Monday, October 31, 2016

The Points Don't Matter

The Points Don't Matter

A performative/participative game inspired by Whose Line is it Anyway?

(This might already have been done, but I felt like writing it.)

You’ll need:
~30 minutes (~10 setup/takedown, ~20 play)
8-10 players
Up to 5 audience members
Paper and pencil/pen or typed as described
Random tokens (at least 10, not more than 25)
Props if you like them - anything appropriate to an office or holiday party
Before the game, take ten folded pieces of paper (small enough to hold in hand) and on the outside write a basic description of a normal person who would attend an office or holiday party (name, profession, hobby). On the inside of half of the papers, write a description of a ridiculous character (see examples). You’ll want to mix up, add, and remove some of these every time you play.

At the start of the game, tell everyone that they must play all of the characters they are given. The character on the outside is their regular character. The character inside the card is their secret identity, and they need to act it out as well. They can do this by physical movement, vocalizing, and other behaviors, but can’t explain who or what they are. For those without an identity, they play their outside characters as though they are completely normal, and their job is to keep a straight face.

Set a timer for around 20 minutes. During this time, the players will play their parts, starting out as though they’ve just arrived and settled in at an office party. The scene proceeds as improvised, including people playing one or both character parts.

The audience will be seated near the area where the party is going on. Each audience member needs at least 2 tokens. Tokens count as points. When an audience member particularly enjoys one of the player parts and how they’re acting as a part of it, they can go into the party in a role of waitstaff or family dropping off a beverage or snack by passing a token to the player they want to reward. They can give these awards at any time during the game, but the rule is that they do not interrupt play, and the players do not acknowledge them aside from accepting the token.

At the end of the 20 minutes, play ends, and the players reveal their secret identities, if they have them. There is a round of applause, and the game ends.


Normal Person Examples:

Bill, who works in accounting. He enjoys golf.

Jenna, a manager. She rock-climbs on the weekends.

Ashton, a programmer. They do cake decorating.

Ridiculous Character Examples:

A giraffe with too short of a neck.

Someone who has just eaten multiple ghost peppers.

Ten tall men put into a small sized suit.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Five or So Questions with Alessandro Piroddi on Touched by Evil

Today I have an interview with Alessandro Piroddi on the new game Touched by Evil! It sounds really interesting and seems like just the right kind of game for Halloween weekend. Check it out on DriveThruRPG here and give the interview below a read!

Tell me a little about Touched by Evil. What excites you about it?

I love horror stories.
But the word "horror" can refer to wildly different things.

The specific brand of horror I love is the one that is all about a dreadful atmosphere, a creeping sense of unease, an indefinable sense of wrongness that has no obvious or rational source. One type of narrative that draws heavily on such elements is the Lovecraftian one, with its old fashioned rhythm where tension builds slowly but surely, inexorably crawling up to a final horror.
Traditionally this kind of game experience is considered to be very difficult to achieve even by veteran roleplayers.

What excites me about Touched by Evil is that it manages to deliver exactly this, and that it does so by virtue of system design rather than personal player ability or knowledge of the horror genre.

Can you tell me a little about the mechanics used in Touched by Evil? Are they strictly narrative, or are there tools you use? Why did you choose those mechanics?

First of all the rules outline a clear and specific structure in regards of "who can say what when and how". It is not as articulated as some of my other games, like FateLess, but it's definitely not a game where you just freeform-chat your way through the session. Everyone has clear tasks and procedures to perform such tasks.

That said, there is next to no crunch involved.

Most of the structure is focused on achieving the right kind of scene framing and story rhythm; here the main inspirations are Montsegur 1244 and Psi*Run.

Dice are rolled when the fiction demands it, with simple and minimalist mechanics inspired by Cthulhu Dark.

Overall things are set up just so that the Players can feel safe and in control, right up to the point when they are not anymore and realise how safety was always just an illusion. This feeling of being powerless before something you don't fully understand while at the same time being an obvious protagonist and active agent that CAN get much accomplished, is a focal element in how the game drives home its emotional point.

Where did you pull inspiration for the horror concepts put forth in Touched by Evil?

The first and most important source is with no doubt Graham Walmsley's essay Stealing Cthulhu. It sparked the idea of doing a horror rpg, to begin with. It revamped my old love for Lovecraftian literature. And gave me the basic tools to build something that FELT like Lovecraft ... this is pretty obvious in the name and structure of the five Chapters that make up the story's Path.

Another hugely important source of inspiration and technical help has been the YouTube series Extra Credits. I found out that most of the video game design concepts they present could be applied verbatim (or almost) to tabletop rpg design. Plus, in time they have built a pretty amazing selection of videos focused on horror games, unpacking and analyzing things like the structure an nature of protagonists, locations, monsters and narrative tropes in the horror genre ... with a even a full episode specifically on Cthulhu!

Which, I would like to highlight, says lots of things that would go hand in hand with the concepts expressed by Graham in his own analysis of Lovecraftian literature.

Another important helpful hand came from the book by Kenneth Hite Nightmares of Mine as it put into focus the difference between different kinds of "horror", helping me discern what was it that I wanted to aim for. I actually talk more about this in an article on my blog, here.

How does an instant setup for Touched by Evil work?

The game presents a default setup that is both the fastest and most effective in terms of emotional impact: you play in this city, in this day and age, a normal person. That's it.

Then a single Touched Character needs to be generated. This is the one protagonist moved, in turn, but all the players. The procedure is also quick and easy: pick a name, a profession and three "loved ones", three people that the TC cares about and that are part of their current life.

Finally, a "catalyst event" is generated. This is the event that "touches" the protagonist and kickstarts the whole story. A brief chat, moderated by the game procedures, is all that is needed here.

Done. After that the first Moment of the story is played.

What kind of experiences do you think players will get out of the game, and why should people play it?

The reason to play is the same one for watching a horror movie : you enjoy being frightened (in a friendly and controlled environment).

It is effective because, although by the end of the game you might have a taste of the kind of horror you dismiss easily as "obviously impossible" (monsters, gore, supernatural stuff), the main part of the experience is built on a creeping sense of unease we all can face in real life: something feels off but you don't know what, something completely normal starts looking weird and menacing but you don't understand why, everything is as usual but you feel unsafe or even threatened. And then you get isolated, nobody believes you. 

That stuff gets under your skin. 


Thanks so much to Alessandro for answering my questions about Touched by Evil! I hope you enjoyed the interview, and that it's piqued your interest enough to check out the game on DriveThru! Have a good time creeping yourselves out. :)

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Convention Playtester Tips

With Metatopia upcoming, I wanted to talk a little about something I truly enjoy: playtesting.

Metatopia is a convention in New Jersey, USA run by Double Exposure. It is my favorite convention. I get to see a lot of my friends, which is great, and the atmosphere is completely bursting with creativity. I also get to playtest games, most of the time.

What is playtesting?

Playtesting is when a designer or designers gather together people to test out their game by playing it or reading it and talking about it. Typically the latter is referred to as a focus group. There are alpha playtests where the game is in very early stages, betas where it's in a relatively playable state, and so on. There are also high test playtests, which are really intense, typically made up of experience designers as players, and focused on getting the game to its best state.

Why playtest?

You don't have to playtest a game. Honestly! You can make a game and put it out there without playtesting it even once. I've done this a number of times and there's nothing wrong with it. However, the reality is that most of the time your games will be far more refined if you playtest them. You get more input, find more of the squeaky wheels to oil, and have different perspectives. It's useful!

How do you playtest?

There are articles out there that can walk you through playtesting from the designer or game master perspective. What I'm more interested about is how to be a playtester. After all, it's my favorite part of games.

I am not the strongest roleplayer, nor do I understand probability basically at all. However, I can get the way games work - I can tell when something meshes well with a setting or idea, and I can help people work through what they are trying to say or do. I also can see patterns of behavior caused by mechanics. These are, thankfully, useful to playtesting.

Below I have some suggestions on what to do if you find yourself at a playtesting table. Hope you find them valuable!

  • Listen to the designer and how they describe the game and its genre, setting, and expectations. Don't talk over them or interject your opinion. Let them set the scene. Let them have some space to share their ideas and their concerns, and ensure they know you are listening (active listening is helpful). Don't allow others to step over them if they look like they are uncomfortable about speaking up - speak up for them. A simple "Hey, what were you saying?" in the direction of the designer can make a difference. Keep in mind that steamrolling (people talking over others from perceived authority or privilege) can damage a playtest just as much as the designer just giving up and walking out. 
  • Use all of the resources at your disposal. If there are mechanics presented, make excuses to use them in line with what happens in the game or focus group. If there are tools on the table - index cards, tokens, cards, dice - make sure you understand what they are for and make sure you at least try to introduce them to the action. 
  • Ask questions. Always ask questions. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification. If you don't know what the designer wants from the situation, ask for their guidance. If you want to take an action and you haven't already been given permission as part of a scene, ask to permission. If you see something missing, ask if it should be there, and if it should, how you can help introduce it, and if not, why not. If you suspect something is going to go against the theme of the game, ask why it's done that way. Always, always ask questions - don't assume, no matter how much of an expert you think you are. 
  • Show enthusiasm and give positive feedback. Don't jump around and yell, but do respond with positive feedback if you like something, give clear reasoning behind your reasons for liking what is happening, and so on. Be unafraid to smile and give encouragement to the designer, and ensure that at the end of the session, even if it was a hard one, you thank them for providing the game for playtest. You're helping them, but there's no point in playtesters if there's no game. It's a symbiotic relationship, for good and ill!
  • Be honest, but kind and respectful. If you think a game sucks, don't lie and pretend it was great, but don't be a moldy muffin about it. Use "I" statements if you want to give negative feedback, and feel free to pair them with questions ("I had trouble understanding why we would use a d6 instead of 2d6 for a game Powered by the Apocalypse, could you talk about that a little?" "I felt like I didn't have a lot of agency in the game because of the strict character roles. Is this a permanent feature of the game, and if so, why?"). You can always tell a designer what you don't like - after all, playtesting is about making the game better, not pretending it's perfect. Just be kind.
  • If something goes sideways with the other players, let the designer know either privately or, depending on immediacy, at the table. If something goes badly with the designer or with other players, let con staff wherever you are know as soon as you can. My major highlights here would be bigoted or hateful behavior, harassment, inappropriate content (18+ with under 18 individuals in the playtest, etc.), and so on. If something is truly upsetting, definitely feel free to leave, but make sure you communicate the issues to people who can make efforts to prevent it happening to other people. We can only make improvements if we know about the problems!

In all, there are a lot of things that playtesters can do to improve a convention playtest and help to get strong results. Sometimes it's hard because the games can be early in development, or possibly have flawed premises. That sucks, for sure, but we can all work together to make games better, and make our environments better for creating better games and playing better games. If you want to be a part of that, take a chance sometime to participate in a playtest and see if it's for you. I hope that someday we'll share a table!

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Mike Wood

Today's What Makes a Good Player feature is with Mike Wood. Mike had some great responses to my questions! Check them out:


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

For me, the best part of gaming is embracing the unexpected. I started playing tabletop RPGs pretty late, I guess – I was 25 or 26 when I had my first D&D session. My RPG experience before that was basically from video games, which I love, but they’re a more passive play experience, and that could be frustrating sometimes. When I’d play some game like that, I’d end up thinking “why didn’t they just do X?” a lot – like in a bad horror movie where you’re wondering why they don’t just call the cops. So when I’m playing D&D or similar, I like to push the boundaries a bit in terms of creative solutions, because I really enjoy the freedom of being able to shape the narrative in unexpected ways, or the incongruity of bringing 21st-century common sense into a fantasy world. When I DM I try to be really open to the unexpected, too, because to me that freedom is the best thing about tabletop games.

Of course, how far you can take that sort of thing really depends on the type of game you’re playing, and the type of group you’re playing with. Sometimes trying to come up with crazy solutions for things works great, if your character has a good dynamic with the rest of the party – in my longest running game, I played a sort of Pollyannaish dwarf whose ridiculous ideas played well against the cautious pessimism of one of the other characters, and there’d be some arguments and conflict that made for a good experience. But I try to keep a lid on it if it looks like it’s starting to dominate the conversation. I’m conscious of my showoff tendencies and try to play against them as much as I can.

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

Nothing formal, but there’s an improv rule that your response to any question has to be “yes, and…” – as in:

“Did your dog swallow the ambassador’s priceless diamond cufflinks?”

“Yes, and she’s been kidnapped by the mafia!”

I always try to keep that approach in mind while playing – always try to keep momentum moving forward, even if things go in an unexpected direction, or not quite how you want them to. That doesn’t mean don’t plan things out – sometimes discussing how to do something can be its own kind of narrative momentum, as well. If you’re DMing, “yes, and” becomes “yes, but” – “yes, you can try to do that, but X might go wrong.”

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

It used to be a weekly thing for me and that was great, then a bit less frequent and that was good too. I think 2-3 times a month is probably about right.

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

I don’t have a lot of experience with different systems, but I like games that can support a consistent and fair but rules-light approach that’s flexible enough to deal with lots of different things. I’m sure there are games where you can turn to page 27 of appendix R to find the table to roll on for swinging on a chandelier, but having a general “athletics” roll works better in my book. I think there’s such a thing as too flexible though, I didn’t like FATE for whatever reason. Maybe I just needed time to get used to it.

One game that I really enjoy is Unknown Armies. It runs on a percentile dice system, which is easy for everyone to understand, and it’s got a really nice sanity system, but the real star for me is the way magic works. Magic in UA is based on either obsession (with drugs, alcohol, TV, stamp collecting, whatever) or conforming to a primal archetype like the Mother or the Warrior or the Fool. The book lists a few examples of each but it’s clear that you can make new obsessions and new archetypes, and it’s all built on the premise of player engagement with building the system, and taking things in unexpected directions according to what the players want to do. For me that’s what gaming is all about.

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?

It’s tough to pick one. Once, during a long-running 52 Pages campaign, the party was on trial for something and we had the option of either doing trial by combat or arguing our case. We ended up deciding to argue, which I think was unexpected since it’s not the usual murderhobo way, and one of us had to be the defence attorney. So naturally I volunteered because I’m a huge showoff. And it was a lot of fun, a really nice change of pace. I ended up doing the sort of Matlock impression you’d do if you’ve never seen an episode of Matlock.


Thanks so much to Mike for being a part of the interview series! Hope you all enjoyed reading. :)

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Five or So Questions with Amit Moshe on City of Mist

Hi everyone! I have an interview with Amit Moshe from Son of Oak about the new game City of Mist (click here for a free starter set download!), which is on Kickstarter right now! It's a super-powered detective RPG. I saw in passing a few pieces of art for the game, and it immediately drew me in. After looking at the starter set I knew I had to talk to Amit, and he kindly agreed to an interview! Check out the info below.

Tell me a little about City of Mist. What excites you about it?

City of Mist is a comic-book noir game that explores what happens when ordinary people come in contact with legendary powers. The protagonists (called Gateways) are street-level individuals in whom a legendary force (called a Mythos) has awakened, manifesting as supernatural powers but also driving them to explore its nature and story. The game is set in a haunted modern city forever under the influence of "the Myst", a mystical veil that hides the work of the legendary forces and makes everything seems ordinary to the unaware residents. As new Gateways, the PCs inevitably become involved in strange cases and unsolved mysteries that gradually lead them to discover who they are and what forces operate beyond the Myst.

There are so many things that excite me about City of Mist, it's hard to know where to start! :) First, I find the setting very compelling; I have been developing it over 10 years now. As a fan of comic-book noir in fiction like Netflix's Daredevil and Jessica Jones, detective Batman, Fables etc., I just love the street-level perspective infused with the legendary or super-human, so this contrast is really at the center of the game, with the Mythoi and the Myst fighting over the characters' lives.

Then, there's the game mechanics: I really tried to tailor everything to create a cinematic game that will put the mystery, action, and drama at the center. The Roll+Tags system was a breakthrough because it allowed the characters to be totally open-ended, with no archetypes, no classes, and no attributes and still retain the crunch. The other main game aspect that I love is the Mythos vs. Logos non-linear character evolution: you have to sustain your Identities and explore your Mysteries or you start losing parts of who you are, submitting to your Mythos or the Myst. This puts the players' attention right on the ordinary-legendary conflict I mentioned.

And of course, I love the art and the design. I've worked with Marcin for many years and I knew he was the one for City of Mist. His ability to bring characters and scenes to life is just out of this world. And Juancho and Manuel, the graphic designers, managed to find the unique City of Mist style that I was hoping for. So it's all very exciting!

Where did you originally come up with the concepts for City of Mist, with the Myst and the Mythos - what inspired you?

I have always been into myths and legends, and particularly modern retelling of such stories. The idea that myths and legends encapsulate universal and eternal qualities that repeat in the personal lives of human beings throughout history and particularly in OUR personal lives today has always appealed to me. But it's evident that most of us are just unaware of it and see life as something very mundane. So for me the Myst is actually real and I've just given it a name and put it in a role-playing game. I find that every person I meet has a Mythos inside them waiting to grow. So these game elements are actually an analogue to reality.

The actual moment of conceiving City of Mist was quite cool. I was walking on a street in Jerusalem late at night and you can imagine it's a very special city. That street had an ancient mausoleum over 2000 years old (!!!) on it but the apartment buildings were built around it, so you walk down the street seeing apartment building, apartment building, ancient mausoleum, apartment building... so it's very much the mythical built into the city. Just as I was passing it, there was a gust of wind ruffling the fallen leaves; dogs started barking; a car alarm went off; and I could hear police sirens in the distance. There was something about this moment, as if a veil was lifted for just a second, that gave me the idea for City of Mist.

Can you talk more about the mechanics, like how players might build their character and what happens when they encounter challenges?

The idea behind the City of Mist mechanics was to create a very cinematic game that is rules-light on the one hand but packs enough dramatic punch on the other. When facing challenges PCs can employ eight core moves that cover the actions typical to the super-powered noir genre (Investigate, Convince, Hit with All You've Got, Sneak Around to name a few) BUT every PC enhances the roll using their unique tags. One PC may Investigate using her hacker skills while another using his charm and good looks to glean information from an NPC. So the way players describe their character's actions affects which tags they can add to the roll and gives each move a totally unique flavor. Damage and conditions, represented by 'Statuses', are also tag-based so PCs can get statuses like Injured and Restrained but also Happy, Frustrated, Infected, Supercharged or anything you can think of, and these have a tangible effect on the character's abilities when taking actions related to the status.

Another key mechanic is the Mythos and Logos rules. In brief, your character is made of four themes divided between Mythos (legendary) and Logos (ordinary). Also, she has a set of four Mysteries and Identities related to her Mythos and Logos themes, mysteries being questions she seeks answers for and identities being statements she believes in. Should your character ever choose to ignore an opportunity to explore her mysteries or take action that goes against her identities, she gradually wears out that theme and will eventually lose it altogether. She then receives a new theme from the opposite side (Mythos<>Logos). The MC (GM) is specifically instructed to create situations that force the PCs to choose between two or more of their themes. This mechanic keeps the players exploring what really matters the most to their character.

The City of Mist Starter Set includes seven pre-generated characters and some very basic guidelines on how to sketch out your own character. In the full game, we are going to include Themebooks, which are in essence questionnaires that help you create a specific type of theme, e.g. for Logos: occupation, personality, defining relationship or for Mythos: 'Expression' for powers that can be projected, 'Bastion' for defensive powers, etc. The Themebooks will also include special moves for each theme type. So the process of creating a character will entail choosing the four types of themes central to your character and using the Themebooks to flesh out each theme and choose its tags.

How did you put together a team to work on the game and create the design, mechanics, and art, and make a cohesive vision for the project?

The vision for City of Mist was quite clear in my mind for a long time. I previously worked as a Product Manager, so my job was to hold the vision of the product and derive everything that the team needed to be do from that. From the onset, Neev was my inspiration and soundboard on how to make the game awesome: I actually met him on the the game's first playtest in a local convention and we clicked. I think the key from that point on was to find the right people to translate the vision into a reality and that meant bringing in professionals to do the job.

When I started looking for talent, Marcin (the illustrator) was already a part of the project. We had been working together closely for a number of years and we both knew he was the one destined to bring City of Mist to life, so we made it happen. For designers, I searched Behance for weeks until I found portfolios which exhibited the skills I needed. After trying with a couple of designers, I approached Juancho Capic who suggested we'd bring Manuel Serra on board and it was a perfect match. Right from the start, these guys produced some seriously high-end work and they were open to receiving my vision and working with it. I am very demanding when it comes to design so it was good to find people who wanted to create something beautiful just as much as I did.

Finally, on the game design front, even though I've always worked alone and have already written the mechanics for City of Mist, I realized that no matter how good I thought it was, an editor would only make it better: I needed someone who would force me to think, to improve, to make the game more concise and clear and engaging. I turned to Eran because we already worked on a Cinematic GMing Guide before and I knew he was a really nice guy who would rip my work to shreds if he thought it wasn't good, and I needed that, because I was adamant on making something awesome.

Throughout the process we worked closely together using tools like Slack (team chat), Google Drive, and Google Hangouts so that everyone was connected to what everyone else was doing. It was a pleasure and we're all looking forward to the next step of creating the full game.

Ideal game experiences are hard to achieve, but what kind of emotional takeaways do you want players to have from City of Mist? Do you want players to have certain types of character moments or story revelations? Tell me what you hope players walk away from the game having experienced.

City of Mist is first and foremost a game, so my top priority is to provide the MC and players with tools to create their own stories and get what they feel is fun out of the game, be it drama, thrill or laughs (or all of the above). Having said that, City of Mist is built to create stories of inner and outer search, both personal and shared. Each character, as well as the group as a whole, has personal mysteries to unravel and at the same time identities that she is holding on to. I am hoping this will lead players to experience those dramatic moments that make up a good story when their characters discover something new and unexpected about themselves, especially when it happens through a hard choice they must make between two themes. And if that makes players somehow look at themselves as well and become more conscious of the struggle of themes in their own lives... well, that would be the best imaginable outcome of the game as far as I am concerned.

Thanks so much to Amit for the interview! I hope you all have a chance to check out City of Mist either through the free starter kit, the Kickstarter, or both!

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Beast Card Game Contest!

Update: All giveaway entries will receive a discount for The Beast! Discount code will be sent out after the giveaway ends.

Hello friends!

I'm giving away my copy of The Beast! The Beast is an unsettling erotica single-player card game by Aleksandra Sontowska and Kamil Węgrzynowicz that I did a playthrough of via my thatlittleitch blog linking back to Thoughty. It was a hell of an experience, and I want to share it with you!

While the game is very replayable, in my opinion, I want to give others the opportunity to play. I had thought about doing a contest, but I don't want to demand labor of people. So instead, I'm doing a random drawing!

Enter your information in the form, and I'll select someone via a randomizer. The information you share is only for my eyes, and I'll follow up for any mgailing information as needed.

Enter the giveaway for The Beast! Ends October 31st, 2016

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Emily Vitori

Hello everyone!

Today I have an interview with Emily Vitori for the What Makes a Good Player? feature. I hope you enjoy it!


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

When gaming with friends, I like to draw portraits of all of the characters in our group as a gift, and also to help us visualize our characters in our heads when we play them. I also usually take all of the game notes and at the end of the campaign I will turn them into a cohesive story and send copies of it to everyone involved.

This is the group portrait for our last Scion campaign (click) and the campaign itself turned into a story with more than 40 chapters (click).

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

Hmmn... I'll sometimes draw some of the scenes we've acted out, and we always use miniatures and detailed maps whenever possible, but other than that... can't think of anything unique. I had one experience as a GM and realized I didn't have it in me to heard cats like that so I tend to just be a player in the group lol.

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

When I was able to game face to face, it was one session a week usually. As we all get older and our schedules get busier, however, we've turned to play by post gaming online and it tends to be whenever people are available for a few minutes to make a post throughout the day. As long as the posts keep moving daily, the energy is maintained... but sometimes when someone doesn't keep up for a few days it can really but the brakes on a good campaign. 

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

I've played my share of fantasy and sci-fi game systems over the years and love Cyberpunk, but the one I am most comfortable with is the old tried and true D&D 3.5. The fantasy worlds of D&D have been a staple of my life since childhood, so every time I play it's like digging out your favorite book or watching your favorite TV show.

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? 

Katya the Tiefling Alienist/Witch was with a group on the run from everything from Devils and Demons to Githyanki and we made our way to this incredibly out-of the way bar on the outskirts of Hell.

Katya had this fun trait where her alignment changed every morning (yay Alienist) and that day.... she was evil.

When we went to the bar, she used her Chameleon Ring to slip away from the group and went to each "restroom area" where she used her drawing skills to create a WANTED poster for the leader of their group. 

When she came back to the table she just sat and waited... and watched in barely concealed glee as everyone in the bar started looking at our table and the paranoia of the rest of the group grew exponentially because they really had no idea what I did (managed to IM my plan to the DM). >:D

Thanks so much to Emily for participating in the What Makes a Good Player? feature!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Five or So Questions with Geoffrey McVey on Scion 2nd Edition

It is rare that I do multiple interviews for one game, but when Geoffrey asked if he could talk a little about myths and Scion, I couldn't turn it down. Geoffrey talks about his work on Scion, myths, and scholarship in the following interview. You can check out the Scion 2nd Edition Kickstarter while you're here, too - it's only got a few days left!


Tell me a little about Scion and myths. What excites you about it?

A little background: I started my academic career in comparative religion with a focus on mythology. I taught classes in it along with other, more general, courses in how to approach religion in an historical context. Ever since I've been writing roleplaying games, I've been interested in ways to represent religion authentically, and this game gives me the opportunity to do that.

It helped that Neall told me that I was the person he wanted to have joining the team in order to take care of issues of myth. Honestly, given the people he's gathered, it feels like some sort of heist movie in which everyone has a very specific set of skills to contribute. Everyone else has their own particular talents that I respect immensely; my own is "theories of myth and religion," which almost never affords a person the chance to walk down a street in stylish sunglasses while being accompanied by one's allies. It's a pity, really.

As for Scion and myths: I've tried to bring a lot of classic approaches to myth into the game and plan to include a full bibliography of my sources. I will freely admit that they're all dated ones—the 1920s to the 1980s—but I think I've touched them up enough to be applicable and, I hope, interesting. Some elements (specifically, Joseph Campbell), we've set aside in favour of others. The reason behind that is another conversation entirely. I've been looking at storytelling structures from outside of the general Western European style and have offered ways to incorporate them into Scion games. If I had time, I would include more, but I may start to share some ideas once the game is out.

As for what gets me excited: think of the Táin Bó Cúailnge as an argument in the Canadian Maritimes about who has the best truck. Think of what it would look like if Hercules had to do community service to work out his anger issues. Think of the Ramayana revolving around a group of teenagers in a Midwestern small town. These are all things possible at even the smallest level of Scion. Just imagine what it becomes after the first few books.

For those unfamiliar with myths, what are some core concepts you think are valuable for understanding that aspect of the game?

From my perspective, what's most important to understand is that myths never stand alone. Every story is part of a larger collection, which means that every image or theme connects to another one. Understanding the mess between Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Ares means knowing the smith-god's birth, its connection to the birth of Athena, the concepts with which those specific gods were associated, classical Greek ideas of physicality, and approaches to sexuality. It is, in short, a mess, and it's supposed to be. That's the most important thing to understand for Scion: that mythology cannot, and should not, be reduced to "X is the goddess of Y." The writers for this game bring an amazing array of knowledge to it, and none of them approach the material without a careful consideration of all of the variations of myth.

For people who are unfamiliar with myths, I will say this: read one. Now read another, and, if you can, another. They probably won't agree, but that's okay. One of the examples that I used in my section is the fact that the Irish god of healing also killed his own son in a jealous rage (by throwing a sword at him repeatedly!), and messed up his daughter's attempts to make the process of healing easy for everyone. Does it fit with our general ideas of what a healer should be? Of course not. It's not supposed to, and it highlights the ways that real-world mythologies don't fit into tidy categories.

Tell me a little about approaching myths through scholarship. How does that apply to Scion? How does it impact you as a creator?

This is a question that turns more complicated the more that I try to respond. On the one hand, I've linked my writing for Scion to some very traditional scholarship: Vladimir Propp, Emile Durkheim, Lord Raglan, Mircea Eliade, Northrop Frye, and others that any decent scholar of religion would wince at seeing mentioned. On the other, I've done my best to subvert their approaches, or at least turn them into something that translates well into a game. There are parts with which I'm pleased (Frye, for example, and a little bit on Stith "bane of my existence" Thompson), and there are parts where I recognize that I haven't yet done enough to challenge the common approaches. It's only the first draft, though, so I should still have time to mend things.

Can you tell me a little about the ways you've subverted the approaches of other scholars for the work you've done for Scion?

It's a little difficult to go through in any relatively short form, but let's see what I can manage. The scholars that I'm working with have had their theories tested, challenged, and (in some cases) entirely discarded. That doesn't mean that they're useless. Instead, in the way that I've tried to write it, it means that their own ideas are a sort of game in and of themselves: what would the world look like if (for example) Freud were right? So what I've tried to do is to take all of these rather outdated bits of scholarship and turn them into something that is both playable and entertaining.

Subversion, in this case, has to do with taking works that focus so much on the trope of the lone (white, male) Chosen One and finding ways to apply it to groups: a range of individuals with vastly different backgrounds and experiences whose interactions make stories more interesting. Think of it as something like the story of Jason and the Argonauts, where you have a whole collection of heroes with their own stories but who also come together to make something that isn't specifically about them. That's what I'd like to accomplish in this game: to remind players that the best thing they can do is to ignore the traditional approaches to myth and make their goal "find ways to make your fellow players seem awesome."

What are your favorite things you've worked on in the Scion text, and how did you make them happen?

So far, my favourite has been to work up ways to play a range of supernatural characters. Neall handed the task on to me (despite my frequently and likely tiresome refrains of "I'm not good with game mechanics, because I'm old") and I ended up writing twenty-four possibilities that covered all of the game's myths. You want to be a Nuckelavee? We can do that. You want to be a Goetic sorcerer? Sure. You want to be a Deer Woman? We've got you covered. Taking an already flexible system and using it to explore so many world myths has been lovely.

To answer your second question, I have no idea how I made it happen. I will default to my usual answer, which is "sorcery, blackmail, and organ theft."

Thanks so much to Geoffrey for the interview! It was a good read, and I hope you all like it as well. Check out Scion 2nd Edition on Kickstarter if this piqued your interest!

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Monday, October 17, 2016

City of Mist Loot!

I'm posting an interview on Monday with Amit Moshe about his upcoming game City of Mist, a superhero noir game hitting Kickstarter this month. Amit sent me some of the incredibly beautiful character playbooks in the mail, and combined with those and the free downloadable starter set, I'm pretty amped for the game. Photos of the playbooks below!

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Five or So Questions with Marc Hobbs on Eden

Today I have an interview with Marc Hobbs on his current project, Eden, which is on Kickstarter! It sounds like a lovely game to explore a story of growth, and I hope you'll enjoy what Marc has to say.

Tell me a little about your project. What excites you about it?

Eden is a story game for 3-5 players about learning of good and evil from talking animals. During play, we first choose the animals we want to encounter during the game, and then create a unique map of our version of Eden. Next, players take on the roles of the second generation of humans after Adam and Eve. Each human character is special, because they have learned a skill and a lesson from their favorite animal, both of which inform how that character behaves. Player characters also have deep connections to each other--your character has helped the character on your left and harmed the character on your right, creating a really tight, interesting bond in both directions.

I'm excited about this game because it does two things really well, both of which are super fun: first, playing as an animal is just a blast. It's fascinating to watch complete strangers, without any guidance or coaching, act in perfect unison when playing a herd of horses, or a pod of whales, or a murder of crows. People just seem to naturally know what certain animals would say if they could talk. Second, the game traces the moral growth of an innocent person in a way I find really compelling. Player characters basically have two choices as they learn and grow (though these are never explicitly stated; rather, they are implicit within the structure of the game): the character can become more and more similar to their favorite animal, like a beast, or they can embrace their humanity and develop a nuanced moral code, like a person. Every possible blend of these two roads can occur in the game, and I've seen so many interesting twists in all the sessions I've played. So those are two things I really like about Eden.

What inspired you to create Eden?

Back in 2011, I played a story game called The Quiet Year with some close friends. The game takes place in a small post-collapse society, but the specifics are up to the players. We decided that we wanted to explore a Biblical paradise, so we set the game in post-Fall Eden. What resulted was a fascinating exploration of the morality and idiosyncrasies of the creation story. I decided after that to start working on a game that would touch on those kinds of topics. I was still pretty new to story games at the time, so the project went through quite a few iterations before it reached its current state, but overall, the inspiration came from just one session of another story game!

Why did you choose to have animals be the ones to teach the humans, instead of angels or other creatures?

This is a really great question! There are a number of reasons. First of all, I wanted the game to be about earthly life: animals and humans only. This is because when players take on the role of celestial beings like angels, there's a tendency to get bogged down in understanding their behavior and culture. What do angels act like? What do they care about? The game isn't about these questions, so having players get distracted by them is detrimental. Keeping the focus on animals and humans makes sure that everyone is directed toward what matters and what will create fun gameplay.

Secondly, I realized (albeit after many versions of the game that included the Devil in the form of The Serpent) that having supernatural beings in the game changed the dynamic of power dramatically. Angels and demons have nothing to lose in their interactions with humans, and are never in any true danger. They are so far beyond the humans that playing scenes with supernatural characters becomes one-sided; it creates a situation where you play a character who can remove themselves from the action with no consequences, and that can lead to boring or un-fun stories. I think there's a lot of potential for supernatural beings in another game, but not in Eden.

Thirdly, supernatural beings have access to knowledge about good and evil that animals do not, and they have motives the animals lack. An angel already has an agenda: it wants the humans to be good. It also possesses perfect knowledge of what "good" is, and that's a boring story if an angel just tells the humans what to do. Similarly (and this is part of why I took it out), The Serpent wants the humans to do evil; while it was fun to tempt the humans, it created an imbalance because the humans had no guide for how to be good. The animals, conversely, have no agenda; they care about what animals care about, and aren't capable of acting rightly or wrongly. So it falls to the humans (and therefore the players) to interpret the animals' advice and decide how to act--that's the story I want players to tell, and the one that's (I've found to be) the most fun.

Fourth and finally, the animals are much easier (especially for those unfamiliar with role-playing) to play, because you instinctively know how to act like animals. What does a wolf care about? You hardly need to think to start talking about loyalty and the pack and so on. We anthropomorphize and personify animals constantly, and those beliefs / biases / stereotypes come right into the game effortlessly. This makes role-play fun and easy, and provides juicy material for humans to egregiously misinterpret animal behavior or motives.

Has faith played any role in your development of Eden?

I am an atheist, but I used to be a very devout Catholic. I think that transition from religious to non-religious is paralleled in the game somewhat; you have human characters who, in the Bible story, are unaware of good and evil until they break God's rules and eat the Forbidden Fruit. Suddenly they understand good and evil--no one has to teach them. In the game Eden, there is no instantaneous gaining of that knowledge. I suppose I was asking the question, "What if we had to learn good and evil from nature, instead of from a deity or holy book?" Or to put it another way, "If we exist as animals with a feeling of 'moral', what complex social and mental structures do we build to support that sense, and how does that make us different from all the other animals of the world?" It's creation vs. evolution, in a way!

You said this represents the moral growth of an innocent person. Could you talk a little about the moral choices a character might make in the game?
Your character's behavior is based on lessons they've learned from watching and talking to their favorite animal. These lessons constitute your character's moral code--what they see as right and wrong. When confronted with a new situation that falls outside their lessons, you must decide how your character would react to that scenario. This is the basis of scenes during the game. The moral choices characters face are the same kinds of choices we face every day, but stripped of all the complexities of modern life. "Should I cause harm in order to get what I want?" for example, or "How should I treat someone who has hurt me?" Eden is essentially a game about going from a black and white worldview to one with shades of gray.

To give a specific example from a game I played, let's say another human comes upon your prized collection of seashells, and decides to smash them up and put them in her hair. How does your character choose to react? You could try to get revenge, ignore the problem, forgive them, or (as happened in the game) make hurtful comments about her to the other humans, trying to poison them against her. The choice the character made was to avoid direct confrontation, and that was partially influenced by the character's favorite animal--hermit crab, who taught that character to hide from danger (and to always keep track of your shell). Had the character taken some other animal as their favorite, the choice might've been very different.

How did you design the progression of the game with the lessons and rounds? Can you describe this part of the mechanics?

Eden has been in development for about five years. In that time it has gone through extensive changes; the very first version of the game would be barely recognizable to someone playing the current iteration. That said, it took most of those five years to figure out how to make the game consistently fun and interesting. Part of what makes that happen is simplicity, which is deceptively tricky to create. The current way of playing the game resulted from stripping away more complicated mechanics, slowly but surely. Just before the game reached its current (and more or less final) state, I realized that there is a simple progression of play that makes the most sense and is the most fun: learn from animals, try that lesson with humans, revise the lesson, try again or go learn something else, repeat.

My wife is a very talented designer (she made Downfall), but both of us have learned most of what we know about design from our friend Ben Robbins (creator of Microscope and Kingdom). A core part of Ben's design philosophy is to set up some maxims for the game you're making, and then try to orient everything in the game toward those maxims. It is so, so easy to go down a rabbit hole of design--you think of a cool new mechanic, or you try to fix a problem by using a more complex solution, or what have you, and the next thing you know, the game has drifted from what you intended it to be. Having maxims allows you to always aim your design toward what you want the game to be about; it gives you a bullseye to shoot for. With Eden, my maxims were "Talk to animals", "Learn about good and evil", and "Loss of innocence". After five years, I think the game has finally gotten to a point where I'm doing all of those things, and nothing else--which is exactly where I wanted to be.


Thank you so much to Marc for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading, and that you'll give the Eden Kickstarter a look. It sounds like a lot of fun!

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Five or So Questions with James Mendez Hodes on Scion 2nd Edition

Today I have an interview with James Mendez Hodes on Scion 2nd Edition, which is currently on Kickstarter! I think James talks about some really cool aspects of Scion that some of you might find interesting. Check it out!


Tell me a little about Scion 2nd Edition. What excites you about it?

Scion is a role-playing game about demigods: the children and the chosen of the gods in a modern setting, à la Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm writing dossiers on four pantheons in the core game: the Òrìṣà of Yorùbáland, the Devás of South Asia, the Loa of Dahomey by way of Haiti, and the Shén of China. I'm excited about Scion because back when I was studying religion at Swarthmore College, my first and most formative gaming group always played in exactly this genre: urban fantasy with a diverse scope, drawing from far-flung world mythologies.

What in particular did you focus on in the Scion game development?

My main role is to characterize four pantheons to which player-character Scions and their divine parents belong. First, I pare hundreds of deities down to about thirteen principals who publicly represent the pantheon in Scion. Then I profile each principal: their identity, outlook, relationships, and purviews (what they’re god of). I describe their dealings with other pantheons, the religions which venerate them, their mythological supporting cast and artifacts, and their Virtues. Scion 1e gave each pantheon four Virtues such as “honor” and “compassion” from a generic list, but for 2e I pushed instead to assign two unique values in tension or conflict with one another in the pantheon’s associated mythology. For the Òrìṣà and Loa, those values are Tradition versus Innovation: they’re part of a stressed but unbroken heritage that reaches back to ancestral West Africa, but to preserve that heritage they’ve had to confuse their own identities just as their worshippers have had to use deception and syncretism to keep them intact. For the Devás, those values are Duty versus Conscience: Indian epic heroes’ deep-seated understanding of the right thing to do frequently clashes with law’s explicit mandate, such as when Prince Arjuna hesitated to fight his family at Kurukṣētra. For the Shén, there’s Yīn and Yáng: they literally maintain the universe by guarding the balance and the cycle between positive and negative forces, but the place of an individual in that cycle is often confusing and paradoxical. I’ve also worked with Robert Vance to design “pantheon-specific purviews”: sets of superpowers peculiar to that pantheon and its Scions. This part is particularly fun because I get to comb through the pantheon’s myths to find supernatural themes which distinguish the pantheon from other theogonies.
  • The Òrìṣà and Loa have possession—“Gún” in Yorùbá, (“Cheval” in French and Kreyol Ayisyen). An òrìṣà or loa can possess a willing subject to share their body and senses, or lend their own physical form to a spirit who needs to act through them.
  • The Shén have Tiānmìng (“Mandate of Heaven”), a power derived from their pantheon’s expansive and confusing bureaucracy. Evoking the first few chapters (that is, the fun ones) of the Chinese epic Journey to the West, they can bestow supernaturally empowered titles and promotions (wanted or unwanted) on others, or curse an organization with bureaucratic inefficiencies.
  • The Devás have Yoga, a set of South Asian religious practices which bring the individual closer to the divine through selfless service, contemplation, or devotion. In Indian mythology, yoga’s most dedicated practitioners often manifest awesome supernatural powers or receive magical treasures from the gods to whom they’re devoted—but it’s not uncommon for those powers or treasures to corrupt their recipient, transforming them into supervillains like King Rāvaṇa of Lanka.

Where did you source information for the project - what efforts did you make to honor the subject matter?

This is one of the first projects I’ve ever undertaken where my entire academic background is relevant. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, I majored in religion, concentrating on West African and Afro-Atlantic traditions. I read primary and secondary sources, spoke with scholars and clergy, and attended religious services where I met several of the loa appearing in fictional form in this game. I also minored in English literature and in dance, concentrating on capoeira (relevant to the Afro-Atlantic content) and North Indian classical dance (relevant to my work on the devás). I also have a master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College in Santa Fé, New Mexico; that’s where I studied classical Chinese and the Asian epics and scriptures on which I based the shén and the devás. As I work, I’ll be updating an annotated bibliography of the most relevant sources on my website at

When playing Scion, what kind of experiences can players have in such a rich world?

Scion supports various modes of play, from street-level pop-culture myth à la Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo on up to conflict over the fate of existence à la Sandman; but one feeling I really hope we can instill in our players is the particular combination of familiarity and surprise which makes mythology both awe-inspiring and funny. Remember when Thor dressed up as Freyja and pretended to marry a jötunn so he could steal back his magic hammer? Or when Vimalakīrti faked an illness so he could lure the Buddha’s entire congregation to his house to preach to them? Those are the moments I really hope players will find in Scion: familiar myths and traditions leading them to unexpected places. 

Compared to your previous gaming experience in this genre, how do you think Scion 2nd Edition improves upon or carries on the voice of the ideas and concepts you see to be the most vital to the experience?

The most important quality Scion shares with those early games is the axiom that mythic play is about relationships. Back in college, whenever we introduced a figure of legend to the game, the best moment wasn't their first appearance—it was their second or third, when their foray into the story flooded all our characters with memories of what interactions they'd had the past few times they saw one another. For example, one historical legend I introduce to many games, Scion included, is the White Eyebrow: a Shàolín monk who studied Daoist black magic (supposedly that's a thing?) and betrayed his brethren, precipitating one of the Shàolín Monastery's many destructions. Wǔxiá canon resurrects this guy all over time and space, attaching him to the White Lotus Society, the Wǔdāng Clan, the Qíng regime—anyone even remotely villainous—such that he'd have to be a Daoist immortal to have been everywhere and everywhen they say he was. So whenever it turned out he was behind some scheme, every player and every character at our table was like, "White Eyebrow … I should have known this treachery had your stamp all over it. Don't think I've forgotten what the White Lotus did at the Battle of Demon Alley!" By emphasizing the relationships between Scions, their divine progenitors, and their pantheons, Scion sets you up to create these intermingled histories yourself. The first time you meet your father, the sun god Sūrya, maybe you're both nervous and tense because you've read the Mahābhāratam and you remember the fate that befell his most famous son, King Karṇa of Anga. But after that first adventure, you have your own legend of Sūrya that you created yourself. So when you run into him again two games afterward, or in a different RPG, or on the wall of a temple in India, you'll remember a story about Sūrya and your character—maybe even about Sūrya and you—that started two thousand years ago and ended at your Scion table.


Thanks so much to James for the interview! What's been said here about Scion 2nd Edition makes me think some of my friends would really love it, so I hope my readers who like how it sounds take a chance to check it out on Kickstarter now!

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Johannes Oppermann

In today's What Makes a Good Player? feature we have an interview with Johannes Oppermann! Check it out below.


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

As a player I listen for opportunities, for creative gifts that other players offer me, and then pounce and expand on them. I play generously and offer back gifts about my character that they can then expand on. I love to improvise and make up setting details on the spot, even when I'm not the GM. Also, I try to help out other players when they're at a loss for next steps or when they're confused about rules or expectations. 

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

This is for sit-down, tabletop games, where I can take notes during the game. I play differently in LARPs, which I've just recently discovered.

Some techniques I've learned from story games I try to use in every game I play. They work both in traditional roleplaying with a GM (like in PbtA games or Fate), or in story games, where narrative control is more evenly distributed. Techniques I use regularly are: Asking loaded questions (stolen from PbtA games), cutting and framing scenes (from Fate and Microscope), and transparent minds / inner monologue (also from Microscope, and from With great Power).

Also, I use introductory scenes and epilogues per character as framing for a game session, to give every session a feeling of closure. During the game session I try and use re-incorporation heavily to help me conclude a story arc by the end of the night. I use index cards (like Fate aspects) to note down important story elements. I pace myself to not add any new elements after half the session has passed and conclude at least half of the story elements that were introduced on the table by the session's end. 

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

I like to game at least once a week, and twice a week when I'm not too busy at work. I game online on the Gauntlet where there's all the cool indie stuff you could want, but sadly mostly on US evenings, which is in the middle of the night for me. I have founded a regular story games meetup in Vienna with my friend Daniel which has suffered badly from his moving to another part of the country and my discovering LARPs, so I need to split my time.

I maintain good energy in a game when I feel involved in the action and when I feel excitement from the group. This happens when the spotlight is shared well and when there is mutual giving and taking of cues and actions. Enthusiasm and improvisation beats preparation any day at my table. Also, I feel very strongly about creating a safe and inclusive space at my tables. I founded the meetup group to meet other gamers and to bring new people into the hobby, specifically women who I feel are under-represented. I feel most alive when there's enthusiasm at the table when we conclude a session and when people love the experience and commit to come back for more. 

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

Two types:
a) story games of all kinds that distribute narrative control in interesting ways and that have an element of story built into the rules. I gravitate towards GM-less games but I'll try anything once. I also lean towards one-shots as opposed to campaign games, just because of the scheduling hell that seems to come with every single group that needs commitment to a campaign game.
b) parlor LARPs and Nordic scenarios with a small group of players, 2-5 hours of game time and a strong theme, premise and elegant mechanics.
I enjoy myself the most when a concluding story is told and we get to see conflict, character change and emotional impact. 

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?

There is this one game I still remember fondly. It was a campaign for two players and the GM, played with my best friends, over a few years of real life time and many years of game time, on a game world of our own creation. I was playing a high elf psychic vampire mage and my friend a merchant prince vampire. Our characters valued each other's personalities and accomplishments, but despised each other's affiliation. We had to cooperate to keep lethal threats from ourselves and the city, but also had scenes of deep alienation. There was enough time to deeply develop both characters.

The moment I'm talking about was the campaign's very climax and conclusion, when it became clear that my friend's character was hell-bent on bringing my character's mortal enemy and thief of his soul, a dark god of shadow and revenge, back into his world, by donning a possessed armor and offering up his body. Just before that happened, my character decided to summon lightning from the sky and destroy his enemy and friend together.

I'm telling this because for me it felt like the completely right decision. It did have an impact for our friendship, though. We were both very invested in our characters, but I felt that the story was told to its end. My friend, on the other hand, resented me for "backstabbing", and in the epipogue his character's ghost took it out on my character's eldest son, kidnapping him and turning him into a vampire. I was totally okay with that - revenge was a strong theme in this story for me.

What I'm saying is that this incident taught me about characters. Characters are only real within a story. Outside of that story, they're just empty husks. My friend wanted to keep their character's husk for later reuse (he never did reuse it, and never does with other characters). I wanted to play mine to the hilt and have them succeed or die trying. And I loved every minute of it.

Thank you so much to Johannes for participating in the feature! I hope you all enjoyed reading!

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Five or So Questions with Craig Judd on Blade Bind

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Craig Judd on Blade Bind, which is currently on Kickstarter! It sounds pretty interesting. Check it out!


Tell me a little about Blade Bind. What excites you about it?

Blade Bind is a GMless game with a focus on PvP and melodrama, inspired by Shinobigami, Eternal Contenders, and the "emo shonen fighting anime" genre in general. It's designed for one-shots (you can play out a whole game in 3 to 6 hours), and uses regular playing cards to resolve epic swordfights! Players each take on the role of a Chosen, someone with strong motivations who has made a pact with an ancient supernatural Blade. The Blade gives you immense power, and only another Chosen can stand in your way, but if you falter on your path the Blade will not hesitate to take control and use you as the instrument of its own vengeance!

I'm interested in games where the player-characters work at cross-purposes, and I've played several games in this vein. I feel that you can get a richer and more challenging experience when everybody is creating opposition for each other — and since I'm usually the GM, it's nice to get a bit of a break by distributing the workload. I also really enjoyed designing Blade Bind, as I had a really strong vision for it and all the pieces came together fairly easily.

I really like that the system isn't that complex, but it has some really cool emergent properties. The card-based duelling is informed by my HEMA experience, and once you get past the surface mechanics there are some interesting strategies you can employ. When Chosen oppose one another, they duel to decide who gets their way. The Chosen are defined minimally, and a lot of the game comes down to managing your goals — known as Threads — and learning how to manipulate those of the other Chosen to your benefit. There's also a cool Will/Power mechanism, where you need to increase your Power to win fights, but if your Will (generated by Threads) ever drops below Power, you lose control and become a self-destructive berserker known as a Bladebound! You can engage the mechanics and "meta-game" as much as you like, and it'll create interesting drama when you look back on what happened.

Most of all, I'm excited that it seems to consistently create a good experience at the table. Once you're through the setup, there's no meandering and feeling out the situation, it's just BAM! Threads provide a great sense of direction and purpose that lets the game kick off at full speed.

What motivated you to create a GMless PvP game? It sounds like a challenge! Did you encounter major problems with the concepts in general?

I've enjoyed a few games of Eternal Contenders, which is GMless and PvP (and also uses cards, but in a very different way). But it was the Shinobigami Kickstarter last year that really helped fire my imagination on Blade Bind. Shinobigami still has a GM, but it's very focussed on PvP-style action, and the GM mainly facilitates and sets up the initial situation.Blade Bind was heavily inspired by the idea of Shinobigami, but I wrote it before actually reading that game's rules!

I wouldn't say I encountered major problems, but there were some things I needed to work around. I sort of started from a blank slate and only built in stuff that the game needed. I considered including a GM, but the game didn't really need one – all the GM duties of setting up a situation and framing scenes are delegated to the players, much like Fiasco. Once the setup's in place the characters simply follow their motivations, guided by the rules, until the game reaches a conclusion.

I first developed the duelling system. Once I had an engaging conflict resolution engine, the hardest part was building the rest of the game around it! I tried out a lot of iterations of the various pieces, but after testing alternatives and thinking about things for a while, I found I could analyse the pros and cons and decide on the best approach.

The game pushes you into situations where you must fight to either get what you want or prevent something awful happening. This basically forces PvP, because if you don't take up arms then the things you care about will be destroyed or taken from you.

How do you have a PvP game without risking interplayer conflict? Was that something you had to consider while designing mechanics?

As Cam Banks says about Smallville, it's more about character vs character than player vs player. I have had even CvC games fall apart in the past though, so it's definitely something I thought about during the design process. I think it's mostly a matter of setting clear expectations before play, and in the introduction I emphasize that while the characters are at odds, the players are actually collaborating to create a rich drama. You need to go into it with a mindset where you can enjoy your character's arc regardless of whether they come out on top or go down in flames.

Something else that helps avoid player conflict is a clear-cut and rigidly-defined rule set. In games that rely on GM judgment calls, plotting against other player-characters in secret can create uncertainty and concerns of bias or unfairness. By using a set of strict procedures, the players have certainty at least as far as knowing what is permitted and what is not. The game system itself acts as an impartial arbiter. You do lose a little of that "you can do anything!" aesthetic, and the rules are more like that of a board game. Even so, within the framework of the rules you can still play a cool character, come up with interesting situations, and unleash evocative descriptions. It's an approach that Blade Bind shares with Shinobigami.

A while ago, I thought: if people can play against opposition fielded by a GM without getting upset, why is it any different when the opposition is created by one of the other players? So long as everyone is clear up-front about what's permissible, you should be able to avoid out-of-game animosity.

Can you talk a little more about Threads, and how they influence play?

To talk about Threads, I'll first need to explain Knots. A Knot is a MacGuffin that acts as a source of motivation for the Chosen — something they think is worth fighting for. Knots are often NPCs (someone you want to protect, control, or destroy), but they can also be objects, locations, or even organisations. Each player defines one Knot during the setup.

Threads connect the Chosen to various Knots, and sometimes to other Chosen. A Thread expresses a goal or desire, and they're rigidly defined. You pick one of the available Thread-types and fill in the details. For example, common Threads include "I will Control [KNOT]" or "Nobody will Destroy [KNOT]", but there are also ones like "[CHOSEN] will not Control [KNOT]" or "I will Defeat [CHOSEN]". Each Chosen can only have three Threads at a time. You start with one connected to your own Knot, and two connected to other Knots or Chosen. This creates a web of motivations that inevitably leads to conflict.

Each Thread has three states: Secure (achieved, even if temporarily), Loose (striving to be achieved), or Cut (impossible to achieve). The more complete a Thread is, the more Will it's worth. Cut Threads are worth 0 Will, so they bring you closer to becoming Bladebound. You're therefore strongly motivated to pursue and complete your own Threads, but at the same time you can try to manipulate other people's Threads to your advantage.

When someone wins a duel, they get to pick a prize. They can either take control of or destroy a Knot that was at stake, or they can rewrite one of their own Threads, or a Thread belonging to one of the vanquished Chosen. While deciding a Knot's fate is a powerful way to change the state of the game (and cause big changes in Will values), rewriting Threads is a more subtle tool that may let you stop an enemy from even wanting to attack your Knot, or turn them into an ally.

While Threads are powerful motivators, they aren't mind control; even if your enemy gives you a Thread to protect a Knot that you've been trying to destroy, you can still choose to destroy it if you really want to. Threads also act a bit like Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero — as they shift, they create an ever-changing picture of what your character finds important.

Can you talk a little about dueling, and how it is essential to the game?

I wanted the dueling system to provide a similar back-and-forth to actual swordplay, and while this often leads to a back-and-forth exchange like regular turn-based combat, there are also opportunities to seize the initiative… or to find yourself fighting defensively on the back foot. At the start of a duel you draw cards equal to your Power. Whoever has initiative puts forward one card as an attack, and the defender must equal or exceed the attack's value with one or more cards. There are several defense options (depending on whether the value is higher, equal, lower, if you play a matching suit, or if you play multiple cards), and each affects the flow of play differently. If the defense isn't good enough, the Chosen is hit and knocked out of the fight. It's possible to turn a fight around if you start with fewer cards, but it requires luck and skill. I like that dueling relies on player skill to some extent, even if luck and Power are still major factors.

Each Blade also has three special Techniques that allow their wielder to bend the rules, and since the Chosen don't have much mechanical definition this is the main way to individualize your fighter's style. To use a Technique you must spend points of Resonance, which you gain whenever your Blade locks with another in a "Bind" – hence the game's name. A Bind happens when two cards of equal value are played against each other.

The Blades give their wielder immense supernatural power, so they can steamroll any mundane opposition. If it's your scene, you can describe how your Chosen is going to go and demolish a skyscraper, or wipe out a private army, or capture an NPC — and if none of the other Chosen step up to oppose you, then you just do it. When two or more Chosen are at odds though, they can try to talk it out — but if the aggressor refuses to back down, then their opponents only have two choices: stand aside and let them do what they want, or draw Blades and duel.

Duels are the game's only mechanical resolution system. They're an impartial and concrete way to determine which player gets to decide how things turn out. They are a bit more involved than simple "skill checks", but don't often take more than a few minutes to resolve, and they are pretty cool to play. There's a real sense of tension as you try to pick your best available move without knowing exactly what your opponent is holding.

If people would like to take a look, I've released a free Sword Practise PDF that introduces the basic dueling rules. It's missing Resonance and Techniques (and the rest of the game), but it's a handy way to get used to the mechanical heart of the system.


Thanks so much to Craig for the interview! I hope that everyone enjoyed reading, and I also hope you'll take a minute to check out Blade Bound on Kickstarter, or at least look at the free Sword Practise PDF

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