Goodbye, Ursula

Ursula K. Le Guin recently passed away. Lots of people have mentioned how she touched their lives with her prose fiction, her advice, her politics, and many other things. Like so many others, I’m saddened at her death, but glad that she got to do so much good in her time. And like so many others, I want to share a couple ways she touched me.

A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the biggest influences on my aesthetic preferences for fantasy. I think I read a lot of other fantasy fiction before I encountered it, but when I finally did, something clicked. That stark but flavorful style is pretty much exactly what I like in fantasy, both when I read it and when I create it. “Mysterious, powerful and rare” describes much of the magic systems she created there; and no wonder (cause, or effect?), that’s also how I like magic in RPGs to be. I’ve always wanted to create a name-based magic system for a game, perhaps B&C, but never gotten around to it. That desire comes directly from reading A Wizard of Earthsea. If I’ve been lucky, some of the aesthetics of Earthsea have rubbed off on B&C.

Book cover of Always Coming Home, the edition I readMaybe an even bigger influence on me, though, is Always Coming Home. Not enough people know about this book. It’s always a pleasure when I meet someone who likes it. Always Coming Home is a great, deeply flavorful mix of fiction and fictional nonfiction. Recipes, songs, myths… I think it was the first time I’d ever seen plot and thoroughgoing exposition mixed so evenly, and so well. I’d seen the genre before, but I think it was one of the first examples that reveled in being fictional nonfiction. Always Coming Home gives the worldbuilding-sans-plot equal footing with the plot; really, in some ways, the worldbuilding is the focus, not the plot. That was kind of mind-blowing to experience. And of course the worldbuilding itself is lovely, with a very lived-in feel, yet also great amounts of wonder. Like my other favorite books, Always Coming Home inspired a lot of ideas to percolate.

Goodbye, Ursula. You will definitely be missed.

Telling and retelling

Speech bubble sticky notesMy ongoing Blade & Crown campaign is in the process of integrating a new player or two. This is a game that has a pretty extensive history; as I’ve mentioned before, my campaign notes run something like a hundred single-spaced, tersely-worded pages at this point. As a result, bringing new players up to speed can take a while. Heck, even keeping the long-time players (and, *ahem*, the GM) up to speed can be a bit of a task. As a result, we’ve evolved a bunch of different ways of reminding each other what’s gone on before.

  • Various handouts and maps and whatnot. These aren’t really telling or retelling, but maybe they’re the written equivalent? And they are what many of the oral retellings are based on.
  • Recaps at the beginning of every session. I try to keep pretty detailed notes as play continues, but I feel like having the GM tell everyone what happened last time lacks something in flavor. And more importantly, it’s fun to have a specific player do it, because it often has more of a personal flair. Plus, I think this makes the other players more willing to put in their own perspective on events, which inevitably adds something that everyone else had forgotten. So at the beginning of every session, someone (or sometimes more than one person) recaps what happened last time. I always give this player an extra XP; it’s definitely an activity that contributes to the quality of play, and worthy of reward.
  • Occasional in-character recaps. Every so often, when it makes narrative sense, I’ll have an NPC ask a PC to explain an event in the group’s history. That gives everyone an excuse to retell tales, from their PCs’ perspective, which can be pretty fun. It’s interesting to hear what details they remember (again, almost always including great details I’d forgotten), and how they spin it.
  • Occasional GM-prompted out-of-character recaps. Every so often, some person or event from the past will come back into the story, and inevitably, the players and I won’t remember all the salient details. It can sometimes be useful to just ask the players, outright, “So, what do you remember about Faenwitha?” or whatever. This again helps to de-center the GM (a nice pedagogical trick — don’t always make the players listen to the GM), and jogs the players’ memory more actively.
  • Also occasional player-prompted out-of-character recaps. Pretty often, this will happen when the group is making a big decision: Do we go east, toward the marauding bandits, or do we go south, to possible direct confrontation with the Big Bad? Someone will say “Don’t forget, if we go south, I can finally pick up that armor I paid for weeks ago”, or “If we go east, remember to steer clear of that haunted lighthouse — remember what happened there?” In some ways, this is the best kind of reminder, because it’s fully player-prompted.
  • The PCs in this campaign are a group of performers & actors, so that also creates wonderful opportunities for retelling stories within the broader story. The players have occasionally put on stage plays within the game, sometimes subtly retelling events in the game, sometimes reworking classic myths, always helping immersion for themselves. (And occasionally even a play to catch the conscience of the king, which I should post about sometime.)

If this list doesn’t make it obvious, I try to avoid straight-up infodumps when I can. I tend to find the GM lecturing the players dulls play pretty quickly. From my experience as both a player and a GM, the longer a GM lecture goes on, the lower player interest goes. I guess I have a pretty strong natural aversion to GM-centricness and railroadiness, so I tend to want the players to be the focus. Ideally, the players should be the ones moving the plot forward and, when necessary, hitting rewind to remind themselves where the plot has already been. Sharing narrative power (whether in creating new stories, or sharing old ones) is a good way to keep everyone equally invested.

What kinds of retelling do you use to remind each other of what’s gone on before? How do you keep it from turning into boring lectures?

Five years

Birthday cakeThis blog is now five years old. I’ve clearly been posting less frequently over the past year or so, due to busy-ness, but still, keeping it going.

And Blade & Crown is five years old, too. (Five years since I published it, of course; the writing of it would add almost that length of time again, I think.) It’s never been a giant-killer of a game, but it’s had its little successes, which I’m proud of.

Hopefully I’ll be able to keep the blog going for another five years. The game, of course, lives on so long as anyone, anywhere is enjoying it in some form, whether reading, playing or otherwise. Thanks to everyone who’s given me support for the blog, the game, or both over the years.

How do you add flavor to an Awareness roll?

A person's eye, with another person reflected withinOne common problem for B&C players is how to use the Variation Die when they’re rolling for Awareness. You don’t know what you’ve noticed yet, if anything, so how can you narrate the way you’re trying to notice things?

  1. My eyes narrow and I stare intently ahead.
  2. I still my inner thoughts and concentrate one what is happening outside myself.
  3. I appear not to be paying any attention, but actually I’m noticing subtle details.
  4. My eyes dart to and fro, quickly taking in the scene.
  5. I stare, unblinking, for fully half a minute.
  6. I remember the last time I was here and notice each detail that has changed.
  7. I go silent for a few moments as I try to put two and two together.
  8. I take a few deep breaths and smell the air as I do.
  9. I listen to the ambient noise, both loud and quiet.
  10. I tune into the deeper rhythms of what is going on around me.
  11. My ears perk up like those of a fox as I listen.
  12. I’m not paying attention; I’m relying purely on serendipity.

Hopefully those will give some inspiration.

Gaming history: a bit more about Phoenix Games

After the Little Tin Soldier went out of business, people in the Twin Cities gaming community held our breaths: would someone else take over? Would one of Don Valentine’s former employees buy the business from him? Would we all need to shift permanently to some other FLGS? It was a nervous few months.

In the end, Neil Cauley, a former employee of Don’s, bought the store. Rising from the ashes of the Tin, Neil dubbed his new store Phoenix Games. If I remember right, it started at 909 West Lake Street and eventually moved into the 901 West Lake Street storefront when Woodcraft Hobbies went out of business.

Neil did a pretty good job of making the store friendlier and more customer-centric than the Tin had been. He actually got rid of games that had been accumulating dust for years. I remember him going out of his way to order things that customers wanted. I think he banned smoking in the store, or at least cut down on it, because I remember Phoenix being much less cough-worthy than the Tin. (Perhaps the Phoenix had grown tired of fire and smoke.) A big deal was that he cleaned up the basement and made it into pretty decent gaming space, so much so that I remember folks actually preferring to use the downstairs space over the upstairs.

I went away from the Twin Cities for many years. When I finally came back, a decade or so later, I naturally visited Phoenix again. I discovered that the gaming space had again changed configuration, with long gaming tables (almost entirely devoted to miniatures gaming) running parallel, on either side, of shelves containing many, many landscapes for wargaming. Lots of folks playing Warhammer — seemed like every time I got to 901 W. Lake, there was some kind of Warhammer tournament going on. Or maybe it was just lots of people painting together, and that all runs together in my mind.

My favorite thing about the Phoenix of this era — the later 2000s — is that the store had a great selection of used games. A huge grab-bag, to be sure, with long boxes (of the comics variety) crammed tight with a very random mix of different old games. But the prices were great, and there were some real treasures to be found. I could be nearly sure to find some wonderful old supplement, adventure or just weird geegaw for a few dollars, which was especially great because that’s often all I had to spend on games at that time.

Eventually, Neil closed the 901 West Lake Street location. But as I mentioned before, Phoenix did not go out of business. Neither are they purely online. As their website notes, they have open tables for gaming. I visited their location, in Minnetonka, a few years ago. It was fairly small, with probably about a third or a quarter as much space for gaming as the Lake Street location had. Nonetheless, a pretty pleasant place for gaming; they’re quite thoroughly in business, and from what I’ve seen, probably one of the best FLGSs in the western Cities.

PreGen PCs 3: A whole sheet of NPC bandits

I have already published a full sheet of disposable NPCs in The Bandit Map. But one can never have too many. Here is another whole band of bandits, with a little variation in equipment and ability. Each has a suggested name, and a little personal detail or quirk, to inspire on the fly. I imagine these as a rag-tag group, driven to banditry by hard times — but some really just like thieving and fighting.

This is copyright by me, but feel free to photocopy it for reasonable personal use. Hopefully it’ll be useful for your B&C games.

Disposable NPC bandits

Bundle of Holding: Catalyst series

A current Bundle of Holding is a very nice one. This iteration contains the CityBook series, which has long since been one of my favorite supplements for fantasy RPGs. Each book is a really nice slot-anywhere book of encounters, structured around businesses and other locations one might find in a fantasy city, or in later books, other locations in a fantasy setting. There’s a pretty wide variety of encounter types, and each location has some really nicely described NPCs associated. There are also some nice suggested scenarios for the encounters, some of which are easily full campaigns in themselves. Everything is presented in a way that is actually pretty system-agnostic; NPCs have only two ‘stats’ at most (fighting prowess and magical ability), but have copious background descriptions. The series is one of the neatest things Flying Buffalo has published, in my opinion.

Cover of CityBook 1: Butcher, Baker, Candlestick MakerThe presentation here is also very nice. The PDFs are clearly scans, but the text for the CityBook series is all selectable, meaning searches for text strings work and things can be copy-and-pasted. The illustrations (many by Liz Danforth) are really nice, too.

The CityBook series makes a nice entry in the fictional nonfiction genre. Each encounter is rich with possibilities, and suggests stories without necessarily forcing a specific narrative.

The series isn’t perfect, of course. Some of the encounters imply almost a bit too much background, making them perhaps difficult to fit into an existing campaign; and the tech level tends a bit more toward the high end of the scale for my taste (there’s a fair amount of renaissance tech implied), which could also make them hard to use in some games. Some of the encounters are clunkers, with stereotyped tropes. But mostly they’re quite good — inventive, inspiring, fun, flavorful.

This Bundle of Holding also contains the Grimtooth’s Traps series, which is fiendishly fun (though if any GM actually tried to use the traps contained within in a game I was actually playing in, I would take it as a good sign that I should walk briskly away). And the fuller collection includes Flying Buffalo’s slightly goofy but kind of nifty modern/pulp action RPG, Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. (The PDF of MSPE doesn’t have searchable text, but the rules are all there, at least.) All in all, a very nice deal for the money.

Management Og

A while back I had another great session of Og. The cave-people started a forest fire, made some fish paste (which they wore very tastefully), and managed to get abducted by an alien boy-band scout. Typically brilliant Og silliness.

It reminded me of another long-term idea I’ve had: Management Og. Rather than cave-people, the characters are managers in a medium-size modern day corporation. This is still just not very fleshed out, but I don’t think much would need to change. The main thing the game would require would be a new vocabulary list. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. Optimize
  2. Synergy
  3. Utilize
  4. Going forward
  5. Proactively
  6. Impact
  7. Grow
  8. Integrated
  9. Outcome
  10. Core competenecy
  11. Engagement
  12. Game changer
  13. Mission critical
  14. Leverage
  15. Disruptive
  16. Big Data
  17. Coopetition
  18. Push the envelope
  19. At the end of the day
  20. Best practices
  21. Downsizing
  22. Onboard
  23. Win-win
  24. Verisimilitude

It doesn’t quite work to say that players can only use their words when communicating, but I think it would work well to just say that anything not on the list above needs to be mumbled to near-indistinguishability.

Not sure what the classes would be. Caffeinated? Go-getter? Liberal arts major? Sales manager?

I think that, going forward, as long as we’re all on the same page, this game could optimize available resources to maximize synergy that capitalizes on Og’s core competencies and results in a win-win-win-win. Just thought I should run that up the flagpole and see if it sticks to the wall.

Details and knowledge

Another passing thought, inspired by conversation elsenet: When players tend to turn every offhandedly-mentioned NPC into the most important thing, pretty often it’s not because they like latching onto insignificant details and running off to do random things. Instead, it’s often because what seems to the GM like a random thing is, in fact, a pretty important detail in the players’ eyes.

A key question here is what gets reified. Realistically, when you’re playing the game, you have very limited window into the game world. Oftentimes, the GM has a vastly better idea of what’s going on than the players do. A big part of this is by design — it’s often not as fun to know who the murderer is at the beginning of the movie, and not everyone likes to read the last page of a book first. But another big chunk is just that, in many a game, the GM has had to think through a bunch of subtle, complex details about the game world that may never come to light for the players.

There is a strong incentive for GMs to detail everything in the world. If you can’t explain how door hinges work in this culture, whether or not it’s possible to make gauss rifle ammunition from scratch, or how it is that any given FTL drive isn’t also a world-ending kinetic weapon, then the game can crawl to a halt when those questions come up in play. If you don’t know why Ferid the Ever-Hungry is ever-hungry, the players may become hungry for that information.

Clock gearsAnd because the players often know so little of what’s going on, it’s really easy for it to feel like any insight they manage to get into the gears behind the clock face is superbly valuable information. It can get to the point where every trickle of knowledge from the GM is something to be treasured, and clearly something very central to what’s going on.

So when the GM does mention how it seems like the dagger is missing a gem, or gives the greengrocer an interesting backstory, or describes how the sun has a certain glow today, it’s pretty reasonable for the players to latch onto those things as important information.

Is this something to be avoided? I don’t think so, or at least not necessarily. It can conceivably lead to more work for the GM, but only if you consider worldbuilding to be ‘work’. Or it can lead in the other direction, with GMs winging everything and letting the game just play out from the players’ choices. Again, not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The only real problem that comes to mind is when the GM gets actually, seriously disappointed that the players aren’t following ‘the plot’. This often seems to be a form of nerd self-loathing — frustrated authors who really view their players more as beta readers than as equal partners in forming the story, who view gaming as something that’s only valuable if it leads to a publishing deal. If that’s what’s going on, then the problem does not lie with the players, shall we say.

If the players go off on random tangents but everyone has a fun adventure along the way — well, really, that’s no longer a random tangent. That is the adventure.

Blade & Crown: Characteristic and skill combinations

Another observation brought on by gaming with my ongoing Blade & Crown group: It can be quite fun to have players choose the combination of characteristic and skill with which they’re doing a given skill roll.

B&C is meant to be pretty flexible in how a character does a given task. Usually, trying that will use a single combination of characteristic + skill, so for example, climbing up a wall will be Climbing + AGL. But as I said in the original rules,

…in a different situation, the GM may rule that a different set of characteristics or skills may apply to the task at hand.

So, for example, it’s easy to imagine situations where something climbing-related could be Climbing + STR or END. And other, weirder combinations are certainly possible.

There was something implicit in that statement that I probably should’ve clarified, though: While the GM can specify what characteristic + skill can apply, it can be considerably more fun to have the player specify them.

In our monthly sessions, we pretty often have situations where a character is trying to do something for which there is no obvious combination of characteristic + skill. Last session, one character tried to manhandle an NPC onto a travois for traveling; normally, this would be automatic, but there was combat going on at the same time, so it was challenging. Later, another PC was trying to do a sort of prayer to the forces of the forest — mysterious, definitely not usually very friendly to humans, and not the sort of thing that Divine Favor would apply to. In fact, the forces of the forest often seem directly opposed to the human gods.

Both times, I asked the players themselves to decide what combination of characteristic + skill they were using. For the travois-schlepping, the player very reasonably suggested Physician + STR. Not a combination one would normally think of! But, in the situation, completely reasonable. For the forest prayer, the player settled on Folklore + ELO. Again, not a combination we’d normally think would occur, but here it seemed totally reasonable. (Another players suggested perhaps it should be ELO – DF! A very interesting idea, but alas not one that works with the rules.)

There’s certainly some tendency for players to choose skills and characteristics that their characters are good at. But while this could be ready as cheat-y, in another way it’s often very logical. If you’re trying to maneuver an unconscious person into a stretcher, but your arm is currently injured, you’ll probably try to figure out a way to do it with your other arm, or your legs, or something. If you’re trying to impress someone into doing what you say, but you’re not especially eloquent, you might try to just be physically imposing instead.

Allowing the players to choose how to combine characteristics and skills, when multiple possibilities are available, nicely aids immersion. It encourages players to think about how their characters would try to approach a situation; and it encourages them to explain that to everyone else, which helps all at the table stay in character. (Contrast this with games where, say, every social interaction is handled with a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever. Regardless of how you’re going to do the task, you’re going to roll the same way, so there’s no mechanical encouragement to think of different approaches, or explain them to the other people playing.)

Expertly-balanced rocksInterestingly, we’ve often had situations where a PC could’ve done a task multiple different ways, and each way would’ve resulted in the same amount of dice to roll (say, with a lower skill and higher characteristic here, and a higher skill and lower characteristic there). Yet the player still thought a little about how they wanted to do it. To me, this shows that the players were getting into character: thinking through how their PC would just preferentially approach a problem, regardless of what’s easier or harder. (This applies, too, with games where you just have a single ‘Bluff’ skill or whatever’; but I feel like the mechanical encouragement in B&C is overall still better.)

Also, viewing tasks this way tends to make them less railroady. If the hurdle to overcome is just ‘get the NPC back into the travois’, there could be a dozen different ways of doing this. Just like situations in the real world, problems in a game can usually be overcome from many different directions. Framing a problem as necessarily requiring only a single combination of skill + characteristic discourages player ingenuity.

Not every situation allows such a wide range of approaches, of course. Pretty often, climbing a wall is just going to take climbing + AGL, no two ways about it. But when a task can be approached from many directions, give the player choice here. The game will be richer for it.