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.)

Friday, 17 March 2017

AireCon

Last weekend I visited AireCon, the new Yorkshire-based games convention. Technically I think this was the fourth AireCon, but given that the first was in one of the organiser’s houses, and the previous two were in Bradford, but I missed them completely. But given that AireCon is rapidly expanding and its new home was the Harrogate International Centre, I thought I’d support it this time.

I bought a full ticket (Fri-Sun), but I ended up unable to go on the Friday. But I was there for both Saturday and Sunday.

Spacious!
Anyway, a few thoughts:

Location: Harrogate International Centre is a really nice venue. Large, spacious, on-site catering (and although the food was expensive, it was pretty good.) There was some unused space as well - three spare rooms that didn’t seem to be used much (the quiet play area, the large games space and the event space). The quiet area was used by some people to eat, and the event space had some people in it on Saturday but was empty when I popped my head in on Sunday.

Boardgames: tabletop games were really well presented. Huge versions of Ticket to Ride and Pandemic, a comprehensive games library, many games designers demoing their wares. And lots of people playing games. It was an awesome place to play new games, but not quite so good for meeting new people to play with. (I played Pandemic, Star Realms and Crabz.)

Family friendly: Loads of families with kids, whether playing giant Ticket to Ride or just looking at the stalls and playing with their mums and dads.
Giant Pandemic (we lost) with giant Ticket to Ride in the background
Some tabletop rpgs: The tabletop roleplaying needs a bit of attention and clearly isn’t as well developed yet. Paizo sponsored the marquee, and there was a “how to learn Pathfinder” GM, along with some other GMs, including Simon Burley and John Dodd. there. There were other GMs as well, and I played a SF horror game by John Dodd and an introductory Pathfinder adventure (more on that below).

I think the tabletop roleplaying still needs to develop. There’s an intriguing difference between regular tabletop convention goers (not many at the convention) and casual boardgamers who might drop into a game. The regulars want a four hour slot, the casual boardgamers want something that will take about an hour or so (like a regular boardgame). I’m sure there’s a solution in there somewhere.

(The AireCon website doesn’t help - it’s not very tabletop roleplaying friendly.)

GoPlayLeeds: I attended along with a few others from Go Play Leeds, but it wasn't a great success for us. We weren't really organised, and so I don't think we drummed up any new players. (But then there were many more boardgamers than roleplayers present.)

We also didn't advertise ourselves very well. There was a community area which I found which we could have advertised on, but as far as I can tell, it wasn't directly linked from the AireCon website so I didn't find out about it until too late.
AireCon community noticeboard - which I didn't find out about until too late

Pathfinder: I played in an introductory Pathfinder game, a simple adventure involving finding a teenager who had run away and gotten a bit in over his head. I’ve not played Pathfinder (nor much D&D for that matter), and to me the switch between character interaction (what I think of as roleplaying) and the tactical miniatures game for the combat (never my favourite bits of tabletop rpgs) was a bit of a clunky switch.

But the GM was lovely (I'm sorry, I didn't catch his name), and I can really see the appeal of the Pathfinder society. The teenager in me thought that was great.

Mugs! AireCon’s mugs are really nice. For £6 you get a nice souvenir and £1 off tea and coffee at the drinks counter. They even come with a stick of chalk so you can write your name on the side so they don’t get mixed up.

Deodorant: One thing that made me smile was seeing three cans of deodorant in the gents. I’ve no idea if they were used, but it was a nice touch.

Friday, 10 March 2017

DramaAspects in Play

So the other night I once again inflicted "DramaAspects" on my players (previously discussed here and here). I'm still experimenting as they're not as easy as I first thought...

I created pre-generated characters for the adventure with multiple-choice drama aspects. I did this because recently I found myself in the position of creating a drama aspect for my own character, and I found it surprisingly hard when faced with a blank piece of paper.

So I took a leaf from the Apocalypse (and Sophie LagacĂ©’s excellent Fate of the Inquisitor playbooks) and went for a multiple-choice approach to my pre-generated characters, including the drama aspects. (Why I find my player characters so hard to create yet pregens so easy may be a topic for another time. But never mind.)

Player characters


Of the five pregens, Jon chose Ezekial Gunn (overconfident student of cat magic) and Terry Chose PC Simon Ironwood (lazy half-fae career constable).

Their drama aspects, were, as presented to them:

  • Gunn: I need ____________ to [teach me to _____________ / let me protect them / forgive me for scarring them] but he/she won’t because _______________________
  • Ironwood: I need ___________ to [support my promotion request / let me teach them to See / respect me as a policeman] but he/she won’t because _________________

Invokes and Compels


Drama aspects are all very well, but the point of an aspect is being able to invoke and compel it. For many aspects invoking and compelling is obvious, but I’ve found that one weakness of drama aspects is that I don't find them as easy to invoke or compel. So I'm taking the time now (between sessions) to think about that in advance.

In essence, I see it that the drama aspect can be invoked to help with the thing that the character wants, and compelled to encourage the character to overcome the objection.

Ezekial Gunn: I need Ironwood to let me protect him, but he won't because he's never trusted anything to do with cats.

Gunn can invoke this aspect when he is somehow protecting Ironwood.

This aspect can be used to compel Gunn to do something that will persuade Ironwood that cats can be trusted. Such as:

  • Trusting a cat not to kill an important mouse
  • Trusting a cat with an important task (like that’s going to go well!)

PC Simon Ironwood: I need Ezekiel to let me teach him to See, but he won't because he believes that if he learns such fae blood magic then his totem cat spirit (that grants magic powers) will leave him.

Ironwood can invoke this aspect if Gunn is present when he is Seeing, and Ironwood explains what he is doing (i.e. is teaching).

This aspect can be used to compel Ironwood to do something that will persuade Gunn that Seeing won't affect his magic powers. Such as:

  • Capturing his totem cat spirit and demonstrating that Gunn's magical powers are unaffected by its absence.
  • Doing something that removes Gunn's cat magic (and thus the obstacle to learning).
  • Getting Gunn to learn some other fae blood magic first to demonstrate that it doesn’t affect his cat magic.

I haven't discussed these ideas with Jon and Terry yet, and I expect that they’ll have other, better, ideas.

Character flaws


I haven’t seen anyone use a character flaw as a reason for refusal yet. That may be because when players are choosing their reason, they don’t want to project onto the other character, so they pick a reason internal to their character.

I think the way for that to work is that to phrase it so that it’s a perceived character flaw, not necessarily a real one.

The keywords being “...because he/she thinks that I…”

 So: ...but she won’t because she thinks that I [ can’t be trusted / am too immature / am too bookish / am not worthy.]

These can then be used to compel a character to do something foolish/dramatic to show that they do not have the character flaw. (“I am not too bookish, I’ll show her…”)

Looking ahead


Next time I do this I will try to remember to ask the players to think about compels and invokes when they write their drama aspects. And I might nudge them towards “he/she thinks that I…”

(I’m sure this will all get easier with practice.)

The next thing to think about is resolving a drama aspect, but that’s a subject for another time.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

More on DramaAspects

I recently backed Ben Robbins’ collaborative story game Follow, and I was delighted to see that he uses the same “I need, but you won’t give me…” approach to inter-character drama that I’ve been using for DramaAspects (and wrote about here).

It’s interesting that Robbins’ uses “need” rather than “want” (which is from Hillfolk). I much prefer “need” as it’s stronger.

Follow also contains many more examples of needs, which I’ve harvested and will use as examples for my Fate games. The main lesson I’ve learned from Follow is to be more specific, though

Here’s my new list:

I need, but you won’t give me...


  • You to admit I’m: the better swordsman (pilot/sniper/sailor/leader…)/braver/the better warrior/a hero of legend...
  • Your respect as an artist/spouse/parent/swordsman...
  • Your support to: to put me in charge/get my agenda followed/convince others of something...
  • You to admit you were wrong about: strategy/a previous campaign/a colleague...
  • You to ask your friends/connections to: donate/provide support/provide information...
  • You to treat me as an equal.
  • A promotion/more responsibility. Put me in charge of fighting/food/repairs/navigation...
  • You to swear me in as a knight/priest/apprentice/retainer....
  • You to pardon me for past crimes/dishonors
  • You to do as you’re told/follow my orders.
  • Your protection. Keep me out of danger.
  • You to let me protect you.
  • You to renounce violence/pacificism/our traditions/your religion
  • You to embrace violence/pacificism/our traditions/my religion
  • Special treatment. More (money/food/protection/status) for me and my people.
  • A legal pardon for past misdeeds (what did you do?)
  • To know the truth about: why you volunteered/a previous mission/your background/my father/what happened that night...
  • You to trust me/tell what you’re planning/rely on me.
  • You to trust me: with your secret/to handle dangerous situations/to lead an attack/to pilot the ship...
  • You to stop: telling me what to do/thinking you know what’s best/protecting me...
  • You to teach me to: act/sing/pick up dates/control my powers/fight crime/be a leader/shoot/ride/be tough/not be afraid...
  • You to forgive me for: accidentally destroying property/letting a criminal get away/cheating you/stealing your true love/leaving you for dead/my mistake/giving you a scar/betraying you/leaving you behind/ratting you out/an act of violence/an act of cowardice/collaborating...
  • Your love/be my partner/be my best friend/get over me/marry me/divorce me/have my child.

Follow includes a need that I don’t like - and that’s revenge. “I need, but you won’t give me, revenge on you for…” doesn’t quite work for me as I don’t see how you can stop me from taking revenge on you. I think that’s better done as forgiveness - I’ve done something terrible and I need you to forgive me.

I’ve not played Follow yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Bundle of Holding

Sometimes, I forget I have a games company.

I run Freeform Games with Mo Holkar. We publish murder mystery games - but they’re actually larps in disguise. Our target market is ordinary people rather than gamers, so we don’t tell them that they’re roleplaying or larping.

Our games don’t involve polyhedral dice (or dice of any sort) or complex rules. Most of them are set in the real world. We do have a small number of games with magic in them, but our games don’t have elves or spaceships or vampires. (Yet - you never know.)

So when I’m hanging out at Continuum or Furnace and chatting to people like Dr Mitch, Graham W, Graham Spearing, Paul Baldowski and the many others forging their creative path in tabletop roleplaying, I sometimes feel a bit inadequate.

So please forgive me for being dead chuffed that the prestigious Bundle of Holding is currently running a murder party bundle featuring eight of our games!

As I type this, we’re only a few days in and already we’ve raised nearly $9,000 and sold over 280 bundles. Woo hoo!

We have no idea how this will impact on our regular sales, but given that our target market doesn’t really know what Bundle of Holding is, and two of our most popular games aren’t included in the bundle, then I’m hoping it won’t have a disastrous impact.

It might even be good for us as a new bunch of gamers discover a way to introduce their non-gamer friends into this glorious hobby.

1000+ person hours of fun


Marcus Rowland writes about our Bundle of Holding offer here.

I like the bit where Marcus notes that there's 1000+ person hours of fun in the package. (I think he's exaggerated slightly - at my estimate, assuming each game is full and entertains everyone for three hours, then you've got over 450 hours of person entertainment. But why quibble?)

He picks up on something I noticed on the main Bundle of Holding page - and that's the comment about printing lots of pages.

Well, I suppose so.

But it's possible I've just become used to printing out lots of paper - it's what these games do.

I don't remember any complaints about paper use from our customers. So perhaps that's just gamers.

Not very “polished”


Here’s a mildly enthusiastic discussion about the the murder party Bundle of Holding.

The comment about our games not being “most polished” is fair, but that’s because we’re aiming for the “readable by people with bad eyesight in dim lighting” look. Which isn’t a jazzy look compared to a modern full-colour RPG. (But then I think most RPG designs are, graphically, a mess. I prefer clean and simple for my RPG design.)

Each to their own - although I admit we could probably do with better covers.