Saturday, 10 June 2017

Swallowing Bones

I’ve just finished running The Bone Swallower, a one-shot urban fantasy investigation using Fate Accelerated set in what we have called Other London. The players were members of Desk 17, responsible for investigating “other” crimes, and they had a missing person to chase down.

Overall, the game was a success. I had a good time, and from what I could tell my two players enjoyed themselves, there was some good banter between the players and also the NPCs.

Anyway, here are some thoughts.

Setting: I loved running a game in Other London. The setting was originally created by my good friend Jon Freeman (and Jon was one of my players this time around). Back when he created it (in the late 90s I think) it probably would have been considered unusual, but these days London-based urban fantasies are everywhere. Anyway I really enjoyed playing in Other London and creating my own, slightly weird urban fantasy.

Jon tells me that he found it interesting seeing my take on characters he had created (I reused some that I had encountered previously), and he was kind enough not to criticise me for doing it wrong.

(And I’ve only just realised that I put a green witch into Greenwich. That pleases me.)

My one-page introduction to Other London Desk 17.

Pregens: My players seemed to like the pre-generated characters that I’d created. I designed the pregens so that the players could tailor them to suit (partly inspired by these). My experience is that allowing the players to tailor the characters gives them more ownership than they might otherwise have.

The only problem is that the players chose neither of the two combat-facing characters, and I knew that there was combat coming up. (I prepared the scenario assuming that I would have four players, giving them five characters to choose from there would always be one fighter.) It wasn’t a huge problem, as I just dialled down the difficulty of their opponents.

My pre-gens are here - my players chose Gunn and Ironwood.

Timing: It wasn’t a real test of the scenario, but it took too long to play. We completed it in four sessions. Each of our online sessions is two hours long (I’m strict about finishing on time as we play on a school night), and in that two hours there’s a bit of chatter and catching up, so we didn’t play for eight solid hours. Probably more like 6-7.

Most convention games are fairly linear, and as an occult investigation I’d planned a clue trail and various scenes. However, to hide its linearity I'd thought out some alternative routes and some optional scenes. The players didn’t need to visit every scene, but because I was happy to let them go where they wanted to, they did end up in a couple of scenes I would have skipped if we'd been at a convention.

Overall, we ended up running nine scenes (with two combats). I think I could drop three scenes easily - but balanced against will be having more players. Will more players make the scenario run quicker or slower? I don’t know and I need to test.

One thing I can do is plan out how long I expect the scenes to take, and try and keep to schedule. I’ve never done that as a GM, so that will be interesting to try.

Fate Accelerated: I like the simplicity of Fate Accelerated, but even having played it a fair bit I still  struggle with approaches. I’m finding it hard to unlearn skills.

The other challenge I have with Fate is that I often forget to use my GM’s Fate tokens. I need to get better at that. I should probably give myself a rule to use them as soon as I can in a scene, rather than save them and end up not using them.

Having watched the recent Tabletop Fate Core episode, I’ve discovered that I don’t play Fate the same way as I tend to keep the system in the background. But I don’t think that matters, and I subscribe to Risus’ most important rule: there’s no wrong way to play.

Online Play: I don’t know if this is normal, but every time I’ve played online we’ve typically had 3-4 drop outs each session, where one player has to log back in. It doesn’t seem to matter which system we’re using (we’ve used Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook messenger).

But other than that, online play has been ideal, particularly when we’re located in different parts of the country. (But it will never replace face-to-face play…)

What next for The Bone Swallower? I need to run it again, probably at GoPlayLeeds. And if that works then I will run it at Furnace or Continuum or both. And at some point I will make it available in some format or other.

What next for Other London? We enjoyed The Bone Swallower so much that we’ve already started on the next case: Murder of a Templar.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hunting Hitlers Nukes

I have just finished listening to Hunting Hitler's Nukes: The Secret Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Deadliest Weapon, Damien Lewis' gripping account of the SOE operations to destroy the Norwegian Heavy Water plant during WW2.

The book accounts in detail operations Musketoon, Grouse, Freshman, and Gunnerside - the allies missions to stop Hitler's atomic bomb programme. Musketoon, Grouse, and Gunnerside involved injecting a small number of SOE agents into Norway (by sea or air), them trekking across the wilderness before executing their mission with surgical precision.

Several things struck me:


  • The achievements of everyone involved - and how young they are. I was aware of this with my Dad, who was a Mosquito navigator. It seemed as if he had two lives, one during the war and one after. I know events in my lifetime haven't been anywhere as tumultuous (thankfully), but even so it's humbling. (I often feel this when I read WW2 histories.)
  • Grouse and Gunnerside makes for a great RPG scenario. A small team, a clear mission, a dramatic location, huge consequences, plenty of obstacles. It would be easy to turn this into a Star Wars scenario.
  • How effective a small group of commandos can be in tying up other troops. Thousands of German troops were shipped into Norway following Gunnerside, effectively hunting just 11 men.
  • The complacency of the German defenders.  Why didn't anyone say, "Okay, so we've got this precious installation - I want you to take a squad of troops and spend a couple of months trying to infiltrate it. Let us know what you learn." Or "Imagine you're the British and you want to stop this extremely well guarded train carrying heavy water from reaching Germany, using only a small number of undercover agents. How would you do it?" (But that maybe hindsight, of course. That and I’m a gamer.)


Anyway, very enjoyable.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Limited Words

I love writing, but I don’t have unlimited words. So I tend to abandon my blog when I have other projects on the go.

So here are some recent projects that have distracted me from writing anything here:

The Peckforton Papers: I proposed a couple of ideas for The Peckforton Papers, a larp project. Both were accepted. While one paper was ‘just’ a revamp of an old article, the other was a discussion about Peaky, and completely new. The first draft of both are finished, I’m letting them rest for a week or two before revisiting.

Murder of a Templar: I’ve been really enjoying running The Bone Swallower, an urban fantasy Fate Accelerated game recently (although for various reasons we haven’t played for about six weeks now so it’s not quite finished). So part way through, I started thinking about the next installment, and because I like to prepare by writing out the scenario, that’s just what I’ve done. I’ve hit a bit of a stumbling block, which I’m currently working through.

The Reality is Murder: This is the current game I’m editing for Freeform Games. It’s a game that was submitted an embarrassingly long time ago, and I’ve finally decided to pull it together.

The Peaky Files: Volume 1: I’ve just finished putting this together for Peaky Games. It contains three complete freeforms and you can buy it from Lulu. (This is the only one of these four projects that I can say is actually finished…)

Stuff that I want to write about, but need a bit of headroom before I can fit them in: the gender agenda and freeforms (which follows on from Peaky), attention and addiction (I’ve recently read Irresistible, and I’ve had to uninstall World of Tanks), my house rules for board games, reflecting on The Bone Swallower (when we’ve finally finished), a review of Solo Build It (for Great Murder Mystery Games and then here).

And some stuff coming up that may distract me from that lot: Getting Sword Day (a freeform) into a publishable form, editing When in Rome (for Freeform Games), developing Second Watch (the freeform I co-wrote last Peaky) for Consequences, Volume 2 of The Peaky Files.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A return to convention GM-ing

This summer, at Continuum 2016, I ran my first tabletop roleplaying game for complete strangers for absolutely ages. I can't remember the last time I did that - in the late 90s, I think.

So I don’t run tabletop games often enough to be completely relaxed about it.

I have slightly higher standards when I run a con game compared to running one at home. At home I’m with friends and family, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. And while a con game doesn’t need to be perfect, I do expect to bring my A game when I’m running at a con. Players have paid to be there, I’m putting on a show. Things had better be slicker than at home.

I know, all of that is in my head. I’ve played in as many average con games as I have great, and I’ve conveniently ignored that fact that usually GMs don’t get much of a reward. (Perhaps the deeper question is why, as a player, don’t I always bring my A game to the table? That’s a thought for another day.)

So all that adds up to a whole heap of unnecessary and self-inflicted pressure, which is why I don't run many games at conventions. If I did more, I think I’d be more relaxed about it, which is why I want to do more. (So a bit like presentations then…)

(And yes, I have the same nerves with a freeform. Despite two and a half decades of experience, knowing that it will all turn out okay, and players can be trusted, I still experience pre-flight nerves.)


So I eased myself back in gently and I ran one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenarios: In Whom We Trust. I first wrote this as a tournament scenario in 1996 (twenty years ago!) and it concerns an expedition in the Amazon. It’s a mashup of Arachnophobia, Outbreak and The Thing - and once it gets going it pretty much runs itself. It’s also been played a whole bunch of times at other cons, so I know that it’s pretty solid.

I ran it on Sunday morning, which isn’t the best time to be running Call of Cthulhu, but was the only time I could do to fit in around everything else I wanted to do.

I had six players, which was the most I can reasonably handle. For tabletop, I prefer no more than five (and three to four ideally - but that’s a bit too high a GM:Player ratio for most cons). I don’t think six players was a big problem and I tried to ensure that everyone had enough of the spotlight.

I learned a long time ago (before Gumshoe came along) that investigators can’t solve the mystery if they don’t have the clues, so I don’t make players roll to find the handouts. Except, for some reason I’d left something in the scenario that you could only find on a successful roll. Succeeding wouldn’t have changed anything, apart from adding a bit of colour (and possibly mystery), and after they’d failed the roll I kicked myself. So I’ve now edited that out: the next group will find everything...

Apart from that minor glitch, the game appeared to go well. I don’t think anyone was actually scared, but things went from bad to worse and there was a frantic shootout in a mysterious temple. I had three survivors, which is a pretty high for In Whom We Trust.

In terms of how I ran the game, I noticed that I had to stamp on my instinct to ask the players to roll dice for trivial actions where failing the roll wouldn’t have been interesting. For example, if a door was locked I didn’t make them roll to see if they could unlock it or break it open, I just let them succeed with whatever action they were trying to do.

Do as I say or do as I do?


In a previous post I talked about what I thought made for a good convention game experience as a player. So measured against that, how do I think I did?

Invested in my character: I could probably have done better on this. I used the original characters, which were just basic Call of Cthulhu characters. Each did have a goal that ensured they kept with the scenario (rather than turning and fleeing like any sane person). The only activity I asked of the players was, after they had introduced themselves, for them to state out loud who at that point they trusted. I’m not sure if that had any impact on play, but the players gamely complied.

Characters that fit the scenario: Yes, absolutely. I wrote the characters specifically for the scenario - they all have goals driving them forward into the mystery.

During play ask reflective questions: While I like this as a player, it’s not a GM habit for me yet. Must try harder. I could have asked, part way through, who they now trusted.

Keep to time: Yes, no problem here. I had a three hour slot and we were done in just over two hours. I heard later that the players were amazed that we’d fitted so much into only two hours, and I think they were pleased to have a longer break between this and the next game.

Limited mechanics: With only one real mechanic-y section (the shootout at the end), perhaps that’s why we finished so soon.

So overall I’m pretty happy. I need to ask more reflective questions, and maybe think about other ways to get the players invested in their characters. That’s not something that “classic” Call of Cthulhu was that good at - and I’ve not seen 7th Edition.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Peaky 2017

After a slightly shaky start, Peaky 2017 was the easiest Peaky for me for a long time. Here’s what happened.

Upper Rectory Farm Cottages, home of Peaky

Six games


Six games were written and tested. Here’s what we wrote.

  • Second Watch SF horror on a space tug,. For 10 players.
  • It's Everybody's War 1940s English village, war propoganda. For 13 players.
  • The Apocalypse Agenda Torchwood meets Laundry Files meets Warehouse 13. For 12 players.
  • Luck be a Lady 1950s Las Vegas "Come for the show, stay for the mushroom cloud". For 12 players
  • The Root of all Evil Pressures of money and blood. For 12 players.
  • Mean Street Inspired by Dollhouse and set in the future. Come and play in the mean streets of 1920s New York. For 12 players.

I’m sure most of these will be developed further and will get a second or third runs.

A shaky start


The shaky start I mentioned happened on Friday night, when it seemed to take an eternity to sort out the games we wanted to play. We started off with over 30 ideas - more ideas than we had players.

Inevitably, it took a while to work all that out, but by 9pm we were done (quite a bit later than usual).

Second Watch: the writing


I co-wrote Second Watch, along with James Bloodworth, Alli and Ric Mawhinney, and Laura Wood. I’ve not written with any of them before, and James and Laura were both newcomers to Peaky (and this was only Ric’s second Peaky).

Laura had pitched an SF horror game, so we kicked around ideas involving Alien, Prometheus, Event Horizon, Sunshine, and similar movies. We ended up with Second Watch, where the relief crew awakens from cryosleep to discover that the First Watch is missing, and things aren’t quite right…

Writing Second Watch was a delight. It seemed really easy - I think that was because from the very start we had a strong idea of what we wanted to do. Sometimes at Peaky the writing groups take a while to form behind an idea, but this seemed to just fly.

It went so smoothly that we were done by 9pm on Saturday evening, which left me plenty of time to finalise Sunday’s running order (more on that below) while the others played games. I went to bed at 11pm, relatively early by Peaky standards. (I had had a dreadful night’s sleep the night before, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.)
Second Watch, all printed out and envelopes stuffed

Playing the games


Second Watch was the first game on Sunday (up against It’s Everybody’s War) and seemed to go really well. Despite a few of the inevitable glitches, the game seemed to go really well and we got some good feedback. We’ll take that on board and improve it for the next time (possibly Consequences).

The main things items we need to address are:

  • The queue for the GMs, we need to get the players to self-manage more of the investigation.
  • More and stronger links between characters. (I could say that we didn’t have time to write that - but hey, we finished at 9pm instead. It wasn’t a critical loss, but more links would have been better.)
  • The ending. Personally, I was hoping for a very downbeat ending where surviving players have to decide between several miserable options - but the players confounded us. Must do better next time!

The Apocalypse Agenda was written by Emory Cunnington, Ann De Vries, Max De Vries, Martin Jones and Tony Mitton and was a mash-up of Torchwood, the Laundry Files and Warehouse 13. I played a military chaplain from Section 13, clearly based on the Laundry Files. During the game we met two other teams and were forced to work with them, which led to some nice tension (as we all came from very different organisational cultures).

The Apocalypse Agenda went really well. It was split into several scenes, with short intermissions between. It seemed quite action packed and intense - it would clearly benefit from longer than the two hours that we had at Peaky. (The writing team did admit that at the start, so we were warned.)

A couple of things need a bit of looking at. The team-building workshop didn’t quite work, which made me wonder why. It was fun to do, but I don’t think it had the intended effect. (It has made me think about workshops and how to make them work in a freeform context. I’d like to see a good example.) And I think a bit more could have been made of the differences between the groups when we were supposed to be bonding.

Sunday’s final game (for me) was Mean Street, written by Nickey Barnard, Nick Curd, Philippa Dall, Clare Gardner, Megan Jones, Max Powell. Inspired by Dollhouse, Mean Street included strong themes and involved some abused characters.

I played Joey, a cigarette seller and I don’t want to say too much. Mean Street was intense, and the time seemed to fly by. My main concern is that towards the end of the game, I didn’t have any story left - once my character had worked out what was going on (and as a player I had worked it out sooner - but I had a good time playing being confused), then there was little I could do to influence things. It wasn’t a problem in a two hour Peaky game, but might have been a problem if the game was longer.

I didn’t experience It's Everybody's War, Luck be a Lady, or The Root of all Evil but it sounded like they went well.

The gender agenda


The gender agenda was more prominent this time at Peaky, notably with the presence of three members of the LGBT community. Emory produced a very useful Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity Cheat Sheet, which clearly explained how diverse diversity really is.

That had an interesting effect on the writing:

  • In Second Watch, we decided to make all our characters genderless. In keeping with the genre, we just used last names throughout.
  • My character in The Armageddon Agenda, if I remember right, didn’t feel sexual attraction to anyone (I can’t remember the technical term). Along with all the other characters, I had a gender neutral name.
  • All but one of the characters in Mean Street were gender neutral, but they had a nice touch of putting “he/she/they” underneath the character names on the name badge. As a player I got to chose my pronoun.
  • I didn’t play the other games and I don’t know what the impact was, but from a distance they appeared to have the more usual freeform gender split.

I found the gender agenda quite thought provoking and I’ll write more when my thoughts are a bit more coherent.

Game wrangling


Game wrangling was a huge improvement compared to last year. I think that’s because of three things:

  • I checked with everyone early to find out when they were due to leave. (And we didn’t have any last-minute drop-outs, thankfully.)
  • I worked out in advance that on average each group could expect 11 or 12 players, and I made sure that everyone knew that. (Everyone took note, happily.)
  • After last year I put together a spreadsheet that let me work out the options, and that worked really well.

So that was Peaky 2017. Still my favourite gaming weekend of the year.

Approaching Peaky

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Player created NPCs

One of the easiest methods I’ve used to get players invested in a game background is for them to create contacts for their player characters. This works particularly well for urban settings, and it gives the sense that the PCs are part of the world.

It also helps me in several ways:

  • As sources of information and clues (“Hmm, that sounds like something your ex-boss would know something about”)
  • As emotional hooks - if the players have created the NPCs, it’s likely they care about them. And if they care about them… (“I thought you ought to know, Sam is missing.”)
  • Fleshing out the world in ways I hadn’t thought of (“So there’s a cobbler on Grape Lane, I didn’t know that.”)
  • Interesting NPCs allow me to have a bit of fun roleplaying.
I also do this for my pre-gen one-shot games. For example, I am currently running The Bone Swallower, a Fate Accelerated urban fantasy adventure set in London (inspired by Neverwhere, Rivers of London, and anything else that has taken my fancy).

I gave each character a list of three contacts, and asked them to choose two and also to define their relationship.

Contacts (Choose two)

  • Jet Brewer: Half-fae pavement artist, usually found near Trafalgar Square. Relationship: Jet is my lover / mentor / ex-pimp / ______________.
  • Mr Spleen: Enigmatic shopkeeper who runs the Old Curiosity Shoppe, a general store and magic shop of no-fixed location. Relationship: Mr Spleen is my advisor / ex-boss / rescuer / ________.
  • Ted Neath: Lord Boston’s tough troubleshooter. Relationship: Ted is my father-figure/ teacher / enemy / ________.


Because this is a one-shot (and because I will publish it online in due course), I’ve developed each of the NPCs so that someone else can use them. (If these were player-generated, I would expect them to do as much of this as possible.)

Tiberius
Immortal Roman Centurion, Lady Serpentine’s bodyguard, hunting my true love’s murderer
Skilled (+2) at: Fighting, killing, protecting. Tracking, finding Other London’s hidden spaces
Poor (-2) at: Modern technology, falling ill, holding my liquor
Stress: O O O
Tiberius was born in 80AD, and simply didn’t die. He served on Hadrian’s Wall, and stayed when the Roman forces withdrew. In 1668 he lost his one true love, Serena, to a vampire called Zerkisti, and has been hunting it ever since. Tiberius has been serving as Lady Serpentine’s bodyguard since 1888, when she sought personal protection following the Ripper murders.

As for The Bone Swallower, the characters have already visited one of their contacts - they did it in the first session.

Note that I didn’t do this for The Crasta Demon nor In Whom We Trust because in both cases the scenarios involve the characters going into the wilderness and leaving their contacts behind. Adding contacts would have been a distraction. When I come to write a follow up to The Crasta Demon set in the great city of Broken Arch, then I will give the characters contacts.

(And I didn't do it for my older adventures because I hadn't learned this trick then.)

Why don’t we do this more often?


I find that creating NPCs is such a powerful tool for creating plot, background and helping the characters get involved in a setting, that it seems a bit strange to me that we don’t do it more often.

But maybe that’s a result of our wargames heritage - it seems to me that many tabletop rpgs are little more than thinly-disguised miniatures wargames with hero figures, but that’s a topic for another day.

(Ironically, given what I said about sandbox games previously, this probably works better for sandboxes than it does for adventures.)

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hopeless at creating characters

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’m not very good at creating characters for tabletop roleplaying games. I don’t mean I’m not very good at rolling them up, but I mean that when given a blank canvas, I struggle to come up with an interesting character concept and backstory.

For example, recently I played in a Star Wars game (using Fate Accelerated). The premise of the game was that we were a couple of guys in a spaceship in the Star Wars universe. So did that mean we were bounty hunters? Criminals? Traders? Rebels? Imperials? Something else?

The GM really didn’t mind - it was up to us, the players.

So between us we created a small crew of a trading spaceship and we set off in search of cargo to trade (and inadvertently running the risk of turning the game into Traveller).

But I found it hard to create a character I was interested in.

Story not sandbox


I think the problem for me is that I want to see a story, not just a sandbox. In fact, I’m not even sure I particularly like sandbox play (if I understand the term correctly).

I really want my games to have a beginning, middle and end. And I don’t want that middle to be wandering around the game world poking the scenery with a sharp stick to see what happens. (Okay, that’s perhaps extreme, but I’ve seen it happen. That’s not the case as far as our Star Wars game goes.)

And when there’s a strong story, in my experience you need characters suited to that story.

I think my gaming history has lead me in this direction:

  • Call of Cthulhu: I played (and wrote) far too much Call of Cthulhu in my early, formative years. And as Cthulhu tends to be all about the mission/scenario, I kind of have that in my blood. (I can’t imagine a Call of Cthulhu sandbox…)
  • One-shots: These days I play in (and run) a lot of convention one-shots. They tend to be mission-focused, due to the nature of a short, one-shot game. They also tend to have pre-generated characters designed to suit the scenario. (At least, the best of them do - but I’ve talked about that before.)
  • Freeforms: I play in (and write) a lot of freeform larps. Freeforms are often little more than a bunch of pre-written characters put in a setting and told to get on with it. So I’m either used to being given a character that suits the game, or I’m writing characters that I know will be fun to play given the game I’m writing.
  • Sandbox inexperience: When I look back, it turns out that I’ve not played in many true sandboxes. There has always been a point to the adventures. (And the last sandbox I played in was over 20 years ago.)
  • Short games: I prefer short games. I’ve never run or played in a long campaign - 10-12 sessions is the absolute most I’ve played or run, and 6-8 is probably more common. I don’t think I’d want to play in an epic campaign - there are too many games out there that I want to play.

Solutions


I like it when a GM gives me some guidance as to what sort of character suits the game we’re going to run. For the Star Wars game we did some collaborative world building, but looking back the key bit we missed was to define the issues that the game was about. We didn’t follow the Fate Core or Sparks process, and maybe if we’d done that I’d have a clearer idea of the character I wanted to play.

And I really like pregenerated characters, although that’s more work for the GM. And it’s nice to be able to tailor a pregen, so the PbtA playbooks are pretty close to perfect, and I’ve started using that basic idea when writing pregens for my games. (Some excellent examples here for Fate.)