We had a Chrismas party a week ago. Instead of board games, I said I could run World of Dungeons. It’s an ultralight hack of Dungeon World which I hadn’t run it before, so we took it on a spin. Because nobody believed that we could play entirely sober, I decided on a full improv session. It degenerated slowly, but inevitably—and undeniably gloriously—into player vs. player mayhem, which surprised me very little. Despite my mistakes as a drunken GM, we had a whole lot of fun, and I learned a few important lessons. These are my notes from the GM’s standpoint. Continue reading
This is my view on John Harper and Paul Riddle’s The Regiment, run by Lauri. There’s nothing much I can add to Lauri’s description of the session, so I’ll talk a bit about my impressions of the system. Do keep in mind that even though the version number is 2.5, The Regiment is still a work in progress; beautiful and promising, but flawed. I hope these notes will a) help the designers hone the game, b) make you interested in testing in it, and c) give you a couple of hints while playing it. Continue reading
An essay on the session of Trail of Cthulhu I played at Ropecon, being a rather lengthy treatise on what made it work and on the merits of the rules and the GM, and on the responsibilities of the players in horror roleplaying games, and by extension, in other sorts of roleplaying games that try to engage the participants’ emotions.
I’ve loved Trail of Cthulhu ever since I read it. The art is perfect for a Cthulhu book, Kenneth Hite—the author—really knows his Lovecraft, and the system is trimmed down to the essentials and really suits my playstyle. There are some bits that I don’t like, but are really easy to hack; overall, it’s very versatile beginning from the system right down to the Mythos monsters, so that every Keeper can make it their own. One year at Ropecon, I ran my ass off of Trail—25 hours within 48 hours—but now was my first opportunity to play it. Bonus: it was run by a woman, which I don’t get too often. This was also my first opportunity to play Cthulhu (and horror) after reading Kenneth Hite’s Nightmares of Mine (which has been updated to GURPS Horror) and his terrific essay on Cthulhu in his Dubious Shards. Continue reading
(Above: One of the reasons why RPGs are awesome, by Luke Crane.)
This was the first time in years that I didn’t run any games. My old friend got wed on Saturday and I wanted to see Luke Crane, so there was little time. It turned out to be a good decision: I got to play in very good games, talk with people (some of them new), and hang out with no tight schedule to keep. This is an overview post, and more thorough analyses of interesting stuff will follow. Continue reading
I’m about to fulfil a longtime dream and run a few session of Burning Wheel—more, if it fits the group. We created two characters (one players couldn’t make it to the session, but knew the rudiments of world I’d suggested so everyone was okay with it), which was fun, but quite daunting to me as the GM. Luckily, the game is wonderfully helpful for both the players and the GM. Continue reading
I’ve done improvisational theatre for two years now, and I’ve been a roleplayer (mostly the GM) for twenty years on and off. Improv has done a lot to make me a better player; and for a long while I thought roleplaying made me great at improv. Sure, I had my strengths, but this post focuses on what I sucked: listening to other people. There will be sequels.
Kagematsu is a game about shame, honour and love. It tells of a wandering ronin who ends up in a Japanese village in 1572, during the Sengoku era. All the men are at war, and only children, elders and women are left. The village is hard to defend. Everyone is afraid that the village will be devastated by an outside threat. It’s the women’s job to persuade the ronin to stay and defend the village.
Kagematsu, the lone male character, has to be played by a woman. That’s a rule. The rest of the players can be women or men, but I’ve played twice, and both times they’ve been male. Both games rank among my best roleplaying experiences.
The game focuses on seduction. The women characters have two active stats, Innocence and Charm, with seven points divided among them in any way. The women are after shows of affection (called Affections, in short) from Kagematsu: a stolen glance, a kind word, an introduction, a kiss, and so on. Some Affections you can only get by Innocence (a confession of love), some by Charm (a roll in the hay), and some by either one. If you succeed at the task with a single roll of dice, you lower your Fear. That’s the third and final stat, and the only use for it is in the end, when Kagematsu fights against the total Fear score of the women.
So you want to lower your Fear by succeeding at the die roll. If the woman’s player rolls more than Kagematsu’s, she lowers her fear score.
You also want to gain Kagematsu’s love. But there’s no die roll for that. Instead, Kagematsu’s player makes a subjective evaluation on the scene, and decides whether your character receives Love or Pity. Love makes your subsequent rolls a tad easier, and Kagematsu uses the power of his most loved woman to fight the final battle. Pity, on the other hand, only has a psychological effect: it’s a different thing entirely to decide between a) giving a Love point or not giving any point at all and b) giving a Love point or a Pity point.
So as the woman’s player, you need to plan your way to Kagematsu’s favour. Probably your plan goes haywire. It seems so simple: first you make a good first impression, and then slowly get acquainted and gain his favour. But you can only try gaining each Affection once. What if you fail at making a good first impression? What if all your easier tasks fail, and it seems to you that Kagematsu hates you? How can you then get him to both touch you and love you for it? (It’s possible to gain extra dice by getting desperate. Desperations are a neat little mechanic which I won’t get into here. Basically they improve your chances at die rolls at the very real risk of gaining pity.)
It’s insanely challenging and gratifying! After the second game, one of the players uttered that the game is way more tactical than D&D4. In some games, waiting for your own turn while the others are playing can be a bit tedious, but here it’s not. You have to pay attention to what’s happening between the other women and Kagematsu, and what Kagematsu might be like, and what your next approach is going to be like.
And that’s only part of the fun. The theme and the unusual setup are sure to be provocative. I’m sure each player has her or his own thoughts about stuff, and they’re sure to differ from game to game. At my first game, this July at Ropecon, I thought a lot about representing female characters. When a woman explicitly evaluates how you play, at least I reflected intensely about how I portray women at roleplaying games on the one hand, and how I should play them on the other. Some of the game’s mechanics also emphasise the reversed gender roles: the women’s players don’t ever get to say how Kagematsu enters the scene, for example. It might not sound like much in theory, but if you’re as active at the gaming table as I am, it packs a nice psychological punch by forcing you to accept a more passive – in traditional terms, a feminine – role
The second time we played, I put a lot of my younger self to the woman I played. I made her an innocent, well-disciplined but shy 17-year old who tried to gain favour by gaining sympathy. She made a good impression on Kagematsu, who seemed to be a lot more sympathetic to her than to other characters; but in the end, Kagematsu who was quite old, couldn’t commit himself to someone much younger, to someone who reminded him of his past. It was heartbreaking! And a lot more personal, too.
The characters go through a lot in the game, and I don’t think it’s possible to stick to your initial character concept unless the dice really favour you. In the first game I had really bad luck with the dice and had to get desperate. I took Kagematsu for the Mr. Darcy type and tried lizziebenneting him. I failed miserably and loved it.
If it sounds uncomfortable, weird, and awkward, it can be! Especially the first session felt really weird and awkward. But not once did I feel threatened, or humiliated, or judged. It’s due to the players in part (thank you, Emmi and Laura), but also, I think, to the nature of the game. Kagematsu’s player doesn’t judge your attempt at being charming, but your character’s. They’re not wholly separate, but it becomes quite clear, quite soon that the character’s path isn’t necessarily the one the player wants. It’s a valuable experience to feel both vulnerable and safe at the same time.
In May 1967, Jimi Hendrix held a concert in Helsinki. It only lasted for half an hour, but it made a lasting impression on the Finnish music scene – so much so that a lot of folks who weren’t there claim to have been. Hasse Walli, a renowned Finnish guitarist, later said that the budding guitarists who actually attended the concert divided into two camps: those who quit instantly, and those who began training furiously to be as good as Hendrix was.
Now, I’m no comic book artist, but I’d say that JP Ahonen’s art in Perkeros is the graphic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix. It’s only in Finnish for now, but I’m hoping that someone translates it soon to other languages – thus this blog post, so I can do my part.
Perkeros, which saw the light of day just recently, is a comic book by JP Ahonen and KP Alare; Ahonen is the illustrator but they’ve both written it. It’s about a guy called Akseli, who has his own avant-garde heavy metal band, whose other members are a regular-lish girl playing the keyboards, an old hippie guy on the bass and a real, live, honest-to-Black-Sabbath bear pounding the drums like nobody’s business. The comic book mostly follows Akseli in his efforts to make the band a success, to make sense out of his relationship and of his life altogether. There are also some occult elements afoot, although the general tone of the book is very light-hearted.
The story is good. It might even be great: I dug the characters, the dialogue, the music references, the occult elements, the whole shebang. But it’s kind of hard to talk about it because, as I said before, visually the comic book is fucking Jimi Hendrix. You can take a look at the previews here and here, but the samples really don’t convey how beautifully it all flows from page to page. It might even be really superfluous to separate the visuals and the story, because they support and riff off of each other.
The visuals aren’t there (only) to brag, but they’re carefully constructed to follow and emphasise the story. The story is mostly presented in the traditional square-panel form, but Ahonen really knows when to break it. The best examples are the concert scenes where the graphics and colours go six kinds of nuts, and it really feels like someone pulls off an amazing solo that takes you someplace else. Only you’re not hearing it, you’re seeing it on the pages of a comic book. The comic is not only about the story and the characters, but the power of music, and it’s really stupefying how it’s possible to convey the power of music in a silent medium.
Visually Perkeros reminds me of lots of masters of comic books. Bill Watterson for the wild page layouts; Don Rosa and Uderzo for the love of background details; Dave Gibbons for the layouts and the mastery of geometry; and the sucky band at the beginning feels very much like when Stinky got his own band Peter Bagge’s work. But it’s still distinctively Ahonen’s own style, and he is equally at home with rigid geometrical compositions as with zany cartoony slapstick.
It also feels like Ahonen very much knows what Scott McCloud is talking about the art form in Understanding Comics (to be fair, it’s been too long since I read it); but he is far beyond theory and Perkeros feels nothing like a master’s thesis whose purpose is to show what the author is capable of. Ahonen knows his art form, and what it can convey, and how it can support the story and the themes visually. The drawings and the colours aren’t simply illustrations for the story – they’re an integral part of the work of art. They express something the words alone can’t.
I know this isn’t much of a critique, more like a rave review whose purpose is to promote the comic, bring Ahonen & Alare money, and make it available in other languages. I’ll save more critical observations for subsequent readings and more erudite critics. I’m not entirely sure that all of the occult elements towards the end were thematically necessary, but they make for some killer art. I’ll have to see about their place in the whole when I read it again.
(Full disclosure: I know the artist, not very closely, tough, but I’m not trying to get into his pants. I expected good stuff, but the reason I’m writing a rave review is because Perkeros exceeded my expectations in every way.)
I ran my first Call of Cthulhu campaign during 2009 and 2010, during which time my GMing preferences underwent a drastic change. It was the acclaimed Tatters of the King, “Cthulhu done right”, praised for its believable NPCs and milieu. While everyone seemed to like the story, from the GM’s point of view the campaign was arduous. There is little freedom for the players, and the GM is instructed to fudge die rolls so that certain events come to pass in just the right way. What’s worse, the book is a horrible manual for an actual gaming session. To start with, there are no master lists for clues, or any other handy points of reference other than a timeline. In effect, I had to keep the book open at all times and make sure that I handed the players just the right information to ensure that the campaign goes along.
GMing it was hard work during the sessions. The book is 232 pages long, and the campaign takes up about 180 or 190 pages. Some of the early scenarios contain information or objects that are vital late in the campaign, but the information in the book doesn’t follow any clear format – it’s hidden in the NPC’s pre-written dialogue. Without a Master List of Everything Necessary, or at least a small explanatory text of what’s essential in the scene, it was really hard to improvise anything.
In effect, I kept the book open in my lap at all times, glanced at it regularly so that I could act the parts of the NPCs and deliver all the necessary information the players. It was hard to concentrate on what was happening at the gaming table because I had to focus on the book and on making sure that the campaign could go on.
(I’m not blaming it all on the book, though; it might not be the best campaign for a first-time Cthulhu GM. Maybe an experienced GM could have read the book in its entirety and gleaned all the necessary information and made his own play aids. I maintain that it’s the book’s job to make the pre-made campaign easily playable, but that’s beside the point here.)
That’s my point of view, my experience. In contrast, around the same time I had two different kinds of roleplaying experiences. FIrst, I read new gaming masterpieces such as 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars, and even got to play them a bit. 3:16 is a rules-light, improvisation-heavy roleplaying game about space marines intent on killing everything in the universe. It is filled with good stuff, but what’s relevant here is that 3:16 was the first game where I encountered the band metaphor for RPGs. It’s like jamming together and creating stories. (To my present knowledge, Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer is the first game to utilise that metaphor.)
The second experience was playing two Call of Cthulhu scenarios several times in Ropecon, namely John Wick’s Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act One (three times), and John Tynes’ In Media [sic] Res (five times). Those scenarios are player-driven, and the GM is reacting. Everyone is kind of riffing off of each others’ ideas. The players play against each other, and the GM is trying to make the situation even more intense (and sure, describes the environment, gives clues and so on). Rather than reading from the book what’s supposed to happen next, the GM feels out the situation at the gaming table and adds something to it. Effectively, he’s one of the players.
In Tatters of the King, my job really felt like that of The Keeper of Arcane Lore, Call of Cthulhu‘s title for the GM. I was the repository of stuff that the players had to uncover. Their rolls of dice were either rolls to see whether they were damaged, or whether they could get access to the information I was withholding. (In effect, I fudged a lot of rolls because that was what I was used to.) I didn’t feel like I was one of the players in the game, or “one of the guys”. I was sitting at the head of the table, which sort of emphasised my role as being apart from the others.
Now, I’m not saying I never want to sit at the head of the table again (actually I still do), or that I don’t want to withhold information (I still do if the game has something of the sort), or that I want everyone at the table to hold equal power (I sure as hell don’t, but neither do I advocate that the traditional GM-player divide is the only way, or the only interesting way, to divide power). What I am saying is that I learned to love playing. I want to come to the table and feel that I don’t have all the answers, that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table. I enjoy the moments when players surprise me and I have to step back and admit that I didn’t see that one coming.
What I’m saying is that I learned to Play Unsafe, which is actually a title of a brilliant little book by Graham Walmsley that I also read during the Cthulhu campaign, and I urge you to read it as well. When I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table, I need to stay on my toes and pay attention to what’s happening at the table. I feel more uncertain and tense, and I can transform that uncertainty and tension into something positive.
I purchased Ron Edwards’ S/lay w/Me a couple of years back. It impressed me instantly, but I was afraid to try it out. After a year of improv classes, I booked two sessions of it to Ropecon (and ran a third ex tempore). I’m glad I did. It’s a very special little gem, a two-player game of sword & sorcery that usually plays in an hour or so. I’ll go so far as to say it’s pretty much the essence of what I enjoy in roleplaying.
One player plays an experienced adventurer, described in a couple of dozen words. He also picks where the adventure takes place and declares something supremely important that he’s after there.
The other player then comes up with ideas, visuals, and people based on what the other player decided. He also creates a Lover and a Monster, who can be the same person or thing.
Then they start playing. It’s very light on mechanics, and although you roll dice, they only affect the final outcome of the game, not the task or conflict at hand. The game is played in “Goes”, which is pretty much another way of saying “turn”, but sounds a little less like a board game. On your Go, you describe things and end your Go by narrating a forward-moving event. Not “I search for the sword”, but “I enter the temple and I go through rooms of varying, vivid colors, until I finally reach a small, crimson chamber. On an altar I find the sword.”
In its most rigid form the narration turns resemble the typical player–GM split: one player says what the adventurer does, and the other says how the world reacts. However, they can and should play the game as loose as they are comfortable with. Rather than following clear rules about what each player can and must say, the players should feel out how far they can go – how much they can about the other players’ “realm”. I’ve often heard said that, for example, it’s not kosher in RPGs for the GM to say what the player characters are feeling; and it’s definitely out of bounds for the player to say how the monsters react.
In S/lay w/Me, the only limits are what you two as players establish. It not only applies to narration rights, but also to the content: since the game is about lovers and monsters, you have to include love and/or sex and violence in the game. One inhabitant of the internet, not well-disposed towards the game, said that the game seems like an awfully contrived attempt at foreplay. (The game’s highly sexual art might have provoked that reaction.)
But it’s not about foreplay (although you probably could use the game for it, but how is that different from any other RPG?). Instead, it feels very special to just play face-to-face with one person, and come to terms about all kinds of things without ever explicitly discussing them. It’s about connection, about jamming – to use Ron Edwards’ music metaphor for roleplaying – about learning cool things about yourself and your friends. It’s sitting together, forgetting everything else but the game, focusing on the fiction you’re creating. It’s like immersing yourself in a Robert E. Howard story, except you tell it together with an interesting person, and if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.