New Traits for Blade & Crown: Loud

The Traits listed in Blade & Crown were never intended to be the only ones possible; many, many more have yet to be invented and described. As another occasional series, I’m going to describe other Traits that I’ve come up with over the years. This is the first.


You are loud. You have no indoor voice; not only do you go up to eleven, you usually stay there. This can help you be heard across long distances, or in the heat of battle; and you can be hard to ignore or rebuff. But you also have a hard time being stealthy (“ARE WE SNEAKING NOW?”), and subtleties of register may sometimes be lost on you. It doesn’t mean you’re thick-headed, though — just really, really not quiet.

There’s a pre-gen character in one of my set scenarios who has this Trait. As the sheet says, “Think of Brian Blessed.” Every time I’ve GMed the scenario, the character has been one of the first picked, and one of the most enjoyable. Players have a great time being a very loud, very large ham. When appropriately allowed for in the social contract (gotta watch out for this Trait being an excuse to hog the spotlight), this can be loads of fun.

RPG history: The Little Tin Soldier

Photo of 901 and 909 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, in 2013

901 and 909 West Lake Street, Minneapolis, as they appear today

When I got into gaming (somewhere around 1980, plus or minus a year), at first it was just with friends. My gaming really kicked into high gear, though, when I visited the Little Tin Soldier.

It was located at 909 West Lake Street, near the corner of Lake and Bryant. Its next-door neighbor, right on the corner at 901 West Lake, was Woodcraft Hobbies, who sold model railroad equipment, model airplanes, kites, balsa wood and plastic models of all sorts. The two stores sold a lot of similar things — paints and some kinds of models, for example — so you might think they’d be in competition, but in fact they always seemed to have a collegial relationship. I remember that a lot of people were customers of both stores.

The windows facing the street were big and (if I remember right) single-glazed, making the store somewhat cold in winter. And I always remember the somewhat science fictional sound of city buses passing by the windows. Much of the store had a patina of age to it, with a lot of dust; I remember games that had been on display as long as I’d been going there, never sold or discounted. The owner, Don, occasionally smoked cigars in the store, so I remember a faint smell of tobacco.

Floorplan of the Little Tin Soldier, as I remember it

Floorplan of the Little Tin Soldier, as I remember it (not to scale)

The first floor of the Little Tin Soldier (or as I soon learned to call it, the Tin) was separated more or less into four quarters, two nearer the front door and the street, two nearer the rear door and the parking lot.

The quadrant to your right, as you came in the front door, was where most of the games were displayed. The games were all on big tiered racks, not terribly well-suited to finding things (everything was face out, so it meant flipping through the stock if you wanted to find a particular thing; the flipping can’t have been good for the structural integrity of the thin books and pamphlets; and some games were too big to even fit in the slots). RPGs, wargames, boardgames, etc. were loosely separated into sections; there was, for example, a big D&D section, beginning closest to the front door, next to the window. Tekumel and Chainmail were nearby. But I think it was also separated more by publisher, so (if I’m remembering this right) SPI’s wargames and RPGs were near each other.

Photo of Little Tin Soldier marquee as it appears today

Little Tin Soldier marquee as it appears today

Across from the game displays was the glass service counter, with lots of dice and minis on display. As you came in the back door, the quadrant to your right (and thus next to the counter) was all lead minis hanging in racks.

The quadrant to your left as you came in the back door was the gaming space, separated from the rest of the store by big pieces of particleboard (but with a big gap, forming the entryway). The space contained a pop machine (which is how I still have a vivid memory of when pop cost $0.50/can), tables and chairs. The tables were of the folding variety, presumably because they were cheaper, but also because they folded up the tables every week for Thursday night naval gaming on the carpet — huge engagements that used the entire gaming space. And there were a few dozen folding chairs, many with broken seats. Gamers eventually started bringing their own chairs, usually labeled to make it clear whose it was; you knew someone was a member of the gaming elite if they left a padded folding chair with their name on it in the store. These personal chairs still got broken; there was a minor conflict between the ‘elite’ and people who used the chairs regardless of whose name was on it.

Permanently affixed to the wall, in one corner of the gaming space, was a big chart that looked like a CRT. I remember it mentioning elves, cavalry and other fantasy army-sounding troop types. I’m pretty sure it was for someone’s Tolkienesque miniatures game, but the chart remains a mystery to me: what game was it for? Who created it? Why did it, above other games, get to be a permanent fixture in the store? I have a couple exceedingly dim memories, but I don’t know for sure.

Behind the minis, again separated by a piece of particleboard, and immediately to the right as you came in the back door, were the stairs into the basement. The basement was a rather forbidding place, dank and not particularly clean. But it was also where the bathroom was, so at least passing through was a necessity. And when the gaming space got too crowded, the basement was overflow space. Going down there was something I only did when necessary.

The bathroom had scads and scads of graffiti written on it. It was graffiti that you might expect grognards and gamers to write: geeky, often military in nature, sometimes very literate, sometimes horribly crude. I remember a “Killroy was here” or two, and lots of other things. A few that I remember:

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

I always thought that one was a Tekumel reference, until I realized it’s sort of meta-graffiti. I could also swear I remember graffiti that said “Mene, mene, tekel, upmooi”, but I have no idea what that would mean or if it even existed.

Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees? So the German soldiers can march in the shade.

Military? Check. Historically geeky? Check. Offensive? Check.

Onward Arrakis soldiers, going as to war

And I remember that there were little white blotches here and there; some people apparently even used whiteout. Perhaps some of the graffiti was too offensive, even by the lewd standards there.

I have many memories of hanging out at the Tin during summers, listening to the grognards arguing while I drew maps for my RPG campaigns. I remember playing FITS/Dawn Patrol during the occasional waves of popularity the game enjoyed. I remember going down the street to the SuperAmerica for snacks, or going the other way into Uptown for Zantigo. I remember RPG night on Fridays, and occasionally going to naval wargaming Thursday nights. I have a lot of personal memories regarding the Tin, but those are getting too… personal.

I’ve found references online that the Tin was originally La Belle Alliance, but I was never there for any prior incarnation. In fact, not too many years after I started going to the Tin, Don got out of the business (or at least out of the Tin — I have no idea where he landed after that). I remember there being a few tense weeks as all the Tin frequenters wondered where Twin Cities gaming would roost. In the end, a former employee of Don’s bought the place and a new gaming store rose from the ashes. More on that later.

Gaming tools: 20+

Hopefully, you’ve already seen these two videos.

In them, Lou Zocchi explains in grand style why his GameScience dice are the best around. They’re pointy, sharp, untumbled and unpolished. GameScience dice are also usually sold uninked, and they’re available in a bunch of pretty translucent colors. The dice feel solid, and they’re well-made; I’ve got GameScience dice that are 30 years old and still have sharp edges. I’ve been a fan of their dice for a long time.

My favorite type are the 20+, which are 20-siders with 0-9 twice; half the numbers have a little “+” symbol next to them. This makes the dice really easy to use as both 20-siders and as 10-siders. You might say “why not just use a twenty-sider marked 1-20 as a ten-sider?” I’d respond that it takes just that fraction of a second longer to interpret, say, a 17 as a 7. “Fine,” you say, “then why not just use regular ten-siders?” Because they don’t have the spherical, solid feel of icosahedrons. Naturally, it just comes down to personal preference — and those are mine.

Photo of purple 20+ dice

My new tanzanite 20+ dice

Blade & Crown, as you may know, mostly uses ten-siders. For many years, I’ve used non-GameScience ten-siders, because those were what I had. But this past year, I finally admitted to myself what my dream dice were: translucent, purple, inked, 20+. I did some checking and found that Gamestation sells GameScience dice in “tanzanite”, which was supposed to be a darker purple than the “amethyst” color. I already had some GameScience dice in amethyst, so tanzanite sounded enticing. And, I discovered, Gamestation sells the dice inked! Must mean hand-inking, which is kind of amazing, but it’d work better than crayon or whiteout. I didn’t see any 20+ dice in that color on their website, but they were the only site advertising tanzanite — in fact, the only place where I’ve ever heard tanzanite mentioned. Gamestation had 20+ in other colors and they had inked dice, so why not try? I wrote them an email and asked if there was such a thing as inked 20+ tanzanite dice.

Photo of tanzanite and amethyst GameScience dice

Amethyst (left) and tanzanite (right)

James Means wrote back very quickly, checked the stock and said there were, indeed, tanzanite, inked 20+ dice. I first got a quote for six dice, then decided on eight (about the most you ever need in a B&C roll), and when I asked for eight, James gave me free shipping! Wow, that’s good customer service.

I got the dice with gold ink, which doesn’t quite go with the purple as well as I thought it would; if I could do it again, I’d have gotten white ink. Also, it turns out that tanzanite isn’t as dark or as indigo as I’d hoped — I already had a tanzanite die in my collection and hadn’t realized it.

But overall, I’m very satisfied, and I now have all the 20+ dice I could need. (Although, of course, ‘need’ and ‘desire’ are two different things.)

Phoenix Games

As part of catching up on Twin Cities gaming history (and specifically of local FLGSs), I’ve been reminded of a pernicious falsehood that still floats around: the rumor that Phoenix Games went out of business. A lot of people seem to think that Tower Games took the place of Phoenix, or even that the Source is the only FLGS around. Baffling!

Phoenix Games did not go out of business. They didn’t even go internet-only. They just moved to Deephaven, near Minnetonka. The store isn’t as large as it was on Lake Street, but it’s definitely still a brick-and-mortar business; I bought a couple Osprey books there just this past summer. If you hear someone say they’re out of business, or that they only sell on the net, or that some other FLGS has taken the reins from them… well, please help set the record right.

RPG history

Having gotten into gaming in Minneapolis in the early 80s, it’s hard not to have some interest in the history of RPGs. Where did Arneson & Gygax get their ideas from? How did gaming spread? Where were ideas first expressed? How do I fit into all of it?

A huge volume called Playing at the World has recently come out, and my friend John let me page through his copy. The book attempts to be a very thorough, well-researched, almost academic history of gaming as it led to the creation D&D, and of D&D’s influence on later gaming. On paging through it, I had a small amount of trepidation; for example, a random page toward the end contained a sentence that seemed to betray a grognardian, conservative mistrust of 1980s ‘realism’. But I wasn’t sure of the context of that quote (perhaps it wasn’t actually as grognardian as it sounded), and the book intrigued me. The research really does look good; I checked a couple important but somewhat obscure names in Twin Cities gaming, and they both get multiple mentions in the index, for example. Last night I finally relented and bought a copy.

As Peterson remarks in the introduction, his book tries to stick as closely as possible to well-documented sources, which is good. It’s too easy for people’s reminiscences to lose objectivity over the years. But at the same time, Playing at the World makes me wonder what other corners of gaming history have yet to be documented. And it makes me want to get down my reminiscences while I can.

To help do my part, I’m going to start an occasional series here, documenting Twin Cities fandom as best I can. (Which is to say, not in nearly as much depth, or with as much objectivity, as Peterson does.) Hopefully I won’t become mired in sentimentality or ‘get off my lawn’-ism. Please let me know if I do!

And I’ll continue to review Peterson’s book as I work through it.

Apologies for not posting for a few days. Life has been busy.

Calendars in gaming

The beginning of the year also seems like a good time to address calendars and worldbuilding. Does your game setting have a calendar? Do you keep track of time within it?

A calendar can be a really valuable piece of worldbuilding, and a quick way of conveying a good sense of place to players. For example, the current year in my Calteir fantasy setting is 156 SD (Semlaren Dynasty). That instantly communicates several things: that this culture considers dynasties to be pretty important; that the current dynasty is something called Semlaren, so whatever Semlaren is, it’s pretty important; the current dynasty isn’t very long-lived; and this culture doesn’t keep track of history on a wider or absolute scale. The players have continued to keep track of days using this calendar, and at our most recent session, I briefly forgot how many days there are in a month and a player quickly reminded me (28). That tells me that the players are into the setting.

There are lots of other forms of calendar. The Chinese calendar traditionally used a combination of reign dates (auspicious names given to the reigns of particular emperors, sometimes with more than one reign date per emperor) and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches system that gave a cycle of 60 years.

Thus, I might tell you something happened in the Xingchou year of the Chang’an reign date of Empress Wu Zetian. If it’s currently the Renzi year of the Ruizong emperor, and you know your calendar, you know that the Xingchou events happened 11 years ago.

This calendar tends to emphasize imperial rule and the cyclical nature of time; again, important aspects of traditional Chinese culture.

Other cultures, naturally, have different ways of keeping track of time, from South Asian kalpas to Lakota winter counts. All can convey different senses of place. Tolkien’s millenia-long ages (3021 years, for the Third Age) convey the sense that someone in the world has a very grand, but not infinite, sense of time. Other forms of time-tracking will convey different values.

The trick, of course, is how to use these in an RPG. Should you even use a calendar in a game? It depends on your game, of course. If it’s a modern, cinematic game, it’s probably enough to say “It’s the beginnging of the year, around January”. Or even leave the time unspecified until it’s dramatically required. As an extreme example, characters in my current occasional Og game can barely tell time at all, much less keep track of months or years. Tracking a calendar there would actively go against the flavor of the game.

Even in a crunchier, more detailed game, calendars aren’t strictly necessary. Would I, for example, ever make my players learn a 60-term cycle and know the reign dates of all recent emperors in order to understand when a historical event happened? Probably not, mostly because it’s too little reward for too much effort. But I might well sprinkle in those kinds of details when giving other information:

“Really? The grand minister was assassinated? When did that happen?”
“Make a History roll. Ah, a success! You know it happened 27 years ago, during the Broken Temple year of the Sironok emperor.”

If and when it’s appropriate, an in-game calendar can be a valuable tool.

Festivals in gaming

Happy New Year! And happy holiday festival of the moment to PCs in any of your game worlds. Festivals can be tremendously useful in RPGs; here are some of the things I’ve found them handy for.

One of the biggest is giving a sense of your worldbuilding without being a blowhard. Festivals communicate cultural values. Little towns in the US, for example, tend to create festivals around local products that they’re especially proud of, and the ways that they celebrate — how important that pie-eating contest is, or deciding who gets to be in the parade — will betray even more about how the culture works, or doesn’t work. And the sights and smells of a festival are a great way to evoke setting. What unusual things do the PCs see? What delicious or repulsive odors are there? All these can give a sense of place, without resorting to expository spew.

In my monthly fantasy game, the PCs recently experienced the Feast of Roshanima, an avatar of a wind god. Roshanima is famous for diving off a cliff when confronted by ravening hordes, and being delivered to safety by a gust of wind. The festival is ostensibly a celebration of the avatar’s power to save people from inclement natural phenomena, and the temple of the wind god was a major focus. But it also made clear a lot of other facets of Morensian culture: ecstatic pilgrims throwing themselves off buildings in imitation of Roshanima; the temple using the festival to make clear how important and magnanimous it is (hinting at deeper politics); the wandering groups of mercenaries used in lieu of town guards; the importance given to providing honey buns for the the crowds (indicating the importance of honey production in this region). Quick, significant insights into the world and how it works.

Festivals are also concentrations of hubbub and activity, drawing in people from far and wide. They’re great for giving a sampling of the diversity present in your setting: groups of rag-clad pilgrims jostling alongside the sedan chairs of the upper classes; asteroid miners, laden with stories about what happens on the Rim, who’d rarely ever come to the domed cities otherwise; groups of GLBT people, perhaps banding together for safety on the bandit-infested roads. Foreigners might be attracted by festivals, and come to meet friends, or to experience the local culture, or to trade — a festival is a great place to have an encounter with a culture or group that the PCs normally wouldn’t encounter.

Crowds can also be great places for RPG action scenes. They present perfect cover for pickpockets to steal the important MacGuffin, or for clandestine meetings to happen in the open. Many movies feature chases through parades (viz: The Fugitive, The Pelican Brief, etc.) because they allow plenty of opportunities for pursuer or pursued to get lost in the crowd. Guards (/police/security-bots/other keepers of the peace) can get overwhelmed, leaving the PCs the only ones around to keep chaos from exploding. If there are fireworks, they can provide an excellent mask for gunshots; the screams of a victim are unlikely to be discerned against a background of drunken revelry.

And speaking of masks, if the festival is Saturnalian, all kinds of unusual events are possible: peasants trade places with queens; bishops pretend to be heretics; everyone stomps on honey-buns instead of eating them; people of all sorts wear costumes and roleplay within the RPG. In a Saturnalian festival, everyone can become the Trickster God for a day.

While I’m at it, here are some encounter possibilities at a festival:

  1. Two merchants are hawking (whatever the standard food for the festival is). They get in a fight over the correct way to prepare the food, and how the wrong preparation method implies heresy.
  2. An ecstatic pilgrim is speaking excitedly to all passerby about their religious truth. In among the babble, they sprinkle in a few interesting tidbits about (whatever the PCs are currently interested in). And then the pilgrim disappears into the tumult.
  3. The noise level is high: ecstatics are exhorting, merchants are hawking, everyone is cavorting. But suddenly, a hush falls over the crowd…
  4. Someone yells “it’s coming!” and the crowd starts to press forward; seek shelter or be crushed.
  5. A roving group of vigilantes is punishing festival-goers for what they believe to be infractions against the common law. The real police are nowhere to be found.
  6. A kind soul is handing out free amulets to whomever will tell a story related to the festival topic. The amulets turn out to be powerful magic tokens of protection against (the antagonist in the previous person’s festival story).
  7. Someone bumps into one of the PCs, and when they check their pockets, they have acquired a very expensive piece of jewelry.
  8. A priest is declaiming the hedonism going on, while the crowd is carrying a paper-mache griffin around. Suddenly, the griffin begins transforming into a real one.
  9. There’s going to be a tug-of-war between the priests and the mercenaries, and the priests have their ace in the hole, Sister Lumary, who’s built like a bear. The mercenaries try to recruit one of the PCs to help out.
  10. For the festival, it’s traditional to write predictions for the coming year on little paper boats, then float them down the river with a candle. Further down the river, someone is collecting the predictions and performing an evil spell on them.
  11. Far away in the crowd, one of the PCs glimpse someone very important from their past.
  12. A group of happy revelers try to include the PCs in their festivities, and will be rather offended if the characters refuse their kindness.

Is Jordan Peele a gamer?

If you haven’t seen it, go watch the “Kanye the Giant” sketch from Key & Peele. It has its problems — it plays into some of the sexist stereotypes in gaming culture, certainly. It gets a few small details wrong (do people say “dungeon master” rather than “DM” in real play?), but those could easily be dramatic license more than misunderstanding.

On the positive side, though, it hits a bunch of deep and funny issues in gaming: players who refuse to respect the GMs’ worldbuilding; GMs who refuse to let their worldbuilding bend to the desires of the players; how the social contract evolves through actual play; how whole sessions can be composed of what happens “in town”. And the use of terminology is mostly dead-on, a sign that either someone has done their homework, or didn’t need to because they already knew it. It’s pretty clear this sketch was created by someone who gets gaming culture quite well.

There are a bunch of other sketches from Key & Peele that show a pretty deep understanding of fannish culture, too. (“Pizza Order” seems to do for comic fandom what Kanye the Giant does for gaming.) A lot of their other sketches contain nods to SF&F fandom, action movies and other nerdy hobbies. So I wonder, is either Keegan-Michael Key or Jordan Peele a gamer? It’s certainly possible that one of their writers is a geek, rather than Key or Peele themselves, but, well, I can hope. And if one of them is, then for no reason I can pin down, my instinct is that it’s Jordan Peele.

Luck point economies: Encouraging liquidity, part II

We’ve discussed random and semi-random ways of awarding luck points. We’ve also discussed luck point sources such as Aspects, Attributes or Traits to keep the flow steady. What other methods are there?

Players in control

How about if the players are in charge of generating their own luck points? In Blade & Crown, for example, you as a player are wholly in charge of deciding whether or not you’ll use your character’s Traits to make their life more adventurous (read: dangerous). The GM and other players can offer you enticements, and suggest ways of approaching situations, but it’s ultimately up to you to get those Traits back.

This can work well. In my experience with this system, I’ve seen players thinking through the roleplaying possibilities, trying to devise ways their character can get into trouble, and it’s great fun. When they ask “Can I get tokens back by using my Trait of Gregarious to talk with those guards, even though I should be sneaking past them?” — well, that’s exactly how Traits are supposed to work.

This system, too, has problems. I’ve seen players forget that they can get tokens back through Trait use (despite frequent reminders!). And it can be tricky when the GM and player disagree about how adventurous a Trait use is. “Telling the truth about how awesome I am is totally a good use of my Honest Trait!” — that kind of thing.

A major solution for luck point liquidity, seized on by lots of GMs, is to allow players to award luck points to each other. Put a bowl of tokens in the middle of the table, remind players that they can award each other and get back to other GM duties. In theory, this can work great; it’s handing off narrative control to the players, after all, and players often have much less to remember than the GM.

As is becoming rapidly apparent, however, no solution is perfect. What if the players can’t remember everyone else’s luck point sources? (After all, if the GM can’t remember 50 luck point sources, how can anyone else?) What if one person is really good at remembering to hand out luck point awards and no one else is? That person can begin to feel like their generosity is being met with silence.

One method I’d like to try, but haven’t had the opportunity: give each player a small number of luck points that they must distribute to their fellow players before the end of the session. (Perhaps using color-coded tokens, so players can remember who a given luck point comes from.) This could help make sure that everyone is on the lookout for nifty things each other is doing, and handing out rewards accordingly. But I can foresee problems with this method, too: players giving out tokens when another character needs rescuing, rather than when they’ve done something neat; giving out all your tokens in the first hour, then feeling like you can’t reward your fellow players for the remainder of the session; disagreements about just what constitutes “awesome” behavior. So while it’s an experiment I’d like to try, I’ll go into the experiment cognizant that it is no cure-all.

The social contract

There’s one major way of increasing luck point liquidity that I haven’t examined yet, though I’ve hinted at it. It’s the social contract.

In Blade & Crown, one thing I’ve noticed that helps the players ask for their Trait tokens back is having a formal way to do so. If we first formally establish the phrase “I’d like to get tokens for doing X because it’s a negative use of my Y Trait” as the way to ask for tokens back, the players know they can make it clear to the GM what they’re asking for, and that the GM needs to give a clear response.

This can all be for nought, however, if it’s unclear to the players that a) they’re allowed to make these requests or b) the phrasing itself is unclear. If someone says “That was awesome!” but there’s no group agreement that “awesome!” deserves a luck point, it may be unclear if they were just making an observation or actually requesting a luck point. If there’s no agreement on just how amazing something has to be before it deserves a luck point, the award system may seem capricious or imbalanced.

It’s also difficult when there are wider social sanctions against asking for what you want. Here in the Midwest of the US, people like to say that they are direct, but to actually say “I did something cool, and I deserve a luck point!” is seen as self-aggrandizing and greedy. It’s also thorny when combined with social sanctions against women (and other groups) saying what we want in direct, explicit ways. Some groups can overcome these wider social expectation, but (at least in my experience) it’s difficult and rare. More often, a player who declares their own awesomeness will slowly build up a reputation as a selfish jerk, even if they’re enriching the game by doing amazing things.

These are all aspects of the social contract, a topic that I think we gamers don’t talk about enough (and about which I’ll certainly say more later). Another aspect of the social contract is making it clear what out-of-game behaviors deserve luck points and what don’t. If a player makes cookies for the group one session and gets no luck points for it, but someone else brings chips and gets a luck point, then it’s likely become unclear to all concerned what behaviors are sanctioned for, what are sanctioned against. If a player keeps working witty Monty Python references into the conversation, is that something to be reinforced, or something to be chastised? It helps all of us have better gaming if we can address these kinds of questions in forthright, reasoned discussion.

In sum

What has all this taught me? What seems to encourage a liquid luck point economy?

  1. A manageable number of luck point sources
  2. Empowering players to distribute luck points
  3. Rigorous mechanical requirements that luck points be distributed
  4. Formal ways for players to ask for luck points
  5. Making the social contract clear to all concerned

As I said before, none of these methods is perfect, but together, and well-executed, they can create a pretty good flow of luck points.

Are there methods or combinations I’ve missed? (Must be.) What have you seen work even better? Let me know in the comments.