Dreamation 2016

Wow. What a #Dreamation.

As always, Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure crew made great things happen flawlessly and invisibly. They are amazing and I thank them deeply.

Jason Morningstar compared Dreamtion to a family reunion and he’s absolutely right. Except that there’s more people I’m excited to see at Dreamation.

Thursday, 8PM
For me, I started off the con with a game of Swords Without Master: Starward on Thurday night. It’s a supplement for SWoM that draws inspiration from Leigh Brackett, Flash Gordan, Akira Kurosawa, and WWII aviation films (just like a somewhat popular 1977 film you may have heard of). Andrew and Brian, neither of whom had played any SWoM before, both created fallen space knights. Patty played a translator/scientist from “not the United Federation of Planets”. They delved into a planet-sized ancient starship to find the lost panacea that would end a galaxy-wide plague. Despite the space skeletons and pirates, they got the cure and delivered it, but were cheated out of glory by the scheming space senate. How will they possibly clear their names? Find out in the next exciting episode of Starward!

Friday, 9AM
Friday morning, Bill White was running With Great Power. To keep myself from being a neurotic mother hen, I intentionally scheduled myself something else to do. I facilitated one of my favorite games: Serial Homicide Unit. Adam, Michael, Joann, Ephraim, Ian, and I told the stories of the workers and patients of the Helping Hands clinic, who just so happened to be hunted by a serial killer. The best and brightest of our characters were cut down just as their life turned around, while the worst thrived. It was sad and touching, just as SHU always is. I love this game.

Friday, 2PM
Friday afternoon, I got to play Bill White’s The New World. I played it several time over its many years of gestation, and this was the best version yet. So quick! So evocative! So fun! I think 2016 is finally the year for The New World. Just a few rough edges to polish and this one is ready to publish. We wove a tale of the last great city of learning in a fallen land, forcing the survivors of fallen cities into servitude, and the ambitious sand pirates that plagued them.

Friday, 6:55PM
Matt, Chris, and Chris had asked if I could run a demo of With Great Power for them. Asking me to run my game is my own personal Kryptonite, so run we did. In a quick 45 minutes, they made heroes and we played a couple of exciting phases.

Friday, 8PM
Finally, after years of trying, I got to play Sorcerer with Judd. It was a colonized solar system setting, with Adam portraying the secretly half-alien president of Mars, MadJay playing a xenoarcheologist, and me playing a horrible, Captain Bligh-type starship captain with xenotech fused into his head. If you’ve ever played a video game and took a while to understand the controls, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I often have trouble steering my character in Sorcerer. This game was no exception. I’d go into a scene thinking “I’ll show a bit of humanity, a bit of compassion” and then proceed to do the most evil stuff imaginable, like murdering a conscientious traitor, and trying to murder the president of Mars. I’m really, really glad I played. I’m uneasy with how the game went. And that’s exactly what Sorcerer is about.

Saturday, 9AM
I ran With Great Power for a group of three players: Jen played Noir, who could speak to ghosts; Nick played Mantis, who had instectoid alien power armor; and Adam played Blindspot, who could not be noticed, except on camera. Together, they faced down the flame-bodied Crucible who wanted to give superpowers to everyone in the entire world so that her husband could accept her as “normal”. It was a quick, fun session with green mutagenic gas at an MMA fight, quiet discussions on a park bench, a burning building, and punching a woman made of living flame in the face.

Saturday, 2PM
Joshua A.C. Newman’s The Name of Bronze is a work in progress. I like where it’s going and will be excited when it gets there. In our short session with Frank, Keith, and Matthew, I played Unlu, champion of Mard—tallest mountain and roof of the world. In Mard’s service, I crushed a rival mountain with my bare hands. It was interesting, and I could see where it will be fun once the whole game is communicated properly.

Saturday, 8PM
I finally played Torchbearer. Tony, Stephen, Carly and I did pretty well in Bret’s weird old school dungeon. Nobody died. We scored some loot. We rescued a guy from being eaten by a giant spider. I have my doubts about the “if you suggest an idea you have to be the one to roll for it” rule. I can see that the game is engineered to produce a particular type of experience and does it very, very well. It’s just not an experience I particularly enjoy. That’s an important thing to know.

Sunday, 10AM
A second game of With Great Power, this one with five players: Kat played the Scales of Justice/Dragon Princess who was rebelling against her dragon-tyrant father; Blair played the Winter Knight, born of Fey and fighting to hold onto his humanity; Karin played The Shade, who could speak the ghost of Andrew Carnegie; Ami played Feeback, an alien made of music who could take on the form of Jimi Hendrix; Kay played Refraction, a woman who lost most of her memories in the accident that turned her into a living hologram. Together they faced Upload, a robot from the future who was trying to force human society up to where future history said it ought to be, using things like nanobots to install mandatory upgrades in people. We had some great images like a dragon melting the snow off a blizzard-choked roadway to clear a path for ambulances, medical equipment exploding due to supernatural interference, living hologram destroying the evil nanotech disguised inside of charity blankets, and a fey knight cutting the tongue off a building-sized dragon.

Oh, and I also sold some actual, physical copies of With Great Power. Which made me very happy, and I hope will make all who bought it happy, too. Anyone who bought the game at Dreamation can contact my Gmail account (stalwartip) to get the electronic edition at no additional charge. The game and the origin cards will be available for order by the end of the month.

There is never enough time to see everyone I want to at Dreamation. I’m very glad for everyone I got to chat with, or game with, or even smile at in the hall. Thank you for a wonderful weekend.

DEXCON 2015

DEXCON is one of my favorite conventions, I think it’s fair to say that this DEXCON was the best yet! Vinny, Avie, and the entire Double Exposure staff always put on a great show and go above and beyond to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, I came home with a bit of a cold, so my thoughts are a bit more scattered than usual. Also, apologies to anyone I hugged yesterday. Here’s what I played.

THURSDAY
9AM: Companions Tale with Adrian, Bruce, Kirk and Daniel.
–This is the game I’m editing for Laura. It’s at the point where we’re testing that the text actually says what it needs to say. I simply explained the premise of the game, laid out the materials, and sat back taking notes while my awesome players taught themselves the game. It was very insightful, as well as fun and entertaining. There were definite problems identified and the game will be stronger for it! Plus, we told a story of the red-haired hero who founded a new citadel and faced armies of zombies and diverted rivers of hallucinigenic joy-juice.

2PM: Lady Blackbird with Adrian, Rich, Lilith, and Candace, with Markus GMing.
–Lady Blackbird delivered fun character play, as always. I’ve GMed for Markus before, so I knew we were in good hands there. Plus, Rich, Lilith and Adrian are some of my absolute favorite people to play with! Plus, Candance hadn’t played a tabletop RPG in the better part of a decade, but really brought the fun! Adrian had never played LB before, but he is one of the funniest people I know. I handed him Snargle and said “This character was written for you.” I was not wrong.
–I pushed the boundaries of bad playerhood in that game, but I think it worked out okay. I was playing Lady Blackbird, and I tried to play her as a slightly more arrogant Princess Leia from A New Hope. I tried to make her a take-no-crap, if somewhat shrill, entitled woman throughout. Near the end, I revealed that she was running to Uriah Flint because she thought he would use his pirate fleet to fight her oppressive father, the slave-lord. Markus was playing up the angle of Uriah Flint being a terrible womanizer who didn’t even remember me. In the scene where she finally meets Flint, I turned her into a spineless, simpering, lovesick moron who offered her father’s fortune and implied sexual favors for a moment alone with Flint. The reaction of disgust on the faces of everyone at the table was extreme, and rightly so. I was nervous. I pushed on quickly to assert that in the next scene “All that lovesick mooning is just cover so I can get close enough to magically mind-control him so I can use his pirate fleets to fight to free the slaves.” Everyone was cheered, but I’m not sure if I should have tipped my hand earlier.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Rebecca, Ben, Jeff, Sweeney and Jim Crocker.
–I posted about this earlier, the game was as metal as anything. It had dismemberment, disembowlment, patricide, soul-sacrifice, and even the conception of a new life. I’m glad I got to run Sorcerer for so many who hadn’t played it before. Plus, Sorcerer had never quite clicked for me before. I think that I never quite understood how large a part Color and Situation played in the game, since I was overly focused on System at the time. But I’ve learned a lot more about how to “read the fiction” in the intervening decade. Perhaps there’s a role for me a revivalist of older games.
–My players were awesome! They gave me a round of applause afterward, but they really should have (and were) applauding each other. They really brought to life the characters and their grand, eloquent desires.

FRIDAY
9AM: With Great Power with Mel, Bill, and Bruce.
–A dream table, and a great session. My latest round of tweaks were fruitful and the game is singing now! It draws on the creative wells of players’ internalized superheroic narratives and helps them spew forth in four-color glory. I love it.
–They made a psychic, Doctor Id, and two magical characters: Mister Mystic who could manifest “solid thought” and worked for an other-dimensional arcane Library; and Argent who had been imbued with the powers of the Light Fantastic to battle evil. They faced off against Duke Diablo, who wanted to purge the world of its regrets, permanently. We had earthquakes, demolished buildings, tenure review boards, the battle of paired ancient amulets of power, the clearing of steam over where the heroes should have died but stood to face the villain. Gobs of fun!

2PM: Kagematsu with Blair, Kirk, Jim, Kat and Melissa GMing.
–The regency romance angle was awesome. Kat’s been working on a Jane Austen-esque game for a while, so I’m really glad she got to play this. The mix of desperation and desire seemed a perfect fit for the Kagematsu framework. And Melissa made it look so easy.
–I found myself in an authority figure role, again. Our house had no male heir, and also needed to woo a faerie lord to shore up the bloodline. I was the eldest sister, who had been married for a day before her lying husband had shipped out with the Royal Navy and been promptly killed by the French, taking my reputation and hope for the future with him to a watery grave.
–Learning from my last game, I min/maxed the stats 6/1, probably should have gone all the way to 7/1. My character, Honora, was all charm. She ended up marrying Lord Weymouth, even though it was Blair’s innocent Helena who secured the promise on my behalf.
–I managed “a roll in the hay” Even though it was explicitly set up as a regency romance—and I’ve typeset enough of them to know what that entails—I was still uncomfortable introducing sexual content, concerned that I would step across the line of good taste. The table was very supportive and I really, really enjoyed the game.

8PM: Dictionary of Mu with Daniel, Mel, Jurgen, and Neal.
–This session (also posted earlier) was just as metal, a bit more time for development of the characters, as there were only four players rather than five. This one had ritual combat, intentional disfigurement, flying ark powered by blood, and the killing of the concept of kingship itself and binding it as a new demon.
–Sorcerer works best when the Color and Situation are first and foremost, with System supporting and giving them teeth. I never fully understood that until after MCing Monsterhearts.

SATURDAY
9AM: Companions Tale folded for lack of players. There was an embarassment of riches on Saturday. Instead, I played Fiasco with Phredd, John, and Jon.
–Fiasco has always been a mediocre game for me, but this session was thoroughly fun, as I got to play “off-kilter” but not “crazy.”
–The playset was “Shovelbums,” which is slang for “archeologists” and based on Phredd’s real-life experiences as an archeologist. It was a great setup, with petty people focused on pride, greed, lust, ambition—basically everything but the preservation of the artifacts of the past.

2PM: Five Kingdoms with Bill, Nina, Xander and Dave GMing
–Dave Petroski is working on this “Kingdom versus kingdom FATE game” for a little while now. I admit that I’m stalking this game for selfish purpose, as I have an idea in a similar space.
–The version I played at Dreamation version was interesting. This version was fun, but it could be much moreso. Dave’s on a good path. The role of the fiction and the cultural character of kingdoms is a sticky point. It can very easily be overwhelmed by the currency-driven light board-wargame that the map portion teeters on the edge of. Maybe something can be done so that certain milestones are easier for different cultures to acheive, or give them extra benefits, or something? I don’t know quite how to fix it, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the state of this at Metatopia.

8PM: Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine with Ami, Karin, Brian and MP O’Sullivan HGing.
–Anecdote: I come to the room, and Mike has already put out tea and cookies. The character sheets are sitting friendly and welcoming on the table. Mike asks me how my Sorceror game had gone. I refused to even mention the events of Mu in the room, lest I pop the bubble of “feel-good” that Mike had crafted.
–I didn’ know what to expect other than “Jenna Moran does Studio Ghibli.” I was plesantly surprised! It was a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating game with no conflict, just exploration. Definitely looking forward to picking it up.
–We had a pick-up soccer game with monster children; the friendly spirits of rain clouds and too-long, too-thin cat-like beings; the wish-granting engine dropping a plastic egg; an excellently-handled flashforward/flashback use of the wish itself; the perfect memory of our high-school friendship that we would treasure in our hearts forever; the one night in all the year when the stars were visible, with the lights dimming all across the city and everyone gazing up at the sky, with my character looking down, seeing the stars reflected in the puddles of spirit world; and an end-credits montage of our friendship persevering throughout our lives.

SUNDAY
10AM: With Great Power with Brian, Russell, Sarah, Rachel and Kat.
–Interesting test with having two people at the table who “didn’t really like superheroes.” The game took longer to pop, but pop it did, which was gratifying. I actually lay the blame for that more on having _five_ players (even though they were five excellent players), and the meat locker-like conditions of the gaming rooms.
–We had a much more diverse team, with the Timekeeper being able to freeze time in limited spaces, but at the cost of time from his own life; Lady Facsination who had glasses that could see the future, so she could avoid trouble; The Amazing Abra, a teenage wizard who had a dead, evil wizard trapped in his closet; Mindseye, a runaway space princess who could read and manipulate thoughts; and Purple Haze, who could absorb and expel different types of energy. They faced off against Temper, a blind efficiency expert who had been empowered by the far-future descendents of humanity to cut out the weakness from human civilization. She was trying to trigger a meltdown in a nuclear power plant so that the crisis would prompt greater safety and efficiency standards.
–We saw a burglary stopped before it started; the key that connects all doors; the most clever use of an Internet fanbase of a fictional time-travel TV show; the worst examples of over-sharing while having a round of drinks with the coworkers; twenty-something love triangles!; evacuating a speeding car in the last half-second before it crashes and explodes; power station safety hardware flipped so that every procedure produced the wrong result; the heat and radiation of a nuclear meltdown safely absorbed; the day saved!

What a great con. Thanks to everyone with whom I shared a game, a meal, or a chat!

#WithGreatPlay

Rereading Dictionary of Mu

I’m rereading +Judd Karlman’s Dictionary of Mu. I can probably count on my fingers the RPG setting books I actually like, and this one stands head and shoulders above them all.

At its root, I’d say the best thing about the Dictionary is that it has a point, and it drives that point home like an obsidian blade to the heart. The setting is about something, and it uses every trick at its disposal to get your players to engage with those core themes: “How does the past constrain the future?” “We may not choose how we find the world, but by our actions, we choose how we leave it.” “What is the point of hope in a flawed world?”

The writing is more enthralling than anything called a “dictionary” has a right to be. Oghma, son of Oghma, has not just one voice, but several. He is the devoted scribe dutifully cataloging the world of Marr’d as he finds it. He is also the incisive and judgmental critic who comments on the proceedings in the margins. He is also a self-deprecating, world-weary soul who must have seen every dream slaughtered before his eyes, except that his words might spark the hope of a better world.

The book overflows with mood, and attitude, and abundant grist for the plot mill. It deftly avoids metaplot through the alphabetical organization, and the fact that every major NPC is a potential PC. Everyone has their own story—no one is too big, or too small, to be the protagonist of their own tale. I’d like a lot more setting books if just that single innovation were to spread like the powerful, infected blood of the Jarl of Spiders. When the future of the red planet is in the hands of your players, how can they help but engage with its themes?

I should point out that the dictionary itself is made into a living document. The setting-specific rules require that as play continues, the players must write new entries for the dictionary, merging the stories they spark at the table with the very verses that inspired it.

The breadth of influence is another tactic used to draw players to engage with the premise. Among planets, only Earth has a longer bibliography, and the dictionary draws on a stunning amount of it. Burroughs’ Barsoom is just the beginning. Tidbits are pulled from scientific facts, David Bowie songs, the stories of the Bible, mythologized history of Genghis Khan, rumors of ancient Egyptian astronauts, and more. And yet, all of it is presented with a spin—the proper twist to make it fit in the brutal, desparate, dying world of Marr’d. And that spin is part of the whole point of the thing. Because if some guy named Judd can take the Bible and spin it into this blood-pumping, heavy metal album cover, sword-and-sorcery explosion, then how can you and your players shrink from the challenge of putting your own spin on Marr’d? It’s your story. Go play it.

I can’t stop writing about the genius of this book without mentioning how it looks. The illustrations by +Jennifer Rogers and the layout by +Luke Crane are phenomenal. We often hear about how pictures can tell a story, and so rarely do we see it in RPG books. No one poses on Marr’d. Every drawing looks like it was lifted from a pulp magazine, illustrating a scene in a developing short story. Characters are defined by action, urging the players to follow suit.

Distressed layout is hard. I typeset books for a living and I can’t imagine laying out this beast. The background texture is vivid enough to make it look like it was actually dug from the crimson sands, while still being light enough to avoid obscuring any text. The fonts are easily read, but full of character. Oghma’s scrawl is always at odd angles. This works together with the rule about writing your own dictionary entries. They will look like they belong in the book, because they do—it has already been scribbled in!

Books this good cannot be complimented enough.

Ten Favorite Game Mechanics #8 – Demon Creation from Sorcerer

Hey all, LiveJournal’s advertising is starting to get very intrusive. That coupled with the exodus of several friends has me thinking about moving my blog. Just a heads-up. Further updates as events warrant.

And now, on with the show!

#8 – Demon Creation from Sorcerer

“Is your game balanced?” is a question you hear a lot. The question can mean a lot of things, but a decade ago it was often a nice way of saying, “Does your game give the players enough power to feel cool, without letting them screw up the GM’s story?” Sorcerer throws that all out the window.

You want a demon that can help you in a fight? Fine. You want one that can help you impress the ladies? Not a problem. You want one that can teleport you halfway around the world and walk through walls and spy on anyone you’ve ever met? No sweat. You want one demon to do all of that and more? Now we’re cookin’ with gas!

By simply saying that there is no upper limit to the number of special abilities a demon can have–and therefore no upper limit on its Power score–Sorcerer murders the sacrosanct notion of “game balance” and uses its corpse to perform game design magic. The player is faced with the same dilemma their character faces: They can write a demon that can do anything they want. The game won’t cripple their creation with nickel-and-dime disadvantages. The game won’t hold them back because they are just a starting character. The game won’t safely corrall them away from affecting the GM’s story.

The only thing standing between you and power are the consequences that power brings with it. And your fear of those consequences.

How does Sorcerer pull this off so elegantly? Three main parts: 1) The aforementioned “no upper limit” coupled with the fact that the demon’s Power is at minimum one higher than its number of special abilities. Simply, elegantly, this means that more powerful demons are MORE POWERFUL DEMONS! And the interplay of Power with the other scores during the sorcerous rituals means “more powerful” = “more likely to have the upper hand.” Consequences are hard-wired into the system.

2) Giving all the supernatural power to an independent entity outside the PC–an entity that has its own needs and desires–forces the player to interact with the GM every time he wants something done. The demon’s Need must be fed, and the GM is encouraged to demand it frequently. The things that the demons wants and demands are not pretty, and the player must deal with the impact this thing he has summoned makes upon the world. Consequences are hard-wired into the situation.

3) Changing the job of the GM from “telling the story” to “throwing Bangs” allows the events of the game to traverse where ever they need to in order to showcase the consequences of player action. Add to this the ability that the GM has to rewrite parts of a demon during a failed Contacting role, and you have a recipe for twists and surprises along the path to answering that central question: “How far will you go to get what you want?”

Up next: There may be no “I” in team, but there are strikers!

Why does Mu have no name list?

So I’m just starting up a Dictionary of Mu game over IRC, and in guiding my players through charcter creation, I want to give them examples of names to use. So I flip through the book, and there’s TONS of place-names, and approx. 3 people-names. IIRC, there’s the omnipresent Oghma son of Oghma, Nimrote, the Tsarina of the Nines, and a demon in the “A” section. Everyone else has titles: “The Primite Prince” “The Damsel Messiah” “The Kid with the Rock” “The Jarl of Spiders”

Should I just tell my players to make titles? Or just choose whatever names float their boat and go from there?