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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Fourteen – The Mirror for Princes

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Not the most inspiring cover in the world.

Out of touch for a while, I know. Got distracted by playing RPGs rather than writing about them, which I consider a good excuse. Today’s subject is ‘Best convention purchase’, which for me was the Prince’s Primer for Vampire: the Masquerade, purchased a couple of years ago at Diceni, Norwich’s small gaming convention.

The Prince’s Primer is a set of in character documents advising on how to get power and keep it, and gives a lot of information about different ways of ruling a city filled with bloodsucking monsters along the way. It’s a modern incarnation of the Mirror for Princes genre of instructional text seen throughout medieval and early modern literature. The most famous of these is The Prince by Machiavelli (though that might have been more of a parody…maybe).

The Prince’s Primer made me think about something that is a big part of most of the live games and many of the tabletop games I play: politics. One thing I have been painfully aware of since I first walked into a Vampire: the Masquerade game is that I am not very good at politics, at least not naturally. Politics is a hard skill in live games, and hard skills are too often assumed to be equal. Your character may have skill dots and experience expenditures that reflect their lifetime-honed political acumen, but if you can’t play the politics right out of character, their dots aren’t worth anything. It’s similar to social skills – while a player isn’t expected to be a combat expert or have a degree in computing to play characters who can do those things, high social stats pretty much have to be reflected by hard skills in an in game environment. That’s how it should be – after all, I’ve definitely had the experience of people telling me that I should be wowed by their character because they have Presence 5. If they’re not roleplaying it, it doesn’t work.

However, unlike social skills, politics is something that can be learned through trial and error. I mean, social skills can be too, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of social mores, you’re going to have difficulty. It’s not like there’s an instruction manual. But for politics? Well, there are certain patterns that can be predicted. Machiavelli recognised this when he used examples from history to illustrate his points. In fact, not only do patterns repeat, but the games we play are narratives based heavily on real-world history and politics. They are set up to provide a playground for these skills.

For all I talk about instruction manuals, though, who has time to read them? You can look at the cause and effect of historical decisions and reactions, but to survey all of history for those few lessons is a lifetime’s worth of work. There are Mirrors for Princes and tracts on political philosophy, but they’re often applicable to other cultures or political systems. So…how does a budding political animal learn the hard skills they need to play at pretend politics?

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Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito – this dude knew where it was at

For a start, I’d recommend trial and error. Participate. Make a character whose motivations are very clear to you (and whose principles remain consistent) so you can fall back on those for decision-making. If you don’t know what the savvy political move is, well, what would their motivation suggest is the best course? If they’re selfish, they’ll protect their interests. If they’re loyal, they’ll protect whatever they’re loyal to. Start small and don’t expect it all to come quickly – in game politics can be a meteoric rise to the top, but that rarely leads to longevity. Take the time to build up your power base and support structures. Amass wealth and boons, find out information, and watch others to gauge their loyalties and courses of action. Or, if you’re a risk taker (if you are, you probably already do the politics thing, so…keep doing that) dive straight in and gamble everything to make big risks.

Don’t be afraid to fail. I love the bit in The Good Wife where a disgraced politician says that ‘Politics is just a game of Chutes and Ladders. Right now I’m at square one.’ I guess that’s what they call Snakes and Ladders in America? Anyway, my point is that it’s pretty rare that you’ll die from a bad political decision in a livegame. Surprisingly rare. Players don’t like killing characters, because it’s OoC political. That doesn’t mean you should be a dick, but you can afford to fall a few times.

But that’s not the problem for a lot of anxious gamers. I’m one, I should know. My fears are to do with people judging me for making bad political moves. Getting involved in IC politics is putting myself out there and inviting criticism and judgement for my every decision. That’s a lot of pressure. I’ve had people deny that gamers judge each other for political decisions and that they’ll understand that it’s all the character’s decisions, not the player’s, but I’ve heard the evidence to the contrary. I’ve heard people ridiculing players for decisions that I know were related to their character (e.g. to a derangement, or to a conflicting and secret loyalty) without considering that maybe the player is smart enough to not only know the best course for success, but actively not follow it because their character wouldn’t. I really hope we can get over that as a community – assume that people aren’t idiots as a starting point, and then maybe people will be more willing to take risks and make gambles, knowing they won’t be judged.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Eight – Anatomy of a Character

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Gmork basically looked like this Reaper miniature, only with a spear and not a dwarf.

Today is ‘Favourite character’ and I have to admit to having some trouble with this. I have characters I like for different reasons, but no one character who I really feel ticked all my boxes. In the end, I went with Gmork because he was the funniest choice, the cannibal halfling with a massive beard who rode a pig, lived in the wilderness and could explode you with his brain (warlock). He was super fun, but not exactly a work of art. However, I could have chosen Magpie, my rogueiest rogue, who was an arcane trickster (and I love, loooooove to play rogues). I could have chosen Creep, a Changeling: the Lost character who I do consider to be much closer towards art, as she has had an incredible arc and has turned out extremely complex. I could have chosen Artesius, a noble Seneschal in Rogue Trader, who has recently completed his quest to provide his crew with Best Quality Whores. It was epic, man. I could have chosen Milt, a middle-aged soldier with a tragic past who is understated but also really interesting to play. There are so many more. I keep thinking of more. None of them are my favourite, though. They all appeal in different ways. Gmork is the funniest – my most original character. Magpie is the one who fulfilled my desire to be really, really good at stealing stuff – she’s my competency character. Creep is the one who had an arc I couldn’t have come up with in a novel, an awesome expression of the weird alchemy of gaming – as well as being similarly competent to Magpie (did I mention I love playing rogues?) she is my arc character, the one I’ve been most emotionally invested in. Artesius is the one where I could get my snark on the most and choose hilarious ‘goals’ that were completely frivolous rather than high drama – I guess he’s my light relief character. Milt is difficult because on paper he actually isn’t a great character. He only has a couple of major conflict points (he’s a soldier from Cyre, so…anyone who’s read Eberron knows what that means) and mainly acts as a kind of wise-mentor -character-meets-Vimes in play, but I can’t define why I like him so much – he’s the mystery character.

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This is Shorty from Tangled, or possibly Gmork again. There was for a while a promo picture of him riding a pig, but I can’t find that any more.

Some of these character niches are mutually exclusive. I can’t imagine an arc character and a light relief character being the same thing. However, a competent character can also pair with any of the others (and to be fair most of my characters are competent – the distinction I would draw here is that the primary joy I get out of playing that character is their competence rather than the other reasons in the list). Considering we’ve got a reset in the national Isles of Darkness chronicle in March next year and I’ve got the possibility of a couple of campaigns I’ll be playing in coming up soon, I’m going to take a moment to think about which of these character niches each character serves when I make them. One thing that occurs is that while I’ve played many competent, fun and original characters over the years, there are a number I wouldn’t add to the list, even when they would seem to fulfil roles. In a high-drama Mage campaign, I like my character Gevaudan, but he doesn’t quite appeal in the way my niche characters do. I have lots of fun live game characters, but only one of them made it into my list. Sometimes I won’t be able to figure out what niche a character fits in advance and they’ll have to grow into it. I would have had my Mage character Artemis pegged for my competency niche, but actually she fitted into my light relief niche better (and sadly, not so much into competency, despite the fact that she’s a freaking dual master, due the excessive power creep). On the other hand, I made one of my vampire characters, Ajax, to be a competency character and that worked out super well. She just wasn’t around long enough to leave a lasting impression (because I became an ST for the game). This whole post is a bit self-indulgent. Like many people, I get really bored of hearing about other people’s characters, so I definitely don’t blame anyone for not reaching this point in the post. But if you did, well done! Have an internet hug. Tomorrow I shall try to provide something a little meatier.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Seven – The Forest of Trees

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Day Seven of #RPGaDay is ‘Most “intellectual” RPG owned’ and I’ve seen many interpretations of what “intellectual” means (I took it to mean something that was kind of self-consciously clever and knew it, probably with a dash of hipsterness as well). For me, the game I own that has intimidated me the most with its evident smartness is Hillfolk. One reason is that the Drama System requires a fairly in-depth understanding of narrative concepts like dramatic poles and themes, but the other reason is the sample settings included with the book. Hillfolk itself is ‘A game of Iron Age drama’, which requires a greater knowledge of human history than a stock fantasy setting (and also research!). Also, the second half of the book is a series of short treatments for settings and campaigns, some of which are recognisable from other games or media (Malice Tarn is Watership Down by way of Bunnies and Burrows) but others are settings that are so rooted in high-concept, meta or real-world history that there isn’t much similar stuff out there. The corruption of Golden Age Hollywood, the paranoia of cold war Moscow, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, “Breaking Bad meets The Wrestler” and escaped African slaves seeking revenge all feature, among many other more fantastical settings. The majority of them deal with problematic aspects of genres or history and challenge the players and GM to roleplay the points of high drama in settings that deliberately address subjects very far from the good vs. bad morality of many other roleplaying games. I chose Hillfolk today because the settings in it are a challenge to think more deeply about the worlds we create and the problematic aspects of humanity that make us uncomfortable.

For my actual article, I wanted to lead into talking about what makes a good setting guide. While I like to be challenged, I also enjoy light-hearted or heroic settings where answers may not be easy, but they won’t leave your soul rent in twain at the end of every session. I talked yesterday about my difficulties with Lux Aeternum and today I’d like to give some examples of really good setting guides, because I think it’s an underestimated skill. I’ll be focusing on setting guides that create a concrete place rather than a tone or a framework for building your own places, just because otherwise this would take all night. Some of these have already appeared elsewhere on the blog, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a game one of my friends ran which was an utterly generic fantasy game with names like “the Dark Tower of Doom” and “the Forest of Trees”.

Swashbuckling Adventures

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Théah from 7th Sea and Swashbuckling Adventures

I talked about this a little yesterday when discussing Luex Aeternum, as a point of comparison. Swashbuckling Adventures is an adaptation of the setting for the game 7th Sea into the 3rd Edition D20 rules, but it has its own line and can be read entirely independently of 7th Sea (and indeed, I haven’t read much of 7th Sea).

As a setting, Théah is massively detailed between the two lines of books. I sort of feel that it is the quintessential ‘alternative Earth’ swashbuckling setting. The countries are thinly-veiled composites of elements from countries in the real world, but taking the most swashbuckling era of each of them. They each have their own very distinctive personality and style, and nationality is such a big aspect of character that it is the first decision you make at character creation. This makes sense: Swashbuckling Adventures incorporates all of the swashbuckling archetypes that exists and some fantasy ones too, but the swashbuckling genre has been represented very differently in different cultures. The kind of swashbuckler you play is rooted in your character’s nationality, so choose the one most in line with the style you want to play with. Then, each nation also has its own prestige classes, fighting styles, secret societies and even different kinds of magic. The standard D&D classes are re-flavoured for suitability, some don’t exist at all and new ones are introduced. The richness of Théah as a setting practically oozes from the pages of Swashbuckling Adventures, which benefits from an entire line of books in the 7th Sea game all compressed down into one of the most evocative books I’ve read.

This is a setting guide that knows its genre and plays it to the hilt (if you’ll pardon the expression), and I don’t feel it’s ever been equalled as a setting for a game of derring do and swashing buckles.

Sharn: City of Towers

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Woof, look at the level of detail in Sharn…

Sharn: City of Towers is one of the (almost uniformly good) sourcebooks for the 3rd Edition D&D magi-punk setting Eberron. Sharn is the capital city of Breland, which is the default country in Eberron. Apart from being the book that really, really needed an index, it is a near perfect, obsessively detailed setting guide for a fantasy city. Sharn is divided into districts, and in every single one City of Towers provides details of shops and inns, landmarks and neighbourhoods, key NPCs and plot hooks. You could run a campaign for years in Sharn. The best thing about it is that it is endlessly creative – reading it cover to cover will get a bit repetitive, but dip in here and there and you will find evocative details and fascinating stories on every page. This is microcosmic setting planning done brilliantly.

More importantly, this book draws you into the setting further rather than alienating you. It is filled with possibilities of places to explore and adventures to find, and even the pictures add to the wonder of Eberron. For city-building done right, this is the place to look.

Plus it came with a fantastic CD of music to set the tone for Eberron. If you get a chance to listen to it, it really is genuinely cool.

Unhallowed Metropolis

OK, I have covered this before as well. In fact, in my second pick for the month. However, that was about a specific campaign. While the other two setting guides I’ve mentioned are remarkable for their evocation of a genre and their inspiring detail, Unhallowed Metropolis creates a setting with a history, a tone and an implied destiny. The default setting is London, because it is the most populated city since the zombie plague, and while there isn’t much detail about the places in London themselves (though it does give a rough breakdown of the districts), the core rulebook gave such an atmosphere of forboding and decay that it was impossible not to understand the nature of the city all of this took place in. Unlike my other picks for favourite setting guides, it’s unrelenting nihilistic and even the presence of Undertakers and Mourners (the monster hunters of the setting) and the ridiculous lists of equipment just serve to show that if an outbreak happens, no amount of mad scientist weaponry will save them.

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London in 2105 will be your cradle and your grave. Also, don’t go swimming in the Thames. Really.

There are some amazingly grim details and the setting reinforces the themes and tone of the game throughout. The section on the anatomy and science of zombies is gruesome and brilliant, as it describes the detailed dissection (obviously vivisection is, by definition, not appropriate) of a zombie in a doctor’s note. There is a sense of London as a place that is only a few mistakes off spiralling as quickly as the characters themselves do. I also found it very compelling that while the zombie plague is, obviously, the main threat in the world, now that London has been reclaimed and fortified, most people have got caught up in their petty rivalries and street wars. Even vampires are rich people’s trouble. The city is steeped in plotlines and history that emphasise the moral and physical corruption that the protagonists and their setting share. It is this that makes me want to play and run games in Unhallowed Metropolis and I hope that I get a chance to again, because this setting deserves to be shared.

Conclusion

So, three examples of good setting guides: a world where the setting and genre work beautifully in tandem, a city full of enough detail to run a thousand games within its walls and a London that is as doomed as the characters who live within it, filled with tone and atmosphere. I’m curious to hear which setting guides other people would highlight as really good. By ‘setting guide’, it clearly doesn’t have to be a dedicated book on the setting, as two of these are core rulebooks, but it should have something that sets the environs of the game apart from your standard game.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Six – Swashbuckling. IN SPAAAAAACE.

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Just look at this guy.

Day Six of #RPGaDay is ‘Favourite RPG you never get to play’. I’ve loosely interpreted this as ‘that setting I always wanted to run but never have’. I’ve already talked about Blue Rose, which premiered the True20 system, a simplified version of the D20 system used for 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. When the True20 book came out, I bought it on my birthday. The thing I came away with (apart from a few grumbles about what they’d changed from Blue Rose) was that the Lux Aeternum setting in the back was really, really cool. It is still one of my favourite settings. Hell, when Black Wyrm Games, who wrote the short version of the setting in True20 brought out an expanded setting book, I bought it so quickly that they hadn’t yet had time to put up the link to the product and I e-mailed tech support in confusion. Thus, I must have been literally one of the first people in the world to buy the Lux Aeternum Expanded Setting Guide. I’m going to be a bit indulgent today and talk about why Lux Aeternum, this barely-known game that comprises a tiny part of the Green Ronin True20 range of books is so darn cool. For a start, Lux Aeternum has a certain level of inherent cool. It’s a sci-fi swashbuckling game with a shades-wearing musketeer wielding a power-rapier on the cover. But to understand why this setting, of all settings, has stuck with me for so long, I’m going to have to delve beyond the aesthetic. In fact, I will make this a two-parter. Today I’ll talk about why this particular setting is so great, and tomorrow I’ll talk about what makes a great setting book in more general terms (it fits tomorrow’s challenge, you’ll see). In brief, Lux Aeternum is based around the idea that in the future, humans have turned Earth into a toxic waste dump. An alien race called the Xyr turn up and offer to take a chunk of people to a new galaxy where they can do better. The Xyr stop interacting with the humans halfway there and the automatic systems of the ship, called the Ark, bring them safely to the new binary system of the Nexus sector. There, they meet humans who are descendants of people taken from Earth centuries ago, who still keep the aesthetics and customs with updated technology, as well as a few other alien races who were also brought here. There are new worlds to explore and politics to navigate, and alien cultures to have massive diplomatic incidents with.

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The Nexus Sector, filled with dozens of planets and countless adventures.

Looking back at my printed-out copy of Lux Aeternum (henceforth referring to the Expanded Setting Guide), I remember from the copious annotations I made that, actually, it’s a fairly unfinished setting. It’s rough around the edges, not well thought out in places. I want to rewrite it heavily, which I have. It’s also fairly old-fashioned, art-style-wise, very far from the polished pages of 4th Edition D&D or World of Darkness, or even the original True20. However, there is something about it that makes me want to hop in a ship and go exploring. For a start, while the short treatment in True20 gave a system map and not much else, Lux Aeternum breaks down every single planet in the system, giving even barren moons a couple of paragraphs. One of the things that appeals to me so much about Lux Aeternum is that you can run an entire campaign just on one planet. And yet…and yet…the sections on even the most important planets in the system are brief and a bit dry. I have expanded the 4 paragraphs on Hades, a small mining planet, into an interconnected mass of wiki posts on my Obsidian Portal account, but I had to invent political, social and economic tensions to make it a place that lived and breathed enough to set a game in. As a setting, Lux Aeternum is simultaneously filled with promise and constantly disappointing. Wow, this turned into kind of a downer post. I suppose I should get all my gripes out of the way to start with: marrying the concepts of sci-fi and swashbuckling is surprisingly awkward, certainly sci-fi as Lux Aeternum does it. There is just something that doesn’t gel about the two in my head, no matter how many pictures of musketeers with force swords I look at. The only way I’ve been able to do it so far is to go via pulp space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy for the band of roguish heroes) or Star Wars for the political fantasy-action-sci-fi. I think the majority of sci-fi I’ve seen has taken itself very seriously (obviously there are exceptions), whereas part of the style of swashbuckling is to take everything lightly while dealing with big political ramifications and lofty ideals like honour and freedom. So that’s another reason that I haven’t run it yet (well, except for a solo one shot!). Just comparing the Lux Aeternum book with the buzz I get from looking through the Swashbuckling Adventures book by AEG (another strong contender for this post) shows me that there’s just something missing from the way Lux Aeternum is presented, or maybe just how I’m reading it. However, despite all of my complaints, I still look back on Lux Aeternum as the one that got away. It’s the setting that I feel the most disappointed I’ve never run, and I’ll keep expanding ridiculously detailed wiki pages about the planets, but there is so much potential. The mysterious wild planets that have been revealed recently in the setting are filled with new and exciting frontiers, and the ancient ruins from alien races long dead provide plenty of tomb-raiding fun. The politics of the setting is interesting but a bit flimsy, and yet it has the seeds of some really exciting stuff. The planets may be barely described, but their names are exotic and the details we do get are tantalising. Plus, despite the fact that it is a fairly generic sci-fi setting, there isn’t anything that is quite the same out there. It’s just a shame that it needs so much work to make it what I want it to be. Links: Black Wyrm Games, who did the setting in the original True20 and the setting guide.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Five – Subject, Verb, OBJECT

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Mmmm, pristine. I almost feel bad for breaking the seal. Almost.

I considered calling this post ‘Fetishising Games’, but I thought that would give the wrong impression. What I am actually talking about is sort of a follow-on from yesterday’s post on currency and trade items, and the idea that concrete objects and phys-reps can make a lot of difference. My choice for ‘Most oldschool RPG’ is the boxed set of The Masque of the Red Death from the Ravenloft 2nd Edition D&D setting. The reason I chose this is because, as well as being the oldest RPG I own, it is also a rare and magical item for me because it is a boxed RPG. I know that a lot of people have been talking about their old boxed RPGs, but because I started gaming much later than many people (in 2005), I haven’t experienced anything earlier than 3rd Edition D&D in tabletop. Boxed games have a certain allure to me because they speak of a time when a game came with extras, potentially a magical box of tricks that gave a physicality to opening it up for the first time and every time you got it out thereafter. The games themselves are (especially now) objects of reverence, for their history and their manufacture. Apart from that, they often included in game resources like maps or documents. I particularly like Robin’s Dark Sun boxed set because of the cloth map. Having used that in a game, it adds so much. This is a roundabout way of saying that physical objects add a hell of a lot to a game. Props, phys-reps, maps, food and drink…they’re great. They add to livegames, larps or tabletop games in different ways. In larps and livegames, they come with the territory, but little details that go beyond the basic make a massive difference. Even if you’re playing someone who wears a boiler suit and works in a clean white room, having an engagement ring on a chain round your neck is instantly a key into your character and a physical object to aid immersion.

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The Red Death Unmasked…well, Unboxed, anyway…

For a GM, ST, ref or whatever, throwing in a few physical objects really helps. For tabletop, physical cards with things like magic item details on are really cool, or a phys-rep for the magic object the players were sent to retrieve can give more of a sense of accomplishment and wonder. It doesn’t matter that it’s actually a £2 necklace from Primark – the players will fill in the magic themselves. Even better are physical maps or scrawled notes. I have loads of stories of really effective use of objects in games I’ve been in or heard of, but I’ll try and pick a few choice anecdotes. In a Silent Hill tabletop game I am very sad I missed, the players were given cheap torches and no spare batteries at the start of the game. The game took place in the dark and when the light ran out, it ran out. It happened perfectly, as the lights went out when the players had just realised the escalator they were standing on was covered in blood, and thus a game became a legend. My most triumphant uses of props in the Shades of Norwich live game I help run were related to making things from scratch (and allowing players to keep them as mementoes). We’ve always made sure that when trade or auction is happening in the game, we have physical objects to hand over or display. Even for abstract things like favours or boons, we have deeds of sale. My favourite instance of this was when I made, on a whim, a fairly poorly-sculpted pilgrim medal of a Longinian saint (I am enthusiastic about making occult props, but not very good!). A character bought it and the player made a chain so he could wear it as a pendant. When the character died, another character picked it up and wore it as a memento, because it had become so iconic of the other character. That gave me a real sense of achievement. Larping, on the other hand, demands an awful lot of phys-reps and set dress just as the bar for entry. Empire has a very high standard of costuming and set dress, but even so I’ve seen plenty of above and beyond. Physical resources for crafting materials, barbarian coins you can loot off enemies and once a sheaf of gold paper sent from a magical realm where everything was made of metal, all provided by the Profound Decisions team who run it. Totally awesome. It makes everyone want to do better, to make more props, to improve their costume. There is a reason Profound Decisions insists on people bringing phys-reps for potions, items and herbs – it creates a culture in which you can look around and physically touch as much of the game as possible. People are tactile. We like to play with objects, to feel their weight and texture. In touching the physical items of a world, we engage with it in a new way. While you can try and set the mood with music or sounds, give people food that tastes right or even burn incense to create the right smell, it’ll never have quite the compelling power of holding that legendary gem in your hands, leafing through the mad scribblings of a cultist or clutching a memento of a character or an NPC in times of difficulty. In fact, if possible appeal to multiple senses. I’ve had maps, costumes and stacks of candy (it was a Hallowe’en game based on the computer game Costume Quest) at a table lit by pretend jack o’lanterns. You don’t need to go overboard, but drop in an object now and then, or plan a single session with a really atmospheric setup, and see how much it adds. Links: A set of miscellaneous tips on bringing physicality into tabletop games, ranging from the interesting (pub games? Cool!) to the rather obvious or the overly elaborate.

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Four – Economics in Games

20140804_232252The list selection for #RPGaDay today is ‘Most recent RPG purchase’ but I haven’t had much of a chance to read many of the RPGs I’ve bought recently (and ‘recently’ was also quite a long time ago!). I decided, therefore, to choose a game I acquired very recently but was given by friends for my birthday, ‘Goblin Markets’, a supplement for Changeling: the Lost that I dearly love. This brings me round to one of my favourite subjects in gaming: economics! OK, I don’t actually know much about real-world economics, a hole in my knowledge I’m slowly trying to patch up, but game economics fascinate me because they take the principles of real-world economics and create models for their use in a living environment. It’s literally playing at economics, like a much more complicated version of those checkout toys kids get. I have been thinking on economics in games a lot, and I have come up with a few thoughts. 1) Tipping currency. In my opinion, game economy functions best when it has a tipping currency. Look at Empire, where a ring is practically nothing to most, but a lot to some. It can be used as a tip without causing much cost to those who can afford to tip, but a tip jar can significantly increase the fortunes of those who do not have much money or are new to the game. It produces a culture where it’s worthwhile becoming a lackey or doing simple jobs in the hope of a tip or for a small payment. Hooray for the wheels of commerce. In my opinion, games that attempt to have a currency often fail in this respect, because the currency doesn’t divide small enough. Look at Vampire: the Requiem: trivial boons should be a tipping currency, but because they are too large they aren’t given out (plus three can be upgraded to a minor boon, which is actually a bit of effort, in the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules). This leads me on to my next point… 2) Shinies. Currency may by its nature be abstract and hold an arbitrary value based on what people are willing to pay for things, but it should not be too abstracted. Humans really like objects and shiny things, and as Terry Pratchett noted in Making Money, people will always favour having their money in a sock under a bed than in a bank, no matter how much you talk about compound interest. One of the problems with the boon culture in Requiem, clever as it might be in theory, is that it requires book keeping or it didn’t happen. You can somewhat solve this by having an NPC keep the books, but I’ve been in enough games where boons mysteriously vanished between the sofa when Harpies changed or when the STs didn’t leave notes for the next lot that the integrity of the boon economy is seriously lacking, which means it doesn’t function as an economy. Give people physical things to play with, to hoard, to spend, to earn, beg or steal. The exception to this, in my opinion, is in Changeling: the Lost, because it’s much more difficult to represent the items you can barter at market, which is why the dots system expanded in Goblin Markets is pretty good. That makes sense because Changeling exists on a barter economy more than it does on currency – the things Changelings exchange have value in and of themselves, at which point you don’t need a physical representation of them. Provide physical objects for currency, even cheap plastic tokens, and watch the players invest (literally) in your economy.

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The fairy market from the film ‘Stardust’

3) Trade. Of course, people need something to do with that currency and ways to earn it. It’s important to have a fairly fleshed-out idea of the various markets and commodities available, so when your players go to the market or to an NPC and ask about buying or selling, you know what you’re doing. Empire (I love how their economics work) theoretically provided a system that attached no inherent value to the currency beyond its relationship to other denominations of the currency (rings -> crowns -> thrones), confident that the players would set the currency’s value as soon as they got on the field by using it. However, there is a certain degree of guidance in the setting (which some mistake for a statement of value) by the fact that, assuming all character resources (which provide things you come in with at the start of each event) are equal, you can get a fairly clear idea of how much every resource is worth in money and therefore what that money equates to in practical terms. One of the important things to come out of this, of course, is the concept that even if the value of things is theoretically set by players, the games masters must have a standard by which to judge value. It can be a secret standard, but as soon as the player sells a dagger to an NPC for one gold, they will mentally value a dagger at one gold selling value, probably higher buying value. If you then spend the next several sessions letting them sell daggers for two gold apiece, they will assume they got shafted first time around (though you can have reasons for things to vary in value from place to place – you should just know that they’re going to do so). It’s worth working out a system for value in the planning stages to create the impression of a functional economy, even if that economy is vaguely ridiculous. As an aside, several people have pointed out that one gold for a loaf of bread compared to the rareness of one gold coin means most fantasy settings don’t work economically. 4) Neutral currency. OK, this is a specific thing for Requiem, but it could apply to other games where there are societal implications for using certain kinds of currency. An important note here: any currency based on slaves is probably not a good idea, and you definitely want to think hard about that one. It has really unfortunate implications. My main example, however, is in Vampire: the Requiem. Boons are the closest there is to a neutral currency in that game, a currency with minimal strings attached. Sure, you might get killed for having too many boons over the wrong people, but you might get killed for having too much money or taking it from the wrong person. Blood, the other major currency in Requiem, doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because a currency needs to be transferable. To transfer blood in Requiem, without some specific rules that aren’t going to apply to every character, means blood bonds and maybe blood addiction. Fun! This is cool from a roleplaying perspective, but a sustainable economy does not make. If your currency means that people who trade in it will be addicted to each other, trade is probably going to slow to a crawl. That’s fine if the game’s focus isn’t trade, but if you want an economy, make the currency transferable. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be able to use your currency for things beyond buying stuff (Echo Bazaar did this very well, making it a choice of priorities, and using some of the currencies for recreation was addictive) or that it should be free from consequences (souls) but make it eminently transferable. 5) Starting currency or minimum-effort currency. This specifically relates to live games, as in tabletop, the players are usually earning currency or barter as part of their adventures, whereas this is much less common in live games. I have a controversial opinion, but I think that the first rung on the ladder to actually having money as a character should start with minimal effort. At Empire, all you need to do is show up – everyone has starting money. Without it, the economy would be much more limited. In Vampire, one of the advantages of the boons system is that you always have something to bet – though the value of that bet will be much less valuable if you’re new to the game or a social bottom-feeder. In Lost, the lowest barter currency is ‘0 dots’ (as it works on a scale of 1-5 dots, with guidelines as to what equals each dot). However, what you can sell and buy at 0 dots is extremely limited unless you’re willing to start selling permanent things like memories or emotions, or unless you have token-crafting skills. Essentially, I believe that for an economy to thrive in a game, a character should be able to get the equivalent of 1 dot’s worth of trade goods for just putting in a little time, effort, or if you like, glamour. Gew-gaws theoretically already exist for this, but even so, anything above 0 dots takes quite a lot of time and effort to gain. The way I personally wish to run Lost is to have a glamour/a downtime action producing 1 dot of ephemera (or some other word that isn’t taken up elsewhere in World of Darkness) that is flavoured according to the character’s whims. This is just a little bit of shaped Wyrd that contains a certain value simply because it has been shaped by a Changeling. It doesn’t actually do anything, but serves as a relatively neutral currency that can be exchanged for 1 dot of items, used as a tipping currency or added to a deal to sweeten it. No trader will accept more than 1 dot of ephemera, so you can’t put together a load of ephemera to make five dot’s worth, and it doesn’t last long unless you sustain it, so you can’t hold onto to more than 1 dot. This can easily be flavoured for other settings: you spend a day and make some rolls and find some scrap in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (or some bottle caps), or you harvest some herbs or animal parts from a nearby forest in a fantasy game. Not so much for modern world settings. In a setting with a variety of currencies, give them a random selection. Or just give them some starting cash – as long as they have something to play with. It stimulates economy and makes up for the fact that it’d be really boring to have a character go to work all day and earn a monthly wage.

Mordenkainen's_Magnificent_Emporium_front_cover

Mmmmm, delicious book

6) Variety. This a super personal one for me, but I love shiny things. I especially love piles of shiny things. I’m essentially a rogue. Periodically I get our various coins, crafting materials, herbs and potions out from our Empire bags and put them in a big pile and count them. I care very little about real-world money, as long as I have enough to live on, but give me clinky coins and pretty materials and interesting magic items and I become a complete magpie (hence my username). I was in a brilliant but sadly short-lived live game based on the Echo Bazaar browser game and one of the things I loved was that we had the currencies and advantages from the game. I was planning on making phys-reps for the various currencies where I could just so I could carry round a big bag and sometimes count them. I had a friend when we were in the Shackled City Adventure path (it has such long loot lists) who used to make spreadsheets of the loot we acquired so we could split it up, and that was super fun. Obviously, some settings are better for this than others: Requiem wouldn’t really suit. But if you can and it works with the setting, add a bit of variety into the objects and loot given out to players, if only for the rogues like me in the party. Link: The Empire larp release notes regarding their decisions on economy (among other things).

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#RPGaDay 2014: Day Three – Deerocracy

20140801_092549The RPG of today is ‘First RPG purchased’. For me, this was Blue Rose, the setting that originally codified the True20 system long before it was brought out as a generic system. It is a beautiful, if slightly silly, romantic fantasy RPG.

The definition of this is actually something I’d like to go into. There’s an assumption that ‘fantasy’ is a single thing, a genre that acts an adequate descriptor, but for as long as it’s existed, fantasy has had vastly different sub-genres and styles that constantly redefine and expand the genre. It continues to be a growing medium, even though for many years it was almost entirely characterised in popular perception by the same concepts.

We’re living in a post-Game of Thrones world, but before Game of Thrones was adapted for TV, fantasy brought a very limited palette to mind: muscle-bound heroes, sometimes knights or barbarians or humble blacksmiths, a faux-medieval setting, dragons and longswords, a quest to save the world from shadowy villains with questionable motivations. It was often assumed that all fantasy was a rip-off of Tolkien, despite the fact that Lord of the Rings is actually a lot less like the ‘standard’ fantasy formula than one might suppose. Sure, plenty of Tolkien’s elements that have become clichés (and I definitely won’t deny that there are an awful lot of LOTR clones out there), but a lot of other recognisable traits in the fantasy genre stem from the sword and sorcery stories in pulp magazines (Conan the Barbarian and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser being some of the most famous) or the heroic fantasy stories that drew on chivalric romance traditions (as translated through Victorian literature and art). These are sometimes grouped as ‘high’ fantasy, though that definition is slippery.

Trying to define genres and subgenres always runs into arguments that literary scholars have wrestled with for a long time, but broadly speaking there are a number of dominant subgenres of fantasy. I know this is all pretty obvious to fantasy fans, so I apologise for seeming condescending, but the lesson I’d like to draw from this is that even when running Dungeons and Dragons, the archetypal fantasy game, it is worth setting out the kind of fantasy you are drawing on. Classic D&D, with dungeon crawls and wandering monsters, is usually the base line (generally a bit of epic fantasy, heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery mixed together) but even with something like the Eberron or Planescape settings, the standard template doesn’t seem to fit quite as neatly any more, let alone when you get to Ravenloft. Eberron is closer to swashbuckling fantasy in some ways, and Planescape pre-figured some of the tropes of gritty urban fantasy that are so popular today. Then you have games like Blue RoseBlue Rose is a romantic fantasy game, not in the sense of Mills and Boon but in the sense that it puts a lot more stock in personal relationships and emotional journeys than the large-scale ‘save the world’ tensions of epic fantasy or sword and sorcery. They were also less bound by gender conventions and stereotypes, with a wider range of models for gender and sexuality in characters. See: Robin Hobb, Ellen Kushner, Mercedes Lackey, and also the really good essay at the start of Blue Rose called ‘What Is Romantic Fantasy?’hart_rose_circle

I’m not saying that you should pigeonhole your game into a subgenre, or angst over whether it’s a romantic fantasy or an epic or a sword and sorcery or a gritty fantasy. However, if someone comes to Blue Rose expecting a Conan-style sword and sorcery tale, or a po-faced LOTR epic, they’ll take one look at the opening fiction and leave. In Blue Rose, there are many elements that verge on the ridiculous because they stem from a rose-tinted world that is very much at odds with the stone-and-blood gritty fantasy of George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. In Game of Thrones, you win or you die. In Blue Rose, the new queen is chosen by a magical stag that comes out of a stained glass window because she may be humble, but she is pure of heart.

If that made you throw up a little, go elsewhere, because Blue Rose is delightful and whimsical and ridiculous. To get an idea of the mood whiplash you get from juxtaposing this with almost any other kind of fantasy, think of the bit in Snow White and the Huntsman where Snow White has escaped her grim prison and creepy jailer through determination and getting her hands bloody, and yet ends up being symbolically crowned by a magical white stag with horns covered in flowers. There was a film that didn’t know which subgenre it wanted to live in.

But that’s why I love Blue Rose for what it is. It has flying cats, and animals that talk, and an entirely unsustainable system of government. And I love D&D for what it is, and Ravenloft, and Eberron – I just make sure I know what kind of fantasy I’m going to play.

P.S. I think it was one of my friends who coined the term ‘deerocracy’ but I can’t remember which one.

P.S.S. If the bit about the magical deer made you joyful, try just looking through the Blue Rose books and tell me you aren’t charmed. They are everything you want them to be.

Links:

The Green Ronin page for Blue Rose, with downloadable adventures and much pretty

The RPG.net review for Blue Rose

An essay on ‘What Is Romantic Fantasy?’ by one of the designers, John Snead