OK, Ramanan S pointed out to me that we have not had significant discussions of race in tabletop roleplaying games since The Thing last year. I take that as an indicator of the chilling effect, but nonetheless it’s not a good excuse. We need to talk, and even more so we need to act.
This is not a post to examine the root causes and come up with an overarching plan to eliminate racism, tokenism, erasure, etc. I can’t be the one to tell you all about race problems in the tabletop gaming community. I’m not on the receiving end, and my white privilege means I will, by definition, not be able to see all the instances.
It’s up against high-quality, popular releases but it’s so nice to be on the list. (Now I know that at least four people read it!) ^_^
I am so very fortunate that on my first professional writing gig in the role-playing world, Evil Hat Productions let me create a book the way I wanted to, with the support of their fantastic knowledge and staff resources. It doesn’t get any better!
[Edit: Traduction française disponible chez ptgptb.]
A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances. In this section I focus on their ease of use at the game table. I’m not talking about system choices and mechanics, but strictly about how well the book supports game play.
3. Use in Play
At the game table, the reader will be trying to find specific information quickly, particularly rules information.
[Edit: Traduction française disponible chez ptgptb.]
Naturally, a single mistake probably won’t do it unless it’s ginormous and egregious, but a few too many and I’ll move on to the next game on my long wish list.
A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances.
The leisurely reading you do on the bus when you just received your book from a Kickstarter campaign.
The selective reading you do to familiarize yourself with the setting and make a character for next Friday’s meeting with your gaming group.
The studious reading your friend is doing to prep for that same game as game-master.
The frantic reading in the middle of a game session to locate a particular piece of information or interpret a rule.
I know first-hand how difficult it can be to address all these needs; for example, a book may be perfectly well organized to present the setting information in an orderly fashion, but make it a nightmare to retrieve in a hurry at the game table. Today, I want to examine the ease of reading proper, all the kinds of reading we do when we are not actually playing.
I’m a gaming junkie, especially where it comes to role-playing games. I’ve been gaming for decades, I have played or run at least 177 RPGs as of this writing, not counting different editions, playtests, or homebrews, and my shelves are overflowing with more I have yet to play. All this to say, I want to love your game. But it’s amazing how many published games still turn me right off because of mistakes that could be avoided with moderate effort, and sometimes even quite easily.
Not that that writing games is that easy, I know! There will be competing objectives, budget and schedule considerations, and so forth. But there are also some elements that can be incorporated in the planning, and hurdles that are make-or-break. In our cottage industry of devoted hobbyists, some mistakes are being made over and over. Even free games can be ruined so thoroughly by some of these mistakes that they lose the chance for a good review, which can’t be why you’re putting them out there!
One big challenge for game publishers is that there are several ways to approach the reader or, if you want, several opportunities to lose a gamer, so let’s look at them separately.
What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?
Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]
I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.
I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.
Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.
Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger. Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.
Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.
Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)
Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.
Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)
Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions 2011, 2012) is probably the best-known descendant of Apocalypse World, the family of games “Powered by the Apocalypse” (PbtA for short.) It owes its popularity not only to its use of the most popular trappings in the history of role-playing (the Gygaxian dungeon crawl and character roles) but also to the clarity of the writing and some simple but effective choices of mechanics.
One of its significant modifications to the AW model is the way characters gain experience and advance. In AW (including the second edition previews released so far) and several of the PbtA games based on it, one player and the GM each highlight a stat on your character sheet at the beginning of the session; your character gains experience by using (i.e., rolling dice based on) the highlighted stats. I really hate this; typically, the stats highlighted are not the ones that interest me as player. In addition, a few specific character moves may instruct you to mark experience under limited circumstances.
In Dungeon World, there are no highlighted stats; instead, you mark experience every time you roll a failure (6 or less on two six-sided dice.) In addition, the End of Session move rewards the behaviours typical to the Gygaxian inspiration: playing your character’s alignment, learning something new and important about the world, overcoming a notable monster or enemy, and looting a memorable treasure. Between these, you can expect characters to earn two to six experience points per session.
But there is one more thing that can earn you experience, and it’s very unexpected in light of the old-school model DW emulates: relationships between characters. Here is how it works: Continue reading “As the Dungeon World Turns”→
Edmund gave me a speaker dock station for my phone a few days ago, so I now have my Agaptus playlist in the background while I prepare my two War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus adventures for next weekend’s Big Bad Con: Jean Sibelius (Finlandia, The Tempest), Edvard Grieg (Peer Gynt Suite), Camille Saint-Saëns (Le Carnaval des animaux), Paul Dukas (L’Apprenti sorcier), Sergei Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf), Danny Elfman (Music for a Darkened Theatre), etc.
The two adventures are Ice, Ice, Baby and Curse of Agaptus, and will both be released as downloadable content on Evil Hat Productions’ website in the not-too-distant future.
ZombieSmith have supplied us with a bunch of War of Ashes miniatures in addition to the ones we owned, so little metal creatures are now covering the game table. Edmund has been painting up a storm so I can field bad guys in my two War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus games at Big Bad Con. They’re not finished yet, but they’re coming along nicely! Shown here: the voracious Kuld, pre-shading and highlights phases.