Saturday, December 12, 2015

Diversity & the Tabletop Roleplaying Community by John W. Sheldon

John W. Sheldon is a tabletop game designer and graphic designer in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. His history includes work with the U.S. Army Reserve preparing news shows for the Army in Iraq. He has been playing RPGs for most of his life, and since becoming involved with the indie RPG scene has gained a lot of knowledge about the demographics and interests of the players and creators in the community. This video showcases diversity in the tabletop roleplaying community through personal interviews with creators, players, and academics in the RPG industry.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Playtesting Bluebeard's Bride with Sarah Richardson!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of playing a session of Bluebeard's Bride with Emily Care Boss, Hannah Shaffer, and J Li, with the fantastic Sarah Richardson as our GM. (Note: this was an amazing group to play with. WOW.) Sarah Richardson, Marissa Kelly, and Whitney Beltrán are the creators of  Bluebeard's Bride and I was very excited to get into my second playtest of this gorgeous game.

Up front for people interested in this game: First off, this game is still in development and has not been released. Everything in this has the possibility of changing. It is not a game for kids. It often contains very twisted material, including seriously NSFW and graphic descriptions. This review will cover some sexual content (I'll try to keep it relatively vague), generally creepy stuff, and violence against women.

Bluebeard's Bride has a really awesome initial setup. It's currently based on Apocalypse Word mechanics, but it's quite far removed from that material. The game is about the story of Bluebeard, a fairy tale that has seen many different interpretations. The core of the story is that a woman marries a man with a blue beard, and instructs her that she can explore his whole castle except one room, then leaves for business. Eventually she opens that room, and finds that it is full of the corpses of Bluebeard's previous wives. Bluebeard finds out that she's opened the door, and kills her (in some versions she is rescued, but the regular story results in her death). How this plays out in the game and how it ends is something you'll just have to find out through play! My two experiences with this game have been quite different, so it is one of the few games that is kind of encapsulated in one specific story that has a ridiculous amount of replayability.

The general idea in this game is that there is one bride, and the players play different parts of her psyche. The playbooks we used were the Animus (physicality, masculine bravado, and independence), the Fatale (sex, sensuality, and intrigue), the Virgin (innocence, exploration, and critique), and the Witch (transgression, magic, and power). There is also a playbook called the Mother, but we didn't try that out.

The playbooks are one of my favorite things. They include six sections: Wedding Preparations, Sisterly Bonds, Token Tracks, Stats, Burdens, and the Trauma Track. I don't want to overcomplicate this review so I'll just talk about my favorite things: the Wedding Preparations and the Burdens. Wedding preparations are basically character generation. There are questions about whether you trust your husband or not (I didn't), what gift did you give him (a stag's head and the knife I used to cut it off with, to demonstrate my power), and then a question about the physical appearance of the bride, with a second question about the way other people influence her appearance. This was a fascinating exercise.

The Burdens are basically playbook specific moves. I am a huge fan of these. The Animus has one presently (though this could change) that involves investigating objects by breaking them. This was so my thing. I was super excited to play it.

Okay, I do have to mention the other playbook sections: Sisterly Bonds are relationships between you and the other Sisters (pieces of the bride's psyche). To my knowledge there is not a specific mechanic. The Token Tracks are Faithfulness and Disloyalty tracks that are marked when you exit rooms to help determine some of the details of the end game mechanics. Stats are self-explanatory. The Trauma Track is effectively harm. I can't remember exactly what happens when your Trauma Track reaches max, but it's called "shattering" so that's pretty cool. :)

The play involves passing around a ring from player to player in no specific order (the player with the ring chooses who it passes to for the most part). There are moves for investigation, supporting or interfering with other Sisters, and some other really good ones - my favorites are shivering from fear, which is typically called on when the GM sees you get really creeped out (this is an awesome body language thing to me), and dirty yourself with violence, because yesssss.

There is a cool thing where you leave a room and you have choose a token kind of representing what you discovered, which I think is cool because it makes you reevaluate everything having to do with that room. There are also a few instances where the game asks you what the scariest thing or most horrible thing that could happen is. I love how it gives players the agency to terrify themselves.

Agency is actually something really important to me in games. Bluebeard's Bride actually, imo, does a pretty good job with it. First of all, I don't know if the other creators do this, but Sarah did get in touch with players in advance and allow us to flag any major triggers. This is hugely appreciated for me, because the game is filled with a lot of really upsetting things. She also allowed use of an X-card in game. On top of that, Sarah is an incredibly perceptive GM, which I think helps a lot. If you plan to run horror games, I think that it is way valuable to have a good read on body language.

Another part of the agency is that how the players approach the materials - like in other AW games - tends to influence the type of horror and danger, as well as the severity. This allowed us to take things in worse directions for some subjects, and better directions for others. When the game asks "what is the worst thing that could happen here?" the GM can see by our responses what is really working, and where buttons could further be pushed.

Also! I liked that this game has a very elegant way of violating perception. Like, when we play games, they are fiction, and we can have our characters experience stuff like hallucinations - particularly popular in horror. This, however, is a story where we are expecting bad stuff to happen and when the horrific stuff happens it's very easy to assume that it's actually happening! Because the game is contextually horrific, seeing horrific things is very easy to accept as reality. This is able to be turned over its head by the GM revealing the mundanity. It's very cool because it has this element of "this could be real, but it could also not be real, but what is real?!" while still keeping a great flow to the story.

Beyond the mechanics!

The session was SO fun. I am just going to cherry pick some stuff, because while the story changes with every session in a lot of ways, I want to leave a lot more mystery regarding the structure.

In one scene, while the bride was investigating the bathroom, a mosaic on the ceiling depicting a standing man and woman changed by looking into the water in the bath below into the man strangling the woman. While the bride was examining this, a shade of some sort came from behind her, and began to strangle her and shoved her into the water. Upon waking, the bride discovered no markings or other indications that it had happened, except that she was now lying in the bathtub. While examining herself in the mirror, the shade came behind her, and when she tried to attack it, it grabbed her shoulder, and seemed to physically break something. The pain continued throughout the session.

In another scene, the bride was examining some locks of hair and the Witch tried to divine whether they were from violence. The response was for the walls and ceiling to start bleeding, and blood to pour over the bride. When she tried to wipe it off, her skin peeled off as she touched it, coming off in ribbons. When she screamed for help, the maid arrived, and there was nothing happening at all. Instead of the locks of hair on the dresser in front of her, there was a large, wooden dildo. The scene that followed with the generally creepy maid involved a disturbing kinda BDSM scene where the bride was somewhat involved, as well as a second maid.

Later, the bride went into the dining room to discover a huge banquet of food, all of which smelled just like what her mother cooked at home. A third maid offered her a small pie, all the while talking about how the bride shouldn't each very much. The bride eventually dug in and ate a little bit of everything, and by then the other two maids had arrived and they started shaming her, talking about how Bluebeard didn't like chubby girls. Since the Animus (me) was in charge of the character at that point, that resulted in a little violence - the bride hauled off and punched one of the maids, and then two of them held her while that maid punched her in the stomach. When they left, the bride was so full of rage at everything - the maids, Bluebeard, and especially her mother for forcing her to do this - that she shattered a ton of the now-bare plates. That led to another discovery...

The ending scene was incredibly dramatic, and super fucked up, but it was great! The whole exploration of both the house, Bluebeard's character, and the bride herself was fascinating. I fully recommend checking Bluebeard's Bride out soon - playtests are currently rare, but I think it will soon be coming to us all on Kickstarter. I, for one, am hella excited!

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Supernatural Evil vs. Real Evil: When Reality Bites

As a fan of many varieties of fiction and genre books, films, television shows, and games, I have seen a fair share of villains. Bad guys are, actually, one of my favorite things. Without villains, where would be heroes? Without evil, is there actual “good”? It’s a big question. The one thing that keeps coming back to me, however, time and again is the question of what is more frightening, more evil: supernatural villainy, or villains who could step out of the next corner shop?

Starting with my earliest exposures to the good vs. evil storylines, I watched a lot of cartoons. Cartoons are, for the most part, about unreality. The characters are not supposed to be super realistic or like anything you might encounter. In Disney alone, there are Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), and the Evil Stepmother (Snow White) – they are all frightening to children and adult understanding of their motives definitely show that they are fucked up and evil, but for me, they are not nearly so frightening as Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). There is a supernatural element to the Hunchback cartoon film, but Frollo is all too real. He is a man very dedicated to his religion, who sees beautiful women as vain and condemns their sexuality, and he considers himself better and more pure than those around him (which, imo, is terrifyingly real).

I was around 4 or 5 when I saw my first Stephen King films. Thank you television for doing re-runs, and thank you parents for leaving me alone with the television. I saw, in a sweet double-feature, IT and Carrie. They are both pretty well-done films, and completely compelling for a kid who loved ghost stories. I still have nightmares about those movies, but they are two very different types of nightmares. With IT, it is the standard “holy crap evil clown”, teleporting, monster-morphing scary that is easily expected. With Carrie, it is so much different. For me, the villain of the movie is not Carrie, or even the cruel teenagers. It’s Carrie’s abusive mother. See, in IT, the clown is a scary villain, yeah, but even at that age I knew that those things weren’t real. Abusive parents, though, were something I could definitely imagine (and had been witness to).

Further on we go – scary movies with werewolves and vampires and ghosts, right up next to Law & Order, CSI, and the serial killer shows and documentaries I latched on to. No matter how many nightmares I had about monsters, it never compared to the constant anxiety I felt day after day knowing that there were real people out there who were, from my perspective, far more evil than their paranormal peers.

One of my favorite book stories is, no surprise, Harry Potter. In the books, the biggest villain, the embodiment of evil, is Voldemort (Or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named for those of you who like to use extra words). He’s a torturer, murderer, son of a rapist (love potions are not consent, FYI), and straight up asshole who is willing to murder everyone who doesn’t fit his ideal concept of humanity. There are multiple descriptions of the shitty stuff he does, and the shitty stuff his followers do. And yet, they do not scare me anywhere near as much as Dolores Umbridge. Anyone who has read the books knows how awful Umbridge is. She constantly, as a human who is not supernaturally altered in any way, chooses to do harm and induce suffering on anyone she doesn’t deem worth or doesn’t like. She’s racist (and advocates for awful things against half-human or non-human species), and revels in the pain of others. Torturing children is shown to bring her actual pleasure and satisfaction. She is, in many ways, the perfect example of someone who would claim to have “just been doing their job” when all shit hits the fan, but who secretly really got off on doing awful things in the name of her cause – and the cause, in this case, seems to just be a convenient excuse.

I think that it is easy to see why realistic villains are more terrifying than supernatural villains (in most cases! There are always exceptions!). Bellatrix Lestrange is pretty fucked up and terrifying, but there is no way she compares to the Bitch of Buchenwald (Ilse Koch, from the Buchenwald concentration camp during WWII, Google with great care). Knowing that there are real killers, torturers, and rapists out in the world is way worse to me than the fantastical idea that vampires might suck my blood.

In games, we can always use fantastical monsters. That’s something that is super common in RPGs – hell, in a lot of games we play the monsters! But when running a horror game, the choice between real horror and fantastical horror is a very careful decision. Some GMs might know their groups well and be able to run it without a question. Others might need to really talk to their players and make sure it’s okay.

If you want to run a horror game with a realistic villain, but you don’t want to spoil the whole plot for your players, there are a lot of ways to get the information you need. The first is to have a boundaries discussion. Ask your players, “If you were playing a realistic game, what kind of bad guys, type of violence, and other content are you comfortable with and not comfortable with?” Give them the floor, and then feel free to bring up specific items, including ones you specifically don’t plan to use in the game. Examples of stuff that might come up: rape, harm to children, domestic abuse, torture, sexualized violence, stalking, harm to animals. None of these are things people should feel bad about vetoing, and it's important not to shame players or try to bargain or bribe them. It's more fun when people want to play the game without caveats.

Other options that are great are, like I mentioned in my previous post, using consent and content tools like the X-Card and Script Change. The biggest thing to do, though, is to talk with your players and ensure that they’re cool with moving forward.

It isn’t a bad idea to talk about this with your players when you are using supernatural villains as well. While we have seen that in the Netflix TV show, Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is an amazing villain without any supernatural ability, the new show on Netflix, Jessica Jones, the character Killgrave (known as the Purple Man in comics) has supernatural abilities and he’s simply chilling to see on screen, and his abilities are truly some of the worst.

There is a lot to gain by finding what really makes your heart pound, and your hair stand up on end, and it’s often fun to pursue it. Still, there is no reason that a person should be put in a place in a game where they can’t escape or stop the source of their distress. Players deserve to have a good time, even if that means they’re quaking in their boots!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Five or So Questions with Meguey Baker on Playing Nature's Year

I was lucky to get a chance to interview Meguey Baker about her new project, Playing Nature's Year, which is currently on Kickstarter

Tell me a little bit about your project, Playing Nature's Year. What excites you about it?

A couple things really stand out for me. I love the old songs and fairy rhymes and little pieces of folk tales that I grew up with, and felt there were games there that could be as sweet and simple and strange. The first game, The Holly & the Ivy, came into my head so complete I nearly shouted at Vincent and Eppy to stop talking because I had to write it all down quick right there in the coffee shop. It felt a little like the magic I hoped to capture in the rest of them!

I loved the constraints I used in this cycle: each player always has ten d6 to start but each game has different mechanics; I had six weeks in which to design and write and find art and a song or poem for each game; each game had to do one thing well and be playable in under an hour.

Beyond that, the biggest thing is the idea of playing games with people you don't really usually play games with. I've played some of these games with my little nephews, with folks brand new to gaming, with the parents of kids in my youngest son's class, and I look forward to playing them with my mother-in-law over Thanksgiving.

Where did you feel you pulled your most valuable inspiration for these games?
Short answer: the earth and its cycles. Longer answer: I grew up in a household with a deep appreciation for the ways nature connects and contributes to our spiritual, philosophical, emotional and creative well-being. Some of my earliest friends were apple trees I named when I was 3, and played in daily. They were real beings to me, and my mother never made me feel silly or dishonest when I told her what they said and the adventures we had. Instead, she handed me books of mythology - Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Native American, and Japanese - and read me fairy tales from the Arabian Nights, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as the Rainbow Fairy Books. This laid the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with all things deemed "fairy" or "pagan" or "earth-based" in contrast to my grandparent's fundamentalist Baptist faith. As a young adult, I spent a decade or more being fairly active in local pagan circles, and have pretty much incorporated elements of that sense of awareness of the world around me into my life going forward, even though it's not the dominant part of my path at the moment.

What inspired you to use the constraints you did, and how do you think they influenced your design choices?
After the initial game came through so clearly, I was very conscious that the rest needed to be in keeping with the first. I had been laying rather a LOT of Tenzie, which is a wonderful and super-fast dice game, and it was the starting point for all the mechanics in the games - how can I use these ten d6 to do something different? I have this roleplaying story-telling wishing game for midsummer, how do ten d6 resolve in this game?

Also, the songs and poems are important to me. All of them except the Chickadee are ones I knew and loved from childhood, and I think there is an important place in game design to connect back to poems and songs and the ways creative ideas and stores were passed down for thousands of years before the magic of written word. They frame the games, and I hope they give the reader a greater sense of the feeling in the game. The influence of the songs to the games is pretty interwoven. With a few, it was crystal clear what piece I wanted, to the point of licensing "The Garden Song" because the game demanded it. And by the way, licensing music is a nightmare. On one or two of the games, I went looking for a song or poem to match, which is how I came across the Chickadee, which is a perfect fit.

Could you share a story of when you playtested these games that you feel exemplified their concepts?

The first time I played The Holly & The Ivy, I was surprised by the intensity of my own wish. That was quite a rush, because it told me the design was solid and that everything worked precisely as I intended it to, even for me.

I playtested the third game, Bless the Seeds, with my 9 year old son. It's a game about perseverance and gardening, in which you talk about work you are doing in your garden. Tovey described the most wonderful seaside garden, with tidal pools and sea glass and sand dunes and a hammock. It was utterly delightful to watch his imagination unfold and to see him respond so enthusiastically to the structure of the game. The very best part though was after the game ended and he ran to tell his older brother all about the game and his garden in great detail. It had clearly captivated him, and that was exactly the outcome I was hoping for.

I did a final playtest of At the Stroke of Midnight at Metatopia, and two of my players were moved nearly to the point of tears at the end, where there is a conversation with the Beloved Dead. That was really rewarding, to have the ritual of the game support such willingness of emotion in people I had never played with before.

Do you find any special challenges when designing games that appeal to people of all ages and experience?

There are a couple things I keep in mind. I tend to avoid terms like "GM", "PC', and "NPC" that might look like alphabet soup to non-gamers. I aim to keep the mechanics smooth and interesting but not too fiddly, and I use plain six-sided dice which folks might have already even if they are not gamers. I aim for a game session that runs under an hour if I have kids under 10 in my target audience, and under four hours if I have adults who might play board games or computer games or play or watch physical games (aka sports). I avoid swearing in my game text, because I want folks to feel comfortable handing the book to their kids or their parents. If I don't know what my reader's comfort level is with that, I don't need to mess with it. If you pick up Apocalypse World, I'm pretty sure you aren't going to be put off by more vigorous words, and if you read all the way through 1001 Nights and have some familiarity with the source material, the art shouldn't surprise you.

Finally, what do you hope people get out of playing the games in Playing Nature's Year?
First and foremost, I hope they have fun. After that, I hope they are a bit more aware of the season around them after they play. Finally, I hope they are surprised sometimes by the places the games take them, by their own wishes and fortunes and the stories they create. 

Make sure to check out Playing Nature's Year on Kickstarter, and thanks to Meguey for sharing her thoughts and process!

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings: They Are Not What You Think

Content Warning: I'm going to talk about trigger warnings here, so if you don't like hearing about that, click away now.

Hey humans! 

I want to talk about what content and trigger warnings are, and why they are important. Let's first establish what these things are:

Trigger Warnings:

Trigger warnings are related to psychological triggers, like those from abuse and trauma. Triggers are things like sights, scents, sounds, and sensations that can produce flashbacks, painful memories, or anxiety/panic reactions in people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma.

For example: I have been sexually assaulted. When I watch movies, play games, or read books that have sexual assault in them, I can become panicked, stressed, and uncomfortable. This feeling can last anywhere from a minute or so to days or weeks. Some people I know are triggered by scents like smoke, sounds like yelling, or sights like specific violence in media or even something like being on snowy roads in winter.

Triggers are not something of cowardice. They are a psychological reaction to traumatic experiences of someone's past. No one can define the severity of someone else's trauma. Even when it comes to professionals, they can't read someone's mind. When someone is triggered, they can have complex and extreme reactions, or just some stress and a desire to remove themselves from the situation.

Content Warnings:

Content warnings have some things in common with trigger warnings, but they are not the same. We see content warnings all the time - at the movies (Rated R for language, violence, and sex!), on TV (This presentation may contain material that could upset viewers - just like Law and Order), and on video games (Rated M for content). They are not new, and anyone who is surprised by them may have been living under a rock.

Content warnings are not in regards to people's mental health or put together to avoid panic attacks or flashbacks. Content warnings are there so people can prepare, or decide what they should let their kids see. They are not censorship, and they are not any restriction on media. They are there to guide consumers to media they want, or away from media they don't want.

Common Objections:

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are for cowards/babies/wusses/immature people!"
Nope! Trigger warnings are there to prevent people with past trauma from experiencing further trauma. Believe it or not, a lot of people suffer from trauma, and it is not something that you can just "tough it out" most of the time. Soldiers who return from war with PTSD (diagnosed or not) can have trouble because of triggers. People who were abused as children can have triggers. Not just soldiers have PTSD, and people of all ages have experienced trauma in their life. This is why trigger warnings are valuable. When you expose someone to a trigger, it has a psychological impact. In some ways, it is like an allergy. If someone were allergic to peanuts, would you tell them to eat peanuts anyway, because their allergy is just "all in their head"?

"Trigger warnings and content warnings are censorship!"
Nope! Slapping a rating or a simplified list of the content of media on the package doesn't censor anything. The media is still produced, and available for consumption. It might be limited by age, but parents can buy for their kids, so that isn't a significant issue. People who are triggered by the content might be upset that the product exists - and that's okay! They can talk to other people about it and say, "hey, if you don't like this stuff, don't buy this thing!" and maybe other people won't buy it. Maybe they still will. People can make choices!

"If people see trigger or content warnings that have stuff they don't like in them, they won't buy it or consume it!"
Not necessarily true! While everyone, regardless of their issues with triggers, might decide not to consume a product, there are plenty of people who still will. People can, and often will, still consume media that has objectionable material in it, and that has triggers for them. Seeing a trigger warning isn't always "That's not for me!" It might be "I can watch this when I am having a good day" or "Maybe I will save this until when I am not in a depression" or "If I get a friend to watch this with me, I'll be great" or even "Maybe if someone tells me what part to skip, I can enjoy the rest of the thing!" Also, we are not in the business of forcing people to buy things. No one has to buy what you are selling. It's not like creators walk beside people in the store just putting things in their cart and telling them that it's something they should watch, even if they don't like it. That's like forcing people who like action movies to watch Oscar bait.

"People will abuse them to get out of work/school/responsibilities!"
Totally! And you know what? That's okay. It's okay because those people will be few. It's okay because people use excuses to get out of work/school/responsibilities already. It's okay because the people who use trigger warnings and content warnings for their own wellbeing and awareness will, a lot of the time, still take the classes or go to work or fulfill their responsibilities. People abusing systems is nothing new, and we shouldn't put other people through difficult and often dangerous situations just because some people are jerks.

ETA: "You can't possibly list all of the triggers, how am I supposed to know what they are?"
Well, for one, you can't list all of them. That's okay. You don't have to list them all, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't list any. Part of the point of trigger warnings is demonstrating that you are aware of your audience and willing to listen to them. You can try to focus on the common ones: graphic violence, sexual assault and abuse, domestic/child abuse, and rape. From that, most people can get an idea of whether it's their kind of media. Trigger and content warnings are not an all or nothing tool. You can talk to your audiences or potential audiences, you can check around in forums and on social media to see what your potential audiences might have issues with. Even if you don't do that, you can still be considerate even with limited information.

Why are these things important?

A lot of reasons, actually! I have covered a lot of them already, but I'll summarize.

  • Many people have been affected by trauma in their lives, and it is important to provide support for them to feel safe and still able to enjoy their lives in any way we can.
  • A lot of people prefer to consume different types of media for many different reasons. Some have kids, some like to compartmentalize their media, and some people just don't enjoy all types of content.
  • We should respect psychological issues just like we do physical issues. They are valid, and denying people the ability to avoid things that hurt them is, honestly, just rude.
  • Everyone should have choices in their media! Everyone is different, and we shouldn't force everyone to enjoy one thing just because the majority enjoys it, or because not liking it makes them seem judgmental. 

How can this be applied?

In school, it's simple. Put a note on your syllabus about what kind of content will be discussed in class, what materials you'll be using, and how to contact instructors to either change classes, consider alternate materials or assignments, or help to figure out a good way to go through the classes without putting students in a position where they don't feel safe in class.

In media, it's pretty easy. Create what you want, but put a note on it. It can be simple: "This film includes rape, sexual assault, and sexualized violence." It can also be more complex: "This game has mechanics that allow for PC mind control, which are not optional and central to the game's premise." Either of these options are great, and importantly, they are way better than nothing. If you are planning a convention game, you can put notes in your description, or let the players know when they arrive at the table, and offer them the opportunity to step out.

What about in games where we aren't using a script? What if something happens in game that wasn't planned?
This is more difficult! The cool thing is that it's not impossible! One of the first things you can do is establish boundaries with your players so that if there is something completely off the table, you know in advance and can avoid that material. Another thing is that you can provide tools like Script Change and the X Card. These tools give you either the option to skip content altogether, or to back up and go through a scene again with new content, fade to black, or pause for a moment to evaluate players' comfort with moving forward. It gives players more control of the content, as well as helping them to feel comfortable. It is awesome because sometimes it makes players even more likely to try adventurous content they may not have otherwise tried.

I want to emphasize: You can still create whatever you want to create. The key is to allow those who aren't interested in your content to safely avoid it, and give those who want to enjoy your content an easy way to navigate. People have more fun doing the things that they enjoy, and when they are stuck doing things they don't want to, it drags everyone down. Trigger warnings and content warnings help people find content that they can enjoy, and can encourage them to try new things.


In the end, trigger warnings and content warnings are a great way to support other people in trying new things, expanding their boundaries, and exploring, without leaving them with no safety net, and without ignoring the importance of their mental and emotional health. Some people might not care about this at all, and that's okay. However, I think that kind of attitude definitely shines a light on who is likely to consume their media, and whether they are the kind of person those who have experienced trauma are willing to trust. For me, there's no question: I want everyone to have fun - not just the people who don't care.

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Women with Initiative - Wendy Gorman

Hi all!
Welcome to my new feature, Women with Initiative! I am hoping to make this a monthly feature, but we'll see as time passes whether the interest is there. Today I've interviewed Wendy Gorman, creator of Still Life, which won in last year's Golden Cobra design contest. 

Wendy shares a little about her here:

My games are mostly WIP right now, but I co-wrote one of last year's Golden Cobra winners, Still Life, and I'm currently working on two games, one called The Things She Carried, which I wrote for the Warbirds anthology contest, which won, and is a game about Japanese American women in the US during WWII, and Shemesh, which is a solarpunk utopia game that I'm working on with Different Play, and that is probably my game that I'm most excited about. I've also written a DramaSystem setting called "Game On" about the women's baseball league in the US during WWII, and I have a million tiny baby game ideas that I'm working on with my favorite codesigner, Heather Silsbee.

Here are some questions I asked Wendy!

You have written some really amazing things. One of the previous cons I attended, many people played Still Life and said it was amazing. How did you find inspiration for such a unique game, and what kind of experiences do you think uninitiated players would have?

It's funny you should ask about Still Life, because it has really been a huge surprise to me. Still Life is a mystery! My friends and I were play testing Jon Cole's larp design work shop, Larp Jam, and our prompt was "pebblestone lifestyle." I desperately did not want to write a Flintstones larp, and we were on the shore of a lake, with rocks surrounding us, so I guess it was easy to run with the rocks/nature theme. As for the uninitiated playing it, I'm sure experiences will differ! It's a very low-key larp, with lots of sitting and quiet time, so if someone went in expecting to run around hitting people with foam swords, it would probably be a disappointment. That said, I'm told it's a great game to play when you're tired, because you really don't have to move around very much at all!

In your work for The Things She Carried, how have you been gathering information and historical reference for it? What made you choose that particular subject?

For The Things She Carried, I was inspired by an amazing memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, about Jeanne's experience with being relocated to internment camps in her youth. In particular, there's a scene in the book where her grandmother is trying to sell some family heirloom plates that the family has had for years, and the buyer is refusing to give her what she considers a fair price, because the market is flooded with similar items from other Japanese American families who are also leaving. The grandmother gets so mad that she smashes the plates, one by one, rather than sell them. It's a powerful book, and a powerful scene that stuck with me, especially since so many of these families lived in Washington, which is where I grew up. It's a side of World War II that doesn't get talked about enough, but it's all I could think about when I saw there was a contest for WWII games about women. I've been reading articles, I reread the first inspirational memoir, and have been looking at photos on historical archives to try and get a better feel for Japanese women in the 40s.

I am so excited about your solarpunk game! I have been delving into it - tell me more about solarpunk, and about Shemesh!

Shemesh is probably the game I'm most excited about! Solarpunk is an emerging genre that focuses on ecofriendly, sustainable living with an art noveau flair. I love the aesthetic, I love the message, and I love the chance to explore positivity and hope. My game focuses on a city, Shemesh, that envisions a new way of living. I was interested in games about utopia, and couldn't find any that I felt really fit, so I decided to design my own! The game is about exploring a solarpunk utopia in a diverse city, with a focus on aesthetics, which I love, and working through differences without resorting to conflict and anger. The question I'm inviting players to answer with this game is "What does it look like to approach misunderstandings in a utopia?" To top it all off, I have a backdrop of a bunch of funky fantasy peoples, including giant rats with a hive mind, human-sized sentient butterflies, fae, humans, and sentient robots, who all live alongside each other. I'm really, really in love with the setting and the game, and I can't wait to release it. It's sort of an amalgamation of a bunch of my favorite things, such as Microscope, the works of China Mieville, and beautiful, brightly colored stained glass. I've had a ton of fun writing it, play testing it, and I sincerely hope that others will enjoy it as much as I have!

What do you do outside of gaming, hobbies &etc.?

Outside of gaming, I'm a cat enthusiast, aspiring writer, and earring fanatic. I'm currently living in Spain for a year, teaching English, which I love. I am a big fan of feminist discussion, and trying to figure out how to make myself a more socially conscious human being. I also love to cook, and to bake, although I lack an oven here in Spain, so it's put a huge damper on my culinary escapades.

Thank you so much to Wendy for sharing with us! You can find Wendy online on Google+!

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Five or So Questions with Dustin DePenning on Synthicide

I interviewed Dustin DePenning on Synthicide, his sci-fi RPG planned for Kickstarter next year. He is currently looking for playtesters to help refine the game, so if you're interested, e-mail him at

Tell me about Synthicide. What excites you about it?

Synthicide is a custom tabletop rpg system set in a violent galaxy where humans are second-class to robots.

You and your fellow players take the role of Sharpers: free agent criminals exploring and looting society’s corpse. By working jobs, you will make friends and enemies amongst gangs, corporations, and pirates. And the Tharnaxist Church, the only thing resembling law, will stay well out of your way. But that’s only if the Church doesn’t catch you killing their pride and joy: a synthetic.

Now that's out of the way, what excites me about Synthicide are two things: it's gritty setting and its player tools. The game world is a combination of all my favorite sci fi themes: cyberpunk missions, societal decay, corruption, and space exploration. Each of these themes can become dominant from session to session. As players interact with these elements, their decisions snowball into crazy situations over the course of a campaign.

The player aids make me proud, because Synthicide's rules are meant to be played, not read. Character battle rules fit on a single page for easy reference, and high speed vehicle chase rules are on a second page if needed. And to help with improvisation, the GM has automated tools to generate NPCs, mission outlines, and even vehicle stats on the fly.

All this makes me really excited to finish development in the coming year.

What would a standard session be like for players as Sharpers?
Sharpers, are constantly losing money to needs like food, fuel, and better equipment. So most sessions start with players looking for a job – anything from assisting a street gang break into a vault, to helping a corporation track down and punish its debtors. The GM is encouraged to provide the players with two or three mission outlines so they can choose what kind of job to run, but most involve shady and violent activity. The real choice is who the players like working with and who they oppose.

As sessions add up, the consequences of player choices make the game world more intricate. Opponents from previous jobs might come back for revenge, complicating the players' efforts to stay on someone's payroll. If the players mess up enough, they lose their friends yet are left with dangerous enemies. They might have to turn tail and start fresh somewhere else in the Galaxy, continuing the cycle.

Tell me something interesting about the Tharnaxist Church. What is scary about it?
The Tharnaxist Church has the most resources and power out of everyone in the galaxy. Their history and influence stretches back to when the galaxy fell a millennia ago, so they alone have knowledge of advanced technology and mastery of robots. None of this power is put to good use, as Tharnaxist Priests aren't concerned with human affairs. You steal from someone? They don't care. You murder someone? They don't care. But as soon as you lay a hand on a robot or priest, they will destroy you.

The problem is that the best jobs a Sharper can get involve attacking priests and synthetics.

How do you make the gritty setting reflect in the rules?
Combat can be brutal. Synthicide uses a traditional HP and damage system, but it only takes a few hits to bring down a warrior. Also, HP levels up slowly, while attack and damage can increase quickly. To crank it up even more, there are optional rules for circulatory shock or suffering mental trauma. There's also an optional system where powerful attacks instantly kill poorly-armored foes.

The game's economy is also gritty. Players are frequently in danger of starving to death, but food is expensive. However, the rules don't track ammunition costs, making violent jobs an easy way to fill a hungry belly.

How does NPC generation work?

NPC generation is the simplest part of the game. The GM uses the automated tool to makes a few selections fitting the concept of the NPC. First choose a type, which is anything from rich man to animal. Next choose a mechanical role, such as a killer or sneak. Finally, choose one unique power, such as extra defenses or an explosive attack. The generator then fills in all the relevant stats and even rolls for loot. You can try the generator out yourself here:

What do you want players to take away from Synthicide?

I want the players to feel invested in overcoming the economic and social challenges they face in the game. They aren't adventuring as a choice, or because they are chosen heroes. They are fighting tooth and nail to justify their existence in the Galaxy. And as they grow in power and experience, I want them to notice what kind of person their character has become. Are they proud of what they have done to get this far? What are they willing to do to go even farther?

Thanks to Dustin for the great interview. Keep an eye out next year for the Synthicide Kickstarter, and don't forget to e-mail Dustin if you're interested in playtesting at

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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Five or So Questions with Ian Williams on ACTION MOVIE WORLD!


I had an interview with Ian Williams on his game, ACTION MOVIE WORLD, which is currently on DriveThruRPG for purchase! It sounds like a really fun time!

Tell me a little about ACTION MOVIE WORLD. What excites you about it?

I got the bright idea to make an Apocalypse World engine game about a world where everything from action movies was real. I was working through the skeleton of this idea and my friend, Bret, says that I should make it a game where you're playing the action movie actors, who are then playing the action movie heroes. That was all brilliant, so that's the genesis of the game. I set it up so it was aggressively multi-genre; as an actor, you don't just play one role in your career. You play in lots of movies, lots of characters. So I decided that you would have a character playbook based on what "type" of movie actor you are, a la any other *World game, but you'd combine it with a playbook for your current movie. That would give you moves which lasted only for the duration of a specific movie, 1-3 sessions.

So you end up with what I think it a pretty cool and flexible thing where you can just go nuts with as many genres as you can squeeze into your game. Do ninjas one night, cops the next, etc. So that's exciting, but I also just genuinely love action movies, particularly the bad VHS fodder of the 80s and 90s. AMW is my way of deconstructing what makes them work as a medium before reconstructing it. It's a love letter with a stamp on it labelled "Thinking of You".

How does it work to combine the type and playbook - do you get separate moves or bonuses to stats? 

Your actor playbook is basically like a character from any other Apocalypse engine game. Or, if someone doesn't have that frame of reference, just a character in a RPG. So any moves or bonuses you get there are permanent. They're essential to you, the actor, who translates those moves into a character for a movie.

Scripts (the name for the movie playbook) give you a move. You pick one from a list which is super genre specific. But those moves last for the duration of that one movie, only. Say you're doing a ninja movie. You pick a move which lets you drop a smoke bomb and disappear. That's yours until the movie ends--usually 1-3 sessions. So the combo of these two approaches lets you play both with and against type.

I'm a big fan of team mechanics. Can you talk a little about Camaraderie? 

At the core of action movies, there's this physical expression of emotions. Anger, love, fear, whatever. It's always physical. That's a main theme, that action heroes display their emotions in this physical, primal manner. And another main theme is that these movies are basically about friendships, even if it's a friendship in the past, like with a lone POW escaping from Vietnam or something like that, where the soldier's friends are left behind but are still the motivation.

Camaraderie measures the friendship between the characters. It goes up and down, as you either contribute to or betray this communal bond between pals. And you can use it to make a Camaraderie move, which is basically that moment in a movie where the friends get together and kick some ass while a guitar wails in the background. That move is super powerful and it's not quite as distinctly "this is that and nothing more" as most of the other moves. It's meant to be rolled when you do a cool thing with your buddies, even if it's just a hi-five before fighting the bad guy. If you succeed on it, you get some cool doodads like doing mega damage to the movie's villain or similar.

I love that you have a statement about inclusivity. Who are your favorite lady action heroes, and what do you think they'd play in AMW? 

I love Michelle Yeoh on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" alone, much less all of the other stuff she's done. I think she'd be a Thespian or Gunfighter, in terms of playbooks. Lucy Lawless. I loved Xena. Definitely a Smartass, with a high +Muscles rating. And Cynthia Rothrock, who should be way more famous than she is and probably would be if she'd come on the scene today. Pugilist for her.

The game has leads and supporting characters. Can you give an example of a team with leads and supporting characters from a film, and how they'd play out in game? 

It's really any action movie you care to look at! That system with an invulnerable lead and supporting characters who die in droves is really about the idea that action movies are about the journey, not the ending. The ending is never in doubt: the hero's going to win, most of his or her friends are going to be dead or maimed, serving to make the hero even more badass.

A really good example is "Alien" You've got Ripley and this cast of compelling, strong characters. And, one by one, the supporting cast are killed off. Ripley wins and she looks even cooler by virtue of the fact that her supporting cast was so strong. Textbook stuff, even though it's also a horror movie (horror and action are two flavors which go well together).

In game, that would be Sigourney Weaver as the Lead in the movie "Alien". Everyone else is supporting cast; they get experience when they die. The next movie the group plays is a Tom Skerritt movie. Skerrit's the Lead, Weaver is supporting cast in that one. Eventually, Weaver gets to be Lead in another movie after everyone else has had a turn. The whole table is happy and buys three more copies of ACTION MOVIE WORLD to show their enthusiasm!

Make sure to check out ACTION MOVIE WORLD on DriveThruRPG now!

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Five or So Questions with Jason Pitre on Sig!

Today I have an interview with Jason Pitre about Sig, his new expansion for his previously released game, Spark. It's currently on Kickstarter!

Tell me about Sig. What excites you about it?

What is Sig? That questions has a lot more to it than you might think.

On the surface, Sig is an expansion for my previous game, the Spark RPG. It presents a vast new multiplanar fantasy setting to explore. It offers with mechanical refinements and new tools for storytelling. It's even designed to encourage collaborative world building during play, as characters explore the infinite multiverse.

That's not what the setting is really about though.

Sig is the platonic ideal of a city. Cities are actually rather strange places, when you think about them. Thousands of living, breathing souls crammed together in a small patch of land. Every city has some residents whose roots run deep, with generations upon generations residing in the same neighbourhoods. Other residents are newcomers, from near or from distant lands. Cities thrive based on the industriousness of their inhabitants, creating wonders of art, craft and ideas that spread on an international scale. Cities are hungry places, devouring obscene amounts of resources from the surrounding countryside. They are places where religions clash, where ethnic groups mix, and where languages change.

Sig is a lens through which I was able to delve deeply into what a city really means. It gave me a chance to explore how a cosmopolitan city functions and how the vast diversity of the world interacts. It's a place to focus on those cast out by society, and those laden with privilege. It speaks of how immigration, community-building and gentrification will change the nature of neighbourhoods. Issues of class, of race, of sexuality and of gender identify are all part of the constant dialogue of the City Between.

This sounds fascinating! Can you tell me a little about the mechanical side of Sig? How does Sig tie into Spark, functionally?

So, in order to talk about the mechanics of Sig, I need to give a bit of a primer for the original core system of Spark. Spark was first, big project that I kickstarted back in 2013. It was a game about building worlds and challenging your beliefs within them. The two pillars of the game are those two key activities.

In Spark, you build worlds together. Each person names one of their favourite pieces of media; a book, game, comic, song or the like. Each person then identifies one thing about that media that really inspires them; perhaps the cosmopolitan markets of Babylon 5 or the sass of Rat Queens. As a group, you mix some of those inspirations to create facts about the world you are creating, until you have a solid framework. Those then get fleshed out by discussing the fundamental Beliefs of the setting; things like "Might makes right", "The Emissaries are traitors" or "Love is stronger than anger". These Beliefs inspire the various organizations that make up the world, and drive play. It's a fun mini-game to build exciting settings that contain a little bit of everyone's personal contributions. I even expanded that into a free product titled "A Spark in Fate Core", which adapted that to Fate.

The rest of the game is about challenging, or confronting, your Beliefs. Like the setting itself, each character has three Beliefs. Over the course of a number of scenes, the player collaboratively establish scenes, collaborate to roleplay freely, and enter conflicts when people disagree on what should happen next. Each of these situations gives the characters the opportunities to discover evidence that refutes or supports their Beliefs, which provides a currency known as Influence. Players spend Influence to win conflicts they would otherwise lose, to avoid paying the price of victory for conflicts that they do indeed win, and to change the Beliefs of other characters.

Sig runs off the same basic foundation, but adapts it somewhat. While the Spark RPG presents four character attributes (Body, Heart, Mind & Spark), Sig reduces them to two (Spark & Smoke). Sig cares less about how conflicts are won, and more about why they are engaged in. That's why in Sig, there is explicit discussion of Heritage (ethnicity/species), of urban Factions (guilds) and of the Powers (gods) they serve. These social ties also give the characters more ability to call upon external support through political leverage and divine rituals. The most important NPCs are also expressions of those social ties, sharing heritage, factional loyalty and religious convictions with the PCs.

Can you give examples of stories we could tell with Sig?

The stories of Sig tend to be strangely personal and emotionally gripping dramas with a vast, bizarre multiverse in a backdrop.

One of my friends played a gender-fluid ghost sex-worker who appears to people as lost loved ones and was paid in memories. They aspired to become the god of Lost Children.
Another player was a half-giantess whose conflicted relationship with her massive mother and her frail father drove her.
A third was a bestial, massive man who taught the orphans of Sig, telling himself in the dark of night that his mother hadn't abandoned him.

Now, there may have been homocidal godlings, raging kaiju, or dragon armies involved in some of those games, but the personal stories are what stay with me.

As someone creating an expansion for an original game, what suggestions do you have for other creators, based on your experience?

Expanding on existing games is tough, both for creative and logistical reasons.

First thing to keep track of is the fact that supplements only sell a fraction of what corebooks do. Even in the good old days of the TSR boxed sets, those expansions and settings barely paid for themselves. If you want to build an expansion, you have to be absolutely sure that the product is compelling.

You need to make sure that your expansion aligns with and supports your core game, keeping the content close enough to be familiar. Paradoxically, the expansion also needs to push boundaries, offering new mechanical systems and fictional ideals to work with. It needs to broaden the scope of play, or examine one specific facet of the core book in detail.

Expansions are difficult things to create, but a successful one can breathe new life into a game.

Thanks to Jason for the interview! Make sure to check out Sig on Kickstarter!

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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Five or So Questions with Mike Evans on Hubris

Today I have an interview with Mike Evans on his setting Hubris: A World of Visceral Adventure, currently on Kickstarter!

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

Hubris is a weird, horror fantasy setting that utilizes the Dungeon Crawl Classic rules.  It's a setting of horrific monsters, strange abandoned ruins, and terrifying gods that care little about the world.  Players can be any of the classes from DCC, or they can dive into new races and classes in Hubris such as the mutant, murder machine, shadow dancer, alchemist, or blood witch (to name a few).  I was inspired by horror movies such as The Thing, Tetzo Iron Man, Evil Dead, Pumpkinhead.  RPGs that inspired me are Vornheim, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Cthulhu, Iron Kingdoms, and more.  While writing the setting I had a constant flow of TOOL, A Perfect Circle, Slayer, Type o' Negative, Cannibal Corpse, Anthrax, and White Zombie blasting on my stereo. 

Hubris excites me because I wrote the setting how I would like a setting book to be: usable at the game table.  It's got horror, weirdness, and fantasy.  The territories I've created have just enough fluff to give good flavor, but by and large they are a d100 random encounter chart and a d100 interesting locations chart.  Each territory then has 5 or so locations I've created (with a paragraph of description) and 3-5 plot hooks/rumors.  If you don't like DCC or don't want to use that ruleset, you don't have to.  The territories are largely system neutral and can be used with any mechanics.  I'm also excited because the people who are helping bring Hubris to print.  Alex Mayo is doing the layout, while David Lewis Johnson, Jez Gordon, Jason Sholtis, Jeremy Duncan, Doug Kovacs and Angie Groves (my wife) are doing art.  It's been great to connect and work with them. 

What did you do to help guide your design process - structured templates, blog posting, etc.? 
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was HOW I wanted to do the territories as far as formatting goes.  I played with several permutations, but I wasn't happy with nothing.  I ended up getting frustrated and put down the territories for about 2 months and went to work on the gods, patrons, spells, etc.  Finally one day I was on a OSR blog and they were doing a list of random encounters that had location and encounters in one table... and it just felt right to separate them and create a d100 of each.  Once that was done, boom- I was off writing again. 

As far as other things- I kept an open mind to constructive criticism and valued the opinion of my peers, friends, and especially my wife.  She was a good grounding... and she's not a role-player so she offered a great perspective on things. 

I put quite a bit of stuff up on my blog ( for others to use and offer feedback and thoughts, and the more I did the larger the Hubris following became.  The interesting thing is I originally didn't intend to publish Hubris, but peeps seemed to dig it and I said fuck it. 

As far as structured templates I used those quite a bit (and tried to emulate the formatting of DCC) for the patrons, spells, etc.

What would you say is one of the most unsettling thing you worked on in the book?

Easily the most unsettling thing I worked on was the Charred Maiden (  The patron was inspired by the burnt lady in American Horror Story the first season, Countess Barthory, nightmares, etc.  I wanted the character description to be "real" so I researched what burn victims look like and read reports on how the body reacts to high temperatures, etc... Tried to capture that a bit in her writing, but I didn't want to go too far.

Can you tell me a little about The Black Queen? She sounds awesome.
I love pictures.  When I started developing ideas for Hubris I was just typing up random crazy words in Google that I had in my head and looking for art to inspire me.  One piece I found was of the evil queen from Snow White ( and it just HIT me that I wanted something like her in my game.  I wanted a strong character that could be a horrific ally or a formidable foe.  I also thought it would be cool to link her to a game mechanic (patron bond to the Floating Island of Terror-  Players can share that bond and that could create interesting situations. 

The queen consumes nightmares, rules through fear, and is responsible for flintlock weaponry being distributed through Hubris. 

Here's a small piece about her" The Black Queen, a powerful sorcereress, sits high on her throne of bones and steam in her floating metal city, satiating her hunger on the nightmares of her subjects.  The Black Queen governs and commands all who enter here; with the help of The Black Guard of Abhorrent Action, a group of devote followers of the Black Queen, it isn’t difficult.

As a designer, you get a different perspective on how games function (from my experience) - what is the best takeaway from a design perspective that you would like to see in a player's toolkit?

I'd have to say that this is a two-fold desire.  One- I hope people use the book at the table.  It's packed full of charts and tables to be used on the fly, and each territory (there are 10 of them) have two d100 tables.  I want the players to say, "fuck it!  We want to go into the Land of Perpetual Stone and Mire and explore!" and the GM can do a few simple die rolls and have a couple locations and encounters ready to spring.  If they want to go deeper they can flip to the charts and use the die drop table to create a horrible ruin or the table to create the alter of an ancient and forgotten demigod... 
The second is that it has been my experience that many authors fall in love with their own campaign settings, as they should as it's their work... however it shouldn't be treated as gospel.  When I read some (not all) settings I get this sense of THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE PLAYED!  DO NOT DEVIATE!  And I say fuck it!  DIY!  Hubris is a toolkit; hack it, chop it, mutilate it and use what the hell you want.  The map does not have a scale...  I want the GM to decide the size of Hubris.  Is it a REALLY dense island?  Is it the size of Texas?  Africa?  Larger?  Whatever- I don't need to put something in there to sway your mind.  I'm putting three versions of the map in the book.  A map with no labels, one with labels, and one with a hexgrid overlay.  Some GMs like hexcrawls and others don't.  I want people to play Hubris (or mine from it) what they want. 
If someone uses just ONE idea from Hubris, then I'm happy. 

Thanks Mike for the great interview! Make sure to check out Hubris: A World of Visceral Adventure on Kickstarter!

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Five Or So Questions MORE with Brendan Conway on Masks!

Today I have an interview with Brendan Conway on his game Masks, currently on Kickstarter and smashing through stretch goals! Full disclosure, I am writing for one of the stretch goals if it gets hit (and it might by the time this is posted!). I interviewed Brendan about Masks last July, and he had a lot to say about it - and he has plenty to say today! Settle in, because one thing Brendan is definitely good at is words - and as we'll see soon, superheroic teen tragedy.

What's new with Masks since we talked about it last year? What's the most exciting thing?
Masks has been changed, revised, edited, modified, and changed again. The core pieces are the same---shifting Labels, young superheroes, influence---but the specifics and the exact forms have changed heavily. The list of labels is down to five, and the basic moves have been refined and strengthened through lots of playtesting. Some mechanics didn't make the cut, and I added other new mechanics. I'm proud of how the game does an even better job of hitting the sweet spot that I wanted, but with much tighter pieces and parts. A lot of the unnecessary kruft was scraped off through experimentation and play. As an example, when I read the old interview we did and I see what I typed about Influence, I cringe. Influence is much simpler now---it's a binary thing now, where either you hold Influence over someone, or you don't. If someone holds Influence over you, it means that you care about what they say and think. It has some mechanical effects, and it's a signal to everybody involved that you care about their words---which matters a great deal when we're looking at the fiction and figuring out if their words could change your labels, or could provoke you into doing something not-so-good.

But the change I'm most excited about is actually the solidification of a setting. Early on, I was extremely hesitant to actually push for a defined setting---I like Metropolis, I like Gotham, I like Marvel's New York, and I wanted to let players make their own decision about which one to play in, instead of forcing them into one or the other. But Marissa Kelly and Mark Diaz Truman really pushed me on that point, and ultimately they were right. Not having any kind of definition to the setting made it harder for folks to dive on in, to have a strong starting point and focus on what the game's really about.

So now, Masks is set in Halcyon City. It's a big city, like New York, with plenty of superheroes and supervillains. It's been the epicenter of the super-powered world for a while now. And most importantly, Halcyon City has seen three relatively well-defined generations of superheroes before now:
- The Golden Generation, the first full generation of superheroes to publically exist, lower-powered, fought in the war, largely black and white morality, many rough spots and dark parts that weren't openly talked about at the time, but undeniably influential on everything that came after, with their statues littering the city. Many of them are dead or retired, now, but their influence still fills the city.
- The Silver Generation, much more powerful than the Golds, the first real cosmic superheroes, and the first superheroes to be much more devoted to fighting supervillains and strange monsters than crime or enemy combatants. They still carried on the black and white morality of the Golds, though. The Silvers are still largely around, and in positions of power and authority throughout Halcyon. When you see someone rocketing through the air to the scene of a giant monster attack, it's probably a Silver.
- The Bronze Generation, children of the Silvers. They never quite got a foothold in the superhero community at large, because the Silvers were so prominent, taking up too much space at the top. The Bronzes filled in spaces where they could find them, becoming extradimensional explorers, street-level vigilantes, and government agents.They were the first cynical generation of supers, the first generation to really question the entire concept of superheroes and the morality of their parents.

When you meet any given adult in Masks, they're going to be a part of one of the three generations. Different generations will act differently, hold different values and believes, make different moves. All of which is especially important to the PCs because they're the next generation---the fourth generation of supers. Not yet defined, but with three prior generations bearing down on them, trying to tell them who to be and what to do.

Exact details of Halcyon City are left up to your group to decide, sure---I'm not interested in telling you where, exactly, city hall is located. But this setting has been plenty to give Masks a real flavor all its own, and to get everyone into the action much more quickly and easily. Plus, it means I get to doodle in my notebooks about supers from the different generations, which is really my ulterior motive.

Let's talk a little about Labels. How do they work now?

There are five labels in the game---Danger, Freak, Mundane, Savior, and Superior. Each one can range from -2 to +3. The higher it is, the more it means that you see yourself in that light, and the more it will help you on its connected moves. For example, when you see yourself as a Danger (with a rating of +2), you're going to be generally better at directly engaging threats than somebody who doesn't see their self as dangerous at all.

Every label is still meant to be double-edged. Freak, for instance, is both about being unique, special, and powerful, and about being strange, weird, and abnormal. Savior is about being noble, protective, and defensive, and about being overly demanding, overprotective, stupidly noble.

That's important because your labels shift when people with Influence over you tell you about the world or yourself. Someone saying that what you can do is amazing and incredible might actually raise your Freak, just as much as someone saying that you're a bizarre mutant might raise your Freak.

Can you talk about a few examples of the major generational heroes?
Sure! I'll have a few examples in the book, and we're going to have a Deck of Villainy with a whole bunch of sample villains for use during play, but I also expect players to make up a bunch on the fly at their tables. Here are some examples of what I'm envisioning, though:

- Torpedo, the Explosive Man! A Golden generation hero with the ability to hurtle through the air at high speeds and slam into his targets with explosive force. Not very nuanced in his abilities, but he didn't have to be in his time---he just pointed himself at "the bad guys," and fired himself. One of the strange side effects of his power turned to be longevity---he wasn't affected by the high speeds and explosions of his power because of some constancy in his body, and that makes him resistant to aging. So he's actually still around and active to some extent, even though at this point, he really is not well-suited to the world around him.

- Starbright, a Silver generation heroine with cosmic powers from the stars themselves! She did some amazing things in her time, from fending off alien invasions to defeating giant monsters. She's still active today, one of the leading heroes of the city and a major member of the Exemplars, one of Halcyon City's oldest and leading superhero teams. She has strong feelings about what makes a hero, though, and has plenty of doubts about the kids she sees getting powers today.

- Mr. Everywhere, a Bronze generation "hero" (kinda). He's got multiplication powers, so he can make copies of himself, and they're all connected as part of a single mind. He turned that power, though, to secret agency activities. He singlehandedly can man an entire spy agency, and with copies of him undercover, he can learn information instantaneously. He's risen to the top of an important organization in the metahuman world, FLAG, and while he's still ultimately trying to act for the good, he's most likely to interfere subtly, or by manipulating more direct players. They call him Mr. Everywhere because at this point, some think his copies are everywhere, spread out in every major city in the world.

- Perfection, a young Modern heroine who might be a bit too effective for her own good. Perfection, in her superhero guise, looks like an all gold metallic figure with no real identifying features. Her eyes burn blue, and her body is completely smooth. She's tough and strong, capable of flight and even some forms of energy absorption, and she's good at being a hero. Good enough to earn a lot of praise quickly. That means it's gone to her head, though, and she hasn't yet found her limits; it's only a matter of time before she pushes herself too far, or butts heads with other young heroes.

And here are some villains:

- The Scarlet Songbird, a Golden generation roguish rascal of a villain. He was always all about theft, not about hurting anybody. He wore red and yellow, and carried his magic guitar. He'd play notes that could break walls, or put people to sleep, and he's always have a catchy line or a wink for a pretty bystander. He was young for his generation, and he never went totally out of the action, but he was also never that big in the city. He tried retirement, but he got bored. So now he's back out there with his guitar, trying one last time to earn a real reputation, even while he's aged and out of date.

- Dr. Infinity, a Silver generation villain, considered such only because that's when she first appeared in historical records. Dr. Infinity is an incredibly powerful time-traveling android, and she travels to dangerous time periods, hoping to cauterize what she calls "time-wounds." She rarely spends the time to explain, considering those around her to be of lower intelligence, and she seems to keep returning to Halcyon City in these time periods---something in this time must make it particularly unstable in her eyes.

- The Spider, a Bronze generation villain. He exists, but he's mostly rumors. Few have ever seen him. He's known as the Spider for sitting at the center of a massive web of criminal enterprise that spans throughout Halcyon City. He's one of the greatest crimelords Halcyon has ever seen, and no one even has his face on file---or if they do, they're not sharing. Tangling with the Spider is bad news. He doesn't fight like the other villains. He comes at you from an angle, where he can hurt you most.

- Cygnus, a Modern generation villain. She's concerned, first and foremost, with her image and her fame. She has an agent, someone who suggested to her that the name Cygnus would be a good brand to take on. She's gone through a phase of trying to be a hero, and now she's dipping into villainy, to see if it drives more attention her way.

How do you handle super-powered conflicts with villains and even between players?
The game is structured, like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, to work like a conversation, and conflicts are no different. Most of the moves that work when you're yelling at your teammates, or chilling at headquarters, will still work when you're in a fight. You can build up your teammate in the middle of a battle, just as you can when it's you and them alone with some pizza. You can defend a teammate from a terrible robot, just as you can when someone insults them.

The one move that is distinctly aimed at superheroic action conflicts is "directly engage". That lets you pummel threats, and gives them a shot back at you. Hitting and being hit most often manifests in dealing or marking conditions. There are five conditions in the game: Angry, Afraid, Guilty, Hopeless, and Insecure. Villains my have anywhere from one to all five of those conditions, depending upon how much of a threat they are. For PCs, marking a condition means that you're going to be at a disadvantage on certain moves. You can clear it by taking some action tied to the condition, like fleeing from something difficult to clear Afraid. For NPCs, when they mark a condition they make a move from a list of possible options. That means NPCs are never static, and inflicting "damage" on an NPC will always lead to some new thing happening in the fiction.

Villains definitely go out of the fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, but they can always give up before then---it's down to the GM to play the villains according to their drive, and to decide if it makes sense that they would give up. PCs go out of a fight when they've marked all their conditions and need to mark another, as well, but they might go out earlier as a result of the "take a powerful blow" move.

The one other move I'll flag for conflicts---the one that comes closest to saying "We're entering a battle now!"---is the team move. When your team enters battle together, the leader of your team rolls with some modifiers depending upon the situation. The move generates points of team for your team pool. PCs can use the team pool to help each other out during the fight, or to act selfishly and help themselves out. The key to this move, though, is that it signals, "Stuff is about to get serious!" It also means that the team has to tell you who their leader is, and that's always a great source of tension and interest.

What has been your favorite playtest moment?
Oh dear. A LOT to choose from. I'm going to give a couple, because I can't bring myself to choose just one. :)

- The team had found out that an evil giant warhammer was corrupting whoever was holding it, turning them into an enormous, brutish monster. They were desperate to take care of the situation by throwing the warhammer into a cement truck and solidifying the cement. One of their number, the Janus---a vigilante type---tried to do it, but rolled a miss, and it didn't look good. The hammer might have taken him over, driven him to attack his teammates even. Except then, every single teammate spent a team out of the pool to help, and altogether it turned the miss into a hit. The scene became one where the entire team, all together, lifted up the hammer and threw it into the concrete truck, and I could see it all on the comic book panel. It was perfect.

- In a different playtest, we were in the section where we were filling in what happened when the team first came together. It's one of the things you do during character creation, figuring out what the "Avengers moment" of the team was. And this group ultimately came up with a situation in which Dr. Noah---a villain they invented---had attacked a school with his Ark of Doom, a giant floating skyship. And he used his robotic Menagerie, a series of animal robots. Of course, they were in pairs. It was just...amazing. Creative, fun, delightful, and perfectly in keeping with the setting---not least because they talked a bit about how Dr. Noah was actually kind of washed-up, never taken seriously, and still desperately trying to get attention.

- In a third playtest, we had an epic confrontation with another kid, a bullied teen who had pulled out a summoning book and was about to bring a nightmarish creature into our reality. He thought it would help things, had convinced himself that this was the path to real heroism. They had to stop the summoning, and tried to do it by talking the teen down. It led to some great dramatic tension, yelling, and kind words, though ultimately he ran away in anger. In the process, they had to call upon the leading sorceress hero of Halcyon City, who did help them to stop the summoning...but afterward, she kidnapped one of the PCs who she deemed a danger, unable to control her powers. It was the perfect cliffhanger, leading into next issue. Loved it.

- Finally, it's tough to condense my ongoing over-a-year-long playtest into any one specific awesome moment, but one of my favorites had to be when the team got into one giant action scene with each of them in a different part, not quite intersecting, but not separate. One of them had agreed to help her ne'er-do-well thief friends to steal something from a building, and in the midst of the heist, a strange blue armored time traveler appeared and attacked her to erase her from existence---she was the Nova, and apparently a threat to time itself. Meanwhile, the Outsider, another time traveler from the far future, was investigating because the thieves were trying to steal a probe from the Outsider's own future. The Outsider was determined to stop it from happening. And then the Protege became involved when things got worse, ultimately engaging the blue-armored time traveler in battle and being thrown into a different future, where the world was destroyed. All the while, the Legacy was trying to free a family member from the Outsider's ship, which was trying to dissect her to send biological samples back to the future. It was complicated, a mess, full of drama, and wonderful.

Sorry...I could keep going! Every playtest has had a couple of these moments, and the wonderful characters I've seen players come up with have always been awesome to watch.

Thanks Brendan! Make sure to check out Masks on Kickstarter right now!

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Insanity in Horror and Lovecraftian RPGs

A friend who I don't know if they want to be tagged was discussing mental illness and insanity mechanics in RPGs with Lovecraftian themes on G+, and I wanted to share my original response, and kind of give some more thoughts.

I honestly think that part of the experience of trauma and disconnection with reality that is represented by insanity mechanics in games is a combination of personal suffering brought on by the exposure to a greater existence and comprehension skewed by denial.

I don't know if any of you have experienced real life paranoia or psychotic experiences. It is, from personal experience, completely terrifying. When it happened to me, I had to cope with the things that I knew for sure were not real only because of how unreal they were, and then the things that I could not tell if they were real because how very real they could be. I imagine that the true horror of Lovecraftian exposure would be that the things that definitely could not be real are actually definitely real, and knowing that, and feeling as though you cannot trust your own mind to tell the difference between what you see as "normal" or even "unusual" is now corrupted by the extreme and phantasmagoric. When the unreality is the new reality, what then is truly real?

For me, the experience of paranoia and psychosis may definitely have been unique to me, so I don't mean to speak for everyone.

It was the oddest thing. I have some idea of what triggered the paranoia to seep in, but it's not entirely clear. What I do know is that I woke up after a series of nightmares and found that the mere idea of walking outside the house was nearly impossible to grasp. I knew, I just knew that if I walked outside and, I knew would happen, someone would see me, and they would burst into flames. It's completely irrational. It defies all logic and is impossible. But I knew it. It was true, and I was so frightened. It was even deeper than that, in that I knew people could hear what I was thinking. I could see in their minds what they thought of me, and how vile a creature I was. When I looked in the mirror I did not look like what I previously had thought I looked like, and until the episode ended, I couldn't tell what was real and what I just knew.

The hallucinations I experienced were sometimes silly and simple. My cats talked to me and told me about games they wanted to design and screenplays they wanted to write. Others were not as good, like the movement out of the corner of my eye that became a car crashing into the side of my vehicle while I was driving. Others, they were unbelievable and I denied them, because they were things I knew couldn't be real, but god, they felt real.

When I played Black Stars Rise, one of the breaks that was given to me was a card with a man of shadows who followed me. I laughed when I got it, because I knew that man. For literally my entire life, I have had experiences that lasted long periods of time when the shadow man followed me. He never hurt me, he never did anything to me, but he was there. Watching. It was something that was so startlingly real that I could perfectly imagine it in-game, and it made me think a lot about how we translate real-life phenomena into games.

It can or may be very easy for someone with good mental health or less extreme mental health issues to portray mental illness in a character and portray something like mental illness in a character. For me, when I am having a bad time of it, even something like receiving the paranoia or hallucinations cards in Eldrich Horror makes me anxious, and watching other players portray characters who are "insane" or "mad" can be very difficult.

Working to comprehend the differences between natural chemical imbalances, trauma-induced chemical imbalances, and otherworldly trauma mental impacts is something that I think needs to be worked on. Some games have approached it (one in particular, Lovecraftesque, I consulted on), and others have chosen to avoid it altogether, and I'm not condemning any specific game or way of handling it.

However, we really do need to understand that part of what is experienced in Lovecraftian RPGs is trauma. It is not simply the otherworldly experience, or the defiance of reality. While I agree with myself in my original statement up near the top, I honestly don't think that encompasses the entire experience. Traumatic events in RPGs are often either dismissed or responded to with extremes, like flashbacks or violent outbursts. While those things can be response to trauma, they are not the only response to trauma. Sometimes it results in having triggers, where certain things cause an emotional response - anything from anxiety, to a panic attack, to a physiological response, to rage, to violence. I personally discourage people from playing characters who respond to trauma with extreme responses unless they are willing to play it respectfully. I don't like to see players doing the comedy crazy. If you play a mentally ill character, it should not be for laughs, because those are _real people_ you are mocking. And that is my only real problem with insanity mechanics: they separate us from understanding the differences between the impacts of otherworldly exposure.

Here are the three ways of portraying characters in horror or Lovecraftian RPGs with complicated mental and/or emotional states that I think make sense:

Characters who start out as having a mental illness or mental difference: these are characters who have depression or bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder or even autism. Their behavior may seem abnormal to other characters and that's okay, if you're playing it with respect it can add a lot to the story, because, like in my case, how would I know whether what I was seeing is a hallucination or a delusion or if it was actually real? Is the obsession with researching and cataloging unnatural events really influence by an unnatural power, or is it a natural compulsion? These are things you can explore, but I definitely advise doing at least a little bit of research before you do it, or taking the time to think about how you would feel if someone had these issues was there.

Characters who have experienced trauma and as a result have mental or emotional response: these are characters who, whether in the course of game or as part of their background have had a traumatic experience either directly related or indirectly related to the horrific subjects at hand. This is a point that is extremely delicate. Post-traumatic stress can be represented in so many different ways, and there are a few important things to think about. One, you need to make sure that it ties together. The behavior is not necessarily logical, but you don't want someone who was kidnapped by a cult to have panic attacks because they are in open spaces, unless you have more detailed justification. There are certain words or experiences that might trigger someone's issues with PTSD or trauma, like with victims of sexual assault, but that trauma can present in multiple ways: shutting down and not responding, panicking, emotional response (crying or distress), or in some cases, yes, violence. The final response is not nearly as common as we see represented. Trauma responses are something that definitely have their place in horror and Lovecraftian games, but they should be handled with care. You never know who shares the table, and who you might hurt. 

Finally, characters who experience otherworldly trauma: these characters, in my opinion, are somewhat different than the previous category because they have a different type of experience that actually may be stacked on top of typical trauma. The otherworldly trauma is kind of like a combination of the previous two, where you experience something so unreal, so disconnected from your reality, that you now question your very existence, and it consumes you. This is the kind of thing where a character might see into the void, and when they return, they are no longer the same. Maybe their behavior will be unusual, or they respond irrationally to normal stimuli, but they are not "crazy" nor have they experienced what we normally would explain as "trauma", because it's not a natural trauma. It is something that they may not be able to explain or even understand themselves. This also needs to be treated carefully because it can infringe upon both of the other types of character behavior and representation. Be mindful of what natural responses to trauma and mental illness people have, and try to show yours as different. Perhaps they do have hallucinations, but because they have seen the reality of the void, they don't react as though they are troubled by them because they are confused and it is unnatural, but instead they have a reaction of discontent and frustration - less "Is this real? What do I do?" and more "Why do you plague me? I wish you weren't real."

This is not a perfect way to do it, I know. I think it's just one of the ways to look at the situation and a way that people can think in more detail about the themes we work with in horror and especially things like Lovecraftian fiction in games. If you choose to play a character who has been scarred by their experiences, think very carefully about how you're doing it, why you're doing it, and how best you can represent it without making other people feel like you're treating them like a joke or like something to be feared. Even the mad have feelings, and darkness only gets darker when you lose trust in those around you.

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