Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why Brennan Was an Asshole

I have mentioned before (just not on this blog) that I used to be a real asshole as a player. I was demanding, and, when bored, totally destructive toward other players in the game. When I actually had fun in a game, I was almost always playing the same sort of character: an arrogant, self-righteous jerk who thinks he knows the answers to everything. These characters viewed the world in black-and-white terms and everyone else was forced to negotiate with the character's world-view in order to work together in the game.

Just recently, however, I played two very different games. In a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, I played a young man who was very insecure, and doubted his ability to be a dog. Then I played a game of Burning Wheel with an extremely naive elf prince. Both were extremely fulfilling experiences, and I got a big endorphin rush from both. The best gaming I have ever had.

Whenever I tried to play naive or vulnerable characters in my games previous to this, I got nothing. This led to the bored, destructive play I mentioned above, because the GM and the other players ignored my issues. When I played a complete asshole, they couldn't ignore my issues and have my character around. My character shoved his issues in their faces, and they reacted. This made me happy as a player, and, for the most part, made the other players happy. Everyone I discussed my characters with, including me, thought that I was playing this type of character out of some sort of wish-fulfillment, that I had some desire to be this morally certain.

It turns out that I was just hitting the other players in the face with my emotional cues because that's what got them out on the table. The new systems I am playing with now, like Dogs in the Vineyard and Burning Wheel, let me explore a full range of emotional issues with my characters, and the other players at the table all help me. I don't need to play the hard-driving asshole anymore to get my play agenda addressed. That doesn't mean I won't play this type of character any more, it just means that now I don't have to.

What a relief.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Dreamation Round Table

The guys at The Perfect Score recorded the game design roundtable discussion at Dreamation. I participated in the discussion, and you can hear me discussing Fifth World about 20 or so minutes in. I am also a loudmouth, so you can hear me giving advice on some other games in development, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?

In case you were curious:

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?'

'Come, we shall have some fun now!' thought Alice. 'I'm glad they've begun asking riddles.--I believe I can guess that,' she added aloud.

'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare.

'Exactly so,' said Alice.

'Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare went on.

'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least--at least I mean what I say--that's the same thing, you know.'

'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. 'You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!'

'You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, 'that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!'

'You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, 'that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!'

'It is the same thing with you,' said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn't much.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Old Gods at Dreamation

Mortal Coil runs again, this time at Dreamation. I had an overflowing session, all six slots were full and Nathan Paoletta joined at the last minute, making this a seven-player session. Also in attendance were Alexander Newman, Keith Senkowski, Thor Olavsrud, Mayuran, and two other players with whom I was not previously acquainted, whose names were Nathan and Jillian, if I recall correctly.

The scenario was Old Gods again, and again we started with the theme document. One of the first things that was established in the document was that gods had no powers unless they were in the presence of believers (or other gods). Again, initial theme facts had a big influence on the tone of the game. Jealousy toward one of the player gods who still had some worshippers drove most of the conflicts during play.

The gods this time: Alexander played Hermes as a bitter delivery man, Keith played Mithra as a completely dissolute and violent addict, Thor chose to play Munnin as a supplier of memories in the form of drugs, Nathan P. played Coyote, who turned out to be the butt of everyone's resentment, Nathan played Xipe Totec, the flayed Aztec god, Jillian was playing Easter, and Mayuran played Sesmu, the owner of the bar.

When the time came around to assign passions, I pushed really hard, which I was thinking was my mistake in the last game. Everyone did as instructed and took loves and hates toward their fellow players. In part because of this, the game took a really dark comic turn, especially with all of the drug themes that were introduced. It played out mostly as a violent, drug-addled farce, with all of the gods attempting to tear each other down. There was a great deal of laughter around the table.

A couple of observations:

1. After running it three times, I don't think improper passion setting is the problem with this scenario. It worked with my home group, but didn't really come across at conventions. This is because there isn't a real point to this setup: no quests, missions, or any sort of outside threat. Really, the scenario needs to play off the relationships between the gods, and that means that it needs pregens. My Apocalypse Boulevard game ran quite well at Recess, but I suspect that was actually a fluke. When I am playing Mortal Coil at a con, I need to take a page from Luke and carefully construct the passions so they interlock and create a compelling situation that can't be ignored.

2. The reward mechanic does something really interesting. There is a pool of tokens in the middle of the table that can be given out at any time, and player can nominate others to receive them (unless vetoed). In the games where it starts to really hum, I noticed that the players have come to an unspoken consensus about what should be rewarded. In Apocalypse Boulevard, it was innovative uses of nursery rhymes to create spells for the children. In the Dreamation Old Gods, it was doing something shocking or unexpected that made everyone laugh.

3. This scenario ended up being very player-vs-player, and I brought in an NPC when things started to drag, just to provoke everyone into actions. The way Mortal Coil is structured, the GM has a huge pile of tokens to create adversity for the players. Since I was doing very little, the one time I drew on this really had a big effect on Alexander. Afterwards, he said he was a little shocked by the amount of force I could draw on in the one encounter where I used these. In Apocalypse Boulevard, with a strong oppositional force that I had to budget my tokens on, this was not a problem. In a game where it is almost all player-vs-player, I had an inordinate and seemingly arbitrary amount of force I could bring to bear. Alexander suggested I play a character next time, and that might be the way to go in a situation like this.

All in all, I was again not completely satisfied with how the game went. Everyone there had a really good time, and we laughed til our sides hurt. I learned some more about the game, and came out with a couple of new small tweaks, so it was fruitful from a playtest standpoint. And everyone is still talking about it, so my own misgivings are probably not shared by the players.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dreamation: Con of the Designers

I hit Dreamation last weekend, along with a metric ton of other game designers. It seemed like game designers outweighed actual players by almost two-to-one. Not really, but there must have been nearly 15 designers there. It was great shooting the shit and trying out each others games. If you don't attend Dreamation and you are anywhere nearby, I encourage you to go. You will have a blast, and the face time with the game creators is unparalleled. There are more game designers at GenCon, but you won't get to talk to them for 20 minutes if you want to.

I came in on Friday, and ran The Mountain Witch right off the bat (9:00 am). I had three players, whose names totally escape me (except for Clinton Nixon, but that's because I know him). This was a great session, even if we had a bit of accelerated scene structure. By the end, the characters were almost more willing to murder each other than take on the witch, which is exactly as it should be. So, con off to an awesome start.

I schmoozed and shot the shit with everyone for the rest of the day, and played the wickedly addictive Jungle Speed (beware!). That evening I had a game of Mortal Coil, which shall deserve its own post. I will just say that seven players is just beyond the limit for this game.

Saturday brought a couple of demos, one of Timestream, a very cool time travel game that I would really like to check out in detail (conflict of interest warning: this game is about to go up on IPR). Nathan Paoletta, the designer, also demoed an upcoming game, Carry, about Vietnam-era soldiers that looks really promising. I want to see more of this as he works on it.

I also had the pleasure of sitting in on a Burning Wheel session, run by Luke Crane, the creator, and across the table from Jared Sorensen. This game was all Duel of Wits, and it rocked aloud, that's a fact. It really got me charged up to play Burning Wheel with my own group, a development that is currently in the works.

At last, on Sunday, Jared and Luke put on an excellent game design panel, where even ringers like me were allowed to put forward game design ideas for a roundtable discussion. It was really, really excellent. I heard there would be a podcast, and I will definitely post a link when it goes up. This session was standing room only, and Rebecca, a con organizer, was extremely pleased by this. She said Dreamation panels were never that popular.

I was also video interviewed for The Perfect Score, and I will link that as well, when it goes up.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

[Mortal Coil] Actual Play at Recess, Part II

I ran Mortal Coil at the latest Recess game day in New York. There was time at the mini-convention for two sessions, and rather than run the same one twice, I decided to try two different scenarios. The first one was really successful. The second one fell pretty flat for me, due to a number of issues. The concept for this second session was called Old Gods, a game about the gods of dead religions who gather in a bar in Philadelphia. The Old Gods premise is far more demanding of the players, since there is no built-in conflict. The players must create and generate this conflict with their character conceptions and passions, and if I am to run this one again, I will need to really push everyone to create really punchy, conflict-laden characters. In this particular session, I totally failed.

Even with the limited time at a convention game, I start with only the basic concept and the players and I build from there. From the get-go, this game of Old Gods was different from the one I ran in my own group at home. In the home group, we had established that the gods were immortal, and if they were killed in mortal form it was inconvenient, but they could return. When the Recess group started, one of the first facts established is that although gods could not die of old age, they could be killed, and when they were, it was permanent. This created a far more grim air to the game than we had in the previous game, and points out how the system allows each group to put their own individual stamp on the game world.

Adding facts to the game world was the part of the system that several players liked the best, and they put this to good use during play, creating new powers and abilities for themselves. This had a big effect on the actual play, as I will describe a little later.

When we got to aptitudes (a set of traits Mortal Coil uses instead of skills), people really started to struggle. Interestingly, it was much harder for people to come up with aptitudes for their gods than it was for the street kids in the previous game. Players wrestled with these for some time, and several players even forgot to create any magical aptitudes for their characters and had to change them afterwards.

Then the real trouble began. Players began to choose passions for their characters, and I explained what these were and what appropriate passions should be. Passions are the hooks for the character, what motivates them to act and therefore what ties them into the story. I advised everyone to choose passions that referenced the other characters at the table, and the bar that the gods all frequent. Only one player did this, and this was Bill, my friend who had participated in the original playtest and had sat in on the earlier game at Recess. Even then, Bill’s character turned out too passive. I don’t remember what else he took, but they were all about calm and immobility (he was playing a Japanese earth god). One of the players chose such totally inappropriate passions that I immediately spotted them as a problem, and convinced him to change them out. The two passions he originally chose were for watching people and for reading books, which would definitely have made the character a passive observer for the whole game.

As I mentioned above, none of the other passions related to any other character or to the bar. My biggest blunder here was not catching this early and correcting it right away. I moved forward with the game, and the fact that none of the passions interlocked in any way led the game to be a meandering mess, with no real exciting hooks, and I grew increasingly desperate to engage any character at all. In the end, I railroaded a scene with an assassin and gathered everyone together in a quest-style mission which I thought totally sucked.

The players all seemed pleased, however, and certainly they expressed no disappointment, and most of them were quite interested in the system after we finished playing. I wish this had been a better demo, like the first session was, but it seemed like I was the main one who noticed the serious lack (or maybe they were too polite to say it). I ended this session early because my son was starting to come around and bug me to leave.

If I run this game at any future convention, my main goal when crafting the characters will be to ensure that the passions are strong and interconnected, since that is what creates really good play with this game. I learned something, definitely, but I still feel bad that this scenario was basically a failure at this event.

[Mortal Coil] Actual Play at Recess, Part I

I ran Mortal Coil at the latest Recess game day in New York. There was time at the mini-convention for two sessions, and rather than run the same one twice, I decided to try two different scenarios. The first one was really successful. This concept was called Apocalypse Boulevard, a game world inspired by this article. The second game, and my problems with how it turned out, will be posted later.

Even though these were convention games, I started only with the most basic concept and then built the theme document with the players. The theme starts out with the basic premise of the campaign, and all of the players, including the GM, have a pool of resources to use to add to this document. Building the starting theme facts and characters took less than an hour. Even though I only had a four-hour slot, I think this step is really important and I probably won’t skip over it even for full convention demo games. Short booth demos would be a different matter, but there is plenty of time in a full session and this part earns much enthusiasm from the players, and everyone is really bought in to the game once we are done.

To start the theme document, I mentioned the article, which many of the other players had actually read, but a couple weren’t familiar with it. The gist, that kids in the shelter created their own religion, and had access to some magical powers to protect themselves from harmful forces that adults couldn’t see, were accepted by everyone. The other basic fact that was established was that all of the spells the children used would be based on nursery rhymes or fairy tales.

As the players began to put together characters, I advised them to create interlocking passions, so the characters would be tied together and it would encourage the group’s story to be about each other. The players definitely stepped up here, and we had many characters who loved and admired other player characters. There were a lot of passions for protecting each other, and protecting their parents (if they had any). This is great grist for the mill as a GM, since it was very easy to create a strong external threat to get everyone working together and focus the session.

Aptitudes, which stand in for skills (sort of) in the Mortal Coil system, are generally a hard concept to convey, but everybody in this session picked it up pretty quickly. I don’t recall explaining more than twice, which is good. In playtest, this section of the character has generally proved most troublesome for players to grasp. The main difficulty is that an aptitude is expressed as a noun, rather than a verb or adjective. For example, a kid can have an aptitude called liar, rather than the skill of lying or lie.

When actual play began, people really got into playing their kids, using kid-like interpretations of the world and celebrating the small victories they had over some clueless adults. Mortal Coil uses a pool of bonus tokens as a reward system, and the players have a lot of control over how these are handed out. These flowed easily in this game, and we had only a couple left in the pool in the end. Most of them were given for innovative or surprising uses of nursery rhymes and fairy tale references, so this really encouraged everyone to come up with creative uses of this setting fact and created some really strong flavor for the game.

The basics of plot were strong external threat, in the form of some skinheads (led by a demon in human form). One of the kids picked the demon’s pocket in the first scene, and then the rest of the scenario was all about the skinheads trying to get the stolen artifacts back and the kids planning how to stop them from threatening the shelter and their families, as well as the other kids.

Mortal Coil has a currency system that allows players to add detail to the game world, and the few problems that arose were basically clashes of vision for the facts being introduced. These weren’t really problems, as they were quickly solved by consensus.

There was a divergence into some investigative activity at the library, a scene which would normally have been a bit tedious, but in fact ended up quite entertaining. Setting stakes for the information-gathering conflicts made them very interesting, and role-playing the poor librarian, confronted by some unsupervised kids with very uncomfortable questions about swastikas and the First Amendment made for an amusing scene.

The final conflict ended up a bit rushed, because I was running out of time, and I skipped over some of the villains’ actions and mostly concentrated on the demon alone, but that was a decision I made in the interests of time and the conflict seemed plenty exciting.

There were two main things I learned about the system in this game, which didn’t affect play too seriously, but that clearly need better clarification in the rules. First, large group conflicts will not always resolve in a single set of actions. Everyone declared actions and we determined the results, but once everything was resolved it was still unclear who would win the original stakes set for the conflict. I just had everyone initiate another round of actions, and then a third round when the conflict was still not resolved at the end of that. By the resolution of the third round of actions, the demon had decisively lost, and the kids won their stakes.

The other issue is how characters help one another. This isn’t clearly outlined in the rules, and it really needs to be. The system I used for this session wasn’t quite right, and I want to outline the precise procedure in the rules.

All in all, I don’t think the players really noticed this, especially with the first issue, since that played out how I would want, I just hadn’t written it down.

This was a very successful play test of the rules, and the players all seemed to have an excellent time. The rules were easy to explain and there were very few snags at all. That made me extremely happy, and I went into my next sessions with my hopes quite high. That session was something of a disaster in my mind, and worthy of its own post (coming shortly).


Dreamation was a huge indie-fest last year, and this year looks even bigger. I am really looking forward to hitting the con this weekend! I am running Bulldogs! on Friday night, and Mortal Coil Saturday afternoon, and I'm looking forward to catching up with all of my friends who are going to be making it. Clinton Nixon, Keith Senkowski, Michael Miller, Jennifer Rodgers, Luke Crane, and loads more. Come by if you can!

Friday, January 13, 2006


I've been really successful at local cons here in the NY/NJ area getting an indie games track together for local cons. This idea is an easy export, so to find out more on how I did it and the support IPR is offering, check out the new Indie Press Gang forum.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Lately I've found myself very interested in resources available to players and GMs to spend in the game. I really like this as a way to increase the ability of players to influence the outcome of events in the game world, and to make statements about their interest in what is happening in the game. I included the bonus tokens in Mortal Coil that serve this purpose, and one of the eureka suggestions I got there was to use bonus tokens as a GM resource as well, rather than fiat-based assessments of difficulty.

Interestingly, I think my main influence in this area was Deadlands, which uses poker chips in a similar fashion, held by both the GM and the players and spent to bump actions taken in the game if they fail and the player really doesn't want the failure in their task-based resolution system. This actually works really well, and gives me, as a player, a feeling that I have some recourse besides simple luck of the dice.

Another idea I have had for many years is a game utilizing the murder mystery genre. This is the main fiction genre that is still almost completely untapped by RPGs. The issue is how to create the mystery in such a way that it is engaging to play and also does not require tons of up-front prep on the part of the GM. To tie this back to my discussion of currency as a game mechanic, one of the ways to do this might be a sort of bidding system where players spend a resource in order to get their idea about the mystery written into session plot. This is barely a kernel of an idea right now, but it is definitely the most fruitful thought I've had about a mystery game to date.