International Waters is Released

A friend of mine, Capybarbarian, has just released his third adventure, called International Waters, for The Sprawl RPG. He was kind enough to run it for me and a few others in a playtest session, and it was a lot of fun.

Figure 1: The cover for International Waters – if you play The Sprawl, I can recommend it. If you like cyberpunk, I can recommend it. Heck, I can just recommend it outright!

It’s a cyberpunk adventure, in which your crew is hired to retrieve a person from a ship that’s been stranded somewhere due to corporate tomfoolery. When we played it, we chose a route of violence – I looked forward to seeing how Capybarbarian would deal with our crazy approach, and he GM’d it quite nicely. The end result for us was an action-packed module that had an enticing background – a setting that hinted at so much more behind it. That was with us doing our best to ignore the plot points, to stress his module and put it through the wringer. There’s a wonderfully intricate world that’s behind it all and, honestly, all of us wanted to replay it right after we finished to find out more about it.

As I’ve gotten used to, his work is thoroughly researched, with a lot of references to real-world events, cultures, and situations. I can thoroughly recommend you give it a try.

Capybarbarian’s three available modules can be found for sale here.

#RPGaDay2020 14: Banner

When I was growing up, it was still considered a little weird to play RPG games. We’re now at the stage where playing videogames as an adult isn’t particularly weird (though it’s not fully mainstream either). Fortunately, the Netherlands never reached the Satanic Panic-levels of the US either. Basically, it’s a bit of an odd hobby, that people aren’t necessarily too familiar with unless they were already introduced to it.

I don’t think I’ve ever introduced anybody to gaming. Usually, I get into my groups as friends of friends bring along others, and so on. Most of them have played something or are familiar with it at least. I’ve played with the younger brother of another player before who wanted to give it a try, but then again he also already roughly knew what was going on.

Nevertheless, I think it’s good to hang out the nerd banner every once in a while. I’m not particularly running around the office with gaming shirts (I chair committees at a local uni, so gaming shirts are not really on-brand there), but if the conversation comes up with colleagues, I won’t shy away from it either. It is odd, though, having to consciously pick who to talk about it to. Most people in education, or at least the set of faculties I operate in, aren’t quite up with pop culture.Sometimes, I suspect that people in IT sectors might have an easier time with this sort of thing.

Either way, while I won’t hang out the RPG tabletop-gaming banner at work, I do my best to represent it as a normal hobby whenever I can.

#RPGaDay2020 13: Rest

Downtime moments in RPGs have been a thing I struggle with to depict properly. I wrote before about how I enjoy sessions where you deal with the things that matter directly to the plot. In my opinion, character development should happen during gameplay in response to interesting conflicts. However, sometimes those conflicts are between characters while they’re unwinding together. These scenes can be interesting, as well as good motivators for future action in the game. On the other hand, at times they are also massive wastes of time.

I find it hard to strike the balance there. I’ve had scenes where the players are just sitting around chatting in-character about random stuff. For my personal tastes, this leans too much into the simulation side of things. Sure, your characters would do that, but I’d much rather have a player tell me “Okay, my character and hers spent the night chatting away and bonding over childhood stories”. That lets me know the crucial points of what’s happening, while skipping over two people doing comedy improv for fifteen minutes.

To figure out where that perfect balance is between skipping over fluff and allowing for interesting character conflict is a tricky one that I’m still working on, and one that also depends on each group and each individual player. Some people just want more chatter while others want more storyline.

#RPGaDay2020 12: Message

I am convinced that every RPG and every individual RPG adventure has a central message. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that every author or GM explicitly creates a message in everything they do, but I would argue that whether or not we intend it, we imbue everything we do with meaning. That’s why I would argue to work consciously towards a message, and to be conscious of what unintended message ends up in your work.

An example of this is in the published early drafts of (edit: see his comment below) an adventure of a friend, entitled The Secret of Cedar Peak. I know this person to be accepting, progressive, peaceful, and considerate. Yet, unintentionally, due to the cultural structures all around us all, his module inherited some of the troublesome colonialist themes inherent to D&D:

Capybarbarian’s tweet from when he learned about the troublesome nature of D&D, and realized that his own adventure unintentionally inherited that same problematic theme.

This is what people mean when they say things like “The Patriarchy”—it’s not some secret group of men sitting around a table in a dark room, lit ethereally from above, as they plan out a system of oppression. It’s a massive construct of cultural products (movies, TV shows, novels, games) that all keep carrying the same message at the core. These messages aren’t the style where JD clearly voices the theme of this week’s Scrubs episode, but they are the messages that are hidden in plain sight. The type of messages of 90’s sitcoms, where the overweight, highly unsociable and outright unlikeable male character has a amazingly conventionally beautiful wife whom he treats terribly, yet she loves him terribly, accepts his faults, does all the work around the house while taking care of the kids. It’s so common to each product, that we don’t even see that the real message underlying these shows is “men don’t have to treat women well, and they all deserve a woman to serve their needs”.

The insidious nature of these messages, as my old uni prof would say about religion in the Middle Ages, is that they are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to the eye. He’d explain to us that for us largely secular group of students, the religiosity of medieval writing was Christianity slapped in our faces (insert “turn the other cheek” joke here), but a medieval reader wouldn’t even notice it. He then did something that stayed with me for all these years: he pointed out all the advertising in our room. I had never seen it before. Suddenly, I could see all the logos on shirts, backpacks, laptops, phones, the room’s projector, a poster on the wall. Everywhere there was a logo, a company name, or a slogan. And suddenly, there was capitalism all around me, with a message everywhere I looked trying to tell me to “buy, buy, buy”. There was a consistent set of messages all around me all the time that I had never seen before, because they were everywhere for as long as I could remember.

After two years of cultural analysis, you end up feeling like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live. Although while he was still the hero of an action movie, powerful and totally in the right, we remain human—vulnerable to making the same mistakes over and over. Years after coming to understand feminism as a white man, I still realized that I was interrupting women more than men during meetings. Behaviors like these are ongoing struggles. They’re simple but not easy to consistently get right. I still remember fondly delving into postmodern theory. You’d read somebody’s analysis, and it’s so convincing and well thought out. It really seems like the author has solved the problem they were working on. And then you’d read a postmodern analysis, where a philosopher and cultural analyst succinctly and expertly illustrates how the first author completely undermines their own point not in words but in how and what they wrote.

That’s why the burden is on us, constantly and consistently, to be aware of the messages we put out there. It’s also on us all to accept that we’re learning and growing human beings. Messages can sneak into our work that we don’t intend to have in there at all. So, it’s up to us to take action when we see this in ourselves, and to accept it when it happens to others. It’s why I appreciate Capybarbarian for bringing out that message himself, and within the span of just a few weeks he worked on it and changed this: resolve the issue (edit: see his comment below for my inaccurate description of events).

Fortunately, Capybarbarian worked quickly to resolve some of these issues! Just under a couple of weeks’ work for somebody doing this on the side is really speedy.

I admire the work he’s put into it, and the guts it takes not only to just put himself out there to publish something but also to correct it when he sees something wrong with it change course when needed (edit: see his comment below for corrections on my earlier inaccurate depiction). It’s why I recommend having a look at his module The Secret of Cedar Peak.

#RPGaDay2020 11: Stack

I used to own a literal stack of RPG books. I’m not kidding, once when I moved apartments, I stacked them together and covered them in a blanket to create a makeshift chair until I got furniture. However, the more books I had, the fewer games I seemed to play. It was interesting having all these books, and referencing different ideas and genres to bring things into other games. However, most ended up being unused and just taking up space on my bookshelves.

So, somewhere last year, I did a purge. I looked at each of my RPG books and decided which one I actually wanted to play. I ended up with just a handful of RPGs that I kept, and the rest a friend of mine took over from me. It feels a bit Mari Kondo, but I have to say it does feel a lot better to have only those RPGs that I really click with.

#RPGaDay2020 10: Want

I enjoy games that come with some baseline direction, whether that’s through the game itself (like, for instance, My Life With Master), or through buy-in during a Session 0 discussion with the group.

Back when I was DMing Pathfinder, the group I was running it for was very much for the murder-hobo style of play. What they wanted was to get XP to get to higher levels, so they could complete their build (which some of the people there had worked out from level 1 to 20 before even the first session), and they wanted gold to buy new equipment for their characters. Essentially, they just wanted to play Diablo 3 around a table. That was their basic want that drove both their characters and them as players.

For me, however, that led to less enjoyment of the game itself. The result of that is highly callous characters. The characters’ main motivations at that point are greed and a lust for power, which skews the characters’ actions towards a lack of concern for the world and the characters in it. As always, if that’s the game that everybody chooses to play together, then fine; however, that wasn’t necessarily the game I wanted to be playing.

For me, a central want is crucial for an interesting character. And for an interesting group, there should be a shared want. I’ve run a game for a group whose characters all wanted separate things, which meant that all their characters invariably ran off on their own to do their personal things. The game, however, was centered around preventing doom for the city they lived in by preventing a cult from completing their work. The result, however? The characters ended up in conflict with each other (the players were having a great time having their characters squabbling amongst each other, though!) and in the end they neglected the actual plot advancing. I’d set it up as an actual timer of certain key events, and well, the timer ran out!

Experiences like these taught me how important it is to have that Session 0 talk with a group. Everybody needs to be on board to play the same game, by which I mean theme, genre, goals, and plotline. My Life With Master, for instance, is great when it comes to that. You play a Minion who will be breaking free of the Master at the end of one (possibly two) sessions—great clarity. Together with the players, you make the Master, so that everybody understands what their threat is. The mechanic for the final resolution is also clear, because it’s directly determined by a set of statistics on the player’s character sheet. Does a player want their Minion to become the new Master at the end? Okay, lean into that! Do you want your player to have a good live? Sure, work towards it!

Understanding everybody’s wants—both players’ and characters’—gives you a much greater chance at enjoyment in your games.

#RPGaDay2020 9: Light

Ẁhoops! I forgot to post something yesterday. It’s a bit cheaty, but I’ll post today. In fact, I’ll respond to Fub’s post about rules-light systems, and piggy-back off of that. In that post, he takes a strong stance for rules-light systems:

In my opinion, lighter rules give a better experience because there’s more time left to create better fiction.

from https://ragas.nl/fublog

When it comes to this, Fub and I are very much in disagreement. When I played D&D, I was always frustrated by the Diplomacy skill: there is a skill that is supposed to govern diplomatic resolutions, but almost no explanation of how that works. So, the usual houserule people go for is to just act it out, and ignore the system. At that point, in my opinion, you don’t need to be playing the RPG, as you’re just storytelling together. Now, if that’s what you’re going for, then that’s good—enjoy your storytelling together, but don’t argue to me that you’re playing an RPG at that point. You may be roleplaying, but I wonder to what extent we can call it a game.

I’ve played some rules-light storytelling games such as Universalis and A Penny for My Thoughts, and they’re interesting experiences but I don’t see their rules-light approach as a solution to the problem I had with the Diplomacy skill in D&D. For instance, what if you have a player who wants to play a highly intelligent, socially fluent character, but they themselves lack those attributes? I couldn’t expect somebody who doesn’t know how to negotiate to roleplay a negotiation that is a satisfactory game experience. However, to me, RPGs should allow you to play and explore with things that are not necessarily available to you.

The solution to this problem is part of why I love Burning Wheel so much. It has modular resolution systems, that the GM can apply as a tool to focus on or gloss over conflicts to their choice. Let’s take an example of a martial conflict. If the conflict doesn’t matter, then just say the player character fights and defeats their opponent (essentially a rules-light or storytelling solution). Perhaps you want to know whether the fiction will twist in an interesting direction based on the conflict, but not make a big deal out of it? Just use an opposed role, and set consequences before hand—it’s basically just a random outcome generator. Want the conflict to be part of a larger system of wear and tear on the character? Make it a Bloody Versus: you do an opposed roll, and the outcome also results in some status changes for the character. Is this the large climactic fight between two people that you’ve been working towards all session? Out come the Fight! rules, with structured volleys and interactions, designed to mimic a Kurosawa movie samurai-showdown of clashes, separations, and moves. The moves available to characters lock together in an extended rock-paper-scissors style, encouraging players to vary up their moves, and resulting in a cinematic experience around the table.

In my opinion, to argue that removing rules improves all games is to suggest that rules are only a nagging bureaucracy that prevents you from actually playing the game. If you feel that the rules of a game are preventing you from enjoying yourself, in my opinion you’re just playing the wrong game. If you feel the rules aren’t supporting you and helping you have more fun—you’re playing the wrong game. If, however, the rules help shape your storytelling as a DM; if the rules help provide structure to the players; if the rules through restraint breed creativity, well, that’s when a game can really shine. Rules are tools, not obstacles.

#RPGaDay2020 8: Shade

I’ve always enjoyed images of darkness and light in RPGs (and stories in general): old mansions blanketed in shady light, a shady forest that is interspersed with golden shafts of light, or the ghost of an old king turned into a vengeful shade that needs to be brought into the light. Shade in particular is an interesting liminal space between darkness and light. It’s suggestive of a crack between our normal categories in life. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s writings, such as Neverwhere, or RPGs such as Don’t Rest Your Head. Works like these suggest that more mysterious worlds are just behind the crack in the door.

Don’t Rest Your Head is a game where you play somebody who’s been suffering from insomnia so long, that the normal veil of everyday life is lifting, and they’re slowly entering a mystical world that lies just beyond ours. A world where you pay for favors in memories and emotions, and where all the scary things you were afraid of as a child turn out to be real (all very Gaimanesque). Hence the shade: it’s not the darkness of all-out horror, nor the light of common, everyday life, but a shade: a thing that is a reflection of the real world painted in darkness.

Ever since reading Neverwhere and playing Don’t Rest Your Head, I’ve been interested in adding that aspect to my games as well. The world is just a normal world where there’s good and bad people, but go through the wrong door or turn the wrong corner, and you might run into the weirdness that leaves you unsettled.

#RPGaDay2020 7: Couple

RPG-a-Day 2020

My Burning Wheel game (that I should start back up—it was on pause due to illness, and then the move) is a game for two couples: me and Tracy, and two of our friends. Tracy doesn’t particularly enjoy RPGs, but she humors me because it is a fun activity that we can do together with our friends. I am lucky to have a relatively nerdy set of friends, so there’s quite a few couples that play RPGs together, which is usually a hoot. I find it a great way to spend time together without necessarily rehashing the same types of conversation every time you meet (“So, what have you two been up to lately?”).

Interestingly enough, as normal as romance in daily life, I have not often seen romance be a key component in my games. Neither as a thing between player characters, nor between a player character and an NPC. I wonder why we engage with that so little in our games.

I am reminded of an RPG I have heard about, but never actually played (despite it sounding interesting): Kagematsu. It’s a game set in 16th century Japan, in a small village in desparate need of a hero. Enter Kagematsu, the Ronin who may become the hero. Kagematsu must be played by a woman, and all the other players play townswomen who intend to seduce Kagematsu, so he will stay in town and help them. I have heard it gain great praise if Kagematsu is indeed played by a woman, and the townswomen all played by men. Apparently, it is often hilarious for the woman to see what the men believe is seductive, and for the male players it ends up being quite educational. It would be fun to play that someday!

#RPGaDay2020 6: Forest

RPG-a-Day 2020

The traditional dungeon is, as the name suggests, a dungeon: a brick-and-mortar thing, square in shape, and specifically separated from normal spaces. Those are the first dungeons I ran through in tabletop, and what my view of them was like. The first time I saw an organic dungeon—a malevolent forest that led everybody inside it astray–it blew my mind. It harked back to medieval European history, when the forest was indeed a place of danger, and that danger was just outside of the village.

After that, I learned about World of Darkness, where adventures were abstract flowcharts that just roughly described a set of cause-and-effect connections, each of which contained some conflicts. It offered a far more organic way to deal with adventures. Moreover, it brings along an interesting reminder: danger is not something that is separate from normal urban life, it’s right out there in the forest just outside of the village. The village is just that little bit of safety that we’ve carved out in the wilderness.