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 |

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 | | 7 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

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I love good, dramatic conflict in a story game. But sometimes players shy away from or downplay an established conflict or history. Our clans have decades of grievance and blood feud, but yeah, that’s not such a big deal, let’s just forget that and work together, okay? And now we’re buddies.

Sometimes the player is just trying to be nice, mistaking fictional conflict for inter-player conflict, and there are ways to deal with that.

But often they are glossing over the problem to move the story somewhere that interests them, which is frustrating because it’s ignoring the fiction we agreed upon. Players absolutely can and should push the story in the direction they want, but never at the cost of what we’ve established. You can take action that changes a situation, even drastically, but you should not ignore or sidestep what we’ve agreed is true.

That “what we’ve agreed is true” *is* the game. It’s our shared compact. When one player breaks that, they are breaking the bond between players. It’s disrespectful to everyone else at the table. It may sound like I’m being dramatic but it is honestly a big, big deal. It’s the core cause of so much misery and disconnect in gaming.

If the system has a game master, they are generally the person who decides which facts matter and which don’t. One of their big jobs is enforcing the fiction. But in games where we all have equal authority (aka every game I make), it’s every players’ job to embrace and work with what’s been established, not ignore or sidestep it.

And it can be any part of the fiction, not just feuds and strife: we agree dragons are dangerous, then someone does something that shows that, naw, dragons aren’t that dangerous at all. Compare that to the “good” case, where a player introduces a mighty dragon-slaying blade: dragons are still dangerous, the established facts are still true, but here’s a new development that changes the situation without contradicting what was already true. Totally legit.

Care and Feeding of Your Cycle of Violence

When we’re dealing with how people role-play their characters, rather than facts about the world or the other people in it, it gets even trickier.

Back to our hate-filled clans example. Ostensibly the animosity is only perpetuated because each side keeps hating the other, so if you’re role-playing one of those characters, you really could say “yeah I wake up this morning and don’t hate them anymore”. It’s a thing that could happen, even if it jettisons the themes we agreed we were going to explore.

So how do you make sure you’re making a real change that respects the existing fiction, rather than a dodge? One way is to say that anyone can introduce fiction that reiterates what we’ve agreed is true. If dragons are dangerous, you can always describe a dragon wreaking havoc. But you don’t want to overrule another player speaking for a character they control. “I don’t hate them anymore” / “Yes you do” is not fun or interesting.

Instead of trying to dictate what someone else’s character does or doesn’t think, invent and introduce facts and history that demonstrate the premise. Bring what we’ve established to life by describing specific details.

“Hey on second thought the warriors of Jakar are not so bad. Let’s make an alliance!”

“Are you forgetting that in their day, their grandfathers begged our Queen to meet and make peace, then barred the doors and set fire to the whole hall? And that they commanded their minstrels to compose songs to the screams while she and her whole retinue were roasted alive?”

“Uh, that was a long time ago..?”

If a character still embraces forgiveness and love, that’s totally cool. They can be the radical change they want to see. This way we are not downplaying what we agreed on — we are emphasizing that this is a big shift from the status quo, not glossing over it. Will others anyone else’s mind be changed? We’ll see.

I’m using blood-soaked vendettas as an example, but it could be any established dynamic or relationship. The other lesson here is that detail trumps abstraction. It’s easy to say “oh we’ve been fighting for generations, but now we get along”. But if you know exactly what betrayals and murders led up to this point, it’s a lot harder to pretend they don’t matter. And better still, if you *do* overcome the past and break that cycle, it’s solid story we can all embrace, not just one player taking the easy way out.

Ben Robbins | June 10th, 2019 | ,

The Teeth Sneak Up On You In Follow

Follow fakes you out by looking super light and chill. You just free-play scenes and everything is great! So easy!

But the teeth hide in the challenge resolution. The odds of succeeding at each challenge is based on two entirely separate things: whether the characters are happy about what the fellowship is doing and whether the players think the fellowship did what was necessary to succeed. The players effectively give themselves and each other a report card on how well they’ve done this last round. Did our scenes focus on the challenge? Did what we described make sense? Do we deserve to get away with this?

In any role-playing game, the goal is to get people to embrace a shared vision about something that does not exist independently — a fiction that only exists because we agree it does. We’re trying to all get on the same page, even though the page is made-up. There’s the potential to wander off in different directions, particularly in a GMless game. We could all just pursue our own individual story ideas, but even if all our ideas are great we could wind up never really playing together.

That’s why Follow does a little judo redirect and asks the players to check back in and judge their own progress. If we think we’re not on the same page, the system reflects that by making it more likely we’ll fail the challenge. And even if we defy the odds and the draw goes in our favor, we had that discussion and we all saw how many red stones everyone else put in the bag. It’s a consensus check.

I’ve said before that, in Follow, the unity of the players at the table trying to play a game together that’s fun mirrors the unity of the characters in the fellowship trying to work together to complete their quest. This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Ben Robbins | June 9th, 2019 |

Say Hi at Reboot Game Labs

If you’re on the Cape, come by this Saturday (May 18) and say hi, play games, chat, play more games, and drink all the drink coffee.

Meet the Game Developer – Ben Robbins

It’s hosted by Reboot Game Labs, a very cool group that has been running events up and down the Cape. They’ve got a slew of board game events and a fantastic D&D meetup for kids.

You may have also heard rumors that they stage secret Hungry Hungry Hippo tournaments, with the champions’ names embossed on a sacred trophy. Doubt no longer: I have witnessed the glory with mine own eyes.

Ben Robbins | May 13th, 2019 |