Monday, April 25, 2016

Five or So Questions with Evan Rowland on Noirlandia!

I have an interview today with Evan Rowland about Noirlandia, an RPG based on Questlandia involving a murder mystery! It sounds like a really fascinating game experience. Check out the answers below, and look for Noirlandia on Kickstarter!

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

Noirlandia is a one-shot, collaborative murder-mystery game in a fantastic setting. You use an actual corkboard, and the rules tell you how to pin up leads, connect them together with yarn, and combine your information to get answers on the case. As you work on the mystery, you learn more about the corruption of the unique city your group made, and put your character's principles to the test.

I'm excited about the game for a lot of reasons! I love the worldbuilding elements - bringing a noir-style mystery to historic London, a colony of dragons, or a meteor mining outpost. I love creating the classic crime board - I've always been fascinated by them. And I love how the game emphasizes big political machinations. I'm hoping it can invoke some of the Chinatown feel!

Tell me about the crime board and how it factors into Noirlandia's main gameplay. How do the players and mechanics interact with it?
To win a game of Noirlandia, you need to find 3 answers: Why was the victim murdered? Who did it? How was it pulled off? To get those answers, you need to assembles leads and form connections between them. The crime board is where that's all assembled—an actual cork board where you pin up your leads, connections, and answers, divided between the 4 districts of your city.

Both leads and connections come from successful investigation rolls. A lead is a person, place, or object—it could be the victim's therapist, an underground parking garage, or a stolen statuette. When you find a lead, you write it on a slip of paper or newsprint, and pin it to your board. When you find a connection, you can tie a string between any two leads—maybe the therapist stole the statuette!

Crime Board

To get answers on the case, you need to connect 3 leads together. But there are forces actively working against you - you might find your leads destroyed before you have a chance to use them!

The investigation sounds really cool. What can you tell me about character involvement in the investigation - do they factor into the plot? What about the characters matters to the investigation?

Each player controls one character participating in the investigation. They come from all walks of life—your character could be a writer, a hired gun, an aristocrat, a private eye, or a role unique to the setting you created. All the characters have one thing in common—a connection to the victim, whose death kicks off the mystery.

The story follows multiple threads, as each character tackles the case in their own way. Some games have the characters joining forces, while in others, paranoia or betrayal between characters leads to solitary investigations.

Your group might not be working together directly, but everyone's progress on the case brings us closer to solving the crime. And Noirlandia is always cooperative on a player level, even when the characters are at odds.

Finally, in every story, characters see their defining principle put to the test. If your character’s guiding principle is, “tell no lie,” the mechanics will throw you into situations where you’ll either have to lie to a loved one or risk losing the thread of your investigation.

What kind of resources and research did you do to create the general "feel" of Noirlandia?

There's a lot of noir to watch! I've combed through movies like The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard, and Chinatown to come up with mechanics around following the thread of a mystery, putting clues together, and dealing with societal corruption.

I've also been playing noir-influenced games like L.A. Noire, Grim Fandango, and Sam & Max Hit the Road. I’ve tried to make the world-building aspects of Noirlandia flexible enough to explore both serious and offbeat noir stories.
Grim Fandango

What do you think happens in Noirlandia - mechanically, socially, or otherwise - that helps to make the experience unique and exciting?
Mechanically speaking, I’m really happy with how the crime board is created and used. It both shows the leads that have been uncovered and the connections between them, and makes a kind of abstract map of the city.

Questlandia’s kingdom-building has become Noirlandia’s city-building, and the fantastic settings that result have been my favorite part of the game.

Noirlandia uses noir plots and pacing, but allows you to inject fresh ideas into the genre. It’s a great chance to shake up the familiar tropes and tell new kinds of stories within a murder-mystery framework. We have an amazing group of stretch goal writers who are creating space opera noir, queer vampire noir, medieval fantasy noir, and Nintendo noir. It’s been so exciting to see these settings come to life in the game!

Some Crime Board photos!

Thanks to Evan for the interview, and I hope you all get to check out Noirlandia on Kickstarter! It looks like a fun and unique experience, and I admit, I can't resist a good mystery. :)


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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Five or So Questions with Eric Vogel on the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Hi Everyone! Today I have an interview with Eric Vogel, the lead designer on the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, a new product coming from Evil Hat via Kickstarter! The game caught my eye because it's a cooperative game, which (I may have previously mentioned) is my preference, but is hard to find! I love coop games but card games make me hesitant, so I wanted to know more about the design and the motivation behind the product. Check out Eric's answers below, and check out the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game on Kickstarter!

Tell me a little about the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. What excites you about it?

DFCO is a true cooperative game, with all players working as a team to defeat the game itself. There is no traitor mechanic, etc. The players take on the roles of Harry Dresden, the wizard PI, and a group of his friends & allies trying to solve mysteries and defeat the different villains from the novels. A single game lets you play through 1 novel of the series, although the game also includes a random scenario generator for variety. The players share a common pool of action points, that they alternately spend and contribute to. The game typically comes down to a "showdown" phase in which the players get a series of final die rolls to try to solve the outstanding cases, and defeat the outstanding foes. If they have solved more cases than there are surviving foes left on the board, they win. Otherwise, they lose.

I think what was most exciting for me during the design process was getting to represent the Dresden Files characters and events in game form. Its an incredibly rich world - which is a great resource and really challenging at the same time. I really enjoy the books, and I want to embody them well in the game. At the same time, I wasn't trying to make a 6 hour game with tons of chrome, and excruciating amounts of detail that only a handful of hardcore gamers who were also hardcore Dresden fans would ever want to play. It was an exciting game challenge to hit the right level of abstraction to achieve thematic feel while making a game that was accessible to all the Dresden constituencies: board gamers, RPG players, and just fans of the novels.

Now its super exciting to see how excited the Dresden fans are getting about DFCO. Its really taking the buzz to a new level. We got a lot of attention at GAMA. Did that answer your question?

It did! What motivated you, from fiction and audience, to make this a cooperative game, considering the popularity of competitive games?

When Evil Hat commissioned the game from me, they specified that they wanted a cooperative game from me - so it was not a choice I made. I'll be honest, that was not initially something I was happy about. I had not designed a cooperative game previously, and I was not a big fan of them at that time. I had done some game development work on someone else's cooperative, and I felt like I had given them most of the lingering ideas I had for how to do a cooperative game. So I ended up starting from zero, doing a lot of playing co-ops as research, and making a lot of false starts before I finally came up with the core mechanics of DFCO. You may get to glimpse some of those false starts when I publish the prototype history for DFCO in a Kickstarter Bulletin - something that has become kind of a tradition for me and EHP now. Anyway, in the process I discovered that there are several co-ops I really enjoy, and I figured out what it is I don't like about some co-ops. I had previously believed that I had a fundamental objection to the lack of competition, but it was really more the lack of the ability to make an individual contribution to the success or failure of a challenging task, in an interactional context. So I made sure DFCO had that in spades. So now I have a whole new genre of game that I enjoy playing! that was a nice side benefit. I don't know if I will design any more co-ops after this one or not. If DFCO is a hit, I will probably encounter demand for them. However, I really don't like repeating myself, so I would need an idea for a co-op that was fundamentally mechanically different from DFCO.

DFCO uses the Fate system elements, which is really cool. What have you done with the game to meld the Fate system tools into a card game?

It probably mirrors or represents those elements more that it literally uses them. I am not an RPG player, and I am not terribly knowledgeable about RPG mechanics. However, the "ah-ha" moment of the DFCO design came out of me reading the Fate Accelerated rules (which I found a lot more accessible than most RPG rules) and seeing a way to represent the Fate mechanics in card game mechanics, starting with the basic actions of Fate Accelerated: Attack, Overcome, etc. There are also mechanics in DFCO derived loosely from troubles and stunts. I experimented with reflecting the Fate system at a more nuanced level,using concepts like approaches, but I found that was too high a level of detail for the design I wanted to execute. There was even a phase in which I was trying to create a kind of generic Fate System cooperative card game, but I soon moved away from that and refocused on making the game reflect the specifics of the Dresden Files. Still, the game has action types that will be mostly familiar to Fate RPG players, it uses Fate Dice, and players both spend and generate Fate points. 

What kind of challenges did you encounter with applying the fiction of Dresden Files to a Fate and card game format, without losing the feel of the novels and characters?

In my day job as a professor of clinical psychology, one of my specialty areas is qualitative research. When you do qualitative analysis, the key challenge is to find the right level of abstraction. If you abstract too much, you lose the key meanings in the raw data. If you abstract too little, your analysis is convoluted, muddled, and doesn't provide clear understanding. It is a similar task when you need to represent a series of novels with a card game. Too much abstraction, and the game doesn't feel like the source material anymore. Too little abstraction, and it isn't a very accessible game - its the kind of game only certain gamers want to play. The Dresden Files novels appeal to a wide audience, so I thought the game should too. You can never strike the perfect balance for everyone, but hopefully I struck the best balance for the widest audience. Time will tell.

During playtesting and from player feedback, what were the pieces of positive feedback that made you have an "I've got this!" feeling?

I don't think the game really came together until I added the "talent" mechanic, which is a character specific-power that players get to use whenever they discard a card to generate Fate Points for the team. That made all the turns fun, and added a key decision point that gave the individual players more responsibility for the team's strategy. Once that was in place, what I observed was a change in the character of the discussions players were having during the game. In my least favorite co-ops, one player tends to act as leader and dictate a course of action to everyone else; its natural enough that happens, its an inherent aspect of group dynamics. But I found that the players in DFCO were having a much more interactional discussion about how to play; they weren't just acting independently, and they were not just deferring to the judgement of one player. That was when I knew I was onto something.

Awesome! Thanks Eric, so much, for answering my questions about the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game! I'm excited to see another coop game on the market, and it sounds like a lot of people will have a great time with this one. Check out the new game on Kickstarter!

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Women with Initiative: Kathryn Hymes

Hello all! Today we're featuring Kathryn Hymes, our Woman with Initiative for April!

Kathryn is one half of the indie design studio, Thorny Games. In the past year, the studio's silent live action game Sign received an Honorable Mention from the Golden Cobra Challenge. Sign is a game following the journey of deaf children in 1970s Nicaragua. It's received great reception at multiple events, including Metatopia and Dreamation, and will be featured at the upcoming Living Games conference. It's always exciting to see designers approaching difficult topics and examining agency and experiences through the lens of gaming.

Kathryn's current project is Dialect, which in her own words is
"...a game about language and how it dies. It's a world-building game that follows the story of a community in isolation as seen through their language. We've run very successful playtests at Metatopia and Dreamation as well as with many local groups throughout the SF area.  My design partner and I have put a lot of time and heart into this game. Looking forward to Kickstarting in the late summer!"

She is also working on Xenolanguage, which is an introspective game based on one of her favorite sci-fi stories by Ted Chiang. In Xenolanguage, Kathryn explains
"'s five minutes in the future and we've just made first contact. You are a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language. As you gain fluency, you begin to see the world differently."
This in particular made me think of Magicians, a language learning RPG that teaches Korean. Using RPGs to help people learn and understand unfamiliar languages and cultural language coding is fascinating!

I had the opportunity to ask Kathryn some questions about her work and process. Check them out!

Why did you choose language as a focus for your current games?

Oh, man -- language is so my jam. I read grammar books for fun as a kid (I was a fun kid). I studied math and language in school. It was a natural muse for game design. Language is a powerful and relatively-uncharted topic in gaming that is fundamental to so much --- identity, culture and just being human.

Given it’s a passion, the ideas around it come very naturally. Dialect, a project I’m co-designing with Hakan Seyalioglu, started off as an idea about telling a story through building a language. In the past I’ve struggled with finishing projects just for the sake of it. Feeling compelled to make something because I really care about it gets me through the design slumps.

Language won’t be the focus forever, but for now I’m happy dancing in the space between a game-designer- linguist.

Could you talk a little about Sign and the research you did for the game?

Yes! Sign is a game about being understood. It's a silent larp for 4-6 players in under 2 hours. It centers on deafness, play, and an emergent language that came from the hands of children. In Sign, players follow a small piece of the true story behind Nicaraguan Sign Language, which started life as an emergent language of deaf school children, and later became the official sign language of an entire country. In the game, players share the frustration and loneliness of not having a language and develop the tools to overcome it. Over the course of the game, they build their own form of communication through structure and freeform play. As a linguist, I’ve been moved by this story for a long time. I hope this game will help it spread!

My design partner and I have taken great care to make the game accessible, respectful, and fun to play. We’ve solicited and incorporated feedback from both the Deaf community and linguists specializing in sign language. This has meaningfully shaped the game. We believe Sign is an experience in empathy: It gives players a brief glimpse at how life changes when barriers to communication are raised, and what that means for people emotionally. The hope is that in addition to being a game, it can see a second life as an educational tool, spreading the word of what is one of the most remarkable linguistic phenomena of modern times.

How do you make games about language more engaging when they include elements like being unable to speak or having different languages without the game seeming forced?

Our brains are hard-wired for language - it’s something that makes us fundamentally human. This help it be naturally engaging. For example, what’s most unique about playing Sign is the arc of understanding. Players’ interactions during the first stages of the game are stilted and full of compromise. They don't have language: they can’t be understood and it stings. Throughout the game, players define the words they need to communicate during recess and class time, and by the end, it's incredible how much they can get across. We've also seen players hold onto their in-game language long after the game ends and use it with others to recall play. Words are just so sticky.

Thank you so much to Kathryn for answering questions and giving her time for this feature! You can reach Kathryn via the links and social media below if you're interested in talking more about Sign, Dialect, or Xenolanguage, or whatever else caught your eye during the interview. Thanks for reading, and please remember to check out my Patreon if you're interested in helping support more blog posts, interviews, and features on Thoughty blog!

Kathryn Hymes Contact

Thorny Games Website

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, and a New Future

This post has to start with a disclaimer, because this is important to note. Cyberpunk settings and materials for games and fiction have often (almost always, really) involved appropriation and racial and cultural stereotyping of indigenous cultures, people of color, and pretty much anyone outside of the white "norm" in the U.S. and parts of Europe. This is something that sucks, and it is very important. I want it clear that what I am talking about is not meant to dismiss or ignore this. 

On topic:

As many people know, I am a big fan of the tabletop RPG Shadowrun, which was released originally in 1989 and set in a cyberpunk technically-a-dystopia. My favorite edition, and in fact the only edition I've played more than a half a session, is 3rd Edition. There are a lot of reasons I like it - the first is that it's got a whole bunch of somewhat-ridiculous but fascinating, rich setting material. Along with that, it has magic and technology in a bundle, which I love. You can build the most ridiculous characters (especially with the point-buy system, which to my knowledge is not available in later editions, which is a travesty), and tell radical stories.

There are a few ideological reasons for me, too. There are a lot of moral and ethical aspects to Shadowrun if you dig into it (which I have been lucky enough to have a GM who allowed this). Big ones, of course, are things like bodily autonomy, personal freedoms, etc. For me the most clear things are:

  • The reality of class and financial disparity. While most people would probably not have seen it, I spent a fair amount of time as a kid in a pretty financially desperate place. My family was not well to do, I had to do a lot of manual labor growing up, and the changes I experienced when I finally made some money were incredible. However, class is ignored a lot in the US. The people in power rarely discuss the fact that there's a massive income and class disparity, and that lack of recognition and acknowledgement is reflected in Shadowrun. In the Lifestyle rules, there are rules for everything from where you get your protein cubes to how long it will take an ambulance to get to you. If you don't have healthcare (which is fucking expensive), you have to know a street doc, and if it's not a good one, you're fucked. There are barriers if you don't have money, and it's pretty well established that if you don't have money, you're going to have to break the law to do it - and that's not unrealistic even now.
  • The reality of injury. In Shadowrun 3e, there is a damage track that includes stun damage, then physical damage, and overflow which basically means "y'all dead." If you get shot with a shotgun and you're a human without augments? You are likely to die. If you're a troll with armor? Much less likely, but if someone really great at the weapon is using it, you still might get hurt. The damage from weapons is no joke, and you can seriously die. The first time I played Shadowrun I died in the first five minutes. The thing is, though, it's not a cheap injury or death. You can't really come back from the dead, but you can get magical healing (one try) or treatment by a street doc, even though it's expensive as hell, and you'll probably have to have down time to heal. However, the injury is not "whoops I slipped and died!" or "I took twelve shots to the chest and then got hit by a shell casing and it took me to -10" either. It feels meaty, like the injuries actually make you take modifications to your rolls so it's represented mechanically and in the fiction. This is something I really appreciate. (Note: This does not keep you from doing cool shit. You can do so much cool shit.)
  • The power of choice. One of the biggest things about Shadowrun 3e that I love is that you have a significant amount of choice. I did not find this to be the case with 5e and 4e seems very removed from the kind of gameplay that this is relevant to. Both with priority and point-buy, you can build characters with a lot of variety. Everything from disabilities (they have flaw options for a bunch of physical and some mental disabilities or disorders - and no, I am not saying they're perfect, but they are there) to augmented bio- and cyberware. The thing that is awesome about it, in my opinion, is that you can have a disability or completely change your body, and still be just as effective as any of the other players. You can choose whether your character is fully physically combat ready, or if they have flashbacks, or any number of things, but you can also change if they have titanium bone lacing or in-eye cameras. These things are, though, limited by my first point - class and financial disparity. However, that's part of why people are doing the illegal junk they're doing.
  • You can have a cause. While the game is not specifically targeted at it, you can aim towards political and social goals, like taking down corporations not because you're hired by a competing corp, but because they're doing unethical shit. You can have personal priorities, and moral and ethical standards (there are even rules for partial and complete pacifism in the flaws). The game doesn't have to strictly be about running for cash (though the nuyen help!), it can be about radical change and overcoming the prejudices, biases, and brutal rule of corporate interest.

There's some other stuff, too, but those are the big ones. They might not be the same that other people like, or that they even care about at all! But they are big to me.

With that last point especially in mind,

I'd love to see a game or story post-Shadowrun, or alternate to Shadowrun. Not just "new edition of Shadowrun" but instead a future where the corporations have been knocked down a peg but they're still resisting, where people have achieved less disparity, where people have been able to cut down crime because social policies don't fucking suck so hard. I want a future where we can see a world of hope. I want to be a hiccup from post-scarcity. I want creation for creation's sake, not to fill a piggy bank. I want people to choose the bodies - or lack of body - they want. I want the conflict to be based on ideology (instead of which corporation pays more) and the pursuit of equal access to safety and security.

I love the tech in Shadowrun, and I love the concepts explored. I'd just really love to expand upon it in a way that operates less on the plan of getting more nuyen and instead on the goal of changing the world. I can't help it, I guess - the real world seems beyond possibility of change, so it's become a fantasy I'd like to play out. At least if I played it in a world like Shadowrun, I could dual-wield vibro-swords.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Five or So Questions with Greg Stolze on Unknown Armies Third Edition

I have been lucky enough today to have an interview with Greg Stolze! Greg, by Cam Banks' own words, is "the lead designer and writer of UA3 and co-creator of Unknown Armies since the dawn of gaming history. He's also the charming gent in the KS video." (I liked this description, so I stole it.) Greg answered some of my questions about the third edition of the well-known occult tabletop game, Unknown Armies. A little background from me about Unknown Armies: I have heard of the game hundreds of times, but never once looked it up. The Kickstarter popped up, and I clicked on it - and I actually watched the video!* - and I'm totally hooked. Hopefully I get the chance to play someday! In the meantime, let's see what Greg had to say!

Tell me a little about Unknown Armies Third Edition. What excites you about it?

I think that the setting represents the feel of 2016 a lot better than UA2 did, and I hope that the revised rules incorporate more of what gaming, collectively, has moved towards in that time. Specifically, I think we’ve finally nailed down the issue of “It’s a neat setting, but what do you DO with it?” In UA2, we said “Whatever you want! Make up a plot framework that works for you and go from there.”

That worked for some groups, but with UA3 we backstop that a lot harder for everyone else. Instead of a pure sandbox (which is good for improvising GMs, less good for pre-planning GMs), we give you a sandbox in which the players themselves lay the rails. That way the GM knows where things are heading and can build ahead with some confidence that the PCs aren’t going to lose interest or get distracted. At the same time, we help GMs pace their duties—when do I want to be the PCs worst enemy (‘cause it’s a horror game) and when do I want to be the players’ biggest fan (‘cause it’s a collaborative story activity)? This can be confusing, and we’ve attempted to make it more clear.

I’m also excited that we were able to get some new voices into the setting. I always said I didn’t want to write something new for UA just to keep the pot stirred, but it took me a while to realized that getting help from other writers would be the easiest and best way to find new perspectives on it.

Could you share an example or two of rules that you are revising from UA2 to UA3 and what thought process went into those changes?

I think two obvious things are (1) eradicating the stats that were in the first versions — Body, Speed, Mind and Soul — and (2) including rules for building your own adeptery school.

Taking out the stats was part of a streamlining effort. When people told me about their UA characters, the things that they always talked about were their Do-It-Yourself Skills (renamed in UA3 as “Identities,” and now a little broader than Skills were in the previous editions) and how crazy their guy was. So I decided that, since no one’s bragging about their maxed out Mind score, it would make more sense upgrade the old Madness Meter into the newfangled Shock Gauge. As the Shock Gauge, it not only measures how vulnerable or tough you are in response to different mental strains, but also abilities that gauge how well you’ve adapted to the challenges you’ve faced. For example, if you’ve absorbed a lot of hits to your Unnatural gauge, your ability to hide from things is a bit better than the average person (because most Unnatural stuff, alas, makes people want to put their head under the covers). At the same time though, the character’s ability to notice things diminishes, because the other effect of seeing lots of crazy weird magick is that you start to doubt your perceptions.

As for building your own adept magick, I thought that would be something the fans would love to play around with, and it would be useful for freelancers. Originally, the costs for different effects were pretty much based around my gut feeling (or the instincts of whomever was writing it), so I just codified it to make the guidance clearer. If getting a charge is really hard and your taboo is really strict, then spells don’t cost many charges. If charging up is simple and your taboo isn’t that bad, then spells are far more expensive. Play balance is always something of a moving target, but at least this time we’ve got a better scope on it.

What elements of the setting & setting development are you really excited to see players and GMs get their hands on?

I’m pretty stoked with the way the Sleepers changed. Instead of a monolithic, top-down conspiracy of magick-hogs, you get something like a radicalized Alcoholics Anonymous, only for enchantment. These are not optimistic people who want to be top dog any more. These are folks who have been burned badly and don’t want to let anyone else make their same mistakes. From the outside, this can look abusive and controlling, but if a bad-acting adept is rampaging around, the new Sleepers are the group that aren’t going to consider recruiting and containing her (like TNI would) and they’re not going to dither about morals (the way Mak Attax might). They’re just going to clear their schedules and pull on their stomping boots.

What were some of the challenges you've encountered taking a game with a history and a pretty secure place in people's minds and upgrading it in the ways you've mentioned, without the risk of losing the original concepts?

There are always people who want it to be “the same, but different.” And that’s not out of line! If I bought a game called “Vampire: the Requiem” and it wasn’t about vampires, I’d be pretty hacked off. But the balance between sameness and difference can be tricky to place and, no matter what you pick, someone’s going to wish you’d done it differently. For example, some fans have said, “Why did you take out mechanomancy, epideromancy, and our beloved dipsomancy?” But if I’d just revamped those schools, I’m certain that other fans would have said “Why are you just redoing stuff that’s already on our shelves? Where’s the new stuff?”

It can feel a little like people are saying “Why can’t you surprise me again, exactly the same way you did last time?” but, well, that’s not the way surprises work. Plus, it’s not exactly difficult to get one’s hands on the old material.

Where are you pulling inspiration from, if anywhere, mechanically, in theory, and in fiction or setting? 

I’m not sure if it’s a mechanical inspiration exactly, but I did look long and hard at Apocalypse World and the way it takes “GMing” — something I’d always just kind of pantsed my way through, based on instincts forged in the fires of a thousand pulp novels — and breaks it into a series of steps or tasks. The GM book has a lot of that: “When you are running the game, you need to do A, B and C, and the time to do C is not when you’re at the table in the middle of things.” A is pacing, B is rules handling, and C is generating antagonism. I’m very pleased with how it worked out to explicitly tell myself, when I was running my test game of UA3, that in-between sessions was “antagonism time” when I could look at each character and think “What is the worst thing I could throw at this one? What’s most likely to distract him or her from their goals?” But once we were in the middle of the session, I put away that mindset and switched to “How can I make this session, right now, the most fun for these players?”

The GM has always had to have this split consciousness, being in character as the PCs’ worst enemies while at the same time maintaining the setting and trying to keep the plot moving forward. The stories about antagonistic GMs who pull the classic “Rocks fall, everyone dies!” at the slightest deviation from their pre-planned plot is a symptom of a GM who has gotten these two jobs confused and is using the tool of moderating the session in service of pushing against the characters’ agenda. In UA3, it explicitly helps keep those jobs divided.

Thank you so much to Greg for answering my questions! This was a really interesting interview, and I'm excited to see and hear more about Unknown Armies Third Edition. Make sure to check out the Kickstarter and learn more about the game!

*I am a notorious non-video-watcher. I'll read transcripts, but I'm easily distracted by videos longer than a minute or so, which means I normally skip KS videos except the projects I'm working on (like Ryan Macklin's Katana's & Trenchcoats, the subject of the Five or So interview Monday). The Unknown Armies video is badass, though, so I paid attention.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Five or So Questions with Fandible on Longshot Campaigns and Numenera

I have an interview today with the cast of Fandible, talking about their upcoming longshot campaign of Numenera! I got the chance to ask them questions about why they chose to take on this longshot and what they're getting from it. Here's a bunch of words from the crew!

Our interviewees today are noted below with their initials - you can learn more about the cast on Fandible's About page!
BC: Billy Coffing
DD: David Donnelly
JR: Jesus Rodriguez
DR: Daniel Rodriguez
AC: Angela Craft

Tell me a little bit about Fandible's upcoming projects. What excites you about them?

Our upcoming project is the Longshot campaign for Numenera! This will be a new weekly podcast offering, a new actual play podcast episode posted every week in one story. After five years of playing a new game every week, we're looking forward to the challenge of staying with one game week after week. We've played a few sessions of Numenera before, and have an intermittent game of The Strange that's been ongoing for awhile, so we're familiar with the system and the world, but this weekly campaign will let us dig into the game in a way we haven't been able to with any of the other games we've played

What made you choose Numenera for this campaign beyond basic familiarity?

BC: It's an interesting setting. We have never been a podcast for fantasy settings, and while Numenera can be described as fantasy, there is a unique element to it that is sci-fi and that called to me.

DD: For all of the systems that we've tried over the years, we've always gravitated towards ones with an economy that allows us (the players) to exercise some influence in the game beyond the actions of our characters. Numenera incorporates a system of experience points that facilitates that more than most other games, and encourages a mix between character advancement (increasing abilities, stats, etc.) and the myriad other uses it provides (such as "I happen to know this town" or "I'm exceptionally good at stabbing David's character.")

Speaking of economy, however, the game also appeals to my desire to find and accumulate STUFF. Cyphers, shins (money) and good, old-fashioned dungeon crawling is all baked into the narrative. The game may be based on exploration and discovery, but I'm most excited to be the team accountant. (Didn't buy rations in the last town? Let's look up those starvation rules.)

JR: The world of Numenera fascinated me. With such a bizarre setting, it seemed a great opportunity to present my Player Characters with numerous strange creatures and characters that wouldn't really come up in a more traditional roleplaying game. In many ways, it reminded me of another favorite setting of mine, Planescape. Unsurprisingly, also created by Monte Cook. Like Planescape, I hope to bring in material that may challenge the players physically but also mentally. Because in a world where technology is essentially magic, who can say that the person calling himself a wizard isn't right?

DR: For me, my favorite thing about Numenera is the sheer weirdness of it, the whole 'sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic' thing. I gravitate naturally towards the weird, and Numenera does a great job of bringing the weird while keeping it approachable.

AC: I’m interested in games that let you explore different types of stories all in one setting. Think of Star Trek: on any given week, there might be a political negotiation, a war story, a goofy holodeck adventure, or a deconstruction of a modern sociological problem. Because in Numenera you’re exploring a world that is built on the leftovers of other civilizations, we can end up in a number of places that allow for different types of plot beats - in the sessions we’ve already played, my character has acted as a scientist, a spy, and a pirate. Few other games give that sort of flexibility in a single setting.

Why did you choose to run a long campaign? Do you think it will be more challenging or easier?

BC: Fans were interested in a long campaign, and we decided to listen to them. The most important thing for me was that we didn't give up our one-shot games on Friday in order to do one continuous campaign. Thus it took a little while for us to figure out the logistics of this all.

DD: I voted for this campaign because it seemed like the easiest way for me to avoid responsibility by giving Jesus more work. The challenge for me will be minimal because the dice have conspired against me in every other game thus far, so I can focus solely on portraying a character that listeners will mourn when he is dead.

JR: We play many games in Fandible and although we have a few long running games, the long length of time between them makes each session feel more like one off stories that happen to be connected than one cohesive campaign. Numenera will present an opportunity to have the players play one cohesive long term story that doesn't necessarily need me to think of stopping point at the end of each particular session. It will help me focus on the natural end of session or even stop it mid battle because I know we will be back rather quickly to finish it.

The downside of the short length of time between sessions is that I won’t have as much time to waste not thinking of the next part of story. With our other games, I can have months in between sessions. Plenty of time to hang back, sip a beer, and maybe spend 5 minutes thinking about a story point before continuing on working on my robot bartender idea. Now, I need to be a bit more focused on getting my loose ends tied together a bit quicker, because those players are going to need me to tell them what’s going on rather quickly.

DR: Well, the choice was made as a group, but I definitely approve of it, while we do have some long-running games (Hollow Earth Expedition and Unhallowed Metropolis both come to mind), this is the first one we've done with the full intention of making it a long-running game. I think the main challenge with it will be finding the right pace for growth with our characters, neither so fast that every session sees us becoming different, nor so slow that we stagnate for months on end.

AC: I have a terrible memory, so I really like that behind-the-scenes we’re going just a matter of weeks between Numenera sessions, rather than months. And because the episodes for the Longshot will be shorter than our normal format, the sessions are moving at a zippier pace. I agree with Dan that pacing character and story advancement overall is going to be the toughest balancing act for us, because this is a huge adjustment from how we’ve been playing together for the last five years.

What playstyles do you each have to contribute to the game?

BC: I'm funny. And I'm willing to have my character take a beating for the good of the story. Also, thus far, I've had the worst rolls in game so my ability to accept bad luck has been helpful to continuing the game.

DD: My contribution is the same now as it has always been: Completely forget what our objective is and have the players walk me through everything that's happened in the last few hours.

JR: Utter and absolute insanity. Pants may or may not be required.
DR: I think I bring a general 'old man grump' combined with a willingness to play a character that could very well end up killing and eating his teammates that should endear me to both the audience and the rest of the group.

AC: I often end up playing “the straight man” to the insanity of the group, and I’ve had fun developing a character that thinks she’s the straight man again, but is really just rather unobservant 90% of the time. Yes, this gets her into plenty of trouble. But also makes everyone let their guard down for that 10% of the time when she is focused.

What do you hope to get out of this campaign, both short term and long term?

BC: Short term? I'm just looking to have a good time with an interesting setting. This is the same for any of our other games. Long term, I hope we get more fans who are interested in one continuous story every week. And hopefully those new fans will find an appreciation for our older stuff.

DD: Short term: More twitter followers. Long term: More people donating to our Patreon, finding me at a Con and challenging me to a duel. (I accept, pistols at dawn and settle your affairs, btw.)

JR: Short term, I expect a few laughs, a funny situation or two, and a chance to present some truly bizarre creatures. Long term, an epic story. Fantasy is not Fandible's bag, but Numenera presented us with a chance to swing around our aversion to fantasy and give us a long term game in the vein of many group’s traditional D&D campaign. Truth is, I plan to have this game become a EPIC fantasy adventure. Just don't tell my players. They must suspect nothing!

DR: Mostly the ability to play a were-hedgehog, which I believe is its own reward.

AC: My long term goal is definitely to keep Jesus from turning this into a epic fantasy quest! SCIENCE shall be your foil, sir. I’m also looking forward to having enough game sessions to really watch our characters grow and develop from the rough sketches we started with to fully developed people (were-hedgehog-people, in one case). Short term, the goal is to keep the group’s momentum going long enough to meet our long term goals!

What tools (tech and social) do you plan to use to handle keeping track of the events, keeping tone, and help with ensuring everyone has fun?

BC: David has been pushing for us all to be taking more notes. I've slowly been taking his excessive prodding to heart. Maybe I'll even push for some sort of character journal to be posted on our website.

DD: Angela made everyone a binder, so I plan to use my training from 5th grade and stuffing all of my papers in there and hoping no one asks me to show my work.

JR: I have an Evernote account, a keyboard, and a will to use it. Besides that, I've got a Numenera bestiary I've started to bookmark with possible creatures my players may face at the most opportune (and inopportune) times.
DR: You mean, besides the half-dozen screens I have on me at any given time? Well, mostly the fabulous folders that Angela made for us because she's our only grown-up. Other than that, it's just a matter of being ourselves and talking openly among ourselves before and after each game about what we want to do with it. It's worked pretty well for us so far!

AC: For all of Dan’s screens, we really are a rather low-tech group! Pen and paper is still the best note-taking tool at the table for us, since the battery will never run out and we’re less likely to be distracted by other apps when we should be rolling dice (guilty! But we say so much funny stuff the urge to live-tweet is too hard to resist!). And yes, my fabulous binders will hopefully keep all these notes in one place rather than spreading to every nook and cranny of my apartment, where the weekly games take place.

Sounds like this is going to be a fun project to listen to! Thank you all for reading, and to the cast for answering my questions! Thanks as well to Angela for wrangling the cast. Check out Fandible now!

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ryan Macklin on Katanas & Trenchcoats

I was really excited for this interview with Ryan Mackin about the upcoming Katanas & Trenchcoats release, which is currently kicking ass on Kickstarter. My favorite game is Shadowrun, specifically 3rd Edition, which is pretty heavy in the 90s aesthetic. I am lucky enough to be one of the writers that Ryan has accepted work from, which is super exciting, because I've wanted to be involved even from the earlier release of Katanas & Trenchcoats, Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver! The video for the Kickstarter is really fun to watch, as well, so if you don't check out the KS for any other reason, you'll still get a laugh. 

Tell me a little about Katanas & Trenchcoats and the upcoming release. What excites you about it?

There's a lot for me to be excited about, but if I had to pick one thing, it's the jam band approach I have to making games. I have the most fun making games when I'm doing it with a crew—the Fate work I've done with Leonard Balsera (and later with Jack Graham on Transhumanity's Fate), working on Leverage and Cortex Plus Action, the four Technocracy books that I developed for Mage: the Ascension, working with the editorial staff at Paizo, and so on.

Last year's Katanas & Trenchcoats, Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver took that idea to a silly extreme—27 writers for 22 pages. And while that make for a rougher-than-normal development process, it was super fun to get that many minds playing with my silly idea of iconic '90s gaming.

I'm talking with around a hundred writers now for this new edition Katanas & Trenchcoats—all fans or past contributors of the meta-genre, and all jazzed to make a bigger, badder version of K&T happen. That we're going to make a more robust game in system and setting is also exciting, but I wouldn't have as much fun doing that solo.

More of a logistical question, but: You have had some great teams in the past - how do you find people to work on projects with you, including on this project, who have the style, energy, and personality that work best?
In a word, slowly. In the early days, I didn't form the team; I was brought on by another. That gave me connections with people (and hands-on training on team-style freelancing). The first time I lead of team of my own choosing was on Convention Book: N.W.O. for Mage: the Ascension. I talked with people I knew who were fans—some experienced writers, some newer—and convinced them to form a short-lived jam band.

My approach as a developer and as a publisher is honestly best described that way, as a jam band. When the team is small and nimble, like they were on the Mage books or Fate Core, I do a kickoff Hangouts session to get everyone talking to each other. This is great for getting ideas flowing, but just as important is the humanizing factor: each person hears a voice and ideally sees a face for everyone else. That way, when differences of opinion happen via email or document comments, it's easier to remember the human being we're talking with.

From there, I try to take the same philosophy I have as a GM to running a team: maybe I'm smart about something, but I'm not as smart as a team of a bunch of smart people (that may or may not include me). So I look for people who will surprise me with ideas. Some ideas are outright taken. Some are rejected, but the conversation about that rejection involves further articulation. And some ideas mutate into cool stuff because of the multiple viewpoints.

That's why I put out a call for as broad a range of people as I could get for this Katanas & Trenchcoats book. Me and five other white dudes can come up with some really interesting stuff, but me and five (or in the case of K&T, dozens) people who don't remotely share my background? I consistently find gold there.

What kind of content are you looking forward to bringing in the new edition? Can we expect any specific new rules or setting material?
Aside from a few tenets, there are no sacred cows. The setting is getting rebooted—I think of this full edition as the TV show that got spun off from a movie. The Darkest Cosmos expands to a full cosmology of otherworldly places and to more about Earth itself. Basically, take what was the Year One stuff, and blow it up like a beautiful, chaotic balloon.

The point isn't the blow it up just for the sake of doing so, though. The reason I'm involving so many writers is to create a deliberate cacophony in one book, but one where if you want to follow a single thread holds a lot of potential.

As far as the system goes, the original was ha-ha-funny (and honestly quite playable for only a few pages of jokey rules), but in trying to build a different setting on top of it, my efforts constantly fell flat. So I went back to formula, and to notes I made that didn't fit in the 22-page version of the game. I looked at what did work about the system—the basic die mechanics—and what I do and don't like about games like Fate, Cortex Plus (specifically Action), Powered by the Apocalypse, and the various '90s games I've enjoyed.

I'm dropping more specifics every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the Kickstarter campaign as updates.

What about this project really keeps you interested in working on it - material, background, rules?

I can boil it down to: (1) Getting to make the largest jam band I can for a setting each writer is excited to be a part of. (2) Threading the needle between making a bizarre, humorous setting and giving it dark, sinister vibe. (3) Making an adventure system that combines things I've liked elsewhere in a way that feels, well, "retromodern."

That's a pretty broad answer, but I don't think I would be so interested in this project if it wasn't ambitious. I certainly wouldn't bother Kickstarting something less significant. Certainly if it wasn't that broad, I wouldn't have room for a few dozen writers to work with me on it.

Katanas & Trenchcoats really appeals to people who played games in and around the 90s - what about the game would interest modern and new players?
I see things like Supernatural and don't really think the '90s spirit has gone away. We still like stories of mystical weirdness. We still want to play out being unreal beings.

Folks who have enjoyed systems I've made in the past will be interested in this next iteration of adventure game rules, where I'm blending ideas from the systems I mentioned above. Take Fate's idea of promising agency in any situation, but throw out fate points. Meld die mechanic ideas of World of Darkness, Cortex Plus, and Nephilim together into something that keeps you in a "this world is weird" frame of mind. Look at how GUMSHOE does knowledge stuff, and link that directly to dark forces giving you inspiration. Take the Powered by the Apocalypse idea of GMing, but with a direct and in-world need for the GM to use dice as well. Chew on how PbtA and Cortex Plus handle player-vs-player situations. I'm even cribbing some push-your-luck stuff from Mythender.

I'm taking the things I like that work together for this setting, throwing them in a blender with some Darkest Bananas, and making a gothy smoothie. That's "retromodern"—something that would have astounded us in the '90s and plays out interesting today.

And honestly, I always feel weird getting into deeper design talk about the game, because I'd rather people try to play it for what it is rather than try to pick out the "oh, that's X from Fate" or whatever. But at this point, I'm probably always going to be in a shadow of successful things I've made before, so I just gotta embrace that. :)

Thanks to Ryan for the interview! This was a fun read and I am really looking forward seeing to Katanas & Trenchcoats: Retromodern Roleplaying in GM and player hands. Check out the Kickstarter to see what all Ryan is putting forward for the game!

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Five or So Questions with James Mendez Hodes on Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory

I got the chance to interview James Mendez Hodes about his game currently on Kickstarter, Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory. We talk research and appropriation, and learn a little about the game mechanics. Enjoy, and don't forget to check out Ironclaw's Kickstarter page!

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

Ironclaw is a tabletop role-playing game set in a fantasy world populated by anthropomorphic animals like in Disney's Robin Hood or Zootopia. It has published settings inspired by sixteenth-century Europe and sixth-century China; my project, the Book of Horn & Ivory, adds a new continent to the game world inspired by Africa and the Near East in the 1500s. While Ironclaw is a much more traditional RPG than I usually play—it has an elaborately detailed setting and a complex combat system—I find the process of creating and developing a player character really evocative and satisfying. Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved to learn about weird animals, so I relish the opportunity to play as a centipede boxer or a snake businesswoman or a bat janissary in a world where species differences matter. Ironclaw's setting also features nations and religions clearly inspired by real-world analogues, so I get to geek out about history even in a fantasy setting where the other players don't need to memorize realistic details.

What kind of research have you done to build the worlds in the game?

This book introduces four new regions, each representing a real-world country in Africa or the Near East. The Anatolian Caliphate is our Ottoman Empire, the Deltan Sulṭānate is our Egypt, the Pirate States are our Barbary Coast, and the Ọ̀yọ́ Union is our Yorùbáland. My undergraduate studies in African religion laid a lot of the groundwork for the religious traditions of these regions, especially Ọ̀yọ́'s. Before the rough draft went in last October, I read a great deal about Ottoman military history, so you can look forward to janissaries, giant cannons, galley warfare, expanded cavalry rules, and Ottoman rivals such as the Knights Hospitaller and Vlad the Impaler. I also found a fascinating book about Ottoman medicine, which you'll see reflected in Anatolia's cutting-edge hospitals. My next research subject will be jurisprudence, marriage, and inheritance law—the Game of Thrones stuff (except it will actually come out this year).

How are you approaching and represent cultural markers and inspiration without being appropriative?

Ironclaw has always upheld the principle that fantasy analogues of real-world things should be presented with the same respect and care you would afford to an academic paper or news article about that subject. For example, Horn & Ivory introduces a religion called Malachism which shares many signifiers with Islam, such as a caliph who combines spiritual and imperial authority, an emphasis on science and medicine, official tolerance of other religions within its territory, and some semi-formal prohibitions on practices the rest of the setting considers benign. The fact that we’ve made some changes, even large changes, doesn’t excuse stereotype, intentional or inadvertent; and as I’ve mentioned in the “how to play this game without being racist or Islamophobic” appendix to the book, the stakes tied to those kinds of negative stereotypes are frankly high for Muslims in the English-speaking world in general and the role-playing hobby in particular.

I’ve carried on the approach I’ve used for my other projects heavy with cultural signifiers such as AfroFuture, Thousand Arrows, and Scion. I start out by identifying the negative stereotypes that pose the most clear and present danger to the material with which I’m working and then designing “perpendicular” to those stereotypes. Because presenting the exact opposite of a given stereotype sometimes winds up reinforcing that stereotype (looking at you, Wakanda), I try to emphasize aspects of religions or cultures that haven’t appeared often in popular media. Signifiers with strong associations have to come from clearly written and sourced reading materials about the history or legendary of the culture, region, or religion I’m discussing. Finally, if I don’t come from a certain culture, I don’t get to decide whether my representation is appropriation or not; so the final product has to pass muster with a friend from that culture before it reaches the public. Ironclaw’s made mistakes in the past and I fully expect to get some of this book wrong, but I’m counting on the community to help point out my errors so I can learn from them, improve on them, and create something we can all be proud of.

What kind of mechanics do you use to model the non-human roles in Ironclaw?

Ironclaw characters have six fundamental traits, each of which gets a die size in character creation: Body, Speed, Mind, Will, Species, and Career. For some characters, Species is mostly a cosmetic or social choice, but I personally like to save a high die for Species because you get to roll it in your pool when you use your species's strongest senses, when you're in your species's natural habitat, when you attack with your natural weapons, and when you use the three skills your species is best at.

For example, Lücius the gangster centipede gets his shiny d8 when he relies on his senses of sight or smell; when he grapples enemies or jabs them with his venomous forcipules; or uses the Climbing, Craft, or Tactics skills. Each species also starts the game with three Gifts, which are little packages of abilities; so Lucius has an Extra Two Hands, Prehensile Feet, and Venom. If you want to emphasize your species's natural abilities further, you can learn atavistic Gifts as your character advances: so your otter character could hold their breath for an impossibly long time, or your mouse could burrow at incredible speeds.

Species also have distinct social positions, though: there are noble houses, dynasties, clans, and even religions associated with specific species. So if your social engineer countess plans to collect Gifts which give her bonuses with other nobles, she's probably attached to her species's Great House. Horn & Ivory also introduces a necromantic secret society whose ranks come mostly from scavenger species such as vultures and hyenas.

What experiences do you hope that players will get out of Ironclaw?

I hope this Ironclaw setting helps players who’ve been scared to engage with cultures outside their comfort zone do exactly that, the way Steal Away Jordan taught me I could have just as much fun in a game about American slavery and as I do in any other RPG. Moreover, I hope we can inspire other designers to represent cultures outside of the industry norms. This might be one of the first RPG books about these places and times, but I pray it won’t be the last.

Thanks to James for the interview! It was cool to learn about the new product James is bringing forward. Check Ironclaw: The Book of Horn & Ivory out on Kickstarter if you can!

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