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Ian O'Rourke
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The Tyranny of Dragons Challenge

Gaming died over the summer (along with this blog, but that’s potentially for another day). It’s always a difficult affair, proving disruptive to the gaming schedule, this time we decided to just give up all together. Traditionally, the group has always given a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons a good run. The group formed around 3E. We ran through all the tiers of play in 4E in one campaign. Now that 5E is out we’re kick-starting the group again by playing through the first official campaign: Tyranny of Dragons.

I’m intrigued by 5E. It manages to remain very much Dungeons & Dragons, while being a very simple game, but seemingly with a deceptive tactical depth. It has some great rules, such as advantage and disadvantage replacing most bonuses. The concept of bounded accuracy to keep what bonuses do exist within a smaller range, which has innumerable spin-off advantages such as shields actually being awesome, a +1 sword being the dog’s bollocks, etc. Inspiration and Ideals, Bonds and Flaws which have a loose analogy with Fate Points and Aspects or Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, Instincts and Traits going on. Very loose, but still interesting. It’s all good.

Many are describing the game as being like 2E or 3E, very few people describe it as being like 4E. In fact, the games apparent rejection of 4E is seen as one of the great things about the game. I think a lot of people have it wrong and the genius of the edition is it’s become some sort of Rorschach test with people seeing in it what they want to see but primarily not 4E. Personally, I think the game is much simpler than 2E and has nowhere near the mad, broken simulative bent of 3E. The best description is basic Dungeons & Dragons (not advanced of any edition) and 4E. That’s right: 4E. There is a heck of a lot of 4E in 5E and they’ve just layered it on a very basic engine. It’s ironic really, as it seems all it has taken to make some 4E concepts suddenly miraculously good to detractors is to give them a bit of a simulative veneer.

Still, the fact at-will, encounter and daily ‘powers’ are still present is fine with me (they’re just now called short and long rests). Hell, we even have a martial class that can only do a certain amount of unique moves a day, but apparently that’s okay now. People were disgusted everyone had spells (though they weren’t really spells) in 4E, yet the fact every class either uses actual spells or has a variant that uses actual spells in 5E is perfectly fine. The only character in our game that isn’t a spell casting class is the fighter class and he has, you guessed it, essentially 4E-like powers (and even he has an option at third level to go Arcane Knight). It’s very hard for your spell casting to be unique in 5E which is much worse than in 4E! It’s all good now, though, apparently.

Anyway, I’m not complaining, I really like the fact the great principles of 4E are embedded in a much simpler game. It’s seems so far towards the simpler end I think it’s a Dungeons & Dragons even I could manage. I tip my hat to the designers, who have managed to let everyone see in the game what they want to see by a mixture of clever design in some cases and odd compromises (such as the addition of the incompetent tier for the you’re peasants with swords brigade) in others that don’t cause any real problems.

Tyranny of Dragons is also an interesting concept as it’s the first time we haven’t gone with something of our own devising.

I’m looking forward to playing through a purchased campaign, basically because I’ve never done it before. I missed out on all the big, historic Dungeons & Dragons modules, never hit any of the notable Call of Cthulhu adventures and I only got a single sessions experience of The Enemy Within, the eponymous Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign. So, doing the whole shared experience thing of playing through an official module is quite exciting. It also introduces a few ‘old school’ wrinkles, like books the players aren’t allowed to buy or certainly not read, as well as some more modern dilemmas like avoiding spoilers on social media. I’m keen to see how the shared gaming experience works out.

It’ll be interesting to see how close the module stays to the official content. Will it largely stay true to the module? Will it spin off on such a tangent the material becomes less and less useful? To what degree does the module make life easier for the person running the game? We tend to have a model of play that means only the broadest of principles can hold at the table (and even these sometimes break – but that often is followed by a collapse) while actual plot events shoot of in many and varied directions, so it’ll be interesting to see how some sense of a pre-created plot holds up and how the material is designed to manage player input.

It’s a long commitment, something we’d sort of decided not to do as a group at the beginning of the summer but, you know what? I no longer care. It will hopefully be something that runs steadily. I’d like to see it through once we start it. After a series of games that petered out on the GM side or got cancelled on the player side it’ll be great just to have something that isn’t facing that problem from one week to the next.

And it seems, if you want that, you pick something with character power advancement, a tactical element and not too many fancy new widgets (then overlay all that stuff with a social contract anyway). I’ve given up being frustrated by this as well. So it just might work. I am crossing my fingers.

Tyranny of Dragons. Bring it on.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/08/2014 Bookmark and Share
Gaming is Dead! Long Live Gaming!

It’s safe to say, in gaming terms, a pinnacle was reached in the last quarter of 2012 and the first of 2013. We’d finished the 4E Campaign, the longest and most consistent campaign we’d run. Then I spent about a year out of gaming to come back for the Prometheus Institute game. It was great, probably the most fun game I’ve been in as a player. In truth, the Prometheus Institute game was also a bad sign, as it was another of the groups get out while the going is good games, while modelling the type of game I like. Epic clash. No idea about anyone else but it’s not felt exactly the same since?

Then I went on to run Fate Fading Suns and I was really enjoying it!

Then the nerf bomb hit and it became and the gaming group decided to discontinue it. I’ll admit, I instantly went from a gaming high point to a gaming low point. It wasn’t the cancellation as such (albeit I was really wanting to see it through), but the realisations that came from the cancellation.

The long version of these realisations can be found in Fate Fading Suns – Cancelled (18/5/2013), A GM Practicality Problem (27/05/2013), Burst, Baby Burst! (20/07/2013) and Gaming Twilight (04/10/2013), the short version can be summarised as the dynamics (rather than individuals) of the gaming group not liking the timings of how I like to game, the types of rules I like(at least not for long) and, to some degree, the type of game I like to run.

The realisation over the holiday is to twist it all on its head. Stop trying to conform (in some ways Fate Fading Suns was following a ‘go long’ 4E Campaign model, but around 60% shorter, when in truth I’d created the classic get out while the going is good game).

Stop trying to go with the sort of unwritten, amorphous social contract. Instead play more of a part in writing the damned contract. Just do what you want to do and people will either go with it or not. If they don’t, then at least you’re not navigating the treacherous dynamics that, to be fair, I’ve got better things to spend my time on.

In short: don’t try and divine requirements, let others sign-up to yours (or not) even if this means not getting to go with an idea (ever). If that means no running then fine. I don’t do much else on the terms of others so I don’t see why my gaming should be different.

The principles that summarise my holiday thoughts are detailed below.

Principle One: I enjoy Running

I enjoy running. In fact, I still think part of the problem with the gaming twilight, along with the shifts in the gaming group (life moves on, dynamics change) is that I suspect my gaming rewards now come more from running periodically than they do from playing. This is a minor miracle all things considered. Something peaked across the 4E Campaign, and more specifically The Prometheus Institute, and playing isn’t delivering as much as running Fate Fading Suns was delivering.

Principle Two: Sunday is just a slot!

In line with this I am cutting myself off from the shifting dynamics that people in the GM’ing chair of the Sunday gaming group. I’m out. I’m not in the running. Should something I run naturally flow into that for a period, fine, but I’m not jockeying for ‘the next campaign’ that keeps the Sunday slot going. In fact, I’m not even sure I care about the Sunday gaming purely in the context of me running and, if so, it’s only because it’s a very good time slot considering my problems of running on an evening.

I’m not even focused on the participants of the Sunday gaming group, they’re critical, in that some, but possibly not others, are likely to be the most likely people to give something I want to run a shot, but that’s about it. The gaming group is not a constraint, though it is likely to be a significant influence.

Principle Three: Decouple the Obligation

While I really enjoyed Fate Fading Suns delivering consistently and regularly is not something I’ve traditionally done. It’s been intermittent and done in bursts. I’ll also admit to being quite selfish. I don’t believe I’m selfish in a way that is malicious but I do tend to gravitate to wanting to do things on my own terms rather than feeling obligated to do it on the terms of others. I've even orientated my career around this...what can I say!

I’ll freely admit to being obligated to run every two weeks is a problem for me. I want to run when I want to run, not necessarily when the norms of the group decide I should. It is as simple as that.

There is also a ‘work life balance’ element to it as quite often work just pushes out time to think about much else so the commitment can become an obligation I begrudge when time to gestate such things gets pushed out.

Principle Four: The Joy of Prep

There is a model of gaming that I currently find infuriating: don’t prepare, just turn up, riff off the players and make it all up as you go along. It’s almost a bloody religion. Any attempt to discuss preparation styles, degree of preparation, etc, and some wise ass will turn up and go on about how preparation is for fools (along with some bragging rights on their ability to weave the awesome from nothing) and with a big implication if you only realised the truth of the ‘improvisation awesome’ your gaming ‘ills’ would be cured.

I’d even go as far to say sauntering up to the gaming table with your All Rolled Up, sitting down and deliver the awesome from nothing has turned into some sort of Iron GM psychology self-improvement thing.

I’m a ‘slow prep’ GM. I don’t write out 20 pages of handwritten of stuff like I used to do when I was young, but I do think about it. It’s not about what will happen, but what could. It’s about framing and a loose structure and a set of principles to hang things off. It’s a strategic prep not a tactical prep. It’s a set of tools based on navigating the experience of all concerned not prescriptive planning of what will be.

You know what? I enjoy that, it’s an essential part of gaming for me. The 100% improve zealots can shove it up their arse.

Principle Five: Event Not Campaign

It’s going to be more about gaming events, rather than gaming campaigns. In a way, this is another way of saying I’m not going long, I am, for now, going short.

I don’t mean this in the sense of it being an awesome event, but more that it will feel more like one in terms of the commitment, temporal elements, etc. I suppose you could see it’s also been influenced by the convention model. At the risk of using an analogy that'll probably prove wrong it's 3 Star Wars films rather than a TV series. The Marvel Heroic Role-Playing game provides a good example and it’s where I’ve nicked it from, they’re even called events. It may even involve the use of pre-generated characters in some cases, at least initially, but not forever (it’ll be contextual). When player created characters are used they will always be a crucible and a way to GM / Player-side stuff to coincide.

…And Finally!

I am getting off the gaming group treadmill. I’ll do what I want at the time and pacing I want to do it. This may mean I never run anything because I’ve created a set of principles that combine to make it impossible in the prevailing dynamics (quite possibly). It may mean I never actually pony up with anything. It may mean no one ever signs on for any thing I want to give ago. That’s fine.

It will mean, should the stars align, I’ll be liberated enough to bloody enjoy it on my own terms with a better chance of enjoying it with others who agree with them.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2014 Bookmark and Share
Storium – The Second Kickstarter

I’ve backed my second Kickstarter. The first one was Fate Core this second one is something quite different: Storium. I’ve opted for the second backer level, which gives me access during the testing phases as well as a first year subscription. It wasn’t a vast amount of money and I am intrigued by the idea. I figured even if all I end up doing is poking around, experimenting and seeing how they are doing things it was worth what I put down.

So, what is this Storium thing?

Storium is a web-based storytelling game, by turning writing into a turn-based, multiplayer game. I suspect some people would say calling it a game is a stretch, but it holds if you accept that the outcome of the game is good story, good narrative. I’ve only had a surface look but it seems to me to be a cross between interactive storytelling on forums, but with ‘game’ and ‘structural’ elements similar (yet different) to role-playing games like Fate (the cards have a lot of similarities with Aspects as they represent narrative and story artefacts) and Primetime Adventures (in terms of scripts and TV shows being the obvious structural method of delivery) and both these games naturally lend themselves to players positioning themselves as writers, not actors.

I’m sure there are other influences, but these are the ones that connect with me, from experience.

Oddly, another reason I signed up was my experience with Neverwinter Nights, the older version, not the current MMO-like version. This was a 3D CRPG that could be DM’ed. While there was obviously an action component to it, the games I used to be involved in running with a DM team very much played out like a medium for telling stories, and a lot of that came down to writing, albeit it was more interactive and immediate than Storium.

At the moment, I’ve just had a poke around the worlds and a few games in motion. I’ve not played any games or run any. It is intriguing. While how the game plays out probably has a lot of actual play learning to it, and I suspect there are quite a few variations within the high level framework, the key factors to take away from where I am at the moment is the artefacts used in the game, which are called cards.

Characters are made up cards covering Natures (Expedition Leader), Strengths (Worldwide Associates) and Weaknesses (Enemies). These are a sort of mash-up of Fate Core aspects, Primetime Adventures edges and a range of other similar features in games like Sorcerer, Over the Edge, etc. You can then go on to have central motivations in the form of a Subplot (Race to the Lost Plateau!), which is the story your character exists to explore. Characters interact with Assets (stuff, things and gear) and Goals, which I need to get a better handle on as they seem to be things given out by the narrator during a scene. Its possible Goals could be similar to Milestones in Marvel Heroic Role-Playing (as completing them results in rewards), but more dynamic and applied in a scene by the narrator. They’re obviously a way of leading the story slightly.

The Narrator also has Places (Bridge of the Airship Astonishing), Characters who are in conflict and Obstacles (Escape the Raptors!) which represent sources of physical or environmental conflict. It’s easy to see how these tools can be used to give the scenes created a focus and a central conflict in a similar way to how Primetime Adventures probably should work but actually has less guidance than what is provided here in Storium with its use of ‘Cards’.

The various worlds that are available within Storium, and new ones are released as stretch goals on the Kickstarter, are a bit misleading I think. It’s not that they are bad, they are a good idea, I’m just not sure the name is a good one (though I admit I don’t have a better name). They’re not worlds in the sense a novelist might build a world or an RPG setting book might present a world. They are more like TV series bibles that are awaiting a writing team, all constructed using the artefacts of Storium. This is a good idea. Once you get your head around this, which generally takes about ten minutes after some poking around, it is easy to see how you would create your own series bible. There is probably some mileage in a ‘Storium World Building Guide’ for people wanting to establish their own series bibles for their own games. It seems natural, but I never underestimate what is natural to some and not to others.

It is also easy to grasp how you could set numerous dials for your series bible from detailing a lot, even down to the cast so it is just awaiting writers, to actually starting with the most basic of pitches and having characters, initial places, etc, all built from that discussion. You could even make the establishing of Places part of character creation. The Primetime Adventures model is useful in this regard. You could even play with the Narrator / Player boundary by having players suggest what the next scene should be and some of the cards in it?

As for the Storium business model? Well, it’s early days and there certainly isn’t anything on pricing. The two things that can be taken from the Kickstarter at the moment is: an annual subscription and paying for content. The annual subscription will be interesting depending on cost, the line that will have to be walked is to what degree the structural elements needs Storium to actually work? And to what degree the community adds value?

The second form of revenue is the pre-built worlds. The model is presented as a merger between the ‘RPG module’ and ‘apps’ models. People write worlds, people pay an app-style amount for worlds with money flowing to Storium and the author. No problem with this in principle. It’ll be interesting to see how well when combined with the community the site fosters? Will people be buying worlds or creating their own? No idea at this stage.

Will that model work out to make it a viable effort for all concerned? It’ll be interesting to find out if it is.

Well, this is sort of the outcome of my initial, half an hour peak inside after pledging on the Kickstarter, no doubt more in the future.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/04/2014 Bookmark and Share
13th Age 1.1: Everything is New

We had the first full session of the 13th Age campaign last weekend. It was great fun. It had some encounters, some revelations about the ancient, pre-history of the settings, including the revealing of The Ancient, the Icon that was left unexplained during the pre-game discussions. We also had some flashbacks and flashforwards.

I really liked the flashbacks as each one of them worked and added a lot of new stuff to the game. As players we learned that one of the characters seemed to be some sort of soulless immortal? The origin of another’s curse related to his one unique thing. The first appearance and associated locations of two major icons. It was all good stuff.

I liked the flashbacks, but then the use of flashbacks and flashforwards to flesh out characters was the main reason I loved the TV show Lost. I could see it working out well for my character, the one in this session being a perfect example, they sort of build-up of vignettes of how the character got to be where she is. There is a bit of a story there worth telling, especially since it’s all not all pre-written so it informs you as a player as well as anyone else, thus informing the character in the present? It establishes stuff. It’s better than it just being in my head or a few paragraphs on a sheet of paper. Nice.

We had two encounters. They felt a bit off, but I suspect this was because it was new and the fine tuning didn’t feel exactly right. Using the characters in their most awesome way is also something that needs a bit of work. The first one was over in a blink. The second one was more challenging, with one of the enemies having an annoying ability that rivals the 4E on fire status (damage on being engaged and disengaging, a sort of Rogue personal hell). The encounters aren’t Fate but neither are they 4E so after these initial two encounters I think I have a take on how to get the most awesome out of the experience. I wasn’t overly convinced I added much to either, especially the first, but this is an experience things across the table (along with the luck of the dice).

The other interesting wrinkle is how fast fights are. I suspect most fights are not going to last much longer than the escalation die. Six rounds. This is probably the point. This means even a long fight isn’t essentially that long. This is a good in a way, it means you’re best getting your awesome in early and not holding back, otherwise you might miss your chance. Go in. Hit hard. Hit fast. You may well only have 4-8 rounds to do it in? This also is another reason why the Shadow Walk Rogue talent only sounds cool, being out of the combat for every 1 round in 2 isn’t that great if the combat length is on the shorter side.

The two combat encounters provided the first experience of the characters intersecting with the rules (above and beyond skill rolls). It’s going to take a while to shake out how each of the characters plays I think. I already have a few observations about the Rogue though.

Momentum is a cool mechanic, it is fun that you attain it and loose it. Hopefully this will get even more fun as my character gets more levels and powers. At the moment it’s pretty much about a single interrupt power and kicking in Swashbuckle. Swashbuckle is an interesting one, to the extent I’ve discussed it in another post.

The other observation is the Rogue is one shifty bastard. I played the Ranger in the 4E Campaign and I thought he moved around a lot, but the Rogue is ridiculous. Tumbling Strike essentially allows you two moves (especially if combined with the Tumbling class talent as you’ll never fail to disengage). So, you’re essentially moving from anywhere ‘nearby’, attacking and moving to another location anywhere ‘nearby’. That in itself is frickin’ awesome. Get cornered? Then you use Evasive Strike to hit and pop free of being engaged and then move. If after all this I am cornered and I am hit I use an interrupt to lower the damage. Shifty with a capital ‘S’ and that’s with only the abilities available in the adventurer tier.

It’s a lot of fun and I’m glad I went with the class. It fits the character ridiculously well, there is zero class to premise disconnect, and it’s tremendously fun to play.

The final observation, which is more one for me than anything else, is I do tend find games that use scenes as a unit of structure feel a bit more engaging. When the session is the adventure and solving stuff and the heroes doing their thing it’s great but the interactions feel less ‘involved’. The other observation was describe, describe and then describe some more. Okay, that’s a bit ridiculous, but the point is the game is essentially a visual medium I think without any visuals. I think I missed lots of opportunities to add to the fabric by describing and framing more. A part of this might have been to do with the almost scene-less structure, as this didn’t feel like it was the case with the flashback.

It’s weird, because as a GM I frame and describe quite a bit…why do you stop as a player? Weird.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/03/2014 Bookmark and Share
Swashbuckling in the 13th Age!

There are two blog posts coming out of the first session of the Arabian 13th Age campaign, this was supposed to be the second one, but since I’m being hassled for them, and this one doesn’t involve a bit of image editing, it has hit the web first.

One of the more difficult decisions for those playing Rogues in 13th Age is choosing class talents. They are all pretty, damned good except for Shadow Walk, which seems a bit lame considering the speed of 13th Age fights. It doesn’t help that the abilities are quite varied as well.

The big debate for me was whether to take Swashbuckle. I liked the sound of it but it fell into a fiddly sweet spot due to the rules and the general conventions at the table. In terms of the rules, Swashbuckle is one of the vague ones, or at least it seems to be at first, but I suspect it’s a bit clearer if you accept a certain intent that might not be communicated in the best way. The other problem was we tend to have a cinematic table anyway, so a talent that seems to give you permission to be cinematic seems a bit superfluous.

Having had a single session now, so Swashbuckle has hit the table, the odd Twitter discussion, and a bit of time figuring out improvisational effects I think I have a perspective on the designers' intent. It’s my take anyway. As I say though, there is enough vagueness in the whole thing for it to be a bit frustrating.

The key seems to be it empowers the player to make up improvisational effects, but I’ll get back to that. Which seem to be an idea lacking just a bit of clarity or pulling together of ideas spread throughout the book.

First, it is a class talent, so it needs to stack up in terms of utility with class talents such as improved sneak attack, which turns out significant damage, especially in the champion tier. Not only that, improved sneak attack works all the time, on every attack if the simple engaged criteria apply. It’s ridiculously good. Swashbuckle costs momentum to use and you can’t even spend your momentum freely to do it on demand as it’s essentially a per encounter power. On this basis it needs to deliver when it kicks in as it has a high opportunity cost and has medium rationing (albeit it’s got great action economy). Whatever you do with Swashbuckle it’s only happening once per encounter and at the cost of the few times the Rogue may have momentum!

Now back to improvisational effects.

It seems the sweet spot 13th Age is trying to hit between offering structure while remaining narratively flexible can sometimes leave it all a bit vague between the two, but examples do seem to be woven throughout the book.

The use of improvisational effects suggests it is perfectly acceptable to cause a ‘rule’ effect of some kind. This seems to be a strange mixture of an actual, recognisable rules effect (such as dazing a target) or something akin to applying an aspect (sword stuck in tree) without the actual rule representation. It’s not just about doing something cinematically cool in a descriptive sense, such as wall running across a chasm. The cool example in the book involves administering a status effect of dazed by cutting open bags of flower. In a similar way, spread across the book, improvisational effects with suitable narrative permissions include slowing characters down, status effects and environmental damage, restricting enemy actions, etc. It seems delivering status effects and impromptu environmental delivered damage (there is even a table for this to control it per tier) are the order of the day.

The other way I’m finding I am looking at it is it’s a bit like an improvisational spell per encounter, but the permission isn't a spell but narrative circumstance and description.

On this basis it’s going to be interesting and fun to use in play. It does allow you to do something awesome and flexible once per encounter. When looked at in this way it does seem to have a level of utility when compared to other talents, especially since you make no roll to succeed at the improvisational effect (making the rationing and use of momentum more understandable) and you can throw in the general visual awesome of epic parkour, aerial gymnastics and balancing stuff (or using my air djinn heritage as a the narrative permission, etc).

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/03/2014 Bookmark and Share
Great 13th Age of Arabia Campaign

It’s true to say I’ve been in a gaming funk due to a combination of factors. I’ve not felt fully engaged with a campaign as a player since the Promethean Institute campaign ended back August 2012. I was enjoying running Fate Fading Suns but that got cancelled back in May 2013. The games after that have been interesting and fun, but in a casual sort of way. It also didn’t help I’m not the biggest fan of either the Dungeon World or Shadowrun systems.

I’d begun to think I was entering some sort of permanent gaming twilight.

I still think there is something in the gaming twilight thing, or a new model I’ve not discovered yet, but at least one thing has been resolved: I’m really looking forward to and fully engaged in playing again! We’ve recently started our 13th Age Arabian campaign, for want of a better name at this point, and I’m really excited about it.

There are a number of reasons for this, I think.

I really like the system we’re using. 13th Age is very clever. The beauty of 13th Age is it seems to provide the positives of 3E (player options and universal systems) and 4E (balance and fun to play) while ditching the negatives, adding some great narrative elements and keeping it slick and lighter in weight.

I could write a whole post on what I like but it basically comes down to the right level of complexity against cool and just the right sprinkle of narrative flexibility without turning into a set of vacuous rules that don’t really add anything to the game (it is a game, so you want the rules to add something). It’s a mixture of things like the One Unique Thing, Backgrounds as flavoursome skills (a bit like elements of Fate, Primetime Adventures, Over the Edge, etc) as well how the classes, feats and abilities work which manage to be interesting and exciting without weighting the game down in rules or procrastination at the table.

It’s a very fresh and clever approach to things.

As for the campaign itself, we’ve done some discussion on the forums, had a group character creation session and played a sort of mini, session 0.5 last week. It’s all working out great. The setting is fleshed out enough to provide enough shared framing to move forward but, in truth, most of it is a blank slate other than what’s required to be ‘just in front’ of the characters or what they’ve defined behind them in their punchy, full of potential capsules. It’s evocative, different and mysterious and exciting which is all great as I really didn’t want to play another class-based, potentially too close to generic fantasy game again (and this doesn’t feel like that at all).

The main reason comes down to being engaged with my character’s story potential, which has probably been the main missing element and contributed significantly to the gaming twilight feel from the playing perspective. In both the post-Fate Fading Suns games I had a character, but I never felt the game was wrapped around their story potential. It’s a weird experience and has multiple facets but it felt like skimming the surface rather than the main point of playing. The focus of play was…elsewhere. The result of this was it became more of a casual experience rather than one I was fully engaged with.

I love my 13th Age character. I like the functional stuff like the class abilities I’ve got to play with and how they’ll expand as I level. I am fully engaged with the visuals of the character and the relationships that surround her (and interesting ones with the other player characters are already developing, I think). Finally, I love the whole set-up of what her story is about. I don’t know what shape it will take. I don’t know how it will end, but I do know what the intent is and it’s fantastic. The future story of Aryal, exiled exalted Princess, scion of the Great Djinn (half air Djinn) and protégé of the Old Man of the Mountain (think a Ra’s al Ghul sort of figure mixed in with the historical middle eastern assassins) as a sort of princess, spy, thief and swashbuckling vagabond is awesome, multi-layered and how she will decide the fate of the Exalted Sultan of the Empire (her one unique thing she is prophesised to do, though I don’t think that prophecy has been spoken or discovered yet) is one I want to see out.

Exciting times. I am really looking forward to the next session. I have to say, it has felt like a long time since I’ve been this engaged as a player…and the feeling is good.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/02/2014 Bookmark and Share
Gumshoe Spy Thrillers
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I got two things over Christmas (other than spending the holiday sunning myself in Fuertaventura): 13th Age and Night’s Black Agents. These games are what you would call my first serious ‘post-Fate love’ purchase. I still adore Fate, but finding other systems that might appeal to me is always good, and I’m still not convinced half the group like Fate for anything but convention length games (if at all) anyway.

I’ve been absorbing both, but today we’re discussing Night’s Black Agents.

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games I should have probably had on my ‘to get’ list when it was released over a year ago. If you discount volumes of internet discussion one of the game designers who has influenced my approach to gaming so much is Robin D Laws (mostly through Fengshui, the game full of running games like action films, and Over the Edge, the game a 1001 early Indie games span off from). Throw in a system designed to run cinematic spy thrillers well, a favourite genre of mine, designed by Laws, and what’s possibly not to love?

Night’s Black Agents is one of those games that passes the first test: it makes you want to play it…now. It’s not so much the atmosphere of setting and place, but more the love, knowledge and understanding of cinematic thrillers of various types. This is suffused through the character and skills section to the point you want to make all sorts of exciting characters that you know will be modelled well as tough, resourceful, clever and deadly cinematic protagonists. The system also manages to convince you the hacker will be as awesome as the archaeologist who will be given a run for his money by the CIA analyst while still allowing the gun-toting assassin to do his stuff.

The core strength of the system comes from how it handles skills: it models skills like they are used in cinematic thrillers. The gathering of information (Investigative skills) are separated from normal, general skills (those handy at the sharp end). This models the structure of thrillers in that the information gathering acts as a connecting mechanism (the how to get there skills) to rising conflict and action (the skills used in the cinematic action). The protagonists join the connections in cool and slick ways, never really standing around stumped. That’s the theory.

This is why investigative skills always succeed.

While not getting into the detail of this, it basically means the system models what any half-decent GM knows already: you never want the players to fail to find the clues. As a result, you move clues to different people and places to make sure they are found. The Gumshoe system supports this by allowing the experts in their field to always find the connecting clues, one could even say the clues are defined by the skills the players’ choose to use (though this isn’t explicit). These skills, along with neat stuff like Cover, Network and Preparedness (allowing protagonists to conjure up identities, individuals and prepared stuff on the fly) adds ‘game structure’ to how any GM, who doesn’t want his game to descend into frustration and confusion, knows his game has to operate anyway.

General skills operate in a more typical way. You roll a dice and add skill points and see if you get over a set difficulty. The wrinkle is the skill points are not your skill level but points allocated from your kill level as a pool. This means you can effectively run out, meaning you roll a basic die. The protagonists key skills, the highest ones, have ways to refresh it would seem. The highest ones also have cherries, effectively cool Fengshui-style shticks that further elevates their awesome.

At the moment, I have two visions of Gumshoe. In the book it all sounds natural and perfect. In reality, when we played it through Trail of Cthulhu, it didn’t feel as fluid as the text probably suggested in the Trail book. There was the ‘do I need to spend an investigation point here’ moments and ‘is there another clue to find’ pauses. This would cause the GM to break the fourth wall repeatedly to say we’d milked the scene dry. In a strange way, I felt this sort of defeated the point? As for general skills, it’s all too easy to become concerned about whether you should spend them now or later!

Still, I think there is some learning with respect to executing the system effectively and I think that learning sits in a few areas: where are the clues and are they active or passive? In the Trail of Cthulhu game where the clues sat was with the GM and they all seemed to be active (they required a point spend to find). To keep the game running smoothly and for the scenes of rising conflict and action to flow I suspect ‘where’ the clues are has to be, if not completely, to some degree defined by where the protagonists look? The distribution of passive and active clues may also have to be more varied and dynamic to events. It may also ease the ‘prep burden’ as you move to the principles of what could connect the scenes rather than being very specific at the design point.

There is all sorts of other good looking stuff in Night’s Black Agents that I’ve not fully got to yet. The combat system (which could make or break it). The design of the vampires. The conspiracy design tools that need to be in the toolbox of any GM (along with the advice on clues and information driving stories). Thrilling chases and combats. Then you have info on spy agencies and European cities. It’s a dense, but very interesting book.

The true genius of Night’s Black Agents is, though it wraps things up in the premise of ‘the vampire spy thriller’ to provide focus, give the game an immediate purpose and a tagline or sound bite, the game is much more than that.

In the first instance, what counts as a ‘vampire’ is quite broad within the definition of the book. In the second, it already includes other ‘monsters’ making it more of a supernatural spy thriller (despite the vampires possibly being aliens, a sentient virus or whatever). In the third, it would work just as well with the Cthulhu Mythos. Finally, the spread of skills and how they work means the ‘spy thriller’ could actually just be a cinematic thriller consisting of no one who is actually a spy, but instead archaeologists, scientists and mercenaries of action investigating a global conspiracy. Hell, the game even supports people getting all CSI, though a campaign purely based on that would be a stretch.

In short, what you are getting is a great system for any game that falls into the narrative rhythm of thrillers featuring Homo Fictus, competent characters whether this is something like a Dan Brown novel, or something Tomb Raider-esque.

This is a great prospect.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/01/2014 Bookmark and Share
Holy Old School Crunch!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

There are numerous things that where acceptable in the 80’s: mullets, stone washed jeans, mad perms, wearing odd-coloured fluorescent socks, loafers, skinny trousers a tad too short and numerous other fashion mistakes. In terms of RPGs, what was also acceptable in the 80’s, was ridiculous, epic crunch often with different, widely varied subsystems of perplexing crunch which inter-related in ways only the half mad could fully fathom.

I’ve played such systems in my time, most notably Middle Earth Role-Playing, which was tantamount to playing Rolemaster, and that can only need to madness and lots of tables. I’ve not run such a game, or if I have I’ve wiped it from my mind. The closest I might have come is a few sessions of Warhammer Fantay Roleplay here and there. I did play Golden Heroes a lot, which wasn’t that complicated, but it did involve division to work out damage. What were they thinking?

The next game to be played by the role-playing group in the eponymous Sunday slot is: Shadowrun 5th edition. I created my character during Cottage Con 2013, well, one might say less ‘created’ and more assigned a load of stuff in as little a random way as I could muster across a multi-stage process that seemed to take hours and that was with me not putting too much effort into equipment. It was an endurance event. It’s safe to say the game feels so old school it was giving me flashbacks.

Having come back at the character a few times since I can describe the process only as irritating, annoying, time consuming and just something I begrudged the time I’ve spent on it (and that’s with numerous people helping me out and actually doing the hard bit). It doesn’t help that I don’t have the time for these sort endeavours anymore, but the setup is also painful. It’s just so involved due to presenting too many interacting choices to get to a complex way of describing what you’re character can do. It doesn’t even tough or mechanically represent who the character is, beyond some old school disadvantages (which are easier to max out for some character types than others unless you want to find yourself running away from prawns, e.g an allergy to sea food).

It’s my worst nightmare in that it is obviously a game that has a significant and on-going character build game. You can build your character in many different ways and it would seem to make quite a difference. A part of the game is improving, getting more widgets, getting more stuff, earning more money, assigning more equipment. To be honest: I don’t really care about that much.

Despite all this I’m really looking forward to Shadowrun. It’s the visuals that sell it.

Let’s face it I love contemporary settings, the potential for the modern world to be writ large in glorious Technicolor: glorious landscapes, epic buildings, etc. While Shadowrun is set in the future the art paints fascinating cityscapes of skyscrapers, neon and futuristic vehicles. It looks fantastic. It’s also packed with awesome. Ancient, methuselah dragons ruling corporations. A plethora of characters in all sorts of action scenes oozing cool. I’ve not spent much time with the book, just glancing through it, and it paints a picture that inspires you to play it.

Let’s face it, it rolls together near future cool, elements of cinematic espionage, the clash of races, magic and technology. It actually folds in a lot of the modern, action film ‘stuff’ that I tend to love. So there is a lot to going for it.

Ultimately, the telling thing is, system aside, it immediately inspired me to frame a character in my mind. Admittedly, she’s largely a type, concept and set of visuals at this point but it was immediate. Ruby from the video game WET was the inspiration. For whatever reason this never happened with Dungeon World, the character remained a cipher, a playing piece. I had some idea, but it never seemed to solidify. I went straight for the jugular when Shadowrun became a possibility and sourced the image and started to throw concepts around in my head. This is the best sign of all I’m looking forward to it.

It begins in a week ‘Chummer’. I think that’s the lingo? Or it was, back in the 80’s.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
A Cottage And Some Games

Cottage Con. A simple idea. A group of friends get together to play games of various sorts in a remote, to varying degrees, cottage. It also involves lots of food. Initially this was the gaming group but has subsequently expanded to involve a wider group of friends. Surprisingly, I’ve lost track of how many Cottage Cons there have been. I went to the first two in May 2007 and the second in early March 2008, we really crammed them together back in the day, then that was it.

It worked out well though. Really enjoyed it.

Battle in the Skies

A week ago the latest one took place. A whole 5 – 6 years since the last one I went to, which is a bit mindboggling.

Cottage Con has changed over the years. Initially it involved less people and was almost completely dominated by role-playing games. Now it’s become more diverse both in terms of who attends and also the games that are played. It now covers board games, mini-gaming, war games and role-playing games. This is a good thing. Have to admit, going into it, I was a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I’ve currently got a bit of a gaming twilight thing going on with respect to me and role-playing games and while I don’t mind board and some mini games I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate a weekend to them!

The location was fantastic, though it possibly was the remotest location we’ve used. Fantastically positioned, and near good roads, but it was only accessible by the equivalent of a mountain bike course that you were supposed to drive your car up. I went the wrong way and ended up at The Bog, essentially a farm that felt like some remote homestead off of some zombie apocalypse film complete with rabid barking dogs from inside mysterious barns. The road was ridiculous, especially when I had to backtrack along it. Still, I got their quite easily thanks to Google Maps. One car got lost and had to be rescued from a remote road and another had battery issues. It was perfect for a gaming weekend along with lovely views from on the top of a hill.

In terms of the games it was remarkably RPG lite, with only two on offer in the first place, and I opted for only one. The schedule was: Super Dungeon Explore, Star Wars: X-Wing, a narrative Confrontation scenario and 13th Age. Lest I not forget, creating a Shadowrun character, which felt like some sort of surreal game slot in itself.

Friday evening was Super Dungeon Explore. The game was probably tainted somewhat by being a bit tired (I started well, suffered in the middle and then seemed to burn through it) and my selection of a character that seemed to rely on other classes being present to interact with to bring the awesome. It’s still a great game though and would certainly play it again. It’s basically a dungeon-delving type of game that plays like a board game version of a Japanese CRPG. It’s quite clever. A combination of gear seemed to turn my Paladin into a strange fire goo flinging awesome bomb towards the final third.

The first game on Saturday was Star Wars: X-Wing. It’s one of those games that has what I call a high ‘theoretical investment rating’ (a number of others enter this category such as Descent and the D&D board games). It’s something that appeals, but actually buying into it would always remain theoretical due to outlay and probably, for various reasons, not actually getting around to playing it that much. It’s a good game though. The miniatures are great and it helped that I had an understanding of the units from familiarity with the WEG Star Wars RPG. I seemed to get the heavy fighter fleet which included a B-Wing and Y-Wing which can take quite a lot of punishment. It is one of those games that is simply complex. It’s simple to understand but is quite complex in play, specifically how you set the moves of your ships and how that interacts with the order the vessels actually move in. I also like how the pilots have a major influence on the abilities of the ships. It was a fun game which, after round after round of random movement, I actually won by running a Firespray-31 (Boba Fett’s ship) of the map with a battered Y-Wing. Exciting stuff.

We nearly didn’t play the second game on Saturday, a Confrontation narrative scenario, due to time catching up with us. We decided to go for it after and it was well worth it as it was easily the best experience of the whole weekend. The idea was simple: five players, each with a small number of units based around individual heroes and few henchmen all of them having different objectives to achieve. If I was to get into mini-gaming it is this sort of thing I like. I’m not interested in the vast armies, more the skirmish and / or hero-based games. It was exciting stuff. There should be more games intentionally designed like this.

13th Age. I really enjoyed it both in terms of the set-up, the characters and, the surprising bit, the system. The set-up was a variation on the novel Legend with a number of characters finding themselves at an ancient fortress, for various reasons, as the horde approached to overrun it and invade ‘The Empire’. It had the usual convention-game sort of feel, or at least the feel of the ones that tend to manifest at Cottage Con: a lot of people individually bringing the personal awesome. It was great fun though. The characters were really well envisioned and were some of the best pre-gens I’ve seen. You could get really into them very quickly.

The surprise was the system. Have to admit after 2.5 years of playing 4th Dungeons Dragons I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to play a class-based, D&D ‘variant’ in our Sunday sessions (this probably impacted Dungeon World as well, albeit that is a very different game). As it happens this is now Shadowrun, but I’d have been happy to play 13th Age after Cottage Con. It’s quite clever, throwing enough narrative stuff in to make it work. The system also works in ways that ensures it appeals to me. Its small things. Like the escalation die. The backgrounds and how they interact with the system. The way the fighters powers are applied after the roll making it a roll + awesome rather than always having to select from the infinity of them all. It seems to offer a great balance between fun, options and ease of play with some narrative juice. Great stuff.

In fact, the genius of 13th Age is it seems to be a D&D-style variant that I could run with. A sweet spot so to speak. Nice.

A great weekend. Roll on the next one.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/11/2013 Bookmark and Share
The Gaming Twilight?

Indicators. Little signals that change is happening, no matter how temporary. The fact this blog gets updates less. The fact I’m putting what spare time I do have into video games. Yes, some of these things are products of being quite busy, not really having evenings to speak off (or not using them when I do), but they also indicate something else. Role-playing games entering a bit of a twilight phase.

I’m not fully sure why, though I can make a number of well-aimed guesses. I just know it’s not any sort of simple ‘summer funk’.

I seemed to hit some sort of gaming pinnacle with the 4E Campaign. Personally, for me, this was nothing to do with the system, as I prefer others. It was nothing to do with the length, as ideally I prefer shorter (the middle got a bit overly long). It was great that it was regular. I enjoyed the epic story. It wasn't about the game itself though, I also enjoyed the fact there was a more open, discursive atmosphere about what was happening at the table. It was more open, less obfuscated and more up front and clear. It put us in a good place from an already sound position. It just seemed to emerge around the start of the 4E period.

Then I suffered some annoying career disruption and wanted to dedicate my time to resolving that (and I tend to slash costs as well) so I was out of the gaming group for a year. I was also doing the MBA. I re-joined for the Smallville campaign which was great, similar as before. The vibe at the table, changes in myself post-MBA (and a few other things) meant I wanted to GM.

In short, gaming seemed to be in a fantastic place. It’s felt like a pinnacle followed by a crash for me. So what’s changed?

I know part of it is the fact, at some point I can’t remember, the gaming seems to have become isolated to the session alone. It seems to have become very transactional. You turn up. You play. You go home. It has little impact or relevance beyond that. I’m also used to it being about other things than the session alone. I’ve written an article recently as part of another potential project and it’s reminded me I’ve been the most involved in gaming when it has transitioned outside of the session. It’s about something more than just playing. I’m not suggesting I want to go back to the heady days of being with a group of friends playing role-playing games, discussing games, hosting video game nights and going to conventions but a complete vacuum does have a multiplying effect and that effect isn’t positive.

I’ll also admit gaming isn’t a casual pastime for me. It’s not about doing the same things repeatedly. I expect it to be engaging and challenging, about ‘doing the craft better’ for want of a better description. I actually see it as something that improves me personally. This reflects my life generally, when something is the same and not challenging in some, even small way, I move on.

4E was different as it involved playing a different type of game using different tools and telling a story with the same characters framed through different lenses across three tiers of heroism. That was unique. In a similar way Smallville was great mostly because it involved playing a totally different character than I’d not normally play and I happen to think I pulled a blinder (if I do say so myself). It also made the game about shifting character relationships, which I think all games should be a about (whether it being with other characters, ideas, etc). I don’t expect people to deliver that to me, but something in the mosaic of things that goes into the game usually rustle it up or allows me to generate it sufficiently and find it myself.

Since the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns that engagement and mild intellectual challenge from gaming has gone. Nothing wrong with the games were playing but I do seem to be getting less from them. In a way this parallels my experiences in other media. I prefer a more directed approach, within reason, than a sandbox approach. I prefer an experience rather than me being able to bum about doing anything I want. I’m not suggesting cast iron rails, but there is something in between that involves the GM taking the players steer (however that is represented) and adding something to it and moulding something out of it. Hard to explain.

Those are two concrete things I know that are missing that seriously induce a gaming malaise, but two other exist that are a bit more speculative.

I’m wondering whether my need for something novel and personally challenging to exist in the game is getting diminishing returns as a player? Possible. At the moment I have trouble envisioning where that would come from. Two reasons. First, I’m not sure I have any personal barriers to get over on this front post-Smallville. I don’t normally play the gregarious, ego the size of a house character stringing podium speeches and world spanning TV addresses on the fly? Arguing philosophical points of view on a TV debate? I’d never normally do that. I did. It felt natural. It was awesome. QED. It’s not that I won’t enjoy playing characters anymore, I just don’t believe there is a frontier as such. Second, I know what systems I like that might provide that challenge and that interest and I honestly don’t think I’m going to get to play them in any meaningful way due to group dynamics.

This would be pretty depressing if it wasn’t for the fact I do see whole new frontiers of challenge and different skills being developed from the hobby: running games. I found running Fading Suns, absorbing, fun, challenging, tiring in a great way and it was pretty damned awesome from my point of view until the final session with its transition to Act 2 blip. I realise that’s my personal point of view, but it’s a good thing. There is lots of things I want to do. Lots of things I want to do better in the whole role, playing and game area. The hunger I used to have for playing has, to some degree, shifted to the hunger for running games. That’s because the challenge and new horizons have shifted to this space. It is where I am going to get the most from it. True, there is challenges in that in terms of time and stuff, but the fact remains.

There is also something going on in the dynamic of the group as well I think. Not sure what it is. Not sure even if it is a ‘thing’ as such. It just a combination of factors. The transactional nature of the Sunday sessions. The growing interest in miniature games of varying sorts. The new, more regular weekday gaming slots with different groups. All fantastic and something I certainly appreciate as someone who likes to consume multiple, inter-related sources of entertainment and media and have lots of such stuff 'going on', etc. There is even a small part of me, post Fate Fading Suns cancellation that thinks, in some small way, the groups’ differences in what they want out of the hobby are a bit further apart. Is it possible to go as far to say the personal investment has also dropped? Possibly. No idea. I am in no way saying I know the reasons or even if I’m entirely sure I'm not imagining it…it just feels different.

All of which undoubtedly impacts the Sunday slot in some way that can probably never be defined due to how the complex variables of head space, time and reward sort of mould together.

It would seem, without really considering it much until now, that I’ve almost unconsciously made my own series of decisions regarding were my head space, time and rewards are best spent or found and as the indicators have shown it seems to involve writing less here (even when the topics are not about gaming, gaming is some sort of engine), playing more video games and thinking about role-playing games substantially less. The less inputs and less outputs kicks in the cycle turns.

Strange or changing times. It will lead somewhere, just no idea where.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/10/2013 Bookmark and Share
What Realities Will You Accept?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

A number of weeks back, I changed up what I was listening to during my various travels from Radio 4 to some gaming podcasts. While the majority of these discussed old topics with traditional solutions that anyone of any experience has solved the world over, one of them did discuss something interesting.

The degree to which you’ll accept certain realities of a milieu?

What was interesting about it is I’m very accommodating in this area. In that I don’t expect the ‘setting surround’ of my fiction to be realistic, just internally consistent…enough. This means fiction can get away with a heck of a lot when it comes to me, especially if the ‘setting surround’ throws a nod to consistency and uses its constructs to drive good story, drama and character relationships. The setting can even start to break apart at the seams if the story and drama are good (and while I realise for some the whole setting thing is intimately part of that, it isn’t for me).

This is why I can really like shows like Lost. First, I don’t care about the ‘mystery being solved and concluded’ I’m happy that it sets up a journey that changes the characters the mystery behind the island could have been left ‘unsolved’. I like the journey, conclusions are often less important in certain setups. Second, it means the shifting nature of the show as a crucible to tell character studies and relationships with flashbacks and flashforwards and actual time travel was all good.

This also means I’m perfectly willing to accept ‘unrealistic limits’ and anachronisms. In fact, I’d rather revel in them then try and make something more ‘realistic’. The perfect example of this is a lot of classic Cyberpunk, at least as it’s served up in role-playing games. The ideas in a lot of these tales are now anachronistic and, in some cases, have gone from prophetic to oddly quaint.

This brings me back to the question, let’s run with the classic Cyberpunk elements of off the 80’s. Would you be willing to revel in the setting as is, with all its ideas and genre conventions or would you find yourself rebelling against the fact it now feels old, out of date and just ‘not right’? I’d revel in it, because I’d not see it as a fictional setting that no longer seemed relevant, but more as a sort of period piece which as a result of being such a thing had the mores, ideas and technology of the time. It would be fantastic. Better for it. It’s just a period that never actually happened, though the fictional period did.

Not everyone would be the same, some would find playing in that setting ludicrous and they’d feel the need to ‘fix it’. If you tried to update it would lose something, for me. The problem is, of course, at least in gaming terms, when you have a group that is split across these lines.

You can ask the same question about types of science fiction, space opera or superhero stuff? Anything that relies on acceptance of its own ‘setting surround’ that is in some way disconnected from the now, the then or the future it predicted or its very existence hangs on accepting a range of conventions that just are.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/08/2013 Bookmark and Share
GM Burst Baby! Burst!

After the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns and some discussion of the types of ‘campaigns’ the group falls into and some of the practical problems that come out of that I’ve reached some conclusions about what this means for me running more games.

Initially, there are two important things to note.

First, I like the big production, widescreen sort of stuff. Even if I do something relatively ‘subtle’, it will be subtle in the sense Game of Thrones is subtle. In short, it’s still big sets and by and large big stuff, big emotions it just doesn’t have things exploding. The chances are though, I’ll go with some ‘explosions’. This does tend to mean I will sit a bit more towards heavier GM framing rather than delivering less and just riffing of the players (albeit the player awesome changes things significantly, it’s more about my belief that should be from a base, not a vacuum). In short, I expect to do a bit of work (and don't mistake that for traditional, heavy prep) and delivering that is what makes it fun for me.

Second, I am undoubtedly a burst GM. This has always been the case. I suspect this is related to the first issue. I’ll have a burst of creativity run it through then I’ll need a break to come back at it. It involves re-grouping, re-engaging the imagination by doing something else for a bit, etc. Loving the material again through a different lens and in a different shape. I could sit back and let players fill the vacuum I’m momentarily leaving, but this never feels as successful to me. It does not have to be a long break, but a break nevertheless.

Historically, this hasn’t been a problem as previous groups have either coped with gaps better (due gaming being high in the conversation even during gaps), been willing to play board games during the gaps or had other games to slot in during each games ebb and flow (we’d often be playing multiple ones at once). The current group does neither of these things well so it’s not ‘burst friendly’. While I don’t believe it was the main reason for Fate Fading Suns cancellation (as I got my break due to shitty scheduling) it did get cancelled at the end of one burst and just as I was ready for the next (also at the risk point in terms of length for the group).

But what is the outcome of these observations?

First, step away from being the GM who runs the long game. It will never work unless my need to burst, pause and burst can be accommodated. At the moment it can’t. You also have to throw in the systems I like tend to only be a success if the GM gets out while the going was good and before someone calls it. I don't agree that has to be true but evidence and conversations seem to make this true. This means no multiple season games. No long games that go over the usual single stretch cap of 6 – 12 sessions, often hanging around eight.

So, conclusion one is to accept that I should position games to fit with that natural length the group seems to have before danger sets in (some transition beyond it, some don’t). That’s not that bad. I can live with that but for the fact I need to control the fact my games tend to explode out (which I like as it is often ‘player-driven explosion') before I can pull them back in. Focus will have to be the key.

The other outcome involves thinking about different structures that the group doesn’t normally consider.

What about the highly structured game that does not have to be ran regularly but still has some payback? It swaps structure for regularity. Fate is supposed to be good for these things? No? I suppose it would be like running one shots every so often but with the same characters? The best example I can think of for this, as I’m intimately familiar with it, would be cinematic action / espionage sort of stuff. Each time it is ran there is a problem and a mission to solve it. The structure could even be similar with a briefing from Control, etc. After a session a mission report with a set format could be compiled. Alias ran like this for some time with minor variations. I am sure similar crucibles exist. Let Fate aspects deal with the rest to bring character issues front and centre quickly. The punctuated nature of its run schedule would also de-prioritise the player need for character ‘power growth’ and potentially increase the focus on dramatic, character change.

An extension of this would be the Star Wars approach: a series of movies. This would be different as each time it was run it would be 2-3 sessions in length. Fate Fading Suns was a bit like this, but in this case the serialised elements would be reduced to a Star Wars, macro-level deal. Okay, it’d be less of a run it in the gaps game. It would need more scheduling. At the same time it would mean when it was run it would only interrupt any other game for 2-3 sessions. Going back to the burst thing each one would be a mini-burst!

The third option is true, convention-style one-shots which I’ve always been against. Oddly I’m coming around to them, even the idea of pre-generated characters. I’d not want this to be the be all and end all of my gaming, but possibly some ideas are just best done this way. As long as the experiencing is exciting and everyone enjoys it what does it really matter? It does have the advantage it shifts some of the intellectual enjoyment to a singular activity than a group activity.

Personally, I would like to break the back of campaigns being measured in sessions and instead try and bring about a culture that is more flexible in terms of the temporal characteristics of the campaigns. Why does a game have to run contiguously in terms of time with any other games picking up the slack only in the advent of disaster? Why can’t one run for six sessions, then another for three, a third for two only to come back to the first? It’s not something that’s proven easy but it would allow more diversity and may work better if the games are accepting of such structures (rather than them being serialised entities with unplanned breaks). We may also have to accept games which are slightly more accommodating of players being missing.

A long-shot, but you never know. The main problem at the minute is carving time out of very busy work schedule.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/07/2013 Bookmark and Share
A Dungeon World Experience
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Two weeks ago we played Dungeon World. I was looking forward to it, but more from a system experimentation point of view before I went into it. Having played the first session I’m liking my character and I’m really getting into it.

There is a lot to be frustrated about with respect to Dungeon World and most of these are related to the basic D&D inspired elements of the game, compounded by the way the game tunnels you down limited selections rather than interesting choices. This is also very much like old Red Box D&D. The fact classes can only be certain races. The fact your character has to conform to a limited set of descriptions. The very set abilities you gain over each level. Even your relationship with every other character is the same every time you play a class. As per the game's traditional influences it also doesn't define in anyway who your character is remaining firmly in the territory of defining what they can do. In truth, a core of this proscriptive approach you could ignore, but we went with the set-up as is.

The mistake would be to not look past these elements, as even if you’re not into the old school D&D experience, the game takes those ideas and builds on them to create something more interesting and exciting. It strips away the blandness of old school systems and sprinkles in modern ideas to make each roll of the dice an interesting choice.

I like how the core six stats are used, they basically run like approaches in Fate Accelerated. The stats define how you are doing something which is decided through defining the fiction first. An example from the game being: are your trying to get through the decaying engine room via deftly dodging and weaving between the fire and hot steam (Dex) or bulldozing through (Con)? You might have also been able to argue your fiendish intelligence is calculating all the timings (Doctor Who style)? Like approaches they are also the primary and only mechanism through which you exercise your 'skill'. While it's tempting to try and use the highest stat the fiction does have to match and sometimes the choices are interesting between utilising different stats in terms of their fictional effect and consequences. In Dungeon World's case it's balanced out even more through the mechanic of gaining experiencing through failure. So, if you can make the fiction match then you’re just being character defining and if you can’t, forcing you to use a lower stat, well you’ll get an experience point should you fail.

The core mechanic of rolling 2D6 utilises a success, success but and failure mechanic. The fact the GM can make a move on failure makes failure interesting but it's only a more formalised way of setting stakes. Failure should always be interesting, Dungeon World does well to religiously encode it. I guess I like it not because it's present but because that's what a GM should be doing. In a way, the fact Dungeon World is viewed as unique for doing this seems to be more a testament to the erosion of the GM as providing interesting challenge and fiction in reaction to player choice and the roll of the dice. I'm all for that, so I like it. Occasionally, I shake my head at what’s labelled GM fiat these days.

The stripped back nature of the system and the present of the experience benny also makes failure something the player is more likely to accept. It also ensures the success, success but and failure dial isn’t lost in any noise. This isn’t a system in which a player can spend resources to boost rolls out from failure through success but and into success. The dice fall where they fall. Personally, I’m not someone who needs this simplicity or the reward to roll with the failures, the reward in narrative and character defining moments, is enough. I realise though that action, consequence and then new narrative (character change, etc) aren’t reward enough for all so the Dungeon World approach is a good one.

The game has some oddities such as it being an exercise in continually using the discern reality move, which is an encoded way for the players to get the GM to reveal stuff rather than it being left to fiat. It also happens to be based on Wisdom so you obviously need a Cleric to wonder around playing investigator.

You know what I also liked? Structure and control. Note this isn't necessarily about control being in anyone's hands, just the fact there is order and control. While this exists in other systems, somehow across a myriad versions of Fate with a sprinkle of Cortex+ this has got lost in the group. Since Dungeon World is a distinct break from such systems in that it's quite different it has afforded a reset on the principles of such games even if the elements are similar (such as success but, etc).

The players have distinct moves they can make to prosecute their agency in the game. The GM also has distinct moves but they're less known to me. It's also quite clear, as I understand it, that the mode of the game is less about the players making things up whole cloth and more about using moves to learn what the GM 'knows'. While this seems to be quite strict, the clear structure is good. I'm fine with shared authorship, but I tend to like the controls and tools in the game for it to be used (and again, not necessarily about who has them, just the clarity). You either do it through a social contract alone or you have structured rules but the half-assed middle ground is irritating (and has proved to be annoying in previous games).

Ultimately, other than a very enjoyable game, I’m looking to get something else out of Dungeon World. The playing of a simple game that clearly sets in place the habits of fiction first, approach-based play and using success and success but all together on a regular basis. The foundations of many a 'trindie' game, the mix of 'traditional' and 'indie' I tend to like. This might have some advantages for games based on similar principles down the line. Habits. Common languages. That’s how I see it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/07/2013 Bookmark and Share
Marvel Heroic Role-Playing: No Go Area?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Over the years I’ve learned there are game systems I wouldn’t even contemplate running. In the main these tend to be systems that are complicated and have lots of things to remember. If they have both they should certainly be avoided. In the dim, distance past I may have been more tolerant of these things but not these days.

The best example of this in modern times is 4E Dungeons & Dragons and D20 systems like Spycraft. I love the idea of Spycraft but the system is a no go area. Way too many specific rules, all of which interact. It does something brilliant but in a way that’s not compatible with me. It’s good that I don’t really like running systems of this type so I’m never tempted to give them a shot.

Occasionally, a system comes along that sort of sits in the middle ground. It matches my gaming sensibilities brilliantly, and from that point of view it begs to be run, but there is something about the implementation, or the mastery of it in actual play that makes me wonder whether I should keep well away from it?

They’re fiction first heartbreakers. The current perfect example of this is Marvel Heroic Role-Playing (MHRP).

I read it and I love it. There are many things to like. I like the fact it is essentially Fate in many ways just with a lot of the constructs re-named and with dice attached. I like the cool way they’ve broken up the powers in broad brackets that largely reflect the comics (no specific ‘what can I lift’ tables, etc). Like many of the games I like these days, albeit the language of such games is becoming clearer, it’s based on fiction first. I’d love it even more if the whole was more visible in the rules than its interesting parts. It lacks a holistic explanation or a sell of the overall vision.

There is a lot to love. So, what’s the problem? Two problems.

The first problem is the game is quite fiddly to pin down in terms of general understanding. People thought Fate was complicated with all its new terms for everything with the MHRP I feel I need to diagram what everything is and how the artefacts relate to each other and what their purposes are. I’ve even seen the odd one and they’re very useful. This is then compounded by the fact, like a lot of modern fiction first games, they are much harder to master in actual play then they are to conceptualise as a set of rules. You can know the rules well but apply them badly. The fiction is, to a degree, dependent on this sound application. The expertise in application is a considerable factor in success for MHRP. It’s worse than Fate in this regard, I think.

Second, the game is almost impossible to predict in actual play? In some cases the game is quite structured, especially if you read between the lines, in other ways it’s almost impossible to predict. As an example, for any particular character it’s almost impossible to predict how powerful they really are (options, impact, etc) and as a result it’s almost impossible to predict how hard or easy a conflict will be. This is because (a) too many things interact (the dice pool, the players ability to fiction first the pool, the myriad of SFX effects) and (b) the odds of the dice rolled are way beyond the ken of a human to get a feel for and (c) the doom pool fluctuates as a variable so difficulties don’t even exist on a set scale of any kind (it’s always a pool against a pool). This makes me feel (non-system elements of the game aside) I can’t judge or get a feel for any sort designed intent in terms of general prep.

MHRP has a very big experience factor when it comes to using it well, I think.

Ultimately, the decision will come down to whether I want to run a superhero game or not (though it’s more likely to be 1-3 session short game)? If so, then approaching MHRP and its inevitable random results at the gaming table due to the lack of the experience factor will have to be explored (it will be very…random). The main reason for this being I really like the fiction first approach and its Fate-like concepts and there isn’t really much else out there on the superhero front that isn’t too complex or way too simple they’re pretty banal.

This will mean it will come down whether I run a superhero one-shot at the next Cottage Con? It’s all in the balance and my odd relationship with MHRP factors into the decision. One part of me is can I be bothered with the unpredictable hassle? The other half is experiment and be damned?

We shall see. It’s a while away.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/06/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fading Suns Cancellation Guide

This is the last post on Fading Suns. Since the cancellation the ‘what could have been’ has been swirling around in my head, a bit like when TV shows get cancelled. This is my version of a brief guide or a film to tie things up. It is all unrealised story potential, afte r all, which has always been a killer. It’s not a complete bible, but a mixture of what was going on, to a degree, and the direction of what might have happened.

Since the shape of things was changing by player input it’s all only strongly indicative.


The intention was for Fate Fading Suns to be circa 12-sessions long due to events taking multiple sessions. Despite this overrun it was still being described as it all happening too fast! It would still have probably came in under 20. The intent was to have a beginning, middle and end but I fully expected the end section to be one actual story probably of 2-3 sessions.

The show got cancelled in the middle, on the segment that I viewed as the crest of the hill at the ‘end of the beginning’. The intent of Legacy of War was to frame the landscape for hurtling down the other side to the conclusion. After a slower period at the crest, consisting of 2.2 an'Vesh Luk'Ret Von'Da (2.2) and Legacy of War (2.3+) the speed was going to ramp up again.

The Big Stuff

The big idea was the universe goes in cycles. In each cycle a sentient species rises above the others and ultimately seeks ascension. This is represented by the species understanding The Great Machinery, how the universe actually works and understanding that energy, matter and thought are all the same in a combination of technology and philosophical understanding.

In the first cycle, the race known as The Precursors achieved this. They ascended across different philosophical lines, left behind their physical bodies, and became The Empyrean Angels and The Darkness Beyond the Stars. In doing so, they became part of the journey undertaken by future races, primarily humanity, in the second and third cycle as The Empyrean Angels tried to help successive species to ascend while The Darkness Beyond the Stars tried to stop them.

In the second cycle, humanity rose to prominence, invented artificial life and intelligence, ultimately merged with their creations and became The Protheans. They were on their way to ascending. Regrettably, The Darkness Beyond the Stars played on their fears of other races disrupting their journey by corrupting the protective nature they had for other species resulting in the invention of a virus to attack sentient beings (a final weapon against dangerous sentient species). This virus became sentient, took on physical form and became The Symbiot. It engaged in a war with The Protheans, ultimately winning and causing The Protheans to end the second cycle through using the Warp Gates to end all sentient life.

The Librarian, a powerful Prothean, did not agree with this plan and took herself out of the Universe in The Citadel, a great library of Prothean knowledge. She also seeded humanity and the Vau into the third cycle giving her species a second chance through pure arrogance. The Symbiot host also survived through wrapping itself in a black hole, the energies of which created The Maw and Rifte of Hecate. The Symbiot would also live on during the third cycle through infecting Father Benedict becoming a player in the third rush for ascension.

The third cycle was the setting of the game, with humanity facing its (second) journey to ascension, which it was ‘losing’. Like their Prothean ancestors they also created artificial life and intelligence but rather than utilising it as a step to improve themselves human failings, and the influence of the Darkness Beyond the Stars, resulted in almost cataclysmic war similar to the war with The Symbiot. This was ended through the actions of heroes like Clarke McQueen and Alexis von Buellen which turned the tide and brought it to a stalemate. Ultimately, The Machine Crusade chose to leave, mysteriously. This was because they had encountered The Citadel and The Librarian and she persuaded them to end the war and they became her children in a distance part of the universe.

I will freely admit some of the shape of the above, such as the existence of The Precursors and that fact they were The Empyrean Angels and The Darkness Beyond the Stars, etc, took shape over act one due to events and player stuff (most notably the compels that saw a character become the ‘return of the Symbiot’, fate point use to establish a library outside of the galaxy, etc).

The influences were heavily based on Fading Suns, Halo, Mass Effect and Starcraft.

The Crest of the Hill

The scope of the game got bigger through player input. It was always big stuff but it became ultimately about everything and setting humanity back on the track to ascension (a better political structure, stopping the suns fading, creating a better religious philosophy or removing it were all part of that linked to player goals). I was fine with this and thought it was awesome. The key thing being it was as much about humanity’s choices and philosophical direction as it was firing a hi-tech missile into the suns to fix them or fighting a war with physical (Shadows) and telling them to leave.

The Darkness Beyond the Stars, through a secret cult known as Kerberos, were controlling the Empire, with the goal of driving humanity into war and chaos through its own institutions. Kerberos was born when the stars began to fade and had grown in power during the Emperor Wars. Initially this was through the fracturing of House Hawkwood (the often quoted backbone and moral centre of The Empire) and acting against Brother Battle who had proven hard to subvert. Player action created wider scope for the empire to fracture naturally due to the complete defiance of church edict (which was very decisive, a great session and provided great momentum for the future). Legacy of War (2.3+) would have seen the empire descend into war because the difference between those protecting what is (or Kerberos using them to bring about destruction) and those looking for change would not be reconcilable. Hence using the reflective episode Vesh Luk'Ret Von'Da (2.2) to establish it was regime change the protagonists were aiming for.

The shape of that war, who was on what side, and who might have stood up to be counted was to be totally based on events in Legacy of War (2.3+), which never fully got started. As an example, after session 2.3, I fully had it in mind for Hawkwood to dedicate itself to fighting for regime change in the next session, ending its direct imperial power for a better future. This seems to have also been played steered.

This was why building allies was not useless, especially the alien ones.

Running Down the Hill

Once war was raging and the protagonists, Tartarus Station and The Illuminati (a counterpoint to Kerberos who wanted a return to enlightenment) had become the locus to fight for a different future, in turn getting humanity back on a road to ascension and defeating Kerberos, the run down the hill to the conclusion was on. Obviously, the general plans for this had a number of key situations the intent being to get back to the punchy big stuff of the climb up the hill. The high level direction was as follows (courtesy of a lonely power point slide created before session 2.3 in a hotel in Barrow-in-Furness).

War erupts and the protagonists seek to secure the aid of the Vorox against the Empire, this results in the curing of a race that humanity doomed in order to win The Machine Crusade. This track became merged with events in Legacy of War (2.3+).

A flashback story to the final days of The Machine Crusade. The aim being to focus on the end of the war and how Clarke McQueen ends up living a millennia or so later. Little player direction had been given so this was going to involve the final conflict, the intervention of The Librarian and the fact McQueen spent the millennia in The Citadel until being set out floating through space a millennia later. The goal was to factor in choices Clarke makes into the end of the war.

Symbiot swarm infestations begin to invade the Empire, specifically targeting planets breaking from the Empire (this might have been an attack on Coral IV, or The Vorox, who knows). This raises the stakes as they prove uncontrollable and only one man can wrestle dominion of the infestation – to face down their current queen (this could have been numerous people depending on events / feel / exiting relationships – most probable were Katrina Decados or the escaped woman from Nowhere). The outcomes of this would have been unknown. Kerberos has a system / sector secretly under its control and was breeding a new Symbiot infestation.

The search for The Machine Crusade and The Librarian, somehow an output from the flashback episode. It may also have been a reaction to The Symbiot regaining control of its swarm infestation and becoming a powerful third-participant (would have depended on Father Benedict). This leads the protagonists to a giant sphere encompassing a whole star system in which resides what has become of The Machine Crusade who, through The Librarian, now believe they have souls. This would have also brought the protagonists into contact with The Librarian. Intension was for them to join the fight.

All that might have happened serially, in some sort of parallel fashion, who knows. I am sure other events would have found their way in also, both personal and major. These are high level events, beats and principles which would have adapted to circumstance. The outcomes were in no way predicted.

The Finale

Well, the finale would have been shaped by events as we ran down the hill. Father Benedict and the Symbiot? Revelations during the flashback? How the encounter with The Machine Crusade and The Librarian went, etc? Possibly the Vorox do not get cured and die out? It might have also gone ‘wrong’ and ended completely differently with the human failings of the characters being more prominent than their strengths. Some combination of the two. Let’s assume not.

Generally, once The Machine Crusade was involved the aim was to secure control of the Empire, smash Kerberos and establish a new set of political and religious structures (who would lead the new political, scientific and religious structures?). The issue of The Symbiot may have also had to be addressed if it / Father Benedict wasn’t on side. This would have at least involved some sort of battle to Byzantium Secundus similar to Sheridan’s battle to Earth. This would have been mixed with events at the capital and whatever else.

I’d also have probably tried to go for some future scenes, such as humanity being on its way to a third republic, scientists picking up the suns beginning to brighten and so on. This reflects the fact this phenomena was much a reflection of humanities philosophies as it was any science. All lead by the players, of course, and their actions. The reverse may have also turned out to be true! Either way, this was the pivotal point, with the player characters being the individuals who would set humanity towards ascension or away from it.

That’s it. QED. Now onto other things.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/06/2013 Bookmark and Share
A GM’ing Practicality Problem
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I’ve spent the weekend at Centre Parcs and, as usual, this tends to provide time for my mind to wonder. This wondering has touched upon numerous things, one inevitably being the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns. Well, less the cancellation itself, and more the frustration and annoyance about what it means in the future. I seemed to be hemmed in by three problems.

Problem number one: I am unlikely to run a system that is compatible with the ‘long games’ (see the four types of campaign that result from the group dynamic) .

It’s taken me a good long while to find a system that balances the traditional and the 'indie wave' in the right amounts. It took a while for the hobby to find this balance, to define systems that describe what characters can do in fiction without throwing the baby out with the bath water. I like how these frameworks are adding structure and focusing on fiction first. After getting to this point I don’t want to go back.

Problem number two: Apparently, three quarters of my players’ think differently to me.

I make one big mistake when I GM: I assume all players have the same reasons behind their decisions and the same measures for a successful game as I do. Obviously this isn’t the case.

Some of the discussions around Fate Fading Suns have shown that the CCG background of three of the four players in the group can be a problem in that it (a) makes them too competitive and (b) means rules are there to be bent to the point the experience becomes poisoned. I don’t like to see this as a problem. I didn’t going in. It didn't feel like it was while playing, though I probably just missed it. They tell me themselves it can be? Who am I disagree? Apparently, the rules should structure the potential for that out or leave no potential for it in other ways. Have to admit, bit of a pain in the ass.

Problem number three: A dislike for the only system I’m inclined to run or try to use better.

This is really related to problem two. I never thought I’d be a single rules set sort of guy. Things change. I’m older. I think in concepts and pitches not ‘game systems’ I want to try. I’m a busy professional. Fate provides enough of a traditional feel for me while still being focused on fiction first, clear flags and a structured play experience (at least in the new core and accelerated versions), etc. It is simple to understand, albeit harder to master while still being something that I feel is within reach - if everyone is giving it a full, structured shot.

Apparently, I’d hazard a guess 2 to 2.5 people don’t like the system. As in really don’t like it, note the poisoning the experience comment in problem two.

The consequence of all this has left me wondering whether really, in practical terms, there is really going to be much GM’ing going on. How is it going to happen?

I am very unlikely to adopt a system that provides that perfect mixture of traditional feel (not much fiction first, characters increasing in power level, etc) and CCG rigour through providing either a robust game first system or it being bland enough there is little ‘gaming’ of it. This rules the long game option out.

That’s not so bad, as a group we’re not supposed to be running games for years at a time anymore. The trouble is it leaves me sitting in the camp of the ‘get out while the going is good’ games. The games that are successfully because you’ve made a fast exit, balancing a concluded narrative with finishing early enough before the well is poisoned and apathy, annoyance or even an undercurrent of significant frustration with the rules and their application by people at the table brings things to a grinding halt.

I’ve been asking myself this weekend: do I really want to play that game? Can I be bothered with the hassle of the dynamic?

What does this leave? The one-shot? The short 2-4 sessions mini-series? The reserve game which gets played when the main game is down? At the moment, none of these are that appealing, though I admit the short mini-series model might be one I adjust two if feasible. There is also an extreme long-shot of some episodic game working as the reserve game if it’s highly structured. An extreme long shot. I like the idea of a few seasons of short mini-series length, but this has never been a viable option within the group.

This brings me to the final problem, the short mini-series model has never proven to be viable mainly because running multiple ones of those has never worked for the group. I have a sneaky feeling that while we made a decision to run shorter after the 4E Campaign the drift to a game of longer length again may be the unspoken outcome once the summer is over. Not sure why…just a feeling.

It's at this point I'd bring in the solution of the problem and consequence, but regrettably I don't have one at the moment.

I see a big practicality problem. This, more than the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns itself, is the frustrating legacy.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/05/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fate Fading Suns - Cancelled

It has happened. Fate Fading Suns has been cancelled at eight sessions. This isn’t a negative post as I rage against the fall out, albeit when it happened earlier in the week it was a shock, but probably shouldn’t have been. It’s actually a positive. It’s only a game at the end of the day. It’s an immense positive because the campaign has not been cancelled for anything to do with any sort of internal issues I had. On that front it would have continued and concluded!

That is awesome. Epic win.

I do find the conversations and reasons for the cancellation interesting though. They’re also quite pertinent to decisions about whether to run again, what types of game would work and what shape they should take, etc. I’m not even going to get into differences in styles of play, measures of success, etc. The thing that has become clearer is the categories the gaming group’s campaigns fall into.

We seem to have four categories:-

  • The long games
  • Get out while the goings ‘good’
  • The short experiments
  • The cancelled games

The long games. It would seem the gaming group is quite traditional. It came up in a recent discussion that any game that has been recorded as one of the ‘the long games’ or ‘successful campaign’ has had a very traditional system? Okay, the phrase ‘successful campaign’ is a risky one because other campaigns have been successful, but while that description can be changed I suspect the category and its occupants are still recognisable as distinct. The campaigns that have ran for some time (8+ sessions), possibly survived multiple seasons or other forms of transition and reached a conclusion utilised the following systems: Dungeons and Dragons (3E), Cinematic Unisystem, Pendragon and Dungeons and Dragons (4E). These are all very traditional sets of rules, often quite structured, or both, they have a simple dice mechanic, simple skill mechanics, characters improve through experience, and something as traditional as ‘hero points’ is about as ‘new and hippy’ as they get.

Get out while the going is ‘good’. Then we have the campaigns that concluded, but were not as long, and probably had things about them that people enjoyed, but also had things that ‘broke’ them to some degree or another. The campaigns in this category I’m aware of involved the Fate (one of the many variants) and Cortex+ systems. It would seem these games that mix ‘traditional’ and ‘indie’ games together have always proved to have a natural session attrition in the group. In both these cases, the game was closed down due to a general vibe of un-satisfaction. The writing was on the wall so they were concluded correctly and in a positive manner while the going was still good or good enough! Like a TV show that’s knows it’s not getting renewed. The Cortex+ experience is a perfect example, a campaign I enjoyed immensely (I would love a sequel somehow under another system but it would never happen), but if it had not concluded when it did then it would have gone into the cancelled category. In short, these might be great, mediocre or terrible experiences depending on the individual, but by and large they remain positive for those who liked them because they concluded early enough!

From a certain point of view it could be argued these experiences are short experiments that pushed to the edge of the session envelope or a certain type of cancelled game that, as the name suggests, just got out while the going was good due to good communication.

The short experiments. I’ve not been involved in many of the games in this category, but they occur. The only possible example being a single session of Duty & Honour. They are games that are meant to run for only a single session or three. They are very much run like convention experiments but are slightly longer. It is also where the non-traditional systems are more successful whether it be Mouse Guard, Cold City or a number of Fate variants, etc. Historically anyway.

The cancelled games. Then we have the fourth category of game, which are splattered about through our gaming history. These are games that got cut off. Cancelled. Consigned to the gaming bin. They enter this state for numerous reasons. GM time. GM dissatisfaction. GM Issues. My three main reasons, historically. The conflict of ideas proves unmanageable. The group just suddenly looking at each other and conclude it’s not going to work (now known as the Werewolf Epiphany). It may even involve a dungeon of candy. The commonality being they are cancelled early, just stop or hit a problem that isn’t recoverable. These things happen.

Where does Fate Fading Suns sit in this illustrious history? Well, certainly in the cancelled category. That is pretty clear. As stated, the reason for games falling into this category vary wildly. In the case of Fate Fading Suns, looking back now, it had the hallmarks of a perfect ‘get out while the going is good’ game that failed, well, to get out while the going was good. The indications this was on the cards were not adequately communicated (thought it may still not have been able to close down satisfactorily). In fact, in the glorious clarity that is hindsight, I probably should have seen it as inevitable and realise I only had a certain horizon for success. I certainly should not have gunned for something more like a 'long game' when in truth I had a 'get out while the going is good' game.

I suspect the outcome may have been ordained, to one degree or another, as soon as it hit the table. I also suspect the GM of two of the more obvious games in the I got out while the going was good category probably tried to warn me ahead of time as well. After all, he jumped to the left and went more traditional after those experiences no doubt for a healing experience!

The important question is: what does this mean for the future? Well, I think I can take a number of things away from it but I’ll leave that for another day! At this point all I say is don’t try and buck the above, it probably won’t work.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2013 Bookmark and Share
The Werewolf Mythologisation
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

We set out to do something this Bank Holiday weekend rather than just let it drift by us. After a very brief browse around the web we chose to go to Kielder Water & Forest Park. The reasoning was quite simple. We like the idea of going to The Lakes, but we hate the lack of clarity over what to actually do and where to do it in that massive land area with little directed potential. While we don't expect a theme park experience we like a bit more direction. Kielder offered something different in that it's a smaller area, is more directed in what you should and can do and looked like it offered a similar, nature-based experience.

We couldn't have got it more right. The place is awesome and we're certainly going to go back and cover more of the 27-mile walk around the biggest man make lake in Northern Europe. As well as all the usual great stuff like the lovely weather, the awe inspiring views, etc, it also got me thinking about gaming.

It had the same effect as the BBC documentary on Yellowstone National Park. It made me think of Werewolf: The Apocalypse.

I was probably the only person wondering around the park thinking of mythological werewolf stories and mythologising the place up a bit. I don't mean actually using Yellowstone or Kielder, just taking places like it and translating them into a world in which everything is heightened and, to some extent, at the extremes. It's a mythic version of our modern world.

The Apocalypse is upon us. The triat, the three spiritual forces, creation (The Wyld), order (The Weaver) and destruction (The Wyrm) are out of balance. The Wyrm seeks to destroy all things in an orgy of corruption, entropy and decay killing the Celestine, Gaia, the spiritual representation of the Earth in the process. Only the few remaining werewolf tribes stand in its way and its legion of 'Dark Gods Man Was Not Mean to Know', global corporations, human cults and their own kind corrupted. A few places remain across the world were Gaia remains strong, protected from the vast city-scapes due to their remoteness or the few political and institutional powers that still protect them. The werewolves fight their dying battle across the dark corners of the world, in the glass and stone edifices of the cities and the far recesses of the spirit world from these places.

They key to such a location is fantasizing somewhere like Kielder.

The various cairns about the place aren't just piles of rock but spiritual anchors invested with spiritual stuff that anchors the spirit realm to the location ensuring The Gauntlet remains weak and the physical world and the immediate Penumbra of the Spirit World are almost the same.

You can then add locations that have great spiritual resonance. The road bridge can be a dangerous entity guarded by vehicular spirits on one side and nature spirits on the other creating a neutral zone. The ancient stone bridge across a tributary of the lake can be 'The Bridge that Spans Worlds' as it is the point The Gauntlet is almost non-existent. The lake, of course, has an island on it that only exists in the spirit world, except when mists cover the lake when normal folk sometimes find their way there. The island is ruled by a powerful Nereid, a water spirit, who is the spiritual representation of the lake. You also have the great cliff overlooking the lake, which from certain angles looks like bear, in the spirit world this cliff has a cave network in which resides 'The Great Bear Spirit' representing the final echoes of the great bears that once roamed the countryside.

It becomes grand, rich, fixed location to focus the drama around. Yes, the protagonists stride across the physical and spiritual worlds in their final, titanic struggle against the all consuming darkness, but they always return here.

All great but the Werewolf: The Apocalypse system wasn't that great. The new interpretation has been tried and it failed miserably turning the Werewolves from epic warriors against the final darkness to the mall cops of the spirit world. The simple answer would be take the Fate Fading Suns approach and not look to convert anything, just rely on Fate and Aspects. In this case, based on the fact we've got shape changing going on, all sorts of weird creatures and 'monsters' and we'd probably only be looking at a mini-series anyway, I'd just go with Fate Accelerated to construct a grand, mythical tale. I don't even have to worry about skills then, just go with approaches which works across forms! never know, sometime down the line Werewolf: The Apocalypse mini-series may be in the offing. Especially if the nature-based inspiration keeps on flowing.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/05/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fading Suns 2.2: Qan'Vesh Luk'Ret Von'Da

It's a bit late and one of the players has started to hound me for the GM side experience of the last Fate Fading Suns session. So I've hit the keyboard to get my thoughts down. Besides having a very weird name that makes little sense the session was quite different to the previous ones. The different feel to each session is just the new normal it would seem.

The session was different for a number of reasons. The last session felt more like the conclusion to Act One than the beginning of Act Two. A good thing, not a problem. It didn't significantly contribute to the transition to Act Two. It was meant to, but it happened very fast and took a very different shape. This speed meant I lost a session or two to ponder and contemplate the high level beats of Act Two, which I believe is going to be the hardest.

As a result, session 2.2 was either a cheat to delay events or a great opportunity to slow things down and focus on some pace problems. In truth, it was a bit of both.

The focus of the session is based around the title, a completely made up sequence of letters that is meant to represent a phrase of The Vau (an alien species) which, translated, means: What do you want? That was the intended focus of the episode to use various non-player characters to question the player characters on their intentions and events while those non-player characters wrestle with their own issues. This was supposed to be pulled together along with a big revelation as well as bringing things back to the Vau. The questions worked, a big revelation was made but it probably didn't tie up as well as it could and it didn't come back to the Vau.

This is probably more an 'artistic' niggle than a problem, I suspect.

In terms of pace and direction the sessions was positively pedestrian and lacked any impending, immediate situation at all. On paper it seems like a very bad idea! Yet I didn't have the momentum of Act Two clear in my head so I went with what I had as an experiment in pace. It felt wrong while it was playing out. It felt like a success at the individual scene level but a not so right in terms of overall delivery. I think disjointed is the word I'm looking for. In a way, more than in any other session, I'd be more interested in how it felt for the rest of the table. I think there is stuff to take away from it but I'm not sure I'd want the majority of sessions to be exactly like it.

It probably did work as a stop and contemplate session immediately after big events.

There was some really good scenes that dealt with some incisive, intimate and big questions about the what and the why. I really liked them. Some of them, I think, were very, very good. Then there was some scenes that moved things along and addressed areas that had been left a bit fallow. Some did both. A few moved in directions I didn't expect which also solved some revelation problems which is always a good thing! In terms of scenes...I think they represent the sort of scene the table needs to work towards sprinkling through all the sessions not just ones were the pace slows down (which I think does happen, but some comments suggest not enough or not in exactly the way needed).

In terms of events in the session things did go differently then expected. The scenes involving intentions about the future were only supposed to be half of the session. The second half was more action orientated based around obtaining the last message from a the universe's previous cycle. It wasn't meticulously planned, but it was hoped to be quite big scale. The scenes in the first 'half' took longer so the message ended up being delivered rather than fought for.

Some things didn't go as well.

Due to their being no shared situation or immediate threat the distribution of spotlight time each player got was highly dependent on scenes happening. I tried to distribute them evenly but I probably failed on that account. Two players probably got less scenes, though one of those was subject to moving things mechanically on a bit leaving one player at the bottom. It was a risk going in that someone would lose out a bit and it played out. Still, some of the scenes that didn't make it in for the player (various reasons) are stored away to be re-purposed in future sessions.

Less a problem as I liked the scenes, more an observation. None of the scenes were based on compels, though they were designed to address Aspects. This is a problem that is also constant. I use Aspects to understand the character so scenes can be created understanding that picture, but rarely compel. It's a difficult one. I can create a scene about two characters talking about fate, destiny and choice and whether they have hero complexes (directly related to Aspects) but can't figure out how that is a compel. Address Aspects yes, base scenes on compels? Still a bit confusing.

I am thinking of going with a cheat sheet in the future to try and resolve this problem.

After improving things on the rules front last session there was a bit of rules collapse this session. I just went blank on a number of things which slowed things down a bit and we did a few things wrong (such as what happens on a tie in a conflict). It's a continual issue, which is odd as I seemed to remember the rules better when playing Thrilling Tales than I do now, which is a bit odd. It's the usual problem of that side of things just getting push out as the session unfolds and I think about other things. Ideally the various elements would be more integrated and one and the same.

Since the session I've not thought about the game much so I need to get back to it. The challenge of the next session(s) is having the characters split into two groups both of them doing quite big things. It's a good idea, but it's going to be an interesting one in terms of pace, spotlight time and the distribution of that spotlight time.

And finally, for those tracking these things: was this episode influenced by Mr Morden on Babylon 5? A bit. It's totally different in terms of the intent of the questions and the questions don't all come from one character, but the idea of it being a question-focused session was influenced by it. I am coming to terms with the influence, now I'm more comfortable it isn't necessarily trampling all over the Fading Suns elements. Despite this, once you get beyond Fading Suns, the biggest theft of ideas remains computer games.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/03/2013 Bookmark and Share
Pace..How Much Is Too Much?

Note: This was written not long after the Gods of War (2.1) session of Fate Fading Suns, but took a while to get posted.

I've been thinking about pace in role-playing campaigns a bit lately, for a number of reasons.

First, it's something we wrestled with in the Smallville campaign so it's not new. Second, at least one player of Fate Fading Suns has raised a concern about pace. Third, while I've been happy with the pace so far, as we often take 2-3 sessions to get through any scenario, the session The Gods of War (2.1) had an horrendous burn rate.

It also occurs to me when the 'too much pace' issue comes up, it's often not exactly the same issue by each person who raises it.

Having thought about it a bit, and experienced it from both sides of the table, I think I have a better handle on the issue. I think it comes down to three factors:

  • Going so fast the wheels start coming off.

  • Not so much going too fast, the pace, at a macro level, may be correct, the issue may be one of lack of adequate focus on specific areas.

  • Scale and the epic rating can often be misinterpreted as a lack of intimacy and subtly which often goes hand in hand with the concern over pace.

Obviously, these three issues often combine. This list gives a good base to try and address some of the issues around 'pace' in the game moving forward.

The Wheels Come Off

You can have so much pace the game starts to fly apart. Decisions get made people regret. Elements get added to the milieu which are less than optimal. It's all too easy. Do it for too long you look back and wonder how you get to where you are.

Basically, it all gets carried away with itself and this can result in feeling like you're rolling down a hill with no way to stop it and anything that doesn't immediately add to the momentum gets left behind! This feeling can certainly be a reason why the opportunity to add scenes that do focus on certain areas don't get created as they get lost in the momentum. It can also be a game of escalation into the absurd or the ill-considered.

This is certainly something to watch out for and avoid. I don't think this has been a significant problem, but I'd certainly not want to run faster than session 2.1 or run as fast as 2.1 all the time as it certainly bordered on the ill-considered due to pace.

The Balance of Pace and Focus

As far as I'm concerned, at the macro level, the pace is fine. It's been big scale, but not too quickly done. The majority of scenarios have taken 2-3 sessions to resolve and while the fact they deal with big things may make them feel faster it's not really the case that enough time isn't dedicated to the ideas.

I don't think anyway.

Despite this, the overall pace can be right but that does not mean some things don’t get the correct level of focus. I think this is less about pace but more about scene quality: them happening, being framed correctly and actually addressing issues players may want to focus on that possibly aren't directly about the big events.

The key is to run the game at the required pace and scale but occasionally time needs to dilate like bullet time to address a specific area. Films and TV shows do this all the time, no matter what is at stake or the pace of the story overall, the opportunity will be taken to allow certain scenes to occur and be given the focus they need. The pause before the battle. The silence before the next wave. The rest while you consider your next options. The heartfelt declaration as the ship crashes through the atmosphere. It can even occur, if framed right, slam in the middle of a high paced event (always a good option).

I think this is an area of risk as I can see it potentially happening around character relationships: do relationships between the protagonists and NPCs have time to develop? Are they finding that time?

Looking at it through the lens of Smallville, in that game they got addressed but never stayed stable to be experienced for any length of time. The issue in Fate Fading Suns, I suspect, is the time is not being found, no 'relationship bullet time' happens. Sweeping events move on. This means relationships could get 'left behind'.

I don't think the answer is to slow the whole game down but to increase scene quality: insert them, frame them and deal with them. That way you get the benefit of both without having to deal with small events or large events stretching out into a campaign of massive length.

Epic Can Be Intimate

This brings me to scale. It is all too easy for intimidate and subtle to be equated with smaller scale and slower. I don't think this has to be the case. What can happen when you're more towards the big scale and epic end is you constantly feel like you're making decisions about grand events, rather than being involved in a network of relationships which have a level of intimacy in them.

I suspect this is more the issue: scenes are being 'scaled out' so to speak. When this happens I don't advocate scaling down.

I think you have to keep the language and the backdrop all 'wide screen', but the intimacy and subtlety has to occur within that. You want the characters to be having there relationships and moments in the context of the grand events they are embroiled in. After all, this is what their life constitutes. Anything else and you're effectively playing a different game that possibly loses its identity.

In a way, this comes down to creating and framing scenes...again.

...And Finally

I think the issue of 'too much pace' is a niggling issue. I think it's something that has to be addressed in the right way and for the approach and the implications of it to explicit across the table.

I can't help but feel there are two choices.

First, you run the game at a slower, laconic pace and accept the less intense, and I suspect smaller scale, that comes with that. If I was to do this I think I'd have a radically different game. I quite like the idea that the game runs a bit like Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Galactica but with more of the big episodes strung together and less of the filler episodes. I don't want to throttle the pace back much from the way the game flowed in sessions 1.1 to 1.5.

In terms of the above I'd be for experimenting with the odd slower episode occassionally.

The other option is to try, and this is the difficult bit, to step back and look for the opportunities. I only say this because it involves pausing and thinking not just rushing headlong away with the excitement, which is very easy to do for all concerned. I know I get carried away with it rather than using my implied GM throttle to step back for a moment.

Stop. Think. Can I insert a scene here and what should it be about? What is the agenda in terms of relationships or Aspects I'm trying to push? It's a bit Primetime Adventures in thinking. I do think that is a good proportion of the GM's role, and I miss opportunities, for sure, but like most things, I think bringing the focus to the scale and pace might just take everyone. Especially since some of this stuff, like the nature of NPC relationships, often needs a PC steer. I think it has worked already, it just needs to be more consistent and more of the fabric of the game.

I think that has to be the approach, I'm just aware it's obviously easier said then done!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/03/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fading Suns 2.1: The Gods of War

Session six and another interesting one. Not one of them has been the same so far? Is this how it normally works? I'm sure last time I was GM'ing things fell into a fairly typical experience while currently the dynamics have felt quite different each time. Anyway, this one was interesting for two reasons, one intended and one not intended.

The intended experiment was the shift to Fate Core. The reasons for doing this I've discussed before: to move the game to a common rule set (as much as is possible) and for that to reflect the latest, maturest thinking on the Fate system. I think this was a success. While things can always be a bit clearer, I felt it provided a much clearer path to walk down in the coming sessions. It feels like a much more stable base for me to practice using the system and gain a better level of mastery over it in actual play. I also felt the whole table was a bit more on the same page. This is a good thing. I like the clearer language about action types, the types of rolls and the outcomes. Works well.

It also became apparent this session, though it's probably been building as a fact since the beginning, we are not using the Starblazer sub-systems and instead just using what would be overcome rolls (basic skill rolls) and now challenges (the outcome in a series of skill rolls). A key example being starship combat at whatever level, none of which has ever involved stats for individual ships or fleets. This isn't an issue, it's a good thing, as it keeps the resolution mechanisms consistent and condenses sub-systems into just rolls, aspects and setting difficulties. It also saves me time as this is the last session I'm going to prepare anything in terms of starship stats as they never get used. I'm done with it. It's all going to have to be represented by difficulties, types of action and situation Aspects.

This does mean, in retrospect, if I'd known what I know now and Fate Core had been more available the use of Starblazer would have been entirely for the purpose of reference (such as the scale for big things) and we'd have just gone with core.

The second experiment wasn't intended at all, the session just flowed differently from the opening scene and the only real response was to sit back and go with the flow. The scenario (what I'm calling the artefact that sits above a session and usually consists of multiple sessions) basically had three situations each of which was designed to push buttons around the types of choices that have to be made in the context of the path the protagonists have set off on and their aspects. This roughly compared to three acts.

All that got torn up. This created the impromptu experiment of just going with the flow completely! It also meant what I expect to happen every session did happen this time and we burned through a lot of big stuff very quickly.

Some of the planned scenes could still have been addressed and could have found a slot, so to speak, as events unfolded, if not for the fact the characters split up and went from one end of the galaxy to another including completely new areas (so I kicked back to them to them keep me sane). This meant that invariable the wrong character was in the wrong place so even when some planned situations could have kicked off based on location (or a slightly altered location) it still didn't hit the target. You also get thrown a bit, as I changed an NPC on the basis they would get lead to the intended NPC but then due to the way a scene went this seemed superfluous so I should have just moved the intended NPC. What goes on behind the GM 'screen', it's like the smoke and mirrors of the shell game.

I did experiment with NPCs using the rules on the players, just a bit, and it worked well. Not hard conflicts, more the discovery of aspects and feelings. I particularly like the use of NPC skills to read characters so they can then move the scene forward based on the new knowledge. This was used to allow an NPC to sense a character was conflicted over a pivotal point and I thought the scene was much stronger and better for that having happened. It removes the 'does the NPC know he is conflicted' conundrum and brings it into play.

It all went quite well considering, the only problem I have with it is sometimes decisions made in the moment can always be regretted afterwards. This happens more when everyone is on virgin territory and making stuff up on the spot, it's sometimes genius, sometimes it's fine but a better option may have existed with some thought. If you're not very alert all the time things can also become fact that might have been best not being established, from a certain point of view. Reflection is a wonderful thing. There is nothing major, big or annoying in this but little things might have been better massaged.

I also have a slight concern with pace, but this isn't a binary thing of too fast or too slow, so I'm going to leave to another post in the near future.

I can take a number of things away from the session.

First, I'm on a better base for using the system to create a better game. It's going to take some practice but there is now a better understanding of the tools, a better understanding of the maths and now it just needs for some more aggressive application. I need to not hold off on setting higher difficulties (+1 to +3 higher than skills). Sometimes it just takes a +6 / +7 difficulty for everything to feel challenging no matter what my inner feeling of 'cheating'. Besides, all this means is they throw Aspects and invokes into the mix which allows the characters uniqueness to come into play.

I need to use artefacts in the system to bolster the scenes to make them challenging, such as Aspects with free tags to represent prepared positions or advantages the opposition has already. Possibly involving overcome rules to remove those factors? I am thinking of Aspects that represent pre-prepared overcome rolls - this is a bit like the way dice are attached to such things in Marvel Heroic Role-Playing. This can effectively make difficulty rolls harder while reflecting a situation that can change, which offers an alternative to a permanently high difficulty. Anyway, tools should exist in the box.

These sort of things represent a bit of a shift in thinking. Rather than establishing the challenge in some sort of objective reality, such as how skilled would that NPC be, sometimes it should be subjective based on the drama. This can even, at times, be based on the rise and fall of the story. Sometimes something is difficult just because it's that time in the narrative! The pressure is on! The good thing about this is it doesn't mean protagonists fail, just things get more complicated with their success, which links well to difficulties rising at the key points in the story as this is exactly when a swell of complications should occur. In the past, strictly by the rules, utilising this approach could have resulted in horrible whiff due to Fate binary failure mechanism or having to fine tune it out with stakes. The new mechanism can 'late load' the part of the stake depending on if a 'failure, but' is needed.

Second, I may have finally broke the back of running the game with less and less prep. In truth, this isn't what happens, of course, as what's actually happened is you reach a point where there is enough stuff and common understanding that material for a session exists and what doesn't can be created by the table as a whole out of the existing fabric and understanding. Each game takes a different lengths of time to get to the that point but I think act one got us to that point. This doesn't mean I'll be turning up with nothing on a regular basis, as I have a strong belief a game is better with a GM pushing things into the game to provide some level of conflict and adversity, but it is an interesting situation to be in.

It is particularly important to me as I suspect there is a correlation between how much 'good resistance' the protagonists face and some quality time to think about the session.

And finally, I also took better notes!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/03/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fate Rules..Shaking It Up A Bit

So, as I've discussed a few times, the application of the Fate rules sometimes gets lost in the rush during the Fate Fading Suns sessions. This has been a function of a few things. Some of it is brain space, which probably does mean I'm not allocating my time effectively. One of the players has also raised another issue, the feeling being we play a nebulous version of Fate, pulled from our subconscious from various trace memories of other iterations.

I'd even say we pull other games into the mix. If not the rules certainly the philosophies of other games.

This feeling probably isn't helped by the fact I designed the character generation to be a mixture of Starblazer and Dresden. It got the feeling of Franken-Fate off to a good start, I suspect. This has been compounded by the language around the game being one of taking the best from other games, but in the process not having one documented set of rules. In practice, we've done this, throwing tools in on the hoof.

In truth, Starblazer is just Spirit of the Century but trying to impose that earlier version as a more stable base seems both wrong and discounts gaining the benefit of more mature Fate games.

So, I decided to give Fate Core a read. It has the latest Fate thinking in it. We're also on the cusp of starting Act II, once we get over the scheduling hump, which affords the opportunity for a fresh start. I also tend to think doing things slightly differently is a better way to shift out of business as usual. So I've decided to mix it up a bit. A stop...think approach. After all, you can hardly change routines by keeping the routines largely the same?

Fate Core. It isn't complete. It's a relatively early revision that was put out for review and is due to be released complete this month along with art. So using that set of rules would seem to be a mad way to cure the Franken-Fate? To a degree, but Fate Core does two things: it changes the nature of the game quite a bit, certainly moving it from Fate 3.0 to Fate 4.0, and it codifies the language and structures of Fate into simpler a better form.

Let's address the codification first. There is a bit of a movement in gaming at the moment, codifying the nature of activity at the table so it is a structured experience. Fate had this before, but Fate Core does wonderful things through simplification, providing more structure and empowering it at the same time. Structure shapes thinking. It also shapes the language and activities at the table. I like what they've done. The codification of outcomes on rolls changes the game significantly as the binary outcomes are ditched. The four things skills can be put to radically simplifies the old Fate language which now seems verbose and complicated. It will make things simpler in the long run, especially when the final revision comes out with examples and designer notes, etc.

The surprising element of Fate Core is it does change the game...quite radically. The main difference is in how simple rolls work in overcome actions (the action type that involves overcoming challenges with a skill). Instead of binary success or failure, which is common in the Fate iterations I've read, a failure but and success and model has been officially adopted and embedded in the experience. This is not a small change as it does two things: embeds narrative outcomes in the simple roll and it seeds itself throughout the rest of the system. The simple roll becomes more powerful as a way to shoot the drama off in unintended directions. It can be particularly powerful in challenges, when multiple skill rolls are made by single or multiple participants to build a mosaic of success ands along with failure buts that weave into the narration.

I really like the new simple roll mechanic, as while I'm sometimes crap at coming up with the buts on them spot it is a better way to do it. It makes rolling clearer. At times we've rolled dice, sometime multiple dice in Fate Fading Suns, with no concept of the player failing! The journey was useful, but it's a bit odd. This new mechanic works with the competency focus of Fate by ensuring a player does not have to fail at his goal, but there will be consequences.

Since Fate Core isn't complete, though the core of it, so to speak, is present, I've decided to pull together my own Fate Fading Suns Toolbox. This is 90% sourced from Fate Core but pulls other thinking in from Dresden Files to round things out. The Dresden Files stuff tends to be 'designer notes' material that hasn't made it into Fate Core yet (but has on some forums and will in final versions). A good example is the setting of difficulties and how this relates to the meaning behind skill levels and the influence of the narrow dice outcomes within Fate (and Fate Points). This toolbox isn't so much the rulebook, but more my GM Cheat Sheet to keep my message on the straight and narrow.

I'm going to try and link this with a bit more rigour on establishing scenes and what their purpose is as well being a bit more observant on invocations and compels. Throw in a new way of handling the Fate Point pool, on a per scene basis, and we'll see how things go. I know things feel simpler, more accessible and sorted in my head. It just has to feel the same at the table!

I'm going to give it a go. Strangely, it may also have influenced prep a bit, but I'll see how it plays out before talking about that.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/02/2013 Bookmark and Share
Approaching Act II

Fading Suns is moving into Act II and has five sessions behind it, this provides an opportunity for the focus of the campaign to change and to review some of the approaches I'd hope to embed in the sessions themselves. To one degree or another these don't survive hitting the table, but I figure you're best having some goals.

The crucible has changed. It's going need to shift from a ship-based game of discovery to a station-based game of knowledge and action. The location based element of this isn't that binary, as elements of both did and will exist in both acts, but Tartarus Station certainly rises in prominence (with the characters not just being visitors). The main difference is shifting the characters out of discovery to being powerful actors.

Obviously, this isn't all present yet, but the mechanisms by which it can happen are present in the game, being spread across across one character being the heir apparent to a Dynastic House with a loyal following, another a living legend from the point everything went wrong, one is now a host to something that absorbed all intelligent life and fought the 'War in the Heavens' and then we have an eminent scientist, prominent (to be) member of a secret society and who has access to the Technical Apocrypha. There is no shortage of mechanisms to shift the model.

The remaining items are all related really, but I'll address them in turn.

I need to use the rules more. This has been an issue to differing degrees in each session. It's purely a function of me spending my time concentrating on other things and the pace of the game picking up a bit. I need to alter my approach to factor in Aspects directly, push the Fate Point economy in the game and, when needed, make sure conflicts happen.

The interesting thing about the conflicts is there has to be a real conflict, not just one manufactured so a conflict can occur - that's been one of the main problems. When one really exists it sings, but I tend to default to 'no conflict' if the NPC isn't that invested or the narrative direction isn't worth challenging. It's all too easy to get conflict fatigue, which I felt was the case in the Smallville system, with every scene becoming a conflict making interaction with important NPC's feel like a war of attrition. The conflicts can also result in weird situations were it's a sensible conflict dramatically, it's sensible for the NPC to be in conflict but no one at the table wants the player to lose.

It can get quite odd. I need to find balance and put a bit of effort into identifying sensible and meaningful conflicts.

Then we have the issue of using the rules right. Combat never feels right, but this isn't a function of the system as dramatic combats work well in Fate (issues of length aside they sang in Thrilling Tales) but the fact they come up so little they seem so inconsequential. It's a question of the effort being put in (ironic for me, and unexpected).

We've also been doing compels wrong as players have been compelling each other directly from their own Fate Point pool. A player initiated compel , whether against another or themselves, suggest a compel which the GM then runs with. This is a better model as the compel can then be negotiated and the Fate Point doesn't come from the refresh of the player who suggested it! It also reduces the PvP feel of the experience by smoothing out the edges.

I'd like to manage Fate Points in a different way. If you ignore unlimited GM Fate Points to compel character aspects, which sort themselves out in the economy, it still doesn't feel right each NPC having their own pool based on the full character design rules. The issues are a mixture of each NPC coming to a scene with a full refresh (and probably only having one conflict in the session) and needing to stat each NPC completely (which is rarely relevant). If GM Fate Point use becomes divorced from NPC refresh totals there needs to be some way to either (1) balance out unlimited GM Fate Point use or (2) a method to decide number of GM Fate Points per scene that factors in participants.

I had a dig through Fate Core and it runs with option (2) suggesting that a GM has one Fate Point per scene based on the number of PC participants. I like this sort of model as it keeps the GM scene pool 'flat' while allowing the PC's to burn their refresh over an extended period. I may need to tweak it slightly as I'm sure that one Fate Point per PC rule is based on the 3 refresh minus stunts set-up of Fate Core while Fate Fading Suns is running with eight minus stunts!

A bit more discipline over scenes. This was always the plan but it's easy to lose focus once events hit the table and the game gathers pace. Now I'm more comfortable in the GM position there may be opportunity to apply a bit more rigour in this area. The original intention was to have a looser, Primetime Adventures framework. I don't think this went too badly, but it could probably be looked at again. It just may need to be codified more to gain the advantage of things being structured and explicit.

A simple focus around any scene being described in terms of: purpose (which can be exploration or conflict), location, participants and potential scene aspects. The aim, as usual, is just to make intentions a bit more explicit rather than all participants trying to figure each others intentions out.

I also really need to start making notes. Some of this is I get distracted and put my thoughts elsewhere, but also slowing the scenes down a bit might also help. You never know, I suspect it will remain a continual issue. It needs to be folded into the scene structure with me just accepting the conclusion of a scene means noting it down!

I think Act II could be the most difficult. You're not running directly to an end goal at this point, which makes things a bit less focused. You're essentially on a journey to clarify what those end conditions are. As is typical in a campaign, you have the shape of those end conditions in your head but they may change and the exact way they manifest either isn't known or will be different by the end of the middle act anyway. It can also mean the middle section can be longer and at risk of dragging (while Act III could be shorter as you know the end conditions).

It also means you have to stop throwing things in and seeing where they go. This in itself is difficult as the abstract has to start become more concrete. It's the point in TV shows were people start to figure out not all things add up and the writers hope the audience don't mind elements just fading into the background. I've not reached that point yet, as there has been a weak glue at work and some work on linking things together has enhanced rather than degraded, but it could rapidly get to that point if Act II isn't managed well.

It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/02/2013 Bookmark and Share
Fading Suns 1.5: At the Rift of Hecate III

Well, it was bound to happen, a session that, on balance, I wasn't happy with. Don't get me wrong. I don't think it was bad. The feeling on the player side will be different again (there is always a perspective gap to one degree or another). I am just left with the feeling that the previous four were positive, from a GM'ing perspective, while this one had a deficit.

I think three broad things influenced the session: the fact the story has lasted three sessions and the first two (1.3 and 1.4) drifted away from the fantasy in the space fantasy; the fact we've had a bit of a gap between sessions; and the fact we were under a firm deadline to end the session. Each of these will come up as the influences behind specific issues that contributed to me having a 'could have done better' vibe. goes.

Getting the session going felt like pulling teeth. This was probably the first session that didn't (a) have initial GM provided scenes or (b) have a clear call to action based on the outcome of the first part. I should have been aware of this, as I tend not to like it when the GM doesn't take hold of the reigns in the beginning to just kick things off, as it leads to exactly this sort of milling around with a feel of no real purpose. It did result in the immediate outcome of the previous session being a bit of an anti-climax, which in a weird form of circular logic may also have been an antecedent of the lack of purpose. This should resolve itself in the opening of Act II.

We didn't use the system much. This is an issue with FATE, though I'm loath to call it a problem as it sings when it's used. A combination of not feeling some things needed to be rolled for and expediency to meet the deadline meant there was not that many conflicts, instead just rolling with the role-playing or assumed success. It was more of the former at the start of the session and the latter towards the end.

The final act at the rift was supposed to be full of potential conflict but I think the table had entered 'run to the end' by the point as there was an economy of decision, action and a lack of engagement with things some would have normally been attracted to purely out of curiosity. Always the issue with an impending deadline.

Then we had the point the game resulted in incredulity and smirks rather than the intended wonder. I didn't see it coming at all, the scenes in question seemed a natural progression and perfectly in theme with the rest of the game. The first story (1.1 and 1.2) had a 'demonic' possession, prophecy, a quest for a living saint (from millenia ago) and an 'exorcism'. The second story was a grand quest to find the secret to the Apocrypha featuring a creation of a great Second Republic scientist that could speak to 'Angels' (an 'uplifted' whale that swam in a solar carona known as the Solar Prophet) and a being from the Great War in the Heavens that was trapped in a black hole. Space fantasy writ large. They seemed to both follow a similar trajectory. Science and religion blurring. Religion being a point of view but certainly factual. Yet the 'uplifted whale' broke some form of credibility barrier.

What happened, of course, is we had a session gap and then two sessions (1.3 and 1.4) which focused more on politics with less fantasy components. Always interesting how these things occur. I could also have framed the scene in the past when the Solar Prophet was introduced better I think – took a bit more time, not moved things forward so quickly.

It does raise a few issues: is balancing the fantasy and the more 'traditional space opera ' galactic events going to cause problems? What about the overall theme of science and religion and the fact it's not just a pure physical struggle? Stuff to watch out for as we move forward. I see them as quite holistic things, but my view isn't the only one, of course.

Looking back on it now it may have been better to end Act I with session 1.4, allow time to move on, frame things differently and start what constituted the third part of 'At the Rift of Hecate' from that starting point. I felt addressing the immediate aftermath, rather than jumping over it, was a bonus. I also wanted to run the events as three contiguous parts.

Anyway, all good stuff, just slightly less positive than the previous four from a GM'ing perspective. Looking forward to Act II, which allows for the campaign to be re-framed, take stock and enter a new phase.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/02/2013 Bookmark and Share
FATE Fading Suns 1.4: At the Rift of Hecate II

Yesterday, we played the fourth session of FATE Fading Suns. That's right. Listen to those words. Take a moment to take it in. The. Fourth. Session. A record has been broken. An achievement unlocked. No game I've attempted to run since 2000 has got past three sessions, some not even that. I think one didn't even get one session. They've all collapsed for one reason or another. If you take the actual gap of the gaming gap into question that's me not GM'ing a regular game since 1996.

Amazing. The veritable flood gates have possibly been opened.

Session four was the least 'planned' of all sessions. They're all not that prescriptively planned, but I do like to have scenes I've got on my list which add up to an overall situation, push things a bit, etc. This one just had a situation. The Galaxy Empress, an exotic space liner and casino. A grand awards ceremony. Three goals. A few NPC's that were at the location. That was it. The very nature of the session meant it had to play out as the cards fell pretty much 100% driven by the players. I even had to resort to asking the players how they envisaged things playing out, how they saw scenes starting, etc. I was, for me, seriously kicking things back into their court. It tends to frustrate me a bit as a player when a whole campaign is done this way, but it was the right approach this session.

It could have all played out in a more integrated, grand Oceans 11 or Mission Impossible sort of affair across the three targets, rather than three independent actions. A concensus on that didn't seem to be able to be reached pre-game start, which was...interesting.

That's a minor point as the outcome was awesome. The scenes were brilliant, two being particularly stand out. The rise of one character to stratospheric prominence came early out of nowhere. This was one of the killer scenes, the conflict and language used being brilliant, the argument pulling in events that had happened so far to make it seem natural and right. Loved it, characters talking purposefully, at maximum capacity, using setting elements and events so far. Ultimately, it all ended with a war on the cards and the characters escaping from, raiding the vault of or piloting a space liner crashing from orbit to the planet below after a bomb had been set off (part of target number one).

It was like a JJ Abrams extravaganza...big characters, big issues and big decisions all wrapped in something that had action at the max, and then just turned up ever so slightly higher. The session was always planned to be a game changer, it just did it in a much more hi-octane way, potentially dragging a whole suite of concepts to the left. While of the sessions may not be that hi-octane, this one needed to be. Brilliant.

Last session, I noted the potential problem of the fourth player, who missed the first story, which always creates a risk of that player's character becoming a semi-outsider. I think this is still a risk, possibly more so since the opportunities for the fourth member to integrate more in this session seemed to have resulted in the heist element of the espionage on the Galaxy Empress being largely an independent action that just happened to take place at the same time utilising what became the main event as a cover. It was a sensible plan though. The hope was the three 'targets' of the espionage set-up would have been more integrated with the 'team prosecuting them' but they largely remained as three individual actions that just happened to influence each other.

In truth, this issue has become a smaller part of a larger, but still low probability, risk I'm keeping an eye on: the Smallville effect. The Smallville campaign worked on the principal that the characters were not a group, just four protagonists which had connections keeping them roughly in the same dramatic orbit. It was very much about the clash of agendas and the conflict. I don't want to progress to that model and then one session look across the table and realise we are there all too late. This didn't happen in this session, all that happened in the session was good, but you could see signs of it happening, if it was not actively avoided, a number of sessions down the line.

This is linked to another interesting observation. At the Rift of Hecate is actually the spotlight for Faruq's player, and was designed to be a location hopping, fast-paced quest to move forward his search for The Lost Library of the Second Republic. It still is, but the extension of the sequence to three sessions rather than two (though I always think they're all going to be one) has drawn this out and shifted the focus - making that quest-like search feel like a B plot. You could make a clear case this session was a surprise focus episode for a totally different player in a totally awesome way. It's also going to be interesting as to how this quest can continue in session three, taking the focus back, assuming it ever had it, considering how the events of this session played out.

We shall see, but I'm not wanting to dump it and switch tracks at the moment. I think it's partly related to the integration problem again, there seems to be a slight issue of two of the characters narrative strands coming across as A plots and the other two as B lots which isn't my intention (and it's certainly not designed that way long-term, in so much as what long-term stuff is scribbled down) or anyone else at the table, but I was left with that lingering feeling a bit. I could also be imagining it.

The rules are still getting a shake out. I did absorb some of the more specific rules for this session, but it happened to be the starship combat rules, which we didn't get to. I need to give the core parts of the system another once over: specifically declarations and tagging for effect. I'm also paranoid about Aspects becoming superpowers rather than just providing the tag, we keep playing with that borderline, and it's possibly I'm the only once concerned about it, but I do figure it's one of those 'how did we end up here' things.

The toolkit element of FATE reared its head. This is great. It's one of the things about the system I like. It provides tools in a box to apply to the game to make it interesting. The trouble is the tools in your box are spread across numerous games. The rules being used are also essentially this nebulous concept of FATE that exists across numerous games, even the chargen was set-up this way. Quite often these tools are also introduced, ironic considering FATE games are often big because of excessive guidance in other areas (e.g Skills), without giving guidelines on application. So, assigning a stress track, difficulty and number of rolls to a conflict (to represent the environment and challenge) is great but you're left not being sure exactly how difficult you're making something when you set these variables.

To be fair, the maths behind FATE aren't that difficult, so it's all quite easy to figure out in terms of 'chances of successes' on any particular roll, but it does make you mindful of spontaneously setting things too easy or creating an impossible task. Nicely tense and challenging is what you want!

I'm going to get the FATE Core to see it that provides a consolidated reference for the tools in the box.

As usual, all these things are observations and things to keep an eye on in what is a great experience so far.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/01/2013 Bookmark and Share
Homo Fictus and Maximum Capacity

Characters in role-playing games are viewed through numerous lenses. While most role-playing game experiences have elements of all three lenses only one of them can really be dominant and conflict over this dominance between participants can result in frustration as the game, delivery mechanisms and scenes unfold.

In some games, the character is a vehicle through which to exercise tactical choice, a package of options, abilities and resources that can be brought into a game to overcome challenges and achieve objectives. In truth, this is true of all games, all that changes is the resources and the nature of the challenges.

In some other games the character is a window through which a setting is experienced and absorbed. The focus is very much on experiencing the world created. It's about understanding the character, his place and how he can influence things in the grand simulation. Immersion is a big focus.

In others they are very much a dramatic entity whose sole purpose is to tell the story they are created to realise. They are a vehicle through which that story is prosecuted, with the player falling into an interesting mix of writer, actor and director. This potential story will be verbalised in numerous ways and mechanisms, but it is present and front and centre.

I like the third option, it's what I focus on when I play and it's certainly what I focus on when I run games. I don't create a character, I don't tend to create a character I want to play, but a type of story I want to tell. It's specifically why I set-up the FATE Fading Suns character generation in a certain way to ensure that was present for everyone (and it's like of being explicit in the past was a problem).

These characters aren't like normal human beings, they are slightly different species, a bit like Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens. What we should be the case in role-playing games is characters should belong to a species of human being called Homo Fictus (a topic which has come up before).

Homo Fictus is different than Homo Sapiens in that he exists and operates in dramatic reality. Homo Sapiens are fickle, contrary, wrong-headed, they stumble when they speak, they forget and they are blind to the obvious. Homo Sapiens do not always operate at their maximum capacity. This is not the case of Homo Fictus, and when they don't operate at their maximum capacity it is by design and choice (of the writer).

There a numerous reasons for this. In some cases it's simplicity, the true complexity of human beings isn't allowed in the word count and would be distracted and disjointed anyway. It would lack focus and direction. In fiction we want characters who are just complex enough while being more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, etc. The other reason for operating at maximum capacity is in this fictional universe the option of doing nothing when faced with drama, danger or conflict doesn't exist (not for long anyway).

Basically, I want role-playing game characters to operate at maximum capacity and this takes effort, because those playing the game are Homo Sapien not Homo Fictus. They also don't have the option of sitting back and thinking about it all afternoon, or rewriting, like a traditional writer might.

System can help. The FATE system certainly helps in this regard. What does the pyramid structure for skills, Aspects and Fate Points add up to in FATE? It allows for a character to act at maximum capacity in various ways: top tier skills, dramatic power (fate points) and prosecuting the story through his inherent narrative fabric (aspects). If a character fails when pushing all these buttons it's an epic moment. It also defines how his maximum capacity might fail (aspects) while making that happen in a way that does not erode the principle of maximum capacity. This is one of the key strengths of the FATE system, it supports maximum capacity, and it's why I love it.

The rest has to be done by tools that are purely within the domain of the participants to use.

The biggest tool, possibly the only one, is the explicit premium. The act of making everything explicit rather than implied (something else FATE does very well). If you enter a scene at some point it should be clear what the goal is, what the set is like and the characters in it. In a similar way the story that character exists to tell should be known to all so they can consciously add to the fabric of it. This goes for the setting as well so everyone can add to it well. Framing, framing, framing. I'll stop now, as I've gone on about this before.

What happens if you don't have these things? You erode maximum capacity. The player stumbles and falters in a scene due to not knowing the landscape of it. Another player may erode the ability of another to have his character operate at maximum capacity due to not adding to their story but taking away from it. It's very much a group effort allowing role-playing characters to meet their Homo Fictus credentials.

Also, don't ask the player to act at maximum capacity but allow the character to. This is important and a mistake many make. I'm a white, middle class consultant. I'm not a super spy, super hero, mythical fantasy hero or a brilliant admiral trying to bring down a great power in a space opera universe. Role-playing game characters cease to be Homo Fictus when the player is expected to do all those things the character is capable of. This often means re-focusing what is important to the game. If the characters have to get onto a luxury space liner during a high security ball don't expect the players to come up with a bullet proof plan, but the characters might be able to achieve it through a combination of personal ability and connections. After all, you want them at that location anyway so don't create a non-problem.

All these smooth out the potential variables that hinder role-playing game characters operating at maximum capacity.

But that's it. The principle of Homo Fictus and maximum capacity. It's a big deal, and I get a bit frustrated when it doesn't happen. On occasion I may have got very frustrated and for those GM'ing at the time I apologise.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/12/2012 Bookmark and Share
FATE Fading Suns 1.3: At the Rift of Hecate

Last Sunday we played the third session of FATE Fading Suns. A momentous occasion if only because nothing I've ran for some time has had a fourth session and this one is going to breeze easily into it. In fact, it's probably got a pretty clear run into the end of the first act, with the next session probably putting us 50% of the way through it (assuming every 'story' takes two sessions).

The beat of the sessions seems to be falling into place. It seems to accommodate a good mix of the longer term actions having a chance to build, a chance to experience and add characters and elements to the setting and to push the main story of the 'episode' along (each one focused broadly on moving one character's agenda along, though it may not be the only agenda that makes progress). It's wasn't planned this way, it just seemed to work in the first session, and then that session left things that needed addressing in the next ones. It's largely an outcome of the whole group's input.

The format is possibly a good compromise between a totally player lead open world model and one with an active, more orchestrated GM influence (albeit it's modified by the players continuously). The format will change as the campaign changes, but it's working well for now I think.

We finally got the fourth member of the group into the game. It always seemed a bit odd locking him out of the second session but looking back now it probably was a good idea. That story had a particular theme and mood that the trio had integrated into via the first session and introducing a fourth player wouldn't have worked well for either grouping. The new story allows the character to be added with a virgin slate, which I think worked a lot better.

The only slight problem I may need to keep an eye on is the late coming player's character feeling like a perpetual outsider due to him missing the first sessions and his character having an element of that in his DNA. Early days, but there is already some sense of that happening, with the relationship between the group of three characters and the fourth being transactional with him providing a 'service'. One to watch.

Having got the first session and story out of the way I was wanting to branch out a bit and get the cut scenes and flashbacks into the game. These worked well I think, I just live with the fact I always think they can work better. I like the cut scenes, they can frame a mood and set a pace to the game that the players are then aware of. Yes, it influences their decisions for their characters but that's not a bad thing. The flashbacks were specific to one character who is from a millennia ago – depending on how they go a small part of me thinks they should feature again. The characters are quite different and it would be interesting to see how they got from one version to another. One to ponder.

The weaknesses are still system related, not the system itself but the application of it. I've still not managed to find enough space in my thinking at the table to apply the system actively, in the best way, moment by moment. There is small movements, as I am thinking about it more, but the players are still the main source of compels, for instance. This is still something I didn't expect as it seemed less of a problem in the three sessions of Thrilling Tales which was the first time I'd run FATE. It's possibly genre and complexity related while the honesty, straight adventure focus of pulp maybe left more space for the mind to wonder.

I need to sit down and re-absorb the FATE basics and the sub-systems like Starship combat as the point at which it becomes a feature of the game with respect to individual ships and fleets is getting closer. That's just a factor of time outside of the sessions.

On the system front I'm also slightly concerned that most conflicts seem to be top-tier skill conflicts that come down to FP burning or an easy win because the opponent has the skill much lower. In a way this isn't a problem, protagonists should be very good at what their signature skills are, but it can also result in a lack of tension when the dice come out. I should also be targeting lower skills, for instance breaking into a computer system should be infiltration, possibly modified by something else and varying up challenges. It's also possible I'm the only one who is the least bit concerned about it.

I'm also conscious the game felt a bit less Fading Suns and made a slight shift towards a more generic space opera this session. It's not a problem at the moment, and finding some sort of feel we are all happy with is good (as one player put it it's possibly a flavour of Fading Suns that is their own – which is good), but I don't want it to drift too much into generic blandness as we default into a homogenise version of every space opera we have seen and in the process file of anything that makes it a bit distinct. It's a 'mistake' we've made in other games. Some elements that remain distinct are always a good thing. It may not have helped that, for some reason, the generic comparisons slipped in a lot this week, which didn't feature as much in the first two. While such comparisons are great narrative shorthand they also can have a destructive quality if taken too far.

Beyond that, it's all going surprisingly well. The risk is I'll enjoy it so much I may end up wanting to move on to another idea straight after, but it's early days, it ignores all competition for the GM chair and it's also slightly mad to think that will be the result.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/12/2012 Bookmark and Share
FATE Fading Suns 1.2: The Gargoyle of Nowhere II

I must admit the problems with this session came before it was actually ran. I got myself into a bit of a rut with it. This came from two directions. In the first instance, I felt slightly uncomfortable because I was setting up a situation with no 'planned resolution' and only the most abstract of numerous possibilities of how a resolution might come about. Effectively, there was no middle. In the second instance, I got dragged into making things feel plausible. This is always a black hole you don't want to go down.

It was the second one that was the real problem, the first was just a matter of stepping into the breach. Time got absorbed looking into little bits of information in the belief the cupboard would be open only to find it empty. This involved relatively brief flirtations with Google over how deserts work, where people would get water from, how a population might have grown and shrank and what is needed to support technology in a colony and what military forces might look like. The irony with the last one is the military action involved a missile assault from city to city (which was very cool), something I'd not thought of anyway!

In short, all sorts of stuff no one really cared about. I knew this deep down, but my brain would not let me drop it. I should have just went with 'does this seem fading suns genre correct' and 'this happened multiple millennia ago, deal with it'. It would have saved me some time that might have been better spent putting character stats in place.

I keep forgetting, and this is a good thing, that as a group we are amazingly willing to accept short hand and edits, unless something cool can but put in place instead, where other groups might demand some sort of simulated 'real' environment to poke sticks at. I momentarily forgot that in the run up to this session. The weird thing is, this hang-up does not come from the previous gaming group or this one, yet it has somehow entered my consciousness. Very strange.

The actual session was...awesome. It felt like it had emotion in it, there was enough colour in the 'setting' to add weight. It felt like it was very much about the protagonists while still feeling like it was about larger issues and larger things.

Ignoring the usual things I'd wished I'd done as I processed it on the drive home (mostly some more closure / epilogue scenes). It was really good, worked as a great feature episode for the character it was intended for (he changed his Issue aspect, which is a pretty good sign), added narrative strands to the rest of the characters and it had some dramatic high points that are exactly what I want to see in a game and in the sort of way I like to see them happen if I was a player.

This is good. Amazing in fact.

It started shakily, probably driven by my lingering awareness of my two problems above. This meant when the players went into research mode in terms of figuring out the broad situation we lapsed into 'explain what they found mode' which, isn't necessarily bad, but it was going to be done by three of them in three different research areas. I should have done what one of the players did to rescue me out of that trajectory and frame a scene that would allow the information to be imparted through interaction. That's what I usually default to other than when the shorthand is better, in this case it possibly wasn't.

Ultimately, the awesome probably belongs to the players.

They were tagging and compelling aspects were I was not and this created some awesome stuff, including, possibly, one of the best turns to evil and gets brought back from the brink sequences we've had in any of our games? Possibly? In short, I really need to get into the mode of using the aspects to introduce cool narrative and exciting complexities. On a number of occasions compels were suggested that I should have probably thought of. This ain't a problem, it's great this comes from the players and long may it continue, but I probably should try and up my game a bit.

The other lingering thing is how to push conflicts better mechanically. I like to think I'm fine in terms of theme and ensuring they have a bit of intimacy and feeling in them. I also think they are flowing quite well as a mixture of mechanics and role-playing. I could just do with a bit of an extra push from the mechanics to add to the drama. Having discussed it after the session, this probably comes back to one single problem: not having stats for the characters. As by having stats this frames and provides the mechanisms through which the GM has to operate. The character will only be good at certain things and only have Aspects of a certain nature, etc. This then makes it more comfortable should a player be pushed into consequences or actually loose a conflict, especially of the social type. It also affords the GM the time to design the character with some of the broad odds in play.

I may also need to up my action scene mojo which, coming from me, is ironic on an epic scale! This is probably due to the focus of the story being in other areas so far so it's always been a bit lower on my mental agenda. The 'blasters' have only been pulled out twice for two short exchanges in two sessions.

Still, second session on a high. Things are looking good for breaking the three session record!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/10/2012 Bookmark and Share
Never Enough Time...
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

It would seem one of the biggest 'skills' I'm learning now I am GM'ing again is to accept that there is never enough time. The counter argument to this is running a game can quite easily grow to consume all time available if you let it. It depends on how you view the world.

It's quite simple how it works. You start with a simple concept for a session. This needs turning into some sort of situation that the players want to engage in through their characters. Once you get past that point you face a bottomless pit if you let it or you have the time. How many non-player characters do you do stats for, if any? Do you need to get into stats for other elements like other vessels, organisations or armies? Do you need to have some scenes noted up in advance?

This ignores issues you can easily get yourself dragged into to try and persuade yourself the whole thing makes some sort of sense! This route can result in total madness like getting dragged into population growth, biomes and whatever else. Madness. I do realise that. It's one reason why contemporary games have a slight comfort factor, though that can be argued the other way I suppose.

Then you have the issue of what is going to happen after that situation or session is finished. At the moment I have an idea for episode three and four of act one but not episode two. I figure it'll come to me, but it's not in place for when episode one ends. I have a vague 10,000 feet view though!

You always feel like you're missing an opportunity to do something bigger and better if only you spent more time....

Different games have different footprints in terms of time. Each GM feels differently about how much of a footprint they need to feel comfortable. The two obviously intersect. As an example, I believe 4E demands a large footprint. This is a mixture of the way the game works and they way I'd have to handle it. Contract that with the GM who actually ran the 4E campaign who seemed to keep so much in his head along with many of the rules and variables it seemed pretty lite.

In a way, FATE isn't necessarily low footprint. It can be, but it isn't necessarily so. The game probably works better with more things having stats? It probably works better with some scenes noted up in terms of framing, aspects, the landscape (either physical or social), etc. Basically, while the design intent of the rules is different, the game, just like 4E, is a game which has rules and those rules are meant to be used to drive a particular output. In many ways, while it calls them conflicts, these 'encounters', in 4E terms, can demand as much work. On different things, but as much work? Unless you're someone who can throw that together on the spot, without thinking about it.

Not sure I'm fully there on that front yet.

In short, it's about how much shit you're comfortable with making up on the spot. In some ways, it's not about if you're comfortable doing it but to what degree the game might not be as good because that's what you've done?

The more interesting things is this used to cripple me previously, now it's more something I abstractly think about.

I always do think I could have done a better job if only I'd had or spent the time to think about that, prepare this, etc, but then it's not just gaming in which that comes into play.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/10/2012 Bookmark and Share
FATE Fading Suns 1.1: The Gargoyle of Nowhere

You know what the first thing is you realise after GM'ing for the first time in ages? You really don't have any idea how it really went. I think you know when it's gone badly. You also tend to know when something extraordinarily magic happens, but the vast gap in between isn't something you can easily identify. The GM's perspective blinds you to the players' perspective just enough that you, by and large, are left guessing.

As I'm prone to say, this makes it...interesting. It also means this is entirely written from my GM'ing perspective and any issues raised are minor and more interesting problems to address than anything remotely game breaking.

I apologise for the length, but it was my first session in eons, lots to ponder. As usual, this isn't the actual play.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the session, and it's the only criteria that really matters in terms of continuing to invest the time. It wasn't stressful. It was quite relaxed once it got running, which kicked in early during the first scene, certainly by the second. It didn't feel like we hit any awful pregnant pauses, which I detest on either side of the table, when the players are obviously floundering around aimless and trying to fill in the vacuum with the banal. At least I hope that wasn't happening. While the players did add scenes, it didn't feel like they were scenes added to fill a 'content gap', but as a way to pull in future events, establish organisations or contacts from the relationship map or play with their characters a bit. It could be said there was a shortage of action, but I think that was okay. So yeah, a success on that front.

Now for some of the stuff I'm throwing around in my head.

One of the biggest gaps in how the game is perceived from the GM'ing chair is to what degree the atmosphere and feel of the game comes across. I suppose I view this as quite important as I value it as a player. I suppose some players may describe that as the degree to which they are immersed in the setting (though that's not my favourite way of describing it). It's more about providing context as far as I'm concerned. This tends to mean you have little idea how various things added or detracted: the opening music and narration, how any descriptions went, the utilisation of background music. What can I say from my point of view? The descriptions could be better. I think the opening music and narration works well as a bit of framing and a transition from the pre-game general discussion. The background music? Hard to say. Did it really add a vast amount to the bar scenes, for instance? It really is hard to tell from the GM side. On balance, I'm not dropping the music at the moment but it's use is probably best targeted.

Despite hashing out the setting in broad scope and at a high level, I'm following a 'no myth of reality' strategy. I freely admit I am doing this for my own sanity. Experience tells me if I do anything else I get lost in the detail and I tend not to enjoy it. It creates a particularly fiendish form of analysis paralysis. I also lost the ability to create the grand campaign plot ages ago, though I suspect I never did that. This means I am throwing stuff in while only having a very conceptual view of how it might pan out. At most, I may have an idea, but it's not set in stone. In some cases, it was added in the session because it seemed like a good idea at the time. My view is when it comes around to being critical things will have changed anyway. I think this combination of 'possibly just knowing enough' is working well as a compromise between knowing nothing and rail roading everything to hell and back (though in my view a rail road is only a rail road when it's a track the player doesn't want to be on).

I'm still wary of the GM and player power dynamic. Not in the sense it's a conflict at the table, but the fact it is a scale. Everyone at the table is a GM (literally), and we probably all set that barometer at a different level. This is primarily about who gets to establish what facets of the narrative and at what scale. In my view you don't want the players adding nothing, but neither do you want an environment were anything player created goes and the GM is hastily laying tracks five feet in front of them. I don't anyway. It's suffice to say, the balance is still probably a bit grey around the edges. My thoughts are still forming on this one and it's an interesting topic in its own right so I'll exile it to its own post.

I did break a lot of my own personal goals for the session. I didn't make sure every scenes was framed. This tended to mean they happened without just that little bit of detail of where they took place providing an opportunity to paint a picture. Actually, thinking about it, this may only have happened twice, both during a player introduced scene with another player. I'll have to watch for that. I certainly didn't write enough down. How the hell did the GM of Smallville achieve that? This is doubly frustrating as there was probably a lot worth remembering. I've noticed, occasionally, I can have sessions were it looks like nothing much happened but in truth the session was 'establishment dense' when you to get the actual play out. I suspect more 'time' will be freed up for this stuff once the actual running of the game isn't as 'new' and 'unknown'.

As usual, I did come away from the session immediately thinking how a couple of scenes could have been better, but this is only natural (for those keeping track, primarily the two opening scenes).

Finally, GM'ing FATE is hard. In truth, FATE is a game that works at numerous calibration levels mostly dictated by how fast FATE points are being gained and lost. The slower this 'currency rate' the more the game feels a bit more traditional and slower (and that isn't a value judgement), while at the higher currency rates it can push the gonzo trigger (though this depends on the aspects themselves). The slower rate also means Aspects are descriptive, which isn't invaluable, rather than active ways to define the character through created narrative. It's safe to say we were playing at the slower rate and I didn't do any compelling at all other than a couple of times by player request.

At its core, FATE isn't complicated, but it is probably safe to say it is hard to master. Remembering the compels, keeping the currency running at the right speed, some lite policing of aspects and choosing the right way to apply the system to get the right results. There is an artistry to it and I certainly think I need to think about applying a bit more structure to how the game is delivered. I think this is a good thing and I'm going to assume a rhythm will be found over time. It's just going to take practice. At the moment, I feel a bit distant from the rules. I need to live and breath them a bit more.

Now for the second session.2..

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Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/10/2012 Bookmark and Share
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