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.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

GURPS Horror

Holy shit, it's out.  GURPS Horror was the best GURPS Supplement of 3e, and possibly the best treatment of horror I've ever read (by the inestimable Kenneth Hite).  This is the same work, updated to 4e, expanded upon to contain even more material, even more advice, even more monster templates, and a treatment of horrific powers on par with GURPS Powers.

If you're a GURPS Fan OR a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to check this out.  Seriously.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

GURPS Martial Arts

(Cross posted from the SJGames forum)

Ages ago, I posted a thread asking questions about how to run a successful and dynamic martial arts game.  I doubt anyone remembers it, but I found many of the suggestions useful.  I've finally finished my playtesting and actually run the damn game, and I thought I would share my experience.

1. GURPS actually runs a really great martial arts game.

When I posted my questions, I was concerned about how well GURPS would actually handle the cut and thrust of a martial arts fight.  It's true that GURPS has lots of options, but in my experience (up to that point), most of them boil down to configuring your attack and defense into optimal values and then using those again and again.  A few maneuvers have lasting consequences, like feints or AoAs, but those tend to last no longer than a single turn, and then everything resets to its original point.

What I actually found is that those one-second consequences tend to last, and once you understand how they work, you end up with a game of chess.  For example, if I attack you with Karate and you successfully parry with Judo, then you might lock me into an arm lock or judo throw me, and thereafter start kicking me in the head.  So, I need to make sure that if I attack you, I do so in a way that you can't defend properly against, which means that I should feint against you, but knowing that I'll feint, you might evaluate and, if so, I might be better off evaluating first as well.  And so on.

GURPS also has other tricks, as it turns out. Targeted Attacks and Combos, when used too often, become predictable and your opponent gains a bonus to defense, which means you should use them sparingly, when circumstances warrant it.  It's a subtle mechanic, but I found it made quite a difference.

2. Use Techniques Sparingly

I honestly find 4e's treatment of techniques slightly frustrating.  For one thing, I'm not sure why they need to have an Average/Hard split.  If you want to charge 1 point more for a trick, make it -1 more difficult.  What you currently have is that Hard techniques are easier to pull off by default than Average techniques (That is, both a Hard technique at -2 and an Average technique at -3 cost 3 points to max out, but the Hard Technique is paradoxically easier to pull off by default, and less worth your time to study).

Moreover, in 3e, you were required to take every technique in a martial art to "know" that martial art.  Now, this caused problems, but it meant that two different styles that both had Judo and Karate were distinct, because one had X and Y, and the other had A and B.  Moreover, having all those techiques listed on one's sheet encouraged players to try those moves out.  If you know you're good at spin kicks, jump kicks, feints and hammer-fists, you're not going to bother with exotic hand-strikes or head-butts, and you have a distinct fighter that encourages the player to do more than just "Attack/Attack/Attack!"

In 4e, it makes little sense to have more than a couple of techniques, and so you have to pick and focus on what you want your character to be good at.  If you have a Judo of 18 and that's "enough" for Arm Lock, you don't take the Arm Lock technique, while another fighter might focus almost exclusively on Arm Lock.  You get distinct fighters within a given style, which means you can get a lot of mileage out of a single style, and that's great.  It's just that techniques aren't where you go to write out how your character fights...

3. Use Signature Moves

... you use Signature Moves instead.  I took Toadkiller Dog's advice about writing down the more complex moves that a fighter might use and giving them swell names.  Made all the difference in the world.  Take my example above about the Judo 18 guy who doesn't bother with Arm Lock because his Judo is more than high enough.  He can and should still use Arm Lock, and if you want to remind a player to do that, you simply note down a special armlock "signature move."

You can even construct very complex moves that take advantage of several unique mechanics to make a killer move.  For example, one samurai had a signature move that involved shifting to a defensive grip for a parry, while side-slipping (this being Chambara, was worth +2), and then spending 1 fatigue for a total of +5 to parry, which he turned directly into a riposte, followed up with a Counter Attack (for a total of -7 to his opponent's defense) as a thrust (since defensive grips are terrible at swings) to the vitals.  Nobody's going to think of that move in the middle of a fight, and there are numerous things that you need to calculate (can you take a -5 to your defense with a riposte?  What's your effective skill between Counter Attack and going after the Vitals?).  By working it out in advance, you only have to glance at a piece of paper to pull of this off.  The extreme potential complexity of GURPS martial arts becomes a feature, not a bug, and people begin fighting in a very complex way.

(And this isn't entirely unrealistic. The whole point of things like kata is that they teach you to use very complex tactics that you'd never think of in the middle of a harried fight.)

By giving the player's signature moves and including signature moves with the NPCs, I found that my fights exploded with details and rich tactical depth.  Nobody made straight attacks, because they had customized their fighting styles to support far better tactics, and clever opponents would exploit the weaknesses of a given move with their own tactics, which would lead to rapid exchanges of constantly flowing and evolving tactics.

4. Perks are where it's at!

As I said before, Techniques aren't the best way to add lots of character to your fighter, because you can only really take so many and eventually you're better off simply making him a better, all-around fighter.  That's where Perks come in.  Perks are almost always worth it (unlike Techniques), and they tend to encourage specialized tactics.  Secret Styles, Trademark Moves and Finishing Moves all encourage and expand upon the Signature Moves above.  Tricks like Iron (Body Part), Teamwork, Resistant to (Chi Power), Schticks, Drunken Fighting, Sexy Feints, and so on, all shift and change the nature of the character in neat little ways or provide him powerful advantages that, if he's clever, he can really exploit.  A good martial arts game is about turning every character into a "fighter," and still seeing plenty of diversity.  Perks really provide that.  I'd never try to run GURPS Martial Arts without perks.

5. GURPS, as always, exceeds expectations...

I mentioned already that GURPS ran a great martial arts game.  I didn't mention how often I thought a rule needed to be changed, when it didn't.  For example, many people argue that Evaluate is a poor tactical choice, so few people use it.  However, I found that there are so many consequences to attacking a capable foe (Counterattacks, ripostes, judo throws, arm locks, exposing the trick to your secret Combo awesomeness) that people often fell into Evaluate when it became obvious that their opponent was more powerful than expected.

Likewise, I worried that GURPS would overwhelm some of my players (we had one player who generally hates system and fears any game with any level of complexity much beyond free-form), and yet, I found that between the Signature Moves and how GURPS normally handles, the game was surprisingly intuitive, people could do what they wanted, the fights played out swiftly, and even the system-phobe had a great experience.

6. ...but change is good.

Even so, I did make some changes.  I used Icelander's Beat rules (that is, beats apply their penalty to both the user's attack and defense and at 5+, there's a chance that it'll unready the weapon entirely), though I allowed people to defend against Beats with DX-based weapon skill, in addition to ST-based weapon skill (I found that forcing players to always defend with ST-based weapon skill unfairly punished weak fighters, especially since ST-heavy fighters tend to spend lots of points in their skills to compensate for their low DX, and so when they beat, they REALLY beat).  I highly recommend them, as they make Beats useful for everyone, and it means that you're taking a calculating risk every time you parry or let someone parry your blade, especially if they're stronger than you are.

I did eventually modify Evaluate some.  I find it odd that one can make a Defensive Attack (inflicting damage) and gain a +1 defense bonus, but Evaluating gives you no defensive bonus, and so I made a little "cautious fighter trinity" of moves: In my version of the rules, Evaluate grants a +1 to your defenses, you can choose to forgo the +1 defense from a Defensive attack to instead gain a +1 evaluate bonus, and you gain an +1 evaluate bonus if you Wait and nothing happens.  I also allowed players who were evaluating to make rolls against certain skills or IQ to understand something about their opponent.  I found this made all three moves more interesting, but didn't unbalance anything in particular.

NPC Gallery: Deformity

"All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes."
-Tyrion Lannister

Game of Thrones made its rounds here in my part of the world ages ago, reshaping the way several of my friends run games (and leaving a few utterly obsessed with historical political intrigues).  I didn't take the time to read the books, my life focused on other things but, of course, when the television series came out, I had to give it a look, and I immediately fell in love with the character of Tyrion Lannister, who is a perfect candidate for the NPC Gallery.

When's the last time you saw a midget as the star of a series?  When's the last time you saw a midget treated as a human (as opposed to a member of "another race") or as something other than comic relief?  I've read discussions of Tyrion that express frustration with trying to express who and what he is, because if you discuss "dwarf" in the context of fantasy, so often people assume you mean a guy sitting under a mountain, drinking beer and hammering our magic swords, and most people wouldn't assume that such an admirable and crafty character would be a midget.

If you think about it, however, Tyrion's character makes perfect sense given his stature. In his words, he's terrible at physical activity because of his size, so he sharpens his mind to defeat his foes.  He holds everyone at arms length because, naturally, people treat him differently. He's no Casanova, so he sates his desire for company with whores.  He'll never be the tall, noble, handsome knight that one expects in fantasy literature, but by god, he's going to make his impact on the world.  He's no stereotype based on his condition.  He's a political chess-master, canny and cunning, and a more competent noble than many of the characters in the series (certainly more competent than Joffrey).  Such a character is entirely in place for a series like Game of Thrones, and such a character is reasonable as a dwarf, but most people wouldn't expect the two elements to combine into such an evocative character.

I used the word "deformity" above not derisively, but because I can't find another, simple word to express what I really want to describe: People who physically deviate from "the norm," but who are not so handicapped that they are incapable of acting as competent or interesting characters. I'm not talking about the sad paraplegic girl that the players have to protect, here, or the hunchback worthy of your pity (though perhaps competent hunchbacks are a good example of what I'm talking about...).  Those characters are rife throughout literature and RPGs.  Dwarfs, albinos, people afflicted with gigantism and other individuals whose bodies don't conform to the human physiological mainstream suffer from their condition, to be sure: a dwarf has a harder time getting proper clothes and reaching things on the highest shelves, or interacting with a world built for people with different proportions, but unlike a truly handicapped person, these are minor issues and, by and large, they can live life normally.  Their condition shapes them, but it doesn't dominate them.

Many characters in RPGs deviate from the physical norm, but most of them fall into certain stereotypes.  Consider defying those stereotypes and treating them as something other than a freak or a joke.  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with wildly deformed comic-book mutants running around in your campaigns, but I'm pointing out that few people have included, for example, a dwarf as a dangerous and powerful warlock, or as the wise sage who guides the player, or the faithful servant secretly in love with the beauty he serves.  Just imagine the players' reaction when this unusual character gets so much play time, when he's treated as a complete and full character with depth, reason and a background.  Imagine how they would feel, for example, when the enemy that threatens to topple their nation is barely over four feet tall and is no laughing matter.  They'll remember that character forever, if you treat him properly.  

There is, after all, a reason Game of Thrones is legendary in the circles its travels: George R. R. Martin is skillful enough to treat a character like Tyrion properly and turn a dwarf from a stereotypical joke into a character that one would admire.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Weekend 2011 Part 4: The Comission

When a Knight's Weekend is over, everyone remembers the sessions they had and nobody remembers the people who made it all possible.  Still, when I look back on these, when I talk about them, I try to keep them in mind.

The commission has little control over the actual content of the sessions and this one, in particular, struggled to get enough GMs (one of the members of the commission had to buckle down and run a game).  Even so, they do control who ends up in one game, and that can matter a great deal. I heard no complaints about the games people ended up in.  Instead, everyone seemed satisfied, which means the commission did a great job with matchmaking.  Likewise, the LARP was well organized, with food available and scenery appropriately set.

Beyond the actual session, you need food and lodgings.  We stayed at the same place we've been the previous two times, so everyone already knew what to do and where to go, so that was an easy choice for the commission (And the sessions, in particular, didn't really interfere with one another as they had in previous weekends, which is good).  The food, in particular, was quite good.  Friday's dinner was kind of lame, but Saturday's dinner was delicious enough that I wouldn't mind having the recipe.  Xavier really knows his way around a kitchen, and I was pleased that they put me on cooking duty (in fact, most of the people who ended up cooking duty were people who actually loved cooking which is, once again, a sign for their eye to detail).

The organization was solid.  Erik sent out helpful suggestions and checklists for things to bring which certainly helped me, and while Xavier got lost in the way there, this was my first time riding my bike to a weekend and I thought it went well overall (well, at least on the way back).  The times for everything was clearly posted, as well as the locations for where people were gaming.  In fact, Marco wanted to ensure that he and I were running our games in the same room, since both of us were using the battlemaps and needed to share pens, and there was no struggle, no kerfuffle about changing who was where.

This list probably sounds unimpressive.  "Yeah, so, they didn't screw up."  But really, putting a weekend together is harder than it sounds, and "not screwing up" is a sign of excellence.  In particular, their skill was invisible and seamless.  People never stopped and marveled at the fact that there was enough food for everyone and that it tasted good, or that the sessions went off without a hitch and that there was something to do at all times as well as some free time for people to work on sessions and relax and just chat.  You couldn't see the work they did because they kept it behind the scenes and kept it out of the way of the players.  That right there is the sign of masterful organization, where you put something together so well that it seems perfectly natural that it goes without a hitch.

We haven't had two successful weekends in a year in a very long time.  And not only did both weekends go off with minimum problems, but they were both highly memorable, at least in my opinion.  Well done, guys.

Spring Weekend 2011 Part 3: Cherry Blossom Rain

Let me start, as all good articles should start, with a joke.  When Rene finished writing his session last week, he posted to Facebook: Finished with session.  Raoul responded: Will finish tomorrow.  Bee then responded "Dan has been writing his one-shot since February and still isn't finished."

Alright, so that's less funny "ha ha" and more funny-sad.  Still, it highlights how important this session was too me, though putting so much into it almost made me choke at the beginning (the players didn't sense how awkwardly I lurched into the game, but I could feel it).  We got a late start (Jozef had to take some people home) and we finally bullied him into choosing his NPC (as the Daimyo of his clan, he had the choice between bringing his loud No-Dachi swordmaster and his elite samurai, his Machiavellian warlord and political advisor and his agile cavalry, or in bringing his sister, who wasn't particularly useful, but really, really, really wanted to come.  He chose, to the approval of the other players, his sister).  Then I described the kidnapping of the Imperial Princess, Kimiko, by some mysterious Yakuza soldier...


I introduced the players.  First, Desiree met her samurai's father, who demanded to know why his son (Ren) had paid a king's ransom for her, who she was, and why Ren wanted to marry her, then we shifted her to another scene where the Witch of Jukai offered to curse Ren for her (less because she wanted to protect Yukiko and more because she wanted to harm Ren).  Yukiko interfered and took the curse herself.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to hit her with said curse during the session.

Next, we had a scene where Jaap (Katsuro) had been arrested for bar-room brawling, and after revealing some of how the police worked, our noir detective Asano Makoto freed him in exchange for his services hunting down the Yakuza accused of kidnapping the princess, Taro, because he's tied into an investigation into who really killed the previous police captain (Detective Asano never accepted the official story that Taro did it: Too many holes).

Then we introduced Rene(Daisuke) and showed the players the muddy, cluttered, stinky side of Kamurocho.  A beautiful Mizushima prince named Kaito gathered rest of the players together in a tea house (including Jozef as Kenta and Raymond as Hayate) where he explained the situation with the Imperial Princess, suggesting that if they rescued her, they could rescind the execution order against the Senshin and their allies (the whole point of the game).  And so, they get ready to set out when Tsao Bei, arrogant Chinese Ambassador and Akiyama toady shows up with the Executioner (a terrifying Shinigami warrior) and Dark Shota (a mystical Kakashi seer with a special connection to ravens) and numerous soldiers.  Violence erupts as Tsao Bei proclaims that the Akiyama will rescue Kimiko.  The battle only lasted about 5-6 seconds, though it took about an hour to play out.  Raymond had a nice duel with Shota (which he lost in a contest of wills, but still bravely sought to fight out), and after being frozen solid while watching a samurai cut down Kyo (only 7 damage, which is a pretty bad wound, but survivable), Jozef managed to actually rip through the Executioner's armor with his might blade (I spent an action point to turn it from 24 points of injury to 1 because I wanted to have a rematch later in the session, but still hats off.  Man, I always underestimate Kenta), and Rene lost his sword to a beat from the Executioner, who also cut clean through Jaap's sword, hand-clap parried Tsao Bei's blade and tossed it to Jaap.  Interrupting the fight, Ren (and Desiree) showed up with his dark and creep secret police and ended the battle, promising Tsao Bei to take the PCs into custody, which he promptly failed to do as soon as the Akiyama allies left.

The party split: Jaap and Raymond took the detective to a gambling den run by a Yakuza named Hachiro, who gambled with Raymond over who would help whom (actually gambled it out, Yakuza style, with two dice and a cup.  Raymond lost every toss :( ) and so Hachiro persuaded Raymond to expand the Yakuza's power, in exchange for a meeting with the Oyabun.  Meanwhile, it came out in other parts of the gambling den that the police captain had been trying to force a woman to be his lover, and that they suspected she might have been the one who really murdered the police chief, and also, that Taro was generally a really good guy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the players took Kyo (and the barely wounded Jozef) to a doctor (Satomi, who happened to be a woman).  Along the way, Rene confronted the fact that Desiree might be the daughter he never knew he had, the child of his one moment of passion with his beloved Aiko.  While at the doctor's, discussion turned to Taro, and Desiree, thanks to her character's empathy, picked up on the powerful, romantic and guilty connection between Satomi and Taro, and was able to talk her into taking her to Taro (on the condition that they did it alone, leaving the dangerous Ren behind, whom Satomi worried might kill Taro.  Desiree had forgotten that Ren was both very possessive/protective AND had an entire secret police force at his disposal, and had an appropriately chagrined expression on her face as I described black-clad samurai descending upon the city, tearing it apart to look for Ren's missing geisha).

They found Taro (by coincidence, also found by Raymond and Jaap), who agreed to bring them to the princess when Daisuke proved that he belong to the Shimada clan by drawing Legacy, the legendary Shimada blade. He explained that the Imperial Princess had never been kidnapped, but was hiding from the Akiyama and hoping to form an alliance with the Senshin, acting as their "hostage."  He took them to the princess... only to discover that his Yakuza rival had gotten there first and snatched her out from under their nose.  And there, the session ended.


How did it go?  The battle flowed so much better than I expected.  The players used their signature moves and my NPCs fought in a fascinating manner.  The fight was messy and swift, just as it should be, and I think my NPCs (except for Tsao Bei, who came across as a bitch, which is probably appropriate for him) came across as suitably powerful.  Raymond really connected with Shota, and the Executioner terrified people to an appropriate degree (Though I wish I hadn't needed to fudge that wound away like that.  Must remember: Kenta is goddamn lethal.  Should have learned that lesson when Raoul was playing him).  I managed to show the players enough of the story that it made sense, and the story swept along rapidly, with every action, every step, leading to more story.

Desiree's response was very positive.  She felt it was a shame that we "didn't have enough time," which Raymond agreed with.  Given that the session lasted 5 hours, I took this as a good sign, because it meant that nobody had felt bored.  Indeed, the system never intimidated Desiree, and when she was struggling to decide what to do, her Common Sense and Empathy kicked in, giving her plenty of things to do.  And, in fact, she had quite a few opportunities to show off her "beautiful" skills, performing a tea ceremony for the players at the doctor's house.  She was very interested in playing in the campaign (provided she had time, which she was doubtful of), and commented on how she could really see that it was a whole setting.  Raymond echoed her sentiments, expressing interest in knowing more about Shota and certainly enjoyed how his character played out.  He also spent half the session speculating on what was really going on, which means the mystery engaged him.

Rene left too quickly to comment (we really ended at the very last minute and it was "get out, get your stuff, leave"), but I think he enjoyed it.

Jaap likely enjoyed it too, but he found it hard to follow the names.  My large NPC casts are difficult to follow at the best of times, but when Japanese names sound like gibberish, as they do to him, you can lose the thread completely.  I had to stop and explain the social situation to the players a few times (Tokens for the win!), and I didn't mind that, but before the game I worried if Jaap and the setting would really fit one another, and I suspect that my worries were spot on.  Likewise, Jozef seemed lost, less because of the setting, I think, and more because he was treading outside of his comfort zone.  He's an experienced D&Der, and he wants to try other things, he wants to poke at romance and is certainly interested in politics, but joining my game was like jumping into the deep end of the pool, and I think he was a touch overwhelmed by it, though I bet if I asked him, he'd also say he enjoyed it.

But what about me?  Just the other day, I was complaining about all the planning I did.  In fact, we used almost none of my material.  They didn't do any of the Yakuza quests, they found none of Kimiko's jewelry, and they didn't even really pursue Shinobu and deal with Goro.  But, to my surprise, I didn't mind in the slightest.  Whatever they did, I felt like I not only had the material to cover it, but I was excited to do so.  I had so many ideas spilling out of me that, as far as I felt, literally every scene, every moment, was interesting.  There was no lull, no boredom, and I was able to bring across the sense of the greater world around them.  That's exactly what I wanted.  So, yes, all that planning was worth it.  This means, of course, that if I want to keep working this way with games like WotG, I need to settle down and start working on it for a week, an hour or two a day for about 4 days which, incidentally, advice I had given to another GM ages ago.  Turns out to have been good advice.

I'm going to put CBR down for a bit, let it rest, but already, there are people asking about the campaign, so I think I'll try to kick that off in about a month.  More on that later.  For now, I'm going to bask in my success.

Spring Weekend 2011 Part 2: Tenneman's Will

After Houses of the Blooded, I decided that I needed to understand LARPs better.  My offer to join the Eindhoven LARP as a moderator (an assistant to the GMs) was met with silence, so I, with reluctance, signed up for the Spring Weekend LARP, hoping against hope that I wouldn't find it terribly boring as I inevitably seemed to find LARPs.

Before I talk about the LARP, I think I'm going to discuss the technical aspects of LARP design.  I'm allowed to comment, of course, because I have at least one successful LARP under my belt ^_^  The LARP wasn't released until two days before the weekend which was very short notice indeed.  Pim came to me and discussed the LARP design and said that he had wished he had started with it much sooner.  I replied "That's why I started in August," which is true.  You could certainly see the problems that their late start caused.  For example, I received the character of Jopie, the youngest son of the late Gerrit Tenneman, a philosopher and an idealist.  I had two children, about whom my sheet had very little and no comment about their mother, and I had some connection with Domingo (played by Marco) but there's literally nothing there, just a blank space.  To learn about other characters, I had to talk to others (or, more specifically, they had to talk to me.  Sabrina pounced me basically the day we received our characters, calling me "Jopie" and "Papa" and peppering me with in-character questions.  Without realizing it, she did a lot to get me into character, to look at myself and see how I would interact with others.  I think I really needed that).  At the last minute, though, the final piece I really needed to make the character click came in the form of Alida: Raymond walked up to me and said that she was playing the mother of my children, and that she had left me when the children were 2 because of my lack of ambition and money, and that she'd written me a letter to say that she was coming to the reading of the will.

You'd think with these obvious holes, the LARP would have serious problems, and I'm not saying it didn't... but I am saying I had the most fun I've ever had playing in a LARP.  I chose to play Jopie as an idealist, someone who was essentially useless because he pursued what amounted to a Liberal Arts degree and secretly expected the world to conform to his unrealistic ideals, but the world wasn't a place where someone earned lots of money or saved the world by sitting in coffee shops talking about feelings or the human condition, but by god, I was going to try!  This contrasted with my sister and her husband, ruthless pragmatists who valued accomplishment over empty sentiment (something I, out of character, had a hard time arguing against, and I had to dig deep into feel-good TV cliches to combat).  My goal was to keep the house and get enough money to pay off my debts and put my kids through school, as well as ensure that the cook and the butler got to stay on.  Meanwhile, the woman who had broken my heart was awfully friendly with my brother and kept approaching my children.  I pounced Karin (Alida), told her that she'd given up the right to be "their mother" when she left them, demanded to know where she had been, etc, and generally being a jerk while trying to hide my character's real feelings.  She managed to persuade me to let her meet her children while not telling them who she was.  We pretended she was only interested in them because of her real estate business, in what I felt was an emotionally charged and understated scene.

As the LARP progressed, Raymond and Pim read different parts of the will, which required different tasks from the players.  The most interesting part for me came when we had to divide 20% of the company between the three family members and Christina, the 22 year-old widow of our father (his trophy wife, played by Desiree), and decide who would keep the house.  Around then, Domingo told me of his dream to play football (soccer) pro and his father's disapproval (Jan, played by Arjen, the eldest son of Gerrit and my brother).  I talked Jan into connecting again with his son, telling him what he told me, which was that he didn't disapprove of Domingo's desire to play soccer but that he felt Domingo should put his heart and soul into it.  When they connected, it also meant that Jan and I connected too, so he was all too willing to go in with me on the house, to keep the butler and cook on.  At the same time, Loese (played by Jasmine, her first LARP) revealed to us that she'd been having an affair, cheating on her husband.  Pouncing on the first moment of vulnerability and emotion expressed by my "haughty" and "excessively practical" sister, I pushed her to divorce her husband and love-bombed her with all the moral support she needed, and so reconnected wit hher.  We'd left out Christine, who wanted a single percent of the company, but she and I had been talking (She loved the house as much as I did, especially the piano room), and I felt 1% just wasn't enough, so I talked both of my siblings into giving up 1% each, to get her up to 3% (and in the final negotiation, it became 8% for Loese, and 4% for each of Jan, Christine and myself).

Around then, I decided that it was hypocritical to tell Loese to chase her passion and love while I was yelling at the love of my life, pretending I didn't care because I didn't want to get hurt.  And so I swooped down on Karin and told her I had been a fool, confessed my feelings for her, and used the same idealism to break down her guard, to rebuild the family that had fallen apart.

I didn't learn until after I had done this that Christine had fallen in love with my character, and had been in love with him for quite some time.  When Loese learned I was getting back together with the mother of my children, she objected ("She's been away for 14 years!  She broke your heart! Why are you just telling us about this now!  Christine loves you!")  but she wanted me to be happy, so supported me if I went this route. Christine and I had a deliciously awkward scene as I implied to her that I knew she cared, but that I was going to get together with the mother of my children and "as my step mother and family" I hoped she approved.  I also told Jan, who also had feelings for her, that he should tell her how he felt, because this would be his last chance.  He proposed to her.  She said she had to think about it.  I decided to propose to her (Over the objections of Lysanne (Sabrina) who, when she was introduced to Karin for real, was skeptical and felt I should take this slow)

At the next reading, I was told I would earn a million dollars if I got engaged, which really harshed my mellow, since I totally intended to propose anyway, and so I fell to my knees before Karin while Christine stalked out, unable to watch.  Karin said yes, and later, Desiree managed to actually squeeze out tears as she (Christine) told me that she had loved me for a long time and I could only awkwardly tell her that she was always welcome in the house ("Oh yeah," she later said "To watch how happy you are with another woman.  Fun fun!")  Christine ended the LARP with her eventual suicide, unable to bear her lonely future.

I'm only touching on some of the things that went on, because I was a busy bee, and you can see how involved I was in the game.  At no moment was I bored or unable to find anything to do.  Instead, I was constantly engaged, constantly surprised, constantly involved, constantly in character, and utterly wrapped up in the story.  When I say "That's the most fun I've ever had playing in a LARP," I'm not being polite, I mean it.  I think this LARP has shown me that I can, in fact, be a LARPer.

But the LARP was far from flawless.  In addition to the problems mentioned above, some other problems became obvious as I talked to other people.  There was another part of the LARP, the business side, which never seemed to interact with the family side.  It was like there were two LARPS going on at the same time.  While games should have many stories, I think those stories should interact, and I felt these two stories did so to a too limited degree.  Moreover, while I was constantly busy, other people weren't.  For example, Erik was the cook, and his only goal, his only story element, was to stay on at the house... which I arranged for him.  He literally had to do nothing for the entire LARP.  I saw him and a several other people just swinging on the swings or lazing in the grass, bored and with nothing to do.  There were many peripheral characters who had no reason to be there, nothing to do, beyond a single element in the will.  Finally, the coolest things that happened to me in the LARP had little to do with what Pim and Raymond had written.  In fact, the players basically subverted the entire thing.  Alida was supposed to play her character as a  gold-digger, but couldn't bear it with my puppy-eyes looking down at her.  Jasmine was supposed to be the evil sister, but was instead fascinated by Erik's suggestion of her having an affair (he intended it as blackmail, but instead it turned into a reason for her to connect with my character and to chase her long stagnant romantic feelings while divorcing her husband), and Desiree had no story, apparently, beyond "You're lonely and bored," and so falling in love with my character was entirely her idea.  Now, LARPs are supposed to be chaotic and unpredictable, but this basically means the story I was playing was only loosely inspired by what Raymond and Pim were writing.  I was really playing with Erik and Desiree and Alida's story.  As a result, this was the happiest, fluffiest LARP ever, where everyone got what they wanted... except for Christine, which means Desiree got what she wanted (Tragedy!  I told her later "Revenge!  You killed my character last night, and I killed yours today")

So what's my final verdict on the LARP?  The game was technically sloppy, and the fun I had was more the result of the other players than the GMs, who didn't prepare nearly as much as they really should have.  But, ultimately, only a single measure of a game's success exists: Did you have fun?  Yes, I had fun.  Lots and lots of fun.  So, it's a success (at least for me).  Preparation isn't about turning a game from a failure to a success, it's about improving the chances that it'll be a success.  Ultimately, the writer of a LARP has little control of whether that LARP works, as it's always in the hands of the player.  When I wrote HotB, I gave my players as much to work with as I could, so nobody lacked inspiration.  Here, Raymond and Pim gave us very little to work with, but very talented people turned it into quite a LARP.

I think they knew where they went wrong.  Pim says if he'd ever do this again, he'd put much more work, more time, into it, but I think ultimately, their LARP was successful for the same reason my LARP was successful.  We both grasped the ultimate truth of a LARP: LARPs are all about the players.  You can give them lots of ideas, or a few ideas and lots of room to maneuver in, but you have to let them play, rather than try to control them.  Both LARPs wrote up plenty of material and created goals, and then stepped back and let them do what they pleased. As a result, the LARP worked... mostly.

Personally, I loved it.  I think next time, they should put more work into peripheral characters, suggest more options to characters in general, and think through the consequences of the goals they offer to players (too often, they amounted to "If you do X, you win!" with little potential fallout.  Getting the house was too easy for my character, and there was no consequence to that action.  Contrast this with my romance, where choosing one character killed the other.  Ouch!  More of the latter, less of the former), but I think they absolutely had their heart in the right place, and they showed that a very simple LARP can still be a lot of fun.  They received well-deserved praise at the end, and I salute them.

Spring Weekend 2011 Part 1: Steampunk Gypsies

Bee couldn't take me this time, nor join me, so I was as close to being "on my own" for this weekend as I ever was (She did have time to bring some of my stuff, bless her).  I showed up almost too late, forgot too many things, couldn't find other things, and barely made it... but I DID make it.  So after getting lost on the bike ride over there, I had finally arrived at my first KotK weekend alone.

After a quick dinner, we jumped straight into our first session, in this case, Desiree's Steampunk Gypsy game, mentioned in the previous blog post.  Desiree chose to use no system (though I introduced one halfway into the game that was well received ;) ), so our characters amounted to a description and a picture.  I arrived a touch late, so everyone had already picked their character, leaving me with Carlos, a very conservative gypsy concerned with the fading of his culture and owner of the last gypsy horse.  The others offered to trade with me, but I honestly thought he was a perfect fit for me, so everyone was happy.

As I said, Desiree used no system, but after watching people toy with cards and dice, I suddenly suggested that we should play it like Calvin Ball, but, and I'm not kidding here, they had no idea what I was talking about (and it's not like Dutch people have no exposure to Calvin and Hobbes: Raoul knew exactly what I was talking about when I described the situation to him later on).  So, after I explained the utterly arbitrary and ineffable and chaotic rules of Calvin Ball, they thought it was great fun, and our "system" devolved into people knocking over cans, drawing cards into weird patterns, rolling dice and then placing them on cards, connecting cards with forks, and positioning jewelry in odd configurations.  In short, fun was had by all while onlookers couldn't figure out what the hell we were doing.  Desiree declared it the most fun system she'd ever played with.  I like to think she was making a statement against the arbitrary cargo cults that follow many more complex games (especially D&D), but I suspect she might have simply enjoyed the purity of Calvin Ball ^_^

To return to the story, Desiree began the game by introducing us to the courtship rituals of Gypsies: If a boy Gypsy and a girl Gypsie liked one another very much and her parents agreed to the match, the boy Gypsie "kidnapped" the girl Gyspe.  And so, the tone was set: This was to be a game about romancing Gypsie girls!  And so, our Gypsie family set out for the grand meeting of all the Gypsies in the area which, because of cultural and actual attrition, consisted of one single other family, who was the rival of ours.  The other players had their own little stories, such as Erik playing Pedro as a dancing, womanizing fool, or Frank playing Gomez, a hunter and my younger brother who craved to be seen as my equal, Marco playing as Alejandro, a Gypsy inventor with a crazy steam car (and my rival), and Myrthe, playing Mariposa, an equally technologically-fascinated Gypsy girl from our rival family (they were a match made in heaven).

I think Desiree really liked how I played Carlos.  I instantly had a connection with Allegria, the dancing daughter of the rival family (She found my storm-grey horse, Dancer fascinating.  When she reached up to touch his nose, I asked if she knew how to ride.  When she shyly confessed she didn't, I told her all Gypsies should know how to ride.  She commented on the impracticality of this, but I only scowled, unwilling to admit she was right, and took her for a ride), but I never admitted it, never came out and said it. In my opinion, that's rule #1 about a good romance: Imply all feelings, don't state them outright until the climax or until they impossible to fulfill, if you state them at all (I think the Taming of the Shrew is a better romance than Romeo and Juliet).  Instead, he played his guitar and tried to arrange marriages for the rest of his family, while struggling to pretend that Allegria's sensuous dance with Gomez didn't affect him, or that he was willing to give up everything to keep her safe.

At some point, I made the "mistake" of telling Allegria that I had a dream of finding a mare for Dancer, my horse, and breeding a new herd that I would use to rekindle the horse population of (wherever we were).  Desiree instantly hit upon the idea of making me choose between Dancer and Allegria. I don't think she expected the choice I made, but was pleased with it nonetheless.  First, Dancer wandered off, so I went looking for him while a storm brewed.  I found him across a river eating some tasty but highly poisonous plants.  I was able to force him to vomit up the plants, but problems mounted as I brought him back to the river.  Before I could cross with Dancer, I saw Allegria (who had followed after me, worried about why I was gone for so long) falling into the river.  Now, the storm grew close, and Desiree made it clear that if I chose to move my horse across the river first, that Allegria would die, but if I rescued Allegria, I might miss my chance to get my sick horse across the river.  Of course, I saved Allegria.

After a tense scene where we worked to save Allegria's life, I was assured that she would be safe.  Rain poured down outside, and still, I gathered my coat and left.  The river had swollen too large for me to safely cross, and my horse stood shivering on the other side.  By then, Gomez and Pedro had arrived and, Gomez being an excellent outdoorsman, had rope with them.  So, I tied the rope to myself and struggled to cross the river (in retrospect, it probably would have made more sense to have Gomez cross, but I think Carlos was the kind of guy who took the weight of the world on his shoulders), where I covered my horse with my coat, intending to wait out the storm.  However, Desiree stated that he looked very ill and probably wouldn't make it through the storm.  So I tied the rope to the horse and tried to cross with him, swimming beside Dancer.  I was, of course, going for broke: Rescue BOTH the girl AND the horse, because heroes don't quit just because of a little rain!  However, I could tell Desiree wanted to exact a price: I couldn't save everyone, I had to be willing to give up something, and so she told me that I could tell that Pedro and Gomez were losing strength and that they couldn't draw us both across... and so I did the only thing I really could do (especially with the horse tied to the rope): I let go.

And so, long story short, Carlos died, but Dancer lived on.

The story ended, I believe, with Allegria wearing black and becoming a very conservative Gypsy herself who, nonetheless helped raise an entire herd of horses.  Alejandro and Mariposa married, I believe, Gomez sort of took over as leader of the family, and I don't remember what happened to Pedro (it's possible he married Adelyne, the other, shy, young sister, but I'm not sure it worked out between them).

The death of my character provoked a discussion.  I suggested two alternative paths: if she had intended to make me choose between my horse and Allegria, she could have simply taken Dancer from me when I chose Allegria.  Alternatively, my arm had been mangled during my rescue attempts, so if she simply wanted to exact a price, she could have taken my arm.  However, especially given it's one-shot nature, I didn't feel the death of Carlos was inappropriate.  The only thing it cut short was the romance with Allegria, which was left unresolved, but I think Desiree wanted and/or enjoyed that ending, and I felt it was very in character for Carlos, who was willing to sacrifice everything for the safety of his culture and ideals.  Raoul, upon observing the entire situation, commented on how GMing by fiat as Desiree was doing opened on up to criticism for "killing off a PC," and that chance-based systems provided a GM with cover.  If we had been playing D&D, for example, then Desiree would have simply called for a Fortitude save, and if I failed my roll, well, it was out of her hands.  I thought that was an interesting observation.

All in all, a very good game.  A very different game from what you generally see the knights run.  It was very laid back and reminded me of playing House with girls when I was a little boy, but it wasn't slow, it wasn't boring.  Personally, I found it a much more satisfying game than Grimm (it certainly had better chemistry among the players_, and it gave me a lot to think about.  All in all, I would call it a success, and a good one at that.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Allegria is already pregnant

I just finished the Spring Weekend, and I'll tell you more about it when I'm better recovered.  Spoiler: It went great.  Probably one of the best weekends that I remember.  But with the weekend over, and Cherry Blossom Rain revealed to the world, it's time for me to let that field lie a little fallow, lest I burn out, and to focus on my next big project: Extending Lady Blackbird for Bee, her birthday present.

Bee plays very differently than I do, and so expanding Lady Blackbird involves thinking very differently than I generally do.  What does this have to do with Allegria and why she's pregnant?  Let me explain:

Desiree ran a game about "Steampunk Gypsies."  I'll tell you more about it later, but for now, I want to tell you what I discovered after the game was over and I peeked at her "notes."  She had a few pictures of NPCs, a list of a few names, and a small list of events, including "Allegria is already pregnant."  Allegria was one of the NPCs, a beautiful dancing girl who fell for my character, and at no point was she pregnant.  So why had she written this fact down? Because, as Desiree explained, she didn't know how the story would play out until she actually began to run it.  She had listed numerous little "ideas" to draw inspiration from on the spur of the moment.  Perhaps a romance bloomed with Allegria too quickly and she needed conflict, and thus, it would occur that she was already pregnant.  Or perhaps Desiree would need some other complication to keep the game spicy, so she'd draw on something else.  Or perhaps, as was the case this time, the player would feed her a neat idea that she could run with.

In some ways, as I said to her, that's really not different from how I run things.  She notes interesting ideas as a sentence, I note them as a full paragraph, but in retrospect, I don't actually think that's true.  When I put together a game, I envision it in great deal.  I can see scenes playing out in my mind.  For example, I ran a scene in Cherry Blossom Rain where the Witch of Jukai offers to "free" Yukiko from the terrible grasp of Ren.  I could see her fox, could smell the scent of her swamp, see her j-horror features looming in Yukiko's mirror.  I write those paragraphs because I can see them, like a movie, and I need, very much, to make those scenes more likely, more probable.  I come in the game knowing, more or less, what I want.  I still need to be surprised, I still need the game to flow and change based on what the players do, but those scenes often drive my inspiration like no other source.

What she does, what Bee does, is ultimately different, I think.  I believe they simply walk into a game with no expectations.  They have a premise and little else, and what happens, happens.  They want to have a fun game, and like me, they want to drive the action, though they drive it less towards actual, concrete scenes and more towards general themes that they enjoy: Desiree drives her game towards romance and tragedy, and Bee drives her game towards action and adventure.  What they need isn't details, but inspiration that they feed into the game like one feeds tinder into a dying flame.  They guide the flame, they stoke it, but they don't truly control it.

Returning to Lady Blackbird, what I think Bee really needs amounts, essentially, to a giant book of lists containing things like "Allegria is already pregnant."  Lady Blackbird, in particular, excels at this.  The game master needs only supply the difficulty level and, if necessary, the consequences of the players' action.  It presents those difficulties in the form of story-ideas: "A sky-squid attacks! Difficulty X to defeat it, with the danger of being lost or wounded if you fail!"  It gives you a difficulty, yes, but mostly, it just suggests that Sky Squids exist, and offers the idea that, perhaps, one might attack.  Instantly, you have a potential story idea, one that's useless for many GMs, but one that's rich fodder for one like Desiree or Bee.  I need more, but they need less.  Simple, small and beautiful, little seeds that bloom into full stories.

That's what my book will be: Little seeds.
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