Archive for June, 2010


Sorcerer & Horror Logic

June 29, 2010

Jesse sums up how I usually explain Demons in Sorcerer: “Horror” means ordinary everyday world encounters a singular, unknowable *thing* whose explanation ranges from unrevealed dark human truth to completely incomprehensible.

Ron says, “Demons don’t exist” which confuses everyone. I usually point to horror movie monsters – Jason, Freddy, Candyman, the ghost girl from The Ring, etc.

Each one, in their fictional stories, aren’t part of a cosmology of the world- they’re an exception, a violation of it. The “how” of how they exist might be left unexplained, it might be unexplainable or unknowable anyway.

And you fucked around with the universe and broke it’s shit to knowingly have this THING happen. And you’re going to try to USE IT.

Don’t worry about how the world works, how demons work, or how sorcery works- all of that might be totally unknown.

Focus on this: Who the hell are YOU, to have done this thing, and who the hell are YOU that will make this situation work for you? What kind of person has that kind of verve and arrogance to try to pull THAT off?

That’s Sorcerer.


An example in broken Social Contract

June 28, 2010

Today’s Penny Arcade gives a funny, but accurate example of someone breaking social contract.

I talk a lot about people needing to buy in to playing the same game, and you can see where this kind of thing would be the opposite of that.

Consider that these are vastly different games:

1) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, set in this world, where we’ll beat Tiamat at the end of the campaign!”
2) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, set in this world, and we go find our own direction/do what we want.”
3) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, and maybe we end up in different settings.”
4) “We’re playing a campaign in D&D, but maybe there’s a switcheroo and we end up in Gamma World or Paranoia!”

If everyone agreed to any ONE of these understandings, consider that comic again and think of whether that kind of hijinks would even happen.

Then, consider, if people are coming to play without a common understanding, is the problem really the Deck of Many Things, Wish Spells, or whatever in-game fiction or mechanic? (See also: “I develop gunpowder in your fantasy game!”, “My knight of the round table is a Ninja from the Far East!”, etc.)

Design vs. Culture

Modern rpg design tends to deal with this in two ways. Either:

a) High levels of specificity – in terms of design, setting, color, etc. The game does one thing explicitly, or;
b) Expectation of Social Contract – leave it unremarked and hope the group has enough social contract understanding to work it out.

You could see most of the “how do we work with this game?” conversations online, being broadly under these two categories with a common issue of, “Does your group have a functioning social contract and are you playing the same game?”


PTA: Star Wars pt 2

June 27, 2010

We continued our Primetime Adventures game yesterday, with much fun. I’m not going to go much into the details about the specific events, though here’s some overall observations.

Emergent aspects of Screen Presence

I’ve run a lot of one-shots with PTA. This is the first time we’re getting to do a full season, and it’s interesting to see what’s already popping up by the second episode here.

With both Jono and Sushu working with Screen Presence 1, it actually flips things around and makes it a great episode to focus on their characters- the low screen presence means every conflict is tougher, which means there was a lot more failures at crucial junctions.

Funny enough, this definitely set up an “Empire Strikes Back” kind of situation- the episode ends on everything FUBARed and a lot of great conflict potential for the next session.

Low, low prep

Generally, my “standard” expectation for GM prep these days is a half dozen Bangs (ala Sorcerer) and probably 4-5 highly motivated NPCs. Every time I play PTA, I find I usually only actually need 1-2 Bangs and 1-2 NPCs, and the rest just does itself. I’m always coming in feeling unprepared and it always goes smoothly and spectacularly.

I’m brought back to the observation Ben Lehman made that when people play PTA as “GURPS-lite” the game falls apart, but when they play the game as “Making good TV”, the game works great. I think the social contract and expectation of “Good TV” allows everyone to negotiate play a lot better and makes it easy for the group to work together in story creation.

Overall, this shift to author/director stance in play is immensely useful- the whole thing of the GM prodding characters to try to get players to make interesting input doesn’t really come up when folks buy into that situation.


Part of what makes it easy is that Issues are a really interesting Flag mechanic. They’re a single issue, but play often shows everyone “just knows” to add facets and aspects to the Issue, they don’t hammer it one-sidedly.

I suspect what makes this work is that Issues -aren’t- directly mechanically tied to anything- they’re a direction, a directive, but not a procedural rule, so people can focus on them as a fictional component.

The singularity of it as a Flag also makes it easy to remember, so everyone at the table can easily focus on each other’s characters and support in creating scenes and situations for each other. A lot of games with 3-5 Flags sometimes suffer because it’s hard to keep track of that many for yourself and 2-4 other players at the same time.

My players are out next month, so it’ll be awhile before we come back to this, but it’s been very satisfying so far.


Colorblind Enough to Erase us

June 25, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan babbles some defensive babble about people pointing out the whitewashing of Avatar the Last Airbender.

M. Night seems unable to parse the criticism, “All the heroes are cast as white, all the villains are cast as brown. Hollywood has a history of making POC = evil. This is bad.”, with, literally, “POC = evil”:

The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.

Given that film school puts you through a lot of media theory, we either have to believe he failed and completely was unable to comprehend his classes OR that he’s not being entirely honest about facing the criticism.

What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they’re nomadic.

Hey, guess what? Tibet is between several major cultures. If you look at the people, they share some features with many of those peoples as well!

You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented.

Strange, for a colorblind casting, that 75% of the leads are not people of color. Also, what’s up with “right to cast anybody I want”? No one seems to have taken away his right to cast whomever, this is a plea to get a pass. Sorry M. Night, brown people can promote white supremacy too!

I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!

Oh! I’m sorry! I should have magically intuited what you did not actually do, but wishfully wished for, and given you appropriate credit! Hey, I just imagined I wrote 10 scripts for your next movies, I really wanted to, but I didn’t get a chance, will you be sending a check for that?

And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.

Yes we’re pointing. Guess what? We’re not being quiet. I think it’s sticking.

The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it…. If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.’

This is like saying Snow White or Cindarella looks like whomever you want to see in it. How about Dora the Explorer? Don’t pass the buck, M. Night. It’d be better off for you to say nothing than to lie so terribly.

Stop using the word “irony”. There is nothing ironic in a long history of whitewashing asians out of asian roles in American produced films. There is nothing ironic in relegating people of color to being extras and villains. There is nothing ironic in perpetuating nearly a century of film propaganda, that still, to this day, impacts people’s daily lives.

There has never been anything ironic about white supremacy, and that you, a brown man, are supporting it?

Not ironic, only sad.


Gabe’s 4E House Rule

June 24, 2010

Gabe of Penny Arcade has a smart house rule where all skill checks in combat are Minor actions.

One of the core lessons WOTC pulled away from Magic the Gathering and 3.0 was that actions, or turns, was the most valuable resource in play. In the middle of D&D combat which is basically a race to reduce hitpoints, it’s pretty hard for most players to justify giving up an action to win that race instead for something of possibly non-useful value.

Still though, despite the changes in terms of the type of fantasy D&D portrays with this new edition, it’s pretty clear that this design fact plus the shift in imagery hasn’t been fully absorbed yet- doing extra stuff in combat is still a novelty in a lot of the encounters they produce, as opposed to an expectation.


D&D Player’s Strategy Guide

June 21, 2010

Having picked this up after seeing good things about it, I have to say this is a great book, and a smart one. It covers the two big issues that crop up in getting in the way of D&D 4E.

4E is not like any other D&D

D&D has the unique problem of competing with it’s previous editions in terms of how people understand roleplaying to work.

That is, if you came to D&D at 4th Edition, you probably wouldn’t take long to figure out that it makes sense to build characters to play off of each other, as a whole, as a party – simply by reading the books. But if you came with 10, 20 years of, “Well, I’ll just make my character, you go make yours and it’ll all work out”, you’re not going to be as successful at this game.

The book covers a ton of these sort of re-orienting ideas for players.

It covers a lot of tactical stuff and highlights what I realize is the love-it-or-hate-it of 4E compared to previous editions- every player has more to do and track now. To really play, you’re usually choosing between something like 5 or 6 possible choices, which is different than the classic “Hit or Run” that pervaded older editions (including 3E despite the extensive Full/Standard/Move options).

The longstanding issues of social contract

The other issue the book tackles is setting smart and clear guidelines for social contract and good practices which have been championed by the indie rpg community for the last decade.

Stuff like, building your character to actually -fit- the campaign setting, building characters as a group, communicating with each other, as in, literally asking and sharing what choices you’re making in builds to what you’d like to see in play. It even covers the first time I’ve seen actual advice about functional Participationism – advising players to look at ways/reasons to take plot hooks and to avoid “My Guy-ism” of “my guy wouldn’t do that” as obstructionist play. There’s a whole section called, “Don’t be a Jerk”.

Overall, this is a very solid book and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about playing some 4E. The sections are short, usually 1-4 pages, so if you want to give someone some spot advice, you can just flip it open and give them a few minutes to read it. There’s something in it for nearly everyone, and it’s probably the most useful book for focusing play so far.


Why Indeed?

June 18, 2010

I’ve been watching this thread on Story Games with much bemusement. Aside from the many problematic issues in the initial post and project*, I’m glad the real question, the question that has always come up, is stated so clearly:

What I’d like to know about minorities in roleplaying is the author’s overarching view of how and why this minority thing matters to me as a white male gamer.

Years back, someone asked me the same question at GenCon. And the answer is still the same:

Why should the experience of ANY GAMER, matter to you?

There’s people who, basically, unless they’re playing with someone, just don’t care about any other gamers’, their experiences, etc. You run into these folks occasionally, but since, for the most part, they’ve got their circles, they’re playing games, you don’t hear from them.

But, you know, if you’re on online communities about sharing and improving experiences of gamers, you’re clearly not one of those people. Perhaps it’s better to flip the question around – “Why is it you don’t care about these gamers’ experiences, when you care about all these others?” Or is it really only your experiences matter and people close enough like you that you gain benefit?

Recently, someone asked me about taking down Deep in the Game a couple years back and I pointed out that it wasn’t serving the community I wanted. I think about that a lot with this blog as well. As a gamer, who gets to hear people say how much they don’t care about my game experiences or thoughts, over and over, WHY should I write about game techniques or theory?

I speak repeatedly about the idea of mutuality. If the hobby rests on, “We like this thing, we want this thing to be awesome”, why aren’t we helping each other make it more awesome? Why is it only your fun matters, and not mine? Why are you so quick to accept my help, and offer none in return?

So, a book about POC in gaming so white people can learn about POC without interacting with us.

Sounds dandy.

* Prepare for snark-a-mighty:

“Hey assumed white peeple! What do YOU want to know about those weird, hard to find, not-like-us gamers over there? We’re making a book FOR YOU about THEM! Naturally, we’re totally going to be experts on it, because we’re asking questions that could have been answered if we bothered interacting, listening, or reading for the last few years but we can’t seem to find them anywhere and it’s totally NOT because we put work into ignoring them or anything.

ETA: When asked why these questions (“What is her purpose in writing this book? Who is the intended audience?”) haven’t been answered, this is the response:

They’re very important questions! I haven’t replied because I don’t have answers to them. (That is one reason they’re very important questions.)

Um. Those aren’t deep ass “to be pondered” questions, those are basic requirements for understanding what the hell the project is you’re doing in the first place. As I mentioned, this kind of competence doesn’t lend itself well to faith in the final product, or how well it will actually communicate useful information…