Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Vox Populi

Congratulations! You and your comrades have overthrown the Evil Overlord and liberated the land from his tyrannical grip; now all citizens are free once more to live their lives as they choose, within the new laws & policies being laid down by the Republic, i.e. you and your comrades.

This is a short game about what happens after the heroes win in an epic fantasy story: the Big
Bad Evil is dead, but now who gets to run the country? Well, to begin with, the heroes do! As the committee of the new Republic, they (that is, you) have to determine the way ahead for the newly liberated people of the old Evil Empire.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Power Grab

Only two more sleeps until Indiecon! Yay! So, in the spirit of over-exuberance and hyper-activity, here's a super-quick superhero game; now I'm off to eat a bag of sugar and run around the garden pretending to be an air-plane!

This is a game in the superhero genre for 3-5 players plus a GM: start by dealing 5 index cards to each player, who then write down a superpower on each card. You can go for the standards like flight, super-strength, X-ray vision, etc, but feel free to be as creative as you like, as long as you include a tone discussion within this process. In other words, don't come up with gonzo, silly powers without clearing that with everyone else first: you don't have to say what powers you're writing down, but it's best for everyone to be on the same page tone-wise.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Back to the Start: A Game from the Graveyard

My hard drive is full of gaming projects I got started on and either never completed or completed but never playtested: this is one of those, from 2010. It would probably make a good nano-game if you're looking for a break from the norm.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Char. Gen.

This is a nano-game I designed in 2013 at the end of a session of A Penny for My Thoughts which had been particularly gruelling: we needed something light and fun to cheer ourselves up with, but we only had 30 minutes until the venue closed. Earlier during that convention, I had played Cheat Your Own Adventure, a nano-game concerned with the process of playing another game and I'd really liked it, so I quickly came up with one of my own. The version presented here is a faithful reproduction of the game we played that evening, which was flexible enough to allow players to drop in & out as their own games finished and a parade of convention attendees stopped by to ask us what we were playing. Please enjoy.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Thought Police

This is slightly meatier than a nano-game but you should still be able to complete it within 2-3 hours with around 5 or 6 players; it takes an amount of preparation and world-burning though, so make sure your players are up for that kind of activity. As this game deals with issues of segregation, nationalism and the persecution of minorities, please handle the material sensitively and respect the emotions of others who may be present while playing.

This game takes place in a world that is like our own but a little bit different: in this world, telepathic powers have been appearing randomly in the global population for decades, but since there is no way of measuring or detecting them, most national governments have clamped down harshly on anyone who is even suspected of possessing them.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Is Storium a Strategic Game?

Buckle up, this is going to get intense: as both a board-gamer and a role-player, I can't help looking for narratives within the former and strategies within the latter, but Storium describes itself as an on-line storytelling game which "turns creative writing into a multi-player game." So how much game has it got in it? Potentially, quite a lot.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Barf Forth Britannica: Principles of The 'Hood

In the last two articles about MCing The 'Hood, I covered the agenda of play and what you should always say, so this time I'm going to tackle the principles: you can play The 'Hood straight out of the principles in Apocalypse World, you just need to add that grungy, contemporary urban twist.

Barf forth Britannica
Thanks to Gregor Vuga for that phrase: to be clear, The 'Hood is not set in Britain, but I am, so that's what I wrote about, the situation I've been familiar with all my life. Throughout the text, I've made a deliberate effort to not to refer to specific locations, currencies or national figures, but ultimately my own identity bleeds through in the text and informs some of the assumptions. You can substitute any national identity and create a game with its own highly distinctive feel, as long as you commit to communicating that essential difference to the players: every major city in the world has a set of hot issues that are as unique to it as a fingerprint, so wherever your 'hood is, you have to fill the characters senses with the experience of living there. Grab a soundtrack, some authentic snacks and drinks, create a stock of photos of the places, the people and the products which define that area & culture, then barf that all forth at the table (please, not literally when it comes to the snacks & drinks.)

Address yourself to the characters, not the players
Stay in the fiction: when you've got something to say about it, communicate that information to the characters, through what they can see, hear and what they know. The characters have lived in the 'hood most of their lives, so they already know all the in & outs of it: you don't need to describe things to them as if they were fresh and new, just tell them what's what. "Look out Slick, that's Turk crossing the road coming your way with a couple of his crew; he probably wants a word with you about bringing Mint onto his patch. Maybe you should have stayed off his street today? Too late now though, here they are."
As with Never to Die, the progenitor of The 'Hood, you're playing the whole environment the PCs live in: you're not just their mates, relatives and rivals, you're also the bars, the shops, the houses, the streets and even the traffic on them. When you're MCing, you're being the 'hood in the same way that someone else is being the Fallen, the Schemer or even the Voice, so own that identity and speak through it: "The traffic is shit, like every car in the 'hood is going the opposite way to you, almost as if they know what you're planning and want to get the fuck away from it."

Make your move, but misdirect; make your move, but never speak its name.
Tell the story through the moves you make, not the mechanics that demand them: the moves are just the middle-men, allowing an easy passage from one situation to the next. Moves only happen for a reason and what they do should be told through the fiction, not as hits and misses: keep all that behind the curtain when you're narrating what happens. When you turn up the heat, it's because the story demands it, not because the dice do: there are choices open at any point, the dice just decide which path the story goes down, they aren't the reason for it going down that path. If the Mint decides not to give you a break on the money you owe him, it's because he's had trouble with some other non-payers today and he doesn't have time for your shit, not because you rolled a 4: the dice will decide what the fiction is, even retroactively.

Look through crosshairs
The PCs lives are their own, but everything else? That's all yours. Take all those NPCs and the streetplan and find ways to burn them: users, hoes and debtors are a good place to start, but everybody in the 'hood has an agenda and they aren't all going to get what they want. A good first session kicker is to take something the players have put on the map and wreck it: close it down, burn it down, demolish it and salt the earth where it stood. An even better kicker is to turn an NPC on them: have their own sister turn them into the police, let their best friend try shooting them because the PC is getting in the way of the NPC's business. Make the players deal with this shit and show them that when they give you something to play with, you'll light the fuse on it and throw it back at them.

Name everyone, make everyone seem human.
Look at the streetplan, look at who lives there, look at how they relate to the PCs, but think about what they do when the PCs aren't around. Everyone in the 'hood wants something, even if it's as simple as being left alone in peace to make it through another day, so use that when the PCs want them for their own business. It's fine to say things like "You're just rocking up to Mo in the middle of the day, while he's working at the supermarket, and asking him to hold the package for you? Yeah, he's this close to losing his shit with you and thinking about all the favours he's done for you in the past, so he's not in the mood to listen right now." If they push it, they can make trouble and if they don't blow that, then they can make the move they came to make, but don't let them assume that the NPCs are always there for them whenever they want to do something.

Ask provocative questions and build on the answers
You've been doing this since the start of the game, so keep doing it: the Debts PCs start with creates a whole history between the PCs, which is then built on via the streetplanning. Whose houses are those? Who lives there? How long have they been there for? What's nearby? What isn't? Keep asking the PCs questions about the day they're having and the history behind it:

  • "Who's that in front of you in the queue at the checkout? What was it you wanted to ask them?"
  • "Can you remember the first time you kissed Puppy? It was just after he'd broken up with his boyfriend and whose fault was that?"
  • "Your normal boozer is The Three Lions, but today you're propping up the bar in The Mermaid; even the barkeep, Hooch, seems surprised to see you and says 'What brings you in 'ere then?' There's a puzzled frown on his face as he asks."
Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards
Give the PCs what they've worked for: which isn't to say that you should always reward them, but their effort should always pay off, including the times they totally balls everything up and bring a metric fuckton of trouble down on top of themselves. When they mess up badly, remember it, then throw it back at them at the worst possible time: keep an eye on who they owe payback to and why, then hit them full in the face with both barrels. Even when they get what they wanted, they're living in the real world, so there are always strings attached and it won't last forever anyway. It's fine for things to work out in their favour once in a while, but mostly they're like the frog thrashing away in the jug of cream trying to stay afloat: maybe if they keep at it long enough, they'll be in butter, but only if they get the chance to keep kicking.

Be a fan of the players' characters
If the player's work hard at something their characters are doing, then respect that and respond enthusiastically: don't shut them down, don't cock block them and don't take away what makes them cool. The Fallen is a bent cop and they'll stay a bent cop until they go down or get burned, even if their own force starts investigating them: it's good that they come under the spotlight like this, but it's up to the player how this plays out for their character. Are they going to lose some heat? How? Maybe split their takings with a colleague who suspects them? Maybe frame someone else for what they've done? Whatever course of action they take, be a fan of that plot-line and commit to it as much as the player does: play the NPCs who get involved and portray their reaction fairly, but don't use them to just say no to it. Even if the players come up with the dumbest, least workable plan in the world, let their characters play it through and portray the outcome fairly: be supportive and enable their schemes, don't dismiss what the players are contributing.

Think offscreen too
Stuck for what to do next? Take a look at the streetplan and the cast of NPCs: what are they going to do now? The 'hood and the PCs' lives are just one tiny slice through the rich variety of life that's taking place in their town every minute, every day: remember that you're playing the 'hood as if it were a character of it's own, so make it real, make it move, make it hungry and then see what it gobbles up and spits out. Flip back and forth between big picture (the world outside the 'hood) and small picture, create a dynamic between what happens on the streets and what happens in the world at large.

Sometimes, disclaim decision making
When it's your call what happens next, don't always make the decision based on what you want to see or what you believe ought to happen next, try one of these:

  • What would an NPC do? Check through the cast of supporting characters and ask yourself how they would react to this situation; when you get an interesting answer, you've got what happens next.
  • What do the players want to happen? Just come out and ask them what they think should happen next as a result of what the characters have done: why did they just do what they did? What did they expect to get out of it? How do they think the NPCs are going to react?
  • What were the stakes? What did you say would happen in this situation? If you set stakes for a move, then honesty demands that you apply those stakes as agreed.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Pontebrevis: a Long-View Game on Storium

Following up on both of my last two blog posts, I'm still scratching my story-telling itch on Storium by starting two more games, but it's the second of these I really want to talk about, because I built it to play on the strengths of Storium as I've learned them.

Another idea I've been toying with for a while is a game where each player is a faction vying for dominance in a medieval fantasy city and the game plays out over the course of decades or centuries rather than the days and weeks of a typical RPG campaign. I've thought about doing this in a number of ways (including as yet another PbtA game) but after suggesting the Chapterhouse game in my previous post, something clicked in the back of my head and I was inspired to use Storium as the delivery system.

Important Note to Self #3: More is more: long posts get more done than short posts and to get the most out of Storium, you have to put as much as you can into your moves.

This is where I think the major strength of Storium lies: since narrative authority is more or less evenly distributed, and since there is typically a long wait between moves, it's in every players' best interest to put as much detail, colour and flavour into their posts as they can. This goes for Narrators as much as everybody else: basically, always cut to the action and provide a challenge, as time spent just asking the players what they do next or setting up the action to follow is pretty much time wasted. Storium is more than just a game, its a collaborative story-telling exercise: don't just aim to present and overcome challenges, think about how the story reads to the other players. If there are 5 players and a Narrator, then your input is only going to be about 1/6 of the game content: if that input consists of stating "I do X" and playing some cards, then it's likely that everyone else is going to scroll right past your contribution. Make your posts significant, revealing and above all entertaining.

With this in mind, the premise of my newest game, City & Guilds, is focused on the founding and subsequent history of Pontebrevis, a frontier town settled in the wake of a war between the God-like Titans which has scoured human civilisation from the map and forced the survivors into the role of refugees and scavengers. Instead of characters, we have factions like the college of wizards, the church, the military academy, a founding family and so on; the challenges they face are issues that the fledging colony must face, such as famine, plague, fire, war, but also significant events like receiving ambassadors from a foreign nation for the first time, passing judgement on a powerful & respected elder who has nevertheless committed a heinous crime and deciding how best to spend an unexpected surplus in the city's budget.

Each chapter will span decades, with approximately 3 scenes in each chapter more or less evenly spaced across that time period: therefore, whatever the players do, they need to make the most of it, because the story will likely never come back to that detail. For example, if you name the head of your faction, then you'd better flesh them out as much as you can in their scenes, because poof, they'll be a footnote in the history books by the end of the chapter.

Important Note to Self #4: Slow down.

The temptation is to post as soon as you can: you've started the game, you're all fired up to play, you've got some characters and the first scene begins... whooosh!!! Suddenly everyone's posting and commenting and you've all dived feet first into the fiction... apart from one player, who's been left behind because they weren't sitting at their keyboard at the same time as everyone else and is now playing catch-up with that wall of text. This continues as the game goes on: unlike facing a table of gamers, there's no obvious way of telling who's being left out except by scrolling back through everything that's been posted and seeing who has posted least and when they last contributed.

To really enjoy the unfolding narrative, take your time and ensure you leave space for all the players: don't rush ahead and don't expect everyone else to be posting at the same rate as the fastest player. Once you've made a move, try not to post again until everyone else has; even if you're engaged in an exciting dialogue with another character, try to confine it to one move apiece, don't keep trying to one-up each other or bat the narrative back and forth between you without giving anyone else a look in. Take your time with your posts and make them count, don't just rattle off a quick response that you need to keep coming back to and expanding upon: you have the narrative driving seat when you post, so take the story where you want it, then get out and stretch your legs. Next, give someone else a turn behind the steering wheel while you enjoy the view out the windows as a passenger for a while.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


I've been mulling over the way in which stories can be told recently, largely because of the time I'm spending on Storium, and in particular I've been thinking about the degree of authority individuals have in a shared narrative. The game that follows is a result of those thoughts and is designed to divide narration into much larger chunks than normal, so that players take turns to tell chapters of the narrative rather than actions or scenes. It's designed to work as a PbF game, but you could play it as a table-top game instead.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Amnesty on Storium

It's 1933 and the Great Depression has made the world a grey and bitter place: in Europe, there are rumours of wars to come with the rise of Fascism in Germany, whilst America drowns its sorrows as it celebrates the end of Prohibition.

Some strangers arrive in Chicago, sent there by an enigmatic agent know only as the Recruiter, who has given them a singular opportunity to match their remarkable natures: each of them is a monster who has preyed on the human race for centuries, but with Judgement Day said to be approaching, they must find a way to wash away the stains of their sins lest they be swept into Oblivion when the end comes...

Amnesty is a game idea that's been knocking around in the back of my mind for years as a kind of antithesis to many other "you're a monster struggling to be human" games on the market. What irked me about those was that your progress as a character was rewarded by gaining more powers, thus making you more of a monster: the inspiration for Amnesty was that you played a character who was already a total monster and that you were rewarded by losing your powers, thus becoming more human and capable of living a normal life.

I decided to bite the bullet and finally try out the premise after playing a game on Storium for a month or so; briefly, Storium provides a site for writing a collaborative narrative, with one player taking on the role of Narrator, who sets up the story and frames scenes with challenges in them, while each other player portrays a different character in that story. Characters get a set of refreshing resources to spend to face challenges, with the type of resource they spend (and how many of those they spend collaboratively) determining whether the outcome of a scene  is good, bad or mixed.

This has involved something of a learning curve, since it's my first time trying to run a game in this format: the lack of auditory and visual cues you get from playing face-to-face at a table keeps throwing me off and the narrowness of the game's communication channel (there's a sidebar for comments that appears with each separate scene) limits how much detail I can provide. This has lead to a couple of stumbles as I try to communicate setting details to the players and negotiate their characters' background and actions with them.

Important Note to Self #1: Lay out the details of the game in the intro and check my assumptions about it; you can't be too clear or explicit.

Play on Storium seems to default to party-mode: there's nothing built into the system that allows for intra-party conflict and even splitting the party relies on a formal agreement between the players about which characters are going where to do what, then waiting for one group to complete their scene before moving on to the next group. One thing that did fit the concept of the Amnesty game though was the Strength & Weakness cards players use to define their characters: characters almost always succeed at every challenge they are faced with, but the quality of that success is determined by the cards played in response to it. When a challenge is resolved using mostly Strengths, the characters succeed in the best way possible in that scene, but when mostly Weaknesses are used, the outcome is a mixed success or comes at a price.

For the Amnesty game, I've started by defining all the available Weakness cards as being monstrous powers, so players can use them to succeed, but it tends to get messy and will create problems for the individual character, even as it resolves problems the characters face collectively. On the opposite side of the equation, all the Strengths characters can begin with relate to their familiarity with aspects of human society and culture, e.g. Technology, Politics, History, Art: these are all a little harder to fit into the narrative, but they reward doing so with a flawless success.

Another issue I wanted to tackle was the depth of history to the characters: they have all been around for a long, long time, so I was looking for a method to bring that into the story without simply requiring each player to provide pages and pages of back story. The trick I've implemented to do this involves Assets, a neutral resource that players can collect: they can be played to meet the requirement of the number of cards played to complete a challenge, but they count as neither Strengths nor Weaknesses when determining the outcome. I've created a subset of these called 'Flashbacks': when played as part of completing a challenge, the player must recall an episode from their character's past and then relate that to what's happening in the present, much like the way in which flashbacks were used to great effect in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

This brings up another important lesson I've learned through hard experience: don't expect players to know how the rules work, especially if you're making changes to them. I was happily chugging along, laying out intangible assets to be picked up and then being  surprised when players in one game didn't pick them up and players in the other game picked them up reluctantly. I was assuming the players knew how Assets were collected in the first place, then assuming on top of that they would somehow sense the expectations I had relating to the way in which I was making changes to the function of assets in my game.

Important Note to Self #2: Coach new players through new processes, especially if you're not using them exactly the way it says in the rules.

There are currently two Amnesty games running, with different players, characters and plots in each one, but both sharing the common premise of monsters in 1930s Chicago trying to save the world and themselves; I'll update the blog periodically with developments in the games and anything more I've learned about both Storium and games in general.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Rooting for the Underdog: A View of The 'Hood

I've been asked a few times what the inspirations of The 'Hood are and people have pointed to various sources such as the films of Michael Mann or TV shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos but to be honest, I haven't watched a lot of those and I think you have to scale down your expectations quite a lot to get the most out of the game.

There are quite a few sources of influence on the creation of The 'Hood, but there's no one thing which is a perfect model of it, so I can't point you to a particular film or TV show and say "Do it like that." The premise has been stitched together from bits of British TV programs such as East Enders, The Bill, Misfits and Minder (the latter mostly remembered as the original series from my childhood) as well as a few films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Mostly though, the game is an attempt to model real life, not fiction, and a lot of it comes from newspapers, documentaries and my own experiences of living in some pretty rough areas where drug use, prostitution and the black market were right there on my doorstep.

The motto of The 'Hood is 'Big Fish in a Small Pond' and that's the way to play it: the PCs, like real people, are the stars of their own personal dramas, but pretty much no-one else gives a shit about them. You don't have to go too many streets away before you come to a place where nobody has even heard of them and some other chumps are doing the exact same things to different people. In The Writer's Tale, Russell T. Davies talks about techniques for getting the audience to care about the characters but sums it up with this profound thought: the audience will care because that's the character you're choosing to show them. Watching a TV show is an investment of the audience's time, so they come to it ready to care about the characters; so with an RPG, we care for the characters we create because we've invested our time and effort in creating them. They don't need to be important, powerful or influential, as long as we are sufficiently interested in exploring their life and seeing the world from their perspective for a time.

The 'Hood is like a microscope that places a drop of pond water under its lens and shows the teeming, myriad life within: take a moment to look at your streetplan and think of it from that perspective before getting down into it. Whatever is on there is what the players and the characters care about; if someone cares about something, they need to put it on the streetplan. Say what your prep demands.  The streetplan is almost a storyboard for your game and it tells you what needs to be threatened in order to motivate the characters; fronts follow from the streetplan, so it also tells you who is doing the threatening. Don't be afraid to have threats that start out small, even inconsequential, just trust that they will get bigger as soon as one of the PCs really screws things up (hint: they will.)

The PCs are dishonest, but the game isn't: play honestly and remember that to do it, you have to do it. All the basic moves are situational, in that they reflect or trigger a situation within the story. In order to ask around, a PC has to start by actually asking someone about the thing they want, so they need to explain who they are asking and how they contact them. The same goes for lying low, there has to actually be someone who can help the PC before they can make the move, which brings me to making trouble.

Honesty demands that you think about what a PC is asking for from an NPC and what the relationship is between them: if a PC seeks help from someone whose name is already in their payback box, then that NPC might not be inclined to listen, so the PC needs to see if they're making trouble. This is especially true if the PC has just taken heat from something violent and public: if you knew the police were throwing everything they had into finding the person on your doorstep, would you let them into your house to hide? How much trouble are they worth? Sometimes the PC won't be in a position to make trouble until they've tried and failed to do something else: for example, if they've just tried to rip off a mate by arguing the toss with them, that mate might not be inclined to give them the time of day afterwards. Patching up a damaged relationship is part of the conversation that is the game: just because someone isn't in your payback box doesn't mean you can't do them a favour to keep them sweet and get back into their good books.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Tech Support

This is just for fun: it's a fairly silly nano-game that you can play as a group, but it works just as well as a time-filler for two players.

The premise is simple: one player takes on the role of someone employed in tech support, while everybody else takes it in turn to call them with problems. The twist is that the callers can be calling up for the support they need in doing anything and the call-taker will help them, no matter what.