Wednesday, February 20, 2019

It's not an Error, it's a Feature: My love of Rememorex's Tracking Error mechanic.

Saturday afternoon. Nine of my friends come in, and we start to play 7th Sea. It's my first time starting a long form tabletop campaign with this group, especially with 7th Sea. It was a short game, due to the size. Amongst my post game notes I have, underlined:


Tracking Errors were designed for the Omnisystem, debuting in Nerdy City's game ReMemorex. In a game of 80's horror in suburban land, tracking errors allowed players not in the scene the chance to effect it in indirect ways. This gave the game a sense of watching a found VHS tape and seeing weird distortions in the tape. It's been helpful considering that Sean Jaffe, the creator of ReMemorex, ran the game with more than a dozen players at one time in a West March style.

A helping hand, placing a shovel where a fleeing PC can use it to flee or bar a monster's path; A monkey wrench, used to give the PCs more of a challenge (within reason); a cameo, where the player takes on the role of an NPC in the scene; adding a detail to the scene to make it more sad/tragic/horrific/funny; or creating the greatest element of an 80's movie: a montage.

It's one of my favorite tools in gaming, right now. One of the bigger problems I see in games is that when players aren't in the scene, they lose interest. They lose interest, they start going off. They start going off, then it's hard to get them all back. It's why I hate combat in most games, why I hate splitting up the party. Time is precious and if half your game is spent staring at your phone looking at facebook, then you need to rethink your game.

By having a system like the tracking error, you decrease that. It makes being out of game part of the game.

One of the key facets of the tracking error is the ritual of using it. You grab a handful of dice (Ominsystem used six-sided dice, but there were always a handful of 20 or 10 sided just for the effect) and throw them on the table to declare. The dice and the numbers you get don't matter, the importance is the ritual of throwing the dice, breaking the fourth wall.

In general, everyone got one use of a Tracking Error per scene, otherwise there is nothing stopping someone from spamming its use. If you have a game system that has a number of meta-points to spend on certain effects, like Evil Hat's FATE Points or the Hero Points of 7th Sea, this adds an added element in the economy of your game. To use 7th Sea closely, Hero points are gained by doing things appropriate to the character and used to do BIG COOL THINGS and HELP OTHER CHARACTERS. I'm fairly even handed in giving them out and that makes SPENDING them a hell of a lot easier, especially since they may not get to do so if they aren't in the scene.

In short, by allowing people to do more stuff out of scene, they potentially buy in to doing more in scene because it nets them more points and the other players are more inclined to pay it back.

The Tracking Error is a simple solution to a persistent problem in gaming: keeping your player's focus on the table. You can't guarantee it, but you can make downtime become just another form of play. And that's a handy tool to have.

And I'm not afraid of my players getting confused with the new addition to the system. Most of them are Nerdy City and the Original ReMemorex players. But if you do start using something similar in your games. Let me know.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Telling the Story: Comparing and Contrasting Live Action and Table Top Role Play

At the beginning of the month I attended Metatopia, the annual game designer conference in New Jersey. At one of the panels I attended, we were discussing the development of Larp Rules (for the sake of fairness, while I have not signed a NDA, I am not saying the name of the rules for respect of privacy. Let the company release that info at their own time). I had some experience with larp rules based on tabletop mechanics, with my time playing and running in various New World of Darkness games like Requiem, Lost and Awakening. I also spent the last five years running the Dresden Files larp, which used rules similar to FATE Core.

What the session was, for me, was part of a larger conversation. Being friends with a plurality of game designers (slew? Cabal? Illuminati?) of multi media projects, and you begin to see and discuss the limits of each format you use. I've heard people taking a stand, siding with one or the other and I've heard others try to find a balance and a method to translate one to the other. This writing is my attempt, if it doesn't feel complete it's because I'm still processing and still listing my ideas. Expect more posts on this as we go on.

First of all, let us begin with what Table Top and Live Action role play games are. Shortly put, they are both collaborative story telling exercises. People gather and take on the roles of other characters to engage in scenarios often moderated in some way by someone known as a Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master (GM), Storyteller (ST) or some other title.

That's the gist. Now let's begin with how they differ. Going back to the Metatopia discussion, we were talking about how plots work differently within the two mediums. "Table Tops offer an exapansive experience while Live Action is about the focused event."

I'm going to use 7th Sea as an example of Table Top gaming, because I've been running it recently and it conveys a lot of what I'm looking for. You have a conspiracy between multiple nations spanning hundreds of miles and nautical leagues. You traverse the countryside, travel the seas, explore the vistas of the world around you.

This can be done in an entire session. Not that it should be, but it can. It can do this because the players (and GM) assembled have gathered together to share that experience at the same time. There isn't a lot in terms of physical setting, or plot, and the GM is the major source of what you are experiencing in the world. It's all one mass hallucination and half the fun is collaborating with each other in that experience.

With Live Action, everything is about that one single moment you are currently experiencing. Things follow a "What You See Is What You Get" method, even for events in a black box and have minimal set dressing. You are playing a character at the Vampire Court where the Prince is making his declarations and new members are being introduced and plots are being put in to place. You see the tables and chairs, the decorations, the darkened corners where plots and trysts and snide comments are made.

Things may have been done in the time between this meeting and the last, and will between this one and the next, but you aren't able to experience it all. You are someone experiencing the event, and while you may even have the ability to effect the event in some way, you will never see the entirety of it.

Live Action games are not unlike Event Planning. Having worked both, they take a lot of preparation before, during and after. One of the main things an event runner knows is that you can bring people to an experience, you cannot dictate the experience they will have. While you play the game, the agency you have during that time is more your own. You are able of telling a story with other players, of course, but the chances of you having that with everyone gets smaller the more people you have present.

For the tabletop, the setting and the plot are the things the players search out for. For the live action events, the setting and plot happens at the event for them to experience (or not, there are no guarantees). The tabletop's story isn't bounded by the physical location the story takes place, while the live action is. You can be in a sprawling campground or an abandoned town. You can't explore past those borders though in real life. The story is forced to come to you.

This makes live action events seem both spontaneous and expected. You never know what may show up, though you know at some point something will, somewhere, and someone will pick up on it. This also lends to a practice I've called "The Thrown Chair Policy" because nothing short of a riot will sometimes get a rise out of people if they don't want to engage and just sit at their table. Everyone at a tabletop event is aware of the plot, even if their characters aren't in the scene. Their ability to effect it is limited (in some games. Games like ReMemorex have mechanics to interact with a scene you aren't in). Tabletop characters seek out plot, not necessarily the GM's plot, but they seek it out. The Live Action awaits plot to come to them.

There are challenges to plot seeking in Live Action, Plot Hording and what I call "The Thrown Chair" policy. I've spoken about the latter a little bit in the past, I'll talk about both more in the future.

So, we've established that while Live Action and Tabletop gaming are a collaborative story telling element, how they tell stories is profoundly different. Tabletop games are expansive and deal in scope, not unlike movie cinematography. Live Action involves the immediate and focus on the moment as it is happening where it is happening, not unlike theater.

Can these two styles work together? Yes. I think they can, and there have been many attempts to make them work in the same space.

A good example was a game of Ex Arcana I experienced at GenCon a few years ago. Ex Arcana is primarily a larp by Nerdy City productions and focuses on the clashing of victorian magic traditions in a modern world as magic suddenly returns. We started the game at a table, being narrated our entry in to Indianapolis (we were all playing our characters from New York, and only the first time players started at the larp space). We got to interact with the world using the system (CHRONOS, which was card based) in ways we didn't usually and got to interact with the world differently. My character, Lin, is a social character, and while I used the cards to back up the roleplay in the live action, dropping the cards down felt more potent during those moments at the table.

In an example of the reverse, I've seen Live Action events that, when previously using mechanics, went roleplay only. The event worked better, seamlessly and people enjoyed it on a level we'd never seen before in the game.

I'm of the mind that the more mechanics you have in a live action game, the less effect you'll have. I've seen entire events ground to a halt when suddenly people were claiming major actions like fight scenes. That sort of slamming on the brakes at social events kills the energy of the group and is less likely to be regained. When a live action game suddenly grounds to a halt and becomes a tabletop is when things have an issue.

 Like the Ex Arcana example before, I've seen people get more and more in to their character where they can just 'roleplay it out' effectively making what they are doing an ad hoc larp. A friend of mine suggested that tabletops should be the main attraction while the larps are those special occasions you save for big events that change the landscape of what you're doing. I like that, and I agree with it to a degree.

I think that, with enough time and comfort and with every one on board, a tabletop has an easier time of incorporating elements of Live Action than the reverse. I think the best way a Live Action event can utilize what makes tabletop storytelling work in its system is to use it only when interacting with things outside of the event at hand. If you want to do something, or respond to something, that cannot be otherwise achieved while physically in the space, then is the time to go back to tabletop ethics. Doesn't have to be a straight up tabletop game, but the elements can remain.

To conclude, I think that Tabletop and Live Action gaming are two mediums that are intrinsically connected. They are stories that we tell to each other. How we go about doing them is how the two differ. There have been many attempts to combine the two, with varying degrees of success and failure over the years. The conversations about how work with the two has begun, and I look forward to what happens next.

I hope you enjoyed this. This post is by no means definitive or comprehensive, and not only do I welcome other opinions I actively am asking for them. I want to start the discussion, I want to see what we as players, designers, and runners, can come up with.

Thank you all.

I have a Patreon! In it you'll find various speculative fiction titles such as Bleed, a slice of life story of gamers and the roles they play; Do No Harm, a supernatural ER drama focusing on a burned out doctor tending to her figurative (and literal demons) during a bad exorcism; Bastard Children of Bastard Gods, a cyberpunk martial arts murder mystery where America is united under the most powerful corporations and only through fighting can one find freedom of expression; and many more! Support of patronage or signal boost is also welcome. I also have a Ko-Fi if you'd like to support

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: Archangel Frame

Edit: The first go of this apparently ate itself, so I have to make another run of it. Thanks Blogspot. I'll be looking to switch to Wordpress sooner than later.

Last week, I had the opportunity to play Archangel Frame, a new larp created by J. Harrison and Max Frost, and administrated by Edge of Forever Productions. It is ostensibly a theater larp played live on campgrounds and remotely through Discord. I played remotely, which was an experience in and of itself, but for the sake of this post I'll be talking about the AF experience exclusively.

Before we begin, time to cite some biases. Jae Harrison is a friend, housemate, and my coworker for the better part of the last decade. Max Frost has been a friend for only slightly less than that and I have been their Storyteller for Dresden the entire time. That being said, I would not be writing this post if I didn't think the game was good. There, biases cited.

Archangel Frame is a game about emotional and existential duress in a time of big robots fighting gigantic demonic machines. The game takes it cues from Big Robot series like Evangelion and The Big O.  Much of what makes the game, though, is the worldbuilding that we ran in to. The players are members of one of five nations under attack from the Ectics and their gigantic Devil Engines and fight them in the mysterious and titular Archangel Frames, gigantic angelic machines that are strangely aware and potentially sentient (?)

Beladyr: a kingdom of heroes gone to bloat from corruption and the cult of celebrity

Iorvenn: a former expansionist empire attempting to turn their supervillain powers to good

Jessabrasca: a scientifically advanced nation laid to waste by the Ectics

Patch Islands: an archipelago nation of warriors dedicated to fighting for noble (if hopeless) causes

Consensus: a hivemind of individuals connected by similar (if not the same) source as the Ectics

Each player assumes a role in Project Gabriel, and this is where the relatively light mechanics take place, all of them surrounding playing cards.

Pilots are at the forefront, using the playing cards they need to beat challenge numbers to succeed in their tasks, but at the cost of emotional or physical stress. They cannot generate these cards alone. Only the Admins can do that, under stress from the project leads themselves, Admins dispense cards (and stress) to the pilots as they see fit. Support roles can dispense card sleeves that mitigate the stress. Mayflies (think the characters of assault on titan, limited armor attacking gigantic monsters) support the pilots on scene, making guesses to the color, suit or number of a card. The more specific the guess, the better the reward with the risk being, at best, their life.

I played Oghma, a mysterious Consensus Administrator who served as a strategist for the remote team. One part tactical analysis, three parts The Question, Oghma supplied information to the teams while also dealing with investigating strange aspects of the project and some of the elements surrounding it. I was playing remotely, so I wasn't at the site of the game. Though I have seen photos of the piloting rig played during missions.

You would think, playing remotely at a larp, I would feel periphery. This was far from the truth. I had access to a website that displayed mission detail, including real time health of the Frames. I had files on the types of Devil Engines that players could fight with pages of details, and I had access to character and player dossiers to assess details and plan accordingly. I was apart of the experience, and the remote team saved the game at numerous turns.

Oghma doesn't have a costume. Oghma doesn't NEED a costume. 

What made the game were the characters involved. From the Consensus members nonverbally talking (thank you Facebook Messenger) to interacting with the terrifying Evil Queen Director Tristana (thank you Kiri for the amazing roleplay, its always lovely to know who to work off of). I played the game from 9am until I had to leave at 9pm, and I was upset I was leaving early and I hadn't even left my house. I had legitimate fun interacting with the remote team and the larping game, of having an influence on both

The highlight of the game is the community that built around it. Much of the game's player base comes from The Edge of Forever games like Doomsday and Planebreak, of which Jae and Max are members of. These are people who tend to bring their A game and go for broke on their decisions. I've gotten to interact with them peripherally, and finally getting to work with them was a thrill.

Larping, for me, is always a game of playing off of other people. I'll change my character to better suit the feeling. Oghma was going to be terse, and mysterious, he came off more as inquisitive and just better at being non-verbal. The game demanded to be more active, and I'm grateful for that.

On a personal note, I had been burned out on larping for a while, more as a gamerunner than as a player. Largely that was because I was running games more than playing them. Archangel Frame was the first time in a long time where I entered a game as a straight up player, having done no build for the game itself. I got to play, and I loved this game and the community forming around it. I look forward to the next game, whenever that may be.

Thank you.

I have a Patreon! In it is my serial fiction, such as the gamer slice of life series "Bleed", street magic 'Letters to Maggie', cyberpunk martial arts 'Bastard Children of Bastard Gods' and supernatural ER drama "Do No Harm". Any support for the Patreon keeps me honest and writing constantly, and keeps the 'penniless' out of 'penniless' writer. Supporters get rewards such as access to live readings, podcasts, and cameos in future stories. Thanks.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

How "Playing To Win" Can Work

This essay is in direct response to Ericka Skirpan's article about how the concept of 'Playing to Win' in LARP is not larping. Ericka defines using Matthew Webb's concept of Nerdball, to put succinctly "an antagonistic and competitive angry killer bee mutation of long-form campaign larps" This article has brought about a small amount of controversy and discussion, and Ericka has asked for people to respond and come up with ideas about how 'Playing to Win' can work. This is my response.

I'm going to site my biases. First of all, I am on record since day one that I am a narrativist gamer by default and will adhere to telling a story more than winning any kind of prize at the end. Was the story fun? Yes? Good! Here are the thoughts

So one of the things I've noticed in the conversations post-article was that people are confusing the notion of competitive play versus 'playing to win'. Goal-driven role play is a valid thing, and I have some tips on how to enhance that later on in the article. What is being talked about, in the end, is Antagonistic Gaming.  Competitive/Goal-Driven role play is where the characters are achieving some sort of endgame, Antagonistic Gaming is when the players have an agenda and are playing against the other players and the ST/GM.

Larps work because they are collective experiences. There can be different styles of telling a story, but you are still all telling it together. You can have conflicting goals, and still tell a great story. In fact, some of my best and most intense moments in gaming were when my characters were at odds with other characters. My worst experiences is when I as a player have had to butt heads with other players or GMs, and that's usually because the individual was working for their own benefit and not for any of the other players.

 And note that I am consistently referring to the player and the character as separate entities in that last paragraph. One of the keys to making competitive play work is realizing that you are not your character and the other players aren't theirs either. You can all be shitty vampire lords backstabbing each other for the praxis of the blood drenched streets, but you as players shouldn't.

There is a saying that I have when teaching stage combat: The person on stage with you isn't your opponent, they are your partner. You might be playing bitter rivals, and you may be giving off the impression that you're trying to murder each other in an epic battle for control/dominance/revenge/etc, but you as players are in on this whole thing together.

And I see Competitive Role Play in terms of stage combat. You're engaged with people that want to be in that scene with you. Explicitly. Games are beginning to introduce badges or subtle-but-clear signs indicating if people are for Character vs Character conflict. Do not assume everyone there is down to play the same way you are. It's easier in a room full of a dozen people, that gets harder in a room full of seven dozen, and forget any assumptions when a game ends up in the triple digits. Know who is down for this kind of play.

Now that you know who your like minded players are, start talking to them. Talk about what your goals and styles are, exchange some notes. Stage Combat is all about developing a relationship with your partner, to get a feel for their rhythm or vice versa, otherwise everything looks clunky and people can end up getting hurt in real life. Keep an open channel going with each other from beginning to end of the competition. Calibrate yourselves to get the best effect for both/all of you involved. Know what works for each other and what doesn't, what actions are good and what are pushing it and keep adjusting so that it keeps the action going without causing out of character strife. The goal of a good fight is to make both performers look good win, lose, or draw.

And keep this channel of dialogue completely out of character. Your characters can hate one another, you folks are talking about tea or sports or whatever.

Some people may ask 'What about my Immersion'. I've been in scenes where I've discussed what is cool and what isn't with players I've been in antagonistic relationships with beforehand. Immersion is being in a scene with someone you trust and know where you stand with. It's trusting yourself to react as your character, to do That Thing, and knowing that you have ways and means of discussing it. You need to trust your partner. Accidents happen, as the several split lips in my life have taught me, but these were with people I trusted and kept working with because I spoke to them.

Basically, I'm talking about Bleed management. Not negating it, but addressing it. There can be moments of intensity where you need to ask for some backing down for a time. Again, calibrate your strikes so that it looks impressive against the character, but not your partner(s). There can be banter, there can be interplay. There have been nights of playing cards or Tak or whatever where I will utter the occasional "You bitch!" when my opponent does something clever (which is often) but it allows it to be playful.

Keeping that channel open, having that working relationship, will help when the inevitable denouement happens. It's the difference between "Good Game" and "Go Fuck Yourself", it also allows for the best response to losing "I'll get you next time!"

Another reason I like to look to Stage Combat for this is because Role Play is the one time where you are both performer and audience member. You are performing for yourself and for those around you. This should be fun and entertaining and not just two people being shitty to one another.

And in stage combat, we have gotten some Antagonistic Players as well. These are people who don't listen to their partners, don't calibrate, and strike as they see fit. These performers are seen as unsafe, and after a while no one wants to work with them. The same should be true in role play. They can come back when they prove they can work with other players. That's not gatekeeping, that's just safe practice.

I hope this has helped people, and I look forward to comments.

I have a Patreon, focused on my serialized fiction and essays. One of my series, Bleed, focuses on the lives of role players both in and out of game. It is released to the public monthly, and patrons receive early and immediate access. If you like what you read here, please consider supporting. That'd be cool of you.

Monday, July 30, 2018

"Shine on Circus Man": A look at Death and Critical Role

As many of you know I'm a big fan of Critical Role, the long running DnD let's play stream. Each thursday, a group of nerdy-ass voice actors got together and played Dungeons and Dragons. Currently, they are in their second Campaign. And in the past several episodes, suffered the first permanent death of one of the Player Characters. A lot has happened that I want to wrap my head around, and this post is my attempt to do so.

Spoilers abound after this. You've been warned.

Episode 26 of the new campaign saw the death of Mollymauk Tealeaf, the Tiefling Blood Hunter (a special class created by DM Matt Mercer), was killed in combat by the slaver Lorenzo as one half of the party was trying to liberate the other half from the slave cages. Molly's death is the first non-plot related death in Critical Role, the first to die on screen from battle wounds.

I remember watching the combat unfold live, and watching the community promptly and expectantly lose composure. And I wanted to break down and unwrap a few thoughts. Almost immediately, people were calling for rules questions and getting angry at Matt the DM and the guest player Ashly Burch. A lot of rage and denial got thrown out at them, which is uncalled for.

Here are a few things I noticed during the episode. The first: the slavers were originally placed under a slow spell, and one of them dispelled it. People immediately cried foul that Matt fudged with the rules. He didn't, and he cited the actual rule. You can dispel a person, creature, or effect within range. Matt cited and openly declared against the Slowed effect. He was within the rules.

Second, many people gave Ashly Burch, the guest character, a hard time for her character freezing up and purposefully giving herself disadvantageous rolls throughout the combat scene. It's a roleplaying game, she played the character's reactions. Liam would often do similar as Caleb and as Vax. Ashly is guilty of good roleplay.

Third, there were a lot of clues thrown that the fight was outclassed. Keg's (Ashly's PC) intelligence on the slavers was wrong. I have a lot of opinions on information gathering, and one of them is that information SHOULD be wrong at times. They were not all the same class, there were more of them than expected. The leader, Lorenzo, was using abilities that placed him at a far higher class than the PCs (or was not playing a standard human character which was implied in later episodes).

By the time of Molly's death, Matt was all but screaming at them without breaking the scene to concede the fight. DnD makes it really easy for people not to concede a fight. Some systems do, like 7th Sea or Fate Core. With Keg conceding, Ashly most likely averted a potential Total Party Kill.

Four, there were a lot of bad rolls made by the players. Nature of gaming. Matt is not the type of DM to ignore bad rolls.

Finally, death is a very real risk to Blood Hunters. Their powers derive from their Hit Points. Molly was knocked unconscious not by the attack, but by using his powers. The leader of the antagonist group is right over him, weapon in hand. Cages were full, and Lorenzo decided to make an example of Molly. Taliesin Jaffe, Molly's player, was the first to immediately call out that his powers would knock him out. He didn't recant it. He knew what Molly would do and knew that it would cost him that. He narrated his death, spitting blood at Lorenzo and never closing his eyes.

Death is on the table in a role-playing game like DnD. Death happens. If it didn't happen, what's the point of combat scenes? PCs are not immortal, and you know its time to wrap up the campaign when the party starts to think like that. Death happens, and there are many different ways to mitigate that. None of which were present at the time of the game. And with Matt's DnD games, Death is not always a matter of having a Cleric and a few diamonds on hand to make death cheap. Each time someone is brought back is more difficult with the costs raising or the ritual having to be more elaborate. Death is not a slap on the wrist, its a moment to decide the fate of the game.

Of course, a lot of this all came to me after the fact. Watching the game live was exhausting and shocking and the very nature of gaming. If the cast and crew of Critical Role ever feel like they don't have an immersed audience, the sheer amount of emotion pouring out for Molly-both good and bad-should show that they have an audience with them every step of the way.

The problem with that is, that audience isn't used to death being doing so suddenly. I think people forget some times that these Let's Plays are, by and large, unscripted save for the DM's plots and even then he's improving. Especially in a game where death has been relatively light and everything is kept in a cinematic narrative, its never been felt that Death is present. But there it is.

After Molly's death, I did some thinking, and maybe even a little bit of grieving. Taliesin Jaffe is the player I'd want to be in games. The one who rolls with things and changes it up, who gives his GMs enough backstory to give him something to come up later while leaving so many holes to be opened. He embodies his characters, from Percy's Traumatic Stress to Molly's blase' swish. I began to think of the positive things this had for the narrative of the whole game.

For starters, the campaign needed an on-the-ground Villain. The current setting is set at the dawn of war between two Empires. Which is great, but the players are running low-levelled no ones for now. So most of their quests have been jobs they've landed themselves during the time with the War being the backdrop. There has been no external factor that we know of trying to push the event. Lorenzo gave us that, here we have a dangerous villain who has proven to be the most dangerous physical presence in the game. With his murder of Molly, he has become the most hated character since Ripley (my favorite villain from the previous campaign) by both fans and players. This is good, having an immediate threat and focus is good. Otherwise it just gives the PCs some aimless goals until Something Else Happens. Now they are pushing forward on a task with more than avarice in mind.

Another reason is for character development. The party was already on the road to becoming more than just a band of adventurers working together for fun and profit. We were getting that in the later episodes with the raising of the Kenku child and their adventures in the party city of Hupperdook. They were getting to know each other and like each other, and let down their hair around each other long enough for foibles to be set aside. Molly's death, sadly, has become a glue to keep them all united. Beau and Caleb both seemed to resolve themselves to being better, or at least begin to acknowledge that they aren't and can't be as big a pair of assholes as they thought they were.

Also, to put it bluntly, Molly's death has made them cautious and set the tension at the game high. For story purposes this makes sense. Now, who knows what could happen? It's made the setting less formulaic and less complacent. Stephen King did something similar in The Stand. All he had to do was plant a bomb and decide who survived. The difference of course being that the bomb was planned but Molly's death wasn't. Sometimes, tragedy makes things move.

And roleplay is all about seeing the characters react. Watching the party, what left of it remains, grieve over Molly's body and perform an ad hoc funeral is painful in all the right ways to watch. But nothing more painful and beautiful to watch than to meet Taliesin's new character: the firbolg cleric Caduceus. He's of the Grave Domain, and sees death as a natural part of life. And while there have already been overtures both in game and the fandom to use his Cleric to bring back Molly, I think Clay's very presence tells you why this isn't going to happen: Death is part of the game. We fight liches in this world.

I look forward to seeing what the crew of Critical Role will come up with next. And of course, is it Thursday yet?

I have a Patreon, focused on my serialized fiction. One of my series, Bleed, focuses on the lives of role players both in and out of game. It is released to the public monthly, and patrons receive early and immediate access. If you like what you read here, please consider supporting. That'd be cool of you.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Critical Role

By the end of the week I'm writing this article, I will be caught up and up to date on the backlog of Critical Role, the world famous DnD let's play campaign. Run by Voice Actor Matt Mercer and casted by several of his friends and family members (all voice actors themselves) the series run two campaigns that, as of this writing, would take eight and half days non-stop to listen to. It is worth every minute. It airs every thursday night on Twitch and Youtube on the Geek and Sundry channel.

I had heard about it largely through word of mouth by friends. But I wasn't really interested in it because it was DnD. I've played a grand total of three sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. Not campaigns, singular sessions. My impression of the game had been...underwhelming to say the least, though most of it can be chalked up to lack of group synergy.  I'd heard of Critical Role over the years, hard to do so as a fan of cartoons, animes and video games that all employ voice actors. I'd started listening after learning about some of the characters and don't regret the decision. 

The biggest draw for me, going in and seeing their first episode was that these were all performers in a room with each other. The first thing about performers, there is a difference between performing for an audience and performing with each other. By the time the series had began, this troupe had already been playing for two years at the actor's homes. If this were a regular group, you'd probably feel closed out on a lot of things. Never happened here. They were accessible from the word 'go'. A lot of this has to do with that they were performers, and they got to perform now for each other AND an audience, which is growing with every week. 

It also has a lot to do with the GM stylings of Matt Mercer, who many would know as the voice of McCree from Overwatch. Mercer has been playing DnD since a child, and his parents and their friends were DnD players before his birth. His stylings were highly immersive, using his narrative and vocal techniques to create a highly immersive experience with detailed settings and characters that make both the players and the audience care.

I'm not going to go too in depth, because I want people to see it (It's on youtube and twitch on Geek and Sundry) or hear it (it's on every major podcasting network). But it contains several elements that, as someone who has been running games for years now, things that I now have saved as reference points. They include:

- Several duels between one PC and an NPC that managed to be both epic and immersive for the entire table. No small feat, I've seen people at the table tune out the moment someone is getting prime spotlight like that. Because of their performative comfort with each other and the improv (and larping) motto of "Yes And" they don't see it as the spotlight being off on them. They just use it as a means of showing off their character with the fight being the centerpiece. There are three good times this happens, but I'll share the first one since it's so early in the series (episode 17 of 115 of Campaign 1) for the example: Grog vs Kern 1

- It handles death well. For a game that makes death easy to come back from, especially for higher level characters, it makes every attempt cost something. It also deals with power creep very well because the antagonists feel even more lethal as time goes along. Any time one of the characters dies, and a resurrection is attempted, it takes time to do and most episodes are spent dealing with the aftermath. I like this, and I plan on getting the setting book for the game (which is now out using d20 rules) just to see the rules for the resurrections. Death is easy, coming back from it should be hard.

- It has one of my favorite written characters. I didn't know Talieisin Jaffe (no relation to my friend's and game designs Sean and Josh...that I know of) before this, but he became one of my favorite players and his character of Percival De Rolo became my fast favorite. The first man in a fantasy setting to develop a gun. Intelligent, a bit posh, and a truly conflicted character. His character arc and Taliesin's acting and way of taking everything in his stride is something I now aspire to. He gave his GM enough rope with his backstory to create one of the darkest arcs in the series that set the tone for the rest of the game and beyond. In the new campaign, Taliesin now plays my new favorite PC: Mollymauk the Tiefling Blood Hunter (a new class created by Mercer, who also homebrewed the rules for firearms in game).

- It created NPCs that are memorable. A lot of this has to do with Mercer's sheer personality and talent. But the NPCs of Gilmore, Victor, and Kima are all recurring characters that the players are thrilled to see almost as much as their characters are. Likewise, the antagonists get some good reactions, especially the Briarwoods and Anna Ripley who manage to cause such disdain in the players that the performance is touching.

- It allows Bleed. Much of the ending is some very good roleplay, informed by years of gaming with each other as these characters. From the reactions to character deaths to enmities to the small triumphs. It allows emotional Bleed to happen.

I'm gushing a bit while writing this. I'm gushing because this show is a thrill to listen to, and to watch as well. I some times listen to the Podcast and then go back to Youtube to watch the players and how they reacted. After eight days worth of listening, which span for me about four months, I'm hungry to have experiences like this. I want to be in tabletop games like this, I want to GM games like this. I have three campaigns for three different settings cooked up just because I keep listening to this series.  A friend has invited me to a DnD campaign and I'm already cooking up a Tiefling Wizard that is the cross between James Spader and Christopher Walken. Listening to Critical Role makes me want to play more, and that is something that I am grateful for.

So as I'm now five hours (two episodes) from catching up. With a backlog of audiobooks to make up for the lack of constant audio entertainment, I have to ask: Is it Thursday yet?

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Rules of Data Brokering (or, 'So you wanna be a Lore Monkey')

I've mentioned it before that I am a fan of information gathering in games. I enjoy finding Lore, whether it's from the setting or from the players themselves. Backstories, locations and items of notes, secrets and documents, the full gamut. I also like data analysis and piecing together those bits of information to put together a narrative, or be able to take those pieces and be able to add it to the narrative as need be. It's one of the reasons why I enjoy playing and running in conspiracy games, because there are so many dots to connect and ways and means of exploiting those nodes against each other.

I'm a real life Mekhet, what can I say?

That's really where I found out I was good at dealing in information, or at least a fan of it. I used my talents both in game and in real life to listen and discover tidbits from people. Never got to use it, but by the end of game I had accrued a few sizeable bits of information that could be exploited if needed. It's the preferred MO of my favorite character, the Mage Rhys. He uses his knowledge of the magic in the City to investigate and discern pieces of information. He doesn't get the whole picture, but he can get enough pieces and push them together. My 7th Sea character, Aiden, was a thief who liked to play the Inish stereotype while stealing your conspiracy plans early on in the game. Playing Lore monkeys and data gatherers is kinda my jam in most games. From teenager hackers to that guy who knows every one. Some players are out to game the system, I'm out to game the setting. 

Of course, not every game is meant to explore the setting too deeply. Some GMs are more use to riffing the plot and don't have a lot of information saved up to make investigations viable or information consistently useful. Sometimes, the Game has a very tight plot and finding information nets you dead ends. I've run in to several of these games and I tend to find myself getting frustrated. There's no point in someone trying to find info if that info isn't some that isn't able/worth to be discovered. 

So here are my thoughts for Players and GMs who find themselves want to add some data brokers in their games.

The Rules for Brokering

The Rule of Necessity

The information that you're dealing in needs to be of use to the other PCs in the game. Whether you're a player or a GM, the information you're doling out must have something vital inside of it. It doesn't not need to be relevant to the immediate situation, but it should be something that can be used later on as necessary. 

Lately I've been watching and listening to the Critical Role podcast. During the earlier parts of the series, during a conversation the players were having, an NPC name dropped two antagonists from one of the players backstories. The player got to respond to that, but nothing is done for ten episodes. 

You can use the brokers to seed future information, to put Chekhov's Gun on the wall and wait to see when it fires off.

The Rule of Contradiction

Despite the fact that you're suppose to be selling this information in game, you're trying to give this information away out of game. Info brokers are meant to serve as a means of forwarding plot or otherwise finding ways to enhance or aid the plot move along. Finding a contact that can provide access, or a key secret of an enemy. 

The key thing for Players and GMs to be aware of is that this is a plot for plot economy. You're giving out information to handle plot to potentially have more plot (personal or setting based plot) later on down the road. 

While talking to other players while writing this, the notion of someone who gathers information and doesn't share is seen as a problem player. This is especially true for newer players trying to catch up with the plot and are willing to pay. If you're a broker, or have a broker NPC, your job is to catch those players up and tie them further in to plot. Giving people something to do is good work and promotes interest...and a character tied to making some interesting decisions.

The Rule of Acquisition

There must be some means of tracking this information down. Maybe you're a hacker, maybe you're a spymaster with a network of informants. Maybe you're psychic, maybe you're a psychic hacker with a network of psychic cyborg informants (I've played this game before). Varys has his little birds, Holmes his Baker Street Regulars. The method is almost as important as the information.

The reason I say this is twofold: 1) How you find this information out provides the context of that information. Are you dragging someone across the coals looking for information? Are you bribing a susceptible cop? Do you have blackmail information on some senator? Are you collating data from social media using algorithms that I will never, ever, be able to understand? 

How you get that information is important to context. Interrogation is notorious for not giving the correct information, and that brief information. Blackmail is a good way to cause enmity, passive collections means less vital information. 

I played a hacker in the later '80s, one of the first all time hackers....Hollywood hacking had everything set up on the computers, so cracking data wasn't as good as using the phones more often than not. You could do a lot with a tapped phone and a pencil than you could with the most powerful IBM computer. 

The other reason why keeping the means of acquisition clear is because it helps establish character. Social characters tend to create a network of informants and co-workers that can be relied on. Interrogators are often cold and ruthless. Hackers are eccentric loaners, and so on and so forth. These characters provide a service, that doesn't stop them from being characters.

For players, whatever your means, be prepared to work for your information. Data is not free, you know that as a fact. If it's information that you can easily acquire then it probably isn't worth having, despite how powerful your stats are in game. The rule of the game here is to make sure this information is good, and vital, and can help further along the game. 

And for GMs, make the acquisition of this information challenging to the players. Not just in dice rolls and challenges, but in hooks and traps for the brokers as well. A broker who isn't invested is a broker who isn't doing their job right. Keep the broker invested, but make them work for it. 

The Rule of Subjectivity 

Simply put, information is open to interpretation. That's what the point of Data Brokers are for, to sift through the information and sell the context. The information you find can be wrong, or that the information gathered isn't complete. 

This is one of those where I have to separate the player and the GMs needs here. I encourage GMs to have multiple sources of information (whether they are competing brokers or not) that have different interpretations or pieces of information. I also encourage that information to be open to interpretation that can be gotten wrong. 

I've mentioned before that in my Mage game, I had characters who investigated things in different ways. Spirit servitors, Ghostly provocateurs, Scrying Windows, and Dream Visions. Depending where and when they ask, they will all get similar but different points of reference. I did this to tie the different and disparate PCs closer together and also to corroborate what was valid and what wasn't. Sometimes they got information wrong, sometimes they got it right.

Let me make it clear that wrong information does not mean a dead end. Sometimes getting things wrong causes its own storylines, or reveals something new about the world and its characters.

For players, You can be wrong about your information, but you cannot be the source of that, especially to the other players. If you're dealing information to your other players, you are working on a level of trust with them. If you consistently dead end them they will not deal with you and you'll be in a corner playing with your index cards full of information you cannot use. You're providing a vital service for the rest of the game in a support role, if you can't provide it, what are you doing?

Words of Advice

For the GMs

Playing the information game isn't easy. Because it requires having information about the plot already set up. This means that it is very possible for the PCs to figure things out early. If you're someone who prefers a plot driven story that players and PCs react to, then this may not be for you. That's fine. Let your players know that if they're edging towards information gatherers. Let them know that information may not be easy to get because things are in such motion that you can't get access to it. Be transparent that this is not the kind of game for that. Again, been there, it's a good way to lose a player. 

For the Players

Being an information brokering PC is a form of support role. Your job is to gain and disperse information. You have a valuable service to provide. You don't have to be a friendly character, you can have your ulterior motives, but you are playing to further along plot. Information that isn't being used is useless. You drive the plot bus that the other players get on, and you're the one with the map navigating to the next stop. Be prepared to work for the information you're looking for, be prepared to  work with the GM to get this information.

The information broker, or the lore monkey, or how you want to call it is one of my favorite types of play in the game. It's discovery of the setting and sharing that information that makes it intriguing. It's digging in to the world and digging yourself in to deals and troubles. I love doing it because it allows characters to delve in to the setting by using their wits and their words. I hope my words have helped you, and I'd love to hear your experiences with dealing in information in gaming.


I have a Patreon, focused on my serialized fiction. One of my series, Bleed, focuses on the lives of role players both in and out of game. It is released to the public monthly, and patrons receive early and immediate access. If you like what you read here, please consider supporting. That'd be cool of you.