Archive for March, 2008


The truth is out there, and really easy to find

March 30, 2008

Julia Bond Ellingboe’s interview from Theory from the Closet really mirrors a lot of discussions amongst my friends about the general ignorance of the majority of white Americans with regards to major portions of American history and current American culture.

My good friend J and I were talking yesterday about the ways in which most white folks are “informed” of POC through the poor narrow lens of television or movies. That is to say, desegregation has made little inroad into building understanding- the fact that many white folks could tell you “about” black folks based on music videos, and yet are completely ignorant of the black church experience, or liberation theology (and guess which one has a few hundred years of history, and is as easy to learn about as talking to the people who live in your town?), says a lot about what I’m simply calling willful ignorance at this point.

Stereotype schlock is easy to build into games, or easy to run in games, rather than, history which has tons and tons of documentation and even living people you can talk to, in order to get the skinny. Ultimately, the problem is not a dearth of information, or difficulty in getting access to it, as many sources are quite happy to provide useful info and help dispel common myths, but rather about white discomfort about actually dealing with POC, and especially in a non-privileged position of accepting our accounts of our own definition.

And it’s not merely a matter of non-interest, as there is a continuous market for stories “about POC”, at least only in that they are put through a white lens and fulfill certain stereotypes.

Tying back into Julia’s interview, I think it’s really important to look at the way in which the participants identify, or “code” with the protagonists as a key component of the process.

What I think is the twitch issue for white folks with regards to Steal Away Jordan, is that you either have to identify with a black character as a protagonist, or you have to accept a white protagonist who has privilege and is receiving benefit from institutionalized racism, which requires thinking about the whole issue a little more indepth than “Racists are mean” vs. “Non-mean people have no part in racism”. It’s a bind because you can’t play and hide in the shell of color-blindness which is the usual defense of the modern American in regards to race issues.

In terms of coding, white folks are often shielded in a pretty strange way. For example, many fantasy & sci-fi novels put white characters on the cover, even when the story clearly indicates a person of color… You have movies like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Road to El Dorado, 10,000 BC, or even Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in which a white protagonist “bridge” character must be present to make palatable a non-white culture.

For RPGs, you also see that usually the portrayal of other cultures is about places where white PCs go- whether we’re talking about Vampire or Rifts, Oriental Adventures, etc. Very few games are POC culture focused, and those are all really focused on East Asia, where you don’t have to think about color or hair as differences in coding to your character.

Of course, no one really thinks about the fact that gamers of color always are used to coding to other folks all the time. Or did you think I could only play Pendragon because I’m half white? (God knows if that was the case, I’d be completely unable to play Trollbabe, unless I have some extra mixing my grandparents didn’t tell me about).

So can a hobby built on the idea of self expression and pretending to be people other than yourself break out of this? It ought to be as easy as your imagination.

The real question is whether the people involved have the courage to do so.


Random bits

March 26, 2008


Paizo is releasing a preview PDF of their upcoming Pathfinder RPG, which will still be using the 3.5 D20 rules.

Though it looks neat, I’m more interested in it as a design and social factor- what kind of game will they make after a year and some change of open playtesting? Will we see more pushes away from standard D20 now that it’s no longer a concern to be compatible with unseen future WOTC products? Will awesome fringe 3.5 based games emerge from a hardcore, dedicated fanbase over the next 10 years?

That and, Paizo pretty much has the best D&D artwork right now, though the EverCleavage is problematic, at least the female characters look kickass and in the mix of every fight scene.


One of my players ordered her own copy of Artesia, and since she hasn’t played anything since AD&D (1 or 2E? I’ll have to ask), it’ll be interesting to see how well she can clamber through the rules and tome that is Artesia.

While the point is for us to play, I’m always looking at it from the standpoint of usability- how does the non-gamer interact with your text? Does it work as a teaching tool? What doesn’t work? We’ve got plenty of games that assume you know what you’re doing and few that do not, so while stuff like Ptolus work as excellent ways of divvying up info for the person who gets the game, how do we format info for the noob?

While the “X Book for Dummies” format is good at introductions, it definitely comes across as a textbook- it lacks flash. Is there a way to keep the artwork and design format of a normal RPG book and still up the communication factor?


As a useful information tool, D&D 4E color codes the powers that the characters get- so you can easily track which ones you can use all the time, once an encounter, and once a day. Naturally, I want to break out old X-Clan before each game and hear that infamous phrase, “Protected, by the Red, the Black, and the Green… with a key, Sissy!”


The fullness of being human

March 22, 2008

So when I started this blog, I was thinking it would be more personal than the last one.

Sadly, my online-ness has mostly been trapped in Forge Etiquette: “Games are Serious Business”. But this isn’t the Forge. I’m not trying to communicate in a way to best dialogue in the face of internet cockboxing.

I think over the last 2 or 3 years, there has been brief flashes of really good comments in the community about the role of being artists or creators- to whom you owe responsibility. For example, owing responsibility to your own expression, to the people who you respect and value their input, and not so much to Random Internet Dude, whether he be Indie Hipster Gamer or Gnarled Grognard Gamer.

So, my blog, this blog, is going to fall in line with that. I’m still going to talk mostly about games, or things that influence or impact gaming for me, and not, like whether I’m dating someone, or if I got new shoes.

A big part of my creative community with whom I choose boundaries is the anti-oppression movements- anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism. This isn’t intellectual liberal “gimme a cookie” leftism to be hip. Every one of my friends and family have emotional and/or physical scars because of the above, and remaining silent is equivalent to assent to their death, be it slow or fast.

And that ties into gaming because it is a form of media, and all media inform one way or another on those issues (including silence).  This is probably where I’ve been looking at things differently from the beginning- texts of roleplaying games are mass media.  Public internet communication is mass media.   We are participating in it, and do you have the privilege to NOT think about your messages?

So I am thinking about mine.  If you find that preachy or strange, I will give you the words given to me whether talking about my communities, my hobby, or even my country- “If you don’t like it, leave.”

I’ve been talking to the wrong audience for a long time.  It’s time for a change.


Theory for play (Artesia)

March 17, 2008

It’s been about 2 years since I last played a traditional rpg.

“Traditional” meaning, a game with GM/player split, the toolbox mentality towards rules, and, often, missing large chunks of procedures of “how we actually play this game”. The last time I did this, was L5R 3rd edition, which, I walked into with the foolish trust that the rules as written would work without me building in major parts of the game.

Ah, foolish youth.

Anyway, this time, I’m ready and thought it might be worthwhile to share, especially since all the theory and design stuff is informing how I’m approaching this game.

Group Agenda

So right now I’ve got two players, neither of whom are gamers, but have some passing familiarity with the concepts. One is someone who played a bit of D&D back in the 80’s and nothing since, the other has read some of the White Wolf games but never played. We’ve got some other friends who might join up, with probably equal or less familiarity with rpgs.

Their interest has everything to do with the Artesia comic, and nothing to do with the system. With that in mind, my goal is to provide a space for us to make awesome narrativist play, in the fashion of the Artesia comics. (Already my inner design critic screams we should just use Primetime Adventures or Riddle of Steel, but there it is).

Using the System

The game has a pretty in depth system for character generation. Like a lot of games that fall out from the late 80’s early-mid 90’s, it’s set up with a very “toolbox” mentality. At least the game is pretty clear in that, as all the lifepath charts have the option “roll or choose”.

The part where it leaves you hanging is trying to figure out how to make a workable situation out of a group of players who have characters that don’t really fit together, whether created randomly by dice or by choice.

So I made the choice to:

a) generate a situation with the players first

b) have them choose their character’s social class, their parent’s occupations (and thus, their options)

c) choose to assign # of siblings, family relations, etc. without rolling.

d) roll the rest of the lifepath stuff, including with the 3 recommended rerolls as per the book.

e) assign Bindings as “voluntary” bindings

So, there’s tools that make a workable situation, they’re just not really explained how/why you should use them that way. The designer in me had to step out to figure out the best way to make these decisions and avoid giant pitfalls and likely disasters.


And, here is where I drifted the game. First, the Tarot based reward system opens a lot of doors for play. On the other hand, it requires tracking 22 different reward scales across each character.

Um, no.

So I’m going to split that up, and have each player in charge of something like 5-7 of those, thereby dividing the work into not-crazy levels of play.

I’m also going to create a conflict web to serve as a tool to help with the inevitable deep politics and family drama of the situation.

I also decided that all the “Everyman” skills start at 3, instead of 0, because it’s really stupid to have PCs who can’t dress themselves or lack common knowledge (which, only really seems to happen in point building games, anyway…). More importantly, I don’t want to take 20-30 minutes to having players juggle numbers to do so.

Pushing it

So, my goal is to scene frame hard, and get players into situations where the story gets driven forward and earns them tons of Tarot points through hard choices.

The interesting thing is that I’ve had to apply a pretty high level of design decisions just to play the game. There’s a lot of games I wouldn’t have to put this much forethought into in order to get satisfying play. There’s also the fact that despite the wide range of tools, there’s really no advice on how to put them together, or how to apply a lot of them for successful play.

So the interesting thing for me, for playing with this group, with this game, is whether the crunchy mechanical overhead will kill play, or work with it. I look at the dividing line between successful play or not here being whether we survive 3 sessions of actual play or if, the game bogs down in the handling and the players decide it’s not worthwhile.

 Edit:  I just found Rule Zero, carefully hidden at the bottom of page 291, on one of the two pages on how to GM the game.  Sigh.

Also- looking at the forums, it looks like a lot of the discussions basically boil down along the lines of the “Magic is too powerful” kind of arguments we heard from Riddle of Steel discussions some years back.   Of course, I wonder how many of those folks are reading the comics?  You know, when the comic begins with angels of death guiding the souls of the dead to judgement and binding ghosts to yourself, you really got to ask what scale people are thinking of?


Sharpening up your Con game

March 16, 2008

No, not that kind of con game.

I hit up Endgame’s mini-con today, and it struck me that while the mini-con idea works well, how wide the difference in skills of GMs in dealing with convention play were.  In some cases, folks made it a brilliant gaming experience, in others, it fell flat.

Convention games exist as the opposite of the traditional rpg experience in so many ways, it’s a wonder how well the con experience happens at all.   You have 2-4 hours to get a game going, teach new rules, or at least get a feel for a new group and have a satisfying chunk of play.

1.  Prepare well

Most people think this means knowing the rules and having lots of notes for the adventure you’re going to run.  What’s more important is preparing to get the players into playing as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Prepare by printing up cheatsheets that explain the basic rules and give one to each player.  Have an example conflict or something you can do really quickly and demonstrate to the players how the game works.

You’re not prepping to have all the rules memorized, you’re prepping to explain the basics quick enough that people are comfortable with it, and can make some informed decisions about it.   You don’t want more than 10 minutes of rules explaining, and, if you can, break it up by explaining a part just as the players are getting into it.

2.  Characters, done, or mostly done. 

If you can do pre-gen characters, do it.  If you want a little more modification, do something like 80-90% done characters, and the players can customize with a few points/powers, etc.  This prevents the players bogging down into building characters instead of playing, and, also from exploiting weird system aspects you might not be ready to handle.  Also tie the characters into the situation- you don’t want to sit there trying to push people into play.

Unlike a normal campaign where you will be playing with a character for 3 months or more, players have to be willing to come to con games and accept they’re going to lose a little individual customization for the sake of play.

3.  Cutting out bits

You might want to avoid using complicated parts of the game you’re running, especially if it involves weird subsystems, or things that would be slow for a new player to learn.  This would be stuff like deckrunning in Shadowrun, magic in many game systems, etc.  If you’re pre-genning the characters, you won’t have this problem.  Again, players have to accept they’re getting an abbreviated experience for most games.

4.  Scene framing is your bestest friend/go for blood

Since this is going to be a one-shot, don’t slow the pace- push it.  Go for the throat.  The only thing you don’t want to happen is to remove the players from play until the end, which in most games depends on character death.  Other than that, get to the interesting stuff NOW.   Players aren’t going to be as attached to their characters, and probably will be more excited and more interested in taking risks, as long as you’re willing to go there with them as well.

As the GM, you’re effectively the leader-by-example in this- people will be shy, and reticient- they’re trying to feel out what kind of game you’re going to run.  If you don’t hold back, they won’t either, and you’ll get that great con experience you’re looking for.