Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Torch of Freedom

I don't think I've ever been as unprepared for a weekend freeform as I was for Torch of Freedom, held as usual in Retford during February.

Me as Yuri Fedotkin
Normally I've read my character sheet and got my costume prepared and arrived in good time so that I can relax at the hotel, finish reading and make some plans. This time, a number of factors contributed to my unpreparedness - including Mrs H spending a large chunk of the previous ten days in bed with flu, an unfinished costume, and running a workshop in Birmingham on the day it started. All of which meant I didn't arrive at the hotel until ten minutes before everything was supposed to begin...

So not a very relaxing start, and perhaps that contributed to my weekend being a bit up and down.

Torch of Freedom - what's it about?

It is 1848 and in the eastern European country of Petronia, unrest is brewing as the downtrodden workers rail against the oppressive yoke of their aristocratic masters. It is against this background that a revolution will occur.

I was playing Yuri Fedotkin, the Russian ambassador to Petronia. I wanted to fan the flames of revolution, but ensure that they were snuffed out.

Torch of Freedom was originally written by Bruce Glassco, Brian Altmiller, Rebecca Ellis, Suzanne Miller, Walter Neill and Paul Wayner. It was first run in the USA in 2002, followed by a run in Retford in 2003. I played in the US run (as Horace Hoffman), and I was a GM in the first UK run. So I've experienced it all three times.

Highlights

Revolution - the mechanic: The revolution was so much better this time around. Previously the revolution had involved a simple wargame with locations taped out on the floor, with rules for movement and battle. It was chaos, took forever to resolve, and left a lot of bad memories.

This time, the revolution consisted of a simple yet tactical voting mechanism, using poker chips of different weight (to represent the quality of your forces). There were five key locations, and control of three of them was required for victory. All you did was decide which area you were going to contest, and which way to vote (Monarchy or Republic).

This took about 30 minutes, and was timetabled for the start of Saturday evening, just after the meal break. That’s a huge improvement over the 3-4 hours to resolve the previous revolution.

Revolution - the result: In the first two runs of Torch of Freedom, the monarchy beat the revolutionaries, and the status quo was maintained. This time the revolution was successful and the monarchy was overthrown!

I do wonder how much of that was down to the wargame. There are plenty of players who would not have wanted to participate in that, or may have played sub-optimally because they didn’t fully understand the rules. Simplifying the revolution mechanic probably made it more democratic by making it easier to be involved.

Revolution - my involvement: The other reason there was such a majority was possibly because of people like me. I’m afraid I was meta-gaming. After two failed revolutions, I wanted to see a successful revolution - and so I did my bit to help that along.

This took two approaches. The first was someone from my past was a revolutionary and a friend (played by Julie), and I fed them rifles to help them bolster their forces. The other thing I did was to ask them which areas they weren’t contesting, and I defended there. (I decided that although Steve wanted the revolution to be successful, Russia couldn’t be seen to be on the side of the revolutionaries - so I planned to commit my forces where they wouldn’t be effective.)

As it happens, the revolutionaries took the area I was defending as well! (It turns out that there was more than one revolutionary cell.)

Negotiating with the Ambassadors: I enjoyed the careful negotiations with the other ambassadors (particularly Paul, Steve and Max) . Three of us would have been happy to turn Petronia into a protectorate but nobody had the power to do it alone. As time went on we had more power and more options, and the key thing was not to move in too soon. (I’ve done that before, and you can end up regretting it by becoming the enemy.) So it was a dance, and an enjoyable one at that.

Rewarding the gypsies: It was a delight to interact with David and Liz, who were playing the gypsy king and queen. They’d helped me in the past, I rewarded them in game. I always like to be generous in game, and this time it was rewarded as they came to me later on with something very important...

Hoffman in chains in 2002!
Checking in with Hoffman: As I played Hoffman previously, I was interested to see how his arc compared to mine. I think Matthew was more successful than I was - I ended up in chains after the revolution.

My costume: Despite being a source of some stress, I was very happy with the frock coat that Mrs H made me. Amusingly, I’ve just realised that I was wearing the exact same waistcoat in 2019 and 2002. It doesn’t get out much!

Seeing old friends: Inevitably one of the high points of any weekend game is spending time with friends. Despite a bit of a rushed start, there was still plenty of time to catch up over breakfast and the dinner break.

The barricade: At about 5.30pm, just before the dinner break, the revolutionaries built an awesome barricade, waved banners and sang and danced loudly. It was a wonderful start to the revolution.

Battling 21st century sensibilities: Inevitably modern-day players brought their modern-day sensibilities with them, and it was fun to try and argue from a 19th century perspective. For example, I had great fun explaining that admitting women into university was clearly unwise as not only did they not need an expensive education to run the house and raise children, but that they were taking the place that could be taken by someone more useful: a man.

I noticed the same issue in 2002 when I was playing the factory owner, Hoffman. Here are my notes from the time: One thing that didn't quite work (and I probably could have predicted this) was the problem of the players bringing their 21st century values to a game set in 1848. As a capitalist oppressor of the masses, I particularly noticed this. Although conditions for my workers were appalling (by our standards), I was doing nothing wrong - and yet rather too often I found myself condemned for the workers' poor conditions by those who should know better. (There also weren't enough arranged marriages and executions after the revolution, for similar reasons.)

But…

Unfortunately, if I was scoring Torch of Freedom out of 5, it would only scrape a 3. I didn’t quite have enough game for my liking.

Big problem was that I didn’t quite have enough to do. Friday night was fine and chaotic as usual, as I spend most Friday figuring out who I need to talk to and re-reading my character sheet over and over again.

Saturday morning, however, was very quiet for me. The international negotiations had been concluded on Friday, so I was mainly reliant on personal goals. And while these ticked over, there wasn’t quite enough to keep me fully occupied. When I reconsidered my character sheet I realised that I had quite a bit of background, but not that much plot.

Things improved on Saturday afternoon as we approached the time for the revolution. There was a lot of preparation, and the ambassadorial dance was in full swing as we tried to work out what each other was doing, and tried not to overcommit our forces too early.
The barricade
And then it was the revolution. The revolution itself took 30 minutes, at which point it was clear that the monarchy had been overthrown. As an ambassador I got a tiny vote in deciding the shape of the country, but there was such a huge majority for a republic with universal suffrage that it didn’t matter which way I voted.

After that a provisional government had to be formed, with candidates putting themselves forward by 10.30 on Sunday morning (with yet more voting to follow).

So at about 9pm on Saturday, with the second vote over, my game effectively stopped. There was no government for me to liaise with, and my personal goals were more or less done. So I sat in the bar with other members of the losing side and drank beer.

On Sunday I wondered what to do, and decided to interview all the candidates for the provisional government to find out their policy on international relations, and in particular their views on Russia. Despite me having some votes, most people were completely honest and didn’t think to try and persuade me to vote for them by being pro-Russia.

And then, once my vote was cast at 11am, that was pretty much it for me for the rest of the game. I wouldn’t have minded finishing a bit early on Sunday, if only there hadn’t been so much downtime earlier on as well.

Things I could have done

Maybe there were a few things I could have done to give me more to do.

Shoehorn my way into other plots: Perhaps I could have somehow shoehorned my way into other plots. That's not something I find very easy to do - although that's easier if my character has a specific skill that someone needs. I'm not aware that anyone needed the Russian ambassador for anything.

The romance rules: Torch of Freedom had a set of romance rules, as most weekend freeforms do, but I didn't use them. That's mainly because almost all of the characters I interacted with (whether other ambassadors or people named in my character sheet) were men. I like it when romance emerges naturally from playing alongside another character, and I'm not about to start chasing romance just because I have nothing else to do.

My family: It turned out that both my son (Ivan) and daughter (Irena) were also in Torch of Freedom. I had been told that Ivan had been killed in Turkey and Irena was missing. I suspected that Irena was in the game, and while I realised that Ivan might also be present, that seemed more unlikely.

I was on the trail of Irena on Friday night, and her identity was revealed to me on Saturday. At about the same time, Ivan revealed himself to me. While I introduced myself to them (and introduced them to each other), and offered help, this didn't go much further. I did get involved in some of Ivan's plots, but a bit too little too late.

Looking back, I expect that different players would have found it easier to share plots. As it was, I didn't get on with either player particularly well (a lack of chemistry) and as a result our dealings were largely transactional. Perhaps I should have pushed through that and made more of an effort.

Silver linings

Given that I had more downtime that I prefer, this did present some silver linings.

Time to chat: One thing that there never seems to be enough time of at the weekend freeforms is time to chat to other players. This time I had lots of great conversations, including many with people I don’t normally get to chat to.
The hotel, looking almost tropical in February
Best Retford sleep ever: Thanks to being fairly relaxed on Saturday evening, I think I had my best night’s sleep ever at Retford. I slept really solidly through to Sunday morning, which is a rarity.

Does the game need to change?

Two things make me think that maybe Torch of Freedom still needs a bit of work.

The first are my notes from the first run of Torch of Freedom, when I wrote: ...one of the players had become ill just before the game started. Unfortunately, he and I were fairly closely linked and I think it affected my game as there were parts of Saturday and Sunday when I didn't have enough to do (my goals at that point being either done or in tatters). I'm never really sure how much of that was my fault and how much was due to the missing player. One other thing that was lacking on my otherwise substantial character sheet were a few juicy nuggets of information about other characters completely unrelated to any of my plots. That might have helped me get involved in other plots, I don't know. But as I said, it might just have been me.

The second is that I met quite a few other players who didn’t seem to have enough of a game either (although it was lovely talking to them). Which makes me think it’s not just me.

A problem with a revolution
An angry, if successful,
revolutionary

Part of the problem is the revolution itself. The very nature of the revolution means that there will be winners and losers. That’s great if you’re on the winning side, but if you’re on the losing side your game may just have been taken away from you.

As written, the outcome of the revolution can go the following ways:
  • Monarchy: the status quo. Great for the upper classes, but disenfranchises everyone else.
  • Anarchy: this would pretty much mean the end of the game for everyone.
  • Protectorate under Turkey, Russia or Austria. Great for the relevant ambassador, likely to annoy lots of other people.
  • Republic with Propertied Voters: Great if you have property, but what do those who don't have property do? 
  • Republic with Universal Suffrage: This is the best result for everyone, although even then not everyone got to vote candidates onto the provisional government.

So as it happens, we had the best result for the game - but that still left quite a few players with not much left to do once their side had lost.

Changes to Torch of Freedom

Here are a few ideas of things that could be done for the next run of Torch of Freedom.

Move the revolution: Now that we had a speedy mechanic for resolving the revolution, it could be pushed back in the schedule until last thing Saturday night or even first thing Sunday. It would make for a fine end to the game.

But if you did that, I’d be even more worried about not having enough game, so it shouldn’t be the only change.

More things known about people: As I noted in 2002, my character sheet lacked nuggets of information about other characters. If you weren’t detailed in my background, then I didn’t know anything about you other than the (bland) public information. I like to see bits of information about other characters - if nothing else it’s something to start a conversation about.

This change doesn’t have to be a complete rewrite. The trick is to look at each character to work out what their issues and problems are, and then spread that information around some of the other characters.

More events: Although the Torch of Freedom timetable looked busy, it was surprisingly empty of events suitable for anyone to attend. So I think it would be good to have a few extra events that anyone can attend - a dance, gambling, speeches. I am sure there are others.

Another option would be to make more of the strikes. A bit like putting out the fires in Shogun, the strikes could be something for anyone nearby to become involved in. Some players would be the striking workers, some the troops breaking the strike.

Gambling in the taverns: Gimble’s chocolate house could have had a roulette wheel and cards, dice could have been available in the taverns. That would have given us games to gamble on, although we may have needed a smaller unit of currency than the Ista to gamble with.

Bit parts: Adding bit parts (small roles played by the players for short periods of time) would give players something to do during the quiet times. I can imagine lots of small roles that would be fun to play - striking workers, rioters, gypsies. Minor aristocrats getting beaten up in the warrens. Criminals for the police to arrest.

And finally...

Perhaps another player would have had a better time with Yuri Fedotkin. Perhaps Yuri just didn’t suit me. If so, perhaps I need to improve how I fill in the casting questionnaire to give the GMs a better chance of giving me a character I will enjoy.

I don’t normally record my casting choices - perhaps I should do so. But I probably ought to work out what it is I like in a freeform in a general sense. Based on Torch of Freedom, these are my first thoughts:

  • I like to be busy: I like having lots to do - particularly stuff that's meaningful (so I don't mean busywork). That doesn’t have to mean lots of goals, but it often does.
  • I like to have someone I can trust in a game: I really like having at least one close ally in the game that I can definitely trust. That doesn’t have to mean romance - just a trusted friend is enough.
  • I like being part of a group: I’d rather be part of a group than a loner. And if I must be a loner, then I would like lots of strong links to other players.

That’s a start, and I will consider more as I go on.

(Thanks to Charlie, Julie and CJ for the photos - I didn't take very many!)

Saturday, 2 February 2019

May I recommend?

Here are some of the books I enjoyed in 2018. They all scored 5.

Fiction

I’m a geek, so my fiction reading is pretty much genre fiction - science fiction, horror, urban fantasy. I don’t read that much pure fantasy - elves and dwarfs don’t really do it for me.

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross. This was probably my favourite book of the year, with things for the Laundry (Britain’s occult branch of Her Majesty’s government) going very pear shaped as the forces of privatisation and eldritch horrors combine. This is book something in the series, so I suggest that you start with The Atrocity Archives, which is where it all began. (But if you can’t bear reading that, you could easily jump into the series with book 5, The Rhesus Chart, which sort of kick-starts the series again. The only difficult with that is that one of the players in The Delirium Brief first appears in The Fuller Memorandum, so there’s that.)

If I have a criticism, it’s that Stross sometimes thinks that his writing is clearer than it is, which is why I find it essential reading to read his “crib sheets” about the books, which can be found on his blog (here is the crib sheet for The Delirium Brief).

I also read The Labyrinth Index in 2018, but I didn’t enjoy that as much. For me the Laundry works best when it’s being British, and The Labyrinth Index spends most of its time in America. (It still scored 4 though.)

The Consuming Fire and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. I’ve been enjoying Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (another book that scored 5 with me - see last year). I can’t remember how The Consuming Fire came to my attention, but as soon as I read it I immediately had to read The Collapsing Empire.

These two are the first two books of a trilogy, which is full of Game of Thrones style machinations but set in space (and with fewer pages and smaller cast of characters). Lots of ruthless plotting and villainy to keep me entertained - the kind of family politics where family members are sacrificed for the greater good. I suspect the good guys will win in the end. Book 3 is due out in 2019 - I’m looking forward to that.

Non-Fiction

Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern. This is the story of the Behavioural Insights Team that David Cameron set up in 2010. I’d heard about governments using nudge theory, but this was the first time I’d read anything in detail about it. I read this on my Kindle, and one of the things I’ve got into the habit of doing (with non-fiction particularly) is to highlight passages I find interesting. In this one I learned that:

  • Having a good relationship with your boss is associated with dramatic increases in life satisfaction - as good as a 30% pay rise. Keeping a diary also works. (Although if you ask people political questions first, they will then report lower wellbeing. Hmmm.)
  • If you want to encourage a particular behaviour, make it easier. If you want to discourage it, make it harder. (I know this isn’t rocket science, and is something I often practice at work, but it’s amazing how many people don’t think like this.)
  • Easy to read messages are not only likely to be understood, they are also likely to be believed.

Arguably, this is just marketing, of course.

Inside the Nudge Unit lead me to the book that started it all: Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. I didn’t enjoy this as much - I found it fairly heavy going in places. It also went over a lot of ground that I’d read previously - and not only in Inside the Nudge Unit, but in other psychology books I’ve read. Perhaps had I read Nudge first I would have scored it higher.

I also read the do-it-yourself book from the Nudge Unit: Think Small by Owain Service & Rory Gallagher. I enjoyed this (it scored 4), but much of it I’d read before.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland. We’ve spent the last few years at work dabbling with lean, which I have found fascinating (if somewhat frustrating, but that’s another story). There are clear parallels here, as Scrum has a lot of similar ideas to lean, but to me felt a bit more practical. (Although in both cases they will fall down if the organisations leaders haven’t bought into it.)

Superbetter by Jane McGonigal. Superbetter is about using the science of games (particularly computer games, but other games are mentioned) to make yourself happier and boost your resilience. It does this by using the language of games (quests, power-ups, allies, and so on) and turns it into things you can do in real life. There’s a bunch of science behind much of this (although as with a lot of this kind of psychology research, I expect that it’s not always possible to replicate the results).

As with a game, the quests start off easy and then get harder.

Some things I liked:

  • Quest 5 is just to turn your palms up and leave them that way for at least 15 seconds. Apparently this triggers a powerful response in our brain and we’re less likely to reject or dismiss new ideas and information.
  • Quest 10 is about boosting social ties and involves asking someone by email or messenger: “On a scale of 1-10, how’s your day going?” And then when they respond, asking “Is there anything I can do to raise it from X to X+1?” I’m a bit too introverted (or maybe just shy) to try this one out, so maybe that’s even more reason to try it.

I wish I had read Superbetter on my Kindle, as I have no doubt I would have liberally highlighted it which would have made it easier for me now. However, I listened to this via Audible and it’s hard to make notes while driving to work or walking the dog. I have since bought a paper copy.

Superbetter introduced me to the pattern-matching game Set, which Megan is much too good at and almost always beats me.

McGonigal’s TED talks are also worth watching. I particularly liked the one about thumb wrestling.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay has been a bestseller, and covers Adam’s time as a Junior Doctor (which makes them sound more junior than they really are). Funny and heartbreaking, it’s difficult to listen to this and then feel anything other than anger with the way that doctors have been treated by the government.

The Secret Barrister by The Secret Barrister. I followed This is Going to Hurt with the anonymously written The Secret Barrister. This is in the same vein, and takes a similar and frightening look at the law. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic, and assuming that this is true, makes you realise quite how thoroughly broken some parts of our society are. Scary.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Scoring books

I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read since 2010, and I score each one. I don’t use Goodreads or any other app, I just make a note in a Googledoc that I have set up just for that use.

I score each book as follows:
  1. I disliked this so much that I didn’t finish it.
  2. A real chore to read. Possibly I struggled with the style, and I may have skimmed sections just to get through it.
  3. An okay book. Nothing special, but I was happy to read it. Most books end up scoring 3.
  4. A good book. I enjoyed it, and would read others by the same author. But just lacked that something special to elevate it to a 5.
  5. I really enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to end.
So in 2019 I read 70 books, which is an average year for me. This includes quite a few audiobooks (I have an Audible account) which boosts the number by a dozen or so. (That number excludes all the books I score 1 - I didn’t finish those, so don’t count them.)

Better than out of 10

Of those 70 books, I scored 13 (18%) of them a 5. That’s a satisfyingly high number - life’s too short to read crappy books.

I prefer to score out of 5 than out of 10 as, if I was scoring out of 10, I suspect I wouldn’t only rarely score a book 10. (Mrs H is in a book club, and they score books out of 10 and almost nobody gives a book maximum marks.) So if I’m asked to rate a book/movie/game/whatever out of 10, I use my 1-5 scale and then just double it.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

2018 in games

So how was 2018 in games for me? Pretty good, I think. Here’s what I played, wrote and ran.

Freeform Games

Freeform Games had a great 2018, with sales up on 2017. This year I finally finished The Reality is Murder, a game I’ve been editing for longer than I care to admit. We put it through playtesting over the summer and in October it finally went on sale.

Freeforms

Getting theatrical
in Shogun
The weekend freeform this year was Shogun, and I surprised myself by getting involved in a theatrical troupe. I really don’t normally do that, but it was the highlight of the game for me. At Peaky I co-wrote Love Letters: The Crusade and I played in The U-Geneva Convention and The Borden Legacy.

I did a bit of development work on Second Watch, getting it ready for a third run at Consequences (and also into a publishable state). I also started work on volumes 2 and 3 of The Peaky Files (collections of Peaky freeforms).

Daniel Taylor introduced me to Little Leeds Larps (a Facebook group), but our first attempt to run a freeform for them (The Highgate Club) didn’t get enough attendees and we are trying again in January. Still, it was a good excuse to do a bit of development work on The Highgate Club (it’s a game I’ve always wanted to return to).

Tabletop roleplaying

2018 was a great year for me - I ran more tabletop rpgs than I have in a years:

  • The Fallen (Fate Accelerated). An Other London investigation that I ran with my online group. I had originally conceived this as something that could be played in an hour - but I failed badly! 
  • The Crasta Demon (Fate Accelerated) at Airecon, GoPlayLeeds and with my family. Although I like running the same game over and over again, I am tempted to tweak it every single time. The GPL session was interesting - I had three players, all female. I wondered if they would play female characters (the characters are all set up as gender-neutral), but only one of them did.
  • The Bone Swallower (Fate Accelerated) at Furnace (more Other London(.
  • The Seeds of Doom (Monster of the Week) at GoPlayLeeds. My first PbtA game, and I wrote about it here.

My character for Megan's game

Also, Megan ran a totally improvised tabletop rpg for me and two of her cousins, which was awesome. She had a whale of a time, which was great to see. It looks like she may prefer running games to playing them.

RPGs played: Starfinder, The Cthulhu Hack, Fate, Blades in the Dark, The Sword, the Crown and The Unspeakable Power and maybe a couple of others that I don’t remember. (All of them apart from The Cthulhu Hack and Fate were new to me.)

Tales of Terror

I published 37 Tales of Terror on the new website in 2018. That’s a little down on 2017, but I have been publishing a lot from the 1996 Tales of Terror collection (ToT#2, as I think of it) and none of these have been published online before.

Boardgames

I have been recording my boardgames on boardgamegeek.com for a few years now. I don’t record games where I’m playing an app, unless I’m also playing another player. (So if I play Ticket to Ride on my own, I don’t record it. If I’m playing it against Megan or Emma, then I do.)

So this year I played 221 boardgames in total, of 48 different games. The games I played most of were the ones I can play solo - so the games I played most were Tiny Epic Galaxies, D-Day Dice and Star Realms: Frontiers.

New games to the Hatherley games library were:

  • Set: A very simple pattern-matching game that Megan usually thrashes me at. 
  • Impulse: By Carl Chudyk. I really like his Glory to Rome and Red 7, but this hasn’t worked for me and I won’t be keeping it.
  • Tiny Epic Galaxies: I really like this, a push-your-luck dice game with spaceships. It has solo rules, which means that I have played this more than any other game this year. (That also means that my family won’t play this with me because I’m too good at it.)
  • Rhino Hero Super Battle: An awesome balancing game - very family friendly.
  • Star Realms Frontiers: I Kickstarted this and it arrived in September. I really like Star Realms, but it’s always much easier just to play it on the app rather than get the cards out. This is probably my favourite set of cards though.
  • London (second edition): Much prettier than the first edition, I’ve not played it enough to work out how much I like it.
  • Pandemic Legacy Season 2: Christmas present and I expect to play through that in 2019. More on Pandemic below.
  • Crypt: I Kickstarted Crypt and it turned up just before Christmas. I gave it to Megan to give to me. We’ve played a few games so far - it’s taken me a few games to get the hang of it..


Our last game of Pandemic Legacy
I finally played through season 1 of Pandemic: Legacy. I started playing it with Megan, but she got fed up with it by about August. I enjoyed the story aspect of Pandemic: Legacy, but July-August-September was a bit of a grind. The game did then pick up in October and November, with the changes taking place then having a really big impact on the game, which I really liked. (There was a point in my first November game where I considered deliberately throwing the game because of how it would affect later games. Which I guess is a sign of a good legacy game.) Megan then joined me for the finale in December: we lost the first game (on outbreaks), but got ourselves in a good place to win our last game. We ended on 799 points (“Disaster Averted”). Had St Petersburg not had an outbreak in our last game then we would have been at 802 “Legendary”.

Videogames

Videogames were dominated by World of Tanks Blitz (again - and despite trying to give it up a year ago), with Star Realms (the app) a close runner up.

2019 in games

Next year will be more of the same. In no particular order I’m looking forward to Peaky, The Torch of Freedom (2019’s weekend freeform), running The Highgate Club, Furnace, Airecon and there will be more Kickstarters arriving.

Plus Mrs H gave me the best Christmas ever: a promise to play more games!
Best present ever! Tickets to play more games!


Saturday, 15 December 2018

Monster of the Week

I've previously struggled with Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games. In playing them I've often felt like something is missing, and I haven’t felt confident enough to run them.

Part of that is the terminology. For an old-timer like me, PbtA games are full of weird jargon: moves, holds, agendas, countdowns and so on. Although the books aren't long, they feel intimidating to me because it feels as if there is so much to learn. (And, as I mentioned before, I'm not a great one for reading roleplaying games.)

(As an old school GM, I found this summary on the Trilemma.com site useful.)

But there's lot to love. The rules are very simple when you get down to it, and character generation includes ties and bonds between the PCs.

One of the things that has prevented me from running PbtA games (and I now have a few) is how to prepare for them. Most of my roleplaying is through one-shots at conventions. With only a three or four hour slot, and five or six eager players to entertain, I've tended to fall back into my comfort zone (ie a scenario) that I am comfortable running.

(And yes, I realise that the pressure to put on a good show is entirely self-inflicted. Rightly or wrongly, I see my job is to give the players a good time, and I don't want the players to walk away wishing they hadn't sat down at the table with me. So that tends to inhibit me from experimenting too much.)

And when I've played PbtA games at cons, they tend to be the same - a scenario to be followed, but using the PbtA rules. Which is fine, but I sense isn't getting the best from the system, which is for play to emerge from what the characters want. Unfortunately that requires a whole level of flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants that I haven’t done since I had a weekly group in the 90s.

So although I've read Dungeon World and Urban Shadows and Monsterhearts, I've not felt confident enough to run them as one-shots yet. Not when I know I can run a good game using another system.

But now I have successfully run a PbtA one-shot at a convention, and that was Monster of the Week.

Monster of the Week

I do like my urban fantasy (hence being drawn to Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows) and MotW brings PbtA to the Buffy/BPRD/Ultraviolet/X-Files/Supernatural monster hunters genre.

So here's the elevator pitch for MotW: You're a team of monster hunters.

Several people have told me that MotW is one of the easier PbtA games to run, and certainly one of the things that I liked about is the familiarity of the preparation: a monster with a plan, some NPCs, some locations. Almost a scenario, in fact.

Certainly I felt that MotW was easier to run than other PbtA games I have read. (Although whether that's because MotW is closer to traditional RPGs than other PbtA games, or whether it's because I’m now more familiar with PbtA games as it's the fourth one I've read, I can’t tell.)

Play to find out what happens

In preparing my "scenario" (situation would be a better name) I finally learned what "play to find out what happens" means.

Previously my scenarios have been carefully written out and plotted so that I know how the characters go from A to B to C. (In play there's always lots of improvisation, but I've got a basic structure to fall back on.)

In MotW I decided to let go, and just create a situation with a monster, some bystanders (what MotW calls its NPCs) and places, and a countdown clock for if the players didn't do anything. I didn't try to second guess their actions, I didn't create a cluetrail. I would just see what would happen at the table.

Motivations for everything

One of the things that made it really easy to create a situation for MotW is that monsters, minions, bystanders and locations all have their own motivations. But by motivations, I don’t mean a character’s internal motivation, but their role in the scenario.

Some examples:

  • Gossip - to pass on rumours (for bystanders)
  • Guardian - to bar a way or protect something (for a minion)
  • Breeder - to give birth to, bring forth, or create evil (for a monster)
  • Crossroads - to bring people, and things, together (for a location)

I found this very helpful when writing up the situation - it clarified the role that each character/location/minion/monster played. It found it so helpful I’m probably going to use it for other games.

Actual Play

So I brought MotW to GoPlayLeeds in December, and I had four players. One was a PbtA veteran, the others were all new to PbtA.

You can download my scenario, The Seeds of Doom, here.

So how did it go?

I started by letting the players choose what sort of team they wanted to be - they chose a secret society, and one of the players chose The Initiate. The other players chose The Crooked, The Wronged, and The Expert. We worked our way through character generation, all of which went fine.

The game itself was easy to run. The players seemed to enjoy themselves investigating the mystery, and I found the NPC motivations and countdown clock very intuitive to use. (I did sometimes change NPC motivations to suit, but that was fine.)

The only difficulty I had at one point was wanting to roll for the monster to attack - it took me a moment to work out what I needed to say was “the monster lunges towards you - what do you do?” It’s just a different approach.

I gave everyone 3 luck and had them mark 2 experience. That meant some of them levelled up during the game (which was good), but it also gave them too much luck. There didn’t seem to be much downside to spending luck - being “doomed” seemed a bit too abstract for a one-shot. (I had completely forgotten about using luck to bring in someone from their past, but I’m not sure how that would have worked in a one-shot anyway.)

The hunters’ histories didn’t have much impact on play, which was a shame. I was hoping they would feature more as I feel that this part of character generation (like bonds in Dungeon World) is one of PbtA’s strength. But I may be expecting a bit much from a one-shot, as given the time constraints the plot inevitably wins out. Maybe I can make the histories more suited to one-shot play, by perhaps linking them to the scenario (although maybe not this particular scenario).

What would I do differently?

Rather than let the players decide the shape of their team (they picked a secret society), I will suggest that they are members of some sort of official agency. The exact form of that agency I would leave up to them, but having some sort of official authority would have made a few things simpler.

I will remove some of the playbooks. For example, we had The Wronged in play, but the nature of the situation I’d crafted meant that their Prey wasn’t going to feature. Similarly, I failed to weave into the game the various characters created in The Crooked’s background.

I will read each playbook more carefully, and cross out anything that doesn’t suit the scenario. For example, I may delete some of the improvements that are better suited to campaign play (such as picking moves from other playbooks).

I would give each player only two luck, and consider how “doomed” could be made more meaningful in a one-shot.

But that’s about it.

Overall?

Overall, I enjoyed running Monster of the Week. I don’t think it will replace Fate Accelerated as my go-to game tabletop RPG, but it’s easy to run and I’ll run it again.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

On dice


My favourite dice are 2d6, with pips not numbers. They are the dice of my childhood. The dice of Monopoly and Escape from Colditz. I love the rattle they make and I've used them so often that I instinctively understand the probability curve.

For me, six sided dice are "proper" dice.

"Proper" dice
Two dice v 2d6

Until I started playing Call of Cthulhu, dice always had six sides. So there was never any confusion when I asked someone to "roll the dice". Call of Cthulhu was the first game I owned that needed polyhedral dice, and with that came the need to define the number of sides. So "two dice" slowly became "2d6".

And Call of Cthulhu wasn't my first RPG - that was Traveller. Traveller only used six siders, and just referred to them as 2D. (I didn't play D&D until much later.)

Pips v numbers

On six sided dice, I find pips much faster to read than numbers. (And when I say "much faster", we're talking fractions of a second.) That's because I pattern match, rather than count the pips.
Five pips and two pips = seven. Simples.

If the dice have numbers, I have to mentally add the numbers together. If the dice has pips, I just recognise the pattern.

This works for 2d6 - I don't think it works for larger numbers of dice (I didn't enjoy GURPS enough to embed 3d6 in my brain).

Of course, this only works for six sided dice. Pips on a d12 would be just daft.

Readability

As I get older, dice readability becomes more important to me. So I like dice with good contrast between the numbers or pips and the background.

I find dice with weird fonts and additional decoration hard to read, so I try not to use them.

Special dice
Special Fate dice.
I hates 'em I tell you, I hates 'em.

Special dice unique to that game can actually put me off a roleplaying game (Star Wars I'm looking at you). If I were to rank RPGs purely according to the dice they use, it would look like this:

  • 2d6 (Traveller, Dungeon World)
  • Other multiples of d6 (Risus, GURPS, Cthulhu Dark)
  • Polyhedral dice (F20 games, Call of Cthulhu)
  • Special dice (Fate, Star Wars)

I suspect that one of the reasons I like PbtA games is that they're powered by 2d6. (Dungeon World spoils that by needing a bunch of polyhedrals as well.)

If a game uses special dice it has to be pretty special for me to want to play it. So Fate is special enough, but Star Wars isn't.

My dice collection

My dice collection looks like this.

(My dice collection: I may be over invested in d6s.)
The only dice that I can remember buying specifically are:

  • Percentile dice because I needed to run Call of Cthulhu at Continuum in 2016.
  • The green d6s for Cthulhu Dark (as yet unplayed). I bought the purple d6s at the same time because I liked the colour.

Note I do not own any d4s, d8s or d12s. The only d12s I own are in boardgames (Ankh Morpork and Tiny Epic Kingdoms).

A Level Mathematics

I earned a grade A at A-level Mathematics. A third of the questions were statistics questions, and our statistics started by using 2d6 to calculate probability. And I was good at that because of all the games I played.

Being good at 2d6 probability opened the door into statistics, and ended up really enjoying it.

So I like to think that games (and specifically dice) directly led to my A grade in A-level Maths.

So that's it: me and dice.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Furnace 2018

Last weekend I attended Furnace, one of several roleplaying conventions held at the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield. I last wrote about this two years ago (last year I could only attend one day and didn’t get around to writing up my thoughts).

Slot #1: Blades in the Dark

Pete Atkinson ran The Gaddoc Rail Heist with four players, and it went really well. I played a grungy female sharpshooter (whose name completely escapes me). The heist worked, and the dice were really with us until I was savagely mauled by some kind of spectral beast. I survived, but it was fortunate that we were at the end of the session.

I didn’t know anything about Blades in the Dark before I started, other than it was the game where you do heists. I was surprised by the background (a sort of dieselpunk fantasy world very similar, I'm told, to a video game I’ve not played) - for some reason I was expecting something in the modern day and we’d be recreating The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven.

I think more games could make use of the flashback mechanic to avoid planning paralysis - which nobody has time for in a convention game. (The idea is that you just dive into the heist, and if you come up against a problem then there’s a flashback where you set things up to overcome the problem.)

It was a great convention game, but I’m not sure I’d want to play a campaign. I wonder if lots of heists becomes a bit repetitive. I gather that the downtime stuff becomes more important, but even so.

Slot #2: The End of Laughter and Soft Lies

Dom Mooney ran this using The Sword, the Crown and The Unspeakable Power, which is a PbtA game that I’d not heard of before. It felt very like Game of Thrones, and was very player-v-player, which was a pleasant change of pace from the other games I played.

Dom started with character generation followed by sorting out the setting. That worked well, with all of us having a good idea of the setting, despite never having played the game before. (That contrasted with Blades in the Dark, which had an established setting that meant Pete kept having to explain things.)

I played Pill, a bloodletter (physician) and the only problem I had with it was that I found myself slightly sidelined at the start, as I found my character wasn’t particularly tied into the power play that kicked off. I eventually found my feet and started reanimating some of the key NPCs...

Looking back, it must have been very easy to run. Apart from the Emperor’s younger brother asking one of us for a speech, and the (not very unexpected) announcement of the death of the Emperor towards the end, Dom pretty much left us to it and we played the game ourselves.

Afterwards I did wonder if more structured scenes would have worked - as with Hillfolk. In Hillfolk everyone gets to call a scene, and I might have been less passive at the start if I’d been forced to act instead of just watching everyone else.

Slot #3: An early night

As usual, I skipped Slot #3 and headed back home for an early night while the rest of Furnace carried on without me. One day perhaps I'll book a room and stay for Slot #3.

Slot #4: The Bone Swallower

I ran The Bone Swallower using Fate Accelerated. I’d already run it for my online group, and it was interesting seeing how new players took to it. The adventure ran pretty much on time, and the players seemed to enjoy themselves.

I had four players for The Bone Swallower, which felt about right. I had five characters prepared, and I’m sure it would have been fine with five, but I find that four players is more manageable and ensures that everyone gets a chance to shine.

Slot #5: A Cthulhu City Story: Weeping for the memory of lives gone by

Another game run by Dom, this one using The Cthulhu Hack (which isn’t really my cup of tea). Dom somehow managed to turn the epic sandbox campaign that is Cthulhu City and turn it into a one-shot. And it worked!

I played Professor Hermes Winchester, a mathematics professor at Miskatonic University, and had a great time trying to figure out what was going on and how to get back to our reality.

I don’t know if this is how The Cthulhu Hack normally works, but Dom used the Gumshoe principle of letting us find the clue no matter what we roll on the dice. (I took the same approach for The Bone Swallower as well - I can’t imagine running a mystery any other way now.)

Overall

Overall I had a great time at Furnace. I think I chose a good set of games this year (that doesn't always happen) and I hope my game didn't lower the standard.