Ultimately, roleplaying is a game of imagination and improvisation. Some people find that they have trouble with these faculties. I feel forced to credit my own proficiency in these areas to a number of games I played as a kid, and still occasionally play, as well as a few hobbies of mine. I think it should come to no surprise that most roleplayers are also writers or actors; in fact, I noted the similarity between the three media in previous articles, and many actors are famously in support of D&D/credit it with stimulating their mind.
A week ago I was going to write an article to bounce off of Mattias’ horror game article about SCP Containment Breach. A week ago I was going to use Hostel by Eli Roth as a sort of whipping boy/strawman example of what makes a bad horror movie. But in my haze of sickness, working nights, and sleeping for multiple days straight I realized that my perspective on what “horror” is was flawed. I searched for definitions to support my claim that Hostel was not a horror movie because it offered no scares and no suspense, but I was met with definitions that incorporated discomfort and sickened responses. Being horrified is not just being scared, but also being disgusted. In this way Hostel can still be called a horror film (but still not a good one). But this broadness of definition offers up a problem, one that I ran into a lot when I used to work in a video rental store (yes, those still exist), and the problem is: When someone asks you to recommend a horror movie, how do you respond?
As most people would do I always end up recommending my favorites, but I’ve noticed that my favorites never really include movies from the genre of horror that Hostel was aiming for. I’m a big fan of suspenseful films like The Shining where the focus of the film is to make the characters feel uncomfortable as opposed to films like The Girl Next Door (Jack Ketchum’s version) where the goal is to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Now, you may argue that the goal of The Shining was to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and you would be correct, but it does so by making the characters feel paranoid and unsafe, and the audience then empathizes with them also feels paranoid for the characters. The Girl Next Door on the other hand makes the audience uncomfortable via the brutal treatment of the characters. The audience isn’t paranoid about whether or not they will be safe, but is instead disgusted by just how unsafe they are, and rather than paranoia of the future the audience is more hopeful that the present situation will end.
Ok, so your players probably have hands, not paws, but I liked the alliteration.
The traditional roleplaying game, D&D, is very much structured in a specific way: the GM has a specific game/plot/monster that the players have to beat. In this way, D&D is structured much like a computer RPG, it just happens to be played with multiple players (and so can Baldur’s Gate 2, not to mention World of Warcraft).
There is value to this model; if you have one GM who is particularly good at plotting stories and taking care of all of the details of the world, and a lot of players without a knack for world-building, well, why not run a game like this? Labor gets divided up appropriately, and everybody gets to do what they’re good at.
Typically, however, everybody has something to offer to the story if given the chance, and 4 minds can probably come up with better ideas overall than just 1. This is why, typically (especially if I really trust the players), I prefer to run games that are much more player-driven. For me, good player-driven systems are those which have narrative elements built into them. The most obvious examples would be any game with a Fate point system. Such systems tend to give fate points to the player, and they can narrate something about the world that is unlikely but still possible by expending a Fate point. However, for me, the pinnacle of player-driven games is Apocalypse World. I understand that there are MORE player-driven games, but I find that the lack of a solid authority in completely player-driven games tends to leave most people feeling unsatisfied. Apocalypse World is the perfect balance: it lets the players help create the world and orient the plot, but doesn’t give them too much power to determine results.
A second story in my fantastical alternate history world; this one follows Jerome at a younger age, as he travels to trade with the Northmen.
* * *
It was one of those late summer days when the weather somehow thought it was late fall, and Jerome huddled into his wool cloak as the wind forced rain into his eyes. A truly miserable day to be riding north into the hills on a narrow and winding dirt trail. He had to manage the wagon as his team of oxen laboriously pulled it over every rut and stone they could find. The rain had soaked through to his skin several hours back, shortly after he had broken camp with his retainers, and not one of them looked comfortable. His uncle had neglected to mention anything like this.
I have often focused too narrowly on what will happen when the players follow the trails that I have laid out for them. But what do you do when the players don’t want to play with any of the plot you’ve got prepared for them? And what happens with the problems that they’re ignoring?
Earlier, I discussed how certain roleplaying systems exemplified certain gaming orientations. To an extent, this is a very peculiar notion. More specifically, it’s a very basic shorthand. After all, mechanics can never force your actions. But the way mechanics are set up can really impact the way the players think about the game.
Queen of Demons is the second book in the Lord of the Isles series, printed in 1998. David Drake continues to show that he knows his craft, with this sequel giving a suitably dramatic follow-up to the beginning of the epic. This time I wasn’t skeptical at all, and I was right not to be. That musty scent of genuine historic fantasy setting, cobbled together from the corpses of bits of real history, takes life once more.
I’ve never particularly been a fan of horror games; they don’t weird me out, they don’t make me feel gross, and they don’t frighten me. Amnesia, Slenderman, FEAR, they’ve all struck me as sort of disappointing. They have occasional moments of “OH SHIT SOMETHING JUST HAPPENED!” followed by a lot of feeling in control. But I played one game recently which left me with a unique sense of both horror and dread I’ve never felt playing a game before. That game was SCP Containment Breach.
Warning: this whole post contains minor spoilers of the first 15 minutes (and the basic concept) of the game.
Here are some videos of me playing SCP: Containment Breach
I first heard of Brandon Sanderson five and a half years ago. My favorite author, Robert Jordan, had just died, leaving his epic fantasy series (The Wheel of Time) unfinished forever, or so I thought. Sometime later, it was announced that his works would be completed by Brandon Sanderson, an author I had never heard of. I was cynical from day one.
It turned out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The final three books had all of the flair and detail of the original 8 or 9. But more, they succeeded in a lot of ways that Robert Jordan’s books never had. Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding was spectacular, without a doubt. And because of that, his scenes are naturally brought to life. For the most part, this bleeds into every scene. His particularly defining scenes stand out strongly, and give you chills, between the leadup and the delivery. But (especially as the series goes on) you start to realize that he seems to feel more comfortable designing worlds and establishing plot than actually writing scenes.
Enter Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson’s books always seem, to me, to suffer from a lack of planning. But his scenes are packed with so much urgency I feel like I’ve forgotten to do something.
Reading his books after reading his WoT adaptations was a bit disappointing. Brandon Sanderson seems to suffer a bit from BSG syndrome; he’s not a finisher. His universes are all very interesting, his characters are great, and the way he writes scenes makes you want to keep turning pages long after you’ve fallen asleep. Each chapter brings new intrigue and drama to his world, as you, the reader, learn more and more about the world as his characters do as well, but every time they learn something, their situation seems worse (either because it gets worse or because they realize how bad it is) You start to wonder how he’s going to tie up all of the loose ends as things get worse and worse and worse and all of a sudden only 20 pages remain in the book and you think ‘is there going to be a sequel?’ and then — BAM! — somebody becomes a god/demigod/super hero and solves all of the problems with a few effortless strokes.
WARNING: The following reviews contain minor spoilers
Names are hard. You want to make sure that the people and places you’re creating sound believable, and you don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over (unless there’s a name like Michael in your game world, in which case you should probably just name everyone that since that’s how it works in real life). I’ve made and seen some pretty funny mistakes with naming things, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned…