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Thursday 26 January 2023

Chaos is your friend

If I had one roleplaying rule that I’d put on a Post-It, it would be: don’t get comfortable. You should always be pushing the game away from the status quo. And that applies to the players as well as the referee.

Campaigns can fall into a lazy story-of-the-week pattern. It’s especially a risk with campaigns built around a party of characters with one common goal – we’re superheroes who protect the world, we’re occult investigators in ‘30s New York, we’re legionaries guarding the frontiers of the empire. If any major event collides with that and breaks the party into pieces, the temptation can be to see it as a temporary aberration that needs to be fixed so that everything goes back to the way it was.

It’s how TV shows used to be before cable. Everything more or less reset so that you could watch episodes in any order. Even with their season arcs providing a loose developing narrative, early Buffy or X Files stories amounted to: “Here are our familiar friends doing their familiar things.” Cosy for fireside viewing, that.

What set me thinking about this was a session in a Last Fleet campaign I played in. The ragtag fleet (this is a Battlestar Galactica type deal) was in need of fuel so a ship was sent to scout out a nearby system with a gas giant and a colonized rocky planet with a refinery. The scout ship found trouble: the satellite network around the colony planet had been destroyed, there was no response from either the refinery or the mining station orbiting the gas giant, and the scout ship came under fire from a cloaked alien fighter. Oh, and they encountered a prison ship with about a hundred detainees in coldsleep.

The damage to the scout ship made it impossible to report back to the fleet, which jumped into the system only to be immediately hit by multiple cloaked attackers. The original scout ship tried to make an emergency landing on the planet. As they descended they saw an immense refugee camp, miles across, presumably housing the colonists who had survived whatever destroyed the satellite network. The scout ship broke up on crash-landing in the desert outside the camp. The pilot (Lt Lightshere) was injured and two other characters, the fleet’s chief scientist (Dr Corax) and a persuasive politician (Mr Coronov), were forced to bail out.

Immediately the characters went into reset-the-status-quo mode: “Get a recovery ship down there. Pick up Lightshere and take him to sick bay. Find Corax and get him to the bridge. We need to figure out a weakness in the enemy’s attack plan.”

By making stories all about solve-the-plot, games tend to steer us in this kind of track. In that context the Ace Pilot's injuries are just seen as an inconvenience, lost hit points that must be quickly fixed by autodoc so he can go back to doing what he usually does. The Brilliant Scientist back on the bridge would set up another by-the-numbers moment: “I’ve analyzed their attack and there is a weakness.” “Good, now that Lightshere is patched up he can lead the squadron. Coronov, you speak to the fleet and reassure everyone…”

But here’s another way to go. Maybe the Ace Pilot's injuries aren’t simple broken bones so much as loss of memory and/or internal injuries. So he wanders into the refugee city not knowing what’s happened, or alternatively is found unconscious by scavengers from the city and taken back there for treatment. The Brilliant Scientist and the Persuasive Politician might not even be with him – they bailed out before impact, so they could be a mile away on the far side of the camp, possibly not even together.

The party is already split. I’m saying you don’t have to fight that. When the story veers off course, keep upping the ante. Pour on the chaos. Let it find a new equilibrium.

This way the characters are thrown into a whole new scenario that could lead anywhere but the cosily familiar. The Brilliant Scientist and the Persuasive Politician might become involved in the refugees’ plight, or be struggling to survive out in the desert. The Ace Pilot might not even know who he is, or that he has internal bleeding that requires expert medical attention within a given time (a doom clock is a common feature of the Last Fleet).

Meanwhile, the away team sent down to the planet to search for them doesn’t have the near-magical tech of anything like tricorders, so they’d be faced with a ramshackle tent city and miles of desert. What are they going to do? Talk to the refugees? Threaten them? Round them up? They’d have to Seek Out the missing player-characters (that’s a move in the Last Fleet rules, hence it's in bold). There won’t even be a single refugee leadership, probably; rather a bunch of factions whose squabbling mirrors the fleet itself.

Imagine it in a TV show. The audience, thrust far outside their comfort zone and with all the characters facing unexpected jeopardy, would be biting their collective nails to the quick. You know this would be better than getting everybody back to the fleet without further mishaps.

This is not a point about railroading, incidentally. It has nothing to do with what the referee originally had planned. The whole principle behind Powered by the Apocalypse games is that everybody is "playing to find out what happens". So it's not particularly the referee's responsibility to decide how the narrative deals with those missing and injured characters. Whether to skip over those details or how to incorporate them is decided by the whole group. What I'm advocating is the notion that when circumstances veer off into the unknown, the players (including the referee) are missing an opportunity if they just struggle to bring everything back to the template they're used to.

If your players are willing to embrace the “interesting chaos” that emerges from a session and run with it, they’ll find the story spinning off in directions that nobody anticipated, and that will provide much more variety than if everyone struggles to block those emergent improvisations and pull the adventure back on course.

The example I’m giving here would entail a lot of scene-hopping. That doesn’t have to mean the players spending a lot of time as passive observers. The situation is tense enough that each group of players – Scientist and Politician in the desert, wounded Ace Pilot in the tent city, the other pilots in their fighters, the bridge crew on the battlestar – can be getting on with their own thing while the referee flits between them. It’s perfect for breakout rooms on Zoom or Discord, but even in real-life gaming there’s always the kitchen or the back yard.

I find there’s a lot to be learned from games like The Last Fleet even though I fight shy of metagaming and authored narratives. The fact is that nothing in Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics obliges you to consciously craft a story rather than let it happen, just as in drama you can write a script in advance but you can equally well wing it on the night. I have other gripes about PbtA mechanics (everything is a special case; making rules story-based rather than skills-based hampers in-the-moment improv; etc) but I can’t agree with one of my players who said of PbtA, “I think you’re working very hard to sell an only slightly dead parrot.” Let’s be more open-minded than that!

Friday 20 January 2023

One sing-song to rule them all

Nothing punctures the dignity of a Dark Lord faster than banishing him to the world of mortals in the body of a 12-year-old kid. That's what happened to Dirk Lloyd, as fans of Jamie's hilarious books will know. And now, as part of his relentless struggle to claim back his powers, Dirk is appearing in a stage musical -- for a limited run to begin with, but Broadway beckons.

The show is written and produced by Kevin Murphy, creator of Reefer Madness and Heathers: The Musical and one of the lead writers on Desperate Housewives. He knows his diminuendo from his demisemiquavers. You can book tickets for the London premiere here.

Equally exciting, issue 8 of the superb Casket of Fays is out today. And by the generosity of the seelie folks at Red Ruin Publishing it's free. What are you waiting for?

Friday 13 January 2023

The sting

On this episode of his podcast Cautionary Tales, Tim Harford gives a gripping account of the literary hoax involving Howard Hughes's alleged autobiography.

Fascinating as the story about Clifford Hughes is, even more interesting are the techniques he used to dupe respected publishers and experienced bankers so that they bought into his deception. That's what a good con trick is all about: storytelling.

I discovered how true that was years ago when Oliver Johnson gave me a book on confidence trickery that his publishing firm had just released. 'I've read it cover to cover,' he said, 'so you won't be able to dupe me.'

Aha, there's a challenge. A few weeks later, in our Tekumel game, Oliver's character had some legal problem and was invited to the Palace of the Realm in Jakalla to meet an official. He entered as a fellow in fine robes was descending from the uppermost tier of one of the bureaucratic pyramids. 'Let's go to lunch,' suggested the official. They agreed a fee for making the legal problem go away. A few days later, when Oliver returned to the Palace of the Realm to check that everything was going smoothly, he met the real official of that name. The other man had simply put on some expensive robes, waited around the upper tiers until Oliver's character arrived, then walked down to introduce himself, collected a fat bribe, and disappeared.

'I can't believe I fell for it!' said Oliver after the game. He even went on to name the con trick I'd used.

I'm sure that it can be very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of a real-life con, but we have a sympathy for con men in stories that we don't have for murderers and drug dealers. Perhaps part of it is the sense that the con man (or woman) has to believe in their own story, at least a little. They need to be part dreamer.

I had a first-hand taste of something like this last year, when I was catfished into agreeing to go to a games meeting that didn't happen. A guy had got in touch about roleplaying; he spent months emailing me about comic books, SF, games and other mutual interests, and then proposed collaborating on a concept for a major gaming franchise. I was dubious because I know that major franchises don't buy in story concepts, but my guy claimed he'd booked a meeting with the senior execs at a famous videogames company and I thought it couldn't hurt to go along. Also, the story concept he had come up with was brilliantly original. Even if I didn't get hired to work on it, I'd want to play the game. 'I'll send a car for you,' he said. Figuring that the car was maybe 50% likely to show up, I put on a clean shirt that day but didn't make any special plans.

You guessed it. Of course the car didn't turn up, there was no meeting with any game execs, and I never heard from the fellow again. This was the (slightly) surprising but (very) inevitable ending I'd half expected; the only disappointment was that the payoff had to be so low-key. I would never get to meet the guy who set up the con, nor even know his real name, so there was no big reveal, no dramatic denouement. I couldn't even shake his hand and say, as Oliver did to me after that Tekumel game, 'Ya got me!'

On the other hand, that's part of the beauty of it. In all such stories, it's the victim of the con who must supply their own epiphany. 

'The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'

That's how I run my roleplaying games too, after all. I'm not telling a story, I'm just setting things up so the players can find their own story.

So I had a Zen kind of lesson and it cost me nothing. Plus I got to hear the pitch for a genuinely interesting story. (I won't say anything about it here in case my catfisher actually uses it in some form for a comic or novel or something.) That's probably as benevolent as con tricks get in real life, and it reminded me what effective story elements they make. If you're stuck for an idea for your next game, take a look at some of these and have some fun with them.

Thursday 5 January 2023

WEIRD is too normal

Paul Mason, who has lived in Japan for the past 30 years, has long maintained that Westerners don't know how to play "real" Tsolyani. An example he gives is that we might think of ourselves as Kolyemu of the Black Stone Clan, but it would be more accurate to say that the Tsolyani view would be, "I am the Black Stone Clan's Kolyemu."

I was reminded of that by this review of Joseph Heinrich's book The Weirdest People in the World:

"Standing apart from the community, primed to break wholes into parts and classify them, Westerners are more analytical. People from kinship-intensive cultures, by comparison, tend to think more holistically. They focus on relationships rather than categories."

Players in games go on and on about their character's traits and foibles in a way that somebody from a non-Western non-industrial culture probably never would. It's a habit that has only got worse as an obsession with story tropes and character arcs has taken hold in roleplaying. It's a very 21st century mannerism to tell people that you're on the spectrum (if it's a spectrum then who isn't?) or to narcissistically expatiate on your life goals and attitudes.

I'm using Tekumel as an example, but this applies to all RPG culture gaming. There's a lot of it about, I'm glad to say. Some friends of mine are currently playing as Gwich'in tribespeople in 19th century Yukon. I make periodic stabs at publishing my and Jamie's Tetsubo game set in the Sengoku period. And I don't need to tell you that the medieval Europe on which Legend is modelled is a very foreign country to us today. These are all good examples of culture gaming, but it only pays off if the players are willing to make an imaginative leap outside their modern mindset into the perspective of an entirely different time and place.

The trouble is, modern Westerners are not at all interested in diversity. Oh, you think diversity is being championed these days? Not a bit of it; it's just lip service. Look at a Marvel movie or pretty much any fantasy TV show. Sure, there'll be folk of all hues and accents. But all those characters are really Westerners at heart, with modern Western attitudes and the same glib Waititian sense of humour. If diversity was what we actually cared about then we'd be watching movies from other lands and cultures and times. We'd stop the empty virtue-signalling and really get out of our comfort zone.

Does it matter? Well, you can roleplay any way you like. Do whatever you enjoy, sure. But I would say that roleplaying is rewarding when it takes us on an imaginative leap outside ourselves, and that counts double when it allows us to slip outside our cultural preconceptions. Then it isn't just fun but it expands the mind and lets us appreciate how richly varied the human race can be.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Another one bites the dust

Well, that was a weird one. Putin starts behaving like Hitler while accusing his victims of being Nazis. Italy elects a government of one-time fascists. The US has a political party that is full-on deranged, has started unravelling fundamental rights via a blatantly politicized Supreme Court, and has a probable presidential candidate who threatens his rivals like a mob boss. Meanwhile Britain is collapsing as a developed society while the hardliners who are responsible for it squawk that it's everyone else's fault for not having enough faith in their crazed isolationist project. And the icing on the cake for me was getting some comments last year accusing me of harbouring secret Nazi beliefs.

Those who are interested in my actual beliefs (none of which I'd call beliefs myself; it's too dogmatic) will find them expressed in previous New Year's Day messages. Eg here, here and here. This year I'll just wish you good luck getting through to another one unscathed. Around the world there are stupid people convinced they are right and ready to scream at anyone who doesn't unconditionally agree with them on every topic. Bonkers, yes, but half the population have an IQ of less than 100.

We're neotenic apes and we might be the best this galaxy has got. I know, it doesn't even bear thinking about, does it? Better just help who you can and show charity to the people you come in contact with, try to think well of others, respect everyone's personal life choices if they aren't hurting anyone else, talk things through rather than shout opponents down, and always allow for the possibility that you're wrong and you need to change your mind. Then you'll know that you've done your bit to make the world slightly better.

I'll close with some food for thought from Margaret Kennedy's novel The Feast:

“If there wasn’t something a little wrong with all of us we could deal with any one pernicious group. But we can’t because nobody is grateful enough. Ingratitude. That’s what is the matter with everybody. And isn’t that because every man, any man, has a completely false idea of what he really is? He will regard himself as an independent and self-sufficient unit—a sovereign state. And in his dealing with the rest of us he imagines he is negotiating with other sovereign states. No wonder the negotiations break down. For by himself he is nothing. Nothing at all. All that he is, everything that he possesses, he owes to the rest of us. He has nothing that is really his own.”

“He has an immortal soul,” stated the Canon.

“Which he didn’t make himself. He is simply a creature presuming to negotiate on equal terms with his Creator. If he could ever fully realize what he owes to the rest of us he would be so flooded, so overwhelmed, with humility and gratitude that he would only be anxious to pay his debts, not claim his rights. He’d be the easiest fellow in the world to play ball with.”

“I do not think,” observed Mr. Paley, “that I owe anything to anybody. What I am, what I have, are the result of my own efforts.”

“You didn’t conceive yourself or give birth to yourself. You didn’t invent the language you use, and in which the wisdom of other generations has been communicated to you by other people. You couldn’t even do a noble deed without some help from us; it was we who first gave you a notion of nobility and anyway you’d need somebody else to do it to. You didn’t weave the cloth you wear or grow the bread you eat.”

“I pay for what I have.”

“Do you pay enough? Does anybody pay enough? Has any man repaid a millionth part of all that he has received? Where would you be without the rest of us?”

There it is in a nutshell. Where would any of us be without the rest of us? Take care of yourself in 2023, and I hope we'll be having some robust discussions here in the year ahead.