Friday, April 8, 2011

Dread: Horror Roleplaying Done Right

The last game I ran at the retreat was a game of Dread. I'm really glad I did that (though it was a little last minute, when we realized that Scott was running more games than others). Dread has a fantastic mechanic! In my mind it is one of the best mechanics I've seen, because it does a lot to help the feel of the roleplaying and story. It doesn't guide as much of the roleplaying, as say Polaris or Shock does, but at the same time I think it does far more for forcing the players to get into the setup of the game, and focusing the game. But what is the mechanic, I hear you asking! The mechanic is a jenga tower that you must pull bricks from in order to accomplish things. That is basically the entire system. Though the book has a ton of advice on character generation and how to generally run a good horror game.

The great thing about this mechanic is that it gets everyone very tense and concentrating on the mechanic of the game, and that tension and focus transfers well to the game that is happening around the tower.

I have since the game run it again for my Seattle group of players, and it worked similarly well. I'm planning on running a Dread session at ACNW. I'm not sure if I want to use the same story setup (something terrible happened at camp 10 years ago that is coming back on the players), but I think it could be pretty good. One of the things in the feedback of the game at the retreat that people latched on to was that I should've given them a roadmap to defeating the evil thing. That seems like a really good horror trope to give the players, since otherwise they are helpless to make the evil end (which was a focus on the game, though doesn't have to be in general).

The main problem I had the first time I ran it was a GM/plot issue that I didn't resolve well. I basically had 2 plots planned: a zombie horror game, and a camp horror one. I didn't know I had this problem, until I started the game and realized that everyone wanted to deal with the camp stuff. It couldn't be zombies, it had to be related to the dead camper! This was very obvious in retrospect, but caused the game to suck slightly in the execution.

I also tried to give something for the "eliminated" players to do. Namely I asked for some shared GM'ing so we could split the group and also give the dead folks something to do. I didn't want to decrease the sting of death by giving them another character. So, I let some folks GM some scenes. They did a great job at the scenes I asked them for, unfortunately I didn't think through my instructions very well. Shared GM'ing is something that my friend Mike really likes to do, but I still haven't found the right way to approach the scenes, and this was no exception.

Anyway, I think the game went well, and my second run of the game also went well. Dread is a fantastic system that really doesn't get in the way and really encourages the roleplaying.

I've disabled comments due to the amount of spam on this particular post.  Email me with any comments and I'll add them to the body of this post!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hero's Banner and a new Technique

Continuing in my desire to post on more games from the retreat, I'll write up my experience with a slightly tweaked version of Hero's Banner that we playtested for Tim Koppang, and also a new GM'ing technique that Mike and I discussed as a result of the game.

For those that don't know, Hero's Banner is a game written by my long time friend Tim Koppang, and is designed to tell the story of a young man (or woman) choosing between life paths. You get 3 life paths: Hero, where you choose to act or be like someone you admire, Blood where your family's desires or needs take prominence, and Conscience where you own desires run free. The biggest change from other Hero's Banner games was that (at the cues of the write up) we did 3 players, 1 character. This was interesting, it got 3 very good players to put their head together and make 3 interesting, compelling life paths to choose between. Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations with the session was that we could only choose 1 path. Mike in particular wanted to strike compromises between the different life paths.

Beyond the character generation, there is a mechanic, which lets you succeed more the more passionate you are about one path over the others, which uses percentile dice (oh god why? WHY?), and a sort of game timer that measures overall progress towards narrating the final scene and epilogue of the character. These mechanics had a major impact on the game play, which in general is, of course, a good thing (in particular I thought it was good for us to abandon one of the paths, as it wasn't compelling or useful anymore), but too many times they felt like a burden. While we were always in line for choosing a path and agonizing over that decision, it felt like the players were, occasionally, jerked along that path fater or (at the end) slower than desired.

So what was our game about? Our Hero was Dame Plowman, a woman from common stock who had won her way into knighthood and an honored place at the Duke's court. The character (Damien) wanted to be like her, but mainly wanted to court and marry her, achieved by becoming a knight. The Blood story was the least interesting of the three. Our family was in trouble after the death of the patron of the family. Our mother and friend (Baron Landsher) wanted us to take on the duties of a noble and rescue our lands from our debts. Finally we come to the strongest story like, the horse trainer story. Conscience told us to become an Arabian horse trainer, which no non-arab had ever been able to do.

I think the biggest problem was the speed of the plots. I made the horse plot very strong by kicking it into high gear very quickly. First I tried to stage a scene in a village, getting Damien to pass judgment on an important matter (for the peasants). Mike ran from that, because he was late for horse training. On the way there they ran into Dame Plowman escorting a bandit lord from Uran to the Duke's prison. They witnessed the bandit lord attempt to stab Plowman, and decided to interfere despite the fact they were in peasant cloths going to the horse trainers (horse people hate nobles). They ran off quickly, after being stabbed themselves. At the horse folk's place, they were introduced to the master herdsman, (after meeting the hilarious and awesome Shaliq), and given a horse. They were then told they would have to stay with the horse for the next week all the time, with their hand sealed in wax to the horse. After that they went to talk to Mom, but found Dame Plowman at home, waiting to ask them why they were in peasant clothes and what this horse thing was about. Then they talked to mom, who revealed that their major creditor, Lord Fauntleroy was waiting to go over the books with Damien. Fauntleroy left shortly thereafter, thoroughly upset with the level of commitment Damien showed to his debts. Damien and the horse then went out to meet Plowman, and they had a romantic ride on the horse (Aiya). Plowman invited them to a ceremony to recognize her and his contributions to bringing the bandit lord to justice, in 3 days time. The horse was not invited. Over the next several days Damien fixed the village's problems, impressing Fauntleroy, but talked to their mother and told her they would not be the new lord for the land. They got permission from the master herdsman to be separated from Aiya for the 3 hours of the ceremony. They attended the ceremony where they were knighted in a surprise ceremony. Then the final horse scene took place, where they had to pass the final trial of the horse (I've skipped over the 7 horse trials they they've been doing each day). They failed (due to mechanics at this point). Then they went off with Plowman, finding Shaliq and his son fighting bandits, rescueing them and impressing Plowman at the same time. In the end, they chose to go with Sarah Plowman and join the knights of the garter.

I promised that I would discuss a new GM'ing technique from this game. I'm not sure it is coming through in the write up, but the horse plot was very interesting and awesome. All the players felt a lot of connection to both Shaliq and Aiya (the horse). So why was this? And could we find a way to replicate the awesomeness to other games? Mike and I discussed this at some length. The core of the idea goes like this: you as the GM want to make some item important or special in the player's mind, something that they (or the character) wants. First, you make them work for it. You make an entire people or tribe or group who's job it is to gatekeep the item or the best form of the item. The player gets in good with them. Then they are given the item or a proto form of the item. They must doing something that is awkward socially with that item for some time. After that the item will be completed or otherwise augmented. So for, say, a chopper character in Apocalypse World, that wants an awesome new bike. First introduce the nomad group of mechanics that make the best post-apocalyptic motorbikes. They given him a bike, doing a ritual to seal the bike to him, a lot of hoodoo nonsense with feathers and smoke. They let him go with the bike, but warn that the bike will have its own demands that if they are not met, will mean the destruction of the bike. Now comes the important part... The character now has a spiritual connection to the bike, and she (or he, depending on the sexuality of the character) is around as a hallucination all the time, asking for things, being socially awkward. Another example we thought of: a katana that must have a Samaurai's hand kept on it at all times for a week. A book that a librarian character desperately wants that can't be given, but can be copied, over the course of a demanding week. In all of these cases, a time commitment is important, it is also important for the GM to keep up the pressure. This shouldn't be a time-off week where nothing else happens, this should be the week that the plague comes to town, and jimmy falls down the well. There should be pressure to give up the item.

Obviously this item technique isn't useful in all games, but I think it might be a good idea. It certainly worked well in the Hero's Banner game we played.

BTW, Buy Hero's Banner!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Retreat, Take 3

Well, another year has come and gone, so its time for me to update my blog again. We just wrapped up on the 3rd edition of the roleplaying retreat, which some folks are calling BenCon.

So what was the highlight of the week for me? I really enjoyed getting to play a bunch of indie games that I hadn't had a chance to try out. I'm going to try to be blogging for a while about the games we played, but today I'll limit myself to 1, and one I GM'ed no less.

The first game I GM'ed at the retreat was Dance and the Dawn. This is a very interesting game, extremely stylized and simple. The setup for the game is pretty simple. The players (up to 4) play the Ladies of Ash, which have been brought to the Midnight Waltz by the Duke of Ash at the behest of the Queen of Ice. The Queen provides 4 (or 5 in the case of 4 players) Lords of Ice, one of which is her son, the Prince of Ice. After some initial setup of the world (How does magic work? How do the Ladies find themselves on the Island of Ash), you create characters based on completing sentences (I was ____, I loved ____, I lost ____, I will ____), which I felt worked pretty well. The ladies also compose a couplet of peotry to describe their characters. The Lords then are created to help them achieve their "I will" sentences. The game proceeds on a chess board (read the book if you want the full details), there is very constrained interaction between the Ladies and the Lords (and everyone else). At most you probably get to ask like 3 or 4 questions to a particular lord. If you pick the one that was created for you, you have a happy life, otherwise, disaster (the left over lord is the soulless lord, whom no one will be happy with).

So what worked? I thought the imagery questions from the world setup worked really well. We quickly sketched out a very stylish setting and one that was intimately realized for each of the players. People were also pretty nervous about their end game decisions, despite everything working out for the best in my group. Though the soulless one was figured out fairly early by folks. The sense of courtly intrigue and propriety shown through despite the constricted mechanics and setting, which was awesome (in fact I think the constricted setting and rules that only allowed for a dance were the reasons those pieces worked).

On the other end of things, I found the lack of real romance to be disappointing. After having run my True Love game about 4 or 5 times I was looking forward to having a cool romance game that really brought things home other than the one that I made (with the help of others, see last year's write up for details on that game). But, the constrained nature of the game / characters and the clue-esque mystery that was the centerpiece of the game (who is their true love) served to leech out all of the romance and turn it into a more clinical game, at least in my opinion (though I would love to have comments from my players).

Over all, "Dance and the Dawn" worked pretty well, and was very cool, and I think we even told a cool story, but it is not a game about love or engendering player emotions. Well worth a play :).