Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Their Own Words

I posted previously about my sandbox style Call of Cthulhu game, the Arkham Chronicles.  We've just completed our eighth session, and things have gone as well as I'd hoped.  The characters have all developed nicely, and had a tense time of things surviving challenges both Mythos and mundane.  Rather than spending time describing the game from my perspective, I thought I'd post some excerpts of character fiction the players have been creating to fill in missing players on events.  So here is a snapshot of my game in the words of the characters:

From the personal records of Frank Cutter P.I.:
"Baby, its been a rough week...

They say guys came back like that from the war, in pieces that nobody can see, nobody can put together again.  I’m like that. Or maybe not.  Maybe I’m the guy that breaks people into pieces and beats his friends wit a b-club because a mushroom is growin’ happily in his thick skull.  Who the hell knows anymore.

I felt fine in the hospital.  Better than fine, better than a cold beer on a hot day. I skipped out before I shoulda, I see that now. The docs were right. But hindsight is useless when you have dead children to step over on your way to the office. Its not like I’ll make that mistake twice."

From the diary of Sebastian Gilbert (engineer and radio salesman):
"It started out as a bit of a laugh really.  The desire to read those blasphemous, forbidden books a way of getting at Father and his God.  It was like watching a road crash, voyeuristic really, looking at someone’s private insanity.  Deep down I think I always knew some of it made some twisted sense that I was too afraid to admit to myself, but lately it is more real.  Those words that evil man tortured from that poor woman, or beast if Frank is to be believed, they eat into your mind, maggots eating at the necrotic flesh of my sanity.  I’m repulsed at the evil horror those words spell out on the page yet somehow hungry to know more.  The mundane life I live seems more and more insignificant.  I’m losing hope, I must understand."

A journal entry by sergeant Lorenzo Gatti (army recruiter):
"I should never have saved that lowlife Sticky Frank from those Irish thugs. Saving him set off a chain reaction of horror and violence. After the Irish Mob came into my hospital room and smashed my broken leg’s cast with a hammer, I needed to find the S O B..."

A letter from Louis Jarvie (medical student) to Dr McIlvoy:
"Anyway, my wallet got lifted, we chased after the bastard, with the help of the unfeasably
large and dextrous Conrad- the man is as fast as a greased weasle, I swear! We caught the disreputable filcher called Greasy, I know it will seem farfetched but I actually brought him down with the old Litmanns stethoscope you gave me, I swung it like an Argentine ranchero might use a bola, incredibly they wrapped around his lower legs and he dropped like the great clot he was. Then, in exchange for my fabulous whistle from Seb, Greasy gave away where his friend Sticky Frank was holed up, we went there as a group which in the end saved our bacon, though in honestly I couldn't help but feel if we'd had Frank around we would have had an easier time of it.
At the tenements we were shown inside by a kindly seeming old Russian lady and, it shames me to say but like any ninny minded chuckta, despite the business at hand, I felt at ease and took a seat alongside the handsomely put together Bessie, enjoying our close proximity perhaps more than is proper. 
My hand trembles as I write, but the elderly lady turned truely nasty and scalded poor Bessie with a coffee pot before stabbing her, I feel I was guided by a force greater than myself, which bid me rise, staunch Bessies bleeding, thereby saving her life, then returned me to myself, I turned and grasping a handy crucifix, for the whole room was cluttered with relegious imagery and icons, I attempted to strike the auld bag and instead found my sen sat on the floor with a deep cut to my thigh, but I know you will not be surprised, my ability with bareknuckle fighting is just as poor as it ever was. My auld form master would have had my guts for garters if he could've seen me."

A statement by Conad Black (photographer and army reservist):
"The fourth floor had two rooms, I think. The first one was horrible, it was like something was trying to burst through the walls, the sound. I can remember the sound of artillery hitting trees and the splintering noise.

The other door. I, I admit I lost it here.
There was something in that other room. It was horrible. I can still see it when my eyes are closed, the way it moves, undulating. The Sarge saved us. He shot at it and closed the door.
We somehow made it to the top floor. There was a noise, a weird music it tugged at the senses..."

From the diary of Bessie Steele (researcher at the Miskatonic University):
"I almost died today.  

Strange, it is to see those words on paper.  It all happened so quickly, I've not time to process.  
 Louis thinks I should be resting, rather than writing in my journal - I can sense him hovering outside.  The idea of sleep is somewhat terrifying, the fear of closing my eyes and them not opening again.  If not for Louis..."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Roleplaying Aotearoa Style

In the past I've posted about New Zealand Roleplaying Products (Feb 2011) and the rise of New Zealand Roleplaying products, (Aug 2013) highlighting some great products authored by New Zealanders.  Now it's time for the 2015 edition, covering more RPG products by Kiwi authors:

We begin with a new edition of a title featured in the last instalment; Monster of the Week a new and revised edition of this best-selling monster-hunting roleplaying game powered by the Apocalypse.  Michael Sands teamed up with Evil Hat Productions to produce this slick product, packed with new art and containing some new material including an introductory mystery; example monsters like Balkan vampires, ghouls, and spore trolls; and hunter types like the Crooked and the Spell-Slinger.  Mike's also made available all the handouts and created a bundle of extra playbooks.

Next up is The Idea from Space by Simon Carryer.  This is an adventure suitable for low-level characters for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing and other traditional role-playing games.

Also by Simon is Nod, a game about a barbarian from the Shivering Steppe, hunting human quarry within the walls of the city. One night is all that is given to find the quarry and flee the city. But Nod is a place of dark alleyways, strange rituals, degenerate worship and corrupt rule. The barbarian's journey will have many crooked turns, and will never end where you expect.

Steve Hickey has recently released Left Coast: the Short Story edition a role-playing game about a science fiction writer in California (and her weird friends, family, fans and nemeses).  Steve also has Soth, a game about cultists just trying to do what cultists do, coming soon.

Jenni Sands recently published Quiet Day in the Library, which is an existential live action roleplaying game about memories, relationships and coping in a crisis.  Jenni has also authored Four Things, a simple, systemless game about ordinary people that examines the quirks and foibles which form our personalities and how we relate to each other. Inspired by games like Grace, Silver and White and a team building exercise.  She also published the horror sequel Four Spooky Things, which sets the self reflection on the backdrop of a player-chosen horror scenario.

True Love Match is a free game of romance and reality TV by Morgan Davie. You’ll need six people, a couple of rooms, and a few hours. It might mess you up a little....

Stepahnie and Catherine Pegg published Tesla's Wedding,  a giddy roleplaying game based on the steampunk genre, designed in a spirit of celebration and to evoke a feeling of joy; the story of how Tesla von und zu Drakenwyrm and Pierre de l’Eclaire, having Conquered the forces Arrayed against them and Founded a little town of their own in the Black Forest, are about to get married good and proper. 

Catherine Pegg also authored The Face of Oblivion,  a science-fiction chamber larp for 6-8 players, designed around a hard choice.  Disaster is coming: will you save a large group of people that you are responsible for, or a smaller group of everyone you ever loved and everything you ever cared about?

EPOCH scenario publication has continued apace and continues to showcase some great NZ talent with Andrew Millar, Liam Jones, Marcus Bone and Michael Sands and I all contributing scenarios to War Stories, which was nominated for an ENnie Award for best adventure. Morgan Davie and Andrew Millar also each contributed a scenario with proceeds donated to charity - Silent Night was published in Christmas 2013, White Wedding in Christmas 2014.  The EPOCH companion The Experiment Continues also features original scenarios by Donna Giltrap, Liam Jones, Alasdair Sinclair and I.

I also recently released Wicked Lies & Alibis, a whodunit roleplaying game set in the age of Art Deco enabling you to recreate murder mystery stories in the finest tradition of the goden-age of detective fiction. 

New Zealand writers also feature in the RPGgeek Dramasystem contest, in  particular Monster's Brawl by Morgan Davie and Grapes of Wharekaka by Eric Dodd.

Looking back over the last lists all the way back to early 2011, there has been a lot of growth.  Some names have appeared with regularity, their writing credits growing steadily, while there has also been an influx of new talent.  All in all it seems to be a vibrant and diverse community of writers, publishers and gamers. Perhaps we should all get together sometime?

If you know of a product I've missed, comment below.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Designer's Notes - Wicked Lies & Alibis

I recently launched a new game; Wicked Lies & Alibis, a whodunit roleplaying game set in the age of art deco.  I thought it might be interesting to briefly discuss how this game came about and the thinking behind some of the key design decisions that were made.

It all started when I was playtesting a new EPOCH scenario - Harvest - which was subsequently published in The Experiment Continues.  One of the suggested setups for the characters in the opening scene is that they are old friends who are travelling together to sprinkle the ashes of a recently deceased friend from the cliffs of her remote, coastal, hometown. This background served no purpose to the scenario beyond being a reason that the characters travel together to the town where the scenario begins

EPOCH is designed to encourage the players to construct interesting backstories for characters with a specific flashback mechanic.  As my playtest progressed the players began to focus on the story of the deceased friend, and created a Tarantinoesque story involving a drug-deal gone bad, double-crossing and finally death.  Each player used their flashback to show a different way in which the friend was badly injured during these escapades, but concluded with the friend being alive when they last saw them - implicating the other characters.

So engaging was this story of betrayal it came to compete with and even eclipse the scenario plot.  That led me to conclude that EPOCH worked pretty well to support this kind of a game. But what, I wondered, would a game that was explicitly designed to generate this kind of story look like?

I have always found it interesting that in most murder mystery stories the crime itself is fairly straightforward; the bulk of such stories are the lies, obfuscation and twists that the guilty, and not-guilty, weave in order to hide their secrets.  It seemed to me that there was a neat game experience to be had in recreating this kind of game for the tabletop, focussing on the human drama and secrets of the suspects, rather than the procedural aspects of following clues and deduction.

I started with character creation; EPOCH does a pretty good job of supporting the players to generate interesting concepts from a few card-based concepts which could be fleshed out in much greater detail over a single session, so I borrowed these mechanics - but there were a few tweaks I wanted to make.  For example, in the past I'd observed players complain they simply couldn't reconcile two randomly dealt character creation cards, and sometimes players would even agree to swap cards.  So, I decided it would be important to give the player several options so they could pick a combination of cards that suited them from the outset.  I also added a motive card which would have obvious importance for later in the game.

In EPOCH I suggest using a group relationship to help players establish an identity relative to one another.  For Wicked Lies & Albis I wanted this relationship to have a mechanical effect, so during the opening scenes each character can play a connection (which they specify) on another character, and both players look at each other’s secret motive and circumstance cards, binding them together in a way that enables them to help or incriminate one another later in the game.  During playtest this had the greatest impact when players established close relationships, particularly immediate family.  It also means that some characters might end up being heavily connected (and knowing a lot of other people’s secrets) which I think helps reflect the reality the way social groups actually work in real life.

The game itself is split into two parts.  The opening scenes serve to ease the players into their characters, and to interact in order to establish some basic relationships.  Another EPOCH device that I’ve slightly refined this is also where the GM does the scene setting and introduces the future victim, and at the conclusion, the means of their demise.

The System
The second part of the game is perhaps the real meat of the game experience.  I wanted the characters to be able to tell stories of the victim’s demise, and ultimately accuse each other – but I needed a way to balance the different skills and experience that players bring to the table, and create a story framework that was constrained enough that it could evolve over the course of the game, and where the key elements could be remembered by the players. 

My solution was to create a deck of accusation cards.  Each has an element that incriminates another character somewhat (for example the character has a violent temper or previously threatened to kill the victim), and a player draws three such cards in each of four rounds and choses one to play on another character at the table in order to incriminate them as the potential murderer.  Played cards remain on the table as a physical reminder of the story and where the weight of accusations sits. 

In the hands of some players these cards support the framing of a detailed flashback scene which culminates in an accusation; for others less interested in exercising narrative control, simply making the accusation across the table is sufficient.  There are also alibi cards that allow a player to cancel an accusation played on another character by providing an alibi, rather than making an accusation.

The key is that the accusations can fit any context that the players construct – for example we know the character of the actor has a violent temper because it has been narrated in an accusation that they assaulted a theatre critic who reviewed them poorly – now that we know the actor is violent and probably ambitious, so a further accusation might infer that perhaps the victim was preparing to fund their next theatrical outing and reneged at the last minute, or perhaps they were a beneficiary of the victim’s will and needed a cash injection to promote their career... As the accusations are played, we learn more about the character and their motive to murder.

So while the accusation cards provide elements of a story framework, the players are the ones who really shape the story.  Playing multiple accusations on a character allows players to build on one-another’s stories, and ultimately each is a vote for which of the emerging narratives is most compelling.  This is an unusual experience for the players as they begin the game with total autonomy over their character, but in the second part of the game, they give up some of this autonomy and gain a level of narrative power over other characters, while still remaining in the skin of their character. 

During this phase the GM takes a formal facilitation role through the NPC of the Great Detective, who already knows the identity of the murderer, but will only reveal this once the secrets of the key suspects, and their attempts to obfuscate the truth, have been laid bare.

Playtesting the game yielded a further element – players wanted to have the opportunity to respond immediately to accusation made against their character, by turning them back on their accuser.  So I added the Prime Suspect card (given to the character with the most accusations) which allows this to happen once per round, providing some disincentive to piling accusations on one character, while also providing a physical reminder of which character is soon to face charges for murder.  This all comes to a conclusion in a formal end scene, where each player provides a conclusion for their character.

So, how does this all work?  In my experience Wicked Lies & Alibis supports an almost entirely player-driven story experience, and balances interaction so that everyone at the table has a fairly equal degree of participation.  It manages this without needing a 10,000 word scenario or the threat of character elimination that is the modus operandi of EPOCH.  All the GM needs is a deck of cards, a one-page case summary and to have some idea about the Great Detective they want to portray.

That said, much like EPOCH, I imagine this won’t be a game for everyone, it’s pretty non-traditional, dispensing with attributes, skills and characteristics, and my perusal of relative sales status of DriveThruRPG titles suggests that while investigation is common in many popular RPGs, dedicated murder mystery RPGs don’t seem to have a huge following.  There’s also the need to assemble the deck, which is obviously a much higher bar to entry than simply grabbing your trusty dice and a pencil.

As always, it took much longer to pull together all the material I wanted to include than I initially imagined.  Following on from the example of EPOCH scenarios I wanted to offer some detailed facilitation notes to explain how to get the most from each phase of the game, and some summary materials to make the GM's life easy at the table (as a regular 'con GM I am a big advocate of simple reference sheets).  Then there is the historic context - I wanted to set this during the art deco period (mid 1920's- late 1930's) to parallel the 'golden age' of detective fiction, so I wanted to add a few historical details, but as this wouldn't be the focus of the game, I didn't want to get bogged down in this material, so I hit on the idea of introducing selected historical themes in the same way you'd introduce an NPC - some general details to enhance the flavour of the game.

So, that's a high-level overview of creating Wicked Lies & Alibis.  It makes it sound a much more orderly and planned experience than it actually was - at it's heart this is a game that evolved from a tabletop experience, and was refined through further gaming and experimentation.  

[Cross-Posted to Wicked Lies & Alibis]