Monday, June 11, 2012

Monthly wrap-up for May

I’m being sort-of-busy, but I want to keep posting monthly updates about my role-playing experiences. Here you are, then: May 2012.

Long live the Kingdom

My biggest thing last month, in terms of effort and learning, was playtesting Kingdom, an interesting game in development by Ben Robbins (of Microscope fame). I played two one-shot, three-people sessions, one with Barbara and Alessio and the other with Barbara and Simone. I don’t really feel like describing the game at length, in the current stage, but I do recommend you join in for the next round of playtesting – whenever it might be – if you’re even remotely interested in politics as a topic for role-playing games. It’s a clever, novel design, using only the most basic of tried-and-tested building blocks, never trying to fit its in little-explored subject-matter through ill-fitting holes shaped like familiar techniques but rather carefully thinking its approach from the ground up. Reading the text got me pretty excited. In pratice, it didn’t play as smooth as I hoped it would: some subsystems are prone to cause stumbling or player fatigue, but those have been clearly identified are being redesigned – thus, my expectations for this game are very high.
As for the fictional milieu of our playtest sessions, for some reason we went twice for XIX Century settings: Carbonari in the 1820s and then railroad construction in the Wild West. While the Italian setting was the most intriguing one at first, I noticed that the western one made for more successful play, probably because we were significantly less concerned with historical accuracy, while having a huge background of previous fiction to work from (vis-a-vis a seriously underrepresented subject). I don’t think the issue is related to any particular feature of Kingdom, in other words: it would have been the same with almost any role-playing game.
A personal-level consequence of playtesting Kingdom, and then discussing aspects of it with Barbara, were some important realizations about the rules and practices of scene-framing, its toll on players and its relationship with protagonism and antagonism: I feel like I’m now getting to properly articulate some very fundamental issues I’ve been struggling with in play and tackling, somewhat unconsciously, with design (the newest and yet unreleased draft of Eden especially).

Big in the Alps

Last month as well wasn’t without a gaming convention. I was at GiocaTrento (in Trento, duh!) where – with Patrick, Erik and Jessica – I was basically in charge of the “indie RPGs” corner. I got there with a huge bag full of rpg books, which I pooled with the ones my local friends brought so that we were able to set up a table covered in indie-game-stuff: alluring covers, rough and curiosity- arousing home-bound booklets, assorted items (including a sheathed dagger for playing Mist-Robed Gate). The purpose being, of course, to make our games visible (despite the games themselves being actually intangible) and to have people ask us about them. Turns out we had it easy…
On Saturday afternoon, a chap named Alan, with whom I’d played a game of Fiasco at another meet-up months ago, voiced such an enthusiastic excitement about that game that in a second he gathered three more friends and we played 5-players Fiasco. It was a good Fiasco session, to boot! Somehow we ended up playing the wedding playset from the The Fiasco Companion using the standard Tilt and Aftermath tables (as opposed to the “soft” tables from that same book) and we got some pretty good, if crazily over-the-top, dark comedy out of it – with a healthy amount of sexy to boot. Good thing we were playing outdoors, or we’d have laughed the convention hall down! Thanks Arte, Riccardo, Vincenzo and of course Alan – I hope I got all of your names right.
On Sunday afternoon, Gaia, a girl from the convention crew, came to me holding my own It’s Complicated booklet and demanded we play that game – on the reception desk with another crew-member friend of hers, since they were both on duty. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. By pitching it to some more friends old and new, we assembled a huge seven people party to play the game. Thanks Gaia, Francesca, Gabriele the Incompetent Diplomat, Jackvice & his lovely lady and – what was your name, cute Polish girl? Seven-players It’s Complicated, yes. It would have worked, even, if not for the large number of interruptions due to, you know, playing this game at the reception table (in the end, we had to give up and cut the game short, sadly). We aimed for surreal situation-comedy, got some really crazy, cheesy over-the-top surreal comedy, and it wasn’t half bad. The bottom line, though, is that It’s Complicated really is a difficult game, in terms of – as my friend Carlo Rebagliati would probably say it – “keeping the fiction together” (la tenuta della storia, is something he’s always talking about), and that I’m now aching for a chance to play a really low-key game of it at last, with everybody really focused on exploring plausible human relationships and avoiding blatant absurdities. It will probably have to be a 3 or 4-players game (like my most successful ones to date actually have been).
In the mornings and the evenings (thanks to Patrick & Jessica, who hosted the night games at their place) I had the chance to try out a few new games myself. Boardgames aside (not usually my thing, but the ones we picked were “light” enough for me to enjoy and I had a good time), I played Vincent Baker’s Murderous Ghosts (in both roles) and Ben Robbins’s Microscope – two rpgs I had only heard about, and are now on my “must buy the books ASAP” list. I especially liked the potential for quick and fast play (though Microscope could also go on indefinitely if desired, of course).
Big heartfelt thanks go to Erik and his family, who hosted me.

A desert death-god was slain on the road to the City of Salt

This should be filed under June, actually, but what the fuck. I kicked off the month by playing Simon Carryer’s On Mighty Thews. My friend Tazio having had a sudden resurgence of excitation about that game, I offered to host a session, and was elected “GM” as a default; our friend Mario joined us in the game (and Paolo aka “Serenello” wished he could, but larger and meaner happenstances held him back).
Now, I’ve been playtesting – or, rather, successfully playing – On Mighty Thews since its first public alpha draft years ago, trying all iterations of it since then (I am, in other words, an OMT grognard who frequently confuses current rules with the ones from previous editions), and I still learn fine lessons from it. Or at least about it. I had, for example, the confirmation that three (GM +2 PCs) is the best number of players for this game – I’m now wary to ever do a foursome again, and curious to try a 1-vs-1 for a change.
The newest addition, I believe, to OMT are the Lore Roll rules. Man! In this run (the best one I’ve had using the “final” OMT rules) we really played the hell out of those, and did they pay off! By this, I don’t mean we overused them, either: au contraire, we learned that it’s moderation which brings the highest payouts – picking your Lore Roll targets carefully and sparingly, focusing on those things which really captivate you, maybe 1-2 per scene. Kudos to Mario for, basically, pacing Lore Rolls, and also for volunteering to take notes: he really showed me how Lore is OMT’s killer app! Tazio, otoh, very effectively used one such roll to make the adventure relevant to his own character, and not in the most obvious way. Good stuff.
Another relatively new addition (dating back, I think, to the last pre-final draft maybe?) is the use of a collectively drawn map. I love it because it’s fun on its own merit and it also ties in nicely with the Lore, providing a backdrop against which to hang those tidbits of information, acting as a springboard for ideas or, in retrospect, foreshadowing elements which may be (re-)incorporated. The downside is that since there are maps my OMT sessions have been lasting much longer, on average! While one could, theoretically, still do very short and to-the-point games confined in a single location, having a map on the table (no matter that how small an area it portrays) is a disincentive to that, and an incentive instead to go see some more views. Unfortunately, it’s not a good thing for an OMT game to drag out for too long: the rules are not designed for slow buildup towards a climax, but rather for abrupt, unconventional cuts, af befits their primary source materials. Draw as intricate a map as you wish, thus, but then exercise some restraint and try to keep your game confined to a couple locations, using the other ones as Lore backdrop only.
I also have a feeling that Lore and maps conspire to make long-term play an interesting possibility! To do so, I propose, one would aim for the episodic, for loosely connected short-stories woven against the common ground of an ever expanding, but never complete, tapestry – a method reminiscent of In a Wicked Age and Remember Tomorrow. I propose that to achieve this one could:
  • keep notes aplenty, especially all of the Lore items;
  • have everybody take turns at being the GM for a session;
  • vary the cast of PCs and, ideally, the number of players from session to session;
  • sometimes re-use a character exactly as s/he was, sometimes rewrite an existing character sheet from scratch;
  • explore unused locations from old maps or make new maps at whim;
  • assume anything could happen during “downtime”; do not assume chapters happen in chronological order.
Finally, I was reminded of why being the GM in OMT is both hard and weird: you can’t plan. And I don’t mean, like, plan one scene ahead. You can’t fucking plan anything. You know how little an Apocalypse World MC has to plan ahead? Well, that’d be way, way too much.

The Ivory Lioness, god-slayer.
Character and art by Tazio Bettin.