I’ve used Storium for awhile now, playing in a handful of games and narrating a couple. While Storium norms are still in their early stages, I’d like to offer some preliminary ideas about what’s worked for me. Naturally, YMMV. After all, the background of player groups on Storium vary wildly; some come from RPG backgrounds, while others come from PbP games and still others from fanfic writing. Those player groups have different styles which work for them. That being said, though, here are some things that make sense to me.

Define the Level of Player Autonomy Before You Begin

Some Storium games are more collaborative than others. In two of the games in which I play, the narrators describe the setting and let us do whatever we please, creating situations within those spaces as we see fit. Those games are a little like free-form LARPs. In another game, the narrator expects players to take moves and wait for feedback about what the NPCs do and how the world changes in response; she’s got a scripted game and we play to find out what she’s written, much like a tabletop RPG. My own Warhammer game runs somewhere in the middle: I have a scripted idea of what’s happening on the largest level, and I tend to start scenes with strong direction from NPCs. Yet I have invited my players to speak for NPCs, add events, and complicate scenes as they see fit.

Not all narrators are comfortable with the same level of player input, and the same goes for players. Advertising your expectations clearly and reinforcing those expectations early on makes for better game play, as everyone knows what types of moves are expected and allowed. Can players speak for NPCs? Can players drastically change the plotline? Can they solve problems with magic or other mechanics you haven’t explicitly introduced?

Where you fall on this scale will drastically change how you approach planning for and responding to your game. If you’re going to ask players to wait for your feedback, you’ll need to check your account and respond often so that players aren’t sitting and waiting on you to tell them what an NPC thinks or how a magic spell worked. You’ll also have to have a clear sense of what’s happening in your world. If, on the other hand, you mean to allow players to alter the course of events and speak for NPCs, you’ll need to roll with the punches and be willing to change your story–perhaps drastically–at the drop of a hat, perhaps re-envisioning your main characters through the lens of the players’ understanding of them.

Personally, I’ve had a great time rolling with the punches. The beauty of Storium is that you don’t have to respond right away like you do in a tabletop game; I can see what my players have said, mull it over for awhile, and come back to them with something that suits them. At one point, for instance, my players were infiltrating a cult of Nurgle. In the Commentary section, one of my players made a crack about wanting “balloons” in the scene. I had originally planned a fairly straightforward cult, but the balloons idea resonated with me, and I crafted a whole scene around a Nurglish birthday party ritual. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a game, and it was great to have the opportunity to respond to a player idea (even if it was just a jest!)

Use the Commentary Section

As a narrator, I’ve found the commentary section invaluable. It’s the best tool you have for explaining the expectations you have about player behavior in a given scene, about a piece of lore, or about how you want players to use the mechanics. If you’re a player, it’s a great place to ask questions.

In my Warhammer game, there’s one NPC I don’t want the players to speak for; he’s been in a couple of my Warhammer games, and I have a very clear sense of his character. Plus, he’s incredibly powerful, and putting his power in the hands of my players might unbalance the game. So what did I do? I used the comments at the first mention of his name to let them know that I didn’t want them to speak for this particular NPC. I reminded them when I introduced the next NPC that they could speak for him–just to reinforce the overriding expectation in my game–but the Commentary gave me a great place to underscore the one exception that proved the rule.

In another game in which I play, my narrator had a dangerous NPC lock us in a room after storming out. A challenge card for her character remained, though. I wanted to know if he was envisioning the challenge associated with that NPC as being “gone” since she wasn’t in the room, or whether I could still play cards on her challenge and count those cards as representing our making a plan to overcome her when she came back. The Commentary gave me the perfect space to ask about his understanding of the rules and let us discuss it before I made my move.

Give Players a Focus

If everyone in the group has a strong LARP background, a clear focus might not matter, as players can entertain themselves through RPing with one another. In most groups, though, games tend to grind to a halt when players aren’t sure what to do, and challenge cards don’t always give quite enough direction. In your main narration, keep the tension high. Give your players a problem to solve or an impending threat to overcome. Make it clear, present, and obvious. Is that thing about to explode? Is someone ill? Are guards on the way? Is there a monster outside? Books don’t quite work like this–not every scene is high-tension. But writing games often should work this way, just to give players a sense of urgency about their moves.

If you want a pure RP or planning scene, first, use the Commentary to make sure the players know your plan. Second, give them a good backdrop for their RP. Add in some entertaining scenery, an animal or child, or a shiny object. If the conversation flags, the players can pick up on the background cues to keep things moving. Use those props to give information about your game world. If you want to give hints about what’s to come without having an NPC tell the players too much, put it in the scenery and let the players discover it. Just don’t cover the important detail with so much verbiage that they miss it!

Use the Mechanics Only When They Suit

Currently, there are some odd things about Storium mechanics. For instance, settings can never be challenges, but NPCs are always challenges. Roll with these punches, too, and only use challenges when there’s really a challenge to overcome. Generally speaking, I introduce the NPCs and setting (usually at the end of the previous scene) and let things heat up before I throw out a challenge card to open the next scene. That gives me a chance to know where the players want to direct their attention. If the players enter the catacombs and ask questions of the head cult member, that’s a cue to me to throw out an NPC challenge that relates to him. If, on the other hand, they enter the catacombs and immediately take interest in the bodies buried there, that’s an obstacle challenge that represents their investigation, and I might never use an NPC card for that cult leader at all.

For me, NPC challenges tend to represent persuading or incapacitating. Obstacles represent anything else.

Define Outcomes Creatively

It’s tempting to give your challenges yes/no outcomes: if the challenge is completed successfully, you kill the monster; if not, you don’t. It doesn’t have to be that simple, though. First, you might want to give your players more autonomy. What if they want to know something about the monster that they can’t find out if they chop off its head? You might have a successful outcome be “if the challenge is completed successfully, you kill OR incapacitate the monster.” Now they can choose. I use many EITHER/OR outcomes in my challenges to give players choice.

At other times, you might offer players degrees of the same choice. Right now, there’s an NPC in one of my scenes that I don’t want killed. He’s being a pain in my players’ asses, but I just don’t want them to kill him. Still, they should have the chance to do something to take his questionable behavior down a notch. My outcomes for his NPC challenge look something like this: SUCCESSFUL: you quiet him down and keep him happy. UNSUCCESSFUL: he’s still here, but he’s freaking out and will be less easy to control in the future. There’s still a choice about how much effort they want to put into making this NPC calm, but the outcomes aren’t quite as drastic as dead/alive.

Finally, think about uncertain outcomes. When players hit an uncertain outcome, I tend to think of it as a chance to give information without moving the story substantively forward or backward. Let’s say the players have a challenge to climb a mountain that looks unstable; their outcome on that challenge winds up uncertain. I might tell them that they think they could do it successfully with rope (which they don’t have,) adding a further complication to find rope. Or I might tell them that it looks so unstable that they wouldn’t climb it until the rain stops, then give them a challenge relating to killing time or keeping dry until the rain stopped if they wanted to give the challenge another shot. For NPC outcomes, it’s a bit easier: they don’t impress or upset the NPC, but the NPC tells them something they didn’t yet know.

Reward Player Cues

Hopefully, you have players who read carefully and pick up on the little details in your prose. If so, reward them by returning the favor. If they describe a particularly interesting bit of their character’s clothing, let an NPC notice it–perhaps it’s how the guards recognize that PC later on. If they bring up a relationship with a character who isn’t a PC, bring that character in as an NPC and let them have some meaningful interaction with her. Not only will you keep your players engaged, but you’ll also encourage them to read your text more carefully and use your details creatively.

When playing, do the same. There’s nothing more rewarding to me as a narrator than seeing someone run with one of my little details and turn it into a bigger part of the game. Tell your narrator which parts of the game interest you; encourage her to give you more of that. That’s not to say that you should ignore the things your narrator has staked out as major plot events, but interacting with the details you find intriguing is a useful form of feedback for your narrator.

 

Hopefully these thoughts will help others as they hash through their own preferences and playstyles as both narrators and players. I’ve had a great time with Storium thus far, and I hope that others will keep telling awesome stories with it!

If you’re a member of Storium, stop by and visit my Warhammer game! Click here.

So, I got in on the alpha test of Storium recently. For those of you who don’t know about it yet, it’s Protagonist Labs’…well, I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s an innovative new use of technology to write stories together. It’s got obvious ties to RPGs–especially to story games–and to play by mail or by post, and yet it feels very different from both. Since it’s a largely new animal, it’s been fascinating to watch the community work out the social codes for expected game play and to see how various narrators use the software to encourage storytelling.

A brief explanation of the product: in Storium, you participate in telling a story online with a group of people. In each “chapter” (or location/encounter set,) players use cards to overcome challenges, narrating what those cards mean in terms of your character and in the context of the challenge and in the story as a whole. In the game I narrate (or GM,) my characters are ghost hunting in nineteenth century England. I might play a challenge for my players like OVERCOME YOUR FEAR, to which I assign a certain number of points. The points represent the number of cards my players must give up in order to finish the challenge and move the story along. My players might play strong or weak cards (strong being assets like NERVES OF STEEL or weak being things like DESPERATELY NEEDS TO BE LIKED.) Then they must narrate how that particular set of cards played relates to the challenge. Did the character who needed to be liked miss the ghost entirely because he was grandstanding for one of his peers? Did the player who had nerves of steel walk right up and try to grab the ghost, believing it to be a fake? Ultimately, players write a story together move by move, challenge by challenge. There are quite a handful of other mechanics, but those are the basics. For the curious, cards are designed to go along with the game world and locations you are using; Storium has many different sets of worlds/cards already made, but you can also make your own quite easily.

Right now, I enjoy seeing how players navigate the unspoken social codes around gaming that we take for granted in many other arenas. For instance, in 90% of RPGs, players take turns for their character and expect the GM/ST to take turns for the NPCs. Players ask if they can manipulate the environment and wait for the GM to respond and to tell them what happened; they don’t tend to narrate those outcomes for themselves. In a Storium game, though, play would bog down endlessly if everyone waited for confirmation of every manipulation, so players must negotiate with their group to figure out what they can control and how much control they have. How much does a particular storyteller allow a player to manipulate and speak for an NPC? How much damage or change can a player do to the environment? Can a player put other players in danger, and to what extent can a player do that before s/he needs to stop and let the player in danger respond? Right now, there’s no socially accepted, unspoken answer to these questions. Each group is working it out on their own. In my own group, I’ve decided to allow players to manipulate my NPCs and the environment as much as they see fit, but never to speak for or act for another player. Interestingly, the player I have who has done RPGs the least is the most comfortable taking bold moves, probably because he doesn’t feel like he should wait for a GM to respond first. In another game in which I’m a participant that is more explicitly taken from an RPG, everyone has chosen the classic “I take my move, I wait for the GM to cue me” setup; it works well, too, which just goes to show the system’s ability to embrace  different play styles.

Eventually, there will no doubt be Storium norms that lead players to expect a particular amount of autonomous player/world interaction, but for now, it’s fascinating to see how groups hash this out together. Do they talk about it explicitly? Do they let players figure it out on their own and correctly gently with the REQUEST REVISIONS button when a player oversteps the mark? Having started playing slightly before I started narrating my own game, I recognized my own anxiety about what I was and wasn’t allowed to do; I therefore tried to spell out my own expectations for my players. Yet a lot of the norming for my group came when a player started creating his own stuff–a demon boy, a dog whistle–and instead of reacting negatively, I added in the content and ran with it, confirming that, at least for me, this behavior was encouraged.

Most of us are having our first experiences with Storium right now, so these early interactions will have a lot of impact on the ultimate way the game is played. I’ve always thought that you tend to look for games that reinforce (or that do the opposite of) your early experiences in gaming. Those first RPGs you played set the tone for “this is what an RPG [or this system] is.” You may have come around to having a burning desire to collect every indie on the market to try out wacky systems, but on some level, the early games you play train you about how to “be” a player. How aggressive do you expect to be at the table? How much autonomy do you believe your character has? How often should you roll dice, and how often should you just try to think/RP your way out of situations? I have trained my Storium ‘table’ of players to expect a high degree of control over our story because I think the wait time between moves is the beauty of the system. If I’m sitting face-to-face with players at a table and a player creates his own new NPC, I may not have any ideas on the spot about how to run him or how he fits into the bigger story; with Storium, I have plenty of time to think about how he weaves into the bigger fabric of the tale. Encouraging intricate player input thus seems like a big win for this system. However, that means I send out a table of players into the Storium world who would expect (and, I hope, want) that degree of player autonomy in other games, and who may include it in their own.

The other thing that strikes me as interesting about this moment is the extent to which it mirrors the development of any new medium. In the early days of film, many directors simply sat a camera on the floor in front of a stage and recorded plays. That’s what made their audiences comfortable, as moviegoers already knew what to expect from the theater. As moviegoers got more used to the concept of film as its own medium, directors moved away from the restrictions of the stage and started playing with camera movement, lighting, and other special effects, and finally started writing narratives that could never have worked on stage. I suspect the same will happen with Storium. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of ports of RPGs; my game and one of the ones in which I’m participating are ports of World of Darkness games on some level, partly because it’s an RPG system that lends itself to this product well. Eventually, though, I suspect we’ll see a move away from seeing Storium as a new way to play RPGs and towards seeing it as a way to play an entirely new type of game. I very much look forward to seeing that journey and to seeing what types of games emerge as this medium comes into its own.

In its alpha build, Storium is one of the most stable and most polished web products I’ve seen in a long time. We have no word about how they mean to monetize participation, but its Kickstarter campaign opens soon. I know I’ll be throwing a good chunk of money behind it, partly because I am so delighted that someone has offered us up this kind of new experience. It’s a way to bring gaming/storytelling to groups of people who cannot meet together face to face, but it’s also a way to ask people to think differently about the stories they tell as they game. I wish the Protagonist Labs crew the best as they go into the next stage of development, and I hope to see the majority of you on Storium before the year is out!

So, my friend Mike complained the other night that I never update this blog anymore. This is true; as happens to so many of us, work has overtaken my life. However, I am making some significant changes to my work schedule which should–perhaps–allow me to get back into doing some roleplaying from time to time.

I’ve had a couple of excellent RPG moments that I haven’t blogged about. I got to play in Stephen Chast’s excellent Halloween Marvel RPG adventure as Invisible Woman, which was a real treat. I had read the system several times, but hadn’t gotten to do more than roll a few dice in example encounters before our online game. One of my friends (NOT Mike) had told me that the system was a bit rules-heavy, and while I did find that we often spent time puzzling out our dice pool, I found the mechanics of figuring out how to justify the effects of your superpower surprisingly fun. I’m still a little bummed that I wasn’t allowed to use IW’s talent (which I had read was created by bending rays of light) to change the wavelength of cell phone light into an imitation of sunlight to combat some vampires, but I guess this is where my limitations as an English major instead of as a science major come in. Chast was an excellent and patient GM, and balanced out the rules of the system with a fun narrative that was just right (in flavor and in length!) for Halloween evening.

Tonight we are having a quick wrap-up of our infamous Vampire campaign. When we last left it, my character (had been? was? is?) Prince, and she had left things in a bit of a mess. A handful of major NPCs were incapacitated after a botched mission to eradicate the Sabbat in our little town–including our Storyteller’s favorite NPC. I expect to pay for that tonight. My character had also kindasorta run off just after The Botching to find the previous Prince, who had always been good to her and to whom she felt indebted) even though he was kindasorta blood bound to her because it was the only way to keep him alive after they’d found that he was…) actually, never mind. That’s a long story. Suffice it to say that things were a mess, and it was all my fault, so this session should go totally well. Also, my lucky dice are somewhere in a sea of packed boxes, so that bodes well, too. I’m basically expecting my poor character to die.

At any rate, now that I’ll have more free time, I’m hoping to get back into playing–and maybe even running–some RPGs. My husband has talked about running Star Wars, and I’m curious about Torchbearer. And of course, I still have that Dread game ready to go that I never ran last year. Oh! And Call of Catthulhu‘s coming from Kickstarter soon, too, with my wonderful hand-knitted catthulhu scarf. Oh! And Becoming. That’s coming, too. Did I mention that I have an RPG buying problem? Perhaps I should rename this blog Llany’s RPG Buying-and-not-Playing Problem.

So, there it is. Mike, I hope this keeps me on your favorite blog list.

Is it even possible for Meguey Baker to do something that isn’t awesome and inspiring?

I’ve talked in other places about my awe for her game 1001 Nights, one of the most advanced and engaging systems for storytelling gaming I have ever seen; in that game, you play characters who then play other characters as they tell stories to embarrass or exalt one another. A fantastic combination of immersive storytelling and interesting metagame mechanics ensure that players have almost complete narrative freedom at the same time that they have specific, concrete goals. The game goes out of its way to make players think about how identities shift and change–and about how those changes can have political repercussions both great and small.

I’m also a big fan of Psi*Run, a great game with a neat mechanic that allows for players to fill in the information about the other PCs’ backgrounds. As each amnesiac PC discovers something about his own background, other players at the table fill in missing details. A unique dice mechanic allows each player to decide what actions are most important to him during a given scene and allocate the best dice to the things that matter most at that particular moment; players can consult and discuss how best to distribute dice. Both game world and mechanic emphasize group cooperation as the PCs scramble to get away from the mysterious Chasers who want to recapture them because of their psychic powers.

This week, though, I was rendered speechless by Baker’s clever Google+ RPG Doomed Pilgrim, which I happened to catch during a few minutes of downtime at work on Monday. It’s an odd game–in fact, I’m not exactly sure it should be called an RPG at all–or rather, you play such an odd role that it feels like no other RPG you’ve ever played. In Doomed Pilgrim, the GM takes on the persona of the pilgrim, trying to get from an unspecified place in the desert to the Temple of No Gods across the dangerous Sundered Lands. As the pilgrim journeys, players take on the role of the landscape. Their goal? To kill the doomed pilgrim before he reaches the Temple. It sounds easy enough, right? Just hit the pilgrim with a rockslide, and you’re done. The catch, though, is that players can only answer the questions that the pilgrim asks; they may answer in any way they see fit, but the pilgrim can ask questions that make it tricky for the players to kill him. Baker ran the game in a Google+ thread, and she took the first (appropriate, non-disruptive) answer to each question to forward the plot. We managed to kill the poor Pilgrim pretty quickly, although I missed his demise, since I actually had to go work while at work. (The nerve!) While I wouldn’t necessarily have found the rules to Doomed Pilgrim enticing if I had read them, the experience was great; watching the story spin out in unexpected directions under the hands of so many different storytellers made the adventure exciting, and yet the story held together well because we had to answer the pilgrim’s carefully-crafted questions. (You can see a transcript of that game here.)

I am always astounded by the tidy relationship between rules and intent in Baker’s games. Certainly many RPGs try to encourage a kind of synergy between mechanic and experience, but hers do a wonderful job of encouraging a broad range of play styles, each of which relates to the unique setting of the game. Many game designer often re-theme the same game, but each time I read a new game by Baker, her innovation and ingenuity surprises me. Under her guidance, even the six simple rules of Doomed Pilgrim make great storytelling magic happen. If you’re curious, head over to Night Sky Games and check out the selection, and be on the lookout on Twitter for upcoming #DoomedPilgrim games!

So, this piece started off as a short narrative about a couple of GMs who run really great games, but it might have spiraled a teensy bit out of control and ended up as a long meditation on different modes of consuming RPGs.

The Games I Love to Play

While at PAX, we had the pleasure of playing in a game of Fortune’s Fool with Pantheon Press‘s Rob Trimarco and Jason Keeley. They had planned on running the introductory adventure that we had run several years ago the first time we met them, but when they realized we wanted to play, Rob suggested with glee that Jason “just make something up on the fly.” I had a little heart attack; as you all know, I’m a planner, so I would hate having to ad-lib in the middle of the chaos of a convention, but Jason seemed into the idea, and off we went.

I won’t spoiler the original fantastic demo adventure for FF, but just know that it involves saving Pinocchio from a very bad event on his seventh birthday. This follow up adventure returned the characters to his home on the evening of his eighth birthday, but Gepetto had gone missing, apparently kidnapped by a large man smelling of wood chips and death. I won’t spoiler this adventure, either, except to say that it involved a magic Ferris wheel, people being turned into donkeys, and a ghastly workshop.

What most struck me about our game session, though, was how much it differed from our weekly Vampire session, and how much both of those tended to differ from other games I’ve played.

Our Vampire ST knows the goals of every NPC during the span of the upcoming game, and if we cross paths with an NPC, he knows the backstory of each one inside and out so that it’s easy for him to explain what that character would do to us if push comes to shooting, as it so often does. He plans his NPCs carefully, and the rest of the story evolves logically from their needs and wants. In fact, if you catch him in a good mood and ask about one of the NPCs’ backgrounds, you can easily get a short story about what happened from the time that NPC was a child until now. His NPC backgrounds are always fresh and interesting, including lots of unexpected twists and turns. Things in our ST’s world always make sense, and if they appear not to make sense at a given point, it’s just because we don’t yet know the whole story. Our job usually involves uncovering it. We progress with caution because the world is dangerous and the plots are meant to hurt us, but it’s absolutely thrilling when we make a discovery about how pieces of the plot fit together. During play, our ST remains very calm, because we really can’t derail him; he simply works out the NPCs’ logical response to whatever madness we’ve decided to do. Of course, I also think he remains calm because it drives us insane when we know we face (im)mortal danger and he sits there placidly staring at the ceiling.

Keeley, on the other hand, personifies energy. He races from idea to idea with a lot of shouting and gesturing. Not everything in his games has a logical reason for existing; in fact, many things seem purposefully illogical, but it doesn’t matter because everything in his worlds floats in an atmosphere of childlike wonder that makes details symbolically and atmospherically sensible even if they don’t fit together logically. His games have a breathless, vertiginous feel to them that suits the whims of the Fortune’s Fool universe; the tide sweeps players from one event to the next out of the sheer delight of seeing what kind of wackiness will happen around the next corner. I haven’t talked to him at length about the depth of his NPC backgrounds, but they don’t seem to work in quite the same way as the NPCs in our Vampire game; NPCs stand in for familiar fairy tale types, so players ‘know’ them immediately upon meeting them, and the puzzle comes from uncovering the ways in which they deviate from expectations. (I said quite a bit about this in my review of the FF campaign, too. It’s a delightful use of the familiar.) I certainly don’t mean by any of this that his adventures are saccharine; on the contrary, they’re often just as creepy as our Vampire adventures partly because the game so skillfully juxtaposes the cute with the grotesque.

Despite their extreme differences in style, these two GMs run some of the best gaming I’ve every played, partly because both show a willingness to let their players engage fully with their worlds. Whatever we ask, we can try, and the mechanics assist rather than hinder us. Theoretically, most RPGs work this way, but in my experience, some games and some GMs just wind up making the players think more about mechanics than story. A great gamer can tell a nuanced story with almost any system, but I do believe that system matters; if you have a sheet full of powers and a bunch of monsters that only respond to certain powers, you’ll spend your brainpower working out the relationship between those things instead of asking questions about how the monsters got into the Royal Society meeting house in the first place.

When I play games with the GMs I most enjoy, I feel as though I’m going head-to-head with another first-class mind in a strategic game of investigation and question. Can I figure out what’s at stake? Will I have the resources to outwit the limitations on my character sheet and find a workaround that can happen regardless? In games I like less, I feel as though I’m pitting my wits against the game itself: can I figure out how to use these skills most effectively to anticipate and react to what someone has set up? I think of a Pathfinder con game in which we were supposed to know from lore to use a particular kind of spell on a particular kind of creature; the ‘challenge’ of the encounter was in having purchased enough product to anticipate the correct answer and to match a specific skill to a specific encounter.

The Games I Love to Run

It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not really sure I would have liked playing in my own Warhammer campaign all that much. In spite of its significant problems, I still love the unwieldy WFRP3e and loved running it. The crazily rich Warhammer universe (and all of its passionate fandom) provided plenty of interesting, quirky, engaging background to use when planning my games, and the design of the rules made it easy to create and run many different types of encounters effectively. Note, though, that I say “run encounters” rather than “tell a story”; even as much as I wanted my players to immerse themselves in the Warhammer universe and love it as I did, I ended up thinking of our games primarily as a series of individual puzzles that the players could solve using different skill sets.

booksI think my GMing suffered from our emphasis on gamist play. I inadvertently encouraged that play in a few different ways, I think: miniatures and terrain tended to make my players focus on the tactics of winning rather than on narrative, and my choice of a rules-heavy system like WFRP3e probably didn’t help, either, as my players and I constantly had to shuffle the bits that reminded them to think about mechanics during our sessions. In some ways, focusing on rules so much made running the game easier, as I could always refer back to the game designer’s decisions. By the end of our campaign, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the types of interactions my players had with the setting. I wonder if I could run WFRP3e differently now, or whether the limitations I experienced were intrinsic to the system itself or to my own way of thinking about gaming.

Mouse Guard, as much as I love it, can suffer from some of the same problems. You can’t design a MG game around encounters, but the system encourages you to create sessions rather mechanically, focusing on things like the time of year and the assigned task, leading you to think more about what the players will do than about a fictional world spinning on its own axis. The system attempts to ‘assist’ RP via mechanics, which meant at our table that RP occasionally happened because of mechanics rather than because of narrative logic.

I suspect my love of running mechanical games comes from the fact that I’m a bit of a control freak. If your rules strongly suggest particular solutions, you can cut down on the possible outcomes you must anticipate. While I love not knowing what to expect as a player, I didn’t always love it as a GM. Now, my players didn’t seem to mind my style too much; in fact, they were more eager to railroad themselves than I was to railroad them, often asking after the session, “So, what were we supposed to do? Did we miss anything?” They enjoyed guessing the anticipated answer. As a player, though, I find the feeling that I’m playing through an interactive book irritating. I want a hand in dictating the storyline, not just a chance to react to it.

The Games I Love to Read

When browsing a store bookshelf, I tend to find myself drawn to quirky, rules-heavy systems, partly because I like the notion that an unusual ruleset can push players past their usual narrative strategies. The less I understand the logic behind the rules of a given RPG on the first read-through, the more likely I am to love it. Trying to work out why the rules to a game like Freemarket or A Thousand and One Nights seem so unintuitive to me at first glance forces me to rethink my own preconceived notions about narrative. Reading these games has made me a better GM, and I know they make me a better writer of fiction.

What Does All This Mean? (Or the tl;dr Section)

First, that I’m crazy.

Second, that my bookshelf is filled with RPGs that we will never play.

Third, not all of the groups I love to play with are likely to love my GMing style.

I wonder, though, how many of us realize that we have slightly different preferences when playing, running, and reading games. Although we like to think of these as equivalent areas of competency, they aren’t quite the same, nor do all of us scratch the same creative itch by GMing, playing in, or reading RPGs. I never feel that I’ve wasted money if I’ve bought a system that I’ll never play if that system makes me think differently about gaming; I never feel as though a particular GMing style simply ‘doesn’t work,’ although it might not mesh well with a specific system or group of players. Yet acknowledging that we can have different modes of consuming RPGs can make us better at choosing the products and groups that will fit us best, and that makes everyone at the table happier.

Well, PAX East has come and gone. If you follow my Twitter feed, I probably drove you crazy with updates. (Sorry, but it was inevitable.)

Anyway, I do have some substantive posts that I’d like to do about RPGs after hearing some great panel speakers, but as this is the first day post-con and I’m braindead, I thought I’d just share a few of my photos with you. As usual, I got FAR fewer photos than I meant to get, mostly because I was playing games or chatting with people most of the time. Still, this handful of images might give you a sense of what PAX is all about if you haven’t gone. I most regret not getting many shots of the Tabletop area where we spent most of our time, but as we were always playing a game when we were there, I didn’t have much time for photography.

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I also have to share with you my favorite Twitter exchange from the convention. The food was a bit overpriced and questionable, but when I tweeted about it, I got a hilarious response from the Boston Convention and Expo Center staff:

tweet

At least they have a sense of humor!

In the upcoming days, I’ll have a few words about GMing style, our wonderful convention game of Fortune’s Fool, and a couple of new indie RPGs I picked up. In the meantime, though, I hope all of you who traveled to PAX made it home safely and all those who didn’t had a great weekend of gaming anyway!

My vampire’s hapless, disheveled, Bugles-eating professorial ghoul may die on Thursday at our game, and if not on this Thursday, some other future Thursday. Given that he’s involved in a turf war between clans in an increasingly unstable Domain, it’s really pretty likely.

Intellectually, I’m prepared for it, because it makes sense in narrative terms. Still, that doesn’t mean that I–as a player, not just as a character–am not going to be really upset when it happens. (My only consolation is that I suspect our ST is going to be upset, too, because he’s also rather fond of that particular NPC.)

Now, my ghoul isn’t a super valuable +12 sword of macguffin-slaying that ends up turning the tide of the game. In fact, the Doc has generally been more trouble for my character than he’s worth, as he has a tendency to be imbibe at all the wrong times and take books from the Tremere at all the other wrong times, leaving my character to answer drunken text messages and discuss lending library hours with a hostile clan when she ought to be running from something dangerous and toothy. Yet I like the NPC enough that I have put serious thought into retiring my PC just to move him out of the Domain to safety.

I’m just going to stop for a minute to let that sink in: I’m tempted to retire a PC I love to save a relatively minor NPC.

Part of me is really horrified to admit that. I’m fairly certain this puts me squarely into the “unquestionably insane” category. On the other hand, I think it indicates how much I’m enjoying this particular game.

Between the upcoming peril and an interesting conversation elsewhere on the internet, I got to thinking about the relationship between good RP and the extent to which any given group of players allows itself to be vulnerable around a table. By definition, all roleplaying requires a base amount of vulnerability, as you’re telling a group story. Yet some groups reveal things about themselves more comfortably than others, and some GMs/DMs/STs encourage that sharing better than others.

I have to say that my own tendencies in this area aren’t always great. When under pressure–in both RL and in game–I have a tendency to turn into a manic Oscar Wilde. This is why people like to sit next to me during meetings. If given free rein, I’ll do much the same in game. Even when I’m at my comedic best, though, those moments only go so far in furthering the storyline itself, and they invite other players to riff off of the comedy, not explore the atmosphere or the framework of the moment.

In many ways, my (and many of my friends’) impulse to be funny is a reaction against revealing too much at the gaming table. I’ve noticed that we often do it when things get rough, either when we aren’t sure how to tackle a particular difficult task or when we are being asked to respond to a story element that may get emotionally tricky. It’s an avoidance tactic, and many gamers feel they have the right to it, since we game to have fun. Yet I’d argue that many of us game to stretch ourselves intellectually and emotionally, too, and that’s where the comedy routine weakens the aims of gaming.

Let me back up for a minute. I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago next to our Vampire ST; as usual, I was being funny via text message with a handful of friends around the table. Then I was struck by the realization that I would never want to be sitting across the table on the other side of a negotiation from my ST, especially one in which we disagreed. It’s unlikely to happen, since we’re in different departments, but I suddenly realized that he knew more about my negotiation strategies, soft spots, stalling tactics, and overwhelming desire to collaborate (even when it’s an incredibly poor choice) than people who have known me for years. Ditto for the other players. It struck me suddenly that I played this particular game more honestly than I had played a game in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of outstanding gaming over the last few years. Yet still, I’m fairly certain our Vampire game is the most satisfying RPG I’ve played in a long time, partly because we have built a table around which we aren’t afraid to take some risks. Quite a bit of that comes from having a group whose gaming goals match so completely.

Let me give some examples of varying goals. My WFRP players were deeply invested in the bizarre storylines of that game; they weren’t minmaxers in the traditional sense, and they weren’t always all that interested in the mechanics of the game. They wanted to find out what was going on behind the scenes, and did a lot of snooping around to figure out why things were as they appeared. A handful of recurring NPCs elicited some strong feelings (the annoying orphan Waltrout was one and an actor-turned-kidnapper named Klaus was another,) and they loved lightheartedly bantering with one another, constantly egging the dilettante on to ask about getting her clothing cleaned in the Inns they visited or suggesting to the Priest of Sigmar that he indulge his desire to start fires. Overall, narrative motivated them, both the prewritten narrative of the adventures themselves and the evolving narratives they were creating on their own. The group had a lot of warm, positive interactions in character, but for the most part, they were light and without much long-term consequence. I will take quite a bit of responsibility for this as the GM, since the Warhammer world tends to fascinate me; I undoubtedly encouraged my players to look at the world and its narratives more carefully than, say, the NPCs or the combats.

The Pathfinder group I played in years ago and still play with intermittently during summers solved puzzles. Where could we best orient ourselves to kill the monster in this particular room? How might we negotiate the best deal for this doodad we need to finish the adventure or steal it if nobody had a decent negotiation skill? Was there a skill or item that negated the problematic spell just cast by the NPC, and if many of us had it, who should best spend the charges to use it? Again, we had a lot of fun tabletop banter, but a good two-thirds of it was out of character; we talked about the game much as you’d talk about a board game and dipped into character when we had to do a negotiation or somesuch.

Our current game has slightly different stakes: can we outwit and out-negotiate these NPCs, most of whom elicit pretty strong feelings? Can we keep doing it week after week, despite the drastically changing fortunes of our Domain? Can we find out what those NPCs don’t want to tell us openly? With which PCs and NPCs will each of us build relationships, and will those turn out to be short-term alliances or long-term friendships? Certainly we go “do stuff,” but the majority of things that we do in game have the reward of increasing our characters’ reputations and opening new doors to build relationships.

When pressed, most of us would say that most RPGs can encourage all of these types of play, and most games do have a smattering of each these elements from time to time. Generally speaking, though, any given player will likely have more strength in one area than in another. A given system will likely encourage one kind of behavior over another. Most of us play in groups with a split talent pool: you’ll have one player who wants to build relationships, a couple who want to solve puzzles, and one who wants to discover narrative. These players often get stuck negotiating the added complexity of the ST/GM/DM’s own vision of ideal play and the extent to which the chosen system allows that play. Once in awhile, though, you luck into a group where all the players have the same main goal and execute it equally well; once every Brigadoonish number of years, you’ll luck into a group with a unified play style that has chosen a system wisely and that has an ST who manages that play style well. At those moments, then, players can take risks at the table without worrying that their play detracts from another player’s game or from the ST’s vision of the game as a whole. For me as a player, that’s when the real magic happens, as everyone around the table seamlessly supports each other in the goal of good gameplay. That’s also when a player decisions feel truly meaningful because the scope of play has narrowed enough that events can have a genuine impact on a dynamic game world–like when it feels reasonable to retire a PC to save a hapless little ghoul.

So, I said I would talk about FFG’s new Star Wars Beginner Game awhile back. I’ve been out of the loop in the blogosphere for a few months, and I suspect this has already been done to death, but I wanted to give a bit of commentary on it from a player’s point of view.

I played through the Box Set adventure twice, once by myself and once with our old WFRP group. Since I’ve most recently been playing Vampire, my tactics were a bit different when by myself than when with the group; I ended up exploring quite a bit more and doing more RP than fighting. Still, the two experiences had some key similarities that reveal quite a bit about the system itself. I didn’t GM this, nor did I look extensively through the books. Star Wars is my husband’s specialty, and I’d never want to GM it for him because he’s the sort who knows that “they don’t have that kind of electronic lock on Tattooine” and so on. So fair warning: this isn’t a review from a GM’s point of view.

Production Value:
Like all FFG products, Star Wars has outstanding production value. Included are full-color premade character folios with a couple of levels of stats, a picture of the character, and the character’s history on the back. Lavish full-color maps of the city and starport also add quite a bit to the game, although the scale doesn’t accommodate minis well, if that’s the direction you want to head. I only gave a cursory flip-through to the books, but they seem just as lovely as everything else FFG creates, with lots of full-color images on every page. The colored, custom dice are high quality, as is the dice app, which we had to use because you can’t yet buy dice separately and we needed more than two sets to make a four-player game run smoothly. (To be fair, we’re quite a dice-greedy group; normal humans could probably just share.) The dice app includes some “fun” SW sound effects that are way too distracting for the gaming table, but it’s easy enough to turn down the sound on your phone.

dicephone

Adventure:
The included adventure cleverly introduces new players to the game. Each new encounter teaches you a bit more of the rules. By the end, you’ve mastered not only social and combat tactics, but you’ve also had a chance to try out space combat. Each section includes complete descriptions of the logic behind the rules so that the GM can explain to the players not only their options, but also how the game works from the GM’s side of the screen. It’s a neat idea that other games with unusual mechanics might consider.

Players have a clear goal with several obstacles that can be solved either through violence or wit, and there’s a section where the players can wander around the town and get into trouble they create if they wish. If you’ve spent your entire life under a rock and don’t know much about Star Wars, I fear for your sanity, but you’d get a pretty good introduction to the feel of the series from the adventure. The one thing that didn’t thrill me was the fact that the “wander about” section feels forced and mechanical since you’re supposedly running from a powerful enemy. Why would I take time to go window shopping with a crazy pursuer on my heels? Further, since there’s not a lot of ‘there’ to this adventure, so you’re unlikely to get into deep RP, but again, since this is an intro, that might not bother you.

Mechanics:
What can I say? It’s watered-down WFRP, but not necessarily in a bad way. FFG has removed the stance trackers, party sheet, cards, and the million fiddly tokens, which, in many ways, is a relief. (I know, I know. I defended those bits vehemently elsewhere on this blog and on the internet, but they annoyed even me after awhile.) You build dice pools in much the same way as in WFRP, adding ability dice and proficiency dice to represent your character’s core capabilities in an area, boost dice to show effects in the general area that would aid in his/her action, and difficulty, setback, and challenge dice to represent the NPCs and environmental factors that would oppose your action. Rolls then indicate successes and allow players and GMs to spend additional rolled points on other effects. As with WFRP, the system works well if you have a group that wants to narrate its own outcomes, because the dice give both players and GMs the flexibility to have a bit of wiggle room in their interpretation of events. The premade character sheets show you clearly what types of dice will make up your pool, so players can easily get everything ready before their GM adds difficulty/setback/challenge dice.

The Destiny Point tokens provide a nice mechanic for bonuses. Tokens begin either on the Light Side or Dark Side; players can use the tokens to give their abilities a boost when tokens are turned to the Light Side, but each time they use  a boost, they must flip the token to the Dark Side; then the GM has the ability to use the same boost for one of his rolls.

Overall, game play is pretty straightforward and streamlined. As I say, I think the system intends for players to narrate their successes and GMs to push back a little by narrative negatives, adding a dimension of gameplay around the negotiation of outcomes itself, although that’s not really how our group has played in the past, so it’s not how we played Star Wars.

Play:
Play went relatively smoothly for us, but then again, it should have gone relatively smoothly for us, since we were already familiar with WFRP. Our group playthrough skewed towards the silly, with one of our players deciding to change the medical droid’s background so that he had once been a sex droid. The Wookiee PC character invites all kinds of hilarious language barrier problems, so if you’re not up for that kind of hilarity, you might want to take that character off of the table. On the other hand, the SW universe invites that kind of silliness to a certain extent, so that tendency isn’t as game-breaking as it might be in another genre.

Missing From the Box:
There are no chargen rules in the Box, and the Bestiary only includes a handful of enemies. Having adapted a bunch of 2e WFRP before to FFG’s system, I suspect that NPC creation isn’t too hard; you can take material from other systems and pretty easily scale it for this edition, which my husband did when he added in a handful of encounters to the middle of the adventure. Not having the bestiary isn’t a big deal, then, especially if you have the old d20 Star Wars books and can crib from them. Chargen is a bit more of a problem. You could easily work out characters similar to those in the Box, but obviously there’d be no way to branch out to new skills.

Looking Forward:
FFG’s SW seems like a solid system with many of WFRP’s strengths and fewer of its bits. FFG has already released a longer adventure arc for the premade PCs that a GM could follow until the complete set comes out in April, so if your group eagerly wants to keep this rolling, it certainly can. The opening adventure felt a bit canned, but then again, all opening adventures feel a bit canned, and FFG’s main goal was to teach the system, not come up with a stellar storytelling experience. I haven’t taken a look at the rest of the existing story arc to see how it plays out. Having worked with the premade material for WFRP, I do know that FFG has a tendency to release uneven adventure content; GMs will find a few moments of utterly brilliant writing mired under a whole bunch of junk meant to justify new mechanics. On the other hand, perhaps Star Wars will remain free of some of that nonsense since FFG doesn’t seem to want to follow its earlier “buy lots of bits” strategy and therefore won’t have to use adventures to justify a million new mechanics.

I can certainly say that I’d be up for playing this system again, although I must admit that after playing Vampire, it felt really mechanics-focused. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the system itself or because the designers wrote the first adventure to highlight the mechanics…or because practically anything might feel really mechanics-focused to me at this point.

Generally speaking, our V:tM Storyteller is Not Screwing Around. He’s pretty serious about keeping us wholly engaged, minimizing PC downtime, and delivering the evening’s story. This is, of course, in direct contrast to my WFRP3e GMing style, which consisted of large stretches of screwing around momentarily interrupted by occasional tidbits of focus. Of course, part of that has to do with the games themselves; the dark atmosphere of Vampire is way more likely to get ruined by rampant silliness, while WFRP has some silly built in. Plus, I was always having to rearrange the WFRP components, which, unfortunately, gave my PCs plenty of time to wander off track. Heh.

Since our ST generally does stay so focused and serious, though, it’s even more amusing when he says something hilarious. Here are a few awesome tidbits:

Sh*t Our Storyteller Says

(Before rolling a major damage roll against a PC named Marcus): “If it makes any difference, I really liked Marcus.”
“Oh! This is the best thing that could have happened! You are currently on fire.”
(Before describing a building we were about to enter): “I just want you guys to know that I did NOT do this. This is NOT my fault.”
(With genuine regret): “Am I gonna do something really mean right now? Yeah. I am.”

In other news, I got two little boxes of Chessex ten-siders for Christmas. Inexplicably, I didn’t have any purple d10s, which is obviously a situation that couldn’t continue. I honestly can’t think of the last time I had a set of all ten-siders; it must have

Same dice box I had in college, too. The ST used to rattle it when he wanted the group's attention.

Same dice box I had in college, too. The ST used to rattle it when he wanted the group’s attention.

been back in Chicago in the 90s, at that comic book store on the North Side. Moon-something, maybe? Can’t remember the name of it for the life of me. Turns out I had a handful of those Chessex V:tM dice in my box, too, which must have come from the same store. Either that, or they belonged to someone from our 90s campaign and wandered their way into my set. Hard to say. I have to admit that after playing so many FFG RPGs of late, it does feel a little weird to have standard dice–identical standard dice–in one’s dice bag.

Speaking of FFG RPGs, we are set to try out Star Wars today with a full party. We’ll see how it goes. I’m excited to see the pared-down mechanics from WFRP put to use with a full group. I have to admit that as much as I loved WFRP, combat did slow things down a lot, and playing Vampire has made me appreciate simplicity and speed of game mechanics. Ultimately, I’d much rather investigate than fight, though, but I’m not sure that FFG tends in those directions, even when the source material might make that more appropriate. Anyway, I’ll have a review up of that sometime in the near future.

Hope you’re all having a good weekend and are getting some gaming in!

I am currently more organized for our Vampire game than I am for any part of my actual paying job. I’m pretty sure this means I should start getting paid to play Vampire.

vampire notebook

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