RPG a Day: Word!

19. What’s an RPG item that features awesome writing?

Here are three role-playing games I’ve enjoyed reading as much or even more than I have enjoyed playing.

Weapons of the Gods (Eos Press) featured Brad Elliott as primary system writer, and Rebecca Borgstrom (now Jenna Moran) authoring the fiction and setting material. It is one of a very few RPGs containing fiction I enjoyed for its own sake.

Unknown Armies (Atlas Games) is best known for Greg Stolze and (in the first two editions) John Tynes’ snarky, idiosyncratic, witty writing. I have loved every edition and I was honoured to have a small part in helping write the third edition.

Mutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin Publishing) is another that has known three editions, every one of which I loved. I particularly enjoyed Steve Kenson’s sharing of his thorough knowledge of the superhero genre and explaining his reasoning in making design choices so that game-masters can use the same tools. It really helped me realize what I’m looking for in GM advice.

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RPG a Day: A Question of character

25. What makes for a good character?

Katsukawa ShunshôIn your opinion, what do you need for a satisfying character?

Obviously, this will vary tremendously. A player character that is satisfying for me to play has to have enough drive to action, enough personal involvement in the story and with the other PCs to be moved to act. I have to be able to see clearly what she would do, rather than have to evaluate a collection of stats first. Some tensions are great, motivations to act in clear but divergent ways: divided loyalties, relationships, obligations, rivalries, codes of honour, etc.

A non-player character that I find satisfying to interact with has to have hidden depths, complexity, and both good and bad traits. Villains, in particular, are most interesting to me if they can almost convince us that they are the heroes! Almost. A good way to build that in is to use the “passions” (rage, noble, and fear stimuli) from Unknown Armies. In fiction, examples of good villains include Hans Grüber (Die Hard), Mr. Morden and Alfred Bester (Babylon 5), Mags Bennett (Justified), “Nucky” Thompson (Boardwalk Empires), etc.

#RPGaDay2016

 

 

What makes a good horror RPG?

FearJeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:

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!”)

Clickable relationship map, Roanoke
Clickable relationship map, Roanoke

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.)

Review: Unknown Armies, 2nd ed.

(Cross-posted to RPG.net, where it won 1st prize for Horror Week, and to Emerald City Gamefest.)

Unknown Armies is superb setting or source of inspiration for modern occult, horror, and gonzo adventure, married to a sometimes innovative though overall tame system.

Continue reading “Review: Unknown Armies, 2nd ed.”