Strange Birds of the Vasyugan Swamp

I’m lucky to have some very motivated and lovely friends in The Gauntlet who want to play all sorts of strange games. Noella was motivated to play Strange Birds, and fortunately they reached out to me and the timing just worked!

What is Strange Birds?

Strange Birds (currently in beta form) is a short story game written by Gauntleteers Lauren McManamon and Kyle Thompson. It’s a duet game about weird birds honoured through the lens of a nature documentary. I had heard Lauren talk about it in relation to some of the endearing extinct and near-extinct birds - such as the Kakapo - a species of large, flightless, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrot, from New Zealand.

StrangeBirdsLogo.jpg

Setup

Noella definitely gave the game some thought, and I just want to give a shout out to the organized nature of the session. As someone who is normally a facilitator, and I daresay I’m a good one, I am often times not the most organized. I was thoroughly impressed and felt supported as a player in this session. They’d thought of everything in regards to order of play and had done the research on the game play (and meta-game play) so I just didn’t have to! It was lovely.

We had met online the day prior to do character generation, which first involved a few steps that included an exploration and decision on biomes, doing some online image searches and making collages, and writing down some setting traits; we settled on the Vasyugan Swamp which is mostly in Siberia, after seeing some stunning scenes.

 Our biome and setting images

Our biome and setting images

After that was creation of two strange birds. We were chatting as we looked at some swamp birds, and although ours may not have come directly from that same swamp, we borrowed some birds, tweaked some traits and weaknesses and eccentricities, and settled on the Black Grouse and Spoonbill. The character keeper made it easy to dump the images and keep track of all the various details.

 Our strange birds: The Black Grouse and Spoonbill (used with story game bullshit liberties)

Our strange birds: The Black Grouse and Spoonbill (used with story game bullshit liberties)

That’s where we ended, spending about 30 minutes just doing some setting and bird creation in preparation for game play the next day.

Game play

We first had a conversation about safety, and Lines and Veils, and although we didn’t have any explicit lines, we decided that due to the brutal nature of the animal kingdom, we’d use veils for: sexual violence, violence against children, and explicit visera and gore. We wouldn’t explore any of these gratuitously, and if they came up, it would be in the background.

In the Introduction Scene, we settled on the narrator being Noella and the cinematographer being me. Noella started with “We bring ourselves now to the frigid waters of the Vasyugan swamp, located in the southwestern part of Siberia, Russian. The swamp is located in the Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Tomsk regions of Russia along the west bank of the Ob River.” From there we went back and forth, me describing various scenes, including those with hints of our strange birds, and Noella giving more National Geographic inspired verbiage.

We continued through rounds of play, where in each round we took turns playing out scenes. During the scene an individual player was responsible for, they’d do the setting of the scene. The instructions allow you to choose that round to be solo scenes (where each bird is scene separately) or duet scenes (where we see the birds interacting in some way). There is also this guidance:

  • Solo scene (active player plays the bird, the other player plays the environment)

  • Duet scene (active player plays their bird, the second player plays the second bird)

Although we started by trying to follow these instructions, we ended up just going back and forth, each playing aspects of the bird and environment as felt appropriate, and really just taking turns with story beats.

One of the clever things about these scenes is that you choose a trait (or weakness or eccentricity) to highlight during each scene, so it really helps guide what you see in the story. Additionally there are a number of great nature-show type scene prompts to help spur ideas.

How our story played out

If you are interested in the minutia of the game, here is a bit of a summary. You actually are made to write up little summaries as you play, which personally I love, as it makes it easy to review and relive later! (If you are more interested in the actual play video, just scroll down below.) This is what we wrote:

Round 1: Starts with foggy (mysterious) weather; solo scenes. Scene 1 (Tomes): The Spoonbills are feeding, when a Golden Eagle watches and takes flight to attack a smaller male. The female uses her intimidation defense mechanism and scares it off, but it circles and takes a Black Grouse instead. Scene 2 (Noella): The black grouse flies up to a branch in a tree. Two female grouses fly up to a branch above him, but he is afraid of heights and is nervous. He works up the courage to go up there, but does not stick the landing and gets his feathers in a bunch trying to land. The two females are not impressed and end up leaving for a different tree.

Round 2: The weather turns clear and slightly warm; focus on birds interacting; duet scenes. Scene 1 (Noella): The grouse is grooming himself by the water, when he sees the spoonbill. He puffs himself up to look good, and they seem to be chummy with each other. He slips and falls into the water. The spoonbill swims away, not looking very impressed. Scene 2 (Tomes): A spoonbill is seen approaching its nest and babies. An injured grouse falls from the tree nearby, and the spoonbill adopts it temporarily, bringing it into the nest for feeding. During this time all are fed, but a turtle that has unwillingly been adopted strikes the spoonbill’s beak, and leaves the nest, upset.

Round 3: A stranger enters and a chase; solo scenes (but tied together with a shared stranger); The weather becomes a storm. Scene 1 (Tomes): A young wolf pup, curious about the spoonbill. The bird makes some sounds and an initial display, but then tries to take flight. She crashes through a smaller branch, and ungracefully lands on a larger one. Flying is not her strong suit. Scene 2 (Noella): The grouse is sitting under a tree, taking shelter from the rain. The pup, “the great predator” approaches. As the pup gets closer, the grouse notices his presence. The grouse bolts into the rain, and while the little wolf gives chase, the grouse has speed on its side. Our last shot is of the puppy sitting in the rain, looking dejected.

Round 4: The weather changes yet again hinting at spring and sunshine; A moment of confusion, and shared traits: raised in same nest, weird parents. Scene 1 (Noella): We see the spoonbill chick and grouse chick snuggling in the nest. Baby grouse hops out of the nest and goes towards the water, and attempts to start feeding like a spoonbill. However, she can’t swim and starts to drown. The narrator comments “unfortunately, despite their closeness, some things can’t be learned.” Mama spoonbill lifts her up back onto land. Mama grouse ushers her over, while pushing baby spoonbill towards the water. Scene 2 (Tomes): What we learn from each other. Times are tough as the weather becomes dry and the swamp bed thing. The spoonbill learns to eat insects by imitating the grouse. Although times are lean, they make it through together. We see both birds emulating each other, with the grouse pecking the ground, but in the back-and-forth manner learned from the spoonbill.

The end scene

The end of the game has us asking questions, first about the greater world and humanity, then some self-reflection questions, such as how we see ourselves in these birds. It’s a great little ending which gives us some of those same feelings we get at the end of a great nature documentary.

And the game ends. Back to our human lives.

Actual Play

If you are interested in the actual play of the session, you can view it below.

SpindleWheel Microgame, Zombie Cinema and For the Zombie Queen at Story Games Glendale

It was time for Indie RPG Game at Story Games Glendale, and David had themed this one set appropriately as “Horror Themed”, updating our verbiage to reflect those types of games.

Pre-game of Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

My friend Sasha is writing a game called Spindlewheel (another game I haven’t finished a blog post about damnit! This will be fixed soon.) Spindlewheel is described as a tarot-like storytelling rpg where you use cards as anchors to weave together a story with your friends, with the objective being to tell a satisfying story. The deck is a marvel, with intricate story prompts that allow you to weave storytelling magic. I have played once before, and we told an intriguing sci-fi story about a prisoner ship with desperate crew, flustered AI, and a small stow-away.

Prior to the general meetup, my friend Unique showed up early and joined me to test-run one of the Spindlewheel Microgames, a recent development that allows for much shorter and simpler games played with this same inspirational tarot-style deck. In this case we played Detective, where you are summoned to a crime scene to investigate a freshly discovered dead body. It plays for 1-5 players, and supposedly in 5-15 minutes! Armed with the beautiful preliminary deck (with individually thematically art-filled cards) that Sasha had bestowed on me, we dove in.

The game has you place cards in tarot-like positions (which fortunately Unique is more familiar with then myself, although the instructions are easy enough to follow), and within minutes we had a story forming. A body found in a bathtub with an electric appliance, in run-down building in a run-down part of town, the skin almost falling off. But wait: that was a rouse… the person was killed with a slash to the inner thigh artery. An owner of a pawn shop, who as we found out, was a bit of a pillar in the community, prioritizing the community itself above even his family, and trying to rid the community of the drug violence that current infested it. And then fighting against gentrification and external financial interests. And then distraught family members. And external pressures from the gangs that are trying to consolidate their power again. And a hidden cache of riches in a vault under the store, slowly laundered to provide for those less fortunate in the community… until some family members decided enough was enough.

It was pretty amazing how brilliantly and quickly the game ran. We probably were closer to the 20-30 minute mark as far as game time, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and as always the cards did a stand up job of providing just enough structure and direction, without ever seeming off. We only really played through Step 1: Investigate, however perused the other parts of the Microgame such as Step 2: Deliberate (which we partially fulfilled during the play of the game), and Step 3: Convict (which we epilogued through a card draw), and finally Second Thoughts. This was definitely something I’d explore again as a mini-game to fill a short slot, and maybe even to use as world-building prior to an investigative or Urban Shadows-type game.

It also gave me a feel for running the full Spindlewheel game, which I have been unreasonably intimidated by.

Note: You can find the Spindlewheel Microgames on itch.io as pay-what-you-want!

 Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

Spindlewheel Microgame: Detective

Meetup time

We had a pretty good showing of about dozen folks, and everyone had been to our meetup at least once in the past. We finally did a quick round of introductions (a phase I usually skip or forget) and did name and pronoun introductions. In that excitement I forgot to have our normal safety tools conversation, but hopefully that wasn’t needed as desperately because everyone was used to our use of them in the past. I’m making mental notes not to forget for next time! Incremental improvements. We quickly separated into 3 tables which included Asher running Monster Hearts, Spencer running Kids on Bikes (Halloween edition), and me running this particular two-shot.

Game One: Zombie Cinema

You can find information on Zombie Cinema up on Boardgamegeek, as it’s listed there as a board game of sorts! There’s a pretty good review of the game (although dated 9 years ago) in the forums as well, which includes much of the game mechanics as well.

I purchased this up at Endgame in Oakland when I was there earlier this month for Big Bad Con. It comes in an old VHS cassette tape box, and contains a few low-fi components: various matching colored dice and pawns, a little game board with squares, and a few decks of cards. The premise is that you will be playing a standard Zombie-style movie, and the pawns represent your various characters (which you create based on a few card draws for inspiration).

There was only three of us playing (the game claims it supports 3-6), and we decided to set it roughly where we were: A few people at a board game meetup at a board game cafe, not really friends, and just hanging out while the zombie apocalypse starts to happen before Halloween. Even the first scene was sort of great because we started to establish a full-on zombie attach in from of the window of the store, then realized that the board was telling us that we should only see zombies in passing on news and rumors (not in front of our faces), so Christian suggested we just make it a few friends playing a Halloween prank on the street.

So, I’ll say this: The rules are not easy to parse and follow, even though they aren’t really that complicated. Small font with poorly contrasting colors, and a flow which unfortunately hid from us certain game details which were vital in running it correctly. The basics is that you will initially have lots of player vs player issues, which drives contested dice rolls, and that results in one player metaphorically getting ahead while another gets behind and closer to being zombie chow. When you roll ties, the zombies move up. Unfortunately, the fact that the zombies are supposed to slowly work their way up the board (separately from when you roll ties) was unknown to us, and even reading the rules now I’m not 100% sure I understand when that is supposed to happen. The game requires a lot of inter-character drama, and we didn’t exactly plan for that either. The review on boardgamegeek above does a lot to illustrate some of what you should expect going in.

One of the cool factors is that as soon as a player’s character either is killed by the zombies, or escapes off the top of the board, that player then gets to act for non-player characters and the zombies, and it appears the game can become a little more collaborative between players. But we didn’t exactly get to explore all that.

After realizing that we probably didn’t do it right, we decided that maybe a future game was in order to give a proper review, but before that I’m reckoning I’ll have to make a cheat sheet or something.

After the fact, I was happy to find that there are free Zombie Cinema variants, which include those for a heist movie, one about the mythos and cults, and more. Something worth exploring.

 Zombie Cinema… board game-esque, but story game-full.

Zombie Cinema… board game-esque, but story game-full.

 Myself, Christian, and Thomas

Myself, Christian, and Thomas

Game Two: For the Zombie Queen

I’ve written about For the Queen recently, so will let that stand for the game itself. What I did next is something I’ve done a few times before, but best explained in a prior game night where we played Icarus and For the Queen as a two-shot.

We decided to play a fairly short game of For the Queen where we explored what story would roughly follow from our Zombie Cinema game. In this case we didn’t really use any cannon from that game, but we did play in a zombie-themed world. We decided we’d be zombies following a zombie queen, whatever that meant, and just see where that leads.

Well, it led to some zombie drama, favorites and eaten arms and zombie bait, and a journey to find another zombie queen, perhaps. As always, I’m impressed with the breadth of themes this game can handle. There were a few cards we X’d out simply because they didn’t thematically make sense (like questions about the “royal court”, which we just weren’t feeling), but that’s one of the things I love about this game: The simplicity and ubiquity of using the X card.

I was happy to be able to show Christian the game, as he’d expressed prior interest, and was similarly blown away with all the cool things it does. And to play it with Thomas, who is a complete RPG newbie, but was able to keep up in the session.

 For the Zombie Queen

For the Zombie Queen

Do you even “For The Queen”?

Gather around…

Alright kids, come sit around the campfire, because it’s time for me to tell you the story of what I believe to be the best RPG of the year. And that’s saying a lot, because there are currently so many fantastic games coming out.

For the Queen is a story game by Alex Roberts that involves the following premise:

The land you live in has been at war for as long as any of you have been alive. The Queen has decided to set off on a long and perilous journey to forge an alliance with a distant power. She has chosen you, and only you, to serve as her retinue, and accompany her on this journey. She chose you because she knows that you love her.

The game is entirely based around us taking turns answering very simple questions, which generally focus around our relationship with this queen (or occasionally on other aspects of the journey, the land, the war, and so on).

The game is meant to be played with a relatively small table (3-6 players), is GM-less, and takes approximately 1-2 hours to play, but can be shorter than that, depending on how much bullshitery the players perform.

I first played back at CONlorado in March. But over recent months I begged for a copy, and convinced Alex and Sean (since it’s being produced by Evil Hat) to give me the wordings. I basically produced a copy of the game by printing these out on index cards, and have been playing it like crazy ever since. Seriously. I have a huge set of friends who just joke about it, when they aren’t seriously telling me to STFU about the game, already.

But there’s a reason: This game is just that good. Everyone who plays keeps asking me the same thing: How can I get it now?

 The Queen herself, Alex Roberts, holding a design that my partner J made a few months prior. J was so impressed with the game that she wanted to gift this notebook to her in thanks.

The Queen herself, Alex Roberts, holding a design that my partner J made a few months prior. J was so impressed with the game that she wanted to gift this notebook to her in thanks.

 My hacked version of the game. The actual version will be much prettier, I assure you.

My hacked version of the game. The actual version will be much prettier, I assure you.

My thoughts on the game

Ok, so why is this game so insanely good? I have thoughts. Here are some:

  • The game involves us creating characters during play. This is not unique to this game, but does mean you can just dive right in without wasting a moment. This is also the lowest barrier to entry I’ve ever seen in an RPG, so you can play this with literally anyone, including those with no RPG experience at all. I’ve done exactly this to great effect.

  • The questions are framed around our characters and our relationship with the Queen, a character that no one is playing. This means that as we are developing our characters, we are also creating this other character in the space between us, and watching that Queen character manifest is a fantastic experience, as its developing piece by piece from everyone’s various narratives. The Queen is always relatively complex, and it’s just stunning to watch the game do this magic.

  • The game comes with safety mechanics built in. The instructions, which are read on these very same cards, in round robin fashion, include an X-card. Even then, the X-card itself is completely normalized, and can be used for problematic or triggering content just as easily and seamlessly as for tone or any other reason. It’s quite liberating.

  • In addition to having the active player answer the question on the card, the game also encourages the other players to ask clarifying questions. These may start innocently enough (“How does that make you feel?” “Why did that happen?”), but can also easily lead towards leading questions that can also establish wide-ranging fiction (“Do you have wings like the rest of us?”). And if you don’t want to go along with the leading question and have that establish fiction that is unrelated or not-in-tone? Simple… X-card.

  • The fact that you constantly have to actively listen, and you constantly are allowed to actively participate by asking clarifying questions, means that you are constantly engaged. This basically creates instant great table culture. I am totally convinced that this game is basically: Good RPG Culture Training, masquerading as a brilliant RPG.

  • I played this with my partner, who is not into RPGs, and she absolutely loved it. She even did that excited “Wow, we wrote such a cool story” ramble at the end of our session, which should be a familiar feeling to those of us addicted to these games.

FTQ - Party Game Edition

In addition to all this, I have learned that the game itself is extremely flexible. I have played it with over a dozen people as a party game, late at night in the Big Bad Con lobby. The first time was after my friend Kurt said “wouldn’t it be funny if the queen was a Queen Bee?” I called court, and we played with a dozen people of For The Queen Bee, and were bees escorting her to broker an alliance with the paper wasps. Needless to say it didn’t end well. The next night, after a dance party downstairs, many of us adjourned up to the lobby and played For The Dancing Queen with about 16 people. It still worked beautifully! In both cases, it was also easy to accommodate players entering and leaving the game at any time, as you’d like in a party game atmosphere.

FTQ - Sports Edition

Another version we ran was during the Big Bad Con 2018 Wolf Run, a 5K run on Sunday morning that is used to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. It’s hard getting up at that time after non-stop gaming, but some of us hardcore (stupid?) few were up to the task! And included in that was both myself and Sean Nittner, who have probably played this game more than anyone else on the planet, barring Alex. So… For The Running Queen. We would make up the questions from memory and played with out fellow joggers, and created a short but cute little narrative that included a competing running team, and ended with a sprint when our Queen was under attack near the finish line. Co-runner Ken says that the game really helped him forget about the pain during the run, and I found it able to do the same for myself!

FTQ - World Building Edition

I’ve played in this a few times where it was part of a two-shot where we played it in conjunction with another game, and let that game world influence our FTQ game. This happened once with a Mars colony in a game of Icarus and a Martian queen, and also after playing Zombie Cinema with a zombie queen. I can see using this game, especially since its short and sweet compared to many world-building games, to flavor stories in unrelated games and campaigns.

FTQ - In-Depth Edition

After the first online sessions I ran (video linked below), some of my friends stated that they wanted more interpersonal exploration, instead of just the “you and the queen” type questions. [Specifically Lauren: More self-indulgent fantasy bullshit (TM).] I created a separate set of cards that were all about our relationships, and framed as “we” questions. For example: “What secret have we kept from all the others, including the Queen?”. These questions could be used instead of the standard cards on your turn, and would be answered collaboratively by those players (which would be the active player who played the card, and the one other player they chose at the table). We tested this in a small group at Big Bad Con, and the result was a really in-depth game that was my favorite session of that convention (and that’s saying a lot, cause the games there are out of this world). Additionally, much like the party game version, we easily slotted in another player, my friend Tre, half-way through the game. It was a much longer session (~3 hours), and isn’t a replacement for the standard game, but did provide a different experience that could be desired after playing the base game many times. Additionally we found it added another level of players versus players conflict, and it helped establish cliques in the retinue.

 Ryan and Lauren ganging up on me with the custom cards. It’s fun to attack the blob!

Ryan and Lauren ganging up on me with the custom cards. It’s fun to attack the blob!

How do I get this thing?

Evil Hat recently created a page for the game here: https://www.evilhat.com/home/for-the-queen/. You can signup for further information and to be informed, here: http://eepurl.com/dzxosr.

Online Actual Plays

There are a few games up on the Actual Play Twitch channel, for example:

Here’s the first time I ran it online for some of my Gauntlet ASPAC mates, Lauren, Ryan and Lu. The feedback at the end of this one is where we got the idea to add those additional interpersonal “we” cards:

Here’s a second Gauntlet run of the game for Euro-timezone friends:

A larger form game of For The Queen where we played Space Bees for our Space Queen Bee during GauntletCon 2018, which is similar to the party game version I ran at Big Bad Con:

And finally, another For The Queen session during GauntletCon 2018 which resulted from a snafu for a scheduled game that was postponed, so I ran this in lieu of the rescheduled game:

The Microscope Palette, Its Usefulness in One Shots, and a Dungeon World Starter Discovery

Note: This blog entry was also published as an article I wrote for the Gauntlet Blog published on October 22, 2018.


One Shots With World Building

The majority of the games I play are one-shots. I don’t have a regular gaming group, and until recently did the real bulk of my gaming at conventions. In the last 2 years, I’ve also been an organizer for a fairly active story game meetup, and an active GM and player in The Gauntlet online community, so I run and play games constantly and consistently. However, they are still one-shots, for the most part.

One of the issues with many of the games I love, is that although I love the build-at-the-table nature of many story games and indie RPGs, the process can be time consuming, and eats into the 3-4 hours allotted to the game. This isn’t a problem when you can spend “session zero” of a campaign doing world and character and backstory generation, but for a one-shot game? It’s an issue.

One solution is to come to one-shots with pre-generated characters or world settings to save time on world building. However, after asking many of my players after these games, almost all agreed that they wouldn’t want to sacrifice the world building due to the collaboration and unique gameplay that resulted.

GoPlayNW, ET, and The Microscope Palette

I recently went to Seattle’s GoPlayNW game convention, and got to play a game of The King is Dead, run by my friend ET. Instead of doing world building as a conversation, they used the system of the Palette from the Microscope RPG. Although I’ve played Microscope many times, I have to admit I was completely dumbfounded and in shock with how easy this was to use in our game, and how quickly we were able to establish a unique setting that all of us players were both responsible for making, and invested in.

For those not familiar with Microscope, it is a world and history building game written by Ben Robbins, and can easily be used to create an amazing unique world or setting for any game, or just for the sake of doing it. However, the game itself can take hours. That said, the Palette, which is part of the initial setting creation, is a process of adding and banning elements from the game and takes only minutes. It’s a quick round-robin, where players get to add or ban one item during their turn, until we’ve gone around a few times and someone has decided to “pass”. At that point there is a final round, and we’re done. We now have a list of things we want to see (or avoid) in our game.

After seeing how excellent it was in this use-case, I decided to steal the process and use it in one-shots that I was running over the next months, and it has yet to fail. I used it for The Quiet Year and Atlas Reckoning, two extremely different RPGs, and it worked fabulously each time.

It turns out that there is some consensus that this may be an excellent idea, as a Google search, which I just performed while writing this article, revealed a Gnome Stew article with the title Steal This Mechanic: Microscope’s Yes/No List written by Martin Ralya. It effectively says this very same thing!

Keep in mind that many games might already have a strong established setting (such as Urban Shadows), might have their own system for generating content (such as Dialect), or may make use of a pre-generated list of questions (such as The Warren and Dungeon World starters). In some of these cases there is no need for this procedure, or the GM may want to run the game in a specific setting. However, for games where you want to build the setting at the table, you can easily benefit from this procedure.

The Palette To Create A Dungeon World Starter

I didn’t really plan for what came next, but was so happy with how it turned out, I new I had to share it. It was our 2 year anniversary of our Story Games Glendale meetup, and I decided to run Dungeon World, which I hadn’t done in maybe 6 months or so. To establish a fun custom setting, I pulled out the Palette procedure, and we went around the table adding and banning things (myself included), and ended up with this list:

ADD: Planar Gates, Unicorns, Martial Arts, Magic Fabric, Underground Villages

BAN: Aliens, Future Tech, Children

(It is important to establish here that in clarification, the player wanted to ban children - the last item in the ban list above - from being around in the society of this world, and not to ban them from being in the game itself.)

The players next chose their playbooks, and started filling out their sheets. As the GM, I was sitting there wondering what to do to run the adventure, and then had an idea… create a bit of a “Dungeon Starter” by listing a series of questions that they could choose to answer. And for inspiration? The lists above!

I ended up with the following question:

  • Who took the children? How long ago?

  • How do your people produce without children?

  • What do you fear most about the above-ground?

  • How do you control the planar gates?

  • Where did you get your magic fabric? What does it do?

  • Why are you searching for unicorn?

  • How long have you been seeking your master?

It took me less time to write up these questions then it took them to fill in their playbooks. When they were ready, they each chose two questions, and after answering these, also filled out their bonds. It was fantastic!

We had devastating unnatural storms that had decimated the above-ground, forcing our people underground in recent generations. We had teleportation portals powered by blood, but that would only stay open 12 hours (after which no one had ever returned). We had a curse upon the people that stole the children 20 years ago, and a “unicorn” that was being searched out to try and lift that curse. Magic fabric had been found, and was a key reason why Salamanders now had enhanced powers (and hence: one of our PCs was an elemancer). And we had a party, and in fact an entire society, that was actively trying to find the children (some few of which had been recovered, including one of the PCs).

As a GM, this was magic. I no longer had to create some generic adventure, and didn’t have to create everything from scratch. Instead we all collaboratively came up with a unique set of elements that I could react to, by making questions. And then they all answered the questions, so that again I had something I could react to: In this case, their answers… and that spawned adventure prompts and directions.

I don’t know how useful this will be to others, but I know how I’m going to run my next Dungeon World adventure!

GauntletCon 2018

What is this thing?

GauntletCon is the online indie RPG game convention hosted by The Gauntlet RPG community. GauntletCon 2017 was the first such convention, and I got to attend minimally back then. My biggest issue is that it’s one week after Big Bad Con, and that particular convention requires me to spend quite a bit of away-time currency in regards to the family. It’s usually framed as my belated birthday present… and it’s really the best birthday present… but it also means there is no way I’d be able to game this next weekend away.

However, this time around I actually got a lot more gaming, now that the con is more mature and is running for a bit more of an extended weekend. It also helps that I’m much more in tune with the community, so I can make the gaming happen around my schedule and what I want to see.

 Fabulous GauntletCon 2018 logo!  Worthy of a T-shirt .

Fabulous GauntletCon 2018 logo! Worthy of a T-shirt.

A word about how amazing this thing is

One of the things I found so impressive about GauntletCon 2017, was how much the Gauntlet Discord - which is rarely used for the Gauntlet in day-to-day - felt like a hotel lobby. People coming in and out, conversations happening and moving on, impossible to keep track of it all, and people just running off to game or running back from gaming.

This year was that plus some. There were more people and more action. And there was more… stuff. Channels for discussions, for sure, and various channels for logistics (for the help desk, for mustering up prior to games, for pickup games). But also channels like #dreams-and-prizes, where you could give shout-outs (dreams) to players and GMs and staff for their various awesomeness, with the bonus of prizes given away with random drawings. And then just other random pop-up channels such as #pets-of-gauntlet-con for posting all the various creatures that would sometimes invade the videos of games, or the #which-skin-are-you channel for discussing your Monster Hearts skins.

The constant positive feedback loop in the public space of the convention was very encouraging, and helped immensely even when hiccups would occur (like cancelled games). There was help finding new games, and people running pickup games to assist. I myself did that thing when one of the games hit a snag. In that vein… gaming…

Thursday early gaming… For The Space Queen Bee

Although the formal convention starts on Friday, premier member and close friend Yoshi was going to run some Gauntlet Games Now (aka Games on Demand) on Thursday evening. The problem is that I couldn’t really do those hours either. But what I could do is organize some pre-GauntletCon gaming with my Euro-timezone friendly gamers who also couldn’t easily make those hours.

And so I set up For The Queen. Only, this was the version where you are a Space Bee! I invited whomever could make it (as I learned that For The Queen is also a party game RPG at Big Bad Con; more on that in a separate post), and we ended up with about 7 players total. The game was a little on the silly side, but hey: Party game. It was a great little way to kick off the game convention, and got many of us to whet our appetite for the gaming to come. And expose more people to the absolute love which is For The Queen (which they all raved about afterwards). Video linked below.

(At the time of this writing there isn't an official website for the game, but you can signup for further information and to be informed, here:
http://eepurl.com/dzxosr.)

Friday morning Dads on Mowers For The Queen, again!

The next morning I had signed up for Dads on Mowers, which is Banana-chan’s Kids on Bikes hack. Kids on Bikes is a game that emulates those 80’s style movies about kids solving crimes (a genre made increasingly popular with shows such as Stranger Things). But we had a snafu! The game was mis-scheduled, and they had to leave the house shortly after the start time.

She was very cool about it and has begun to reschedule the game so we can play it in the coming month, but at that moment, I said I could run a similarly short RPG that I was ready to… For The Queen! (I really can’t get enough).

Honestly though, this was the first time I played according to the actual rules in a while, so it was a refreshing change to just play according to the basic rules with a basic-sized table.

I loved our little story which included the most videography I’ve ever experienced in a fantasy world. The short pitch ended up looking something like this: Join the Landless Baron, the 3rd In Line, the Royal Executioner, the Royal crash-test dummy, and the Royal videographer in a journey with the white-winged Queen through lands of goblins, bipedal creatures, and bats! (Video linked below.)

Then it was off to Pinecon, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but I returned home a few days later to play in a final GauntletCon game.

Monster Hearts 2: The Institute

Ferret is a newer member in the Gauntlet, and was posed to run a Monster Hearts 2 pickup game during the weekend, set in his “The Institute” setting. Normally MH is about teenagers being secret monsters in a normal setting or school, but in this case the institute is a school created by monsters for monsters.

A few of us were around in the later hours, and so pickup game we had. Maria, Bryan, and I played in this relatively short (2 hour?) session. It definitely had more of that Harry Potter type vibe, and didn’t lend itself to the sort of dark play you usually find in MH. Although Ferret was worried that he was steering us too hard and railroading the adventure, I don’t think that’s accurate at all. 1. It was 2 hours, so you need some serious hard framing, and 2. we all bought into the premise of “it’s prom and we don’t have dates”, so that was exactly what we had signed up for.

Additionally, Ferret ran a smooth and collaborative adventure, as we all got to create our various stories and backgrounds. I know most of the players were pretty fried at that point, and I myself was running on fumes from my weekend as well, but it was the perfect little beer and pretzels version of MH that was lovely and a great way to bookend the con.

In conclusion

In the words of the fabulous Vee Hendro (because I couldn’t have said it better myself): “The GauntletCon experience is an unprecedented online outpouring of creativity, heart, and genuine care for our shared hobby, but more importantly, for each other. The best part of the convention for me was how excellent the organisation and leadership of the event was. Excellence is not perfection, but the commitment towards it. So thank you for the very apparent preparation and work you have all put in (phenomenal efforts!), for the ongoing and continued support throughout the con, and for the aftercare in the days following.”

Wait, there is another?

So… there may be another GauntletCon this coming year. A Patreon goal was to have a second GauntletCon, and that goal was reached. I can only hope, as this one will always be tricky for me scheduling-wise, so another GC will be much appreciated! Until then, I cross fingers for more.

PineCon 2018 and Camp De Benneville Pines

What is this… PineCon?

PineCon. An intimate gaming retreat filled with friendly people, up at the Camp De Benneville Pines in the San Bernadino Mountains (2-3 hour drive East of L.A.), with a focus on board games and some indie RPG goodness.

 PineCon logo

PineCon logo

My first experience was PineCon 2017, which was such a lovely experience that I signed up for this one back in February. That early sign-up is become increasingly necessary as the convention is capped at 100 participants, and it’s first-come first-serve. (They do maintain a waiting list in case people drop; I think this year it sold out closer to late August or September time-frame.)

(Do you want the super short version of this writeup? Here is my Twitter thread on the subject.)

Greetings

I can’t remember if I noticed this before, but the inclusivity here is great, and it’s lovely that the campground itself, which serves schools and various adult groups throughout the year, has it baked into their site. You immediately are confronted with a trans and pride flag on either side of the US flag in the entrance to the campground, and that’s some lovely flag planting.

 Greetings from Camp De Benneville Pines

Greetings from Camp De Benneville Pines

Check-in is seamless, easy, low key and performed in the Lodge, the focal point of the campground and the con. One of the 3 founding members (Adam, Chris and Griffin) gets you situated with your cabin and oriented with the place. They provide nametags, which normally have some template that includes pronoun use suggestions, and this year there was even a little art station to create fancy looking name plates you could wear, if that was your jam.

PineCon2018_nameplate.jpg

Game sign-ups are done 100% at the convention itself, and they only put out sign up sheets for the games that are about to play, in the hours prior. For example, during lunch on Saturday they’ll put out the sign up sheets for games for Saturday afternoon. This means you can really see where you are at during that time in regards to wanting to play board games, RPGs, or just relaxing.

The lodge is the centerpiece of the campground, and provides a huge gathering place. It’s also where all the shared meals are provided… meals that also include vegetarian and gluten-free and vegan options, depending on guest needs. The food was never amazing, but there was some decent fare, and it is provided as part of the stay, which makes the entire venture very affordable. The lodge also has a coffee and tea station that is available 24x7, a counter where people bring booze for the sharing, mini-fridges for your own necessities (including keeping beers cold), and tables where ad hoc game libraries bloom based on what people bring to share. This is also were open gaming occurs for board games and any other things you want to play. A fireplace with couches is there, with wood provided at no charge.

 The lodge during the initial gathering up and intros Friday evening

The lodge during the initial gathering up and intros Friday evening

Friday evening: Werewolf

I volunteered to run a few games over the weekend, which also means I qualified for the GM rate, which saves you a few bucks. Friday evening was Werewolf (as requested by my daughter). Last year we had about 10 or so players, and we did a quick round of Werewolf followed by some One Night Ultimate Werewolf to round it out. This time we had a crew of 16, and played the standard game of Werewolf (with only a few of the basic roles), and didn’t have the time or energy for more. I’m proud to say the daughter survived as one of the last 3 in the village, and as a Werewolf, she ended up winning for that team. She’s not to be underestimated in either Werewolf or Villager capacity… she’s been honing her game.

 The daughter being grilled, and overall being a smooth operator.

The daughter being grilled, and overall being a smooth operator.

Being at high altitude means being careful around physical exertion and staying hydrated. I did a lot of the second and woke up many times during the night. Sleep was elusive, but onwards…

Saturday morning: For The Queen

I ran a two hour session of For The Queen, the new game by Alex Roberts (which I’ve written about way back in March, but holy crap do I need to update my blog!) Although initially I had 4 spots open, I know I can easily handle more (after some great experiences at Big Bad Con), and so ended up playing with 6 plus myself. This included a grandmother + son duo who had never played RPGs before (and in fact were fairly new to even board gaming; she had signed them up only because she’d been to this campground before for other camps and saw this convention in the calendar!)

The game involves a perilous journey that the Queen is taking with and all of us as her retinue. The entirety is about answering thematic questions about your relationship with the Queen, and as a side effect, all sorts of interpersonal entanglements occur. Everything is established in play. (Also I have very strong thoughts on why this is the best RPG of the year, and I’ll write that up later.)

Our story ended up following a band of pixies and their compatriots with our Pixie Queen from the conifer forest metropolis. There was an oak pixie, a druid like human who linked with the minds of animals, and a nefarious human backstabber who was there to ambush our journey in trade for a love potion. In the end, it turned out I was a oak pixie king, but I did not care for the queen, and I sacrificed myself for my true love in the retinue, who ended up flying away disillusioned with our purpose.

 For the Pixie Queen

For the Pixie Queen

Note: At the time of this writing there isn't an official website for the game (For The Queen), but you can signup for further information and to be informed, here: http://eepurl.com/dzxosr.

During this time the daughter and her friend were coloring and playing around, but it was always fun to see how they were really listening at times, because they had very specific questions about the journey and story. I had brought some coloring pages from the old AD&D Official Coloring Book, and so they worked on that occasionally as well.

 The range handles about 5 archers at a time, and is handled with the care and structure you find at shooting ranges. Fantastic experience.

The range handles about 5 archers at a time, and is handled with the care and structure you find at shooting ranges. Fantastic experience.

The second half of my babysitting duty included walking them to the archery range - another treat included with the price of entry - and we did some shooting for almost 2 hours. Niki is the campground archery instructor, but had torn a shoulder muscle in prior months, so I quickly became an assistant in training the new folks in the procedures.

We headed back for lunch, and then I handed them over to Adam (the other dad) for afternoon archery. I just chilled out, and eventually napped on the couches in front of the fire, in the hubbub that was the lodge. I awoke to mostly do some chitchat-ing, and stayed away from games as my brain was a little mushy.

The Raffle for Charity!

On Saturday during the dinner gathering there was a raffle for charity. Basically a bunch of us had brought board games or RPGs we wanted to let go of, and they were on display for the duration of the convention. To play, just purchase however many $1 raffle tickets, and drop them in the baggies on top of that particular set of games. I brought about 5 things to give away myself. The convention raised over $600 for an L.A.-based children’s hospital!

My favorite part was that my Pathfinder Core book, which I’ve been trying to find a new home for, for over a year, was won by a new friends kid who is a voracious RPG reader. The next morning breakfast was watching him engulf this book. Also, we didn’t personally win anything, but our neighbor Dave got a stack, and he gave my daughter the Carcassonne Star Wars set, so we’ll have to be playing that. It’s also nice coming back home with less things!

Ten Candles set at the campground

It’s my Ten Candles anniversary! The first time I ever ran it was a year ago at PineCon 2017. This game is always a draw, and it was a good time. We started late due to various reasons (ice cream!), but after settling in, we decided on a custom premise: A destination wedding up at Camp De Benneville Pines, and now this group of people are holed up in this very cabin, with their last candle about to go out, with the lodge not too far away. But it’s oh so dark.

The game itself worked out OK, but ran a little long due to the late start, and a health interruption in the middle, and just generally very good rolls. One player had to leave around midnight, but we made that work narratively, and we ended closer to 1am. We did need to course-correct tone a few times due to side-chatter, but otherwise the story worked out OK.

One thing that threw me sideways initially was that during the “establishing truths” phase, one of the players accelerated the story in a very large way, so suddenly we were out of the mountains. I was quite prepared for that, but hey, that’s the game. It ended up pretty cool, because suddenly they were in a small propeller plane (one of them was a pilot), and not long afterwards an army base, then a yacht, and finally on the Channel Islands. I loved how many scene locations we got to process and work through.

One difference in this game was the amount of player vs. player conflict at the end, which I wasn’t used to at that quantity, but it worked out well. You do need to make the system support it, since it doesn’t really do PvP using contested rolls, for example, but knowing the characters are going to die soon helps. Having them shoot each other and such with soon-to-be fatal wounds totally works, and lends some cinematic shoot-out type moments.

My absolute favorite part? When we took a break half-way through, and walked to the lodge in the dark, and realized we were retracing the exact steps of our characters, up to and including sitting around the lodge fireplace, where in-game they had a little reprieve. That feeling was sort of magical.

PineCon2018_10Candles.jpg

Sunday morning

I didn’t have any specific plans for the morning hours, but Adam brought the Catacombs board game, which incidentally I had backed in Kickstarter a few years back, but then never played, and finally traded away.

He scheduled the game for 4 hours, and I was thinking “no way the kids will want to play something that long”. Boy was I wrong. The game is basically a dungeon crawl similar to games like Descent (which I’m not that familiar with), but instead of dice, there are wood tokens to be flicked with your fingers. It becomes a combination of a physical dexterity game similar to tiddly winks and other classics, but combined with fantasy RPG tropes such as classes, creatures, abilities and spells.

The game plays in increasingly difficult levels, and so basically teaches them strategies and such as it progresses. By the end the kids were in heated conversations about how to approach the obstacles and monsters. One of the most fantastic parts: This game is completely collaborative. If you run out of hit points, you get to just keep on going - as long as other party members are alive. You have 0 hit points and lose some? Your other party members lose them for you. You have to work as a team.

I now regret giving it away, but hey, something to look forward to at friends’ places and game conventions.

PineCon2018_Catacombs.jpg

And out…

On the journey towards leaving I did catch a few folks playing Dialect, as led by facilitator Amy B. I got to later tell her about getting to play Xenolanguage (the upcoming game from Thorny Games) at Big Bad Con, and she lost her shit. Yah, super excited about that one.

 Friends from prior games playing Dialect… I was so happy for them.

Friends from prior games playing Dialect… I was so happy for them.

 Ooooh… Amy backed it at the higher tier which includes the cool looking bead necklace things. Jealous.

Ooooh… Amy backed it at the higher tier which includes the cool looking bead necklace things. Jealous.

We played a little ping pong, packed some snacks, and then it was time to go. So… until next time.

 A fairwell picture with me, Griffin, Chris, and Adam (left to right), and the little ladies.

A fairwell picture with me, Griffin, Chris, and Adam (left to right), and the little ladies.

Pixel Scandal Nerdcast: Bid Bad Con 2018 Recap

I spent a lot of time at Big Bad Con 2018 with some fantastic individuals. In addition to all the wonderful people I normally run into at Big Bad (very likely my favorite convention of the year), I also was finally able to meet some internet friends in the flesh! Many I had gamed with a bunch in the Gauntlet community over the last year and more, such as Lauren and Ryan. Some I had gamed online and met in person at prior BBC and abroad, such as Yoshi and Phillip. Some I had gamed with in our local LA indie RPG scene such as Kurt and Dave and Spencer.

A bunch of these individuals are represented here in Kurt’s Pixel Scandal Nerdcast. This was a special edition where we did a Big Bad Con recap, and talked about our experiences, positive and negative (but mostly the former), and about what this con does so fantastically well. There is discussion on inclusivity, Big Bad World, and many of the wonderful games we played.

Mucho thank you’s to Kurt for sponsoring this, which was a great way to process thoughts and feelings after the convention, and helped me personally deal with some of the con crash / con drop that comes after attending such an ongoing, weekend plus-long high. More on that later.

You can listen to this in podcast form or in video form. Both can be found at http://pixelscandal.com/special-edition-big-bad-con-recap/, if not elsewhere. Here’s the video:

Xenolanguage at Big Bad Con 2018

I’ve been excited about this game for a while. I signed up to play it with Hakan back at GoPlayNW about 3 months earlier, but the game had to be scrapped because he couldn’t make it to the con.

What is Xenolanguage?

Xenolanuage is a game about a game set five minutes in the future and we've just made first contact […] you are a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language. As you gain fluency, you begin to see the world differently. The game inspired by Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (aka the story that the movie Arrival was based on). It’s also written by Thorny Games, the duo Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu, who are the geniuses behind Dialect and Sign, other amazing game that play with language. (I’ve written about Dialect before here and here.)

Xenolanguage was on the Big Bad Con 2018 roster, and it was one of my #1 draft picks.

 The beautiful Thorny Games logo.

The beautiful Thorny Games logo.

How does it play?

The facilitator was Hakan, and the players included Patrick, Joe, Scott, and myself. First off: great table. Everyone was excited, motivated and actively listening and participating, which is a hallmark of most tables I’ve been in at Big Bad Con.

Unlike the Arrival movie (and the story it’s based on, I’m guessing) where there is a single protagonist, in this game we play a group of characters working together as a team, trying to decipher the alien language. Each character has some reasons for being called there… a biologist, a linguist, a mathematician, and so on. Each comes with a bit of a background, but you can navigate and customize that background easily enough, and create a few bonds with some of your partner player characters.

Much like Dialect, the game looks like it can be played GM-less, although we had Hakan leading us through play as an impartial, non-player facilitator. The components of play include scenario documents that can be followed as a group, as opposed to needing a game master making decisions for the aliens, or deciding how the humans tasking us with this mission react to our decisions.

A centerpiece for the game is a pseudo-Ouija board that lays out in the center. It’s basically a clear plastic window, which lays on top of a variety of discs with strange markings on them. The game starts with just a few, which is the alien language you are trying to decipher. Over the course of the game, we teach the aliens some of our human concepts, and so additional words are chosen by the players to be added into this mix. Although everyone has their authority to choose the concept they wish to inject (from a hand of existing, basic words), the group discusses these decisions, so this game can make for some fun collaboration, and attempts at optimizing our communication with the aliens.

We went through a series of scenes and communications. There is an order of play here, which I really enjoyed. Some aspects of the game involved story game bullshit (one of my true loves), where we each got to have little vignettes or role playing scenes about our characters individually, or interacting, around being called to action, highlighting personalities, and other events around the situation. There were cards involved which had story prompts that helped guide the story and play.

There were also game moments which involved us getting together as a team to chat with the aliens. Sending the message involved all of us touching the “lens” on the Ouija-style board, and going from symbol to symbol, in an attempt to convey concepts or questions to the aliens. What is absolutely fantastic is how the response from the aliens works. It is not the facilitator’s responsibility to communicate for them, or some random prompt deck. No, it’s all of us basically playing something like Ouija, where we each have a finger guiding the lens, and see where it takes us. A few symbols later, and we have our alien response.

This sounds extremely random, and in a sense it is, because the game and game designers have very little to no control over the outcome of these communications! But, it felt planned and organic, and the story was anything but random.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Hakan was also playing some background audio tracks during the alien communication scene, and this was very immersive, and helped elevate the situation.

Some other fascinating elements were some of the strange physical and mental side-effects that may affect the characters in the story, but not necessarily the same types of effects you’d expect if you’ve read the story or seen the movie. This adds an element of the fantastic, and allows even more creative interpretation into what is happened, above and beyond the interpretation already required for alien communication.

We pretty much played the full 4 hours, and I recall that we didn’t have time to play through all the phases normally in the game (I think there was supposed to be three cycles of play, but we ended up doing two?). But, that didn’t prevent us from being able to wrap up the story nicely with great epilogues and a satisfying conclusion.

The Pros

This game gave a lot of leeway for us to create the story we wanted to tell. It didn’t feel like we were just rehashing the movie, although there were similar touchstones and themes. That said, I can see using the game to tell different stories as well, like that time the Goblins and the Dwarves first met. Or those adults trying to teach us 2-year olds how to talk.

What was most striking to me, however, was that it mechanized and allowed us to experience that sense of search and discovery around the message. That feeling you have when watching the movie and are trying to interpret, and finally find out, what these aliens are trying to tell us. There was something just fantastic about what it was able to evoke all this, and not in a single one-off type way, but instead in a form factor that allows this to be explored in different ways, with different groups, each time you play.

The Cons

I’m concerned that the game won’t be easily portable to online play, and doing a lot of play in that space in the last two years, it’s an important concern for me. But I don’t think it’s impossible to make it work. I used to think Jenga towers couldn’t be emulated for online play, but there have been ways to emulate the combination of uncertainty and control with the increasingly rising tension in that specific case. Why not here? It was feedback I gave Hakan.

 Our developing Ouija board

Our developing Ouija board

 The gaming table

The gaming table

Good Society... Wizards... Pride, Prejudice, and Practical Magics

Edit: This came out on the eve before the official PDF of Good Society has hit backers! If you are interested in the game, you can pre-order at this time at https://storybrewersroleplaying.com.

Good Society, Great Game

Back in July I got to play Good Society at GoPlayNW, run by friend and fellow Gauntleteer Yoshi (with players Gene, Corrin, and Paul). It’s Jane Austin, the RPG. Hayley and Vee, the designers, have been working on the game for a few years now, and had a wonderfully successful Kickstarter. There’s a number of actual play videos out there for those curious.

Although we only played a one-shot game, as you do at conventions, I was struck by how powerfully full of politics this game was. The most memorable aspect was the cycle of scene types that continuously escalated and snowballed the intrigue and drama: phases that include role playing scenes, a phase where you collaboratively take turns creating rumors and scandals, and an epistolary phase where characters write letters to one another (performed by just speaking the letters out loud). None of the game involves any dice, by the way.

The crown jewels of the game, however, is the monologue token. With this little genius piece of mechanic, a player can have another player instantly go into monologue mode, and show us what their main character is truly thinking, in that scene. The only downside is you have one to spend, and must wait for a full cycle of scenes before getting another.

I really, really didn’t think that I’d be that entranced by a Jane Austin RPG, but I was completely wrong. It was one of my highlights of that game convention.

…Add a Touch of Magic

So, add to that: an expansion to the core game that introduces wizards, and witches, and all the magic bullshit you want in your game. I just finished a 3-shot series playtest of Pride, Prejudice, and Practical Magics, run by Hayley with fellow players Ryan, Sid, and Vee, as part of The Gauntlet’s slew of amazing games being run by the ASPAC crew. Hayley and Vee wanted to do some more playtesting, and all I had to do was make the slightly awful Pacific local time that this entailed.

We spent the bulk of the first session doing character and setting generation, as well as a ceremony by the Wizard’s College to nominate two prospects to be voted on to follow the matron on her retirement. We had long-term curses, disowned characters, and inter-wizardly-association politics, in addition to all the high court and gentry drama.

 A screenshot of the character keeper we used (Google sheets), with the primary and secondary characters, as well as the factions and “spellcasting table”

A screenshot of the character keeper we used (Google sheets), with the primary and secondary characters, as well as the factions and “spellcasting table”

It was really the second and third sessions where we started to hit a stride, however, and got to go through all the phases, ramping up tensions, solidifying various factions vying for power and control of the Wizard’s College, a lawsuit between wizarding families, and family hierarchies. In the end things didn’t land where you’d expect, but we had a couple of relatively happy endings, among the super sad memory loss (of a sort) that was a consequence for a promise broken. The second and third session also had a ton of self-indulgent fantasy bullshit of the type that all of us were clamoring for (three cheers for the Wishes procedure, and the real world magic it produces).

We did some great debriefs after the fact (not recorded), and it was pleasant to additionally see that the game testing produced actionable changes that Hayley and Vee found useful for improving the game. I also have to give a shout out to these amazing players. Holy crap, everyone was just very attentive to each others narratives, and Hayley did an upstanding job facilitating this game, pushing us when we needed to be pushed (often using Resolve Tokens, as you do in this game).

I’m also happy to also know that friend Gene (who also got to playtest with Vee facilitating a similar set of Good Society + magic games) is actively learning how to run the game by using some friends as guinea pigs, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to play it further with another competent crew in the following months. I’m seriously looking forward to this a great deal.

If you are interested in the actual plays, the Storybrewers (Hayley and Vee) have them posted on their YouTube page. Enjoy!

Two years of Story Games Glendale

Slow starts

It was two years ago that David Lewis created the Story Game Glendale meetup group, and probably a few hours later when I joined, excitedly bothering him! In fact, when I first saw the message from Meetup asking if I wanted to join “Story Games Glendale”, I misread it and thought it was Meetup asking if I wanted to finish creating the group, as I aborted a process of creating a similarly named group a few months earlier. Great minds…

We decided on Game Haus Cafe as the consistent meeting spot. Over 1000 board games on the shelf. Excellent food and coffee. Nice large gaming tables. They even became licensed over the last year and now serve beer and wine! Occasionally it gets a little noisy, but mostly during the school vacation periods, as we did choose the slower Tuesday night for our meetup.

The next year had many very small gathering with 1-2 people showing up other than David and myself. We very rarely had to cancel the event, but that did occur at least twice due to no takers. But we were persistent, and consistent, and over time built up a few small followings that would come and go.

Two years later

And here we sit, with 17 people (22 RSVPs, but you always have a few flakes and last-minute cancellations), and we ran 4 simultaneous tables… our largest gathering to date. We had David running a continuation of an Itras B game he started the week prior, and all the same players showing up excited to continue the story. We had Candace pitching and first-time-running for A Penny For Your Thoughts. We Spencer bringing a playtest of his Kids on Brooms (a Kids on Bikes hack for Harry Potter style game). And I ran a nice simple game of Dungeon World, where we made up the world and adventure on the fly.

Happy birthday us! We may eventually outgrow this space, or maybe it’ll perfectly serve for the forthcoming year. But either way, it’s exciting to create a little community of avid story gamers. And know that if you are in the vicinity and wanting to join us, we gladly welcome you!

 I bought the last two slices of their delicious chocolate cake to share among the participants. Thanks David for those amazing candles!

I bought the last two slices of their delicious chocolate cake to share among the participants. Thanks David for those amazing candles!

 David running Itras B

David running Itras B

 Spencer running Kids on Brooms

Spencer running Kids on Brooms

 Candace running A Penny For Your Thoughts

Candace running A Penny For Your Thoughts

 Me running some Dungeon World

Me running some Dungeon World

Dead Friend at Indie RPG Night

I met friends Candace and Unique at our biweekly Indie RPG Night, but a few hours early. We’ve started a tradition of trying to make it early, if possible, and get some bonus gaming in. This also lets us explore some games with lower stakes, and possibly smaller player numbers. For example we used this time slot in the past to run a game of Star Crossed.

Dead Friend

At this particular session, we talked about a few possibilities, but decided on Lucian Khan’s Dead Friend, which I had printed out earlier that day, in case of two-player RPG goodness. In this case, I ended up facilitating the game for Candace and Unique, and it was a fantastic experience. I will say how easy it is to play or facilitate this game. I had never read the instructions before, but we just read it as we played, and - being someone who loves cheat sheets and simplified instructions - this game just does it right. It’s got ritual movements and phrases and steps that are outlined perfectly, and can be played off the cuff without prior preparation. I’m impressed.

A carnival summoning

The game starts with setting a scene (we went with 1950’s carnival in rural Kansas), and creating the characters. The two players separately, and eerily, came up with the names Lilly and Lolly… already a creepy start. One player plays The Living - the person who will summon, the other plays The Dead - the one being summoned.

You choose on of a number of frameworks, and we went with one where the Living is trying to bring the Dead to life, and the Dead trying to kill the Living. In our case, Lolly was simply trying to be together with her living friend, and there was nothing inherently nefarious about the motivation.

The players in this case were great, each having some unique personalities and role playing methods, and the story just unfolded beautifully. Like some well-formed story games, there are a ton of great scene prompts, and an order of operation that just slowly reveals the setting, other characters, and eventually moves you towards the death of the main character and the motivations that drive them both. The end was creepy, and dark, but also sort of moving, and filled with frienemy love.

 Unique and Candace as Lilly and Lolly… we got lucky with a mood-enhancing Tarot handkerchief from some random game.

Unique and Candace as Lilly and Lolly… we got lucky with a mood-enhancing Tarot handkerchief from some random game.

 The pentagram which sits between the players

The pentagram which sits between the players

One aspect I enjoyed was when a player needed time to think of how to approach the scene. The game invites silence during these times, and it very definitely informs the mood to sit there and allow the seance to feel creepy and still.

Another great aspect to the game was the nature of the exposition. Scenes did not appear to be role played back and forth in dialog… instead the game allows one player to take control of the narrative - without inviting any dialog from the other player - until they are done and then it goes back to the other. We stuck to this format even in the final scene when the two are reunited, as the instructions seem to preserve this structure. It worked exceedingly well in making the two characters really isolated from each other by this huge barrier between life and death.

Although I didn’t technically play the game, it was fully satisfying just to watch it unfold, which says a lot for an RPG. Now I just can’t wait to play!

I can’t really think of anything I’d improve with this game, other than trying to ensure a great setting (the Game Haus Cafe had background noise and too much light). If you are playing this face-to-face, I highly recommend setting the mood, if possible. Tea lights, a dark room with no interfering sound, phones put away an on silent. It will definitely elevate the game to the next level.

The game is pay-what-you-want with a suggested cost of $3. It’s a steal!

Icarus and For The Queen double-game session

I had a free day midweek, called a few folks over (Dave, Gene, Spencer), and we had an RPG night. We were all open to the “what”, and decided on two shorter games that could be played in sequence: Spencer’s own Icarus, and For The Queen.

Part One: Icarus, a game about collapse

Icarus is a storytelling game about the collapse of a great civilization. In some ways it shares some similar premise to Caroline Hobbs’ Downfall, which I’ve written about previously, but in most ways it is quite different. Part of the premise is that the civilization is also building a tower of some type, whether as a symbol of its achievement, or for some other greater purpose. And this tower is represented physically with a stack of dice that grows in the center of the table. Much like Dread, which uses a Jenga tower to provide tension in the horror RPG space, the dice tower also provides a level of mounting tension, as its collapse marks the downfall of the civilization.

 Our civilization was close to falling… we made it 8 cubes high.

Our civilization was close to falling… we made it 8 cubes high.

I’ve seen Spencer run the game at Strategicon Games on Demand and at our Story Games Glendale meetup, but I couldn’t join due to other game-running responsibilities.

As in many of these games, we could come up with our own scenario, but some initial ones are provided by the game, and we were opened to whichever one needed testing or sounded interesting. Spencer mentioned one called The Red Prometheus, which starts with “As the first major city on Mars…” If you know me, that’s all I need. I love any game set …IN SPACE!

The game comes with a number of small decks which provide story prompts and such. Some are used to help create our individual characters (Motive cards), and others are provided as prompts to determine the various strengths and weaknesses of the civilization. Much of the initial world building is collaborative, which I generally love, and worked very well in our game.

As the game progresses and things increasingly, and quickly, snowball into increasing amounts of desperation and chaos, many Aspects get put down on the table. These basically track difficulties that are present and get uncovered as the story progresses. The table takes on look of a mind map, intentionally. Keeping this as organized as possible is one part of the game that should not be ignored! It might be worth ensuring that the notes are clear and concise (similar to how you write cards in Microscope RPG, if playing with rules as written).

We had a really interesting story involving the martian colony propagating the myth that Earth was long dead, and various amounts of telepathy and mind communication, mixed in with lots of resources constraints, trade wars, and politics versus the free press. But as it happens in this game, the end is pre-determined: The civilization will fall. Story-wise, ours worked out to coincide with the Earth space corp invading our great city. In all, the game took just over 2 hours or so, which left us with enough time and energy for a second short game.

 Tracking all the craziness… it’s a snowball affair.

Tracking all the craziness… it’s a snowball affair.

Part Two: For the Martian Queen

The next game we decided to play was For the Queen. (I’ve written about this wonderful game in a separate blog post which is worth reading, if you haven’t already.) The wonderful part of this session was that Gene haphazardly suggested that we should run that in the same universe, and so we did exactly that: 100 years in the future, and a Martian queen from the scattered martian tribes heads to the Earth colony to broker a treaty.

I won’t go into the details of the game, but will say that it worked brilliantly as another way to play For the Queen: As a bit of world-building around an already existing campaign or game. We already had established fiction around mind reading and some other factors around our Mars world, and this just gave extra depth to our game and dynamics.

In fact, I found this so easy to tack on as a second game, that I did this again in another RPG session as a two-shot with two short games, a month later.

A change in format for this blog journal

Hello internet! It’s been hard to update this blog consistently, but I’ve been doing it somewhat regularly (with some gaps) for 3.5 years now, and I enjoys it, so no, I’m not going to stop now.

However, I’m gonna change my format a little. In the past I’d write mostly about game conventions, and when I did so, I’d write a post per day, and other long entries. Because of this, I found myself sometimes confronted with a large task, and therefore keep putting it off, or writing about a part of the day, but not getting around to writing the rest of it until much later.

I really like Sean Nittner’s actual play blog, where he posts thoughts on specific games he’s played. I have decided to go with that more granular approach, and post about individual games, as this bite-sized writing may better suit my writing habits, and be easier to maintain.

Although this post goes out today (on September 12th), I’ll probably be retrofitting prior games I’m still updating to this format. Welcome to the past. Or future. Or whatever.

Gauntlet Hangouts: Swords Without Master - Remnants, Year 2 Spring

I’ve been interested in Swords Without Master for years now, but until this game, had yet to play. Swords Without Master was originally released in Epidiah Ravachol’s zine Worlds Without Master, issue #3. Mostly I’d heard of the reputation that this was a seminal story game that played out stories of sword and sorcery with touchstones from Conan, down towards the strange mix of spells and pseudo-tech of He-man.

I finally prioritized this goal of playing by reserving my weekly “night out” to play in a Gauntlet Hangouts game put up by Pat Perkins, who has been doing an ongoing series of this game. I was pleased to see that I’d be playing with my friends Lu and Ary, so that was just icing on the cake! (We had a fourth, but he had to drop due to technical issues.)

Pat started by asking us about our favorite cartoons growing up. We had answers of He-man and TMNT, Scooby-Doo and Thundarr the Barbarian, and mine being the D&D Cartoon and Gummi Bears.

We quickly made some characters, which involves you first choosing an eidolon, a real-world object, image, or other thing that provides you an image of our “rogue”. Pat sent over a Pinterest board of images, and I quickly found a fantastic image of a character I’d like to explore. It was great seeing the other player images, as Lu chose the bird-like head of a strange staff, and Ary had an eidolon which was the picture of a weird grub/insect. We spent the first part of the session fleshing out these characters with their traits (things defined as “All That Deserves A Name”).

As an example, my character was Roalla, and my important qualities included: Hoor tongue, a strange hallucinogen, Pouri the ever-present life-force that elludes which is my source of strange magic powers, and Numericology, the study of the math that binds the universe, which I had studied in some college in the past, before my travels.

 This image served as my eidolong for Roalla

This image served as my eidolong for Roalla

Lu’s character was literally a staff which controlled the mind of the poor wizard who had last grasped it, and Ary’s was a strange insect-worshipping grub-riding barbarian, of sorts. Overall a very interesting and strange party to start!

 Eidolons for Ary and Lu’s characters

Eidolons for Ary and Lu’s characters

Pat gave us a few options as quests to embark on, and we chose one that would involve finding a hidden cemetery. I won’t go into the details of the quest, because someone has done the work for me! Thanks Pat for your great game writeup (follow that link for those details). Additionally a link to the actual play video - again beautifully curated by Pat - is down below for your viewing pleasure, if you are interested.

So, instead of going into write-up of game details, I will go on to say my impressions of the game itself and its mechanics. I think one of my friends on the Gauntlet said it best (maybe Sid?): It’s crunchy. Crunchy for a story game. There’s a surprising amount of game mechanics that you have to deal with, such as the on-going realization of Motifs which players and GM re-incorporate in scenes and inform the pace of the game, and the dice results which dictate the tone (Glum or Jovial) as well as a set of other conditions during ties, and low rolls. But that said, all these things just tell how you in what manner to “story game”, almost like a set of scene prompts. So, yes, there is a bunch of stuff going on, but it really boils down to being very conversational. It definitely leans towards having a high creative load (similar to Fall of Magic, as an example, even though that game is the furthest from crunchy). It a;sp appears to allow the GM to be very reactionary, and very much in a conversation with the players, in a similar way to games such as Ten Candles (and to an extent like some PbtA and other “conversation” games).

I’ve since read the rules of it (having purchased the zine issue some time ago), and it’s definitely not something I can run without referring to them, at this point, and would require a bit of taking my time with the game the first time around. (Probably worthy of my special cheat sheet treatment, in fact!) Normally I get very excited to run a game, after I’ve played it, but in fact I’m a little more interested in playing it some more. I know Epi runs a Sunday Morning Swords type thing, but that schedule doesn’t really work out for me… but perhaps one day soon.

Here’s the video for those interested:

Gauntlet Hangouts and Dialect: Children of No God

I’ve been recently chatting with a newer Gauntlet member named Noella. We connected at one point around atheism and the idea that they were looking at starting a secular group at their university, and we chatted a little about the Secular Student Alliance.

And then Noella put together a Gauntlet game around this very topic, of sorts… a game of Dialect, the RPG about language of a community in isolation and how that language eventually dies off. Except instead of using one of the pre-made Backdrops, Noella made a new one called “Children of No God”, that explores a community of non-believers, surrounded by those that are religious. Here is the pitch from the Backdrop:

Everyone believes in some God or Gods here, except for us. We’ve banded together against the religious hegemony. We are the non-believers, the atheists, the agnostics, the humanists, the secularists, the non-theists, the rationalists, the free thinkers. Maybe our beliefs are the same, maybe they are all different, but we share a common goal. We foster intellectualism and debate, but most of all we keep each other safe.

A nice little combination of two things I’m very much interested in: role playing games, and atheism (in its various forms: humanism, secularism, and so on). I’ve written about playing and running Dialect before, so won’t repeat the basics of that game again here.

We ended up with 5 total players: Noelle, Sabine, Mikael, Gene (who was playing his first Gauntlet game!) and myself. We quickly found a rough setting for our game, going with some nameless city in the Roman Empire (prior to that whole Christianity thing, with polytheism being abundant). Our three Aspects included:

  1. Our non-belief: “See to Believe”, the premise that we needed to be shown a thing before believing it)

  2. A sanctuary / meeting place: We settled on a specific “park”

  3. A random aspect: We went with a tradition of everyone from our various backgrounds and cultures bringing and sharing foods, and wrote down “potluck”.

We decided we’d have rough groups in our community of skeptics (who were associated mainly with bakers), rationalists (mostly wine makers), and general freethinkers (who were called “eaters” since they comprised of everyone else, and therefore fed off the potluck). It was an interesting choice to associate these schools of thought with these broad categories of people, even if it was strictly true, just to see what traditions and prejudices would form based on this.

Character generation is one of my favorite parts of this game, where you each get 3 cards with archetypes, and choose one of them as the basis for your character. I went with the Celebrity, which states that I choose one of these aspects that my celebrity is based on, and the rest I don’t really care about. I could’ve chosen the non-belief as my main aspect, but was interested in seeing where things would go if that wasn’t my priority, and went with “potluck”. My character was Vesta, and she had been using the potluck to source different foods and cooking styles, and impressing people around town with her culinary expertise and experimentation.

We had Aries the Sage (Sabine) who was wise and good at giving advice to those in the park, Flavius the Ruler (Gene) who believed that the park was part of our problem (as he couldn’t control it), Claudia the Healer (Mikael) who actually thought our un-belief was the source of our problems, and Evander the Magician (Noella) who was assigned to the group from the religious authorities to help convert them back, but was in fact going through his own crisis of faith.

Within the first few rounds we established words (through discussion and role play) that included the word Death as “Chelis” (a corruption of Chair-less… someone missing and an empty chair), “Clear” as a word meaning Wonderful (a clear day meant we could meet at the park), and “Bake” in the Norwegian pronunciation meaning Work (as we work must be seen to be believed, and the products of that work were bread from our bakers, a large source of our tribe). More words were to come, and after about 2 hours of play we had finished the first age, and were ready to explore what happens as time moved on, and things shifted in the community.

 A view of the Roll20 page early on during the first age of the game.

A view of the Roll20 page early on during the first age of the game.

The second age came with the complication that the authorities were on to us in a bad way, and to blend in we’d have to work together with another minority religious group. In this case it was the Temple of Dionysus, and Potluck turned into a proper Feast… instead of an unstructured sharing, we now had a production of food, and rituals, meeting weekly instead of sporadically. The second age also comes with more complex concepts of language, such as Portmanteau and Euphemism. We had the word Traiter as “Eyer”, for example, but the Portmanteau took this and Work / “Bake” and created “Bakeyer”, the work of being a traitor… acting shady. This originally came about due to people being untrustworthy as spies for the government religious authorities, but quickly became used as a word that the minority religious group used to say we atheists were shady, and then just as quickly became a word (in the third age of the game) that we used for ourselves as an honorable term. It was fascinating watching the meaning change so quickly from scene to scene, in a way that felt authentic.

The third age of the game brought the death (Chelis?) of our language and community, and some fairly sad moments as characters were disavowed of their marriage due to their non-belief, or not able to express their culture and words due to changes and removal of allowed vocabulary by the community. We had a few sad epilogues at first, but also some hope. A young teacher and daughter to the leader of the minority religious group actually teaching about some of our traditions we thought would be lost.

In the end the game exudes this melancholy feel (that I’ve experienced every time I’ve finished the game), and just gives you food for thought for days to come. It once again reaffirmed that the game is a sort of immersive and strange experience that I highly recommend people try.

Noelle did a great job running their first Gauntlet game, keeping the game well-paced so it fit within the 3.5 hours or so that we needed. I’ll be honest that I’d have loved more time to experience some of the scenes and really get into character, but that would’ve also made this a 2-session game.

The experience of using Roll20 for the cards was hit and miss. Some of the writing on cards or putting them on the “table” wasn’t trivial, but then again the shuffling and dealing cards worked exceedingly well. It’s definitely a tool I’d like to become more familiar with, however I have to admit that using Google Hangouts, Google documents, and RollForYourParty does most of the things I need.

 A more finalized view of our game.

A more finalized view of our game.

Noella has posted the Backdrop, and so here it is: Children of No God backdrop for Dialect.

For those interested, the video was recorded and you can view the actual play. Unfortunately you don’t get much of a view of the game board as we’re playing, but the above screenshots should serve to give you an idea of how it looked.

Gateway 2018: GoD Kids Edition - Fall of Magic for kids

What is Fall of Magic

If you don’t know what Fall of Magic is, there’s no simple way to put it: You should. It’s one of my all-time favorite story games, beautiful in its simplicity, and gorgeous in its form-factor: an actual scroll that you play on, with exquisite coins. (Note that you can purchase the PDF version to play online, or if the scroll version is out of your price range!)

This role playing game is something you can play with people from hardcore RPG fanatics to those who’ve maybe heard of “D&D”. It’s not everyone’s jam, because you have to be ready for extremely light mechanics and heavy story bullshit-ery, but man-o-man have I had some excellent experiences with this game with people of all experience levels. But I’ve written about it (and the soon-to-be-released Sci-Fi hack Autumn of the Ancients) before, so I won’t gush too much longer on that score.

Gaming with Kids

At Strategicon - our local LA convention - I’ve been running Games on Demand: Kids Edition, for over a year now. We get anywhere from 2-4 GMs who come ready to run games that are kid-friendly, and have consistently been getting about a dozen 8-12 year olds (my own daughter being in that zone) showing up to play role playing games. Some say this is what they’ve most been looking forward to. Games have included Tiny Dungeons, Goobles and Goblins, The Warren, The Deep Forest, and more.

But this time I ran Fall of Magic

The Session

There are a few things that went exceedingly well here, and lessons to be learned. I’ll break it down into a couple of paragraphs.

As always, definitely have your safety tool conversation. Some of these kids are pros at this point, and I did that thing that Kate Bullock mentions in this Gauntlet GM Masterclass episode, where instead of explaining everything about the X-card, for example, I had them tell me about how it works, and then I’d flesh out anything they were missing. Best thing about explaining the X-card and safety tools to kids? They just get it. Unlike some adults.

Let’s start with an introduction to some of the characters (where they often decided to use their own custom names). Unfortunately I don’t have them all because some of them ran off with their gorgeously drawn index cards, and I didn’t take a picture until too late! There were at least two transforming cats, a literal fox, and definitely some elements from Harry Potter and similar pre-teen fantasy novels and movies. Here’s a flavor for some of them:

  • April the Scholar of Istallia

  • Fire the Ranger of Mistwood (“I use soreds and bows”)

  • Nihao the Apprentice of Ravenhall

  • Luna the Fox of Mistwood

One of them played a Golem, where the golem was a girl made from shadows.

It’s important to note that most of the kids wanted to commit only about an hour or two maximum for the game, because they had competing interests at the convention (you know, shopping at the dealer room, painting minis, etc). But, once we got going, they just got into it. In the end we played for 3 hours.

I’d recommend being pretty loose about maintaining the (few) structures in the game. As an example, I took away the standard way of playing the Magus. Instead of the Magus accompanying them on the journey and them taking turns playing it, I just played the Magus as a sort of Head Witch of the magic school at Ravenhall - a trope they were comfortable with - and used the Magus to give them the quest of heading to Umbra. As I’ve done in other sessions, I allowed them to define rumors about the Magus, so that I wasn’t just making up my view of this character, but more a conglomeration of their various ideas. This also allowed them to just play their own characters, which is I think, cognitively, about where you’d want it for this game.

We played in the first location (Ravenhall), but I knew we wouldn’t have time to explore too much. So another change we made was to just fast forward to locations that the players wanted to explore, for example those that their characters were from. To that end, we played a large scene in Mistwood that ended with the forest burning behind them, and then moved on to Istallia and the boat that would take them across the sea. Finally, we had a finale in and around Umbra, where magic was born.

I want to talk about Mistwood burning, because it was one of my favorite parts. One of the kids was very much into wanting to drive some conflict into the story, and was trying to introduce some elements around that (like an out of control fire). At first, the others were trying to solve this problem using their various skills and narrative abilities, but you could see that the first kid was a little frustrated at that. I stopped the game for a moment so we could have the meta-conversation. What was she trying to see in the scene? She explained to everyone that she wanted to see conflicts, and we had a quick discussion, and everyone was on board with it. So, instead of solving the problem, I asked everyone, “OK, you are trying to fix this situation, but you fail. What does that look like?” And they all just ate it up, and had some fantastic story elements around the struggles and failures involved. I am particularly proud of that moment in the game.

We had six players initially, but one had a competing, scheduled interest after the 2 hour mark. The other five got to the end, and so we did a round of epilogues to round out the story. And wouldn’t you know it, they were dark as shit. These kids spared no feelings, and almost all the characters came to a pretty grim or unhappy ending, with lost souls, or lost abilities to transform, and even one death. But holy crap did they appear to have a good time. As did I.

 My little story weavers.

My little story weavers.

All said, this game can totally work for kids, but I’d recommend simplifying a few of the (already simple) mechanics to accommodate their interests.

 In action, early in the game.

In action, early in the game.

MR-KR-GR: Playtest 2 at Indie RPG Night

Another Indie RPG Night at Story Games Glendale. Originally I was going to miss this one due to vacation plans, but they got cancelled. For that I'm super sad, but this night definitely got my spirits back up a notch. We had 8 people total, and split into two tables. Asher ran Dialect for three folks, and I had brought a second draft test-run of MR-KR-GR: The Death Rolled Kingdom, for a second table of three.

(If you are interested in game design tweaks I made between the last time I ran this, and this session, you can check out my Design Diary post about this on the Gauntlet Blog.)

We went through a bit of character generation, which now mimics Fall of Magic a lot more closely. It looked like this:

 The new version of character generation in my MR-KR-GR hack that more closely mimics Fall of Magic

The new version of character generation in my MR-KR-GR hack that more closely mimics Fall of Magic

That spawned the following characters with corresponding traits:

  • Jenni as Jovin the Macaque of Tohey (+Lucky, -Unnatural, +Trusted)
  • Hannah as Diya the Witch of Merating (+Summon, -Poisoned, +Unusual)
  • Christian as Najja the Soldier from Afar (+Seer, -Maimed, +Unusual)

The first trait was chosen initially, and the additional traits during the first two scenes, per other changes I made. All-in-all this worked really well, and wasn't too much to keep track of, and pretty much exactly where I wanted the mechanics to be, complexity-wise. The way the players took on those traits was also nice and variable. For example Najja's trait of "Maimed" translated to an ex-soldier with some form of PTSD, and Diya's "Poisoned" ended up being related to her body's purity and her eye, which was restored late in the story.

The story was pretty fun. We had three strange travelers coming into the land, and quickly getting separated at the port. Soon afterwards, they would run into each other some more, and became a party of sorts. There was the macaque traveling at the behest of her queen, looking for a teak nymph; a witch trying to track down material known to create pure forests and remove the corruption of lands; and a soldier with visions, trying to establish and broker some sort of peace negotiations with MR-KR-GR. 

We had scenes with the trade lord; tea at the best tea house on Trader's Island: Tears of the God; a trade of information for a royal coin to a fellow that was later spurned by Dien, a Tohey princess; a violent encounter with low spirit vines in the jungle; and a friendly encounter with a tall tree spirit, combined with a ride on a large, summoned insect by our strange insect witch of Merating. And a finale that included Margessa, the third queen, as well as the fourth queen, currently pregnant with a teak nymph.

The mechanics worked very well in the game, not too difficult, but not easy by far, and provided some good fail-forward and success mechanics that helped the story along. The last 3 rolls, once for each player, were: 6, 6, 6. This made for an amazingly happy ending, with Jovin securing a promise from the fourth queen to borrow the teak nymph that would heal their forests, but with some feels when the Macaque looked like she may be turned back to a wild creature! Najja was able to succeed in negotiations, the seer powers being a cornerstone of the success of the treaty and taking down the third queen. And Diya our witch was able to acquire emerald pure wood which she fashioned into an eye and placed in her eye socket to hear her corruption. 

I was pleasantly surprised with how well my changes worked from the first time I ran this. The story was very similar in scope and style to my first game, but with varying themes and components. There is still so much to explore in the setting as a player and GM, which is great. 

One of the only negatives with the trait "Unusual", which two players chose, but which didn't really get any play. I may remove that and Unnatural from the next version, and they just didn't evoke things that I thought were interesting in play. I'd replace them with something more solid, or maybe just leave 5 positive and negative traits to choose from in those initial scenes.

Another great positive was that the players were so enjoyable! Jenni hadn't played an RPG before, but you couldn't tell if you had watched. She was straight into it, and it was magic to behold. Hannah's witch was super evocative, and I loved the weird insect magic she injected into the story; when I think of the way the lost witches of Merating are described in the setting, I feel like she just hit the spot with her character. And Christian played a great vulnerable character with his damaged soldier, and his epilogue worked really well with all the setup. In all, a really great story, and I can't wait to try this a bit more.

 A great playtest, with great cake to boot!

A great playtest, with great cake to boot!

EDIT: Patrick Stuart interviews the two designers. See his Flase Machine blog post on A Thousand Thousand Islands, which also links to the Youtube video of the interview:

Ten Candles with actual candles

Finally. I've run Ten Candles at least four times now, and every time it's been at game conventions where flames are a serious no-no. And don't get me wrong, I love my LED candles, and they've gotten a good amount of use (and will continue to do so), but real fire; I want it.

A few friends came over: Candace, Julian, Paul, and Janell. We talked about a few scenarios and decided to go with something real world-ish, and eventually settled on Majestic Bob's Last Show, a scenario by Neil Grieb. We made a few tweaks... instead of a weirdo in a mansion, we decided to set ourselves in USA Depression Era, Kansas, and with a travelling circus. The beginning has our characters walking down a train track, leaving behind the wreckage in the darkness, and finding themselves near a train station on the edge of a very small town... and strange lights in the distance.

Characters included Lola the street-smart runaway hustler, Cecilia the fashion designer and power player from the city, Hank the contemplative sailor who had fought in the war, and Gus the merc-for-hire.

I've run Ten Candles a number of times, and most scenarios feel a bit like a standard horror movie in scope, but this game ended up going a lot more surreal. The card I got passed from a player said "I've seen Them... teleport short distances", so we ended up having some disappearing act type things occur, and very odd performances, platforms in tents, weird sounds in the abandoned theme park, and finally a mine shaft that exuded strange lights, drawing most everyone in.

Janell had never played an RPG before, but has a writers background, so was definitely cool seeing her grab onto the descriptions and themes, and hopefully this was a good intro into what RPGs can do.

Using real candles was pretty cool, especially when the last one goes out, but I've never dealt with scenes ending before due to candles going out (versus due to dice mechanics)... here we had 2 candles go out which caused scenes to end early. And that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

I will say though, if you are going to use real candles, you should have some sense of how long they might last. In my case I knew I had some cheapo ones that lasted not long enough (2 hours at the most?), but the middle 5 I knew could go for the long haul. Even those, however, required that I do maintenance... the flames were drowning in their own wax pools, so would've just gone out really early if we hadn't played with that.

A good game, and finally getting to check off that entry in the bucket list!

 Some choice moments

Some choice moments

Gauntlet Listen Parties

Looks like the Gauntlet daily blog is now in full swing! This was a Patreon goal that was hit and surpassed, and now we can have some persistent places to see some of the Gauntlet special sauce. Recent examples include Jason Cordova's Paint the Scene method and The 7-3-1 technique, mixed with little interviews of Gauntleteer personalities and play reports.

To that end, my first blog post has now been posted, and is about Gauntlet Listen Parties. Here it is, re-posted for your pleasure:

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What is it?

The Listen Party is an ad hoc event I started a few months back. The first one was on a day I felt a little low and didn’t have the ability to leave the house, but really just wanted some connection and chit-chat. On that day, I checked in with some folks in The Gauntlet Slack group. Before long, some of us dove into a Discord voice channel and listened to segments from recent Gauntlet podcasts, and after 5-10 minutes of listening, hit Pause and discussed the topic. We did this for about an hour or two, working our way through a few segments.

Since that first time, we’ve probably had about a half dozen of these crop up. Sometimes there’s just 3-4 of us, and the biggest was probably closer to 10 Gauntleteers.

Some recent Listen Parties

A particularly memorable one was when a large group of us listened to the Fear of a Black Dragon Podcast about Operation Unfathomable, specifically highlighting the segment where Jason and Tom discuss tips for good characterizations. In addition to getting to process the segment again, having each other as a sounding board allows questions to be answered, and additional tips and tricks to be uncovered from the plethora of experience we all have.

In another we listened to one of the Gauntlet’s GM Masterclass episodes, and a few weeks later the +1 Forward episode about Dream Apart

The most recent involved us listening to the Gauntlet Podcast for Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars with Josh Fox. Prior to the podcast, we just caught up with one another and had a discussion about MR-KR-GR: The Death Rolled Kingdom. While listening to the podcast, conversations came up about cognitive vs improvisational load in Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) and other story games, tokens and GMless games, and mechanics in regards to FlotsamGood Society, and others.

How does it work?

Our listen parties are actually quite low-fi. Someone simply announces they want to do the thing in Slack; we have a specific Slack keyword we use to allow for people to opt-in to get notified it’s happening. This call to arms has us gather into a Discord voice channel, and then once we have a critical mass, we choose what we want to listen to. Generally, we go for a recent podcast with a juicy segment or two. At this point, I do the “3, 2, 1…” countdown, we all hit PLAY, and listen to it on our headphones, individually. When the segment is over, or if someone pipes up and says they want to start a discussion, we just hit PAUSE, and then commence. This continues until we’ve decided we’re done. Simple enough.

There was a suggestion of using Rabb.it, a service that allows people to watch or listen to things together, but we found it’s a little more than what we needed just now. Perhaps one day.

Are you a Gauntlet Slack user who’s interested? 

Use the GauntletListenParty keyword to get info on how to setup the notification. And even though I’ve been the one generally making it happen, it’s anyone’s game, so don’t be bashful in starting a listen party when the mood strikes!

MR-KR-GR: The Death Rolled Kingdom, a playtest

MR-KR-GR (and A Thousand Thousand Islands)

Through lucky circumstances, I ran into a G+ thread on an intriguing project, sometime back... a SouthEast Asia inspired fantasy setting. Joining a bunch of others proclaiming "can I have one too?" I was lucky enough to get a copy of these zines shipped all the way from Malaysia. Thanks, Zedeck Siew!

Reading the text of the setting book was impressive. There was a level of prose to it, and the wording was evocative, and yet very light and simple. A land of crocodile masters, ancient ruins of a lost land,  My instinct was immediately to try and run something in this land. I have the urge to introduce it to others. I have the urge to explore stories in this land.

(Curious what it looks like? You can see a few preview images in this Twitter thread by Aaron Lim.)

 Image by Aaron Lim on Twitter  @ ehronlime

Image by Aaron Lim on Twitter @ehronlime

As it turns out, Munkao and Zedeck Siew are working on a whole series of lands in this setting: The Thousand Thousand Islands. Munkao describes this project as: a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project. The goal isn’t to imagine a bog-standard medieval fantasy world, superficially re-skinned with kerises and brown people. In my notes and illustrations, I will be digging deeper, looking into regional folklore and history – trying to discover what a fantasy world truly rooted in the myths and lived experience of Indochina, Suvarnabhumi and the Nusantara look like

Designing around MR-KR-GR

It took time before I was inspired as far as how to run this. I mean, it's not written in any traditional style for a module or setting. There are no stat blocks. Or dungeon maps. Or explicitly stated webs connecting the pieces. But there are hints of things. Subtle connections between people, or more accurately, the thoughts of those people and the roles they inhabit. In some ways it's close to what a Dungeon World dungeon starter might look like, but I'd argue even less structure than that. More like a compilation of Jason Cordova's 7-3-1 design principals, but more like 50-3-1.

I was considering the very rules-light World of Dungeons, but that also felt like much more rules than I really wanted. I didn't need hit points and armor, savings throws, lists of skills, weapons to purchase... it felt like too much. And so at some point the connection between this very loose structure, and Munkao's drawings and how they were so similar to those found in another game I love, led me to: Fall of Magic.

That little spark led me to some fledgling design ideas. I thought about running a version of MR-KR-GR using the fantastic images, but with some story prompts that helped initially guide the story and character creation. However, because the MR-KR-GR setting and land have such interesting lore, people, and things to explore, I would make the experience loosely guided, as in a GM-based game. I decided to use World of Dungeons as a backbone to adjudicate conflicts and provide some mechanics to the game; Fall of Magic has little.

(Want to read a more in-depth rumination on this topic? See my first post in the Gauntlet Blog about MR-KR-GR).

An Initial Playtest

So, I setup an ad hoc game of MR-KR-GR up on the Gauntlet calendar and got lucky with some superstar players: Lauren, Ary and Ellen. I didn't want to spend too much time on character generation prior to jumping into the game, and so said they could just fill in some stock stat numbers, and even skills and such, as it came up in play. That said, we did use a World of Dungeons character keeper in Google sheets (provided by the Gauntlet's amazing Play Aids repository), and had:

MR-KR-GR_Playtest_WoDsheet.jpg

As it turned out, World of Dungeons was complete overkill, system-wise. We pretty much had a story game on our hands, and occasionally wanted to make some sort of die roll so we'd all be surprised with the outcome.

All of us had played games such as Fall of Magic and Lady Blackbird, games which can be played as a conversation and with scene framing, so the flow of the game worked very well with the players contributing heavily to the narrative and direction of the story. I would push here, and tweak there, play a few NPCs, and flavor the world... it was a truly enjoyable experience for me, and I'm happy that this thing came to some sort of fruition. Things that need fixing? Definitely. And I will write more about that in the second playtest I ran, in a face-to-face game. 

Curious about how the game went? You can watch the recording: