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Ian O'Rourke
United Kingdom
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The Epic Fantasy Adventure...Western!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Ironically, one thing I've never done during my involvement in the role-playing hobby is the grand, epic fantasy adventure. You know the type of thing, the general Lord of the Rings sort of deal, a group of heroes, the ancient Dark Lord and the only way to defeat the enemy is some epic quest of some type. I've played in numerous campaigns involving that set-up, but I've never done it myself. Not sure why, it's not a conscious aversion, but it's born out to be true anyway.

One of the things I've always wanted to do is actually do the epic fantasy quest campaign, but I've always wanted to do it within the framework of another genre: space opera, super heroes, World of Darkness Werewolves or even a Western. Yes, the one I liked the most was the idea of doing the grand fantasy quest in the form of a western. I think this is driven by the game Deadlands, and again I probably saw something in it that wasn't there, and some books by David Gemmell, as he, in a lot of cases, wrote westerns despite the fantasy trappings. He even did write a western fantasy epic in the form of the Jon Shannow novels.

This brings me to the game I'm currently keeping an eye on: Far West.

A problem I have these days is I no longer buy into games and play them, I have ideas and I need a system of some sort to act as a framework for bringing those ideas to the table. So, the ideas I have roaming around in my head need systems. Far West, in theory, and at this early stage, seems perfect for my grand fantasy epic as a western idea. You have all the tropes of a western, along with a load of Wuxia ones, as they are quite similar, both being a mythologised version of a countries past, you're just sort of swapping swords for guns (or guns for swords, but in this case you can have both). It's even got a healthy dose of steampunk! Not only that it's all powered by FATE 3.0, so what more could I want!

All those elements together, in what sounds like a very cohesive whole really makes me think...awesome. If you then add in the mythical, the epic and the quest it should come together as a heady brew!

Of course, this does raise some issues about what the post Thrilling Tales world will be like, which is some distance off (way off really), but I'm already making decisions quite different to the ones I've made in the past based on the experience. That's potentially a topic for another day.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
Seeing Things in Role-Playing Games...
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

...others don't, or at least seems to be against the general consensus of opinion. I seem to find myself falling into this category every so often. I'm not saying I'm unique, it may even be true that every one thinks this and I'm just the same as everyone ensconced in their own personal delusion. Whether true or not, it does occur to me from time to time. Examples? Well, I can think of tthree off the top of my head: Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Shadowrun.

If you walk up to the average Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play fan and ask them about the type of stories and the type of game WHFRP fosters, you'll get something that sounds like a Blackadder campaign, but with even more black humour and spending all your time as a hapless Rat Catcher, fighting a hopeless battle in which if you don't die or lose limbs you'll fall prey to some sort of disease. It's as if they revel in the grit, dirt and most importantly, the suffering and fatalistic attitude of it all. The reports from such campaigns are like a weird sort of comparison of who has suffered the most.

I tend to look at it differently, while carrying some of the core concepts over. I see the Lord of the Rings movies in Warhammer. If you say that to the typical Warhammer fan they think you're mad, but I still hold to it. The key for me is the phrase on the cover of the book: desperate heroism. Yes, it has grit. Yes, it has dirt. Yes, the career you had before branching out a bit may have been that of a Rat Catcher, but you're still a hero. More importantly, you're the bravest type of hero, one who stands up to be counted even though it is dangerous, and you're not someone writ large from a Greek myth. Also take into account the fact the race of men are the most vulnerable to the forces of chaos, yet as the years pass they are the ones who are having to stand up to be counted and hold back the darkness as the older races hide away? Sound familiar? Certainly does to me. The heroes in Warhammer are the very heroes Sam talks about in The Two Towers movie, the heroes who are just normal people, other than when it counted, they stood up to be counted despite of everything, whether lack of skills, social standing or the dangers. So, when I looked to run Warhammer, I didn't see Blackadder and black comedy, I saw desperate heroism, and people trying to achieve their worthwhile goals despite the odds.

Now, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and yes I mean the old one, is slightly different, in that all the games I heard of consisted of tribal politics, battling vampires, fighting for environmental causes or, even worse, hours of role-playing around delightful little moots (probably involving politics again). In all cases it was decidedly street. I took something else away from Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and it's sort of become the great game that I never ran. To me, Werewolf was quite simply the greatest Viking campaign you could ever run! You have the ultimate warriors, in an epic battle against an enemy that cannot be killed. They rage against it anyway, cross the globe, and even multiple realities across the spirit world on epic quests to face this endless darkness head on. Is it a bit dark? Yes. Is it slightly fatalistic? Yes. Is it epic in tone and demands to be played along with rousing music, to the theme of The 13th Warrior? Hell, yes. It's a game that demands an epic quest to save a lost soul, into the heart of diabolical machines, ancient battlegrounds of the past and into the very pits of hell itself! What's the worst that can happen? 'Valhalla' comes a calling, and you die in glorious battle!

What is regrettable, if my experience of actual play is true, without actually reading the book, is all this has been stripped out of the game. The new Werewolf game isn't epic in any sense of the word, and in and truth you'd be better running some sort of version of COPS, the reality TV show, with Werewolves going around dealing with unruly spirits. Still, the thought of it, Werewolves full of rage, but moulded from the very stuff of the spirit world, using the entirety of that landscape to wage their perpetual, epic and glorious battle. Hah, you never know, possibly one day.

Now, Shadowrun, a game which I once owned quite a lot of supplements for believe it or not. I never ran it. I've played it only once. It's also right to say, considering the rules of the game and the general approach most people took to it, and was fostered in the rules, why the hell did I invest in it so much? You'd be right, I don't really know, other than I think I saw something in it the game probably wasn't there, and I'll admit it in this case. For me Shadowrun was an action movie of epic proportions, with heroes battling ancient draconian conspiracies, and ancient magics rising from times long past. Screw the whole 'mission from a Johnson who will betray you bollocks', I wanted ancient scrolls, demi-humans battling against racism, and action scenes to die for featuring guns and magic and a beautiful elven sorceress to kiss under a hail of bullets! It would be like every great action movie on steriods, all bottled with the potential for epic fantasy quests and ancient evils and conspiracies! Of course, what it involved for most people was missions of cross and double-cross, with people immersing (oh how I dislike that word in this context) themselves in the Cyberpunk world. Hell, half the time the players should just kill their contact as soon as they meet him. Again, mundane and street and gritty instead of heroic, mythic and sweepingly romantic!

I think this comes down to seeing the epic, mythical and heroic in everything, and this does not have to mean big in scale, as it wouldn't be in Warhammer, it's something more elusive than that. Even stories that are relatively small in scale can be heroic, mythical and have a bit of romance of one type or another.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
The Inevitable Second Adventure

The funny thing about the 'inevitable' second adventure of Thrilling Tales is, in some ways, there is nothing inevitable about it as the usual format of anything I've run over the past seven years is they don't get to a second adventure. They might not even get to a second session. This makes Spirit of the Century unique, and the actual game itself is a contributor to that, along with a number of other things, that means not only am I looking forward to the second adventure, any issues I have with how it might go, what the set-up might be, etc, I'm not bothered about as they will be solved, it's just a matter of mulling it over.

At the same time, second sessions, or more specifically second adventures, are often critical in a role-playing campaigns. This is especially true if the first one has gone well, as everyone sort of eyes up the second adventure as the first in the regular run and it's all too easy for it to fall a bit flat. It's probably safe to say, despite it being one of the great cancelled campaigns, that Pulsars and Privateers was a perfect example of this in some ways (though it had some of my personal best bits in the campaign, ironically).

I'm hoping this doesn't happen, and the momentum is continued in....

What's interesting about The Battle for the Hollow Earth is it is an adventure that wasn't planned at all. It's true I intended the characters to go to the Hollow Earth eventually, obviously, but in my mind I assumed we'd deal with other things first and put it off a bit. If for no other reason than I wanted to think about it a bit, and because I thought it was too front loading everything with the Hollow Earth in the beginning. Thrilling Tales is very much a 1930's pulp action and adventure serial, and fantastic other worlds are part of it, but in my initial thoughts I thought I might be best getting the 1930's stuff imaged first so to speak.

Still, if the momentum of the game steers everyone in a particular direction, and everyone is excited about it, I'm the last one to not be carried along for the ride. So, at the end of The Crystal of Eternity, the players voted quite vocally to return with Imperial Princess Alaria Starfire to the Hollow Earth to help her free her Empire from the dastardly villains who had taken control!

I think what's good about the way we've approach Thrilling Tales, both in my initial thoughts, and thankfully carried through amazingly in character creation, is it is very much a wide remit, grand adventure hero pulp sort of affair. This means it's all a bit malleable, each instalment, which I envisage as a trade paperback comic, can be quite different in look and feel. So, while the first one had an Indiana Jones sort of vibe with ancient artefacts, deserts and even Nazi's (even if it was all triggered by Hollow Earth events), the second one can be something else, and take on the mantle of other pulp and action and adventure concepts. This one might have more of a 1930's science fiction feel, one down the line might afford some mystery and horror overtones to the action, it's quite exciting really. The really good thing is, and this is why I was so pleased with the character creation process, is the characters support this really well, fully fitting in, and are not characters that demand very specific pulp stories to work (like crime fighting or something). This is good, as it remains, exciting, interesting, epic and has that Doctor Who feel of sweeping, romantic adventure with, hopefully, great pace and a must tune in next week effect.

So, the Battle for the Hollow Earth has taken some thought, mainly because the Hollow Earth is just imagery really, which is fine, it's not the main setting of the game, but also because I have to have the players free a whole world and Empire without spending a massive amount of sessions there. It's a place to visit, not place the campaign is set in (though thinking about it this week, you could actually do that, not with Thrilling Tales, but with something else).

I'm primarily thinking: Flash Gordon, Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean in no particular order, and I think these have influenced the vague ideas in the pot at the moment. Flash Gordon was always sort of intended due to a general consensus, I believe, that the novel that introduced the Hollow Earth, and which two of the characters took part in, was retro science fiction sort of influenced. Star Wars because, well, you always find influence from Star Wars. Pirates of the Caribbean because I've watched it recently and while the movies dragged a bit, you can't beat the swashbuckling. I might also be using a number of sources that have 'magic as technology' or 'technology as magic' to the point you can't tell the differents, it's just funky 'technology', in this case with a heavy crystal-based theme.

I'm also hoping to try and use the aspects in a different way in the next adventure, in that they worked excellently last time as a way to just make exciting stuff happen, mostly by the players, and give the game an exciting, breathless and escalating feel, but I want to get them to heighten the drama a bit. This may be through compels, which would be ideal, or it may be just through introducing more dramatic scenes about them. We shall see, I'm probably doing myself a diservice saying much didn't happen on those grounds last time, as it was the very first session, I just want to amp it up a bit. Anyway, we shall see!

So, we have an Empire at war. A world in flames. Two villains chewing up the scenery. Epic airship battles across the skies. A group of heroes ready to mix it up to save millions just as everyone believes all hope is lost.

Now, do I begin it a bit in media res? Or do I drop that to get a few more dramatic scenes in? Such wonderful choices. Hah...roll credits.

To Be Continued...

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
A Mature Role-Playing Game

Over the years a number of role-playing games have been slapped with the mature tag, don't ask me to list them, but a number have been. One I do remember is Kult, which exemplifies why most games got the dubious tag: because they dealt with 'mature' issues like abuse, sex or even sex and abuse together, etc. I always find games like that a bit dubious, but they seem to have their audience and that's fine. In defence of Kult, we did actually play it, and I enjoyed its approach to the horror genre a lot, we just avoided the whole 'you can play a surreal killer' or whatever else it also advocated as a possibility (which was a minor part of the game I believe).

Pendragon is also a mature game in quite a unique way, in that I think it intrinsically deals with issues that you have to have reached a certain level of maturity to understand, or been fortunate or unfortunate to experience them early. The game deals very much with life, in the sense it is very much about births, death, relationships, marriage and children. Now, I've always been too mature for my age, but there was a time in my life that a lot of these things wouldn't have spoken to me at all. I'd have had no concept of marriage and the bond it entails. I'd have had no concept of dealing with death as no one close to me would have died. I still don't have children but I can experience that, and the passing of the generations as people older than me die and I see the children of my other family members, etc.

As an example, my grandmother on my mother's side died recently, she was 85, so she had reached that point when 'this could be my last year' sort of conversations come up. At the same time, she was doing fine until she was out one day at a retail park and just literally dropped dead. To say it was sudden would be an understatement. Teesside Park shall feel slightly different from now on. This has brought up a number of things. It made me realise that the generation above my mother is actually dying off, as my grandparents on my father's side are all dead, and now so are my mother's. Louise only has one grandmother left on her mother's side as well and she's in her eighties. This is sad, and it also makes you look at yourself, as you essentially move up a generation, as it makes you realise, at 36, you aren't really that young any more, even though you may feel it, and you are now the second oldest generation. Not only that there is one below you that is getting ever older. You also start to understand how they see you, essentially as another parent, even though you're not, and you don't feel it mentally.

It's this sort of thing that makes Pendragon resonate I believe, in a way that it would be hard for a person a decade or more younger, unless he'd had a particularly harsh life, to connect with. I admit, until the death of my father, who died early due to cancer, I'd not be connecting with elements of Pendragon as much, as I'd just have not have experienced the death of someone so close (or as close as you can get without it being you, your wife or your children God forbid). So, now, as my character ages and he feels the effects of these things it takes on more than just the sum of the stats lost. This will be especially true when his age makes him more ineffectual on the field of battle, and he is currently fighting against that tide. As a 36 year old I can appreciate this, though I'm fairing better than my Pendragon character due to living in a different age, I'd be unlikely to really understand the issues of age if I was playing this at nineteen? You also have the retirement of that character, and the story resuming through the son, which then starts to make you think of how your parents influenced how you relate to people and behave, and your attitudes to life. This is also something else someone decade or so younger than me might not be overly thinking about. It also makes my current character's wife a new sort of character, as she becomes the mother of the new one, which changes things again, and has interesting dynamics (this came out last session with the different squires reactions to their wayward Aunt, who to the fathers is the sister of three of their wives).

You have all this and then the setting itself, of course, which is a setting that, at least in the first phase, is driven by the passions of men. This makes the setting both passionate, dynamic and also brutal, which also raises issues that are sort of mature in content and I believe take a certain maturity in attitude to appreciate beyond them just being happenings. Our characters have been drawn into numerous of these activities over the course of their lives, activities which have ironically brought us much glory, if not much honour in the eyes of the modern man (and potentially even a man in the settings, it's just glory and honour don't seem to be related). We have killed men who were just protecting their wives from predatory Kings? We've sacked towns on the promise of aiding other Kings only to kill things and take their stuff on an epic scale and not provide the subsequent help. We've defended our honour by killing men. We've brought down un-holy vengeance on people by killing hundreds. All these things give the setting depth, a pathos and overall passion and conflict.

Despite all this, I've felt this has been acknowledged but not overly played. It's happened, but hasn't been overly dealt with. This needs to happen more. These are conflicts our characters are involved in and it has to change them and drive them onward or into the dirt. I think I've been a bit passive to it all with my current character so far, though I believe part of this is such events are kept more as events, and dealing with them in terms of character growth is something left to the characters to organise between themselves, rather than being helped along from outside. It may also be this has been dealt with, largely in an internal fashion with each player individually. I still think part of this is the tide of history element, you still feel swept along by it and passive to it, but that may be just me. In a way, the tide of history sort of impresses on you the need to take an audience stance to the game, as opposed to an authorial or actor approach. It's something I need to revise, and try and push more as a player, both as my character ages, and my son takes over.

You see, with ever more increasing clarity I'm seeing a game that has passion, hard fought battles, dynamic relations between family, the passing of the years, glory and death, I just need to make it more intimate, while at the moment, while being much more close to it than when it first started, I'm still letting it be too distant, observational and analytical. There is a lot of missed opportunities in Pendragon I think, for all concerned. I think the only time I've really touched the sort of level I'd want to have is when I gave out the rings to represent the bond of our knights next to St Paul's Cathedral and by the sword in the stone. All this isn't surprising, as when you look at it, it's a hard game to play really well and capture all those opportunities, as they are heartfelt and weighty issues, which is good.

In a way, Pendragon is like a fine wine, it maybe takes a number of years to mature.

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session 18, 502 A.D

Session eighteen was a very interesting session because we did something different, we went through character generation for our character's sons, and then we took them on their first adventure together. What was interesting about the process is I'd only put a passing thought into what I wanted Aeron's son to be like. So, it was interesting to sort of go almost 100% of the way through the character creation and then have the character come out via one single moment: the need to describe what my character was doing in the first scene as all of the characters hung around in the stables. I chose to have him sat back reading a book written in Latin. It came from nowhere, but I had the character from that point.

I think I now see Gwanon as the first born son who is the knight who doesn't exactly fit into the path that life has set out for him. In many way he'd be best being the second or third son and finding the time to dedicate more of his life to study or something. It'll be interesting to see how that works out, as it may actually mean playing and designing him to not actually be as a good a knight as the others, in terms of how society views such things anyway.

The other four squires, or squires to be, also proved to be interesting. We had Cullwich, the cock-sure son of Sir Brion; Gwendollen, the daughter, and hence a female squire, of Sir Guillame, who has spent a lot of time in the Forest Sauvage; Cadfael, the eleven year old gargantuan son of Sir Aeron (the younger); and Blaen, the son of Sir Merick. It was an interesting assortment, and it was fascinating to see the new dynamic play out in terms of the next generation to come. The addition of the female knight is also interesting, as it adds a dynamic to the group, and also plays well into the mystery of it, as it is strange for a knight to be female, but then she's spent so long in the Forest Sauvage, that's probably mysterious anyway. The next generation looks like an interesting bunch I'd say.

We did also tie up some loose ends with the current generation, which involved Aeron failing some more ageing rolls, though Guillame came off much worse. We also undertook a quest to confront Magda the Hag so that Aeron (the younger) could retrieve some mystical pagan cauldron. This involved all of admitting our fears, most notably Aeron (the younger) himself. It was a good little adventure and resulted in an excellent speech by Aeron (the younger) about his failings and his position in the group and how he was resolute not to pass those onto his son. It was very good, probably the best single-piece of role-playing in the game so far I'd say.

The years, as they say, ever more painfully, pass by.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Hah, the famous quote from Uncle Ben in Spider-Man mythology, so this must be a review of Spider-Man 3? Nope, despite trying to avoid talking about the issue since I've had a glut of role-playing related commentary recently, I find myself needing to comment on the great anti-GM bias thread inspired by someone's reading of The Burning Wheel. What I'm not going to do is try an analyse or critically comment on the debate in too much detail, as it's the usual messy debate, and has sort of devolved into that type of political debate were two parties slag each off based on extreme view points. All I can do is give my personal take on the broad topics being 'discussed'.

Largely it's about power and responsibility at the gaming table and how those two dynamics relate to each other and interface with the element that sits in the middle, and can have some influence, for good or bad, on the balance: the rules of the game. What is interesting about this issue is it does appear at the gaming table, even in our group, though not in any destructive or dysfunctional way, but it does occur. It wasn't long ago I was discussing standing in the way of control because I usually have a bit more of a clear idea of what I want the concept of any particular campaign to be when I bring it to the players (asserting my GM rights essentially). In short, it's not a totally blank slate and as such player input is fantastic, but I expect input to work within the pitch. That's essentially a control issue. You also have in game issues, largely over authoring rights, in which for numerous reasons, someone takes authoring control possibly when someone else should have had it (either through excitement, or editing a bit too zealously). You also get differences over critical choices the characters make and on at least one occasion these have got heated. So, even in what is an amazingly adult, mature and creatively supportive role-playing group, issues do come up. None of these things need rules to resolve, but when they are there, in the right form, they prove useful.

At this level, the debate has actually kicked off some interesting thoughts. What triggered the debate was the belief that The Burning Wheel is biased against the GM, and attempts to curtail his power. Initially, I discounted this argument completely, as I read The Burning Wheel as a very traditional role-playing game, just with some very good elements that ensure characters are brought to the table and are rewarded for it. As I usually do though, I did step back and think about it a bit and I came to the conclusion those advocating the game tries to take control away from the GM are actually correct. The Burning Wheel proposes that the power at the table is more equal than traditional games, or at least it codes that philosophy in the rules and the way the game is supposed to be played. The most notable way this comes across is through what isn't said: you'll find no ignore this if you want, change this rule if you want, be prepared to fudge rolls to make the story better or whatever else other games have advised the GM to do behind the screen. Nothing wrong with that advice, it's served people well for years, including myself, but The Burning Wheel is one of those systems that is pitched at the level of the system providing interesting story direction through tasks failing and succeeding and having systems in place to make it matter. The theory being, why would you 'cheat' as a GM or player? This in a way, could be seen, as a removal of some of the GM's overall power of fiat.

When you think about it role-playing games have been quite schizophrenic over the years. In the beginning they were based on war games and didn't really involve role-playing at all, beyond the idea that your fighter had a role in the team, and contributed towards succeeding at the challenges facing the team. At the risk of using a very, and I mean very, broad brush we then moved into games that talked about story, theme, mood and role-playing and bordered on artistic crap, but still had rules that didn't concern themselves with that at all. They just talked about it, the rules actually detracted from it hence all the advice along the lines 'feel free to throw them all out and lie and cheat to get a better story', the sort of stuff we've talked about but not provided the rules to make work. A lot of major games fall into this category, which isn't bad, great games still result, but you have to admit it's sort of odd?. Now we are getting games that have rules that concern themselves with story and role-playing, and the point of the game is that. Now, I'm not making any value judgements about any particular game or type of game, but it is interesting how they've developed.

Ultimately, for me, what this is all about is the rise in some small way of the game in role-playing game, and I think this is what it's all about for me. While there is nothing wrong with viewing the system as something that should be avoided or fall into the background, so the role-playing can be got on with, the other view that the rules should define the game, and make it the reason you want to play that game, is also valid. While the idea that the system matters may not be everything, it does matter, as different experiences result. If you ran three fantasy games using the the Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer and the Fate rules, and applied those rules 100% with little dice fiddling, you end up with 3 significantly different games at the table. The point is all of them would be great games, you might suffer one in smaller doses than the other, but the point is they produce different and interesting experiences. That's not a bad thing, just an acknowledgement of the rich pallet that is out there. It's an opportunity to revel in what they deliver at the table.

Personally, I'm a bit of a convert to the rules are important crowd. I was a bit like everyone else, I'd got used to the fact that the rules existed, but you ignore most of them, and they have nothing to do with the actual role-playing of the story, so they don't get applied other than for a quick skill roll or combat. I ran and played in a lot of good games working that way and I still happily would. At the same time, I've come to realise the advantage of rules to enhance the game when they are working well. The rules can do it in numerous ways, often depending on the game in question. The rules might provide a great environment for defeating challenges with tactics, skills and limited resources. Provide a way to allocate and manage narrative control. They might provide a way to bring characters to the table on a whole other level. They might even just provide a framework for creativity, this may even be by just providing an accepted level of understanding about how things work and what everyone is capable of without having to decode GM intent, or a vague social contract. Rules can enhance a game on many levels, and in ways that aren't about control, but excitement, creativity, tension and numerous other positive things. I'm not saying I'm perfect at this, my ability to remember rules lets me down, and I will still 'fiat my way through things' a bit, but there is still a much larger of understanding of rules adding to the fun.

There is, of course, a heavy dose of irony coming with all this. There was a time when anyone sticking to the rules, especially when the rules advocated something other than story or role-playing, which was the case a large part of the time, since the rules were often about anything but that, was denigrated. They got called roll-players, rather than role-players, and other daft things. At times what they were doing might even be described as not role-playing at all but something else. Now, it's come full circle, and we are getting games that make the game about telling a story and role playing, even the relatively traditional ones, and people are saying they are so far removed from the traditional games they should be called something else! Fascinating.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/06/2007 Bookmark and Share
Partly, It Was About Demonstrating A Point

It's been a week now since The Big Gaming weekend, and I've gained a bit of perspective. It's probably time to admit I did go into the experience with an agenda. The agenda was the reason for running the Spirit of the Century powered Thrilling Tales, as well as the fact I like the game, and pulp 's the sort of broad strokes, commercial fiction inspired sort of stuff I like. The agenda was to:

  • Prove that I could do it.
  • Prove that system can generate a better game.
  • Prove that 'long' and continuous campaigns aren't necessary.

Note I don't see who I was attempting to prove this to? Some of it is myself, I'll admit some of it was to break down some concepts I thought the current role-playing group held (speaking of them as an amorphous group, which I realise is a gross generalisation) and there is also an element of just trying to establish the ground for the sake of establishing it (I can be kind of like that, it probably comes from championing and implementing ICT strategies and/or solutions for a living). I'll also admit some of it was competitive, in that I'd been pushing around the issues of the type of game Spirit of the Century advocated for so long, and the gaming group was also changing, discussing and moving in certain directions, I wanted to be the first one to do it, damnit! Some of this obviously relates to the various discussions of using currencies in systems, bringing it to the table through rules mechanisms and playing hard and fast - running Spirit of the Century, for me, was an attempt to step up, stop talking about it and try and actually demonstrate it. You see, it had occurred to me I do a lot of theorising about these things, I try and bring them in during actual play as a player, but that had only been successful to a degree. As a result, it was time to take a step back or take a step forward.

I chose to take a step forward.

It was important to prove it to myself. Ever since the great break from gaming which lasted 4-5 years I came out of the wilderness with a much wider perspective of gaming. I was hanging around observing and discussing when the whole Indie thing took off, hell, even before it took when it was a semi-glimmer on I burned my way through the GNS thing, and more importantly the games that came out of it. All of this actually allowed me to fully understand, and be 100% convinced as to what I wanted out of role-playing games. This has worked brilliant for me as a player, it seemed to work less well with respect to running games. While the reasons for my GM'ing endeavours not going anywhere have been related to personal life issues, the way the group organised its gaming (single, lonely DM, 'long' term, regular play) and the lack of the correct environment I'd been used to, it's safe to say I was also not finding what I wanted. An elusive quality was missing, and this did come down to a bringing it to the table factor. I'd tried to get around these issues numerous ways, by running familiar, zero expectation games or traditional systems with a bit of tagged on rules (though no currency to drive them), etc. I needed to try to run a game with a system that embodied how I believed it should work, putting character out their, and using currency to drive that to happen. If that didn't get me back into the GM'ing chair, then it was time to admit defeat permanently.

It's an oft held belief that system should be ignored or be so much of a non-system that it fades into the background so it appears like it isn't actually there. That's one approach, and it's an approach I used a lot before the big gaming break, it's probably why I played D6 Star Wars so much, it was simple, didn't get in the way, and did allow for heroic action (despite being largely currency-less). I can still see this now in the various people and social circles I encounter on the Internet, the continual attempt to ignore system or remove it in the belief it brings about better 'story' or better 'role-playing'. It is essentially an attempt to remove the game from role-playing game in the belief it gets in the way of the 'role' and 'playing'. At times, it's easy to believe 'the system' is like the dirty aspect of role-playing, but the people involved just don't want to give up on it totally. It's largely bollocks, and when the 'game' does get in the way it's because people are trying to tackle a bowl of soup with a fork rather than a spoon. It's true in the role-playing group as well, we ignored Dungeons and Dragons rules wholesale in our first campaign, and it was great, but how much better could it have been with a better systems match? We used much more of the Cinematic Unisystem in our Buffy series, but how much better could that have been if the currency of drama points had been used a bit more diligently with the goal of driving and rewarding scenes for actually happening, or if the system just supported that slightly better? In short, I needed to prove to myself, the general mass of people telling me otherwise and whoever else, that when the right tool is used for the right job, with a currency supporting the activities in the game you want to see, the much maligned 'game' of the role-playing game can be an essentially part of the experience, even when that experience is more towards the story and character driven drama end. We got a lot closer to that with Spirit of the Century.

'Long' and continuous campaigns aren't necessary, I really wanted to prove this one. It had become a be of an evangelical crusade in my mind. Notice when I say 'long' campaigns I always put it in quotes, the simple reason for this is it's a relative term. The 'long' and continuous campaigns of the gaming group are what most people would call mini-series. While the Pendragon Campaign is an exception, as it is going to actually quite long, the others are relatively short. As an example, the epic Crescent Sea campaign wasn't much over 20 sessions I don't think, and the two seasons of Buffy hovered around 12 sessions per season. Not that 'long', even though they were continuous. What this tended to result in was a feeling only that model worked as it gave time for characters to grow, which I also didn't overly agree with. I needed to rail against that and prove that with the right system, environment and set-up you could run something a session or two long and it be worthwhile from a character development point of view. In short, a mini-series, TV movie or trade paperback model of play, as proposed in playing hard and fast, rather than the regular TV episode model. I felt this needed to be demonstrated because it would result in a different gaming environment, not necessarily removing the need for a main game, but opening up the opportunity to play more games under different models and for the intensity of the characters to be no weaker! This in turn just creates a more fertile, discussive and engaging gaming environment which I believe will result in more games and more GM's opting to get into the chair.

In way, running Spirit of the Century for the first time was an end point and a beginning. It began way back with the frustrations of lonely fun at the end of February which kick-started a number of blogs that put my theories on how things could go out there, and ended with the playing of the actual game. It also represents a beginning, the beginning of me back in the GM'ing chair with a campaign I don't actually mind running. I'm hoping it's also set the stages, in the sense that when the post-Thrilling Tales environment is upon me, I'll be able to run something else, because I've broken down a number of barriers in my head, and also set out the stage for the way I like games to go. This should all serve me well, as what I'm trying to do is just be clearer on all levels, due to me being able to verbalise it more clearer, and due to a previous practical example existing. If I ever do run that contemporary superhero game, or fantasy superheroes game, the use of hero points as a currency to drive the game towards character-driven, comic-book genre tropes can just be ran with.

Ultimately, it's about ending another journey. I have my previous great gaming years, then the 4-5 being an armchair game, then the six as a player and now a combination of factors seem to have combined to bring it back around to GM'ing. It only took six years, but what the hell, I got there eventually.

Permalink | Comments(7) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session 17, 501 - 502 A.D

While Pendragon was the third, fourth for most, game of CottageCon, it holds the odd place of being the game we are currently playing regularly, and as such it has more of a regular episode sort of feel. Still, if it was a TV show episode, it would have been one aired during Sweeps Weak, as the session contained a number of pivotal events.

We finally finished our conquest of Marlboro, the county to the north of Salisbury, though it was less a conquest and more a bit of following protocol and asking nicely. The only exception was the one walled town being held by people from Clarence, the county to the west of Marlboro. We had to take that by force. Aeron was leading the assault on the eastern gate and failed his battle roll considerably, resulting in the death of about 40-men. This is a bit hard to take considering the roaming expeditionary force was working quite well, so having 40-man taken out is annoying and very expensive!

We then returned to Salisbury and the year rolled into 502. We sent the usual assortment of Saxons packing without their tribute, and they continue to fight their war to find out who shall be their King. What then followed was some conclusions to some of our personal stories, which worked pretty well. Aeron got to finally kill his father for past transgressions, and to ensure his sister was safe. Sir Guillaime finally killed the Druid that seemed to be after his daughter and Sir Brion passed some test to do with a Fairy Knight coming to claim his wife as his own!

One of the interesting things about Pendragon, is your character acquires pivotal years. They'd be years, just like in real life, that you'd look back on as the ones that span your life off on a different course or radically changed your thinking. In the case of my character, I can pick out 496 and the proceeding year 497, the years in which I forged the bond between our five knights with the oath over the rings, next to the sword in the stone and in which Aeron realised his mortality for the first time and Sir Brion's home was attacked and two of his children killed. This resulted in Aeron being forced on a road to repentance for passed actions. Now we have 502, in which Aeron finally faces his father and runs him through in an epic rain-soaked battle in a monastery. It's also the year Aeron started to feel his age, with another near mortal injury (in the battle with his father) and some bad ageing rolls. This is fascinating, as it truly does bring home the saga aspect, I almost felt like I was ageing with the character this session, which is interesting, because in years gone by (and I mean years, like 15 or so) ageing rolls would have annoyed me, now the slow atrophy is a joy to behold. I'm either seeing things differently since I'm older, or my gaming perspective has changed, probably both.

At first I was sceptical of the idea of phasing one character out and then playing the son, if only because of the way our games have gone in the past: relatively short, intense affairs, particularly tied to one character. As Aeron gets older, and I sort of feel his ageing, I start to understanding how it can be quite cool, even down to the idea that some characters remain the same, such as my current wife becoming my new characters grandmother? And the fact the rings that bind our cohort will be passed from father to son. Fascinating. I still have no idea what the major thinking behind my character's son will be, but I'm warming to the idea.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
I Jump Inside The 40ft Square Ooze!

I will admit, like many of us before the game itself, I had my doubts. In my mind, the epic Dungeons and Dragons game at CottageCon was going to collapse under a prodigious amount of rules, be it monster statistics, spells, rods, potions, scrolls, feats, spell resistance, damage resistance and whatever else. I know I was looking at the idea of epic fantasy superheroes as an awesome idea, but thinking of it through the lens of an eighteenth level Dungeons and Dragons character as an absolute nightmare. In a way, I expected us to get through one encounter in four hours.

I freely admit my mistake was not realising how one human being can hold the complete dungeons and dragons rules in his head, complete with the majority of spells. The brilliance of the game basically came down to that. All the usually great skills of presentation and delivery and whatever else, but the astounding skill that left us all a bit breathless was the way the DM made the game seem positively rules lite. The portable computer for rolling dice was also handy.

Anyway, the premise was simple. Five epic heroes, in Dungeons and Dragons terms eighteenth level. The aim being to run a highly potent, visceral shot of epic, high fantasy involving fantasy superheroes going into some grand location, full of danger and epic creatures, kick some ass and do all sorts of cinematic stuff with some sense of story thrown in, no doubt involving great melodrama! Did we get that, of course we did.

Basically, the idea was to start everything in media res, actually, that's not true, we just jumped straight to the end. The world had been over run with undead, a plague upon the races of the world. The last remaining pockets of resistance had learned that the ancient Ozymandias was the cause of the problem, and in a desperate last effort reminiscent of Star Wars, the last remaining forces of good launched an attack on the enemies massive ziggurat so our epic heroes could get in another way and surgically remove the menace. Let's just say, the attack started with our heroes doing a High Altitude, Not So Low Observation Drop to the foot of the entrance to the Ziggurat under the disguise of a meteor storm, and things went up from that point.

The journey to end the undead plague was mythical, we faced a 40ft square ooze, which my character let himself get swallowed by so he could slam his artefact sword, the great Soul sword of Pelor himself (the God of the Sun) into the ground and unleash the power of the sun inside it (which didn't kill it, but got us a good bit of the way there). Then we had legions of zombies, very agile ghoul priests, Vrocks, Beholders with magically dampening fields and other madness before breaking through the ziggurat into other dimensions. It was then we faced, Sokar, some sort of badass Dark Angel of Doom. We battled him as well, and he annoyed us so much when he teleported away we used a Wish spell to bring him back so we could finish the bastard off.

Ultimately, the demi-realm of Ozymandius and the discovery that he was re-creating his ancient lands that had fell millennia ago (and which was woven in to the history of the Ziggurat's location from the beginning) to war. Obviously, we eventually battled him as well, in a hell storm of spells, summoned monsters, the momentary stopping of time and other madness.

Mentioning all the epic battles is doing the game a disservice, as it was woven together as an epic tale with a level of conflict and decision making that made it work, rather than just being a series of epic battles. We had my characters beloved as the 'wife' of Ozymandias 'Mummy-style', and she tempted him to open the iron wall we had erected at the entrance shortly after landing at the base of the Ziggurat. We had another character working for infernal powers, and another was tempted to work with Ozymandias as it was her people he was restoring with the souls of the living. Lots of stuff, as well as connections between the characters due to each of us writing interconnecting modules for our character histories (just like Spirit of the Century novels).

It was very good. Would I do it again? I think so. I'm not sure it's something I'd want to do on a regular schedule. I'd certainly do it as a special event every so often though, it was really exciting. I'd probably tone it down a bit in terms of the number of things on the character sheet myself, not let people have as so many scrolls, potions and wands and balance it around the lesser resources. The slow depletion of character resources is good, as it adds tension and means there is less to manage. All minor things for the future though, it was a great experience.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Thrilling Tales: The Crystal of Eternity!

The second game of CottageCon, the third for everyone else, is the hardest to write about, basically because it's the Spirit of the Century powered, Thrilling Tales episode The Crystal of Eternity, so it's the one I ran, which always puts a different spin on things. The other problem is the game was quite dense, just in terms of stuff, which is a good thing, as it was just hectic in terms of events in the game and the application of the system in that concentrated six hours, albeit in two halves (Saturday afternoon/evening and Sunday morning/afternoon).

First, my usually worries about not having prepared enough? Well, the game was 5 acts, it ended up being 3. All the worry about the middle bit? Solved ahead of time by using two character's aspects to inspire the linkage, solved in actual play by using only one of those and the rest replaced with the boundless imagination of science. The game also lost the last two acts because the ever increasing action and adventure in a pulp style that I'd engineered wasn't really needed because the players generated that all themselves in act 3 turning it into a satisfactory conclusion. It sort of rendered the need to do it all again a bit moot, despite the fact Act 5 was the epic arrival of an Airship from the Holllow Earth. As I said as my planning time ran out, I'd figured out I need to plan Spirit of the Century games differently (and any game built on a similar mechanism I think) and that was proven in actual play.

The idea was quite simple, it's the grand opening of The Greatest Show on Earth, the show of Dr Fabian Kloner, which is meant to show the masses the miracles of science! All the characters arrive at the grand charity gala, and socialising occurs. This works well, we have characters encounter each other, NPC's are used to set-up a few lite conflicts to sort of probe aspects (which resulted in some future events being established). Quite a few scenes I could mention establishing character stuff and future stuff as well. It imaged the characters, hopefully imaged the style of 1930's I want to put forward, a sort of grand romance but with darkness on the edges and coming, etc. I thought it worked. Then we had the show itself, and I can safely say, I think I owe the imprinting of the game on the minds of the players as much to Dr Kloner's description of his stunning show as I do to anything I did in that first Act. It was mind blowing. Then it begins, as the audience is clapping and the news headlines for the next few days are guaranteed, Alaria Starfire, Princess of the Hollow Earth arrives in a burst of energy! Act One complete.

The second Act was designed to be less grand, and was largely a chance for the characters to react to the princesses arrival, while getting some links to move them forward and also to deal with the Princess and Nathanial Hurst (who had a Loved And Left The Queen of the Hollow Earth aspect). They learned that the Princess was using a dangerous artefact, The Crystal of Eternity, to build a device to transport her from the Hollow Earth to Earth, but former allies had betrayed forcing her to flee using the experimental device. This where it starts getting a bit dense, we have science coming to the rescue to find the Crystal despite the prodigious power demands! Ancient scrolls (aspect related) informing the heroes the crystal possibly destroyed the ancient civilization of Lemuria (also aspect related). Ultimately, they realise the Crystal has arrived in a different time to Alaria, learn of a similar energy signature in Iraq only to attacked by Battle Golems from the Hollow Earth! Act Two complete.

The third act had the heroes going to Iraq, now a land in chaos due to the British leaving, one upshot of this is it's become a den of illegal expeditions to raid the land for antiquities. This part of the game was done after some discussion of aspect use on Saturday evening, as it had been done in Act 1 and Act 2, but we felt the compels could be better. As a result of that, Act 3 went pulp crazy. They found the general location of the energy signature, in a mountain at the end of a deep and long valley, but their was already an expedition camp there. They went there and chaos ensued. Aspects were compelled to have their scouting team discovered and their truck break. It's not long before they are in a pitched battle around their truck, which included great tactics like a gas powered tyre being sent rolling at an enemy truck ready for another character to blast at the right time with his Hollow Earth blasters. Just as things couldn't get any more hectic, an aspect was compelled (Our of the Frying Pan! Into The Fire! I believe) to have a tank roll over the hill! Then another character compelled an aspect to have his one-on-one battle with the SS officer roll into the tanks path and he wouldn't moved till he'd killed him (aspect related). Thus the countdown with the tank began, we had people performing heroic moves they compelled into failure, the cool 'butler' character using his Resolve as his defence to coolly walk towards the tank as it fired at him, and all sorts of stuff. Anyway, they got in, battle for the Crystal in the ancient sanctum and a load of other stuff happened. Things Man Was Not Meant To Know were attempted to be summoned via the technological crystal contraption. We a had desperate fight with an arch enemy, remote control mini-helicopters being used to grab the Crystal from the ancient device, epic mook fights, characters succumbing to the voices from beyond due to compels, and a mad cap scramble for the Crystal as it rolled towards the bottomless crevasse followed by some sleight of hand to retrieve it from the character under the control of the beings from beyond. It even ended with the whole cavern collapsing.

All that, and I still feel I'm skimming the surface (the plot does make more sense then presented here, more compels, lots of character details and cool establishment of character in the game, etc). As I say, it's difficult, in a good way, to get it all out and on the page.

As for the system? Well, considering this was our first go at it, I think it went amazingly well. I think it was a bit new in the first half, act 1 and act 2, and the odd compel was probably used in a way that wasn't that fantastic, and potentially even a bit less than stellar. Still, fate point use did get used, so the currency was flowing, we just didn't have the counter direction fully nailed, but then I always thought the compels would be the difficult bit, and the true genius of it. The second half benefited from some frank discussion, and the compels were much better. I still think there is room for improvement, but overall it worked really well. It worked really well because Act 3 was ridiculously exciting, cool, tense and just pulp, and 90% of that came just from compel escalation. I also started to phase in a few more bits of the system in Act 3, namely zones, blocks and manuevers, etc. Not perfectly, but the abstraction of it all seemed fine for everyone. Need to read a bit more on all that for next time.

Even the total change of how things went served me well post-game, as it meant I'd not revealed anything significant about the enemies on the Hollow Earth via cut scenes, since it had become obvious they'd not be appearing all epic style at the end. Since the characters are really wanting to go back to the Hollow Earth with Alaria to help free her Empire (again for some), I'm free to run with that with one enemy only mentioned and not seen. Great stuff!

It was all great fun, so fun it's hard to accept the way the system works WILL generate it again. Anyway, I need to calm down, think and then ponder Thrilling Tales: The Battle for the Hollow Earth!

To Be Continued...

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
CottageCon Is Over!

And I am completely knackered. I was also completely knackered on Saturday night and I had to go back and run the second half of Thrilling Tales: The Crystal of Eternity! It was a bit daunting to be honest, I was that tired. Actually, not to diminish the awesomeness of the gaming, but the effort the weekend obviously took was the most surprising thing. I suppose I should have known really, since we tend not to game asleep if we can avoid it so a day of gaming is a bit like having one of those days full of meetings that involve constant concentration and listening. The science fiction conventions I used to go to were also very tiring, but I put that to being constantly up till about 0400 hours.

I'm not going to go on about the games much at the moment, as I'll do an individual entry on each of those, but suffice to say they were pretty damned good. I enjoyed them all. After saying we are all going to go away to some cottage and game for 2-3 days for about five years, it was great that it happened, and more importantly, lived up to expectations and probably surpassed them a bit I think. This is partly due to the new gaming environment which is merging, in which we can game, discuss aspects of the game, all within the context of improving the experience. The concept of challenging the frontiers, questioning what you are doing and why you are doing it to try and make the experience even better is an essential part of gaming for me, so I'm glad it seems to be going in that direction. This worked particularly well for Thrilling Tales, in which I thought the first session went well, but after some discussion overnight the second session was pure crazy, escalating danger and excitement pulp goodness!

So, CottageCon? Thumbs up. Would I do it again? Of course, I would, though I find myself being more interested in how it influences our regular gaming, as it may be possible to bring a bit of CottageCon vibe just to our regular experience.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
On The Eve Of The Big Day

It's the day before the beginning of CottageCon. As I sit writing this I can say I'm currently experiencing excitement and fear. Well, fear is probably too strong a word by far, but my word-fu is failing me. It's sort of an underlying stress, nervousness and performance anxiety I guess. These two feelings are clashing together like the mythical clashing rocks in Jason and the Argonauts.

It's exciting because it's something new and different, thought slightly less new by the fact I'll miss a proportion of what is making the whole thing an event by not actually spending the two nights in the cottage, but driving to it for the games on Saturday and Sunday. Long story. Actually, not that long, but nothing I specifically want to go into either. As a result, for me, it is a bit just like a normal weekend but with more role-playing games being run. This is not so much something that reduces the excitement, more a recognition I am probably missing out on an important part of it.

As for the slight undertone of stress, nervousness and performance anxiety, that obviously relates to Thrilling Tales. It's gone through a bit of a cycle actually. Like an undulating line. A strong passion for the idea, followed by an excellent character creation session and some excellent discussions. Then the relatively lonely process between then and now, which always tests me for the simple reason I get excited about ideas due to engaging people about them. The ultimate need to sit down in a room on your own and prepare stuff is always a bit of a double-edged sword for me as it always results in a slow grinding down of the energy for it all. As it comes close the usual stuff hits. The general feeling of being unprepared. A distinct feeling you need to understand the rules better, which is probably true as I've not looked at them seriously for a month (and now I've ran out of time), which is annoying as if I don't apply the rules, some of the point may well be lost. A slow questioning of the basis of the core concepts of the rules which you happily excepted as great before. The need to do more research about some elements of the adventure. The idea that the whole thing might just not work, even more so considering the game does bring something slightly new to the table we've not tried before, which in turn goes back to some of the other things mentioned. In short, you just question it all, and everything you saw so clearly before: adventure idea, rules, genre and the whole aspects and fate point thing. The passion for the idea is still there, it is just like a reverse bell curve and the rising side of the curve hopefully comes with actual play, only to then begin the downward cycle again, and repeat.

While this all sounds a bit depressing, it's not as bad as it sounds, and I'm writing it with a knowing smile, it's just a recognition of the cycle all these things go through, which in the past was either cured by the constant talk about gaming, and to some extent just science fiction and fantasy stuff, which flattened out the bell curve, or the fact I only ran something relatively infrequently when something else caused the curve to rise again. It's why I'll probably never write a book, as that would demand consistent application of energy and resources, it's obviously something I'm very bad at, in my spare time, at least.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to it. It will be interesting to see how everything goes, and there are some good games ahead. It's just annoying I feel less 'prepared', rather than actually being less prepared, which I suspect isn't the case, a few specific areas aside, than I felt five weeks ago. It's a bit like a big presentation for an important contract. In the immediate 'window' before the event, the length of which is sort of elastic, you feel less prepared than you did 2-3 days or a week before.

The human brain, it'll overcomplicate anything! Or at least mine does, it's probably not the same for everyone.

Permalink | Comments(11) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Preparation And The Bloody Middle

At some point I gained a problem when it comes to preparing role-playing sessions: the bloody middle. I never used to have this problem, or should I say it never presented itself as a significant problem, now it presents itself as a problem every time. I can usually come up with cool openings, and this is how my ideas usually start, I can usually envisage an appropriately epic ending in a broad conflict and epic location sense, the problematic area is always options for the players to move from that opening to that ending. I hate the middle. The same is proving true for Thrilling Tales, as the opening and the ending has been broadly visualised for a while, the middle still proves elusive. It's not actually that the middle isn't there, I'm just never satisfied with the potential sequence of events.

Funnily enough, I usually deal with this problem by avoiding the middle all together. As an example, the sessions plotted via situation plus relationship map concept, with a sense of an exciting ending, avoids the need for a middle. The players enter the situation, essentially the opening, and from that point they engage with the relationship map until the conclusion can be sprung. Thus any sense of a possible mechanical plot structure in the middle is totally avoided! This tends to be slightly more difficult in pulp, or at least it has so far, though I imagine it can be cracked over time.

The other solution is to leave the middle blank and basically assume the middle will take some form of shape in actual play. This isn't such a bad idea, as even when you have a prepared middle, this happens to one degree or another anyway, but I'm still a bit old school and I can't bring myself to not have some notes on a potential middle even if it ends up not being used.

One thing that has changed as well is my preparation notes. I've not changed the notes I bring to a game for ages. Like a decade. I usually bring pages of A4 with notes on the various things that I plan to have happen. Thrilling Tales sees the introduction of a new method, which gets rid of the pages of A4 notes, and instead moves to a model of scene diagram and record cards. Basically, each part of the adventure has a Visio diagram split into sections and in each section the scenes I envisage that could happen. I then have a record card for each of those scenes which contains brief notes about the scene. That should be all I need. I see this as having two advantages: the potentially anatomy of the current part of the adventure is clearly visible in the diagram (and notes can be written on it), and the use of index cards means the information on each scene is discrete, not lost in pages of A4.

Anyway, I need to get back to that bloody middle. I also noticed the other gaming staple always kicks in, no matter how much time you have to prepare, your brain can't seem to be arsed with anything but ridiculously broad strokes until that deadlines loomes large!

Permalink | Comments(7) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session 16, 501 A.D

I remember a time when our Knightly brethren used to insult us, and our response to that was some harsh words and pointing out that we had wooden bowls, and our bread was slightly fresher then theirs. We might have also written a harsh poem to try and discredit the guy. As I commented at the time, it was all a bit Mean Girls. Now, it's a bit different, when someone insults our honour, we ask them to step outside and kill them in a single stroke, though we might also throw in the a second one just to impress everyone by cutting of the guys head before his lifeless corpse hits the ground. The ironic thing about the knight who suffered this fate, at the hand of our best swordsman, Aeron the Younger, was his point of argument was correct, we did need to be more aggressive and expand, but he made the unfortunate mistake of saying that while throwing in a comment about Aeron the Younger shagging Lady Ellen (which, miraculously wasn't true). This was unfortunate, especially since expanding aggressively was the plan in 501. Poor chap, just goes to prove how you put your argument can get you killed.

We had the usual Saxon visitors turning up to ask for tribute in numerous ways. There was a unique wrinkle to it all this year, as they all turned up wanting us to support them in the grand bid to become overall Saxon King on our shores. Obviously, we had no interest in this, as we'd decided to use their wish to fight each other to see who has the biggest manhood to expand our realms. We sent them away with nothing. They are consistent though, you'd think they'd have the message by now.

Anyway, 501 is the year we finally got some balls, the sorts of balls some of us had been advocating we should have had from the beginning. Now, due to a sense of confidence with our leadership position, the fact we've built up some troops, and a sense that we aren't that bad at this military lark is causing us to pull together our troops each year and ride out with the expeditionary force and take anything that looks a bit headless. It's a bit like a medieval version of Germany in World War II, we've decided we need breathing room, a larger army and a bigger buffer zone and threat projection to make our enemies think twice, be they Saxons or our neighbours. We managed to take 98% of the country to the north of us, but one stubborn city held out due to being held by Clarence, that counties western neighbour. We may also be building a big enough army to liberate the lands on our border to the south from the Saxons, which I admit would be a glorious thing we'd love to do.

A deadline may exist for all this though, as those with a bit more knowledge of the genre or milieu, or they've just read portions of the campaign, seem to know something big happens in 505? Does that put a deadline on our expansion plans? Still, the year 505 will put the oldest of our number at 40, and that may get us first!

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
The RPG Hobby and the D&D Hobby

I never had a massive D&D apprenticeship as part of my formative role-playing years. We played a couple of campaigns in the original D&D boxed set, and we played very little AD&D (which became D&D), about 3 campaigns and a few sessions. While doing this we also played FASA Star Trek in a very TV show style, Golden Heroes, Traveller, Call of Cthuhlu, etc. We had quite diverse range of games and style of campaigns. Even when we did play variations on D&D, it was hardly in the way that D&D seemed to be designed to played.

As a result, while I knew D&D was the most prominent role-playing game by a significant margin, I didn't actually know what this meant until the last six years or so. Basically, while I'm not 100% sure I hold to the idea myself, I don't think someone making the argument that there is essentially a role-playing hobby and a Dungeons and Dragons hobby is making an argument without merit.

The concept basically comes from the idea that there are a whole host of people out their that only play D&D and that for them the particular style of play D&D is designed for is what role-playing is. I first encountered this when playing Neverwinter Nights, which allowed me to bump into this audience. The Neverwinter Nights community was full of people who used to play D&D but no longer did, and had come back to it via Neverwinter Nights. These people had quite often only played D&D, and as far as they knew that was as far as the role-playing hobby went. Then you had the more interesting people, those still engaged in playing D&D, and still invested in it from a time perspective, but they still used the first or second edition of the rules. You also had people who had moved along through the editions, and currently used third edition. What was common across all of them is they had a very weird perception of the rest of the hobby. You'd talk to them about gaming and they viewed everything through the tactically focused, team-based challenge and resource management perspective of D&D. They'd also have surprising little knowledge of other systems, calling games that had come out in 1988 new, for instance. I actually started to feel like I was touching upon a whole community of people in the role-playing hobby who had little experience beyond D&D, which is fine if that's by choice and everyone is happy, it was more a surprise it existed.

I've recently started browsing around ENWorld, and while there are plenty of people in that community aware of and playing other games, you do also get the vibe of some having the D&D is role-playing and role-playing is D&D mindset. One of the most interesting things I encountered on ENWorld was the smattering of burn out threads, and the discussions about supplement overload, the two often being related. Basically, the D&D game is complex and demands so much preparation time to make it worthwhile, or at least it does in the way they play, it's literally burning people out (which can be argued is how it should be played). They face making all encounters balanced, accounting for every PC power, ability and spell (and the combinations of those), making maps, planning the dungeon, utilising miniatures and having those fights take potentially hours. If you throw in the fact a core of them seem to be wrestling with the whole 'this player bought this supplement so he takes options from it for his character' syndrome it all gets pretty messy, pretty fast unless you have an encyclopaedic knowledge. Oh, and for some of them, God forbid a game they look should not have a rule for everything! It's no wonder the D&D game is one of the only games that still has a market for published adventures, albeit in magazines and on-line rather than in the old module format, but it's no wonder the audience still seeks them out. One answer is to set a limit on the books the campaign allows, but amazingly this seemed problematic for some.

If you ferret around enough you then encounter another mindset sort of unique to the hardcore D&D play style: that of the adventurers sort of being special forces equivalents, professionals at what they do and everything should be viewed through that lens. This tends to result in some interesting quirks. It tends to create a survival of the fittest quality, making certain character ideas not fit for purpose as why would this professional team of adventurers have such a person on their team? It is pointless playing a Cleric who doesn't heal as that is what they are supposed be doing, as well as buffing others rather than themselves as it's more efficient and professional to buff the fighter. The religious philosophy of the Cleric isn't really important. Finally, they also filter all sense of drama and role-playing though this lens as well. This results in sort of 'on the job' time and role-playing time, in that any role-playing not specifically linked to getting the job done isn't viewed as sensible, and instead it has to wait until interludes in the tavern between professional jobs. These professional adventurers wouldn't sit in the middle of Moria and discuss the nature of heroism (even if it was 'down time'), that'd just get them killed! Basically, you're like a team of professional athletes or soldiers who rely on each other to win, and weakness isn't tolerated.

This professional adventurers and low tolerance for weakness attitude results in character concepts often being equated to character builds, and ones efficient to one degree or another, certainly not deficient as that would be a weakness. As a result, you get threads about character concepts on the more hardcore D&D forums that aren't about the character at all, you learn nothing about them, what you do get is a distribution of class levels, feats, gear and other paraphernalia related to the character build. This is inevitable due to the low tolerance for weakness, and the fact the game almost makes it mandatory otherwise you can become a sort of lemming, a bit like an adventuring village idiot.

What's interesting is this all sounds like an MMO to me? The whole idea of the professional team is used consistently for raiding, as is the attitude of having better gear and having better character builds suited for raiding and not tolerating those that make the team weaker. They even discuss build efficiencies and give them code names for easy reference. The whole supplement treadmill concept and problem has similarities to the whole expansion, buff and nerf cycle of an MMO game, with players getting new widgets and new gear, the difference being of course the game designers have to account for that but not the DM. At the same time though, the concept of players buying supplements for the 'buff's' and new widgets is similar. They even talk about 'rules mastery' for D&D, which is very similar in concept to 'Theorycraft' in MMO games, the idea of knowing the theory, rules and mechanisms behind the game exhaustively, and thus being able to extrapolate the effects of things. Even the marketing model is similar, you buy the main rulebook and then they try and keep the 'subscription' going buy releasing books with new content, and more importantly new rules with new widgets in quite often for players to use, and that's one of the important differences.

Obviously, it was D&D that influenced the early MMO games, but it's quite clear now that this relationship has become quite circular. The 3.0 and 3.5 editions of D&D are, if played purely as presented as it was meant to be played (in the 'facing challenges with a small tactical team with finite resources' sense), it is very much like an MMO in many ways. It just takes more effort and more time and seems to result in a lot of burnout! The synergy between D&D and MMO games has reached epic proportions. It'd be interesting to know if the parallel was just as strong in the 2.0 and 1.0 editions?

I'm sure every game has its dedicated fans. I'm sure every game has its unique styles of play that get introduced purely due to the mechanics at the table. As an example, I'm sure there is a style of play exhibited by some Exalted players that make the game feel very much like a CCG, in that they use charms, which may even be written on cards, and spend essence, for which they may use beads, and as result it becomes a bit like a collectable card game. I'm also sure there are Ars Magica players who are so obsessed with authentic history, that it's like playing in a history thesis. At the end of the day though, what makes D&D most interesting is the presence of the hardcore player-base, in a game that is still the largest in the hobby and the degree to which they are like the undiscovered country. For every hive of them you find on the net I bet there is ten just getting on with it without any significant net presence at all.

It is almost a hobby within a hobby from a certain point of view. It'd be interesting to know what other people think, as I'm aware I tend not to like 'extremes in thinking' (which raises a topic for another day), so I'm not the best person to view it objectively.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Three Out Of Four Or Five Ain't Bad

Suffice to say, Saturday 5th May to Monday 7th May 2007 is the time during which the Thrilling Tales material for CottageCon has to be sorted. It doesn't have to be completed, but the metaphorical pen has to be put to the metaphorical paper and things have to move on from just concepts in my head. I'd planned to do this a few weeks ago, but things got the better of me as usual. Still, not a problem, as things have been progressing nicely in other ways.

In all honesty, it's not as unprepared as it sounds, as while I've never sat down and done anything about it as an organised exercise for any particular length of time, it's been constantly shifting around in my subconscious and ideas and concepts have been coming into focus. A bit nebulous? You've done nothing and you're just making excuses? Okay, a bit more meat on the bone.

Well, I have the the concept, in that I know what the situation is the players will be faced with, and with that comes a title. This has come after a long and hard look at the aspects of the players, and some hard decisions on what to include and what not to include. There is a lot in those aspects, it was a hard choice. The fact I can't include everything in those aspects makes more adventures a possibility, and this is ignoring other stuff that's entered my mind not related to aspects at all. In truth, a few more may slip in as side-orders, but that will come out this weekend.

As I said before, I have a four hour slot, I never like to speculate on how long things will take as I'm a natural pessimist and always assume I'll run hopelessly short. This never happens, and I usually run over, but I worry about it anyway. What's more interesting about this is pacing is key, this isn't a problem as pacing is good. It's a bit of a return to my WEG Star Wars games of old, so I'm comfortable with that in theory, while being aware it was a different group at a different time. As I've said before, I intend to split it into four one hour slots, let's call them acts, the issue is I already have enough material in 'the pot' for three of those four acts. Basically, the opening, the immediate aftermath of the opening, which obviously constitute hour one and two, and the final act. If anything this leaves me with a quandary of only having one hour left, leaving the 'middle' section a bit squashed. I suspect I might push it five acts and go for the extra hour, but part of me can't believe I'm looking for more time, I'm usually worrying about filling it. We shall see, it may become five acts but still four hours.

I've also been looking at conflicts. I like to have a web of conflicts that I am aware of, sort of pre-existing strings that I can pull should anyone else at the table fail to pull them, namely the players. These conflicts come in numerous forms, they may be conflicts between non-player characters, existing conflicts between players or issues I know will trigger conflicts with particular player characters. I currently have a very sketchy map of the conflicts that I believe are in play between the player characters and the critical non-player characters. I also have conflicts that I may trigger with player characters and have a number of ideas in mind on how to approach those, usually the presence of non-player characters and the creation of scenes.

I've also been doing more research, from a pure colour perspective. This isn't an historical piece I'm doing, I'm viewing it very much like Star Wars, and as such the 1930's element is very much just a big backdrop for the big adventures to happen, not an exercise in simulating the setting. Still, colour is important, it grounds things enough to make the adventure more epic, and adds that sweeping, romantic aspect to things. I also believe it strengthens the role-playing of the players, as it provides a backdrop they can feed into to imagine scenes and potentially frame some. One of the great finds is some Wikipedia pages which basically provide a page for each year in the 1930's listing significant historical events, and related stuff around popular culture. Very good. Not extensively detailed in an academic sense, but when you're just wanting colour, it's fantastic. It was also very revealing in terms of just...stuff. The second find was a load of old Newsreels, which had me captivated. I vowed to find a way to use the Newsreel idea in someway. I have a couple of ideas. They were also just revealing, which is good.

The one thing that has come out of the process so far, and really just affirms something I've believed for a while, and I've been looking for a system to provide for ages: the aspects are everything. They ensure that the characters are just clearer up front, as the story flags are present on the character sheet, conflicts are hidden within them in terms of buttons to push and existing conflicts between characters. I don't think I'll ever run anything again without some aspect-type process to establish those flags. I suspect I'll aspect up any future character I create as well, thus replacing my long established premise-based system.

As a GM, you don't feel like you're starting with a blank canvas, or at worse a confused canvas and spending the first 3-4 sessions fishing. What's even better, a percentage of this stuff comes out as compelling and invoking aspects, so the currency gets flowing as well. The process so far has also reminded me why I'd never commit to GM'ing on a regular schedule, these things come along at their own pace, and I'm happy that way.

We shall see what the weekend produces. To be continued...

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Conflict! Conflict! Conflict!

A while back I got to discussing the difference between actors and authors at the gaming table, how the key part of any system was the currency, how the system interacts with the whole actor and author thing and finally how this all combined to potentially play hard and fast (the only way to play). One thing implied during all this, but not explicitly stated, is the importance of conflict. Quite simply, conflict should drive any campaign, session, scene and interaction.

What is the primary difference between how role-playing games play out and how movies or TV shows play out? The lack of conflict. Any good dramatic entity has conflict at its core, and this can sometimes be obvious, or it can sometimes be quite nebulous, but it exists at all levels. Conflict can be as obvious as a physical fight, but it rarely is, and even when a physical fight is happening the conflict is often about something else. The duels between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were never about the physical fight, but instead involved conflicts over philosophy and their relationship as father and son. The major fights in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer were rarely about the physical conflict, but covered issues such as betrayal, love, friendship and various other topics as the actual issue that needed resolving. Conflict should be important, having someone's wife kidnapped in a role-playing game creates a conflict, but it isn't a true conflict unless she's kidnapped because of a decision the character made! It needs to be personal, emotional and cutting to the core of what the character is about. One reason role-playing games can often lack that vital spark, that something that just raises the game, is the lack of aggressive pursuit of conflict at this level. Role-playing happens, physical fights happen, but everyone at the table isn't looking, like they might if writing a TV or movie script, for constant conflict existing at this multi-layered, dramatic level.

What tends to happen in a typical role-playing game is the focus is in completing the objective, solving the plot and everything is sort of viewed through that lens. As a result, when the characters interact with non-player characters it's often purely as a mechanism to get the next piece of information, in truth the scene may not be part of the solving of the plot, but as part of a larger, longer-term mosaic of introducing and establishing longer-term conflicts. What you also find is player characters often accrue conflicts with each other, but they don't introduce them or author scenes to resolve them or take them to the next step. This can be for numerous reasons, going from embarrassment right through to a feeling conflict should not exist within the group, and everything in between. On final problem is most role-playing systems don't dedicate any of their page count to supporting the bringing of characters to the table, or the introduction of conflict.

One system that does this is Primetime Adventures, which is to be expected considering it is 100% focused on the gaming session producing what amounts to a very good TV show episode, and as such conflict in every scene is essential. In Primetime Adventures every scene introduced into the game has to have a conflict, each character in the game has an Issue (aspect, premise, etc, similar to other systems, it's about a mechanic to bring it to the table) they are dealing with which is essentially the personal story of the character. As an example, Xena: Warrior Princess had the issue of redemption, her overall story was gaining redemption for her passed actions. As a result, any episode which features her prominently, for which there is also a mechanic for, would probably touch upon this issue in one form or another. The players are also rewarded for exploring their Issue, and more importantly, creating scenes that focus and explore another character's issue. As a result, we have the perfect symbiosis again of system, currency and the intent of the game and a focus on bringing it to the table and being rewarded for it. All this combines to make the goal of all involved in a Primetime Adventures session, to create an excellent TV episode, with a beginning, middle and end, with a focus on the spotlight character (for that episode) and a focus on their issue in some way, even if just via an overall theme.

This is how I think all role-playing games should play out. I'm not suggesting everyone should play Primetime Adventures, very good though it is, but that the game says a lot about what can be missing from a lot of games: that essential conflict. As a DM I'm always looking to introduce it. I'll create whole scenes that exist to just take to task a conflict I believe exists in the player character. Almost always, whatever else is going on my sessions, there is an overriding conflict and theme. As a player I want to introduce Primetime Adventure type scenes all the time, sometimes I'm more successful than others, to take to task a conflict I believe does or should exist, or set-up potentially conflicts for down the line. This is my one, single focus during actual play, if I'm on the ball and alert. As a player I want those scenes with those conflicts and I'm looking for them all the time, I come alive when they happen and sort of get a bit lethargic when they don't. I'll be honest, when I play I'm not interested in solving the plot, though I know it will happen, I'm more interested in what the conflicts raised in that journey are, and how they change my character and the relationships that surround him (more conflicts).

So, the best role-playing games are when they come a touch closer to their dramatic counterparts. I know role-playing games are a different medium, and some things work in them that don't work in written mediums (and the same is true the other way around), but they are both about conflict, conflict and more conflict. Everyone should be looking to introduce it, and it doesn't mean blazing arguments every scene, or characters refusing to speak to each other, it can just be about taking issues to task, and potentially even resolving them, but they should come up.

Conflict. Conflict. Conflict. Look for it. Use it. Introduce it. It's the only way to be sure. Just introduce it in that TV show way, were conflict exists all the time, but the main characters ultimately still resolve things, as its the resolving of them, or the acceptance of each others differences, that makes them grow! It's okay for characters to get along, but when something comes up that might provide an interesting conflict, it's good to go. After all, look at Buffy: The Vampire Splayer again, aren't the central cast in that the friends they are because of the conflicts they've had with each other and been involved in, rather than due to the lack of them?

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/05/2007 Bookmark and Share
Gaming Stores Don't Do It For Me
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

They used to. I used to like nothing more than going into a gaming store, whether it be the one in Newcastle, Middlesbrough or Leeds, or in the dim distant past Aberdeen. I could just soak up the stuff on the shelves and more often than not there was something I was interested in. Those days have gone. This isn't a sudden realisation, it's been a slow, inevitable process that has taken place over about the last six years.

I used to buy lots of games. I bought way more games then I ever could play, and I bought way more games then I ever intended to play. I found them interesting in and off themselves. I found the potential of playing them interesting. I even bought loads of games during a four year period in which I wasn't actually participating in the hobby in an actual play sense. I was discussing the hobby on-line, reading a lot and learning a lot, one could say I was researching, but I wasn't actually playing. This didn't seem to dull my capacity to buy games though.

Since meeting the current group, it's safe to say my interest in buying games has waned, it might have fluctuated in the first two years, the odd spike here and there, but its has certainly been on the downward trend for the last four. I now drift into gaming stores out of some strange feeling of nostalgia, as I know there will be absolutely nothing in there I am interested in, and even if there is the chances I'll be interested enough to purchase it are ridiculously low.

There are numerous reasons for this.

The role-playing games that generate a lot of saleable product are also the role-playing games that tend to sell well, so this creates an exponential effect on shelf space. This means you tend to find a large percentage of any stores shelf space dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons, D20 product generally, White Wolf games, etc. I've got no interest in any of those games. If you factor in that shelf space dedicated to role-playing games is always under threat form higher return items, it's easy to appreciate why you can go into many gaming stores now and they are effectively only selling D20 and White Wolf product.

I'm not overly into any of the associated product that gaming stores often sell, or as is more likely the case, the science fiction media store, or whatever they are called these days, that happens to have some shelf space that has role-playing games on them. I don't play collectable card games, I don't read Manga or watch Anime and I don't collect comics. I don't buy miniature war games and I'm not interested in collecting science fiction merchandise. I had my years collecting science fiction merchandise, and believe me, that industry got its monies worth. Despite this, the last time I went into a gaming store, I was more likely to purchase an Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man or Ultimate X-Men trade hardback. I didn't, as that was still pretty low on my priorities, but it was slightly higher than any role-playing games they had on the shelf.

It's also true to say that my interest has waned. I'm a lot less likely now to buy a role-playing game just to read, or because I'm remotely interested in the subject matter. I only buy games I may well run, and I don't run things that often, or that I'm going to play in, and even then I don't overly feel the need to buy into a game I'm playing. I haven't purchased anything Pendragon related, for instance. I'm wracking my brain now trying to think of the last game I actually bought in a store? Mutants and Masterminds Second Edition or The Burning Wheel, both of them some time ago.

I'm also less likely to find the type of game I may be interested in buying in a store. A part of this reason is because the stores are consolidating on the perennial, highly active lines as has already been mentioned, but it's also because I'm unlikely to find the odd game I'm in the market for actually in a store at all. I was lucky to find The Burning Wheel in the store really, and it if hadn't been on the shelf that day I probably would have never purchased it as I wasn't motivated enough to buy it on-line. I really wanted Spirit of the Century, the chances of finding that on the shelves in a game store is pretty low, to the point of ridiculous. This doesn't mean I'm only interested in obscure games, as that's not true, should Beyond Human ever come out, it'll easily get a bit of shelf space and I'll buy it in a store, but a larger percentage (than before), of the ridiculously low amount I spend, is likely to be only available on-line.

In many ways, this is the irony of the gaming 'industry' and the reason why it will only make a few people very rich. It may even be true it doesn't make anyone rich, it doesn't even count as an industry really. You see, I play a role-playing game every other week, and I'm amazingly dedicated to the hobby. I like discussing it, I like doing everything I can to make our games better, via investigating and implementing new tools, techniques and ideas. I am dedicated to the hobby, but the issue is this does not necessarily translate into sales. Even if it does translate into sales it tends to translate into single, discreet purchases that aren't really going to raise my purchasing profile. Despite my avid dedication, and passion about the hobby, I'm worthless to the 'industry' as a significant sales prospect.

It says a lot about an 'industry' when some of its most passionate members can contribute so little to the bottom line. Ironically, put to some. I'm still a high spender, as it's actually possible to participate in the hobby, be passionate about it, and never buy a thing!

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session 15, 499 - 500 A.D

The army of the Black Bear Clan rather efficiently defeated, our knights returned to Salisbury to find that refugees from the southern edge of our lands had moved to Sarum, the capital. It would seem our nefarious Saxon invaders to the south had started to raid into our lands. This wasn't unexpected, we'd told them to get lost a few times when they've asked for money, and in the last few years they've not even been allowed in Sarum on pain of being prodded with sharp implements.

The problem was, some of our own lands had been hit by the raids, and the Saxons had taken slaves, including the wife of one of our number. Since heading south with an army didn't seem to be the solution, we decided to try something different, so four of us headed off to Hantone to rescue her Robin Hood style. This went well, and we rescued our peasants, and Sir Merrick's wife, and escaped from Hantone via the sea, having destroyed any long boats that could have given chase.

As the year rolled over into 500 A.D we learned that King Idris of Cornwall had expanding westward again, putting pressure on our border and that of Dorchester, who we have strong connections with. After the envoys of Kind Idris failed to set-up an alliance through marriage with Salisbury, he decided to invade Dorchester. We decided to make a stand and went with an army to defend our allies. We successfully held off the siege and King Idris was forced to retreat, for now.

As the year rolled over into 501, our knights have started to look their true enemy in the eye: age. Three of the oldest knights have turned 35 and have had to start making ageing rolls to represent the slow descent into old age. We have fought all sorts of battles, survived all sorts of political shenanigans and even battled mythical creatures, but if we don't die heroically in battle then age will finally do us in. Luckily, two of our number suffered no ill effects due to age, but Sir Guillame was hit particularly had during the winter of 500 A.D. Regrettably, despite our heroic rescue, Sir Merrick's wife died during childbirth in 500 A.D. This is particularly problematic as he made an oath to marry the fourth daughter of the King of the Forest Savauge, and her true motives are unknown, and she also has a child by Aeron the Younger, as well as by Sir Merrick.

This was an interesting session, the break away from politics and leading armies was good, and it was interesting to have the characters do something adventurous into enemy territory. I particularly liked how evocative the city of Hantone was, as it was well described and felt quite atmospheric. It really inspired you to want to lead an army in and return the city to some sense of 'civilisation' put it that way.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Eureka! The Social Conflict Light Bulb Shines

As I've said in the past, the things I tend not to like about a lot of 'less traditional' (I'm trying to avoid the word Indie) role-playing games, is when they throw too much of what constitutes a traditional role-playing game out. They do this in numerous ways, they devalue the DM too much, they enforce strict scene rotation, scene resolution rather than task resolution, they make it too much about cooperative storytelling to the expense of everything else. This is why I like The Burning Wheel and Spirit of the Century, as they seem to be the first of a new batch of games that have everything about the 'less traditional' games I like, while still being, ironically enough, very traditional games in terms of actual play, at the table.

The one item both games keep, which I've wrestled with for a while, and probably only come to terms with recently, is the idea of the social conflict being something that has rules, just like combat has rules. I used to have issues with it because I felt it took away player choice, but I've now come to the conclusion that it doesn't take away choice, it just provides a mechanism for the player to not always get his way. That may seem like a bad thing, but I don't think it is.

Look at how these things work without a social conflict mechanism. First, you fall into that murky area between character skill and player skill, in that no one wants it to be just a simple roll, but then people are also conscious that playing it makes someone with a low seduction skill suddenly James Bond because the player is good at it. You end up with some sort of strange half-assed approach with DM's giving a bonus to a roll based on player performance, which I still think punishes the less articulate player with a character who has a very high social skill.

That's not the major issue though, the major issue is a social conflict system gives the NPC's the opportunity to use all the weapons in the tool box against the players, just like they do against them. Now, this isn't about adversarial DM'ing, it's about story potential. How many stories have the main characters fail at social conflicts? Lots of them, they get romanced by the femme fatal, or duped by their ex-wife, or just don't win that debate at the senate? Well, this is what social conflict is about, and is probably its true genius, it is an option for the story to go in a different direction, because the ability to trump a social conflict through the system now becomes something the NPC can initiate, not just succeed at because the player tried and failed. You're playing a game of super spies, the main character comes up against the gorgeous assassin of his arch nemesis, the social conflict allows her to move to seduce him, and succeed at it without it being player fiat that it doesn't work.

When I look at it this way, the social conflict concept becomes something I'm not reticent over, it's something I want in my game as a player and a You see, I can already see times in the past when it could have been used. Years ago, in the Crescent Sea D&D game, one of my characters major story lines, the major storyline really, is whether he'd find love with his childhood sweetheart as they'd ended up enemies (in a Catwoman and Batman sort of way). There was a scene, in a city in flames, when they both made a choice, on a roof, as the city burned around them whether she would leave the city ruins with him, or go her own way. Then you have the scene in the final battle, in which the conflict seemed to be less about whether the arch-nemesis of doom would be defeated, but whether they would resolve their differences. In both these situations I could see a social mechanic working, and making the dramatic outcomes, unknown at the start...fantastic! That's the key thing for me, it's a way to drive story in an undecided direction. After all, for me, it's the conflict that's important, that drives the game and character growth, not controlling every outcome.

When you don't have such a social conflict mechanic, the nature and terms of social conflicts are decided completely by the player, while this isn't the case in physical conflict. Now, don't get me wrong, the tool has to be used carefully. I'm not suggesting that a character who has taken serious vows of chastity should have his character forced into failing at that vow through a succession of social conflict failures. At the same time, in the right situations, at the right times, no doubt predicated by already existing player flags (or even the character's chastity being represented in the system to make such social conflicts very unlikely to work), that ability for an NPC to initiate the conflict, and the player to have the potential of loosing is pure story gold, and adds a level of excitement to proceedings. Basically, the situation has to be right, and the rules have to support it from the ground up (such as in the example of my D&D character, that lack of a way for my character to represent his love for the other person in the social conflict would have been problematic, as it wasn't just a conflict of social adroitness).

It does still have some difficulties though, in that you have to straddle a fine line between allowing the role-playing to play out, and allowing the mechanics of the social conflict to take place. Obviously, what you have is a complex dance between mechanics and role-playing, and it's a hard one to pull off. This is one reason why I like the way Spirit of the Century does it, as a social conflict would be controlled by manoeuvres, in an attempt to tag the target so the aspect can be freely invoked, and the manoeuvres would provide a degree of role-playing as players describe what they do and act the part to get the tag. The genius is, each side would be doing this in an attempt to get their own way, and would react to the flow of the conflict until one side loses or concedes to the other. While I'm not saying this will work first time, once the symbiosis of mechanics and role-playing is mastered, and the pure, adrenaline pumping excitement of not 100% player-controlled story potential is experienced, in terms of NPC's initiating social conflicts and/or the final victor being unknown, the results could be good?

It's challenging new ground and that's a good thing, and starting off small is best, and it would always be something used in social conflicts of importance, but I'm looking forward to trying one out, just to see how much it adds or detracts.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
That's A Lot For A One Shot?

So, Thrilling Tales, we created characters last weekend and it went really well. Now I've moved into hashing out broad ideas about what may happen on that four hour slot during CottageCon. The first thing I did was read the characters sheets again, which I've still not got bored with, and consulted the Oracle that is the aspects. As far as I see it the following potential content rears its head:

  • Zo Kath Ra, the ancient Nubian sorcerer and mystic, last seen in possession of a body falling into a volcano. Obviously not dead, seeking to reform his mortal body, possess another, and cause future mayhem to reach his thoroughly evil goals. Four out of the five characters have touched the influence of Zo Kath Ra and one has him as a nemesis.

  • Charlie Ashcroft is one of relentless servant's of Artemis, what is that? What are they servants for? Who are their enemies? I'm sure it's part of some great mythical design with conflicts dating back eons!

  • What nefarious forces killed Charlie's lover and forced her to go on a vengeance streak? They obviously did it for a reason and have other aims!

  • Lord Chartham, the man who travelled the world killing all those linked to the ancient secret of Lemuria, where did he go? And what's going on with the undersea civilization anyway?

  • The League of Gentlemen's Gentlemen, such a nice and philanthropic organisation, but they have contacts everywhere through their endeavours, have to be some adventure there.

  • The Nubian Queen and her Walord,Bo-Zak, who tried to re-establish the great Nubian nation. What happened to them, and what great plans do they have next? And will this relate to the return of Zo Kath Ra!

  • The Tomb of Set, what exactly was in it, who is annoyed it was raided? And what are the dark forces at work surrounding it?

  • The Hollow Earth, and the beautiful Queen who had her love spurned, what's going on in this fantastical world of magical, crystalline technology, fantastical airships and grand empires? Who knows, but it's bound to be bold and daring.

  • What is the future of the Monks of Luck and Death? Do they hold the fighting competition more often than once? What about the finalists that Zack Brannigan beat, Herr Mueller and The Scarlet Widow?

That's quite a lot thrown up by about 90-minutes characters creation work, as that's about how long it took to hash out the Aspects and stuff, as the rest was going through stunts and skills. This isn't a full list either, it's just the main bullet points, there is actually whole load of character connections that, while not worthy of full blown adventure status at this point in time, will certainly become worthy sub-plots, drive the character interplay and may well gravitate to full adventure status in due course. I'm also ignoring the odd bits of the odd character that isn't as fully fleshed at this point and maturity may also turn that into an adventure down the line. It also doesn't mention any wacky stuff that might come out of any potential relationship map I might apply to some or all of the above!

It's safe to say I am burdened with choice, and one thing I have to consider is the time window, and the type of game I want to try and run. To be honest I've picked the element I want to run with, and I've even got a broad idea of the opening and the conclusion, in an imagery sense, not so much a blow by blow account. One of the tasks of this weekend is to have a some ideas of how the players might travel from A to B. That will involve looking at the characters sheets again, as well some potential action scenes, imagery, etc. Looking forward to it.

Of course, this is a one-shot, and as a result it's a pity 80% of the stuff that's come out of characters creation is going to be wasted. Yeah right, I'd be a fool to waste the above, as it's a wealth of stuff, and that doesn't include ideas that are not written in the Aspects. So, I'm hoping the Big Gaming Weekend experiences drives me on to a sequel.

So, let's see, in about 90-minutes of Aspect work-up we got five characters which are arguably the best I've seen from the gaming group, at least in terms of visibility NOW (and to everyone) not weeks away. I've got a wealth of ideas for potential adventure threads. Have to say, that meant something was going seriously right in those 90-minutes!

I shall see how the broad structure goes this weekned. To Be Continued!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Terrible Gaming Moments II

A year ago, back in April 2006, I discussed some terrible gaming moments. They are moments in gaming, that while fun, are not the sort of stories you relate while trying to impress people with your gaming mojo. I related how our very early Star Trek games seemed to focus around being ridiculous intergalactic terrorists, how one DM who ran a guest spot in my Star Wars campaign didn't seem to realise the heroes shouldn't be taken out by miners with hairy arms and the ridiculous story I always remember of the guy who wanted hollow arrows so enemies would bleed out in a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Now, from the depths of my memory, I bring you some more. It is interesting that all these come from my gaming experiences between the years of 16-18.

I challenge anyone to come up with ones better than these classics!

Rich Industrialist, On A Mini-Bus, To Butlins!

I feel the need to balance this one out, to not ruin my vague memories of what I think was a campaign that heavily influenced my gaming style. One of the first campaigns I ran that I view as a success was a Golden Heroes campaign. My memory of it is vague, so I'm sure it wasn't perfect, but it went on for quite a while, and it was the first game that I actually challenged the character with dramatic choices.

What I will admit to, is occasionally the campaign may have been let down to some extent by my lack of life experience at the time. I'm not saying it was an overriding influence on the game, but there was probably the odd 'what the hell!' moment.

One of those was probably when the session seemed to involve all the characters, in their secret identities, of course, going to Butlins, in a hired mini-bus. Now, I'm laughing myself writing this down, but it gets even more ridiculous, if that's possible, because one of the characters was a Rich Industrialist with a global company. I'm sure that's what he wanted to do with his leisure time. Still, there was some super villain shenanigans going on, though I have no idea what super villains would be doing at a Butlins Holiday Camp.

What the hell!?!

I shake my head in shame. Still, in my defence, I do bring up the positives. This was the campaign in which the heroic Silver Knight from another dimension went back to his home dimension and had the choice to stay? He also risked falling to a disease he had no cure to due to being from another dimension? I believe the Rich Industrialist also got paralyzed by terrorists and sort a cure by alien means? I also believe the Rich Industrialist had an on and off romance with a movie star? So I got something right.

Not perfect, I was young, but certainly a campaign that was formative in my gaming, just not in the sense of having people go to Butlins in a hired mini-bus. Obviously, if it was good enough for my family every year it was good enough for superheroes, including one worth millions.

Half-Drow With A Katana!

I think anyone who is involved in role-playing game culture knows what's coming?

I know, it's hard to believe, that I, the man who if he does anything, it's hold up his end of the gaming bargain by providing an interesting character bursting with potential, and devoid of ridiculous humour value. It's not even like my characters developed over time in a linear fashion, as one of the more interesting characters was the first character I ever did, Waylan, the guy who had lost his City, batted to gain it back and then ruled it before giving it in to be a sort of religious Ronin (if we'd played that bit).

I put this one as a strange oddity, something I had to get out of my system. In a way it was a product of the game, as we all seemed to generate weird ass characters. We all ended up Wizards to one degree or another (some of us had multi-classed). At least half of us ended up as a selection of weird races. One player was some sort of winged Pixie creature. And I, for my sins, was a half-drow who had two Wakizashi swords. Okay, he didn't have a Katana, but then that's only because I wanted two of them so I went for the shorter version. Regrettably, it couldnt cut through stone walls.

I can't remember much about the campaign, as I don't think it lasted long, I just remember the character. It's my own Drizz't Do'Urden moment, and I probably remember it because it's a scar on my psyche and a reminder of where things can lead. I still shudder to this day.

He Pissed On The Chair!

I can't remember what we were playing; I suspect it might have been Golden Heroes since I was running the game I think. I can't even remember what happened in the game, or what the session was about. I do know it was just another session, we all had fun and there was nothing weird, odd or probably even stellar about it.

That was until everyone came to leave and there was a wet patch on one of the kitchen table chairs?

It was all a bit puzzling at first, and if I remember correctly no one really said anything about it as everyone was packing up to go. It was just recognised as a bit odd and sort of got missed, or ignored by the rational minds in the room, in the packing process, as people left to go for the bus. It was only as the group was walking away that I noticed one of the group had wet pants.

He'd basically wet himself at the gaming table.

Now, I'd like to lay claim to the fact that my session was so awesome, he literally wet himself with excitement, but I suspect this wasn't the case. I never did figure out what the reason was, and I don't think anyone mentioned it ever again. I lived with my parents at the time, since I'd have been 16-18 years old, so I quickly cleaned it up. The more I think about it the more I think how strange it is that we all just moved on and it never had any lasting implications? Weird. Im left slightly perturbed now I've written this down.

Still, at least I didn't have to travel on the bus with him back into town.

Permalink | Comments(14) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 17/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Looking Back At The Top 5 RPG's
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

In 2002 I had a few people who had designed their own role-playing games, independently published in the case of Ron Edwards and Brian Gleichman, though John Wick had done major work for what would count as significant RPG companies at the time. I then did one myself for good measure. Looking back at the different types of game each of them have listed is interesting, specifically Ron's journey from Champions devotee to listing his favourite game, back in 2002 mind, as The Pool, a serious narrative style game.

Anyway, looking at my list, how does it hold up? These things always tend to be representative of a time and a place, so looking back can be interesting. Looking at the list, I'm left wondering what I was thinking at the time, and it certainly seems to be a list of two-parts. One half of the list represents games that I've actually run, and which have had significant influence on me in terms of how I come to view games now. As I've often said, I've never had the great and long D&D apprenticeship when it comes to gaming, neither as a DM or a player, and the fact I've listed Golden Heroes, WEG Star Wars and Vampire: The Masquerade as three of the games influenced my gaming style fits into that.

The remaining two items on the list don't seem to be on their for the same criteria, as the first difference is I've not run a game with either system (a single session of BESM2 aside), and second they seem to be on the list because of my enthusiasm for the potential I saw in them at the time. This has not necessarily born out in practice, as I didn't go on to do anything with either system, though my enthusiasm for the pulp genre still holds true (largely because I see a bit of pulp in most things I like). As a result of this, I can standby three of the games in the list, but I'm left questioning why BESM2 and Adventure! are in the list, as they seem to reflect a fleeting enthusiasm.

This then begs the question of what should be on the list? That's a hard one to answer, as I've not actually ran a vast amount of systems, certainly not ones I'd put on the list. Any I add to the list would probably have to be ones I hadn't actually ran a game with. I can probably make some suggestions though. One that might be a candidate is probably Fengshui, and for similar reason to WEG Star Wars really. It was a game focused on replicating the melodrama, heroism and frantic action of Chinese action movies. In doing that it had very quick and easy character generation, and included something called a melodramatic hook, which was a much simpler form of flag to tell the DM what the character's story should be about (something I think is important to this day). It again dispensed with any sense of realism over encumbrance or keeping track of ammunition in favour of frenetic action. It was also the first game I read which had stunt rules in it, offering only a minor penalty for ridiculous stunts, thus making them overall more effective. It even had mook rules, putting in front of my eyes the first game that advocated the idea that a lot of enemies the heroes face aren't supposed to be a threat. Not something new to me, but a bit like some of the stuff in WEG Star Wars, it was could to see it in print in an actual game.

Then you have a game that I'd sort of forgotten about over the years, but was also one of the first of its type: Over the Edge. I was drawn to Over the Edge largely because of my fascination with Twin Peaks, and it put forward a similar idea, though it was largely centred around the conspiracies and strange mysteries of the island of Al Amarja. It was an island where even the maddest of tabloid stories, ridiculous conspiracies or drug induced nightmares could be true, and the players played characters who lived on the island and got drawn into all kinds of surreal weirdness. What was unique about the system is it was the first one I encountered that didn't have extensive stats or skills, it just had defining traits which encompassed a lot of elements. As a result, characters had traits like Cop, Quick as Cheetah or Monster from Another Dimension, etc. The traits got assigned a number of dice and the system used a dice pool system. It was amazingly simple, and effective and of course a number of future web-based indie games went this sort of route later on. This was the game that convinced me such a system could work though.

I could also put Sorcerer on the list, primarily for the way it integrates the idea of premise into role-playing games. The idea of using the tools of fiction, and aligning them so much with role-playing that they become valid tools for authoring character development, was something knew to me, and has influenced how I approach every aspect of role-playing to this very day. I'm not that enamoured with the physical mechanics of Sorcerer, as in the actual dice rolling, but the way it brings the tools of fiction and role-playing closer together was very influential. I'd have never played it, but it was seriously idea mined.

Should the Fate 3.0 system be on a revised list, the system that powers Spirit of the Century? Possibly, it could go on to be the next system that influences me the most, or it may not, we shall see some months down the line.

Having re-read all four of the articles, it's interesting seeing the games that have influenced an individual's view of the hobby and their gaming style. I'm left wondering what games have heavily influenced the gaming styles and approaches of others, either for better or worse?

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Player Versus Character Skill

In traditional role-playing games there is often a point of conflict between what is defined by the skill of the character, and what is defined by the skill of the player. The conflict is often centred around social skills, as some players may have very good social skills, while some may not be so blessed, but then their character's skill may be different again. As a result, if a player good at the old blarney is playing a character with low social skills he shouldn't be charming every woman he encounters? In the same vein, the player who is less socially adroit should be able to charm everyone he sees if his character is very good at it. Since physical skills can't really be brought to the gaming table, the skills a character has in this area define how good he is, no question asked, no conflict possible. Interestingly, virtually no player of a traditional role-playing game thinks they should be able to use their good social skills when their character is crap at them, but sometimes enthusiasm takes over.

Historically, in computer role-playing games, the defining line has been quite simple: everything was decided by the stats of the character. Whether he managed to climb a wall, hit his enemy with his sword or gun or charm the guard into letting him into the prison. The player, other than choosing what to do, and probably having some influence on how his abilities were distributed, would not control the success of the action. The system would, based on how good the character was at the relevant skill. It would seem, due to the vast increases in computing power available to games, and the change in the make-up of the audience for computer role-playing games, this neat boundary between player and character is blurring, and creating new conflicts.

In computer role-playing games no one, not as of yet anyway, is challenging the idea that social skills should not be decided by the skills of the character, largely because they have little opportunity to yet. They're not even challenging that most skills shouldn't be decided by the computer, such as a chance to hack a computer or scale a wall. What is being challenged is that combat skills should not be decided by the computer. The reason? Because, just like how a player may be better at the social skills in a traditional role-playing game, it's quite possible the player may be very good at First Person Shooter games and as a result want full control over that so he can aim, shoot and move. The counter argument to that is, of course, if you're character is crap at gun combat why should the player's skills compensate for it? This then brings up the question of not having combat skills at all, which in turn makes people like me, relatively crap at FPS games, think that's stupid as I might want to create a character in the computer role-playing game that is good at these combat skills and as a result might be capable of performing better in game than me.

You can go over to the Mass Effect forums now and see the debate raging. The debate just won't go away, and as soon as one dies another one appears. What's actually happened is the audience for role-playing games has changed, either due to new entrants or new expectations or both. In the past, the idea that twitch-based, reaction dependent combat, focused on player skill would be wanted in RPG combat wouldn't have entered anyone's head. Now, with the dominance of FPS games as one of the most popular genres, especially on the Xbox consoles, enough of the potential audience for Mass Effect want to have their skill be the defining element of the combat system. They can even get quite insulting about it, complaining that someone who can't use a thumb stick to aim shouldn't be allowed to be better than them. This is despite the fact their character may be, and it's not a PvP game anyway, so why should they give a shit? This is obviously argued against quite strongly by those from more of an RPG background, while others to try and come up with some idea of how player skill could be used influenced by character skill.

As for how the Mass Effect combat actually works, I honestly have no idea, but I find it hard to believe, for one second, that the system it uses avoids using the skills of the character at all, even if it has found some strange way of letting the player heavily influence the process. The game has a Soldier class, which would be totally pointless it if didn't make a character of that class better at combat, which wouldn't be that relevant if it was controlled by the player. I also find the continual need to push the agenda of player skill a bit annoying, as don't the people who like the FPS genre already have a load of games to choose from? They don't need another one and they certainly don't need to give the RPG genre a good kick in the arse in the process. It's certainly nothing to do with realism, or excitement, as they are suggesting. I can think of numerous ways that Mass Effect combat can be more exciting while leaving the actual shooting and killing in the hands of the character, you just make the choices tactical ones of cover and movement and flanking, with the character shooting as commanded.

Anyway, we shall see how the game works when it hits the shelves, but I thought the raging debate was interesting, since it's rearing it's head in the computer role-playing game market, and the basis of the argument is totally the apposite to the one in the traditional role-playing game market. In many ways though, it's not a new argument, it's quite an old one.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
By God! The Numbers Boggle The Mind!

When I come to think about it, I've not actually played a vast amount of Dungeons and Dragons, and when I think about a bit more, I've possibly played the simpler (old boxed set) Dungeons and Dragons more than the various incarnations of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (though now that is called Dungeons and Dragons, for the uninitiated trying to follow). What I certainly haven't done, is played a lot of (Advanced) Dungeons and Dragons characters that got to levels in the double figures. As a result, when it was suggested that the Dungeons and Dragons slot on the Big Gaming Weekend would feature characters with 18 levels under their belt, it's safe to say I had no comprehension of the various numbers involved. The first thing that hit me was the amount and diversity of spells to be honest, as these characters will have access to the highest level spells in the game (and seriously meta-magic enhanced lower level spells). I'm told this isn't so much of a problem, but then I've played Neverwinter Nights with characters hovering around the double figures and they involved way more spells than I could ever get a handle on fully.

The reason I find this a bit mind boggling, while interesting at the same time, is it is a game of efficient character building taken to the most extreme level. I can happily create an efficient Dungeons and Dragons character who has hovering around the lower levels, and even then I won't profess to being the best, but a character with 18 levels has just way too many variables for my brain to comprehend all together, never mind how they all relate. These characters are going to have the majority of their stats over 20, key ones well over 20. They're going to have an Armour Class over 30, as apparently 30 is a bit low. They will have access to every spell in the Player's Guide for their class. You have to make sure you have pretty high saving throws. Then, but by no means least, you have a pot of gold to spend on magic items. A rather large pot as well.

The magic items are critical.

This was another mystery, as while I've always understood that as characters level the 'system' assumes they are accumulating a certain amount of magical swag, it's influence has always been minimal in games I've played. This has been because, since the characters never got so high the disparity between a low geared and adequately geared character wasn't as significant. Now, looking at a character with 18 levels, the swag allowance represents a significant percentage of his personal power. The magic item section of the Dungeon Master's Guide is like...big, for my brain it is encyclopaedic big. That's a lot of choice, and a lot of variables. It even gets more diverse when under random and miscellaneous stuff to include a method of flying is listed! I'd have never thought of that.

Don't get me wrong, the process is going to be fascinating, and fun, but I'm the person who could never build his own efficient World of Warcraft character without just taking a build of the Internet I liked the sound off, and who could never tell whether he was better with one piece of gear or another, and certainly couldn't be arsed to work out optimum gear and then find it.

I can't even begin to contemplate what is going to happen when these characters finally meet their ultimate nemesis, it's going to be a cataclysmic battle between a handful or so of weapons of mass destruction. Now, that should be fun.

Permalink | Comments(10) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Thrilling Tales Character Generation

In the last three role-playing sessions before CottageCon, the plan is to spend a couple of hours creating characters, and then play the planned session of the Pendragon Campaign. Yesterday we created Spirit of the Century characters for Thrilling Tales, next session we are creating Dungeons and Dragons characters for the epic assault on the Evil Dark Lord of Doom behind the undead plague, and the session after that people are getting all Napoleonic and creating characters for Duty and Honour.

So, how did the character generation go for Thrilling Tales?

I think it went really well, and I'm certainly convinced through practical application, as I already was in theory, that both group-based character generation (which I have done before) is the way to go, along with some system that puts the actual character as a protagonist on the character sheet for all to see and discuss and backs that up mechanically. Basically, a system of flags to send to the DM and other players saying proudly this is who the character is, this is what's important to him, these are things and people he cares about, along with any beliefs, and this is essentially what elements of his story should be about etc, etc. It's the only way to do it, systems which create characters purely in a physical sense of what they can physical achieve are probably going to see much less of my attention on the potential to run list.

The process did have some problems, none of them severe, or deal breaking in any way, but a few issues did arise. Initially, it looked like things were not going to turn out pulp enough, with people overly focusing on places and times and entrenching their character in history, which is fine as colour, but that's about it. That should just be background for the added pulp spice. This did tend to happen in the general background phase, so it could have just been a product of that. Ultimately this seemed to clear though, and I suspect it wasn't that big a problem, and was actually an issue for one player only and he soon came out the other side as the group discussion kicked off and ended up having one of the more over the top pulp novels which involves a visit to the 'Hollow Earth' and spurning the love of a princess. Fantastic, that sort of came from nowhere, and was worth the group approach to character creation alone!

It was interesting how the structure proved to be an advantage, which I wasn't overly convinced off, but it proved to be true. The process had five phases: general background, first starring novel, second starring novel, and then two guest star spots in the starring novels of other players. Each stage was to generate 2 Aspects for the total of 10. I was sort of convinced this might be bucked by the group in favour of just listing ten at the end, what actually happened is the structure proved essential as some people where having problems picking 10, and the structure provided a mechanism for that, often throwing up Aspects they would have never thought of, especially during discussing their involvement as guest stars in other character's novels. This proved interesting and got good results. The structure was by far a strength rather than a dictatorial annoyance.

The guest star spots also worked well, as while it is perfectly understandable that these are present to form connections between characters, they actually do more than that. It's easy to have characters know each other before the series starts, and that option is often taken to make things easier, but often it lacks the depth and emotion that should come from that, the shared novels seems to result in a bit more dramatic, emotional and storytelling impact. As an example, through totally random guest star appearance two characters were present in one character's starring novel when he gained his Darkness Within Aspect when he foolishly grabbed a dangerous artefact (despite one of the guest stars being there to stop him doing something so stupid) during The Raiders of the Tomb of Set. This novel has essentially become a novel which featured three of the five characters. We also have one character helping another character's father in The League of Gentlemen's Gentlemen while she was hunting down the killer of her love in The Greek Crusade (it was a way for her to guest star in his novel as she was the 'McGuffin' of the novel). He essentially helped her father find her during a particularly dark time in her life? Not only that, another character helped her during this dark time? Fascinating. Anyway, it's suffice to say, this provides a lot of connections that have depth, well beyond them offering the 'I know you moments'. This is only a small selection of them as well, I have a Visio diagram of the novel connections. Things happened in these meetings that potentially have dramatic weight.

The guest novels also had another interesting effect, in that people create their characters in different ways. Some people are instantly vocal, putting their capsule idea on the table for all to grasp, while others want to get on with it and put the idea on paper. The danger here is they are not discussing with the group, the guest starring novels solves this problem as it brings about discussing the character concepts of the characters involved in the novel. This ensures that players who have maybe took a more personal approach to the process up until this point, are brought into the process and obtain the benefits from it, sometimes even changing what they diligently came up with.

I suspect we still have some lingering issues with Aspects, but relatively minor ones. As an example, I think there are probably a handful of Aspects that may not see much currency generation or use, but that's fine, these can be tweaked or swapped out through actual play experience. I may even be wrong, as it's in the interests of the player to come up with exciting ways to use Aspects 'negatively', so who knows?

I could also throw in the fact the stunts were a bit aukward to pick due to there being so many, and no advanced print out of them all. I also suspect the odd character may move the odd skill around after the first session, or maybe not. But these are all minor issues. What is more important is some of those Aspects on the character sheets are to die for. And that is good.

What is even more surprising is each time I revisit the character sheets, once at the table, a second time late last night and a third time while writing this, they somehow become deeper souls, major protagonists bursting with story and what is more fascinating it is, to a degree, the connections via the shared novels that adds that 'to the next level' feel to it all. This in a genre that people equate witch characters of lesser depth? Not in this incarnation, I can say that for sure. I can see the players having to learn the Star Wars skill of keeping the role-playing going, despite being in a shoot out with gun-toting Gorillas.

Fascinating process, fascinating characters, excellent start for the game. Unless something really disasterous happens in the game during the Big Gaming Weekend, I can't help but think there is going to be a To Be Continued tagged on the end of this, the potential is just too great.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session 14, 498 - 499 A.D

At the end of the last session we heard that a force from Clarence had decided to march into Salisbury and cause trouble by taking the castle of De Vises, needless to say, the first order of the day was to rustle up some troops and go and take it back. Regrettably, while the battle was won, and it was far from a disaster, it wasn't the usual flawless execution. Aeron (the younger) was leading the battle in Sir Brion's absence and he had less than stellar luck,. Once the castle was liberated we hastily added it to our collection.

After we returned from this battle, Sir Brion finally made it back from Ireland, with his extra troops, and was ready to make war upon the Black Bear Clan in one final battle to end the blood feud that had raged for a number of years and ultimately killed two of his children.

Once that was finished we rolled over into the year 499 and learned that King Idris of Cornwall was continuing to expand out of Cornwall, and was getting way too close to Salisbury. Luckily, at the moment, he seems an amenable sort and doesn't seem to have any designs on our lands. We even managed to make a deal with him involving some level of mutual protection. The emissary from the Saxon leader, Cerdic, to the south, came begging for a tribute but we sent him packing before he entered the castle, as we'd warned him before not to enter on pain of death. We also told the Saxons to the east to take a hike as well.

The session ended with the epic battle between our forces and the Black Bear Clan. It was a titanic struggle, and it even involved King Madrog turning up with some faerie forces as he had promised to do during our journey into the Forest Savauge, which was handy as the Black Bear Clan had brought ten trolls. We happily let the faerie forces tackle them. It was an exciting battle, with each of our knights leading elements of our forces against certain parts of the enemy army. Needless to say we gave the clan a good kicking, and Sir Brion got to defeat their leader in personal combat.

The battle planning was also improved again, as I've mentioned before the way Nigel organises the battles is quite good, finding a good compromise between having some sense of tactics but keeping it all narrative. This was taken to an extra level this week as the map of the battlefield was placed in a plastic wallet and we could write on the wallet with non-permanent marker, thus allowing us to set-up troops and say what was attacking what. Very handy.

It will be interesting to see what the future brings, but I suspect the goal is to get back to doing a year a session for a while, to move things on a bit. The frightening thing is, the characters who have been in the game since the start will have to make ageing rolls at the end of 499 as they are 35 years of age.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
It's Real If It's A Lie...'s pulp if it's a pack of lies. In pulp there is blood, cruelty, fear, mystery, vengeance, romance, heroes and villains. In order to package that all up into a suitable white knuckle experience you throw in the yellow peril, global schemes, super weapons, hideous deaths, cliffhanger escapes, mad science, foul magic, threats from beyond our dimension, horrors from beyond time and space, or the grave, lost lands, overwhelming odds and astounding heroics. According to the text of a book I'm currently reading, that is how the fictional version of Lester Dent, the writer of Doc Savage, describes pulp.

Who am I to argue with the writer of this mysterious novel I'm reading? He's spot on.

This is my goal with Thrilling Tales, to capture that lightning in the bottle. While the stories may be about heroes doing heroic things, they have an edge, and the drama doesn't get lost in the heroics, it somehow gets woven in. I have to keep coming back to Star Wars, which is one of the best examples of modern pulp. Look at the original trilogy, the bad guys kill loads of people, they even blow up a planet and torture the heroes. It's true we don't see it in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre style, but it happens. The villains are bad people and the heroes have a hard time. It's not twee heroics. In the same vein we have the developing romance between Princess Leia and Han Solo, and the journey of look from farm boy to Jedi and the dramatic confrontations with his father.

To throw in the second example I like to include, Doctor Who is full of death, despite the heroics. In fact the series is almost defined by death, and whenever The Doctor turns up invariably people start dying. All right, not necessarily at his hand, but the point is the exploits he gets involved in aren't rose coloured, people die (or get turned into Cyborgs), the bad guys are out for blood, quite often on a big scale. The stakes are, in short, very high. As the quintessential pulp hero in these epic tales The Doctor deals with issues of loneliness, and being unable to admit his love for Rose, because he knows, one way or another, he will lose her even if it ultimately just comes down to time.

This is why pulp stuff is great, because it is epic heroism, with lone pilots destroying planet sized space stations, or heroes facing off against the dread robots of the Mechinatrix, or whatever else, but it still has a level a level of impact, consequence and grit, while not necessarily labouring the point on camera. In many ways, the pulp hero faces a more dangerous world than the typical heroes in the typical super hero comic. Hell, they have it easy, pulp is where the true heroism is at.

Anyway, this post was inspired by a mysterious novel I started reading today, it was a bit of a surprising find. I'll keep it a secret for now until I've finished it, but it's essentially a very clever take on how to write a pulp novel today (as in a 1930's pulp, not a brash, contemporary, commercial fiction version of iot). So far, it's bloody fantastic, and very clever, it seems to do for pulp what World War Z did for the zombie genre, but it's early days. If it continues to be as intriguing, I'll have read it by the end of the Easter Weekend and I'll discuss it then.

It's certainly a novel that has come at a most opportune time!

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
New Gaming Challenges

So, at CottageCon I'll be running Thrilling Tales! using Spirit of the Century, and I have to say, I'm excited and nervous, in a good way, about the prospect all at the same time. I'm excited about it because the genre is something I really like, while I've not run a pulp game set in the 1930's before, I've run quite a few Star Wars mini-series which have virtually all the same elements other than the backdrop, and I'm enjoying drawing on all that experience in terms of pace and the scale of it. To be honest, I think they are very similar, you just swap the trappings around.

I'm nervous because Spirit of the Century represents my first attempt at running a game that actually brings characters to the gaming table via its rules and actively enforces that via a currency system (just like The Burning Wheel as well, but with a lot less administration). I believe it's actually the groups first attempt, beyond a test session with the Iron DM's system he is designing. Ironically, more attention and application of the system will occurr in Spirit of the Century, than in previous games I suspect (beyond combat). It's going to create some concentration to leverage the strengths out, rather than just default to the standard ignore the system till you have to encounter it mode of play. While the game would undoubtedly still be good that way, I'm a firm believer that utilising the tools given may make it better. I want to try that at least.

In a sense this is good, as it makes it challenging, and I think that is important to me.

In an attempt to remind myself what the purpose is, and to sort of put the tools on the table so to speak, I'm going to take some advice from the book, and also something else one of the group mentioned for a future game. Basically, I'm going to put the currency and the aspects out their on the table for all to see. So, I'll be pimping the group for some sort of counters to represent Fate Points, I'm sure someone has some considering the majority of them are collectable card game players of one variety or another. This puts the flow of the currency for each individual player on the table. I'll also be getting myself some index cards, and probably cutting them up a bit to make them smaller, and writing everyone's aspects on individual cards and put them on the table as well. All visible for me, and everyone else to see, for the purposes of tagging, compelling and invoking and whatever else. I can also use extra cards to put aspects on scenes and other elements of the game in front of the players.

Despite the Spirit of the Century rules falling into the perfect complexity zone for me, and them being designed to invoke a genre I like, it is quite a radical shift to actually use the rules of the game rather than ignore them the majority of the time. Now, the reason, historically, rules got ignored is they didn't actually bring anything to the table in terms of character drama, and upping the protagonist factor, so the rules only got used for skill rolls (quite often superfluously because you want the character to succeed) or in combat. Since the game is now significantly more about the characters being dramatic protagonists at the rules level, I'm hoping their adoption sort of just sneaks in and gets pretty natural relatively quickly.

In terms of the games structure, I apparently have a four hour slot, so I had an idea today: split it into four one hour chapters? At first I put this to one side as interesting but not that big a deal, but then I started to get drawn to the idea, as it puts the whole delivery into sizeable chunks, which in turn can be split into scenes. It also allows me to have a sort of rise and fall to the action within each chapter. Each chapter is also relatively small, it's only an hour, so that in itself should allow me to use it as a marker for pace, as well put explosive action, denouncements and cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. While the chapters will run into each other, I'm still enamoured with the charm of this. The idea is for the whole thing to be relatively breathless, while weaving in the character drama into the fabric of that, rather than it be something disconnected from it. I think that seamless quality between pace, action and character drama works better.

Anyway, we shall see if it all works. It will no doubt have some hiccups, and probably won't go absolutely perfectly, but I'm hoping it all works out well enough for everyone to want to do it all again at some vague point in the future.

I do like that hours as chapters idea though.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
CottageCon Is Go!

I can't remember whether I've told this story before or not, which is probably a reminder to go through more historical entries and tag them with the keywords, but ages ago, in a gaming group of yesteryear, we decided to game all weekend. Not just for most of the weekend, but like all weekend. We'd start Saturday morning and game all the way through the night and into Sunday. It sounds mad now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I remember we played the two campaigns we were running at the time, a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and my Golden Heroes series. I think we also played some boardgames, most likely Talisman, and no doubt the Prophetess won, and the excellent Fury of Dracula board game, which had one person playing Dracula while the others tried to hunt him down as Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing and friends. The part I remember about the weekend the most was playing the Dracula game, because we'd sort of fell into playing it at some ridiculous time in the morning. I rolled my dice, and then fell asleep. I woke up, not sure how long I'd been asleep, as you do, and asked whose go it was, only to be told it was still mine. I still find it funny.

Anyway, many years later, and with a totally different gaming group, we now have another CottageCon, though a slightly more sane one as we have no delusions of gaming for 24 solid hours, as we recognise the value of some sleep. The gaming group are going to a cottage, with the express purpose of gaming. At the current time we have an interesting batch of games spread across the weekend.

On Friday we are playing Duty and Honour, which is a bit of a home brew involving an adaptation of the Pendragon system to run Napoleonic-style games in the vein of Sharpe. I have to admit, the effort that was put into adapting the system went way beyond anything I'd be willing to do. Still, it looks interesting, but I'll be missing that one since I won't be involved on Friday.

The main event begins on Saturday, with a classic Dungeons and Dragons experience. A dark shadow has been cast across the known world, causing the dead to rise from their graves, spreading like a plague. After much effort, the source of the plague has been found, the tomb of a long dead Sorcerer King known as Ozymandius. We play the high level adventurers dispatched to behead Ozymandius and bring an end to the plague. It's an excellent idea, don't play the beginning and the middle, just cut straight to the end and have some re-imaged, dungeon-delving excitement. Have to say, there is something childishly visceral about this one.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, we have Thrilling Tales!, more specifically The Crystal of Eternity, or at least that's what it's called at the moment (character creation is tweaking it as we speak and may ultimately change it beyond recognition I suspect). This is a Spirit of the Century game, and as such it fulfils one of my challenges, and will hopefully get me on the road to running a viable, and worthwhile regular, if very irregular, role-playing campaign. It'll also be interesting to see how the game plays out, as this will be the first game we've played that counts as remotely 'Indie', and also with such a focus on a currency driving the play.

Sunday brings us to an extended slot of the Pendragon Campaign, the poor Pendragon DM tried to get out of it, and enjoy just a weekend of playing, but it would seem his wishes have been completely ignored in favour of us getting our fix. It's a harsh world.

It actually looks like quite an exciting weekend.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/04/2007 Bookmark and Share
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