For years I’ve wanted to run a game set in the world of Labyrinth, because it is awesome and the essence of faerie for this child of the 80s. At first I thought of using Changeling: The Dreaming (CtD) because of the obvious connection with faeries, but I never quite grasped what angle to approach this from.
When Changeling: The Lost (CtL) came out, I got the sense that this would be the right game to handle adventuring in the Labyrinth. The plot of the movie is, in essence, a classic changeling scenario, except that someone goes into faerie for the baby,[ref]We’ll leave the Labyrinth-as-sexual-coming-of-age discussion for another day[/ref] so we could use characters that had been taken to the Labyrinth, escaped and had to go back for whatever reason, or even use a regular human like Sarah.
I’ve never done either of those. CtD simply had a different vibe that was directly tied to the faeries in the mortal world, and CtL, though it was certainly dark enough, had a bit too much going on for my tastes.
CtL, however, has one bit that REALLY got me excited, the idea of Contracts as the source of changeling magic. Now we’re talking. I would strip that game of all the other simulationist stats and get down to a few essential pieces of game mechanics that truly speak to what a changeling is, highlighting the Contracts.
So this is what I would do for my Labyrinth game:
Mythender is a game of epic heroes fighting gods in Mythic Norden being developed by Ryan Macklin. He’s been working on it for a couple years now and it looks like things are finally moving towards the final stretch. Last week he posted the first draft of the character creation rules and I decided to take them for a spin to help Ryan out with whatever feedback I could provide.
The game is set in mythic Norse country, but the image that jumped right out at me was not a Viking warrior, but an Irish one (unsurprising for anyone who knows me, really). Given there is a connection between the Irish and the Vikings, I used that as the jumping off point to create my own Mythender.
Behold Eire, raised by Morrigan to be the embodiment of the land of Ireland, sent by the Raven Queen to Norden to end the northmen and their heathen demon-gods.
I always had the vague notion that what I had termed Joys and Sorrows was where the core of this game I’ve been working on lied; in a game about the loss of Humanity, the loss of the Self, Joys and Sorrows represented that which defined what was being lost. But for some reason that I couldn’t pinpoint I wasn’t entirely happy with the mechanic (and I call it that only as a technicality, as it never really became part of a moving system but remained only a cog off to one side).
A few weeks ago while at work, I had a small Eureka moment in regards Joys and Sorrows and the central place I wanted them to have but hadn’t quite achieved. The game, in essence, is about the loss of that which makes you Human, and the stories that emerge from that downward spiral. I was on to the right idea with Joys and Sorrows in that these are player-created statements that describe that which is important and connect the character to their Humanity, as well as defining where the sources of interest and conflict will lie as the story develops. But it was still clunky. I hadn’t found a way to express mechanically, on the physical game level, the loss of these bonds.
And then it hit me.
A statement from my latest post on Rebuilding Vampire about the Vampire: The Masquerade character sheet turned into an all-day Twitter discussion about character sheets in RPGs in general. It was a good series of chats, actually, but it highlighted very quickly that I was talking to two different groups of people and that what I wanted to convey about why I said what I said about the VtM sheet was not clear at all for those who lacked a certain context. This post is me trying to explain my views on character sheets and what I see is their role in an RPG. I would love it if from there we can launch a greater conversation about RPG character sheet design in general.
In 2008 I listened to episode 54 of the Master Plan podcast, in which Ryan Macklin interviewed Daniel Solis. The name of that episode, and the idea that was hashed out over the half-hour interview, was that “A Cover Is A Promise.” Briefly (and really, you should listen to the episode to get the better explanation), Daniel poses the idea that when looking at the cover of an RPG, it gives the prospective customer a solid idea of either what you will do in the game or an emotion/theme that the game will create; the cover makes a promise of what’s to be found inside and in play. That phrase has stuck with me since then, and I have brought it up in various conversations ever since because it speaks to me, and solidifies a feeling I have had about roleplaying games that I simply had no way to voice. Following that line of thought, when I think of character sheets, this is the statement that comes to mind:
A character sheet is a map.
Over a year ago I wrote about two traits I wanted to focus on in my vampire game, traits I called Joy and Sorrow. These were to be brief phrases that described something that brought Joy to the vampire or cause her Sorrow; either way, they were emotional triggers that kept the vampire connected to her Humanity in the face of the imminent loss of it to the Beast.
Through all the various thought processes, version of the game I’ve assembled in my mind, playtest drafts, moments of frustration, through them all Joy and Sorrow remain at the core of my design. It’s simple why, really: to me, they are the fuel for conflict in my interpretation of the vampire myth via a roleplaying game.
Since V20 was announced, my mind has been churning old thoughts around on the back burner (I am in the middle of classes, after all), stirring them over low heat. Every so often a bubble escapes and a half-formed thought comes to the forefront, teasing me with things I won’t have a chance to pay closer attention to at least for another month. This past week, it was Joy and Sorrow. Again.
Yes, I know that I wrote a goodbye post to this series earlier this year, but what can I say, events in the last few weeks have conspired to bring this back from the dead (pun firmly intended). I’ll talk about the biggest one now.
White Wolf has surprised the gaming world by announcing a very special project to be published later this year, the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, to be released at the Grand Masquerade in September.
This quote from the Basic Design Directives for V20 by Justin Achilli sums it all up beautifully:
Vampire is our crazy ex-girlfriend and we’re scrawling her a handwritten note confessing a desperate, to-hell-with-everyone-else kind of love, and she’s agreed to give it one more go with us.
After trying for almost a week to find a time when we could get together online to play something, Tuesday night we finally managed to do it. Four of us jumped on Skype and ended up playing a short game of Fiasco: a roleplaying game of powerful ambitions and poor impulse control (aka The Coen Brothers RPG, as it has been described sometimes). The game has received some stellar reviews and great word-of-mouth recommendations, so it’s one I’ve been wanting to try out. That it can play out entirely in a couple of hours also made it very attractive to our rag-tag band of busy online gamers. At some point during the last year I learned of a Fiasco playset (think of it as a setting sketch) called Gen Con: The Worst Four Days in Gaming, and that’s the one I proposed we play.
We did . It was awesome. It went a bit slow, since of the four players, two of us had not played Fiasco (Rob and myself) and two had (Rich and JJ). We decided to roll our own characters and connections instead of using the suggested ones provided in the playset. The almost-45-minutes we spent doing this felt like its own little game-within-a-game and we laughed as much as we did once we actually started playing. We played two rounds of scenes. Each player, on their turn, gets to either frame the scene and let the other players choose the outcome, or lets the other players set the scene and he chooses the outcome. We had a good mix of the two options, which created some funny moments. Whoever chooses an outcome for the scene, picks either a white die (things turn out well) or a black die (things turn out poorly) from a dice pool rolled at the start of play. When we finished, there was only one white die on the table, the rest having been chosen to be poor resolutions to the scenes in question, all simply because poor resolutions make for funny moments and problems for the characters. And really, that’s what this is all about, making the characters’ lives hell for our amusement.
The Gen Con playset turns out some bizarre situations that oddly enough feel like they’d be right at home in the real Gen Con! I think it captures the weirdness of Gen Con well, while adding the slapstick crime element to the mix in a perfect fashion. Seriously, you’ve probably never thought of Gen Con this way, but it isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibilities that some of the stories that can emerge from this playset could really happen during the best four days in gaming. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse, to be honest.
I could write a recap of the events that transpired but that’d be like telling you about my character and our adventure: it’s only interesting if you were there. I can, however, offer you a glimpse of the madness that went on.
It’s been months since my last entry in this series, since the last time I dedicated serious mental space to the topic of vampires and to the game that began to emerge from these ruminations. I am here to put the proverbial nail in the coffin, or more appropriate, the stake in the undead heart. Sunrise has come; this series is now over.
When I started what would eventually turn into the Rebuilding Vampire series, I was simply gushing enthusiastically about a game that still holds a special place in my heart, Vampire: The Masquerade. From there, I went on to deconstruct certain elements of the vampire myth that I felt VtM was underserving and found myself designing the beginning of a new game, one centered on the issues of the vampire’s story that I found most appealing, namely: the struggle with the beast within, the certainty of the fall into the abyss, and the struggle of how to best live during the inevitable fall. I can tell you that those are still items that are of essential interest to me and to my enjoyment of the vampire myth.
The problem, as it were, lies in what this developing game latched onto within me as I worked on it. In 2009 I lost my mother to cancer, and it affected me in ways which I refused to acknowledge, even as they drove me down into a deep dark pit and affected every other relationship in my life. Working on the vampire game, this game that I eventually came to call When The Fall, became a way to tap into that darkness within towards some productive goal. It worked, it focused the pain I felt and helped it move out of me, but at a great mental and spiritual cost at times. If use the word drained please don’t think it’s merely a clever pun.
Since playing Dragon Age last week, I’ve been wanting to do it more, but my GM, Enrique, is out of town for the holidays. I was sitting at home, very bored, on Saturday night, eating Chinese food (National Jews Eat Chinese Food Day) when I decided to run an impromptu game of Dragon Age online. I got a few takers but having never hosted an online virtual tabletop, I eventually decided to move it to Sunday night. Sunday during the day I sent out invites to a few people who had expressed an interest, and managed to get four players. At 11 PM EST (and with players literally all across the US), we got on Skype to play The Dalish Curse, the introductory adventure included in the Dragon Age Game Master’s Guide (no spoilers below).
As I mentioned, I have never hosted a game via an online virtual tabletop (VTT); I have played in games that have used MapTool, but someone else has done all the heavy lifting and I simply connected and played. I spent a good chunk of Sunday downloading both MapTool and Gametable, and fiddling with all their infinite nifty features — and there are a ton of them, nifties that would’ve made the game very attractive visually — but eventually realized that I’d been wasting hours trying to set up something that was way more complicated than what I needed it to be for a one-shot game. So eventually I scrapped the VTT idea and decided to use good ole Skype coupled with Google Docs for maps and info reference. I pulled the maps from the PDF copy of the GM’s Guide I have, pasted them onto individual Google Docs, and put together a Stunts reference sheet for the players, then shared the folder with everyone. For dice , we used an online dice rolled found at Catch Your Hare, which is especially neat as it displays the dice results graphically and by die, as opposed to the sum of all dice rolled. Each player picks a color for their dice, and I ruled that the middle die is always the Dragon Die, making it easy to see how many Stunt Points were generated on a roll of doubles. Easy peasy.
My four players were Tamara Deeny, Thomas Deeny, Ryan Macklin and Brennen Reece, and all four signed up for the game via my post on Twitter. We used When Is Good? to figure out a time when we could all play, and jumped on Skype at the appointed time for some dark fantasy adventuring. To save time, I had the players choose from the pre-generated characters available on the Dragon Age RPG website. The party consisted of Masarian, a Dalish Elf apostate mage (Ryan); Ackley, a Ferelden Freeman rogue (Thomas); Kedwalla, a Surface Dwarf warrior (Tamara); and Shinasha, a City Elf rogue (Brennen). We played using the rules in Set 1, though I added the Exploration and Roleplaying Stunts available on the Set 2 Playtest document so we could take them out for a spin.
Last night I finally had the chance to play a roleplaying game since coming back from Gen Con and the game on tap was Dragon Age from Green Ronin. Running the game was my friend Enrique and joining us was his usual gaming group, plus me.
Let me cut to the point right away: I had a ton of fun. A metric ton. Part of it was because the guys in the group were a fun bunch to hang out with and they welcomed me in immediately as one of their own, but also because the Dragon Age RPG simply rocks. I would dare say that, yes, it rocks you like a hurricane. We played for just shy of 5 hours and not once did I hear anyone complain about the game, not once, and as the night progressed, the praises for it simply heaped up. The system was easy to grasp, quick to resolve and engaging for all at the table, especially during combat when the Doubles Watch went into full effect, everyone just chomping for a chance to yell out Doubles! and spend those Stunt Points for cool effects. Through the banter, the catching-up, the food and drinks, and the barrage of comments/taunts/insults in Spanglish, the game held our attention and interest, and delivered some solid old-school RPG fun.
This is where I get wordy, as I wanna talk about the adventure we played and why this game left me with a smile on my face.