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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.

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.

It’s been a busy week, made more complex by a cold and now by a case of food poisoning. Nurgleriffic! If I don’t get well soon, I’m definitely going to have to draw a corruption card.
 
Just a quick post to praise Pantheon Press’s two item expansions to their Fortune’s Fool RPG, available here. As I’ve said before, part of the reason I love the setting of this game because it doesn’t shy away from issues of religion, and its well-researched historical background pulls out some of my favorite fun tidbits of European history. These two item expansions, Pax Romana and Vaults of the Vatican, make use of some of the most delightfully bizarre hagiographical and literary stories of the age as they provide your campaign with a wealth of magic items inspired by saints, writers, and heroes. Both documents are delightfully illustrated with full-color historical images, and come in PDF form so you can easily view them on your iPad, which is always a bonus, as far as I’m concerned. Best of all, they’re free! So if you’re jonesing to sneak in a new RPG goodie before the holidays, you can treat yourself (and your PCs) without guilt.

Today I’m going to do a post about visual depictions of women in the RPG hobby. If you just want to go to my usual ramblings about my rampant consumerism, skip to the next post.

Although I often find myself advocating for the rights of other women at work and in my hobbies, I don’t often consciously think of myself as a feminist. Perhaps that’s because I don’t have much in common with women when they tend to be doing the things that women do when they get together. I don’t like to shop for clothes, go to the spa, or receive chocolates/flowers/ diamonds. Even the most fleeting thought of becoming a mommy makes me nauseous. Engaging with ‘adorable’ small children bores me to tears. I don’t find the majority of television, films, or books targeted towards women interesting. Not surprisingly, I find the vast majority of blogs about the female experience profoundly alienating, because while most feminists argue that we shouldn’t stereotype women, many feminist bloggers use those same stereotypes to engage with a of “sisterhood” of readers whose preferences exclude me.

Not too long ago when someone on my Twitter feed pointed to a post on Wundergeek’s blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, I was surprised to find myself entirely engaged by her arguments. The post in question was about Shelly Mazzanoble, whose writing I generally find abhorrent because she glorifies a type of anti-intellectual, attention-seeking gamer that I wouldn’t want in my game regardless of his/her gender. After I finished Wundergeek’s spot-on critique of Mazzanoble, I sat for a few hours reading Wundergeek’s previous entries. She catalogs and critiques the implicit sexism in the video game and board game industries with wit and nuance. She’s dedicated much of her blog to making us see what’s right in front of our eyes. We see so many distorted and sexualized images of the female body in our hobby that they start to look normal after awhile, even to a woman like me who not only knows that her own body doesn’t look like those images, but who also does quite a bit of media studies scholarship during her daily life. When I started reading Wundergeek’s blog, I didn’t think I was as bothered by most of the sexist imagery she was seeing as she was…and that rather bothered me.

Back in my teens and early twenties when I used to play D&D because it was the only thing widely available, I used to joke about wanting to see “a few female miniatures with their clothes on.” Generally speaking, miniature companies have accommodated me a bit more each year; it’s easier and easier to find women who aren’t in fur bikinis on the rack at my FLGS with each passing season, although boobs do still tend to be these tiny figures’ main feature. Overall, though, I wouldn’t have said that the body images of the women in RPGs mattered to me that much. Then I started thinking about the four games I find the most engaging.

Warhammer 3e, Fantasy Flight Games

As most of you know, I’ve GMed Warhammer FRP 3e for the past year or so, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time contributing to its fan communities in various ways. I’ve found the people there engaging, friendly, scholarly, and not willing to take much BS (all traits I appreciate.) You won’t find many vocal women in the WFRP fan community because it’s not a community that prizes sharing one’s personal history; they may be there, but I’m not sure I’d know it. On the company side, WFRP does have a female art director, Zoe Robinson.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that iconographically, WFRP is one of the best mainstream RPGs on the market for varied and non-sexualized images of women. A good chunk of the career cards (the depictions of WFRP’s equivalent of “classes”) include pictures of women, and the women are surprisingly fully clad, dressed in clothing that makes sense for their particular lot in life. Best of all, they’ve been posed in ways that represent their personalities and attitudes, not in ways calculated to show off their T&A. Check out some of these depictions from the Core Set:

Even the images that do show more skin seem to do so for the sake of emphasizing grace and athleticism rather than overt sexuality; this woman’s legs, arms, and midriff seem on display to show her agility rather than to highlight her boobs:

Fortune’s Fool, Pantheon Press

Classical paintings or modifications of classical paintings grace many of the pages of Fortune’s Fool, but the company does produce some of its own art. Take a look at this image, in which the woman’s clothing and body language underscore her regal authority:

Although this rulebook makes a distinction between the stats for men and women, both genders get a different kind of bonus, and the fact that the designers saw fit to talk about those differences seems welcoming rather than punitive.

Burning Wheel, Luke Crane

I adore the BW system because it manages to be simultaneously more gamist and narrativist than most other games I play. (That alone may suggest the flawed nature of those distinctions, but I generally find them helpful when talking about the kind of games I like, which tend towards the narrativist.) BW’s open system allows the GM to create his own world, so perhaps the rulebook is automatically less likely to put women in one box or the other–it leaves that task up to the GM. Still, BW’s graphics go out of their way to feature sensibly clad, non-sexualized women whose clothing and gestures that emphasize their personalities and jobs, like this one:

Mouse Guard, Archaia Entertainment

Okay, so you may laugh at me about this one, but I have to mention it.  David Petersen, the creator of the Mouse Guard comic, has made sure to include lots of positive female role mice, including Gwendolyn, who runs the Guard wisely and garners the respect of mice from throughout the land, so the RPG begins with an advantage because of its inclusive setting. In the early pages of the rulebook for the RPG, Crane points out that he’s going to use the masculine pronoun for continuity throughout the text, but makes sure to remark that there “are just as many girl players as boy players of Mouse Guard,” and discusses his reasons for choosing the male pronoun, partly because “the main character of the series, Lieam, is a boy mouse” (Crane 14). The author both considers his pronouns carefully and walks his reader through his reasoning for choosing the pronoun; most RPG books are seldom so overtly welcoming to female players!

The mice in the images in this game have no clothes on and yet manage to be less sexualized than the partly clad women in most RPGs! Okay, yes, that’s a little silly, but first, check out the heroic pose of Sadie, one of the Guard Mice included in the Sample Mission section of the text:

She stands in a heroic and commanding pose, ready for action with her sling and double-dagger belt. Only her pink cloak gives her away as a girl at all.

You may argue that the whole point is silly–how could you sexualize mice in the first place? Well, there are certainly anthropomorphized animals in games that go out of their way to emphasize the sexual parts of the female form; think about the ridiculous boobs and narrow waist of a WoW Tauren, for instance. Yet you don’t even have to morph the body to make the depiction problematic. Take a look at this image of Minnie Mouse:

Here, Minnie poses in a traditional pinup girl pose, exposing her leg and rounding her rump for the viewer, while wearing a bow and high heels to mark her femininity. Absurd as it is, this is a sexualized image of a freaking female mouse–a mouse that you may have around your home as a role model for your children. Parents of children, please go gather up all the Disney junk you have lying around, put it in a box, use it as fire starters this winter, and replace it with Mouse Guard comics. Petersen’s guardmice are much better role models.

To sum up, I think that for all the frustration that women might feel about the hobby, there are a handful of dedicated, thoughtful writers and publishers who actively seek to include women in their games. Every time a game makes a series of inclusive gestures, it takes a step towards normalizing those gestures within the hobby. Perhaps one day, we’ll play in a hobby where we find it odd if there aren’t as many images of women as men on the pages of our rulebooks. Better yet, we might play in a hobby one day where men and women both laugh openly at a publisher who chooses to include an overwhelming number of improbably sexualized images of women. Until then, though, what we can do is support those publishers who choose to depict a range of powerful and interesting female characters and buy miniatures whose boobs, midriffs, and legs won’t freeze off during the winter from overexposure.

At the moment, I only run WFRP3e, but I read scenarios and campaigns from quite a few other systems. Reading a variety of scenarios can drastically improve your GMing. In any given game, a series of tropes and norms get repeated endlessly because they’ve become associated with the feel of that particular system, but often they’re not the only or even the best way to do things. When you read prewritten material for a different game, you get the opportunity to pull the best ideas from another system into your own game to enhance your storytelling.

With that in mind, I sat down Friday morning to read Pantheon Press’s newly released campaign for their Fortune’s Fool game, Grimm Tales. I know what you’re thinking–I was thinking it, too: Oh, God, not another fairy tale adventure. Just hang on; this one’s worth it. I meant to read a few pages of it and then comb it for ideas at another time, but I ended up reading the whole campaign from cover to cover in a single sitting. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

For those of you not familiar with the Fortune’s Fool system, it is a fantasy RPG set in an alternate Renaissance Europe. The standard fantasy races (elves, orcs, halflings) are a part of normal society. Unlike many other RPGs, Fortune’s Fool doesn’t shy away from the myriad of warring historical religions, and it makes great use of lore pulled from several different religious and cultural backgrounds. More innovative than its setting, though, is Fortune’s Fool’s core mechanic of using Tarot cards to determine the outcome of conflict instead of dice.

When I first played Fortune’s Fool at a convention, I worried a bit that the Tarot mechanic might be too gimmicky. (I know. I use WFRP3e’s picture dice without complaint. But they’re still dice.) Truth be told, though, there’s something really satisfying about the feel of turning over the cards to see what they portend. You really feel as though you’re influencing the future. The innovative mechanics allow you to manipulate the whole deck as you move through the story, too, and since the choice to change the deck (and therefore the draw order) will affect your whole party, the decisions take a bit more strategy than just deciding when to use an ability that adds 4 (or a green die) to a combat roll.

I could effuse about the system some more, but I wanted to effuse about the campaign. Since I tend to read campaigns with an eye toward design, I’ll focus on the fantastic design choices that the team made instead of the narrative content. (That also means I won’t give spoilers!)

Knowledge. It’s a game based on material that your players will know, but the writers have done a superb job of toying with the players’ expectations. Your PCs will act on the knowledge of fairy tales they bring with them to the table. They can’t help it. A writer’s biggest challenge when facing players who already know the story is keeping the PCs from identifying the good and bad guys too easily. Other fairy tale campaigns I’ve seen have failed at this because they twist each fairy tale in the same way; once the players learn the formula, they can anticipate how future encounters will work. The Grimm Tales team has come up with a unique frame story that allows the writers to manipulate each tale differently while still making the set of tales a logical whole. In one tale, the PCs’ knowledge will work for them; in another, it will work against them. The cleverer the players, the more likely they are to be jumping at shadows in no time!

Failure. The game includes several (likely) failures that will feel devastating but won’t shut down the whole campaign. In many games, success is an either/or proposition: either you succeed, or you don’t go on. While players certainly can fail badly enough that they won’t finish the campaign, they are more likely to experience smaller failures along the way. Yet the designers have written these smaller failures so that they will impact the players both emotionally and mechanically; they’ll feel the pain, but the GM won’t have to spend hours backtracking if they screw up.

Tone. As you meet a host of your favorite fairy tale characters, you’ll have a few “aww” moments with some adorable, rosy-cheeked children. Don’t get comfortable; those fleeting moments will be ripped away almost immediately to make room for some of the most twisted scenes I’ve seen in a long time. As a horror film aficionado, I’m fairly hard to faze. Yet some of the scenes in this game had me cringing–in a good way. The awful stuff isn’t over-the-top; you won’t find crude violence or sexuality for its own sake, but you will find things that are horrible enough to make you shudder or laugh out loud. A keen narrative sense also allows the writers to notch up discomfort into outright horror as individual encounters progress. (Two words for GMs who buy this: Chapter Seven!)

Nonstandard Mechanics. The campaign employs just the right number of unusual mechanics. All too often, the use of nonstandard mechanics exists to spice up a string of monotonous combats with a social or puzzle encounter, and the writers then work backwards to shoehorn a design need into their narrative, leaving a jarring bit of storytelling that doesn’t make much sense. (Pathfinder writers can be terrible about this, sticking a random puzzle room into someone’s lair and saying, “Well, he was an inventor and crazy, too!” to explain it.) Here the mechanics exist to make concrete environmental changes ‘real’ to the players, allowing them to experience the changes in the world as it unravels around them.

Background. The designers have provided a background to the story that’s appropriately deep. In both Pathfinder and Warhammer scenarios, GMs often get a richly detailed history that links to richly detailed histories in other products in intricate and interesting ways. Yet often that history only shapes the game as the players experience it in the most superficial ways, and sometimes players aren’t even able to access the whole history through game play. Here, main characters have intricate and hidden family secrets that shape narrative events directly and concretely; the NPCs aren’t two-dimensional cutouts, but excessive history isn’t just included as fluff, either. (I have to admit that I do like a certain amount of fluff, or I wouldn’t play Warhammer, but it can get a wee bit overwhelming when you’ve read three pages of material and realize that it has little bearing on how your players will experience the game.)

If I have a complaint about this title, it’s about the open stats for a couple of encounters. They’ve left the difficulty of a few fights up to the GM, giving her a set of characters and telling her to pick the right number and types of NPCs for the level of the party. Stats are, of course, the part of any game that I find least interesting, and I’m not keen on that kind of freedom–I’d rather it just be done for me like in all the major encounters. On the other hand, I know that many GMs love to play around with that kind of thing, so it’s a terribly minor quibble, especially since the writers do give guidelines for lazy GMs like me.

Overall, I was immensely impressed by this campaign, and its tight writing, clever design, and innovative take on a traditional narrative taught me quite a bit about quality game design. Although I meant to read this “just to see,” it intrigued me enough that I will probably have to run it. My gaming group has a whole list of games we mean to try out in the fall, but Grimm Tales may have convinced me to move the Fortune’s Fool system to the top of that list.

Besides, how can you not love a system and a campaign that includes the instruction “[The monster] is not affected by Latin or Hebrew”? No fool would write that!

Fortune’s Fool is available from Pantheon Press ($20 hard copy; $10 PDF). Grimm Tales is available as a PDF from drivethrurpg ($8.) Or you can buy the PDF bundle of system and campaign from drivethrurpg for only $15!

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