Sunday, January 19, 2020

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

Click here to see the actual play video of session two of my “Sodden Lands of Snia Mer” campaign.

A few comments:

I often consider myself a “slow burn” type—I’m a GM who enjoys the gradual build-ups. But I often worry how this will come across to my players, who might be interested in a more pulse-pounding pacing. As I was editing this video, there are some signs of payoff to my slow burn approach:

The start of the session involves the two sorcerers meeting up on the destroyed village of Tainu. After some Q and A, the two settle in for the night, but Nagimo wakes up to find that his NPC companion has gone missing, and he makes a search, which leads him to his hireling Skintu and a discovery that there is some strange presence on the island. There is plenty of mystery that is mounting here, but it is a slowly rising arc. If you are looking for an actual play session to be the same as a rapid fire, Hollywood movie, you will be disappointed.

But then, leap to half way through the video—to the part carrying the subtitle “Demon Contact.” The other sorcerer, Balder, has joined Nagimo to get to the bottom of what lured Skintu onto the island in the middle of the night, and this leads to a decision to attempt a Contact ritual. The ritual succeeds (at the price of Humanity loss), and there is a suitably creepy exchange between the sorcerers and a “Sentinel Demon” named Asmund.

I notice a number of things clicking in the scene. When the demon calls his refrain, “Come closer,” there is some genuine, unsettled laughter around the table: All of us realized that this was a scene that was dripping with consequence, but we also didn’t know exactly where the fiction was going to break, so this resulted in some pregnant, high-level suspense. The scene also had some duration, and the nervous energy was sustained for the length. This energy wouldn’t have been possible without the slow build. Nor would it have been possible if I had scripted a narrative in advance. Part of what made it all work was the perceived sense that the outcome depended on what the sorcerers were deciding (and upon the outcome of some key dice rolls).

The sorcerers ultimately acceded to caution and opted not to push a confrontation with the demon. I think some GMs might have been disappointed with that direction, but I was delighted. The fact that they didn’t force a conflict with Asmund means that there is a powerful chord of mystery and tension playing in the background. Of course, I would have been happy to play along with other decisions as well, but I’m relishing the rich suspense created by that unresolved encounter.

At the close of the session, the sorcerers run across a hybrid monstrosity—a combination crocodile and bear—and you’ll see us working through the combat mechanics. It was an exciting encounter, though I’m also working hard to keep faithful to the mechanics. Here again, some might fault me for slowing down the pace to get the rules right. But for the fans of the slow burn, there are continued payoffs, such as one roll where Nagimo and the “Beardile” monstrosity match their highest three dice, so Nagimo finally gets a victory on his fourth highest die.

Due to schedules, we skipped this past Friday, but session three is lined up for this week. The sorcerers are landing at the garrison of Muskcross Grange, and it’s quite possible that at least one of the kickers will be resolved. Nagimo has heard that one of his tribe is working at the garrison for the enemy, and he is determined to find out what’s up with that apparent act of double-cross. Will he discover the truth behind his friend? And if so, where will that lead him? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out.

Putting the Gaming Irons in the Fire in 2020

January is the month when, like its titular god, we look forward and look back.

2019 was an active year on the gaming table. A few highlights:

  • I rolled out a playtest of Becoming Beowulf, my original classroom game about Anglo-Saxon culture. The game relies on resource management, strategizing, and roleplaying, and, while it had a few glitches (which I’m working out), it was quite successful.
  • I played many new games, largely due to the Gauntlet, an online gaming community.
  • The gaming club I sponsor at school has kicked it into high gear. Free moments during the school day saw an army of kids in my classroom relaxing, socializing, and playing games.
  • I led a presentation titled “Beyond Gamification” at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) annual convention. That talk discussed ways of hacking and designing games for the school environment, and it used numerous examples of specific games that I have modified and created.
  • Our Legendary Lives group completed an amazing 18-session campaign. That was an immensely satisfying and thought provoking experience. The game is a so-called “Fantasy Heartbreaker,” and it remains a rich, complex game. The major weak spot in the rulebook is a lack of awareness of how to turn the game into a campaign, but Ross, our GM, was brave in facing the challenge, and in the process, he showed me much about GM strategies that have impacted my own approach.
  • I remained active on Ron Edwards’ Adept Play website. My sense is that twitter remains one of the go-to places for gamers to discuss the hobby. Despite years of tinkering with twitter, I’ve come to the conclusion that that “short form” format is not conducive to the kind of probing, non-posturing discussions I most enjoy. Adept Play is a place which fulfills many of my needs for provocative, informed discussion of games.

So what’s up for 2020?

I’m still going to be active on the Gauntlet, but I’ve decided that the long form is where it’s at with rpgs. So I’m working on building some groups which might be willing to carry a game forward without setting a specific number of sessions at the outset.

Currently, I’ve started a Sorcerer and Sword campaign which has some legs: It’s set in a world where vast areas are swamp land, and the two players came up with kickers and pasts that opened the way to some compelling scenario building. That game has also sparked a renewed interest in the kind of no-holds-barred sword and sorcery genre that enthralled me in high school. I’m now reading Wagner’s Kane stories, and I plan to continue to delve into the literature and to bring that spirit to my games.

I’ve also started an Over the Edge campaign. Stay tuned for more thoughts about this groundbreaking game from the 90s. I’ve been looking at the most recent 3rd edition which came out in 2019, but I opted to go with the WaRP system and materials of the first two. I’ll let you know more about my reasons for that. This campaign is rather unique in the makeup of its players. My daughter graduated from high school last year, and the gaming group that she participated in has moved to various schools. I volunteered to run a game for her and her friends via video call, and four of them were enthusiastic. We did some character creation yesterday, and we’ll be landing in Al Amarja on the first of February!

I bought a new “gaming laptop” with some Christmas funds, and I’m using it to edit some actual play videos. So I’m hoping to stay active on that front. If you are interested in Sorcerer and Sword or Over the Edge, you will probably see some postings in the coming months with links to my videos.

I’m hoping to present my Beowulf game at the Lausanne learning institute, and I’m also applying for a fellowship grant from FCIS which would assist in my educational gaming initiative. If I get that grant, it might lead to a full-on teacher workshop that would bring in some select game designers to help teachers reflect upon bringing games into the classroom.

Accompanying this presence in the educator arena, I'm going to be making some steps into full-fledged gaming conventions. Next month, for example, I'll be travelling to New Jersey to attend Dreamation 2020.

One last item: I’m moving forward on teaching ttrpgs as a medium of communication and an art form.  In February, I have played a 3-week unit devoted to the topic. The centerpiece of the unit will involve students playing games in small groups and then reporting upon those experiences to the class.

Those are just a few of the gaming irons that I have in the fire. It promises to be a thrilling and satisfying year. I’ll continue to post here to keep you abreast of the developments!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer: Session One

We held our first session of “The Sodden Lands of Snia Mer,” which is using Ron Edwards “Sorcerer and Sword” setting for his game Sorcerer. If you want to see the video, click here. I should note that this session comes on the heels of a one-page setting sketch and a 2-hour “Session Zero” where the players created their characters and started to fill in the setting.

Sorcerer is a game that favors small groups: 2-3 players with a GM is, in my mind, the ideal size.  You’ll see me open the session by letting the players know that there was no expectation that they wind up with each other. They had established during character creation that they lived in the same proximity and had an acquaintance with each other. The players also imagined characters that had some experiences in common: Most importantly, both have experienced devastation at the hands of the Ado Empire. But I emphasized that this didn’t need to a “party adventure game.”

At the same time, the characters they created had kickers that were begging for some interweaving. Here, in brief, are the kickers:

  • Nagimo, who has a parasite demon of a catfish spirit, hears that a member of his destroyed tribe might be alive and working for the enemy that brought desolation to his people. 
  • Balder, who has a very formidable object demon (a gem) fused to his chest, gets a vision of another object demon which could provide him even more formidable powers. 

I won’t provide too many spoilers here, but there was plenty for me to work with as I prepared for the opening session, and I wasn’t holding back on the opportunity to create some points of contact between the kickers.

A few items of note for this particular session:

First, with the demise of Hangouts On-Air, I have been trying to get back into the recording of some actual play. So I used some Christmas gift funds to purchase a modest “gaming computer,” loaded up OBS (a free, open-source video recording program), and learned how to use Microsoft’s Video Editor (which came already provided to me via Microsoft Windows). I’ve had some bumps and blips. My computer apparently has two video cards, which initially confused OBS. And I forgot to hit “Record” during our session zero. But I managed to get everything working for Session One, and I love the fact that I can now take out some distracting interruptions and add some text notes (which I wasn’t able to do when using Hangouts On-Air).

My goal is humble: I’m not looking for a slick, professional video production, but I’d like a video that shows a GM and some players in the trenches and working hard at playing a challenging ttrpg. In this particular project, I’d like the videos to give interested parties a sense of how “Sorcerer and Sword” operates. If it also sparks some discussion of techniques at the table, so much the better. I’m open to suggestions that will help me with this new chapter in putting together some solid actual play material.

For Session One, the spotlight is the kickers. Both players had provided me with the key crisis or concern which was troubling their characters, and instead of putting the kickers in the past, I brought them vividly into the present. So the kickers really get some meat (and intrigue) added to them as we play. The Sorcerer Chart--which helps to spotlight relationships between elements of kickers, price, lore, and past/cover--was a key part of my prep, and the play benefited from attending to those elements. If you decide to play Sorcerer, don't neglect that chart! And I would say that that chart can be adapted and repurposed for other games. It will give you a good way of taking elements provided by your players and weaving them into situations that will propel their characters.

This was, in my mind, an instructive “Session One” of Sorcerer. The players are working to flesh out the nature of their demons, some intriguing NPCs are shifting about in the shadows, there is some good scaffolding work done in terms of the resolution mechanics, and Balder opted to seek out Nagimo (as a result of a vision), so it seems like the two protagonists will be joining forces during r the immediate future.

One item that I feel I nailed well was the handling of failures on rolls. For example, at about the 1:05 mark, you will see Balder using his demon to pick up some potential weak spots in a prison. After a failed Perception, I allowed Balder to draw some conclusions, but that action also triggered some mockery from a couple guards who happened to see Balder doing his surveillance (with the use of a demonic ability). Ozeman, Balder’s demon, has a need to be worshipped and adored, so obviously this mockery (brought about by the failed Perception roll) was a stinging blow that required some type of “saving face” action. That got us into a brief combat. Balder opted not to push things as far as he could, but there might be repercussions down the road, as Ozeman is still, no doubt, resentful, and the guards who have now encountered a Psychic Blast, might be passing on information to others.

Nagimo also failed when trying to hire out a fellow swamp dweller to join him on a bit of spy work. Instead of making this a whiff, I made the “hire” more costly. To achieve his goal of getting Skintu (the NPC) to join him, he had to offer the entire amount of coins provided by a scout named Masho as his payment, and he has also promised that, if successful, his “hireling” will share in the spoils.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Cold Soldier: First Flight

Ron Edwards has been a proponent of a two-player game called Cold Soldier, which was written by Bret Gillian in 2011. It has a tight set of rules, and it has you weighing what you want to accomplish in a local scene against a final endgame which will determine the ultimate fate of the Cold Soldier. The GM plays a Master who is pursuing some type of repellent agenda, and the Player plays a reanimated "Soldier" who is ordered to carry out the Master's wishes.

Below are my reflections on the first flight. For more actual play reports, you should check out Adept Play.

After the opening of Christmas presents, my daughter (home from college) and I sat down to play our first trial run of Cold Soldier. Not your typical holiday fare, but the mulled wine in my glass helped to keep me in the holiday spirit during play.

Given that this was our first stab at Cold Soldier, we were trying to get a feel of the game and the mechanics, and I was especially trying to get a sense of the “logic” behind the rules--to get a sense, for example, of what it means for a card in play to get moved into the Master’s or the Soldier’s hole.

We set the game in the present. I took on the role of the Cold Soldier, who was a military paratrooper killed in combat, but whose death was accidental--the result of a parachute malfunction, which meant that I died at the very moment my boots hit the ground. My weapon became, appropriately, the “Kiss of Vertigo.” The Master was a one-eyed restaurateur who was a weird combination of Plankton from Sponge Bob and Albert Spika from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There was some humor in the Master, but it was tempered by an underlying grimness.

Some issues and questions that emerged from our play:

If the Cold Soldier succeeds at the task, there is a narrative benefit for the Master (the GM gets to narrate the outcome), but there is not, at that point, any mechanical payoff or cost for either player. This makes that result different than the other two possibilities: If the Soldier fails at the task, he loses a card from his hole. And resisting the Master’s order also requires discarding a card from the hole. In other words, failure and resistance both require a loss for the Soldier. Oddly, a success can mean no card benefit for the Master, even though the Master had his order successfully carried out.

Consider these two sequence:

Sequence #1: The Cold Soldier starts to pursue the Master’s plan and, off the bat, draws a high card. The Soldier allows the success to stand, so neither Master nor Soldier ultimately gets a card.

Sequence #2: The Cold Soldier starts to pursue the Master’s plan, but draws a low card. So the Soldier activates a memory, gets that card for his hole, and then draws a success, which he allows to stand. So the Soldier ends up with a card in his hole and the Master strikes out card-wise (though he does get to monologue).

We were considering this revision to the game rules:

If the Soldier succeeds in the task, the GM gets to narrate as usual, but the Master also gets to choose a card remaining in play for his hole (an advantage for having his task accomplished), and the Master in turn gives the Soldier a card from his hole (a “reward” from the Master).

This rule revision would give the Soldier an added motive for carrying out the Master’s orders: Not only does he avoid the cost of failure, but he gets a card. However, this revision also might be giving the Soldier a reason to resist or fail, because he doesn’t want to give the Master an opportunity to choose a card in play. So the Soldier might be considering whether it is better to give up a card from his hole, or whether it would be better to retain that hole-card and get another one, but at the expense of allowing the master to choose one of those cards in play.

In our game, the Soldier and Master were not previously acquainted: The idea was that the Master was taking advantage of a fresh corpse to be his tool. If we play again, we are thinking it would be preferable to have a pre-existing connection of some sort between the two. This wouldn’t need to be a friendship or family connection, but some acquaintance would have added to the drama during play.

One final note to self (as well as to other players): If you are the Soldier, you should start off play considering the specific stakes available to you the end game. This will give you an added edge and pathos to the memories you recall during play, and it will make the endgame more satisfying. In our game, I was too focused on simply trying to construct a memory using an element from the scene, and I wasn’t thinking ahead to how I could combine these memories into a compelling narrative that would contribute to the stake of the endgame.

On the flip side, if you are the Master, keep your agenda squarely in mind. It helps if you have a solid sense of the repellent goal you are trying to accomplish, and you should use the scenes to build and add layers to this goal through the framing and description of the scenes.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Looking Back...and Legendary Lives

It's been a while since my last post, but I've been busy playing games, and there are many irons in the fire. So I'll be getting onto a more regular schedule now that the semester is wrapped up. I begin with a look back at a run of Legendary Lives  that started in the summer. I'm also posting this over at Ron Edward's Adept Press site. If you are interested, head over there, as there will be more discussion and a full video debrief involving the four R's occurring over the coming weeks.

Here's the report:

The Four R’s (Ross, Ron, Rod, and I) played through eighteen sessions of Legendary Lives, completing our run at the start of December. For background, this heroic fantasy rpg is one of the so-called Fantasy Heartbreakers that came out in the 1990s. There are still plenty corners of the game that I would love to explore, and that fact in itself is an indication of how good the game is. We could easily have played on for another eighteen sessions, but schedules and other commitments were weighing on us.  Though the game would richly reward more study, it is fair to say we put Legendary Lives through its paces and are in a good position to offer some measured judgments of its qualities. What follows are some notes I’ve put together in preparation for a debriefing session.

To begin, here are four of the game’s real strengths.

  • The rulebook is superb. Many rpg creators would benefit from studying the text of Legendary Lives as an example of clear, cogent writing. When you turn to a random page of the rules, the stylistic craft of Joe Williams and Kathleen Williams jumps out at you. The prose is consistently direct, engaging, and crystalline, without superfluous verbiage. The rules provide abundant concrete examples and advice, but all of this is measured and contained.
  • The resolution system shines both in concept and in play. Everything--magic use, combat, skill checks, exercises of abilities, etc.--involve a D100 roll which is then fed through an Action Results Table. The core mechanic is quite easy to get ahold of, and since all these resolutions are part of the same basic system, the players have no problem with it. At the same time, the system is quite nuanced: For resolutions, there are ten different levels of outcome ranging from Catastrophic to Awesome, and this prods the GM to add nuances and shades to the outcome. This results in some thoughtful and engaging roleplaying at the table. From a “history of rpg design” perspective, I’m curious about where Legendary Lives sits in terms of the multilevel resolution system. Are there other games of the era that offer this type of stepped system? 
  • The various skills, spells, and abilities are well considered. As we often noted at the table, this is a game that was thoroughly playtested, and the authors have packed the character sheet with abilities and skills that have been well considered and thoughtful. (More on that below.)
  • The character creation system is unique and rich. Initially, there seems to be a wild, cartoonish quality to the game. You have over 25 races, each of which has a list of specialties, racial abilities, and religion. You also have numerous tables that give you information about your family background, physical appearance, and lifelines. You then take this abundant information and try to work out a brief character history (including goals) that drives the play forward. The end result still has some fun, cartoonish tinges to it, but what strikes me is how the characters have complexity and vibrancy, which results in some committed play at the table.

Religion and Magic

In game terms, the effects or religion and magic are quite similar. Religious miracles (guidance, fortification, wonders, etc.) and spells carry supernatural effects which are flexibly molded by the players and GM. In fact, miracles have added utility because they are so plastic and because your supply of miracles gets replenished each day (the total number of Miracles being dependent on your character’s Devotion score). Casting spells comes with a cost that gets deducted from the spell score, and this makes the spells more difficult to cast and it limits the number of times you can use them. In the case of both spells and miracles, I like the creative room left for the player. Divination, for example, (which Grrrl used on multiple occasions) can be used to detect events, qualities, or features near and far, and there’s quite a bit you can do with the spell within those types of wide parameters. The system is nicely scalable in terms of the power of the spell: The wider or more forceful the effect, the more a spell costs and the more difficult it becomes to cast.

I had my character (Grrrl) to explore both miracles and magic. I achieved some notable effects (including a wild triptych of a vision towards the end of our run), though I could have taken even more advantage of these resources. At the same time, there is a danger that the game could take on a zaniness if characters were fully exploiting their miracles to the extent allowed by the rules. Our trio of adventurers kept the miracles in check, and this was in part because our characters took religion with a certain level of gravitas. Had we used our full allotment of miracles, the game could have swerved into a direction which would have made religious powers more mundane and flat.

Epic Play

So much of Legendary Lives is set up to reward the long arch. Consider the following:

The character generation yields delightful complexity that can blossom over time.

The rules subsections involving societies, religion, magic, and plants (!) invite continued exploration.

The world map and descriptions of the different races gives you the chance to develop some intricate social, cultural, and political networks.

The skill advancement system is steady but slow.

Curiously, Legendary Lives received much of its playtesting and popularity by being run in convention settings, which has left parts of the game underdeveloped. In other words, you have a game amply loaded with elements that say “long-term play,” but the rules don’t provide much in the way of advice or aid for campaigns moving into their second wind. My sense is that Ross (our GM) had some good techniques operating behind the curtain to make up for this gap, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from him about how he handled preparation.

One idea that might be worth exploring: Have the players periodically revise the character stories to provide new goals and drives (along with introducing new NPCs and factions to deal with). The GM might even flashforward the game, taking the company to a different region and/or time period.

I sensed that Ross had a load of ideas sizzling on the backburner, and we sometimes fumbled in the triggering of those elements. Part of my problem was the time between sessions (usually one week, but sometimes more): I’m an avid notetaker, but even with those notes, it was challenging to keep the various story strands in mind to spark actions in play. One of my notes to self: I’m going to be more active in the future and will put together postgame reports which will help to keep NPCs, events, and developments in better order (and to keep my memory banks firing more effectively). Ross was superb in keeping things open for the players, allowing them to determine what they wanted to do. I did wonder, however, if we could have telegraphed for him what we were wanting to do to help him with prep between sessions. For example, we let him know that we were inclined to attend the masquerade ball prior to that session, and I imagine that was useful for him in getting notes together. But on some weeks, we could have offered him more in the way of forecasting our upcoming moves--at least providing a sense of what our characters were mulling over in terms of the immediate future.

Combat and Skills

The combat system uses the same core mechanic as everything else in the game. There is a hit location aspect at play, and the head is the most vulnerable spot, which made us worried that fighting would be unforgiving. After the initial combat encounters, it because apparent that Legendary Lives is far more wicked on the Foes than it is the player character heroes. I enjoyed the fights in the game, and Grrrl was quite fun to play both in Wolf and in human forms. I also appreciated, however, that the game encouraged a mix of activities. We had some sessions that were combat oriented, others that were more explorative, and others focused on interpersonal negotiations and relationship building. Legendary Lives supports all those types of play, and its array of skills and abilities supports them all. To illustrate, skills are divided up into 12 ability categories. Four of those--Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, and Agility--involve skills that come in handy during combat. That leaves a robust 8 ability categories which involve skills involving a wide array of pursuits--Business, Repair, Caves, Preach, etc..

Some “skills” are odd (partly because some really aren’t skills at all), though in play we found them to be useful and intriguing. Some examples:

Grrrl had low cunning, and thus was not prone to duplicity, lying, or disguises, and she also was mediocre in the Charm department. This made her Sincerity score low, so when put into situations where she was being truthful, she was usually not perceived as such. The regular Cassandra effect became a strong minor theme.

Sanity has an entire subsystem worked out for it, which caused for some intriguing curveballs in the fiction.

Fate and Memory provide a mechanic for the gamemaster and players to determine whether a possible event becomes an actuality or to determine if knowledge is available.

In Conclusion

When you say that something “holds up well,” there’s a backhanded insult implied. The unstated idea is that the something--whatever it is--shows the marks of age and defunctitude. The something is o.k. if you want a retro experience, but that there’s much better stuff out there.

So I won’t say Legendary Lives “holds up well”: The game is so much better than that. It has always been a rock solid fantasy rpg, and it remains so. The game has much to teach current designers, and my sense is that new games would be better if they took some inspiration from what Legendary Lives does. LL would certainly elevate the writing craft of rpgs. We can debate some of the odd descriptions of races or point out the gaps the game leaves in terms of the long arch. But these small blemishes pale in comparison to all the game has to offer. If I had a chance to play Legendary Lives again, I’d jump at the opportunity. It is a uniquely satisfying and continually rewarding experience.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Legendary Lives With Heartstrings Attached

Many of the ideas that I’ve developed here are drawn from the post-game conversations of the Legendary Lives actual play group. So Ron, Rod, and Ross deserve much credit. These reflections would not be nearly as insightful or plentiful without their contributions.

I’ve spent my Tuesday afternoons during the summer playing Legendary Lives, a fantasy roleplaying game developed in the early 90s. The game lives on at the Haunted Attic website and you can pick up a hard copy at Lulu. Legendary Lives was identified as a fantasy heartbreaker in Ron Edwards’ famous essay. It fits the categorization, but ironically, it is an outlier in that group . . . which makes it the most heartbreaking of the bunch. 

In three of the four “fantasy heartbreaker” categories outlined by Edwards, Legendary Lives doesn’t quite fit. It DOES demonstrate some critical perspective on game design (though sometimes that perspective is not sharply focused). It DOES contain some knowledge of actual fantasy (especially folk tales and mythology). And it DOES have some innovative mechanics (more on that below). 

So it’s truly, deeply heartbreaking that it didn’t have the ability to be a commercial success. Edwards’ fourth criteria fits like a gauntlet. Go to the gallery at Haunted Attic for some tidbits about the jagged economic and promotional road the game travelled down. Let me add one more side irony here: Edwards’ essays on fantasy heartbreakers have been widely misunderstood, debated, and attacked, but his arguments and his deep love for these games have helped save them from lapsing forever into obscurity.

So let me bear my heart on my sleeve and share some love for this game.

Mechanical Magnificence
Legendary Lives, for the most part, uses a single, elegant D100 percentile roll to resolve challenges and conflicts. This system, with small adjustments, applies to combat, magic, skills, attribute checks, and so forth. The game is “semi-diceless,” and is possibly the first RPG to put virtually all rolls in the hands of the players.

Moreover, despite the fact that there is basically a single mechanical engine for the game, it has great flexibility and nuance. When you roll, it is seldom a simple pass/fail result, but the outcome can take one of 10 different shades from Catastrophic to Awesome. It takes little time to understand the basic principle and that makes the mechanic quick to use. But the system also allows for some fine-grained interpretation of results.

Character Chemistry
There’s a direct, engaging, and multi-faceted character creation system, which gives you abilities, skills, family background, character type, race, lifeline (background), religion, etc. During our game, this was all done by rolling dice and consulting random tables (though you can choose many of the details if you wish to according to the rules).  At the end, we looked at what we had and wrote up brief.character histories. This was a quick process which resulted in rich, dynamic characters all around.

Writing and Design Clarity
In an age where some games look nice but are written poorly, it is nice to have a game like Legendary Lives. The writing is strong, clear, and on the mark. Careful attention was paid to the editing of the explanations, and it’s also clear that the skill list, the description of resolutions, and the explanations of play were carefully worked through after extensive iterations and play testing. This is one solidly built game system.

Foe Folio and Skills: This Is Not a Hack and Slash World
In Legendary Lives, there can be monsters, but the operative term it uses is FOES, and the rules emphasize that most of them are smart and open to non-violent interaction. When looking through the foe list, you are struck by the way that many encounters can involve more nuance than a straight frontal assault. I’d also note that most of the skills are not aiming at violence or combat. Yes, there can be blood, but Legendary Lives invites a variety of approaches to dealing with the Foes, and it points out that some “Foes” could in fact be friends. (Foe is really just the name for a GM-controlled character, so perhaps not always the most apposite term.)

I could go on, but to make this short: This is a great game at its core. If someone said they were interested in fantasy rpg design, I’d highly recommend that they read this book. And if someone was in the mood to play a “new” rpg that would not disappoint, I would send them to Legendary Lives in a heartbeat.

If you need a full-color coffee table book for your rpg, this one won’t work, but if you are interested in some brilliant, smart play at the table, this is a book that will keep you coming back for more. Not only is the game fun, but it produces story lines that are complex, deep, and satisfying.

So now to some quibbles and ideas for improvements:

Character Races
There is quite a mix here. 26 of them! The term “race” is antiquated, especially when you consider the humans in the bunch. Hill Folks, Easterlings, Corsairs, Bush People, Gypsies, Nomads, etc.--these all count as different races. Today, a different term such as kindred or nationality would be better.

There are stereotypes aplenty, which become especially jarring with those human “races.” Hill Folk seems to be people from rural Appalachia, Nomads are Arabs, etc., and some of the descriptions could be more sensitive. The suggested names give you a sense of this. For example, it suggests names like Mu Tan and Chi for Easterling characters, and Hill Folk get names like Daisy and Clementine.

Revising the race section to update it might be difficult. But there is much that I like about the races as they are written.

Each race has a special ability that have rich possibilities in play. Bush People, for example, have Animal Vision which allow them to see through the senses of a target animal.

I love some of the more bizarre races. I’m currently playing a Wolfling, which is a shape-changer that can take wolf form. And I’d love to take an Entomolian for a spin: These are giant human-sized insects who have a hive mind . . . and they are a designated character race!

My heart also loves the number of races: The variety gives the game a special flavor.

But there are down sides. In particular, if you have a party comprised of vastly different races, then it’s challenging to find the common ground that would give them a reason to work together. And the world of Legendary Lives doesn’t entirely hang together. You look at the map and it’s almost like a theme park with all these different lands you can visit, each of which will have its own cartoonish group of characters. The close of the book discusses the history of the Seelie court, but the game then seems to be unclear about exactly how much it wants to invest in the setting.

Deepening the Story
Despite the superficially cartoon-like elements, we have steadily carved out a curiously compelling story about broken people coming to grips with their tragic pasts and their fractured families. When I reread Legendary Lives, my sense is that the game is sitting at a crossroads in terms of how the GM should manage the game in order to allow the character stories to develop and unfold.

At points, the rules say things like “An adventure is a story, told by the referee, in which the players participate” (3).

But then in other places, it says things like, “During the play, you’ll have to create encounters on the fly, allowing your plot to change as needed. The best events will twist the plot in a new and unexpected direction” (176).

One of the key strengths of Legendary Lives is that it is opening the door to a truly open-ended form of play that is more heavily driven by the characters’ choices and the outcomes of the skill and attribute checks (and those checks come fast and furious!). My sense is that the writers of the game (Joe and Kathleen Williams) were making their way to a new approach and a new way of running a roleplaying game, but that the current style (i.e. the style of the 1990s fantasy rpg) was creating interference. So the door is opening, but it never gets fully pushed inward.

You can see this in the adventures that they published (and are available at Haunted Attic). On the one hand, they are more bare bones than what you might imagine to be a traditional scenario or module, but at the same time, they sometimes have elements of pre-plotting in evidence. Our group noted that this type of thing may be a result of the fact that the game made appearances at convention. So some of this conflict between old and new may be a result of the fact that some of the rules are written with a one-shot in mind, while others are thinking of more long term play.

Another sign of this interference problem: The game has you roll up 5 different lifelines, which give you glimpses of your character’s back story. But the rules are largely silent about what to do with these lifelines apart from the various mechanical and resource benefits they afford. Similarly, the game asks you to write out character goals and says you MIGHT write up a character story, but it doesn’t give the GM any advice about what to do with these elements.

Here’s what I’d suggest (and what we’ve largely done in our own game): If you are the GM, go through a character generation session. At the close, tell the players to send you a character story (perhaps giving a strict word limit to avoid anyone from gushing) along with a list of character goals. Make these two things mandatory, and tell them to send them to you at least a few days before the next game session.  Make sure that there are some small connections and overlaps between characters. Maybe have pairs of characters think of one goal that they share. The GM should then use those character stories and goals to help design the first adventure or opening encounters on the following week.

This aspect of the game really needs more fleshing out than my brief suggestion here. But if this were accomplished--that is, if there was a more completely articulated procedure for working from the goals and lifelines into the initial adventure--the game would shift into an even higher gear. In our game Ross has accomplished much of what I’m suggesting here, but much of that is a result of his own instincts as a GM as opposed to specific guidance from the game.

Miscellaneous Quibbles and Questions
I like the flexibility of the magic system and the way it is tied into the core mechanic. But, as Ron has pointed out, the power of miracles is such that some of the spells seem less special. All characters can ask for a certain number of miracles each session, and many of these miracles cover the same territory as dedicated spells. We haven’t explored spells much in our game, so I can’t really give anything approaching a good evaluation. This, however, is our initial impression.

Sincerity is an odd “skill.” I understand why the game would feel a need to include it, but Sincerity is nested under Charm alongside Bargain, Entertain, Interrogate, and Preach. Charm and Cunning are different attributes, but so many of the Charm attributes suggest careful attention to appearance, so it’s not entirely logical that Sincerity would be part of that grouping. 

Intuition and Fate (especially Intuition) are also curious skills. In many cases where an Intuition roll is used, I would instead simply decide as a GM whether or not to give information to the player. Fate is more complicated, but it’s description in the rule book could use some added explanation.

Final Consideration
The real heartbreaker is that many people who would enjoy and be enriched by this game have not experienced it. It has a trove of rich surprises waiting inside, and if you lean into the character lifelines and goals, some poignant and exciting stories will unfurl. I have dreams of a revised Legendary Lives: My optimistic heart believes that, if someone troubled to update the game and to add some GM advice, we would end up with a game creating new legends.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Empathic Gaming

It's been a while since my last blog post, but the reason is largely because I've been busy reading and playing games. Which means I am building up good material for further reflection and game designs. Below is a lengthy response I put together for an interview posted at Adept Play. I'd encourage you to head over there to see the original exchange between Ron Edwards and Simon Pettersson. There will be further commentary and insights there.

Here's my post:

I was all set to write a post on Legendary Lives, and then got sucked into the conversation (or seminar) with Simon Pettersson, and it put some hot ideas on the front burner. So I promise a reflection on Legendary Lives, but let me provide some thoughts and questions here . . . and then I’ll get back to what has transpired in Smith City.

Some immediate context first. In June, I ran a four-game series of My Life With Master with The Gauntlet (an online rpg community). This was my first time playing the game. And in a couple weeks, I’m going to be working through Emily Care Boss’s “Romance Trilogy” with The Gauntlet. Bret Gillan notes that Cold Soldier is inspired by Boss’s Breaking the Ice, Czege’s game, and Ron’s S/Lay w/Me. So many of the topics in this discussion are directly touching on issues of concern for me.

Scary Gaming
One of the reasons why I’m taking on the Romance Trilogy is because so many of the ideas and principles of the games scare me. I suspect that this is a reason why many other prospective players would avoid these games immediately upon hearing the elevator pitch.

Ask me to play a violent Wolfling on the edge of a mental breakdown who is set loose on a band of weapons smugglers? No problem.

Want me to play a game close to home--one where my own unvarnished experiences, desires, hopes and fears are potentially on display? I’m not so sure about that. While the rules don’t require this type of “close to home” intimacy, Boss regularly mentions and encourages it in her games.

Breaking the Ice (the first game of the trilogy) is a two-player game where a pair of characters work through three initial dates. It’s designed to deal with the awkwardness, sparks, setbacks, miscommunications, and building attractions involved at the start of a romance. During the initial character generation, Boss asks you to chat with your fellow player to find out about your commonalities and differences. You then take one of these differences and then use it as one of the core attributes of your characters . . . except you switch it with the other player. So, if you are young playing with someone a couple decades older than you, you might play the older person starting up a romance with someone significantly younger. The game can obviously get quite personal . . . just as Cold Soldier can with its requirement that the GM order the soldier to do things that the GM finds personally repellent. 

The last game of the trilogy, Under My Skin, turns up the heat even more. It is initially written as a LARP (Live-Action RolePlaying game), and the players take on the roles of friends, couples, and acquaintances who discover new loves and attractions and who then have to decide on how they will react. Even if they return to their previous partner, they will be changed by the experience. 

Scary stuff. These are games with a high potential for bleed (a spillover between character and player). And I could see things turning out very badly--badly on a deep, emotional level--for some players who come to the games with the wrong approach, expectations, or mindset.

Emotional Modulation (or Controlling the Bleed)
Here’s a provisional principle: For games with an empathic content, there needs to be a set of mechanisms and procedures in place that will allow players to modulate and manage the personal identifications they have staked. The higher the empathic content, the more important these mechanisms and procedures become. (Is there a term that describes the way that these mechanisms and procedures serve to manage the empathic content?)

For Breaking the Ice, the Switch requirement, is, from the start, one such device: You are, by definition, required to play a character who is, in at least one significant way, very different from yourself. So your character is clearly not you.

The mundane elements of the character sheet, dice rolls, and outcome evaluations are also key. If I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the amount of bleed in Breaking the Ice, I can focus more of my attention on these mechanics to settle me. The card mechanics of Cold Soldier seem to have a similar effect: If I’m slipping into an emotional valley which I’m not wanting to enter, I can think of the game in terms of the poker hand I’m trying to build

Setting can also be used to good effect. In My Life with Master, I suggested that we could place the game in the current day, but the players unanimously and vigorously vetoed that idea because they were afraid of the game cutting too deeply into the heart. This is one reason why Czege’s default 19th-century eastern European setting works well. 

I’m developing a four-player version of Breaking the Ice (which I’m calling Hacking the Ice), and in this one, I’ll have two players controlling a single character. One player will be responsible for the rational/practical dimension of the character, and the other will address the emotional/passionate side. Aside from opening the game to more players, the added focus will help to modulate bleed effects. In my hack, you won’t be your character: At most, you will only be half of your character.

To LARP . . . or Not?
Under My Skin adds additional challenges for me. I don’t know that I’d be equipped to play the game in its default LARP form, especially if it were played close to home. Boss writes, “In Under My Skin, players can choose Core Issues for the characters that relate to their own experiences. This is (relatively) safe space to explore what might be very risky to do in one’s own life.” 

That phrasing with the parenthetical “relatively” has me quaking in my shoes.

The fact that I want to play the game online, however, already defuses some of that fear. The kinetic and intimate nature of face-to-face LARPing along with its tendency to avoid some of the mechanics of ttrpgs, increases the possibility of bleed effects. VARPing (Video-Augmented RolePlaying) provides some technological distancing which for me is useful.

In The Romance Trilogy, Boss includes a variant of Under My Skin titled “Ere Camlann” which sets the game in the days of King Arthur. Players take on the roles of people like Lancelot, Guenevere, Morgaen, and Mordred. And I’m going to add some light tabletop roleplaying elements to the game for an added measure The literary-historical setting and the dice roll mechanic will give me some added ways to modulate the empathic bonds.

It is clear that the extent of empathy and bleed effects are variable in a game. I’ve been in games where some players have been impacted on a deeply personal level while other players are simply appreciating the fiction as a separate entity. This variability might in part be a result of how the players are (or are not) using the modulation tools that the game affords them. If one player wants to experience a more emotional or empathic game, they can direct their mind away from the mechanics and procedures that could tone down that dimension. Whereas another player might leverage those elements precisely in order to keep themselves in a zone where they are more comfortable. 

These game elements are analogous to the formal and aesthetic features of literary texts. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, touch on topics and emotions that cut deep, but there is a reason why we read him as opposed to listening to a heartfelt emotive rant on Youtube. Much of that has to do with the poetic qualities of Shakespeare’s work, which we can use to modulate and control the emotional content he is expressing.

Guaranteed Story?
There are so many other topics to address. I’m especially keen on the discussion of whether one should design a game that guarantees a good story. But that discussion actually touches on some of my thoughts concerning Legendary Lives, so I’ll plan to develop those thoughts in a separate posting.