ridiculously silly and gritty police procedural in a way that diminishes neither, and that’s why I love it. It bestrides both genres like a colossus in a way few dare, fearing that the comedy may undercut the drama, but it doesn’t. Also, it has a building conspiracy arc, perfect pacing and reads like the best TV series ever made. If Bryan Fuller wasn’t already making Hannibal, I would have picked him to make Chew…

Best Table Top Game

For birthday and Christmas I got pretty much every game I was interested in at this end of the year, and there are some super contenders in there, and some I haven’t played yet (like Legends of Andor). I adore how easy it is to get a game of Love Letter and of Hanabi – games I can carry everywhere and sell to anyone. I loved how Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign (on the table and on the pad) reengaged me with the wonder of Arkham Horror, which is still marvelous and almost won just for inspiring those two. Heck, Elder Sign itself justified the purchase of my android device on its own. But I’m giving this to Pandemic. Picked up the new edition and two supplements spending $150 on a game I already owned because I felt it deserved it. Arkham Horror gets more iterations of play, but Pandemic has more pure elegance to it, and taps that modern setting thrill like nothing else. Saving the world feels better when it’s more cogent to our reality, and nothing does it like Pandemic.

Best RPG

I’ve given up reading and playing RPGs but not writing them because I a) still enjoy that and b) get paid to do it, so really the Stevie is going to go to the thing I got paid the most to write and had the most fun doing. I’m very proud to have won two Ennies for my work on Dr Who last year, and to be part of the incredible list of celebrities who worked on Hillfolk but mostly I’m proud of the setting I worked up for Action Cortex in The Hacker’s Guide. I have many more details about that setting in my head, but I got it down nice an succinctly and I love it and I got paid for it.

Best TV Show

The Wire. It’s not television, it’s poetry.

Best Computer Game

For the first time in years this is hotly contested and it’s because of one reason: multiplayer ascendant. I used to hate shooters, but thanks to the elegant design of Team Fortress 2 and the ability to play it with my friends and ONLY my friends I’ve learnt to love the better examples of the genre. And it didn’t cost me a cent. The same multiplayer power has also led to enjoying a platformer, in the excellent Trine 2, something I never believed would ever happen in this universe. But the virtue of multiplayer combined with just wonderful solo play in the clear winner this year: Civilization V. Two excellent expansions have led to game play evolving and staying interesting and it’s a computer game that even without friends, has held my interest long enough to not just keep away the demons but forget they exist. It has nursed me through terrible insomnia. It has fought down the depression. It has carried me through the long dark tea time of the soul and the mind-shattering emptiness of the holidays. And it costs less than the therapy. Hold me closer, Civ 5, for the darkness rises. And if anyone wants to join me for multiplayer, you know how to find me.

Steve out.

 

 

Games I’ve Got My Eye On aka What I Want For Christmas

Since I’ve put my roleplaying on hiatus, I’ve been gorging my board game addiction as much as cash will allow which is totally not enough in a world full of such brilliant games. Here’s a few I’ve been looking at, for my reference purposes and others’, in no particular order.

Everything By Vlaada Chvatil: Vlaada is a Czech game designer who seems to make unstoppable awesome, and I want everything he’s made. Space Alert, the real time shouty panic card game is top of the list (or its dice-rolling cousin, ESCAPE! Temple Run, if I can’t get Space Alert). Galaxy Trucker also sounds good, with the same wacky comedy of Space Alert where you build a space ship badly then watch it fall apart. There’s also Bunny Bunny Moose Moose which is a party/family game where you have to be a bunny or a moose, depending on cards flipped up. Imagine Simon Says but much more insane. His new hotness genius is Tash-Kalar which is a game about card-management where you play little monsters to build up points to bring out big kahuna monsters but the condition to play cards is based on the arrangement of pieces on a chess-like board. Imagine chess but if you force your opponent to play a bishop next to a knight and boom, you get a second queen. Mad genius.

Collaborative Story Fun: A mouthful but an Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on Cursed Island is an intriguing collaborative game, alas only for four players and with a set-up that makes Arkham Horror look simple. Eight scenarios with different goals but each combining different ways of hunting monsters, exploring a randomly tiled island, building tools and to build settlements and random events throwing it all off kilter, and never enough resources or time to do everything. Like Arkham Horror with Pandemic’s pace. Speaking of the great AH, I’m keen to try it’s very close new cousin Eldritch Horror where Corey Konieczwa applies the same brain that turned Space Hulk into Death Angel and reduces AH down to its bare essentials while still having basically the same mechanic: travel the world, have encounters, gather clues before the gates open. Most of all though I want to pick up Legends of Andor, the winner of the Kennerspiel deh Jahres this year despite being for children and collaborative. All the stress of Arkham Horror but with fantasy heroes exploring the land like Mage Knight! Pseudo-RPGs also lead me to Mice and Mystics a game of miniature heroes fighting cats and cockroaches – basically another Descent or zombie hunter but with a much more distinctive setting.

The Weird and Wonderful: When the Germans do mundanity, it’s REALLY mundane – the thrill of the 18th century post office or pumping electricity around Dusseldorf. But mundane can be pulse-pounding awesome, like Pandemic, or Fire Team Rescue, or Police Precinct or City Council which sounds excellent: pressure from special interests, skim off the top before financial constraints kick in, ponder whether to burn down the zoo to make room for a hospital? I love this trend in games and hope it continues cos I dig real-world stuff. Keeping on weird though there’s the logical games of a kind of Robo-Rally Redux in Twin Tin Bots – program robots to pick up crystals but you can’t change your programming as much as you’d like! Or, work together to give as much information as possible without breaking the rules (like bidding in Bridge) to lay down cards in a perfect pattern with the amazing (not to mention short, sweet, elegant and cheap) Hanabi.

The Euro Reliables, Turned Up to Eleven: What do you get if you combine the hex control of Settlers with the worker placement choices of Village and the random VP goals of Stone Age and the race choices of Cosmic Encounter and the player psychology of Chaos in the Old World? Something like Terra Mystica, which has so many widgets, yet apparently comes together smoothly, in that the choices aren’t difficult to understand, just deep to choose between. Or have the same kind of myriad of choices but with title exploration and resource limitations like you’ve rammed Terra Mystica back into Robinson Crusoe and created Archipelago. And since I can never get people over to game as much as I want, I’m super curious to try the solo genius of Friday. While not euro in truth but in style, I hear good things about AEG’s set of four linked games in the same setting, particularly the uber-simple five minutes to play 12-cards-only Love Letter.

Everything is Better Licensed: There are not one but two Firefly games coming out (and that doesn’t even include the RPG). Legendary, the Marvel Deckbuilder could use the expansion (well, my buddy who owns it could). And they’ve just made a collaborative demon-fighting game based on Journey to the West.

So just a few, you know.

A Pantheon

For my D&D 4E game. Yes, the gods are dead in that, but I figure it’s worth knowing what’s missing. Possibly a reference to something (ohwhatagiveaway)

Fryd is the Lady of Light, the Queen of all the Gods, and the God of Supremacy itself. She is fire and light, the clear sky and the open path – and the will to ford beyond them. She is leadership and kingship, courage and determination, the will and the way. Without Fryd, nothing can be accomplished, and indeed, from her, all the other gods spring forth. Her colours are white, yellow and blue.

Her consort is Daphos, the Prince of Beauty. His is nature and the feywild, art and poetry, love and sex – and magic. This is the romantic version of nature – the rough and rugged force of life is governed by the Beast. Daphos is worshipped by craftsmen and lovers, and has little to do with politics. His main duties are to stand in his dark violets and blood reds and look pretty next to Fryd.

Fryd’s chief advisor is Velos, the craftsman, the god of knowledge, science and eningeering. He is short, squat and half-blind from his work in the forge, but there is no riddle he cannot solve, no lie he cannot expose, no secret he cannot uncover. He is the chief diety of the dwarves, who call him The Ever-Changing, the one who sees the rock of nature, and knows it cannot be enough as it is, who seeks always to build and improve. Velos’ colours are brown and ochre and black, the colours of earth and stone.

Fryd’s counterpart is Shay, the god of fear, chaos and undoing. She is the antithesis of her sister. She unravels all plans before they begin, she breaks the heart before it even tries. But she is not evil: she taught men to fear the darkness and the monsters within it, and without destruction, nothing can be built anew. And if our enemies know not fear, then we cannot break them. Her colours are pale green and dusty grey, colours of sickness and madness. She is usually alone from the others, which only heightens her reputation for being evil among those outside the faith.

Shay’s only companion is The Beast. He is all of man’s vices and sins, and indeed, those of all creatures. He is hunger and sloth, lust and depravity, greed and self-interest. He wants nothing more than pleasure: a fat belly and a satisfied libido. The elves say that the Beast is no god, just mankind’s inability to face its true nature. Indeed, though he wears the head of an animal, the Beast is perhaps the most human of all the gods, and when he visits parties and feasts, he is most welcome.

In the human faith, they are called The Mysteries, so their personas are never separated from the stories they tell.  And the priests would worship them around a great cauldron or font, the Mystery Sink.

Like With The World Design And Stuff

Because there ain’t no point adventuring in someone else’s world, dog. For my upcoming D&D 4E game.

 

As The Elves Tell It, the world of Cellona was once but two kingdoms, the higher plane of the Feywild, and the lower plane of the Shadowfell. Then the Gods came, two of them, the Lady of Light and the Lord of Darkness, and sought to play their games upon the world. They created a third world, a strange and unnatural mix of Fey and Shadow, with strange reflections of the two. Elf and gnome were reflected on this new land as human and Halfling; and in the rocky highlands, gave birth to the stone-hearted goliaths and dwarves. Shadowfell beasts became orcs and goblins and countless wild things ran across the world and tore its inhabitants asunder. Terrified and lacking any sense of order and little gift of magic, the denizens turned to technology and religion, the twin tools of their mindless ant-like civilisations, to protect and comfort them. But it was folly, for this only divided them further. The Lady of Light sent her devas and the Lord of Darkness sent his tieflings and they drove the world into two, light and darkness, good and evil. As was the way, the division drove them to war and to madness, as they dreamed of eternal destruction, of weapons that would end the war all for one side – at the cost of the world itself, and even the Feywild with it.

 

The elves came and put an end to the madness. The Gods were banished, their followers expunged. The mountains were emptied, and the cities of men turned back to forest havens. The world below was grasped forever tight in the bosom of the Feywild, safe from Shadow below and Gods of afar. And there was peace, and order. Primal masters like shamans, druids and rangers flourished again, and magic, not technology, held the world aright. Even the dragons returned, for those who had the gift to call them. It is a world of wonder and beauty and whatever the cost, those who live in the plenitude of the great treespires know that the world is better now. Safer, richer, and infinitely more glorious – as the elves tell it.

 

Others tell a different story….

 

Some talk of deva and tiefling trying desperately to overcome ancient rivalries to unite against a new mad god from the Outer Expanse. Of dwarves sacrificing their culture to stay their extermination, and regretting the bargain ever since. Of the last few humans who realised the help of the elves came with too terrible a price, and were slaughtered and driven underground lest they poison Eden with their lies. Of Gods falsely imprisoned, lost and desperate to return, if only enough will believe in them. Of warlocks and sorcerers with magic that doesn’t obey the rules that elves say are unbreakable. And even, yes, they talk of elves whose hearts are not consumed by ice, and will shake even the boughs of heaven to make the world good again – instead of perfect.

 

You know these stories. You’re writing them.