Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Dialect Actual Play: A Linguistics Lesson in the Form of a Game

Four of us sat down to play Dialect: A Game About Language and How it Dies by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyaliouglu. It was a rich experience, and one that has great potential for teachers looking to give their students insights into how language develops in response to a changing world. 


Dialect is a GM-less game “for three to five players in three to four hours.” During play, the group chooses from a prewritten set of Backdrops (though there are instructions of how to write your own). You then  build the setting and characters and progress through a sequence of three rounds (which the game calls Ages). The game has custom cards to drive the play forward, and in the course of play, you write down new developments on 3x5 index cards and put those on the table. We used a module of the game on Roll20, which took a little bit of getting used to, but it did its job of facilitating online play.

The game is about an isolated community and how its language changes over time. Each player takes on a character role as prompted by an archetype card, and the group then creates new words (usually derived from preexisting words) that encapsulate the changing concerns of the community. The rules are clear and laid out logically. A group of new players (as we were) can learn the game at the table by working through the rulebook. It is clear that the game went through an extensive playtesting and development period, and there is an evident effort to base the game on a genuine understanding of linguistics.

Our Experience

A game focussed specifically on language development—that’s certainly a unique focus—and Dialect delivers on its core goal. We had a great time thinking about the card prompts and then repurposing, recombining, or otherwise creating words and then using them in the course of framed scenes. It was satisfying to see how we built up the “language tableau” and continued to weave our new words into our dialogue. There were some great dramatic moments, and many of the words were charged with emotional significance as a result of the game play. 

So I’d strongly recommend the game, but there are caveats and questions in order.

The Factor of Time in Games

To begin, we fully doubled the advertised time estimate, completing the game in four 2-hour sessions—and it didn’t feel like we were being slow. I’m sure you could complete the game in four hours . . . but only IF at least one person came to the table fully versed in the game rules and IF that person was pushing the play forward. 

Certainly from a marketing or a convention-play standpoint, it is nice to say you have a game that can be picked up on the spot and played in a single session—and it’s triply nice to say that the game will deliver a significant experience. After completing our 8+ hours of play, however, I don’t think any of us would opt for the one-session route if we had a choice.

Maybe it’s a result of my middle-aged brain, but if a game is asking me to build a world and create a character, I’m inclined to turn that into a “Session Zero” unto itself and then allow the players time to reflect on the setting before diving full-force into game play. In our first session, we did the “Creating the Isolation” tasks and played our first scene to introduce the basic mechanics. When we returned one week later, we were all primed and ready to enter into the scenes with richer and more thoughtful ideas. In each subsequent session we played out an Age, ending with a sense of the major change that would be ushering us into the next Age during the following week’s session.

Since we live so intimately within time, it’s often hard to think about how it's always shaping our perceptions and experiences. It would be worthwhile for game rulebooks and players to have more explicit conversations about pacing and other facets of our chronosphere (scheduling, duration of play, out-of-session conversations about the game, etc.). When I first played RPGs in high school, we usually had a long once-a-week session (usually around 5 hours on a Friday night), but since we all went to the same school, there were regular brief conversations about our characters and plans during the week. This kind of approach meant that play was ongoing in a very natural, organic manner. 

By contrast, today, play sessions are shorter, and, since most of the people I play with are not even in the same state, conversations between sessions are more sparse and sporadic. While I much prefer regular weekly sessions for a game, it is often the case that I am playing a game where we have 2 or 3 week pauses between sessions. In addition, the playing of games online changes the nature of pacing in ways both explicit and subtle. All of these time factors change the way I have approached and experienced games at the table.

During our game of Dialect, we were quite aware of how our deliberate and segmented game play was giving us a different experience than the default one-shot mode assumed by the rulebook. Our conversations, deliberations, and scenes were longer, and we had more time to add details and developments to our stories. Yes, we had to spend a few minutes at the start of each session summarizing the previous week--that’s one item that you don’t have to do in a one shot. But this task was made efficient by Roll20, which saved our virtual tabletop and thus kept our new words, characters, and aspects readily available. If I were to try a one-shot of Dialect, I would need to have one eye steadily on the clock to make sure things were moving forward apace. This might actually sharpen some emotions: For example, the feeling of instability foreshadowed by the transition to the final Age in Dialect would hit me with more force and urgency. But the more rapid pace would take away from other aspects. For example, most of our scenes involved all four players in community conversations (Our characters' AI minds loved working in a network!), and a tighter schedule would have necessitated sacrificing some of those for short two-player dialogues or monologues.

A Game About How Language . . . Evolves

Dialect’s subtitle announces that this is a game “about language and how it dies.” 

I’m totally on board with the first part of the subtitle: The core element of play involves inventing or refashioning words in accordance with the prompts of the custom cards. This dimension of the game is clear, engaging, and even poignant. 

For example, during the first Age, I got the prompt to create a word for a “Special Occasion.” We were working with the “Sing the Earth Electric” backdrop, which specified that we were a community of robots who had been left on Earth after the humans had departed and never returned. After tapping into some data banks, we opted to organize ourselves according to the model of early agrarian communities, which meant we were planting and harvesting, except we (being robots and all) had no actual need for the food crops. We knew that agrarian communities had a special celebration to mark the harvest, so we imagined that our ceremony involved taking the ultimately unnecessary grains and fruits of the field and ritually throwing them into the wasteland. We thus came up with the word “spread” to describe this impractical ritual and then applied “spread” to any occasion or event that we saw as holding special significance. 

I’m admittedly confused by the second part of the subtitle which presents the idea that this game examines how a language dies. The prewritten backdrops of Dialect clearly telegraph that, at the end of the game, the community (or “Isolation”) will be extinguished. Of course, when you arrive at a point where you say that a community has died, you could force a tautology or circular argument that says, “Since the language is, by definition, part of a community, when a community dies, its language has died with it.” That conclusion is certainly tragic, but it doesn’t make a particularly interesting or insightful point about language transformation.

In the actual game play, you are constantly inventing new words and creating new meanings for old words that you alter and refashion. Your community may experience catastrophes and it may be forced into making painful decisions. These somber changes are mirrored and recorded in your community’s language. But that is not the same as saying that the language itself is dying. If you are doing your job as players, you discover that language is becoming even more rich and nuanced because it is learning how to encapsulate deeply felt experiences of mourning and loss. 

My understanding of the game is no doubt influenced by the backdrop that we chose. In “Sing the Earth Electric,” we played robots directed to terraform Earth for a human population that, it turns out, was never going to return. When we were moving to the Second Age, we chose a fork that had us invaded by a group of strange, non-organic, non-human creatures who proceeded to take over the world. We responded by abandoning our agrarian ways and turning our attention to investigating and communicating with the aliens. (I found it droll and entertaining that our core concerns of farming and terraforming were both ultimately useless from a practical standpoint.) 

We considered taking an aggressive stance toward the aliens, but opted instead to seek out a mutual understanding. At the game’s close, we were outnumbered by the aliens, who then offered us a chance to leave with them, and most of us opted to venture onward. So yes, we moved away from our terraforming and farming roots, and this was impacting our language, but those aspects were in turn replaced by different ones that reinvigorated our vocabulary.

We were aware that the game seemed to want us to veer towards tragedy. But we kept playing the game in a more deadpan, stoic spirit--not because we had explicitly decided upon this, but simply because that’s where our play led us (we were robots, after all). At the end of the game, one of our company was left on Earth (due to the fact that he was essentially a giant, stationary radio tower) while the rest of us were zooming away with the aliens to an unknown future. So yes, our community was irreversibly transformed, as was its language, but we were off creating new words and meanings to define our new state of being and relationship with the aliens. We also had a dawning sense that the aliens were starting to incorporate aspects of our language into their vocabulary.

Dialectical Post Script

Lest I be misunderstood, Dialect is a valuable game to play and to study. The writing is crisp, and game procedures are streamlined. Designers and dedicated players will find much to admire and to inspire within the rulebook.

My most immediate plans are to modify components of the game for play in the English classroom. Dialect has the ability to give players an experience of how language changes in order to capture new understandings of ourselves and our world. It also provides insights into how a community’s language is an intrinsic part of its identity. Students can learn about these ideas by reading works of literature or listening to a lecture. But in Dialect, they have an opportunity briefly to live these ideas firsthand. 

Expect further updates on my journey with Dialect. Needless to say, I will have to figure out how to scale the game for classes of 15-20 students and (back to the chronosphere) how to fit it into the time frame of the school schedule.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Jesse Burneko’s “Dungeons and Dilemmas” Weaves a Web of Moral Questions

The Ludoverse Lab completed the summer trilogy with Jesse Burneko and his Kickstarter Zinequest project titled “Dungeons and Dilemmas.” The core idea is to use the appealing format of the classic dungeon delve but to inject it with a hive of ethical puzzles for the characters to grapple with. Jesse gives us the tools to transform some of the bedrock components of fantasy rpg into perils that have an emotional and moral weight. I was impressed by the way that he avoids a heavy-handed approach: His puzzles raise a number of pressing questions, but it is up to the players to reason things through and to formulate a response. At one point, Jesse talks about his approach as an experiment: He provides the volatile materials and components, but it is the players who catalyze things and who decide upon the ultimate outcomes. 

I’ve edited our sessions, which you can watch by clicking the links below. The videos are long, but I provide text headings to give viewers an easy way to skip around.

  • Part 1: Our first session, which involves a quick character creation, a review of the streamlined game engine (an rpg called Strain Basic), and the opening of the adventure.

  • Part 2: Our second session, which involves confronting a vampiric mother, a demon child, and a ruthless bandit. Editing Note: I had recording problems with the start of this video, so we miss the introduction of the players. Of special note is the fact that Tracy Wazenegger, who teaches chemistry and global studies in Pennsylvania, has joined in.

  • Part 3: A debriefing, where Jesse lays out the thought process and techniques driving “Dungeons and Dilemmas.” Note the rich and varied sources that he points to: Ann Radcliffe, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Bluebeard's Bride. That may seem like an unexpected trio of influences, but you definitely see their fingerprints on Jesse's project.

Teachers interested in leveraging roleplaying games in the classroom should especially heed Part 3. Jesse has a wealth of gaming experience behind him, and he has distilled and refined his approach. His explanation of how he pulls off the magic is lucid and organized, and he has a system in place which teachers and scenario designers can quickly leverage for their own purposes. 

One key feature of our Ludoverse Lab adventure that gave it teeth is the fact that the “monsters” were the outcome of tragic histories. Jasna, the vampire mother, for example, became a member of the undead as the result of an abusive marriage, and she is subsequently abused again—this time at the hands of a ruthless bandit who is exploiting her for her vampire children. And Various is a demon child who is now in a codependent relationship with his mother, whom he loves. We didn’t delve into the background of Tristan, the bandit, but it seems likely that his character was impacted from a life of destitution. 

These fraught histories are then tied to a “dungeon”—in our case a boarded-up keep which has been retrofitted to be a prison for the monsters and a hideout for the bandits. As a result, the dungeon is more than a physical place—it is a kind of shell inside of which are nestled layers of previous events. The architecture and layout of the building are intimately related to the histories of the characters and monsters who have resided there. 

Jesse thinks about room locations in terms of narrative nodes. In other words, an entry point into the keep is considered as the identifiable beginning of a sequence of events that will then be connected to subsequent events sparked by the passageways and rooms that radiate out of that entry point. The keep has a number of possible entrances, but in each case, Jesse reflects upon the spaces immediately connected to those entry points, and his dungeons take form through interconnected narrative nodes that will produce new pieces that can build on each other.

Jesse also has some interesting things to say about that old staple of the dungeon delve—the trap. In constructing a trap, Jesse thinks about the character who created it and the use to which it is put. He talks about these devilish devices as instances of foreshadowing. In other words, when the players encounter a trap, they should be confronting a concrete example of the personality that devised it. In the case of our adventure, the demon-child named Various created animated raven sculptures as a trap, and the nature of this obstacle was very different from the spiked pit-trap set by the ruthless bandit named Tristan. In both cases, the traps were reflective of their creators.

One other key to the success of “Dungeons and Dilemmas”: Jesse resists defining a “right solution” to the moral questions that spin out of his scenario. He notes in the debriefing that he is happy to observe different groups thinking through and resolving the moral problems in different ways. He is content to set up his adventures as engrossing experiences and springboards for reflection.

The Ludoverse Lab’s “Fantasy RPG Summer Trilogy” has given me much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to taking some of the ideas from Richard Ruane, Ryan Windeknecht, and Jesse Burneko into the high school classroom and the game club I sponsor. Expect posts in the coming months to provide you with updates. 

As always, I encourage comments and reactions to the Ludoverse Labs.

And what else can you expect from the Ludoverse heading forward? 

The school year has started for me, and I’m giving much thought to what COVID-19 means for those of us engaged in gamification and game-based learning. So I’m considering one or two roundtable discussions with other educators to talk about how we are modifying our approaches to deal with the world of hybrid classrooms, social distancing, and remote learning.

Partly as a result of the events over the summer, I’m also interested in delving into games that focus on the experience of marginalization. I know a number of roleplaying games where the players take on the roles of classes, groups, and fantasy races that are ostracized, demonized, or exploited. That might make for some interesting sessions in the lab.

Finally, I’m still hoping to pull together a summer workshop devoted to games in education. My idea is to create a dialogue between game designers and educators in a way that will provoke an ongoing conversation between these two groups. The world of COVID-19 has set up some obstacles for that project, but I’ll be looking for ways to overcome those hurdles.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Ryan Windeknecht's World of Professionals Teaches How to Think Ethically

Future Programming Note: The Ludoverse Lab’s summer trilogy will wrap up in August with Jesse Burneko’s Dungeons and Dilemmas. What follows below is a report on the second installment of our foray into fantasy role-playing games that lend themselves to classroom use.

July brought the second part of the Ludoverse Lab’s “Summer Trilogy.” In this case, we had Ryan Windeknecht at the helm. He teaches philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and, as he explained to us, he tried an experiment in 2016 when he brought Dungeon World into his classroom. Since then, he has continued to expand, revise, and refine the experiment. That has resulted in what he calls The World of Professionals. This amounts to a rich and workable fantasy rpg framework which he uses to teach students about ethical schools of thought within his professional ethics classes.

I recorded the two sessions we played, and you can access them here:

The recordings (which are admittedly long, even in their edited form) contain clearly marked headers and footers, so I encourage you to hop around to view the sections that most interest you.
There are so many artful and edifying touches, but here are a few notable highlights:

Classes as embodiments of occupations and ethical schools of thought 
In Ryan’s game, you belong to one of five guilds, and initially they sound like your traditional fantasy tropes: There are Paladins, Merchants, Artificers, Clerics, and Wizards. Pretty standard fare.

But then some spice and sizzle gets added. The classes are subdivided into various occupations. For example, if you are in the merchant guild, you might be a butcher, baker, cheese maker, crofter, or herder. The classes are also presented as allegorical placeholders for contemporary professions. For example, we should think of Paladins as lawyers, Clerics as health care workers, Merchants as business people, Wizards as educators, and Artificers as skilled tradespeople.

The coup de grace is that each class is also tasked with upholding an an ethical outlook:

  • Paladins are Kantians (driven by the laws and imperatives);
  • Artificers are Utilitarians;
  • Merchants are Contractarians;
  • Clerics adhere to Care Ethics;
  • Wizards subscribe to Virtue ethics.

Dungeon Delving as Gamified Quizzes and Thought Experiments
After creating their characters, building a village, and forming into adventuring groups, the students (who are now players in this game) venture into dungeons to work through ethical thought experiments and to collect badges. Each dungeon begins with a puzzle, which is a gamified quiz based upon a required reading, and then the students engage in various surreal situations where they must demonstrate clear ethical thinking in order to progress.

The conception of the game is brilliant, and the mechanics are also solid. Ryan has replaced dice rolling with a token economy which effectively puts added emphasis on the arguments and thought processes of the players as opposed to the reliance on random fortune.

As I note in the debriefing, one of the great payoffs of the gamifying engine is that students collaborate in resolving the ethical thought experiments. Moreover, since the party involves characters thinking things through with different ethical frameworks, they can see how the different systems see the world and approach situations.

Debriefing Brainstorm: Students as GMs and the Village
In the debriefing, we consider some different lines of approach and points of emphasis. I was curious as to how you would deal with game play in a class of 20+ students, and Ryan notes that this can get challenging. The idea that you might be able to pull students into the GM (or assistant GM) role would be an interesting solution to the problem of dealing with numerous adventuring parties playing simultaneously.

We were also interested in expanding the role of the village. I’m a bit hesitant to go too far in that direction. For all their artificiality and railroadiness, the dungeon delves offer a tightly structured scaffolding that would be hard to beat. Some of us were thinking of pushing towards village adventures, and this would be worth exploring. However, I fear that the more open ended and organic nature of the village context might prove impractical in the classroom without some system of managing the play. If the dungeon delves are working (which they seem to be) then I wouldn’t be too eager to abandon the format.

In part one, you will see the list of moves and agendas that drive the game. Those familiar with Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games will note the ancestry of this engine. As a teacher, I appreciate the way that this organization breaks things down for the students into small, manageable units. You will note that the moves are legion, and at first blush, this might seem intimidating. But if you put this into the context of a semester-long course, it is not as daunting as it might first appear. If a student can work towards gaining competence with the moves, it is clear that they will have developed some formidable skills of communication and critical thinking.

One last item of note: Midway through part 1, Ryan fields questions about whether the game agendas are to be conceived as player-facing or character-facing, and he responds that they exist on both levels. This highlights another great strength of the World of Dungeons: When learning the moves and resources available to the characters, the players are also learning the procedures and skills that they can carry with them from the gaming table . . . into the classroom . . . and then beyond.

Concluding Thought: The Call to AdventureRyan’s approach has much to offer educators, regardless of their discipline. I’m excited to hear reactions of other teachers and to see how we might adapt this type of educational game play to different classrooms and disciplines

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Barrow Keep and Nurturing Volatility

Preliminary Note:

This is a report on the second and final session playing Richard Ruane's Barrow Keep.

You can find links to the Barrow Keep playsets discussed in this post here and here.

On Saturday, Richard Ruane finished giving us a tour of Barrow Keep. As usual, I have edited a recording and you can watch it here.

I’m struck by the variety of scenes we covered during play. We begin with some interrogation, move into a banquet with less-than-pious pilgrims, experience a heist that turns south, and then end up with a meeting with a goblin ambassador (which Richard gives a distinctly feline appearance). The session ends with our group talking about Richard’s approach to role-playing games, and there are a number of observations in the post-game debrief that are worth considering.

Barrow Keep aims to put characters into volatile situations and then leaves the players free to determine how they want to deal with the dilemmas, which inevitably have social and cultural implications. In retrospect, I’m struck by the nuanced style of play that this encourages.

To give you the spoiler first: It turns out that a band of goblins is interested in taking back a relic which the pilgrims (temporarily residing at the Keep) are carrying with them. Back in my role-playing youth, the set-up, approach, and outcome of this scenario would have been much simpler and would inevitably have resulted in some type of grand fight with the goblins, no doubt leading to more physical confrontations. In our case, the machinery of the game was more complex. To begin, none of our characters were wedded to the Archon in command of the Keep, and we each had slightly different political angles that we were working.

To add spice to the stew, Richard gave the goblins a unique look and a set of mysterious motivations tied to an ancient history that we were only vaguely aware of. I would mention in passing that fantasy games are swiftly moving to give groups like goblins a more weighty, meaningful culture that is enriching the games. Such groups might still be treacherous, even villainous, but if so, their antagonism is given a background and meaningful momentum. Even if the cogs of their mental life are not fully revealed, you nonetheless sense that they are planning, thinking, and reacting in ways that are open to analysis. This, in turn, gives the players around the table more to consider and more possible courses of action, each with their own moral and cultural valence.

I enjoyed the climactic closing scene with the goblin ambassador. Richard didn’t feel like he had to reveal or explain all the pieces of the puzzle he had laid out. We never discover what exactly the relic is that we are carrying to the ambassador. There is a sense that there are weighty further chapters that will develop the continuing relationship between Barrow Keep and the goblins. And there were some curious NPCs in the Keep who were involved in their own missions which we never fully figured out. These freely floating strands (and Richard’s restraint as a GM) added to the weight of our game play and contributed to the sense that we were characters acting within a living world.

I recommend listening to some of Richard’s closing remarks. He has some incisive comments to make about his approach to role-playing. For example, his philosophy that a role-playing game should provide "the foundation of a story to be told" is advice that will improve the character and quality of gaming at your table. His point is that GMs and players are often shackled by the idea that characters are either living out a story or creating a story. The result is that the group forecloses the surprises and unexpected curves that can open up a more layered, vibrant, and organic form of play.

It might be useful to talk about Richard's form of role-playing in terms of Roger Caillois’ idea of ilinx, which is the term he uses for the kind of play that creates an experience of vertigo. Ilinx is what happens when there is a kind of shock or genuine surprise injected in the midst of play. To be sure, role-playing games rely on mechanics and expectations which order and direct the conversation and events, but games can also allow for those spaces for ilinx to be created. Now, if you are playing with the idea that you are creating a story--as opposed to laying the foundation for a story to be told--you will tend not to leave space for the creation of ilinx because stories inevitably impose a narrative ordering on events.

Richard and his Barrow Keep offer a bounty of instruction for GMs, players, and designers. I appreciate the way in which he inhabits his NPCs and makes them come to life through some simple tricks with body language and phrasing.

And his concept that games should create volatile situations for characters to resolve is another golden nugget of wisdom. Note that much of the catalyzing agents are waiting there in the characters themselves. Character playbooks, for example, push every player to think of a couple key NPCs who are friends, rivals, or acquaintances of their character, and these elements then get fed into the scenario pack which serves as a kind of alchemical alembic to get those volatile reactions moving. It is a rich and dynamic approach to roleplaying, and you can see the payoff by watching a few parts of our session.

The Road Ahead:
Next month, we will venture into The World of Professionals, a Dungeon World hack created by Ryan Windeknecht. That game will delve into issues of virtue and professional ethics through the medium of another fantasy role-playing game.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Ludoverse Lab: Excavating the Ur-History of RPGs in Barrow Keep by Richard Ruane (Part 1)

Preliminary Notes:
You can find links to the Barrow Keep playsets discussed in this post here and here.

I would also note that Richard and a bounty of other innovative game designers are participating in itch.io’s megabundle to raise funds for racial and social equality. Please move quickly to take advantage of that deal which is set to expire on June 15, 2020. 

An isolated castle. A new king with an ambitious heir apparent. Ghostly apparitions. Mysterious surveillance. A band of itinerant travelers.

Such elements sound like the makings of a juicy Shakespearen tragedy, but Richard Ruane turns them the cogs driving a role-playing game project he calls Barrow Keep. His brainchild was successfully Kickstarted and is now into serious development with playtest documents already available on itch.io and DriveThru RPG. This month, he has graciously agreed to provide me and fellow educators with an experiential tour in the Ludoverse Lab.

What is Barrow Keep?

Richard takes basic fantasy role-playing rulesets to drive scenarios filled with political mystery and social tension. He is specifically designing sheets and statistics to match the systems of  Diogo Nogueira’s Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells and Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials (Necrotic Gnome) . . . which means that they will be easily translated into any “old school” style fantasy rpg.

To begin, players choose from character sheets. These outline a role in Barrow Keep (hostage, ward, revenant, spy, etc.), and an archetype (beast bound, seer, rogue, magic-user, etc.). They also provide sequence of character questions, the answers to which modify character attributes. The responses also fill in character backgrounds and generate a motley crew of rivals and allies.

With character sketches in hand, the players direct their attention to Barrow Keep itself—its political situation, current internal antagonisms, the archon’s ambitions and fears. All this material then becomes fodder for one of the playsets that Richard has designed. Essentially, the playset gives the GM a scaffold for a wicked network of schemes and machinations bubbling about in the keep. While a Barrow Keep adventure might involve travelling to a mysterious cemetery  or investigating an abandoned tower, the key action occurs within the keep itself, which is filled with all sorts of colorful NPCs—courtesy of the character and setting creation work accomplished by the players in the opening minutes of the session.

Much of Richard’s playset approach derives from Beyond the Wall (Flatland Games), but whereas that game is steeped in the young adult fantasy of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander, Richard is more influenced by more recent writers like George R. R. Martin, Ellen Kushner, N.K. Jemisin, V.E. Schwab, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tamora Pierce, and Mercedes Lackey.

We are playing Barrow Keep (with Richard at the helm) across two sessions, and you can find the first of these recordings by clicking here.

The game strikes a neat balance between character and setting complexity. The initial player-facing questions provide everyone around the table with juicy ideas and NPCs to work with, and the playsets allow a GM to develop an intrigue-rich setting in a 15-minute planning break. There are a number of factors to admire about the design. The character and setting creation process is efficient while still giving the players room to invent and further develop initial concepts. The elements of the playset provide rich, suggestive catalysts for the GM. Play begins with hard-framed scenes that allow the players to set their characters in motion through the activation of suggestive signs and portents.

You can watch the dynamics of the game in action starting at the 33:45 mark of the recording: In our playset, we have a group of pilgrims who have made a stop at the keep, and there are all sorts of strange events and bumps happening during the night.

One thing I love is that it’s not clear that everything strange or mysterious is related, and the playset doesn’t dictate that the players pursue any specific course of action. For example, there’s an NPC named Sennin who sets off for an evening ride (1:48:00), which seems kind of unusual, except it has also been established that Sennin is involved in a secret affair, so maybe he’s just off for a romantic rendezvous. And there seems to be an intrusion of some strange feline monster in the Keep, but it’s not at all clear that that’s related to the appearance of the foreign pilgrims.

For a bit of RPG history and some sense of Richard’s deep design roots, I suggest you look at the discussion beginning at the 2:11:00 mark. There, Richard mentions David Wesely’s Braunstein, a game concept developed in 1969. Coming out of the miniature wargame tradition, Wesely introduced a variety of roles into the normally martial setting. Many of these roles were explicitly non-military: For example, in a scenario involving a war-ravaged city, someone might play the university chancellor or even the local baker. In addition, Braunstein embraced an “anything can be attempted” mindset that encouraged players to think creatively and to become driving forces of the developing fiction. Though the specific “rules” of Wesely’s game were never published, Richard is aware of the notes that Wesely made, and he is looking to recapture that earlier ur-D&D style of roleplaying.

I’ll leave with one last suggestive note. Going back to the start of this entry, I would be interested in writing some specifically Shakespearean Barrow Keep playsets. In other words, the game would lend itself to a number of specific tropes and conflicts taken from texts like Hamlet, Richard III, 1 Henry IV, etc. Given how streamlined rulesets like Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells are, I can imagine setting students loose to inhabit a Shakespearean setting brimming with paranoia, anxiety, and backstabbing. Barrow Keep would potentially give a classroom an engaging, dynamic insight into the fraught royal courts we find in Shakespeare’s world. I can see similar applications to history classes covering the charged politics of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

I'll be back in the next post to discuss the outcome of our second session in Barrow Keep.

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.