New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

New Rules of Fantasy #1: Evil is a Choice

I'm bored with fantasy.

I love fantasy.

I'm torn regularly by what fantasy gaming has been to me and what it has not been to me; I anguish a bit about what fantasy gaming is and what it could be. Anybody who knows me knows I'm always full of these hopes and anxieties, negatives and positives waging war for my heart.

When I love something, I embrace it then run for the edges and boundaries: What if we did this? What about that? When I hate something, it ceases to exist: if you can get me to discuss it at all you'll get nothing more than a cautionary tale. When I can't fully reconcile something, when I oscillate between love and hate, I like to rebuild it. Rebuilding gives me a way to excise what I hate, while strengthening what it is that I love about the thing, whatever it is.

So, cloaked in hubris, I've decided to rebuild fantasy gaming from a cultural perspective to something I can vibe with. I shouldn't even need to say this, but I will: These are my rules and my thoughts, for how I intend to build and run fantasy games in the future. I'm not going to entertain what has already been done because it's umm, already done. By all means do what you like and if the status quo works for you, do it. I'm all for people enjoying the games they enjoy, but I have to go here because I'm not really enjoying gaming and I want to. I design games, so I can just make the games I want to play.

For the portion of the Internet that doesn't understand and/or will hate everything I'm about to say, I say: I don't really care. You have the games that you want and you can keep what you've got. You win, I'm done and doing something else. That something I make will be for me and maybe for others as well. I won't be bothered to argue about what's better, because I don't believe that there is some objective truth for gaming. It's all about meeting one's needs in the most fulfilling manner possible, which is what I am doing in this post.

For everyone else, let's have interesting discussions about this.

Rule #1: Evil is a Choice

Kobolds and Goblins have always made me uncomfortable. It's not on an aesthetic level, as they were made to be grotesque and non-human. It's the notion that they have been labelled in D&D and it's derivations as innately evil, or that they are inherently prone to evil acts.

Evil to Who? Centrality

To even talk about good and evil, we need a reference point. In D&D we have alignment as a strict tool, but simply the notion of good and evil applied at a racial level implies that there is a universal set of standards being applied to a whole planet of people. Kobolds are evil, but who says? Do Kobolds think they are evil? I don't think even evil people think they are evil. They feel they have to do things based on what they have seen and what has been done to them. All thinking beings try to do things that they think will benefit them or help them avoid harm and punishment.

But who gets to say what and who is evil? Who is the reference point. The typical fantasy answer is humanity does. We'll note that generally humans are the only race in these worlds with totally flexible morality. They stand in the center of all talks of morality and alignment. This flexibility to choose is generally posited as humanity's main advantage over races that can be smarter, tougher, or more numerous.

What is wrong with humans being central to fantasy? We are, in fact, humans when we play these games. While this can't be argued, the problem I see is that we end up telling one story. When there is only one central point, all we get is one look at a group and one look at the world. That one view can get monolithic really quick, and then no matter how much we try to add new elements and vistas, our setting is not truly being enriched. When we enforce a centralized worldview on our settings, we turn everything into a comparative exercise with the people or culture at the center. So kobolds are evil as opposed to humans while angels are good; dwarves are shorter than humans and elves are taller. It's hard to express the truly unique aspects of our fantasy world when the most powerful mode of expression always ends with "…as compared with humans." If we are being honest, we are not even looking at humans broadly; we are only looking at the views and morality of ancient European civilizations, and even then only through the filter of where we were raised (so for me, an American filter).

Loot Machines

One way we can approach how we got to this problem is to look at fantasy's dealing with race through a sort of racial determinism, an insidious tie to real-world views that some races are just naturally X and are bad at Y and prone to Z. I've certainly heard some gamers argue for exactly this.

As much as I'd love to deflate and debate this in fantasy gaming and real life, what I want to do to be more productive is look at an even simpler game decision that I think drives this on a more conscious level: Who do I kill to get XP?

If one race is good (compared to humans) and one race is evil (compared to humans), it's then pretty easy for you to point your blade at the former group and not the latter. I don't kill elves because they are good, but I kill kobolds because they are evil. Kobolds give me XP, and possibly loot!

Many fantasy games make racial evil a necessity by driving character growth through murder and violence. For my character to grow in capability, I have to kill someone. I'm not judging this, or failing to recognize exceptions; this is merely a large driving function in many fantasy games.

If killing is how you grow, and you expect characters to be heroes (even anti-heroes), they need some motivation or reason to kill that is higher than "get loot" –that is nakedly sociopathic behavior and probably not something many people want to do for their recreation.

So we dress it up. The kobolds are evil from birth and when you see one, it is probably going to be attacking you and you are OK to slay it. It's a convenience, and it's a reason I grow more and more disenchanted with it. I'll be honest and say when I think of this I think about my own life as an African-American and how many times I am pre-judged to do be all of these threatening things when I am really just a nerd trying to raise a son and be a good employee, father, and husband…and all of a sudden I feel for the kobold. It's not that being a kobold has anything to do with being black; it's that in both of these cases we are told this is who we are by societies and people who know nothing about us as individuals. It is frustrating at times.

More importantly, it's not what I want to be doing with my free time anymore. The best and worst thing that ever happened to me was to start taking my gaming more seriously. Doing game design and re-examining the lens of gaming has made gaming more fun but it's also closed a lot of doors. I just can no longer go back to hordes of evil races that I can kill without guilt. It's just too real for me and not fun.

In real life what people do is label people as evil to justify performing atrocities to those they've labelled. Is that what our fantasy has to be?

Choosing Evil

So if we can't have races full of people born evil, do we abolish evil?

Nope. Evil is still a great narrative tool, and still carries constructive energy to use in our stories. We just need to restructure its use, and stop using evil as a shortcut that means "you can kill me".

It means looking at the motivations for our characters individually, and seeing what choices they've made, and then reacting.

Some kobolds are attacking you and trying to kill you? You of course have to defend yourself. But why are they attacking you? Not every fight has to be a moral conundrum, but just understanding a basic motivation like "These kobolds want your stuff" gives us a richer basis to understand what the kobolds want to do, how to react, what to do next.

And when we say evil, let's be explicit whose worldview they are evil from. Making a universal, centralized evil is completely convenient but ultimately hollow. The dragon terrorizing town might be evil to the humans in that area, but what if the dragon is afraid that it's babies will fall victim to the bandits in the area. We might have to fight the dragon to the death, or maybe we learn the dragon's situation and compromise. Maybe we go after the bandits!

When people are choosing, we have options. When people are on tracks of behavior, we have almost no options. This dragon must attack the town because it is evil gives you way less options than the above scenario does.

I know people are often afraid to unpack fantasy's shortcuts and conveniences fearing that doing so will make their games to heavy or morally complex. I say that embracing a decentralized morality makes our games richer and more vibrant.

That's the choice I've made.

This is Not a Manifesto: Technique Talk in RPGs

This is Not a Manifesto: Technique Talk in RPGs

manifesto

Thinking about RPGs has taken me to some weird places lately. I’ve toured around many regions of the activity, and I’ve looked at the culture and traditions of RPGs with a focused, critical eye. I’ve certainly appreciated the parts of RPGs that have always been amazing, and revisiting them critically makes them more amazing, not less. But that critical meta-glance makes the parts of RPGs that don’t fit stick out even more.

If that sounds like the beginnings of a manifesto piece decrying traditions and advocating new patterns of thinking and playing, well…sorta. Manifestos often read nicely, but are short on actionable pieces of information. Manifestos are greating for drawing lines and making people choose sides, but I’ll admit that I am always more of a techniques guy.

I like techniques because they teach implicitly. I prefer techniques because good techniques meet you where you are. They don’t force you to take sides, they offer you a potential solution for a problem you might have. If you don’t like the technique, you can keep doing what you’re doing and having fun.

I mean, I of course I know what I like, and how I want to run things, and I even think some of these things should be regularly practiced. But our hobby has had a lot of line-drawing when some simple, neutral technique sharing could make our discourse more productive and more amiable. Techniques are good because they can be discussed and judged on effectiveness. Even if efficacy is varied (this worked for your group but not mine) we can look to find situations where it does work. If there are very few places where it works, the technique might not be the greatest. If only corner cases seem to derail it, we have something we can broadly use.

More importantly, we can argue about things that have actually happened. My problem with theories and manifestos is much of the arguments occur in mental/social place with no physical representation at all. This makes those arguments prone to ad hominem digressions and hurt feelings. When you argue with someone’s theory, it’s much more likely to be confused with arguing with that person, and disagreeing on a deeper level. I’ve seen it happen so many times that I just can’t discount the situation as aberrant; I want productive talk about games and games design so I have to address it.

So that means talking about actions and procedures we can take, and their results. I guess I can’t avoid theory altogether, though I more often muse on twitter. Twitter for me is a test stage for certain theories and ideas I have. After hashing out these ideas with other people, I can gauge initial viability and also interest (some things I talk about bring 0% of my timeline to the yard; other things bring close to 100% engagement). From there I focus on bringing something practical to either my blog or my projects.

I don’t think I can drop theoretical discussion altogether, but I do have a heavy preference for discussing implementation. On the blog that’s what I intend to focus on from here on out. When I talk theory, I’ll usually have a sample technique or procedure accompanying it to ground the theory into something practical.

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder

Icons of the Schism: The Marauder
Defending the natural order at any cost

Defending the natural order at any cost

(written/created by Rvyen Cedrylle, illustration taken from Ertai’s Lament)

The Marauder is the living embodiment of the world’s inertia, the order of nature given fangs, claws and cunning intelligence. If the Tao were to become violently enraged, it would be the Marauder. Its influence lies as much in what it is credited to have done as what it has actually done. Unexplained murders, tragic accidents and the occasional assassination wind up becoming stories of the Marauder’s grisly hobby. Though it has no true followers to speak of, the brave and the insane alike claim to study and use the Marauder’s tactics. Staged fights between animals or sentients (or both) are held in dark corners of civilization in the Marauder’s name.

Quote

“Do what you will within the boundaries apportioned to you. Step outside of them and I will take not only your foot, but your leg and your arm as well.”

 

Usual Location

The Marauder constantly wanders the territory between nations. It maintains no single base of operations, but has a lair of sorts in any land where arguing states encroach upon each other. The Marauder does not let itself simply be found; it does the finding.

 

Common Knowledge

The Marauder is known to be a heartless killer and avid hunter. It is claimed to have been encountered in humanoid and animal forms, so rather than attempt to depict the Marauder personally, it is often shown only by a set of large, bestial footprints in the snow. The Marauder is said to be most active in places where communities ‘overstep their bounds’, so nations with dreams of empire lose their best and brightest to the Marauder in its attempt to maintain peace by fear. It also takes scholars, clergy and explorers who unknowingly break the Marauder’s obscure ideas of humility.

Adventurers and the Icon

The business of adventuring is not one the Marauder takes kindly to. There are however far more adventurers than the Marauder can personally deal with, particularly if some bigger threat to the Marauder’s status quo is also identified. All adventurers should assume themselves to be on the Marauder’s hit list. The Marauder will occasionally enlist adventurers for its self-described policing duties with the clear intent that end of the mission, any surviving adventurers will find better things to do.

 

Allies

The Marauder doesn’t see allies so much as “things that are not prey”. It finds the Speaker personally weak, but respects (his? her?) effectiveness. The Twin Serpents have been encroached upon by the humans and deserve their apportioned boundaries back. The Marauder also appreciates the Prisoner’s self-imposed exile and will generally leave his agents alone.

Enemies

The Marauder and the Scrivener hold no love for one another, as the Marauder is constantly attempting to thwart the Scrivener’s plans for learning and progress. The Steam King similarly toys with forces beyond his grasp and should be ended. The Usurper is currently useful given problems with souls moving on to the afterlife, but should the Death God ever come back, the Usurper would provide a welcome challenge to hunt and eliminate.

 

History

The Marauder has existed since before recorded history and likely will continue to exist long after humans meet their end. Legend says that the Marauder was in fact killed once, but apparently death was no excuse to stop working.

 

The True Danger

The Marauder is kept in check largely because it refuses to work with anyone else for very long. A lasting alliance with another Icon would certainly spell disaster.

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker

Icons of the Schism: The Speaker
Does he speak all truths or all lies?

Does he speak all truths or all lies?

(picture from The Gamer Effect.)

Depending on who you ask, the Speaker is the weakest or most influential man the region.  The leader of the dormant Death God’s church, he has kept not only his position but the position of his church in Laeda and even in Kitan prominent and influential.  Lacking real military or divine power to aid his church, the Speaker uses his skill of negotiation and oration to somehow get what he wants and needs.

Quote

“I do not doubt your ability to kill me with your sword.  What I do doubt, however, is your continued desire to do so once you consider the consequences and reflect upon the more appealing actions that you can take instead.”

Usual Location

The Speaker is never in one place for too long.  In part, this keeps him safe from enemies of his ailing religion, but also it allows him to connect with his many allies and partners across Laeda.

Common Knowledge

A common joke about the Speaker maintains that he has more alliances than parishioners, and it is not that far from truth.  Though the Speaker’s god lay dormant, he still performs the rites of passing for the many suffering through the war.  Though he cannot guarantee passage to the afterlife, he still offers comfort and solace to those he meets.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Speaker can use anyone. It is more of a matter of when and how the Speaker can use an adventurer at any given time.  Most adventurers have at least one run-in with the Speaker where they are asked to do one task or another.  Most times, working with the Speaker is beneficial, though are some tales of adventurers not returning from their missions.

Allies

The Speaker has no true allies or many allies, depending on who you ask. Even the Steam King has made an occasional bargain with him.

Enemies

The Speaker has countless enemies or no enemies, depending on who you ask. The Steam King wants his head.

History

The divine power the Speaker commanded before Nethane bled to death in Reach was undeniable. He lost all of that personal might when Nethane died, yet seems more powerful than ever. It is rumored that the Speaker knew of The Usurper’s plan to steal Nethane’s shadow, but why he would forsake his power is a mystery.

The True Danger

Everything will be fine until the Speaker’s true master reveals itself.

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener

Icons of the Schism: The Scrivener
She guards knowledge

She guards knowledge

(created and written by Mike Hasko, illustration from Dylan Meconis. What is the Schism?)

She has no shrines, for each book is her temple. Her hymns are whispers shared between friends, her prayers state secrets discovered by spies, and her rituals tests given by school master and tribal leaders alike. Some claim her to be the paragon of knowledge, other see her as a shadowy hoarder of secrets.

Offer her something she doesn’t know, however, and she could be your greatest ally.

The Scrivener sees herself as Laeda’s eventual redemption: all history, knowledge, and culture that has been lost and that exists today must be recorded so it may live on forever. Much has been forgotten in the trials of history, and more still will cease to exist if not recorded.

 

Quote

“What you don’t know can kill you. What you do know is of particular interest to me.”

Usual Location

The Scrivener stays where there is some forgotten lore or skill to be learned, moving to the next workshop, ruin, or battlefield as soon as she is done with the current one. Rumors of a new technology or the discovery of an old ancient text are just as likely to summon the attention of the Icon.

Common Knowledge

Though she records and observes much, she gives little to those seeking it in return. Those wanting something from The Scrivener must be willing to offer up a useful fact of equal value in return.

Adventurers and the Icon

Though the Scrivener knows how to fight, it wastes time that could otherwise be spent archiving and cataloging. She often asks for assistance in clearing out old ruins so she may work in safety, or seek out artifacts to assist in her current sphere of study.

Allies

The Scrivener keeps a neutral distance from most of the Icons. Most always have something new for her, but many are jealous of what she knows and desire it for themselves. She is closest with The Muse, who offers much from her travels and requests little in return, and detailing The Steam King’s constant evolving creations fill many a journal.

Enemies

The Scrivener knows what the Prisoner did and she alone has the facts to absolve him of the crime, but also knows this can never be, and does her best to avoid him. The Ursurper’s actions have constantly caused stores of knowledge to be destroyed, something the Scrivener cannot forgive her of.

History

It’s believed that across her studies, The Scrivener has found some way to avoid dying, or even aging. Most of the major historical events of Laeda have had sightings of The Scrivener. Her presence is sometimes thought as an ill omen because of this.

 

The True Danger

Some secrets must remain such for the safety of all sentient life.  The Scrivener is unknowingly close to uncovering one of these facts the universe itself is ashamed of.

 

Chromatica Gaming: Broken Waves Part 1

Chromatica Gaming: Broken Waves Part 1

I’ve been in the mood to do some Burning Wheel – and finally get a hold of my friend Les after the holidays and set up a time to do some gaming online.   We decide on doing a high fantasy game, set in a fantasy/Polynesian-ish setting.

Our Protagonist:

A’lepoi, 27, a man who is a healer with the magical ability to glide atop water without a board.  His family has always had various water-related magical abilities, but actually are relatively low on the caste system, for unknown reasons.  (We worked this out based on the fact that healers with magic ought to have some kind of status, but he’s got a 0 Resources stat, and the lowest of Reputation scores, so it’s sort of a fun mystery we’ll find out as we play.)

Story:

A few hours after sunset, Royal warriors come to A’lepoi’s post by the sea – they tell him to gather his belongings for a trip – the King has orders for him.  As he steps outside, a pair of temple acolytes confirm he has everything before burning the hut he stayed in while praying over the fire.

The task required demands a clean start, even unto destroying the place you begin from.

The Island of Temples is the source of much of the local islands’ abundance – at it’s center is the Great Temple, built around the Elder Tree, which blesses everyone with amazing fertile land.   Three times A’lepoi is cleansed – by water, by purified sands, by smoke of fire, and holy words sung just so.  Within the temple, he is brought past the first layer of curtains, another prayer, another layer of curtains, another prayer, another and another.  Nearly to the center, he stands besides a handful of others – a noble, a warrior, a priestess and a seawoman.  They are brought before The Tree and introduced, as they were called for a task.

No one else is allowed to hear the task, for the seeds of destiny are not lightly planted in the hearts of humans.

The great trunk splits open, revealing a withered old woman, made also of wood.  Achingly she stands from the seat within, and A’lepoi is left awestruck by her mana.  A voice of rough wood drawn across rough wood, of wind through branches, speaks.  “I am at the end of days.  My magic will sustain the land a day and a year more, but not beyond that.  To the east a seedling of mine has kindled life.  Seek her.  Give her my necklace, and bring her back.”  And before he can move again, the elder spirit has passed a necklace to the priestess, and returned to her chair.

A heaving sigh and a gentle breeze of her last breath, a withering of wood, and the trunk seals again, twisting itself as a tree left battered by too many storms.

A’lepoi brings himself to breath again and a single, brown leaf falls from the tree.

Our story begins with the death of a god.

The path out of the temple is silent, and every priest has their heads bowed.  Outside, Ehehene, the priestess looks to the group of souls burdened with this task – “We do not speak of what has happened here.”

Some things are too sacred to repeat.  Some are too dangerous.   This? Both.

The group gathers a small distance away.  Lady Ehehene looks to them – “Before we leave – there is a small matter.  We are going on a quest of utter importance.  But…” – she looks to A’lepoi – “…one of us stands here without rank.  We should grant him a rank before setting off.”   Although addressing the group as a whole, her plea is to the young Arapata, the second son of the King.

For A’lepoi it was always the question of his family…  Everyone knows them as healers, as magically gifted.  But as long as they’ve been around, they’ve never been granted rank.  A rumor sits that perhaps they’ve given some great offense or committed a crime in the past, or perhaps are cursed in some way.   No one knows, and that unease has always lingered.

Perhaps it was too much too soon – to risk changing something that has been the same way for generations.  Or maybe it was just the fact they just witnessed the death of the lifegiver of their kingdom.

Or maybe it was for exactly the reasons that came from Lord Arapata’s mouth, “Although it  would be helpful to grant him a rank should we be divided along the journey, if we are divided… the 5 of us, we would be in much greater trouble than what can be solved with hastily granted titles.   And… if we hurry now, we might avoid troubles yet to come.  Time is short.”

Even without rank, the young man would show his worth.  Perhaps, though, this was a mistake nonetheless.

Hours later, they approach the Island of Southern Winds.  A fierce night battle is seen, raiders and warriors battling just a distance up from the beach.

“Our allies.  We should help.  And gain glory.”, proclaimed the warrior, Inia, who readied his spear.

Kahani, the navigator, gave a sharp look.  “If we fight, we are delayed.  If we are injured, we are delayed even further.”

Lord Arapata again, choose the path of speed, “They have their own warriors.  And if we fail to bring back the Seedling, everyone will starve.  We cannot afford to stop.”  The decision was made.

But not for A’lepoi.

“I will just take a quick look.  To make sure their warriors are doing well enough.” and off he hops onto the waves, gliding across the water faster than a boat would carry him.

At the beach, the raiders have left their boats.  He grabs an oar and quickly begins cracking the hulls and piercing the bottoms.  Many of the raiders will not find their way home tomorrow.  When the raiders realize his deeds, he grabs a fallen flag of the Southern Wind, and dashes across the water holding it aloft.

“The Southern Wind has more allies than the waves! And they will not rest!”

The island’s defenders, heartened by this supernatural feat and brave cry, redouble their efforts, and the raiders are driven away.

“I am a healer.  My duty is in the saving of lives.” Great deeds from simple reasons.

A few hours later, a storm is nearly upon them.  The water is choppy and danger looms.  The options are few: rush back to the Southern Wind Island, drive forward and hope to reach the Land of Three Mountains before the storm strikes… or go to the closest available land – The Isle of Tall Stone.   Three generations ago, there was war between the Temple and the Tall Stone, and neither have spoken since the barest of peace was made.

Some favor retreat.  Inia swears his spear will create peace if there is none.  Lord Arapeta decides on meeting the Tall Stone and suing for hospitality.

They land and are greeted.  A tense and formal greeting ceremony is held… when A’lepoi sees, the raiders, too, have decided to come here to avoid the storm.   The alarm is raised, warriors grab weapons and children are pushed into homes.

Rakapa, a young warrior of the Tall Stone exclaims, “Years ago the last time you came, you brought bloodshed to our shores.  Let us see which side of it you stand today!” as he hands A’lepoi a spear with a grin and a nod.

A’lepoi grabs a flag of the village, ties it to the spear, along with the flag of the Southern Wind, and strides upon the water, leading the warband, screaming to the raiders – “Did I not say the allies were greater than the waves?!?”   Their shock buys a few precious moments where the sling stones and javelins of the Tall Stone find mark and the raiders turn and flee, paddling as fast as possible…

Without striking a blow, two islands have been saved today.  In time, though, some will say it was the water walker himself who summoned the storm to slay the raiders entirely.

Returning to the Isle of Tall Stone, they celebrate indoors as the winds and rain batter the land and ocean.  Rakapa shares drink with his new friend and asks, “I never expected a healer to be the first to seek battle!  Without a boat, striding the water no less! We have never heard of your family? They must be renowned, tell me of their deeds!”

A’lepoi quickly evades, “My family are healers.  I, myself, rescue those at sea who are bitten by sharks, stung by jellyfish – for the Island of the Temple, I am a life guard.  …and yours too!”

Rakapa, pauses.  “Say that again?” and half the room goes silent.  A’lepoi’s words hold more meaning than he realizes.

“I am a life guard… and yours too?”

“So you are!”

An elder stands up and offers a toast:  “Whatever happened with the war before…  That was a mistake.  This summer we will visit!”

As the life magic of the Elder Tree begins to fade, the world will only know it is as the time when the Island of the Temple sent forth great heroes – mighty warriors, powerful kahuna, and diplomats and peacemakers… all from the few actions of a man without rank.

Game stuff:

All of the above happened with 2 hours of gameplay.  I took the initial idea Les gave me and did the math to get his character together in about 30 minutes the day before.  After we worked out “high fantasy” I figured to start with the death of a god to kick it off.

Between deciding on a quest-style game and it being a one-on-one game, I figured having a party of NPCs would be useful for both character interaction and setting up conflicts.  The videogame equivalent is The Walking Dead videogame, where the player is constantly put into choosing sides between various NPCs, most of whom will have a good reason to suggest one option over another.

Instead of doing the full social roll, I just have Les make a social roll as the “tie breaker” one way or another, sometimes giving an extra Advantage die if he has a very valid point, or if he says something in line with the NPC who is most influential on the topic.

Early in the game he was constantly failing the rolls by a single success.  By the end, he made some uber successes, even as Beginner’s Luck rolls.  Even still, this session was a testament to the value of “Conspicuous” as a skill.

You Enter a 10×10 Room: Thoughts on Description

You Enter a 10×10 Room: Thoughts on Description

one-hour-refined1

 

I just got done running 5 sessions of an incredible Tenra Bansho Zero game (I’ll talk more about this later, but check out Chris’ post if you want to know why Tenra rocks). I thought I did an OK job on the GM side of things, but one thing I wanted to do a little better is tweak how I describe things. I don’t think I am bad at it, but I do want to improve. When I’m looking to improve some skill, my normal approach is to first look at the things I don’t want to be doing. What do I want to stop or cut out?  For starters:

No more trying to sound like read-aloud text. I really don’t like read aloud text that much, though I’ve certainly written it for products and certainly used it in the past. One reason I don’t want to ape that style is that I run highly improv games that don’t give me time to deliver honed sentences,  so I’m emulating a formal style that I can never truly prepare for.

Talk too much. This sometimes goes with trying to sound like box text, but most of the time it is the result of not having a structured way of describing scenes or action. I hate that feeling of me rambling on and on trying to describe a sequence of events because I don’t have a good way to shorten the description.

Avoid cookie-cutter approaches.  Whatever approach I choose must be easily varied. I can’t follow a script that says “include this, then include this” because that will get boring for everyone really fast. I want structures, not scripts.

When I first described my need to improve, it was suggested that I offload description to players.  I try to do this as often as I can, but also feel that I need to do what I can to establish a model that players can follow. Otherwise players can fall into the pitfalls I listed above! The flow of a game is so important to me that I want to preserve it no matter who is doing the talking.  I’ve found that if I develop good structures and model them, then players naturally fall in line and we get everyone moving and flowing.

So, what do I want to see in description in my games?

Cinematic flow. Cinema has a rich visual language that you can borrow from.  In addition, everyone in your group watches movies and TV to some extent, meaning they’ve absorbed some of this language. Rather than describe like a book, I want to describe action like one would in a screenplay or a director describing a shot. I don’t want to double down on cinema jargon, but I do want to frame my description cinematically.

Incorporate reactions. One thing I thought I did well with one of the players was to incorporate her reactions into scene descriptions.  Her character was really tormented, so any scene that I thought  would torment her character, I would tend to take a moment to get the character’s reaction, which everyone really liked. I realize there are more ways to do this, and want to use that more to get a quick sense of a character’s reaction, “cutting” to their face as they enter a battlefield, or stumble upon a murder scene.

Instill a sense of wonder. Sometimes when describing, I’d trail off or not explain things.  What I noticed in these situations, was if the scene description was vivid enough, leaving something out, or explicitly calling out the unknown portion drew the players to it. That sense of wonder, that sense of “whoa, what’s going on here?” is something I want to capture more frequently with description.

If it’s not yet clear, I look at the act of describing action and scenes in games as a tool for player investment. The most important thing you can do in a game is get your players invested in what’s happening! Once you do that, common problems tend to resolve themselves, and you can focus on renewing and rewarding that investment, which is at the heart of what RPGs are about.

I’ll share more of my thoughts as I develop them on description, but in the meantime, share with me your thoughts about description.

Tenra Bansho Zero: The Moon over Iwade

Tenra Bansho Zero: The Moon over Iwade

Hi, my name is Chris Chinn, I’ll be guest posting a bit here on ThoughtCrime with a few other folks to talk about some of the fun gaming we’ve been doing.  (My usual rpg blogging can be found over at Deeper in the Game).

One of the reasons I love roleplaying games is the stories which you make as you play the game – you get all your favorite parts of a genre or series that you’ve always wanted, but just like watching a show or reading a book – you don’t know how it’s going to turn out until it happens.

We started playing a roleplaying game called Tenra Bansho Zero about a week ago – it’s a super anime rpg. Instead of the generic pseudo-Europe fantasy tropes of Dungeons and Dragons, this game is more like sci-fi Japanese Warring States. With power armor. And cyborgs. And magic. And ninjas.

It’s very much like a mix between Ninja Scroll, Giant Robo and Escaflowne.

Our game in progress

In the small state of Iwade, previously having seen peace for many generations, we see just a month after the lord has died, they discover a mine of rare and precious magical ore – which draws the attention of neighboring warlords. The Nijou clan is forced to prepare for battle – with a young untested warlord at the helm and nowhere near enough troops.

Our first player has taken the role of Jahl-Yu, one of the horned Oni people, who has been adopted and raised to adulthood by the human Nijou clan. Though sworn to serve, not everyone in the Nijou are tolerant of the Oni…

The second player plays the expert swordsman Harada Toki, who has recently been defeated by a one-armed swordmaster and now doubting his own ability as a warrior, has agreed to serve General Hatano of Nijou clan, in exchange for a magical transformation which will give him great power… at the cost of his humanity.

Some action highlights just this session:

  • Jahl Yu using his magical powers to snatch assassins into the ground and crush them alive, leaving behind kanji reading “death” in the dirt.
  • Two storms clashing as Harada’s chain sword and a cyborg ronin’s flail arms spin and collide leaving a vortex of death down the street.
  • A village of Oni caught between the two nations, convinced by Harada to go to war… and the unleashing of their magical weapons.

What’s been really fun is that we’re all pretty up on anime tropes, so the genre expectations fall into place very easily, which lets us get into the action and we can all click on the same visual touchstones (“And then I begin attacking them with some crazy low to the ground windmill flair sword style like Samurai Champloo!”).

Although we just finished Act 2 (stories are made of 3 Acts in TBZ), I’m pretty excited to continue on and see where things go next.  I can see a lot of fun growth and character directions for both the characters.

Coming Home: a Metatopia report

Coming Home: a Metatopia report

Metatopia feels like coming home. It’s so amazing to have a place where I can talk and learn about the real work of game design, talk with other people injvolved in it, and in general feel at ease.  I’ve been published, spoken at panels, run blogs, but never really managed to feel like I fit in the industry before coming to Metatopia over the last two years.

There are many reasons I personally have felt like an outsider in RPGs before, but having a place that is so intense yet intimate and relaxed, that also offers me a chance to contribute by running panels and being in people’s playtests helps me feel like I’m in inside.  I felt that both years I’ve attended Metatopia, and it’s a really special feeling. Days after the convention, I’m still smiling!

I got to playtest many of my friend’s games, which were excellent.  I got to test new card games from Tim Rodriguez and Dave Chalker, a world=building game from Laura Simpson (Companion’s Tale) and a game of modern-day ninja from Dev Purkayastha called Shadow Elite.  I got to test the new version of a tabletop Streetfighter game called Gatchafighter. With Tor, Dev and I ran a game jam where people read a short story then built the shells of some really great games. I playtested Five Fires.

I wasn’t quite ready for this.  The playtest was awesome. I had Jeremy Morgan, Elizabeth Sampat, Lilian Cohen-Moore, James Mendes Hodes, Warren Morrison, Dave Chalker and Darren Watts at the table (Tim Rodriguez popped in later), and it was just a really great time. The game was pre-alpha, so I mostly needed to test some mechanics and structures. Everything worked way better than I expected, and after the convention, all of my playtesters told people all about the game.  Soon people I’d never met before were mentioning to me how Five Fires sounded really cool!  It was quite the feeling.  I want to thank all my playtesters for their suggestions and also their evangelism for this little game I’m working on.

So I’m back now. I’ve got a Patreon campaign where you can help back Five Fires and some of my other creations, and I’ll make a return to blogging as well. Metatopia was just what the doctor ordered to revitalize me for more game design work.  Thanks to everyone for your support thus far. Thank you to everyone for the great conversations.  My next posts will be about some of the cool stuff I played and discussed in more detail.

 

Icons of the Schism: The Usurper

Icons of the Schism: The Usurper
The queen of shadows...and death

The queen of shadows…and death

It began as all matters that spiral out of control begin: simply. The Usurper wanted to live longer. To prolong her life she discovered then mastered the art of stealing shadows. To steal someone’s shadow accelerates their death, while adding vitality to the thief.  Most lost years of their lives without ever suspecting why. She stole shadows from the rich, from the poor, from the healthy, to the sick. No matter what person she stole from, the value of all shadows was the same.  What if she could steal the shadow of a god?

 

So she stole death’s shadow, and killed it.

 

The woman who killed Nethane now lives in the highest spire of Reach.  Somewhere between god and mortal, she frantically seeks to master Nethane’s energy. She needs to complete her transformation before the Steam King finds her and extracts her secrets forcibly from her.  She sends her shadows to defend and protect the city, and some parts of Laeda.  Reach flickers and shimmers in shadow from the light of her thousands of floating crystal eyes.  She can see anything that happens in Reach, but is she really watching?

 

Will the Usurper reach her full potential before everything she has gained is taken from her?

 

Quote

“Truth is amusing.  I once believed in it, but I now know it’s a matter of whether one stands in light or shadow.”

 

Usual Location

The Usurper is rarely seen, and even more rarely seen in her tower. Most adventurers will be more likely to meet her through communication with a shadow-crystal.  Many question if she can actually leave Reach, but there is no evidence to support or deny this.

 

Common Knowledge

The Usurper killed the god Nethane in the middle of the Dying Day, a ritual where the god’s followers summon him to bow at his feet. Disguised as one of his clergy, she knelt at his feet. She rose to her feet holding the god’s shadow in her hand.

 

Nethane died on his own altar, screaming and bleeding before the whole city of Reach.

Adventurers and the Icon

The Usurper likes analytical heroes.  Anyone who seems like they can solve a tough problem might find themselves spoken to by her, as she has no shortage of difficult situations to work though.

 

Allies

The Usurper is allied tenuously with the Lords of Kitani out of necessity. They haven’t asked much of her, yet.  She also is a favored traveller in the Shadowlands. The Prisoner is a useful dog to offer a bone to. The Usurper hopes to open a dialogue with the Twin Serpents one day, but today is not the right time. The Speaker is a fool, but a useful tool if directed properly.

Enemies

The Steam King is everyone’s sworn enemy.  The Speaker is a running joke who the Usurper will surely kill if she can ever get to him. If the Twin Serpents don’t come to terms, they will be dealt with.  The Prisoner might outlive his own usefulness one day, but he does possess a certain charm…

 

History

Tales used to be told of a nomadic cult of people who worshipped shadow. The Laedan church had once declared them heretics to be killed, but it appears that a few survived.

 

The True Danger

If anyone returns Nethane’s shadow to him, the world will learn what true anger is.