Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Dogs in the Town of Respite

I played Dogs in the Vineyard Friday night for the first time. All I can say is it's everything that you've heard it is. Unless you've never heard of it.

4 players spent about 2 hours total on character generation, including initiatory conflicts. My character, "Brother Jude," had a "Complicated Community" origin. We never established precisely what his family was like, but telling traits on his character sheet included "knows hypocrisy when he sees it," "knows cruelty when he sees it," and "to all appearances, does not feel pain." The other characters included a pious healer named Sister Ruth, a faithful intellectual young man named Brother Josiah who, unusually, went to university Out East, and Brother Everett, the most unusual of all of us, who actually lived Out East as a functional atheist till age 12, and was kidnapped and brought to the land of the Faithful by his crazy uncle, and who had outwardly learned to conform to the Faith but was inwardly an atheist -- or was he? Is it that the Steward was blind to his hypocrisy when he chose him as a dog, or that he knew Everett's heart more than Everett himself did?

This episode happened to focus on Jude and Everett heavily, though Ruth and Josiah both played key roles -- largely in bringing some sanity to the table in the face of the extreme actions of Jude and Everett. (In particular, Ruth's decision to follow Everett when he went on a dubious investigative mission is the only reason he's still alive, and Josiah's decision to publically defy Jude is the only reason Jude did not shoot his own brother -- the town Steward -- dead in the street.)

Jude and Everett's initiatory conflicts were "Jude learns to trust authority," and "Everett maintains his complete inward disbelief in the Faith despite the teachings of the Temple Stewards." Both failed dramatically, and both those failures colored the story dramatically.

I don't want to go through the whole story, but from Jude's perspective, what happened was this -- he was challenged on his authority by his much older half-brother, the town Steward, who never thought he'd amount to much. He decided to assert his authority ostentatiously and somewhat arrogantly to put his brother in his place. Having done so he found himself exaggeratedly supporting the authority structures of the Faith and in doing so alienating his niece and childhood playmate Serafina, who had gone to him for help and comfort from the injustices she felt her father was perpetrating on her -- he supported her father's authority over her, feeling he had to to be consistent in the authority he had asserted over her father. Finally he ended up seeing that the Steward, had badly, badly abused his authority over the his young son James, using him as a proxy in a crime of arson that nearly turned into murder.

In the end Jude was filled with fury at himself for buying into the system of authority that he never really trusted himself, which to him was now exposed as prone to corruption and abuse, and he turned that fury outwards against the Steward, and was barely prevented from executing him in a summary act of judgment (and it's a good thing for Jude that he was prevented, because I think that would have pushed him even farther down the dark path he'd set foot on at the beginning of this game.)

Jude ended up angrily consigning the situation to the other Dogs to wrap up and riding out of town.

He has vowed to himself never to trust the authority structures of the Faith too much again, not even his own authority, but to look to his heart and what he knows of the good and evil in each person -- and himself. (In the reflection segment of the game he added two six-sided dice to his Heart trait, which started out at the lowest possible value.) Whether he will be able to carry out that vow in the face of his basic anger and mistrust and coldness remains to be seen.

From my point of view as a player, I loved the game. I was surprised at how much fun I had playing a character who was so different from myself. I've found in roleplaying games, historically, that I've often come up with characters who I thought would be really interesting to play, with strong personalities or individual quirks, but their strong character turned out to be irrelevant to the story presented by the gamemaster, and ended up being put aside and more or less ignored in order to get on with the story. In Dogs, your character's character is so integral a part of the game mechanics that it almost has to appear in the story, and become part of it. Also, the fact that the Faith is small enough that you will almost certainly have relatives in many of the towns you meet, means that your story will become extremely personal. It sure did for Jude.

I found it easy to play Jude because I knew what he wanted and what drove him. I was (I think) able to play him convincingly, because his motivation and action and passion came through what he did, not just what he said or how he talked. I guess I'm trying to say that it was easy to make it about character, not characterization, as described by Christopher Kubiasak in part 3 of his awesome "Interactive Toolkit" series of essays* on rpgs:

Characters drive the narrative of all stories. However, many people mistake character for characterization.

Characterization is the look of a character, the description of his voice, the quirks of habit. Characterization creates the concrete detail of a character through the use of sensory detail and exposition. By "seeing" how a character looks, how he picks up his wine glass, by knowing he has a love of fine tobacco, the character becomes concrete to our imagination, even while remaining nothing more than black ink upon a white page.

But a person thus described is not a character. A character must do.

Character is action. That's a rule of thumb for plays and movies, and is valid as well for roleplaying games and story entertainments. This means that the best way to reveal your character is not through on an esoteric monologue about pipe and tobacco delivered by your character, but through your character's actions.
It didn't matter whether at a particular moment I was talking how Jude talked, or just describing him in the third person, because it was always clear that Jude had a reason for what he was doing and there was something going on in his head and his heart.

Anyway, everybody present had as fun a time with their characters as I did with mine, as far as I could tell, and there was a consensus that we must play this again, and soon, with the same group.

Oh, the conflict mechanics were great. They manifest the way violence can progress from mild to intense, verbal to physical in a natural and smooth progression, a topic which I've found interesting of late with my interest in non-violent communication.

The initiatory conflicts as a springboard for the game were great, because they put out on the table the notion of a conflict with real consequences for the character and their life, and the resolution thereof in an intertwined series of die rolls and narrative descriptions.

The character description system, describing attributes, skills, and relationships, was an excellent mix of specificity and openness.

Awesomeness all around. I could burble happily for a while but that's enough for me now.

* this series of essays, which I read a year or so before I discovered the Forge and started learning about "indie RPGs," is one of the single best essays on how to play absorbing and exciting RPGs (in the Narrativist mode, though Kubiasak doesn't use that term) I've ever seen.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Unseen - Pilot

Here's some spiffy stuff for the game:
Unseen Graphic/Unseen Theme (Composed by myself and James)/Cast Photo

What follows is the write-up of the pilot episode. If you want to read about further episodes, here are links to them:

Pilot Episode - The Hanged Man (scroll down)
Episode 1 - An Unkindness of Ravens
Episode 2 - Lost in a Forest
Episode 3 - Coming Soon

Last Friday night I finally ran Primetime Adventures. What follows is a rough outline of the story. Be warned, it is LONG and probably tedious.

What is Primetime Adeventures? It's a roleplaying game where you create a TV show, where the characters are protagonists in said TV show. A very cool game indeed.

The show is set in modern-day Chicago, and features a group of protagonists with psychic powers. We decided that we wanted the powers to be a bit subtle, and that psychic stuff is not generally known to the outside world. Our idea was to have the characters be a group of investigators who look into strange happenings that are psychic and supernatural in origin. Here are the characters:

James plays Virgil Ellis, a police detective who has acute mental focus. Randy plays Lewis Worth, a man on the run from the government. Lewis is a natural genius when it comes to electronics and gadgets, preternaturally so. Tammy's character is Robyn Tamlyn, a runaway who Virgil has been trying to set on the right path. She is telekinetic and spends most of her spare time hustling pool.

Unseen -- Pilot Episode -- "The Hanged Man"

We see a women leaving her office. She is a tarot reader named Celestia Morgan. The camera follows her from her office, down some stairs, to an alley where her car is parked. She hears a strange noise from behind her and turns towards it...

Robyn is leaving the arcade after having won about $50 from some frat boys. It's late, around 10:00 p.m. and it's a school night. She takes a short cut through an alley and finds a women lying behind her car; the tarot reader from the previous scene. There is a pool of blood around the woman's head, and both of her eyes are missing!

Opening Titles and Theme Song

Crime scene. Virgil shows up and sees Robyn being questioned, but does not go to her yet. He talks with an officer on the scene, Officer Rubens, and examines the body. He searches the victim's purse and finds out her name and profession, and that her office is the building next to him. Virgil fishes the keys out of her blood and he and Rubens enter the building. He searches the office and snags Celestia's appointment book. He sends Rubens away and sets up his mental focus. He hears a noise from above, the 4th floor. He quietly heads up to the forth floor.

Lewis is on his way home from working at the local electronics shop and sees the crime scene. He pulls out his tablet computer that is hooked up to some surveillance cameras located on buildings in the Waterford area (Waterford is the neighborhood where they all live and where the murder took place.) He finds one that covered the alley where the murder took place. He accesses the footage from about an hour ago and sees the murder! But, he can't seem to get a good view of the man. He does see that the murderer is using a curved knife, wears a long black coat and has dark hair.

Robyn wants to get out of there before Virgil comes back. She knows he's gonna chew her out for being out so late. She wraps up giving her statement to Officer Quinn and slinks away and runs into Lewis, who is preoccupied with trying to get a better view of the murderer. She dashes off to her apartment.

Just as Robyn leaves, Lewis notices an unmarked, black sedan with tinted windows pull up. He hides, watching the car. Two agents get out of the back of the car and head towards the crime scene. Lewis gets some of his cameras trained on the agents.

Back in the building, Virgil is on the 4th floor listening for the sound he heard earlier. He opens a door to a room where the noise is coming from. In the dim light, he sees an old woman in a rocking chair. "He can almost see now," she cackles. Officer Rubens is shouting for him from below, and Virgil calls out to him. He turns back and the rocking chair is now empty, and not rocking. The back of the chair is damaged and looks to be all scratched up. Rubens shows up and tells him that there are Feds on the scene.

We cut to a basement somewhere, lit by dozens of candles. Symbols are painted on the walls, arcane symbols. There is an alter, and we see a figure kneeling before it. A hand lowers two bright blue eyes on the alter. Celestia Morgan's eyes!

The next day, Virgil is waiting at the arcade for Robyn when she gets out of school, and he questions her about what she saw and why she'd been out. They shoot a little pool until Robyn uses her TK to pull of a pretty impossible shot.

Virgil and Robyn are in Lewis's bus. Lewis has an old school bus converted into his computer nerve center. It is full of servers and screens. He is connected. Big time. They're eating Chinese carryout, trying to put together all the info they have. Lewis is running a face recognition scan of the faces of the two agents he saw. Virgil pulls out Celestia's appointment book and reads the last entry. It is a series of roman numerals. Robyn suggests that they might be tarot cards. Sure enough they are; Hanged Man, Hierophant and Empress. He has a hunch that the killer might be this last reading that Celestia did. As the scene ends, Lewis learns the name of one of the agents -- Thomas Severin. More info about him is available, but Lewis will have to hack into a high security government site first.

Virgil checks around and finds the name of a reputable tarot reader named Madam Rosa. The gang heads to her office. Virgil tells her about the crime and the cards and asks for her help. She shuffles her cards and has them each cut the deck and draw a card. As they each do she takes their hand. First, Lewis turns up the Empress, Robyn the Hierophant, and finally, Virgil the Hanged Man. When she touches Virgil, the card, which shows a representation of Odin as the hanged man, begins to morph. It becomes the killer! Virgil commits the man's face to memory. One thing that is the same between Odin and the killer, they both are missing one eye. The image on the card focuses on Virgil and says, "I see you!" Madam Rosa drops the card, which is now smoking.

Later, back at the bus, Lewis is trying to find out more about Agent Severin. He does some hacking and finds out that the man is part of a special unit that investigates strange phenomenon, sort of X-Files-ish. Severin is currently assigned to a case codenamed "Odin." Lewis finds out that Odin had murdered others. Always on the New Moon, a year apart, as close to the vernal equinox as possible... Chicago, Charleston, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chattanooga, and now Chicago again... he brings up a map on screen and traces lines from one city to another. A large pentagram appears on the map...

Virgil is taking Robyn to the mall so she can spend some of the money she won playing pool. There is a call from dispatch, Lili (one of Virgil's connections.) There has been a homicide. Madam Rosa.

Back at the bus, Lewis is gathering info, trying to predict where the killer might be. He cannot get a specific location, just several possible sites. Something is going to happen in 12 days on the Full Moon. He is sure of it.

Virgil and Robyn went to Julie's Place, a coffee shop, diner, and Virgil's personal set. The scene opens with Virgil on his cell with Lewis as Lewis gives him the rundown on "Odin." Coffee-guy, one of Virgil's connection is there. Coffee-guy is a strange, enigmatic guy who makes cryptic statements that sometime have relevance to what is going on. Virgil sketches Odin on the back of a place-mat, and asks Coffee-guy if he'd heard about a strange murder 5 years ago. He talks in circles, but says an astrologer was murdered about three miles from here, her eyes cut out.

We see a small military base. An office. A phone ringing. A man picks up. He is the Colonel, Lewis's nemesis. The man on the line tells the colonel that there has been activity on #439, server Watchdog 3. The colonel turns to a computer screen and the map that Virgil had made, the map with the pentagram on it pops up. "What are you up to Lewis?" the colonel muses.

Virgil and Robyn go to the location of the first murder, the astrologer. It is a new age store with businesses upstairs. After asking around, they find that it took place upstairs where there is a feng shui practice. They meet Phil Erickson, the feng shui guy. He had been friends with Karen, the murdered astrologer, and took her office to try to dispell the negative energy from her murder. Virgil asks what Phil does; detect light and dark chi, energy is his short answer.

The alley where Celestia was murdered. Virgil, Robyn, Lewis and Phil are there. Phil gets a trail of dark energy and leads them to the back entrance of a closed down department store. Virgil, with gun drawn, enters the storeroom, filled with mannequins, and heads down to the basement. Lewis follows with Robyn in tow. Phil will not enter and wishes them luck.

The basement. Candles. It is the same location from the earlier scene with the shrine and the eyeballs. Virgil hears a voice. It is the voice of the old women from the rocking chair. "My son. Finally he will be able to See..." Virgil is pulled (via magic?) into a pentagram on the floor. He is out of it and seems to be held up by an unseen force. Robyn and Lewis see a shadowy figure with a dagger coming towards Virgil. Robyn has a great line at this point. "You guys take me to the best places." Lewis tells her he will distract Odin, and that she should use the gun with he TK. Lewis steps out of the shadows and begins critiquing Odin's interior designs ("early Satanic") and Robyn reaches out for the gun. Problem is, the girl has never used a gun in her life.

Lewis's distraction is enough for Virgil to come around. He reaches for his floating gun, unlatches the safety, and unloads the clip at Odin, who somehow dodges all the flying metal. All the candles flare up, blinding them, and Odin is gone... Lewis helps to steady the still shaky Virgil...

A rainy day. Cemetery. Funeral for Madam Rosa. The gang is there, as is Phil and a lot of others from the new age community. Nine days until the Full Moon.

The Colonel's office. Agent Severin drops a file onto his desk. Photos of Lewis. The Colonel smiles an unpleasant smile...

Next Time on Unseen

The interior of the bus. Lewis looks at a monitor and sees a black sedan driving up a street. A second monitor shows another sedan on another street. A third monitor shows yet another. "What the...?"

Virgil talking to Phil, the feng shui guy. "I hate to ask you this man, but we flushed him out. He'll be looking for a new location."

Robyn with a look of panic on her face. "Pop quiz?!"

Close up on Odin's face as he says, "So tell me girl -- what do you See?"

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Robin Laws on RPG Theory

Robin Laws weighs in on the Forge community and its RPG theory.

Laws is very leery of theory (bleary, even) but the fact that the Forge RPG theorists have gotten out there and designed so many games and are out there selling and playing and having fun with them, makes him happy about this particular movement.

A lot of commenters weighed in, many of them angry with the "elitists" at the Forge with all their "indie" RPGs.

It's funny -- I see all the elitism, if there is any, on the other side.

We've got two groups of people, one of which wants lots of people to be designing games however they want, and another of which wants people to play only the games which are sold and marketed by professional game designers in big corporations.

And the people who think anybody can and should be able to design and sell a game, and therefore talk about principles of game design publically rather than behind closed doors -- those are supposed to be the elitists! Because they dare to try to do it themselves, their own way, rather than sitting down, shutting up, and doing it the way it's already been done, I guess...

But of course there is a truth there -- the Forge itself has, according to Ron, Clinton, and other founders -- gotten to the point where the weight of its own history has rendered it nigh impossible for someone new to the community to really join and contribute. So they're going to shut it down soon, and let the movement continue in other venues (various livejournals, the glorious lumpley blog which I always get behind on cause it has no RSS feed, etc), wherever people want to continue it, no longer with one big ol' centralized uberforum for everybody to butt heads in.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Black Arts

Our buddy Adam Black has been an artist on the Talislanta RPG for some time now. He does some amazing stuff, and now has some great new stuff up on his site, pieces from an upcoming module for the new D20-fied version of Talislanta.

You can check them out here. They are the last eight illos on the bottom of the page. Check 'em out -- they rock!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Productive Day

As I said in my previous post, Primetime Adventures does not require a lot of preparation to run a game, but it does require some. It says this about one of the key responsibilities of the Producer:

Create the Spark -- The producer always kicks off an episode, and that's a big responsibility. Something needs to happen that the protagonists (and the players) can't resist or ignore.

The Producer comes up with that first scene of the game and gets things going. The problem? I was drawing a blank. That's not entirely true. I had come up with a few ideas, but they sucked. Sucked hard. I was trying to create something too elaborate, too "role-playing-gamish" not "TV-showish." I'm running a game that is supposed to simulate a TV show, right? So, I started thinking more visually, imaging an opening scene. It basically wrote itself in my head in about 10 minutes. I came up with something simple but powerful. So now I have an opening scene that I'm fairly happy with, and it's not hanging over my head.

Then, since I was on a roll, I created a Town and some Proto-NPCs for the Dogs in the Vineyard game I hope to be running in a few weeks. The town is called Juniper Creek and that's all I'm gonna say about it now, since Ed will be playing in the game. I'm pretty psyched about my town. Lot's of grabby stuff in it, at least it seems that way to me.

Just Thinkin'

I've been having some random thoughts about indie rpgs lately. Mostly they hit me when I'm at work and can't write them down, so this piece may be a bit disjointed, so I apologize up front. Of course, I'm mostly just rambling, so don't expect any amazing insight, just observations.

I don't need no stinking prep
I'm getting ready to run a game of Primetime Adventures, and I keep having this problem; I want to come up with a plot and go crazy preparing. One of the things with PTA is that the GM, or Producer, doesn't have to prepare. Or perhaps I should say there is very minimal preparation, since the other players are going to come up with a lot of the plot with the Producer. This is not something that I am used to. From my earliest days of designing illogically stocked dungeons, to my more recent plot driven games, I spent a lot of time working on my games beforehand. It could be making NPCs, formulating possible scenes and plot points, whatever; I would go into a game with a few pages of notes for my game.

Granted, I usually did not make a completely linear adventure where the players just walked from plot point to plot point. I'm not big on railroading or making the players feel like puppets, but I feel like I'm slacking by not working on this game ahead of time. Old habits die hard I guess.

On the plus side, it's kind of liberating. In the old days I would agonize over a game, running it over and over in my head, at work or in the shower. Now I'm just waiting for the day of the game, next Friday, and I'm just gonna play. I like that.

There can be only one... player
One thing I've noticed is that a lot of the indie games that I like really are not made to be played with just one player. Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, Nine Worlds -- not really made for the GM/one player dynamic. I guess you can play them that way, but they are not optimized for it. In the past, Ed and I have played a lot of great games with just the two of us. NightLife and Talislanta come to mind.

Of course there are exceptions. To my mind, Trollbabe is ideal for a GM/one player game. The Pool worked pretty well too. I'll have to look around more to see if I can find more indie games that can be played that way. Actually, the game Ed is working on is good for that style of play. What is the current name of that game Ed? Here's a link to a thread of the Forge discussing Ed's game.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Land of Balm and Virtue

A few weeks ago I got a copy of Vincent Baker's awesome game, Dogs in the Vineyard. How to describe DitV? Hmm... The tagline on the game says "Roleplaying God's Watchdogs in a West that never quite was." I guess I'll leave it at that for now.

I've been reading all the Forge forum messages about DitV, and came across some great posts in Actual Play. It's a series run by Clinton Nixon, and reading the posts really got me wanting to run Dogs. Here are the posts so far: Wisdom's Ghost, Whores and Flapjacks, A Chinese Ghost Story.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Dogs soon.