Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Grand Freeform Discussion: Post Zero

So I'm blowing the dust of the Gaming Knack blog. At Pheno just gone, Mister Smith got to talking with some folk, and kicked off a discussion at the RPG Opinions Facebook group. Facebook is great for discussions, but blogs are great for records and the ongoing existence thing. Besides: freeforming is something that happens at Aussie cons that doesn't really have an equivalent elsewhere. And we like that.

The plan is to record the discussion starter posts, and then put up a summary of discussion. I've no objection to people chatting here, but I'm deliberately lagging behind the FB discussion so as not to - ha! - split the party. 

So this is the summary of the plan: Post Zero, by the Intrepid Mr Smith.


Freeforming 0
Andrew's notes from Pheno 2015 post-con drinkies, and some groundrules for the discussion.
At Pheno this year I became interested in this premise: that freeform writers present the games they want to play in themselves. I thought to test this over soothing beverages at post-con drinkies, and discovered that I talked to too few people, and there was waaay more to talk about than could be accomplished in one evening. I did take notes.

So what I hope to do here is to supply my notes (with minimal reformatting), and propose that we go through the sections at a rate of one per week. Hopefully this will help keep things mostly on-topic — and if the discussion looks to touch on topics that will come up later, keep them till that week.
Three other suggestions. Firstly, I want to talk about freeforms, and specifically the pre-written characters, short-run ones that we do at cons, rather than tabletops or other forms of game. I did have a note about campaign freeforms, so I'm happy to see them referenced or used as contrast, but they are not the primary subject.

Secondly, everybody I talked to was passionate about the form. This is awesome. People were passionate about different bits, and had quite different preferences. I suspect we have an elephant problem here, and we don't even know if we have just one elephant. So I am not looking to find a One True Way towards con freeforms: it may even be an imaginary elephant. I would be immensely happy for this discussion to lead to a set of perceptions and tools that will help all of us build better freeforms, in some format or other.

Thirdly, I'm happy to add notes/points to the sections, and if you have a really good idea for a section, to add sections.

Rich world vs shared improv creation
Interact with world vs closed box
Open-ended vs defined end-point
Internal consistency, establishing setting conventions
PC actions impact on setting
Established settings vs new ones
Established: select engaged players, shared tropes/roles, but differing interpretations
New: freedom from unwelcome expectations but difficulty of consensus, sharing 'enough' info
Variant established - best of all worlds?

Styles of play
Families/factions/teams - the rule of 4: self, enemy, friend, mystery
Politics/intrigue vs relationships vs investigation vs the world
Romance can be tricky
"In the deep end" - the big decision: GM ends the world
On rails vs open ending
Con vs ongoing/campaign
Full immersion

Specific settings
'Hard' SF: unplayable?
Star Trek
Space opera: Dune, Fading Suns, Jupiter Ascending, 40K
Star Wars
Fantasy - modern, 'historical' (e.g. Gaslight, 7th Sea), high fantasy,
Actual period - regency, musketeers, Imperial Rome
Horror (as opposed to dark fantasy) - contemporary/normality
Military - ship crews

Game systems
Resources: circulation vs sink
Implied vs gamified
Dealing with PvP and PvE
Death and other sanctions
Sim/Strategic management
How many GMs?

Character sheets
Making things obvious to the player - clear role (e.g. head/diplo/mil)
BUT just enough detail
Using language to depict the world and suggest character
Where is the fun?
What do you care about? Goals/objectives, opinions, questions
Links to other characters: like vs need
Reactive vs proactive character choices
Golden bridge of retreat - no lose face
Models for characters being less appropriate literary models (hero, villain, chorus)
Problem characters: the guy everyone hates, the assassin, the not-what-it-says-on-the-tin
"Significant-other friendly" characters
"Deception" character sheet (cover sheet?)

Playing the game
Own your character
Adding to the fun of others
Secrets and resources
GM shopping
Mechanics - you (and everyone else) are allowed to use the system

Monday, 17 June 2013

Voices of Light and Darkness

I was going to respond to J.'s post, but I realised that (a) I was responding to a tangential issue and (b) I can post here too.

So I am.

What I'm reacting to is the idea of trigger warnings as badges of honour, and, more broadly, the idea that "serious games equals serious gamers". This is something I've both reacted against and internalised. I would be cross at an insistence that only deep, dark angsty games are "worthy." But at the same time I'm conscious that I really only write light and fluffy games, making me, in some depth of my subconscious, a bit of a lightweight.

I am a complicated person.

I tried to rebel against/succumb to this feeling, this Pheno just gone. I tried to write a dark and political game, exploring the psychology of evil characters making bad, selfish decisions in a time of environmental collapse. The result was FUD, a light farce with parodical characters making bad, selfish decisions in a time of environmental collapse. The game had more in common with my previous con games than I'd imagined it would.

The game was successful on its own terms. I've not heard anything in the first- and second-hand commentary to suggest otherwise. My normal marks of a successful con game (no complaints, at least one lot of effusive praise) were met. I got to play in the Paranoia setting, one of my first gaming loves. But it fell a long way short of what I was aiming for, and that rankles.

I mention this to people who who write the darker style of games, and say, "How do you do it?" and they say, "Ah, but I can't do the comedy games like you can," and I say, "Not the point!" before pausing to consider what they've just said, which is, essentially, "I do it by an instinct which I find difficult to explain; I can't do comedy games in the same way."

At least, that's close enough to my response to the reciprocal question. When I'm asked how I write comedy games, my gut-level response is "how can I not?"

So my questions remain:

What makes for a good dark game?

What do you put into it?

What's important in putting together the characters? What do they need?

How do you manage mood and expectation setting?

How dark is too dark? Are there places you won't go?


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Here's a question. How to do trigger warnings?

Some context. I grew up as a writer in a time of horrific (style and only sometimes level of competency) gaming, in which people got raped, we turned out to be Nazis and did terrible things with babies. I grew fighting those games with my light and fluffy things. They just weren't me. But they left an impression, which I'm still fighting today. And the impression they left with me is that running and playing these styles of games is a badge of honour - "I can go further to the extremes than you can and cope".

Now I write somewhat serious games, games about relationships and emotions and the darker side of the spectrum. Partially because of the impression I fought against as a young writer I try very hard to give the impression that "what you like is lovely and what I like is lovely". But I still get the impression that writers are putting badges of honour on their games, going to the extremes and now using 'trigger warnings' as a way of say "you have to be real hard to play my stuff".

According to Jezebel "For those unfamiliar with the term, trigger warnings exist to alert rape survivors, eating disorder sufferers, and others to language that might disturb them. And actually, "disturb" isn't really that accurate — the point isn't to help readers avoid offense or annoyance, it's to help them avoid relapse, self-harm, flashbacks, and other serious psychological and physical fallout."

I don't write games about sexual abuse. I don't write games about eating dissorders and I don't use language.

But... I know some people don't play my games cause they don't like what I do. Fair enough. What I encountered last con was one player pulled out of my game and another came and had a quick word with me to say that they were very uncomfortable with what was written. I explained I was more than happy for them to shift whatever they were uncomfortable with out and they were willing to play.

But... I don't want to put players in a position where they feel they are forced to encounter things they don't want to. It's supposed to be fun.

But... I don't want to slather trigger warnings all over my games and further the impression of you need to be 'hard enough' or 'willing to play with extremes' or something. I don't write the sorts of games which put me offside when I was younger.

But... I now have players pulling me aside unhappy with my work.

Basically... I don't know what would be uncomfortable with one player vs another, I don't have any right to find out, I don't want to make players uncomfortable (either with playing something that makes them unhappy or by being forced to play in a 'trigger warning' competition).

So, I'm vaguely thinking of putting something on the bottom of my blurbs "I like to run on the darker side of emotions & relationships. If this is where you get your game on, you might like it". Would something like that help? Or do I need to reclaim (at least in my own head) "trigger warnings"?

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Two More Games from Sydcon

So, two other games I played at Sydcon were An ARD Day's Night (Paranoia), and The Silence in the Chapel (Call of Cthulhu). I want to comment on these games separately because they're part of a long gaming tradition, and because they're rather old systems that are well-suited to the con format.

Paranoia has been around in various editions for more than twenty-five years. An ARD Day's Night is a from a published collection of Paranoia modules called Acute Paranoia, republished for the new edition in Flashbacks, and was run at Sydcon by Melissa Legrand. The adventure follows the typical Paranoia structure, where a group of troubleshooters are assigned to find trouble - in this case, with the systems regulating the day/nightcycle in ARD sector - and shoot it.

And this wasn't one of your more subtle, satirical modules - goofiness abounded, with histrionic accusations of treason and equally histrionic defences. The GM added a new R&D device - a Portal gun - and jiggered the service group and secret society memberships for maximum fun.

My favourite bit was the set-piece which saw the troubleshooters mistaken for a popular entertainment troupe, and mobbed by screaming infrareds. This was followed by a musical number, wherein my character, a secret commie, was able to propagandise a huge crowd by singing the songs of his Commie hero, John Lenin. A clone well-spent, I feel.

The over-the-top silliness, the disposable nature of the player characters, and the standard mission structure all make Paranoia ideal for a light and happy con game session. It's more than possible to play the game in a darker mode, but it's considerably easier to grab the Portal gun and drag the whole party into an infinite portal loop. Funny, too.

System-wise, the most recent iteration of the Paranoia rules were used, though in practice this largely meant the player rolling the dice and the GM describing an outcome - usually a complicated, destructive outcome with little relation to the character's skill number. Most attempted skill uses were successful if that was more fun, which it usually was; the exception was the Portal gun, where most uses went horribly wrong.

I'm ok with that as a resolution scheme.

The Silence in the Chapel was written by Ken Finlayson and presented to celebrate Call of Cthulhu's thirtieth anniversary. Call of Cthulhu was a direct influence on early Australian systemless games; many of the early multiform modules were horror scenarios that emphasised the personal experience over the game system.

I was initially concerned at the sparseness of the character sheet I was given - a couple of paragraphs of rather dry background, some skill percentages, a bit of system explanation. This turned out to be less of a problem than it might have been, because the characters were drawn from the same strong archetypes as the source game and the Lovecraft mythos. I had a New York sophisticate; I played him as subtly camp, with genuine affection for his colleagues.

The game was well staged - there was a full colour map of 1920s Boston in the middle of the table; as the group followed leads, the GM placed laminated illustrations of the various places, people and objects on the map, which could be passed around. This led to a deeper sense of immersion in the setting.

In keeping with default Cthulhu style, a small group of investigators investigated. The game was open-ended, but channeled to key points that the GM had prepared for, with boxed text and laminated pictures. A particular highlight was interrogating a working-class labourer who'd been driven mad by Cthulhoid beasties.

The system was a stripped-down version of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu game - each character had a small, illustrative set of skills and percentile dice were rolled against them. No sanity system was used - the game was staged so that the awful horror was revealed slowly, gathering pace towards an ultimate climax. Rolling against sanity would have altered the flow. You don't want an investigator going batshit at the wrong time.

As a particularly neat touch, the adventure was chock full of subtle homages to the original rules - the characters were all named after the various example characters in the rulebook, for example, and the scenario was heavily inspired by "The Magician", the original example adventure.

So: two old-school games from Sydcon. For my part, I'm really pleased that Sydcon ran them. These systems are part of our culture's history - and in many cases, it'll be the first chance players get to play them. The big published systems provide a common point of reference for strangers at a con. And they can provide a sense of history and continuity.

As a case in point: I didn't play it, but Sydcon also ran an original D&D game. A young gamer was heard to exclaim, "It's just like fourth edition!"

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Con games are different – Players don’t read

In part one of my series on the difference between a con game and a campaign game I was looking at the fact that in a con game, you don’t know who your players might be. This post looks at one of the implications – they don’t know what you have.

They won’t know at least one of the character, the setting or the system. If you’re unlucky they won’t know all three. Even if you had stuff ready prior to the first session and the player took it, you can’t count on them actually taking it in. In a campaign game, you have time to interact with and educate a player on what they missed.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Want to write a game for Pheno?

I’ve volunteered for the position of writer wrangler for Pheno. So, I’d like to extend an invitation for writers to create a game for the con in June next year :)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Three Games from Sydcon: Systemed Games for the Systemless Gamer

I've just got back from Sydcon, which is a rather nice little con in Sydney, run by the Sydney Roleplaying Games Association. I tend to feel a bit of a stranger at Sydcon - there's one or two close friends, a small bucket of acquaintances, and a load of folk I don't know. But for all that, I've always found the Sydcon orgs flexible and approachable, the players fun and keen. This year was no different.

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