Reviewing campaign notes

Since the last time I collected my current Blade & Crown campaign notes into a PDF, they have (of course) only grown. I recently completed a re-read of them. It was very instructive, as well as fun.

Illustration of a bookThis time, I didn’t bother to reformat or typeset the document, so the PDF was 82 pages long. 82 pages! And that’s with very terse text. Again, it’s easy to imagine that writing it out in more descriptive prose could be a full novel, or series of novels.

As I was going, I kept another document of notes on it. I ended up creating a high-level summary of the general course of things. Which NPCs are doing what? What’s been happening off-stage as the PCs have been having all their adventures?

The summary document ended up being three pages long, again with pretty dense text. I feel like I need a summary of the summary!

But writing it up really got the creativity going. I easily came up with a list of a dozen ideas for future campaign events. Either threads that were already dangling and unresolved, or possible side-events that might find their way into the spotlight in interesting ways. Over the course of the campaign, I’ve often managed to find interesting third ways for events to go. These third ways often suggest interesting side-stories: “Wait, Baroness Sermae did it that way? When the obvious course of action would’ve been to do A, or at least B? She did C? Huh, there must be a story behind that…” Those back-stories automatically just naturally produce interesting game happenings.

A campaign that runs multiple years ends up laboring under a lot of history. But much of that labor is in the form of planting campaign seeds for future happenings.

A Hugo for Naomi!

I don’t talk too much about fiction here, and I don’t talk much about awards, either. But I have to mention this year’s Hugo for Best Short Story. The story that won was “Cat Pictures Please,” which might seem at first to be cute and light, but which is also about whether treating people according to the Golden Rule is possible, and several other quite deep ethical issues. It’s a great story. Go read it.

The author, Naomi Kritzer, is a friend of mine, and I’m incredibly happy that she is getting this much-deserved attention and praise. Check out her other short fiction, her novels, and her nonfiction writing.

Finding third ways

Joss Whedon has had a lot of influence on geeky storytelling, I think. Not just with his particular cleverness with dialogue, or in his original (though in their own way trope-laden) characterizations. The way I’m thinking of is in how he finds interesting, genuinely surprising, but yet somehow logical, directions for stories to go.

It’s hard to give a concise example of how he does this with plot, so I’m going to use this famous line of dialogue to illustrate it instead:

My days of taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.Mal Reynolds, Firefly

The quotes illustrates nicely how Whedon finds original, surprising, yet logical ways of doing things. The first way this line could’ve gone — the obvious way — would be for Mal to say “…are coming to an end”. That is the standard way that the idiom runs, and you’ve probably heard close variations on it thousands of times.

A protractorA lot of writers would turn the idiom on its head, in an almost-predictably contradictory way, by having Mal instead say “…are just starting” or perhaps “…are coming to a beginning”. This kind of deliberate 180° contradiction is what I call the second way. For almost any situation, if there’s an obvious way it could go, there’s a directly contradictory way it could go. The PCs are expecting an ambush from the left-hand corridor, so the ambush comes from… the right-side corridor! Ha-hah! The players logically surmised that the monster was susceptible to fire, and the mage prepared Fireball, so it turns out to be a monster that’s immune to fire! Ha-hah!

The problem with the second way is that it often feels somewhat reactionary. The line of thought seems to be, ‘Whatever the players are expecting, give them the exact opposite!’ I think I’ve seen this happen in games, and while it can surprising in its way, it also seems to breed some resentment in the players. If you feel that, whatever you predict, you’ll get the opposite, then it’s easy to feel like your efforts to suss things out are not only wasted, but unfairly turned against you.

This is why it’s important to try instead for a third way. A third way should lie somewhere between the obvious and its exact opposite. It should pretty much make sense, but in a still surprising way.

It’s important that the third way is not something totally wacky or pointlessly bizarre. If Mal had said “…are coming to a very thin, flightless point”, no one would’ve found it clever; we’d have just found it uncomfortably weird or poorly written. (And indeed, many scriptwriters who try to imitate Whedon’s style end up coming off this way). Clever lines, and clever plots, find a way to almost reward the players for speculating on where things are, yet still finding a way to surprise and even delight them.

If the first way is 0° and the second is 180°, then the third way usually lies somewhere in between them on protractor. The ambush comes not from the left or right, but from above (“They’re in the ceiling!”). The monster is susceptible to fire, but only because it is riddled with a disease that relies on making its host die in flames to spread to its next host.

Of course, the trick with finding a third way is that it takes more thought than either the first way or the second. But once you get into practice, you can easily think of alternate, interesting-yet-logical ways of handling most situations. It’s not always easy to come up with third ways, and indeed getting good at it can just lead to falling into wholly different ruts. Nonetheless, aiming for a third way, in my experience, makes gaming richer and more fun for all concerned.

Warehouse 23 basement

Don’t look now*, but SJG’s Warehouse 23 basement is back. All sorts of weird objects, many hilarious, many slightly creepy, many just kind of head-scratchingly incomprehensible. My favorite continues to be the 1:1 scale map of North America. Potentially good inspiration if you need something weird and mostly useless for PCs to discover.

* although maybe now would be okay

B&C via net

Since my move to Taiwan, my monthly Blade & Crown group has continued pretty much unabated. Our group is now pretty widely scattered. Most of the players are in the Twin Cities, but one is in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m of course on the other side of the Pacific.

  • The quality of microphones and speakers, unfortunately, matters. We’ve had some sound issues for one player, and it seems largely to do with the sound equipment involved, on both ends. Moving to computer-moderated play can mean you have to sink a little money into a high-quality headset or speakerphone. It’s also Really Nice to have a nice, wide monitor, so I can see everyone clearly in one window while I keep the campaign wiki open in another window.
  • So, unfortunately, does bandwidth. Some of the players in our game have taken to joining up together at one player’s house, even though it means a lengthy commute, because the one player has a much more reliable, high-bandwidth internet connection.
  • However, some simple little tricks can also help. When we had some trouble getting everyone at a (pretty large) table heard through a speakerphone, messing with the technical settings didn’t help. But putting the speakerphone on top of a can, so that the device was elevated above most of the various objects on the table (bowls, dicebags, computers, etc.), worked brilliantly.
  • Scheduling can be tricky! I’m almost exactly on the other side of the planet from the other players, and most of us work 9-5, Monday-Friday-style jobs, so that means we can pretty much only play on weekends.
  • However, as the person who has historically been late most often to the game, having the game session happen right from my living room is very nice. No need for me to commute means it’s just a matter of plopping down and starting, so I’ve been much more on time recently.
  • Sharing visual information — maps, mostly — works quite well. Screensharing makes this possible. However, I’m always a little leery of letting Google or whoever else get their digital claws on my graphics.

Shiny Trait tokens: A pile of glass beads.Computer-moderated play has also gotten me thinking about the tangible aspects of gaming. The stuff you can touch. We all have our own dice, so that continues to work fine. But in B&C, another major tangible component is Trait tokens. Having shiny little baubles to trade back and forth has always been a part of the enjoyment. And having tokens makes it immediately apparent to all concerned how much Trait usage is still possible. How to handle that when trading each token back and forth would cost a hundred dollars and take three weeks?

So far, the only solution I’ve found is for me to keep a text file to track tokens. It works, but it utterly lacks the tangible benefits of physical tokens. Not only does it lack the tactile enjoyment and shininess of tokens, it also makes it difficult for anyone but me to know how many tokens someone currently has left. I haven’t found a better solution yet. Do you know any free online sites that allow tracking of this kind of thing? I can already envision a site like Doodle where you input characters’ names and then select how many tokens you have for each, and then the GM can activate or deactivate those tokens. Perhaps with a choice of different icons for each: little stars that either flash or glow dully as embers; storm clouds that quietly rumble or flash lightning; little characters who bounce with activity or slump; etc. Is there such a thing out there?

In my monthly group, we haven’t needed to do any minis combat yet. I’m wondering how that will work when or if we do. I actually have pretty much my full minis collection here with me, but the camera setup will certainly be a challenge. I’ve seen lots of mentions of mounting cameras on the ceiling or whatever, but that isn’t an option for me, for any variety of reasons.

In any case, as I said before, it’s very nice to live in the future.

Real-life adventures

Convergence finally asks me to be an Invited Participant, and what happens? I’m not even in the country for it.

It’s been a major break between posts here, and for good reason. At the beginning of May, I started a new job here in Taiwan. Yes, Taiwan. I visited again last summer and, as has now happened multiple (well, two) times with me, a short taste of Taiwan led to coming back for longer the next time. Since my last post, I’ve been incredibly busy moving and then establishing myself back here.

Clouds over the hills south of Taibei

I’ve managed to have a few real-life adventures. Going to a different country is a sure-fire recipe for that. Looking at graves on distant hilltops; getting chased by barking dogs, and succeeding pretty well on my Intimidate roll with their irresponsible owner; going to see the sun set over the ocean and the mountains; lots of little side-adventures to explore this alley or that temple. And of course all the usual hardships of trying to establish oneself in a new country. Not a lot of time for blogging.

Gaming has been sparse so far, but I’ve now had a very successful session of my monthly Blade & Crown group via video chat. It is very nice, but very busy, to live in the future.

Hopefully, as I get more settled, time will allow for more adventures and more blogging. Hopefully we can all keep having adventures — the good kind — in the meantime.

Con of the North, part 1: Among Stars and Would-be Gods

Friday, I got to the Con late as usual. I was hoping to get there in mid-afternoon, but several minor crises meant the first game I could actually play started at 6pm. Even more unfortunate, John had had to cancel his attendance at the con entirely for Friday, so my first choice of game (John’s Feng Shui 2 game) had been canceled, too. I wasn’t sure what to play, but Jay of Saturday Night Space Opera invited me to Jennifer Doll’s “Among Stars and Would-be Gods”. I’m glad he did.

The game had a full slate of players, and at first, I was a little leery — Jennifer and I were the only women. Also, I was a little leery of playing a system I hadn’t tried before, and creating a character in it. But Jennifer included a bunch of nicely-designed packages she had created, so creating a PC was largely a matter of putting together a few pieces. She gave us a nice introduction to the system. Cypher seems needlessly complicated to me (seems like the difficulty targets or resource pools or something could be adjusted to avoid all the multiplication that’s required), but Jennifer’s game turned out to be great.

We were all psychic adepts, trained from birth as assassins, enforcers or spies. One player created a tech/leader type who believed he was the leader of the group, but who actually wasn’t; another created a surfer dude-type who was actually an intrusion expert; another created a big bruiser/enforcer type; and there were a couple others. The players did very nice jobs of roleplaying, adding a lot to the immersion and enjoyment. And it was a group who understands that no one person should dominate the spotlight, which is very nice.

The table as we played Among Stars and Would-Be Gods

Our PCs were all living in a small compound that we had never been outside of. Shades of La Femme Nikita, or Paranoia, or maybe Logan’s Run. We knew there had to be a world outside, but we’d never been there. When our handlers disappeared, leaving only the minder robots and our other psychic adept comrades, we were moved to action.

As we eventually discovered, perhaps a stronger parallel was with Akira: a group of psychically gifted people trying to deal with someone even more gifted — dangerously so. Pretty soon after we left the compound, I figured out the general course of where things were going, so I had my character start wishing kind thoughts towards Omega, the dangerously gifted one.

Although the scenario clearly could’ve ended with a violent confrontation between us and Omega, we managed to find a non-violent way to resolve it. There was nicely rising tension throughout, so it didn’t feel like a letdown. The bruiser/enforcer PC never got to shoot anything, though, I think.

Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the system — Cypher includes too much multiplication and division on the fly for my tastes. And it seems like the designers could’ve just tweaked some of the difficulty ratings or resource pools to eliminate the need for arithmetic. But the resource management aspect (using pools of points for each of the three characteristics) was kind of neat.

Overall, though, Jennifer ran a great scenario, one with a lot of nice, subtle hints and important opportunities for player agency. The other players at the table also made it a lot of fun. I’m glad Jay invited me, and glad Jennifer ran it.

Con of the North 2016: Almost entirely great

A compass roseCon of the North 2016 is now over. I’m recovering from a little bit of con crud. I usually don’t suffer from that kind of thing, but other commitments necessitated getting to the con on Saturday with far too little sleep. It made me appreciate even more that they put water dispensers in various strategic locations; a very good feature, one that more cons should probably do. (Good way to make sure your members’ immune systems are working well!)

There were a few small bad experiences with this year’s con, but the vast majority was great. Lots of fun systems, some great player interactions, some real inventiveness — most of the games I was in were really just superb. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing up each game here later.

For now, continued recovery.

Lots to do before Con of the North

A compass roseCon of the North 2016 starts tomorrow, and I still have a lot to do:

  • Paint some markers for my Blade & Crown game
  • Transfer a bunch of prep to my netbook
  • Create one or two more PCs
  • Print all the PCs
  • Whip up a couple sheets of disposable NPCs
  • Print a few more player handouts
  • Give the mass combat rules a thorough review (I wrote them, but that doesn’t mean I memorized ’em!)
  • Put translations for the 美麗島風雲 Wonderful Island action cards their sleeves

In addition to the regular necessities of life! But all the prep is fun, and I’m sure I’ll be done in time. I’ve already created most of the B&C PCs, created a nifty mass combat tracking board, printed off some maps and — critically — written up most of the scenario. Both the games I’m running should be quite good.

Hopefully see you at the Con!