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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.

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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 Two – Terms of Endangerment

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Sorry for the darkness of the picture, it was that or a glossy shine that obscured the cover art

Day Two of the #RPGaDay challenge is ‘your first RPG Gamemastered’. Mine was Unhallowed Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic-steampunk-zombie-survival game. It’s an enjoyably batty game with one of the best settings I’ve ever read and an unfortunately flawed rules system. In running games (I haven’t actually run very many) I have found that the most important thing going in is for the GM to manage the players’ expectations and assumptions. It’s something that can be difficult to do, as it requires being brutally honest about what a game is going to involve and be about, and there’s always the lingering fear that you might end up without any players as they all decide it isn’t for them. Human beings don’t like rejection, but I’ve been in enough games where the Terms of Engagement weren’t made clear right at the start to know that it’s much better to be brutal at first and happier in the long run. I ran into this problem with the two campaigns I’ve done, Unhallowed Metropolis and Witch Hunter: the Invisible World. I think part of the problem was that I didn’t know what  was planning for those campaigns, and it was also that I hadn’t run any games before, so I didn’t understand the kind of job the GM has to do. To be fair to them, my players in both games were brilliant. In Unhallowed Metropolis, I had some who were into the super emotional backstory stuff and some who were more into the immediate ‘shoot zombies a lot’ stuff, whereas I wanted to run a horror game, so I knew that the emotional stuff had to feed into horror directly and the zombies should feel like a terrifying enough threat, even with the players’ ridiculous armoury. In many ways, I feel that my fail at setting out my campaign before it started was saved by the fact that my players were so happy to respond to where I wanted to guide the campaign, even if the combat characters didn’t always have something to do and the social characters sometimes felt like they weren’t in the right arena. I still feel pretty proud of it, even today, but it could have gone very wrong.

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‘Firefight’ by meluran. Source: http://handcannononline.com/blog/2011/08/11/unmet/

Witch Hunter, on the other hand, is a game I feel proud of but also a little sad about. I knew what I wanted to run, and could have answered easily if my players had asked, but I wasn’t confident enough to explain it fully. I particularly wasn’t confident enough to say that the grumpy anti-social woodsman and the foppish French aristocrat couldn’t easily both be accommodated by many scenarios. I deliberately jumped my own shark by including a comedy Christmas game (it involved a cakeomancer who was stealing hearts to craft his gingerbread army) but I acknowledged that trying to force the game into something I hadn’t ever explicitly set out wasn’t doing anyone any favours. Instead of full-on survival horror in an unforgiving colony, I went for action with a dash of humour and occasional moments of horror, and it worked fine. I can still make my players shudder by reminding of the Patch Jack that they thought they were escaping, only to realise it was keeping up with their horses. Ultimately, I think my players had fun, but it was only when I loosened my hold on the reins a bit and let the game be what it was going to be that it worked. It wasn’t what I originally envisioned, but it was fun. So, even if you find that your beautifully-crafted campaign of subtle political intrigue is changed by the players into a guns-blazing game of big damn heroes, try going with it and see whether it’s fun after all. Stuff I now endeavour to do before pitching a game: – Even if you don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in a campaign, make sure you have a rough idea of the tone and what you want to run. – Make some suggestions about what kinds of characters or focuses would be appropriate and if there’s something you really don’t want in the game, make it very clear from the start. – Consider the fact that players will do what is fun for them, so you may end up having to compromise. That’s OK, role-playing is a collaborative thing. If you want a story that they will receive passively and not change, write a novel and avoid the fan fiction communities. Players will get much more out of a responsive GM who allows them to explore what they want to explore rather than keeping them to a strict plot or tone. – Have a talk with your players about the game and really listen. If they don’t know much about the setting or system, explain it in a way that emphasises the focus of your game. If they do know the setting or system or have played it before, talk to them about what’s happened in games they’ve played, which bits interest them and try and root out their assumptions about the game. That way, you can either make it clear that your game is different or incorporate them rather than being surprised by them. – If possible, try and get the players together to gen. It’s a faff, I hate doing it, but it means you can have a nice talk with them before hand about all the above and you won’t end up with two characters playing the same archetype – or if you do, they’ll do it in different ways. As a GM, it’s really important to respond to your players, but it’s also important to know your own mind as well. If a game isn’t going how you want it to, instead of letting it fizzle as you lose enthusiasm, round it off with a bang over a couple of sessions and then move on to something else, or try a new pitch and new players. You actually have nothing to lose. Links: Atomic Overmind Press, which published the revised edition of Unhallowed Metropolis. I really hope they fixed the rules, because it’s a game that deserves a lot more love. Vernian Process is a steampunk band who did some songs about Unhallowed Metropolis. RPG.net review of UnMet.