Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ludoverse Lab Summer Line-up: Fantasy Role-Playing in a New Light

For the Summer of 2020, the Ludoverse Lab will feature a fantasy trilogy. Interested educators are invited to be part of the adventure!

We will be taking games like Dungeons & Dragons and its kin into brave new worlds. The goal is to have some fun while exploring how these games can bring serious topics—topics crucial to education—to the front burner.

As an added bonus, sessions will be led by some of the most innovative designers and GMs in the field today.

Here’s the line-up:

  • Saturday, June 6 and 13, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern Richard Ruane, will be running a playset from his Barrow Keep project. He brings political intrigue, romance, and coming-of-age epiphanies into the fantasy rpg framework.
  • Saturday, July 11 and 18, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern: Ryan Windeknecht will be running World of Professionals, a hack of Dungeon World which he uses to teach students about moral systems and professional ethics.
  • Saturday, August 1 and 8, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. Eastern. Jesse Burneko is running a scenario inspired by his Dungeons and Dilemmas project, and he’s designing elements especially for the Ludoverse Lab. When you enter Jesse’s dungeons, you will be battling deep moral dilemmas along with the monsters. [Content warning: This game will deal with themes of pregnancy and possible harm to children.]

Hearken to the call to adventure. If you are a teacher who is curious or who is looking for innovative ways to bring games into the classroom, please reach out to me (robowist <at> gmail [dot] com) to reserve a seat at the table.
Please note: These are designed as “two-shot” adventures, meaning that you should sign up for both sessions within a given month.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: The Curious Synergies of Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman

For this report, the Ludoverse Lab turned its focus to Our Last Best Hope, a game about a serious crisis whose resolution rides—for better or worse—on the shoulders of a small group of intrepid heroes. I was interested in continuing to explore a game which would touch on the current viral state of affairs, so I chose the Zombie Apocalypse playset / scenario which is included in the original book.

An edited version of our recorded session can be found by clicking here.

Our Last Best Hope is a curious mix of a role-playing game and a resource-management strategy game. Moreover, in its default incarnation, it is designed to be played on a large table with 30+ 3x5 cards and sets of white and black dice which you use to keep track of relationships, assets, threats, story points, and other vital stockpiles. Since we were playing the game virtually, I spent a couple hours in advance of our session building these elements on a Google Drawing file. That set-up worked remarkably well, but if you try it, build the cards in advance! I did so, and it facilitated a quick entry into game play. Had I started with a blank Google Drawing, it would have been a laborious start for the group.

The opening of the session involves choosing character types, building connections with other characters, establishing secrets and fears, and developing the setting. I have deleted this section in the video. So, after introductions to the game and to the players, you will see us move right into game play.

Our Last Best Hope alternates between spotlight scenes, which are driven by role-playing, and threats, where you work to build up dice pools in order to win against the game. The mechanics reward your role-playing: You earn story points by incorporating character relationships, painful secrets, and guarded fears into the scenes. For example, on a card, you write down the name of another character who drives your character crazy. If, during a scene, you are able to demonstrate that relationship quality, you can turn in the card for two story points.

Afterward, when dealing with a threat, you can spend story points in order to activate assets or engage the situation. These types of proactive measures earn your group added dice to roll, which increases your odds of dealing with the threat.

The game is set up to make the situation more dire as it progresses. Threats continue to appear, and they become more difficult to overcome in Act 2. Eventually, some of the heroes will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. When a character dies, the remaining members of the group receive a significant boost which makes it more likely that the core mission will be accomplished.

We found the game stimulating, and if you move to the end of the recording, you will catch some of our initial reactions in the debrief. The idea of sacrifice is at the core of the game, and the mechanics are set up to incentivize the players to consider taking one for the team as they zero in on their goal. The game also incentives role-playing in the opening scenes: You are looking at opportunities to play your story cards as you interact with the other characters. The threat resolution system is suitably strategic and dramatic.

We encountered problems with the time estimate. The book suggests 2-3 hours for game play, and even with the virtual table and cards set up in advance, we only made it about ⅔ of the way through the opening act in our committed 3-hour session . Part of this was a result of the way we leaned into the role-playing, but we also were quite efficient at working through the opening threats. If I had to play the game again, I would plan for two 3-hour sessions.

We ran into a similar time problem with Ben Robbins' Follow. In both cases, there may be a fundamental design problem at issue. On the one hand, there is something very appealing about a one-shot game which can be pulled out and played in a short session with minimal preparation. At the same time, the designer wants to deliver an experience that has a level of richness and complexity. These two goals, however, start to work at cross purposes. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that there are games which should be considered two-shots or three-shots. I realize that billing them as such would not work from a marketing perspective. In my experience, games that most comfortably fit the one-shot mold—The Quiet Year, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Microscope—are ones that do not require a high degree of individual character engagement or relationship mapping.

Our Last Best Hope is game with many moving parts. It is smartly designed, but you have to be on top of the game to remember and keep track of all the rules and triggering effects. As an experience, it has much to offer both in terms of its interwoven mechanics and in terms of its core messaging. But this is a game that would require careful thought and planning if you were inclined to bring it into the classroom.

What especially intrigues me about Our Last Best Hope is that it gives the group a fighting chance for success but only if individual members can find it in themselves to sacrifice their characters. There is actually a death card that you play when your character meets their demise.

Our Last Best Hope is built on the idea of tragedy in its profound, classical sense. I can’t think of another contemporary rpg that is so perfectly designed to deliver the experience of heroic sacrifice to its players. That factor alone makes me as an educator interested in bringing it in front of my students. They often have difficulty seeing how a character like Oedipus is heroic, and are inclined to favor the more shallow triumphant victories of characters like Odysseus. A game like Our Last Best Hope might help to open their eyes to the emotional human core that resides in the tragic heroes—people who give of themselves so that others may flourish. It says something about the selfishness and shallowness of our culture that we don’t encounter those tragic models more often.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Improvisational Play with The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis and Cheat Your Own Adventure by Shane Mclean, with the Pompey Crew Design Team

For this session of the Ludoverse Lab, we went after more lighthearted fare. Cheat Your Own Adventure and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen are prep-less and GM-less games which challenge the players to think on their feet. Absurdity and inanity follows.

You can see the video recording of our session by clicking here.

I’ve lightly edited the video with headings used throughout to assist you in seeing how the gameplay develops. The video ends with some brief discussion about the games in education and the possible tweaks we would use to make sure all the students are involved in the mix.

Of special note is the contributions of Mikel Matthews, a drama and English teacher who also has deep experience in the improv acting arena. He gives us some useful instruction at the 59:00 mark as well as towards the end of the session during our debrief. Teachers who are interested in teaching role-playing and improvisational skills would be wise to take a look at what he has to say.

Cheat Your Own Adventure is freely available as a 2-page pdf on the internet. The basic idea is simple: One player starts a narrative about an adventurer using the second person (“you”) and takes the tale to a branch. The other players then propose options for the protagonist, and the narrative then passes to the player whose option is selected. The end result is a collaborative tale, and the players naturally fall into the idea of coming up with options that are attractive either because they are intriguing or because they will lead to hilarity.

It quickly becomes apparent in this game that the destination is less important than the journey. From the get-go, we swerve down paths that have little to do with the sorcerer Zalkir (whose name appeared in the title of our adventure) and more to do with introducing zany side characters and detours. When the narrative branches, the players at the table are challenged to come up with new directions for the tale. There were occasions when a player had come up with a good idea yet found someone introducing their idea before they could put theirs on the table, so we had to keep on our toes. It was also sometimes challenging to keep all the options in mind: You will see me constantly taking notes as an aid.

CYOA is a solid warm-up game that will inevitably lead to a lighthearted good time. It also has great flexibility in terms of the types of stories it can tell. For example, one might use the framework to tell the story of a press secretary who has to handle various gaffes and missteps of a President whom they serve. That would activate a great pun in the abbreviated title of the game—COYA. There are also clear possibilities of taking the narrative to more serious or dramatic destinations.

Baron Munchausen is a more refined game. Players challenge each other to tell tales, with the goal being to make your story more extraordinary than the others. The game really cooks when you use the challenge mechanic, which allows you to interrupt another player’s tale and ask them to explain or justify some detail.

The game has a curious competitive aspect, and one can consider strategy, but the rivalry side of the game is ultimately simply more veneer that exists to generate additional outrageous fiction. For example, if you challenge other players, your purse will surely dwindle, which seems like a bad thing. But in the final round of voting, you are giving your purse to the other player whose story you deem to be the most extraordinary. That means that having a small purse leading up to the end is actually a boon in disguise, since you will ultimately be passing fewer coins to a rival. Wallis has worked out a brilliant betting mechanic that rewards deep study: It valuable lessons into how an apparent strategic-competitive component can encourage the alert player to lean into the tactics and, in so doing, reinforce the underlying goal of the game.

One element that adds to the humor to Baron Munchausen is the atmosphere of false 18th-century propriety that the game encourages. Players are instructed to give themselves bogus honorific titles, and challenges are delivered with an affected politesse. The rule book is a delight to read and puts you in the right spirit. At some point in the future, I’d love to drill into the stylistic approaches of different rpg authors. There is great variety out there. If you wanted two writers worthy of close study who exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, I’d suggest comparing Ben Robbins to James Wallis. I admire both of them immensely, but for opposed reasons: Robbins is a master of clear, cogent precision, while Wallis is capable of delivering lush hilarity.

I’m gearing up to play Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman, and I’m then going to set up a few more laboratory experiments for the summer. Announcements about those sessions will appear in the coming weeks, and as always, I’ll be looking for players to join me at the table.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Follow by Ben Robbins

For our most recent experiment in the Ludoverse Lab, I decided to play with fire.

I had already talked to players who blanched at the notion of bringing viral material into a game. The reasons for their reticence are easily understood. The coronavirus pandemic has touched everyone on multiple levels. The topic goes deep and hits on sensitive nerves. For many, the idea of playing with something so close to home is not what they are after in a tabletop gaming experience. They are understandably looking for games to give them some respite, consolation, and social connection in this bleak time.

I, however, am especially drawn to tabletop roleplaying games that will go hard after vital topics, and it strikes me that this medium has deep resources for probing into very real human situations. As a teacher, I’m interested in how we might use games in education to prompt our students (and ourselves) to reflect on our world, to consider how others might view situations differently, and to explore alternate “real-world” outcomes in a fictional space.

So, I gathered together three other intrepid, like-minded souls, and we played Ben Robbins’ Follow using the playset called “The Cure.” I recorded our session and edited it. You can access it by clicking here. [One note: I took out much of the character creation section to keep the length more reasonable and to cut to the chase.]

The players include a middle school science teacher, a high school math teacher, a college American literature professor, and me (a high school English teacher). It was a special joy for me to have in the mix a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years.

I find the opening of our session intriguing: You will see some anxious body language and nervous hesitations as we consider whether to take a more indirect route through some fictive distancing—by, for example, dealing with an epidemic in a futuristic or historical setting. Ultimately, we left the idea of dealing with a zombie infection or a medieval plague for another day and opted to set our game in the here and now. The coronavirus was directly in the crosshairs, and we played characters living in a small city in upstate New York which was starting to grapple with an outbreak among teachers at the local elementary school.

The idea of Follow is that the players take on roles of characters in a “Fellowship,” a group which is united by a common crisis or mission. It is clear from the playset of “The Cure” that Robbins was initially imagining a hospital, research facility, or laboratory as a setting. Our group expanded this setting so that it encompassed people across a city, and you will note that we had to tweak and mold the playset to fit our conception. Our characters included a prominent local business owner, a member of the city council, a hospital security, a dispirited pharmacy assistant, and others. The result is that we had a varied mix of “takes” on the infection, and we remained true to providing a fiction that focused on ordinary people navigating an unexpected crisis with wide-ranging personal and social impacts. In Follow, each player controls a major character and a minor character, and the major characters are involved in some personal entanglements: The major character sitting to you left has something which your major character wants, but which is being withheld. Given the more broad city setting for our Fellowship, we were able to leverage some of these tensions, while others were relatively unexplored. A more contained, pressure-cooker environment—such as, for example, a single hospital—might have afforded us more opportunities to bring more of those conflicted connections into focus.

As will be the custom with the Ludoverse Lab, the session ends with a roundtable debrief. These comments begin with reflections on our actual play experience and the game, and then we spiral outward to talk about possibilities for the classroom. Many of the points raised merit further exploration. For example, Lali considers whether a middle school setting would require a more indirect, less immediately realistic approach. We were also considering whether the game, which ideally involves 3-5 players, could be played (perhaps with modifications) in a classroom context.

Related to this question is Chana’s curiosity about how to approach role-playing with students, most of whom are new to the activity. I have some advice to offer in the recording. If one has the luxury of time, for example, one can work to build up to role-playing through experiences and assignments given early in the year. I have had 9th grade students play the game Microscope initially without the “Scene” component, but I end the game with a writing assignment which takes students through the nuts and bolts of constructing an effective, dramatic scene between characters. With that assignment under their belts, students are more equipped to step towards more freeform, improvised role-playing situations later in the year.

This consideration has led me to the perhaps obvious realization that the GM-less environment can make things more difficult for less experienced role-players. A GM can ask players questions (such as “What does that look like?” or “What is it about Mr. X that most annoys your character?”) and push them to flesh out role-playing situations. In GM-less games with younger students, I have sometimes adopted a pseudo-GM role to prompt the students to think more deeply about their role-playing.

Ultimately, what I need is to develop a “Role-Playing 101” lesson which would pull together many of the insights and techniques I’ve picked up through my years of role-playing. This is another area where the classroom is manifestly different from the organic hobby group. When my friends and I first took up role-playing games in my high school years, none of us knew what we were doing, so we just worked it out over many months of trial and error. In the classroom, a more targeted and efficient approach is required. I will have to add “Role-Playing 101” to my list of summer projects.

I will end by reiterating my invitation to educators. If you are reading this and want to participate in an upcoming Ludoverse Lab, let me know and I’ll happily reserve a seat at the virtual table.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Next Experiments in the Ludoverse Lab: Call for Gamers

I’m planning three new sessions of the Ludoverse Lab starting Saturday, April 18. And I’m looking for a few more teacherly types to join me in my journey.

Tentatively, these will run from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. EDT (UTC -4). The first and last of these Saturday sessions will feature story games where we will take on the roles of characters battling pandemics and striving to find a cure. Sandwiched between is some comic relief with a couple bonkers games about bluffing, boasting, and cheating.

I’m looking for teachers, administrators, and educators interested in participating in these game sessions. The idea is to experience a role-playing game and then to have a conversation about how the game and its mechanics might be leveraged for use within the classroom. If you would like to help out, you can send me a message or an email
( robowist ~at~ gmail *dot*  com )

Here’s the lineup:

Saturday, April 18: Follow by Ben Robbins using the quest playset titled “The Cure”
Saturday, April 25: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis and Cheat Your Own Adventure
Saturday, May 2: Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman

If you have any questions or want to join in the fun, let me know!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: The Pool by James V. West, Part 2

We wrapped up our sessions with The Pool with three returning players and one new addition. To watch the video of our session (with post-game debrief, click here.

We were able to get a taste of how the game’s advancement system works. In brief, after playing a session, the players get an additional 15 words that they can add to their character descriptions (or, if they want, they can bank those words to deploy them later). They also get 9 points in their “pool” which they can use in turn to add points to their bonus traits. As with all matters, the approach is streamlined and elegant.

This week, we were joined by Linnea, who is the creative director of a video game design company living in Sweden. It didn’t take long to get her up and running with the game. The fact that everything is grounded in those character descriptions made it easy for her to get quickly oriented.

This is, to say the least, a group that attacks the game from an array of perspectives. You have a college undergraduate majoring in English and psychology, a college professor specializing in philosophy and ethics, a high school government teacher, and me (a high school English teacher).

I decided this week to “go Memento” on the players by starting things off with the scene that would chronologically END our narrative and then work our way backward in time. The streamlined system of The Pool hummed with this approach. The trick is for the GM to begin by describing a scene that is happening in medias res and to weave in abundant specific details from the previous session and the character descriptions. But the special sauce is to leave things open. You don’t have to explain everything that’s going on: That’s for the game play to determine. You can also allow the players to insert the characters into the scene as they see fit.

I could explain things, but really the better course of action is to direct you to 6:45 of the video. There, you’ll see me framing things up and letting the mayhem rip. Role-playing games are best experienced from the players’ side, but even as an observer, you will quickly pick up on the energy and creativity that The Pool and this kind of hard scene framing generate. With one session under the belt, the players quickly lean into their character traits, and the resolution system works hand-in-hand with the weaving of the narrative tapestry.

As a GM, I felt like my main role was to keep the spotlight moving around. After establishing the crazy setting, my job is quite easy and loads of fun. I add a detail to the scene, ask one character what they are going to do, resolve a conflict, and then move onto another character. The elegant system gives the players just enough to work with, and the swinginess of the dice rolls adds to the fun.

I’d again point out how the failures end up inciting more creativity from both the players and the GM. This week, we see the players sometimes failing and opting to deliver a Monologue of Defeat instead of grabbing another die for their pool. And they are also much more quick and eager to take the reins when they are delivering their Monologues of Victory.

I was also happy to see characters volunteering dice from their pools to help their companions. One stipulation I made is that they had to explain what their character was doing to offer assistance within the fiction, and this became another way of moving the spotlight around and of enhancing the descriptive richness of the narrative.

If you have never tried running a role-playing game in reverse order, I urge you to try it out. The approach will allow your session to take off from the opening moment, and it will also challenge the creative thought process of your players. It also forces the mind to think about narrative organization in a more intense and deliberate manner. When you start to step back in time, everyone at the table has to think about how they are going to get the new scene to END where the previously played scene BEGAN. This gives the players and GM a focused objective to chew on as they consider their decisions since they need the action to move toward a determinate end point (which is also a beginning point).

We end the session with some reflections on the game and our experiences. The Pool remains a vibrant gem in 2020, and I encourage educators to study it. Weighing in at only 4-pages, it is like the superfruit of rpgs. I don’t think you could find a game that provides more bang in such a small package. You will find it readily adaptable to varied classroom contexts, and if you are looking for an easy way to introduce a group to role-playing games, The Pool is a perfect place to dive in.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sorcerer and Sword: The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer, The Final Session

After eight sessions, we brought an end to our mini-campaign using Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer and Sword supplement.  You can access the video by clicking here. 

I’ve now run two games of Sorcerer, and in both cases it took a full 7-8 sessions to bring the kickers to a satisfactory resolution. The players for this series literally ranged around the globe: I’m in central Florida, Rod is in Texas, and Aybars is in Istanbul. To state the obvious, scheduling was a challenge, and it’s a testament to our commitment that we pulled this off.

I have some more sessions recorded, and we’ll see if I have the time to get those edited. This session, however, provides much food for thought, so rather than wait, I’m releasing it now.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I tend to run games that operate on a slow burn, and despite the fact that our session builds to a dramatic crescendo, there are signs of that deliberate style in ample evidence here. Some players will balk at my approach, but I like the way all of this developed in our game. In terms of why the slow burn occurs, I can put my finger on a number of sources.

First, I’m not making it easy on the players. I regularly introduce situations or scenes where you will see the players mulling over their options . . .  and I let them linger in their uncertainty. You’ll see a number of examples in this session.

At the start, for instance, the two Sorcerers have to decide whether to drug their friend (Zeki) who is experiencing an intense withdrawal, or to leave him behind to complete the process. You’ll see them working over that question, until Nagimo (played by Rod) opts for a low-dose drug option, only to have Balder (played by Aybars) rescue the situation by creatively coming up with a creative placebo option (aided by a successful roll of the dice).

And, towards the end of the session, you’ll see the duo encountering a number of fraught situations where they are thoughtfully debating what the best course of action might be: Do we sneak into the compound of the necromancer (named The Prime Herald) or do we take a more direct approach and ask for an audience? Do we try to contact the powerful demon named The Chryxen Butterfly, and if so, what should that timing be? Afterward, should Balder risk a binding with that demon, realizing that, by doing so, he will be initiated into the necromantic arts? The dilemmas come streaming down, and one consequence is that the game sometimes veers into anguished debates over tactics and morality instead of pulse-pounding action.

This session features a number of Humanity rolls. I love the way Balder/Aybars comes to a gradual realization that necromancy is nasty business . . . and there’s even a spot where he tries to justify (mostly to himself) dabbling in this very dark and wicked art (see the sequence starting at 1:14:00). Aybars is in fine form as he works through the ethics, and eventually he arrives at that favorite refuge of morally ambiguous decisions (at 1:18:00): “I have no other choice. . . I’m too deep in this!”

Sorcery and accompanying Humanity rolls are firing on all cylinders as things come to a close. At the 48:30 mark, Balder decides to contact the Chryxen Butterfly, and he uses a wonderfully described blood ritual along with some group sorcery to build up a sizable pool of dice to pull off the Contact. This again takes time (about 15 minutes of game play, some of which is edited out), but it builds up to some memorable rolls and some dramatic and satisfying outcomes.

During planning, I had determined that the Chryxen Butterfly was in a rebellious state with respect to his “current” master, The Prime Herald, though this fact was not known to the players. With the successful Contact roll and some nice role-playing on the part of the Sorcerers, the demon breaks free of The Prime Herald, and Balder then attempts to Bind the demon, In the fiction, this involves a gruesome and excruciating moments as the object demon fuses itself onto Balder’s skull. Normally, the sequence goes Contact ⇒ Summon ⇒ Bind. But since this was a case of an unbound, rebellious demon, we rolled the successes from the Contact directly into the Binding roll. There didn't seem to be any need to Summon a demon who was already there.

Balder ends up losing one of his Humanity checks, which was clearly making Aybars nervous. The session then ends with Nagimo and Balder trying to get the Chryxen Butterfly to reverse the soul entrapment afflicting Nagimo’s friend Zeki (start around 1:30:00). Eventually, the demon comes around to the idea, but notes that this type of reversal draws on necromantic forces--meaning, of course, that a human life is required. The two creatively decide to offer up the life of a former nemesis (the giant named Baseer) whom they knew to be at the complex. So the dark designs set in motion just continued to cascade!

The reversal of the soul entrapment was a puzzle for me: On the one hand it required a human sacrifice, which clearly risked a Humanity loss. But at the same time, the effect was one that was beneficent, restoring a human life (Zeki) to wholeness. In the end, I ordered Aybars/Balder to make two Humanity checks: One to see if he lost a point of Humanity for mercilessly sacrificing the giant Baseer; the other to see if he gained a point of Humanity for restoring Zeki’s soul. He succeeded in both rolls, meaning he ultimately gained a point of Humanity.

With that, the kickers were wrapped up. Nagimo had not only found his friend Zeki, but managed to have him healed. And Balder had achieved his drive for power . . . though I wonder how long it will take for him to wither in corruption like the previous Prime Herald.

As you can tell from this account, Balder had the spotlight in this session. Nagimo in fact had contemplated whether he even needed to travel to the Prime Herald to bring things to a satisfactory (or at least liveable) conclusion. Had the two Sorcerers decided on a secretive operation when they landed , then Nagimo’s superior physical abilities would no doubt have come into play. Thinking about the sessions as a whole, I believe Nagimo commanded a number of key spotlight moments throughout. Still, given that we knew this was driving towards a concluding moment, I would have liked to have found some way to give Rod more of a closing aria. It may be some consolation that Nagimo clearly has more potential as an enduring character in an ongoing saga.

We have a short session debrief at the end, which will provide some insights from Rod and Aybars. I invite them or anyone else interested to offer additional commentary here. We decided to set the game aside, though as I noted to them, it still lies ready in the dock, and I look forward to continuing to develop the setting if others are interested in trudging through the sodden lands of Snia Mer.

I’m itching to take another dive into Sorcerer. Given the frightening COVID-19 pandemic, I’m mulling over Jared Sorenson’s Schism (which is aptly subtitled “A Virulent Setting for Sorcerer”) as a timely supplement in these dark days.