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.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Keeping It Real: How to MC The 'Hood

Simmer down, I know it's been a while since my last post, but I'm back now, though not with an article on the design process of The 'Hood: this time, I'm going to move onto the philosophy that isn't explicit in the book but which informed the design decisions. In particular, I'm going to look at this from the perspective of MCing the game, as an understanding of the game's assumptions will assist potential MCs in making decisions during play.

First & foremost, what holds true for Apocalypse World mostly holds true for The 'Hood as well, with just a few tweaks here and there: the agenda remains the same, so make The 'Hood seem real, make the players' characters' live not boring and play to find out what happens. The streetplan of the 'hood is your best tool for making it seem real: you've got a map right there with everything important on it, as well as a list of important things that aren't on it but exist outside its boundaries. Make that plan the centrepiece of the table and when anyone does anything, ask them to point out where they are when they do it; better still, get them to show you how they get from A to B and fill in the alleys and shortcuts of the 'hood as you play. The streetplan shouldn't be a static document, it should change organically as the group discovers what it needs and adds it to the map; once in a while, ask the players a directed question, like "Who do you pass coming out of the bookmakers?" or "You bump into your cousin; where's he headed to?" Add further locations to the map or the list of places that are beyond it when they come up in the fiction.

Another tool you can use is a contacts list: ask each of the players to keep a list of who's on their character's phone and make sure you have copies of those lists. The contacts list is a double-edged sword: it establishes in the fiction who the PCs can quickly and easily get in touch with, but of course those same people can easily get hold of them. Making calls on the mobile/cell is a great way to frame moves like ask around, plan B, take the heat off and lie low, but also a great way to bring up the PC's payback box at the absolute worst possible time. Add some fun details to this technique by asking them what the ringtone is on their phone and whether they have different ringtones for different contacts: if you can have those tones cued up and ready to play, it's a great way to instantly foreshadow the badness that is about to come down on their heads.

The characters lives won't be boring if you're handing them opportunities and problems, so do both: better still, hand them opportunities that will create problems and problems that can be exploited as opportunities. Creating PCs and NPCs should have resulted in a bunch of potential triangles, so stir them together: look for ways the NPC's genuine agendas can trigger situations which threaten the PCs' livelihoods. It doesn't take much to bring the authorities down onto the 'hood or put an NPC in the cross-hairs of some of the bigger gangs that surround it; the ways different PCs are getting by are designed to overlap, so that the action one PC takes to protect their livelihood is liable to threaten someone else's. The default assumption of play is that someone is always going to be short and looking for a way to make ends meet again, so a major aspect of the conversation at the table will concern what it takes to restore a livelihood. If that isn't happening enough, look at the payback boxes of the PCs and see if there is a way someone can demand a favour from them that puts them into conflict with one of the other PCs:

  • The Heavy and The Ice put their reputations on the line and swear they will get the job done, but carrying through on that promise to an NPC can put them in direct conflict with The Bastion and The Fallen.
  • The Blur, The Go-Between, The Hacker and The Rebel all need some degree of secrecy to go about their work, so the last thing any of them wants is for an ex-customer to spill the beans: if an NPC starts telling tales in public, they'll have to deal with them, one way or another.
  • The Feelgood, The Merchant, The Pimp, The Schemer and The Shark all have a business model that needs customers who want what their selling: an unhappy customer might get one of their mates to make a complaint on their behalf, especially if their mate has the muscle or power to back-it up, like The Bastion or The Heavy.
Just like AW, everything follows from the moves, so keep things moving: learn to love the sound of dice hitting the table and make sure the players are rolling them when they should be. There are two big catch-all moves you can always turn to if the PCs want to try something uncertain and those are cover your tracks and take the hard way. I don't advocate making the players roll for everything they want to do, but any plan they embark on should certainly need at least one of those moves, especially if there are obvious ways it could go wrong: most times it's clear which move to use (burying a body in the woods is covering your tracks) but don't be afraid to ask "How are you doing this?"

Asking questions also saves you a lot of effort when you're responding to what the PCs do: there are questions implicit in the outcomes and consequences of every move already, mostly relating to who they've pissed off and how, but it's also a good way of checking that you and the players are on the same page. If they mess up, ask them "How does this go wrong?" but if they achieve what they set out to do, ask them "What does this get you?" You can think about the story as being the thing that gets you from move to move: the story follows from each move but it also sets up the next one. It matters what happens in the story, but you have to let the moves decide the direction for you and not be tempted to lead the story where you believe it should go. Talk, create, suggest, have a conversation, but use the extelligence around you (the AW rule book, The 'Hood rule book, the other players, your own prep) as well as your own intelligence and creativity.