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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!

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.

I collect a lot of RPG systems, often buying just to take a look. I’m fond of storytelling games, and although I have a hard time getting them on the table, I do think that reading a wide variety of types of systems helps a GM become more effective at telling a story and managing a table full of players. I’ve incorporated ideas from Luke Crane’s games (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Freemarket) into my Warhammer sessions, and I’ve found that they’ve positively impacted how the players at my table interact with each other and how they solve puzzles within the game world.

These days, many of the most intriguing new games start over at Kickstarter. If you’re a gaming junkie like we are, though, you can easily spend hours on Kickstarter looking up stuff in all of the categories of gaming you enjoy and miss some key projects. That’s why I was delighted to find the RPG Kickstarters feed over at Tumblr. Here, you’ll find a descriptions of all of the newest RPGs on Kickstarter and links to their funding pages. It’s a great resource for those of us who want to keep up with what’s happening in the Indie/Small Press scene. There’s also a great page of advice for writers considering Kickstarting their own games.

Go Kickstart some awesomeness!

I am totally in love with the concept of The Penguin Harlequinade. The whole ‘system’ (inasmuch as you can call it a system) just fascinates me, and I’d love to play/GM it. On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me think of a group who would be willing to do something quite this free-form or acting-school-esque with me.

For those of you unsure of whether you want to take a look, the completely free ‘rulebook’ is quite short. The game itself involves simply acting out a scene (usually with some bizarre goal) while using chips to accomplish tasks that one wants to accomplish. In order to get chips, though, each player must either say a random quote from his or her character sheet–somehow making it make sense in the context of the scene that’s occurring–or take an scene item from the Mayhem Pot, which includes directions like “Take violent offense at the next thing said. Challenge the speaker to a duel. Do not back down.” I want to see this. I want to do this. I want to see someone do this!

Of course, part of me (inevitably) somehow wants to adapt this system to the Warhammer world. While I love the fantasy world above all other RPG worlds, I somehow think this would be even funnier as a Space Marine (Opera.) Hmm…

At any rate, has anybody played this? How did you get a group together? Have you done any other radically open-ended RPGs? How did you prep your group to do them?

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