Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea

I finally ran Alas for the Awful Sea (Storybrewers Roleplaying) at Big Bad Con. This is a game Powered by the Apocalypse, built to tell dramatic tales about the characters’ needs, feelings, and conflicts; it’s set in poor coastal villages of the British Isles during the 19th Century and includes elements of history, legend, and supernatural.

Created by Australian game designers Hayley Gordon and Veronica “Vee” Hendro, the game was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign back in February 2017. I was really excited about the focused theme, the promise of a streamlined approach to PbtA, and the team of women and non-binary people putting together the main book and the digital stretch goals. Besides, I don’t have very many Australian role-playing games (I can’t think of anything except Hunter Planet right now…)

They delivered right when promised and this beautiful book arrived in time for me to prep a game for Big Bad Con. It fit well, since I had decided to run only games made by women and non-binary people.

So here is a description of how I prepare the adventure, how it turned out in play, and finally a review of the game itself.

Whaler hove down for repairs

Prepare

Preparation started with a thorough reading of the rule book. Sometimes when you try a new game you want to jump right to specific points like character creation, special moves, etc. However, I recommend reading PbtA games from cover to cover, because it’s never just a simple re-skinning like, say in most Savage Worlds or  GURPS books.

So yes, I read Alas for the Awful Sea as if it was a novel. It gave me a good overview of the setting and flavour as envisioned by the authors, as well as a sense of the type of action and drama the game is made for.

Storybrewers Roleplaying had also delivered some of the digital stretch goals, including some scenarios, so I decided to use the first, “The Tides of Man.” (They continued to deliver right on time!) This is a sort of Moby Dick-like premise: an old mariner has gone missing, leaving notes on a terrible whale he calls Mythic. For various reasons, the protagonists investigate and probably go chase the Mythic whale.

This and other adventures for Alas are very well set up, just the way I like them: some characters and their motivations, some locations and what you can learn there, some ideas for encounters, and broad-brush sketches of how the adventure might unfold, but the resolution left open. This is perfect for PbtA games in general, and for my preferred game-mastering style.

Most of my preparation consisted of carefully reading the rule book and adventure, and researching the setting (British Isles in the 1830s), topic (sailing and whaling), and legends (famous whales that inspired Moby Dick and similar literature, such as Mocha Dick, the Tay Whale, etc..) I prepared a couple of pages of notes such as typical descriptions of ships and whales, questions for character creation, etc.

I selected a few period images to help players visualize the setting, and created handouts based on the text of the adventure—everyone likes handouts, right? Finally, I collected character images from a variety of sources such as period engravings, vintage photographs, and open source portraits. I tried to offer gender and ethnic diversity, while sticking to what I know of the period.

Finally, I contacted the players who had signed up (Big Bad Con GMs receive their players’ contact info) and warned them that the scenario I was running would contain structural misogyny/racism/etc., descriptions of whaling/animal cruelty, and references to family domestic violence, but also that I would be using safety tools (Lines and Veils, X-card, and Script Change.)

Whaling—up close and personal

Play

At the event itself, I had three players: Manuel, Ariel, and Jacob (a fourth had to cancel at the last minute—I missed you, Sandy!) Three or four is a good number for this sort of intense, player-game.

Also, we nay I went over the rules, setting, and safety tools. Everyone had played in some PbtA games before, so the rules overview was easy. I could readily see that the players were interested in the setting and had some familiarity with the period background.

Character creation was relatively quick; there is little risk of analysis paralysis in Alas because there are no long lists of moves to pick from. The characters are created by picking one of ten different character roles (Captain, Boatswain, Mercenary, Merchant, Old Sea Dog, Scholar, Strider, Surgeon, Cook, or Stowaway), and one of six different descriptors (the Lover, the Kinsman, the Believer, the Outcast, the Creature, or the Confidant.)

Each role gives one special move, and each descriptor provides one special bond and two or three special moves. As usual in most PbtA games, you select from options for your appearance and equipment, assign values to basic stats (Brains, Brawn, Beauty, Balance, and Beyond), and create some bonds with the other characters. Players also picked their character portraits; in my experience, character pictures are always a success at conventions.

We ended up with Captain Zacharias Nielsen, originally from Norway and a dour Outcast (played by Jacob); Luther the Old Sea Dog from Jamaica and a devout Obeah Believer (played by Manuel); and Mrs. Plaisance Houston, a wealthy widow Merchant and Confidant (played by Ariel.)

Finally, we discussed the basic moves available in Alas for the Awful Sea, and we were ready to go. This is where I give you a spoiler alert if you don’t want to read anything about the scenario: you can scroll forward to the review portion of this post.  Continue reading “Play and Review: Alas for the Awful Sea”

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Come at me, 2017

2017As you might have guessed, the last several weeks have been harder on my morale than my body. The last stretch of the American presidential election was hugely stress-inducing, and the results were soul-crushing. I know my friends know what I’m talking about, I heard it in their words and read it in their posts. Except for the most upbeat of topics — my gaming group, Thanksgiving, and the good progress in my treatment — I have been unable to write anything in over eight weeks. I keep thinking of words in my head, it’s all there, but I’ve been unable to put them down in writing.

Two months ago, I was cautiously optimistic. I thought we would probably get a weak Clinton victory, then some incremental building on the cautious progress made under the Obama administration; against this backdrop, I was expecting to focus a lot of energy on my geek communities, and particularly the gaming community, as I returned to health.

Then the world changed. I’m still not ready to unpack this event, but the result is that people previously known as “Gamergators,” “MRAs,” “pissing booth warriors” and “some racist trolls in the bottom drawer of the Internet” now feel emboldened to take their assholiness for a stroll in real space. Suddenly, it’s not just in a few compartments of our lives that we can meet with acts of hatred from people we don’t even know. After what most of us considered a shitty year, 2017 looks like it will be even worse. I met January 1st more downcast and apprehensive than I ever have in my life.

My backlog of writing is not helped by the fact that I feel I will be discussing many unpleasant topics this year. Indeed, in late October and early November before I sank into depression, I was planning to start writing a series tackling some of the successes, failures, and possible paths forward for diversity in tabletop gaming and related geeky pursuits. I feel this is more needed now than ever, but I don’t know how much justice I will be able to do to the topics.

Nevertheless, I can’t just roll over and play dead. It’s not the first time I have dealt with depression, and I will deal with it this time again. In fact, I was hit by a wave at about the same time the year before, when my kind and benevolent employer unilaterally cut my hours and stripped me of my benefits. You know what got me out of the ditch? Cancer. That’s right, sometimes it’s not an improvement in circumstances that serves as the ladder to climb out of a hole, but a disaster you have to respond to. And 2017 looks to be quite the disaster, so I might as well hold on to that to climb.

Happy New Year, folks. Me, I take pride in the fact that I managed to write this post without too much profanity.

In which direction lies progress?

Autumn LeavesI have not forgotten that I promised to go back over the “Two Minutes Hate” issue for the three-month assessment of its impact onto the tabletop role-playing community, and particularly the parts of the community centering on indie and small-press games. Since I started the assessment, I have tallied responses from a variety of threads online, and discussed with and interviewed many people closely involved with and/or affected by the events.

In short, based the evidence I collated I believe that after three months (I’ll get back to this in a moment), the impacts of “Two Minutes Hate” and its follow-up FAQ have been more negative than positive, and that the negative impacts are disproportionately felt by a few people who were already on the receiving end for frequent online abuse. The post failed to clearly convey Mark’s intended message and caused harm both directly and indirectly to people singled out as examples. I see the following as key errors: Continue reading “In which direction lies progress?”

RPG a Day: Tell me sweet little things

29. Favourite RPG website/blog

FateSRD_400x400Two choices today.  First, the Fate RPG SRD site created by Randy Oest. It makes the centerpiece rule books Fate Core, Fate Accelerated and Fate System Toolkit available free of charge, in a well-organized, searchable, bookmarked, attractive form that is just as legible and useful on a computer monitor, tablet, or even smartphone. It even offers links to additional resources that shed some light on particular points of the system. When I’m looking for specific information in a hurry, I often turn to the Fate SRD site/app rather than the original books.

Second, Our Many Games, which is dedicated to help showcase tabletop and live role-playing games created by people of colour, women of all ethnicities, people with disabilities, trans folk, queer creators and other people from traditionally under-represented groups.  It offers game suggestions and quick-starter kits, and there are so many wonderful writers among the list of authors.

#RPGaDay2015

diversity-clipart-diversity2

 

Learning to Write the Other

And to become what the other look on . .It’s been a while since I wrote about a class I’m taking. I just started a six-week-long online class, “Writing the Other,” led by writers Nisi Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford. It’s tough for me to fit a class with my work schedule, my interminable commute, my writing, daily life, and just plain recovering from all this. But six weeks doesn’t seem too long, I think I can do this.

The class text is Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, an inexpensive purchase as an ebook and one that can also be used for self-directed learning. We also use the essay collections curated by Jim C. Hines, Invisible and Invisible 2.

The instructors have gathered a collection of interesting links, but I’ll leave it to them to share their class material as they see fit. However, I had done my own gathering ahead of the class (including articles by the instructors), so I’d like to share those articles with anyone interested.

In addition, I would like to share a few tools I find useful in completing the assignments, for the benefit of classmates and others:


Image Credits: “And to become what the other look on . .” by Jef Safi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).