Archive for April, 2012


Steampunk Racism: The RPG Edition

April 30, 2012

Just because there seems to be a roll of these, I guess it’s time to point them out again:

Into the Far West attempts to take the Wild West and add wuxia. But they decided they didn’t want to include any Indians at all, because they were "afraid they couldn’t do them justice". But apparently they can do Chinese folks justice, or something. Oh, and add white people doing kung fu with steampunk stuff.

Um. Ok. It makes me think of the all too repeated argument against showing black folks as thugs, pimps and hookers on tv- "But then we wouldn’t be able to put ANY black folks on tv at all!". Oh, I see.

Steampunk Musha: Victoriental Adventures

Well, if the name wasn’t enough, by the description alone, apparently Japanese and Chinese are interchangable languages and so are the cultures.

I mean, oh god asking Steampunk, where people will research how clothing was dyed and stiches were done by hand, to have to look up the fact that China and Japan are… like… not the same.

And of course, Wolsung‘s art can speak for itself:

So, anyway. It’s one thing to want to have an idealized alternate history of your culture where you’re not, like, a major cause of suffering that lasts centuries and has effects to people to this day. But it IS a whole other thing when your idealized fantasy history also means that POC are non-existent or fulfill the EXACT SAME RACIST STEREOTYPES of the 1800s. See, that’s where you go from escapism fantasy to racism.

But hey, the your imagination is the only limit!

And what does it say about your imagination that it’s stuck in the centuries old tropes?


Gaming for Understanding TED Talk by Brenda Brathwaite

April 29, 2012

Thanks to Elizabeth Sampat for pointing this video my way.

Brenda Brathwaite talks about making a game to teach her daughter about The Middle Passage

It’s 10 minutes long and completely worth watching.

Also, it says a lot about the stories we tell ourselves, and what it teaches us about the lines of acceptability.


Playtesting The Final Line

April 28, 2012

Finally got some playtesting in. My roommate and I finally both had the day off at the same time, so we playtested “The Final Line” one of the 1-hour rpgs I’ve been working on. This is basically the “Giant Superhero Crossover Climax” – where you pick your favorite heroes from the comic books, and you try to save the world… but not all of the heroes will make it.

Because it was just the two of us, we each picked two heroes – we had Scarlet Witch, Storm, The Beast, and Anole. The game plays out in two acts, the first one is the defense of Earth, and the second act is taking on the uber-villain, Revelation, on the moon.

What happened in play

We had Storm fending off a tidal wave from the devastation, Scarlet Witch reknitting the Bay Bridge, and the Beast and Anole making it to a cruise ship turned evac boat just a little too late after two of Revelation’s “Quantum Shadows” of himself killed everyone on board.

The second act saw the Scarlet Witch forcibly tearing the armor off of the army of Quantum Shadows and letting the vacuum do it’s work upon them, with Anole being seriously injured by Revelation while the Beast desperately tried to deactivate the Quantum Engine.

Storm had a breakthrough in her powers, realizing that weather control is quite close to control of possibilities, and during this epiphany and transformation, the Beast sacrificed himself to protect her. She then turned and walked towards Revelation, throwing lightning the whole way, until she was palming his head, and burnt him down to ashes, leaving nothing but a blackened handprint.


I think it was about a 40 minute game, so that worked fine. I was happy with the events it produced even though the cards were more favorable to the players by luck of the draw.

I did see some parts where I need to add some extra support to give direction and reduce the “creative load” the players have to bear (though, mind you, playing 2 characters means having to do twice as much as you’d normally need to), and a place or two to simply cut out a few extra training wheels that are unnecessary.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the core play and can’t wait to try it out some more.


Better Than That

April 14, 2012

It’s time again for white gamerdom to fret about the lack of people of color and then find a way to explain how it’s really no one’s fault and nothing need ever change.

It begins with a reasonable Modest Proposal for Increased Diversity in D&D. The discussion is being moderated by Teresa Nielsen Hayden who, just 3 years ago, threatened to use her position as editor to make sure “people would pay” who were criticizing her husband’s racially problematic statements. Oh. Ok.

There’s always multitudes of “arguments” made to dismiss any call for something better, but I’m just going to come down to two points.

Who is harmed by more diversity?

Will more people of color and women in your games and media destroy all spacetime and existence as only division by zero can achieve?

Here’s what really happens:

Women, POC, WOC, etc: “Hey, look, we actually show up in this game/world! Cool. Maybe I can ALSO have an escapist fantasy for myself.”

Non-racist/sexist white guy: “What? Oh, there’s different people in this game/media? Oh, I guess it’s true other things are pretty bad at that. I wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t bring it up.”

Racists/Sexists: “Wait! This game/media about an imaginary world is showing other people on par with white men!!! HOW DARE YOU put this in my escapism fantasy!!! I can’t imagine white male supremacy anymore!”

I’ll just leave this link and quote Nora K. Jemisin’s summary of this attitude breaks it down nicely:

“We don’t really believe everyone is created equal. Ohhhh, it’s so hard; such a burden to have to think about all this. See how it harms us, stifles us, to give a damn about others? It makes us less creative! It damages the genre! And all these policies that say we can’t harass and belittle and exclude whole groups of people in order to make ourselves feel superior are just so much. How can we function under the bootheel of such oppression?”

It’s just a game/story/cartoon/etc!

It’s always interesting to me how this argument is brought up, typically by people who just wrote a few thousand words explaining why no one should ever ask for changes to rpgs, videogames, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.

Like, literally it’s an argument that destroys itself- if it’s such a non-issue because it is media, why is it so important to make sure people stop asking for more diversity? At that point, what are you really defending?

Sometimes a variation of this is “Why don’t you go fight ‘real racism’?!?” Of course, that one also sets up an interesting turn around – “Why are YOU arguing against fixing this, instead of out there fixing ‘real racism’ since you’re such an expert? Oh, ok.”

As always, the arguments aren’t really based in any logic, just a desire to shut down the conversation and derail anything that brings us back to the simple issue that games and geek media in general – are basically white male fantasies that cater to white men and where anyone else shows up, they’re often a stereotype or sex fantasy as envisioned by white men.

And, of course, the very telling reaction of “HOW DARE” anyone else suggest they might want an escapist fantasy of their own.

Who’s being the thought police here again?


Cutting Away Messiness (Game prep)

April 10, 2012

Here’s a creative process I do, that works for me. Your process may be completely different.

All my good ideas start as bad ideas

I get an idea, and I get excited. I brainstorm a lot of stuff. In this case, I’m putting together a game scenario, and I’m writing up setting, a history of the city, politics, cultural bits.

Next, I go back through that, and focus on the situation, first. If I only have a one shot, what’s the stuff I could reasonably explain to a player and have them remember, and understand the scenario?

Usually I find the scenario was messy- there was probably 3-4 things that could be the focus, but now I cut it to 1-2 things that are the things I really am excited about. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean the scenario will play out as a one-trick pony – the focus makes it easier for me to adapt in play because I have a better grasp of what is cool about the scenario…

Funny enough, I have to go through this process- if I just started with a “simple” idea, it inevitably turns out to be too broad, vague, and bland – the complex idea gives me a lot of edges and angles to choose from, and cutting it down lets me pick the best, most compelling stuff. And, the process of having done that gives me a lot of background ideas that I can pull out during play and make it seem like it’s off-the-cuff when it’s partially discarded or reworked ideas.

A cleaner idea is a cleaner game

My group and I play lots of short campaigns or one-shots – we get to switch being the GM often enough, and we get to look at what each other is doing as GMs or players and compare notes about what is easy or hard for any of us. We learn from each other.

A lot of times, a common thing for all of us is the tendency to get derailed or unfocused – to spend too much energy as a GM on something that ultimately doesn’t contribute to the game. It makes it harder to adapt in play to what is really interesting and cool, and also confuses the players along the way.

An unfortunate thing I see happen a lot in rpgs is that many folks try to be “clever”.

Other media have the advantage that people can re-watch/reread something to figure out if something is complicated or unclear. Rpgs do not have that luxury, and, furthermore, because the fiction is created by the group, it becomes absolutely vital to clearly communicate what is necessary to know about the fiction – or you end up with situations like, “I grab the bag”, “But you’re in the other room!” “Wait, there’s two rooms?” “Yeah, you went through the door” “Oh I thought I was on this side of the door…”

When you can have mixups on simple things, being clever is often asking too much.

Good prep is a seed, bad prep is a husk

Good, clear prep that is focused works as a seed in play- it naturally creates more things.

An old piece of gamer baggage is to over-prepare material on the idea that “it’s better to have too much than it is to risk not having enough”. This mostly comes from D&D dungeon building or railroaded encounters- where anything that is available had to be prepped before hand, and usually took 2-5 times as long to make as it took to play through.

Problem is, that stuff is all 1-shot material (“We had the encounter. We’re never going to have that again…”) and you end up having to navigate through it during play, instead of having a flexible idea you can build off of.

Worse, if the material isn’t relevant or interesting, then it becomes something you have to work to discard, or, the players have to wade through to figure out what is important. (“Ok, so in the room description he just read 3 paragraphs about the tiling design. Is this a clue or is it just a place where Gygax decided to go off?”)

Bad prep is a husk you have to peel away to not let it clutter up the things that matter.

My recommendation is to brainstorm, then cut it down to elevator pitches and reframe any idea cleaner. You’ll get more from it, and better play.


The Many XPs of D&D

April 5, 2012

With all the D&D5/ D&DNext stuff going on, one of the ideas that keeps getting brought up is the idea of this new system being flexible enough to adapt to the many ways of playing D&D.  An easy dial to design around is what rewards XP?  Pretty much if you want to know what kind of D&D you’re playing, having a reward system that matches up with it is an easy way to go.

BECMI, AD&D1, both focused mostly on rewarding treasure hunting.  This is very different than AD&D2’s way of rewarding spellcasting, or skill use.  And that’s also different than 3E’s encounter rewards, or 4E’s Quests.   So we can already see throughout the history of D&D, XP is an easy system to change what game you’re really playing without necessarily digging in too deep into the other mechanics.

So, an idea (whether for 5E, or to tack onto whichever D&D you choose to play), would be to have XP sockets- you plug in a few based on how you want this particular campaign of D&D to play.  This needs to be clearly laid out to the group and discussed so everyone’s on the same page.

Things which have been rewarded for in past D&D:

– Gold/Treasure (heist – get treasure, get out)
– Spending Gold (Spend it on non-adventure stuff, get XP)
– Fighting Monsters (classic hack and slash)
– Overcoming Traps (dungeon delving)
– Casting Spells in an Adventure/Towards a cause
– Using Skills in an Adventure
– Completing Specific Tasks/Quests

House rules for XP rewards:
– Exploring the dungeon (Tunnels & Trolls did this, OSR folks, etc.)
– Politics and Drama (In Thy Name)

This post is a pretty good example of how people can craft their D&D very specifically using a variety of XP choices to shape the game.

Most D&D has historically picked a default manner and sort of lumped off the other options without much advice or support for the DM – instead, it’d be nice to lay out a couple of defaults, then show DM’s how they can pick and choose amongst a menu for very different D&D games.

Obviously, the other half of it would be designing & how to run (dungeons, adventures, prep) to meet those XP choices, along with an understanding of what pacing makes sense for the group.

Labeling some common mixes will also help groups figure out what kind of play they’re looking for (“Hack & Slash means XP for monsters, and high encounter ratio”, “Heist means X for gold but nothing else”, “Delver gives XP for traps and exploration” etc.)

This is going to be one of those core issues if they’re serious about trying to support multiple play styles for D&D – especially since they have to compete with every previous edition as well as the OSR crowd- if you don’t give the play base something they can’t get elsewhere (or already have), then there’s no reason for them to get in on it. Unfortunately for WOTC, D&D isn’t about designing a game to sell fresh, it’s about designing a game for an existing culture, which has some extra stuff they’ll need to navigate around from the past.


One Hour Game and Design thoughts

April 1, 2012

I’ve been thinking more about the One Hour Burning Wheel game, and… unfortunately coming to the conclusion that even though the rules in that were simple, the skills to properly frame scenes and conflicts are not. And with that, thinking more what needs to happen design-wise to make 1 hour games reliable and fun.

Procedures more than Directives

Procedures and Directives are two types of rules- procedures tell you step-by-step what to do in play, while Directives are general strategies and advice which isn’t broken down into steps. Anyone can follow procedures – directives take a lot of practice and mastery to develop.

For my BW game, and pretty much all stakes-setting games (Primetime Adventures, Sorcerer, HeroQuest, etc.) the strength is that you can use the same or nearly same mechanics to address any possible situation in play. The disadvantage is that being so flexible, it’s very easy to waste time either addressing non-interesting things, or producing non-interesting outcomes. Focusing both of these is a skill that is developed, and therefore, not particularly a great way to run with a 1 hour game for most people.

This is why we can look to the many rules light games of the past and see while the procedures might be very simple to resolve, it doesn’t necessarily mean that play moves at a faster or more entertaining rate- it’s all dependent on the framing skills of the GM at that point.

The Resolution Ratio

Second, the actual rules need to add enough to the imagined events, and to resolving the whole situation to make it work. When people talk about crunch or handling time of rules and mechanics, we’re talking about how much does it produce/resolve in the game fiction for how much time we have to take to roll dice/add numbers/go step by step.

The most efficient rule is “I say this happens and it happens” and every other rule in play has to give us something worthwhile to be worth more work than that.

This becomes especially clear when you consider an hour of play – if your resolution takes 2 minutes each time, and you use 5 resolutions over the game, you just spent 10 minutes, 1/6th of your time handling mechanics- what do those 10 minutes feed into the other 50 minutes of play? (or rather, what do those 10 minutes of mechanics feed into the 50 other minutes of “I say this happens and it happens”?)

And it’s not just speed here – it’s also making sure any resolution ONLY focuses on the things that matter.

So with time at a premium, your mechanics and resolutions need to:
– Be very fast and easy to handle
– Narrow in on only the things that matter for this game, for this situation
– Produce enough change in the situation to significantly advance the plot/situation/conflict

A Satisfying Chunk of Play

With all that in mind, then you have to figure out what situation can either be completely resolved or at least advanced far enough to become a satisfying chunk of play.

Notice that the first two issues completely define what this last one will look like- in a lot of crunchier games, an hour might give you enough to resolve a single fight and maybe a debate or skill challenge or something. In my BW game we oversaw the downfall of a kingdom- in about 4-5 dice rolls.

Games that do this

The one game that I know consistently does this, is Ben Lehman’s Hot Guys Making Out – it gets played at my friends’ RPG parties every single time, because it plays in an hour, and hits all the requirements above.

My guess is Emily Care Boss’ Breaking the Ice could also hit this category, if you develop the skills for fast play, though that would mean having to have played it a few times and developed some mastery.

Anyway, stuff to think about. I’m hoping to see a bunch of 1 hour games in the next few years. I think it’s going to open the doors for a lot more gamers.