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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.

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NOTE: Recently, people have been asking how WFRP3e looks to people now that the game has been around for a couple of years. This is the second part of my response to that question. The first part can be found here.

Even though this post is about Warhammer, I’m going to start with FreeMarket. I finished reading the rules just before I went on vacation, and I have to say that I really liked the system quite a bit. Still, I can’t imagine running the game without seeing it in action first, nor can I much imagine my current gaming group playing it, even if I did know exactly how it should run. I suspect that they simply don’t like to push against the GM enough to make it much fun.

I often think of games in terms of how much they assume you ‘push against the GM.’ These games ask you not just to accept challenges designed for you to overcome, but to challenge the premises set forth by the GM or the gameworld. In games like these, questioning or undermining the plot hook isn’t bad playing–it’s precisely what the games mean to evoke. The extent to which rules allow you to push against the GM works on a spectrum; different games make more or fewer allowances for questioning in that manner. My group has enjoyed WFRP3e so thoroughly because it stands right in the middle of that spectrum.

I’d say something like Pathfinder Society Scenarios fall on the end of Not Welcome to Push. If I take a mission from the lodge to go investigate the Blackrose Museum, I’m supposed to take the cues given and go solve the puzzles as the GM presents them to me. I’m not, for instance, really welcome to go back to my homeland, suggest that the place is way too dangerous to continue to exist, and amass an army to raze it to the ground. That’s partly because PFS games are often designed to be convention scenarios, but it’s also woven into the fabric of many d20 games; listen to the story, follow the cues, solve the puzzles, get a satisfying climax scene. These games will always remain popular because they allow for intricate, long, overarching storylines; the give the same pleasure as reading a good book or watching an intricate movie. You can, of course, create sandbox games within these systems that allow the players some more options for reaching the final climax scene, but generally, those sandbox games give the players the chance to decide in which order they will encounter possible pre-scripted events.

On the other end of my spectrum (indie games offer even farther reaches, but I won’t talk about games I don’t know well here,) lie games like FreeMarket, or, to a lesser extent, Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. You have to push in these games–that’s the point. Without players challenging the premises, not much happens, and in games like Mouse Guard, many of the scenarios are thin and simple because the spotlight turns on the players’ ideas. The GMs for these games are told to “say yes” to the players’ demands whenever possible, and the storyline takes its shape from the evolution of the characters’ psychologies as much as it does from the external world. The rules focus on having the players describe and shape as much of the game mechanics as possible. Burning Wheel and MG players narrate the outcome of their own dice rolls, while FM PCs play through rounds of a card game to negotiate the successes and failures of their goals. Players of all three games are seldom (if ever) reduced to a simple pass/fail (or even degree of success/failure) mechanic, because most ‘failures’ can be renegotiated in some way.

In all systems, the stories are more important than the individual outcomes; BW, MG, and FM all rely on players to come to the table with their own goals and use their background to shape game play. Sure, the GM might set a straightforward task (get the contents of the chest in the head Guard’s office,) but all three games reward straightforward and non-straightforward responses to that task equally; attacking the guard or sneaking past him works fine, but you might just as easily bore a hole through the wall or construct a thieving monkey robot which you give to the guard as a gift to retrieve it. Mechanics exist for large-scale tactics as well as small-scale tactics; MG’s negotiation rules, for instance, give examples of how to use them to amass and control an army of mice to do your mouse’s bidding. If you have a character with enough resources, creating an army isn’t mechanically much more difficult than finishing the task yourself, so your players needn’t skip it as a realistic solution to a conflict. These systems allow players to feel as though they have infinite paths to changing the world and those possibilities give them the chance to explore their characters extraordinarily carefully. The downside for players comes when they have an off night; they can’t rely on an intricate storyline or hook NPC to keep the story moving, and they can easily stall the game if they don’t have ideas. The downside for a GM, of course, is that a perfectly-planned dramatic moment may easily get sidestepped by your players. Still, if you have managed to put together the ideal set of players for one of these games, their narrative plans are probably every bit as dramatic and creative as yours were, anyway.

Personally, I see WFRP3e as a hybrid of these two types of games. Since the Warhammer universe is so rich with history and its RPGs have so many entrenched traditions, it’s not a good fit for a “say yes,” push against the GM-style of rules. The players would just have the chance to miss way too much good lore. Further, “say yes” games often allow the PCs far more autonomy and power than would really fit the “grim and gritty” feel of Warhammer; while an experienced GM could keep them on track, beginners might have a much more difficult time. So FFG’s official story material for 3e has a kind of d20 determinism to it, much to the chagrin of some players of first and second edition. On the other hand, that has allowed FFG to script some fantastically funny and dramatic moments in the official material–stuff that had my players hooked immediately and had them asking after each game, “What did we miss? What else was there in that chapter?”

On the other hand, many of the mechanics offer momentary negotiations and “say yes” moments to the players on a smaller scale. The dice, for instance, allow PCs to describe the whole a combat action outcomes without having to know any of the monster’s stats. Fortune points allow them to shift the game in their favor or direction; they’re essentially chits that invite players to negotiate with the GM. The party tension meter, while flawed in some ways, encourages players to focus on the evolving psychology of their group. Finally, mechanics like corruptions allow PCs to move outside a GM’s or a party’s morality comfort zone without breaking the system, letting each player develop his character’s psychology without allowing him to run rampant over the game world.

I find that my players negotiate with me on a more regular basis while playing WFRP3e than I’ve seen with most d20 systems, where the focus lies on solving the puzzles in the most efficient, least deadly manner possible. They feel supported enough by the game world and the rules to try creative or bizarre approaches to the problems in front of them. (For our group, these approaches often involve fire.) They will take risks, although they aren’t reckless, either, because they want to live to see what’s around the next corner.

WFRP3e isn’t the perfect system, by any means. Many of the complaints arise because the system doesn’t commit fully to a single traditional style of play, irritating players who come from both d20 and “say yes” types of games. Still, I think the rules and the pregen material do two things exceedingly well: they tell an interesting story and allow for PCs to develop their own interesting stories at the same time. Most systems err on the side of emphasizing one set of goals or the other; if WFRP3e has proven anything to me and my group in the past year and a half or so, it’s that it allows for nice a balance of both world story and player goals.

So, that game I said I wasn’t going to order (but obviously did) arrived today. So there’s that.

Also, Monday marked my first venture into GMing Mouse Guard. I was a little fussbudgety going in because I wasn’t sure if I could keep my wits about me as much as Mouse Guard requires. I generally allay my fears by prepping copiously, but found that my trusty technique didn’t really fly for MG. With only a couple of plot points written ahead of time because the game aims to be so responsive to player innovation, the prewritten material didn’t lend itself to needing a whole host of cardboard buildings or excessive highlighting/notetaking. Even my plan to pull pictures for my iPad failed, largely because I couldn’t find naturescapes with tiny mouse buildings in them. Go figure. I pulled a couple of atmospheric pictures, but they seemed so irrelevant to the feel of the game that I ultimately gave up that approach.

After a half hour of wandering around disconsolately with the rule book, I decided to make some player kits.

We are as enthusiastic about our board games as we are about our RPGs–and just as obsessive about the stuff that comes in them. As you can imagine, our place has a whole drawer full of multi-sized baggies to help organize all of the bits from each game. We separate what each player needs at the game’s start out into player kits, which speed up the beginning of the game. (This is totally normal where we come from. Believe me.) Here, for instance, is the player kit for my team in the new Blood Bowl card game:

There’s everything you need to crush the opposing teams in one handy baggie!

With idle hands and nervous energy, I decided apply the same principle to my Guardmice. I went onto the excellent Burning Wiki section dedicated to MG and downloaded the character sheets for the premade characters, deleting the prewritten Session Goals because I wanted my players to create their own. Then I either downloaded or typed up descriptions of each mouse’s starting city so that my players had a better sense of where their mice originated so their backgrounds could inform their RP.

Finally, I made copies of those awesome flow charts, too, just in case, although we didn’t find ourselves using them. I packed all of that into a clear plastic page protector, and, of course, pulled out my bag o’ mechanical pencils.

It’s not the kind of prep I’m used to, but I finally felt like I’d done my “homework,” so I could relax a bit and feel ready to go.

As for the actual game play, it seemed to go well. We had quite a bit of party tension; one mouse wanted to slip away from the party to go get revenge against a former friend who had wronged her, but her Patrol Leader wouldn’t let her out of his sight because he wanted to keep her safe. It led to some interesting tension, especially when the other two mice decided to let them fight it out and deal with the main mission head-on with rope. (When it comes right down to it, most things in RPGs can be tackled with rope.) It does seem easier in MG to split the party than in other games, because so much relies on the players just talking out their decisions; while the GM resolves one set of checks, the other team can be talking out what they want to do. Our group really enjoyed the social combat rules, having a really great time thinking up direct points, rebuttals, and confusing errata to represent their Attacks, Defends, and Feints. I let them down on combat a bit; it was our first major conflict, so I focused too much on the rules, leaving them feeling like there was no RP to combat, when in fact, I was just trying to make sure everyone knew how the order of events went. Sill, you live and learn. They seemed to enjoy learning that they had far more power to negotiate about what the world was like, but were, as I predicted, a bit nonplussed by the fact that there wasn’t as deep of a prewritten story to follow or as many premeditated puzzles/challenges to “get right.” I suppose that ultimately, I could remedy either of these in subsequent sessions, should they choose to give it another go.

Given that we’ve played WFRP for so long, they were right at home with the cards in the MG Box Set, and remarked several times on the charming illustrations and the high production value. It seemed completely worth it to have the additional pieces since it gave this far more abstract game a bit of an anchor for my players.

Overall, it was fun for me to see the group work together in a different way, and I enjoyed the experience of more free-form GMing. I may try to GM a Mouse Guard game at a convention at some point. After all, there are so many possible ways I could make newbie-friendly player kits for a convention!

(Warning: this post might contain a couple of minor spoilers for An Eye for An Eye and For Love or Money if you look too closely at the photos. If you’re playing in either scenario, just don’t peer at the maps/stat blocks below for an extended period of time.)

It’s probably because I spent so much time in academia, but I have a tendency to prepare for games with the same intensity that most people prepare for their dissertation defenses. (Actually, come to think of it, I prepare way more carefully for games than I did for my dissertation defense, but that’s a story for a different sort of blog.)

When I decided to run WFRP, the first thing I did was to go out and get a new binder. Then I decorated it, because apparently at heart, I am still in seventh grade–although I didn’t really do this stuff in seventh grade.

I ran a bunch of premade adventures first. Naturally, I read them over multiple times, highlighting the important bits and making notes in the margins, just so I wouldn’t miss anything. (Generally, I end up forgetting the notes in the margins, so I miss the things I thought I would miss, anyway.)

Later, I branched out and wrote some of my own material. Here are the notes I took for a bit where the party visited a sinister pig farm. Even though this was my own work, I ended up having to notate it, because apparently I don’t know myself well enough as an audience to get everything I need on the page the first time.

Often, I worry about wasting time by flipping through the books looking for stats, so I make nitpicky stats blocks for each adventure. Luckily, Apple’s Pages makes it easy to be obsessive and graphically appealing at the same time!

And what’s an adventure without a map? I spent some time learning Campaign Cartographer so I could have some of those, too. Here’s the pig farm:

If I end up using someone else’s map, I have to add some serious notation.

Player handouts are great for giving the GM some down time while the PCs pass the paper around the table and mutter at each other about some trivial tidbit of information you’ve delivered that now seems monumental because it’s in writing. I store those in my binder, too.

Let’s not forget the part of the binder where I catalog useful information gleaned from my favorite Warhammer sites. I could, of course, just print out the web page that contained this info, but that wouldn’t really fit the aesthetics of the rest of the binder, so I went ahead and just photoshopped the relevant information onto a Warhammery background. (As an added bonus, this let me avoid doing serious work for about an hour.)

So, that’s how I prepare for games. For me, a lot of it is about getting the storyline stuck firmly in my head so I have to spend minimal time consulting anything but the basic stat blocks during the game. I’m not sure it works–I end up forgetting half of what I learned and often just give my extensive notes a miss and wing it when things come up. Still, I suppose that being so prepared tends to help the party end up in the right place, even when my ‘winging it’ has us flying way off course. Plus, I just kind of like to do it.

It looks like our group will be moving to Mouse Guard for a bit. That system is very different; all of the techniques I learned for WFRP won’t prove quite so useful. That means I’m going to have to buy another binder and start the whole process again from scratch.

Yay!

The only thing is that Mouse Guard doesn’t quite require this level of preparation, so I might not need to make quite so many handouts/maps/notes.

Boo.

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.

It’s always nice to get a surprise gift from your spouse. I have read on the Internet that some women like flowers or chocolate, but I prefer gaming stuff. (Big surprise.) Last week, I got surprised with a Fantasy Flight Supply Dice Bag. I’d had my eye on these on the website, but couldn’t really justify buying one because I don’t have many un-bagged dice lying about. But, hey, a present! You can’t say no to a present.

The bag is quite nice; it’s made of soft nylon with a suede-like exterior. Mine has the sword detail, printed in a sparkly silver metallic color. At 6.25×9″, the roomy bag easily holds far more than a full set of d20 or WFRP dice; you could probably sneak in a small pad and a little pencil, too, for travel gaming.

Mine’s currently holding the graphic Mouse Guard dice from the Boxed Set. Although I feel a bit guilty about putting non-FFG dice in an FFG bag because I’m crazy like that, the sword seems thematically appropriate for the little mice fighting for what they believe. Neither sword-wielding mouse nor FFG employee has come to my door yet to complain. Now that I think about it, though, it would be pretty cool if an armed mouse showed up at my house. If that happens, I’ll be sure to take pictures and post them.

I posted some ideas awhile back about traveling with RPG minis and scenery. Sometimes, though, you don’t quite need that much stuff. Either you’re going to a place with limited table space, or you’re taking an RPG which doesn’t require quite as much outlay. This weekend, I went to a little local gathering held mostly outdoors with my Mouse Guard stuff. Although I love my Box Set, I wasn’t willing to take the Set (in its pristine condition!) to play with a bunch of people I don’t know in the rather unpredictable Great Outdoors, so I grabbed my older MG rulebook and a few key items and stuck them into this awesome scrapbook case:

I love this thing because it’s made of very thick, durable plastic; it’ll keep out the rain and the dirt (or the spilled Coke, if you’re at an indoor con.) It’s large enough to hold pages bigger than 8.5×11″, and tall enough that you can stack a couple of books and some dice bags into it easily. And if you need to, you can use it as a place to roll your dice once you’ve taken out all the stuff inside. Plus, it’s cheap! Here, I brought my rulebook, my bag of dice, a bag of dice for my players, character/GM sheets in plastic sleeves, and a bag of pencils and wipe-off makers. (Since you repeatedly have to re-mark your combat actions on sheets in Mouse Guard, it’s easiest to take a wipe-off marker and pages in sleeves and just have the characters wipe away their choices between each combat turn. It’s cheap, compact, and easy, and keeps you from having to reprint combat sheets for each encounter or from ending up with sheets so often erased that they end up illegible.)

If you’re interested in picking up a case, you can find one here.

Work ramps up today for the first time in several months, so I’m pleased to report that this will be the first blog post of the year drafted during a meeting! (I won’t get around to posting it during the meeting, but I will have started it then.)

Since acquiring the Mouse Guard Box Set, I’ve naturally put Mouse Guard on the table as a fall RPG option for my players. I now had an excuse to scoop up Reaper’s Mouslings Set, which I’ve been eyeing for a long time but had no reason to purchase. If you’ve just purchased the Set and are eager to play, you might want to know that the Mouslings seem to be in Reaper’s boneyard; it isn’t clear how much longer they’ll be on offer. On the other hand, MG is a fairly abstract game, so you certainly don’t need them to play. (In fact, I’m thinking of not using scenery at all. I know. It’s hard to believe I would ever write such a thing. Still, things change so fast in MG, and in the test game I ran, I found it so much more fun to go with what the players suggested than with what I had in mind that I don’t want to end up limiting my options with too much premade scenery.)

The Mouslings are a great set, and the tiny minis are delightfully detailed casts, although they represent quite a few ‘types’ of characters you’re not likely to play in the game. There aren’t Gandalf-like wizard mice in the Crane/Petersen game, for instance. Still, the Mouslings are a fun set to own, and they come in a handy carrying case with a handle, so you can…um..I don’t know. Carry them somewhere. Like on vacation. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in a foreign country and had a sudden and desperate need for a variety of anthropomorphic mice miniatures. It’s been at least…hmm…no times. But if it does come, I’ll be set, and let’s face it–peace of mind is invaluable.

This seems to be the week to freak out about the awesomeness of the Mouse Guard Box Set, and it is awesome, so I don’t want to be late in my freaking out about it lest I seem either unenthusiastic or unfashionable. In fact, I’ll go so far as to admit that I drove five hours to pick up my set when one of my players found out that it was available at a not-so-local friendly gaming store. It was worth it. (Thanks to DH for giving me the heads-up the second this came into view!)

I played the Mouse Guard RPG a little over a year ago at a convention and loved it immediately. Seldom had I seen a convention game with premade characters pull such thoughtful and deep roleplaying out of participants, and I was impressed by how easy it was to use the rules in innovative ways without knowing the whole system well. I’d picked up the rulebook then, and I loved its lush illustrations and clear, welcoming, and intelligent instructions. Mouse Guard’s streamlined Burning Wheel rules have removed everything extraneous about the parent system and left GMs with the perfect toolkit for running adventures that feel as though they’re straight from the pages of Petersen’s comic. Given the comic’s “It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for” tagline and Burning Wheel’s “Fight for what you believe” motto, the two are a perfect thematic match for one another.

When I heard that there was going to be a Box Set, I was pleased, as you can imagine. Stuff for a game for a game I like? Really pretty stuff for a game I like?! Let’s do it! NOW!

One of the first things I noticed is that Crane and Petersen haven’t included a lot of extraneous stuff. There’s beautiful, well-made, useful stuff, and a bit of fun fluff, but not a whole overwhelming host of table-filling junk that you don’t really need. (And here, I’m looking at you, my beloved WFRP3e. You might have overdone it just the slightest shade of a notch on your stuff quotient.) For instance, the Mouse Guard Box Set comes with a bunch of cards, but instead of the overwhelming array of skill cards you get in WFRP, you have a set of condition cards that remind you of each condition’s effects, a set of weapon cards to remind you of how a particular weapon changes each scripted volley of a fight, and set of common action cards to play instead of scripting your volleys on paper. That’s it. Players won’t sit behind a towering stack of skill cards, and they won’t spend twenty minutes shuffling through their deck to find the right skill for the job.

Beautiful design marks everything about this set, from the shiny box to the illustrated individual cards. Rules on the card are easy to read and understand, and each one includes just the right amount of information. Instead of regular d6s, the themed dice in the set now include snakes, swords, and axes. Although there are only a handful of dice, the basic dice mechanic hasn’t changed, so players (or the GM) can continue to use their own d6s if there aren’t enough themed dice at the table.

Perhaps most charming are the “carved” mouse pawns that look like those that Gwendolyn uses to mark the Guard Patrols on her own map. You get five (red, blue, yellow, green, and purple) and a map of the Mouse Territories with your game. I swooned over these when I saw them in the MTV unboxing post, but that picture didn’t indicate the heft and size of the pawns. I thought they were the size of a regular RPG miniature, but one easily fills the palm of my hand:

Still, you haven’t really lived until you’ve placed them on your own map of the territories:

I particularly like the map/pawn addition; even though it doesn’t technically add much to the gameplay, it does visually represent the role of the GM (who plays Gwendolyn and assigns missions) as an integral part of the game.

One last thing about the set: the included sheets keep up the high production value and thoughtful design of the rest of the materials. The GM sheets let the GM record all the pertinent information about a whole host of NPCs on one handy page. The character sheets do what character sheets usually do, but in a much more stylish way than usual. Petersen even includes a delightful pencil sketch of a bare-bones mouse that you can “fill in” with visual details to represent your own character.

Although the theme of Mouse Guard may not appeal to everyone, the Mouse Guard RPG makes great use of the BW rules for an exciting and interesting gaming experience evocative of the comic. The Box Set enhances that play with visually appealing gaming aids that will streamline your session and will allow your players to focus on the story and its puzzles rather than on the system. I do hope that the publisher will issue extra sets of themed dice, because my players love to have their own sets of dice. We spend 15 minutes at the end of each session trying to figure out which dice belong to whom; it’s our exit ritual, and I’m hoping it can be preserved.

Now get out there, Guards, and ride a rabbit across the snow in search of a dangerous snake! (Although you’re going to have to get a whole heap of successes to do those things, you know.)

DISCLAIMER: This post may make my players sound psychotic. They are lovely people when not egged on by a demented GM, and in fact usually play upright citizens of the Empire who work in good faith for the people.

Nobody in our gaming group has long stretches of free time over the summer. Scheduling long, campaign-oriented sessions is out of the question. On the other hand, I hate having the PCs do the in-game equivalent of busywork just so you can get a session to come in under four hours. I also hate not playing.

So I decided to have us switch things up and have an orc adventure.

I didn’t tell the players this, of course. I told them we’d run a session with convention premades instead of their regular characters. A background website described a farmers’ festival that was happening on the edge of the woods, complete with distracting tidbits of background: you’ll get to see the unveiling of a new statue of Sigmar!, you’ll get to eat pancakes so good you won’t be able to believe it!, you’ll get to stay at the cozy and wonderful Hospitable Hovel! My players have been so immersed in the Warhammer universe that they immediately suspect that anything that sounds good and comforting will be hiding a chaos beast of some sort, so they were prepared to jump at shadows. They were just sure that the poor festival was going to get attacked and arrived on Saturday all ready to defend it.

The PCs watched a short video about all the fun they were going to have at the festival. Wandering entertainers! Music made by exotic instruments! Dancing at the maypole! Actors from the city! Prizewinning animals! A joke about having sex with the prizewinning animals because I wanted to make it before they did! The positive, happy excitement promised by the video left them jittery because they just knew it couldn’t last. “Damn it,” one of them grumbled. “Why don’t we ever just get to go to the Faire? Make a roll to see if the fried dough burns your mouth. I wish we’d play that game instead of the one where the chaos monsters eat us.” “We are going to die horribly,” another one said.

The new player at our table looked very nervous.

I told them that it was now time to divvy up the premade characters. I put character sheets for the orcs Grok Buzzkilla, Gruk, Snok, Grobs, and Squit on the table. They shuffled them around for a moment in complete silence. Then one of them looked up at me and said, “Wait…we’re playing the orcs?” The joy at the table was palpable as they realized that they were about to go to the Faire to destroy instead of protect.

THE CRUNCHY BITS/SESSION REPORT

I had designed five PC greenskins, each with a set of likes, secret likes, and dislikes, each identified by a characterizing catchphase: Da Boss, the Warband’s leader; Da Finker, the (relatively) philosophical orc; Da Handsome One, who thought his shiny armor made him beautiful; Da Artist, who enjoyed large-scale sculpture and painting with blood; and Da Help, the poor snotling. Each orc’s secret likes were in direct contradiction to another orc’s overt dislikes, so each player had incentive to object to someone else’s RP over the course of the session.

From there, each player wrote Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel-style Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for his/her orc. We’d never done this before, but the gang seemed to have fun with it and came up with some great stuff: the snotling’s Goal was finally to taste a human baby, while the handsome orc chose the Instinct that whenever someone looked at him, he would stop to pose–even in the middle of battle. I was really happy with their choices, because they took RP risks and choose things that were more delightful and background-appropriate than useful.

From there, we played a largely usual game of WFRP, but without some of the obvious goals and missions of premade scenarios. The characters knew that their orcish leader was shrinking, likely a sign of the Warband’s overall recent failures, and they knew that their Warband should make its mark on the countryside in order to secure its eminence again. Other than those slight hints, though, they were simply presented with a Faire map full of townspeople and a bunch of props designed to trigger their secret likes and overt dislikes (flowers, pancakes, children, and farm animals, to name a few.)

In previous scenarios, my players have sometimes had a difficult time figuring out what to do without directive story hooks, but with their own Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts, each of them found something to do immediately: one rushed bloodthirstily into battle, while another wanted to smash a dog to bits, and a third went to find some blood to paint her shield. When the fighting got started (as we all knew it would,) I added an additional complication: for every five, then seven, then nine banes rolled by the party, we would roll on the Fantasy Battles Orc Animosity Table, and the players would take one round to attack each other, squabble back and forth, or madly rush an opponent as dictated by the Table. The player who rolled the “final” bane had to roll a d6 for the Animosity Table, and if the roll was either a player-on-player attack or a squabble, s/he rolled the d6 again to decide which other orc or orcs at the table were involved. Although I had understatted the opponents, the Animosity checks led to some great in-battle complications and some hilarious roleplaying as the orcs fought back and forth over who was going to chop off a dog’s head or over who got to carry the shiny axe. Further, one of the more bloodthirsty orcs took exception when his teammate attacked him, and spent the rest of the scenario smashing him in the face whenever he came close. The player who had chosen the leader of the Warband struggled to get the others focused on the task of destroying the humans, but spent most of his play time just shaking his head as he watched his Warband ignore foes in favor of eating rotten fish or bickering with each other. “Now you see why I’m shrinking!” he kept saying. The poor snotling got knocked out, but after being revived, managed to hand a “present” to a little girl–a bomb that went off the next round and scattered pieces of the unlucky waif all over the maypole. Much to his delight, this meant he finally got to taste human baby! (One player objected that the kid wasn’t really a baby, to which the snotling player responded, “Like I’m smart enough to know the difference.”)

I had mostly just wanted to test the tweaks I had made for the system, so the scenario didn’t have a lot of meat to it, but in some ways, the PCs had more satisfying interaction with the environment than in much richer scenarios. They killed as many people as they could at the Faire, including a Witch Hunter and a crazy woman who believed she was an Orc Whisperer. The handsome orc liked her a lot because she thought he was pretty, so he followed her around the Faire for awhile, but eventually he got distracted by something else and forgot to protect her while one of his teammates cut her head off.

They finished the battle pretty tidily, and then had the run of the now empty festival grounds. They joyfully roleplayed smashing up the maypole, setting the tents and stalls on fire, making a huge “artwork” out of the corpses of their fallen foes, eating all of the pancakes, and filling the animal pens full of hay and lighting the trapped animals. The last place that remained for them to explore was the only permanent structure in the area, the Hospitable Hovel, a tiny nearby hotel. They desperately wanted to set the Hovel on fire, but I refused to let them, because a) it was stone, and b) fire had already been overdone. Grudgingly, they opened the door only to find several small children inside. One of the kids threw a rock at the handsome orc, and he failed a willpower test and was overcome with flashbacks of the recent rock slide that killed a good number of his Warband. But once he’d opened the door, the others rushed up, and were delighted to see a room full of captive children.

We argued back and forth about whether or not they could torch the place. I stuck to my guns and refused.

Finally, the snotling player said, “Hey! Don’t I still have some of those bombs left?”

I nodded.

“Great! I’m going to throw in a bomb and close the door.” This was met with delighted approval.

…and the resulting moist explosion and the orc Artist collecting some of the “fluid” to make “paint” wrapped up our session.

Afterwards, we went through the Burning Wheel ritual of re-sharing our Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts and talking about which the players had fulfilled and which they hadn’t. We then voted as a team on the Workhorse (the character who stayed on task the most,) and the Best Roleplayer, which went to the Artist orc and the Handsome orc respectively. I adore that particular part of BW, as it requires the players to reflect on what they did well during the game and appreciate the particularly good work of others. I’m awarding them xp for their regular campaign characters, but I’m going to do it according to the extent to which they RPed their B/G/Is instead of the extent to which they fulfilled the expectations set up by the scenario.

Overall, I’m pretty happy about the outcome of this experiment. It got some new and different types of roleplay out of my players and got them much less focused on “doing everything right” and trying to guess what was in the scenario writer’s pocket. (That’s a good thing, as my pockets were largely empty.) I plan on running another monster adventure, this time with more storyline, and I think I will be using the Burning Wheel Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts for all of our Warhammer games from here on out.

I have to give a shout-out to my patient and long-suffering players, who are always willing to try any dumb idea I have and go out of their way to make it fun.

PIX OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!

Despite my other bad qualities, I am not obnoxious enough to take pictures during the game, so these are ‘reenactments.’ Think of them as a Lifetime special about something sordid that once happened, only without any boring scenes where women sit around crying or making toast.

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