Archive for March, 2014


Roleplaying the Struggle

March 27, 2014

A different kind of escapism

My game group has decided to try to do a steampunk game, with a critical eye about colonialism.   This comes just as wundergeek is having a conversation with Ron Edwards about the issue of rape in his new game (and in fantasy-geek shit overall).

This goes in line with some of the conversations I’ve had about Dog Eat Dog or Steal Away Jordan – that there’s a good number of games or campaign ideas I could see as being fun to play, but only with a group who can come to it with a critical eye.

To be sure, most of what I want gaming for is pure escapism (And, a lot of what I write about here is frustration that I cannot get EVEN that in the general gaming scene…) but there’s also a place for games that deal with fucked up stuff but provides you a space to punch back and win.  Or at least come out a little bit ahead.   It’s the reason most feel-good stories are about hard work and justice winning out in the end… compared to real life where that doesn’t happen all that often.

Critical vs. Non-Critical

But you’ll notice that the two points on which this hangs are:

a) is the problematic shit acknowledged as being shitty?*  (or is it being celebrated?**  Or is it being used as voyeuristic “Oh, that’s terrible… let me see more!”*** kind of bullshit? Is it paired with a jumped up strawman projection?****)

b) To what level is there protagonism and affirmation of the protagonists in the face of this?  (Notice this doesn’t even mean “victory” or full on “escape”, just protagonism.)

RPGs are conversations… not static media

If you watch a TV show, or read a book and something incredibly fucked up, racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever happens, you can simply turn it off, put down the book, walk away.

When something fucked up happens in a game group, everyone is there and SOMEONE (singular, or collective) made that happen.  There is social expectation, relationships to navigate, social credit, plus… however much time is invested on everyone’s parts in this.

It’s different when someone you don’t know insults you with their bullshit story or views (still hurtful) but even MORE when someone you know does it straight to your face, intentionally or not.

So, tabletop rpgs have the additional burden that if you’re going to make a game or run a campaign that is going to bring up this stuff – do you have any idea or advice on how to communicate with each other about it?

Hard Fun

There’s a value in being able to critically deal with messed up shit in your games – a chance to say something meaningful or to poke/punch at it.  But… as far as gaming goes, 99% of the time it’s just thrown in either as an ugly, weak, disguise for celebrating it**, or else in a way to be “edgy” as a decoration, which inevitably ends up replicating the oppressive nature by trivializing it for suffering porn.

Mostly, though, this ends up coming back to a very simple question “How does this make this fun?” … which, folks seem to forget, has to be for more people at the table than just you.  

* This would be my primary objection to how D&D typically uses language around the “savage races”.  It’s not “OMG, you’re being racist against green people who don’t exist!”, it’s… “Wow, you’re really set on being able to use the language of genocide that was used to kill NDNs and indigenous people and this is something you claim is a core point to the fun you’re having here…”

**See – most Steampunk and colonialism.  See especially Wolsung.  This also applies to the “rawrr! Misogyny is historically accurate!” arguments and the “20’s were really racist times so let’s be really racist” Call of Cthulhu gaming.

*** I think of a forum thread about Steal Away Jordan where people were asking for more horrific historically accurate types of torture used upon slaves.  You know, because what is needed to make the game more fun is to go further into detail about torture, because, torture is exciting!

**** Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ “Better than Any Man” campaign set, for example, has the evil magical feminists who want to kill all teh menz and have demon sex slaves instead.


March 25, 2014

I remember making this point at a few of the rpg forums I used to frequent:

A comic about games and social issues


The Shadow of the Jedi

March 24, 2014

The Shadow of the Jedi – a Star Wars hack for Clinton R. Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday.

So, I’ve been sucking down a bunch of media as I’ve been recovering from chemo and such the last few months, and got into the Clone Wars cartoons.

The quality of the show is pretty swing-y but it did get me thinking down an interesting line of thought: in this cartoon, we see the Jedi doing a bunch of morally sketchy things – almost destroying someone’s mind to rip forth information, sacrifice thousands of sentient beings created as slave soldiers… you know, problematic stuff.  Yet they’re not assumed to be Dark Side despite all of this.

It got me to wondering if the whole Light/Dark divide was mostly an artificial creation on their part – that the Force is just neutral and the constant freaking out about going to the Dark side is because even the masters aren’t sure where that dividing line actually is – so they overcompensate.   It makes all the ridiculous inconsistencies about their philosophy of detachment make more sense – if it’s just made up, with no basis in fact, it can be inconsistent.

Of the Star Wars RPGs I’ve seen, they all try to have a mechanical dividing line between Light/Dark Side and it usually turns out… flat in play.  So I started thinking of TSOY’s Keys as a useful idea – they pull you in a direction but don’t lock you in, which works a lot better in terms of the characters trying to make decisions and moral struggles in the SW universe make more sense.


Differentiation: Mechanical vs. Fictional

March 17, 2014

There’s an idea I think about a lot when it comes to RPGs – “How does THIS particular game teach you to take the in-game events and turn them into mechanics?  How does it teach you to take the mechanics and make events in play?” (see also: Vincent’s “How RPG Rules Work” or  Quinn Murphy’s “Thingification” idea)

When a game makes this easy to understand and smooth for the group playing, it’s really easy to take anything that happens in play, and figure out how it fits with the mechanics, or to take anything the mechanics kick out and make it an event in the imaginary events.   (As I tend to say, the easiest rule is “I say this happens, and then it does”).  When this is complex, challenging, or just poorly explained, you end up having lots of problems for groups – you can see a lot of this around D&D 4E’s mechanics and the complaints with it.

Anyway, that translation process either differentiates the “things” in the game by fiction, or by mechanics and it’s important because these are two very different ways to do a game.

Differentiation by Fiction

So, let’s say we’ve got a game, and it’s got dragons: ice dragons and fire dragons.

Here’s one example:

Fire Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 fire damage per round

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1d6 ice damage per round

So, in this example, the dragons are basically the same, and the only difference is we’ve swapped one word for another.  The only thing that makes them different is fiction based – we can describe that ice attacks work different than fire attacks, but there’s nothing mechanically that necessarily makes them that much different.

This is differentiation by fiction.

You can see some games are built entirely on this idea – Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, HeroQuest, FATE games, Universalis, etc.  The mechanics are universally identical, you just swap descriptor words to change one to another.

It’s really useful if you want a game where the mechanics are less deep in specifics, easier to get system fluency to make good choices in play, and it’s very easy to improvise or adapt – just swap some labels for another and there you go.

Differentiation by Mechanics

Now let’s try a different version:

Fire Dragons: 25 hitpoints, 1D6 fire damage a round, and target takes 2 more fire damage until doused

Ice Dragons: 20 hitpoints, 1D6 ice damage a round, and target is frozen in place for 2 rounds.

You can see here, that the dragon types work a little different and probably will require different ways to deal with in play.  Specific mechanics result in specific differences, result in specific tactics.

This is differentiation by mechanics.

Most traditional rpgs use this – specific class/race powers, feats, a power tree, spells – things that give you access to mechanics or methods of play that you can’t get using the other options.

It’s really useful if you want a game where having deeper system familiarity is more important, where tactics or strategy might be useful, or if you want to push play choices in differing directions (“Doing X feels completely different than doing Y”).

What it means for play

The reason to look at this is that these are two very different ways to come at a game, and usually gets subsumed into some vague talk about “crunch”* (which has about 3-4 other factors piled into it as well).

With Differentiation by Fiction, you don’t have to think about mechanics much, but then the only thing you have to really push play, to make one thing behave functionally different than another is judgment calls at the table and agreement of the group (“Well, I’ve got Big Sword 4, but since we’re fighting underwater, it should have a penalty or not be useable at all.”).

With Differentiation by Mechanics, different choices matter much more, but it also means players need to develop some familiarity and fluency with the system to make that happen.  It means a longer time spent learning the options, and trying to piece together why things work and what strategies work best.  It also becomes a lot harder to improvise things if you find yourself having to suddenly come up with new rules or slam together systemic differences on short notice.

The way these two design philosophies operate is so different that players who prefer one type will not find systems that do the other worth touching at all.    So this becomes important to know if you like only one type, if your group is a mix, or if you are designing a game.

(*One might think that fiction-differentiation automatically means “low crunch” but that’s not necessarily the case.  Universalis, for example, has a good amount of procedural steps, and the latest version of HeroQuest also has quite a bit of crunch options that go along with it as well.  Contrary, there’s also a few mechanical differentiation games that have relatively low crunch, such as basic D&D and many of it’s clone rpgs .)