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 |

The Flipside of the Quest

Print-conscious players have asked me why Follow quests take up two pages. Couldn’t I have jammed all that stuff onto a single sheet?

First off: no, it’s pretty dense as it is. But more importantly, I wouldn’t even if I could.

Quests are intentionally laid out so that you have to hide the first section to see the second. All the prompts and questions that you use during setup and character creation are on the front of the page. But once you’re finished deciding on the details of your fellowship and your quest, all those options and prompts are irrelevant. Worse, they’re a distraction.

So when setup is done and you flip over the quest to see the challenges you’ll have to face, you’re hiding all those setup options choices. That’s intentional.

From now on, you’re focused on your particular quest and fellowship, not all the fellowships you could have made. You’ve already decided what kind of dragon your fellowship is trying to slay and what kind of people you are. Looking back and seeing what you *could have* picked just gets in your way.

Ben Robbins | May 8th, 2019 |

PAX East: What Should I Check Out?

I’m going to PAX East next week. I’ve been to PAX Prime in Seattle a bunch, of course, but this is my first time at the east coast event.

What’s good to check out? Where’s the good gaming? Are there weird and interesting nooks and crannies I should explore?

One of the things I enjoy most about the big cons (GenCon, PAX, etc) is finding those hidden corners that are filled with unexpected things, whether that’s stumbling into a room filled with kids boffer-LARPing or the open music stage where total strangers could step up and jam together — and I mean real instruments, not Rock Band. Strange little ecosystems hidden inside the big show.

I also know nothing about the venue, so if you’ve got tips, hook me up.

Ben Robbins | March 21st, 2019 | ,