Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Probably one of the most neglected elements of storycraft is that of theme.  People love to talk about characters, settings and plots, but they often neglect to discuss or decide what a story is really about, or what it's really driving at.  I'm guilty of this too: Why worry about what a story is about when I'm in love with characters or a particular setting element?  But even so, I've found that themes serve as a strong foundation for a game, helping to shape my characters, my plots and my sessions.

If I had to pick a single, driving theme for Cherry Blossom Rain, it would be that of wabi-sabi.  The sentiment is similar to the Western concepts of "Seize the day!" or "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," but decidedly less uninhibited or optimistic.  Wabi-sabi is noticing a wrinkle on a beautiful, young woman's face and seeing a hint of the grandmother she is to become.  It's watching the autumn leaves fall from a tree.  It's noting the ding on your favorite sword and finding that it has more character now.

Part of wabi-sabi is noting the effect time has on things.  Cherry Blossom Rain has a deep background: The legendary blades aren't just magical, but they have stories.  The clans and this war was already in motion.  Many games treat the history of a setting as a sort of eternity: The good king has always ruled the righteous kingdom, the evil empire has always threatened the freedom of the world, orcs have always rampaged at the borders.  If there is history, it happened thousands of years go.  In Cherry Blossom Rain, it happened yesterday, and it's still in motion.  The players find themselves not in an eternally unchanging world, but in a world that was the result of heaps and heaps of small changes over time, and that's changing still, changing around them and changing with them whether they want it or not.

But the main thing most people take away from wabi-sabi is the concept of fleeting beauty, the knowledge that you might have seen something beautiful, something worth cherishing, and now it is forever gone.  I've tried to steep my game with this notion: My game is not an endless parade of samey duels, but distinct moments that the players will never be able to get back.  First, wild adventures through the sinister Kamurocho and a unique opportunity to serve tea to their enemies and get to know them better.  Then, a moment of camaraderie in a hot springs.  Now, they stand on the precipice of war, frantically sharing their last moments with the ones they love, struggling to preserve what they have, knowing that tomorrow it'll all be gone.  I've complained before that my game has slowed to a glacial pace, and it's not because the players have nothing to do, but because they're doing so much.  Part of this, I think, comes from their growing awareness of the how fleeting the moment is.  They're grabbing onto these last few days and holding on tight, because tomorrow their beloved NPCs won't be there.  They might not be there.  Raoul in particular feels this keenly, as he sees himself as the most likely to die on Sword Mountain. Even the name "Cherry Blossom Rain" speaks to the concept of wabi-sabi, because I'm explicitly trying to evoke the image of cherry blossoms falling from trees, a moment of beauty caught just as it ends.

I really can't think of a better medium to show the principle of wabi-sabi than in a role-playing game.  A picture freezes the moment forever.  A recording or a video can be played over and over again.  But nobody will ever have a chance to play Cherry Blossom Rain again, not this way, not with these people, not this story.  It's behind us and done, a stream of fleeting moments, enjoyed and now cherished, but forever gone.  I find this the most poignant element of role-playing: My art is an art that's lost as soon as its shown.  No matter how wonderful a session, future generations will never have a chance to marvel at it the way they might marvel at one of Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings.  In that, a session's beauty is even greater precisely because of its fragility, the very essence of wabi-sabi.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Games I play: Houses of the Blooded

Ages ago, Erik Moll complained that this "Monday Night Group" didn't want to play Houses of the Blooded while he very much wanted to run it.  Setting aside a discussion about the very contentious social model that resulted in that situation, I suggested that he run it on his own and simply invite the people he wanted to the game, as he had more than enough cred to cobble together an all-star team.

He took me up on that and I must say I was flattered when he invited me to join, and so I've been playing Houses of the Blooded for... what is it, nearly a year now?

Let's get the bad out of the way by talking about the system, because you never really get to know a system without playing it fairly extensively.  John Wick put together an amazingly elegant core system for Houses of the Blooded.  I have a few small quibbles over the value of various virtues (like Courage) and inevitably there's a discussion of how broad an Aspect can really be, but ultimately these mechanics work.  But where the system completely collapses is the Season Actions.  Weirdly, John Wick took his excellent and well-crafted core system and... tossed it aside for something completely new.  Worse, the chapter is badly edited (recently Jimmy and I had an argument over how Spying on Regions and Conquering Regions actually worked... until we realized we were getting our information from two different sections, mutually contradictory, in the same chapter titled "Conquer." I'm not joking), and the balance is whacky and the situations that it creates are often uninteresting or create samey characters.  For example, Frank plays an unrefined Falcon who, in his words "Has a Strength of 2 and a Cunning of 3, which should be switched, but I like my Season Actions too much." I don't blame him given that Season Actions are experience.  Or the fact that you need all of the resources, so inevitably everyone has the same sorts of terrain and nobody specializes.  It's just a shame that Wick didn't extend the same amount of careful thought that he applied to his Virtue/Aspect/Wager system that he did to his Season Actions.

The game itself, though, has been delightful.  I've played with Erik before, years and years ago, and while his wasn't the worst game I'd played in (by far), I found the game to be tedious, and that he had a tendency to want to maintain a status quo.  I haven't played with him for years, and he's clearly shed that inhibition for change, because this game is dynamic and constantly changing (he didn't bat an eye, for example, when some dice rolls and some suggestions resulted in the death of one of his primary NPCs.  Instead, he pushed it further and used it as fodder for more stories).

What makes the game, though, isn't what Erik does, it's what he doesn't do.  He carefully chose aggressive, strong players that would know what they want, and then he gave us a world and then sat back and let us play in it.  He's not lazy, I should be clear: He's adding elements as quickly as the rest, nor is this a "GMless" game, as he maintains the role as ultimate arbiter, but he allows us to heap on elements, notes them, and then finds ways to add more and more on them until we've created something fascinating out of nothing.  I've seen people try this sort of game before, but I've never seen anyone pull it off as successfully as Erik has.

Let me use last night's session as an example: We did our Season Actions for Winter, and we were missing some rather important players, so Erik didn't want to move forward with some of the bigger events (Like a planned wedding).  So, instead, he asked for suggestions.  I noted that I still had trouble in my Swamp region ("the Hungry Earth"), and so we decided to deal with that Trouble.  The players asked for a description of my lands, which laid before them, and we played out a quick scene in my castle, with players negotiating the price for their assistance (and Erik playing as his own, personal PC, at my request), whereupon we made our way to the Hungry Earth (again, more description from me) and players began to add additional elements to the story with their own rolls, which Erik would take, along with my description, and wove them together into a story about a decietful and beautiful treasure hunter, ancient and terrible artifacts bound up in the secret of my own artifact-blade, and dark, cthulhu-esque monstrosities and a plot by the children of Mahl.

From nothing, we got that.

As with Xavier's game, I find myself marvelling: I don't think I could sit back and trust my players that much.  I'd be too worried that the game would fail.  I couldn't just let go like that... and if I did, I wouldn't be able to adapt so rapidly and smoothly as Erik does.  Better, Erik has really mastered the art of letting you have want, on the one hand, while complicating your life in a way that's interesting without leaving you feeling powerless or screwed.  I've talked before about trust, and here, in this game, Erik definitely has my trust.

I'm playing as Moryandal, a treacherous Serpent from the Valar family (which apparantly suffers under a long-lasting family curse), known for his size and his glowing, haunting white greatsword.  Unlike in Xavier's game, I let a bit more of my dark side show, the parts of me that I really, really enjoy in a game.  So far, I don't think it's damaged the game, but sometimes I worry that I do push the game too much and represent too strong a presence in the game (though Jimmy and Maartje do help guide the game away from my hands).

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Games I'm Playing: D&D

I got into gaming because I wanted to play. Unfortunately, most GMs (when they're 11 to 14) sucked, so I ended up grabbing the books and doing it myself, and because I sucked less than everyone else, I became the go-to guy to GM.  At first, I did so with some resentment (everyone else got to have "fun" while I had to do the work) but eventually I began to enjoy the unique beauty of GMing for its own sake.  Then something unique happened: I met other GMs that didn't suck.  Slowly, I found myself unclenching things I hadn't even realized I had held clenched for years, and I began to trust that other GMs could actually be competent... and I gave a few a try.  The next few blog posts will be about those games, and why they're great.

I've never really been a fan of D&D.  Most gamers grew up with it as their first game and, frankly, I think they view it through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia.  Compared to the other games of my generation AD&D was just out of date and behind the times.  When 3e came out, I gave it a shot and found it much improved, but it still didn't set right with me.  In fact, I never enjoyed a D&D game at all, ever, until I played in a 4e game run by Xavier Wolfs at an open evening.  To my amazement, I wasn't only having fun, but I wanted more.  And so I pestered him for two years to let me into his campaign, and when one of his players finally crossed a line and got kicked out, I got let in.

I haven't been disappointed since.

Xavier is running a D&D game set in a shard world, a world that was once whole, but now shattered into vast mountains of rock floating in a great void.  We fly from shard to shard in skyships, battling evil and trying to save the day and what have you.  I play as an Unaligned (would be Lawful Neutral on the old chart if they hadn't "improved" the game by removing it) Human Fighter named Havard Grey, a Skyguard (sort of a fantasy INTERPOL agent), beloved by Avandra (much to his consternation).  I've played for 3 sessions... which might seem awfully short to make judgment calls and call something "great," but I've ditched games far faster than that, so I feel justified in my knee-jerk assessment.

Xavier's game is not the sort that I would like "on paper."  Essentially, it consists of a string of fight scenes with a sliver of RP in between them to justify moving from one scene to the next.  In principle, I should hate that sort of game, and most of the time, I would, but how Xavier handles it makes all the difference in the world.

First, the fights are never "just fights."  He creates these intricate, free-wheeling battles where every battle is not just a measure of your die rolls, but also a measure of your ability to solve the tactical problem he's laid out before you.  I'm quite a skilled gamemaster, of that fact I've never been shy, but I will tell you this: I can't hold a candle to the ease with which Xavier conjures fascinating tactical scenarios.

That, in and of itself, wouldn't be enough to hold my interest.  I'm a big fan of stories (the more intricate the better), and so simply beating the hell out of stuff, even in an interesting way, won't keep me happy, but Xavier does have a story, and what's terribly unique about him is how he tells it.  In Newton, I saw a D&D DM who would stop in between fights and do what he called "cut scenes," which amounted to him explaining how awesome his NPCs were to the players and monologuing for 15 minutes while they stared at him in rapt fascination (why they found that so fascinating, I never understood).  Xavier is the polar opposite. He doesn't explain anything to you.  He shows you through the battles.

Let me show you what I mean.  In my first battle, I was sent to investigate a minor vampire incursion, only to have my team (of low-level NPCs) nearly wiped and to have my bacon saved by the rest of the party, wherein we discover that there's a major vampiric conspiracy within the city.  In the second and third battle, we discover the vampires nest beneath an inn, and in the final battle, we faced down the head vampire himself and the woman who supposedly loved Raoul's character and defeated them.  Each of these fights had broader implications, particularly the first and the last (the third also resulted in us finding a book of vampiric/elven death-love poetry).  In the first: Why would the skyguard send such an inexperienced team to die?  Was the intel so bad, or did they know they were sending us to die (the implications I've discovered since then is that it was the latter).  In the final battle, we uncover the truth about who was really behind the conspiracy (hint: not the vampire.  He was raised back from the dead by a necromancer) and how Minestra truly felt about Raoul (she had been using him).  Note that Xavier didn't spend thirty minutes outlining this stuff to us: the design of his scenarios, or a few throwaway lines by the NPCs, made these implications patently obvious.  If that Newton DM was "GM as Final Fantasy," Xavier is "GM as Half Life."

Which isn't to say that Xavier's games lack role-play, it just tends to be subtle, and it reflects the needs of the player.  Most of the people at the table are more interested in getting to the next fight than in a dynamic and nuanced RP, and so that's what they get.  Whenever I have a scene, of course, I have to describe how my character strolls in, how he scowls, and what he wants... and Xavier reflects that back by stepping up to my RP with RP of his own.  In some scenes, the RP is subtle and quick, a drop of hints, a few clues that there's more going on, enough characterization to get an idea of what's going on, and sometimes it's more intense, wrapping up what's happened and where the story is going next.

But what matters, what's important here, is that Xavier puts everything in the game for a reason.  I often argue that NPCs should not simply be placed into a game for no (or a singular) reason, such as the girl whose sole purpose in life is to fall in love with a PC.  Instead, everything should tie together, and into the grander scheme of things.  Xavier does the same thing, but with fight scenes.  All of them are uniquely interesting, geared towards the players, tied into the current subplot, and tied into the grander arc.

As a gamemaster, Xavier has a few other qualities that I like.  First, he doesn't take his game or himself too seriously.  If I find something amusing and crack a joke about it, he tops my joke with one of his own and the table will burst into laughter (and he'll often bring the jokes into the game, appropriate as it's inspired by the somewhat slapstick One Piece).  I love being able to stop and laugh and spend time with friends, and his game has that in spades.  More importantly, though, Xavier is simply competent.  I find it difficult to explain some of the finer points of proper GMing to people because much of it simply comes with experience, things like knowing what your players want, rolling with the punches, guiding confused players through the rules, knowing when to break the rules or the story for the sake of the game, and so on.  Xavier has this quality.  When I pestered him about what I wanted for my character (for like the third time) he just smiled patiently and made sure I had it (actually, he already had it ready, and was simply too polite to tell me that I was being a nag ^_^).  He helped me choose the right abilities and avoid some of the pitfalls of character creation, and makes the game easy to play even for someone as inexperienced with it as myself.  As a result, I feel like my character is totally awesome, and I owe a lot of that to him.

The group is... interesting, and highlights what people mean by the "Culture of D&D."  For most of the PCs, I have a hard time picturing them as anything other than tokens on a board.  William, playing a half-orc fighter with a specialty in high mobility and pole-arm combat that works surprisingly well with my slow-but-sure tank-tactics.  He plays his character as a little dopey, simple, and straightforward, and I find myself warming to William far more than I expected.  Raoul plays as a human cleric, and though he complains that he doesn't roleplay enough, I can see the ground glowing beneath his feet or the marks of his Astral Seal or the light of his beacon of hope, and I get a sense for his understated wisdom and his leadership qualities.  Rene plays as a  Tiefling Warlock, but I haven't played with him enough to get an idea of what he's like (he just seems to teleport a lot and skulk in a cloak).  Sonder plays as a halfling vampire (who was apparantly a noble) who tends to run into people a lot (his favorite move is weirdly titled "Vampire Slam.").  Finally, Pim plays as a dwarven invoker who... uh... gives me really great bonuses.  That's all I can tell about his character, and that seems to be what Pim wants: to be useful on a mechanical level.  If you pin him down on social traits, he just gets nervous and stares at you, god bless him.

So I don't get much of a sense of who these fellow characters are, outside of Raoul and William (and even there, not much when compared to, say, Cherry Blossom Rain or Jimmy's 7th Sea game), but I can live with that.  What they are is a surprisingly fun and very helpful bunch who combine well with Xavier's understated "show, don't tell" style of storytelling, and they appreciate it too.

I think I could learn a lot from Xavier's approach.  In some ways, it couldn't be more different from how I run games, but in some ways, I can see that we both walk a similar path of "fun first," and "show, don't tell."  He's just managed to do it without being nearly as wordy as I am.  That's what I call "elegant."

Friday, September 9, 2011

GURPS Ultra-Tech: Square Root of Destruction

Pyramid #34: Alternate GURPS includes a fantastic article on converting GURPS Spaceships into a sort of GURPS Vehicles replacement.  Additionally, he added a new set of charts for converting Spaceship's energy weapons from the "cube root based" numbers of standard GURPS with "square root based" numbers, thus increasing the damage of high powered weapons and more closely matching the progression of projectile weapons.

I thought it would be nice to do the same with GURPS Ultra-Tech, but I quickly ran into the problem.  Exactly where are the cube roots in GURPS, so we can extract them and replace them with square-root based damage numbers?  It doesn't seem to be the value of the energy in joules, nor can you derive it directly from the damage itself because the numbers in the Pyramid article do a funny thing: Below a certain threshold, they actually get smaller than the cube-root numbers, which suggests we're looking at the fractions of some value (the cube root of a fraction is larger than the square root of a fraction).  After some experimenting, I found that the mass of the weapon seemed to be most important factor: (60 weapon mass in tons)^(1/3) = dDam 1 in dice (to derive dDam2, double the equivalent value of dDam1).  For example, a 10MJ weapons system is a single system on a +5 ship (making it about 1.5 tons), we'd expect a standard dDam1 value of 4 dice (8 dice with dDam2), and that's just what we see.  If we replace the cube root function with a square root function, we expect to have a dDam1 value of 9.5, and we see we have 9d+2 (and 20 dice with dDam2).  If you go below 100 KJ (that is, below 0.015 tons), you'd expect to find your square-lasers become weaker than your cube lasers, and they do just that.

The numbers aren't perfect, but if you account for rounding, they do match up pretty nicely to the actual numbers in the table, nicely enough for our purposes.

However, we already have both charts.  We don't need the math behind it for spaceships.  No, we need to know the math for the beam weapons in Ultratech, so we can make our Laser Rifles more competitive with Storm Carbines, right?  However, these weapons are more complex.  We have a difference between the mass of the weapon (the stock, the barrel, the grip) and the power cell (the only source of energy), the number of shots that the weapon can fire, the RoF and so on.  So I pulled open the book, a spreadsheet and my trusty calculator and started to see if I could find a relationship between any of these and the damage value.

To my surprise, the only thing that seemed to matter across the board was the weight of the weapon (not, as I expected, the cell. I mean, you'd think the stock has nothing to do with how much damage a laser rifle can kick out, but apparently the stats in Ultra Tech assume a minimum amount of gun necessary to fire the shot), the TL of the weapon, and the nature of the beam being fired.  It seems to work thus:

Take the cube root of the weight of the weapon in pounds, and multiply this by a value based on the TL and the type of beam fired (We'll call this the "Beam Factor").

The Laser Beam Factor:
-TL 9 Lasers: 1.5
-TL10+ Lasers (of any kind): 3

The Blaster Beam Factor: 3

The Pulsar Beam Factor: 6

the Plasma Beam Factor:
-TL 10 Plasma: 5
-TL 11 Plasma/Fusion: 7

The Graviton Beam Factor: 1.5

The Force Beam Factor: 4

The Disintegrator Factor: 60

The Ghost Particle Factor: 6

This will derive the value of every ultra-tech beam weapon (accounting for some rounding) for every weapon but the following:
-Several Rainbow Weapons (the Rainbow Dinosaur Laser seems to be in error, but the Rainbow Strike Laser won't work with this formula)
-The Graser Rifle (probably an error and meant to be 6)
-Most "Particle" Cannons, including the Blaster Cannon, the Pulsar Cannon, the Plasma Cannon and the Fusion Cannon
-Force Cannons

-The small-scale disintegrators, which have no logic that I can fathom (perhaps they're made up numbers to suit genre, rather than based on any consistent formula).

I think it's highly likely that at least some of the numbers that don't fit are either erroneous or arbitrarily changed to match some sci-fi trope, but I expect the majority of my mismatches are the result of me not actually having the numbers right in front of me.  There's probably some subtle factor that I'm missing, one that doesn't show up at low levels but becomes more important with larger weapons, especially with particle/anti-particle/plasma cannons, explaining the discrepancies.  Also, there's some judicious rounding going on, and some numbers fit better than others, which also suggests to me that I'm missing some factors... but the above seems to work 90% of the time, which means that it's probably close enough for our purposes until GURPS Vehicles comes out.

So, if you want to bring the Square Root of Destruction into the hands of your players, you need only take the square root of the mass of a weapon, and then multiply it by the Beam Factor above to derive the new and improved damage.  Expect pistols to remain about where they are, rifles to see a small improvement, and semi-portables and heavy weapons to see a huge increase.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I know I haven't been around much.  I've felt strangely about my blog for the past while now.  I keep meaning to get back, to write some thoughts down, but like many things, it gets put off, alas.

Fortunately, I do have something to share with you today: 760 AD, our latest addition to History Lesson.

I chose 760 because it was exactly 1000 years before 1760, thus the eldest elders in my 1760 game would be from there, forming a nice frame on my game.  I also chose it out of perversion, because I knew nothing about it and I honestly expected to find little, thus testing my premise of "In history, there's always something interesting." It proved half-right.

The problem with 760 and, indeed, most of the dark ages is that you find yourself relying mostly on archaeology and legends, rather than a lot of hard fact.  Is Roland real?  When did he live?  How old was Charlemagne?  We know they did three field rotations around this period, more or less, but people aren't recording much.  What they do record is a chaotic mess of wars, tribes, treachery and collapse.  Honestly, it reminded me a great deal of modern day Africa: Lots of petty warlords, occasional moments of prosperity and happiness followed swiftly by anarchy, civil war, rape and pillaging and disease.  This is not a pleasant time to live.

So, in some ways, it proved hard to find any details, and when I did find details, I was blown away by how many nitty gritty details there were.  England, for example, lacks any terribly important countries or organizations, and while it's fun to talk about the different kingdoms of England, your mind begins to break as you realize you're only talking about the kingdoms of one racial group, and that those kingdoms often have multiple "kings" and sub-fragments no larger than city-states, and then reading about how they go through three kings in a decade.  Crazy.

I'm not complaining, though.  I liked it, and found it enlightening.  I'm a little less motivated to game in this era than I am in 1410... but only a little.  What I enjoyed the most about it is that it really opened my eyes to what the birth of Europe really looked like, and finally taught me a great deal about the Dark Ages.  And, naturally, I started giggling like mad when my random dart-board choice of 760 landed me right at the end of the Merovingian Dynasty and right before the rise of the Paladins, and the earliest date of Beowulf.  So, it seems, if people are at least recording history, it's true: Any period has interesting shit going down.

Anyway, you can check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Historical Gaming

The inestimable Kenneth Hite has an interview wherein he discusses how to research for a historical game, and the benefits of such game.  I find he puts into words many of my own thoughts.  So if you're interested in historical gaming, or just history in general, you can listen to it here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

History Lesson: 1410

I've resolved to get somewhere with my Viennese Vampire game, so I picked up History Lesson again.  Rather than going back at a predictable 50 year pace, I just grabbed a year, in this case 1410, primarily because Europa Universalis begins in 1399, and I was curious about the context (but still wanted to keep it near that 50-year mark).

I'm always saying that the amazing, eye-opening thing about History Lesson is how completely it proves my belief that if you pick a time-period, awesome things are going on.  People are falling in love, crazy battles are going on, there's intrigue and betrayal and murder and a surprising amount of culture, and 1410 didn't fail to live up to my expectations!  The worst part is all the stuff I didn't have time to get into (this stuff takes too long as it is)!  Do you know how much crazy stuff is going on in Eastern Europe, around Sigismund's conquests, or the Queen of Bosnia, Elizabeth, and her daughter Mary (it's kinda before this time, but it's still awesome, with Louis, the Duke of Orleans marrying Mary via Proxy, and Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor, invading and forcing her to marry him instead and thus securing his domain), or a deeper discussion of the fall of the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights and the Peace of Thorns, or anything regarding Byzantium!  For that matter, I don't touch on anything outside of Europe, and this is the era of Zhang He and Tamarlane!


You know, whenever I'm finished with one of these projects, I always want to run a game in that era.  Perhaps I should.  Do you suppose people would want to play any of the characters listed there?

But anyway, enough talking: Take a look for yourself.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vampires are really, really old

I have a pet peeve that I'm sure I've mentioned before: When it comes to immortals, whether vampires, elves or highlanders, some series like to toss around numbers like they're meaningless when they're not.  The average person doesn't really have a true grasp of the scope of history, hence my other project (History Lesson), beyond broad eras.  He knows about World War 2, and the Civil War, and then the Middle Ages ("That's the bit with the knights and princesses, right?") and then Rome, and then "a really long time ago," and everything in between gets very fuzzy.  As a result, you have vampires from the Civil War, and then vampires from the Medieval Age, and nothing in between, which makes me grind my teeth.

To help you understand my frustration, I've built an infographic (Yay for pictures!).  For comparison, we're going to use Vampire: the Requiem's measure of immortality, as I think that's a pretty well thought-out standard, though these ideas could probably apply to just about anything.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Burn Notice vs Covert Affairs

Burn Notice
A former CIA agent is mysteriously dismissed from his job, burned, and suddenly finds himself on the run from enemies he didn't know he had, trying to uncover who burned him and why, with only the help of his extensive experience, a few old contacts, and a really cool car.

Covert Affairs
The girl next door with a knack for languages decides to serve her country by joining the CIA.  She quickly finds herself in over her head, but adapts quickly to the demands of the job with the help of a blind former field agent and her mysterious lover who vanished one day (and seems connected to the CIA in some fashion).

Both shows by USA, on USA right now, both solid shows about spies, and yet they have marked differences. The first is clearly meant for boys: It constantly shows flashes of hot chicks in bikinis, there's lots of explosions, the main character is a tough loner that doesn't need nobody (and yet has good friends, including the gorgeous girl who desperately wants into his pants and the drinking buddy), they drive a totally cool car, and Michael solves many of his problems with tactics, forethought, and sweet gadgets he invented himself by working in a garage.  The second is clearly meant forgirlss: It's about a babe-in-the-woods character who needs to learn to adapt quickly.  There's an interesting male character in every episode, and she tends to succeed by understanding the people involved and navigating a very tangled set of relationships in storylines that seem ripped from the pages of romance novels.

Bee and I enjoy both, and it certainly confirms my thoughts on spy series appealing both to men and women, since they contain elements that stereotypically fascinate both genders.  They also highlight, I think the difference between genders when it comes to roleplaying... and the common ground they usually find.  After all, everyone likes relationships, even if they approach them differently, and everyone likes totally sweet action, again, even if they approach it differently.  Mainly, the difference between the two comes down to angles and perspectives.

Personally, though, I'm hoping for an inevitable crossover ^_^

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cherry Blossom Rain: Session 2 and the yips

Do you know what the yips are?  It's when someone who's really good at something, usually sports, suddenly loses his touch.  A perfect pitcher suddenly throws homers, a wide receiver suddenly can't catch, and so on.  When I was in highschool, I had the yips really badly in my summer year: I went from one of the best discus throwers on my team to the guy who literally couldn't get a throw out of the ring at a single competition.  It was terrible, and to this day, I don't know what I was doing wrong.

I've found myself wondering if I'd have the yips as a GM lately.  Some of my players will look at me like I'm mad, but the truth is, I'm certain my WoD: Witchcraft game wasn't great, and my WotG game wasn't what I wanted it to be.  I know the techniques, and I can talk the talk, but I find myself wondering if, perhaps, I've lost the ability to walk the walk.  On the one hand, it might be absurdly high expectations: I want all my games to be "great" while greatness is ultimately subjective (Most people will agree when something is bad, or when it's good, but greatness goes a little beyond that, and it's often in the eyes of the beholder), and so when I fail to get a jump up-and-down reaction from my more experienced players, I feel like I'm doing something wrong, when I'm probably not.  So perhaps it's in my head.

Well, if I had the yips, they're gone now.  I hit every note I needed to in this last session, and more than that, I proved to myself that the techniques I've been studying have been paying off.

First, I've felt for some time that if you have sufficient advanced material, that prepping and planning the game itself should be relatively easy.  Now, while I had plenty of time to put this game together, I procrastinated (as I usually do when my focus is elsewhere), and ended up spending 30 minutes right writing out some thoughts I'd had the other night before I zipped off to the game.  Despite my almost complete lack of preparation, I still had a really good game.

The players started off in the Kurosawa Castle, guests of Ren and Lord Kurosawa again.  I reintroduced Sano (rudely), and then brought the characters together.  Hitting the high points:

  • After seeing a doctor for his wounds, Kenta (Raoul) went to train with Yudai and then (spectacularly) lost a duel to Yoshiro, the Senshin Swordmaster.  Sakura (Maartje) also practiced with Yoshiro, but was too busy fluttering her eyelashes at him and blushing to actually fight, and lost twice.  
  • Meanwhile, Yukiko (Desiree) slipped and fell while waking down the hallway and smacked her face against a wall while alone with Ren.  It totally happened! (It did!  Desiree had been cursed by the "Mud Girl" as she keeps calling her (she's noted down in my notes as "the Witch of Jukai"), and so I made her take a "Walking down the hallway" roll, at DX +10, and then used the curse to turn her success into a failure and give her a point of damage).  Naturally, nobody believed her, so Shinji, resident Nice Guy of the Mitsurugi Dragon Guard flew to her defense and was going to challenge Ren before Kenta socked him in the face and told him not to screw up negotiations.  It's good to be Daimyo, I suppose.
  • Yamato (Hugo) negotiated an alliance with Lord Kurosawa in the face of Tsao Bei (evil Chinese diplomat!), who brought Dark Shota and the Executioner with him.  In addition to agreeing to give Lord Kurosawa some important position in the future shogunate, he also arranged to marry someone to his youngest son (Sano).
  • Desiree decided to have a tea ceremony, so obviously everyone had to come.  She got to play dress up (Fashion Sense gives a +1 reaction modifier if you dress yourself or others well, and I required descriptions.  She was more than happy to oblige), and she even made Kyo look really pretty.  At the Tea Ceremony
    • Someone tried to poison Yoshiro, but Ren protected him.
    • Kenta agreed to marry Kyo to Sano, much to her dismay.
    • Yoshiro reacted... passionately to this revelation, leading Sakura to suspect that he was in love with Kyo, must to her dismay (Sakura's dismay, not Kyo, we don't know how Kyo feels about that, she was too busy freaking out about being married off).
    • There was much drama.
  • That night, ninjas attacked!  Fortunately, Kenta, Sakura, and Senshin no Oni (!) showed up to defend him.  Senshin no Oni revealed that Tsao Bei was attempting to grievously wound the swordmaster, knowing that the Senshin would never leave him behind and it would slow down their movement.  He also revealed what he had learned while prowling the city, giving them some clues on where they might find Kimiko.
  • Desiree found the carefully preserved bedroom of Akane, Ren's older sister who was executed for treason against the emperor.  When he discovered her, he wasn't angry, as his servants expected, merely very sad, and asked her to play her samisen for her.  She agreed.
Naturally, I'm leaving out some of the details.  A few important things came out of this session.  First, I've been trying to explain the importance of beauty and elegance in the setting, but this session served as an excellent demonstration of that, with a sudden focus on Desiree's tea ceremony skills, her make-up skills, her fashion sense, and Maartje's calligraphy, and everyone's savoir-faire (only Kenta screwed up his roll).  Second, I wanted this game to very much be an exploration of Japanese culture, and Hugo's demonstration of tea ceremonies for the rest of us did a good job at that. Finally, I've taken Walter's sage advice to heart.  You see, I'm terribly fond of having multiple, interwoven stories and that often involves separate scenes for each character.  This can have wonderful results, but as he once said "Dan, your stories are great to watch, but they're even more fun to interact with."  I made a point of allowing anyone to jump in on anyone else's scene, and the result was that you got crossover much faster while nobody lost their moment in the spotlight.  You could see the multiple threads and interact with them, which I think partially explains the success of the session.

What stuck out to me was the interaction I had with the players.  Normally, you don't see players this invested in characters and storylines until midway through the campaign.  This campaign shows the dividends of my work to make sure that I can have "maximum impact in minimum sessions," and I thought I had failed (it turns out that there's a certain "minimum" players need to grasp what the hell is going on), but clearly, I hadn't.  I can't stuff "the feel" of a full campaign into a single session, but apparently I can reach that point in two.  Raoul argues that it's because I have an all-star cast of players, and that's certainly a contribution.  Raoul himself, for example, has deeply studied my setting and my characters and is highly invested in the game, and Desiree is used to falling into character for one-shot LARPs, but I'd like to think that the work I've put into the setting helped.

Once, during the development of 4e, a D&D designer invited his wife to sit in on a D&D playtest and watch.  He asked her opinion, and she said "It looks like 4 hours of work for 30 minutes of fun."  I've been trying for a long time to improve that ratio, so players don't feel like they have to slog through 4 hours of crap to have a little fun at the end.  After I realized that we'd played for 4 hours and I'd only had 30 minutes of prep, I commented to Bee "I had 4 hours of work that only cost me 30 minutes of work." :)

I think the lessons learned here are clear: Pick your players and match them well to your game.  All the work you do in advance will save you work in the long run, and the fact that I can simply run with little to no prep means I'm not stressed before the session.  Allow PCs to interact with one another, and encourage them to stay in the vicinity of one another so that they can do so.

This is what I wanted from my sessions, and now my players can see where I'm going with it.  And it passed the "player gab" test, since people were apparently chatting about it the next day.  Cherry Blossom Rain has officially taken flight.

Just a shame that Rene and Raymond couldn't be there to see it... on the other hand, they were sold on the game in session 0. :)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Subtext and the Art of Painting Without Words

Let me begin with two stories.

Recently, I turned my Arts of Rhetoric posts into actual lessons at recent Tea@Knights, which turned out to be quite popular.  Marco, in particular, enjoyed it.  He told me that he'd long had a dissatisfaction with how flat some scenes felt, and had begun (without knowing it) practicing elements I discussed, like "Show, don't tell," and "Active Voice," only he called it "Painting with Words."  Like me, he felt that showing people the world on a visceral level was a vital element of running a good game, that you had to let people see what the dungeon looked like, and that it wasn't enough to tell them about it.

Further back, back at the Summer Weekend, returning to Desiree's Steampunk Gypsies, I had another interesting experience, though it had little to do with Desiree herself.  I played this conservative, rugged gypsy with a horse, who (obviously) fell in love with a dancer gypsy.  Of course, he never claimed to be in love.  He worried too much about his kin to take the time to romance this beautiful girl. Instead, he taught her to ride horses, revealed his dream of rebuilding a whole herd of gypsy steeds, and worked on getting his brothers married while ignoring his own needs.  Every player could see that my character and she were madly in love, but neither of them admitted it, neither of them actually said those words.

In contrast, we had another player, and I'm not condemning his approach, merely highlighting the difference, who played a suave, sexy gypsy dancer-boy, who tried to sweep this innocent and younger girl off her feet.  After a dance, he said (and I quote), "I tell her, without sounding like some middle school kid, that I like her."

Both of these stories touch on the truth that a story is about showing people what's going on, rather than telling them.  In the first romance, we showed the audience everything they would see: awkward moments between two passionate people, the way a proud man refused to admit his need but still cast longing glances at the beautiful girl, or the way she tried to dance for him even while dancing with another man, or the way watching her dance with another man made him lose his concentration while playing his guitar.  In the second romance, the storyteller informs the audience "Hey, these two people are in love."  Personally, I agree with Marco, and I prefer the former approach to the latter.  I feel it's better to show, rather than tell.

While discussing description, Jozef touched on this very thing when he said "How to do you make something scary without saying that it's scary?"  One of the key elements of Marco's "Painting with Words" is that you don't come out and say what things are.  Instead, you let the player draw his own conclusion.  When you describe a man as "Looming," and "Dark eyed," with a "sinister smile," you don't need to say "And he's scary."  The player is capable of deciding that for himself, and his scariness is rather obvious, if you paint the right picture.

But this applies to broader concepts as well.  When you begin to discuss situations, you can do so without saying "And this is going on."  You can simply outline events: A boy brings a girl flowers, a bright smile on his face.  A girl laughs, covering her mouth.  The flowers end up on the ground, petals broken and drifting on the wind as the boy walks away.  The girl's laughter fades as she watches him walk away, tears glistening in her eyes.  We don't know what happened.  We can guess.  We might want to know more, but it's more interesting than saying "A boy thought a girl loved him, and she did, but she feels they cannot be together and so broke his heart to chase him away."

People like games.  People are clever.  You don't explain the punchline of a joke to them, you let them ferret out the implications of your words.  Likewise, you don't start the murder mystery by explaining whodunnit.  You don't even point out the clues.  You let the reader realize what's important and what isn't and then put together the truth.  People don't want to be told that two people are in love.  They want to see it, they want to guess, they want to gossip based on events.  People want to exercise their brains.  In many ways, the whole point of role-playing games is the art of turning abstract situations ("Three medieval warriors face ten ravening monsters under the ground.  What happens?") into an immersive scenario where players lose themselves in what's going on.

And that requires less, not more.  Sometimes, what you don't say is more important than what you do.  Sometimes, you must paint without words.  Leave things unsaid, unspoken, and merely imply them with your silence.  Rather than show people something, refuse to talk about it and create powerful implications by describing everything around it.  Just as a tough, lone-wolf guy might never admit he's in love, you might never actually describe the feelings involved and let the players guess (Oh, in WotG, we had one of those great, unspoken romances and the player in question was so angry when our Secret-Art-wielding Scholar tried to force them to talk about it...).  Leave gaps, and let the players fill it in with their own imagination and speculation while smiling and listening.

Real life doesn't hand you answers.  It merely has events you witness, often without proper context.  The closer a role-playing game is to real life, the more immersive it is.  The next time you want to run a romance, I encourage you to not describe the feelings of those involved and merely imply them based on their actions.  The next time you run a horror, consider refusing the describe the monster beyond the evidence he leaves behind (the gashes in the victims, the sickly sweet smell that foreshadows his attacks).  Remember to show, rather than tell, and remember that some things you neither show nor tell, that you leave unsaid, that you merely imply with everything else.

Subtext.  Painting without words.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cherry Blossom Rain: Session 1

I've noticed that when I "mean to" put something on my blog, it almost never goes up unless I do it while the ideas, the events, are still fresh in my mind, so I'm going to post this right away, lest it fall in the dustbin of history.

So!  As you may remember, I ran my samurai one-shot over the Summer Weekend a month or so ago, thus completing my vision of a GURPS Samurai game wherein I could really explore martial arts.  That was enough... but in the process of creating my game, I created an entire world that really demanded more exploration!  And so, I offered to further the game as a campaign.  Today, I ran the first session of that campaign.

Planning the game turned out easier than I expected.  I fretted that I hadn't spent a week putting session material together and, indeed, I would have liked to have statted a particular ninja out before hitting the table.  However, I put together a skeleton of a session that relied a great deal on what I had already written (not really a problem, as the whole point of all this fore-planning was the fact that I could use it to make the rest of my game easier to toss together).  The results worked great!  I think this whole "intense work putting together a world so that actually putting the sessions together is a snap" strategem really works well for me.

As to the actual session, I wanted a chance to introduce the new characters, bring everyone up to speed on what was going on, have a big, interesting fight that served as a combat tutorial, and then move on to solving the rest of the story.  I got everything up to solving the rest of the story.  I hate it when a session is 90% combat, but I find that's just the pulse of my GURPS games: This session, a really interesting fight with lots of combat, the next two sessions aftermath and building the context for the next big fight.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the fight.  I fret that Desiree, who certainly enjoys roleplaying more than beating the crap out of people, might have been a little bored, but she didn't seem bored, she got to stab someone in the eye with her hairpin, and she said she had fun, so I'll take her at her word.  And we started late, around 7 pm, so we only had 3-4 hours to play, thus it's natural that we wouldn't get much done.

The session began where the last ended: The imperial princess snatched from the home of Taro, the heroic Yakuza, with Yukiko, Daisuke and Hayate there to see the carnage.  They gathered up Taro and moved to leave, when suddenly, ninjas attacked! This gave Hayate a chance to reconnect with his past (an element that had been sorely missing thus far), and showed just how lethal ninjas can be.  Meanwhile, Goro made his move against Taro, bringing his hardest hitters to attack the club and finish off his rival once and for all.  The three players (along with Satomi, the doctor secretly in love with Taro, and Taro, our heroic Yakuza) faced a force of five ninjas, an elite ninja, twenty bandits and the Ox brothers.

Fortunately, the cavalry came (in Maartje's case, literally).  The other players had their own scenes of arriving at the city or realizing that half their party had vanished, and set off in pursuit, only to arrive at the club just in time to see the carnage unfolding.  Each player had a moment to shine, and quite a few NPCs.  Hayate talked the ninjas down (thus saving the doctor's life), and through teamwork, Daisuke (by drawing their fire), Hayate (by wounding them with a flash-step-gut-stab), Desiree (by pinning one in the eye) and Taro (by finishing the final one off with a grab-and-smash) managed to put down both of the terrifying Ox Brothers.  And then the players took the time to get to know one another and decide on where they wanted to go next... and we ran out of time.

So, like I said, I didn't get much done, but the players enjoyed the battle, and I think they needed this sort of "reintroduction."  All in all, given the enthusiasm shown, I think it went well, but I still look forward to digging into the meat of the role-playing in the next session.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Nederlands Week

I've been in the Netherlands for ten years now, and I'm fluent in Dutch.  I can understand it, I can read it, I can write it, and I can speak it, certainly good enough that the government is willing to hand me my NT2 (Nederlands als Tweede Taal aka "Dutch as Second Language"), a certificate that shows I'm "good enough" in Dutch to go to school here and so on.

But there's a difference between being able to speak a language, and being able to speak a language well.  One issue I face, as an English speaker, is that everyone in the Netherlands speaks English, and so I never actually need to speak Dutch if I don't want to.  In fact, I could probably go the rest of my life without speaking Dutch, except to little old ladies or peculiar foreigners that live in the Netherlands, know Dutch, but never learned English.  However, when I applied for a job as a help desk guy, I was turned away because my Dutch wasn't good enough to explain complex things to Dutch people in their native language (and I agreed with their assessment).  At this point,  I decided I needed to do something.  I needed to learn to speak Dutch more fluently, more beautifully, more naturally.  The only way to truly master a language is simply to speak it, over and over again, as much as possible.

And so Nederlands Week (Dutch Week) was born.  The first week of the month, Monday through Friday, I speak nothing but Dutch.  I reasoned that if I had to speak Dutch for an hour a day, or one day a week, I simply wouldn't talk much during that time, but over a whole week, I'd have to speak, and so I'd have to learn.  I've been doing this since February, and you can already notice the difference.  Where I used to stammer a great deal, now I speak more fluidly, with a proper rhythm and a broader vocabulary.  I still struggle with verb tenses (Dutch has an annoying habit of sticking both secondary verbs at the end of a sentence ("Ik moet mijn boek meenemen") and some constructions simply stick all the verbs at the end, but they're the standard verbs, so they're not infinitives, and you still have to conjugate ("Omdat ik een student ben") and I'm forever mixing those two elements up), and constructing really large sentences (the equivalent of sentences like "I am studying Dutch not because I enjoy it, but because I need it." in Dutch would, for me, be a nightmare), but it's beginning to come together, bit by bit, piece by piece, until it becomes second nature to me.  I'll never speak Dutch beautifully, not as beautifully as I speak English, and I've accepted that, but it's still a worthy goal, I think.

The reaction from my Dutch friends has been interesting.  Nearly all of them have heard of Nederlands Week, and they really enjoy it when it comes around.  They'll even criticize one another for speaking English during Nederlands Week (even though it isn't about listening to Dutch, for me, but about letting me speak Dutch).  In some ways, it's sort of turned into a celebration of Dutch.  Several people have commented that they simply appreciate that I'm making an effort to speak their language.  One or two, I think, take this far, criticizing me for not having learned more Dutch more quickly or not speaking Dutch for 2 weeks out of the month, for all the time, but most people are very supportive and enjoy it.  That makes Dutch week something to look forward to, which is odd.

The hardest part, for me, is the transition.  Remembering that it's Nederlands Week is a bit difficult, and I often fall back into English on the first day.  Peculiarly, the opposite is true too: When Nederlands Week is done, I find I still tend to think in Dutch, I still want to try to translate what I'm going to say, and sometimes I forget to speak English.  I take that as a good sign.  Eventually, I won't need Dutch week, I think.  I'll just speak Dutch whenever I'm out with other Dutch people.  That'll be an experience...

I still have a long way to go.  Perhaps next time I discuss Nederlands Week, I'll do it in Dutch.  I'm sure my Dutch readers will enjoy that!  But for now, I'm just glad that my Nederlands Week is over (it can be exhausting, though it's getting less exhausting).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Art of Storytelling Part 2: Rhetorical Techniques

We've already talked about what to say in our previous Art of Storytelling, but how you say it is as important as what you say.  The Art of Storytelling is essentially the same as other forms of public speaking, other forms of rhetoric.  An effective politician's speech uses the same techniques you should to capture your audience's attention, to hold their fascination, to carry them along with your words and bring them to a new world of your devising.  Proper storytelling is a form of physical performance.  Your players listen to you, like an audience listens to a musician, but they also watch you, the way an audience watches an actor.  Done properly, storytelling becomes a multimedia presentation that engages several of your audience's senses at once.

Allow me to illustrate.  At a recent Tea@Knight, we had a discussion of mysteries. The presenter sat in a far corner of the room, his shoulders hunched, his head low, and his tone rushed and mumbled.  The listeners in the room sat awkwardly, looking at one another, unengaged and even whispering among themselves about other topics.  When the presenter ran out of material, he essentially called out for help and I took over.  I already sat in the center of the room, and it didn't take much for my low, loud voice to capture the attention of the players.  Most people I know I have a lot of "presence" and "charisma," and those quickly turned the night into a productive one.  But "presence" and "charisma" are meaningless words that refer to a skill at speech and rhetoric, an understanding of how to capture an audience's attention.  I have no innate characteristics that help me in this regard (other than my height and the physical strength of my voice), just skill and understanding.  The fumbling presenter in question could perform just as well as I did, with practice.

Rule 1: Command Attention

You can't tell a story if nobody is listening to you, period.  Gamers are an unruly bunch at the best of times, quoting geeky films, chatting with one another, interrupting the game with jokes and so on.  Allowed to run its course, most of these well-intentioned interruptions will ruin the game, eventually.  However, if you learn to command attention properly, the distractions will fade away until you have a table of players who fixate their attention almost exclusively on you, and they'll become lost in your imaginary world space, which is exactly what you want.

Occupy the physical center of attention.  If you sit on the edge of the room, out of eyeshot, then people won't know to look at you.  They'll naturally look elsewhere.  We've already talked about how powerful a human's sense of sight is.  As they say, out of mind.  Your players will find their train of thought wandering if you don't anchor it.  I personally prefer to either sit in a unique chair (if everyone else is on the couch, I sit on the recliner), or at the head of the table, and I as well as several other GMs I know, prefer to stand when we really want to occupy the players' attention.  Looking up at the one guy standing in the center of their field of view really holds their attention fast.  Some other GMs use alternate tricks, like flashy GM screens, artwork, or video, and these work too, but be careful that they don't distract from you or the story you're trying to tell.

Your posture matters.  Hunched shoulders, a stiff body and lowered head suggests that you don't want people looking at you, so they won't.  Sit upright or stand tall.  Lift your head and your chin slightly.  Tighten your belly and straighten your spine as though balancing a book on the top of your head.  In addition to improving your height, a tight belly and straight posture improves your breathing and the power of your voice. Also, such a stance suggests confidence, and a good GM must project a sense of leadership and confidence, because the players don't know what's going on and expect you to, and also because pretending to be elves in a forest is a little silly, but if the guy leading such a game doesn't blink once at the silliness, the other players will set aside their embarrassment and play more forthrightly.

Nothing grabs someone attention like eye-contact.  Someone looking into the eyes of someone else is intense, but even looking at someone grabs their attention.  Hiding behind your GM screen, reading off a description is basically the worst thing you can do because you're not looking at the players.  Lift your eyes, look directly at the player to whom the description is most pertinent, and you'll find his eyes fixate on you in return.  But don't let a few players dominate your attention (the danger of a pretty girl and a weakness of mine, I must admit).  Spread that attention around.  Every time a player realizes you're looking at him, he'll look back at you, and you'll recapture his attention.

So, you're standing tall, looking at your players, occupying their attention.  Well done!  But remember that running a game is a touch different than simply telling a story or giving a speech.  Here, your audience participates with you, so you must learn to pass that attention from yourself to other players.  Your actions bring the players into the game, setting the scene, and gathering all of their attention into a single place.  Ideally, every player should invest their attention in you.  Then, when it's someone else's turn, you have only to  gesture to them, passing the baton, and all the players, as one, will turn to this other player.  Your ability to gather attention becomes your ability to gather attention for someone else.  Eye contact is important here too, not just to gain the attention of another player, but to see who is bored, or (more importantly) who is particularly engaged and wants to say something.  If you're in the midst of a description when suddenly you notice one of the players squirming in your seat, you can stop and point to them and say "What do you want to do?"

Rule 2: Pace your speech appropriately

Once you have your player's attention, you can tell the story you want, but how you tell it shapes their perception of it.  A mumbling monotone loses your players not just because they cannot hear you properly, but because a monotone fails to engage them.  We must speak with vigor and emotion, and we must vary our tone.  Doing so will not only engage our players better, but the pace and style of our speech can give the players additional information and manipulate their mood to better suit the tone of the scene.  Music does something similar, and we'll use music as a metaphor for how one can tone and pace ones voice for best effect.

A normal pace, the one you'd use in everyday conversation, is generally informative and neutral in tone.  Such a conversational tone tells your players that the information you give them is casual and not particularly important, such as discussing the weather or what one ate yesterday.  This doesn't mean that it's a poor choice or that it shouldn't be used.  It serves as the baseline for your story and represents common situations. A description of a homey tavern or an unimportant character (or just about anything that isn't urgent or emotionally charged) might be done in a conversational tone.

Music often uses a slow, legato (a musical term meaning flowing and without breaks, like the sort of sound one might associate with a violin) pace to emphasize tragedy or sadness.  Very emotionally charged and depressing scenes should match that pacing.  Sit back, take on a serious expression and then slowly, flowing describe the terrible, tragic events.  The time you take to explain each painful detail resembles the slow, panning shots of a camera, lingering on each element.  This pace also works very well for romantic scenes, and you'll notice many love songs have a similar pacing and tone.

Music often uses a fast, staccato (a musical term meaning sharp and short, like the snap of a drum) pace to emphasize happiness and excitement.  The rapid patter suggests a bounciness.  It's fun, it's quick, la la la WHEE!  This pacing is ideal for comedy, and you'll notice many comedians have a rapid patter punctuated with awkward pauses.  It's also good for parties, flirtation, or anything that is enjoyably exciting without relaxing the players (as a normal, conversational tone would do).

A fast, legato pace is the bread and butter of rock-and-roll, with wailing guitars, howling singers and a very quick pace.  This is the tone of dramatic excitement, danger, epic drama.  You describe war and duels quickly and breathlessly, with few pauses and little time for the players to stop and think.  Every moment flows into the next.  This is a powerful rhetorical style, especially for role-playing games as combat tends to dominate RPGs, and the worst thing most novice GMs do for battle, in my opinion, is sitting back and letting players think.  Keeping up a rapid, fluid patter will enhance the sense of excitement, reminding the players that they battle for their lives.

A slow, staccato pace is very powerful, pronounced and majestic.  You often hear it in national anthems or other regal songs or, in a minor key, in horror movie soundtracks. Rhetorically, slow, pronounced words punctuated with pauses emphasize every word, like the Simpson's Comic Book Guy ("Best. Example. Ever.").  You can use it to simply emphasize what you're saying, to suddenly grab the player's attention, to show them something in startling clarity, but it also builds tension.  Use it when you want something to be stately or horrifying.

Real mastery comes not just from understanding these five paces, but using them in conjunction with one another to create a narrative not just with words, but with the pace of your voice.  A scene begins in a conversational tone as you describe the circumstances, casually and at a normal pace, when suddenly! Enemies attack, a battle described in a a faster, legato manner that keeps the players on their tone, words flowing together as you rapidly string them together.  But the players are winning!  You describe their victory in short bursts!  They're happy!  They're going to survive!  Then... horror... of... horrors!  A valued NPC... struck down... and your words slow, punctuate each moment, in a staccato manner, as though the battle itself slows... as though the players... gain clarity.  And then... you slowly blend your words together as the players bow their head to respectfully send their ally off to the great beyond, a terrible loss for everyone involved.

Likewise, using the wrong pacing for the scene can be interesting too.  An NPC who uses a clinical, conversational tone to describe a murder instantly implies to the players that he's crazy and that he doesn't see murder the same way he does.  Describing something utterly mudane (like button collecting) in a slow and stately manner to exaggerate its importance can suggest that someone takes something a little too seriously, and so on.

Rule 3: Gesture for emphasis

People don't sit around, arms at their side, face rigidly forward telling their story.  Even if you do all of the above, unless you move, unless you prove to your players that you're alive, your story will come across as stiff and unreal, just like you do.  People like motion.  We're conditioned to react to it. It attracts our attention.  Moreover, people naturally move when they speak.  They nod, they smile, they wave their hands around.  You need to do the same.

Gestures, by and large, break down into two broad categories.  First, you have the descriptive gesture.  A descriptive gesture shows the audience what you mean.  When a guy crudely describes a shapely woman, his hands outline her figure, for example, or when someone is describing a friend's tendency to drink too much, he might mime a drinking motion with his hand.  Of the two forms of gestures, this is the most important for role-playing.  You need to show your players how things look, or where they lie in respect to their characters by pointing our outlining.  You can also show characters how the NPCs react by imitating their expressions and actions.  A shy girl would huddle up and bring her hands to her face, so you can do the same.  A big, dumb barbarian would sprawl out with a big sloppy grin on his face, so you can do the same.  Show the players your world through your hands.

The second kind of gestures emphasizes what you say.  These are abstract gestures not meant to show the players something, but to attract their attention and add a little something to what you're saying.  When you're using a legato pace, keep your hands low and roll them, like you're unspooling your speech.  When you're using a staccato pace, point and jab to emphasize your points and drive them home.  You don't need to constantly do this, only at the moments that matter the most, since the motion attracts your audiences attention.

Be careful that you don't distract from what you're saying.  If you point in a direction, players will tend to look in that direction... which might mean they're not looking at you anymore.  You might want that if you want to emphasize the beauty of a grand scene, or if you want to draw the player's attention away from you and towards another player.  Likewise, being excessively animated might make players wonder if you're nervous, and they'll begin to notice the gestures rather than focus on the words they're meant to emphasize.  Use gestures when you need them. Don't be afraid to neglect them during scenes or moments that demand emphasis.

Gestures should come naturally.  People use gestures when speaking with their friends.  People tend to lose them when giving speeches because they are nervous.  Stagefright is a natural response to being put on the spot, which a GM is, but you have to set it aside.  I often suggest that people plan extensively not because they need to plan, but because I know such planning tends to relieve nerves, and a relaxed GM is one that uses gestures effectively.  More than anything, focus on relaxing and growing comfortable at the front of the table, so your gestures come naturally.

If you watch me when I run a game or when I give a talk, you'll note I use these three rules, often without noticing it.  Most skilled GMs do.  Practice them, and you'll have the same "charisma" or "presence" that I do: the ability to keep your players' attention and draw them into a world, not just with what you're saying, but how you're saying it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Art of Storytelling Part 1: Dynamic Description and Active Voice

Some of my fans (I have fans!) have prodded me because, after my initial burst of posting, I haven't said anything, so perhaps its time to take some of the thoughts floating around in my head and put them to paper.  So to speak.

Different people run games differently, and I won't complain about that fact.  Role-playing is a craft, not a science, and so multiple approaches can certainly lead to success.  However, I do think role-playing does contain within it certain, immutable gospels, certain approaches that are inherently superior to others, and proper storytelling is one of them.  When I use the term "storytelling," I'm not using it in some pretentious manner that suggests such noxious memes as "role-play, not roll-play."  Nor am I discussing the art of storycraft, though the art of putting together a proper plot is certainly a worthy topic. No, I mean the actual art of exposition, the art of telling the tale, communicating the scene and the world to your players.  Role-playing games lie at the nexus of social activity, wargame, and storytelling, and you need all three to succeed... but I want to note that while a good system can cover your weaknesses as a referee and wargamer, no system will cover a lack of skill in communication, in painting a picture.  So, that's what I'd like to talk about today.

(I'm a Raven at the Knights of the Kitchen Table, one of the "mentor" gamemasters who guides other novice gamemasters and improves them.  This blog post will likely turn into a future Tea@Knight topic, so don't be surprised if you these words later).

I know some people treat RPGs as an extension of a board-game.  They focus exclusively on mechanics in the abstract, and they roleplay by outlining basic scenarios and then stating their response.  I cannot countenance this approach.  I can understand it as a way of understanding how the mechanics work or when playtesting, but for actually playing a game, I believe a certain level of immersion is necessary.  As proof, I point to the enormous success of multi-media games over their text-based counterparts, or the success of movies and comic books over literature (and the success of vividly written literature over beige prose).  People are sensual creatures, and we can only enjoy abstract discussions so deeply before they lose their power to compel our hearts and minds.  If you disagree, then the rest of his post will do nothing for you.

I find that, in fact, most people agree with me.  When a GM lacks vivid description, it is typically not a question of philosophy, but a question of skill.  How does one go about describing things?  How does one translate the visions in one's head into poetic words at the tabletop?

First, one must have a vision to translate.  Your output can only be as good as your input.  You must feed your creativity.  Step outside of your role-playing books for a moment and feast on the world around you.  Have you ever walked in a forest, felt the mossy texture of the ground beneath you or spelled that earthy scent, or scene the way the shadows of the canopy shifts on the forest floor?  Do you know that smell that comes in autumn, that chilly, sharp scent of coming snow?  Have you ever listened to the click of a woman's heels, or the murmur of conversation in a bar?  Many authors spend time just sitting in public places, scribbling notes on the people they see in passing, on the sights and smells around them.  I personally recommend watching movies, anime, TV shows, and hunting for art on the internet.  I include pictures in my NPC gallery precisely to inspire people with different looks than they might normally consider.  By absorbing all this detail, all this sensual beauty, when it comes time to conjure a scene, your well-fed imagination will be up to the task.  And you'll need to repeat this again and again.  Most writers say that if you want to write, you must read a great deal. I say that the same applies, in principle, to GMs.

So, you have an image in your mind.  You can see the character or the scene that you want to describe, but how do you translate that into something you can explain to the players in a way that will fascinate them, bring them on board with your inner fantasy world?  Let's break a scene down, a serving girl at a tavern (a common sight in most fantasy games).

The strongest human sense is sight.  We think in color and images, and even when we tell others to imagine a scene, we say things like "Can you picture it?"  So, what sights do we see?  What colors might a tavern girl have?  Perhaps a spray of red hair, or her soft green dress, or her equally green eyes, the tan of her skin with a hint of freckles, the blush of her cheeks and the cherry-red of her lips.  What about shapes?  Perhaps she is tall, rounded in the right places, with her long skirt obscuring the outline of her legs, but her corset bring her rounded cleavage into view, and her hair curls and bounces.  What about light and shadow?  Perhaps her eyes sparkle, her lips gleam, and the perspiration on her brow glistens.  Does she cast a shadow over the players, or does her skin glow?  Remember, by the way, that light comes from someplace.  Perhaps her eyes glint in the light of the fireplaces.  Perhaps her eyes reflect the candlelight of the room.

So we have sight, but humans have four other senses, often neglected by novice game masters.  What about sound?  What does her voice sound like?  Perhaps she laughs like the tinkling of bells.  Maybe her skirt swishes around her long legs and a small set of bells jangle around her bare feet as they whisper across the sawdust floor.  What about touch?  Touch is a highly erotic sense, so most people neglect it out of fear of sounding a little dirty, but texture and temperature matter and can be dealt with delicately.  Perhaps her dress is coarse but her skin soft.  Perhaps she is warm when she brushes past a player.  Finally, we have smell and taste, which I bundle together for simplicity.  Everyone forgets these, but they matter a great deal, for smell strongly affects our sense of memory.  If you can remind someone of a scent, you bring them there more strongly than any other sense.  Thus, how might she smell?  Perhaps she has the scent of clean, feminine sweat from a hard-days work, with a hint of the kitchen's scents clinging to her clothes, and her hair smells of soap and flowers.

Finally, importantly, we must remember that this girl is alive.  She moves, she interacts with people, and we must present the illusion of her existence convincingly.  Perhaps she wrinkles her nose as she laughs, or steps lightly and delicately as she flits across the floor, carrying a too-wide tray of drinks and dodging the grasp of lonely, drunk men.  We already know her skirts swish and that her hair bounces, but what expression might she have, or how might she cock her hips as she stands there, waiting for your order?

Once we have those details, it's not enough to simply stitch them together into a paragraph.  You'd get something like this:

There is a tavern wench.  She has curly red hair, a green dress, green eyes, dusky skin,freckles, and she's barefoot.  She has a corset that emphasizes her cleavage.  Her skirts make this swishing sound when she walks, and there's this ringing sound from the bells on her ankle.  She looks warm and soft, except for her clothes, which are coarse.She move delicately, and her hair bounces and she wrinkles she nose as she laughs, which sounds like the tinkling of bells.  She's graceful, which you can see from
how she carries the tray of drinks and avoids the unwanted touch of the drunk men.  She's come to your table and she's waiting for your order.

This works, and no doubt, you can picture her, but we've used what us Writer-types call passive voice.  She HAS red hair.  She HAS a corset, which EMPHASIZES her cleavage.  Her skirts MAKE a sound.  She LOOKS warm and soft.  She IS graceful.  While accurate, it sounds like a list, and doesn't engage us.  This is because passive voice tells us what things ARE, not what they DO.

To grab your players, you must use active voice.  You must replace those verbs above with verbs that do something, verbs that leap off the page, grab the reader and say "Look at what's going on."  Remember how I said that we need to remember that the girl is alive, that she moves and lives and breathes?  Active voice does that.  It tells what she DOES, not what she IS.  Her hair BOUNCES.  Her skirts SWISH.  Her nose WRINKLES.  Her soft skin GLOWS in the firelight.

I understand: Most people don't think this way.  Normal people do not speak this way.  Nevertheless, this lesson is vital.  Active voice separates the novice from the master.  Mastery of active voice for a storyteller is akin to mastery of salt for a chef or timing for a musician: Under appreciated, but vital.  Practice it.  Write it.  Speak it.  Excise "is" from your vocabulary as much as you can.  When you do, you get paragraphs like this:

The tavern wench sweeps into the room carrying a large tray of drinks.  Her long, green skirts swish around her bare feet as she deftly dodges the unwatched touch of drunk men, all without spilling a drop of precious beer.  Her bright green eyes sparkle in the firelight, and her curling red hair bounces around her dusky, freckled face.  She pauses for a moment by your table, her warm hip accidentally brushing your shoulder, her rounded, soft cleavage rising and falling in the confines of her corset.  With a flash of a smile, she stops and asks if anyone would like anything.

Can you see the difference?  Do you see how the latter grips the reader far better than the former?  Active voice: Live it.

But we're still not done.  You'll notice I left out many of the details we came up with before (How many you include in a given description is up to you.  I suggest you base it on how important the character is and the pacing of your story).  I did this on purpose.  You see, a role-playing game isn't like a book or a movie, where you simply present details to your audience.  No, in a role-playing game, people respond to you, interact with you, and interact with the scene.  They don't want to wait forever just to hear about this girl, however pretty she is, but more importantly, they need to be reminded constantly of who she is, what she looks like.  Books, incidentally, do this all the time.  Read any book and you'll note that you get an info dump the first time you meet a character, but that the author also dribbles details throughout the text, constantly reminding you about the color of a girl's hair, or the dark glower of a hero's eyes.  We have to do that in an RPG as well, constantly reminding our players of the scene and the characters within it.

We must do this in a dynamic manner.  I have seen too many GMs simply read off a paragraph of text.  Perhaps you like my tavern wench and find yourself tempted to simply read off the paragraph above.  Don't.  While a skilled reader might still bring it to life, the paragraph above is static and won't address ongoing interaction with her.  Nowhere does it mention that she wrinkles her nose when she laughs, or what that laugh sounds like, or how she smells.  We might need to sprinkle these into our session, depending on what players do, or to remind them of the character.

Nowadays, I can simply hold these details in my head, but when I was younger, I wrote lists that included luscious adjectives and notes sorted by sense-type.  Our tavern wench might look like this:
  • Sights: Red, curly hair; Sparkling green eyes; Green dress; Rounded cleavage; Gleaming, cherry-red lips; Dusky, freckled skin; Glistening persiperation on her brow.
  • Sounds: Bright, tinkling laughter (Wrinkled nose); The swish of her skirt; The jangle of the bells at her ankle; The whisper of her bare feet on the floor.
  • Touch: Warm, soft skin; Coarse dress;
  • Smells/Taste: Hair smells like flowers and soap; Clothes smell like the food in the kitchen; She smells clean and feminine;
When you have a detailed list like this (which might be too much for every NPC, of course, but is certainly worth your time for a setting, such as the bar itself: Remembers, places "live" too.  Give them plenty of details), and we need to describe the character, we only need to glance at it to come up with some elements:  Her nose wrinkles as she laughs -- bright, tinkling laughter -- at your suggestion, or Her sparkling green eyes widen as you draw her close, her clean, feminine scent wrapping around her, mixing with the flowery scent of the curling, red hair that brushes your shoulder as she shakes her head.  At a moment's notice, we can draw up some vivid, descriptive one-liner at the drop of  hat.  This matters.  We must create a living, constant world, with a continuous sense of sensory input, just like the real world has.  A computer game doesn't show you a graphic of the enemy you fight once, and then turns the screen to vector depictions of spatial positioning.  Now, it constantly feeds you sound and sights.  You must do the same for your players.

I know this lesson is a great deal to take in.  It may seem simple on the outset, but, believe me, it took me some years to master.  Consider it a goal to achieve, an ideal to pursue, or a path to walk.  Hopefully, at least, I've given you some food for thought.  Try to make your session more vivid, try to make your world come alive.  Just remember that you're playing with people, not telling a story AT them, and use your descriptions like spices: Enough to make things interesting, but not so much that you dominate the dish.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lady Blackbird Extended

So, with Cherry Blossom Rain out of the way, what is my next big project?  Well, some time ago, I discovered Lady Blackbird and handed it to Bee (Go ahead and look at it.  I'll wait.  Done?  Great!).  In my experience, Bee doesn't want to plan a session.  She hates that!  She just wants action and adventure and awesomeness now.  She comes to a game with vague ideas of what she'd like to see happen, and then she simply lets the pieces fall where they may, improvising with her players to guide them to her scenes, but if something else awesome comes along, she plays with that too.  She doesn't like to play systemless, though.  She enjoys throwing the dice and seeing how pretty they are, relying on unusual results to feed her story and, in a habit she picked up from 7th Sea, she loves to hand out drama dice or action points.

Lady Blackbird is perfect for this.  All of its rules are literally printed on every character sheet, and Bee, as GM, needs to know none of them.  All she needs to know are these three rules:

  • The difficulty of the roll is between 1 and 5 "successes."
  • If players fail, she has the option of hitting them with one of the 7 problems listed on their sheet (Hurt, tired, lost, etc)
  • She can hand out drama dice in the form of a pool of dice players can use to boost their rolls (actually, that's not a rule, but Bee does it anyway, and it works well with the game).
That's all she needs to know.  The players take care of everything else on their own.  Even better, the game is, in fact, a standard adventure that she can play through, complete with suggested difficulties for various problems the players might encounter.

However, if you want to do anything but run the game with those 5 pre-generated PCs, or do an adventure other than that listed in the book, then you're basically on your own.  Thus, while Bee loves the system because it suits her so well, she has no interest in tearing apart the mechanics to make her own characters or to create her own adventures (she's refined the art of the lazy GM, and lazy GMs do not redesign systems from the ground up).  So, I'm going to do it for her.  I promised this as her birthday present, which coming from a published writer, is worth quite a lot ^_^

You know, presuming I actually finish.

Now, I'm not the first one to try to expand Lady Blackbird.  The writer himself took a stab at it, and other people have done their own work, but I think most of them are going about it in the wrong way.  Lady Blackbird has a few key features that appeal a great deal to its audience.  

First, it's very simple.  You don't have to shuffle through a giant skill list to figure out how to make your character.  This is the first place I think the Lady Blackbird Companion goes wrong: It lists every Trait its writer could come up with alphabetically.  How are you going to build a character like that?  Will you sort through the entire book, looking for something to build your character?  

Second, Lady Blackbird doesn't really describe its setting.  John Harper very cleverly gave us some common tropes, and then implied the rest of the setting.  He tells us in a few paragraphs that the world is shards of land orbiting a pale star, and instead of space, we have sky, plied by steam sky-ships.  Beyond that, we only know there are imperial nobles because Lady Blackbird is one.  We only know there are slaves because Naomi is an ex-slave, and we only know about goblins because of Snargle, and we only know about Flamebloods and Sky-Squid because they are mentioned in the potential challenges.  The Lady Blackbird Companion tries to fill in the blanks for you, but the whole point of Lady Blackbird are those blanks.  Do we really need to know, say, the culture of the goblins?  We can guess well enough on our own, thanks.

Finally, the real beauty of Lady Blackbird is the fact that it already includes all the challenges you need to run your adventure, and these challenges double as scene-seeds.  Because it includes the challenge rating for a fight against a flameblooded sorceror, you find yourself pondering how you might get the players to a point where they would battle a flameblooded sorceror, for example.  None of the works I've looked at (which, granted, hasn't been exhaustive) do this.  Instead, they expect the GM to come up with all of that on their own because most people who are writing Lady Blackbird material, other than the original author, come at this from a work-intensive, traditional GM perspective.

So, we're going to take a two pronged approach to our task.  First, we're going to research the traits, tags, keys and secrets, cobble together our own, and create a list.  Unlike in the Companion, though, we're going to sort them by categories: Professions, Qualities, Backgrounds, Magic and Races.  That way the player can look through, for example, the profession list to find what his character's job might be, the backgrounds to explore what his history is, and round him out with a few Qualities.

Then, we're going to make challenges for everything I can think of: Different regions mentioned in passing in the book, The various houses, the different kinds of sky-ships, the different races I come up with (including Goblins), the various conditions the book lists on the character sheet.  These challenges will be sorted together in themes.  For example, I'll find a large, beautiful picture that might represent Nightport, then create a list of challenges that one might find in Nightport, with possibly a few keys, secrets and traits that might be unique to Nightport.  In this manner, I'll offer the reader not only the potential skeleton of a story, but I'll also tell him a great deal about Nightport implicitly, rather than explicitly.  That is, by reading the challenges associated with Nightport, he'll get an idea of what Nightport might be like.

In this way, players should be able to construct their own characters quickly, and Bee should be able to simply flip the book open to some interesting part of the world or some interesting concept, start grabbing challenges, and just run the story.  If I play my cards right, it should be the great book of pick-up games.
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