ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

The Chargen Circle

With San Holo in mind, I’ve decided to offer The Chargen Circle in the last gaming slot of Go Play NW 2010.

The plan is to grab a bunch of random chargen systems, random being the salient part, and roll up characters. I’m thinking of systems like Classic Traveller, V&V, Reign, FASA Star Trek. I suspect people will make characters together which is more fun IMHO as one writes while the other researches and together you invent a story for the results, but whatever works.

Besides for the fun, I’m also doing this because I find myself pretty wiped out by Sunday night from three days straight of the most intense gaming. A certain amount of energy goes into running the show as an organizer, but I play nearly every slot from morning until night and half the time facilitate which takes even more energy. The Chargen Circle seemed like the perfect way to kick back, drink in hand, and close out the weekend before clean-up.

I know others will play ferociously until the end. I salute them from the bottom of my dice, and on Sunday I shall again while rolling apron colors for my Maids.

Rest in Peace, San Holo

Panning for gold in the used bin at Gary’s Games, we found a tattered copy of Traveller Book 1 1977 for $2. I had always been curious about “classic” Traveller, especially since I had heard characters can die during creation. So, we whipped up a bunch characters and here are the final results: 5 of our 9 characters survived the service and mustered out to PC-dom leaving the other 4 dead in character creation. Of the 5 survivors, 4 were one tour wonders, not making their re-enlistment roll.

Of the dead, the most tragic was San Holo, the space rogue who wanted nothing more from life than to have his own ship. Enlisting in the Scouts as a pilot, he turned into a serious renaissance man (Jack of all Trades-4). After his 4th tour, he started to feel the effects of old age, but decided to re-enlist just one more time. Oh, San Holo, 5th time’s not the charm. You should have listened to your creaking bones and quit while you were ahead and gotten your ship. DEAD.

The most successful character was JTK, Captain Janelle T. Kinser, Queen of Space. Gifted and an ambitious social and professional climber who survived five tours in the Navy and mustered out with some serious skillz (Int-B, Edu-F, Soc-F). A highly trained physician (Medical-4) but with some serious military experience to boot, she retired with a nice little pension to rule the universe.

Basically, it felt like we were creating real characters, not ones that just popped straight out of Zeus’ head fully-formed and god-like.

Capes: My Story Games Eureka Moment

The first story game we ever played was Capes. We were playing a very extensive Mutants & Masterminds superhero campaign so this GM-less superhero game peaked Ben’s interest. Jem, Ben and I cracked it open, and as it turns out, it started us on the path to story games.

Character Creation: Click and Lock

Oh what a revelation the click and lock characters were for me! You create characters in Capes by matching a set of Persona descriptors with a set of Skill/Powers descriptors – the Hot Shot Gadgeteer, the Neurotic Brick or maybe the Neurotic Gadgeteer or the Hot Shot Brick etc. Clicking a couple together showed me that in 10 words you could have a completely useful and defined character to build from. I realized it was better to start from a straightforward concept than start with a open-ended concept and narrow it down as you go along which usually just left me with a murky character.

Actual Play: You can do that?

Strangely enough, we chose a fantasy setting probably because we had been playing supers and wanted something else. We started off each with our own hero, and our first scene pretty much proceded like a D&D encounter fighting some bandits on the road. Yawn. Now in the second scene, Jem chose to play his young archer hero again and set a conflict to rescue the girl from the bandits. I stole Ben’s Hercules-type character from him because he was cooler than my guy (that I don’t even remember any more). In my head I thought that left Ben with my lame guy, but instead, he comes out of left field as Zeus looking to have some father-son time. Doh! I think my jaw hit the floor – like you can do that? Bring in any character, bring in a character who’s not in “the party,” bring in a god?? That’s when I understood that this was a story game and not a D&D game. The fiction was the important thing.

Of course the father-son “bonding” only lasted until Zeus caught a glimpse of the beautiful girl and went to steal her from young archer. And then on my turn who should show up by Zeus’ worst nightmare… Hera.

I look at these moments and wonder how is it that these simple things were such revelations to me. Then, I remember what my friend Signa said after encountering a band of harpies in her first D&D game, “Eh, harpies. They’re all bark and no bite.” In other words, we all have to start somewhere.

Microscope liftoff!

We playtested the alpha draft of Microscope this weekend, and it was a resounding success! Ben no doubt has tweaks to make, things to clarify, and we playtesters need to give more feedback and of course it needs a lot more playtesting, but this version was a great start. Did I mention it was a ton of fun?

After the first couple rounds when we were still getting our feet wet, the game rapidly took off and we rolled along with only a few moments of rules confusion. All of us players were able to creatively inspire each other which is definitely in part because the game is very good at supporting and fostering it. Having playtested lots of games intentionally (or unintentionally in some notorious cases), I think it’s a real compliment that while it was no doubt a playtest, for the most part it didn’t feel like one – even factoring in that we were playing with the designer.

One piece of feedback I’m happy to share is that I don’t think Ben should change the name. Originally, “Microscope” was just a code name, like the Manhattan Project, but I think in one word it elegantly captures the game with near perfection. I hope the other playtesters agree, don’t change it!

Royale Arms 2: The Case of the Vile Vial

This was the second InSpectres tale from the gentlemen of the Royale Arms. The first being The Case of the Peripatetic Pharaoh. It was also the first InSpectres game I had ever GMed since so far I’ve been a happy player in the InSpectres in Spaaaace! games. In addition to the game summary, I discuss a few lessons learned about this game.

The Cast:
The Honorable Professor Phineas K Boss, III, Esq.: professor of law and former judge, lover of The Hunt (view halloo!) – Chris
Sir Percival Walsey Kichner: expert in linguistics, timepieces of the world and sporting a monocle but only when there are no other men with monocles – Ben
Colonel St. John Blythe Stockton: handlebar mustache, “stocky” build, butterfly enthusiast – Jem

At the Royale Arms, relaxing over a glass of port and a cigar, the three old friends recount their adventures to the ever-suffering butler Montague:

In their younger days, the three gentlemen were on holiday aboard a steamship in the Mediterranean, on its way to Crete. They enjoyed the company of the other passengers, often dining at the Captain’s table as gentlemen of distinction and good breeding. One evening, the Captain interrupted their brandy and cigars and asks them discretely to come to the first-class cabin of one Madame Merriweather, a passenger who for the most part kept to herself. They rushed to the the cabin where they found the Madame dead on the floor, a vial of poison in her hand. The Captain asked the gentlemen to investigate and find the killer before they reached Crete. Both his reputation and the reputation of the shipping line were at stake… Thus began The Case of the Vile Vial…

Sir Kichner immediately notices the vial was put in her hand after she died to make it look like suicide. Ah, foul play, most foul. Investigating further, he thinks he hears something in the hall, but alas, a bad roll results in a bump on the head for his trouble and the shadowy figure runs down the hall. Our man of action with the revolver, Colonel Stockton, immediately gives chase huffing and puffing after the figure, but oh no! he slips on the deck and loses sight of the culprit, but luckily he left behind a mysterious letter fragment with a strange sigil.

Ben then leaps in with a confessional that all of this brought back bad memories for Colonel Stockton (Jem) who is haunted by the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife.

Later, Sir Kichner, no doubt nursing his head in the lounge, strikes up a conversation with another passenger, young Charles, who as it turns out is so love struck for Madame Merriwhether that he’s followed her onto this passenger ship. Charles is particularly distraught because he’s sure that the good Madame, recently widowed, is meeting her new paramour in Crete, probably some Greek shipping tycoon he thinks.

Professor Phineas continues to search the room and finds nothing but the dead woman’s little poodle dog. Using his keen canine training skills of the The Hunt, he shows the dog the scent of his master and follows him deep into the bowels of the ship. The dog yips up to a woman he knows. The woman turns around and Phineas is shocked when it’s none other than the dead Madame Merriweather! Still in awe of this revelations, Phineas doesn’t notice the blackjack above his head. Fade to black.

Back in the parlour, the gentlemen enjoy a nightcap ice bags in one hand and brandy in the other. This is half-time when the characters get together and discuss the case so far. Never, ever forget half-time. Sir Kichner has the idea that perhaps Charles can identify the body to be sure that it is Madame Merriwhether herself, but before they can do that, he takes a look at the letter with the Sigil and immediately identifies it as the sigil of a mystic cult of the dead known to be from Crete, and the letter was clearly addressed to Madame Merriweather herself.

The gentlemen regroup and decide to investigate the cargo hold and steam engine area since that’s where Phineas saw the other Madame. Colonel Stockton already knowing the layout of the hold from the Captain leads the way and sees a light from one of the cargo rooms — but he’s distracted because the memories of his wife are flooding back, the dead Madame Merriweather, the dead Mrs. Stockton! He kicks in the door and they realize they’ve interrupted some sort of mystic ritual! A scuffle ensues but the gentlemen are outnumbered and soon they find themselves tied up in the back witnessing the ritual’s completion. Luckily, dogs really are man’s best friend and Phineas has the pooch well-trained as he (the dog) bites through the rope. Meanwhile, Sir Kichner realizes that the mystic ritual is no real ritual, it’s a fake! And just he is going to announce it, the Captain and the crew rush in and all the cult members are arrested on site.

It turns out that the imposter cult members had convinced Madame Merriwhether they could resurrect her husband through their mystic rituals. They also convinced her to fake her own death so that she and he husband could disappear untraced intending most likely to gain control of her fortune.

Case closed.

Lessons learned from the (not-so-big) chair:

This was my first time GMing InSpectres. I confess to having watched a lot of Agatha Christie recently and was thinking about (unduly influenced by?) Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express type mysteries. Unfortunately, this thinking led me astray when it came to the Royale Arms. Even though it’s set in the same relative time period, I didn’t realize the genre was off. The gentlemen of the Royale Arms don’t investigate ordinary murders of kitchen cooks or heiresses, and on top of that in Agatha Christie the detective is usually hired or is familiar with the suspects. Still, the game turned out pretty well because the players made the game into something interesting — a sure sign of good players who make their own fun. I only wish I had given them a starting premise with more meat so they didn’t have to make themselves dive in and use early franchise dice to make the story strange enough to be an actual mystery.

So what I learned from this game is that the mystery has to fit the genre of the characters and there has to be enough of the right information to make it interesting to them. You don’t need a ton, but just enough to put it in the “huh, I want to know more” category. In this game, a dead woman with poison in her hand didn’t quite get there. Anything can be made to be enticing with good players as evidenced by this game, but you’re better off starting off well rather than making the players dig out of a hole right off the bat. You want the players to be excited and be thinking of potential solutions when they first hear the mystery, not 4 franchise dice in.

Time flies when you’re on The Dauntless

After each (quite poetic and very satisfying) InSpectres game, I look up at the clock and it’s only been 2 hours since we sat down and started. 2 hours. Blinky Blinky? My internal gaming clock just can’t process that information. 2 hours of InSpectres in Space feels like about 4-5 hours of other gaming. Not to knock any of those games — the length of a game is not directly related to its fun and I’ll gladly game for 10 hours, but something is going on here that’s messing with my inner gaming ear. Somehow it feels like I played more, gamed more in these 2-hour explorations in The Dauntless.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s rocket science. Ben and I have discussed that in InSpectres in addition to playing a character, you’re refining your theory, coming up with your next clue and thinking of confessionals. You’re listening intently to scenes with other people, not just because you should, but because it directly impacts what you’re thinking, possibly completely sabotaging it. You’re running the game as much as anyone else while still playing. In short, InSpectres compels you to be engaged 100% of the time.

Now, I’m not discounting other great players-as-GM/world creator games such as Geiger Counter with the rotating GM and Shock with the issues, but those games have a lot of set up, set up that could easily take hours, possibly the most fun hours ever, but it could be a while before you actually start playing. As InSpectres has no prep, just a starting premise, and character creation is very simple without any constructs such as appropriate conflicts (IAWA), you’re out of the gate in no time and into a game that really packs it in.