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Tabletop RPGs

There is no curtain

This morning, out of the blue, it hit me that I can summarize my approach to GMing tabletop RPGs in a single, concise principle: There is no curtain.

Frame from The Wizard of Oz

The curtain is, of course, a reference to The Wizard of Oz — in which a curtain conceals what the titular Wizard is actually up to in his chamber. When his deception is laid bare, Dorothy and her companions see the Wizard, his power, and his machinations in an entirely different light.

That accurs’d drape

So what does “There is no curtain” actually mean?

It means that when I GM, I don’t hide what I’m doing from the other players. That means no fudging die rolls, of course, and no literal curtain-analog in the form of a GM screen, but it’s bigger than that. I’m upfront about not doing any session prep beyond thinking about the game and perhaps looking over my notes from the last session. Likewise, if something is decided on the spur of the moment — my favorite way to make decisions as a GM, because I want there to be a roughly equal distribution of surprise around the table — I don’t try to conceal that.

“There is no curtain” is shorthand, encompassing a lot of what’s in my lengthy, comprehensive 2016 Yore post “Alchemy, agency, and surprises.” Play is what happens at the table, not what I’ve plotted out in advance behind my curtain; that in turn means that what makes the game fun is player agency, and the attendant consequences thereof. It also emphasizes that we’re all players, I’m just a player who (probably, depending on the game) has a few different responsibilities — and not, say, an all-powerful wizard who knows all and sees all…or at least deceives the other players into thinking that.

“Deceive” is kind of a strong word in this context, isn’t it? There’s nothing inherently wrong with GMing “behind a curtain” — it’s just not a GMing style that interests me in any way. (Though if a group isn’t on the same page about how the game is being played, that can lead to serious problems.) But it’s the correct word for me, because of the Czege Principle: “when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.” The curtain is a metaphor for the deception required to pretend that it’s interesting when the GM is in charge of challenges and their resolution.

This has nothing to do with, say, hiding the dungeon map from the other players, or keeping monster stat blocks to yourself during play, or even running a prepared module — provided you don’t force the other players to stick to it, or bend the game to ensure that the module works as written. There’s no deception there; everyone at the table wants that dungeon to be full of surprises. But if, say, I’m planning to use a randomly generated dungeon during a session, I’d share that — because I don’t want it to be a secret. The randomness is a feature, not a bug.

What’s interesting is what comes next, and that’s up to the other players. And, as a massive added benefit, when everyone at the table has the same set of expectations about how the game is going to work, all of the players — GM included — can much more easily support each other in making it fun for everyone. If there’s a curtain then that responsibility falls largely to the GM, and I can’t abide that model of play.

I learned this from you, tremulus

Lots of stuff in my gaming past has contributed to my current perspective, but one of the biggest influences on this principle was tremulus.

tremulus is PbtA Call of Cthulhu, more or less, and right up front that premise begs a question: How can you play a satisfying mystery when the GM doesn’t plot out the mystery in advance for the other players to solve? The answer is twofold.

Firstly, instead of plotting out the mystery, the GM comes up with some story threads and how they might resolve themselves if the PCs never showed up. And secondly, everyone at the table knows the mystery isn’t prewritten. There are mechanics enabling players to contribute elements to the mystery; there are moves that ensure that core bits of the unfolding game don’t exist until the moment they unfold. There’s no curtain in tremulus, and seeing that in action was a powerful experience for me.

So there it is: There is no curtain. I enjoy thinking about, and coming up with, GMing principles[1] — and I hope this one has some utility for other gamers, too.

[1] Set the time machine to 2008: this post from the salad days of Gnome Stew collects seven of my maxims for GMs. The aphorism in this vein that I’m most proud of, though, comes from even earlier — 2006, when I was writing Treasure Tables: Being a GM is like using a 150-watt bulb.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Takeaways from running Urban Shadows for a year

After running an Urban Shadows campaign for a year, I have a few takeaways to share.

One of my starting points with any RPG is “Does it do what it says on the tin?” Urban Shadows very much does what it says on the tin, and it’s a fantastic game.

1. After our group character creation session, I spent 1-2 hours turning the hooks, antagonists, and threads the players created into Threats, and I made debt tracker sheets and consolidated move lists for my GM folder.

That was the extent of my prep for the entire campaign.

2. Before each session, I thought about what had happened in the previous session, what the antagonists were up to (all noted on their clocks), and what the PCs had planned for the next session.

Occasionally, I wrote myself a sentence or two of notes so I wouldn’t forget stuff.

3. During the game, I took notes as often as possible without interrupting the flow of play. My group alternates weekly games, so with a two-week gap between sessions (and a shoddy memory!) notes are essential for me.

4. I also created an NPC Rolodex using a 3×5 index cards and a card box. Everyone important enough to name got a card color-coded for their faction with a quick description, notes, and a Drive.

This became unwieldy, and I may need a better solution when we go back to the game.

5. Likewise for my debt trackers. I left a half-page of room for each faction and they were totally full within a couple months. I should have had at least a full page, probably double-sided, per faction, and they should have been lined sheets.

6. Out of five regular players, three loved corruption, one avoided it like the plague, and one was somewhere in the middle. We retired two PCs around the one-year mark due to corruption, with a third just a point or two away from retirement.

7. My table included a mix of PbtA veterans, newbies, and folks in between. One thing I can confidently say that everyone loved about the system was how failures are handled. The whole table paused, excitement in the air, anytime a failure came up.

8. Using only player-created hooks, and logical outgrowths from those hooks, as toys in the sandbox produced an overwhelming amount of threads to keep track of. I regard this as a feature, not a bug; the Threats provided clear calls to action to mitigate option paralysis.

9. With 1/4 Threats fully resolved and another 1/4 on the ropes, we still have 2/4 of the original Threats in play after a year. This created a logical pause point to take a break from the game, and it should make picking it up again easier.

This is one of my favorite campaigns that I’ve run, and it’s a perfect fit for my preferred zero-prep sandbox style of play. Highly recommended!

I’m happy to answer questions about this campaign or Urban Shadows (paid link) in general — just fire away in the comments!

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

The cutting-edge Bullwinkle and Rocky RPG

Epidiah Ravachol posted about the Bullwinkle and Rocky RPG the other day (note: in 2014, when I first posted this on Google+), making the point (assuming I’m smart enough to have understood him correctly) that you can design the most cutting-edge game in the world but if you produce it in a context no one cares about, no one will care.

Bullwinkle and Rocky, published by TSR in 1988, is nuts. It looks like a story game before there were story games, and it’s packed with interesting stuff: spinners instead of dice, hand puppets, three versions of the game, cards as story prompts, and more. It’s pretty amazing how different this game is from most RPGs produced in 1988.

I never got into Bullwinkle. I didn’t watch it as a kid and it holds next to zero interest for me now. But this game is totally nifty.

And because, circling back, I’d guess it went over like a lead balloon, you can still find a copy in shrink for not much money despite it being 26 years old.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Monsterhearts 2 is a scintillating jewel

Hot damn is Monsterhearts 2 a good book. (It’s also an amazing game in play, but right now I just want to talk about the book itself.)

It’s lean, without an ounce of cruft anywhere on its frame. It’s devoid of blather. This is a bullshit-free presentation honed by years of actual play, design chops, and feedback from others. It’s fucking beautiful.

It’s also packed with advice delivered in the best way possible for an RPG: conversationally but directly, with its intended audiences in mind. I love design notes and anything that brings in all the stuff that exists on the edges of the actual text — like intent — and MH2 makes so much explicit so well that it just rocks.

MH2 connects with me on many levels, some of them much deeper than most RPG texts. This is rare, and I appreciate it. But it’s also a fun game that hits so many personal high notes for what I like in an RPG, and the book expresses those things clearly and without pretension.

As a physical object, the book is equally great. I love simple hardcovers with gilt, so I love this. I generally hate dust jackets on gaming books, but in this size, and executed this well, I love this one. (It makes a perfect bookmark.)

This is one of the best gaming books I’ve encountered, full stop. It’s exactly and precisely what it wants and needs to be.

Huge props to Avery Alder.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Skinchangers beta

I downloaded Levi Kornelsen’s Skinchangers beta (paid link) which is free, and holy crap is the list of inspirations right up my apple cart: Werewolf: The Apocalypse (paid link) and Neverwhere (paid link) meet Buffy (paid link) by way of Fate (paid link) and Apocalypse World (paid link) . . . yes, please!

At first blush, it’s incredibly clever — and I love the minimalist, yet evocative, artwork. And oh, this core mechanic; it’s fantastic.

I’ll probably butcher it here, but you roll a number of Fate dice equal to your ability, using “-” results to cancel dangers (associated with each action) and “+” results to boost the outcome in specific ways. Blanks do nothing, and how you undertake the action (cautiously, boldly, covertly, etc.) changes what results you get to reroll.

Here’s the core concept from the intro:

You have met a powerful animal spirit. When you did, you were transformed and charged with a duty to the natural world. Those who desecrate the world are your enemies; this includes both mundane and supernatural foes. It is the supernatural threats, however, that you are best equipped to face, as nobody else is. You will seek out desecrated sites, battle monsters, and track down cults that draw their power by despoiling life. In this task, you will be joined by other Skinchangers, and aided by natural spirits.

From concept to mechanics, this is exciting. I need to spend some more time with it.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Dead Friend and Two OSR Dungeon Crawls

I’ve added a couple new books to my list of my favorite free & PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG (covering about 3% of the 7,500+ products available) that are both so good that I want to talk about them here.

The first is Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy (paid link), by Lucian Kahn, which is a two-player RPG — one of my favorite types of game.[1] One of you plays a necromancer; the other plays the necromancer’s dead friend. It reminds me of Murderous Ghosts (paid link), which I love, and I can’t wait to try it.

In it, you place a ritual symbol in the center of the table, surround it with a ring of salt, move coins around, hum, make strange utterances — and try to pursue wildly opposed goals — like “bring your dead friend back to life” for the necromancer, and “kill your friend” for the dead. It’s a polished and fantastic-looking little game, too.

The other is John Battle’s Two OSR Dungeon Crawls (paid link), which provides what it says on the tin. Bland title aside, these are both fascinating dungeons. It would benefit from some editing and a nicer layout, but the content is delightful — so delightful that I dropped it right into my “I’d love to run these modules anytime” folder.

My favorite of the two is The Globe, which involves an enchanted snow globe, a tooth-stealing lich, a host of mummies, a truly terrifying variant of mummy rot, and some deeply creepy moments. It also includes something I’m always excited to see in any dungeon crawl: potentially campaign-shaking consequences based on how the PCs handle it.

[1] When I first started gaming, one GM and one player was the only way I played for a couple of years. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t try to link up the separate friends I gamed with, but the intimacy and tone of two-player gaming is so fantastic that it just never occurred to me.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Urban Shadows is fantastic for spinning up a sandbox game

I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows (paid link).

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows (paid link).

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

Love in the Time of Seið is intimate and intense

At Go Play NW, I played a session of Love in the Time of Seið that I would rank among my top five gaming sessions of all time.

Designed by Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar, Love in the Time of Seið (the “ð” is pronounced like the “th” in “them,” as I understand it) is a GM-less story game for 3-5 players — though having played it with five, I highly recommend the full complement — requiring no prep and playable in a single session.

Seið is based on Matthijs’ Archipelago II. (Archipelago III, revised by Jason, is the newest version.) About half of this slender volume is stuff you’re supposed to copy and cut out for use in play — character sheets, resolution cards, and locations — so I recommend snagging the PDF, or both print and PDF.

The play aids print up just fine on regular paper, which is what I did for my go folder of zero-notice RPGs. The character sheets deserve special mention for their design, which includes a built-in table tent:

The game itself is a Norse-themed Shakespearean blood tragedy, a spiral of death, sex, and messy relationships, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Intimate dovetailing

Each character sheet has themes (e.g., sexuality and the gods for the seiðkona), a brief background, three questions to keep in mind (but not answer definitively until play begins), a background on the fictitious Scandinavian setting, and some thematically appropriate names on the front. On the back are a series of questions — things like “More details!” and “That might not be quite so easy!” — used to drive gameplay.

Seið plays out in a series of scenes, rotating around the table, which each scene spotlighting a single character (though often including several characters). When it’s your turn in the spotlight, you choose a location and, if it’s the first time that location has been used, also choose a version of the place to describe; each location card offers several options. You then frame the scene, rope in other players as needed, and you’re off.

What makes it tick so beautifully in play is that everyone has some common ground, and everyone is involved in every scene. The common ground is in the setting, which is collaboratively created using thematically appropriate locations, and the goal: the game ends when two characters have been removed from play (in our game, they were both dead).

The involvement comes from several sources. Folks in the scene are obviously involved, of course. But the player to the spotlight player’s left is also the Location Guide, inserting an event during the scene, and the player to her right is the Theme Guide, watching for ways the spotlight character’s themes can be incorporated into the scene. And on top of that, everyone at the table can interject with the game’s questions, working to make the scene even more amazing and driving the story towards a tragic finale.

The net result is that every character, and every player, is deeply and intricately dovetailed with every other character and player at the table. It’s a powerful and surprisingly intimate experience, one that depends on trust and a mutual willingness to hold one’s own ideas lightly and react to the fiction as it plays out.

The rush is intense

I found Love in the Time of Seið electrifying and deeply engaging. It took a lot of focus energy to play, in large part because you’re almost always “on” — which I love. In our session, everyone at the table brought their A game, the story and characters surprised us all, and afterwards I had that great combination GMing high/completely drained feeling that only comes from the best gaming sessions.

Love in the Time of Seið is a masterpiece of refined, effective game design, and a glorious blast to play, and I highly recommend it.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

World Wide Wrestling is an over-the-top delight

Nathan D. Paoletta‘s World Wide Wrestling (paid link) RPG reminds me of Action Movie World (paid link), another tight-premise PbtA game, not because they share a premise but because WWW 100% delivers on its premise (just like AMW).

Wrasslin’

My last contact with professional wrestling was in the 1980s, when I used to occasionally watch it as a kid. I dug the larger-than-life personalities, but it wasn’t my thing in the same way as, say, G.I. Joe (so much G.I. Joe!). That didn’t crimp my enjoyment of the game one bit — and being accessible to gamers who aren’t into wrestling is just the first of many things WWW does well.

On the night we played WWW, my Seattle group consisted of two wrestling fans, one more casual fan, one lapsed fan (me), and two players with close to zero knowledge of professional wrestling. Without fans in the group, we’d have leaned on WWW’s excellent “How Wrestling Works” essay and been just fine; with fans, we probably got into the action a bit faster than we otherwise might have.

Our GM bought this little wrestling ring, complete with figures, to make it easier for us to demonstrate what we wanted to do in the ring:

It worked nicely, and helped to set the mood. I think it’s this set, which is totally worth its $10 price.

Gloriously over-the-top

WWW’s playbooks make it easy to create colorful, grandiose, and suitably bananas wrestlers. We created characters as a group, riffing off each others’ ideas, suggesting concepts and special moves and looks and theme songs rapid-fire, and cranked out some memorably crazy characters.

We baked in relationships — rivals, mentor and mentee, etc. — during character creation, which the game facilitates, and that gave the GM (called “Creative” in WWW) fuel to prepare the bookings. He spent a couple of minutes matching us up against each other based on those relationships, and secretly noted who was supposed to win each match.

On my initial read-through of the game, I was concerned about that aspect of the system; it sounded confining. But in play, it worked beautifully. We were all excited about each match-up, and we all had the chance to flip the script and change who won the match; one player used this option at the perfect time, but otherwise we stuck to the bookings.

Ditto my pre-game concern that there might be too many mechanics for my taste. There are more moving parts than some PbtA games, but in play they all did their job and clicked — just like good mechanics should.

A unique rhythm

A game where most of the group watches two people play might sound boring for everyone but those two people (and the GM), but again, WWW sets things up so it isn’t. One person plays the announcer, using a prop microphone to provide color commentary, and that adds a layer of interaction and entertainment for everyone. (The role is supposed to rotate, but we quickly found our best announcer and generally stuck with him.) And of course the matches are quick, so after being on the sidelines in one match the spotlight rotates and suddenly you’re the center of attention again.

The division of wrestlers into babyfaces and heels — good and evil ring personas, more or less — also gave the players on the sidelines something to think about. Not in the match, but have a heated rivalry with someone who is? Use the right move, and you can show up and get involved anyway. This worked really well in play.

The evening played out as a mix of matches and out-of-the-ring scenes. We had fun cutting promos for our wrestlers, striving to outdo each other with cheesy one-liners and catchphrases. We didn’t delve much into the other side of the game — the real wrestlers behind the personalities, and how they interact outside the ring — that much, mostly due to time and this being the first session. But what we did in this session primed that pump beautifully for some more real-world action in a follow-up session.

The best way I can sum up my first WWW session is that there wasn’t a single moment that didn’t feel right. The game facilitates feeling right at every step, from character creation through individual matches through the behind-the-scenes stuff, and the mechanics work to keep everyone engaged and on point.

High-energy awesomeness

World Wide Wrestling is pure electric sex. It’s exhilarating to play, and the stuff I had reservations about after reading it — Creative booking match results in advance, the number of moving parts compared to the average PbtA game — fell away at the table.

The over-the-top goodness of pro wrestling is a perfect match for the collaborative, player agency-driven magic of the PbtA engine. World Wide Wrestling (paid link) is a two cups of coffee, bring my A game sort of RPG for me: No one can coast, because everyone is involved an “on” pretty much all the time. I highly reccommend it.

Categories
Story games Tabletop RPGs

My “go folder” of zero-prep, zero-notice RPGs

Attending Go Play NW prompted me to rebuild my “go folder” — the games I can run on zero notice, either by grabbing the book (and having everything else in the folder) or because the whole game is in the folder.

All of them are self-contained, require no prep from anyone, can be played in a session or two, and come packaged with a premise/hook to get us rolling.

The games

My go folder contains the stuff I need for these seven games, each in its own pocket (plus characters, blank paper, and stuff for my group’s ongoing games in the other pockets):

  1. Lady Blackbird (whole game), a steampunk game with a pregenerated cast that nonetheless plays out entirely differently every time, and which somehow managed to fit the core rules onto every character sheet without impeding usability. So, so good.
  2. GHOST/ECHO (whole game), a two-page RPG that kicks off with a bang: “WHILE HUNTING FOR LOOT IN THE GHOST WORLD, YOUR CREW WAS SOLD OUT. YOU’VE WALKED RIGHT INTO AN AMBUSH, WITH HUNGRY WRAITHS ON YOUR HEELS.” I haven’t played this one yet.
  3. Jedi Blackbird (whole game), a Star Wars (Old Republic era) hack of Lady Blackbird. I haven’t run this one either, but I posted about it on Yore.
  4. Ghost Lines (whole game), another John Harper game (because John is amazing at designing this style of game), this one about hunting spirits in a setting where they’re “free to roam the world since the gates of death were broken in the cataclysm.” The game assumes you’re familiar with Apocalypse World; I haven’t gotten to run it yet.
  5. DCC RPG (paid link; whole game), condensed down into a convention funnel edition, including The Portal Under the Stars and a stack of pregenerated peasants. Funnels are a hoot, and this short one is excellent; for a longer option, I could grab Sailors on the Starless Sea (paid link).
  6. Psi-Run, one of the only RPGs I rate a 10/10, because it’s perfect. The PCs are pyschic escapees from some sort of sinister program, being pursued by relentless Chasers, and if they get caught, they lose. Starts with the tension already ratcheted up to about an 8, and goes from there.
  7. Love in the Time of Seið, which is based on Archipelago, a Norse-themed Shakespearean tragedy that spirals into blood and death. I played this at GPNW, and it was amazing. All of the characters start off beautifully dovetailed with one another, and there’s almost never any downtime.

I would literally be happy to run any of these games right this hot minute.

The folder

I use an Esselte Oxford poly 8-pocket folder (paid link) as opposed to a multi-pocket folio, because in my experience those tend to smush pages unless I’m extremely careful with them (which I’m not).

This one lays flat (coil binding!), holds a ton of stuff, and has bounced around in my gaming bag for the past year with no signs of wear. It’s now tucked away in my new gaming bag — poised, catlike, ready to pounce on gaming opportunities with no notice whatsoever.