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Monday, 25 September 2023

ChatGPT and freeform character summaries

Last time, I talked about how I introduce character sheets with a short summary that explains who the character is, why they are here and what they want.

The other day, I received my character for Antarctic Station 13, one of the games I’m playing at Consequences. The character sheet is over 5,000 words long, and unfortunately, it lacks a summary.

But rather than write my own, I thought I’d ask ChatGPT to create one.

ChatGPT prompt

This was my prompt:

Below the five asterisks is a character for a roleplaying game. Summarise the character in 300 words, and additionally pull out the key action points and key relationships

*****

Samantha ‘Sam’ Farnsworth

Age: 41

Gender: Female

Role: Climatologist

Early life

You had a decent up bringing with parents who loved you, their youngest child. You were shy in school, had few friends and were bullied. Probably because of… [And the rest of the character sheet (nearly 4000 words) except for goals, abilities and who you know. I didn’t include goals and who you know because I wanted to see what ChatGPT would make of the general text.]

(Thanks to a casting mixup, the character was written as female, but I’m playing them as male. Perhaps.)

ChatGPT’s response


This is what ChatGPT returned:

Samantha 'Sam' Farnsworth, a 41-year-old female climatologist, has faced a tumultuous life and career. Despite a shy and bullied childhood, her passion for science and the environment propelled her to become an expert climatologist. Sam's early career involved various jobs and culminated in a tragic trek to the North Pole, where a team member's death haunted her.

After facing a downward spiral of addiction and personal struggles, she found redemption through rehab, allowing her to rebuild her life and career. A chance opportunity landed her a post at Antarctic Station 13, where she finds solace in the remote environment and seeks to regain control over her emotions and confidence.

(I’ve omitted the key action points and key relationships ChatGPT returned – they weren’t so good and are a bit spoilery.)

So that’s a great starting point. Perhaps I should have asked for it in second-person, but it has taken me only a couple of minutes to edit it into this:

You are Samantha 'Sam' Farnsworth, a 41-year-old climatologist. Despite a shy and bullied childhood, your passion for science and the environment drove you to become an expert climatologist. Your early career involved various jobs and culminated in you leading a tragic trek to the North Pole, where a team member's death still haunts you.

After facing a downward spiral of addiction and personal struggles, you found redemption through rehab and rebuilt your career. A chance opportunity landed you a post as the second-in-command at Antarctic Station 13, which is where you are now.

(I’d then add a paragraph about the immediate situation, which is potentially spoilery, so I haven’t included it here.)

Summary

That was easy – it’s taken me longer to write this post than it did to create the summary. As a player, I’ve found that really useful, and as a writer, I would happily use ChatGPT (or one of the other large language models) to create a summary like this.

Monday, 18 September 2023

Character summaries for freeform larps

Looking back at Continuum, none of the character sheets for the freeforms I played in (Veterans Day, Party Like It’s 1993 and Ghosts… it’s not Ibsen) had what I consider to be a good introduction. 

A good introduction “settles the reader” by quickly explaining who the character is, why they are present, and what they want. This sets the context for everything that follows, and I find eases my comprehension.

I now try to do this in my freeforms (although I’m not always successful).

So I thought I’d try it for each of my Continuum characters. (Don’t worry, I’ve excluded any potential spoilers.)

Veterans Day

You are Rev Giovanni Holt, a Christian minister. During the war against the aliens, you were a UNVED superhero (codename ‘Jammer’). After the war, you joined a vigilante group and fought crime. After the group broke up, you became a minister and served God. You are here because you (and other superheroes) are being presented with a medal by Vice President Elaine House. You are looking forward to catching up with your old colleagues, some of whom you haven’t seen in over two decades and maybe even solving some of the mysteries that have puzzled you in the past.

Party Like It’s 1993

You are Erich Hannawald, a West Berlin lad who rebelled against your middle-class parents and now lives a life of crime, alcohol and drugs. The Bunker is one of your favourite nightclubs, and you are here to have a beer and game of darts – and maybe score some drugs and conduct some business.

(To be fair, Erich’s character sheet had a one-line summary, although it was too short for my liking.)

Ghosts… it’s not Ibsen

You are Phillip Granger, and you are on the run from the police after having kidnapped your mother, Hillary, from her negligent care home. You’re here at Oatley Hall to see your sister, Petra, and discuss how you can best care for your mother.

These introductions then set the scene for everything else and mean that the reader has a sense of their character from the moment they start reading.

Writing Freeform Larps

A character summary doesn’t even need to be something extra that needs to be written. In my book, Writing Freeform Larps, I write them in Step #4 (Outline characters). The summary helps me define each character’s core concept early in the writing process.

Learn more about Writing Freeform Larps here.

Monday, 11 September 2023

Duddo Five Stones

Duddo Five Stones is a Bronze Age stone circle set on a hill in a field in Northumberland, near the Scottish border. Access is via a permissive path from the nearest lane – park carefully to avoid blocking the large agricultural vehicles that use the lane. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to walk to the stones – we walked through the stubble as the corn had only recently been cut.

Approaching the stones

You can see the stones ahead of you as you approach, standing out on the skyline.

Five stones, originally seven

The five stones don’t quite make a circle – there is a large gap to the west where two other stones would originally have stood. Instead, the stones look like the tips of a giant’s five fingers, reaching through the soil. I’m sure that’s just my imagination, though. 

The site was excavated in 1890, and the remains of a cremation were found in the centre.

Cup marks may or may not be present on the stones. We found an interesting pattern – a depression a couple of inches across surrounded by smaller depressions, giving the impression of a flower. Deliberate or weathering? No idea.

Local legends

According to The Old Stones (edited by Andy Burnham), a couple of local legends concern the stones:

  • They were erected in 1588 to commemorate the battle of Grindon (discussed here).
  • They are all that remains of five men who committed the heinous crime of digging turnips on the Sabbath.

Nearby hill figure

Ever since I read John Drews’ The Silbury Revelation (where he suggests that Silbury Hill is an effigy – the artificial head of a hill figure), I’ve been interested in finding similar hill figures (Earth Mothers or Earth Goddesses) that can be seen from stone circles.

Miss H points west, with the
Cheviots in the background

And sure enough, there’s one at Duddo.

To the south, there are the Cheviots (which may hide a hill figure), but there’s one to the west, where from the circle, Sweethome Hill and Hume Craigs in Scotland form the head and body of a sleeping hill figure on the horizon. As a bonus, on the beautiful September day we were there, it looked as if the sunset would be on or near the hill figure.

You can just see it in the picture below, to the right of Mrs H (who won’t thank me for the photo).

Links

TripAdvisor (actually useful, explained where to park and so on)

Duddo Five Stones on www.stone-circles.org.uk

Duddo Five Stones on www.megalithic.co.uk

Tuesday, 5 September 2023

Hillfolk at Continuum

Following on from my previous posts (here and here), I ran Hillfolk at Continuum. How did it play? In short – brilliantly. It was the best session of my convention.

It signed up fast. I mentioned that I was running it to a friend, and he immediately put his name down. There was interest among those (like me) who had backed the 2012 Kickstarter but had yet to play it. It wasn’t just me – three other players also had backed the Kickstarter.

I ran Hillfolk with five players, which seemed to be a good number. I don’t think I would have wanted to do it with six, but I guess I’ll find out one day.

As mentioned before, I used Jon Cole’s Hillfolk one-shot playbooks.

Character creation

For the first 45 minutes of the game, we created characters. It turns out creating characters is a lot of fun – part way through this session, the players were grinning as the conflicts they were setting up became apparent.

After introductions, here’s what we did.

  1. First, I gave a brief overview of Hillfolk. While most of us were aware of it, nobody was familiar with Hillfolk, and we had one complete newcomer.
  2. Then, I spread the playbooks out and let the players choose. I told the players that if one of them didn’t pick the chief, the chief would be an NPC (and weak). One player chose to play the chief.
  3. I asked the players to pick names and desires. I’d printed the list of names from Hillfolk (page 75) and the advice on page 13 on choosing desires.
  4. The players chose dramatic poles – examples were printed on each playbook, or they could create their own.
  5. The players then answered the playbook-specific questions.
  6. I then asked everyone to go around the table and describe their characters to everyone. (As they did, I wrote each name and role on an index card.)
  7. Then we moved to relationships – where the fun really starts. I asked each player to describe their character’s relationship with another character – and what they want from that relationship. The receiving player then declares why their character can’t meet that emotional need. (The only restriction I put here was to make sure that each character was only petitioned once.)
  8. We then repeated step 7 in random order. Again, I ensured nobody was petitioned more than twice to keep the characters balanced.

And with that, character generation was done. Our characters:

  • Firstson, the chief
  • Raven, clan elder and the chief’s uncle
  • Copperhair, the curate (and the chief’s son)
  • Dog, the warrior
  • Hewer, the captain

As an example of the dramatic poles and needs and wants, Hewer desired respect and was torn between honour and savagery. From the other characters, Hewer wanted affirmation from Raven that war is good and to train Copperhair as a warrior. Meanwhile, Dog wanted Hewer to recognise that he loved him.

Actual play

I started the game with a conference scene, with the news that raiders from the Shining Scales had stolen the last of the tribe’s food. (This is as suggested by the guide in the playbooks.) The chief made a speech, setting the scene. Copperhair started to respond, but I cut him off and suggested we turned that into the first dramatic scene – which we did.

Then I used a small deck of five index cards to randomise the caller for the next scene. (I didn’t let anyone skip their scene – something suggested by the Fear of a Black Dragon podcast which seemed to work.)

Dramatic scenes work with the caller deciding where it will be, when it takes place, and who will be in it. They then petition one of the other characters for something. If the petitioner forces a concession and gets what they want, the conceder gets a drama token. If the petitioner doesn’t get what they want, they get the drama token. Drama tokens come from the other player (or the pot if that player has none).

Most of the game consisted of dramatic scenes, with the players trying to persuade other players to give them things they want (or do things they want them to). At one point, Dog ended up with four drama tokens, giving him great power over his next scenes.

I didn’t have to do much other than watch the awesomeness unfold. I kept an eye on the scenes to make sure they weren’t too long, and I had to check who got the drama token (sometimes it wasn’t obvious – and sometimes both players agreed neither was due one). But it was probably the easiest GM-ing I’ve done for a long time. (And certainly the biggest impact compared to the effort put in.)

Oh, and I managed the occasional procedural scene.

Procedural scenes

Procedural scenes are action scenes – they’re the scenes that most RPGs focus on. In Hillfolk, they’re important, but they take second place. A procedural scene might be an entire battle or a single spear thrust. But there’s only one chance to resolve it.

Everyone (including me) had three tokens for procedural scenes: red, yellow, and green. The tokens represent the strength of their commitment (green = high, red = low). Here’s how it works:

  1. Players state what they are doing and what their intent is.
  2. GM decides on the strength of the opposition (high/medium/low using one of their procedural tokens). They keep this hidden.
  3. GM draws a playing card and places it face up. This is the target card, and depending on the strength of the opposition, the players are trying to match its value, suit, or colour.
  4. Participating players spend tokens depending on the strength of their commitment: Green token – draw two cards, Yellow token – draw one card, Red token – draw one card and the GM eliminates one card
  5. GM reveals the strength of the opposition and determines if the action succeeds.

That’s broadly it. There are a few special cases for player against player and some rules for drawing face cards, but that’s mostly it. When I first read Hillfolk, I thought the procedural rules would be fiddly and unintuitive, but they made sense in play.

The twist with procedural tokens is that they don’t refresh until you run out (even between sessions). So before you can play a second green token, you must play your red token. Would that be an issue in a one-shot session? We had three procedural scenes:

The first was Raven the Elder’s peaceful approach to the Shining Scales tribe, trying to get them to give us food. I decided that the tribe’s negotiating position was weak and played my green token (high strength opposition, meaning the players had to match the value of my card). Raven’s negotiation attempt failed.

The second was when Copperhair tried to stab Raven with a spear. Luckily, Raven dodged out of the way. (In these player-v-player scenes, each player draws one [red], two [yellow] or three [green] cards, and the highest card wins.)

The final scene was the tribe raiding the Silver Scales and taking the food by force. This involved everyone. My best token was yellow at this point (matching the suit), and the players drew enough cards between them to match it at least twice. A success!

And there we drew the game to an end.

Overall

I found it so easy to run Hillfolk. The players leaned into the dramatic conflict, and everyone had a great time. (As GM, you get all the credit – even though you do so little!)

So, thoroughly recommended by me. And I’m going to do it again.

Appendix: Stuff for a Hillfolk one-shot

And here’s the stuff I took to Continuum for Hillfolk.

  • The rulebook
  • A deck of cards
  • Counters and tokens – distinctive drama tokens (I used my fate points) and sets of red/amber/green tokens for each player (including the GM). I used counters from Pandemic Legacy
  • Index cards (for table-tent name tags and a deck for me to randomise the next scene caller)
  • The playbooks (downloaded from Pelgrane’s site)
  • A printout of the map on page 68 of Hillfolk
  • A rules cheat sheet (downloaded from Pelgrane’s site)
  • A sheet of common names (copied from page 75 and pasted into a Word document)
  • A sheet with advice on choosing desires (copied from page 13)
  • Blank paper to scribble notes on

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

RPGaDay #26-31

#26 Favorite character sheet

I don't have a favourite character sheet.

#27 Game you'd like a new edition of

I'd love a second edition of Hillfolk. The first edition is, um, not good. These are the changes I'd make:

System: Right now, I wouldn't change it. But after I've played it a few more times, I may have ideas.

Cover: Currently, a muddy brown cover with a couple of indistinct figures. Make it compelling. And beautiful.

Fonts: Currently tiny and (to my old eyes) almost unreadable. Make it bigger!

Series pitches: Currently, over 50% of the book consists of alternate game ideas (of varying quality). Throw all but the three best out and turn them into character playsheets along the lines of Jon Cole's one-shot playbooks. Keep the other series pitches, but as pdfs (ideally with playbooks).

Size: Currently a 230+ page A4 hardback. Cut it down to a trade paperback size and give it some love.

#28 Scariest game you've played

Scary games are hard to do, and I think the scariest game I played was in the mid-eighties. I was in a games club in Exeter, and we were playing Call of Cthulhu. I can’t remember the plot, but for some reason, we were exhuming the body of a suspected sorcerer. And somehow, the anticipation of what we would find turned that into the scariest session I can remember.

What’s odd about that is that we were in a large room in a pub, with other games going on around us. So the atmosphere was against us, but somehow, for me, it became scary. (That’s what I think of when people talk about immersion. Not the what-you-see-is-what-you-get sense from some larps, but being carried away by the game so reality fades into the background.)

#29 Most memorable encounter

Cosmic Encounter. For lots of reasons, most of which I've put here.

#30 Obscure RPG you've played

No idea.

#31 Favourite RPG of all time

I’m not sure I have an all-time favourite RPG. I guess it could be Fate Accelerated, for the reasons I talked about in question #18.

However, since running a session of Hillfolk at Continuum last month, I suspect Hillfolk will be my new favourite – but it’s too early to tell. (A more detailed write-up of that Hillfolk session will follow in a later post.)

My favourite boardgame is easy, though: Cosmic Encounter.

And my favourite freeform? That’s complicated, as freeforms aren’t normally played more than once. But if you forced me to pick, I’d probably say either Home of the Bold (my first freeform ever) or CafĂ© Casablanca (my first weekend freeform), both of which I’ve played twice.

Reflecting on #RPGaDay 2023?

31 questions feel like a lot – and I feel like I’ve petered out. I’m not sure the questions were that great either.

I’d much rather things were spread out during the year – allowing for more time to think about them properly.

But hey, I still did it. Will I do 2024? Maybe. Probably. 


Friday, 25 August 2023

RPGaDay 2023 #22-25

#22 Best secondhand RPG purchase

I don't think I've bought any RPGs secondhand.

#23 Coolest looking RPG

For me, it's still Traveller's elegant black-and-red look from 1977.

These days, I find readability and accessibility more important than coolness. I particularly like huge coffee-table books, so most large-publisher RPGs are a turn-off for me. (I find the current Mongoose Traveller more readable than the old GDW booklets.)

I find RPGs also often fail at making them easy to use during play - the ALIEN books (and adventures, especially) are particularly bad at this.

#24 Complex/simple RPG you play

As I said before, I generally prefer simple RPGs. I once ran a campaign using only 2d6. The players said what they wanted to do, rolled 2d6, and I interpreted the results. So those were probably the simplest rules I’ve used, but it wouldn't have worked if we didn't trust each other.

Currently, I am running a playtest of As the Sun Forever Sets, a Forged in the Dark game set during HG Wells' Martian invasion. I've not run Blades in the Dark, and I'm finding the game extremely fiddly - with lots of things to think about that I would normally ignore or handwave. I wouldn’t say it's crunchy (which I associate with numerous modifiers and rules for specific situations), but ATSFS has many more subsystems to keep track of than I'm used to. I feel like I’m playing a boardgame – but without the helpful player boards and counters that a boardgame would come with.

My sweet spot is probably Fate Accelerated, which is just about right.

(I know there’s an argument that the “game” part of “roleplaying game” means there must be mechanics and systems. But that’s not why I roleplay (that’s what boardgames are for). What I like when I roleplay are a story, playing characters important to that story, and PCs who talk to each other (not just to the GM). None of which involve rolling dice. Anyway, I’ve covered this before.)

#25 Unplayed RPG you own

I had stopped playing (and running) Traveller by the time I bought The Traveller Book. (I had moved on to Call of Cthulhu by that point.) Which is a shame, as I think it's the best iteration of the original Traveller rules.

I also have the latest iteration of Mongoose Traveller. I hope I'll play that soon - and maybe even run Secrets of the Ancients.

Also unplayed is Good Society, which arrived over a year ago. It feels like a game that suits face-to-face play rather than online play, and while I want to play/run it, I don’t have a regular face-to-face group. Maybe I need to nag someone else into playing it.

Cold City and Hot War are in my “unplayed and not currently planning to play” category. I’ve played in a couple of Hot War one-shots, but I don’t think I’ve got the hang of it – which is why I’ve not run it. While I’ll play them should the opportunity present itself, I’m not planning (or thinking about planning) either. 

Urban Shadows is in a holding pattern. I have a pdf of the first edition, but I’m waiting for the second edition physical book from Kickstarter. I’m hoping this becomes something I play rather than something that sits on the shelf.

Finally, while I have numerous unplayed pdfs, the only one I'd really like to bring to the table is Monsterhearts.

I have no unplayed boardgames.

Monday, 21 August 2023

RPGaDay 2023 #18-21

#18 Favorite game system

When I'm playing (or running) a game, I often think, "This would be so much easier were we playing Fate Accelerated."

I like the simplicity of Fate Accelerated. Yes, I probably play it in a more trad style than perhaps it’s supposed to be played, but I find it almost effortless to run. And yes, I accept that approaches take getting used to (I still find them a bit strange), but I’ve never had a problem explaining them to players at the table.  

I prefer Accelerated to Fate Core or Fate Condensed – but that’s because I don’t really like the skills in the other two variants. 

My issue with skills is that I often find skills lists problematic (I’ve discussed this before here and here). My issue with skills in Fate Core and Condensed is that they take away something from the aspects. In Accelerated, if Luke Skywalker takes the aspect “Hotshot fighter pilot”, then that’s all we need to know. If he takes the same aspect in Core or Condensed but doesn’t take the Pilot skill, then mechanically, his aspect isn’t true. I appreciate this isn’t something anyone would actually do, but it’s one of the reasons I prefer Fate Accelerated.

(And Hillfolk may now be a challenger now I've started playing that. But the two games do different things.)

#19 Favorite published adventure

I'm not sure I have a favourite, but there are a couple of published adventures I like.

I like Lady Blackbird, by John Harper. Arguably this is little more than five characters, a situation and some notes backed up by a simple system. But the five characters are marvellous (as I said in Q15, the key is getting the characters right), and the system drives great behaviours in the players (I'm a big fan of refresh scenes). 

I guess you might argue that Lady Blackbird is a game system, but to me, it's an adventure with some rules.

Secrets of the Ancients by Gareth Hanrahan, is an epic campaign for Traveller. It ticks all the boxes I liked about Traveller (mainly, the Ancients) and reads well. However, I've yet to play or run it. Hopefully, one day. (I've not played or run any Traveller in years and years).

My list of published adventures I don't like is much longer...

#20 Will still play in twenty years’ time

I'll be in my late seventies in twenty years' time, so it may need to be something with large text...

That aside, I wouldn't be surprised if Fate Accelerated, Fiasco and Hillfolk are still hitting the table.

I hope I'll still be playing Cosmic Encounter and playing (and writing) freeforms.

#21 Favorite licensed RPG

I'm generally not a fan of licensed RPGs, for two reasons:

First, I don't enjoy reading RPG game setting material. I'd rather read or watch the original books. So even though I'm a fan of The Expanse, a big chunk of the book would be wasted on me because I'd resent reading it.

Second, I don't enjoy learning new rules. (I certainly don't enjoy reading new rules.) So were I to run a game set in The Expanse universe, I'd probably just use Fate Accelerated.

ALIEN

But having said all that, as an Alien fan, I do own (and enjoy) the ALIEN RPG.

I don't particularly like the system; it's crunchier than I prefer, and I can struggle with skill-based games, particularly when there are so few skills in ALIEN. But I put up with it because the stress mechanic is awesome and is the best thing about the rules.

As for the setting, I don't enjoy reading that either. The Alien extended universe has, as is the way of these things, gone a bit up its own arse. Between the later films and the comics, and the novels, it's mostly meh. (I find it helps to remember it's all fanfic...)

The RPG tries valiantly to make sense of it, but I still find it tedious to read. Worse, the published adventures make horrible design choices that make them infuriating to run.

So when I run ALIEN, I rely on my knowledge of Alien and Aliens, and I wing the rest. It works for me.

Boardgames

As for boardgames, I remember when licenced games were dire tie-ins just there to suck money out of luckless punters. (And some are still like that - I've had too many presents of tv-tie in games from friends who don't know me well enough...)

But over the last twenty years or so, that's changed, and a licenced game is often excellent. Having said that, I don't own many. Just:

  • The Lord of the Rings by Reiner Knizia. The first successful cooperative game that started the genre. I got my old copy out recently and enjoyed revisiting it. 
  • X-Wing Miniatures Game by Jay Little. I'm not a huge fan of miniatures games, but X-Wing is quite fun. I’m not keen on the collectable aspect of it, and I haven’t played it now in a few years. I used to have several ships, but now I only have the starter set.
  • Space Hulk: Death Angel by Corey Konieczka is a challenging cooperative game set in the world of Warhammer 40K.

Boardgames that I'd like to try include ALIEN: The Fate of the Nostromo and The Thing: the Boardgame, although I have limited space for more boardgames which is why I haven’t bought them.

Freeforms

Freeforms based on books, television, films and theatre (although they're not licensed) are often a lot of fun. I've played in games based on 'Allo 'Allo, Are you being served?, Dollhouse, Shogun, Broadway musicals (I've played characters from Into the Woods and Hairspray, and I'm about to play a character from Hamilton) and more. I've written games based on the books of PG Wodehouse (Midsummer Mischef), Pride and Prejudice, Buffy and Angel, and Western movies (Once Upon a Time in Tombstone) and probably more that I have forgotten.

(Some of the freeforms can be downloaded for free here.)