Archive for January, 2011


How roleplaying works: All of the above

January 29, 2011

There’s a lot of conversations going on right now which have the same base problem of folks trying to take one facet of roleplaying and use it to explain the whole affair.

It’s rather like arguing whether the wheels or the gasoline or the motor is the part that makes a car work – when you need all of them for it to function.

What are we playing and why?

“Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences play choices.” – here, I mean “focus” as in the medium of play, not as in, the point of play.

The point of playing, the why, is the Creative Agenda which is most reliably fulfilled when a group is on the same page about it and aided by Reward Systems to help organize play. Without clear communication and organization, you consistently run into problems which we’ve seen for decades of play and are obvious when considered.

How do we make it work?

With this in mind, both the fictional events & the systemic methods matter to shaping play.

What we imagine, the fiction, shapes choices as the group decides both importance & plausibility.

What we do at the table- the system by which we organize play, works by organizing who can say what gives consistently good play when it’s working and is a source of conflicts when it fails to match the group’s goals.

A well designed game uses both of those features to help the group coordinate and mesh ideas with specific ideas, description, and mechanics. Looking at fine detail- the most mechanical elements exist as tools to feed back into choices and meaning in play.

The Big Picture

Simply put: Yes, system matters, yes, setting matters, yes, fiction matters, yes, the people you play with matters.

All of these matter. This is what the Big Model Theory from the Forge has been saying the whole time. People keep asking “wait, how can this AND that both apply?”

Vincent Baker has an awesome diagram of how major components of roleplaying fit together. The cohesion of that, and how it is written vs. how it is played is often a source of confusion. The gaps Vincent points to, are mostly dealt with by having a good set of procedures and directives and using unstructured authority with clear directives to fill the space.


Womanist Musings & The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

January 27, 2011

Womanist Musings has a damn good post on The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, dealing in part with romance, but also with fantasy in general:

If one purpose of fantasy is providing escapism from a flawed world, it is absolutely necessary that everyone has tools to construct a fantasy world where they can be affirmed for everything they are, including their race. As we walk through a world where whiteness, thinness and cis-genderism is worshipped, for many of us, fantasizing about a better life where we are whiter, thinner, and more ‘normal’ is the insidious deepening of psychic wounds that eventually catch up with us.

The power of storytelling and imagination is great – it is the ceiling of possibility for many- what you cannot even imagine, you cannot aim for. The problem of internalized racism is for many, it’s impossible to imagine success or happiness without whiteness. This is the end result of constant bombardment of the white normative (and, really, white supremacy as a normalized ideal).

The flip side of this, when we look at media creators and publishers, is the inability to come to terms with what they’re making and why. When challenged on it, the two big excuses are either “We’re targeting our market!” or “We’re only making what we know!”

Given that many Western countries are multicultural these days, who is their market again? Is it, indeed, solely decided by skin color, and if so, what does that say? Or, if they only know living in segregation, a world without us, or us as horrible stereotypes, what does that say as well?

It’s like watching a 5 year old kid make excuses for bad behavior, but the excuses only dig a deeper hole.

(See previously –Debunking White Fantasy)


Forsaken Conversations and Intelligent Reading

January 27, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the internet works for learning ideas and being provoked into useful fields of thought. It more or less follows the 80-20 power law – you can find tons of rather superficial and starter info, and as you learn more, it becomes harder and harder to get something useful for your time.

At the same time, I’m watching about a half dozen great discussion topics dying in the throes of derails and people talking past each other, mostly, arguing about which synonym or near synonym should apply while completely ditching the context and point being made. In other words, a lot of the bikeshed argument.

A few years back, Chris Lehrich wrote about Charitable Reading, which, while I think goes a little overboard in terms of giving the benefit of the doubt, it’s absolutely correct that good discussions only happen when everyone is reading for context and actively focusing on keeping the discussion on the current topic and not spiraling into nitpicking (or, ego games, etc.)

Basically: is your time best served chasing detail points or trying to learn something new or be provoked into new trains of thought on the topic that got you to read the discussion in the first place?

Anyway, new post category here, now: Forsaken Conversations- for topics that have been eaten up by bikeshedding.


Women in Games Boston

January 25, 2011

A signal boost- Women in Games Boston is a new group meeting up where designers, creators, and women working in the games industry and allies can meet up, network, talk shop, etc.


Bliss Stage: Actual Play

January 16, 2011

I ran my Bliss Stage Crimson Pandora con scenario today and had an awesome time.


Bliss Stage is actually harder to prep as a one-shot than as a campaign. This is mostly because the game relies on players to generate the soap opera drama through play, which builds as you do multiple sessions.

So, if you want to do a “campaign ending” one-shot, you have to write up little relationship outlines for everyone to give them something to kick off with.

The second thing, is that Bliss Stage works very different than a lot of RPGs- most rpgs you can grab a character sheet and the stats tell you about your character and what you’re good at doing- Bliss Stage is all about relationships which are ever-shifting. So there’s a bit of orientation you need to give players to help them understand who the characters are and what they can do.

I included some description in the quicksheets and a bit on the character sheets to help folks make that transition.

Playing the Game

So, confession #1 – this is the first time I ran Bliss Stage, ever.

Of the 6 players, Jono and Sushu I regularly game with, so we had a good comfort level there. The other 4 players all had at least some familiarity with anime and I think 2 had briefly looked at the Bliss Stage rules and such, had some idea about the premise.

A quick read of the character sheets is useful for seeing who the characters are and the drama between them. What’s interesting is we had a father & son playing Selene & Ken, and a wife & husband playing Mark & Lisa.

Mission 1- Fraying Edges

Mark and Tamara are sent to scout and serve as a distraction while Selene escorts the Disruptor as it’s being transported along on the barely running train system.

One thing I found interesting is that the Anchor players had no problem coming up with conflicts or problems to the missions before I had to even do much. In fact, I found myself having to adjust as a GM to meet the conflicts they’d introduce. Obviously, for more than a one-shot, the group would get good at picking up a collective aesthetic, but for the one-shot, it was a neat stretch for me.

Mark and Tamara did fine on their missions- it was Selene who got the crazy Nightmare from rolls, etc. Mark then came back to rescue her.

All of that was pretty tame stuff – the interlude scenes after are where things really kicked off. The joke was, “The Real World: Evangelion” as the drama began to kick in. The mission only served to provide fuel for the dramas between characters…

Tamara confronted Stacy in the mess hall, and loudly berated her for throwing Mark into danger recklessly, emphasizing, “He’s just a kid!” (bonus drama: crushing Mark’s hopes to get with her…).

What’s interesting is that all of this is about fictional positioning- it’s not like Jono (who was playing Stacy) did anything mechanical or encouraged anything MORE dangerous than anything else in a Bliss Stage mission- it was just a combination of the prepped relationships and the way in which he expressed Stacy’s character and maybe a bit of girls ganging up drama.

Ken attempted to get Selene to open up, and she shut him down. The players joked about how this must just be the normal way they operate (“We put the Dys back into Dysfunctional!”).

And, Tamara confronted Prof. Alison. “You can’t just send Mark out there!” and “You ALWAYS say this is the last mission!” I grimly decided on the spot that Prof. Alison had a photo album of every pilot or kid she had lost in the Resistance – handing the Polaroid to Tamara- “Get everyone’s picture.”

Mission 2: Anime Exploding Doom!

Since a lot of the issues were already brought up during the Interludes, I kept the Briefing short.

The players did this awesome thing of getting some pre-mission chatter going on between the characters – which reflected both the stresses between the characters AND the sort of nervous non-chalant fronts folks put up to hide their stress.

The mission goals consisted basically 1) get to the Landing Platform and 2) Destroy a Support on the Platform. Since this ship is massive, the Supports were spread out, so each pilot was on their own.

Again, Anchors came up with a variety of dangerous alien threats to evade or fight. The Pilots also came up with appropriately anime scenes:

* Going gun/missle berserk as enemies swarm in, discarding empty missle pods and pulling off sections of the mech which are revealed to be new guns/missles until nothing but a skeletal frame remains.

* Blasting straight through one of the landing Supports in a head-first beam-cannon suicide attack

* Grabbing the top of a building which is converted through the magic of it being a Dream, into a building sized- energy sword.

Tamara Blissed first, and in doing so, managed to free all the Sleepers at the cost of being converted into an alien herself by destroying the Platform. Lisa was slamming the eject button, which was disconnected…

…and Selene Blissed right after her, from losing the relationship, and taking her busted skeletal Anima and doing a suicide run into the mass of alien enemies, telling Ken, “Don’t you eject me, don’t you eject me don’t you eject me…” before disappearing in a flash of light.

We decided after the fact that Selene has convinced the mechanic, Sae Sae, to disconnect her eject and that of Tamara’s, while leaving Mark’s connected.

In the epilogue, Ken was travelling to the families of all the kids lost in the Resistance to tell them what happened to their kids.

Lisa had become a legitimate authority on the Bliss, having kept meticulous, if a bit cracked, notes with each mission.

Mark was still trying to dive into the Dream to find Selene, with Lisa reluctantly helping. We ended with Sae Sae bringing them the letter Selene left, asking him to disconnect the eject buttons, and the door closing.

Overall, a great game.

Mechanics and such

The one big snag was that after the first mission and interludes, I realized no one was going to Bliss Out at this rate. I upped everyone’s Bliss by 20 (reflected in the documents now), so that it would time right. Whether that’s a little too much, or just right, I’ll have to find out with repeat plays.

Also, we only had one instance of Intimacy Building, which I’m not sure if that was because of people trying to play with unknown players, the general demographic, or what.

Two surprises in running the game.

First, players didn’t do any trust breaking during the interludes. It’s kind of neat how that also scales based on fictional positioning- if your character doesn’t trust someone already, you’re not going to deal with a Trust Breaking situation.

Second, a few relationships go a long way. Players did well by choosing only a few relationships for dice. Part of this might be the fact that Trauma is low for an endgame scenario so it’s not like everyone was scrambling for dice. On the other hand, the bad rolls were pretty bad.

For the first mission, I didn’t really worry about who/what I threatened, but the second mission I always targeted the High Intimacy/Low Trust relationships. That seemed to work well.

Players always prioritized Mission over everything else. Game-wise, that’s actually not a bad choice, since further rolls only mean more pain. I wonder if other choices would futz the numbers differently?

Overall, a great time with a new scenario, run for the first time. I’m going to have to run it a few more times and tweak details, but I’m happy with it.