Monday 20 May 2024

Quintin Smith’s rule of three on the Bastionland podcast

I’ve just listened to Quintin Smith (Quinns) on Chris McDowell’s Bastionland podcast. The idea of the podcast is that guests bring three games to discuss. Quinns brought Torchbearer, Sidereal Confluence, and Jubensha.

(Quinns is a games journalist who used to review boardgames on Shut Up And Sit Down and now reviews tabletop RPGs on Quinns Quest.)

While the podcast is great, four things specifically caught my attention.

#1 Sidereal Confluence

This sounds just up my street. Sidereal Confluence is an economic trading board game with simultaneous play, asymmetric powers, and negotiation that copes with up to nine players. Sounds awesome!

It also sounds like a great base for the trading rules in a freeform…

Having read more about Sidereal Confluence on boardgamegeek, the designer is writing an RPG around the setting. (His design notes tell the story of the game, while this thread goes into the underlying logic of the different aliens.)

Anyway, Sidereal Confluence is now on my wish list, although I don’t know when I’ll get to play it because it’s a four player game and I don’t think it will appeal to Mrs H.

The point Quinns was making by referring to a board game in an RPG podcast was, why don’t we see more unbalanced PCs in RPGs? The current trend is for balanced PCs, but why not experiment with making them unbalanced – or at least so they play very differently?

I’m not sure I have a strong view, but it’s an interesting point, and I can imagine Most Trusted Advisors would work with asymmetric powers.

#2 Jubensha

Their discussion around Jubensha clarified (I think) some of the differences between Jubensha and freeforms. Because Jubensha is designed for six players, the game is more focused on those players’ emotional journey. (There are lots of larps that do this (especially Nordic larps), but Jubensha sounds more mechanical than most larps.)

For me, however, I love the buzz that I get from a large multi-player freeform. At Peaky, we typically write games for 8-10 players, and often, that seems too small for me.

#3 What can other games learn from having a GM at the table?

Quinns and McDowell also discussed games where one person has a facilitating (ie a GM) role. TTRPGs are almost unique in that regard: it’s not something you often see in boardgames or traditional murder mystery games, and they reflected that maybe Western-style murder mystery games could learn something.

Of course, I was shouting at the podcast because that’s what we do at Freeform Games. We call our GMs “hosts.”

(I wasn’t shouting very loudly, though, because if we’d been better at spreading the word then maybe things would be different.)

#4 Why don’t we see more pre-generated PCs?

Finally, Quinns pointed out that the advantage of giving players pregens (which happens in Jubensha – and freeforms) is that it lets the designer link the characters together to create tension and drama.

And why don’t RPGs do more of that?

I think the answer is:

  • Historical, as in it’s not how D&D did it back in 1974. And that’s now become cultural – ie, players creating their own characters is now how rpgs work.
  • Most players like the ownership that comes from creating their own character. Only weirdos like me would rather be given a character.
  • Pregenerated PCs are great for one-shots and may not be suited for endless campaigns.

That’s not to say that inter-character linkage isn’t happening.

Many PbtA games have questions linking characters on their playsheets, and the pregens in ALIEN’s cinematic scenarios are designed to drive the adventure in interesting directions. (I’m sure there are others.)

Then there’s Lady Blackbird, which feels like an almost-perfect blend of situation, character and rules. (McDowell and Quinns touch briefly on Lady BlackbirdI wrote about it here.)

 And as I’ve said before (and hinted at here), getting your pregens right for a convention game is half the battle. I find that when players are riffing off each other’s characters and the characters are tied into the scenario, my life as a GM is so much easier.

Quintin Smith’s rule of three

So anyway, give the podcast a listen. It’s worth it.

Monday 13 May 2024

Using AI to write freeform larps at Peaky

At Peaky 2024, I experimented with using AI (mostly ChatGPT) to help write freeforms.

How did that go?

Before Peaky

Ideas are usually discussed on the mailing list in the run-up to Peaky, and I said I wanted to experiment with using ChatGPT during the writing process.

This provoked the inevitable discussion about AI ethics and copyright, which I didn’t really want to get into, but clearly, there’s plenty of concern about using AI.

I explained I wanted to use it for brainstorming and ideas rather than actually generating text, which seemed to ease some concerns.

Steampunk name generator

On Friday night, when we were generating ideas, I didn’t get my laptop out and didn’t think about AI at all. But on Saturday morning, I wanted to start naming our characters. Being lazy, I headed over to the Steampunk name generator over on fantasynamegenerators.com.

While many were splendid, our characters were gender-neutral, so I decided to give ChatGPT a spin and in moments, it gave me several gender-neutral names suitable for our steampunk game.

  • Emberlyn Steele
  • Asher Grey
  • Rowan Brass
  • Quinn Gearhart
  • Phoenix Thorne
  • Skylar Steamwood
  • Marlowe Copper
  • Sawyer Ironwood
  • Ellis Wilde
  • Avery Clockwell

We found the surnames a bit cliched, but we used several of the first names. (Yes, we could have come up with those ourselves, but using ChatGPT saved time.)

I also asked for some Martian names and picked one.

Patriarch/matriarch fail

And then I forgot about using ChatGPT, until I was searching for a gender-neutral word for matriarch/patriarch.

I asked ChatGPT, but it was hopeless – I don’t know what it was thinking. (“Dominion Guardian” for patriarch and “Ascendent Sentinel” for matriarch!)

So I just went for “head of the family.”

And that was it for ChatGPT at Peaky, but it wasn’t quite the end of my AI experiment.

Dinosaurs for the win

Our game is set on Mars and has dinosaurs in it. We call them “marisaurs.”

Just as we were finishing writing, I asked Artflow for a picture of a “dinosaur on Mars”. And then I forgot about it.

When I came home, I remembered that I’d asked for the picture and sure enough, it gave me a picture of a dinosaur on Mars. You can tell it's a Marisaur because it has three legs! (I don't know if that's because AI art is crap, or it knows that Mars = tripods. I have my suspicions, though.)

After Peaky: content warnings

I was working through some of the comments from the players at Peaky, and one piece of feedback was that we ought to have some content warnings.

My first reaction was, “Really?” as we had deliberately made everyone equal, but the players pointed out that Steampunk could have colonialism themes. (I have blind spots on things like this; because I don’t find content warnings useful, I forget that some people do.)

So as I have blindspots, I thought I’d ask ChatGPT. Sure enough, it gave me ten:

  • Violence and Combat: Expect intense combat scenes, potential gore, and steampunk weaponry.
  • Colonialism and Cultural Sensitivity: Steampunk settings can unintentionally echo colonial themes; be cautious with depictions of Mars and its inhabitants to avoid harmful stereotypes or implications.
  • Substance Use: If the game includes elements like steampunk-era drugs, alcohol, or smoking, this should be noted.
  • Slavery and Oppression: Address the historical context of industrialization; avoid glorifying or minimizing systemic oppression.
  • Classism and Discrimination: Consider how class structures and discrimination are portrayed in the game.
  • Body Horror and Modification: Some steampunk settings might feature cybernetic modifications or body horror elements.
  • Death and Loss: The storyline might include characters dying or mourning the loss of others.
  • Language and Profanity: Highlight if there's strong language or profanity.
  • Sexual Content and Themes: If there are sexual themes, innuendos, or explicit scenes, players should be aware.
  • Mental Health and Trauma: Be mindful of depicting mental health issues or trauma, ensuring sensitivity and avoiding stereotypes.

Ten is a suspiciously round number (I didn’t ask for ten), and as the last four aren’t unique to steampunk (and aren’t appropriate for our game anyway), I think ChatGPT may have padded the list out. But it’s a good summary and contains points I wouldn’t have thought of (such as body horror for the cybernetic modifications).

I’ve summarised this as: Content warning: This is not a serious game. Victorian tropes of sexism, colonialism, class-ism, discrimination, slavery, and oppression have no place in The Canals of Mars. Everyone is equal on Mars (although some characters may think they are more powerful than others). (Again, that’s a first draft. The other writers have yet to amend it.)

Unfinished business

So there we go.

ChatGPT made a few things quicker and simpler, but it’s certainly not a paradigm change. At least, not for 2024.

Monday 6 May 2024

Peaky 2024

I spent the sunniest weekend in April in a small-ish room hunched over a laptop writing a freeform. Yes, I was at Peaky 2024. How did it go?

TL;DR I wrote one freeform, played in two. Played lots of boardgames. Talked bollocks with friends for hours. Slept badly. Would do it again in a heartbeat.

Friday

For the first time ever, I didn’t drive to Peaky. A car was coming down from Scotland, and I was kindly picked up. So I packed lighter than I normally do, but I didn’t have to drive, which was lovely.

We arrived shortly before 4 pm, found our rooms and said hello. Peaky started properly with its AGM, followed by dinner and the pitch meeting.

Pitch meeting

We had 32(ish) writers at Peaky 2024, and the purpose of the pitch meeting is to form them into six groups of roughly equal size (so 4-6 writers in each group) who all want to write the same thing.

It’s somewhat chaotic. The first part consists of pitching ideas for games – we typically end up with about 20 ideas. Then we vote to remove the less popular ideas, and this continues until we finally have our writing groups.

This is all done with flipcharts. It’s loud and chaotic and can be awful.

Ideally, we ensure the writing groups have at least one experienced writer. We’ve missed that before.

I’d love to find a better way, but we’ve tried forming groups in advance (which can be cliquey). Part of me would like to do it randomly or with team captains picking writers (like at school), but there are issues with those as well. Maybe there’s an app we can use?

Anyway, I pitched a “time loop game,” which was popular, but I wanted to help Suey write a freeform taster session that could be played in a 60-minute SF convention slot. Our group was me, Suey, Tym and Alli.

The Canals of Mars

I’d already been talking about this with Suey. I had a similar idea a few years ago using pirates as a setting (when Pirates of the Caribbean was all the rage), but we decided on a Martian steampunk setting.

The rest of Friday was spent deciding what we wanted to include in our game. We were writing something for newcomers to experience a freeform in under an hour, so we wanted lots of interaction and goals and abilities and so forth – but without overwhelming new players with text!

We kicked ideas around and came up with an election (for the “Grand Architrave”) as the spine for our game, the framework around which we would hang other things.

We also decided to write for eight players. I reckon it’s easily expandable, and we could have many more than eight, but we decided to keep things simple and start with eight.

Saturday

I had a terrible night’s sleep. Peaky does that. Too late, the wrong food and drink. Just meh.

At this point in the game writing process, I like to have the setting and background settled. So I started to write the setting:

It is 1888. In the forty years since the first colonists arrived on Mars, Nu London has grown into a bustling metropolis, rich from the profits of mining lift crystals, the precious jewels that power the solar transports that sail the etheric void.

But all is not well. Nu London desperately needs investment, mining accidents are imperilling lift crystal mine production, Olympus Mons is grumbling, the canals are blocked with red weed, and the marisaurs (Martian dinosaurs) seem to be dying out.

(This was expanded later, but it didn’t change much.)

IT glitches

The wifi was really random, this year. I had the best connection I think I’ve ever had, while others in the same room couldn’t connect at all.

We decided to write in Google Docs, which only two of us had access to. The others had to resort to swapping files back and forth via a thumb drive like it was 2010 again.

Characters

After breakfast, when the writing team reconvened, we agreed this text and then decided on our eight characters:

  • Addison Fotherington-Porter: An artificer of marvellous inventions.
  • Valentine Fotherington-Porter: A writer of popular romantic fiction and candidate for Grand Architrave.
  • Phoenix Belcher: A popular philanthropist and candidate for Grand Architrave.
  • Blake Belcher: A director of cinematic productions.
  • Captain Amos Gridley: Explorer, inventor and captain of a steam-powered sea-dirigible.
  • Emberlyn Cogsmith: Wealthy investor and philanthropist.
  • Seren:  A Martian mystic and candidate for Grand Architrave.
  • Valen: Wealthy Martian investor.

With our characters in place, we wrote each character’s introductory paragraph. This is the first paragraph that the player reads and provides a broad overview. The rest of the character sheet then flows from that.

At least, that’s how I do it, and it takes me no more than 15-20 minutes to do this. 

However, I quickly found that other writers did things differently. One wrote in bullet points; others went into detail. (We made them more consistent later on.)

Plots

With the characters defined, we each picked a “plot” to write. I picked the election plot while others wrote about inventions, great works, and investments.

My plot document included brief rules for how the election worked, a timetable for hustings and the voting deadline, and a little bit of character background and goals. I also included a page of voting slips.

With that done, I put the text into the character sheets and the setting documents. (And for those that didn’t have access to Google Docs, I did the same for their plots.)

And that was it for plots. Given the players were only playing for 40 minutes, we estimated that most players wouldn’t have time for more than one plot.

Review and edit

With all the text added to the characters, we printed everything for review. Everyone made notes on the character sheets, which we then incorporated. (At the same time, I polished and buffed to remove the differences – so where one character was written in bullet points, I fleshed it out into full sentences and paragraphs.)

We then did the same again until we were happy with everything, at which point we printed it all out and called it quits.

With only eight characters, we finished quickly (before 6 pm). We could have written more characters (and I would have been happy to), but we agreed to limit it to eight. So we played boardgames instead.

Sunday

And on Sunday we played the games. Graham managed the Sunday running schedule, and this is how it went for me.

Starship Theseus

Starship Theseus is a 10-player game written by Adam Hayes, Nyx Hollindrake, Michael Jones and Christi S.

I played part of the crew of a colony ship. We spent most of the voyage in cryosleep, and the ship would wake us occasionally when it needed the command crew to deal with something it couldn’t manage. I played the security officer. As the game progressed, we discovered things about ourselves and the world we thought we knew.

I had a lot of fun with this game, although it finished somewhat abruptly because we ran out of time. It deserves a longer slot.

(Meanwhile, in another room, Elevenses had its premiere. Elevenses was written by Kirstine Heald, Malk Williams, Julie Winnard, Ewan Munro and Michelle Minett. When Dundee Bakewell does not return from travelling after a year and a day and is declared dead, the villagers gather over tea and cakes to divvy up their possessions. For 11 players.)

The Canals of Mars

Our game. Suey ran it while I kept track of time. The game went well – certainly no serious problems, and the players seemed to think it worked well as a freeform taster. 

We kept it to 60 minutes (including setup and debrief), which gave us an extra hour to relax while we waited for the other game to finish.

(That other game was Full Circle by Nickey Barnard, Nick Curd, Philippa Dall, Tony Mitton and Mike Snowden. For 12 players and inspired by Logan’s Run and Rollerball.)

Love Letter: The Silver Rush

Set in the American Old West, Love Letter: The Silver Rush is a 12-player game played over three scenes. The scenes are split by gaps where one half of the game goes prospecting while everyone else stays at home. During those gaps, the players write letters to each other. Events happen, and it’s an angsty game of romance and feelings.

(It’s also the third Love Letter game – the first was set during the Great War and the second during the Crusades. I was part of the Crusades writing team some years ago, but I can remember nothing about it now.)

I won’t say who I played (because of spoilers). I enjoyed Love Letter: The Silver Rush, but I’m not sure how I feel about it being longer. Two hours was about right for me – playing it for longer doesn’t appeal (although I know the games are very popular).

Love Letter: The Silver Rush was written by Ben Cole, Natalie Curd, Clare Gardner, Heidi Kaye, Elyssia McCormick, and Richard Perry. 

(And running simultaneously was Hotel Requiem, a 7-player game written by Malcolm Campbell, Emory Cunnington, Bethan Griffiths, Peter Jones and Elynor Kamil. You can check out, but can you ever leave?)

And then it was all over and I spent Sunday evening chatting and playing board games.

Overall

Peaky is lovely. I always have a great time seeing friends, writing and playing games. I wish I slept better, but it doesn’t take me long to catch up.

And I’m looking forward to Peaky 2025.

About Peaky: To learn more about Peaky, see the website (actually a wiki). If you’re interested in attending Peaky, bookings will open sometime around December. Keep an eye on the ukfreeforms mailing list or Facebook group.

Monday 29 April 2024

Second-edition "romance" rules for freeform larps

Writing Freeform Larps has only been out a year, and I already have changes I want to make. One of those changes is to the romance rules.

Following West End Lullaby (which I wrote about recently), I’ve made four changes.

  • First, I’ve simplified it. I’ve removed the tracking of “negative behaviours” and changed it so that you simply decide if you want to fall out of love. (In my experience, people rarely do this – it’s fun having your characters fall in love, and why spoil the fun?)
  • Second, I’ve explicitly made it more flexible should you fall in love with more than one person. It’s up to you how you resolve that – do what you think is appropriate.
  • Third, I’ve made the heart colours more LGTB-friendly.
  • Fourth, I’ve changed the emphasis from romance to falling in love, to allow for platonic and romantic relationships. (Thanks to Rei for nudging me in this direction.)

West End Lullaby’s mechanic was actually a relationship mechanic, and you could use it for rivalries and friendships as well as falling in love. I thought about that, but my experience of West End Lullaby is that it didn’t really work as anything other than for falling in love.

For friendships, I prefer the “Pardner” mechanic we created for Tombstone. And rivalries? I don’t know, I’m not sure if they need a mechanic.

So here’s my updated system for falling in love.

An example system for falling in love

This is an example system that could be added to almost any freeform. Feel free to use it in your own games.

Falling in love

These are the optional rules for falling in love, whether romantically or platonically.

Setup

First, decide whether you want your character to fall in love and how flexible you want to be. Get a pen/sticker from the GM desk and mark your name badge as follows:

  • No heart: I don't want to fall in love.
  • Black heart: I want to fall in love (heterosexual).
  • Pink heart: I want to fall in love (queer).
  • Gold heart: I want to fall in love (any).

If don't want to fall in love, read no further.

Second, your envelope contains a heart card with several behaviours you would like to see in your partner. Choose the six you like the look of and cross out the rest.

(It’s probably best if you choose these once you have read your character so you choose behaviours that suit how you want to play your character.)

Third, decide how easily you want your character to fall in love (your “Heart Target”). We recommend starting with a Heart Target of three, but if you want to make things easier or harder, that’s great too.

That’s it for setup.

During play

During play, as people play the game, they will (deliberately or accidentally) behave in a way that makes your character feel more attracted to them (heart behaviours). To help you keep track, we’ve formatted the tasks in a grid so you can check them off.

(We expect you will only have half a dozen or so people to track. To track more, you’ll need a separate sheet of paper.)

Add the heart behaviour checks for each character – that’s your heart score. If your heart score equals (or beats) your Heart Target, congratulations, you have fallen in love with that person.

Falling in love

Once you have fallen in love with them. Here’s what you do:

First, tell someone. That might be the person you have fallen for, but it could be anyone.

Second, you have a new goal.

Help the love of your life succeed: You have a new love in your life, and you want them to succeed. Depending on how hard you have fallen, this may involve putting their goals ahead of yours. (You decide – we suggest using your heart score as a guide.)

Falling in love together

If the person you have fallen for also falls for you, that’s fantastic. We look forward to hearing all about it.

Unrequited love

If you’ve fallen in love with someone, but they haven’t fallen for you, well, that’s just how life works sometimes. Deal with it (through roleplaying).

Falling out of love

If the love of your life does something you really don’t agree with (and you can decide what this is), then you are no longer in love with them. Roleplay it! (And again, tell someone.)

Falling in love with someone else

Keep tracking your scores. If another person beats your Heart Target, then you are in love with them as well! Does this mean you have changed your heart and fallen out of love with your original flame? Not necessarily – you decide! Tell people! Roleplay it!

A few guidelines

Respect other players’ boundaries: If a player doesn’t have a heart on their badge, please don’t track their heart behaviours.

Don’t talk about the mechanics: We prefer it if you don’t discuss the specific dos and don’ts needed to win your heart. It’s OK to talk about them generally, but not to be too specific. Try to keep the conversation natural.

“What does a guy need to do you get you to fall for him?”

“A sense of humour is a good start.”

Ignore all these rules if you want: If these rules aren’t giving you the results you want, please ignore them, particularly if it’s more dramatically appropriate.

Example heart tracker

I would tailor behaviours to the specific freeform – accompany me to the county fair, dance with me at the ball, and so on.

Edit: Updated to make it more inclusive.

Monday 22 April 2024

Preparing freeform larps for others to run

My book, Writing Freeform Larps, covers writing and running freeform larps. However, it doesn’t cover turning a freeform from your notes into something that other people can run.

So, assuming that you’ve run your game and incorporated feedback, what else should you do to get your freeform into a state where others can pick it up and run it?

This is what I do. 

Files and formats

I usually publish games as pdfs, and I assume the buyer will print the game at home. If I’m happy for my work to be edited, I’ll give away the MS Word files. (In either case, I embed the fonts I’ve used.)

My game files for All Flesh is Grass

File naming I usually do like this: GameName_XX_Name_of_File. Where:

  • GameName is the name of the game – or an abbreviation
  • XX is a number, starting at 01 for the instructions
  • Name_of_File is the name of a file, such as a character name or “Setting”

The instructions file is file 01 because that’s the first thing I want the GM to read. It introduces the game and explains how everything works. More on instructions below.

The setting and background file is (for me), normally file 02. It contains the overall setting and probably a cast list. It’s the pre-game stuff I will send out when I’m advertising the game.

Individual files for each character. These are individual files so they can be easily emailed to players in advance. If you don’t expect your GMs to do that, you can put all the characters in a single document.

I might have separate files for cards, name badges, contingencies or handouts, depending on how complex the game is. (If the game is relatively straightforward, I will put these in the instructions file.)

At Freeform Games, we have a separate summary file of key things for the host (so the timetable and answers to key questions) that can be used to run the game on the day (rather than the much longer instructions file). But I’ve not done that for other games.

One thing that’s been brought to my attention recently is that if someone is using a print service, it’s worth keeping stuff that needs printing single-sided in different files from anything printed double-sided. (That’s not something I’ve thought about before.)

Fonts and layout

Fonts: I use fonts from https://fonts.google.com/ as they have a good range and don’t have any copyright or licensing issues. I like EB Garamond as a body font, and then I use something suitable for headers. (I should probably try and find a font that I like that is more dyslexia-friendly, but I'm not there yet.)

Justified or ragged right: I find ragged right (ie, text aligned left, like this blog post) easier to read and looks better if you use Word to prepare your files. (If you know what you’re doing, then go for justified text. If you don’t know what I mean by “if you know what you’re doing,” then stick with ragged right.) 

Line length: The ideal line length is 50-70 characters. Long lines are harder to read, as are short ones.

One column or two: That’s personal preference, and you may find the line length and paper size dictate your options. 

Font size: As I age, I usually prefer a larger font that is easier on my eyes. I usually use EB Garamond at 14 points for body text. Or even bigger if I expect character sheets to be printed at two pages to a single sheet.

Page numbers: I put the file name and page number in the footer on each page. (Such as “Instructions page 1 of 12”.)

And use “curly quotes/apostrophes” (like these) rather than straight quotes or apostrophes.

Consistency and proofreading

If several authors contributed to your game, they almost certainly have different writing styles. Some might be verbose, others terse. Maybe someone types two spaces after a full stop, while others don’t. Maybe there are spelling differences, such as realize/realise (and many, many more.) Perhaps one person writes in active tense and others write in the passive tense. These differences all stand out.

I recommend that one person give everything a final polish, and they also arrange for a proofread by someone who hasn’t read the game before.

(Apps can help - I use Wordrake, Grammarly and PerfectIt. They’re not free, and you have to learn how to interpret them rather than follow them blindly, but they’re a great start and highlight things to look at.)

Instructions

What are you including in your instructions file? This is important - if GMs can’t follow it, they can’t run your game. This is how I structure mine:

  • Intro: A brief introduction explaining the game in broad principles. This is an elevator pitch, including how long the game is likely to take and how many players and GMs are needed.
  • Contents: A list of all the files that come with the game and a brief description of what’s in each. (For example: “AFiG_02_Setting – the setting and cast list for All Flesh is Grass. I also use this as pre-game publicity.”)
  • Printing and preparation: What needs printing and preparing for the game.
  • Casting: How to cast the game, including optional characters, if any. (This may need its own files or an appendix if you have casting forms or casting is complicated.)
  • Venue: notes about the venue or game space – what does the game need?
  • Game timetable: The timetable for the game, first in summary (perhaps as a table) and then each section in detail, finishing with how the game ends and debriefing.
  • Rules: Talk about any game rules or mechanics - such as contingencies.
  • Plots: Talk about specific plots – particularly details the GM needs to know. Give the GM an overview of what’s going on; don’t force them to read through all the characters to figure out what’s going on.

Other points

Try to make things easy for whoever is running your game. Remember, they’ve never seen it before – and they don’t know the game the way you do.

Make things easy to print. Group sections together where possible to make it easier to manage.

If your game has many handouts, make sure they are identified at the top of the page so they are easy to find during play.

A nice cover helps your game stand out. (I’m not an expert at this - I mostly just fumble around a bit.)

Publishing

If you’ve done all that and everything is ready, the next stage is deciding where to host your files. Broadly, four options.

Your own website: This is the easiest, if you have one. If you don’t have server space on your website, you can always link to a shared file on Google Drive or Dropbox or whatever.

Larp libraries: There are a couple of larp libraries keen to host your files. They include larplibrary.org and https://alexandria.dk/en/ 

Itch.io: I find Itch.io easy to use but there’s so much on there that it’s hard to stand out. My Itch.io page is here: https://stevehatherley.itch.io/

DriveThruRPG: The best source for all things RPG online – but there’s so much on it. You can also get your game published in hard copy, but you need to know what you’re doing. DriveThruRPG has stricter rules than Itch.io. I haven’t put any larps onto DriveThruRPG – just some tabletop RPG stuff and my Writing Freeform Larps book. My DriveThruRPG page is here: https://preview.drivethrurpg.com/en/publisher/21683/steve-hatherley 

Getting the word out

Then get the word out. This is something I’m not so good at…

Monday 15 April 2024

Most Trusted Advisors at the table

A few posts ago, I said how much I was looking forward to playing Most Trusted Advisors. How did that work out?

As this was my regular group, we were playing online using Discord and Trello. We play for about two hours – more than that, and I get tired. (This seems to be an issue online, I can cope with longer sessions when face-to-face.)

Character creation

Character creation took us 90 minutes, which was longer than I expected, but I think that was an artefact of playing online. The playbooks seem straightforward to me, and I copied the key sections to Trello. However, a couple of my players struggled with some concepts, and everything took longer than I expected. I’m sure it would be quicker if we played face-to-face.

Our characters were:

  • Margrave Hildegard of House Kolero (The Marshal) – a Zobian Traitor
  • Earl Mikolas the Just of House Arachnia (The Treasurer) – an Inquisitor
  • Count Lorentz the Surreptitious of House Blackgammon (The Blackguard) – a member of the Sky Chamber

Session #1 (what’s left of it)

With 30 minutes left, I kicked things off with the Liege bringing worrying news to his advisors: he’d heard the ruler of arch-rival Zobia has two birthdays. So he wanted another birthday, with the next one in two days’ time. Arrange it!

The Treasurer suggested a three-day holiday, which the Liege liked very much. (Actually, the Liege might have misunderstood the Treasurer, but three days it is…)

So, rather than raise money for the celebrations (which haven’t been decided yet), the Treasurer bought all the beer on the docks (to sell it back to the inns later). The beer is now in a marquee on the dockside, which is where we ended the session.

I felt it was a bit of a rocky start. I’m not sure why, but my players seemed to struggle with their characters. Although I felt they had lots to go on (character creation created plenty of links and agendas), it took a while for them to warm up. I don’t know if that was me, the game, them – or a mixture of all three.

After the session, I looked through their characters. I pulled together a short list of events, based on what came up during character creation, that I could use in future sessions. Where things were undecided, I filled in the blanks.

For example, the Marshal had the following agenda: “A notoriously lecherous and gullible noble knows a vital state secret. Discover it by any means necessary.” I decided who the noble was (Sir Oscar) and what secret they knew. Then, I added an event to my list: a message from the Zobian traitors asking for an update on progress.

I’m glad I took the time to do this, as it’s not something I could have done easily on the fly at the table. If I ever run this at a convention, I will need to think of how I do this. (I suspect the answer is to use cards. The game has tables, but cards are a physical reminder to refer to.)

Session #2: Planning the birthday

In session two, the advisors determined the outline of the birthday party. Day one will be a blessing of the realm, day two will be a tournament, and day three will be a grand ball. The players start to slot their various plans and machinations into the celebrations.

The Blackguard persuaded the wife of Lord Hawett (Lorentz's bitter enemy) to host it at their enormously extravagant mansion on the outskirts of the city.

The Treasurer’s money-making scheme worked (ish), but dockers complained about the high prices, and the innkeepers were unhappy. The Blackguard tried to steal the money, but The Treasurer spent a twist and foiled it.

I pushed an agenda by appearing as the Liege and asking that Father Brian (whom the Inquisition wanted to stop spreading radical messages of kindness and tolerance) speak at his birthday service. The Treasure arranged for Father Brian’s death, but this backfired by turning him into a martyr! (The roll was a partial success).

The Blackguard then spent a twist to get the Treasurer’s execution order and blackmailed The Treasurer with it in return for details of a secret passage into Lord Hawcett’s mansion.

Finally, the Marshal contacted the Zobian ambassador to arrange for the finest Zobian food for the birthday celebrations.

Session #3: The Blessing

Session #3 flowed smoothly as everyone’s plans started coming together:

The Marshal failed to negotiate down the quote for the Zenobian food, and the ambassador challenged the Marshall to a duel. It will be settled at the jousting.

The Blackguard, in disguise as Father Honeyfeather, gave a blessing on day 1 of the birthday celebrations. (I asked the player what he planned, and he gave such a long and detailed description of the service that I didn’t have the heart to make them go through it all again, so we cut straight to the end of the service.)

At the following cheese-and-wine event (held on the prince’s pleasure barge), Judge Strauss handed The Secret History of the Sky Chamber to the Treasurer. The pages were blank, but the Treasurer successfully concocted a potion that revealed the text. 

Over cheese and wine, the Marshall convinced Sir Oscar (see above) to reveal his secret: the name and location of the true Liege! (That the Liege was an imposter had been decided during character generation.)

Session #4: The Tournament and the Grand Ball

Our last session, and the players seemed to really enjoy themselves. Key moments included:

  • The Blackguard married his many daughters off – some successfully, others less so.
  • The Marshal killed the Zobian ambassador in a duel.
  • The Treasurer foiled a plan by the Blackguard to steal The Secret History of the Sky Chamber.
  • The Treasurer created false documents implicating the Zobian ambassador’s widow (who was getting much too cosy to the Liege).
  • The Blackguard created a scheme to poison the wine for everyone except for his rival and the Zobian ambassador’s wife, then prevented that plot to turn himself into a hero and expose his rival and the ambassador’s wife as enemies of the state. The plan succeeded, although sadly, some nobles died because they were too eager to drink the wine.

We ended the game there, finishing with the PC’s legacies:

  • The Treasurer became the Witchfinder General.
  • The Blackguard became known as the famous figure in folklore, “The Black Count.”
  • The Marshal changed the political system by installing the true heir to the throne.

Finally, we played ten minutes of How’s it going Geoffrey? This short minigame explores recent events from the perspective of the unluckiest peasant in the land – my players enjoyed this immensely.

So what did I think?

We enjoyed Most Trusted Advisors. We played for about five or six hours (excluding character generation), over four sessions.

While it started slowly, once my players got into their characters and pursued their agendas, things motored along smoothly. I suspect there’s more I could have done to get things going at the start, but at this point, I’m not sure what.

We found it extremely collaborative, with the players chipping in suggestions throughout.

I had a few issues with the rules.

Action ratings: I struggled with action rolls because, often, there wasn’t an appropriate action rating that suited what we were trying to do. Some examples:

  • The Treasurer implemented a plan to kill a troublesome priest and make it look like the Marshal was to blame. This was carried out by underlings, as obviously, the Treasurer wouldn’t dirty his own hands. However, there isn’t a “scheme” action rating. We used Ruin for this action, but at a few times, we scratched our heads trying to work out what action rating to use.
  • Our characters persuaded NPCs to do things several times. However, there isn’t a “persuade” action rating. We fell back on Appease and Bluff rather too often.

Maybe we were playing it wrong, but it took less than an hour of playing for us to hit some of these issues. So following session 2, I changed the action rolls:

I replaced Ruin with Scheme, merged Survey into Study, and introduced Persuade and Scheme. I grouped the abilities by “base ratings”:

  • Physical: Balance, Duel, Shadow, Skulk
  • Mental: Bewitch, Concoct, Study, Scheme
  • Social: Appease, Bluster, Disdain, Persuade

The players put 3 points into the base ratings (Physical/Mental/Social – no more than 2 points in any one base rating) and then 3 points into the specialisms (no more than one each). Their action rating was their base rating + specialism.

Doing it that way meant that if there wasn’t an appropriate specialism, I could use the base rating. This system worked well – I had no problems with dice rolls for the rest of the game. 

Twists: Twists are powerful; they let the players avoid conditions and introduce new elements into the game. Players started each session with three, but because our sessions were short, my players always seemed to have plenty. Next time I will reduce the number of twists.

Conditions: I found the conditions suggested in the rules (angry, bankrupt, scandalous, etc) hard to apply to our dice rolls. I found it easier to create story-based misfortunes and complications, but I didn’t ever inflict a condition on a PC (although the players used twists to avoid a couple).

While I felt the rules were okay, they didn’t support play particularly well, and I was fighting them before I changed action ratings. 

Scenes: I recently ran a couple of games of Hillfolk at AireCon and have been thinking about the difference between the two games. While I don’t think Most Trusted Advisors needs Hillfolk’s dramatic focus, I wonder if it would benefit from scene discipline. I ran it as I would a traditional TTRPG, and in hindsight, that may have been a mistake.

Revisiting the pdf, I discovered today that Most Trusted Advisors uses the word scene liberally (“scene” appears 25 times in the pdf). But it never explains what it means by “scene”, nor how to set/frame/close them – and whether scenes are framed by the players or the GM.

So what works best? A fluid trad-like approach, or defined scenes? Next time, I’ll try more formal scene framing.

(Bizarrely, even though I’ve done scene framing in other games, I didn’t think to try it. I’ve only thought about it now. I’m not sure what that says about me.)

Overall

For me, Most Trusted Advisors wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. While the characters and background and secret societies were wonderful, I found two areas let it down:

  • Getting started: It took us a while to get properly into our stride. Was that the game, or was that us? I don’t know, but I think the game could have done more (or offered advice) to get things going.
  • System: Given its lightness, I found the system fiddlier than necessary (and that’s aside from making a mid-game patch). 

I can’t imagine ever running Most Trusted Advisors as anything other than a one-shot (even though we took four sessions, I regard our game as a one-shot), and it could be simpler and fine-tuned to make that easier.

Most Trusted Advisors

You can get Most Trusted Advisors from the creators’ page on Itch.io, here.

Monday 8 April 2024

Pardners

For the Once Upon a Time in Tombstone freeform larp, we created a mechanic for non-romantic relationships. We called it Pardners, and this is how it worked.

Pardners

Butch and Sundance. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. They’re more than friends – they stick with you through thick and thin. They’re people you can rely on. We call them Pardners.

Pardners help each other out and come to each other’s aid in times of hardship. A Pardner won’t let you down. A Pardner will help you achieve your objectives, as you will help them achieve theirs.

Everyone has at least one Pardner ability card. You can’t use your own Pardner ability – you must exchange it with someone else. You’re now Pardners!

It’s up to you whom you choose as your Pardner, but we recommend waiting for a suitably dramatic moment before offering to become Pardners with someone. Perhaps they have intervened in a fight to help you, loaned you a poker stake, or even just bought you a whisky.

A Pardnership may be broken at any time – just return the Pardner ability and ask for your own back. It must be returned immediately. However, you should only break a Pardnership with good reason, and don’t be surprised if your ex-Pardner holds a grudge.

If you break a Pardnership, you must give your ex-Pardner a reason why. Then, act out the breaking of the pardnership – preferably in front of other people.

Romance between two Pardners automatically supersedes, and breaks, the Pardnership. Return each other’s Pardner ability cards.

Pardner abilities

Each character then had a special ability that they gave to their Pardner. Some examples:

Bill Cobb's Pardner: Bill Cobb's reputation extends to his friends. Whoever has this ability may not be arrested for any reason, provided Bill Cobb is still Sheriff.

Jessica Drummond's Pardner: Jessica Drummond's pardner may use this card instead of tearing up or checking off one of his/her abilities.

Johnny Ringo’s Pardner: Play at the start of combat. If Johnny Ringo is in the gunfight, add +1 to your Accuracy. If Johnny is not present, subtract 1 from all your opponents' Speeds (they need to watch their backs...)

Kit Shelleen’s Pardner: When competing against somebody with a cut of the cards, one use of this ability will make your 'cut' exactly one rank higher than theirs. You cannot use this ability to beat an Ace.

About Once Upon a Time in Tombstone

Once Upon a Time in Tombstone is a weekend-long freeform for 60+ players. It’s based on various Westerns, including Tombstone (of course), Silverado, The Big Country, Maverick, Pale Rider, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and many, many more.

I co-wrote Once Upon a Time in Tombstone, along with Heidi Kaye, Tony Mitton, AJ Smith and Paul Snow. 

I’ve written about it here.