Goody Patience of Salem

Ahhh, Salem! Good old terrible Salem!

I’m no stranger to the Salem Fiasco playset, but this time around we had sexism, racism, and assorted acts of bad parenting… honestly witchcraft was the least of our problems. The witches might have been the most level-headed folks in town. They certainly caused the least damage.

I love story games that dig into all the wrinkles of bad humanity, like how people can do terrible things and think what they’re doing is okay and makes perfect sense, because there are real people like that and damn if I don’t wish I understood it, so I explore it in the “safety” of role-playing games. The trick, when you’re dancing with the darkness, is making sure everyone at the table is on the same page and we can distinguish the players from the characters. If you can’t… kablooey and misery.

Ben Robbins | November 7th, 2019 |

It Was A Monster Mash

You know how some ideas sound terrible on paper, but in the moment they work perfectly? Amazingly, even? That was this game.

Our original game plan fell through, so Andy, Marc, Caroline and I switched to an off-the-cuff game of Follow. Marc had been wanting to play ghosts driving people out of their haunted house. Reverse Scooby Doo and very pre-Halloween! And the Turf quest would be a good fit. But Caroline thought ghosts would be a bummer. What about monsters instead?

Hmm, monsters. What kind of monsters? Demons? Naw. What about classic movie monsters, the Wolf-man and Frankenstein and all that?

But wait: what if the monsters in those movies had secretly been *real monsters* all along. No makeup! But only a few sympathetic studio moguls knew the secret and when those movies declined the monsters had taken up residence in a castle built by a sympathetic celebrity in the Hollywood hills. Where they lived in hiding for decades… until some instagramming influencers and tech bro developers wanted to turn the old castle into a hip bed & breakfast.

It’s Monsters versus Millennials! And yeah, one selfie-stick later we were busting out the “who are the real monsters???” jokes.

So many great characters. The Bride of Frankenstein! (“Uh, weren’t you married to Frankenstein’s *Monster*?”) The newly pacificist and probably vegan Wolf-man! A totally fake Invisible Man, just pretending to be invisible and hiding under his wraps because he feels more at home around monsters than humans!

And yes, our second challenge was an actual Monster Mash, as the monsters threw a party to try and raise morale after a crushing first challenge defeat that saw them abandoning the hapless and in hindsight kind of beloved “Gill”, the cowardly Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the county Sheriff. No one said to bring disguises!!!

Andy, Caroline and Marc all brought a beautiful blend of the funny and the pathos. A pile of great moments.

And if you told me that you played a game where Oliver Hardy (yes of Laurel and Hardy) revealed himself to be a Highlander-like immortal (and also an advisor to the Mummy when he was still a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt) and used what I’m guessing was ancient Atlantean technology to escape this mortal coil, I’d probably say “uh wut?”, just like you’re doing now. But trust me: it was perfect.

Ben Robbins | October 20th, 2019 | ,

Great Players

I know a lot of great players.

If there were an Earth-threatening crisis that could be solved by the power of play and I had a red phone, I could pick up that red phone and I would know who to call to save the world.

What do I mean by great player? Knowing the rules? Yeah that’s important if you’re teaching a game, but “rules mastery” is definitely not what I’m talking about. Someone who makes up cool stuff? Someone who talks in funny voices or has their character do amazing things? Naw, none of that. I mean, that stuff’s fine, but that ain’t it.

When I cast my baleful gaze on someone and think “that’s a great player”, it’s because I can see that, deep down, they pay attention to the balance at the table. They contribute (because you definitely should contribute) but they also actively lay ground for others to contribute. They’ve tuned their senses to the dynamics unfolding between the other players instead of just sitting in their own head, imagining their own fiction. They try to raise up everyone at the table, instead of just rocking the spotlight. They know it’s a union, not a solo performance. They want everyone in.

That’s excellent play. It doesn’t matter what the system is: if you’re playing any role-playing game with other humans, that’s the secret sauce. As I’ve said before, it’s empathy that makes games great.

Some will observe that in the traditional GM model, the GM often shoulders that responsibility for everyone, or at least tries to. But really everyone should be doing it, because it’s a golden avenue for the players to appreciate each other and bond (shades of Initiative: the Silent Killer).

When you have a player like that, you know you can drop them on a table with any mix of strangers and those people will be in good hands. And that’s a skill I’ve kept my eyes peeled for while running Story Games Seattle for 8 years, so I could put folks together in games with maximum odds that everyone would have a good time.

Yes, experience can help, naturally, because gaming is a weird group activity and there are a lot of interesting social dynamics that you don’t normally encounter. But it’s also raw temperament and personality. I’ve seen people who have barely played any games and I already know they get it. I would put any table in their hands with total confidence.

And guess what? Most of the people who I *know* are great players don’t think of themselves as that great at it. Because they’re modest, yes, but it’s deeper than that. The kind of person who is thinking about everyone else at the table is not dwelling on how awesome they are.

Am I talking about you? I’m probably talking about you.

Ben Robbins | August 30th, 2019 | , | 2 comments

Names Are Hard

Ever have a hard time coming up with a name for a great game because nothing captures the magic, stew about it for ages, then come up with a totally different idea for a game, think of a great name for that new game, then realize that name would be even better for the first game you’ve been struggled to name since forever?

Yeah, me too. We should start a club.

Ben Robbins | August 10th, 2019 | | 2 comments

Nessun Dorma

During the school year, we could only play Fridays and Saturdays. But when summer came, every single day was up for grabs.

Not for scheduling normal games — those we could play any day of the week, even during the school year. No, I’m talking about the most magical of beasts and that staple of my gaming youth, the all-night game.

Arrive in the evening and just keep playing until the sun comes up. Hunker down in some room and just stay there. No one enters, no one leaves. No distractions. No supervision. The distilled elixir of pure game space.

These were not sleepovers. No one brought pajamas because no one was supposed to go to sleep. Did it happen? Yes. Did we play games where the DM had to wake up multiple people in a row just to get through a single round of combat? Yes. Did people fall asleep in their seats, hands clutching dice, until they were roused and bolted upright croaking “I hit it with my sword!!!” (even if there wasn’t a fight) and lobbed their favorite d20 across the table, all the while claiming, swearing, that they had not been asleep, that they had “only been resting their eyes for a minute”, and they knew exactly where we were in the game? Yes. But those were the exceptions. The sleepyheads were mocked. We knew we were not there to sleep.

I played all-night games almost as soon as I started playing D&D back in 1980. The very first was unplanned, almost accidental: we just kept playing and playing and playing until the sun came up, because we were blessed with the intense focus and lack of real world responsibility that came with being 11 years-old in the summertime. That game started as a mundane dungeon crawl, but as the magical hours of the night unfolded we transformed it into an epic saga, complete with back stories for wandering monsters and a plot invented on the spot.

That set a high bar for me and all-night games were a core part of our repertoire ever since. Here’s how common it was for us: in middle school and high school, if you asked someone if they could play “Saturday”, it automatically meant Saturday night i.e. overnight. If you said “Satur-DAY”, with a weird emphasis on the second half of the word, that meant a day game. Sure, we played a lot of day games, but the all-night games were the treasured times.

I’ve often said that one of the most educational things about playing role-playing as a kid is that you have to figure out how to deal with other people right quick or the game falls apart. When I was a kid, we never played with adults (except maybe councilors at Shippensburg, but even though they looked like adults to us most were just college kids). There was no calming, mature figure at the table to keep us from acting out. We had to keep ourselves and each other in line just to keep the game going. To our credit, I can only remember two times that our games broke down into actual physical brawls (yes, there were two), but there could be a lot of arguing and not paying attention and assorted other bad behavior. Because we were kids. The GM was ostensibly the authority figure, but yeah they were kids too.

All-night games had even less supervision. The parents of whoever was hosting the game were asleep. We were in the bedroom or basement or den, entirely up to our own devices. We were a law unto ourselves.

As kids, the focus that an all-night game creates, when all the world’s asleep and there are no distractions or interruptions and nowhere else to go, was magical. Pure gateway-into-fantasy stuff. But as adults with busy lives and cell phones, all-night games are even more powerful. It’s one thing to declare “gaming is sacred time, no interruptions”, but when you’re gaming at 3 am you don’t even have to worry that someone is going to have to field a call or have somewhere else to be. All the world’s asleep. West Marches, New Century City — both had their share of all-night game sessions.

In middle school and high school in the early 80s, our regular gaming group was almost entirely male (though ironically my first all-night game was 50/50 male/female). Would we have been allowed to have mixed-gender all-night games, at that age, unsupervised? It seems unlikely. In college the gender ratio changed entirely and almost every game was mixed, probably because A) college, but also because we did a ton of legwork to bring all sorts of new people into gaming via the Reed Game Society and the Anon. But that’s another story.

We didn’t have internet back then, so every gaming group existed in a kind of isolation, establishing their own culture of play without even realizing other people were playing differently. So looking back now I wonder, was anyone else even playing all-night games? Was it a thing, or was it just us? Are there gamers out there even now, hunkered around a table, playing until the sun comes up?

Ben Robbins | June 18th, 2019 | | 11 comments

An Ode to The New Hotness

A con is coming up. There’s always a con coming up, or a kickstarter. And we’re waiting. Waiting to see the new games.

Waiting and hoping for The New Hotness.

Anticipation is palpable. There are always whispers, then promises, then reveals… and then often disappointment. This new hotness is hot for just a little bit, but we quickly move on to newer, hotter, hots.

Gamers, particularly in the indie tabletop role-playing scene, are always looking for the new hotness. Maybe all humans are looking for the new hotness, to some degree, but I think that elemental desire burns particularly bright within us niche RPGers.

Are people just fickle? Always bored with what we’ve got, always wanting something shiny and new? Sure there’s some of that, but I don’t think that’s the heart of the matter.

The heart of matter is that we are drawn to the promise of the new hotness because, deep down, we don’t feel the games we’ve got are hitting the mark. They aren’t going as far as they could, or even comprehending their own potential. Yes, many are great, but even in greatness some games just hint at how far we are from where we could be. We can’t even put into words what the play-form we want looks like — by definition, if we knew what that was, we would have already invented it, and then we’d have it.

We mock the perpetual craving for the new hotness, but that urge is really telling us something important.

So we’re left wanting something but not knowing what or why. The vacuum haunts us. After hearing even the merest scrap of a description, an upcoming game can capture our imagination, because we subconsciously project all the things we want onto it, filling in the unknowns with our dreams and ideals, without even being able to say what those things are.

This new hotness might be the one. This might be the game that takes us all to that next level. That next level we don’t even know we can’t imagine. Yet.

Ben Robbins | June 11th, 2019 | | 1 comment