Friday, 19 July 2019

Wrongturn

Image result for village"Welcome, adventurer, to the village of Wrongturn... funny, you're the first adventurer we've had in a long time... must be because we're so far off the main roads here! Don't you worry at all, we've got everything you could ever need for your quest, right here! Potions? Uhhh... we have a local drink made of mashed worms and carrot peel... no? But you must! It's our speciality! Here, have a pint!"

Inspired by this Drawfee video, Wrongturn is a game set in a console RPG, where the Chosen One of Legend shows up in a village that is really not quite prepared for that kind of thing and really can't offer them anything they want. Make the best of it and try to come out with something useful!

Load Game

You'll need at least 3 players for this game, one to be the Adventurer and the rest to play the NPCs they meet in the village, all of whom have some kind of special service they can offer, only it's never quite what the Adventurer is looking for. Appoint one of the NPC players as Mayor: this doesn't come with any extra power, just a load of responsibilities and is mostly a ceremonial role.

To begin, the Mayor rolls on the Village Table to get a basic description for what sort of place Wrongturn is, though anyone can chip in with further suggestions to help paint the picture of a place that is not quite normal by the standards of a CRPG. The Adventurer also rolls on the Need Table once for each NPC, writing down the results they get: if they get two or more of the same result, they can either roll again, choose a different result or keep those results and make them different through the narration. For example, if you roll 'Weapon' twice and keep both results, try to think of different weapons, e.g. a sword and a bow, etc.











Next, all the NPCs take 2 or 3 strips of paper each and write a single word down on each one: any word will do, but check with the other players what sort of age rating you all want to aim for. A simple, clear word, like a colour or object, works better than something unusual and ambiguous like 'cosmology' or 'piscine.' Fold all the strips up and put them in a cup, pot, bowl or hat.

Finally, the Mayor takes a post-it note or index card for each NPC, including themselves, and writes down a number on each card, with the following guidelines:
  • All the numbers should be whole, real numbers
  • Each number should be positive, negative or zero
  • No number should be greater than the number of players, whether positive or negative.
  • The total of all the numbers should be zero.
For example, in a game with one Adventurer and four NPCs, the Mayor might write down -2, -3, +5 and 0 on the four cards. Once the numbers are written, the Mayor shuffles the cards face down and deals one to each NPC including themselves; each NPC may look at their own number but not at any one else's and the Adventurer may never see any of the numbers, even when they are first written down. The numbers are only revealed at the end of the game.

Press 'A'

The game proceeds as follows:
  • The Adventurer picks an NPC they have not encountered yet.
  • The Adventurer tells the NPC what Need they are trying to fulfill.
  • The NPC draws a strip of paper from the hat and secretly looks at it.
The Adventurer and the NPC now play out a scene of the former trying to get their Need fulfilled by the latter, with the latter explaining that they don't really have anything like that, but they do have this thing instead, which is just as good, if not better! The NPC uses the word on the strip of paper to twist what they are offering, showcasing that word in some way: they might use it to describe everything in their shop, themselves or the one thing they are offering. The NPC should always narrate themselves and their goods or services in an eccentric way, while the Adventurer's role is mostly to act as the straight, trying to understand what the heck the NPC is doing.

For example... our Adventurer enters the first shop in the village, trying to fulfill their Need for Ability Training, specifically (they have decided) a new combat move that will stun low-level minions. The NPC draws the  word 'coal' secretly from the hat and starts to describe the black clouds of smoke that puff from the windows of the wooden shack; the conversation that follows takes place in a roiling cloud of foul-smelling coal smoke so thick that the two characters can't even see each other.

In addition to using the word in their narration, the NPC should also skew the usefulness of their goods or services according to the value on their card: if positive, then make them sound too good to be true; if negative, then try to make the bugs sound like features; and if zero, try to avoid making any promises or guarantees that what your offering is anything other than purely cosmetic.

Image result for weapons armourTo continue the example above, if the NPC has a positive number on their card, then they might boast of the Secret of Smoke they can teach the adventurer: "Just one deep breath and then puff it all out: cloud o' smoke blinds 'em, chokes 'em, causes memory loss, dissolves armour and sterilizes the ground for a radius of half a mile!"
On the other hand, with a negative value, the NPC might say something like "Stun 'em? Why, what good's that? They'll just get back up again soon or later! Nah, you want to learn the Secret of Smoke: kills 'em stone dead. Kills everythin'. Just keeps killin'... killin', killin', killin'... don't even know how to stop it from killin', it's that good!"
If the value was zero, however, then the 'Secret of Smoke' might be: "You jump up in the air on this, like, column o' smoke, then you come down gentle again like a leaf... mighty impressive lookin', gonna keep all eyes on you, yep, no-one else is gonna look as impressive as you, mid-skirmish!"

Game Over

At the end of each encounter between the Adventurer and an NPC, the Adventurer makes two choices:
  • They can try to guess what word the NPC had: if they guess right, they take it and write '+1' on it; if they guess wrong, they write '-1' on it; if they don't want to guess, the NPC shows them what it was and writes '0' on it.
  • They decide whether to accept the goods or services the NPC offers; if they accept it, they take the NPC's card and place it face down in front of themselves; if they don't, the card is placed off to one side.
Once every NPC has had an encounter with the Adventurer, the final score is revealed! The Adventurer turns all the cards they collected face-up and adds up their total, plus the total of the words they tried to guess. If the final total is greater than zero, the Adventurer goes on to succeed in their quest, using everything they gained in Wrongturn; if the total is less than zero, then they fail horribly, with the 'help' given by Wrongturn being instrumental in sealing their doom. If the Adventurer's total was exactly zero, then the world is saved... just not by this Adventurer: someone else did it while they were busy wasting their time in Wrongturn. Whatever the case, all players should participate in describing this outcome, adding their own colourful details, until everyone is satisfied that the story is done.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Tech Support II: Customer Returns

This is a spiritual successor to Tech Support, a game I created in 2014; it's thematically similar, though the structure encourages more players to participate in more ways.

Image result for boxThere are four aspects to this game, composed of two prepatory and two performatory steps (yes, those are words now); the two prepatory steps are taken in turn, then the two performatory aspects are played at once, interacting with each other... two players talk to each other, in a conversation.

Preparation 1: The Problem

Someone suggests an issue, obstacle, complication or problem: this, as with the original Tech Support, can be Low Tech, High Tech, Non Tech, Non Human or Supernatural.

Preparation 2: The Opportunity

Someone else now suggests a product that can solve the problem and, again, this can be Low Tech, High Tech, Non Tech, Non Human or Supernatural. The Problem and the Opportunity do not have to match in this aspect, e.g. you can propose a Non Human solution to a High Tech issue, if that works for you.

Some Examples:
Problem: getting the last bit of jam from the bottom of the jar
Opportunity: hyper-mass spoon that uses gravitational attraction to suck up the jam

Problem: teleporters that split you into your good and evil side
Opportunity: 'marriage' contracts for good/evil splits

Problem: being unable to get that song out of your head
Opportunity: a Norwegian Blue parrot that sings something else, drowning out the first song

Problem: becoming the host for a parasitic fungus
Opportunity: a shrine to the Fungus God at which you can can ask for their blessing

Problem: ghosts; just ghosts
Opportunity: ghost strips that work like fly paper

An optional suggestion for these first two phases is to play them out like a particularly cheesy advert or infomercial: the first player says something like "Don't you hate it when...?", after which the second player follows this up with "Well, now you can say goodbye to that problem with new, [Product X]!"

Image result for retail customer servicePerformance 1: The Customer

The next player (which could also be the first one again if there are only two of you) now takes on the role of a dissatisfied customer who is returning the above-mentioned product due to a fault or it just performing inadequately and failing to act as advertised.

Performance 2: The Retailer

The last aspect of play is someone taking on the role of a representative of the commercial retailer that the customer bought the product from.



The interaction between Customer and Retailer may take place over the phone, in a service chatroom or face-to-face at a retail outlet. Whatever the case, remember to follow these guidelines:
  • Both sides are polite and respectful: don't turn it into an insane screaming match or blame-apportioning exercise.
  • Keep the conversation on topic: the Customer is seeking a refund or replacement from the Retailer.
  • The Retailer may try to troubleshoot the problem, or explain that it is a feature, not a bug, but the Customer may counter that with the "I know, I tried that, but it still didn't work, because..." strategy.
  • The game ends (quite quickly) when the Retailer successfully fixes the issue with the product to the Customer's satisfaction or offers to refund/replace the product.

Unwritten Lore

Another short game, this time inspired by the introductory exposition in a number of computer RPGs: they drop you into the game with a big info dump to explain the setting, but some of them do it better than others...

Two Words

Image result for dictionaryYou'll need 3-6 players for this game, plus a number of index cards or other note papers: start  by discussing two words that you want to use as a group to underpin the game. These should be chosen to inform the setting, tone and theme, so you might choose 'Venetian' and 'Enchantment', 'Wilderness' and 'Haunting', 'Cyberpunk' and 'Aztec' or whatever combination your group likes. Everyone should suggest a word to be a Foundation of play, then vote on the two you want to use and discuss very briefly the outline of the setting they suggest.

Foundation: one of the two terms used to underpin the setting of the game and summarise it; write each one boldly so that it fills a whole index card and place them centrally so that all players can see them.

Terms of Play

Next, everyone names a term that will be important in that setting but does not define it; take it in turns to do this, naming the term you want to feature in the game and writing it down at the top of an index card. A term may describe either an Identity or an Intangible, but other than that you can use any word you like except proper names. Singular, collective and compound nouns make great Identities, while adjectives and abstract nouns make better Intangibles.

Identity: a singular person, place or organisation that is important to the setting; write it with a capital letter and always refer to it as 'The', e.g. 'The Convocation', 'The Tiger', 'The Blade', etc.

Intangible: a philosophy, movement, force or power that is important to the setting; write it in italics and always refer to it in the abstract, e.g. 'thaumaturgy', 'grandeur', 'sibilance', etc.

At this stage, only write down the term itself, don't try to define, expand or explain it; also, anyone whose suggested Foundation did not get chosen gets a second term, so some players will start with more than others.

Cut Scenes

Imagine the game taking place as a series of cut scenes, the sort of expository scene inserted into the narrative of a computer or console game to provide the player with goals or resolve them once reached. Collaborate as a group in creating each scene, but take it in turns to Author the scenes; the Author records or remembers the suggestions for elements of the scene and makes sure they are adhered to whilst the scene is played out.

Author: the player currently responsible for taking suggestions from all players for elements of a scene and making sure those elements then feature in the scene.

Image result for renaissance paintingWhen creating a scene, the Author should ask the other players to each contribute one element or more that should appear: an element can be a place, a theme, a character or an event, but not an Identity or Intangible. As Author, you can also suggest elements, but you should not fill the current scene with your own suggestions: work with the other players to incorporate their suggestions, then add your own flavour to the result.

For example, Camila, Valeria, Mateo and Lucas are playing the first scene in a game whose Foundations are 'Pastoral' and 'Fairytale', with Camila being the first Author. Valeria suggests a romantic tryst as an element for the scene and Lucas would like the character of a soldier recently returned from a distant war as a character. Mateo doesn't have an immediate suggestion for an element, but Camila proposes that one of the village farmboys should make an appearance, with the undertone that the romance might exist between the soldier and the farmboy, even if not explicit in the scene. Mateo asks if their might also be some fairy mischief present, playing with the fates and emotions of the two potential lovers, to which Valeria adds that perhaps another character could be a witch who is meddling for her own reasons. With no further suggestions forthcoming, Camila can announce the start of the scene.

To start a scene, each player chooses a character they want to portray during it or opts to provide colour & flavour commentary. Any characters added as elements must be played during the scene, unless it was clearly established that they only exist as an influence and are not directly present, e.g. if an element was a Queen's decree that she was seeking a champion, then the Queen herself does not necessarily have to appear.

If you opt to play a character, then you get the final say on their appearance, profession, motivation, etc, though you should remain open to suggestions from other players, especially the current Author, to make sure that everything gels. At least two players must play characters in the scene.

If you opt to provide commentary, then you are free to add details to the scene, through describing the location in more detail or narrating the actions or words of minor characters who also happen to be present, individually or en masse, e.g. the Queen's Royal Guard.

Definite Articles

Play out each scene incorporating the elements suggested for it, acting out the roles of characters and providing colourful commentary, until the Author chooses to make something decisive happen, which they can choose to do in two ways:
  1. Define a term: the Author chooses an undefined term from one of the index cards and writes a definition for it. This can be whatever they want, but it must be relevant to the scene and fit what has already been established; after doing this, they describe how that Identity or Intangible resolves the scene in such a way that at least one of the characters present clearly gets what they wanted from this scene by using the Identity or Intangible defined.
  2. Add a term: the Author writes a new term on a new index card and then narrates how at least one of the characters present is clearly thwarted from getting what they want (for now, anyway.) This narration should incorporate the new term but still without defining it any clear way.
For example, at the end of the scene suggested in the example above, Camila gets to end it in one of two possible ways:
    Related image
  1. She might unite the two lovers, or describe how the witch tricks one of them into signing the fairy contract that will undo her own obligations; to do so, she can pick up the 'The Tiger' and define this as 'a bold general who has been richly honoured for his brave and unconventional tactics in the recent conflict,' then have that character suddenly arrive on the scene to create the conclusion she desires.
  2. She might keep the two lovers apart, or thwart the witch's current subterfuge by exposing her disguise, adding a new term like 'shadow' to a new index card and narrating how one of the characters fears the shadow (which remains undefined) and thus acts over-cautiously.
The game continues in this fashion, with players taking turns to be Author, defining terms or adding new ones, until a scene is resolved by defining the last available undefined term; if there is ever only one undefined term remaining at any time, all players should discuss whether they want this to be the final scene before they start suggesting elements for it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Contingency 2019

Where to begin? There's some history behind this event, but also the geography and literature are pretty important too; I'll do my best to describe how I spent my week by the seaside, but it is likely to meander a bit and you may need a British person to help you with some of the more obscure jokes. Strap in, everyone.

Norfolk & Chance

Several years ago, there were a couple of rather excellent conventions at a holiday village on the south coast of England: Conception was the larger and embraced all RPGs, while Indiecon was the little brother that gave priority to independent games. They took place a couple of months apart, in the winter, when the holiday village was available to book cheaply. Both of these were residential conventions, so attendees rented a lodge, chalet or caravan from the holiday village for the week they were there and the games were largely played in the clubhouse, which provided a bar, restaurant, social areas and so on.

Then the holiday village was bought by some new owners and, what with one thing leading to another, the two conventions could no longer be held there. (I'm leaving a third convention out of this, because I never took part in that one and it has its own story) Of course, the minor obstacle of not having a place to hold the convention was not enough to stop role-players, so a replacement was found and for two years (2017 and 2018) this Contingency (you see what they did there?) filled the hole in the RPG convention schedule.

This year, Contingency moved to Norfolk, a county on the East coast of England, and we were made to feel most welcome at Searles Leisure Resort in Hunstanton. After basically taking over a year out from life, this was my first time attending a residential convention since Conception & Indiecon came to an end.
It's early and there's a bird, you see?

The Early Bird

The official dates for Contingency were January 23rd to 27th, with checkout anytime up to the 28th at 10am... however, what with people obviously wanting to arrive before the first gaming slot on the Wednesday morning, accommodation was open from the Monday, the 21st, at noon. Being the good Scottish stereotype that I am, I decided to get the most out of my money and set off on Monday morning, aiming to arrive at the venue by mid-afternoon... which I did. I know, I'm breaking the 'epic journey to the convention with comic misadventures' trope here, but it was actually a very smooth, uneventful journey. The only noteworthy moments were:
  1. Seeing two young men in the seats in front of me on the train open up their D&D rule-book and start looking at their character sheets... only they had nothing to do with Contingency and knew nothing about it.
  2. During the time between getting off my train and getting on the bus to the resort, I browsed in a book shop and found the fifth part of a series that I had been trying to get for about three years.
I arrived at Searles just before 3pm, checked in and shook hands with a few friends & acquaintances from RPG circles. Once we'd unpacked and settled in, we made the most of the facilities (the bar) and caught up with each other, so we were also first into the restaurant when it opened at 5pm. The clubhouse at Searles features a full sized bar with attached restaurant and, adjacent to that, a large club hall with its own bar where the games would be played at the 20 or so tables provided.

Tuesday morning came with a fresh breeze and rumours of snow on the way, so I didn't brave it out of the lodge until 7.45am, lured out by the promise of the breakfast buffet in the restaurant from 7am. Even so, I turned out to be the first to arrive, but fortified by it, I located the shortest route to the beach and enjoyed the bracing sea air and surging waves. Point of interest: the whole area is at flood-risk and there are emergency notices everywhere stating this.

Most of the rest of my lodge mates had arrived by Tuesday evening and we got together for dinner in the restaurant: unfortunately, they ordered their food before I joined them, so I wasn't able to warn them about the portion sizes, a phenomena I'd seen first hand the previous night. For example, ordering two baskets of deep fried stuff, the garlic bread with cheese, and chunky chips for one person, was perhaps not wise and some of us were staggering visibly as we tried to get up from our seats.

At Last, the RPGs!

That's all the preamble out of the way, though expect more amble of some type before I'm done; so, before you think this has turned into an extended TripAdvisor review, lets get onto What I Played On My Holidays! I'd left my plans pretty fluid before the convention, so I didn't feel the pressure of committing to something and then letting people down if I had a bad day, but once I was actually there, my confidence level re-surged and I approached the admin desk to ask for some blank sign-up sheets.

Me: Do you have any blank sign-up sheets?

Desk Volunteer: Sure! (Hands me a sign-up sheet)

Me: Err... can I have 8, please?

What with there being over a dozen official gaming slots spread out over the five official days of the convention, 8 games seemed like a reasonable compromise between running the games I wanted and playing in other games or just relaxing and unwinding.

Wednesday
The first slot for each day began at 9am, with a muster taking place between the reception and bar of the clubhouse at 8.45. My first offering was A Penny for My Thoughts but as two of my lodge mates had signed up for this, we decided we might as well play in the lodge itself; the one other player who had signed up was unable to make it due to illness brought about by bad clams. A three player game of Penny isn't always the best, but we spun some fascinating stories using the Cthulhoid documents in the appendix. We had a tale of a farmer fighting an alien menace from outer space, losing his family to the monsters in the process; a wicked gas station attendant learning the secrets of alchemy & witchcraft in order to enslave others and extend his own life; and an innocent bank clerk on the run from a secret society, who ultimately decided that the only way to fight them was to beat them at their own occult game.

No photo description available.
Mmmm, chocolates....
My afternoon game was My Life with Master and the players opted for the straightforward, pseudo-Gothic fairytale setting, with a disembodied Master ordering his/her Minions to fetch body parts from the townsfolk to put together into a body for him/her. Since this is a cut down version of the game to fit into a single convention slot, the Minions were beginning their rebellion against the Master by about the 2 hour mark, with much of the remainder of the playing time being about their various preparations for the upcoming confrontation, such as making several lifelike wooden puppets to act as decoy children.

Wednesday evening was crash & sleep.

Thursday
I play-tested Best Quest in the morning slot: this is a simple, parody story-game about a typical fantasy adventuring party that I'm working on, using the player contributions & voting system you would find in Jackbox games like Fibbage, Patently Stupid and so on. Each player has a unique playsheet with prompts for their character class on it, e.g. the Cleric dispels a curse, the Bard relates a tragic tale and so on. Other players then write down an encounter based on that prompt and everyone secretly votes on which encounter they like best; everyone who votes the same way as the player who gave the prompt scores double points and the player with the most points at the end, wins!

My afternoon was spent at a table with a group who were going through There's Somebody at the Door, a sci-fi scenario using the Hot War system: I phrase it that way because, even though I was nominally the GM, the scenario is one of those that gives the PCs ample opportunity and motive for PvP interactions. There were periods of up to 30 minutes where I didn't have to push the story at all, as the PCs plotted, connived and schemed with each other. I won't say too much about the scenario itself (spoilers) except that the basic outline involves the only 5 human beings on an uninhabited planet getting a knock on their door...

Thursday evening was one of the first of three slots in which I signed up for someone else's game and I had a thoroughly fabulous time in Savage Worlds: Rippers playing a fire & brimstone Scottish reverend ridding a small American town of the curse that had befallen it. It's always fun to chew the scenery a little and the GM for this game provided a light touch on the rules that allowed all of us players to really get into character and enjoy the story above all.

Friday
The morning slot provided my first chance to try out What Ho, World!, an RPG presented in the form of a card game, with character traits, locations and important plot MacGuffins all printed out in the deck. The overlapping stories of Wodehousian high jinks involved a tortured Bohemian artist just trying to get over her hangover, a respected judge infatuated with an ingenue American chanteuse, the maiden aunt trying to raise the funds to restore her crumbling pile, her butler with a shady Socialist past and her nephew who just wanted to win a golf tournament. It was fabulous and the stories flowed easily from the cards.

Primetime Adventures is one of my go-to games when I have an idea that puts story and character arcs first, but this time I had no pitch for the session other than "HBO needs a show to replace Game of Thrones: go." My players in the afternoon slot came up with something involving time-travellers over-throwing a future fascist state, a series about role-players, corporate boardroom politics and a show retelling the Arthurian myths; we put all that into a blender and came up with "A Company of Knights", a series about the court of King Arthur travelling to the 21st century to save the future by taking over a large technology company. We had so many great moments of drama, comedy and character development in this game that it really deserves an after-play report to do it justice.

Image may contain: food
Mmmm, breakfast...
The second game I played in was Legends' Walk, a rules-light take on the trope of the children of the Gods living in the modern world and fighting the evil machinations of the Titans and their own kind. I was the son of Loki, a celebrity photographer who crashed a party along with his fellow demi-gods in order to get to the bottom of the mysterious return of a son of Zeus who had long been presumed dead. This was a great story, with some brilliant NPCs for us to bounce off and we even managed to squeeze in some Gimli/Legolas-style taunting in the final battle scene!

Saturday
Best Friends is one of those games that deserves a wider audience, so I break it out whenever I can: it's deliciously simple and clever, with the character creation meshing with the resolution mechanics so seamlessly, it's genius. I pitched this as a Breakfast Club sort of scenario, but we added a pinch of action-movie because there's only so much teenage angst players can be expected to sit through on a Saturday morning. Eventually they blew up an industrial park and spoke to the whole school about their inspirational experiences, with just one of them being hauled off back to jail to answer for their possession of illegal firearms, but overall everyone got a happy ending.

The afternoon game I'd picked was Dead of Night, using my Closure scenario: it's pitched as domestic existential horror, with the very ordinary lives of the very ordinary characters falling apart with the arrival of a troubled relative. Again, this is one of those stories I want to avoid spoiling too much because I will certainly run it again sometime, but I will post the final scores for this session: two PCs chose death, one murdered himself, one ceased to exist in any meaningful way and the last took over his brother's place for at least one more year...

Saturday evening was time for Netflix and chill... I stayed in the lodge to catch up with The Good Place and Star Trek: Discovery, then had an early night.

Sunday
The final day of the convention and I didn't have a game for the morning, until one of my lodge mates offered to fit me into his game of Shadowrun: Anarchy, which began as a simple bug-hunt idea but rapidly turned in Dredd meets Aliens as we descended the floors of a hotel in lock-down, trying to wipe out an insidious infestation while staying one step ahead of the black ops squad that was hot on our feet. Another great fun game, with time for character epilogues for everyone.

Speaking of character epilogues, my afternoon game was The Final Voyage of the Selene, a nice freeformish story game to end the con with; as one of the players was visually impaired, we decided to play with open agendas instead of hidden ones, which also made the game click a lot more. For example, the player next to me was Courier Kerenski, so when I was dealt the 'Thief' agenda, it was obvious for me to say that I was trying to steal her package. There were a lot of elements that clicked nicely this way and the eventual survivors among our group were Juve Mahler, his Spouse who he had been forced to marry and the Courier, who was actually part of the same family as the Spouse. Sadly, Doctor Tsien had lost his memories, so when the ship started to blow up due to some serious maintenance issues, he was in no state to even understand what was going on; Chief Pryce died in his own engine room when a fireball came through a door he opened; and my character, Purser Ehrlich, was shot between the eyes by the Courier as she made it to an escape pod.

The final evening of the con was very informal and quiet, with the vast majority of attendees heading home after the lunchtime charity raffle: with all the efforts of everyone there, the convention raised over £6000 for charity and is now confirmed to be taking place again at that venue next year. Myself and some other stragglers who were planning to check out the following morning stayed in the bar and enjoyed some free drinks for part of the evening! Wa-hey!

There & Back Again

The convention didn't really end there for some of us though: by various means, six of us found ourselves on the train towards London, so we had a final chance to catch up, compare notes and basically shoot the breeze for almost two hours. Also, no-one won the prize on offer for seeing any sign of either water or a beach as we passed through Waterbeach.

So here I am, Wednesday morning, feeling more or less recovered from the travelling, games, sea air, fried food, lack of sleep, etc, but with a revitalised interest in role-playing, which was honestly starting to flag over the Autumn and Winter. Once again, we find ourselves facing the loss of a platform that brought role-players together, with the imminent demise of G+, but there are other options out there and events like Contingency remind me why I do it and what makes it worthwhile.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Fourth Wall

Related imageHere we go again with another little thought-experiment style game, this time marrying some popular card & board game mechanics with a free-form narrative framework. You'll need to do a little bit of preparation to make some components for the game and then a little bit more each time you sit down to play it: it might go heavy on the index cards or post-it notes, so make sure you have plenty of those to spare.


The Theatre

This game is a tribute to the theatre and all the players take on roles both behind-the-scenes and on-stage over the course of play, but the precise roles change from round to round of the game. Your advance preparation consists of making a set of behind-the-scenes role cards as outlined here:
  • The Producer: When selecting behind-the-scenes roles for a new act, you choose first; if you have this role in the last act, swap it for any unused behind-the-scenes role of your choice.
  • The Playwright: You choose the setting & theme for this act from those agreed by all the players at the start of the game; give it a title as well.
  • The Director: You choose a mood for this act, an emotional response that it must elicit from the audience, e.g. tears, laughter, excitement, etc.
  • The Scene Shifter: You choose a specific location for this act, working within the setting & theme selected by the Playwright.
  • The Costumer: You choose the on-stage roles for this act from those agreed by all the players at the start of the game; choose one per player, not forgetting to include yourself.
  • The Lead: You choose first when selecting on-stage roles for this act; you may even choose a role the Costumer has not selected.
  • The Casting Director: You hand out the on-stage roles selected by the Costumer to the other players for this act, except the Lead who always gets to choose their own role first.
  • The Stage Hand: Once per act, you may dictate one special effect that occurs on stage, ranging from changing an aspect of the scenery to any special lighting or sound effects.
  • The Prompt: Once per act, you may dictate what line is spoken by an actor on stage or correct something they have just said and give them a new line to speak.
With these cards prepared, get a group of players together and pitch the game to them: the concept is that all the players are part of a theatrical troupe staging a season of one-act plays. There will be as many one-act plays as there are players in the game and everyone will change both their behind-the-scenes and on-stage roles with every act, but they will each portray a consistent character who has their own traits that colours how they perform these roles.

The Season

One session of The Fourth Wall encompasses an entire season of one-act plays, so before you can begin playing, you first need to agree on what plays you are going to put on this season. Everyone takes three index cards and writes down a setting on one, a theme on the other and either a setting or a theme on the third. Settings are the broad geographic & historic locations of the plays, while themes are the types of stories being told.


Example Settings: Medieval Europe, Victorian England, Pre-Colombian America, Futuristic Moon Colony, Ancient China, Modern Japan, etc.


Example Themes: Crime & Punishment, Romance, Melodrama, Murder Mystery, Feelgood Musical, Pantomime, Slapstick Comedy, Experimental Prose, etc.

Image result for pantomime performanceKeep the settings and themes in their own stacks: each act is composed of one setting and one theme, as chosen by the Playwright or selected at random if there is no Playwright taking part in this act.

Next up, the whole company needs to agree some on-stage roles: these are the archetypal parts that will feature across the season of performances, but their exact portrayal will depend on the setting & theme of that play and the actor who is playing them. You need to have at least 50% more on-stage roles than there are players in the game, e.g. if you have 5 players, then you need at least 8 on-stage roles. An on-stage role is just a capsule description, enough to loosely determine how they should be portrayed and to suggest what they might be doing in that play. Discuss ideas, throw them out there, but don't be afraid to veto anything that really turns you off and that would spoil the game for you if you were made to play it. Keep these on-stage role descriptions short and to the point, refining them down to two words if you are able, but certainly no more than five words at the upper limit.


Example On-Stage Roles: Honourable Leader, Troubled Heir, Courageous Youth, Scheming Business Owner, Confused Servant, Cheerful but Nosy Neighbour, etc.


Put the on-stage roles in their own pile: the Costumer will need to select one card per player from this pile for each act, or simply shuffle them and deal out as many as the number of players if there is no Costumer taking part in this act.

Finally, in the grand old-tradition, have a little ice-breaker activity where each player introduces their character for the game: keep this very simple and archetypal, something with a very clear, strong quirk that will be easily recognisable no matter what on-stage role you have. This is also a bit meta and can get very confusing, so the simplest solution might be to pick a well-known actor with their own particular quirks and do your best to portray them, e.g. pretty much everyone knows what to expect from Nicholas Cage, Dwayne Johnson, Whoopi Goldberg or Maggie Smith.

Super-Meta Sub-Game: If you like, you can actually play a theatre game as a warm-up/ice-breaker, if you know any; if you want to go beyond the Event Horizon of meta, then instead of actually playing that game, you could each simply narrate what happens, in a short montage that illustrates your own particular quirk alongside everyone else's. This is a deep rabbit-hole of meta that you may never emerge from though, so proceed with caution.

The Play

For the first round of play, just shuffle all the behind-the-scenes roles together and deal one at random to each player; in subsequent rounds however, the Producer chooses a role currently held by another player and takes it for the new act. The player they chose from then chooses from someone else and so on until there is only one player left to make their choice; they can choose any remaining role, including those not currently in play. After everyone has a behind-the-scenes role for this act, the unused cards are put to one side.
  • If the Producer is ever not in play when choosing new behind-the-scenes roles, then everyone gets a random role as at the beginning of play, but if you get dealt a role you have already played, you may either ask to trade it with another player or trade it with one of the unused cards.
  • If this is the last act of the game and you have the Producer role, immediately swap it with any unused behind-the-scenes role.
Next up, the Playwright, Director, Scene Shifter and Costumer perform their actions as dictated by their behind-the-scenes role cards, e.g. the Playwright chooses a setting & theme, the Director chooses a mood and so on.
Image result for play rehearsal
  • If the Playwright and/or Costumer are not in play, then resolve their actions by shuffling and drawing cards at random until the requirements are met.
  • If the Director and/or Scene Shifter are not in play, then resolve their actions by having each player make one suggestion for the mood and/or location, as appropriate. If the Producer is in play, then they don't make a suggestion but instead choose one from those presented by the other players; if the Producer is also not in play, then the Playwright does this instead; if not the Playwright, then the Lead does and if not them, then the Casting Director does.
Once all those actions have been performed, the Lead and the Casting Director determine the on-stage roles for each player, with the Lead choosing any role at all (including choosing one not selected by the Casting Director or the random draw) and then the Casting Director handing out the remaining roles to everyone else (including themselves.)
  • If the Casting Director is not in play, then the available roles are shuffled and dealt out at random until each player has one.

Performing

Once everyone has their on-stage role, the play can begin, but remember that it only consists of one act, so it is little more than a scene. As such, keep it pacey and punchy, hitting the tone set by the Director as early and as hard as possible: don't dawdle with backstory and laying foundations, just cut straight to the meat of the performance.
  • One technique you can use to speed things up is best called 'Bad Exposition': just have your character walk on stage and announce their business to the audience as if revealing their inner thoughts to their diary. If you can insert some good exposition, that's even better, but don't feel pressured to do so: you're playing the game to have a good time, not to try to become the next Pinter.
Characters walk onto the set described by the Scene Shifter in any order they like: you might even agree that certain roles are already on stage when the curtain rises or are waiting in the dark for a spotlight to illuminate them. However you do it, be pushy when you're acting: have an agenda in mind for your role in this scene and try to make it happen. Equally, don't let other roles walk all over yours: push back and present them with demands, obstacles and other adversity they must overcome to achieve their goals.

During the performance, the on-stage roles push and pull against each other, using their dialogue and actions to portray this dynamic, but when you act, you have the option to exit the stage, turning your on-stage role face down when you do so. When you exit, your role's part in the play is over, so use this to wrap up their story in some significant way, e.g. they leave with their bags packed, they are arrested, murdered, their proposal is accepted, they break down weeping after their confession, etc.Whatever your exit action is, it can't be undone by anyone still on stage, e.g. if you are arrested, then no-one else gets to free you from custody; if you're killed, then no-one gets to resurrect you and so on. Your exit action only dictates what happens to your role however, not anyone else's: if they are still on stage, then they can still act, so even if you use your exit to dictate that they also get arrested alongside you, they are still free to argue for their own release from custody or just escape the police and go on the run, etc.

Image result for curtain call
Everyone who exits becomes part of the Audience; once at least half the roles have exited the stage, the play is nearly over. It ends either when the next role exits the stage or when the whole Audience  applauds simultaneously; as an Audience member, you can applaud at any time and try to encourage others in the Audience to applaud with you, but the play isn't over unless everyone in the Audience applauds at the same time.

When an act ends, whether with applause from the Audience or because more than half the roles have exited the stage, set-up the next act as described above. When you complete the last act of the season, the game is over and you can all give your reviews of the plays and/or the actors who appeared in them, or any other roles which you thought were especially noteworthy.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Make It So

This is a micro-hack for A Penny for My Thoughts: you will need a copy of that game in order to play this. You'll also need a familiarity with the tropes of Star Trek and similar space operas.

The distant future. A galaxy lying open, inviting exploration. You are are part of the bridge crew of an interstellar craft, seeking out new worlds and new life-forms, to expand your civilization's knowledge of their place in the universe. In this game, you all take on the roles of the executive officers on-board your star ship, but you also take turns playing the Captain, directing the ship onward and choosing from the best options presented by the crew. In order to play, you'll need to change many of the assumptions & set-up procedures of A Penny for My Thoughts, but the heart of the mechanics stays the same.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Becoming Monsters

My most recent play of Blood & Water has given me pause to reflect on the role of monsters in the game and what happens when the residents start to become them... If you're just joining here (hello!), let's back that up a bit before we dive headlong into an analysis of what I mean.

Image result for being human ukSo, Blood & Water is a storygame that's shamelessly inspired by the British TV series Being Human, and to a lesser extent the New Zealand film What We Do in the Shadows: the premise is that some supernatural creatures who were once human (a ghost, vampire and werewolf in the TV series; just vampires in the film) share a house in a modern urban setting and have to deal with all the problems that set-up entails.