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Friday, 5 March 2021

The GM's favourite

Have you ever guested in somebody else's long-running campaign? If so you might have come across a referee who indulges one player over the rest of the table. It doesn't occur in every gaming group, and if it happens in your own regular sessions you probably haven't noticed it. But here are some warning signs...

When you were setting up your campaign, did a player come to you with a shopping list of special off-the-book character buffs? "Can I have immunity to everything? 5 points would be a reasonable cost, wouldn't it?" If you granted those, then face it: that player is your teacher's pet.

It isn't always that overt. If the referee and one of the players are particularly close friends, their imaginations are likely to be in sync. Jamie and I spent our teen years steeped in the same science fantasy classics, so if I'm working up a trope in a Tekumel campaign (Tekumel drawing freely on the likes of Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance) then he's likely to be ahead of the pack in catching on.

There's also the case of the player who is aware of the kind of thing his or her referee likes and so plays up to it. "I swing on the chandelier, soar nimbly across the shoulders of the guards and somersault to land in a crouch before the princess." If the referee applauds ("Oh, beautifully done!") when they'd ask anyone else for a dice roll then the player is probably a favourite who knows the referee's fondness for swashbucklers. A newcomer to the group, unaware of the codes that unlock referee approval, would have to work that much harder.

Some games explicitly say the referee should be a fan of the player-characters, but the snag is that any partiality will come to be abused. It's like working for a company where the boss's sons and daughters have all the key positions. You know they weren't appointed on merit, even if the good of the business was what the boss had in mind at the start. That's why I believe in comprehensive rules, not loose interpretations at the whim of the referee. The point is not to gum up the flow of the game. You hope all those rules will rarely, if ever, be needed. But if it comes to it, the final court of appeal is not to an individual but to the rulebook.

Of all the causes of one player hogging the spotlight, the hardest to avoid is when that player is simply giving better value than the rest. Every group has its star players and its supporting characters. Often the players themselves prefer it that way. Some people are shy or naturally cautious; others are in like Flynn. As the referee you're always alert to moments when the pace of a session might be flagging, and a player who peps it up by improvising brilliantly in character is going to grab more of your attention. Writers describe the same phenomenon: "The character took over the book!"

I don't think the solution is to bake everyone's fifteen minutes into the rules. That just forces the game to follow the patterns of a bad TV show: "So I can't shoot this guy, despite being MI6's top assassin, because I already had a couple of highlight moments earlier in the session..?" But you do need to monitor who is demanding the lion's share of your attention, and whether the quieter players are happy about that. If they're not, make sure there are opportunities for them to shine too. Otherwise the first sign of that gathering resentment might be when they stop turning up to the game.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

True bluish light

Another YouTube outing for Heart of Ice? It's getting to be like buses. If you don't have time to sit and watch the whole playthrough, grab the podcast here. Or you could cut out the middle man, as Stan Laurel advises, and just read the book.

The only downside to all this flattering attention for my own favourite of my gamebooks is that it piles on the pressure for the forthcoming Vulcanverse series. Can Jamie and I make them even better, or must we resign ourselves to resting on our laurels? You'll be able to judge in a few months.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

How stories emerge

Good stories arise out of what the characters do. Bad stories result when you decide on a plot outcome first and then manipulate the characters’ behaviour to reach that goal.

Showrunner Peter Gould explains how it works on Better Call Saul. And that’s the writers’ room on a TV show, where you might think they can just make the characters do whatever the plot demands. Not on a good TV show, they don't. So if you’re running a roleplaying game and you’re defining a story goal and only then going through the motions to get there, you’re not roleplaying, you’re writing – and you’re not even getting writing right.

I’ve talked before about stories as a cascade of events, the same way a series of gravitational tweaks to a ball’s velocity leads to a parabola. This was what I was trying to do with Dreams at Elixir Studios. Designing from the top down is entirely the wrong way to go about it.

(Incidentally, designing a game like that using grown-up characters in a modern town was also the wrong way to do it. The player's expectations of how human-like characters ought to behave are too high. If you want a story-creating game, start with simple animal characters and stories like you’d find in Farthing Wood. That’s my Figments concept, but let’s talk about that some other time.)

How do you encourage that cascade of events? I think the best stories arise when the rules themselves don’t address story as a goal. Take care of the details and the story will take care of itself. A good simulation system is the best narrative game.

The proof? Look around you. It’s all just physics. Real life has no story-creator processes going on at the level of the engine. Yet here’s the universe doing drama very well indeed – sometimes a little too well, as when a preening bully whips up a riot because he can’t accept he lost a fair election – and all of that is just because everyone’s acting in the moment.

I grumble about GURPS. It’s even a tag on these posts. But it’s like finding fault with an old friend. Many of our best games have sprung spontaneously out of those mechanics, which might look dry on the page but are fertile soil for stories. Like nuclear fission, GURPS if used responsibly will do whatever you need.

Maybe you’ve been put off trying GURPS because it has the reputation of being complicated? (It’s easier than physics, believe me.) The books cover everything, but you’re meant to pick the parts you need for your campaign. Admittedly I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said to players, “We are using just the basic books, no mental disadvantages, no quirks or perks,” only to have them come back with some skill they found in a supplement. Be firm and it’ll work. Start off with GURPS Lite (which is free) and take advice from The Path of Cunning, a fine fanzine (also free) published by Roger Bell-West and John Dallman.

That and imagination are all you need, and the stories will take care of themselves.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Gamebooks are growing up

Some gamebook news today, and here's one that ought to be of interest to Fabled Lands readers. Apart from the Steam Highwayman series (excellent and highly recommended btw) there haven't been a lot of open world gamebooks, in the sense of giving complete freedom to travel where you want, go back and forth without limit, and pick up whichever quests appeal to your character. But here's a new one called Alba with a post-apocalyptic setting, and it must be doing something right because in fund-raising terms it has far surpassed other print gamebooks (open world or linear) of recent times.

I haven't seen the book myself, but from the Kickstarter page it looks like it has a lot of legacy game elements such as stickers that mark items or locations on the map. (And to think players used to grumble about having to tick boxes in Fabled Lands books back in the day.)

The writing style is of  higher quality than the purple prose of yore, and it looks as if the blocks of prose between choices are longer, making this more of a weighty novelistic experience than a CRPG in book form. Think Telltale Games' The Walking Dead rather than The Witcher. Here's the author, Harley L Truslove, talking about the books.

One obvious difference from old-style gamebooks is that in Alba your character can't die. That's a gripe about FL that we still hear. Somebody on Facebook recently was disgruntled because the skeleton pirates in Over the Blood-Dark Sea had carted them off to a life of undeadtured (sic) servitude with no hope of resurrection:

It used to be that whatever happened to you was part of the story, even when that story ended in tragedy and/or horror. But those were times when PCs in roleplaying games might get killed at the drop of a bascinet, and when we could reasonably expect Bucky to stay dead. We're in different times now, and Jamie and I have taken that on board with our new Vulcanverse gamebooks, which should eventually consist of around a 4000-section adventure in which you cannot die permanently, not even if the Furies and Nemesis team up against you. The worst you'll suffer is being sent to the naughty corner (aka Tartarus) for a brief spell.

I'm being facetious, but the Don't Kill Me players are right. A single-story game (Heart of Ice, say) shouldn't require trying-&-dying till you find an optimum path through. Every time the PC snuffs it in a book like that it's a failure on the writer's part. And even in an open-world gamebook, where death might be the appropriate ending for a given character's story, it can't just be random and unavoidable. Good god, that would be too much like real life.

But it's not just the legacy features and the immunity from death that have propelled Alba to unprecedented success for a print gamebook. The main difference is that it's not the usual hokey old '80s-era D&D kind of fantasy, but instead a vivid, gritty and character-driven narrative in a setting that feels contemporary. (The excerpt is quite well-hidden on the Kickstarter page, but you can download it here.) If Alba was a TV show it'd be a talked-about cable drama, whereas most gamebooks would be a cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoon that you dimly remembered from your childhood.

In the '80s heyday of CYOA and Fighting Fantasy, gamebooks were hugely successful. Pretty much every series was guaranteed to sell in the tens of thousands per territory. Gamebooks could still matter to a sizeable readership if they moved on from their origin as kids’ books. Interactive stories like The Walking Dead can deal with whether you’ll commit murder to save a friend. Firewatch can tackle loneliness and hope. In games from Assassin's Creed to Bioshock the player is confronted with real feelings and choices more intense than any movie.

And meanwhile gamebooks* are mostly still about which key opens which chest or which item will defeat the Big Bad. Who cares? Crosswords and sudoku already have the puzzle market covered**. It's time for gamebooks to grow up the way that computer games have. That's what makes Alba exceptional. It's about an emotional journey, as all the best stories are. Only connect, that's the way forward.

* Print gamebooks, that is. For some time now Choice of Games have been producing interactive stories with more depth in digital book format, not the least of their titles being The ORPHEUS Ruse, a superbly gripping adventure by our own Paul Gresty.

** Unless you go full-on puzzle book, that is. I'd probably quite enjoy something like Journal 29, but it has stripped out all the story. And Alex Bellos's column in The Guardian satisfies my brain-training needs.

What happened to gamebooks?

Back in the early 1980s, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a smart idea. They could get fantasy games into high street bookstores (and so bring them to a much wider readership) by grafting D&D-style rules onto the branching-path stories popularized by Choose Your Own Adventure.

In fact The Fantasy Trip's solo adventures got there years earlier (and Ayn Rand beat them to it by decades, kind of) but Fighting Fantasy was the breakout hit, selling a couple of hundred thousand copies per title in Britain alone. 

Unlike the Beatles and Hugh Grant they never quite cracked the US market, admittedly, but FF and similar gamebook series sold in the millions worldwide.

Nowadays a print gamebook would be very lucky to shift five or ten thousand copies, and most don't even get close. Why is that? And is there a way for gamebooks to recapture their former popularity? Join us tomorrow to discuss it.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Tony Stark's QAnon connection

If you had a Tardis and you went back two thousand years and showed the druids some examples of modern technology, I bet you they wouldn’t be impressed. They’d look at wi-fi and jet engines and antibiotics and electricity and then they’d tell you why their Mystic Meg explanation of the universe was the only true one.

You don’t even need a time machine. These people are all around us nowadays. The Earth is flat. Vaccines cause autism (and/or implant microchips). 5G causes cancer (and/or covid-19). The climate isn’t heating up. Democrats eat babies on their pizzas. The moon landings were faked. 9-11 was a government hoax. Used to be that this kind of thing was limited to a few crazies, but the internet seems to have woken up a strain of hyper-gullibility. A friend of mine was told by a publican who believes covid-19 doesn’t exist that “scepticism is good”. And so it is. But only if you can tell scepticism from cussed denialism.

Why do people snap up these myths? There are two parts to the answer. The first explains why they are looking for myths to believe. If you ask people who convert to a religion later in life (and who therefore haven’t been conditioned early on to accept it without question), the most common reason they give for converting is: “Modern life was getting me down. Everything seemed so complex. But then I discovered this faith and it makes everything simple.”

Now, your first response if you’re a real sceptic would be: “Why should a complex system have an easy answer?” People lap up an easy answer because it makes them feel safer, and their need to feel safe overrides the issue of whether the easy answer is likely to be right.

Then there’s the question of amour-propre. A lot of people who buy into conspiracy theories are not dumb, but they’re self-educated and therefore only half-educated. They’ve never been trained in logical thought, never learned to spot fallacies. They have a vested interest, in fact, in not even wanting to spot fallacies.

Here’s why: if you feel left behind, accepting a logic-defying belief puts you on a level playing field with better educated people because if logic and evidence count for nothing then experts have no advantage. When you accept the conspiracy you gain self-respect. You think you’re special. You can sneer at the “sheeple” who accept science and reason. Those idiots with their qualifications and their degrees -- you know better from "the university of life" and a few hours trawling the internet.

The internet fuels this nonsense because it’s a junk store of unfiltered claims and mislabelled data. Demented conspiracy theorists trawl through it, apply a sort of green-ink, back-bedroom, halfwit parody of expert analysis, and suddenly you have them “proving” that President Biden doesn’t have access to Air Force One or that the coronavirus genome contains a human DNA sequence.

OK, so that’s why these people are susceptible to conspiracies and where they’re getting their “information”. But why these particular myths?

I got the answer to that the other night while I was watching Iron Man 2. If you haven’t seen it – well, watch Iron Man 1 instead (and don’t for the love of reason watch Iron Man 3), but here’s the recap. Tony Stark is dying of palladium toxicity. “I’ve tried every element to power my arc reactor,” he says, “but none of them works. I need a new element.” The arc reactor keeps his heart beating, you see, so no getting rid of that.

The problem of the new element wouldn’t really be its structure, of course. There aren’t a lot of puzzles when all you’re putting together are protons and neutrons. It’s how you’d synthesize it that would be tricky. But that’s fine. Give that a pass. It’s sci-fi. The point is how Tony learns the structure of the new element, like so:

See, his dad, Howard Stark, figured it all out back in the ‘70s but didn’t have the technology to synthesize it. He left Tony a home movie in which he says, “You can do it.” He doesn’t say what the element is. He doesn’t draw a diagram or tell Tony about a file where he could look it up. It’s a gnomic hint at a deep secret. At this point the conspiracy theorist in all of us sits up.

Tony goes to his old office. There he sees the model of the Stark Expo park that his dad was standing in front of in that movie. He takes it home, randomly removes lots of buildings, and then realizes that the remaining buildings, if thought of as protons and neutrons, look like a superheavy but stable atomic nucleus. The new element!

But hang on. If his dad had figured out arc reactor tech fifty years ago, why didn’t he publish? He was a weirdly secretive guy? OK then, but this is really important and it could die with him. So why would he hide the info in a cardboard model of an expo park, and make a sly hint about it on a home movie – and just hope neither would get chucked away? He could have tattooed the nuclear structure on baby Tony’s bottom, for heaven’s sake. Or just left him a Read This file.

It’s storytelling, that’s why. Offered a trail of breadcrumbs, moviegoers don’t ask, “What’s this trail of crumbs doing here? Who put it there? Why did they?” Instead they go, “Ooh, a trail of crumbs. Better follow it.”

And that’s how conspiracies work. They weave a story. Their audience: the poor saps who feel left out by a world where you have to apply reason, keep thinking, and continually update your theories. Offer them a conspiracy with the shape of a story, however simplistic, and they’re Pavlov-conditioned to jump through the hoop you’ve held out for them and feel they’ve done something really smart.

Just as you can defend yourself from demagogues by learning to spot the tricks of rhetoric, you can defend yourself against conspiracy-peddlers by knowing the techniques used by storytellers. The same twists, reveals, and reversals that a writer uses to pull you into a story can also be employed to snare you in a dangerous delusion. The world is complicated; get over it. Simplistic answers are often wrong. But you have a brain that’s more complex than any other structure that we know of in the universe. Use it. Don’t be the druids they’re looking for.

Monday, 8 February 2021

You won't want to miss...

We've been seeing some glimpses of Prime Games' forthcoming Fabled Lands CRPG, and shared some of Guy Sclanders' wonderful FL playthroughs, so you won't want to miss Guy taking the alpha of the CRPG for a spin. Thanks to Victor Atanasov and the team for a truly marvellous-looking game.

Part two here:

I see in the chat window that Guy was reminded of the music accompanying Igrayne's dance in John Boorman's Excalibur. Judge for yourself below. (And, Guy, you're dead right; it is the best Arthurian movie ever.)