Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Sagas of the Icelanders reprint

I've been teasing this for a while, and here's a rather tardy announcement: Sagas has been reprinted and will be available in print format again. It's not a huge deal: it's not a second edition or revision, just a straight up reprint, because there has been a lot of interest in getting printed copies after I ran out.

The second part of the announcement is that IPR will be taking over the shipping and handling part of the deal, taking a significant chunk of work off my hands. So if you want a deadtree copy of Sagas, look to the IPR store in the coming weeks, I'll post and update when it goes live. Or (if the mail delivery service doesn't screw up and the books get to the US in time), you should also be able to pick up a copy at the IPR booth at GenCon in 10 days or so.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Adjudicating tone and genre through moves in PbtA games

[Edit: Jonathan Walton reminded me that in this blog post I was actually talking about a subset of moves, which was not made explicit in the original text. There are many moves that cannot be simply reduced to a "Defy Danger" equivalent and there are even moves that don't have a fictional trigger which I implied in the starting paragraph. "Increase your hot by +1" is a legit move and doesn't fall under this discussion. I just kinda assumed all of that because otherwise I'd have to explain more stuff.]

Prefacing with some basic stuff you all know: Players don't decide to trigger moves, or "activate" them like powers. Moves are triggered by the fiction. That requires an instance of judgment. As with (virtually) all roleplaying games, that judgment is carried out through a silent consensus of the table, but ultimately that responsibility falls to the MC.

Now, there are many levers that subtly or less subtly inform the tone and genre of the fiction for both players and the MC. Seed content (Names, stuff...), principles ("barf forth apocalyptica", "play your characters as real people"), gamebook art, boxes-to-clouds mechanics informing the fiction, etc.

Systems are about how we agree at the table about what happens in the fiction. Tone and genre are about expectations of what happens in the fiction. Game design is about saying something, including saying something about the source material, the genre. These are all tied together. (I could go on a whole tangent here about emulating genre & source material with the AW framework, but that's for another day).

Moves have pretty specific and clearly defined triggers. Some more so than others, in some games more than in others. You do it, it happens. When you go aggro on someone, you go aggro on someone.

However there's some...wiggle room (I dread to call it that) for the MC in the moment of judgement there. Like, when you walk up behind Dremmer and shoot him in the head, do you just do it, dealing harm? Are you acting under fire, and the fire is he (or someone else) notices you first? Are you going aggro and the thing you want him to do is keel over and bleed out into the irradiated sand? It's impossible to say without context, with the actual in-the-moment situation, and without a judgment call about that situation.

If you peel back layer after layer from AW, making it an ever simpler game, I think there's a good reason for ending up with only one move - the ubiquitous Defy Danger/Act Under Fire/Tempt Fate/Do Something Dangerous (as also evidenced by the World of Dungeons/Bootleggers lineage). All (basic) moves are about a moment of crisis, a risk. Danger is relative here. It might be social, emotional, physical, financial, metaphysical. What matters is that you're risking something.*

So at some fundamental level adjudicating moves is about adjudicating the danger. What is dangerous and how, to what degree - if at all.

Which finally brings me to my point: that moment of judgment is where the GM/MC has the space to set the tone of the game, from comedic to heroic, from gritty to pulp. This invariably impacts the overall (sub)genre as well.

I'm just going to throw out a bunch of examples. I'm going to use DW as the system in the examples.

GM: "A great tentacled horror from before time crawls out of a dark and slimy pit and it begins smashing everything with its pseudopods, you see it crush a donkey cart like it's a child's toy. What do you do?"

Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, you cleave its jellied flesh, spraying brain matter everywhere and it slides back into the pit with agonized screeching."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Ok, seems to me like you're hacking and slashing? Go for it."
Player: "A full hit! I'm chopping its tentacles left and right."
MC: "Cool! You deal damage, hacking your way through, but you're not at its core yet."

Ex. 3
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "Great! But it's flailing its slimy tentacles around. They're wooshing dangerously close to your face. You're going to have to defy danger to even attempt any sort of attack. Do you still want to do it?"

Ex. 4
Player: "I run at it, plunging my sword into its brain."
GM: "It swats you aside like a fly. Your steel and mortal strength can't possibly match its arcane power."

Now, within the rules, those are technically all legit situations and outcomes, depending on the fiction. The player always narrates what is fundamentally the same (re)action, but if you watched the scene in a movie, it would play out completely differently, and not just in terms of outcomes, but - far more importantly - in terms of feel. The first is epic, heroic, perhaps even comical. The last one is desperate and gritty. Again, just one scene isn't enough, but you get my drift.

I wanted to try another example, from a different perspective, with the player narrating different actions:

GM: "The thug stands in the narrow opening of the alleyway, digging her heel in the sand and drawing a knife. She won't let you pass."

Ex. 1
Player: "I draw my dagger and advance on her, trying to knock her weapon to the ground."

Ex. 2
Player: "I run up the side of the wall, vaulting off it and slicing at her with my double scimitar as I pirouette to the ground."

Of course, the GM can again respond in any number of ways to both of the above. Just a couple of examples again:

GM: "Cool, she's out of the way."
GM: "Ok, it seems like you're defying danger to me. The danger of course being she shanks you while you wave your fancy weapon around."
GM: "You go at it, fighting in the street. I assume you're hacking and slashing?"

And so on...depending on the GM's response, the scenes might again appear and feel wildly different to someone watching them in a movie. The bottom line is, the way the situation/action are judged as dangerous/non dangerous, possible/impossible, difficult/easy and to what degree, can significantly alter the tone of the game and twist the genre of the game itself. This is also part of a response to all those "but how do I do difficulty modifiers in AW/DW/whatever?" questions that keep popping up.

Addendum: Some of the PbtA games are more susceptible to this than others. Fantasy is malleable by default, so DW is a great game to make my point. Monsterhearts probably significantly less so. The last AW hack I ran was The Hood and there was sufficient judgment space (and just general creative space) to tune it more like The Wire or Lock, Stock and Two smoking barrels, which play quite differently. Sagas was definitely written with a naturalistic, realistic prose in mind, but I'm sure it can be done in a more buffed up, epic Beowulf-style (the Man's bean-counting playbook is probably the least accommodating in this sense) even though I've not done it myself yet.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Report from the 'hood

In the past weeks I've been thinking about starting to blog again and yesterday a number of people asked me me on g+ how our game of James Mullen's The Hood went after I posted a photo of our gaming table. So it seemed like a good opportunity.

Preliminary info: we played one session, about 3 hours long. I was MCing, three people played the Mover, Ice and Scheemer. We are going to play again. These are some thoughts and first impressions.

Genre, fiction and tone
Before reading the game I was expecting something inspired by recent popular USian crime dramas (specifically something like Breaking Bad). After reading I was left with a rather different impression. I got what the game was getting at, but I also felt like I had no fictional signposts to reference. The Wire was probably closest to what I could imagine, but I didn't really see any clear connecting between the playbooks and the characters.

By comparison, most PbtA playbooks take clear cues from their source material fiction. Jayne is the Gunlugger, Kaylee is the Savvyhead, Buffy is the Chosen, Bella is the Mortal, Rustin Cohle is the Detective, the Dragon Herald is the anti-Daenerys. You know the drill. By comparison, I don't think there's a "Walter White" playbook or a "Bubbles" or "Stringer" playbook in the 'hood. At least not obviously.

Actually playing the game I now think it is perfectly able to create stories in vein of the Wire or BrBa, but it doesn't take a clear "this game is like this show/movie" inspiration from them like I'm used to seeing in PbtA games.*

*This connection also got mentioned on the Misdirected Mark podcast, and the PbtA-tv shows link was heavily implied in an Indie+ panel (and the post-panel discussion) about GMing first sessions. So we are probably taking this whole PbtA games as TV shows analogy for granted.

I asked James about it before our game and he cited East Enders as possible inspiration, so this is in large part probably just my ignorance (having never seen East Enders in any capacity outside of out-of-context clips on Screenwipe).

Anyway you know how Black Stars Rise is "like X-Files, except you play the people in the town plagued by the supernatural and Scully and Mulder never show up to save the day"? The way James put it (I'm paraphrasing), The Hood is "like all those urban crime shows, except you don't play the cops but the victims, witnesses, perpetrators and informants". The prisoners of the lower class injustice. I wouldn't say that's necessarily true of all the playbooks (The Ice comes to mind as an exception), but it's a good general description.

Before the game we had a talk about tone and decided that even though the game was gritty and we were going to play gritty, we wanted a lighter touch. So more Guy Ritchie than David Simon. So: borderline poverty, petty crime, people dreaming big and getting involved in things too big for them, crawling on the edge of the gutter, but with quirky and irreverent characters.


We talked about setting it in our city, and I really want to try that sometime, but for the first game the (lightly) implied British setting seemed more appropriate. There's info about the MET and some other mentions of how things work in the UK in the book, so I went with that. I have seen Prime Suspect and a ton of british murder mysteries, Attack the Block, Trainspotting, Skins etc. I follow British culture (especially the more critical members of it). I visited London. It was the natural city to gravitate to. I found it easy to cultivate imagery in my head and "barf forth Britannica" so to speak.

The soundtrack is M.I.A., The Clash, Dizze Rascall, Burial, Lady Sovereign, Underworld, Rival, grime. I brushed up on my knowledge of London slang, but I had to go light on it otherwise nobody at the table could understand me.

We drew the streets, homes and other buildings as explained in the book. It worked very well. I also added a few buildings even though the book seems to say only the players get to do it.

There's bloody 18 of them. Eighteen! I would say most hacks struggle with breaking the number ten, at least in their original form. I think if you don't come to the table with an idea what you're going to play, there may be some choice paralysis here. I suggested to the players that they pick a few playbooks a few days in advance to speed up the character creation process on the day of the game. Alternatively I would do the usual trick of picking #of players+1 playbooks myself and offering them around.

The playbooks are organized around how each character makes money. They are still set around an archetype/trope, but they're more explicitly jobs than I'm used to seeing in hacks and it fits both the genre and the thrust of the game's reward cycle. The closest analogy I can come up with are the Black Stars Rise playbooks which also have a "sustaining your lifestyle" at their core.

The dice didn't hit the table all that often. Unlike Apocalypse World, where most moves are about the moment-to-moment positioning and resolving the micro-conflicts within that positioning, moves in the 'hood are closer to scene resolution and deal with larger conglomerations of activities and actions that cover more time (things like asking around and going to plan b). This is fairly close to how I'm used to playing Sagas. Most action is "freeform", and the dice twist the story in key moments, sending it in unexpected directions. In fact some more immediate moves (like shooting someone) are relegated to peripheral moves.

Even though it goes beyond reskinning and cuts quite deep in the lower layers of Apocalypse World, the 'hood is a fairly light hack. It requires the original game (or decent knowledge of the original game) to play. Subsequently some moves are also a bit light on explanations or examples. We struggled a little with the wording of a couple of moves or interpretations of their triggers. I regret very much not taking notes about this. If I remembered which moves gave us trouble it would have been useful for further discussion. At least one example would have to the Argue the toss. We were not sure what exactly arguing the toss consisted of, or what situations it applied to, but it was pretty natural to use. Another situation that threw me for a loop was when a character fucked up and I offered them the opportunity of getting out by Taking the hard way, but from a fictional trigger standpoint Going to plan B seemed equally legit.

Heat is a pretty neat concept and mechanic. I'm reading it more or less as a numerical representation of future badness. If you have heat on you, something or someone is coming after you. A huge part of the session evolved from when one character rolled to take the heat off and deflected it to another character.

Because our English pronunciation isn't that good, it was rather hilarious trying to discern between Hit (rolling a 7+) and Heat in conversation, especially when a move employed both terms.

Story (edited)

We open in the office of "The Dutchman" who introduces himself as Belgian but is actually English, a ruthless Schemer with an eye patch and silver tooth. He's pulling of a scam involving angel investments into Greek islands. Naturally, HM's Revenue & Customs office is onto him, going through his records. He successfully rolls to take the heat off, convinces all those unreported pounds are part of a non-profit donation to a local youth group and deflects the heat to...

"Quite Quick" Jane who is squatting in an abandoned garage with a group of hippies who grow weed. Jane is a Mover but apparently gets by by making money in illegal racing. There's police knocking at their door. They're there to talk about something Jane might have witnessed the previous day, but with a garage full of weed the group panics and they all split. Janes crashes at his ex, much to her dismay.

The thing that Jane witnessed was the Ice cold-blood murder of a Russian gangster by the local tailor-cum-hitman called "Patchwork". Patchwork was doing a job for the aging gangster, Silsbury, who feels the Russians are encroaching on his territory and wants to send a message.

The whole reason Jane witnessed the murder was because he was looking into a potentially more profitable racing opportunity offered by the Russians. After outstaying his ex's welcome, he returns to the garage to pick up his car, but is met by two Scottish sharks acting on behalf of an yet unknown entity. Since Dutch fed the authorities a bunch of fake papers, now someone believes Jane is responsible for the Greek Island Scam...and their boss wants his investment back. He needs to come up with the money quick, or his only possession and source of income - his car - is going to get taken away. He asks around trying to get back in contact with the Russians.

Meanwhile Patchwork is trying to get the police off his back, spending a large portion of his payment for the hit to bribe someone in the MET and gets the detective off his case...for now. Meanwhile, the Dutch is already coming up with another bogus scheme, trying to raise money for "Ukrainian freedomfighters". Silsbury notices his campaign and comes to him with an offer to help him launder money, united by their "hatred" of Russians (Dutch couldn't care less).

Jane gets to a private nightclub and offered the privilege to race by an important-looking man, but only if he can beat his current protege. They race some stolen cars around a warehouse and Jane barely wins the hard way, wrecking both cars, hurting his arm and gaining the enmity of the previous racer. The man welcomes him on the team as their new racer and introduces himself as Ilya, the Russian mobster who is moving onto Silsbury's territory.

The players all had fun, they said we accomplished a lot in the first session and want to play again. We won't be able to play next week because I'm going on vacation, but we'll definitely pick it up again for at least one or two sessions, probably with 1 or 2 more players.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Important update, status of this blog, Sagas of the Icelanders etc.

Like I already mentioned in that one post long ago, I have pretty much abandoned this blog for a number of reasons.
One is that I've use this blog as a personal journal of RPG theory and I've reached a point where I'm pretty comfortable with my conclusions and I don't feel the need to talk about it any more.
The second is that G+ pretty much satisfies my needs for RPG-related chatter these days. If you want to talk about stuff, come find me there!
Finally, I've started a new RPG-related blog over on tumblr, but it's mostly just picture dumps. You can find it here.

That said, the last post I made on here was announcing the Sagas of the Icelanders crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. The campaign concluded more than successfully and the game got a bunch of beautiful art, cool layout and a printed edition. The campaign is long since over, but the game is now spreading slowly and it has also become available to the general public.

It's home is now here, where you can find links, downloads and other stuff. If you want to talk about the game the best place would be the G+ Community for it. And finally, if you're looking to buy it, Sagas of the Icelanders is available in both print and PDF over here at the BigCartel storefront.

Go play!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Sagas of the Icelanders IndieGoGo Campaign

Since I have grown to use Google+ for all my RPG-related jabberings, I've completely forgotten to post this here.

I have launched a crowdfunding campaign for Sagas of the Icelanders, my historical viking-themed Apocalypse World hack. You can find it here.

It has funded on the first day and has already passed a number of stretch goals. It now also supports PayPal.

If you don't already know about it and you think you'd like playing a historical game about Icelandic settlers and their problems, go check it out!