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.
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