Day 30: What is your fondest memory of a game you thought was fun before you knew better?

Here we are, the end of the hashtag. Everyone feeling #indieAF today?

Two things have jumped out as my takeaways of the experience:

1) I’m loving all the love letters to indie gaming. Read the posts – there are nearly two hundred of them now – and the vast, vast majority I’m seeing are enormously positive. Some of my questions were even written specifically in a “let’s start a flame war” voice. Go back through and read. Amazing.

2) I’m disappointed at the critique of the questions by a small circle of folks. I got what I wanted out of the questions, which was endless love letters to indie gaming for a solid month. But obviously, clearly, there’s a population for whom their Indie Identity is serious business and not a laughing matter. I have yet to see their opinions about the answers, only the questions.

Would I do things differently? Yeah, I would. I learned a lot and got a better grasp of the social media terrain that runs under all this. Specifically, I’d absolutely do more before-the-fact outreach to my women and POC and women POC friends to participate. Some of the best comments in my threads, at least, came from (especially) women. That might come in conflict with the tone of the questions I went with this time around.

Would I do the smug indie hipster voice again? Perhaps not again, no. I think the joke is played out. As a smug indie hipster myself, I’m kind of out of material for now (and yes, I confess I wore myself out with 30 solid days of this). But smugness is a wellspring of hilarity and inspiration! And I do love tweaking smugness about games, because ffs none of this is important. Or, at least, as important as we frequently treat it. Hence my deep skepticism of tying identity and community into hobby activities.

But oh lordy, doing them straight is also so boring. I’m sorry, but it just is. That was my beef with #rpgaday , the earnestness that reads as cluelessness. Nobody I give a shit about gives a shit about what your favorite die size is. So, that’s a problem to solve if I do something like this again in the future. I’m currently leaning super-heavily toward the “oh hell no” end of the spectrum (cue mad applause from the haters). But we’ll see.

I’m also concerned, quite concerned actually, with the unsafe environment this thing allowed here and there. The public-ness of my Collection meant that replies were public and following the hashtag was public. If you got harassed or wrongplussing put you on some enemy’s list out there, I am so sorry to hear you got subjected to that. That sucked. I ended up blocking some folks as well. It wasn’t widespread but the cost of public discourse is asymmetrical social warfare. Fight with the tools you’ve got.

The answer to today’s question is “none.” As in, I never really learned better.

Small press design has shown me a huge and varied range of what it is we’re doing, what’s possible within this amazing activity of ours. As my envelope widens, my appreciation for everything within it widens as well. Not to say that I love all gaming equally; I have tastes and preferences as well. But oh god, who cares about my tastes? Or yours?

Play games. Love games. Investigate them if you’ve got the bandwidth. Or don’t if you don’t, and squeeze what you can out of them for as long as you can.

Me? I’m headed to a con today, with a good friend who also loves games, and we’re gonna game the shit out of some games for three days straight. Some of them will involve killing monsters for their stuff. Some might involve delicious feels. All of it will involve some amount of make-believe, and none of it will save the world.

Hope y’all have a great weekend.

“What is your fondest memory of a game you thought was fun before you knew better?”

I’m pre-empting my usual “Wait for Paul so I know what the real question is” habit because I think I get it… this is about elitism, and kind of sums up everything at which this blog challenge was poking fun.

But! I also genuinely believe that the last decade-and-a-half has seen a staggering amount of great discussion about RPG design and the spaces in which they are played, and the lion’s share of that discussion has come from the indie publishing scene — and, yeah, I am going include both the Forge and the OSR here, as they are both fundamentally about:

1) Re-examining our pre-conceived notions about games, primarily by examining actual play and actual texts;
2) Putting power in the hands of independent creators.

Sure, the Forge did it first, but still. 😉

And I think everyone who has felt the heady rush of “enlightenment” when first diving into these scenes has been guilty of wanting to “help the heathens see the light” — look at any RPG fora around 2005 or so, and you’ll see the flamewars that erupted as a result. (The OSR probably has its equivalent after 2008 or so.)

But! Again! There are absolutely games — and/or ways of playing games — that I know are no longer fun for me. And indie brainwashing is absolutely to blame for my leaving gaming groups to which I’d committed years of my life.

So, to answer the question-as-written, let me say: HERO, both the game and the people with whom I played it.

Most of my HERO in the 21st century was GM’ed by one guy, and for the longest time I thought he was a brilliant GM. I mean, he was. He had a great knack for pacing a campaign, portraying NPCs, keeping multiple plot arcs going, running combats, etc — but he also relied on a lot of GM-fiat techniques. For the most part, I think he was improvising, and most NPC stat blocks were “in his head”, and when he wanted something to happen, happen it did. To someone raised on ‘80s RPG design, this was all well and good. It was how you ran games.

But then I learned about “illusionism”. Add to that the Forge emphasis on focused design and mechanics that support premise, and it was all over. Instead of enjoying the illusion, I spent sessions peering behind the curtain, or thinking about how much time I’d spent math-ing my HERO PC into existence and how it didn’t seem to matter much.

I also make the rookie cultist mistake of trying to “convert” that group to indie games. The session of Spirit of the Century I ran went pretty well, though afterwards they wanted to convert it to HERO. Burning Wheel was a flat-out disaster. And when I pitched the idea of The Pool, they got outright hostile.

So, was I not really having fun when I was playing HERO? Yes and no. There were definitely aspects that were nagging me; that I knew felt off but couldn’t quite put my finger on. But there were also great times, and sessions I will remember forever.

The cool thing about “indie” gaming and my experience with the Forge is that they gave me both exposure to new ways of engaging with this hobby and language with which to talk about how I engage — both of which helped me to better understand what I liked and what I didn’t, and thereby be better able to pinpoint what it is I wanted. And this has benefitted my play of all kinds of RPGs, not just the “indie” ones.

FYI, the original list, one last time: https://plus.google.com/+PaulBeakley/posts/SCyvyFEEbsv

Day 29: What indie game tech do you most keenly miss when you play something more mainstream? And then do you denounce the game in person or do you save it for a social media rant?

Obviously I intended this question to start a lengthy and impenetrable turf war discourse on the bright line between indie and mainstream. Obviously.

So we all know what we’re talking about right? Excellent, we can skip over the unpleasantness.

I have actual answers for this one! Minimum navel-gazing today.

Circles from Burning Wheel, or really any player-facing “take a chance on adding stuff to the world” mechanism. Circles, specifically, oh how I missed that. To those not in the know: it’s basically a stat that lets you add an NPC to the world. Might be useful, might be an enemy, doesn’t matter: if you feel like you need to add an NPC to the game, you make the test. If it fails, the best practice is typically that the NPC shows up anyway, but with a complication. That alchemist you really need to brew up a shapeshifting potion is also an informant for the Cardinal’s secret police. The sympathetic captain of the guard will totes let you through the gate but only after you’ve saved her son from the witch in the woods. Whatever. Enmity Clause ftw.

Another: relationship-making Pre-Play Questions. First I saw it so explicitly spelled out was Apocalypse World. It’s great for games with a good dose of intraparty action, especially backed up with some incentives so you keep reincorporating the stuff you said in the beginning. In Mutant: Year Zero, it generates the Ark’s relationship map and situation, and earns you XPs as you help an NPC, hinder another, and protect your PC “buddy.” I really do miss that process when it’s not available. I think Fate (FATE? (F.A.T.E.?)) has a similar pre-game “what did we do together and what aspect is derived from that experience?” thing. It’s neat. Good tech.

I miss PbtA style Moves when I’ve been playing a lot of PbtA/AWE games. It gets into my head and I shift my mode and method. The surest proof that moves are not skills is to try to treat one as the other in back-to-back games. Very different engagement and use and vibe. But the majority volume of my play isn’t PbtA so missing Moves is a temporary condition only.

I know I’m missing a ton but those are the three that jump to mind.

One more day! Anyone else excited?

Day 28: What’s the most interesting period of obscure and unrelatable history you’d like to see a game set in? How would you do it?

Jeez…I don’t know. Jason Morningstar, for whom I wrote this question specifically but not exclusively, already had such an interesting thread about it: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+JasonMorningstar/posts/5DxcdEQSB33

It’s a private share but it’s good and interesting.

I’m tempted to do the show-offy thing where I reference some tiny sliver of time and space that literally tens of people might have heard of, and they’re all total history nerds so whatever I pitched would get ‘splained into oblivion in a hundred post thread.

But if I go big, then I plow into the intersection of Pop Culture and Appropriation and nobody walks away from that car crash.

Oh yeah, I’d definitely go with the first option. Obscurity and unrelatability are both good defenses once you’re out in the world. I’m currently totally in love with my “Werewolves in Aquitaine” setting I squandered on a stupid Burning Wheel one-shot, and I want to swing back around to it. Prompting/modeling/shaping a premodern head space to play in is also one of my favorite Major Design Challenges, and I’ll probably spend my entire life trying to figure out how to do it. So I have to leave the second half of my question unanswered for now. It’s sorta-kinda been done! King Arthur Pendragon does some interesting stuff with, at least, cryptohistorical Arthurian values, but I’m not sure it’s directly portable or even the thing I’d want to do.

I had a longer post in mind about the (suit)ability of games to serve a journalistic function, but I just don’t have the energy to get into a long thing about it. Sorry. (The tl;dr answer is “yes, with massive caveats” and maybe I’ll write more about it down the road.)

Two more days! Is everyone feeling #indieAF ?

Day 27: What’s the very best playtest-stage game your friends probably haven’t heard of yet? How long ago did you play it and how much better was it than the current version?

Okay, I freely admit this: one of my favorite things about small press gaming culture is the accessibility to the designers. I say this coming from the world of trad publishing, which typically constrains the supply of access so as to juice demand for it. Meet at a convention, maybe find your way onto a playtest list, maybe get to a first-name basis with a line developer, maybe get invited to an afterparty…ridiculous. Fake celebrity exists so writers can be underpaid, full stop.

I totally get that indie access is imperfect. I get that there are still gatekeepers and hoops and social skills and, yes, luck involved. I promise you it’s better than the alternative. It’s better for the fans, it’s better for the creators.

Haven’t really done that much playtesting in/for indieland, tbqh. It’s so very easy to burn out playtesters, and I don’t do it too often. Once or twice a year, maybe? I’ll also confess that it can kind of tire out my players to be relentlessly charitable with an early design just so the thing is playable for longer than 15 minute stretches. It’s work to do it well.

The “earlier edition was better” business is nonsense in my experience, although I’ve gotten whiffs of it here and there and it always strikes me as some annoying insider signaling behavior. The gamer version of “the live acoustic version someone recorded on their phone in a coffee house is so much better.” Games get better with each iteration; I can’t imagine one getting worse. Maybe an interesting but unnecessary subsystem gets cut?

Of the stuff we’ve playtested, the one I’m most excited to see developed further is Jason Morningstar’s STASI AW hack. It was pretty early in his experimenting with AW, but the outline of the game I think could be really terrific. I do love me some paranoid political bureaudrama.

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.

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.