Monday, December 30, 2013

Play Report: Warhammer, Dec. 29th

Yes, I know I skipped the tremulus session on the 22nd. I'll get to that one soon enough. For now, I want to write about the Warhammer session we played yesterday:

Character creation:

Character creation actually happened on the 22nd, but since I didn't write that report yet, I'll go ahead and write about it here.

The process was a little bumpy, overall; I was the only one at the table with any knowledge of the game, and I had only read the rulebook once, several weeks ago. I was totally unready to make characters; my focus was on tremulus, but when that game ended early and we had a few hours to spare, we decided to get chargen out of the way so we could just focus on the game the following week. 

Once we knew what we were doing, the process was much smoother. Warhammer chargen is point-based, so it's really just about picking a bunch of stuff. In the end, we had four characters (J2 was absent for the session): a Coachman, a Student, an Apprentice wizard of the Bright Order, and a Thief.

The Adventure:

We played "Eye for an Eye", the adventure in the back of the GM's guide. This marks the first time in a very, very long time I've completely played through a module. I almost always write my own adventures. However, for the coming year, I really want to ramp up my gamemastering. I figure a way to do that is through running modules. All the time I normally spend inventing stuff can now be spent learning and refining stuff that's already been invented. It's a trade-off of creativity for quality. For now, I'll take it in favor of learning a new system. 

It didn't hurt that "Eye for an Eye" is a damn good adventure, though! The adventure is mostly a mystery; the PCs spent the majority of their time investigating the staff of Grunewald Manor, trying to address the lord of the manor's suspicions that something foul was afoot. The players did a fine job of investigating, splitting their time between unraveling the mystery and just doing good roleplaying (the thief had a memorable scene where he attempted to steal a painting in the gallery).

I'm not going to go into too many specifics here, so as not to spoil the published adventure, but overall, I think the adventure is solid, well-written, and easy to play and prep for.

Combat & Mechanics:

Warhammer's mechanics, combined with its top-shelf production value, is the main reason I even bought the game. And it lived up to the hype, I'm happy to say.

After a little class on what all the dice were and what the symbols on them meant, the players were assembling their dice pools quickly and easily. I kept a small stash of dice behind the screen for observation rolls (though I've got to remember in the future to record their observation skills so I don't have to ask!) What I love about the dice, aside from the refreshing lack of math, is that they actually contribute to the narrative. For example, the Thief rolled a bunch of banes with his success while inspecting the gate during the first encounter. So I gave the Thief some information about the gate and the wall and the guardhouse, but I then I decided that, because of the banes, his pre-occupation with the gate left him surprised by the beastmen ambush (which I translated into a misfortune die on his initiative roll). Nice, huh? In other RPGs, that mechanic simply doesn't exist: you either fail, or you don't. Is it necessary? Of course not. But, as a GM, any tool I can get that helps guide the story is a tool worth using. And Warhammer gives me a very powerful tool in these narrative dice. One of the only other systems I've seen do this effectively is my beloved Dungeon World. Anyone who's read a few of these blog entries knows my reverence for that game and it's kin.

As for the action cards...they pretty much worked the same way as powers in 4th edition D&D. The only difference here is, instead of cutting you lose to find your own solution to organizing those powers like D&D did (or trying to milk you for more money through their ill-fated Power Card decks), Warhammer gives you the tools right in the box. The same applies to the career cards, the character sheets, and the talent cards: they're all just really slick ways to track your character's stats. Like D&D, a blank piece of paper, a pencil, and some patience is all you really need, but these tools make the process a lot easier, and thus more fun.

One of Warhammer's unique elements that really impressed me, though, was the stance meter. It elegantly turns every roll into a tactical decision: go cautious and risk losing time, or go reckless and suffer fatigue or stress? And of course those decisions lead to yet more ways I can interpret a dice roll into the story. Brilliant!

Combat in Warhammer, if I was running it correctly, is swift and brutal. The PCs one- and two-shotted enemies left and right, and the few hits that the enemies landed on the PCs were significant and painful. The sanity rules came into play, too. By the end of the adventure, the Thief managed to shake out of his catatonia, but now the Student is permenently suffering from solipisim (the belief that everyone else in the world is imaginary, and that only she is real). As bad as I felt for L. and her poor Student, I greatly look forward to the roleplaying she's going to do with it. Warhammer, of course, even thought of that, allowing me to reward good roleplaying in an appropriate way through adding Fortune points to their party sheet. So even if her insanity makes her a liability, L. can always make up for it through good roleplaying!

Analysis and Final Notes:

Overall, I had a blast. This session was one of the best I've had in a long time. Warhammer is just a fun game to screw around with. It feels like Fantasy Flight Games just thought of everything, from the art, the look and feel, right down to the very logistics of tracking information, and just made it fun. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a top-shelf RPG that is worth its admittedly steep price. 

Random notes:

-I want to be a better actor. Maybe learn to do a couple of accents. The adventure had a lot of NPCs I had to portray. L. is really elevating things with her roleplaying, and I want to match it!

-The great success of this game has made me think again about Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, a game I had written off as something I probably wouldn't touch again. I'm especially interested at looking through the rulebook again and seeing the exact refinements they made to the rules, lessons probably learned in the play of Warhammer.

-I have GOT to remember to either push the group to bring food, or plan for a lunch break. We were all scarfing down snacks like they were going out of style! And no one brought drinks, either! Tap water and fancy chocolates all around!



Thursday, December 19, 2013

The People Have Spoken...

...and by "people," I mean "My own desire to play a popular RPG." And so I have scheduled a D&D meetup for next Sunday. And hopefully, this one will not fizzle. Butts in the seats won.

I have a couple of ideas to manage burn-out this time, though. Let's list them, so we can laugh at them later if/when this latest attempt at a long-term gaming commitment falls through:

-I am planning for secondary gaming sessions. I have announced in the meetup that once character creation is up, the average session will be 3-4 hours. This leaves me enough time to do a brief one-shot of another game afterwards. The idea is this will allow me to exercise my need to play other games without the pressure of having to commit every minute to the one game I'm already playing. Also, should I manage to get new players into this campaign, this secondary session will expose those players to new, not-D&D games.

-Third time's the charm. I am running the excellent Keep on the Shadowfell. I have read and re-read this adventure, and could probably at least do the first several sessions on auto-pilot. This substantial prep advantage frees up brain space that would otherwise be spent straining to look up rules and study encounters, thus staving off burnout.

-I am imposing hard limits on character creation. Yes, nothing says fun like "hard limits," but a problem I ran into in previous games was what many gamers call "creep." Creep is when new rules and sourcebooks are gradually assimilated into your game, to the point where a game that was once manageable is now a labryinth of rules and decisions. Specifically, I would post the meetup, and invariably get people asking me "can I use THIS book?" "are you using THIS rule?" "Can I make a character with THIS option?" The answer now is going to be a nice, flat "no." I am sticking to the stuff I know extremely well, from the first PHB. I know this is going to alienate some of the more veteran players of the game, but as we established in the previous entry, I'm not really catering my game to them. I heart noobs.

-I am actively researching ways to streamline combat and increase narrative-based play. I get real bored, real fast, when D&D degenerates into a glorified boardgame. Indeed, that's something that turns off many people about 4th edition. To combat this (pun intended), I am scouring the internet for techniques to keep all that dice rolling in check. I've already found a few good ideas to keep things buttery smooth, and I intend to continue to research and refine my technique.

So, armed with this new sense of purpose, I am going to try again with the 4e campaign. I want to fulfill my own prophecy of an epic, meaningful, committed game (as written about in the entry "More Than a Good Time"). As the new year approaches, many are committing themselves to losing weight, finishing school, or connecting with their loved ones. I, however, have only one silly little resolution: to be a better Dungeon Master. Here goes nothin'...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Pusher's Dilemma

I host all of my RPG sessions online, through meetup.com, in the Arlington-Alexandria Regional Gaming Group (AARGG!) This group is a general gaming group; in fact, I believe I am the only one who ever schedules RPG sessions. The majority of the meetups are boardgame-oriented. When I go to those boardgame meetups, I often hear from people "Oh, you're that guy who's always posting role-playing games!"

So the question is, why schedule games on a meetup group not exclusively for RPGs? In the Northern Virginia/D.C. area alone, there are dozens, maybe even a hundred or more, RPG meetup groups. And they're dedicated to just about every genre or combination of genres imaginable, not to mention whole groups dedicated to specific games. So why is my first choice for organizing events a group that is primarily boardgames?

The answer, as I've aluded to in past entries, is that my primary focus are new players. I want to share this hobby of mine with the world. I want to suck in as many people as possible. I want everyone to know just how wildly creative and outrageously fun a good role-playing game can be. Hosting on an RPG meetup group is just preaching to the choir. I want new converts. I want to be the best damn ambassador to this hobby that I can possibly be.

So that's why I post on the AARGG. It's also why I agonize over game selection. Given my goals of bringing newbs into the fold, I often have to make some hard decisions about the games I choose to play. Take Warhammer Fantasy Role-play (WFRP), for example. WFRP is probably one of the best fantasy RPGs I've ever seen. It's almost unfair how good it is, because clearly publisher Fantasy Flight Games just threw wads of cash at the game's developers, and it's hard not to make a good game with that kind of support. I've shelled out a truly horrifying amount of money just to get set up with WFRP. Yet I haven't been able to get a group to the table for it. How do you pitch this game to new players in a way that's exciting and intriguing? Worse yet, most people out there associate Warhammer with the wargame. So even though WFRP is about as far away from a miniatures game as you can imagine, many people associate the game with that, and so are not interested.

This wouldn't be an issue if I simply went to an RPG meetup group and posted there, but that's simply not what I do. Instead, I have to consider D&D. I love D&D, but in a sense, D&D is like the Apple of fantasy role-playing games: a lot of its appeal is not necessarily the quality, but the brand. Hardcore RPG gamers will scoff at the notion of playing D&D because it's popular, but that's not something I can ignore. I can post a Warhammer group on the AARGG site and be lucky if I get two or three people interested...or I can post a D&D meetup and have all seven slots filled within 24 hours.

So I've got this tug of war always going on in my head...play what I want to play and stuggle to put butts in the seats, or play what's popular and pack the house. The best answer, of course, is to play what I want, and hype the damn thing so much that people come running to it. So that's what I try to do.

How do I do that? How do I take an indie game like, say, Apocalypse World, or even a mainstream game that just doesn't have a strong following, like WFRP, and fill the community room with enthusiastic gamers? Well, I've developed a few ideas on that concept, but I'll talk about them in a later entry. If any of you out there have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Play Report: Numenera and tremulus, Dec. 15th

Following is my write-up for my RPG session on December 15th. We played Numenera and tremulus. I had four players with me (using first initials only for this post): J, J2, L, and B. 

Comments to this report are welcome and appreciated, but please see my comment disclaimer at the end of this post before you write!

Numenera: Call of the Callerail

The Story:

The characters were on the Wandering Walk, which led them into the Adenu Woods. There, they entered the city of Ephmenon, where they stumbled into the semi-annual Call of the Callerail. Every so often, the callerail population becomes a serious threat to the residents of the city, and so they organize a massive hunt to bring down as many of the beasts as they can.

The characters got swept up into the hunt. After jumping off the beaten path and nearly getting devoured by killer tentacled fish, they found a callerail deep in the woods. The adventurers discovered in the heat of the moment that they had no chance of defeating the massive beast in a straight fight, and so they had to work creatively with their numenera, special abilities, and the environment to defeat the creature. 

After looting the body, the players discovered what appears to be a homing beacon in the callerail's innards. Someone, or something, was directing this creature, or at least monitoring it closely...

Character Creation:

Character creation was a little bit choppy. J2, B, & L were all completely new to the game, and I myself have only played once, so there was a little bit of bumble factor here. Numenera looks simple enough when you read through it, but the flow, mechanics, and even terminology of the game are so alien from other RPGs that it's easy to trip over it all. The learning curve is prominent, but very climable. I am certain all will be made clear with more play.

I'll note, though, that one of Numenera's many strengths is its thematic consistency. The mechanics echo the design of the world incredibly well. Even the basic terminology suggests that Numenera is a world unlike any you've ever gamed in before. Monte Cook (designer of the game) is an industry legend, and that experience and skill are definitely on display throughout the book.

Game critique:

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this second outing into the Ninth World. Since the structured approach I took to the first game didn't pan out, I tried running this second game a lot more loosely. The result was a lot of scrambling for details, inadvertent plot holes, and an encounter mismatch. I knew the callerail would be too much for the players to fight straight-on, and knew they would have to be creative to defeat it, but I didn't have any solid ideas in my head for how. The adventure was still a lot of fun, mind you, but, as always, my obsession with pacing and flow was definitely digging into the back of my head. 

Just as character creation was more complex than it appeared at first glance, so too is running Numenera. Despite having few stats to track, I found the game quite difficult to freestyle because of the depth of detail that runs throughout the game world, and the characters. Another mismatch that developed through play was with the characters' motivations and the plot as it unfolded. J played a ladies man looking for his next big score; L and J2 were meek, late teenagers just trying to survive, and B was a gallant knight looking for a cause. In other words, none of them were really a great fit for an adventure where the players are expected to dive head-first into danger. 

These are, of course, problems that are common in many RPGs. These are also problems that are more personal than game-related. I get that. I just thought that with the paradign shift in the rules, there would be a resultant shift in GMing. Instead, it seems like GMing in Numenera best benefits from a more tradionalist approach of careful preparation, rather than inspired freestyle. 


tremulus

Story summary: The four players...an Alienist, a Professor, a Dilettante, and a Private Eye...are living private lives that are quickly becoming wrapped up in the affairs of the town's most prestigious family, the Quinces. Namely, Taylor Quince is suspecting that her husband, Maximillian, is going mad. Taylor alluded to events in the past that may be the cause of this, but whatever she knows, she is not telling, for now. Taylor has confided all of this to the Dilettante, who then went and hired the Private Eye to follow Maximillian. 

Meanwhile, Maximillian is likewise concerned about the sanity of his wife. He hired the Alienist to examine her, implying all the while that he would like to have her quietly confined to a mental institution. Taylor somehow caught wind of this and fled the mansion, seeking safety in an old flame, the Professor. While Maximillian's men search Ebon Eaves for his wife, he sets the Alienist to work on another person, Markus Robertson. Markus has reverted to some kind of bestial, animal state, and Maximillian, for reasons unknown, has him locked in a cell in a dungeon beneath the mansion (it is also unknown why Maximillion has a dungeon, complete with prison cells, beneath his mansion). The Alienist deems Markus completely and incurably insane. 

While returning to town, the Alienist's cab is gunned down and run off the street by some thugs. The Alienist survives almost completely by sheer luck, the car stuck in a tree after being driven off the mountain road. The Alienist, stuck in the tree, is saved by the Private Eye, who was poking around the Quince family mansion and discovered the dungeon. 

The Professor (reluctantly) hid Taylor in his apartment. The Dilettante, discovering that Taylor has disappeared and fearing the worst, remembered her old flame was in town and goes to his apartment, hoping to find her. The Professor is in the process of getting both of them out of his apartment when a man with a shotgun blows open the door. The assailant is nearly successful, but the Dilettante and the Professor, fighting for their lives, take down the miscreant. 

That is where the session ended.

Background and Character Creation: tremulus was played entirely off-the-cuff. I finished Numenera early because I wanted to retreat and rally the adventure, so with the extra time, we decided to play another game. Character creation, as it always is in Apocalypse Engine games, was so swift and easy it could barely be called "character generation." J simply printed out all of the playbooks and off they went. I handed out the Ebon Eaves questionaire, tallied the answers, and wrote down the results.

Self-critique: tremulus, paired with Numenera, was an excellent study of contrasts. Numenera is a deep, detailed game that thrives from preparation, planning, and understanding the system. tremulus is a storytelling game that can be played with literally zero prep. By just a quick read of the adventure synopses for both games, it's probably pretty easy to tell which game I'm better with. To be fair, though, I've been playing and studying Apocalypse Engine games for over a year, whereas I purchased Numenera about two months ago. 
 
I have already gone on and on about how I feel about tremulus (look up the entry titled "The little t," if you're curious), so I'm not going to rehash that here. Just know that tremulus went down almost exactly, to the letter, as I described it in that post.

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a great session, and I had a great time. I am not giving up on Numenera. Although I hate running published adventures, I think I may give one or two of them a serious read, and run one for the next Numenera game I run. I think combining the structure of a written story, combined with my own flights of freestyle fancy for when players inevitably jump off the page, may be the best of both worlds, and ultimately fulfill the incredible potential of Monte Cook's masterpiece.

As for tremulus...well, we'll just have to play to find out, won't we?





COMMENT POLICY: I would love to hear your thoughts about my session, and hear any suggestions you have on how to run the games better. However, that is all I want to hear. I am not interested in hosting any discussions, no matter how civil or thoughtful, on the merits and flaws of Numenera and/or tremulus, or any other game, for that matter. Such comments will be deleted, not because I'm a jerk (well, maybe), but because this blog is about my experiences as an RPG gamemaster. I consider such discussions, then, as off-topic. 

If you don't know if your comment is appropriate, go ahead and post it! If I delete it, though, please try not to take it personally. I'm just trying to control the content of my blog, is all. If you're that scared of being deleted, then simply email your thoughts directly to me instead of commenting. Thank you!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Geek for Hire

I've decided I'm going to dip my toes into the freelancing world for RPGs. Why not? Might as well put my work experience as an editor at the National Archives, AND my (pending) Masters degree in Writing from Johns Hopkins, to fair use. And what better way to do that than with the hobby I love?

It seems like in today's world, freelancing for the RPG industry is both easier and harder than it used to be. Easier, because of big break-throughs in copyrights such as the rise of the Creative Commons License. Some of the best role-playing games out today, such as Eclipse Phase and my much-beloved Dungeon World, have explicitly stated that you can write whatever you want for them. There is a little fine print, but the bottom line (at least for this blog) is you don't need anyone's permission to write something for those games.

Writing seems harder these days, though, because of the competition. The market is saturated with amateur RPG writers and designers. I have spent days browsing DriveThruRPG.com's endless list of roleplaying games and supplements. I often wonder how many of these products have been playtested...or even edited, for that matter! Sure, the cost for most of these products is pretty cheap, in the grand scheme of things, but the time and effort it takes to assimilate a new RPG product into your mind and your game group's rotation can be significant. 

I'm not trying to fake myself out of freelancing...I'm just wondering how I'm going to produce something that will rise above the rest. I guess I better start at the bottom: adventure design.

I HATE writing adventures. Well, "hate" is a strong word, but I don't typically run a pre-written adventure, and I don't like writing them. I usually prefer to have a broad outline and then just wing it. Take this weekend's Numenera adventure, for example. I've got a little "wish list" of freaky Numenera shit I want to see in the adventure, and a general set-up (the PCs are all on the Wandering Walk, for reasons of their own devising), and that's it. I like to feed off the players' energy, and I often feel an adventure gets in the way of that. 

So I guess that's how I've got to write these adventures I want to publish, right? I write a set-up, I write a list of cool shit that could happen, and that's it. We'll see if it's that easy.

My first "assignment" is still up in the air, but the front-runner right now is the very promising looking Covert Ops, by DwD games. They're looking for short (10 page or less) adventures that they plan on selling on DriveThru for three bucks, allowing the writer to keep half. After DriveThru's cut, DwD estimates that to be about 75 cents paid per purchase. Can't exactly quit the day job on that, but a legit, paying gig is a nice bullet-point for the freelancer resume, right? So, after this weekend's foray into the Ninth World, perhaps I'll order a copy of Covert Ops and see what kind of adventures I can cook up...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Returning to the Ninth World

So, unfortunately, the tremulus meetup didn't work out. All four of my players cancelled on account of the snow storm yesterday, so I just hung out and played Terraria all afternoon. Assuming the weather is not a dick this coming weekend, I'll be hosting Numenera.

Why not try again with tremulus? Well, the mojo is gone, for now. I ride these waves of inspiration out of one game and into the next. I've tried to control it, tried to fight the tide, but I just can't. I'm happier when I just ride that wave wherever it goes. And now, it's going to Numenera. I last played Numenera several months ago (the post is around here, somewhere). It was fun, but said inspiration left me right after the session, and I moved on to other things. But now, I'm back. I am letting returning players resume with their characters. Whether we will continue with the story we started in that previous session is another matter, however. I'm thinking we will, but right now I'm at the brainstorming stage of prep where I just want to get down as many cool ideas as I can think of and just roll with it.

When I last played Numenera, I was really trying to make something epic of it. I had all these narrated passages I was going to read, and a broad map of the story that I planned on fleshing out as time went on. I'm kinda done with that now, though. Now, I'm in kind of a freestyling place. I'm going to have some ideas ready, but overall, I want to work with what the players give me, rather than setting them up into a story. Numenera looks like it's going to be a great system for that; it's rules are so flexible and simple, I shouldn't have any problems going anywhere the players want to go. So my prep for this week is really just going to entail becoming as much of an expert on the world of Numenera as I can, and being ready to weave an adventure around my player's ideas.

Looking further down the road, I've got some other games I'm going to be exploring, too. 13th Age is coming in the mail this week, and I just picked up Lords of Gossamer and Shadown last week. And, of course, I still have a huge (and expensive) collection of Warhammer Fantasy RPG stuff on my shelf, waiting for play. We'll just have to see where the wave sends me next...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hype Control

Yesterday, I posted a fairly-gushy post about how much I love tremulus, including the controversial notion that it's my personal favorite Apocalypse Engine RPG. A few people out there on the Interwebs were so shocked that I could like this game that they felt they had to explain to me why, essentially, I'm wrong. I deleted these comments. I have no intention of addressing them. Any attempts to resucitate them on my blog will get them deleted again.

The reason for this is two-fold. First is the title of this post, something I call "Hype Control." I like to get myself and my players psyched for my games. I want them to believe that they are about to play the greatest RPG they have ever played, and I want to believe that, too. No matter how far from the truth it could be, I want every game I host to rock the khazbah. It's hard to rock khazbahs when people are questioning the game. Had these criticisms appeared weeks later, after the game had come and gone, I probably would not have deleted them. But I don't want anyone coming into my game thinking "Well, Ed, some people were saying this-and-that about this game. Is that true?" Likewise, as I prep for the game, I don't want to be wondering if I'm wrong about my thoughts on the game. I've posted the event, I've read the book, and that, for now, will be that.

Secondly, I have this odd belief that RPGs have no floor. What I mean by that is an RPG can be good, excellent, better than another similar RPG, but it can't be bad. In my mind, there are no bad RPGs, just game groups that don't want to deal with a given RPG's bullshit. I'll admit, there are a lot of RPGs out there that seem to be so stuffed with bullshit I can't imagine anyone enjoying them, but I'll be the first to admit that that's my thought, not some indictment on the game. I lose a lot of respect immediately for anyone who says an RPG is bad. How do you know? How many games of it have you played (and I am NOT at all an advocate of the "I haven't played it, but I've read the book and that's essentially the same thing" line of thought). However, if someone likes an RPG they haven't played, or calls it a great game, I'll listen, at least a little. It's asymetrical, hypocritical, and maybe even unfair, but it all goes to the Hype Control I mentioned earlier. Quite frankly, I think the hobby is just too small to get snobby about games. If someone is trying to get together a group for Vampire: Undeath, best of luck to them. Like them all, whenever you can, and simply ignore the ones you can't. Don't be hatin'.

As a simple "house rule" for my blog, if I want discussion, dissent, and criticism, I'll ask for it. Otherwise, a simple +1, or a question, or a suggestion on how to make the blog entry better are really all I want to see. It's not that I have a problem with people disagreeing with my opin....oh, fuck it; I have a problem with people disagreeing with my opinion. This is my blog, not Oprah's Book Club. If you don't like what I'm saying, don't read it. If I've provoked something in your own brain that you want to discuss, then write your own blog. My ego is fragile enough at the thought of maintaining a blog about role-playing games; I just don't have it in me to host debates on here, too!






Thursday, December 5, 2013

The little t

Continuing on my love for the "Powered by the Apocalypse" games...this Sunday, I'm playing tremulus.


tremulus (the "t" is intentionally non-capitalized as part of the title) is Apocalypse/Dungeon World's youngest sibling. And she is goth. Put in a less-cheeky way, tremulus is an Apocalypse Engine spin on Lovecraftian horror storygaming.

Though I've only played it once, I've read the book a few times, and I would daresay that tremulus is the best Apocalypse Engine game yet. Or, at the very least, my personal favorite.

Why? tremulus adds a couple of wrinkles to the Apocalypse Engine formula that simultaneously make it feel like more of a game and more of a story. Take, for example, the GM moves. GM moves are generally divided into hard and soft moves. A hard move, like "deal damage," is a move with tangible effects (in this case, inflicting damage on a character). A soft move sets up action for subsequent play (my favorite soft move comes from Apocalypse World: "Barf forth apocalyptica," in which the GM is to indulge in the tangible details of a post-apocalyptic hellscape.) In most other Apocalypse games, which kind of move the GM chooses is pretty much dictated by the narrative.

In tremulus, however, most hard moves require the GM to spend hold, a form of currency the GM earns whenever the players make certain moves, or roll particularly poorly. This discrepency seems minor at first, even limiting. But then consider the genre...the impending doom. The horror you're about to discover. The things that creep in the dark. The players know they're there, but they can only wait until they reveal themselves. The system reflects this through hold and hard GM moves. The players know the GM has hold, so hard moves are coming. But they don't know when, or what, those moves will be. And just like that, a little edit to the rules creates baked-in theme and tone.

Another interesting example of the way tremulus elevates its game is through the players' moves. One basic move all characters have is "poke around." Depending on the roll, the player chooses from a list of things he or she discovers. At first glance, that doesn't sound amazing at all, does it? But look...one of the things on the list is "a secret passage." That means, if a player chooses it, there is a secret passage. Screw the map. Screw your notes. That random house the PCs just entered now has a secret passage in it. Where does it lead? What is in there? The PCs have no idea...and the GM doesn't, either. And so the GM pulls...from his notes, from the player's backstory, from the adventure itself...and fills in the details.

In other words, everyone at the table is playing to find out. Agenda fulfilled, doing nothing more than rolling dice and choosing from a short list of results.

The final praise I'll heap onto tremulus, the masterstroke that makes this game absolutely stuffed with horror and mystery, is the playset. Clealry inspired by Jason Morningstar's brilliant Fiasco, a playset is a matrix of people, places, events, and horrors. Before play begins, each player answers a short questionaire concerning things their character knows about the adventure's setting. The GM compiles these answers into two three-letter codes, one for the town's present, one for it's past. The GM looks up the codes, and there it is: the town's history, it's important folk, it's dirty secrets, it's dark past. The black, beating heart of an entire campaign, created for you, in minutes. tremulus comes with one playset, Ebon Eaves, and shows you how to make your own. Since the game just came out, I'm sure more playsets will follow.

The ideas behind the playset can easily be transplanted into another game, so it's not like you need tremulus to do this, but tremulus created it. And the playset tremulus comes with can be played right off the page, in minutes. To me, Ebon Eaves alone is worth the game's 15-dollar price tag (for the pdf version; I actually ponied up 40 bucks for the hardcover).  

Later on, I'll post a report on the first game I ran of tremulus. And I'll definitely write up what happens this Sunday. Stay tuned!

Update #1: Turns out I DID post about the first game of tremulus and forgot! Look at my blog entry titled "Playing to Empty Seats."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My Life, Powered by the Apocalypse

About a year ago, while reading Dungeon World and preparing for a game, I wrote a little "life-hack" of one of the core concepts of the book.

See, in Dungeon World, the game is framed within a conversation. The GM says something, the players respond to what was said, the GM responds to the response, and so on and so forth. Virtually every RPG since D&D has done this, but Dungeon World, along with its father game, Apocalypse World, is one of the very first games I've come across to directly call out this exchange, and to identify it as an important mechanic of the game. As the conversation between GM and players continues on, occasionally the players trigger what Dungeon World calls "moves," which are little blocks of rules that sort of channel what can happen next. GM's have moves, too, although rather than being hard blocks of rules, GM moves tend to be more oriented on the story, what the GM would say to the players under certain circumstances.

Anyways, those moves, and everything else the GM says, is guided by a three-item agenda:

1. Make Dungeon World seem real.
2. Fill the characters' lives with danger.
3. Play to find out what happens.

The techniques and guidelines a GM uses to carry out that agenda are called principles. There are about a dozen of them, which, if you're curious, you're welcome to look up here at the free online version of Dungeon World: http://book.dwgazetteer.com/

So where does my life-hack come in? Well, as I played Dungeon World, I realized that having an agenda, and using the principles to follow it, create a fun game. Dungeon World is at its best when the agenda and the principles are being followed to the letter.

So, I thought...Dungeon World runs smoothly because of its agenda and principles. Would my life run smoothly with an agenda and principles? And so, back in the winter of 2012, I wrote this:

The GM's Guide to Life

The Agenda:

1. Have fun
2. Take care of yourself
3. Think ahead

The Principles:

1. Ask lots of questions
2. Write everything down
3. Drink water & eat healthy
4. Spend quality time with your spouse
5. Connect with friends & family
6. Schedule appointments, plan events
7. Be honest and communicative, with others and yourself
8. Practice your skills & learn new ones
9. Listen to your body
10. Get what you deserve

I printed this out and showed it to my wife back then. She said it was possibly the greatest thing I'd ever written. So, thanks for that, Dungeon World!

However, I had forgotten about this little guide...until just now. While combing through my emails for something else, I found a copy of it I had emailed to myself. So I've printed it out and posted it on the board next to my desk, so hopefully I don't forget about it again.

Now, a caveat. I wrote this guide for myself, eyeing up my individual strengths and weaknesses. For you, dear reader, your agenda and principles could be different. I came up with this agenda for myself by taking a quick look at my life and identifying a few trends...what my recurring problems were, what things I wish I did more of...things like that. So your mileage may vary, as they say. If you want to start living your life by this guide, I highly recommend you edit it as necessary to fit your own goals, ambitions, and fears.

So, yeah...this is basically proof that role-playing games CAN allow you to live a better life. Or something. So play more RPGs!