I played some D&D 5e on Sunday with MadJay Brown, Tamora Kimmitt, Julianna Aldredge, Dave Michalak, and Geoff Raye in our continuing, every-few-months “The Isutusian Prophecy” campaign. It was fun! It was mostly one big fight with a gnoll patrol* and a lot of planning, but also much-needed socializing with great people I don’t see nearly enough. I learned and/or was reminded of two things: Whenever it’s been too long since I’ve played D&D, I mistakenly assume that — even as a player — I can just wing it. And I am always wrong. The gnoll fight tapped my paladin’s spell slots pretty quickly, making me hungry for a long rest despite our having only been adventuring for about ten minutes. Afterwards, we totally changed gears and were way more cautious. Like, scout a few feet at a time and use a ten-foot-pole cautious. For me, WotC-era D&D is best when everyone is prepared and well-versed in their PC’s rules bits. (Thankfully, Tamora was this well-prepared person, and she helped us figure out how to proceed.) Because, I think, that’s where the fun lay; we pit our rules mastery against the DM’s and see how long we can go before we need to tap out. (And that’s why hand-wavey 3/4/5e is not much fun for me, because once you’re just talking and occasionally rolling a d20, I start to question why we’re not playing something else.) This is why, back in the day, I was a 3e rules lawyer. I studied that shit hard. Next, I was reminded that D&D is full of mechanics that, while I’m sure they make design sense, don’t make world-sim sense to me. For example: Jay used “success with a cost” to hit my and Tamora’s PCs with two levels of exhaustion after a failed check. Mundane healing of exhaustion is one level healed per long rest (i.e., per day). I figured that we’d take one long rest and then I could — obviously — use some healing magic to cure the other levels. Nope. You need Greater Restoration to heal exhaustion, and that’s at least a 9th-level caster. My 5th-level paladin can heal blindness, but is of no use for people who are pooped. We did a quick Google and apparently it’s easier to kill your character and then cast Revivify on them, which erases all conditions, than it is to cure exhaustion with anything other than time. Or take the Dash action. Man, I think we have it figured out, but it’s been two sessions of conversation. Or the Healer’s Kit. You’d think it was one of the kits with which you need a proficiency, but no, it’s actually not — you’re thinking of the Herbalist’s Kit — it’s just a piece of gear that anyone can buy and use. These things always break my brain a little. Latter-day D&D is an exceptions-based ruleset, and man the exceptions are really, really exceptions. So often when I think I can intuit how something works, 3/4/5e throws me a curve ball. Contrast this to HERO, in which, at least IME, I can think about how a thing would work in “real life” and my expectations seem to hold up. E.g., instead of drawing lines to see how many sides of a square are crossed, I can just see that an opponent is being ganged up and be all, “Yeah, okay, you’re flanked.” It’s almost like, with D&D, I feel like I have to reason from the rules first and then see how the fiction looks, but in some other trad-y games I can just picture a situation and then apply rules to it. (I mean, how many times have people had to interpret what hit points reflect in the fiction, or somatic gestures, or Vancian spell memorization, i.e., things we know exist for game resource reasons but now we have to justify in the fiction.) Or maybe it’s just me. Regardless, I still had fun! I love, love, love this group of people. *My kid’s favorite show on NIckelodeon! (Parents will get this.)]]>

Day 26: When you interrogate the nature of heroism in your game, do you prefer to directly or indirectly invoke Lacanianism?

I am legit astonished that anyone’s tried to answer this in good faith, but Abstract Machine has: https://plus.google.com/u/0/118086788142088483650/posts/2BdesMAGXuh

It’s a private share, hope you can read it. It’s bonkers and proof that I am so dumb. (About some things.)

When I woke up and freshened up on today’s question, I had this tiny pit of dread in my stomach. What on earth? It’s my question! What am I dreading? And then, sipping my coffee with Honey Nut Cheerios leftover milk poured into it, I had an amazing flashback.

This is totally personal stuff, feel free to just bounce on this thread if you’re not feeling that.

So my flashback. It’s senior AP English and we’re doing student-written tests of books we’re reading. My bestie and I get it into our idiot teenage smart-kid heads that it’d be fucking hilarious to write an impossibly tough test. We did actual research: it was The Brothers Karamazov, so there were lots of resources available several orders more involved than Cliff’s Notes. We wrote and delivered, straight-faced, a 400-level lit crit essay test to our senior class.

I’m not sure what our endgame was, actually. I mean we had to turn something in and the students were obligated to do the test, no matter what. Were were, what, going to rip our masks off and laugh hysterically? No idea. It didn’t end well, with even the best-natured students (all acutely concerned about their AP performance because that shit is college credits and there’s real money on the line) whipped into a fury at us.

Total, epic failure at all levels. We absorbed a semester of hazing from the other students with the teacher’s tacit approval. I still grit my teeth at the memory.

I did end up with a healthy skepticism for pseudointellectualism. I mean I’m all for doing the homework, using technically specific terminology, thinking and overthinking and trying to pull in semi-related fields for additional context. Brains are awesome, smarts are sexy, etc. Pseudointellectualism is a horrible social signaling game played out in the realm of show-offy conversations (online debates these days).

The weeks where I feel the most alienated from the so-called “gaming community,” though, is when I’m faced with the very worst game of “Would You Rather?” And that’s when my choice is pseudointellectualism or anti-intellectualism.

I have no patience at all for the folks who just flat reject or deride the hard work that many of us obviously derive value from. And I guess here’s the rub: each time I try to write a sentence along the lines of “I also have no patience for the folks trying to score points with big words” I pause just a bit. Just a bit. So I guess that tips the scale ever-so-slightly for me, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I guess Lacan was a philosopher? I read the name in extreme passing at some point and it lodged itself in my head alongside bildungsroman and Campbellian and Diderot. Potentially useful ammo for a future show-offy online conversation.

I could do the research, I guess. I’m not being anti-intellectual, here! I’m confessing that I repeated my can’t-pass high school essay test joke without any sense of the endgame.

Don’t ever let anyone in gaming make you feel dumb about gaming. Not some indie asshole like me, not some trad blogger with Very Strong Opinions, not anyone with a partisan bone to pick.

Day 25: Do you like your scene framing hard, harder, or hardest? What’s the very hardest you’ve had your scene framed?

Not a ton to say today and I’m single-dadding it so not much time either.

Super short version: I think scene framing is a really smart technique depending on the game and players, it means different things for different games, and it’s not a universal best practice for all games everywhere.

NB I’m not at all surprised, reading some other folks’ posts today, that there’s a range of understanding of what this even is. You need to buy into the idea that narrative situations matter and can have urgency. I would not, personally, treat a dungeon problem description as “scene framing” of any kind — no scene, no frame, different paradigm. So, to me, trying to fit all gaming into that technique is to treat the technique as so vague as to be useless. Lots of functional roleplaying has nothing to do with scenes or framing.

I tend to do a mix of lightly framed scenes (mostly me, as GM, editorializing about what I feel like are the important things to focus on in the scene) and minute-to-minute coverage at home. More aggressive framing (more urgency and context) in one-shots and at conventions because we need to get shit done and fast. Nothing bugs me more as a player than sitting down and fucking around with irrelevant and uninteresting content.

Anyway, yay scene framing! Sometimes!

I’ll have more time tomorrow. Sorry for the short one today.

EDIT: Vincent Baker of course has crazy-smart stuff to say about the problems surrounding scene framing. Read him, he’s always provocative and interesting: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+VincentBaker/posts/hreaAFy1GE8

Day 24: What was the very saddest thing you wrote on an index card?

A blast from the past! One of the original self-referential self-mocking indie questions (hence the shitty “art” I put together for the hashtag). Was the sad index card meme from the Andy Kitkowski days of story dash games dot com? I honestly don’t remember.

My gut reaction to the question had been “none, not my jam” but that’s so not true. Thinking through the games where I have used index cards (as opposed to, say, a big relationship map, my preferred table presentation tool), though, I realized that a) it usually means I’m playing something freeform-y and b) that means mad bleed.

So many speculations! But it’s true: If I’m playing something without meaningful random inputs or manipulable economies or a system I can leverage, I go straight to the sad.

I played Ross Cowman’s Life on Mars at RinCon last year, which involves index cards for your character notes. You move around a token to represent various settings your astronaut is in during a trip to Mars, and then halfway you shift to Mars itself, and a whole new set of prompts. And sure enough, without any external prompting beyond a name, my mission captain was a mother slowly unraveling the further she got from her child. I worked my way into an emotional state very much like I started to feel stuck in NYC during Sandy, only extrapolated.

Similar thing happened with Montsegur 1244, although there’s no need for an index card because your character is already on a card. Absent any kind of “resolution system,” went straight to the sad again. And I could totally feel the wavefront of it happening once again in Rachel E.S. Walton’s Mars 244 game at Dreamation this year.

What’s going on?

This didn’t happen with Fall of Magic, which I feel like was more about fantastical journeys than emotional journeys (ie Life on Mars). So it’s not a 100% sure thing.

Hm…Durance, my characters are almost uniformly tragic. Sometimes bleedy. Less often because there’s a veneer of brutality that’s just not in me, and lets me distance myself from the character a bit.

Anyway, interesting phenomenon. I’ll think about it some more.

In the more trad space, I did index cards instead of an r-map for our run through The One Ring. Worked better because of all the travel and the mostly outward-focused situation. I’d do up little tent cards for every PC and NPC, along with cards that say INJURED and SCARED and MISERABLE, so I could slap those in front of a player. On the backs of the NPC tent cards I’ll add little GM notes. Nothing per se sad on any of them.

Richard Rogers made a good point that online play is probably going to bring the end of this technique. Pour one out for the sad index cards.

I’m now on Patreon!

(cross-posted from my circles)

I’ve launched my own Patreon page now to fund my new direction in self-publishing and creator-owned game content. Patreon is a way to show folks my behind-the-scenes works in progress, release early previews and playtesting documents, post design blogs, and eventually publish new campaign settings, RPGs, and supplements for my favorite game systems.

Patreon is where I’m going to start writing and designing SWORDBRIDGE, my mannerpunk fantasy setting, and EIDOLON, which is my neoclassical fantasy setting for spirit-channeling super heroes. And those are just the first!

I would be tremendously grateful if you’d stop in and check out what I have going on there, and if you think others might be interested in it, please feel free to reshare the link!


Day 23: Tell your most scandalous story about getting X-carded.

I have a good one!

I first read about the X-Card when John Stavropoulos started really talking it up. I want to say 2010ish? I’m not going to bother fact-checking that; it was, I think, at some point after he’d gotten the main idea of it down and it was starting to take off, particularly in indieland.

Me: super skeptical. Super. It felt like it violated a lot of social contract stuff and creative agency at the table, but I mostly kept that to myself. Snarked about it in gchat with friends, mostly.

BurningCon 2012, the one where luke crane expanded the event to a larger circle of Notables: John Harper, Jason Morningstar, Vincent Baker. And with what felt like the monolithic presence of Jason and Vincent’s fans, the X-Card came along as well. Well alrighty then, let’s give this thing a shot, see how it actually feels at the table.

The first time I sat at a table with an actual X-Card was a game of Fiasco, facilitated by Kristin Firth.Uh let’s see… James Stuart and Anthony Hersey and one more person whose name escapes me was at the table; Kristin was fighting a stomach thing so she was there to facilitate. I had never played Fiasco and didn’t really understand how it worked or what its best practices were. I was there to learn! I think it was shortly after Fiasco had shown up on Tabletop and it was yuuuuge.

The playset is some summer slasher setup. We go through all the character stuff; I end up with this obnoxious dudebro half of a pair of twins. I’m already thinking ahead that twins weirdness and slasher stories surely must fit together! I kind of am gunning to be the slasher. Again, I don’t really understand Fiasco yet so I have no idea if that’s cool or not.

So we play a while, spooling out scenes. I really have my hooks into the dudebro, really fun. No idea how the tilt works or the dice economy either, which is distracting and I can’t get a straight answer out of the folks who actually know the game. Which kind of sets up what I think felt like a waaaay-more confrontational vibe than I was intending.

At some point, in a scene with my character’s hapless, innocent twin, I decide to really ratchet up my character’s abusiveness. So, in character, I say something like “Oh come on you reeetard.”

Kristin jumped on that instantly, despite obvious physical discomfort. She’s all “NOPE, nuh-uh, we’re not going there.” Taps the card.

Oh I was steamed.

I remained steamed for months. How dare she censor my creative input!

I debriefed with John about my X-Card experience a few weeks after the convention. The dude is endlessly patient with me, god bless him. I lay out my case, he listens a lot, and indicates that I’ve said nothing new and that the X-Card is an extremely practical tool in his and others’ experience.

A year goes by. It’s still on my mind.

At BigBadCon 2013, Jason Morningstar invites me to a private table of Night Witches. After talking through setup and playbooks and the super-high-gloss overview, he puts an X-Card in the middle of the table. Inside I’m instantly oh here we go again.

I gotta say: it’s Jason’s speech that moved me. I became a 100% convert the moment he concluded his explanation, which included a bit of editorializing around the actual recommended text as presented at http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg .

We never actually used the card, but now I finally had a firm grasp of how it worked. Like a lot of other folks have said, the talk is probably more important than the card.

Armed with his explanation and context, I explained it to my local crew. It shows up at their request when I ran an Urban Shadows game as a couples’ date night thing.

The last time I saw it used was at my Sagas of the Icelanders table at Dreamation this year. Someone suggested something another player didn’t like, we tapped out, rewound a bit, it was all good. It was low-key, blameless, smooth.

The big shift for me was realizing that my creative input does not matter. It’s not special or unique. It literally doesn’t matter what reasons there may be behind someone X-Carding. That’s why you don’t talk about it. I may not like when it’s used to redirect an idea I had. And yet I’m 100% okay when Try Another Way gets used in Archipelago. It’s not like I have a limited reservoir of ideas. And thinking that any given idea is so valuable and precious as to deflect disagreement?

I think gaming could stand a lot more humility.

I’m a fan of the X-Card.

#INDIEGAMEaDAY2016 How many friendships have you terminated because they confessed they kind of like to play Fate games sometimes? It’s okay. Fate players have to hear the truth.

None. I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of terminating a friendship because of someone’s taste in games. But some people apparently want all aspects of their lives arranged along a single axis, i.e. their friends are their political allies are their gaming peers are their fellow music fans, etc., so maybe it would make sense to someone like that? I tend to assume that people are complex and multidimensional, and too much “colinearity” in your friend group / circle of acquaintances / society might be unhealthy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Fate. It was the game that got me into actually playing RPGs. Aside from a little bit of MERP in grade school, I had never played a tabletop RPG, but I was a fan of the Baldur’s Gate computer RPG and the other games that used the same engine, so I got curious about the underlying rules. However, the commentary I read at the time was that the advantage of tabletop play over a CRPG was a live GM, who could fudge rolls and pull other tricks to give you a “story”. This seemed really dumb to me — why should I learn rules, make character-build decisions, etc., if they ultimately didn’t matter because the GM was going to handwave everything anyway? That’s not a game. But I kept minimally engaged because the video game series I liked was taking cues from tabletop D&D and I wanted to keep informed.

I forget the exact sequence of events, but I know I eventually stumbled across the Forge and really resonated with the idea that when these games said something was a rule they meant it — the rules weren’t just page-filler so the company would have something to sell to GMs and players who would be doing something only tenuously related to the rules. I also took note of the Ennie (nomination? win?) for Spirit of the Century, which sounded cool to me, so I started doing some research. I found some recordings of SOTC sessions online, and it sounded like a lot of fun (which also sparked my eventual interest in AP podcasts). I bought a handful of indie games, including SOTC, but I wasn’t able to interest any of my local friends / acquaintances in playing, so they mostly sat on my shelf.

Eventually I ran across the Gutterskypes AP podcast (their inaugural game was SOTC), which introduced me to the idea of playing online via Skype. Eventually I was intrigued enough that I posted to a discussion forum and found a few other fans and we started our own group. Spirit of the Century was the first game we played. We did a few series of that, and also a few series of the Dresden Files RPG. So Fate games deserve a lot of credit (blame?) for getting me interested in RPGs and actually playing RPGs. Also, my most immersive RPG experience ever was playing the Dresden Files RPG — my pure mortal “extreme sports monster hunter” character was in a desperate fight for his life with a Black Court vampire and his goons, and it was awesome.

But I have a lot of problems with Fate as a game. The one that aggravates me most is Compels, for this reason: after almost every game of Fate the GM will say something like “that was pretty good, but I should have compelled more”. Hey compel mechanic: when you have friction with every person you run into, maybe you’re the problem. Like a lot of things with Fate, I think the compel mechanic sounds cool when you read it, but in practice it’s much harder to pull off than the rules imply. The vast majority of quality compels I’ve done in the game were things I prepped ahead of time and had ready to go, I don’t think it’s realistic to believe you’re going to come up with a lot of them on the fly. (Also, the game is really ambiguous about how the GM is supposed to decide who to compel — if you target them to people who are low on Fate points isn’t that effectively punishing people who were trying to conserve a valuable resource and probably doubling down on the spotlight time devoted to people who have presumably already been doing a lot of flashy stuff when they spent their Fate points?).

I could go on and on. A few days ago I used the problems with the DFRPG subsystems as an example of disappointing-in-play mechanics. I’ve written blog posts with explicit or implicit critiques of other aspects Fate’s mechanics. But there are elements of the games that seem really good. The character creation tends to create thematically rich characters, I dug the scenario creation guidelines in DFRPG (although I think it kind of falls apart when you need to mechanically stat out bad guys, since it’s pretty arbitrary and difficult to gauge how tough something is), there are elements of the aspect and skill systems I like, and I’ve had a lot of fun sessions playing these games. But my conclusion is that, as with most “hybrid” games, the beating heart of the game is GM showmanship, not the systems the players ostensibly interact with. Part of me really wants to cobble together what I think would be a more functional game from Fate (basically giving the GM guidelines for what to do, kind of like GM moves in AW — “compels” are the “when the players look to you expectantly, make a move” type of move). But nobody really cares about my flavor of Fate, and why would I spend a lot of time and effort trying to develop and playtest a Fate variant when I have games that are 100% mine that still need work?