Archives for posts with tag: apocalypse world

“Snuggle Up and Get Real Sad, Up-Ins”
It’s a thing my friends and I say, specifically in response to the The Tales of Ba-Sing-Se episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” That episode will make you bawl and if it doesn’t, everyone is entitled to question whether or not you are — in fact — a Cyberman. It has evolved since then as a catch-all response to an episode or situation we expect to be emotionally taxing. It has been used to describe episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” and more recently “Being Human.” To a degree, it’s a phrase that gets used when we know we’re going to see a lot of intra-character drama… not exclusively, perhaps, but we expect that for the most part we’re going to have character’s exposing their hearts to one another and revealing their internal strife. This is fine and dandy and highly effective (in my opinion) when presenting a narrative to an audience. There is a question to raise here, though: how does this practice — of revealing internal drama to other characters for the benefit of the audience — jive with tabletop role-playing?

Illusion of the First Time
It’s a thing my girlfriend the Theatre Major/actor/director/stage manager has brought up before when discussing actors’ performances. The phrase is apparently associated with William Gillette according to a quick and dirty Google search, but I can’t guarantee that — it has to do with, no matter how many times you stage a scene, it should always appear to be the first time that your character is making discoveries. This can become tricky immediately in role-playing games. Infamous scenes come to mind — scenes of a split party reunited, and since the entire party was at the table when events happened they simply gloss over the story to told. Not necessarily a problem, unless one of the characters is supposedly learning some pressing information from this.

That said, the exact opposite is equally possible — I’m sure many Game Masters and players out there can whip up impressive stories of emotional bombs dropped and revelations had: the villain was your father all along, you’ve been concealing your real class/race/identity from the party all along, and so forth. I’m sure they work and are fun for everyone. I can specifically recall, from my own experience, a stretch of Dungeons & Dragons in which I played a Monk whom everyone regarded as a monk. He was primarily a pacifist, and the game did not last long enough to warrant the complete unhinged fury of Flurry of Blows… but my point is made, I think. Secrets are fun. Reveals are fun.

Aristotle had plenty to say on the subject: basically, we feel really clever when we think we’ve figured something out or when we think we’re understanding.

No Such Thing As Filler
So, what am I trying to get at: the idea of the game-as-conversation or conversation-as-game; having something to talk about when you sit down at the table and sit down into character. The great and forever-lovable Apocalypse World specifically refers to the event of role-playing as “conversation,” with the players’ and Game Master’s duty being to speak when it is his or her own turn. It even considers most of the Game Master’s job to be as “simple” as preparing interesting things to say.

On the surface, this is a simple idea: do your prep work and you’re ready to go. What does this mean? Have your dungeon maps so you can talk about positioning; your aesthetic, so you can talk about pungent mildew collecting on skulls; your stat blocks, so you can talk about claws and venom; your sketches, so you can reference claws and venom sacs; have your NPCs ready, so they can say things that matter. This all seems to be on the Referee though… what about the players?

Well, theoretically: players should be ready to detail the super awesome stylings of their characters. That is, they should be ready to rogue it up as the Zorro-in-residence or hack up some baddies in a truly wizard Conan impression, etc. They should be ready to play their characters… shouldn’t they? Just as players would probably feel a little disheartened by a Ref who scrawled the night’s dungeon on a Cheetos-stained napkin, shouldn’t a Ref be entitled to feeling blue about players who don’t care about playing up their character? Or is that unfair and inappropriate? Or, worse, is it automatically indicative of the Ref’s own failings? I don’t really think it is… I believe a shoddy Ref can put a damper on anyone getting deep into the story and having things they want to say, but I don’t think players without interested in characterization scenes are automatically a result of a bad Ref.

I would hazard a guess that people get really into their characters when they believe they have something to say… by extension, I would assume people do not get into their characters if they believe they have nothing to say. Characters in vacuum receive less characterization than those in a context, I think.

Distill this down: The “problem” — if there is a problem, and I don’t know that there is — is that these scenes of downtime, these scenes of conversation, these scenes of personality bubbling up from beneath your character’s mechanics are what separate the role-playing game from the board game or the war game. Without characterization, you seem to be playing from fight scene to fight scene with nothing of any worth, story-wise, to sink your teeth into.

Cue Characterization Scene: I Apologize
To clarify, I’m not saying this model of moving from fight scene to fight scene or what have you is bad or doesn’t produce good stories; I’m wondering how to give teeth, to give really gravitas to personal scenes of individual discovery or interpersonal exploration, or quiet moments spent together. Is that impossible? Is this idea simply contrary to the constraints of the medium that is “Cooperative Mechanized Fiction,” or whatever title with which you want to saddle role-playing games? Well, I can think of a few that I hold in high regards because of the intelligence that has gone into giving “quiet moments” a real place.

My Life With Master stands out specifically in the way it mechanizes “things to talk about” through a back and forth, escalating dice mechanic. More simply put (because that sentence, in retrospect, looks tedious): MLWM will give you bonus dice of increasing size if you, in order, bring up physical or intimate contact – emotional overtures – true, genuine sincerity. The intrinsic message is “You will have the chance to roll more successfully if you have characterization right now.” Pull on someone’s lapels, discuss a meal, appreciate music, weep uncontrollably, and so forth. Here is your bonus die.

I suppose Primetime Adventures is worth mentioning, given that its mechanics are simplistic and applicable enough to elevate even casual conversation to hyper-relevance. I blush from its inclusion however, in that it specifically wants every scene to be a conflict — this is good for it. It is emulating television and that is good design, but it disallows the “quiet moments” or scenes of which I’m talking. Breathing room. Emotional space.

What about my current one and only, Apocalypse World? Surely it must no I’m going to stop this sentence right here, no it doesn’t. It offers legitimate mechanical incentive to get to know one another, yes I will admit — but this has actually only offered headaches to my group, as they rarely feel they have learned about one another. The only times they feel like their intimacy has changed have been: meeting the new PC in a bar fight, and attempts on one another’s followers’ lives. They have shared scenes before, they have shared agendas before… but by and large, conversation is not a thing that happens. Sitting and sipping seagull wine on the fence is not a scene. The players don’t need to make scenes to report information to one another, because all too often they’ve been sitting at the table the whole time and it feels silly.

(The easy response here is “invent bad news for one player to give to another!” but I feel that falls to closely on the “ref is at fault” mentality that I don’t think is fair in discussing quiet moments in gaming).

My friend has a hack of AW that is coming together, called The Boy and the Girl, which is relevant to this discussion at least slightly. It is a two-player game meant to emulate Person A saves Person B and is on the run fiction… your Princess Brides and your ICOs. In the game, the relationship between the characters can become strained, and for the most part it takes these kinds of quiet moments I’m talking about to calm it down and keep it manageable.

Monsterhearts
Most recently, in playing Joe McDaldno’s fantastic Monsterhearts, the moments of ‘relationship talk’ have been prevalent… and I would hope so, as that is the aim of this product: to create interpersonal moments for characters to be involved in and react to. I’ve observed a couple of really interesting things about the way it handles this. For one, within the mechanics, one can stick other characters with Conditions that can be used to great benefit when rolling against someone — and that can be automatically removed when actions have been taken to deal with them. There are no mechanics behind this rule specifically; the removal of Conditions is completely up in the air, with specific cases for when other mechanics bring it up.

Okay why does this matter: because it suddenly gives teeth to the pep talk, to crying it out, to getting a make-over, to getting a haircut, to going on a date, to going on a camping trip, to watching the sun rise, to … all of these are questionable scenes. Some gamers would scoff at spending time on them when “nothing is happening,” while others would play them to their heart’s content knowing that, honestly, nothing is happening. In Monsterhearts, if I have the Condition “Workaholic” then I want to narrate that social scene that reveals to the players no, I’m not, see? By design or not, quiet moments have impressive power to transform the advantages and disadvantages facing your character.

Before I forget, this sort of thing extends also to Healing in the game. You can heal one point of Harm simply by saying so (and probably by explaining how it happens). However, you can heal an extra point of Harm but only through the tender, intimate care of another person… possibly with sensual subtext. I read that as someone patching you up with no regard for you doesn’t particularly count; I read that as you need someone who treats you emotionally as well as physically. I especially read it as a small challenge to the player-in-question, in that the Ref can offer an extra point of healing on a string if the character accepts/reciprocates their healer’s advances/innocent interest.

Quiet moments with teeth. The moments in your book, TV show, or movie where suddenly, instantly, its become about a real person with quirks and decision-making and fallibility whom you care about. It isn’t just movement and action anymore. It’s that and more.

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Never Before Has Grammar Been This Annoying
As an English Major (as can be observed in the tagline at the top of this page), I don’t mind working with grammar. Honestly, I love it. Syntax, grammar, and word-choice are each a fun game I like to engage in — though I maybe less than fantastic any of these things, and I may stumble over my words with frightening regularity.

I think it goes without saying at this point that I do certainly love games.

As a result, there is a frequent form of common ground between my many distracting hobbies (besides being linked frequently on this blog), and that is: rule books. Interpreting dangling participles and garden path sentences is the rule of the day when I first crack open the box of any given game and start digging in.

I know that doesn’t sound awfully exciting. It really isn’t.

When I get the opportunity to read through something or write something for class, I can enjoy perusing the piece and dissecting it to ascertain its inner-workings; examining the ways the sounds and the bits of the sentence play off of one another. It’s play, and it’s fun. When I get the opportunity to play a game or make one up for myself, I can enjoy messing around with the bits of ideas and mechanics; seeing how rules interact or play off of one another. It also is play, and fun. When I am reading a rule book however, it is a strange no-man’s land between the two: I am not reading for leisure, necessarily. I am certainly not playing. I am preparing myself — arming myself! Trying to figure out how to make a given game work like clockwork, and wring every drop of entertainment out of it that I can. I’m a busy college student with papers to write, a fraternity to participate in, classes to get behind in…

I do not have the time to wrestle with rule books at the table. 10 minutes of silence when someone tries to do something and I don’t know how the game handles such a situation is unacceptable — by that point, the others have already checked out and it’s an endeavor to get everyone on track again. Now, imagine this situation expanded to encompass the life of a married couple, a family with children, or a family worried about its car payments, etc. There is no time for trying to understand whether or not you meant the game piece on this side or on that side of the board, especially not in games of social complexity that rely on deception or in-depth interaction.

Diplomacy
On that note, I found a new game this week! It’s called Diplomacy and it’s a war game simulating the conditions of European powers on the bring of World War I. In a lot of ways, it seems like Risk but it differs in a lot of ways. To start, if you’ve ever played Risk then you know that it is a standard board game through and through — by which I mean, there is almost no player to player communication whatsoever through the game. This isn’t necessarily an attack on that game… lots of games fit this model. Connect 4 can be played with no communication, Battleship involves one-way communication and process of elimination (curiously very similar to Guess Who?). Risk consists solely of rolling dice, moving pieces, and occasionally pointing to whomever the territory you’re invading belongs.

Diplomacy, meanwhile, is a highly complex game of social maneuvering as players take on the roles of Generals and Party Leaders in 1901 and build up their nations territories and capital immediately before war breaks out. Sounds about identical to Risk, right? Except that everyone’s turns are performed simultaneously (unlike Risk’s turn structure) and in secret (not in the open for everyone to see). Furthermore, before every round, players allot time to meet and mingle with fellow players to coordinate and plan their actions this turn — to betray friends and support enemies! Tricking players into hating one another, and feigning victim to garner support.

Not dissimilar to the social psychology angle of Werewolves, Diplomacy approaches the tension in a different way. It’s not that you don’t know who to trust (as in Mafia or Werewolves), but that you know you can’t trust any of the players — everyone is trying to manipulate everyone against everyone else. It’s a beautiful pile-up of plans gone horribly awry.

And really complex, you can imagine.

So, you’d hope they’d keep the instructions in the rule book simple and clearly written.

Yeah, about that… This is just a reminder to myself to be more clear and well-spoken in my writings so that one day, long down the road I won’t be the guy being written about for his rule book’s bad examples.

When I finish cutting through all of the poorly rendered grammar and understand this game, I’ll give it a play and write about it! As always, I can be reached at alfred_rudzki[at]yahoo[dot]com with any comments or questions! Please feel free to leave a comment below with a board or role-playing game suggestion for me to check out some time! Feel free to tell me about your nightmare time trying to understand some party game, etc.


Yesterday I talked about the “Big Three Questions,” as they are known, espoused by game designer Jared Sorensen (see my last post for a link to his site). Specifically, I was talking about these questions in regards to my current project Children Who Play With Monsters; I tried to create or show an understanding of what my answer would be to each of the design considerations put forward by Sorensen and John Wick, partly as a mental exercise, partly as good practice for the future, and partly to help steer me through a designing rough patch I feel like I’m passing through. Today I’m looking at a few more questions, this time from a different source.

Vincent Baker’s “Insights”
Vincent Baker is a game designer responsible for a number of independent properties with a lot of really interesting ideas churning right underneath the surface. His contributions to the hobby include Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, In a Wicked Age, Poison, and others (not linked here because, honestly, you should just look them up. Really! Go do it!)

Vincent Baker maintains a webpage by the name of anyway where you can find a lot of talk about game design in general. The man thinks and writes big. That is the only way I can describe it. I enjoy what he writes, and a part of me aspires to be able to identify and discuss the elements of play with the insight and verve that this guy does. Well, deep in the recesses of his blog he has a blog post that can be found here — the long and short of the post goes like this: when you design an RPG, you are making three statements specific to your game. If you didn’t have something to say, you wouldn’t be making the game! You are saying something about your subject matter; you are saying something about role-playing in general; you are saying something about human behavior, too. He calls them “Insights.” Go read the initial post of Baker’s blog if you’d like — it’s interesting to read how he applied these ideas to his own game. I’m not going to repost his entry here because it’s just one internet hop away. I’m just going to go at it.

My Insights — What Am I Saying
1. Subject matter: My subject matter… It’s about monsters, fantasy lands, and children who need someone who understands them — it all goes together as far as I’m concerned; it’s about escapism, and that’s where you see them intertwined in spades. You know, I once heard a study that suggested that when children are growing up there are typically two “classes” of fantasies that they engage in. One, more popular in girls apparently, is pretending that their surroundings are different, or that they come from a different family altogether; in boys, it is apparently instead a fantasy of being someone else altogether. I’m saying that the ‘monstrous best friend’ genre appeals to that sense of childish belonging deep down in the belly of someone’s being.

2. Roleplaying as a practice: What am I saying about role-playing as a practice? Part of me thinks that part of the reason for role-playing is to play the game, play out the story, to find out how it ends. It’s about discovery. You don’t really want to know how it ends… until you get there. You don’t want to orchestrate the ending, you want to set it in motion and let the dominoes fall and watch for the patterns. That’s something I want to aim for… the pieces of the game to move together, towards the eventful final moments when you discover what the world(s) have in store for the Child.

3. Real live human nature: Everyone likes telling stories. Everyone likes escapism. The people sitting at the table are going to be getting into trouble and trying to get out of trouble, and they’ll get out of it by running from it further (More Trouble, the Fable) or by falling back on when things were simpler… using something they already know (Flashbacks). When people run from their problems, that doesn’t guarantee that things will get better… Everyone needs that someone to rely on. Everyone needs that one person. And you’re probably going to hurt that person. You’re probably going to hurt them a lot early on, until you get your head screwed on you and figure shit out. You’re probably going to be hurt, be cramped, be drowned out by them — going to feel smothered, maybe. But they’re that someone you need, and they need you.

So Hey, That’s Interesting
I found this post so much easier to write than the previous one. So that’s actually kind of exciting! Even if I may or may not have a perfect grasp on the framework (the about, the how, the behavior) I’m building my game in, I do know what I’m thinking about when I try to make these decisions. Or at least, I do now. Some of the stuff I wrote above were thoughts I’d had all along — and some of it, especially the third question, occurred to me as I was writing and I tried to just go with it and see what I was trying to say.

And I liked what I was trying to say. I really do. It even works with some of what I’ve been saying before! (Like the idea of how success and failure interacts with the well-being of your Monster.) I have a bit more of a vector on what I want to do with this idea, and I think that will help me.

What’s Up Next
Can’t give a  forecast as to what is coming next this week. Nothing else has really caught my attention at this point; I’ll be playing some more Houses of the Blooded this week, so I may talk more about ideas I get from that. Honestly, that game has inspired some thoughts about another game of mine that I haven’t spoken about yet on this blog — although, that idea may have to be finally trashed (sadly), as I can’t see anything new I can bring to the project in light of games such as Houses and Apocalypse World. Maybe I’ll write about it anyway! We’ll see how it goes! I do, however, have a vague plan to put together a testable module for Children Who Play With Monsters by the very end of next week/end of the month (whichever comes first)! Maybe I’ll accomplish that. I’d like to.

What do you think? Have any thoughts on the idea of role-playing games sharing three “insights” on gaming, content, and people? Do you see any of this in the games you play? Do you see how it doesn’t work this way? Want to give it a try like last time and construct another set of answers? Have fun!

As always, any thoughts and comments on the ideas espoused here can be left below, and I look forward to reading and responding to anything the readers may have to say. I can be contacted, of course, at alfred_rudzki[at]yahoo[dot]com. Thank you for reading, as always!