Good deaths at LARP camp

I’ve been busy teaching children to die well with make-believe swords. More importantly, I’ve been busy showing them that “winning” a sword fight doesn’t make you the most interesting or coolest character in the scene. Relatedly, I died a lot.

Near the end of our adventure game, shortly after I had led the campers in an oath to continue my mission (defending the land from dragons), I died to the big bad. It was a scripted death. It was also, if I may toot my own horn, a good one. I was lucky enough to have not one but several people come and pay their respects afterwards. I think a few of our campers have realized that they can have a good time and make good scenes with each other, improvising a good scene rather than struggling to win.

I’ll be very pleased if that sticks.

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

Why Roll Dice? Two Misconceptions

Maybe some of you have seen something like this before:

Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I hit it with my axe. I get a 3 on my attack roll.”
Storyteller: “Well… that doesn’t seem very effective. The bookshelf doesn’t move.”
Player: “Okay, I swing at it again. 5.”
Storyteller: “…”
Player: “Not good enough? I try again. 1.”
Storyteller: *Sigh* “The bookshelf falls on you. You take 6 damage.”

These rolls are boring, and this scene is a clear failure in my eyes. Not on the part of the PC, who can’t get a break with that bookshelf, but on the part of the storyteller and the player. It plays into two misconceptions that crop up in RPGs, either of which can Continue reading

Killing PCs, a quick reflection

Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.

Did I actually follow my own advice? Continue reading

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.

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling

prince_of_outcasts_cover

I want to finish this book. I do. But I’m struggling with it, in a rather painful fashion, for the best possible reasons.

I’ve struggled with Stirling before, and found my way through. Yet even taking into consideration the thoughts I had about milieu and Stirling’s fiction, and how that helped me with previous entries in this ever-expanding series, I’m still having trouble. And it’s all because my friend Caroline ran one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure to to play, and Stirling is trying to make use of the same material.

I played Caroline’s game, her modified version of Tatters of the King, more than seven years ago. I still think fondly of the characters in that game (yes, mine, but also those of my friends), but more to the point I think of Caroline’s campaign as a benchmark for slow-growth horror games. Her storytelling, the way in which she introduced us so gradually to the madness that is The King in Yellow, and the way in which she carefully cultivated our own personal experiences of horror until we felt enmeshed in our characters’ insanity, has stood for me as a constant reminder of what good horror storytelling feels like.

Some of this must be the glow of nostalgia. But I know I loved it at the time, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have kept so many pages of notes in my tiny, cramped handwriting. I wouldn’t have so obsessively catalogued events such that Caroline agreed that my investigator had created his own occult tome.

And for me that intensity, that devouring mystery and too-late dismay, is what it means to traffic with The King in Yellow.

Stirling can’t touch that. For someone else, someone who has not experienced this particular branch of horror mythos in the same way, Prince of Outcasts may be just fine. But for me, Caroline got there first.

Sorry Stirling. I read your book and instead think of that campaign.

I don’t think I’m going to finish this book. Not any time soon at least.

Exemplars & Eidolons: Post-Mortem

It turns out that Exemplars & Eidolons was almost exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. It also turns out that I failed to sufficiently anticipate the bottleneck that I would create by not printing out more materials for my players to use while making their characters. So much for “less than half an hour.”

To be fair, most of character creation was finished faster than that. The dice-rolling and number generating side of things, and the decisions that people had to make about equipment and such, were really quick. Choosing their gifts, with the limited information that I gave them, was really quick too.

What took time was copying information about their gifts onto their character sheets, and coming up with facts about their characters. The first of those has a pretty obvious solution; I can give out more pre-printed materials after people have chosen their gifts, instead of being the only person with access to the full text of the gift entries in the book. The second seems a little trickier.

The game suggests that players write three facts about their characters. As the text puts it in the one page cheat sheet, “One fact should be about their past life and how they obtained their skills. Another should be about the family or social ties they have, and the third should be about some special trait or personal quality.” It took a little convincing from me for them to say ridiculous and awesome things about themselves. I also had to tell them that these were intended to give them more hooks or ways to interface with the world, instead of being intended to shut them away from it.

Maybe it’s because first level characters in Exemplars & Eidolons don’t look like all that much on paper, but I don’t think they really believed how badass I was encouraging them to be. The truth is, if I were only looking at the numbers on the sheet without having read the rule book, I might think that most E&E characters were doomed to suffer ignominious deaths at the hand of a few goblins with pointy sticks. In point of fact, I think just about any E&E character would totally wreck those goblins, probably on their own… but it’s tough to embrace that when you look at your character and don’t *believe* it.

So how am I going to make that side of things go faster? To some extent there’s no way for me to rush the creativity of my players. If they can’t come up with anything they like, they can’t come up with anything they like. I’ve certainly had that problem today, getting 720 and 530 words into two different tries for a flash fiction piece and liking neither of them. But I think I should write three examples of different kinds of facts for each of the prompts and include them in the additional materials that I print up. I can also include my little reminders about how people should make their facts more badass than not, and how they should create further engagement with the world if at all possible. Maybe I’m deviating from the original intent, but I don’t want players to hobble themselves because they decided to make their fact about “some special trait” be ‘dies their hair green’ when other people are throwing around things like ‘walked barefoot through the Valley of Knives both ways, in the middle of winter.’

And, if all else fails, they can write their facts while we play. Heck, that might be the best possible option. If I prep some adventures right now so that I can start game the moment people have the relevant numbers, and start with the characters already undertaking some task, I’m pretty sure a bunch of improv trained LARP campers can come up with some personal character details.

Oh, yeah, the session was awesome. I’ll probably talk more about it later, but suffice to say that improvising and flying by the seat of your pants is really easy in this system. It’s great, and fighting spooky snake sorcerers in a dark and creepy space is scary.