on damage and why you can’t hurt players

2012/06/06 § 2 Comments

I actually want to write about last weekend’s Donjon / Nebula session and how excited I am about playing that system / world again. But one small meta-problem is stuck in my head again. It was caused by a strange mixture of our Donjon session, our Lamentations of the Flame Princess session afterwards (we wrapped up Tower of the Stargazer) and a recent post by Ryan Macklin about damage in a horror game.

The meta-problem is simple and as follows: you can’t make players feel the physical (and mental) pain their characters are going through. You don’t want to either, of course. Had to bring a bone-saw to every other role-playing session. Highly inconvenient. While this isn’t a bad thing it implies a certain state of behaviour that bothers me. Players can either act like reasonable human beings and make most role-playing games that are even remotely classic or Gamist in their approach unplayable; or they can play the game and leave a somewhat shallow feeling of their character’s suffering not meaning anything. At least that is the feeling I get when I run a session for my group and someone gets hurt badly.

Let me give you two examples from last weekend. At the start of our Donjon session two of my players got hit by strong magic charge that drained basically all of their hitpoints. That happened because they were heading for the engine room of an airship where one of them (of course) were not supposed to be. A magician that more or less acted as a battery for the airship’s reactor got knocked unconscious and her charged energy blew up in their faces. Heavily hurt and shaken they continued the rest of the session because they had the whole plot of that night’s adventure ahead of them. It was the only reasonable thing to do from a player perspective but the fact that they were pretty much lethally wounded was never really there. I can’t even blame them. I’ve seen other players act their character out as heavily wounded and not able to do anything. They were as in-character and on-point as it gets but all they could do for our sessions was state again and again that their character was afraid, cautious and not able to do much about it.

In our game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess something slightly different happened. Because the system of LotFP kills on sight and my players acted out pragmatic, hard-boiled adventurers, they did the only sane thing. Everytime one of them got mortally wounded they got out of the dungeon, set up camp and stayed there for days. I honestly never played an oldschool dungeon crawler like Lamentations before so I don’t know if that is normal or expected behaviour for this kind of format. To me, it felt ridiculous. On one hand you got this horrifying experience of a dungeon and on the other hand the approach to solving it is as casual and dumped-down as it can get.

What these two experiences made me think about is the following meta-problem: Can a player ever feel really attached to their character’s pain and suffering when it isn’t what the game is about? Damage, Loss of Hitpoints, Wounds or whatever you would like to call this mechanic that is part of almost every role-playing game I ever played has a highly detaching feel to it. When severe wounds or excrucifying pains happens a player can go two ways:

  • dive into it, play it out, make it an experience and become unable to play the actual content of the game and story at hand.
  • Ignore the emotional and physical implications and focus on the numbers. Perceive Damage as a mechanic, a fact and not a feeling.

What bothers me is that I like Damage because it is an integral part of conflict within many role-playing games. It is so central that one of the values typically associated with role-playing games – Hit Points – merely exists to keep track of it. I would love to find a solution that embeds damage into the experience of role-playing within a system in a more fluid way.

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Why should I care about Lamentations of the Flame Princess?

2012/05/30 § Leave a comment

Wherein I DMed the “oldschool retroclone” Lamentations of the Flame Princess last weekend and tell you why I had loads of fun.

Since I roam around the internet looking for interesting role-playing games no one has ever heard of, I stumbled upon the description “oldschool retroclone” on a regular basis. A retroclone is (don’t take my word on this one) a gaming system that is based off some versions of Dungeons&Dragons or another. Since I couldn’t care less about D&D for most of my role-playing life, I never bothered with any of these. As far as I could tell those role-playing game systems were meant to capture the feeling of playing original D&D or AD&D “back in the old days”; some strange mixture of nostalgia and adapting weird quirks of an outdated system. I never felt the “charm” of an oldschool dungeoncrawler and those things seemed to lack story and personality for me. That way, Labyrinth Lord, OSRic, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and whatnot just passed me by.

Recently I observed myself drifting towards the idea of a so called “oldschool dungeoncrawlers.” I can’t exactly put my finger on why that is. For the last few years I’ve mostly been looking for role-playing games whose mechanics where “different” and supported story-telling. I stumbled upon The Forge, fell in love with tSoY, Donjon and Dogs in the Vineyard and can say without the shadow of a doubt that “classic” role-playing games were pretty much dead in my opinion. Sure, I still played DSA and SR but in my mind those were “inferior” systems. They were just so commonly accepted I had to play them to keep things simple. But ever since there is a lot of story-driven gaming going on in my nerd-ish life, I feel  my perspective on these things slightly changing. Role-playing games like Donjon (at least the way my group and I played it), Apocalypse World and The Shadow of Yesterday do a great job of encouraging creativity and character development while keeping the mechanical side crisp and simple – but goddamit are they exhausting at times. I think a recent podcast done by The Walking Eye with Vincent Baker sums it up quite nicely: Vincent complains about how hard it is to be a character in its own game, Dogs in the Vineyard, because you have to make all these horrible decisions all the time and be aware of the situation. When you are focused and surrounded by a group of motivated human beings, this kind of game is the stuff of great adventure and fun. Otherwise it sometimes feels like a highly self-conscious treadmill.

As far as I can tell: an oldschool retroclone like Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the alternative among alternatives. I never played original D&D or AD&D but from what my players told me the mechanics and rules of Lamentations are even simpler than the original material. What suprised (and still suprises) me about the system is how simple and mean it is at the same time. I can sum up the “rules” of Lamentations in about three sentences: There is one D20 roll for attacks and saving throws where ability modifiers are applied. There is one D6 roll for skills that establish what characters manage to do and observe. If you fail there is a good chance of harm, danger and impending doom. And that’s about it. It’s straigthforward and it’s lethal. There are no additional levels of confirmation or opportunities to step out of a dangerous situation. When bad things go down, they go down.

If I have to be totally honest: I love it. It’s all about conflict. It pretty much puts the risk-reward-scale I talked about in my last article just right on the edge of a fair chance. I have rarely played a role-playing game where a die roll feels so meaningful and mighty. A botched die roll in most other systems I know feels something like Ah well, that’s too bad. I guess if this happens for another five-to-ten times I’m screwed. The only exception I would make is Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has the same feeling of a failed check leading to something bad, cruel or horrifying. I don’t know if I’m just turning into a sadistic monster in concerns of role-playing lately but I really like a die roll or check to mean something.

Besides the mechanics and the set of rules I really like the setting in most Lamentations adventures I’ve seen or heard of so far. Last weekend I ran The Tower of the Stargazer and it felt like the rules really complemented the adventure’s atmosphere. It felt dark, gritty and disturbing at times (at least from my DM perspective) but it had a strange curiosity to it. The behaviour of players is different when they know that quite a lot of things could kill or gravely harm them “at sight.” I was happy when two of my players confirmed afterwards that they not only had fun with the element of dungeoneering and exploration but also liked the entertaining feel of taking their characters not too serious and just role-playing along the way.

The whole experience also made me think about what exactly a story-driven experience is in a role-playing game. Most games I know, love and prefer are what I would call a story-driven personal experience. The game is focused on character development and creative interactivity while the “plot” move along in the background. It’s what The Impossible Thing before Breakfast would call bass playing. While working my way through the material for The Tower of the Stargazer I realised: there is A LOT of story embedded into this dungeon walls. It’s just not about the player’s characters but a thing of its own, waiting to be explored and experienced. I definitely have to think more about this.

Additional Fun Fact: the Core Rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess are completely free for download and stuff!

fueled by rage – a quick thought on the way we play games

2012/03/01 § Leave a comment

It’s always easy to hate on the way a game resolves things or dislike how the players of a game act. I think that is one of those common facts most people that play games would agree on. In videogames (especially the anonymous multiplayer ones) players hate on their opponents and yell reasons why the other guy obviously was  a horrible player. Although the other guy won. Especially if the other guy won. People playing boardgames get angry with their friends and family and (sometimes literally) flip tables over a lost game. And role-playing gamers.. well, that’s a little bit trickier.. I think in role-playing games you tend to get enraged by the rules and the way other players play the game. What’s the lesson from all that except for the fact that people love to hate about games?

First thing that comes to my mind (and how I try to see the games we play): think about what is great about a game or a gaming experience. The need to critise and hate can be overwhelming sometimes and there are many perfectly reasonable explanations for that. But at least when I think about it, I find it much more easy to come up with what’s great about a game.  For example I hate most of the community and the whole meta-game of League of Legends. But even if I actually really hate a game, my dislike seems to be the first reason for asking myself: what do I like about the game? I mean, I play it, right? What’s good about it? And one step further, what aspect of the game could I identify and make use of myself?

Before I start rambling about League of Legends, I’ll start with a far more approachable example: card and board games. I’m not thinking about anything in specific here. But you may insert Settler of Catan, Dominion, Munchkin or any kind of card and dice game. Most people I know get incredibly sinister and/or angry when playing any of those games. Some of them cheat, some of them just exploit the game mechanics and some of them simply will stab you in the back whenever possible. The interesting thing is: generally speaking, we’re all having fun. We’re actually having fun hating on each other. Even if it’s just for a short time. The even more interesting point and also the part I would take from most board games is the following one: most people have more fun playing a game if they get exaggerated and excited about it. They will scream havoc and let hell break loose. Then they will agree that they all had a great time and want to play again. It’s a basic component of every successful board game I know. I’m not sure if the feeling of excitement and exaggeration is merely based on competition but I’m certain about one thing: if you want a simple way to make a game work and work well – get people excited while playing it.

This brings me to League of Legends and a certain amount multiplayer videogames in general. From what I’ve seen so far in League of Legends, the game’s community is pretty much the most hateful bunch of anger-fueled narcissistic rage-quitters and trolls  I’ve ever seen in a game. Players hate their opponents, their teammates, the community in general, Riot Games and their design decisions, every character they’re not playing right now and the meta-game in general. They also feel the need to voice their hate aka opinion constantly. And the funny thing is: they keep playing. What do I make of that? One point is: League of Legends is a skill-based game with a basic strategy behind every character and composition, so you always have a vague outline of what’s the next step in becoming a better player. Of course, playing the game with friends makes a difference because it takes away some of the random hatred flying in from every direction. But the underlying rage and – I’m euphemising the hell out of this one – the critique directed towards other player’s skills and play-styles gives the game a funny dynamic: it generates and agitates all sorts of reasons for improving. Which brings me to the What I like part. The great thing about League of Legends (to me!) is the simple and interesting concept behind most skills. In my mind almost every skill (I care about) has a note attached to it that reads something like: These are the situations in which I use this skill best because the mechanics are most rewarding. These are the uses that other players might not expect and might help me gain an advantage. These are the synergies with other skills (my own and those of teammates.) Even though I sometimes simply despise League of Legends for set of mind it seems to force most of the player base into – that is: pointlessly aggressive and ruthlessly competitive behaviour – I can’t deny that the game has these strong points that keep me playing. I think they are worth taking note of when thinking about how successful games work.

The last – and hardest – kind of games to analyse  are role-playing games. At least for me they are because I’m so deeply entangled in their diversity and complexity that I just can’t form a simple opinion these days. So I won’t. Yup, you got that right. I just won’t analyse what I like about role-playing games I hate or get enraged by. Although I’d like to relate my previous conclusions to role-playing games. In a role-playing game what you (okay: I) want is conflict. Every set of rules and game mechanics is about how to resolve conflict. So if you don’t have any conflicts what the role-playing game system has to offer will probably pass you by.

That was the obvious part. What I take from boardgames (and competitive videogames) is that conflict works best if players develop strong emotions about it. A lot of this is taken into account by establishing a risk-reward-scale within the game mechanics. But – as far as my perspective goes – getting people all excited, raging and terrified has to take the whole concept of risk and reward one step further: get rid of an easy way out within the rules. If getting people involved in the game is one thing I want to accomplish, I should get rid of ways to back off quietly and stay out of trouble. As Vincent Baker likes to put it for Apocalypse World: there are no status quos in Apocalypse World. If I want to push the players even harder I would make the game mechanics punish players for playing it safe, doing nothing and passively waiting for the right moment.

Even if I do a good job at designing the set of rules, constantly agitating and provoking players has a drawback: people will get frustrated much more easily and feel helpless within the game world. So I want to set the game mechanics up in a way that the players can understand them at first sight.  If I’m not aiming for misery tourism and making players snap and quit after the first session (I’m looking at you, Poison’d!), I want to make sure players understand that they are not helpless and the game world is not necessarily a downward spiral. Communication within a gaming group is an important part of that but I won’t work without a properly designed set of rules. The trick is – and the is what I mostly take from League of Legends – to make players understand that they will probably fail horribly but on the other hand can win this thing with an incredible feeling of reward and accomplishment. That their chance for victory, survival or success is tightly bound to their character’s skills and the mechanics so they better make use of them. Applying pressure is a great way of (literally) pushing the players of a game in certain direction and building up a tense and loaded atmosphere. The equally hard problem is to not the break essential things in the process and make sure people don’t cave in under the pressure.

on gamemasters and black holes

2012/02/06 § 1 Comment

I haven’t forgotten you yet. No no. I’m a bad blogger but I’m not ready to give up yet. I want to continue this thing for the sake of doing it. It’s not like anyone’s reading it. That would be too simple, wouldn’t it? Actually telling people I’m writing would help, of course.

Yesterday one of the most obvious meta-problems of roleplaying struck me: whether or not a role-playing game needs a gamemaster. GM. DM. Storyteller. Master of Ceremony. Call it whatever pushs the right buttons for you and gets you off into screaming Oh God, that is the best pun ever! on the top of your lungs while spilling D20 all over your character sheets.
So why do role-playing games need a person that takes up the role of setting up the game, planning the session, playing twice as much characters as anyone else together? As far as I know there are – in general – two positions.

  • The first one is: There are RPGs without a GM?!? How the hell does that work?!
  • The second one is any other perspective with a whole set of reasons, considerations and concerns that I will for the sake of simplicity boil down to: Why do people think that RPGs need GMs?!

Okay, I’ll stop joking around.. a little bit. As far as I know (and I don’t really want to go into details) the idea of one player taking up the role of gamemaster goes way back to tabletop and war games where one person had to be the judge. While other players focus on their role, character and position within the game’s world, the GM sets up this world. Some might say, the GM is the game’s world. Of course, that is not true. Every role-playing game has a shared imaginative space but some systems emphasize the other players influence a little bit stronger. In a lot of classic systems there is the GM on one side of the table with the other players against him. The GM basically is the one that knows what is going to happen and the players can simply react to it. The system itself is not exactly prepared for And then something entirely different happens. They sure don’t forbid it but they aren’t much help either.

Which – at least in my opinion – leads to the general impression that in a lot of gaming groups the GM does all the work. All of it. Those general impressions are a fun thing to think about if you ask me. They show a great deal of insight into how I perceive my hobby in ways of stereotypes. If I imagine the gaming table I see the GM separated from the other players on one end of the table. He or She (okay: he) usually has about thrice as much papers and stuff as the rest and is hidden behind one big-ass construction of a GM-screen. I’ve never been in a group where that was the case and I don’t even think I heard a lot of stories about situations like that but the impression is stuck in my head. So where does this stereotype come from?

Many GMs I know – myself included – sometimes get the feeling that their players don’t care. They don’t mind, they don’t hate it, they’ve got nothing to complain about it but at the same time: they simply don’t care. It in this case is something like the game and the shared experience in general. Saying that players don’t care is not me hating or raging about player behavior; it’s just an observation. I think the reason why player sometimes have the tendency to not care is that a session of role-playing isn’t quite as much preparation for them. Sure, some might look through their notes, sum up their last adventures or spend their earned experience points on something before they sit down around the table but it is optional for them. Even if a group has agreed to care about their game and its world it’s a lot easier for them to say something like Well, I really wanted to but then life happened. I had some random ideas on the way here I’ll throw at you but beyond that I’ll just act according to your preparation, GM. ‘Cause I love you and you’re great and I know you’re well-prepared. It’s kind of funny to imagine a GM react to that by saying What a coincendance! Me too! Life was just hard this week. So I’ll just improvise my way through this. I’ve seen that happen and it can be quite a lot of fun but for classic role-playing games it tends to most likely be some kind of mediocre experience with not much happening.

When looking at it from this perspective one way to solve the problem of one player doing all the work is to share the work within the group. The most common way I’ve seen for classic role-playing games is to rotate the GM role. I’ve seen this idea declined in one of my groups for the most obvious yet interesting reason: I don’t have time for this and I’m not interested enough to do it. It’s funny for all the wrong reasons but that’s a completely different topic. In some cases we end up with a role-playing game where there is no GM role.

I personally never played a GM-less system. I’ve read Universalis and Capes but I’ve never managed to get a group together. From what I’ve heard this kind of role-playing game is a lot of fun if anyone is involved and highly motivated. (opposite to I don’t care enough to GM.) I assume you need a group of gamers where everyone is willing to take part in telling the story and take responsibilities. I experienced similar situations while playing Maid RPG and since I recently MC Apocalypse World. There is a GM role in both games but they strongly lean towards a more open and optional approach to the role. Other players are directly encouraged by the systems and their rules to establish own facts about the world without going Is it okay if the streets lights in the city are a tint orange?, Does the house have a bathroom? or Do I know someone who can get me big-ass explosives? The answer is not Well, let me look at my notes”*rollD6**scribble*”Yes! In fact there is! anymore but something along the lines of Sure, why not? Actually, why don’t you tell me about it? On the downside many fellow gamers I talked to, who tried gm-less systems and didn’t like it, claimed that the whole thing just felt mediocre and pointless. It just is not for everyone I guess.

From this background informations let me jump back to my meta-problem at hand: does a gaming group need a leader and is this leader person necessarily the GM? A person who co-ordinates and plans the game sessions beforehand.
Well, of course! An activity or a process work better if you have one person organizing it and distributing responsibilities. Hierarchy is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Case Closed. Meta-problem over.

Wait a minute. It’s not that easy! Here’s the thing: in the gaming group I’ve been in the role of the GM seems to be the guy or girl who plans the game session beforehand. But in reality the GM is also the one who does.. basically all kind of things that revolve around the actually game and the preparation it demands. Setting up dates, knowing the rules, helping anyone with their problems and – worst case scenario – preparing the food, the location and.. well, anything. I’ve seen other situations, of course. One person GM-ing, someone else communicating place and time shenanigans and another one providing said place and food. That is what I consider an ideal distribution of responsibilities among a group of gamers / friends. But in my experience the phenomenon occurs that I want to call the GM-Black-Hole-Effect. (Yeah, I just wanted to coin a term.That’s this whole rants purpose.)

The GM-Black-Hole-Effect is when for some reason all responsibilities seem to collapse into the GM role because no one else did care at that point in space and time because caring is optional. That is one sucky meta-problem. Pun intended. You’re welcome.

on transparency

2012/01/10 § Leave a comment

This meta-problem is a juicy one. It’s about rules or systems that are designed around you and me – the players – getting more into character but in the process do the exact opposite. It also is about the connection between a game’s transparency and the player’s ability to get an immersive experience out of it.

I’ll start off with two simple examples to give you an impression of the situation before I get into detail. The first one is from a pretty free atmospheric evening of Shadowrun – the second one from a session of The Shadow of Yesterday.

One evening a few years ago I sat down with four people, the GM and myself included, from my SR group for some casual role-playing. Two other players of our group weren’t present and we didn’t want anything big to happen without them so our decker did a cyber-run-thingy with the GM to gather information. We were kind of inbetween jobs and the other guy’s and my character didn’t have much to do except for staying with the decker in order to keep him save in case of a security breach or other complications. My character and my friend’s character didn’t know each other very well at that point so what we basically did was sitting around for about two or three hours and talk while the decker worked. We realized later that the cyber-run took our decker about 5 minutes so there wouldn’t have been much time for talk but we didn’t mind.

Over this evening our characters more or less bonded and became friends (they would later actually become lovers, ex-lovers and some other things – but that’s another story) while in concerns of the actual rules nothing much happened. We did our occasional check to make sure everything was alright, do a patrol and such things. It was a pretty great session of roleplaying from my perspective and close to what I expect out of a role-playing game: in-character immersion, character development, no big pauses and stretches of boredom caused by the game’s rules.

Of course, it wasn’t much of a game you might say but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The second example is a session of The Shadow of Yesterday from about a year ago. It was my group’s third session back when we gave tSoY a try. The characters had been captured by a tribe of ratkin down in the buried bellows of an old city. They were asked to cook the tribe a meal in order to show the ratkin’s superiority over the characters. Among them was the son of a Khaldorite baron, an Ammenite assassin in disguise send there to «solve» a problem involving said Khaldorite baron and a scavanger that had sneaked into the tribe’s settlement because he wanted to rescue the girl. Ah yes, the girl. There was an Ammenite poison-maker NPC. She had been abducted by the Khaldorite baron-son because her poison slowly killed his father. The session’s main conflict took place around the cooking pot while the baron-son and the assassin tried to get the young girl onto their side in separate discussions while the scavanger in disguise as a ratkin tried to.. well.. save the girl. Key of Damsel in Distress. Loved that one to pieces.

We rolled quite a lot pretty entangled and complex checks. One of them was a Bring Down The Pain of the assassin’s interests VS. the baron-son’s interests. A lot of stuff happened in concerns of questioning people’s loyalties and intentions. From my perspective as the GM it was a lot of fun and an incredible amount of character development but also really confusing because tSoY pretty much tells you to figure out how to handle a situation like that for yourself. In the end the scavanger ran away with the girl which had a major crush on him. It was great. The only problem: after the session everyone felt that lots of stuff had happened but barely anything of it had happened to «them». One of the players said he felt more like debating than role-playing. The way he said it is pretty much etched into my mind.

So what happened here? On one hand there is a system, Shadowrun, that doesn’t say anything about character development and being your character and it just happened. The experience was more rewarding than any experience points that could have been given as reward. On the other hand there is a system, The Shadow of Yesterday, that (in my opinion) is about the individual development of characters and being rewarded for being yourself, doing what you (the character) would do. But when the rules actually come into play it feels shallow and distanced.

There is a nice little complementary pair of words called transparency and opacity. It’s used in philosophy quite a lot these days to describe how we experience certain things or how they come into mind. When something is transparent we just experience or perceive something without the possibility of consciously experiencing the medium or the system of how we experience or perceive. When something is opaque it’s obviously to us how the thing in concern is brought to our experience or perception.

For example, I can’t see the process of me seeing things. I might know how the nerves of my eye work and how the information is processed into seeing by my brain but I could never see that, even if I wanted. There are no glitches or malfunctions that show me that all this is a processed information and not just the image that is out there. But if I look at a computer screen I get a pretty good idea of how it feels to see an image but blatantly see how it is produced and how it works. Or rather doesn’t work from time to time and in that way is opaque to me. I get a look behind the curtains constantly.

With this nice little excourse I don’t want to show off my knowledge of fancy words. My experience with systems like Shadowrun and systems like The Shadow of Yesterday is similar to transparency and opacity. The first ones don’t give me a chance to take a look behind the curtain and lay my hands on the machine that keeps the whole thing moving. The second ones grants me a good look into the whole show and even offers me the chance to run it. One isn’t better in concerns of the quality of its design; they just do something completely different.

There is just one thing that bugs me though: role-playing games like tSoY know what they’re doing or at least claim to do so while classic role-playing games like SR don’t. A classic role-playing game to my personal knowledge rarely has rules or mechanics that encourage the player to develop and be their characters; most roleplayer just do that or they don’t. It’s nothing the game wishes to change or fix. Games like tSoY, Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard or Don’t Rest Your Head want you to drive your character into a certain direction. They want you to have goals, intentions and believes that will be rewarded in the process. They want you to fuck up, make mistakes and come out stronger on the other side. Well, or don’t. They don’t just want to throw things that could kill you or want the be solved into your direction. The more I play this kind of game (I know, stupid generalization), the more I wonder: do they really accomplish what they intent to do?

Sure, they make it possible for me to be rewarded for developing a character’s personality instead of just his or her abilities but does it really feel any different from being rewarded for my abilities or for just playing the game in general? It might sound stupid but sometimes I feel like the fact that the rules of SR, DSA or D&D are so bad when it comes to story-telling and role-playing and simply focussed on my abilities that I don’t have to care about them when I develop my character.

They don’t fuck around in my territory and I mess up their’s just as much as necessary. How much damage do I have to deal to don’t pull my group down? 1D6+5? Great. Got that. What abilities could come in handy? Survival? Got that, too. Now can I keep on talking and get to know NPCs? Wonderful.

That is not even close to either a solution or a conclusion, of course. It’s just me ignoring my problem with classic role-playing games because I know how to solve the problem for me personally. Do the bare minimum of requirements. Get a better group. Ignore the fact that something else could suit my needs better. It doesn’t even address the meta-problem of a system designed around character development killing the mood for character development.

The meta-problemI have to admit by now – is most probably false expectations: the possibility to develop a character within a set of rules and be rewarded for it doesn’t automatically mean that it will also make this development an in-character experience. It’s two completely different things when you think about it.

I still haven’t got any good hints on how a set of rules like tSoY’s Bringing Down the Pain and Key system could make for a decent immersive experience of being my character at the same time but I’m getting a general idea of what is not the problem. The problem is not that tSoY or SR are badly designed for the experience of in-character development. The meta-problem is that this wasn’t the intention of their design in the first place. That it worked or didn’t work as well as expected were merely side-effects of the situations at hand.

Late Write-up Friday: Apocalypse World. Distortion. 2nd session.

2012/01/08 § Leave a comment

When I started AW I promised to myself I’d do a proper sum-up of every session and organize the stuff that’s happening afterwards. I’ve been a bit lazy lately but I want to get my work on our 2nd, 3rd and 4th session done before the end of the year (and before more things happen ingame.)

The 2nd session was more or less a wrap-up of what happened in the 1st one. Not the ideal thing because I feel that AW should end with a cliffhanger that basically says «So that is what we are going to do next time. Obviously.»
It started with a bit of a turmoil at the compound’s marketplace (I personally called the compound Starbucks City in my head but I always forget to ask the characters what they actually call it. No one seems to care and maybe that’s fine.) A crowd had around the truck that got Müllermeier, the chopped-up stonecutter from 1st session, into town. The truck’s driver Maestro and Jacques, another stonecutter, told the people about how they got ambushed on the way to town. They’re gathering people to secure the road and make sure the Quarry is safe. Starbucks agrees to send a part of his gang as an escort along with Graywolf (the Gunlugger) and L Carmino (the Battlebabe). They get their bikes and guns and prepare to roll out.
Aeki (the Brainer) meanwhile has caught the attention of the local kids – namely Fuchs, Jameson and Zalando – who seem to see him as their spiritual guide or something. I gave Aeki a loveletter at the beginning of the session telling him that the kids grew fond of him for some reason and, though they despise adult, see him as their equal and want to share their secrets. Apart from that, the pain his old wound is causing him is getting worse and a custom move at the beginning of each session decides how bad it will be. One of the options is to use one of the children as a vessel of pain. Anyways, led by the kids he also arrives at the marketplace and for some reason he tagged along with the escort. I think we decided that they needed his perspective on things to get through the distortion quicker. Tamaris (the Angel) joined the escort as well in case someone would need a medic.
Crow (the Savvyhead) was doing his completely own thing while the others traveled towards the Quarry. He was called in by Starbucks to take a look at the water engine that got smashed up good in the fight between his gang and the democrats. He got to the top of Starbucks Tower and basically started lecturing people on proper maintenance and security of machines before he started his repair. I decided it would be some minor damage but the psychic part of the water engine was out of place and needed to be reconfigured. You see, the water engine is Crow’s Reality’s Fraying Edge move. He and I had at this point established that the reason for the rest of the compound’s sanity compared to the rest of the world is caused by the machine’s influence on the drinking water.

So, while Crow starts to work on the water engine conflict brews up at the marketplace. Things get a little hot-headed between the people from the Quarry and the gang. Maestro calms down and is ready to work with Starbucks’ gang after she mentions that the tours in her truck get awfully lonely from time to time and not very subtlely nudges L Carmino into «keeping her company» later that night. Tamaris also comments on the fact that one might not get patched up as well as usual next time they need medical attention if he or she keeps fighting over pointless stuff. Everyone agrees to work with each other again suprisingly fast.
The bikes accompanied by Maestro’s truck are on their way when Crow comes across a part of his machine whose purpose he can’t remember. He rolls a pretty decent It’s a strange box on the machine’s side with speakers and some turning knobs. He rolls a pretty decent Things Speak and next thing you know he is talking over Maestro’s cheap-ass cassette radio. Apart from Tamaris heavily flirting with Jacques on the way to the Quarry not that much happens half the way through the distorted land. I think Aeki rolled an Open Your Brain to try to keep the gang safe and on track.

They discovered they spot where the rest of the convoy to Starbucks City – apart from Maestro, Jacques and Müllermeier – had been slaughtered. There is blood everywhere, the bodies were cut open with their eyes, tongues and inner organs removed. Investigating the area they spot a cloud of black smoke from beyond a hill of sharp cliff and twisted edges. L Carmino and Tamaris get into a pretty fierce argument about what to do. L Carmino wants to take a look at the origin of the black smoke while Tamaris thinks that the safety of the Quarry comes first. That part – from my perspective as an MC – was somewhat goodbad. The argument between those two was wonderful. Both had valid points and I had the gang more or less shift between «Well, that guy is the one in charge but she is the one who will fix us up when shit happens», so they had to come to a conclusion themselves. At a certain point I asked each of them «So you basically want to manipulate him / her into doing what you want, right? Why should he / she do so? What’s your leverage?» We ended up with Tamaris manipulate L Carmino into taking only a small part of the gang with him by suggesting that he wanted to be patched up next time he fucks up for sure. I’m not sure how I felt about that resolution of conflict. It felt a little bit constructed and shallow but worked out so far. I guess it might be all about getting comfortable with using the basic moves.

While the gang split up, Crow fucked up his Open Your Brain big time and gave me my personal favorite moment of improvised madness. He wanted to figure out if the machine will do its job properly and rolled 5. I told him about this small windows in his mind, right behind his eyes, opening up and a menacing voice telling him that the little nice new world he’s built up only will be safe from the real world for so far. I really wonder what the source of that voice is and can’t wait for the group and me to figure it out one way or the other.
The group that was with Tamaris, Aeki and Graywolf arrived safely at the Quarry which was locked up from the inside because the stonecutter have been seeing strange things out there in the distortion last night. They talk to Weiße Mäuse, to matriarch of the Quarry, and – seeing the place’s protection is not enough by far – Graywolf agrees to stay there in order to help them set up at least basic security. The others decide to return to Starbucks City.
L Carmino and his gang make their way through the sharp-edged hills and are able to sneak up on the origin of the black smoke. They see six perfectly pitch-black people sitting around a campfire. There are pieces of meat on a grate. L Carmino watches as one of them searchs around the back of his head with his hands until he cuts it open with a small knife and insert an eye into it that immediately spots L Carmino. L Carmino doesn’t hesitate and commands his gang to attack killing all of the pitch-black people without any serious damage taken on his side. After that he burns the corpses and returns back to Starbucks City.

And that’s about it. For the first «real» session it was quite interesting. The other players and me had a lot of fun. I feel like I could improve my MC-ing on many levels but the session felt great nonetheless. For some reason I can’t seem to get into asking questions as much as I want to. After the 2nd one (and the later ones I’m gonna tell you about) I thought about the progress of events and thought «Damn, it would have been great to just ask them instead of doing the thing that seemed natural / not looking into it any further.» It gives me this strange feeling that the events continue but I’m / we’re missing out on certain basic facts that could / should be resolved within the first few sessions. Especially simple things. Where they get their food, what their «normal day» looks like. I’ve got this instinct from other rpgs to DO something. Throw an event at them. While I don’t plan anything of it ahead and just to what comes to mind and works with my prep I guess it could be less event-ish and more.. everyday-life-like.. if that makes any sense.

Any thoughts on that by you guys? Do I overthink or is that «a thing»?

Write-up Friday: Apocalypse World. Distortion. 1st session.

2011/12/24 § Leave a comment

I decided pushing out a little bit more content will more likely get me into the mood of updating this blog on a regular basis without the need to remind myself about it constantly. So while I’ll continue to rant about games and meta-gaming every Wednesday, Friday is the day for nice and easy write-ups of recent role-playing sessions if there were any. I consider a third or 2.5-ish slot on why I love and hate certain games but I’ll take it one step at a time.

meta-background-information thingies

Today I’ll kick things off with Apocalypse World. The summary of this session is about three month old but I plan on writing about my first AW campaign in the future;  so a few steps back to get to know the grand picture seems neccessary.

First of all a few really, really short words about AW in case you’re not familiar with it. The system isn’t older than a year and the moment I got my hands on it I simply wanted to play the game. I didn’t just want to appreciate it, savor the fascination of its design as I tend to do with many other games: I wanted to play. I wanted the whole gritty experience AW opened up to me with every goddamn page. I wanted to see how it played out.

What caught my attention about the game is the light-weight set of rules that was quite non-classic but at the same time had elements like ready-made classes, attributes and skills that seemed pretty standard but obviously would play out in completely different ways than.. let’s say.. Das Schwarze Auge 3rd Edition. The settings of AW appealed to my love for post-apocalyptic settings and their implications on gaming experience. The design promised the intimate experience of a harsh and cruel world that was out there to see how the characters would plan on surviving it, rather than being out there to go for the kill.

That is about as much as I want to say about AW. Anything further would be part of a segment about the role-playing game itself. So let’s get right into it.

 

the 1st session
Before making characters we started off with brainstorming about the apocalypse we would play in. My players felt like setting up some simple non-specific things beforehand because they felt it was necessary to get at least a vague ideas of their characters.
We established that the people in the world had gone crazy for no known reason and society fell apart / was torn apart by its inhabitants. We also established that the same thing has happened to the world itself: laws of physics, nature and time went down the drain and only work occasionally and behave in a completely different manner next time. No reliabilites there. The session will start out in a shattered mid-size town of central Europe near a river whose inhabitants are for some reasons relatively non-crazy and managed to fortify the inner city into a compound.

After that the characters are created and introduce themselves to each other:

Tamaris, the Angel who lives in the old butchery and only treats people who promise to bring her “pretty thingys” next time. She wears golden sneakers and a rain-cape.

Aeki, the Brainer who completely conceals themselves in a bulky coat under which one can see their body move strangely and in spasms.

L Carmino (with no ‘e’, his player insists), the Battlebabe who doesn’t own a bed because he sleeps in someone else’s every night. He is a lean handsome guy with a pair of leather pants and a neat shiny chain wrapped around his waist. He also likes to swim in the river and he doesn’t get what everyone is so worried about.

Graywolf, the Gunlugger is a dusty old guy who still remember bits and pieces of the Apocalypse from when he was with his dad who fought in the last war. He got into town as a salvager and moved into the old castle ruin outside of town where he domesticates a swarm of gaint honey-bees. (“Is there one of these old keeps just outside town I can live in?” – Sure, why not? – “Can there be some kind of a drawbridge that connects it to the town’s wall?” – That sounds like a good idea. – “Will you throw me off of it you day?” – Probably. – “Damn, I want it anyways.”)

Crow, the Savvyhead who came into town someday and moved into the junkyard after setting up a weird machine with lots of smoke and antennas (the water engine). No one exactly remembers when or how he got there, not even as what he introduced himself to the towns-people. They call him Crow because of the shitload of crows that seem to have moved into the junkyard with him and annoy the hell out of people.

Estrella, the Skinner who is living in the old schoolhouse and wants to teach the people reading and writing. She’s kind of a merchant, loves to take care of her vegetable garden and has a little pet dragon.

Yup, pet dragon. Funny and wonderful things happened while the characters were introduced. I didn’t really have to say “Okay, now we have to do Hx!” or “Okay, now it’s time to start playing!” It all transitioned from one thing to another. I’m sorry if I’m full of little stories and anecdotes today but it was just so beautiful considering that I know the “Okay, what’s next, GM?-look from other groups / systems.
So yeah, Estrella the Skinner turns to me while introducing herself, grins and asks “And can I have a pet dragon?” We already established that time/space-anomaly-thingies take place constantly so I just say: “Of course you can.” That moment Crow the Savvy leans over and says “Obviously she can” – looks at his hands with a confused expression and continues like talking to something he holds in his hands – “’cause I remember cleary.. well not everything that clear.. the day I had constructed that.. thing and it bend and turned and exploded when she came by. And then that thing with the flapping wings was suddenly there.. man, I still wonder where that machine went..” Estrella nods and says “Yeah, that was a strange day, indeed.”
Second anecdote: When Tamaris the Angel says ‘So I live in the old butchery’ the others start to muse about what their characters home’s look like (if they have any.) Even before I can say “Well, obviously we should start drawing a map!” my roommate who plays Tamaris goes to her room and comes back with big piece of paper and puts it into the middle of the table.
While I watch them somewhere between suprise and fascination the other player lean over and start talking about the city and what it might look like. My roommate draws a building and the others add some outlines to the city while Tamaris finishes to introduce herself. At one point two or three of them turn towards me (more or less at the same time) and ask “Is that okay?” (the vague outlines of the city are already half drawn at that point) and I just nod and say “sure, perfectly fine.” At some point they actually stop adding any details when L Carmino’s player suggests that “it will sure be more fun to find out what is out there.” Everyone agrees and we move on to Hx.

Some interesting history is established. Best thing, Tamaris the Angel says: “So Crow the Savvy, remember that one time when I needed your help to replace Graywolf’s arm with a bionic one because he got fucked up so bad?” – “I can remember that day perfectly clear but don’t ask me what I did to make that thing work but it made sense back then. You just probably shouldn’t let someone hold hands with it. How do you like your arm anyways, Graywolf.” – “I think it’s pretty sweet. But I need to get back to you on it ’cause it’s been acting up a bit lately.”
There’s so much more but this post is going to be pretty long anyways.

 

actual gameplay

After that we did a short session of “actual” gaming in the time we had left.
It starts with one of the kids, little Jameson, that help Estrella out in her garden yelling about that creepy guy who is lurking around the fences again. Aeki the Brainer just wants to be properly welcomed and given some food so he commands (whispers it) to Estrella whom just gets out of there and leaves the kids alone with the Brainer. They greet and feed him but he gets thrown out again after Estrella gathers up her courage to tell him off. Graywolf the Gunlugger just passes by -returning from a job he and L Carmino finished – and tells Aeki to fuck off and gets some lettuce in return from Estrella.
In a short scene of Aeki alone eating his carrots, we learn that he is mostly blind by now and the headache and pain from his old wound is getting stronger every day.

Graywolf visits Crow the Savvy and disturbs his sleeping schedule “that bounces between 16 hours straight and half an hour” as he tells us. The bionic arm is doing strange things after it got hit pretty hard in the fight last night. L Carmino and Graywolf tell us about Harley and his gang of raider whom they butchered last night. We also learn that they still have to get their compensation for the job from the local hardholder called Starbucks.
Crow examines the arm with mysterious tools in his workspace while talking and listening to it. I tell him that the mechanics themselves are alright, just a little off, but the function has been infected and must be cured on a more essential level. He opens his brain and asks what is wrong with the machine. He gets an impression so I tell him of a blurry self-perspective where he just finished working on something what lies in front of him. He’s wearing this huge welding gloves and when he takes them off the skin of his arms and hands underneath are necrotic and charred to the bone. After he finishes up Graywolf’s arm as good as possible he gets half a head of lettuce and falls asleep again with his head resting upon it.

Meanwhile Tamaris the Angel tells me they bring this guy called Müllermeier into the butchery and he’s one of the stonecutters. We learn that there is a big white building somewhere outside town wherefrom they get massive stone blocks to fortify the wall. Müllermeier has this gore-y stomach wound entrails spilling out and all while an axe is still stuck into his shoulder. Tamaris ponders whether or not the man will be able to bring back pretty things in the future. I tell her about him dying in the next minutes and about his crippled wife back home.

At this point I start to wonder what L Carmino been up to because his player has been suprisingly quiet so far, so I ask. He grins and says: “I’Ve been with the MacDonald’s twin – y’know the weaver girls who live in that building with the two golden arcs attached to the front? – the whole night and morning and I’m not in a hurry. But I guess we’ll get up sometime soon. I have to see Starbucks and Mercedes has to discuss business with him as well.

Graywolf tells me he has already been there and a fight has happened in Starbucks’ place. Some people talking about something called ‘dee-moo-cracy’ have been there and Starbucks wanted them dead. He explains all that while dragging two people with broken arms and jaws into the butchery and Tamaris is freaking out.
We rewind a bit and find out that the fight got messy. The water engine located in Starbucks’ place got heavily damaged.

Graywolf also has a scene with Starbucks’ secretary Gin which was probably one of my favorite, mechanic-vise: Graywolf reminds him that he still hasn’t been paid yet and Gin brushes him off in an indifferent “Huh, sure”-fashion. He asks “Is that bastard lying to me?” – “Well, why don’t you find out for yourself?” – rolls a 7 “So is he telling the truth?” – “No.” – “I lean over his desk, grab him by his tie and tell him what’s gonna happen if I don’t get paid.” – “He has a desk and a tie?” – “He has now” rolls a 6 “Oh shit.” – “The tie not tied around his neck but just one of these clip-on things and before you know it he pokes this big-ass pistol into your jaw while still looking at his clipboard in the other hand. ‘Is there anything else? Would you mind dragging those meatbags over to the butchery? Starbucks wants to question someone.’, he says.”
It took about two minutes and I had no clue who Gin is but now I wonder what the bastard is up to.

You know the rest of the story.
Oh, and on the way down the stairs kicking the bodies down there one staircase by another, Graywolf meets L Carmino and Mercedes. The latter one does not like his choice of words for her and his behaviour at all.

Aaaaaand there we had to stop. Considering it was my first time MCing AW, the first time playing AW for everyone and the first time playing p&p for two of them.. I think we had pretty much of a blast there.