Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? Reflections


On October 1, I announced the What Makes a Good Player? series. It's been pretty great, and I wanted to give a brief review of some of what I think has come through as important in the interviews. For sure, none of these are strict guidelines, and they might not work for everyone, but they're good ideas to keep in mind. My little analysis is below! Thank you so much for reading.

I asked the interviewees:
What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?
The biggest trends I saw here were group character development (banter, relationship development) and creative involvement (drawing character portraits, helping others with their characters), and sharing the spotlight. When we think about good players, I wonder how many people think of clever or snarky people who are entertaining, but might not share the spotlight much? I know I used to fall into this trap, where I thought that the person with the most laughs or the coolest moves was the best player, but now I'm seeing that I (personally) enjoy players who know how to tell their own story while letting others tell their own, too.
Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?
This was interesting because almost everyone uses the improv tool of "yes, and..." I'm familiar with the technique from before I played games much, and before I used it in games. Improv tools can be very useful, but I honestly sometimes feel locked down by them in games. Being open to suggestions and not blocking people can be valuable, yes. However, I created Script Change in response to the ever-present expectation of saying "yes, and..." without any means of taking respectful control of the narrative. It interests me to know that so many players put huge value on accepting the suggestions of their peers, while I personally prefer to be able to say "No, but..." some of the time, too. Does that make me a bad player?
How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?
This response went everywhere from "whenever I can" to "have to game at least once a week," which is a fascinating turn of events. I was expecting a lot of people to fall into the range of weekly, or biweekly. Instead there is a lot of flexibility in the responses, factoring in adult life and health considerations, as well as general energy. As someone who has too busy a schedule to game recently, it gave me a little comfort to see that even good players have a need for down time.
What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?
I enjoyed reading these responses, because while there were some trends (Powered by the Apocalypse games, for one), there was a fair amount of diversity in game preferences. Some people liked parlor larps, others liked D&D 3.5 (my favorite of D&D). There were PbtA fans, but others liked Fate. Some players expressed a preference for mechanics - some crunchy, some not. As someone whose taste ranges widely in games for different types of games and different settings, I thought that was really cool to see - being a good player isn't restricted to a type of game or mechanical structure. Some of the players expressed genre preferences, while others just cared about experience - enthusiasm, enjoyment, and so on.
Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?
This was a fun section to read! I really recommend checking out everyone's stories about games where they felt like they did a good job. While I know it can be hard to recognize our abilities and skills, especially when it comes to things like influencing other people's enjoyment, it's always nice to see someone talk about their positive actions. Some players talked about ways they changed up standard expectations of play, while others talked about how they perceived characters or gameplay differently than others. I really loved where people talked about influencing even the themes of the entire game, because it really shows how much one player can do. 

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There are a lot of takeaways from this for me, but I'll try to bullet list them:
  • There is no restriction on who can be a good player, regardless of their background or their familiarity with the game or type of interaction with the game.
  • Any type of RPG can have good roleplayers.
  • There are intersections between playing games and our health and wellbeing, including our energy levels and interest.
  • There are things you can learn that help you understand roleplaying better and that make it easier for you to participate, but you can get along just fine without them. No "skills" are required.
  • There is no one way to be a good roleplayer.
Whew!

During the time I was working on the series, there were a number of discussions about good player habits and behaviors on Google+ that I wanted to talk about a little. The first I read was from Paul Beakley discussing "Talky-Talky Games" and as a followup, Christian Griffen continued the discussion and they both had really good points, some of which match up with or expand upon my notes above and those of my interviewees.

Christian mentions Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, which is a great resource for new players and legacy players alike. I enjoyed reading it, and I will note that those with history of improv will recognize some tips and concepts within it. 

I really hope that you all enjoyed reading this series, and that you'll revisit them after this post. I know that it was a really great experience for me to do all of these interviews and learn about these players and their experiences. Share your good player stories in the comments and shares of this post, and tag me in to see!



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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Five or So Questions with Chris Spivey on Harlem Unbound

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Chris Spivey on his new Cthulhu RPG Sourcebook, Harlem Unbound. It's currently on Kickstarter and sounds really amazing, so I wanted to share his thoughts about the game with you. Make sure to check out the Kickstarter and see his answers to my questions below!

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Tell me a little about Harlem Unbound. What excites you about it?

Harlem Unbound is a RPG sourcebook that takes players into the world of the Harlem Renaissance at its height, to face terrifying horrors from the Lovecraftian Mythos. The book is everything that I, as a gamer of color, wanted to see in my Cthulhu games. It places minorities into the roles of protagonists, and doesn't turn away from the history of racism or the struggle that people of color face.

Instead, Harlem Unbound tries to honor that struggle, and shines a light on all of those corners of humanity's evil, rather than try to hide them. All the while, the Mythos is seething around the edges and corrupting what it doesn't destroy. I think it's important to differentiate that at no point should racism be considered something caused by the Mythos; rather the Mythos may use our own evil against us.


With your intentions, what made you choose to make the game compatible with both Gumshoe and Call of Cthulhu? 

I grew up a black kid loving Lovecraft and picked up my first CoC book around age 14. After I ran Dead Man's Stomp, I knew Cthulhu was for me. I wanted both Gumshoe and CoC because I figured there would be a good cross section of people who play either one or both, and they could choose whichever one they prefer.

Can you talk a little about the mechanical adjustments and additions you've made to support Harlem Unbound in those systems? 

I have introduced a Racial Tension modifier for both systems. Racism is a very sensitive topic and to properly run a game that integrates this reality, the Keeper needs to have very defined guidelines. I find that employing a mechanic everyone can reference helps. Within a lot of games, some people like to pretend racism doesn't exist. Harlem Unbound, by its very nature, cannot steer away from the racist norms of 1920s NYC. I wanted to create a mechanical tool that guides everyone involved, and the tool works slightly differently for each system.


What are the classes you've made available for Harlem Unbound? What elements of them do you think really highlight what is important to you about the game?

One of the classes is the Patron that was just unlocked as a stretch goal on our Kickstarter. Each class will focus on the concept of what it represents. For instance, the Patron will have an easier time with resources and contacts than, say, fighting or warbling on the stage. That is not to say they couldn’t do it, but they wouldn’t be on par with a Hellfighter back from World War I or a legendary performer.


You offer guidance for Keepers running "a game steeped in the history of racism, horror, and the celebration of life." What are some really important concepts you highlight in that section? 

The most important element I have tried to convey is how important it is for a Keeper to talk to their gaming group before playing. Harlem Unbound, in many ways, is unlike many RPGs that are currently on the market. We don't shy away from the reality of life, particularly that of African Americans. And the players must be aware that living in America in the early 1900s as a person of color will have an impact on how you navigate the world. And let's be real, there is still an impact today. It’s important that everyone understands the type of game you're running and the history involved in it.

Lastly, in as much detail as you'd like, what about the worldbuilding and history used in Harlem Unbound are meaningful to you as a creator, and what do you hope they bring to those who play the game and hear the stories?

The Harlem Renaissance was a great time of art changing the world. And there are many who know very little about the movement. African Americans escaping the harsh reality of the South rebelled by pouring themselves into art, music, dance, and the written word. That speaks to me on every level, even more so given the recent political climate. They say that times of great stress and duress produce the biggest explosions of art. I have no doubt we will see a similar result in the next decade.

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Thanks so much to Chris for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it, and I hope you'll check out Harlem Unbound on Kickstarter now!



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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Andreas Stein


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Andreas Stein, who has some pretty detailed thoughts on how his play style makes a difference.

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What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?

Generally speaking, I think good roleplaying is having an awareness of the game and the other players. Here are a few things I consider during character creation and gameplay:

I don’t pick the Jedi.

My first roleplaying game was Cyberpunk 2020, and the first character I created after giving the book a good read-through was a highly min/maxed Solo – let’s call him “Fighty McFighterson” – who could single-handedly take out a whole squad of cyber-ninjas or corporate security agents, but he wasn’t good for much else, and he wasn’t really fun to roleplay. When I discovered D&D, the question before every new game was “Who’s going to play the cleric?” Out of politeness to those who wanted to be stealthy-cool or smashy-cool, I took up that necessary if oft-neglected class so we could get started already. It should go without saying that the abundance of healer classes that came about in 4E made me really happy (haters gonna hate).

My method these days is to listen to what type of character everyone else is making and then fill in whatever role(s) are needed to form a balanced party. Part of the fun is how this challenges me into creating some interesting, versatile characters. I oftentimes play the "Swiss army knife" of the group or someone who’s specialized in some common part of the setting that nobody else is interested in dealing with – somebody sooner or later is going to have to hack a security door, talk their way past the guards, heal everyone up, communicate with the locals, keep up the magic barrier, or fix that damn hyperdrive. The kicker is that so many of these situations are dramatic (or comedic) gold. This doesn’t necessarily limit me to "support" characters; if the party is a bunch of scientists and scoundrels, I’ll gladly roll up a tank or assassin to round things out.

I play to the story.

I think about the setting and ask myself “What’s going to keep me busy and having fun for a long campaign?” or “What aspect of the setting interests me the most?” When I create a character, I create a *character* rather than just a vessel for my ego. I learn what the setting is about and find my character’s place in that world. I don’t see the need to create a super-complex character background for the emergent fiction of an RPG – there’s more fun in discovering aspects of my creation as the story progresses – so in the beginning I only provide enough raw substance to plausibly plant myself in the story. Roleplaying game characters should be easily recognizable, iconic, and “developable.”

I think about group dynamics.

The point of a social game is for everybody to be entertained, not just me. A big pet peeve of mine is when a player tries to have some “fun” screwing with the group by creating a character that's so far out of the scope of the common consensus that the GM as well as all the rest of the players are constantly floundering to actively shoe-horn them into the story, because they apparently want to be off doing their own thing or working against everyone else’s interests. If “My character would do it!” is your excuse, you made a crappy character. Nobody likes the thief who’s always out to double-cross the party. I’m not telling anyone to stifle their creativity, but remember that what works in books doesn’t always translate to a roleplaying game; don’t make a broody, loner, one-trick pony of a character that is obsessed about their own darkness and then act surprised when you have nothing to do and nobody to interact with. The players in a roleplaying game should be as much of a team as their characters are.

The same advice, I feel, goes for GMs: you have the social responsibility of making sure everyone is having fun, not abusing your friends for your own entertainment. Just as bad as the iconic "sadistic GM" is the boring one who doesn’t let players sit on the plastic-covered furniture that is their lovingly-(over)crafted game world.

I don’t hog the spotlight.

I can’t overstate the importance of this. When I GM, I make sure every character has a place and time where they shine, and as a player I try to check myself and make sure to let other players’ characters do their thing. I’ll even ask another player, “Hey, can’t you [ability]?” or “Don’t you have [skill/thing]?” or “Don’t you know [subject of expertise/person]?” There’s nothing worse than sitting there watching the rest of the party be badasses without getting a word in, so I help out where I can.

I blow shit up.

My current GM once told me he likes my play style because I "bring the awesome" – in other words, I keep things from getting stale. Truth is, I tend to get bored by excessive navel-gazing and playing it safe in a roleplaying game; I'm not afraid to cause problems for my character in the name of moving the story along. I'm a big fan of half-assed plans and anything that adds an epic cinematic quality to the game – because that's what folks always talk about afterward. My characters take big risks and are always out to create sweeping badass moments of glory. It usually doesn't take much to spur the rest of the crew into some heated dice rolls along with me. And it's not just combat – pulling off an epic con, heist, or jury-rig is just as satisfying as a glorious battle in my book. As always, however, I check in with the other players before I pull some crazy stunt that may adversely affect the party.


Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?
A close friend of mine and fellow gamer likes to say that nothing is cliché if it's happening to you, and I have lots of fun living by that in an RPG. If there's a chance of a sci-fi/fantasy/adventure trope being dangerously close to happening, you can bet I'm going for it – busting a steam pipe, stealing a spaceship, running into a burning building, using a Trojan Horse tactic, robbing a train, starting a bar fight – it's all fair game.

I'm kind of a smartass, so my characters usually are too; I'm not above a James-Bond-style pun, a pop-culture callback, or hanging a lampshade on some aspect of the setting via group banter. At the table I've been known to briefly pull up a song or sound effect that seems dramatically appropriate to the moment. Recently we were playing the Cortex+ Marvel RPG with me as Iron Man. Our fantastic Captain America player had just finished an on-point speech about justice when after a beat or two I played the "Cinematic Eagle Cry" I'd pulled off of YouTube. After a second of silence, I continued as Tony "...am I the only one that thought that was funny?", narrating him retracting a speaker back into his suit. I usually try to keep that kind of thing just below being annoying.


How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?

If we're running a long-form campaign, I don't like to go months without gaming because I forget what's going on and need to spend half the session recapping. It personally removes me from the organic problem solving I rely very heavily on. I don't take notes because it distracts from the gameplay and messes with my immersion (most notes I take I can never make sense of later anyway if it’s been too long). If it's more of an episodic thing, I'm okay with longer gaps, but there's a time when even then I will forget certain things about a character, like their personality, that make things inconsistent.


What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?

I like an episodic game with an overall story arc, so I know choices I make now may come to bite me later. On the contrary, I admit I like the gonzo no-safety-net gameplay of a one-off, like a con game, where characters can end with a really dramatic crash. My home-group environment is still the best, though – we know each other's personalities very well and we have a great deal of trust that we're all there to help one another have a good time.

System-wise I enjoy narrative-heavy games, especially where failure has a mechanical bonus, like FATE or Cortex+. Failure can be fun in any game if you have a good group and GM, but I like asking the GM "What did I break this time?" while holding my hand out for that bonus I will definitely be needing later.

Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?

In our current Star Trek game, our ship made contact with a planet notable for two things: they had a super-efficient food source that the Federation was interested in, and everyone was constantly connected to what was basically a planet-wide social network that governed their lives. At an embassy gala, my science officer noted loudly that he was suspicious of the food they were serving; news quickly spread to the whole planet, and my character instantly became the most hated person on this world.

Later in the evening, the ambassador's aide made some faux pas that the entire planet felt had embarrassed them as a species in view of the visitors. By the will of the network, the offending staffer was sentenced to death, as by their laws and customs. Through a series of dramatic events, he ended up in the custody of our crew, putting us in a diplomatic standoff vis-à-vis the Prime Directive.

It was a classic Star Trek situation: we needed to establish relations by honoring the inhabitants' way of life but wanted to spare the ill-fated government attaché. In the discussion we had about how a real Trek crew would handle this, I came upon the idea that we should use a classic Trek trope to solve the dispute: we would hold a debate! My character, the vilified alien from beyond, would debate the merits of Federation law and culture with our recently disgraced refugee representing the merits of his home world’s ways, essentially arguing for his own right to be executed. Through the teamwork of all the players, our plan succeeded in using the planet's culture of social media persecution against itself; the attaché became a martyred darling to the inhabitants, saving his life, whilst giving the Federation the platform to share their alternative views and perhaps causing them to reconsider their system. To this day we all feel that that was one of the most perfect RPG sessions we've ever played.


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Thanks so much to Andreas for his interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading.




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Sunday, December 18, 2016

What Gender is Your GM?

I did a quick poll today on my G+ (a public post) about what gender your GM for your local/regular group is. The results were... ouch. I posted it around 2:00pm on 12/18 (today) and this is the current result:


I am kind of gobsmacked. I like to think my followers on G+ are pretty diverse, and many of them are! But it unfortunately seems like we still have a lot of men running games in comparison to women. There were a few clarifications in the comments (we have multiple GMs, but most are men, etc.), but for the most part: GMs are more often men. By a lot.

I will add a picture of the final results to this post after the poll ends (I think tomorrow). I just wanted to share it for awareness. There will be follow up post to this with more questions, and hopefully some ideas from my own perspective about this issue.

Do you think this is something we should keep working to change? 


(Note: Some groups like Contessa have already been making strides for con games run by women, which is great!)



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What is Epimas? Let's ask Epidiah!

I was lucky enough to chat with Epidiah Ravachol about his yearly event, Epimas! Epimas is really an amazing event and involves much of the indie gaming community, and Epidiah wanted to share the story behind it and how to participate with my readers. Check out our discussion below!
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What exactly is Epimas?

To begin with, Epimas is December 24th. My birthday.

It is also a long standing holiday tradition of giving and receiving gaming PDFs.

According to the stats on the original Epimas site, it's been up since 2009. And that's about as close to gospel as I can get, so I'm going to say that Epimas is a 7-year old holiday tradition. I remember walking with Nathan D. Paoletta and a bunch of other folks in NYC. I had just released Time & Temp that summer at GenCon and was just dipping my toes into my first ever PDF sales around that time. Digital books were still kind of an untested thing, even as recent as that. The first iPad hadn't even hit the shelves yet. So selling PDFs was selling the experience of sitting at your desk and reading a book on your computer monitor. For this indie publisher, it was an exciting time. If people bought PDFs, then all sorts of barriers and costs associated with printing, warehousing and shipping would melt away. Where I was with the budget I had at the time, I needed those costs to melt away. So on that walk, Nathan and I hatched a plan to make it easier for folks to give the gift of gaming PDFs over the holidays.

How the plan is executed changes from year to year, because I don't always remember how it works and I keep trying new gimmicks, but at its core, the Epimas sale where...

...as the customer:
  • You have from now until Dec. 23rd to buy game PDFs as gifts to be delivered to your friend, family member or assorted loved one on Dec. 24th.
  • You immediately receive copies of the game PDFs for free so you can read them over and be prepared to play them with your friend, family member or assorted loved one on Dec. 24th.
...as participating publishers:
  • We all contribute some game PDFs to the cause.
  • Everyone gets an equal share of the profits, regardless of the number or size of the games they contributed or of how well they sold.
That last bit was a lesson learned from Design Matters—a group of game designers and publishers assembled by Nathan and Kevin Allen, Jr. to sell at GenCon. The equal shares invest everyone in everyone else's success.

I've grown overly fond of Epimas over the years. It can be a bit of a chore sometimes. It's never been tremendously lucrative. And I regularly caution people against turning their own birthdays into deadlines. But it's fun to see folks looking forward to it, sending gifts to friends, loved ones, and sometimes strangers they only know from the internet. And I personally like seeing the new games that pop up each time. It's like a retrospective of cutting edge game design at the end of the year.


Why focus on PDFs? What benefit is there to focusing entirely on digital products?

They are cheap to warehouse, easy to deliver, and can be made on a moment's notice. All these things make Epiclaus's holiday so much smoother. They just make the logistics manageable.


Why did you choose for people to get a copy of the games they buy for someone else? 

There's two answers to this: the reason and the justification. I think both are a bit valid, though one may be a bit more valid than the other.

The reason is that folks are not used to buying PDFs for other folks as gifts. We want to cast a wide enough net to capture those who are buying primarily for themselves along with those buying for others. Because, let's face it, indie roleplaying is a niche within a niche within a niche. Sears can sell tools by touting them as a gift for the handyperson on your list, and they're going to reach an audience who are relieved because they know very little about tools but they have a handyperson on their list and won't someone please sell them something to give that handyperson as a gift. We're not going to be able to reach those audiences. We can say, "Gifts for the indie tabletop roleplayers on your list." But if you've heard of Epimas at all, odds are you're the indie tabletop roleplayer on someone else's list.

But the justification is important, too! We justify it by saying you'll need to read up on the games so you can be ready to play them with whoever got your gift on Epimas day. As per tradition. Just like you play Swords Without Master every Sunday morning, you're going to play games on Epimas day. So you might as well come prepared.


How do you find people to provide games? Do you only do open calls, or do you seek people out? Are there any things you don't intend to include in the collections? 

There's an open call every year somewhere around the end of November, beginning of December. I basically broadcast it on my most active social media accounts. These days, that's G+ (https://plus.google.com/u/0/+EpidiahRavachol) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/Epidiah). If time is tight for me, which it typically is, the launch window can get fairly small. So keep your eyes peeled. I welcome all comers as long as they are cool with the equal profit sharing.


What is the most important thing about Epimas to you?

Honestly and truly, it's just that people have fun with it. There's a lot of things that I'd love for Epimas to be, but in the end, I'm all about folks having fun.

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Thanks so much to Eppy for sharing Epimas with all of us. Make sure to check out the Epimas page this season!



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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Alan Vannes


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Alan Vannes. Alan talks a little about experience in Warhammer 40,000: Dark Heresy, as well as playing longer sessions. Check it out!

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What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?

I've found that one of the most effective ways to enhance the experience of both myself, and the other players at the table is to simply invest effort into my character, a well thought out character with a good back story brings so much more to the table than when all you have is numbers on a sheet. I've found that a well thought out three dimensional character tends to get me more invested in the role-play, and my enthusiasm often becomes infectious, helping to bring out the best in the players around me.


Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?

I tend to have a very improvisational style to my play, nine times out of ten even when I tell my fellow players that I have a plan I'm really just making everything up as I go (I guess you could call me the Jack Sparrow of gaming). That being said I don't really use any established techniques as such, but simply respond to the group and game as my own instincts, and experience dictate.


How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?


I generally favor weekly, or bi-weekly games, any longer between sessions and I tend to lose some of the feel for the game/character. As for comfort, I personally favor longer sessions in a relaxed atmosphere (such as one of the players homes), and I find that it's best to keep the group size between four and six people, it is possible to do larger groups, but it often becomes difficult to keep the focus on the game, and combat often drags out far too long (I recall a case where I was in a group consisting of the GM plus nine players using the 3.5 edition D&D rules and we had a combat that in game was only four rounds long, but took three sessions to get through).


What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?

I tend towards a more narrative driven play style so I favor games that support that, and of course I have deep roots in fantasy gaming, but with a little time to learn the game I'm comfortable playing just about anything. I have a particular love of dark fantasy, sword & sorcery, gothic horror, weird western, and cyberpunk settings.


Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?

After over twenty years of gaming it's difficult to choose a single anecdote, but I asked a couple of my friends with whom I've gamed with quite a bit over the course of those years, and several of them recalled the same story as being one of their favorites so I'll relate that one.

I was playing in a Warhammer 40,000: Dark Heresy campaign (set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, which is something of a dystopian sci-fi setting with strong fantasy elements). In Dark Heresy the players take on the role of agents of the Inquisition, ferreting out heresy, and other threats to the imperial doctrine, and any signs of corruption are to be responded to with absolute punitive action (a setting where having your character say 'cleanse it with fire' would not actually be all that ridiculous). 

Our group was investigating rumors of a heretical cult on a factory planet, and I was playing the part of what would essentially be the groups 'rogue' archetype, he was a skilled gunslinger, and an expert at infiltrating secured locations as well as having a glib tongue that often allowed him to con potential heretics into slipping up and revealing their true nature. As such the other players in the group often asked my character to slip into various locales ahead of the rest of them to suss out the situation, whether it be scouting an enemy base, or making first contact with a group of potential heretics in order to feel them out. 

In this particular case our tactic of having my scoundrel make the first contact with the enemy backfired, as I snuck into the heretic's supposedly secret headquarters to scout out their security only to find arrive just as they were summoning a demon out of the Warp (this setting variant of hell, and the dimension through which faster than light travel was achieved), and my character was temporarily possessed by the demon. The demon, having drawn information out of my characters mind about the nature of his mission, as well as the identities of his fellow inquisitorial agents (the other player characters) proceeded to attempt to rejoin the group most likely with the intent of corrupting them. My GM, being a generous individual, allowed me to roll to regain control of my characters actions at regular intervals as the demon progressed in it's intent. 

The rest of the group was waiting outside of the heretic's headquarters in a nearby alley way, as my demon possessed character was crossing the street to rejoin them the dice favored me, and I was able to regain control of my character. My GM told me I had time to take one action before the demon would regain control so I did the only thing that seemed logical within the settings rules and my own characters mindset. My fast-talking scum drew his pistol, put it to his head, and after locking eyes with his closest friend within the group (an assassin played by an old friend of mine) pulled the trigger. Even my GM was stunned by my chosen course of action, but my choice to stay in character, and do what a true servant of the Emperor would inevitably do ended up preventing what my GM later admitted would probably have been a total party kill, and allowed the other players to retreat, and deal with the threat appropriately.

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Thanks so much to Alan for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading.


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Friday, December 9, 2016

Five or So Questions with Fraser Simon on Young at Heart

Today I had the opportunity to interview Fraser Simons about his new game, Young at Heart, available on DriveThruRPG. It sounds like really fascinating game about baseball narratives, and I think you'll enjoy this quick interview with Fraser!

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Tell me a little about Young at Heart. What excites you about it?

The most exciting thing about Young at Heart for me, is the reflection in the mechanics of that primal duality between the pitcher and the batter in a baseball game, and how subjective the two main resources are that reinforce that throughout play. Everyone always interprets pride and heart differently, sometimes radically. And during the course of play, you're using your scenes to vie for your particular resource as well as narrative control. You really get to know each other as players when you're doing this because when I control the pitcher and I act in such a way that I'd generate heart or pride, I'm displaying to the other player(s) what I think that is. I've heard people think that the duality there was acting like an adult or a child, I've had people think it was toxic masculinity vs healthy reactions to the problems posed. Lots and lots of interesting stuff, and I really love learning about the other players at the table so it's really exciting.


Can you tell me a little about the mechanics used in Young at Heart?

The primary mechanics of the game reflect what I would call the "spirit" of the baseball while completely side stepping actually simulating a game of it. Players are opposed to one another in that they each pick either Heart or Pride to go after during the course of play and are constantly vying for narrative control over one character, the pitcher. During the course of the game though, both teams need to spend resources in order to continue and get what they want - the procedures in place are the primary mechanics. They're used to simulate both a specific kind of dramatic narrative based on the novel it was inspired by, as well as the pacing and emergent subjective commentary that the game is driving at.


Where did your inspirations come from for the game?


My inspiration was specifically from a book I've re-read many many times in my life, For Love of the Game. In fact, the "pre-loaded scenario" for the game could be used to specifically re-create the story if you wanted. But It was important to me that the game be about discovering more about the players at an individual level if the players wanted that kind of bleed in it. I also wanted people to be able to play any kind of sports narrative type story they would like easily. Things like Bull Durham, The Natural, and, with a few tweaks, even things like Remember the Titans or Coach Carter. It's a very simple game so could be re-skinned for a lot of different things, in fact someone recently said they could use it for a Whiplash type of story, that's been on my brain ever since!


What commonalities do you see in games like Young at Heart that are focused on sports (such as World Wide Wrestling), and more traditional RPGs that focus on fantasy or cyberpunk, etc.?

I had to take some time to think about this and I am a pretty new designer, so I may just not be as familiar with as many games and the mechanics behind them as others - but I can't really find any commonalities. It's play to find out what happens and it uses six-sided dice, other than that it's doing it's own thing, so far as I know or can think of. I'm sure there's things out there that I'm not aware of that are similar, though!


The narrative in sports is often a legacy that spans generations. Do you think that Young at Heart touches on this, or possibly predicts a story that could go on?

You could definitely use the game to do this, in fact I give advice on making it episodic. Like, if you watch the newer show on Fox called Pitch, for example. You could do a game where the pitcher is like Ginny Baker, essentially playing each game as an episode of the show with the trials and tribulations and unique issues she goes through as the first woman to play in the MLB. I think that would be super interesting to play, as well as each session being a generational thing.
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Thanks so much to Fraser for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you get the chance to check out Young at Heart on DriveThruRPG!



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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Alex Carlson


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Alex Carlson. They talk in detail about how they play for themselves and others, as well as noting how chronic illness and stress can impact gaming.

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What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?

My initial answer to this question was very long and roundabout because, for me, there are kind of three questions here, and I was trying to answer them at the same time. There is obviously what I do to enhance the experience for myself, but then there's "others." "Others" is usually, in the games I play, either the other players or the facilitator (GM, MC, ST, etc.). There are things I try to do to help out everyone at the table, there are considerations I primarily afford other players, and there are attitudes I usually only hold towards the GM, and then there's where each of those relationships has priority.

In the category of things I do to enhance everyone's experience, one jumps out right away. I started improvising a few years before I started playing role playing games regularly, and one of the biggest influences from that on my roleplaying (and life) is that the best way to take care of your scene partner, or other players, (or people in your life,) is to take care of yourself. In games, this means having a character that is interesting and interested, so that there are ways for others to engage with my character and ways for me to engage with and encourage other PCs.

Things I do for other players are also kind of things that I do for myself, because it's geared a lot towards modelling the behavior that makes me the most comfortable in a game. This is where a second improv lesson comes into play: sharing focus. I have a good sense of interesting plot hooks to get things started right away for my character, and that can end up with the narrative spotlight getting kind of stuck as the game finds it's footing. I am happy to give up "screen time" for other characters, and if the person running the game (when there is one) doesn't realize that I'm getting a lot of time, I make sure to find chances to pass the focus to other characters or story lines. If I know there are more hesitant players in the game, I try to present opportunities in my character's motivations and decisions for them to get involved without pressuring them to jump in, I also have some pretty strict lines on consent, and not just with in-game events. If there is a player struggling with the rules or character decisions, I'll offer my help, but don't force my way in to "helping" them if they don't want it. I've seen a lot of shy players get totally turned off to the idea of gaming when someone takes over telling them how to make the most effective character without any thought to what they want or what they've asked for.

With respect to the facilitator (if the game has one), I think I'm a lot more deferential than a lot of people I play with. I've run a lot of games, and I know how hard it can be, how much time and commitment and risk is involved, and I take that very seriously. If a game puts a lot of power in the facilitators hands, I don't try and fight them for it, though I'm happy to help out if they ask. If the game is set up as participationist (where the facilitator has a set plot in mind and the players don't have a lot of control and everyone knows and accepts this ahead of time), I'm okay with the occasional fudged roll or GM fiat. I follow similar rules of consent as well. There have been a few occasions where a friend has expressed an interest in running a system, only to follow it up by saying they'd be too embarrassed to run it for me because I'm very experienced with the game. My response to that is always pure encouragement and reassurance that, unless they ask for my help with rules, I'm not going to challenge them on how they rule or interpret the mechanics for their game. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a facilitator is let them run the game without trying to turn it in to what you think is a good game.


Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?

I mentioned a few above, but improv absolutely influences how I engage at the table. It's hard for me to pull out specific tools that I use because so much of improv is learning techniques that influence how you behave in every situation, and doubly so in other creative media. "Yes, and," is one of the biggest and well known tools, and it is definitely relevant in games, but there's also "No, but," which is useful when players are steamrolling or suggesting things that I'm not comfortable with or that seem to be causing distress at the table. "No, but," is sort of like failure in Apocalypse World. You don't get what you want (most of the time), but there's more to the story, an alternative fictional element that keeps the action moving forward.


How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?

I have to game at least once a week. I used to do at least two games a week in college, and I'm currently playing in two games. I'm a creative person with terrible anxiety and gaming is the creative outlet I use to keep feelings of artistic stagnation at bay. It's like a workout. I'm also super susceptible to stress, so tension at the table usually throws me off unless there's a resolution to the stressor or off-game time after two people butt heads. I also find that it's important to keep a good balance of meta conversation and in game play, which varies from group to group. Trying to keep everyone in character all the time just doesn't work for some groups, but too much out of character time can leave less socially assertive members of the group out in the cold.


What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?

I gain a LOT of vicarious enjoyment from games. If the facilitator is really into it, or the other players are on a roll, I'm happy. I really enjoy games where "failure" doesn't just stop the action, because you don't run the risk of ruining the mood at the table if you flop on a roll, which makes getting involved have much lower stakes.

To get specific, I'd say that my initial comfort level is highest with most of games that are Powered by the Apocalypse and Burning Wheel. I feel like they both address "failure" as something more interesting, and they both give players a high amount of narrative control with the level of world building and plot creating put into the hands of the players. I feel like I always have something to do in those games.


Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?

This is a tricky question for a number of reasons. I have a chronic illness that has made it difficult to remember things that have happened in the past few years, the group of people I play with shifted dramatically a few years ago, shifting my habits along with it, and I don't know that I ever reflect positively on things I do without major external influence. There was a moment that, in hindsight, feels very brief but is also the first thing that's come to mind that feels like a good answer for this question. It was a game of Unknown Armies in the year after I graduated college. I was playing a doctor who was pursuing the Avatar path for the Mother (an Avatar is like a socially accepted or recognized archetype that gives powers to those who fit the archetype, because in Unknown Armies, a lot of true occult power comes from human belief and expectation). 

My character's husband (another PC) had recently been killed because the player was no longer able to be in the game, and in the time since that had happened, she had formed a super codependent relationship with another PC who was an adept of a school of magic that the player had designed called pneumomancy. It involved inhaling toxic substances to gain charges, the resource needed to cast magic, and breathing clean air was the taboo, or forbidden action that would mean the PC would lose all of his charges. Despite her oath as a medical professional, she enabled this other PC constantly by explicitly being on hand to provide medical attention should a substance ever prove to be too toxic. 

One night, these two PCs were locked in a room together for the night, and the pneumomancer inhaled something and failed his check, so he passed out. My character was unable to revive him, so, instead of just letting him lose his charges, she use her Stay Up All Night skill to sit by him and hold a lit cigarette in front of his mouth until he woke up. I feel like this moment lined up to be really cool in several ways. It turned what would have otherwise just been downtime into a very intimate moment, it gave the other player a very significant choice to respond to, as his character, until that point, had been super aloof and stubbornly independent, and it refined how my character was channeling the Mother archetype. It also had mechanical benefits (he didn't lose his charges) and was strongly in sync with the tone of the game.

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Thanks so much to Alex for answering my questions! I hope you all enjoyed reading!





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Monday, December 5, 2016

Shadowrun: Anarchy Freelancers Interview

Hey all, this took a little while to put together, but I have an interview with three of the freelancers from Shadowrun: Anarchy! Russell "Rusty" Zimmerman, O.C. Presley ("Opti"), and Patrick Goodman all took some time with me, which is super great. I wanted to learn a little more about the work that they did to put together the game, so I bugged them off and on for a while to get some fun stuff for you all to read! Enjoy!

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Tell me a little about you and your background, and your work on the project. What has your experience with games and design been thus far, and how did you end up working on Shadowrun: Anarchy? Within the project, what parts of the game did you work on - mechanics, flavor, etc.?

Patrick: I was born and raised in Texas. I've been gaming since I was fourteen, so 36 years and change now. Been playing Shadowrun since 1989, been writing for SR since 1999.

I wound up working on SR:Anarchy because, at about the time the very first noises of a rules-lighter version of SR was being talked about in the upper-management discussions at CGL, I was thinking, "I really wish we had a version of SR I could play with my kids." They'd flipped through some of my SR books and kinda liked some of what they saw, but the rules were too much and the presentation really wasn't kid-friendly.

So I talked with a few of the other freelancers, and we put together a pitch for a product we called Shadowrun Jr. Stripped Down, bare-basics rules, a kid's view of the setting. Quick character generation, fast task resolution, and a path to grow into the bigger version of the game if they were interested.

When I sent the project presentation to Jason Hardy, the line developer, he wrote back and said, "You know, Loren Coleman wants to do a rules-light version of Shadowrun, This might be a good companion for that. How'd you like to be involved?" And I said, "I'm in."

Still want to do Junior one of these days, but Anarchy is a much easier, much more kid-friendly engine, so I'm not in as quite a big a hurry as I was.

[on what he worked on]
Flavor, mostly. Jason and Philip Lee did the rules drafts, but I did a lot of kibitzing on the side, along with Rusty and Opti. Rules would show up, we'd all say, "This doesn't work" or "This rocks on toast" and helped push things so that they felt like Shadowrun within the new rules. I wrote two or three of the Contract Briefs, and ten of the sample characters (Bit-Bucket, Daktari, Fourth, Hawk, Raider, Razzle Dazzle, Strider, Thunder, Vector, and Wheezer). And now I'm working on the errata to fix the boo-boos.

Rusty: I'm Russell Zimmerman, and the short-form of my background is that I've been a Shadowrun freelancer since Attitude and Way of the Adept. Lately I've been leaning over to the fiction side of the fence, with stuff like Neat and Shaken (and that ongoing novel trilogy), and those recent anthologies.

On Anarchy, most of what we freelancers tackled were the sample characters and the scenarios/plot-hooks, officially, but we were also full of suggestions and comments when it came to stuff like chargen, partially because we also ran some playtests, but also specifically as a result of us, uh, genning all those chars (thirty of the buggers!). So officially we weren't assigned any rules, but there are lots of little and not-so-little changes that were made because of us, which is always cool.

Personally, I tackled 10 of the pre-genned characters*, and 11 of the included scenarios**. I'm also the guy who handled the intro fic for the book, Synchronicity (which features several of those pre-gens). Oh! Plus I added the Cinematic Initiative option, which is how my buddies and I handle init in narrative games, so I was glad to see it added as an optional system here. I guess that counts as a contribution.

*(Coydog, Gentry, Hardpoint, Ms. Myth, Sledge, Kix, Ninetails, Shades, Tommy Q, and Wagon)

**(Food Fight, Snatch and Grab, Nerps Run, Data/Steel, Puyallup Problems, Urban Brawl, Assassin's Greed, Cleaning House, Street Sweeper, Triad Take-Out, and Trucking With The Fae)

Opti: My writing name is O.C. Presley, and I live with my wife and 2 kids in Fort Worth, TX. Most of my work history previous has been in education and public speaking. My relevant background is that I started a Shadowrun podcast a few years ago called the Neo-Anarchist Podcast. It is an in-character telling of SR history, and I play the narrator, Opti.

I began writing for Shadowrun earlier this year, and my first published work was the Redmond Barrens chapter of the Seattle Sprawl box set, but I just had a short story published in the Shadowrun: Drawing Destiny Anthology. Anarchy marks the first time I have had any meaningful input on a game's design, although my input was much more on the balance and fluff side than the core mechanics. Although I do have the honor of being the one to name it "Anarchy." :)

I ended up working on Anarchy largely thanks to Patrick Goodman. He and I had been talking for some time about a kid-friendly version of Shadowrun, and our original pitch was for something along those lines. But as it turns out, Anarchy was already in the works, and Patrick let Jason Hardy, our line developer, know I was interested, and I got added onto the group.

Within Anarchy, along with Rusty and Patrick, I was responsible for about a third of the characters and a little over a third of the Mission Briefs. We all sort of chipped in on the other stuff, too, but only in a voluntary way. I think we all wanted Anarchy to be its best, so ideas were flowing around all the time. To Jason's credit, a lot of our ideas were given consideration even though they were in areas we were not technically working on.

What kind of challenges did you encounter building a game to work alongside the core 5th edition material? How did you figure out what to change, and what to keep?

Patrick: The big trick, to me, was making sure that the experience felt like Shadowrun even though the system was clearly something completely different. That took some doing, especially since that's so subjective. One person's "feels like Shadowrun" can be very different from another person's.

There's a lot of guesswork and trial-and-error involved, especially in the beginning stages. Once you get the foundation working the way you think is right, the rest is just honing things to make sure they're all in line with one another. You hit on something, and you try it out, and you get some other people to try it out, and see what happens.

Rusty: We wanted to walk the tightrope between streamlining/efficiency and Shadowrun/familiarity. That meant keeping the core mechanic of skill plus attribute, for instance, but narrowing down the number of attributes to try and make things simpler. Likewise, we leveraged SR5's "Skill Groups" pretty hard as a way of slimming down the skill list while keeping some familiar Shadowrun sentiments in place.

I, personally, think we could have folded Plot Points into Edge as another way of simplifying gameplay while retaining a familiar name for something, but the third part of our tricksy-like-hobbitses balancing act was also that we were making a Cue System game, so that meant keeping some of those touchstones, that core narrative-game-engine that CGL has had such great prior success with, with Plot Points, cues, dispositions, and those type of things. So it wasn't just a balancing act between trying to keep the Shadowrun feel while creating a narrative game, it was trying to do so while creating a Cue narrative game, rather than building something brand new from the ground up.

Opti: Well, much of that was out of my hands. However, when brainstorming early on, we all decided that it should feel like Shadowrun, and yet be easy to wrap your head around. One of the easiest ways to do that was to keep the D6 "hits" system in place for rolls. Also, no matter what Anarchy became, we knew it had to reflect the lore in the same way that the SR5 system did, just with different mechanics. 



When creating content for the game, what did you use as guidance - previous Shadowrun fiction, reflections on current events, inspirations for mechanics from other games, and/or other sources?

Patrick: My biggest guide was, "What's gone before? How do I make sure that this reflects this new ruleset we're making, but also reflects the very rich and expansive game world we've been developing for the past 27 years?"

So, very much, previous SR fiction, including my own. Two of the pregen characters I submitted, Thunder and Wheezer, were from a story I did called "Thunderstruck." I conferred with Rusty Zimmerman when I was working on Strider's background, and she developed into a courier for his characters Jimmy Kincaid and Ms. Myth.

I think we all looked at current events as we worked, which I think really shows up in the diversity of the characters. That was one of Opti's biggest pushes, and I think it reflects well on the game. We've got gender parity, metaracial parity, different ethnicities, and different sexual orientations.

And I'm way off on a tangent and a whole other discussion, so I'll stop at "previous fiction" and "current events."

Rusty: For me, I'd call it a 70/30 split between existing Shadowrun lore (which is something that's always at the forefront of my decision-making process, respect for the existing material), and inspiration from game experiences (either with SR, or with narrative games). Shadowrun's a game that's just madly in love with crunch, and many Shadowrun fans are, too. Selling a narrative, rules-light (or rather, rules-medium, I'd say) game to those types of fans, you've got to really knock it out of the ballpark, and you've got to really sell them on it. Hopefully we did that, and folks are already having a good time with it, just in these last few weeks.

I tend to leave my current-events-reflections for longer pieces where I have a little more room to stretch out and make my own statement, like in some fiction or a stand-alone product (like some of the politicians in the Land of Promise e-book about Tir Tairngire); I can "fly under the radar" a little more in solo work, but also it feels like fans maybe accept a little more real-world stuff seeping into a book specifically about politics, or more intensely personal stuff like a novel, than they accept it in a rulebook. There's more room to write about serious real-world stuff in projects where I'm not worrying about making sure 10 pre-genned characters are following the rules (while we're constantly changing the rules). Mostly, my adventure hooks in here reference existing SR stuff -- contacts these canon characters have had since the Beginner Box, characters from novels, that sort of thing -- instead of real-life issues.

All that said, I did do most of my Anarchy work while traveling cross-country to take care of my mother during a sudden hospital stay. Her ICU nurse--in Corvalis Oregon, aka Tir Tairngire--was a great gal named Birdsong, who I totally stole for a friendly NPC. That Oregon trip totally got mined for one of my scenarios, so I did sneak in SOME real-life inspiration, I guess.

Opti: This one is huge for me. As a long time SR fan, I can't help but use all of the existing lore as backdrop for new characters and adventures. The lore is, from my perspective, the strongest thing about Shadowrun. And yet, on the other hand, cyberpunk for me is best when it addresses, to varying degrees of directness, the culture we find ourselves in. And of course to fill in the spaces between, there isn't any off-limits inspiration. Often, good writers are just people who can recycle some version the same stories that have been told for thousands of years. 



Why use the Cue system? What made it "Shadowrun"?

Patrick: Well, we had this ENnie-award-nominated, simple, narrative game system sitting around...seemed a shame to let it go to waste.

And what made it "Shadowrun" was a great deal of work. It had to be modified quite a bit from its origins in Cosmic Patrol and later implementation in Vanguard Universe.

Rusty: It wasn't particularly Shadowrun to begin with, and we made some pretty big changes to make it Shadowrunnier (tm), but the "why" for using it was pretty simple; it's already CGL's, it's already an award-winning system, and it's already well-received by fans for simpler, narrative, gameplay. So we already had this basic code or basic game engine, why not use it (but tweak it to make it suit us better), why would you want to start from the ground up, instead? The decision came from well above our pay-grade, but using Cue as a core system, starting with it and building from there, isn't something I minded at all.

Opti: The decision to use the Cue system was another decision above my pay grade. Catalyst had found success in using the Cue system for other narrative games like Cosmic Patrol and Valiant, so when deciding to convert SR to a narrative mechanic, the Cue system was likely too inviting to pass up compared to creating an entirely new system. Having said that, the Cue system in Anarchy is a much different thing than either the Cosmic Patrol or Valiant version. It may be helpful to think of Cosmic Patrol as Cue 1.0, Valiant as Cue 1.5, and Anarchy as Cue 2.0. Or something.


How did you maintain the feeling and application of the different metahumans while using the streamlined system?

Patrick: Again, a lot of work, though most of it was relatively simple. There was a lot of discussion about how to make sure trolls felt trolly and elves felt elfy.

Rusty: Quite a lot of that comes down to the basic keywords associated with a character, not just the modified attributes that come into it directly or mechanically. Just like in a regular Shadowrun game, there's more to being an elf than having a few stat modifiers, right? More to being an ork or a troll or a dwarf than the above average Strength or Body, isn't there? There's the role-playing opportunities, the various attitudes you'll get from different factions in the setting, the background differences between a Tir-born elf and a Puyallup-brat, or a Tir-born human versus a round-eared Barrens-brat, for that matter, right? So yeah, a lot of it comes down to that metaracial tag right there at the top of the archetype or the character sheet; the weight that those three little letters 'e-l-f' have comes down to the stories being told, the flavor of the campaign, and all that -- to me, at least -- much more than it's based on the spare attribute point or two you might have.

Opti: We argued about it a lot. We went around and around internally about how to get this right, and to Jason Hardy's credit, he listened a lot to Patrick, Rusty, and myself. We wanted it to be just right, and so we tested out many many different ways to represent the differences between the metas. In the end, I think we did ok, but as always, Trolls were the biggest pain.


Tell me a little about one of your favorite characters, locations, or elements of the game and why it is important to you as a creator.

Patrick: My favorite part of the game is the system itself. It's quick and pretty clean, and dirt-simple to learn and to teach. My two oldest kids have been interested in SR for a while, but we've never been able to play because of the complexity and the adult language. Anarchy, though, is a Shadowrun that I can play with my children. We made a conscious effort to tone the language back, and as has been noted, the rules are short, quick, and easy.

Rusty: The easy answer for me is always Tir Tairngire, because it encapsulates -- elves in Shadowrun, in totality, encapsulate -- so much of what makes this fantasy-cyberpunk hybrid setting so...Shadowrun. On the one hand you've got narrative room for all this really unrealistic, highly stylized, fantasy stuff, with Princes and Paladins, fancy pseudo-plate-mail armor, swords and magic, this flowery neo-Celtic elven language, and these fantastic names right out of a fantasy novel. Right? You can stop there if you want, just scratch the surface, and play a character, perfectly in keeping with the setting, that drinks that Kool-Aid and buys into all that bullshit, and lives a perfectly happy life (by Shadowrun standards), and is basically, y'know, Straight Outta Westeros. It all fits the setting just fine, fits the canon just fine, and it's a valid character, if you want to lean on that fantasy side. 

 But then if you dig a little deeper, you get the, I dunno, the chocolate core beneath the candy shell, or whatever, with this dystopic cyberpunk layer just beneath that top layer. And you can play an elf from a ghetto, for pete's sake, how perfect is that? Or a human who's well aware that the Tir's Disney FantasyLand veneer is such bullshit, or an elf who bought into it all until they got some terrible order to mistreat an ork or a human, and they have this heel-face turn when they give up on that fascist -- because it really is a flavor of fascism, no bones about it -- Tir crap and realize how silly ducal ranks and royal blood and stuff are, in real life. Or you can ignore all of it, and just be some dude who happens to be an elf, some grease-under-his-nails mechanic or a burger-flipping high school kid who just happens to have great skin, pointy ears, and night-vision, who doesn't buy into any of it, and doesn't see what the big deal is, and maybe has this kind of super-metaracial-privilege working for him and doesn't even think about it.

Elves in Shadowrun, and kind of their uber-personification with the Tirs, holds so much good and bad and in-between and real-life to me, man, I totally dig 'em. They can show you everything that's great about the setting, and everything that's terrible about the setting, and everything in between, sometimes even all in just one character.

Opti: In general, my favorite aspect of Shadowrun is the anarchist flavor to it. The idea that the powers that be in society are so corrupt that rebellion against them or flagrant breaking of their laws is actually good? That appeals to me. As a result, I wrote in a number of anarchist characters, and brought back the anarchist group Black Star in one of the adventures at the end. As I said earlier, this is one of those areas in which Shadowrun goes beyond simple escapism and offers a chance to explore being an outcast for standing against the corrupt system that "normal" people don't see as corrupt.

As far as locations, beyond Seattle, I am really getting into thinking about the Confederated American States. For a long time, they have gotten a bad rep as racist, backwards people, and I think that is a little unfair to half of the US. I had some CAS stuff that didn't make it into the final product, but I'd like to see the CAS come into focus sooner or later.

As far as characters, I've always loved shamans, the Unseelie Court, and Harlequin. So far, I've only been able to write one of those, but we'll see how things go once I get some more stuff under my belt. Jason keeps a pretty tight lid on Harly, lol.


What do you think, going forward, are the important things from Anarchy that you want to see grow, develop, and expand?

Patrick: I think the thing that stands out to me is that you can have adventures in the Sixth World without having to have a degree in advanced math to understand the rules. You can have fun without wasting most of the night trying to figure out the rules. I'd love to see that go on, and attract more people to the game.

Rusty: If I had my druthers, like five years from now or whatever when 6th edition gets worked on, if it was DruthersRun and it was all exactly what some freelancer named Russell wanted? One thing I'd absolutely love to keep from Anarchy would be some of the simplification. The abbreviated line of attributes, the streamlined list of broader skills. The simplicity of it, of just changing those options away from being so nit-picky and specialized. Getting away from this huge list of skills like SR5 has, where even just the list of skill groups is like a whole page, and where we've got a nitty-gritty specific skill for being this one type of mechanic, and one skill for jumping versus another skill for landing, and on and on and on. I'm becoming something of a minimalist in my grouchy almost-forty years, where I hate it any time a game system's skill list gets longer, gets more specific, ever. Ever. I adore it when "I want to be the fighty guy" means picking like two or three skills, and being able to handle your job, instead of having to pick out five or six, and then also get two or three "every criminal needs these" skills, and then having to dive into gear and start off with all this must-have stuff, and on and on and on. If half of making your character is already handled by the core mechanic's traps and must-have items, why not avoid and ignore all that, officially start everyone off with that stuff, and call it a day? Why complicate it, and leave all these pitfalls for new players?

So, yeah. I'm a total advocate of the simpler skills, the broader skills, this sort of...broad competence that basically every Anarchy character kind of ends up with. I dig it. Make it faster and easier to just jump in and start telling stories and slinging dice, and I'm a happy dude.

Opti: Well, a lot of that depends on how Anarchy is received. As of now, we are thinking Anarchy will be a one-off, and its system is so flexible that any sourcebook from SR past or present will be able to function as an Anarchy sourcebook as well. Having said that, if people begin demanding further Anarchy products, letting Jason Hardy at Catalyst know your feelings is the quickest way to make that happen!

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Wow, thank you so much to Patrick, Opti, and Rusty so much for the interview! Special kudos to Rusty for helping me coordinate with all of these busy schedules. It was really awesome to hear more about the project and what Anarchy means to the team and Shadowrun in general. I hope everyone enjoyed reading! I, for one, am REALLY hoping for more Shadowrun material, especially for a narrative based game like Anarchy! Speaking of which, here's the DriveThruRPG link!





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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Safety and Table Techniques, My Take

Of late, there have been a lot of people making efforts to design table techniques and safety techniques. This is great and I'm happy to see design work and attention to communication and safety at the table! ...however, I have some thoughts.

The two most recent tools I've seen are the Support Flower and the Edgewise card.

I'm going to be judgy. I know, what do I know? Nothing more than what I know, which is my experience, emotions, and background.

I think the Support Flower is interesting and has good intent. However, the design is an issue. With the arrangement of the flower, if I (someone with relatively short arms) tried to reach across the table to tap or point to the red center, what if I could only reach the green petals, or someone thought I was just pointing at the slow down petals? Maybe I'd have to move it closer to me, moving it farther from other players and also setting up an implication that I would control the content, as well as possibly distracting from the game.

As well, the slow down or gentle option can be confusing. Without discussing what content is troubling, how do you be gentle with it? Isn't it just as much of a disruption of the game to pause to clarify because "hey I'm uncomfortable with or nervous about this content" is very vague and can be an issue? (I have seen this with the X-card, too, and complained about it.) These are things that worry me.

For Edgewise, it has two issues. One, the introduction of the card comes across as an admission that there is no trust for basic respect at the table and no attempt at gaining or giving it. It says "None of you will let me talk, so here is a tool that I'm going to have to use to work around you." This is different than safety cards because we can all assume people want to talk, but knowing what will trigger someone or bother them requires a deeper discussion. 

It also, secondly, completely disrupts norms of communication. It says "I am not listening to what you are saying, I'm just waiting my turn to speak." It gives no respect to people who might just be making their point and not steamrolling if the person who wants to use it is just barely holding back at talking over that person and ignoring their point. I also know it can be used as a means to take control of the discussions at the table.

We have a tendency as gamers to avoid communication. We may not ask each other about how things make us feel. We can be afraid to share the things that make us uncomfortable because people might judge us. We can be afraid to say "Hey, stop, I don't want to see this." But we can learn. We can step up as players and designers and GMs to say "Ask people what is okay for them. Give people space to express *openly and explicitly* what's not comfortable for them." And if people judge others for being uncomfortable with certain content? The uncomfortable people should be the ones who get to stay at a safe table.

We may excuse misbehavior as social awkwardness. We may say that someone is too awkward to know when it's okay to speak, or that some people have trouble using social cues. And for some people, these things are true. For autistic individuals and people with anxiety, I can see a lot of these troubles and accommodation is important. But this is not all of us. We can't excuse everyone because of some people's genuine needs. We can learn and grow and get better at talking to each other and learning body cues. Hell, even people with anxiety typically have the capacity to learn these things. 

If those of us who can learn these things and can design for these things and support these things don't make those efforts, we don't give space for the people who really need support and space. We can learn how we can act and be open and honest about our feelings and perspectives so that people who can't feel safer and if they can, someday might be able to do the same thing.

I see the meaning and intention here, and I know no tool is perfect. This is just where I am seeing flaws and why I wouldn't like these tools at my table.

ETA: I was talking with John about some of the user design issues here and we noted the issues of visual impairment and colorblindness, as well as ability to physically access the tools. (I have in Script Change that you can vocalise the tools, but I haven't seen this as an option in many other tools.) Accessible tools matter!



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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Kaetlyn Kuchta


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Kaetlyn Kuchta. Kaetlyn talks a little about being a badass and asking questions (and you all know how I love asking questions!). Check it out below!

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What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?

I think the most important thing you can do is ask questions about the world. If you’re asking about the environment that everyone is playing in, it helps to keep everyone invested in the game. Yes this happens during character creation and world building in certain games, but it would be impossible to answer every question at that time. I like to ask about the way places look, how people on the street are acting, or if there are any nifty monuments around. This is always open for discussion between the other players and the GM as well, and it helps to create a rich world that the entire table gets to create and love.

I also tend to do whatever action I think is going to be the most fun. Sometimes it gets my character into a lot of trouble, like when they follow their impulsive nature to touch the ancient cursed artifact, but it always creates a really interesting story. I don’t go out of my way to cause trouble for the rest of the party, but I try to play true to any aspects or alignments that I put on the character sheet.


Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?

I use the tried and true improv rule “Yes and…” Meaning no matter what the other players say/do or what the consequences of roll are, I agree to it and build upon it. This doesn’t always mean my character is happy with it. For instance, if a player character beats up a subdued criminal and my character is against random violence, she isn’t going to let them get away with that. The “Yes” is seeing and accepting that the action happened and that there is no way to take that back. The “and…” part is having my character confront the other player character about it.

I also think making sure those in game conflicts stay in game. It doesn’t do any good for me to harass the player for acting out their character the way they imagine them. There were plenty of times when I first started role playing where a player would do something in game that I disagreed with and I would openly ask them why they did that dumb thing. It only created friction between players and created guilt. Itchy itchy guilt. I’ve since discovered that having characters that butt heads from time to time is really fun, especially in games that set you up for PvP conflict that doesn’t result in murder such as Fate or Masks, or most games with social skills. Now I can have my character confront another character while I high five the player for being a badass.


How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?

I game once a week, and for me that’s enough. I tend to become really invested in my characters so having more than one or two to focus on gets a little confusing for me and I’ll end up playing them all the same instead of letting them blossom into individuals. That being said, I also like to switch up what I’m playing after about 8-10 sessions so I can explore another character concept, because for me that’s the biggest draw to these games. I like to try on these different faces and see how they interact in the worlds we build at the table.


What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?

As I mentioned before, trying on different characters and exploring the world are my favorite parts of the game, so I like games that really create vivid and diverse characters and worlds like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse systems. These systems are so open that they create a ton of freedom to play around and discover your character and how they feel about their environment. They’re also systems that beg the players and GM to ask questions every session, and I love that open dialog at a table.

On the other hand, I typically have a hard time with systems that you might call “crunchy”. Games that have a ton of rules and structures for every action that my character may want to do are infuriating to me. I just want to look like a badass taking out villains without having to calculate knock-back based on my strength based on what fighting stance I was in, minus if I’ve slept in the past 12 hours. I totally understand why that would appeal to other people, but for me it takes away from my narrative power and makes me crave a gin and tonic.


Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?

My group recently finished up a play of Masks in which I got to play a Nova with a happy façade. I decided from the start that she was going to actively try to be the epitome of a super hero, which I expected to conflict with the Nova’s tendency to destroy everything and the amount of conditions she would end up with. I was right. Throughout the game I got to play a character that was messy and awkward but who truly tried to lead her team in the right direction. I used the rules the game gave me to both incite and resolve conflict between my character and npc’s, and the other player characters as well. In Masks you gain and lose influence over others, and my Nova traded those in and out like baseball cards, which really let me play around with who she was and how she was effected by the environment around her. She ended up being a character who actively drove the story forward and looked out for the team while also creating conflict for the other players to solve. Basically I was never bored while playing her.

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Thanks so much to Kaetlyn for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading her responses.




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Monday, November 28, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ashton McAllan on The Republic

I recently came across a Twitter post about The Republic, a game by Ashton McAllan, Vincent Baker, and Mark Redacted. When I read a little about it, I knew I had to talk to the creators, and Ashton was cool enough to give me some of her time! The Republic is available for purchase and looks really fascinating. Check out the interview below!

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Tell me a little about The Republic. What excites you about it?

The Republic is such a fun mix of disparate parts. It's core themes are all focused around Social Justice and resisting oppressive governments, it's got Avatar like fantastical element bending, and the default setting is this weird retrofuturist steampunk classical state. It was born out of Paul Czege's #Threeforged competition where Mark Redacted, Vincent Baker and I ended up developing it together without knowing who we were working with which allowed for this really fun, creative, experimental combination of ideas, which I love. The fact that the game was already coming out of left field has meant that I've been able to do cool stuff as I've been developing it since that I might have been scared to do otherwise, like adding rules for playing with an audience or require characters be from marginalised group within their society. I don't think I could have written a game with these important themes or a game with these experimental new dice mechanics if they weren't all next to each other to balance things.


What led you to choosing the themes of social justice and others of that vein?

The social justice themes in the game actually arose in the original development during the Threeforged competition. My initial draft centered on the relationship between the elements and the Platonic solids that Plato describes in his Timaeus dialogue. After I submitted that it was passed on to Vincent and Mark anf the theme of Plato was extended into making the game about a version of the great theoretical nation-state that he describes in The Republic from which the game now takes its name. It focused on how the seemingly perfect Republic was in fact atrocious towards marginalised people within it and how it was up to a group of old, wise, respected citizens to go out and fix their society.

When I saw it I was over the moon because my stupid little idea about dice had been turned into something so cool and beautiful but during the voting period there was a lot of heated discussion about the legitimately problematic White Male Saviour narrative that that version of the game portrays.

I wasn't allowed to join in that discussion because it would risk revealing that I worked on the game before voting closed and judging was done so I was stuck there being like "Yes! This has problems but it can also be something really cool!" So that really galvanized my desire to take the game further and refine it into something that was able to help people positively explore those social justice themes while still being fun and safe to play.

Once voting was over and everything was over Vincent reworked it to focus on the oppressed saving themselves and then I took that and continued work from there until now, changing a lot of things but trying to keep true to the game's heart.



How did you settle on a setting and fictional positioning for a game? How does it support the themes?

Our default setting is a sort of steampunk alternate ancient Greece that evolved out of the way the Threeforged competition had us combining ideas from each other in interesting new ways and reflects the influences of Plato and Avatar The Last Airbender on the thematic and mechanical elements of the game. The text does, however, explicitly encourage GMs to feel free to run their games in alternate versions of the setting such as cyberpunk or solarpunk futures. All the game requires is that The Republic exists and that it oppresses and marginalises people.

One of the important things I did discover as I developed the game, however, is that it can be triggering and exhausting both as a developer, a player, and as a GM. To try and soften that I made sure to include a safeword mechanic in the text of the game and also added in distinct if abstract geographical regions to the game to allow players to functionally choose their level of interaction with the atrocity of The Republic itself. The World of The Republic always contains three main areas: The Metropoli which is the heart of the republic where players are most hounded by the oppression of the state but can also affect the most change, The Borderlands where the reach of The Republic is sparse and the players travel between towns helping folks deal with threats both from The Republic itself and from beyond it's borders, and the Barbarous Wilds where players can choose to leave behind their institutional abuser and forge a new life beyond it's reach. Partially I had to add these options for my own sanity when playtesting and having to repeatedly interrogate heavy topics but I hope they're also helpful as a safety valve for players and GMs.


What are the mechanics like for the game? How do you go through play, and what informs the flow of the game?

I'm not sure if Vincent would agree but I would say it's a Powered by the Apocalypse system but with more dice. GMs have forces which oppose the players, have goals, and resources to carry out those goals. Players describe the actions their characters take and roll dice to see if they're successful, and if they're not, the GM makes the situation more interesting.

The unique elements here are in the ways the dice work. There are five dice sizes mapped to five elements in accordance with Plato's Timaeus dialogue. The player's character is initially made up of any combination of ten of those dice they choose, the combination showing which of the elements are more or less present in the character. When players roll dice to take action the action will be aligned with an element, dice of that element are more likely to score successes for that action. Players may roll as many dice as they wish to try and score a required number of successes to complete the task but any unsuccessful dice become dead and no longer usable until they are restored to life through healing or rest, communion, and care. The game is about exhaustion, and the importance of managing that, internally, and as a group, in your fight. It also forces you to think about when is the time to fight, to run, to build, to observe, or to heal.

The mechanics also seek to honour our dead. When player characters are destroyed they choose one of a number of ends available to them based on the fiction and each of those leaves a legacy upon the game such as turning the tide against a threat or leaving some part of yourself in your companions, advancing their characters stats.

Considering the nature of the game's themes and the new mechanics, what would you hope people get out of the game the most? What experiences and takeaways do you hope for?

One of my favourite experiences during playtesting has been seeing some of my non-disabled heterosexual white cisgender male friends realise they have to play a character that is at least not one of those things which had never occurred to some of them. Seeing them play those characters and connect with them in ways that they might never have done so before has been amazing. I want the game to continue to create those experiences of intense empathy, I want it to help create solidarity amongst the marginalised, I want it to help us feel confident and comfortable with resisting oppression, and I want people to think about their characters in new ways when they look at the dice on the table.

That's a big set of expectations but if we can achieve even some small measure of each of them I'm gonna be super jazzed.

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Thanks so much to Ashton for the interview! The Republic sounds like a fascinating game and I encourage you all to check out more about it if you get the chance!




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