Building Engagement in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

This pulls lessons from all over, but especially from Apocalypse World.

Roleplaying games are a conversation. Like any conversation, they’re at their best when the people in them are engaged and present, not distracted. Playing an RPG means sharing a collaboratively created world and holding that mutual fiction in your mind; thus, the conversation suffers when people disengage.

So how can we keep each other engaged, and avoid Continue reading

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Be Boring: Making fun characters, Quick Thoughts

Last week I said that your characters should be hungry.

This week I’ll add: be boring.

“Be boring” is for your character’s history, it’s for their personality, it’s for their hopes and dreams. Character creation doesn’t have to be a painstaking chore. You don’t have to create a beautiful new being, perfect and unique.

Be boring. Be average. Be a familiar trope. Use things you’ve seen elsewhere.

Be unoriginal.

If you’re really stuck, Continue reading

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading

Consent and Horror Gaming, Quick Thoughts

We, as people playing story-games and RPGs, often assume that our fellow players are on the same page as us. We assume that other players want the same things, have the same tolerances, fears, and interests, or at least don’t differ in ways which would surprise us. These assumptions are frequently wrong, to varying degrees. Worse, unless they’re examined these assumptions interfere with players building trust and giving informed consent.

Players’ trust, consent, and buy-in is important regardless of the game, but it’s critical in games dealing with uncomfortable material… like horror games. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around gaming and consent, but this piece will focus on consent in horror RPGs.

Quick note: when I say “players,” I include the storyteller. As the storyteller, you’re not only doing a bunch of work, you’re also participating in this story world that you’re creating with and for your fellow players—if people are pulling the game into territory you’re uncomfortable with or which you really don’t want to cover, that’s important too! Don’t sacrifice yourself for the sake of other players, or at least not any more than you want to.

Trust is a simple word and a complex subject. Too complex for me to cover in depth in one post. You can’t build consent without a modicum of trust between people involved; for consent to be meaningful, there must be trust that other people will respect the boundaries set and will act promptly and responsibly on feedback they receive. The depth of that trust governs how readily groups can achieve consent, and influences how willing people may be to experiment with their boundaries. One person may have varying levels of trust for different people or topics, and the only way to learn those levels is to ask and observe. So pay attention to those around you, ask for and give feedback freely and without judgement, validate reported discomfort, and resolve that discomfort to the preferences of the uncomfortable person.

Informed consent is another large subject, but at its simplest I’d call it agreement without coercion or surprises. I mention buy-in earlier because I think enthusiastic participation and shared investment is the obvious next step following informed consent; it’s important to have players’ consent, but you really want their buy-in as well. But without laying the groundwork with your players, you’ll only achieve consent and buy-in by luck; ideally, we want to get there by design.

What might that groundwork look like?

The first step is for someone (usually the storyteller) to offer or request a specific kind of game—for our purposes, we’ll assume that people want a horror game. There may be some back and forth here, until there’s a sufficient body of excited players to support a game.

The second step is when a storyteller should warn their players about what underlying kinds of discomfort are likely in the course of the story: a narrative version of “side effects may include,” where you might mention character death, fallible perceptions of reality, gaslighting, decaying sanity, things that go bump in the night, etc. Whatever is particular to your game. You (the storyteller) can also take suggestions from your players here! There’s an art to crafting that warning, given that many horror games revolve around the unknown: I strongly suggest that you touch on broad themes more than specific perils. The specific perils can come up in the next step.

Once you’ve warned folk about what underlying themes you may play with (and asked what themes they might like to add), ask what specific things they’d like to see in the game and what specific things they don’t want. Here the terminology of lines and veils is useful: lines are hard vetos against specific content showing up in a game, while veils are a request to fade-to-black around that content without excluding it entirely. There’s an excellent explanation of lines, veils, and some other safety mechanics here.

Double check to make sure that you’ve heard people’s requests, and that they’ve heard your underlying content warnings.

In the course of play, take breaks! Check in with people, preferably one on one, about how things are going for them and whether there’s anything that they’d like to update in terms of lines, veils, or other requests for the game. I suggest checking in one on one because it’s easy for people to unconsciously pressure others (or themselves) into not speaking up about discomfort. To quote from the link above, a good interaction might look like:

“Ouch!”

“Oops, sorry. Let’s fix that.”

You can also use those check-ins as a means of getting useful feedback on your storytelling, or on the character you’re playing. These are good opportunities to discuss bleed, or any other things that have come up for people through the course of the game. It’s also worthwhile asking the group as a whole to check-in, so long as you’re addressing people’s needs and concerns individually as well.

And remember that trust, consent, and buy-in are all things which can change! None of those established preferences are set in stone, and people’s needs may change. Use safety mechanics (some linked here) to make sure that people don’t feel that their consent has been abused, or their trust diminished. Stoplight check-in vocabulary (green = more of this please, yellow = this is on the edge don’t push further, red = NOPE) is valuable for making this process easier, and having something on the table that people can use during scenes without interrupting game is very helpful. That on-table tool could be an X-card, or several differently colored circles.

Just because you’re playing a horror game doesn’t mean that you should run roughshod over your fellow players. The experience of horror should be in the game and in response to the game, not because your friends were assholes to you in real life.

p.s. the earliest mention of Lines and Veils I could find while writing this today was here, in this thread from 2004.

Setting Expectations for Rulings in RPGs, Quick Thoughts

Somehow, despite reading hundreds of thousands of words on how to run roleplaying games since the age of twelve, I don’t clearly remember any RPG book giving me this advice:

Explicitly set expectations for your group around how you, the storyteller, will adjudicate rolls, rulings, and mechanical resolutions.

It’s totally possible that I simply glossed over this advice when I did read it. But it’s important enough advice that I’m going to devote more words to it here.

Setting expectations explicitly is helpful because Continue reading

New D&D Sneakily Poaches Inclusivity, Narrative

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I grew up playing AD&D, as my brothers introduced me to RPGs before I was 7.  I’ve since moved away from the various D&D systems, flirting with them occasionally in passing while I instead focus on other systems that I find more interesting; I’ve come to prefer more narrativist games for the most part, though my friend Zach’s super-old-school D&D certainly calls to me at times.  But with the release of the newest edition of D&D (5th ed? Next? Whatever we’re supposed to call it) I thought I’d give it a look.  I’d examined some of the playtest documents and made appreciative noises, so I thought I should take a chance.  I’m glad I did.  It seems like the new D&D has learned a few tricks from the games that pulled me away from it in the first place.

There have been a few things that have really stood out to me while I’ve been reading the new Player’s Handbook (PHB), two quite good and one that I’m not sure how to qualify.  These have nothing to do with the rules, I’ll talk about those later.  The first item is one which I understand has already been discussed elsewhere, namely the game’s specific mention of a player’s ability to construct their character’s gender- or sexual-identity, and statement that that’s a perfectly fine thing to explore in this game; the second item is D&D’s incorporation of distinct backgrounds, personalities, and motivations into character creation, including something called “bonds” which I can only presume has come from Dungeon World; the third item is the art chosen for the book, and its depictions of a diverse group of characters.  I’ll talk more about all of these, but let’s tackle that last one first.

Continue reading

A Time For Giving: Charities

While we should be nice and altruistic all the time, we are now hitting the Season of Giving (I don’t care that this comes from Western tradition.  Anything that advocates charity is a good thing, so let’s just leave it be.)  Since this here is a nerdy media blog I thought I’d give you all a hand and share some amazing game-related charities that are floating around.  There are definitely some which I have missed as well as non-game charities which are amazing.  But if you would like to give and have no idea where to throw your dollar, then here at least you can find a short list worthy of your consideration.

http://www.extra-life.org/

http://www.childsplaycharity.org/

https://www.humblebundle.com/ (you can choose for your money to go fully to charity, fully to game developers, or customize the spread yourself)

http://www.ablegamers.com/ Who are currently linked to a cool game bundle:  http://www.wraithkal.info/bundle-in-a-box-ordinary-gamer/

http://www.gamesaid.org/

http://www.callofdutyendowment.org/

http://gamersoutreach.org/

http://www.youtube.com/give8bit

The Attraction of Games: Why?

Zeeblee

This article is honestly me cheating a bit as I would have preferred to write a true analysis or something more comprehensive than a question, but I’m busy!  So this is what you get.  But don’t fret, I think this question is actually extremely interesting, and very important.

Why do we play games?  I ask this because I recently got into a debate and one participant countered criticism about a game’s setup with, “I hear people play games for the story.”  Now this very well may be true since many games have fun stories, but so do books and movies, and you don’t have to fight your way to the next bit of stories in those.  You don’t have to spend hours jumping from one plot point to the next.  So why do we turn to games for story when we have books and movies?

To me I think the answer is “participation.”  Games allow you to participate in the story.  But it is with this answer that I then begin to question certain games which don’t let me actively participate in the story, but instead just force me to do task after task that holds no real meaning in the overall narrative.  Along this vein, should we forgive games with great stories for their bad gameplay?  I could go on, but I actually wrote a bit about this previously in my article about games and art, but I think we can go further into this question.

Since I need to get going I’ll leave the floor open for you to counter, explain, extrapolate, divulge, or what-have-you in the comments below.

Chiptunes: Beauty in Simplicity

Zeeblee

I love chiptunes.  I have met few other people who love chiptunes as much as me.  Hell, I have met few other people who can even sit down and listen to chiptunes without getting annoyed.  It is arguable that my love for chiptunes comes from nostalgia.  It is true that some of my favorite games are old enough that their soundtracks are chiptunes (and I do listen to them recreationally).  But I would argue that my love of the genre is more than just a fond looking back at simpler times.

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League of Legends

I figured I should get around to reviewing this game at some point, because, well, it’s sort of where I made my writing debut. What is League of Legends and why do I think it’s so great as to spend a ton of time on it? It’s an entirely different type of game than everything I’m used to commenting on, so this post will have a much different tone. League of Legends (or LoL) is what we call a MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Essentially, it pits teams of 5 players, represented by their champions (heroes in the League of Legends universe) in a battle against each other. I think League of Legends (or LoL) is one of the best run and designed games I’ve ever played because the company that produces it (Riot) pays so much attention to its upkeep, and today, I want to talk about a few areas where League of Legends is revolutionizing gaming and eSports.

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