Convergence 2014, part 3: Actual gaming

I didn’t do much actual gaming at Convergence this year, but what I did was good.

Thursday night, I played a little Zar. Usually pretty fun, and this was no exception. No idea who won, but that’s rarely the point.

While I’m on the topic, please check out the Kickstarter for Buzz, a Zar/Uno-like game. I got to playtest it and I can vouch that it’s lots of fun.

Divider illustration of a sword

My big dose of gaming was Saturday afternoon, when John ran his Tekumel game. This was lots of fun!

The time slot we’d worked out was very narrow — only two hours, from 3 to 5. And I think I arrived a few minutes late and had to leave a few minutes early, so it was even more compressed than that. But we made it work!

John started with a brief intro. We were all recent trial recruits to a Tsolyani legion, sent on a mission to test our worthiness. John gave a short intro the city we started in, Thráya: it’s located upriver from Jakalla, and it has a lot of river trade.

Then we collaboratively decided on a scenario. River trade suggested pirates. Perhaps some ex-recruits from the legion had taken to piracy? Or poor fisher-folk? Or someone else? We left the specifics up to John, but came up with a nice little scenario of pirate-pacifying. I have to note, this worked well. John trusted us to come up with some good ideas for a workable two-hour scenario, and I think we did. Different theories on how it might go gave flexibility. Most importantly, it got us making important decisions almost immediately — something that not enough games run at cons do.

Character creation was kind of simultaneous with the scenario creation. We had a grizzled old archery instructor (the “assistant to the assistant”, I think he was) as our leader; a mage, equipped with some pretty powerful spells; and my character, a stocky spearwoman whose tactics tended to be limited to “barge on in”. The three of us headed down-river, doing a tiny amount of investigating along the way.

Then we were at the island where the pirates (probably) were headquartered. We landed, my character noisily worked her way through some reeds, we found (and destroyed) some hidden pirate boats, and then a bunch of pirates attacked us.

We all got to contribute to the combat, but the mage had by far the most effective spell. He summoned up an illusory lizard monster (a feshenga?) that attacked the pirate-villagers. In Tekumel, if you believe the attack is real, you suffer real damage. So the pirates went down in droves. A very powerful spell!

In the end, we’d quelled the pirates and, I think, got ourselves admission to the legion. And we stayed far away from the teqeqmu (?) hiding in the forest.

The game basically consisted of a tiny bit of travel and investigation followed by one combat, but it worked very well. The collaborative scenario design was fun and useful, and we all got to contribute and get our moments in the spotlight. And we actually went all the way from character creation to finishing a scenario in less than two hours. Quite an accomplishment!

Divider illustration of a sword

Sunday morning was my last attempt at gaming. “Attempt”, because I wasn’t successful. I was danged impressed, though!

Last year, I played Artemis at the Royal Manticoran Navy room. They apparently had a lot of success with it, because this year they had a whole dedicated room for Artemis on the 22nd floor. And they went all out.

I didn’t try to get photos of the whole room, because photos wouldn’t be able to do it justice. It was amazing. They’d set up what looked like a full starship bridge, with the captain sitting in the middle of an elevated platform, with a a full-on Enterprise-appropriate captain’s chair, looking at a giant viewscreen; crew stations along the sides; and diamond plate wall coverings, and I-beam supports… It was pretty spectacular.

Investigating closer, I discovered that they even created dedicated control panels for each crew station. No fumbling with a keyboard or tablet, these stations have specific buttons for each of the things you’d want to do at your crew station. Wow.

Photo of the dedicated Artemis controls

I wasn’t the only person who noticed that how much the RMN folks had done with the Artemis room. The sign-up list filled up quickly, with only standby slots available. So in the end, I didn’t get to play it. But just seeing the amazing artistry and skill on display in that room was almost enough. And it’s also neat to know that more people are discovering how cool Artemis can be.

So, all in all, this year’s Convergence wasn’t filled with gaming, but what there was, was great.

Convergence 2014, part 2: Gaming When You Have a Life

Image of a pocketwatchThe next, second, and last, panel I was on at Convergence 2014. The topic was pretty similar to last year’s “I’m Getting Too Old to Find Time to Game”, so we were a little worried about repeating territory already trod. But it’s what people wanted to see — some topics deserve repeated visits — so we did our best.

One major aspect that came up several times was the importance of scheduling clearly. The secret, as so often, is to communicate clearly, frequently and honestly. Make sure to set realistic limits for yourself; don’t let your enthusiasm cause you to over-commit and therefore not show up for sessions. Try, when possible, to schedule several months’ sessions in advance. Adopt a policy of not leaving one session before the next is scheduled. Make sure to clarify the social contract about what your group’s policy is for cancellations, scheduling, using cell phones at the table, etc. (Just as one of my fellow panelists mentioned annoying cell phones at the table, my phone loudly announced a new text. The timing couldn’t have been better — or was it worse? Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! Reminder to self: Silence phone before panels.)

Be honest, too, about what kinds of games you’re in the mood for. Don’t agree to play a game that you’re not going to enjoy and therefore start not showing up for. Don’t ruin others’ fun — intentionally or not — because you’re not having fun. And sometimes, you might feel burnt out. You’re not in a place to run a game, or to play, or whatever. As with so many things, it’s important to know yourself. And then communicate.

I went into my usual rant about the importance of gaming, and how we always have to argue for its value in terms of “productivity”, as if fun isn’t good in and of itself. And I discussed the importance of commitment to the game, and of using this to push back against the insidiousness of arguments from “productivity”.

We discussed lots of ways of spreading out the burden of GMing. Let a player run a one-shot session or two. Let a player take over GMing of the main campaign for a little bit; it can be very fun to play in your own campaign. Ask that player who’s on their phone all the time to research maps for the city your PCs are in. Run a session of Microscope to help flesh out the history of something in the background of your main campaign. Recharge your creative well by watching a movie or reading a book.

We discussed a lot of tools that can help with running games. Before the session, use tools to help yourself prepare. Create and keep lists: lists of encounters, details, items, NPC quirks, etc. Lists are your friend. Use things like S. John Ross’ Big List of RPG Plots to help you come up adventures. (This was the website I couldn’t find during the panel.) Or use some of the many online random generators to give yourself inspirations for adventures and other things. Use things like Rory’s Story Cubes to help yourself come up with adventure elements.

A general tool is working on your improvisation abilities. I recommended just watching a bunch of Whose Line Is It Anyway? as a low-key, entertaining way to learn improv methods. I was remiss in not mentioning RPG Inspiration Cards to help come up with details during a session. And of course you can just trust your players to help.

Another good approach is campaign & game models that allow for flexibility. There are campaign styles like the West Marches and hex crawls that allow for a modular/flexible approach, where every session can stand alone but there’s a broad continuity. Troupe-style play, where players occasionally switch characters, is another good method, perhaps epitomized in Ars Magica. This often calls for having more PCs available than there are players, which can be fun. Torchbearer and Dresden Files apparently have specific mechanics for dealing with situation when players can’t be present for a session. And it’s possible to just give a character an allergy and say it’s been triggered when the player can’t make it.

Of course there are many, many games designed for single-session play. A few we mentioned are Shock: Social Science Fiction, Technoir, Microscope and Fiasco. (We mentioned many more, but I didn’t get the names down.) And see my list of no- and low-prep games.

We discussed using electronic tools for synchronous or asynchronous play like Skype + Maptool, Google Hangouts + Roll20, IRC or other chat-based play, play-by-post, Storium, and games that are designed specifically for play-by-post, like Callisto. (I get the impression that Callisto is heavily influenced by play-by-post, GMless, diceless RPGs on Livejournal and the like.) And I still think that a Microscope game via wiki would work great.

In passing, we mentioned the perhaps obvious importance of taking breaks. Sitting at a table for four hours is not good. Let everyone get up and stretch their legs every once in a while.

We talked a little, and perhaps not enough, about dealing with distractions at the table. There were the aforementioned ideas for getting electronic devices to be helpful rather than annoying. And we briefly discussed gaming with kids (babies, toddlers, etc.) around. I think Beth was a little disappointed that the panel didn’t get enough into specifics about this, such as what to do when you have a baby in the room. When it’s a dramatic moment and someone suddenly has a diaper emergency, what do you do?

But overall, this panel was much better focused than last year’s, in that it was only about tabletop RPGs. And we dealt with a good number of situations, and gave a lot of ways to deal with them. Also, we didn’t have the long derails into finding players like last year’s did, so it was good on that front, too.

All in all, I think it was a pretty helpful panel.

Convergence 2014, part 1: So You Want to Be a Panelist

Squeevolution!My first of only two panels for this year’s Convergence, this one was Friday at noon-thirty. Not especially gaming-related, but the panel was very meta, and so applicable in a way.

The panelists started off listing our qualifications for being on the panel. I tried to push back against this. I started mine by saying that I’m interested in the panel, and that I care about it, and that I think that’s all anyone should need to be on a panel. There’s a really deep-rooted meme out there that we all have to be published professionals or whatever in order to be on a panel, and that’s totally not true. (There are definitely people who shouldn’t be on particular panels, but most of us are not those people.) So I said that I don’t think qualifications are a good thing to list at the beginning of a panel, and that I wish we could stop doing it. Of course, no one actually stopped. But at least I put that out there.

One of the heads of Convergence programming detailed the programming process for Convergence, which turned out to be really valuable for a lot of the audience, I think. It seems that quite a few folks didn’t understand how programming ideas are collected, or how to sign up, or how people get assigned to panels. So having it out there helps a lot. Hopefully this will lead to a bunch of cool programming that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

We addressed a few specific audience questions. One interesting one was: How broad should a panel suggestion be in order to work? What makes a panel suggestion likely to work? Do you cast the net wider and hope for more attendees, or go narrower and hope for a more focused conversation?

The answer was a rather unsatisfying “it depends”. The real rule is, can a group of interested people talk coherently about your topic for one hour? If not — whether because an hour isn’t enough, or because it’s too much, or because the panelists won’t be able to agree on what the topic is — it’s not a good topic. But how exactly do you formulate a panel suggestion so that it’ll work that way? That’s pretty much impossible to state clearly and easily. Designing a panel precis is much more an art than a science, and one that, even after years of work on the process, I’m still not super-expert at.

We discussed a few different ways to be a moderator. Elise mentioned a couple moderator tricks she’s learned: one, cutting audience members off when need be to demand that their spiel end in a question mark; and sitting on the end of the panel table, so that not only can she hear the other panelists more clearly, but she can see reactions they have to things said during the panel. And we eventually mentioned the Minicon Moderator Tip Sheet, which still stands as a great reference for potential programming moderators.

There was discussion of how to do pre-discussion, what to do when you find yourself on a panel you honestly didn’t sign up for, how to clarify your scheduling requirements, how to steer panels without railroading it, and quite a bit more. Lots of good topics got airtime.

After the panel, two folks came up and talked to me. I recognized them both from gaming panels, where they’ve said a lot of good things over the years. They asked me why I and one other frequent panelist are on a lot of the gaming panels together. Is this an established thing? Are other people allowed to be on panels?

Gack! This was what made me deeply realize how useful it is to go over the panel submission and sign-up process. If folks are getting the impression that there’s a restricted slate of people who can be on Convergence gaming programming, something has gone wrong. I tried to dispel any illusions, and hopefully they’ll both suggest or be on panels next year.

A major flaw in this panel is that, well, it lacked moderation. It needed someone to keep the conversation on track, and to make sure that everyone on the panel got to talk, and that the audience interaction went smoothly. But there were at least two different people calling on audience members (always a bad sign), and we panelists ended up talking over each other a lot because it was clear that the conversation was otherwise going to be dominated by certain folks (specifically, white men).

I had hoped that specifically designating a moderator in advance would help this. But I learned from this panel that not only do you need to designate a moderator, you also need to all be on the same page about what the moderator will do. And that is bloody difficult to do, regardless of how much pre-discussion you do, because some people won’t necessarily follow the agreement. And because regardless of how clear the agreement is, not everyone will understand it the same way. It’s kind of like the social contract in a game (whether at a con or in your home). Developing it with a group of people you know, over a period of months, is easy. Developing it in the two minutes from when everyone sits down to when the event actually starts is super-difficult.

Towards the end of the panel, we asked the audience how they’ve participated in panels before. As a last question, I asked for a show of hands of how many people would like to be on panels. Almost everyone raised their hands, which was amazing. Very energizing and uplifting. It’s great that so many people want to get involved, and so many people are interested!

IRC chat log

CorrespondenceIn case you’re interested, Dan has very kindly published the chat log for last night’s IRC session. It was a lot of fun! And it now has me thinking very seriously about running an adventure on IRC. (Hmm, need to figure out dice server commands to give B&C rolls.)

If you’re interested in continuing the discussion, feel free to do so here or in the open discussion thread!

Convergence 2014: See you there?

Convergence 2014 is nigh — this coming weekend, in fact.

Convergence is getting bigger and bigger. So big that people are avoiding it. As Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

So big, too, that it feels like programming is getting squeezed — there just isn’t room for all the cool stuff that people want to see happen. So there aren’t many panels about gaming; I only count three or four panels directly related to tabletop RPGs.

Me, I’ll be on two panels at Convergence:

So You Want to Be a Panelist?

Veteran panelists and moderators will share what works and what doesn’t. It will also cover the CONvergence panel process.
Friday July 4, 2014 12:30pm – 1:30pm
Atrium 2

Not really gaming-related at all! But a topic of meta-interest. I hope we can dispel some of the notions that you have to be an ultra-fan or super-pro before volunteering to be on a panel.

Gaming When You Have a Life

Mods and DMs, how do you handle being adequately prepared to give your players the best possible experience when you’re balancing family, a full-time job, etc. We’ll discuss Pathfinder Adventure Paths and other timesaving options.
Friday July 4, 2014 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Atrium 3

And that’s a topic of interest to many of us! We’ve had a bit of pre-discussion, and it promises to be a pretty good panel.

I should have copies of Blade & Crown for sale, and I’m always interested in talking to fellow gamers about topics of mutual interest. Look me up if you’re there!

Another cool FLGS: Dungeons End

On my way through Duluth yesterday, I stopped at an FLGS I’d heard of: Dungeons End. (No apostrophe.) Seems like the Duluth area has several FLGSs; I think I decided to check this one out more or less at random.

Photo of Dungeons End from the sidewalk

I’m glad I picked Dungeons End, because it seems like quite a good store. They’re doing a lot of things right:

  • They have a small, but good, selection of RPGs. The usual D&D and Pathfinder, but also Fiasco, Fate, GURPS and quite a few others. They have a small but interesting selection of used games, too. I picked up a copy of Advanced Melee. They also have a pretty hefty selection of miniatures and boardgames.
  • They have the largest stock of 20+ dice I’ve seen in person since the 1980s! I’ve raved about these dice before, but suffice to say, they’re D20s with 0-9 twice, and a little “+” on half the faces. Dungeons End has opaque 20+ dice in quite a few colors, though I’m afraid they may no longer have any transparent ones — I think I bought out their whole stock.
  • They have quite a nice newsletter. It mostly consists of the monthly event calendar, but it also features a “featured game of the month” column, a few pointers to web resources for gaming and (my favorite) an obituary column for beloved but now dead PCs.
  • There are tons of events on that calendar. The day I got there, a Monday, there were no fewer than four scheduled events on the calendar, and it looked like there were a couple unlisted RPGs going on as well. It looks like they’re trying to be a center for the gaming community of Duluth, and that is a very good thing.
  • They have tons of gaming space: according to the newsletter, “over 2300 sq. ft.” And they have something I haven’t seen before, at least not in person: semi-private rooms, which I presume can be reserved. So if you want space to run your RPG, but you also don’t want the noise of a big common room with cement floors, they’ve got you covered. As I was looking around, several of the rooms were being used, as well as lots of general table seating. It also appeared that they have a kitchen available!
  • Another thing I’ve never seen before was storage lockers. They have a bank of storage lockers, presumably for use by gamers who need a place to keep their minis, MtG or precious collection of Gamescience dice. Cool!
  • There are tons of parking, including a large lot behind the store.
  • The place seemed very friendly to women. I saw several women gaming there, and I didn’t feel gawked at or patronized while I was looking around.
  • Related to this, the employees seemed generally friendly. One wanted to explain to me what a 20+ was — kinda unnecessary, but I can’t blame them for wanting to try, since 20+ dice are not common knowledge. It didn’t come across as patronizing, just “here’s something you might not know about these…”

Were there any downsides? Not really. There was someone rather noisily practicing drumming on a drum pad, pretty much the whole time I was in the store, and that was a bit annoying, but it quickly became background noise.

Overall, Dungeons End seems like a pretty great store, one that I would probably make a regular stop if I lived in Duluth.

Busy, busy, busy

With vacation time comes the chance to get more work done. Such is life for the non-full time game designer.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been working on a bunch of different projects:

    Small section of an adventure map
  • The Bandit Map. This continues to be very close to publication. I really only need to do some final edits, but as always, those are some of the hardest things to do.
  • Scheduling the RPGnet IRC chat.
  • The sooper-sekrit dealio. This is a very big, possibly unprecedented, project. It involves a bunch of different steps and sub-projects; the whole thing has been occupying a lot of my waking hours, and some of my sleeping ones. I’ve been working furiously on it the past few days. It’s pretty amazing. I hope to have solid details to reveal about this project during the IRC chat on the 8th.
  • Lots of little projects, household repairs, communications and other business.

So it’s been a very busy couple of weeks.

I’m actually going to take a vacation from the vacation work over the next week or so. So no updates until probably the week before Convergence.

RPGNet Q&A, July 8

CorrespondenceWorth noting: I’ve arranged with Dan Davenport to do an IRC-based Q&A. It’ll be on July 8, from 7 to 9 pm CDT. I’ll post a reminder when it’s closer to the arranged time.

To get into the chat, you can connect to the server with your favorite IRC program, in the #rpgnet channel, or use the handy-dandy web interface.

I actually did an impromptu chat session a couple days ago, having been asked by Dan to run a test to make sure I could connect to the channel. My IRC skills are not what they once were, but still, it all went pretty well. I’m looking forward to July 8.

Super-legality for PCs

Here are some common campaign styles for RPGs:

  • The PCs live as ‘space assholes’ or ‘murderhobos’, wandering in search of fame and fortune. They are either able to skirt the law, or stay just ahead of it.
  • The PCs work as police officers, superheroes or members of the Star League Patrol, making them enforcers of the social order.
  • The PCs explore the frontiers, making their way beyond the bounds of normal civilization and mores.
  • The PCs skulk about in the shadowy realms, as thieves, agents or ghosts, delving into the dark secrets normal society doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know.

Image of prison gate, openI think this describes the vast majority of games I’ve seen. Notice anything these campaigns all have in common?

It seems to me that a lot of games — probably a majority of them — assume some sort of super-legal, extra-societal status for PCs. In many games, the PCs stand outside the social order — perhaps immune to it, or just ignorant of it. Fiasco comes to mind here, where the characters are assumed to be willing to do horrible things to get what they want, and to then suffer horribly for it. In other games, the PCs may be part of the social order, but they are then usually the ones who help mold and enforce that order. Indeed, games like Dogs in the Vineyard make this completely explicit. (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The players do, and that’s all there is to it.) Whatever their position, they are not subservient to the social order.

Am I just arguing that RPGs are a power fantasy? I suppose that’s part of it. But it’s a very particular kind of power fantasy, and I find that interesting.

How many games are there where the PCs are not somehow immune to the social order? It feels like InSpectres gets close. In it, the PCs are assumed to be fairly menial workers in a ghost-busting franchise, neither movers nor shakers in the world. The PCs have some slightly exceptional abilities, but are generally schlubs like anyone else. But it’s not clear how immune the PCs are to the rules of normality, and the one time I’ve played it so far, I would say that tension — how legal/normal do we need to be? — was one of the biggest tensions in the game. Related to InSpectres, the Ghostbusters RPG plays with some of these conventions; the PCs can easily be everyday schlubs who are prone to being arrested for carrying around unlicensed proton accelerators or leaving slime all around. But both these games are comedic; characters’ ability to amuse the players gives them some form of immunity from societal consequences that we real humans don’t enjoy. So even though the games embrace mundanity, the characters still enjoy a form of extra-societal status.

Some games allow the PCs to become mired in social obligations. HârnManor seems one of these. The most common criticism I’ve heard of it is “Who wants to calculate taxes in an RPG?” And that’s a fairly accurate charge, because the supplement really does try to treat all aspects of medieval landholding in a rigorously realistic way, right down to paying taxes. I think that the system encourages characters to go do adventurous things, however, through the obligations imposed on them: if the northern fields are only producing a 44% harvest and that means the peasants are going to starve, then the PCs had better go figure out what’s causing the problem. And the system presumes the PCs will be pretty much at the peak of the local social order, so they’re still deciding the law more than they are subject to it. From what I understand, games like BirthRight do the same thing, enmeshing the PCs in social obligations but simultaneously giving them power to change the world. Heck, I think Braunsteins might fall into this category.

Are there other games where the PCs operate entirely within the social order? There are certainly lots of games where the PCs are not the most powerful entities in the world; really, most games probably fit that description. But I don’t think that’s a sufficiently rigorous definition here. Even when the PCs are relatively mundane, or relatively powerless — think, for example, of Call of Cthulhu — the PCs are still the ones with the power to avert disaster, or to go beyond the bounds of convention.

Are there games where the PCs truly live entirely within the bounds of ‘normal’ human society? The classic cartoon by Will McLean in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide alludes to this:

It’s a great new fantasy role-playing game. We pretend we’re workers and students in an industrialized and technological society.

Maybe that kind of game would appeal to wizards, clerics and fighters in a typical D&D world, but does it appeal to any of us in the real world? And does it mean that RPGs necessarily include a super-legal element?