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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.
I 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.
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:
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!
I’m going into week two of being terribly sick, so I’m grouchy today. Instead of fighting it, though, I thought I’d take advantage and talk about some of my pet peeves that I usually avoid because I’m in a good mood when I write about RPGs. I’ll be honest; I’ve been relatively lucky as a female gamer. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve come up through a very male-dominated branch of academia or whether it was something about my upbringing, but I don’t tend to get patronized at the table or treated badly when I post on boards (although I do tend to be relatively careful about which boards I choose to visit; Paizo, for instance, is absolutely a no-go for me.) Still, even for me, there are three assumptions that get made about me because of gender that I absolutely hate.
#1) Because you’re a woman, you’ll just LOVE the chance to babysit my kid at the gaming table!!
Okay, so…no. I work with (much, much) older children, but I’m not keen on the little ones. I know most normal humans find it adorable when little Tommy mispronounces his pasta as “basghetti,” but I’m not normal. My initial reaction is to wonder why mom didn’t correct him so he can become more facile with language at an earlier age. I don’t think it’s “just kids being kids” when tiny Amy spills on the character sheets; I wonder why dad let tiny Amy, with her limited motor skills, have juice at the gaming table filled with papers and minis–and yes, I’m pissed about having to redo my character sheet. (I’m equally pissed when a drunken adult does the same thing–I’m equal-opportunity grump when it comes to people Messing with My Stuff.)
For some reason, kids have a tendency to flock to me during gaming conventions. Here’s the thing, parents: just because I’m not openly hostile or rude to your kids doesn’t mean I don’t resent it if you don’t pull them off of me and redirect their attention to someone or something more appropriate. All too often, I’ve seen kids dragged to gaming conventions or taken to games in which they can’t participate or can’t participate fully because of their age. My heart goes out to kids whose parents didn’t bring them something to do, but just because I gave the child a sympathetic look, it doesn’t mean that I want to provide him with something to do. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ended up with strangers’ kids glued to me for the duration of a convention day just because I wasn’t a chilly ass to the kid. You brought him, you pay attention to him. That’s what you signed on for when you became a parent. I just want to get back to concentrating on my game, and the only reason I’m not being a jerk about it is because I think the kid will take it more personally than the parent will.
#2) Because you’re a woman, you obviously put the sisterhood of women above all else and want my girlfriend/aunt/friend/cousin at your table because she’s a girl, too!! You can talk about shoes together!
Also no. Here’s the thing: I like having a relatively gender-balanced table. Right now, I’m really grateful that my game includes a vibrant, intelligent, witty, educated female player whose great social skills often pull the party out of tight situations. But while I like having another female at the table, what I like most about her are all those other descriptors; I like her as a person and as a player, and that person/player just happens to be female.
I think gender balance can open some opportunities for game play that might not otherwise exist. I know that there are bits of story I couldn’t have presented as easily without a female player; the men wouldn’t have made the same assumptions about the hook or have been as interested in it at least in part because their cultural programming is different from hers. On the other hand, I don’t just want any player in the world because she’s female. If you’re disruptive, easily distracted, uninterested in narrative, rude to the other players, or self-centered, you’re a nonstarter for me regardless of gender. If you think that because I’m a female GM that game day is the time to have girly talk, we have a problem, because I’m way more interested in getting my scenery on the table than chatting about nail polish. And while I’m more than happy to help ease women who haven’t had a solid background in fantasy or in gaming into the worlds and rules of RPG play, I’m not more than happy to act as a crutch for a player with crippling self-doubt because of her gender or who can’t be bothered to put in some of her own time to play catch-up if necessary. I’d expect the same of a male gamer who didn’t know anything about the rules or setting; I’m not patronizing enough to have different expectations for females.
#3) You must really be excited that WotC has Shelly Mazzanoble out there representing you! Isn’t it great to have high profile women in gaming?
Again, not so much. For various reasons, I have very little in common with many of the high profile women in the RPG industry and blogosphere. I’ve already posted about how I feel about Shelley Mazzanoble. In fact, since I’m grumpy, I’ll take this opportunity to talk about exactly the kind of move she makes that drives me crazy. Check out this quote from Dice Monkeys’ interview with her:
9. There’s been a lot of talk recently around the blogosphere about women’s portrayal in the art of RPGs. They’re seen as eye-candy rather than as serious warriors like male characters are seen. What’s your opinion?
I think this is a very worthy discussion and one that our Art Director gets into every day. Not too long ago we were looking at art from 1st edition books and laughing hysterically. The women were not warriors. They looked like victims, complete with palms over forehead and looking upwards at their male counterparts to save them. Since when does being well-endowed imply weakness? But that was a product of the time and the times are a changing. In a good way. The art of D&D today will look very different from the art of D&D tomorrow. And it will look very different ten years from now. Art will continue to change and evolve as long as these discussions are happening. Why does the armor on a barbarian female leave her navel exposed while her male counterpart is fully covered? Why does the female wizard look like she stuck her dry-clean only robes in the dryer? First and foremost, your armor should protect you! It’s not an accessory you put on to go clubbing.
Personally I would never let my character go out in tight leather armor and a breastplate. I’d be like “Button up, young lady! You’re not going into the dungeon looking like that!” But that’s just me.
Instead of saying something meaningful here about how WotC’s art directors actually address the issue, she pretends that the problem with images of women in games an “old school” problem that we no longer have anymore. Golly gee, that problem’s so archaic that we can just laaaaugh at it! Please. If we take hobby books as a whole, you’ll still find more women without clothes than with–and don’t get me started on miniatures. It’s not “yesterday’s issue,” and it makes the problem worse when a prominent female in the hobby says it is, even if it’s in her company’s best interests to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.
I respect Shelly’s right to describe her own experiences playing DnD and I respect the women who identify with her; what I dislike is the fact that she’s being held up by WotC as the face of female gaming. I find 99.999% of what she says profoundly alienating (and I have a feeling she’d say the same about my writing, to be fair.) Because we have such drastically different interests as gamers and as human beings, I wouldn’t invite her to my game, and if I were the sort of person who tended to think in terms of reductive social identifiers, I might be loathe invite any other woman to my game if her books represented the only sample I had of the intersection between “women” and “RPGs.” I get what WotC tries to do with her writing; they’re trying to claim a demographic that they haven’t had as purchasers before, but why not have several different kinds of women stand up and become the voice of female players? After all, we have a bevy of different kinds of male voices represented in WotC’s magazines and online sites; why not at least a handful of women, each with a different but equally strong perspectives?
To go feminism 101 for a second, Judith Butler and other post-structuralist feminists of the late 80s and early 90s worked tirelessly to undermine the assumption that there is “a female identity.” No single identity defines women’s needs and desires; for heaven’s sake, we’re 50% of the population. How could we possibly agree on anything? The only thing we have in common is the assumptions you (male or female) bring to bear when you sit down at the table about who we are. So, you know…don’t.
So, I spent the weekend at Mepacon. Part of me really wishes I’d gone to Burning Con instead because I do so love BW and its GMs, but we’d already committed to Mepacon–and invited friends to join us–before we found out about BC.
While I often enjoy the “small con” feel, (Ubercon remains one of my favorites for just that reason,) I was quite disappointed that the majority of non-d20 games listed on Mepacon’s roster got cancelled; I can find Pathfinder or DnD4e anywhere, but I really wanted to play something I hadn’t seen before. Ideally, I go to cons to meet new people and play systems that I haven’t played before so I can scope out new games for our group and watch excellent GMs in action. I suspect having access to so many indie designers from NYC and their committed GMs has spoiled me, but I’m a little nonplussed when a convention is without non-d20 content. Every convention needs either Warhammer or Burning Wheel. I guess I need to get better about being on the ball and offering it myself.
We did try the Untold system, a post-apocalyptic RPG with robot people, magic animals, and soldiers; all of the rules governing the game’s characters fit on standard-sized playing cards, which made it easy to create and play a character on the fly. It was a bit focused on combat tactics for my taste, although the simple rolls made it more palatable to me than other types of combat-focused RPGs. I particularly liked the fact that an NPC’s to-hit score changed every round, so a weak character had a chance–albeit a small one–of hitting even a powerful enemy if he just took enough swings. It seemed like an ideal system for a quick, low-frustration pickup RPG game, since you could make characters quickly and teach the rules in about five minutes. We grabbed a set of the cards online so we would have them around in case we had a sudden RPG emergency and need a quick fix.
All in all, it was nice to get some gaming in this weekend before returning to crazy times at work. Soon, though, I’ll be settling back into a more regular pattern, which will give me some time to talk about a couple of other new systems and some neat stuff I’ve looked at recently.
Just a tiny post tonight because I have a long presentation to give at work tomorrow (Four hours! Whee!) and am getting ready for Mepacon this weekend. It’s not a convention we’ve been to before, but we have a handful of friends going, so even if it’s not perfect, we’ll be able to play board games ourselves. Besides, we tend to get nervous if we go too many months without attending a gaming convention, and I had to miss Metatopia last weekend due to work.
I’m planning on taking my Mouse Guard Box Set and running a game for my friends; I toyed with the idea of officially GMing a session there, but I knew work was likely to be hellish this month, and I didn’t want to obligate myself to prepping a convention scenario and setting up for teaching rules to possibly nitpicky strangers. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t. It’s kept me down to three nervous breakdowns this week instead of the usual 5.8/week that I usually have this time of year.
All that being said, I’m going to spend some time tonight putting together some player kits and aids like I did the last time I ran MG, although I may make an even more robust set of player aids. That way, if I feel like running MG for complete strangers, I’ll have what I need.
Anyway, I hope you all have a wonderful weekend. I’m off to fret over the most efficient way to pack my RPG stuff, which will allow me to avoid fretting over the presentation I have to give tomorrow. There’s more than one reason they call our hobby ‘escapism!’