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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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Alys Humfleet


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Alys Humfleet! Alys provided a little additional background for the interview, as well. Check it and the interview out below.

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From Alys:

The very first tabletop/RPG I ever played was a demo for a small independent game ... at GenCon. (I got dragged there by a friend of mine because of a resource book release she thought we'd both enjoy. Which got delayed and wasn't even published by the time we got there, but we had the tickets, so we went.)

I had never played any CRPGs either, (I tended more towards the adventure games), and I'd never even played any of the board games that have some story or plot; my favorite board game by a wide margin is Clue. I say all this just to illustrate how out of my depth I really was; the most clueless of newbies. (I need how many dice? Why are they all weird shapes? What are we doing again? Why? How?)

But I am a writer, have been since my third grade teacher made us do a daily journal and I realized it was fun, so I sat down at that demo, and listened to our GM talk about the game system, and made myself a character I would like to read or write about.

She fit our setting pretty well, and she managed a couple really great and interesting moves throughout the demo, and I had a really good time. (Even if I still had no idea what I was doing. Never let having no idea what youíre doing stop you.)

Now, this company was doing a series of demos with a serialized plot, and a couple people from each demo were picked to continue onto the next one, and then a few from that one would go on again, and then once more throughout the full four days of the Con. Unsurprisingly to me, I was not one of those picked to continue, but the GM took a moment at the end of the game to chat with me about my character, and he commented on how interesting she was, but how she wasn't interactive enough. (He sounded actually apologetic about it, which was mind-boggling to me, because it hadn't occurred to me that this thing my friend had made me do with her might be something I could be good at doing, or would ever attempt to do again.)

But I'd made a character with an interesting interior life and internal conflicts (thus good to read or write about), who made a good enough first impression the GM commented on it to me later, but not one whose motivations displayed well and gave the other players something to, well, play off of. And that is the one thing that has always stuck with me about game characters, tabletop or computer. They inhabit a world, they work with other characters, and it is only in those interactions that the gaming happens. Otherwise you're just playing solitaire. (Which can be fun too, of course, but is not at all the same thing.)


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

(Alys) Learning from this, I realize that the very first thing I have to do when I am creating a character that will enhance both my experience and the rest of the players, is make sure that they are flexible enough to be active and reactive. A good game is never just about you. In character creation terms, this can be influenced by your systemís use of strengths and flaws, classes and skills, the spread of various stats. The mechanics change from game to game, but the point is that you both have something to offer, and some way to screw everything up. (Itís recovering from failure where things get interesting, after all.) You can play a quiet introverted character (though it is more difficult) but you still have to give them a stake in the proceedings, you have to give them a reason to act, and a reason to react to the other charactersí actions and behaviors.


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

While I certainly seldom consciously break it down, I am sure the way I play is influenced by the way I write, (itís still about moving the character around, in either case), and the bits of drama class and improv class that I still remember from when I was in school.

The first thing they ask you when trying to write plot, is what is the worst thing you can do to your character. What is the one thing they absolutely do not know how to handle ... because that is exactly what should happen to them. (Make your character uncomfortable! Thatís usually the fastest way to make them do something.)

The most important concept they teach you in any beginning improv class is that you can't say no to whatever the last person did, you can't ignore it and go on with whatever you were thinking about before, you have to say yes, AND. You have to take what the other players and GM give you and build off that, even if it wasn't at all what you thought you were going to be doing when you started. That doesn't mean you should forget your personal goals for your character or the plot, but you have to let everything else happen as well.

It's also really helpful, especially when you're first starting a campaign, to make sure you're familiar with the other characters, so you can help create the situations that will make them uncomfortable, that force them into action. (Also so you have decent party balance in terms of solving problems. Clerics are awesome! Be the lone cleric and save everyone's lives over and over again! Can we tell I have a type?)

It helps to develop all your characters as a group, if you can, maybe even take a look at the other players' character sheets (or however much they're willing to share; sometimes someone has secrets, after all, and finding them out in game is a large part of the fun). Remember that the team dynamic is more important to a successful and entertaining game than anything else. You're choosing to hang out with these people for hours or days or even years at a time. Make sure your character has a reason to stay, and make sure you, the player, will enjoy it.

That doesn't mean your team can't have conflict, but they have to have a reason to keep working together anyways, or your group will splinter apart.


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

Ideally, I find a weekly game helps keep momentum, and makes sure you all remember what you were doing and why. Realistically, very few people have consistent weekly schedules so every two weeks or even every month can also work, but I find trying to meet every week means that, even when something goes wrong so you miss a week or two here or there, it's easier to get back into the game as soon as possible. If you only meet once a month, and one month one person can't, and the next month someone else can't, you lose group cohesion and motivation. It becomes a chore you have to try and get back to, rather than a hobby you're enjoying.


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

I like all sorts of games. I find it easier to get into games that are more free-form (fewer stats, less well-defined locations, no miniatures/battle maps, etc) just because that's what I started with, and I have always been the kind of person who writes by making up sh*% as I go along. (I am what, in writer circles, is referred to as a gardener or a pantser. As in I write by the seat of mine, and seldom have much of a plan. Outlines tend to slow me down.) It can be a lot of fun to just BS your way through a gaming session. (As long as the other players are helping out, of course.) Let the voices in your head go free and see what happens. (I am, at the moment, playing a Fate Accelerated game, which is pretty much the epitome of that philosophy. You have a few approaches, and a few aspects, and a couple stunts, and everything else you figure out as you go along.)

That said, a game with a really deep mechanics/lore system is also a lot of fun, because you have so much to work with, so many potential hooks into the world and the other characters to help you make your character deeper and more invested in the surroundings. It can also be helpful if you're in a difficult situation in game, because you have a list of abilities/skills/tricks/etc. that you have chosen, that fit your character, that you can go through to help you decide what to do next, rather than having to think up something entirely new each time you have an encounter.

(Also, it's only when you have a variety of skills/abilities to try and apply in unusual ways that you get most of the best stories that show up on something like an outofcontextDnD website. You can't get that completely unexpected juxtaposition of skill/setting/player if you don't have a skill-check that gave you an unusual result, or a well-defined trope or setting to subvert.)

So basically, I like them all, (I am no help, sorry!) but it's important to use the mechanics/setting/style that your group is most interested in as a whole, because that'll keep you all coming back.


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 hard to describe these in detail, because they're usually so reliant on context. Any time you can defuse the most obvious plan and do something different to resolve it? That's a win. Anytime you drive another character into doing something they didn't think they could do? That's a win. Did you try something new and it failed mightily? Even thay's a win. Even if your party loses their battle and runs into the woods and has to regroup and everyone ís terrified and yelling at each other, and maybe even someone almost died or got kidnapped or really actually died and now you have to try and heal them or save them or mourn them and everything is TERRIBLE ... you made the game change because of something you did. And now you have to fix it! More to do right now!

Specifically? In my very first game, when we'd almost entirely screwed up what was basically a boss-battle encounter, and I was in the worst possible position to attack the giant-evil-mech that had shown up, I tried anyways, and rolled a critical success.

The GM just paused for a moment, and tilted his head. "The gun explodes." The mech was very annoyed and made terrible mechanical yelling sounds and tried to stomp on people, since it couldn't shoot them anymore. It was delightful. Part of what makes games so interesting is the randomness introduced by the dice. Sometimes the best moment will be the one moment no one had any control over.

Sometimes, the best moments come from the roleplaying. Near the climax of a campaign, while we were fighting an agent of the final villain, my character got completely side-tracked from the actual quest, and instead commented on the agent herself, because my character was personally offended by her actions. (They were both from the same race of elves, and to have one of her own people screw up so badly was infuriating.) She ignored the fight that was building, the Evil they were hunting, and just basically yelled about what a terrible example of their Clans that the agent had become.
Probably not the smartest thing, especially since she wasn't charismatic, or good with people, or really very sensible a lot of the time. But she was powerful, and she was mad.

And it worked. With the help of the agentís long-estranged daughter they broke through the Evil Influence, the agent gave them a ring that would help in the final stage of the quest, and then sacrificed herself so she couldnít be used again.

We bypassed an entire potential battle! For which the GM had done quite a bit of preparation, but he was delighted, because weíd done such a good job bringing it back to the characters and the setting. A good GM knows how to improvise when the players go off the rails. Sometimes thatís when the best stuff happens. Sometimes it just makes a big mess and you spend a couple sessions trying to get yourselves back in order again, but that's fine too. You're still doing things together as a group.
The basis of tabletop gaming, for me, is that it is collaborative entertainment. Whether it turns into a dense political story, or is a ridiculous dungeon crawl that always seems to end up with someone losing a boot and limping into the next room and you're looting piles of gold and dripping jewels and blood by the end doesnít matter, as long as itís what your group is trying to make together. Yes, your character may do something that is detrimental to the other characters, your group may devolve into petty arguing and inter-party conflict (or they might be best friends and family, or an endless shifting combination of both) but anything is fine as long as the players are still working together and moving the game along.


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Thank you so muc to Alys for the interview! Hope you all enjoyed reading this week's What Makes a Good Player? feature!



This post was supported by the community on patreon.com/briecs. Tell your friends!
If you'd like to be interviewed for Thoughty, or have a project featured, email contactbriecs@gmail.com.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Five or So Questions with Tod Foley on Other Borders

Today I chatted with Tod Foley on his new game Other Borders, which is currently available digitally on DriveThru RPG, RPGnow, and OpenGamingStore. It's a DramaSystem based game and sounds pretty interesting! The print edition hits in December 2016. Check out the interview below!

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Tell me a little about Other Borders. What excites you about it?

Other Borders is a DramaSystem game of drugs, money and magic in the modern American southwest, originally conceived as an expansion for Tom McGrenery's "Malandros". The first thing that excited me about working on this project was the Malandros system itself - you might call it "the Malandros branch of DramaSystem". Mechanically, it's a simplified version of DS; there are no cards and fewer tokens. But it also has Character Types and Moves inspired by Vincent Baker's PbtA ("Powered by the Apocalypse") system. I really wanted to work on a setting that would embrace the genre of "magical realism" in a dramatic and spontaneous way, and Tom's rules gave me that opportunity: the town of Entrelugares is a place where drug cartels and law enforcement come face to face with the powers of traditional magic. In fact to the best of my knowledge, it's the first DramaSystem game to include rules for magic. That's very exciting to me, and I'm looking forward to hearing all the trippy things people do with it.


What have you done with the Drama System mechanics that players might find new and interesting?

The Malandros branch uses the same definitions of scenes, scene types, and drama tokens as any other DramaSystem game, but adds procedural moves. These moves are written in a way that will be familiar to PbtA players, although only 1d6 is used: a total of 2 or less represents failure and/or a problem arising, 3-5 represents a partial success (often with a cost), while a total of 6+ represents a full success. And like PbtA games, there's a list of GM Moves that are taken in response to low rolls and "what now" moments.

Other Borders also adds a statistic called "Poder" which represents your character's magical power. Poder may be used to add a die to your pool, or to enhance the efficacy of certain magical moves. But I think the most interesting thing is the way this magic plays out: it's different every time. Magic is highly personalized and unpredictable, because its effects are made up and narrated by the players themselves. There are four types of magic in the game: A class of "general magic" which is common and ceremonial, plus Brujeria (Sorcery/Dark Witchcraft), Chamanismo (Shamanic/Mestizo Magic), and Curanderismo (Healing Magic).

La Santa Muerte


What kind of research did you do for the project, since it is related to some fraught topics?

Most of the "magical realism" stuff was simply drawn from years of reading. Today magical realism is a recognized genre practiced by authors around the world, but its roots are Latin American, and many works in the genre were first written in Spanish. A particularly seminal work was "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez. My academic sources included the works of writers and literary critics such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Jüri Talvet and Wendy Faris. The criminal elements (cartels and gangs) are drawn mostly from television and movies, from "Weeds" to "Colors" to "Once Upon a Time in Mexico", and from my studies on Santa Muerte. As for the fictional city of Entrelugares itself, it's an amalgam of research data on real US/Mexican border towns such as Naco, Arizona and Nogales, New Mexico. But I've made it very dense, small and isolated, for dramatic effect. Such a place probably couldn't exist in the real world, but it's perfectly suitable for a movie or a telenovela.


What audience are you aiming for with Other Borders, and why?

You know what? I really wrote it to please myself, because Tom gave me a chance to do whatever I wanted to do. I love the genre, I love the culture and the people (I'm from the southwest and I live in a part of Las Vegas which is mostly Latino: El Dia de Muerte is a bigger holiday than Halloween in my neighborhood). But really, I guess the first thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to write magic for DramaSystem. Everything else followed from that.



How do you approach character and player interaction - PvP, collaborative, etc. - and how is that reflected in the mechanics and fiction?

As in all DS games, players are able to insert details (or themselves) into scenes pretty freely. If a conflict arises on the meta level, players can enter into a back-and-forth with Drama Tokens until the scene is settled one way or the other, and the GM Moves are there to keep things jumping even if the players don't have any immediate ideas.

On the character level, enmity is a totally acceptable form of relationship: this is a TV show and sometimes it's fun to play the bad guys - but "bad guy" is a relative term. The town of Entrelugares has many factions and character types: in addition to townspeople and immigrants there are smugglers, gangs, cartel bosses, cops, academics, new age hippies, and a variety of magical practitioners both light and dark. It's possible to play a cooperative scenario like "townspeople banding together to rid the city of drug smugglers", or a competitive scenario like "cops versus the cartel". It's all up to the group, and what they want to play. Because the game includes both modern weapons and powerful magic, if you get into combat it's fairly easy to get debilitated (at least for a while), but the stress and harm rules are forgiving enough so that not a lot of characters will end up dying.

As far as action resolution mechanics go, the modifications Tom made for Malandros created a set of rules that makes it easier for characters to accomplish things on their own, compared to a traditional DS game like Hillfolk. This makes for a faster-paced "episode" with "hard cuts" to different locations, so characters can get more done in less time and this moves the plot along quickly. But of course, they are all tied to each other by direct relationships established in CharGen, and this (in addition to the Drama Token rules) guarantees that their paths must keep crossing in dramatic ways. Its very telenovela-like.

Anything else you want to add?

Thank you for taking the time to interview me, Brie. It's always a pleasure talking with you, and I hope you and your readers enjoy the game!

Encounter with the Magical Woman

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Thanks to Tod for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed the interview, and if you want, check out Other Borders on the various available sources!


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Friday, November 18, 2016

Five or So Questions with Avery Alder on Monsterhearts 2

Hi All! I recently contacted Avery Alder about doing an interview for Monsterhearts 2, the second edition of Monsterhearts that is currently on Kickstarter, and she accepted! The original flavor of Monsterhearts is one of my favorite games and was one of my first steps into the story gaming culture and gaming style, and I've written about my experiences while playing it a little bit in the past. I hope you enjoy reading this interview with Avery!

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Tell me a little about Monsterhearts 2. What excites you about it?

Monsterhearts 2 is a game about the messy lives of teenage monsters, exploring what it means to have a body and desires that are changing without your permission. It's written with a queer lens for understanding desire, though that doesn't necessarily mean that every character you play is going to be queer. I think the project is really exciting for me personally because it's an opportunity to focus on refining something I was already proud of. I published the first edition of Monsterhearts in 2012, and since then people have often told me how lucid and inspiring the text and design are. And looking back at it, I agree that it's solid. But I also see all these ways that it could be tighter, that I could better contextualize the mechanics, that rough edges could be smoothed down. And so it's exciting to have a chance to do that work.


I've played Monsterhearts quite a few times and the issue of attraction and asexuality has come up a lot. I saw in your new sneak-peek of the game you address this. Could you talk a little more about how you're addressing it and the motivations behind it, for the readers who haven't delved into the material yet?

Definitely! Monsterhearts explores what it means to have shifting, confusing desires. There are rules about turning people on and gaining power over them. The way those rules are designed intentionally challenges some of the dominant narratives that our culture has about how sexuality works - that it is fixed, that it is predictable, and that it is binary. I think challenging those narratives works out really well in play, too. It means that every session is surprising and feral.

But there was this other dynamic that the first edition introduced, of unwittingly reinforcing another set of dominant narratives about sexuality - that everyone is sexual, and that everyone is equally available for sex. And I think that in designing the game the way that I did, I did a disservice to asexuals and to survivors of sexual trauma. I aligned myself with dominant narratives that erased and hurt them. Since 2012, I've had people bring that to my attention and I've sat with their criticism. I knew that the core of the game should stay the way it was, but that I needed to create space for these other stories as well. I'm still figuring out how to introduce these new mechanics into the game gracefully!


A subject near and dear to my heart is boundaries and safe experiences in games. You've written about it in Safe Hearts, and I'm interested to know more - what are your goals with your new chapter on the subject? How do you personally, as a creator, approach tough subjects while still allowing for the inherent mistakes in social interactions that are so common for teens?

Part of my approach in writing Safe Hearts (an essay from 2014 that's being adapted into a chapter in the new book) was to establish priorities. It's easy to over-simplify questions like "How do we take care of each other's emotions while doing something emotionally vulnerable together?" It's also easy to over-think them until you feel anxious and immobilized! And so my approach was to suggest a list of priorities: focus on this first, then focus on this if you have the capacity, and then finally this. The three concentric circles of priorities that the essay outlines are: first to ourselves, then to others at the table, then to the characters we're portraying.

The text I wrote in that essay isn't being revised very much as it makes its way into the new book. I feel like what I wrote on the subject in 2014 remains solid. Most of the revisions are just adjusting the way it flows to make it fit better as a chapter in a larger text.


Strings are a really interesting in-game currency. Can you tell me a little about what new you're introducing for them and how you hope it will impact gameplay?

Strings are at the core of Monsterhearts. They tell a story about how power is unevenly and intimately distributed between characters. They represent the way that leverage is gained and used. The biggest change to Strings in the new edition is that they've been streamlined. This was really important, because in the first edition people would work to acquire Strings, but then they'd just sit there idle on the character sheet. The mechanics for actually spending Strings were a little too cumbersome for new players to grapple with, so they would get ignored. And other bits of the game (like the Manipulate an NPC move) directed players away from figuring out how to use the Strings economy. In the new version, the mechanics for spending Strings are more simple and more visible.


What do you hope to personally take away from your experience working on Monsterhearts 2, beyond satisfaction in a job well done?

I published the first edition of Monsterhearts while I was still figuring out where my place in queerness was. A year later I started coming to terms with being trans. And throughout that time, I started to gain recognition from wider audiences. Returning to write Monsterhearts 2 is exciting because I'm in a different place now personally. I'm a queer trans woman, I know my own politics better, and I'm excited to bring new voice and perspective to bear on this text.

Another thing I'm excited to take away from my experience working on Monsterhearts 2 is a better understanding of how to synthesize community feedback and incorporate it into a revision process. I'm holding four years of feedback in my brain. I put out a survey to learn more about people's experiences and it garnered 766 responses. But at the same time, I'm the person most intimately acquainted with the game's goals and pitfalls. How do you make sense of all that data, honour all that feedback, while still remaining confident in your own instincts and vision? I'm learning new skills.


For a game about queerness, Monsterhearts & Monsterhearts 2 could seem hard to approach for someone out of the queer community, and I've seen your work raise a lot of awareness for people like that. What do you think straight, cis people can gain by playing a game like Monsterhearts - or what would you hope they do? 

I think that everyone has confusing, complicated memories about what it was like to be a teenager. And a huge part of Monsterhearts 2 is telling those sorts of stories, exploring those sorts of feelings. While queerness adds an important dimension, I think that everyone is able to bring their own life experiences to the table. And I hope that straight, cis people feel invited to engage with these themes and be challenged by them.

or like, I hope everyone plays Monsterhearts 2 and I hope it makes them gay.

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Thanks so much to Avery for the great interview! I really enjoyed talking with her and I hope you all enjoyed reading it. Check out Monsterhearts 2 on Kickstarter now, if it sounds like your kind of game!




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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Five or So Questions with Jim Tait on Four Corners: Thieves of Sovereignty

Today I have an interview with Jim Tait on Four Corners: Thieves of Sovereignty, which is currently on Kickstarter! Check out what he has to say about his new game below.

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

The world of Four Corners: Thieves of Sovereignty is one where what you believe about the world and your place in it gives you magical powers to control or embody at least one of eight elements: air, water, earth, fire, cloud, metal, glass, and lightning. You play a hypercompetent hero trying to make the world a better place, and standing a good chance at succeeding, eventually. The game uses FATE Core mechanics, with some adaptations, which allows for some fantastic storytelling. The book is intended to be welcoming of players of diverse genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds, and I invite feedback from supporters of the kickstarter while the book undergoes graphic design and illustration.

What excites me about the kickstarter is sharing my world with a wider audience, hearing their feedback, and watching Tetra (the name of the setting) come alive through the skilled artistry of Elizabeth Porter.


Can you talk about the mechanical changes you made from the Fate Core mechanics, and why you made them?

Fate Core has mechanics for four different actions, including Attack and Create an Advantage, and a long list of nouns which are skills letting you do one to four of these types of actions. Fate Accelerated has a list of six adjectives from which you can choose how you approach any of the four actions. I wanted to find a middle ground between these two options, and wrote a list of twelve verbs, three for each type of action. One for taking the action in a physical context, one for a social context, and one for an intellectual context. For example, you can roll Fight to attack someone or something physically, Unnerve to attack someone’s reputation or social standing, or you can roll Confound to attack someone’s ideas or mental well-being. All twelve verbs are on the character sheet from the start, but not all at the same level of ability, to reflect that even the most competent of characters have some angles from which they are more comfortable coming at a situation than others.


Where did you get your inspiration for the setting and mechanics?

Like several other fantasy or speculative fiction worldbuilders have, I started with a “What if?” question. I feel strongly that the choices we make are influenced heavily by what we believe is possible and proper, but that many of us don’t consciously consider what beliefs we’re working under, and assume that other people’s beliefs are more similar to ours than they actually are. I started with the question of, “What if the things we considered possible and desirable came with some sort of obvious indicator?” I was studying the similarities and differences between Christian denominations when I started working on this setting, and there’s a Bible verse that says, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.” and wondered what the world would be like if this was a regular practice? What if all people who held to a particular faith, philosophy or worldview moved mountains around as part of their daily routine? Then I sketched out details of thirteen different worldviews, and created mechanics for different magical powers each worldview made accessible to those who held to it.


How did you work to make the game approachable for diverse audiences? 

I did a lot of reading and researching, over the past several years, on inclusive gaming, representation, cultural appropriation, and toxic tropes. I would love to guarantee that this meant none of my ignorances and biases made it into the text, but I know I can not. I welcome feedback.

I did strive to make sure that every culture I created was not just a thin stereotype of a culture in this world, but an outline including fashion, economy, government, values which are celebrated, birth and death rituals, and thoughts as to how both their magic and interactions with other cultures have influenced them over time.

While there are some cultures I wrote with assumptions about gender which cause the titles at the top of government structures to be gendered, every other military or government title (not coincidentally, the ones more likely to be held by player characters) is gender neutral. All of the sample names are presented as gender neutral. My example characters at the end of each nation write-up include one who has masculine pronouns, one who has feminine pronouns, and one who has the gender neutral singular they as a pronoun.

In two of the three empires, sexual orientation is not an in-world issue. The Ambrosian Empire is so regulated that all long-term relationships are formed by contract with clauses on intent, duration, and renegotiation. The Konung Empire is so filled with anarchy that alliances and betrayals don’t consider sexual orientation on more than the most personal level of mutual compatibility. The Utopian Empire has rules about who you can have children with, and I’m belatedly realizing I’m going to have to expand those rules to include adoption because sexual orientation is not properly a key factor for them, either.

Smaller societies include the Wayfarers who have arranged marriages to promote traits they want in future generation, the Ice Guardians who have arranged Handfastings which teams up skills and strengths to create pairs of hands that work for the Guardians, and may or may not include sex between the two partners, and the Chosen Tribes, who do not have a concept like marriage, but have a strong concept of consent.

I am hoping everyone who sits down to play this game is able to see people like them, and create people like they want to be.


Tell me a little about the world of Four Corners. What kind of characters and environments do you see during play, and what kind of stories can you tell?

The world, with a few magical exceptions, has a technology level equal to ours about 2000 years ago. There is one main continent, with four corners. Three empires have split most of the continent between them, and kraken- magically giant squid- destroy any ship that goes too far from land. Each of the three empires want to take over the entire continent, but they are fairly equally balanced in power, and they are not the only ones fighting to have their worldview be either dominant, or at least independent. 

You might choose to be a member of the unofficial shadow empire, gathering evidence for judges as to what really happened in the cases they preside over. You might choose to be a sorcerer of steam and clockwork obsessed with creating something no one ever has before, in a castle long ruined by warfare and anarchy. You might choose to be a weather mage, uninterested in fighting with your neighbours over when it should rain, instead living on shipboard with a captain choosing the day’s forecast. You might choose to be a functionally redundant bureaucrat in a city of over 500,000 residents, with certain wild animals given social precedence over yourself so that you have to give way to horses during court banquets, and you quietly pass messages on behalf of an estranged Empress who is said to value ability over bloodline. You might risk your life travelling across the country, arranging faked deaths and real marriages between clans who refuse to leave their conquered homelands. You might choose to join the Air Forces with a bunch of hedonistic dragonriders and fly against an enemy that has learned to craft arrowheads that can disenchant dragons, causing them to fall apart in mid-air. You might lead a rebellion against the conquering of your homeland, disavowed by your leaders and facing a hierarchy-worshipping army which has learned to work together to rain fire down from the skies. You might be a visionary, seeing a new way to relate to the elements, and upsetting every status quo by introducing a new religion, and a new sorcery.

I encourage stories where you think about what it means to make the world a better place, then step up and do something about it, whether through wit, diplomacy, battle, or magic. There are many places on Tetra where a hero is needed.

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Thanks so much to Jim for the interview! Make sure to check out Four Corners: Thieves of Sovereignty on Kickstarter if you get the chance!




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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Danella Georgiev


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Danella Georgiev. Danella talks about genre preference and character relationships.

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

As important as it is to try to progress the story, I've always found it's more fun -- for me as well as others -- when we hang around between plot points and trade in-character banter. It doesn't need to be long, but a few quips help pace the scene so it's not just action-action-action go a long way. This also builds relationships between the characters... which is really what makes a game an RPG and not just a numeric dungeon crawl.

A lot of times it'll draw out recurring themes and comments from individual characters and develop their personal subplots. It gives us all a sense of accomplishment to look back at the early "episodes" and see the changes.


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

I haven't formally studied creative writing or acting, so I'm not sure, but I do remember (and took to heart) something from my high school improv class: Always Say Yes.

That doesn't mean your character has to agree with every single plan, but even their protests and complaints should try to highlight an alternative solution or motivation to complete a task. If you spend the whole session bickering about why you shouldn't do task the NPC assigned, it's a waste. It's always more fun and more growth to see a reluctant undertaking. Part of this is on the GM, as well; the best quests are ones that are motivated by more than one reason.


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

Most of my group is made of busy adults with a low energy level, so as fun as it is to be in a group of nerds, I find anything over three hours a session to be draining. We're fairly distractable as it is, so if we go longer than that, we'll get really wishy-washy. A few years ago, we had one that was 4-5 hours and it was fun but my butt started to hurt.

I'd love to play a second session a week but we're all really busy. #goals, though.


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

Not sure whether this is a mechanics or genre question, but I like my fantasy and sci-fi very much. It's where I live. It allows you to dress it up with humor, drama, romance, horror, everything. There's a lot of settings to choose from or a lot of places to draw inspiration from if you're going from scratch. Any opportunity to delve into the things original writers/showrunners never did is one I try to seize.

This makes FATE my favorite system to work with because it's so flexible and adaptable.


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? 

I try to experiment with different roles (in combat and in social interactions), but my favorite was a pissed off elf I played in my very first tabletop. Despite being very contrary, combative, and oppositional, and despite me being new to the experience, I think I nailed the sweet spot between annoying, useful, and thought-provoking. Mechanically, she was great in a fight and did a lot of damage. But I think her presence changed the nature of the game from an adventure to a story about the dynamics of family and upbringing. 

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Thanks to Danella for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading.


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Monday, November 14, 2016

Five or So Questions with Marissa Kelly on Bluebeard's Bride

Today I have a brief interview with Marissa Kelly on the Bluebeard's Bride RPG, currently on Kickstarter. I played an early version of Bluebeard's Bride, and a second session as well, and really enjoyed it, so I hope you all enjoy reading about it and check out the Kickstarter.

From the Kickstarter:
Bluebeard’s Bride is an investigatory horror tabletop roleplaying game for 3-5 players, written and designed by Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, and based on the Bluebeard fairy tale. 
In this game you and your friends explore Bluebeard’s home as the Bride, creating your own beautifully tragic version of the dark fairy tale. Investigate rooms, discover the truth of what happened, experience the nightmarish phantasmagoria of this broken place, and decide whether or not you are a faithful or disloyal bride.
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The story of Bluebeard is not commonly known in modern fairy tales, and is definitely not a media favorite. What inspired you to use this specific fairy tale to make a game?

The idea came from Sarah and Strix at the Hacking as Women event. As their coach, I was excited to hear that the fairy tale lent itself so well to the PBtA framework. It seemed like a great way to frame an elegant horror game without getting bogged down by too many preconceived ideas about what the player experience should be.


Tell me a little about the design process. I played the game at an earlier stage, and a second time a while later, but I haven't seen the final product. What iterations did you have to go through to make the game an experience true to your intentions?

The game has certainly gone through many iterations. A lot of trimming, gutting, and trial and error. One of the biggest changes we went through was shifting a large part of the game to a diceless mechanic. I felt we had been running up against a wall with the Maiden moves, but eventually (with the help of a wonderful group of playtesters) we found a solution. This shift feels to me like a nod to old ghost stories that influence so much horror we all know and love.


Bluebeard's Bride has a tendency (in my experience) to touch on some really intense, and sometimes difficult, topics (including domestic abuse). What safety measures do you have in place for the game, and how are you preparing the game materials to address those things respectfully?

Yep! This horror game can touch on all of those things, so the game has advice, tips, and rules for helping the players and Groundskeeper manage any real out-of-character conflicts that might arise. For example, we use a variant of the X-card developed by John Stavropoulos that promotes self-care and dispels the expectation that anyone at the table will have to be a mind reader.


How does Bluebeard's Bride encourage the players to work together to tell a story, while allowing conflict between the parts of the Bride's psyche?

It helps that we trapped all the players in the body of one woman! We have made space for disagreement within the Bride’s own mind. If a player has the Bride act in a way that one player didn’t agree with, the Ring mechanic allows them to take control and guide her actions when it is their turn.


When all is said and done, what game elements do you think help the most to guide the story through horror and twisted narrative to its inevitable - and hopefully satisfying - conclusion?

We have tools called Room Threats and Groundskeeper Moves that help guide the players through consistent bouts of horror. These Threats and Moves point at one of the cores of horror - that of personal, intimate fears. We also baked the conclusion of the fairy tale into the game so player’s choices will directly impact the telling of their tale.
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Thanks to Marissa for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed reading and get the chance to check out Bluebeard's Bride on Kickstarter!


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Friday, November 11, 2016

Five or So Questions with Darren Watts on Golden Age Champions

Today's interview is with Darren Watts for his project Golden Age Champions, a setting book for the Champions superheroic game using the generic Hero system. It's currently on Kickstarter, waiting for you to check it out! Let's see what Darren had to say about his project.

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Tell me a little about Golden Age Champions. What excites you about it?

Golden Age Champions is a setting book for Champions, the superhero game using the generic Hero System that's been around in various editions since 1981. Specifically, it describes the Champions Universe (the modern version of which I co-wrote with Steve Long back in 2002) of 1938 to 1950, but more importantly it teaches GMs and players about the genre of Golden Age superheroing. We go into extensive discussion of the tropes, the styles of play, and the kinds of stories you can use these building blocks to tell at your table.

The Golden Age is at the same time similar and alien to fans of modern superheroing. Many of your favorite characters were created then: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America. But the Golden versions of those characters aren't exactly quite the same as the ones you know. Many of the assumptions we make about how superheroes "work" were set back then, but again there are plenty of concepts that will be brand new to today's gamers and fans. There are hundreds of superheroes in the period you've never heard of, and some of them are downright boggling.

The book is also a lot about how to run historical long-term campaigns. I've run several for years at a time, starting well before the war and carrying all the way through and past it. How do superhumans go to war? How do simple characters grow and change over time? How do we play with these amazing, imagination-charged concepts that don't quite fit modern sensibilities? Indeed, how do we address the differences between then and today; both the social ones (the unfortunately-all-too-common racism and sexism, the ever-present shadow of the war) and the more technical ones (why do these characters keep splitting up?) that make for rough gaming at today's table?


For some background, can you tell me about the game system Golden Age Champions is a supplement for?

Champions runs on the Hero System, a generic point-buy system that first debuted in 1981 and originally created by Steve Peterson and George McDonald. It's famously crunchy, but most of the crunch is in character creation. It's designed with a great many "adjustable settings" so that it can simulate a wide range of genres and play styles. Most Hero books focus on a specific setting or genre, so it scores very high on the "simulationist" axis. There have been six editions over the years, and I was president of the company for the last two of them. 

The Champions Universe is the long-running fictional superhero setting for Champions. It's also the basis for the MMO Champions Online, who are the actual IP holders and our business partners. I've kind of been the keeper of continuity since I wrote most the 5th Ed Champions Universe back in 2002.


Tell me some exciting things about running long-term campaigns! What kind of information do you have in the book for GMs to make them happen?

Well, the first thing you have to do is get great players! Or teach them to be great, I suppose, but I've been very lucky over the years. Then, you have to get them invested in the setting, which needs to be both deep enough to hold their interest and yet open enough that they have room to contribute and take some ownership. In this case I follow Ken Hite's truism, "nothing is as interesting as the real world." World War II is such a fascinating period, and I try very hard to bring it alive for the players. In my campaigns we have a very strong sense of time and place, moving month by month through the war and letting the great narrative of the actual history inform everything we do.

With superheroes in particular, you have to be careful. Players coming to a GA setting are presumably at least somewhat interested in the war itself from a historical basis, which means among other things they want the setting to remain based in the historical reality. They want to see Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Berlin, etc. and participate in it all on some level. But with characters who are too powerful, there's also a strong pull to the question of "why didn't Superman and Green Lantern and the Spectre, etc., all just fly to Tokyo on December 8th and stomp it flat, and while they're at it take out Berlin on the 9th?" The tension created by those answers is interesting and fertile, I think.


How did you approach the sometimes-tough topics of racism and sexism in the era? Did you address any other issues like homophobia?

Well, I stay aware that I'm telling superhero stories, and so most of my characters are broad and the heroes in particular are idealized. But on the other hand I don't want to ignore the range of people's experiences or to whitewash history. My game includes female characters who show considerably more agency and breadth than most period comics (Wonder Woman as a notable exception!), and I have heroes who are POCs which were vanishingly rare in the period. As idealized heroes, we kind of default to an ahistorical sense of social justice because that's just nicer to play. However, we do talk about the sexism and particularly the racism that motivated a lot of the horror on all sides of the war (and the US was a terrible offender itself- one of the sample heroes is a nisei from California who is fighting for a country who is currently imprisoning his family.) As superhero stories do, we can also talk in grand allegory- the Atlanteans are terribly prejudiced against airbreathers, and "lander" is one of the nastiest words in their vocabularies. I haven't specifically talked much about homophobia in the book, but one character is clearly gay and again, in this idealized setting, his teammates know and help him keep it from becoming public.

[Blogger note: POC stands for people of color, just in case you didn't know!]


Can you offer some of the concepts you think will be new to gamers and fans today, to help players and GMs understand what they might be getting into?

I'm not sure there's anything "brand new" in either the rules or setting- I'm trying to reintroduce a quite old thing, actually, as far as the genre goes. If you've never been exposed to the sheer joy in goofy creativity of the period comics, then I hope to show you what's lovable about it. Comics at the time were initially intended for small children, and it took publishers a few years to realize the size of their adult audience- Captain Marvel was the best selling periodical at military PX's, beating out magazines like Time and Life

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Golden Age Champions sounds pretty cool! There's a lot to think about in the world of superheroes, and it looks like Darren has done a fair amount of that. Check out the game on Kickstarter, and share this interview to spread the word if you like it!



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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ben Robbins on Follow

Today I have an interview with Ben Robbins on the game Follow, which is currently on Kickstarter. You may have heard about Follow on Google+ or other blog posts, but I hope you'll find something interesting in his responses below. Enjoy!

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Tell me a little about Follow. What excites you about it?

Follow is a deceptively simple game: you pick a quest, make a group of characters to tackle it, then play and see what happens. The quests provided cover a variety of stories, from slaying a dragon, to colonizing a planet, to getting a candidate elected -- anything where people are working together to accomplish a goal.

I sit down and play with random groups all the time -- many strangers and many people who have no experience with this kind of game -- so I'm keenly aware of the challenges of teaching games and getting people on the same fictional page. I made Follow to be a game you could whip out when you wanted to just sit down and get straight to the good stuff. I wanted it to reduce the barrier between wanting to play and actually doing it.

People have joked that getting our characters to work together in the quest reflects what's happening at the table -- trying to get the players to work together to play a game -- and they're exactly right.


Can you tell me about the mechanical and structural setup for a standard game of Follow?

Quest templates provide the framework for your game. You pick one and that walks you through setting up your situation, establishing what makes your quest difficult, and creating the fellowship of characters that will try to tackle it.

Play centers around challenges. Each is a chapter of the quest and establishes the next step the fellowship needs to take to move closer to their goal. We play scenes to see how the fellowship deals with the challenge (and each other) and at the end of each challenge we draw stones to see whether we succeeded or failed, plus any fallout to the fellowship. We might lose characters or even be betrayed by someone in the fellowship.


What about Kingdom and Microscope prepared you for designing Follow, and what do you think is really different about the game?

I play my own games over and over again, both before and after I release them, so I really get to know all their strengths and weaknesses. I try not to harbor any illusions about them.

Because I play pickup games a lot, I'm very focused on the game as a set of instructions that someone at the table is trying to process and execute in real-time. Anything that slows that process down or requires a lot of page flipping or causes confusion can really kill the fun. Microscope is conceptually a very unusual game, but put a lot of work into making the process of play easy and intuitive. Simple actually takes a lot more work than complex.

Thematically, Follow shares some similarities to Kingdom. I love Kingdom, and it makes incredibly good stories at the table, but I'd be the first to admit that there are a lot of rules to absorb for a one-shot. There's a pay-off but there's definitely a learning curve. With Follow I tried a very different approach to capture the "united but divided" feeling of Kingdom but make it much simpler and easier to play.


How did you go about designing the game for replayability? It's a huge challenge. What keeps players from getting bored or feeling like they're just running over the same ground?

Replayability is a huge priority for me. I really can't overstate that. Every time you learn a new game, you spend minutes or hours just processing rules. Playtime is precious and rare, so if you don't play that game a bunch you're getting a minimal return on that time investment.

To maximize replayability, I start with a structural concept instead of something specific to a setting or genre. Microscope makes histories. It doesn't matter if it's science fiction or a zombie apocalypse or the Wild West. Kingdom is about communities. Any kind of community works, because the game focuses on how people interact and influence their community, rather than a particular type of organization. Same with Follow: "Working together to accomplish a goal" applies to a vast range of situations.

The trick (I think) is to really drill down to the heart of the structure or pattern you're modeling. If you get that right, it works. Like the power/perspective/touchstone breakdown in Kingdom: once you see that distinction you start to notice it in organizations all around you. I want my model to feel like something that's true, rather than an artifact of the game.


Do you have any mechanics or tools in place to help guide content and keep players comfortable as part of Follow?

When I started running Story Games Seattle back in 2010 and really started gaming with strangers all the time, I included an abbreviated version of Lines & Veils from Ron Edwards' game Sorcerer as part of the welcome spiel at the start of every meetup. We've done that ever since, though we recently switched from calling it "the Veil" to "the X" (as in, "let's X that out"), partially to eliminate some confusion about how we differed from the original Veil concept but also to make the phrase more similar to the X-card, which had gained a lot of popularity -- they're not exactly identical, but if you've used one you'll go "ah, got it!" when you encounter the other.

An important part of the X is that it is *not* part of the rules of the game. It trumps the rules of any game you're playing. That's a very important distinction, because we've seen cases where players mistakenly thought they couldn't X something out because of a particular game they were in. So I think the proper place for these kind of overarching "social contract" rules is sidebars that explain that, and also encourage using them in *any* game you play.

Honestly I think we've only scratched the surface of this kind of communication & consent in role-playing games. We're way behind where we should be after decades of role-playing. And as a designer I'm a little concerned that if I codify something it will be antiquated or even seem counterproductive to me by the time the game is a year old. It's not such a big deal to have out-dated mechanics for stabbing dragons in your game, but giving out-dated advice about how to handle player discomfort is potentially much more serious. At least that's how I see it. It's a discussion and exploration that's happening right now. The technology is evolving as we speak.

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Thanks so much to Ben for participating in the interview! I hope you all check out Follow on Kickstarter, and that you enjoyed reading Ben's responses.



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What Makes a Good Player? with Kate Bullock


Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Kate Bullock. Kate talks about gaming regularly and Powered by the Apocalypse games!

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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 try really hard to find out what people are doing with their characters, what they want in terms of challenges or moments of shining, and I try to give it to them. I try to put my own character out there so that I can help invest in other people's stories and help them shine. To enhance my own experience, I invest in other players' characters and so my story is impacted by their story doing well or thriving. I also try to go for what's good for their characters' stories over mine, but I find that very satisfying. 

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

I ask very pointed questions, which is a big part of the PbtA systems. I'll pause to even ask "What do you want out of this?" so I can help facilitate that into happening. I'll also do some ground work ahead of time by finding points of story where I can push as my character and come to the table prepared to engage the other characters with new problems or ways to bring forward more story. I also use the X-Card at everything because I find it lets me dig deeper and play darker because there's a safety hatch in play.

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

I play campaign games anywhere from 2 - 6 times a week. I game regularly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and some Sundays. On Mondays I usually blog or podcast. I love gaming. It's part of my life blood. The best way for me to maintain good energy is to stay engaged and listen and ask questions. I find emotionally investing myself helps a lot and eating good food and having good snacks and lots of water. I also spend a lot of time talking to people online about what they want to see so I have cool ideas before I get to the table, but I'm not beholden to them. I'm happy to let the fiction do its own thing and follow it where it may lead.

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

I play for emotionally intense experiences, most often of the sad and dramatic kind. This has lead me down the PbtA road towards Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts a lot. I also really enjoy story games, like Before the Storm, Fall of Magic, Summerland, and a few others. Anything that addresses emotional feedback and payoff. I'm comfortable with almost any game, as I've played a lot, but the minute things get very detailed and simulationist, or have a huge expansive world that requires a certain degree of canon knowledge, I'm out. 

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?

 Hm. Most of my special experiences are as a GM. But I was playing Monsterhearts a few years ago as the mortal. It was my "job" to make people feel like monsters, but also feel human at the same time and offer salvation and redemption with kindness and love. I had been terrified when all of my friends became their darkest selves, so I made a deal with a fae redcap to let him out of the fae realm if he gave me fairy dust that would remove the monster from my friends. And then I proceeded to find all my monster friends, whom were all guys who had some interest in my mortal character, and blow dust on them, at time when a murderous fae was on the loose (oops). My lover got out of his darkest self, found me, we had sex after saying I love you, and he became the demon darkest self once again. It caused a lot of drama, a lot of issues, and drove story in a great way that included everyone. I dug it.

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Thanks so much to Kate for participating! I hope you all enjoyed reading.



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Monday, November 7, 2016

Metatopia 2016 Con Report & Game Commentary

In today's post, I'll be talking about my experience at Metatopia 2016, the event I mentioned in my previous post about being a con playtester. This will not be an actual play report, but will include discussion of the games I played and a little about my own time there. I will not be mentioning everyone by name because some of you I don't know your names, some of them I will have trouble remembering, and some of everything is lost to the winds.

First and foremost, thank you so much to my fellow attendees, and to the event organizers, for making my experience excellent, and for being supportive for me in my time of grief. Going to the convention was a challenge for many reasons, and it was even harder going with the recent loss of my grandmother. You all made my time much, much easier. So, thank you.

Some awesome people.

To the timeline!

I arrived Thursday evening to a bustling lobby and plenty of friendly faces. I mostly just planted in one spot and sat that evening, chatting with friends, and meeting new people who like my blog (hiii!!!). It was a good night to not worry about things. I set up plans for the next day, and conked right out eventually.

Friday morning I woke up earlier than I tend to like for a breakfast with Darcy Ross, who is awesome and you should definitely keep an eye out for the work she's doing. We were joined by none other than Ron Edwards, the designer of Sorcerer (among others) who also coined GNS theory, who I'd never met.

As with most legacy designers, I was a little apprehensive, since I'm still new and I have a lot of Opinions and Thoughts. My fears were rapidly dashed because Ron was a pleasure to talk to, and initially he, Darcy, and me talked about the game design landscape, tools for content control like Lines and Veils and Script Change (the latter of which both Ron and Darcy said wonderful things about and made me so happy to hear), and what we were playing. After Darcy left, Ron and I continued to the Big Board and further discussed social issues in games, feminism, and a number of other things. It was pretty great! I was happy to meet Ron and I'm hoping I remember as much as I can of what he shared with me, and I hope he finds what I had to say just as valuable.

I didn't have a game until later, so I mostly just bounced around until then, meeting new friends and seeing older ones, and geared up for Glenn Given's Something is Out There, a storytelling game told in third-person inspired by shows like Stranger Things and the movie IT, where young kids are the ones who have to deal with the spooky scary things happening in town. Glenn had asked if I'd play over Twitter, so I luckily got in to try it out.

Glenn doing prep.

It uses a fun tile-and-dice-based mechanic, somewhat board-game like in mechanism but very narrative otherwise. From the description:
[Something is Out There]...and only you can stop it. Something is Out There is a cooperative storygame of coming-of-age horror in the vein of Stranger Things, IT and Monster Squad. As childhood friends you are the only ones who can defend your community against an unearthly terror stalking your town. For fans of Fall of Magic, Companion's Tale & The Quiet Year.


The character actions are shared, which makes the story really flow differently. One thing I particularly liked is character creation, where you describe your best childhood friend, and choose their three main traits, then reverse something about them (gender, race, orientation, behaviors). It made the characters both memorable and interesting, which can be hard to do (for me) with children as characters.


In case you were wondering, the baddie was a giant, irradiated, star-nosed mole. We did win after someone blew themselves to allow another character to take out the monster.

The following evening I was lucky enough to have dinner with Kimberley Lam and her wife, along with my husband. Kim's current project is Blood is Thick, a live-action game about the Cambodian genocide, described on the Metatopia site:

One family struggles with unresolved pain years after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime by Vietnamese invaders in 1979. "Blood is Thick" is a small group LARP about struggling with the lingering impact of genocide on a family where victims and aggressors reside side by side.
I have heard only good things about the playtest experiences, which is pretty great. Kim has done a lot of research for the project, and I hope this game goes off well.

This weekend carried one unsurprising thing: I would be playing a game by Will Hindmarch. The surprising thing is that somehow I managed to land in three Will Hindmarch games over the weekend: Databank, Adventurous, and Chroma (a follow-up to Always/Never/Now). Will is a great designer, and I always enjoy his game master style and his games, so I'd tried to get into all of them, figuring I'd only get into one. Surprise! I played Databank Friday night, Adventurous Saturday night, and Chroma on a very sleepy Sunday morning.

Databank was really, really cool. From the description:
Don't dream like an electric sheep. Remix yourself, body and mind, into the person you want to be, whether you were born an android or not. On this derelict colony planet, everything you need to be who you want to be is in the databank, where the top percent lives. You just have to get it.

Each character has a psyche, where you have your general personality, memories, and some basic stats. Using certain tags lets you add dice, and you roll mainly with a d20, adding d6s. The cool part came next.


When Will pulled out the whole character sheet, which is your psyche laid over a body (the chassis in which your personality is housed), I teased a bit because I've been messing around with this exact character sheet layout and setup for a shapeshifter game in private. This is actually kind of funny because I like that a lot of what Will does is what I think quietly that I'd like to do (aside from that whole card mechanic situation in Project: Dark ;P), so it was another moment where I felt lucky to share any part of my design sense with someone I admire.

There is interaction between the body and psyche, including gaining memories and therefore abilities from the body into your permanent psyche. I really dug the game, and there are multiple types of bodies that you can switch out, including - I shit you not - a centaur. Now, how the bodies look is up to the players, and we all got very creepy, I have to be honest. So when I saw the centaur body type, I knew I had to have it, so we stormed the location where the bodies were held, and I yoinked it, then described it: a half-formed bio horse that they had to give up on making because it didn't work, so they added a robotic upper body (why? because science, that's why!) and started using it for violence. In the end, I got the centaur's memory from the horse body - the horse body with the skin stretched taut and hydraulically opened compartments in the torso, mind you - of the horse being created, and it gave me battle disadvantage.

Brutal.

I took pictures at a somewhat-off-books Goth Court that will be released after I gain permission from the creators and attendees. I generally ask permission before taking photos, and when I take them in closed games, I prefer to check before I post them.

I spent the night with good friends and good company. It was a blessing, honestly, to be near so many wonderful people. Special, deep thanks to Anders Smith for his kindness, generosity, and shared experiences that will never leave me.

Anders is the best!

The next morning, I had the absolute joy of playing Storybox.
A cooperative storytelling game that has players randomly drawing physical objects from a box at specific moments to help them tell their tale. Everything associated with the object in hand, from physical descriptors to abstract memories, is fair game for adding details and establishing elements about the story. Designed for newcomers and old hands of story games alike, Storybox blends the familiar with the new, creating a uniquely inspired story each game.

I got to play with two people I adore: Jason Morningstar and Amanda Valentine. They're really great people and really good players, and the designer, Roe Nix, is a fantastically kind and intelligent person. The game is relatively simple and somewhat early in development, I think, but I liked it! You build characters and setting around pieces pulled out of the box of objects, and then pull more to inspire scenes. Did you know you can find junk drawer boxes on Etsy and eBay to play this?



We constructed a kind of heartbreaking story about a family tied around a piece of property and a cobbler's shop, with three very age-separated children whose parents had just passed and an apprentice of the father who had owned the cobbler's shop. In the end of the story, we discovered that the parents had sold off the mineral rights to the land and that it was worthless. This kind of game is really my jam, and playing alongside Jason in story games is such an amazing experience for me, every time, so having a game that allowed that to happen without me worrying that the mechanics wouldn't support our story was great, and I'm really happy about it. I can't wait until Storybox is in my hands and on my table.

We told a gorgeous story with these items. 
I told Roe once they finish the game, I'm going to hack it to make a con-floor game. :)

To be honest, most of the rest of the day is kind of a blur. I did the Con Wellness check-in, which went pretty well. Not many people showed up for any particular purpose, but those that were seemed to appreciate the space. I'm hoping to do it both days I'm there all day next year.

I saw a lot of people I loved to see. I got to chat with new friends. I also spent probably over an hour talking to people about behavior in games, conflict types, accessible formats of information about conflict resolution and player behavior for GMs, and a whole bunch of associated stuff. Poor people.

That evening another Hindmarch was up - Adventurous!


Stranded beyond our world and outside of time in a mystical netherworld, the only way to survive is to explore. Delve into ancient tombs. Recover futuristic treasures. Build a new home. Discover hidden secrets of the Islands of the Never. Together, we'll fist-fight evil and learn how (or why) an airplane got inside an ancient pyramid.  

This was really fun! Will has done some interesting things with pacing in regards to having peril that you have to challenge with die rolls to whittle it down, but allows you to add to it by using key phrases on your character sheet. You also use Fate dice!


The +, -, and [blank] all matter to the way the game plays. The + rolls count as successes and can be used to knock off peril and the peril descriptors, and can also be added to the tracks on the table to gather experience for upping stats.


Overall, I really enjoyed the game! I think it did great with pacing for the theme of the game, the characters were really fun and interesting, and I certainly enjoyed when Kevin Kulp's (of Timewatch) very-well-performed character fought a dilophosaurus-velociraptor hybrid using old batteries. For further reference, Kevin is a hell of a roleplayer - I discovered this at a Bluebeard's Bride playtest two years ago, and it is still very accurate.

A small note: During this playtest I was introduced to the Edgewise card. The Edgewise card is an accompaniment to the X-card like the O-card that I've spoken about before. The purpose of the Edgewise card is to make people aware that you want to interject into a conversation without interrupting. While I see the card has uses and I hope people find it useful, I'm not a huge fan, but unpacking it will have to wait for another time. I just know that the tool was brought up this weekend and wanted to make sure everyone knew I know about it, and that I'll explain why I personally won't be using it at some point in the future.

Saturday night I freaked out for a while about being in a room full of femmeness before I was, in fact, in a room full of femmeness. I did makeup and took pictures for the Crystal Council, a late-night event where a group of attendees played Tales of the Crystals, which is effectively a boxed live-action game for children. When I was around... 6? Maybe? I remember seeing it in stores and desperately wanting it, but between lack of money and lack of friends, it didn't happen. Seeing it brought up on Twitter by Glenn and Meghan Dornbrock made me super excited, but I admit that I slowly realized that I'm not 6 anymore, and that with my current gender adjustments, being in really femme spaces can be pretty fraught. So, I elected to just take pictures, and it was great to watch everyone play the ridiculous game in their tutus and tiaras. I haven't gotten permission to post the closed-door pictures yet, but I did take some of the play materials.

Play materials from the game box.
Player-contributed materials during the game.
There were also cupcakes and mochi. That made it very much a good time!

I then stayed up inappropriately late, misbehaving as I tend to. I woke up to go to Chroma and I was sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy. But thankfully, Will was great and excused my almost-sleeping-at-the-table fuzziness. I promise to be better next time!



Chroma was a great time. It enabled me to play my character going from masquerading as a bumbling intern at a high tech organization to John Wick-ing the shit out of the place. I killed many. I gave no mercy. *evil laugh*


Chroma has some Lady Blackbird in its lineage, I think, using various narrative tags to add dice to your roll. The experience system looks really fascinating, though we didn't get to try it out overmuch. We had a really interesting crew of characters, and I want to note that Will has - in every game I've played of his that I can recall - included a nonbinary or agender character. It sounds simple, but for me, it's really great to see.

The big interesting thing for me is the pacing mechanic Will has included.


The game has a small flowchart-esque map, with different stats identified by differently shaped boxes. Each box is a section/room with a challenge of some type, and you can overcome them with tests that match the stat associated with that box. I admit to missing some of the details here due to fuzzy brain, but I really enjoyed it and felt like it did a great job setting pace for the session and giving structure to the adventure.

I want to point something out and I really hope that the people I played with will read this and identify themselves to me here or privately, but, that session of Chroma had some of the best player dialog behavior I've ever been a part of. While I can definitely be a dominant player, I can also easily be steamrolled. I play with my friends more often at cons to avoid that experience, and at Metatopia I always have to branch out. The fellow players of mine at this table were amazing. We shared the discussion both during the action and when we were giving feedback, and I was so happy to see that people gave each other space to talk, and not just one or the other of us, not just a gendered permissiveness.

There were multiple times where I made the indication that I wanted to speak and instead of someone else taking an opening when they also wanted to talk, indicated that people should listen to me, and I saw that around the table. Even when we interrupted, we apologized, and gave each other space. This was amazing, and inspired my heart into desiring to play more games with these people, so much. Unfortunately, I lost track of all of their names (thanks sleepy brain). Still, it was wonderful, and gave me such a good end to the con.

I left Metatopia really satisfied with all of the games I'd played, and I was so happy to see all of the people I cared about. It was a hell of a con, and I can't wait until next year!

Want to have a cup of coffee with me next time? Let me know, and we'll make plans.

Soy milk, please.



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