Saint-Sebastian #4

Blade Runer

Last issue I discussed a few of my ideas for a game called Runepunk where all modern technology was re-created through the use of magic resulting in a world that looked like Neuromancer but was entirely made of stone and wood.

The big difficulty it has is that because everything is transformed to an equivalent the world becomes to hard to describe. The detail of how all the devices work in the Runepunk world becomes overwhelming.

I had thought of one way that the problem could be overcome but it was not relevant to the last piece so I thought I would tack it on here as an after-thought. The idea is essentially pastiche although it might have a better formal name. The idea is that in order to minimise the number of elements that are strange (and therefore that require explanation) all other elements should be extremely familiar.

Less formally, the first scenario should appropriate the plot and visual style of the film Bladerunner simply re-casting the whole thing in Runepunk terms. The replicants become human slaves who have had various magic runes placed upon them by a mysterious cabal of druids. The slaves benefit from the magic that flows through the runes on their flesh but the power of the enchantments slowly destroy them. A group of them realise what is happening and believing (incorrectly) that the druids can undo the enchantments rebel and start trying to find the cabal's headquarters.

The druids hire the group to eliminate the slaves before they (the druids) are uncovered. Obviously one of the potential rewards is that the player characters can receive their own enchantments...

This technique of using the familiar to help sell the strange seems to have been used several times in the Glorantha scheme of things. Freeform games like Rune Metal Jacket and Dallas references in Sun County all provide players with an instant frame of reference but at the risk of trivialising the setting.

The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah

Like many agnostic GM's I am not above a good rifle through the ideas bin marked Religion. I have never really read the Bible start to finish I have mostly just flicked through it appropriating pieces here and there.

There are a few stories I really like though; one of them is in the Genesis chapters covering the cities of Sodom and Gomorroh. The controversies over how they were destroyed and why is not really the main interest though, instead it is in the small chapter that precedes the actual destruction. The story starts with three men walking to Sodom, Abraham recognises them as God (or god or YHWH or Skippy) and pleads with them to stay at his house before continuing their journey. They agree and during the conversation they (or he or it) tells Abraham that they will return to him and bring Abraham's wife, Sarah, a child. As Sarah is menopausal she laughs when she overhears this. God then asks her why she laughed and angrily insists that nothing is beyond the power of God. The men then resume their journey and Abraham walks with them to make sure they find the path.

The men then appear to have an internal argument about whether they should tell Abraham that they have decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, ultimately they decide that they will (or should). Abraham is alarmed at the news as his nephew Lot lives in Sodom and in the past Abraham has been an ally of the two cities. The story concludes with Abraham famously bargaining with God as to how many righteous people need to be found in the city for it to be spared. The final figure is set at ten. The story then moves on to the arrival of two men at the gates of Sodom.

I never cease to find this story fascinating, firstly because it seems to have no place in either the Christian or the Jewish scripture. Firstly there is the fact that God is portrayed as physically incarnate as three men. This is often translated as three angels or interpreted to mean the Holy Trinity but all explanations are ultimately patches to what is actually said which is that God appeared physically incarnated as three men, who argued amongst one another and also lack the qualities of omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. It feels as if this is a story about another god altogether, the Olympians of course were fallible, emotional, physically incarnate and rarely thought twice about have arguments in front of mortals. But this is the supreme smiting being here!

The strangeness permeates the story, Abraham bargains with God, Sarah laughs at it (or them or him) yet both fear this powerful and unknowable being. The sense of concealed tension and menace is palpable.

I have always wanted to re-create this tension within a roleplaying session. The gods of most FRPG do physically incarnate and are knowable but they are seem to be diminished by such acts. Their human frailties are seized upon while their divine power always seems minimised.

The closest I have come is a Mage NPC called Janjero, a major Umbral spirit who represents the spirit of natural disaster. A kind of animist god, Acts of God made manifest. The spirit has chosen to limit its divine power to enter the world as a physical being, choosing a human form and thus the limitations of ego and id, the cage of personality. As a result the spirit is slowly going mad, the longer it remains incarnated as a human-like being the longer it denies its true nature.

Janjero has cropped up a number of times and becomes more sinister each time, a few characters have actually conversed with him and I have always tried to portray him as a strange but essentially likeable character. Regardless of this the amount of dread associated with his presence rises with each encounter.

Initially the idea I had was that when Janjero was in an area the chances of freakish natural accidents would be greatly increased. In fact this never really got going as the players always seemed to take fright at the very idea of a literal volcano god.

Like a bird passing over goldfish pond the character threw a very long shadow and the players soon found rationales for the game events that proved that Janjero was a powerful and dangerous being. For example, they had a prophecy that the city they were living in was about to suffer a cataclysmic event, when they discovered that Janjero was near it proved both the prophecy and the power of the spirit as the two could not simply be coincidence! It really did not matter that they were misinterpreting the prophecy because the answer they had arrived at made more sense to them then any GM based interpretation. Thus a myth is born, the problem is that when the neutral observer looks back they will encounter all these oddities that just do not fit into the story being told...

Keeping it real

Maybe I'm lucky but I have never had a player who has not wanted to be in-character. I think that people who want to roleplay generally accept that being in-character is part and parcel of the game. Those who like the games but not the roleplaying part for some reason now have a host of alternatives available from the traditional skirmish wargames to the huge variety of computer games based on various roleplaying pen and paper games.

A different case is the player who is perhaps nervous or lacks confidence in portraying their character in the first person. Another is that of a new group coming together where people are perhaps uncomfortable and awkward due to the fact no-one really knows one another.

Here a few ground rules can help, these are my suggestions and I would certainly say that none of them really apply or offer anything to any established and experienced group.

Briefing at Nineteen Hundred

Any player who is worried about playing deserves five to ten minutes of the GM's time. If the player is playing a new character then pose a few pop psychology questions such as Your character is walking down a road when they see a child crying by the roadside, what would they do?. Take the time to discuss what you think the game is about and what you are hoping to do with it, try and take on any hopes or concerns the player has regarding the game.

After the first session when the player's character is presumably settling in and the basic personality has been established focus instead on what is happening in the game. Talk about the events that have happened in the game and how the player feels the character is reacting. Ask about what the character thinks of his companions and the actions of the party.

These little briefings should help the player to get into thinking as their character without the pressure of having to respond to the GM or the other players.

Such pep talks can be delegated to experienced and trusted players if the group is large. It also provides an out-of-game forum for any concerns the player has.

First Person Perspective

Always insist on the first person future, not He mounts his horse, Lord Winstone clambers onto his trusty steed or The knight gets on his horse always I'll mount my horse and ride out.

In some ways this is petty but the third person not only indicates a certain disconnect between the player and his character but can also be annoying for people who are being more direct. For example it is distracting if you were to say Can I talk to you before you ride out, sir? and it is answered with Yeah, he'll talk to Robert's character before he leaves the castle. What does he want to know?.

You are what your character says

Whatever you say your character said. It is that simple. This tends to curb players taking the piss out of the game, mocking NPCs and generally ruining the atmosphere. Some people may object to this because it means that players cannot contribute narrative to the game. I disagree, you only have to look at Shakespeare to see how characters can incorportate narrative description into speech that remains, for the most part, normal conversation.

Sometimes of course the player needs to say something out of character when in the middle of an in-game conversation. This is particularly awkward if the conversation is with an NPC. In such cases the player should simply prefix their comment with a codeword such as Out of character: Is this man wearing the Baron's ensignia?. The player should limit themselves to queries that would be easily answered in the game itself. In the example above the character would be easily able to determine whether the NPC was the Baron's man or not (they are looking at them after all!) but the GM might have omitted that detail from the description of the NPC.

Such out of character breaks should not be misused, using it to ask the GM whether the character believes the NPC is lying or not is not appropriate. Using it to ask for an appropriate skill check is fair.

Those not present, raise your hand

As a player it is a killer to hear another player having a conversation with an NPC where that other player is completely botching the encounter and either deviating from the plan or forgetting vital information.

This is one of the agonies that the good player learns to cope with. There will be plenty of opportunity to discuss it ad nauseum after the game is over. Unless your character is physically present in the game do not interfere with an encounter and do not succumb to the temptation to throw some out of character advice across the wire.

As a GM suffering from recurring out of character telepathy make it clear to the players that unless they stop the NPCs will also acquire a hivemind whereby all the key NPCs will know everything anyone of them has discovered.

If such a turnabout does not stop the players then the game is probably going to go downhill. In this case the players probably do not want to roleplay at all - too bad! The final solution is to send players not present at an encounter out of the room.

Mr. Marceau's Profession

Miming out the actions of the character often has a bad reputation but various physical actions can convey certain contexts far better than any verbal cue. For example in my own games we used to mime the action of telephoning another character, i.e. forming a fake receiver with our finger and then making a ringing sound until the other character or NPC picked up the phone.

Similarly pressing one finger to a forehead when using telepathy or a closed-circuit radio link indicates who can and cannot hear what the player is saying.

In multi-lingual settings the use of a language can be conveyed physically by, say, crossing one's arms when speaking French in-character. This simple physical cue allows players whose characters do not speak French to understand that they cannot hear the conversation and to complain in-character if necessary.

Other simple mimes also help build atmosphere and keep the idea of always being in-character. Shaking hands, standing and sitting only when the character does is simple but often effective.

I wouldn't necessarily take this as far as the example Paul mentioned a few issues ago of eating away from the rest of the group everyone has to find their own level. It ain't worth shit till you get it in writing

After the game session encourage the players to concrete their ideas about their characters by offering in-game rewards for out of game activities such as in-character diaries, stories based on the game and post-game debriefings. I think character experience is the fairest reward. This normally allows the player to expand the character along the lines they set out in the post-game activities. This allows a player to reinforce their vision of the character and strengthens their indentification with the character.

This is bribery pure and simple, mea culpa.

Rigging, recounts and restitution

At the end of a game session I always like the players to vote equal packages of experience points (or the like) amongst themselves. Those getting the most votes get one of the packages and so on. Bribery again? I prefer to think of it as encouraging peer recognition and reward. As a player I will admit to a certain guilty buzz when being voted best roleplayer of the session and I imagine my players like the laurels just as much.

This system also ensures that the normally arbitrary GM awards and penalties are balanced by the players' awards. It can also indicate to the perceptive GM when they are out of synch with the group mood. You might find a player irritating but if they are constantly being voted for then they are adding a great deal to the game one way or another.

As a coda to this point if you think your devious players are strategically voting ask them to pick a few reasons why they are voting for the character. This sometimes yields some interesting but perfectly valid answers (including from games I have been involved in: for attacking us, I would have done that in his position, for being comatose half the session, for annoying me).

That's it, that's that for now

Of course any experienced group will probably just laugh at the points above, isn't half the fun of gaming sessions the wierd off-topic out of character conversations? Shouldn't players hijack the narrative thread every now and then?

These are my rules, honoured in full or in the breach. But I would like to leave it with one question if you didn't come to roleplay what were you looking for? Some new RPG recruits from the excellent RPG computer games available these days are looking for an experience away from the constraints of technology and limitations of programming. Traditional tabletop RPGs do offer these freedoms but they have their own price and that is that your character is not your anonymous avatar machine you have to bring to it your own spark of life.

Not Collecting Card Games

The most recent card game I have not been collecting is Shadowfist the CCG counterpart of the Feng Shui game. I have played Feng Shui just once and while I like the genre, the game's attempt to emulate it ultimately leaves me unsatisfied. By acknowledging the clichés of the films so directly I think it fails to capture why the good films are enjoyable and worthwhile. It attacks the often scanty plots of the Hong Kong movie while failing to capture the visceral excitement of the action sequences.

The card game does a far better job creating fast-paced ensemble cast fun in the style of Enter the Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China and Golden Child rather than the gritty urban action flicks of The Killer and Hardboiled. Hordes of goons come and go while the big characters tend to hang around a little longer before being overwhelmed by waves of attackers and continuous poor fortune (in that respect at least the card game completely fails to resemble any action film I have ever seen).

The idea for not collecting the game came from a friend who bought several of my friends pre-built Throne War decks for Christmas. Each deck represents a different faction so my friend decided to dish out the decks according to whose personality he felt best fit the faction. He also laid down the rule that only two booster decks should be bought (so that the poor students could keep up with the obscenely well-paid IT employees) and that spare cards should be swapped round freely (i.e. no trading).

Were the rules obeyed? Not very likely, quite a few boosters were bought and I myself must admit to acquiring three, although I blame mine on a misunderstanding of the game. What is interesting though is that despite all the purchases nothing much has changed in the game decks, i.e. the one used to actually play rather than all the cards you might have.

Not only that but there is a big pile of spare cards, over seventy I would guess, that all the players have free access to. The spares pool is rarely used and there is now talk of actually creating a new game deck out of the spares.

I find this kind of surprising, can no-one really have been tempted to keep a few good cards that they may not have been able to use but which an opponent could? Why after spending around £50 are the decks being played not much changed in essence? Why have the powerful rare cards not disrupted the games more and tipped the balance towards the big spenders?

It seems paradoxical but I am starting to get the feeling that Shadowfist is a game that is actually against collecting cards. The answers to my questions all seem to lie in the structure of the game itself.

The most important idea is that of the game suits that are rather like the suits in a deck of regular playing cards. Each player initially started out with a pre-built deck for just one faction or suit. Constructing decks that have more than one suit seems terribly difficult and the single suit decks seem to crush multiple suit decks.

This is because timing is terribly important in Shadowfist, it is a limited-duration, fast play type of game that requires a very strict distribution of the various categories of game card. Too little or too much of any one kind of card means that you tend to get pasted. If your deck is too slow to deliver playable cards you rarely get to enter the game at all, if your deck is too fast you can burn out losing the game because you have no cards left.

The speed, categorisation and timing of the decks are so critical to even getting a good game that the deck design has to be pretty strict. The rulebook listed the percentage of cards that are required to make a good deck of approximately sixty cards. I think I have managed to nudge my deck over the sixty-card limit but only at the cost of strict card counting and obedience to the proportions.

All this in turn means once you have tuned a deck to deliver a decent game there is a strong pressure to be conservative in changing it. All radical changes have simply resulted in losing. Therefore the players are more likely to swap a few cards around than do any radical tinkering. The idea of a sideboard is irrelevant because the risk of messing the fundamentals of the deck around negates the benefit of adding in a few additional specific cards. It seems that you are better off to form an alliance within the game and use diplomacy to see off any sudden threats.

The lack of a sideboard helps reduce the need for card hoarding just in case. It puts the emphasis back on the game and interaction of the players who are in turn forced to make the complex calculations of gain and loss, mutual protection and betrayal.

The final aspect opposing big spends are the game suits themselves. Put simply you cannot use a card outside your suit. Since a booster will generally only have two cards for your suit there is a greater incentive to pool the cards in the hope that another player will discover an unplayable card that is perfect for your deck.

All these reasons add up to a game where trading and collecting cards is pretty irrelevant apart from the desire for novelty. That makes Shadowfist and ideal NCCG to me

Perdidio Street Station

I am currently reading and greatly enjoying China Melville's Perdido Street Station, a fantastic, well-written book with a beautiful prose style that sucks the reader in. Melville has a talent for building up a scene carefully and then twisting the reader's perception of it completely. The result is a deep, rich narrative that creates an image made of whole cloth while retaining a strangeness that is more exotic than alien.

As a writer he is justifiably being compared to not only the great British fantasy writers such as Lewis, Tolkien and Peake but also Dickens. The comparisons are only unfair in so much that regardless of his influences and similarities Melville has created a distinctive and striking novel of his own.