Friday, December 23, 2011

I have not seen the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Today, I'm going to continue a theme from my last post, Complaining About Media I Have Not Actually Experienced. Last time it was Mass Effect 3, a game I have not played, and this time it's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the Fincher version), a movie I have not seen.

In my defense, I'm really going to complain about the Swedish film based on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Fincher's movie reportedly resembles). I liked certain things about that movie, and was disappointed with it in other ways. Part of the reason I'm not thrilled for the new version is that I find it unlikely the Fincher film fixes the particular thing that bothered me most about its predecessor.

That thing, to come to the point, is the treatment of Mikael Blomkvist. Obviously the book was titled "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (in English, anyway), and Lisbeth Salander is the most iconic character. She's fascinating in her own right, and the Swedish film does, I thought, a pretty fair job with her. But to me, Blomkvist is vitally important in making the story - and the character of Salander - really sing. The original Swedish title, of the book and movie, translates as "Men who hate women." Mikael Blomkvist is our principal masculine beacon in the book's dark world, the one man in the story who just loves women. I mean that both snidely and seriously: yes, Blomkvist is a lover and a Casanova, but he also seems to just really like women as people. He has a soulmate in Erika Berger, a great friendship that transcends sex and even romance (and boy does that important and unusual connection get short shrift in the movie, but I get it, they can't do everything). He sees past Salander's brutal exterior and can't resist what he finds there - and he's willing to put forth the incredible gentleness and patience necessary to get even a little close to her. While he's comfortable dealing with men, none of his male relationships has anything like the same level of intimacy or intensity. The guy just really likes women.

Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomkvist - I know, right?
At the same time, there's a lot of ambiguity to him, because he can also be very selfish. He gets into an affair with Cecilia knowing full well that it will end with her getting hurt. He's upfront with her about what he can and can't be to her from the start, but it's still a serious failure of compassion. His sexuality morality is complex and imperfect, especially compared with his flawless professional ethics and journalistic devotion to justice and fairness.

Blomkvist in the novel is also important as Salander's ideal working partner. Their skills and temperments complement beautifully as they work the case together. They are equals, but they aren't the same, and they both need each other. Salander is a brilliant analyst, Blomkvist is a brilliant communicator. Salander is a woman of decisive action, Blomkvist is a man of patience and subtlety. Salander, with her varied skillset and ruthless outlook, makes things happen in the shadows; Blomkvist, with his raw charisma and straightforward reputation, shines in the spotlight. They work incredibly well together, and the respect that grows out of this working relationship is very important in building the difficult intimate relationship that's really the point of the whole exercise.

I found that the Swedish film seemed to abandon this beautiful balance. Blomkvist became a much more typical macho hero like you've seen in countless thrillers, emotionally distant, blandly moral, and somewhat plodding. Against this lesser foil, Salander becomes less a traumatized person working through terrible pain, and more a sort of magical girlfriend, capable of (and in fact, usually necessary to) solving all of Blomkvist's problems but not always available due to seemingly irrational hangups - almost a nastier, more violent "I Dream of Jeannie."

No scene captures the difference as much as Blomkvist and Salander's first meeting. This is an incredible sequence in the novel. Blomkvist has tracked down Salander, the hacker who secretly investigated him early in the story, and in doing so he realizes that she's very good and he could use her on his side. He shows up at her door early in the morning; she gets out of bed to answer his knock, and she's sullen and irritated. But Blomkvist barges in and merrily starts cleaning the kitchen, talking a mile a minute about how much he admires her work and could use her help. He offers her a bagel for breakfast. As it happens, this is exactly the right way to approach Salander; she's use to cruelty, selfishness and abuse, and she knows how to handle those things. She's caught utterly off guard - for the first time, in the reader's experience - by this bubbly ray of sunshine. She listens to him instead of kicking him out on his ass, and their awkward, halting, intense relationship is off with that first slightly lowered boundary.

In the Swedish film, Blomkvist shows up at Salander's door threatening her because her investigation was illegal. He uses this as leverage to get her to listen to him as he asks for her help on the case, and suggests that she owes him something. She  decides to help him. Frankly, it's a terribly out-of-character scene for Salander. The movie has very effectively demonstrated her big hang-up at this point: if you hurt Salander or threaten to hurt her, she has to hurt you worse. It's a kneejerk response, she really has very little choice, no matter how stupid hitting back is in the given circumstance. Blomkvist implying he could get her in legal trouble should have resulted in her inviting him inside so she could get a metal bat and strike him repeatedly in the head with it. Instead she's cowed by it, because, I guess, the plot has to keep moving. Later they have some sex.

I'm sure that Fincher's movie is a great thriller - the Swedish film certainly is. But by sacrificing Blomkvist on the altar of the Generic Male Hero Guy, the Swedish film lost a great foil for its famous protagonist and a lot of the book's most compelling thematic elements. I'm guessing that Fincher's movie still won't let me see that part of the story realized on screen, and that moves it out of "must see now" territory for me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ashley Williams

Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 both have a spot on my list of the top ten games of all time. In all honesty, they might both have a spot on my list of the top five games of all time. I love Mass Effect for the depth of its characterization and the consistency of its world-building; Mass Effect 2 falters a little on those axes, but makes up for it with incredible gameplay and epic cinematic payoff. One edge that the first game has over its sequel is much more screen time for one of my all time favorite video game characters: Ashley Williams.

I could yammer on for a while about how great Ashley is and how she keeps surprising you throughout the whole first game by quoting Tennyson or revealing a spiritual side or telling you an awesome story about her sister beat up her pushy boyfriend. I could tell you how emotional I found her appearance - however brief - in ME 2, and how awesome it was to find this today. That's probably not especially interesting, though, so let's talk about what people on the internet like to hear: something that makes me angry.

So in the first game, Ash is (I think) a pretty hot lady. Here she is talking to her favorite commander.

That's Ash in the Alliance Navy uniform she wears around the ship (she wears non-uniform high-tech armor on missions). I know you can't see the front especially well, but please note that a high-neckline, appropriate (as I believe) to a military uniform, is visible.

This is Ash's new look from ME3:

So a few things different here. She's got sexy new hair. You know what? Great. Seriously. Hair cuts are a great way to express that a character has changed. In ME1, Ash is a grunt, a low-ranked front-line soldier with (so she thinks) a career full of bad assignments ahead of her. She wears her hair in a severe (presumably regulation) bun. In ME3, we've been told a little about Ash and we can guess a bit more. She's an officer now, a lieutenant. Beyond that, she's a Spectre, meaning that she has the full backing of the Council, the most powerful political body in the galaxy, as their trusted agent. We know from ME2 that Ash is now a special forces veteran, and we can guess that she's a renowned hero for her role in ME1. A striking hairstyle is a great way to communicate the character's new role, how much prestige she's gained and how it might make her feel.

But why is she wearing her uniform like that? Is it a useful visual shorthand to communicate something about Ashley to the player, like the hair? Based on the little we know about the plot of ME3... No. It doesn't communicate confidence and prestige in the same way. In visual media, skin and breasts doesn't communicate "powerful professional woman" in the same way that great hair does. Sex and power can be connected, obviously, but as a professional soldier with political connections, that's a little outside of Ash's storytelling archetype.

Let's look at how one very powerful political woman in the real world chooses to present herself:

Hmm. Not so low-neckline. Actually she seems to be making an effort not to appear sexual - almost as if being sexualized might make it harder to take her seriously as a leader. Well, it's only one example.

Well, none of those women are in the military. Maybe female soldiers dress differently.

Wow, they actually look a lot like Ash in the first game.

Point is, Ash's uniform doesn't communicate prestige and authority, and it doesn't communicate professionalism or a military background either It doesn't seem to communicate anything useful about the character, really. The Ash we get to know in ME1 is a consummate professional who is entirely devoted to her career in the Alliance military. Her uniform is an important and empowering symbol to her, and frankly, I don't think she would choose to wear her uniform in a non-regulation way. Especially not a sexy non-regulation way, as her military service is intimately bound up with her late beloved father in her mind. Basically, in this setting, on this woman, that outfit doesn't make any sense.

So, why is she wearing her uniform that way? I put the question the Casey Hudson, lead designer of Mass Effect 3, on twitter today. I have a lot of respect for Casey. He's incredible at making games - literally world class - and from everything I've heard him say he seems like a very cool, intelligent guy. That may help to explain why I went out of my way to avoid being antagonistic in the below tweets:

I don't expect Casey to respond, for a few reasons. One is that he is very visible and I am not, and why would he draw attention to a critical question that nobody else will ever see? I don't mean that cynically; his job is to make ME3 successful, and he's very good at his job, and that probably precludes publicly answering me.

The other reason is that it's a rhetorical question, and he knows that as well as I do. Because on some level  we know the answer, don't we? Somebody somewhere who had some kind of say in the art direction of ME3 thought one of two things:

  • Ash would totally be hotter if I could almost see her tits.
  • This game will sell more copies if men on the internet see a character with prominent breasts and a sexy costume in the screenshots.
I really can't think of anything else that makes sense. Certainly not one that could be fully explained in 140 characters over twitter. So ultimately, why ask the question?

Because I believe that thoughtful people know how lame any answer that avoids those two bullet points will sound, and that even if they can't or won't admit it, they get a little uncomfortable pondering the issue. And maybe that will, over time, lead people to avoid having to ponder the issue, by not sexualizing fictional women when sexualizing them is not in the interest of the story or the character. And maybe some day I can not have to feel a little embarrassed on behalf of my favorite games and characters, knowing that everybody knows how crass the decision-making on some of the small details about them really was.

Let me close by noting that I know I'm being very nitpicky and going after small details. I'm doing that because I like to lay my argument out there and try to unpack all of the baggage in it as much as possible. Furthermore, let me add that Bioware is a great developer, and while they are not without their sins in continuing the tradition of sexism in video game culture, they also have put forward a huge number of excellent female characters and woman-friendly games. It's honestly because I count them among the good guys that I'm thinking about this so much - because I think they can do even better, which is not something I believe about every company that makes games. I love Mass Effect, I'm totally excited for Mass Effect 3, and I look forward to kicking a whole lot of reaper butt with Ash backing me up.

I just wish I wouldn't have to think about all the sexist baggage attached to this particular costume while I'm doing it..

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I used to wonder what friendship could be!

Alright, let's deal with it out in the open. I sure enjoy me some My Little Ponies: Friendship Is Magic. It's no Avatar: The Last Airbender, sure, but it's a bright, sweet, hopeful show with a varied cast of likeable female protagonists. I like the characters, the dumb jokes, the cute songs, and even the pleasant ritual of writing a letter to Celestia - i.e. delivering a moral - at the end of every episode.

The morals are the thing I want to talk about just at the moment. So morals at the end of the episode are the worst thing in Western animation, amirite? You know how every story is going to end a few minutes after it starts because the lesson is always obvious from the premise. Worse, moral lessons can be the death of humor and of human truth. Worst of all is what TV Tropes calls a "broken aesop," a moral that doesn't actually follow from the story you've just told - all too common, in my experience.

What MLP:FIM does very well is build the lesson into the story, and support it through out. Actually, sometimes the lesson is there, but the end-of-episode letter to Celestia misses it, or at least doesn't capture everything that happened in the episode. That's part of the genius, though: sometimes the real lesson is built into the very premise of the episode. In "Winter Wrap Up," for instance, the stated lesson is "Everypony has hidden talents." To me, though, that's hardly the main thing the episode teaches. The big lesson is right there in the musical number at the very start of the episode, before the characters have started learning anything.

It's all there. "Winter Wrap Up" is one of the most heartfelt odes to work I personally have ever seen. Every pony has a job, something they do, that they excel at; every job is valuable, and every pony is proud of, even excited about, their job. Rainbow Dash loves to see the sun's "warmth and beauty... glow" after she chases all the clouds out of the sky. Fluttershy takes great satisfaction in waking up the animals "so quietly and nice." Applejack's pride in feeding the whole town is palpable. Twilight Sparkle desperately wants in on this work. "What does everypony do?" she asks pleadingly, earnestly pledging to "help with all of my heart" and to "do my best today." And yes, then there's a plot about her finding her unique skill that lets her make a really great contribution, but to me, the central lesson has already been taught: work is good. Work helps people, and doing good work feels good, and doing the right work for you makes you the person you want to be. That's the real lesson of the episode, and I think it's one we could all stand to take to heart, honestly.

I don't mean to give the impression that the show is a never-ending font of enduring wisdom. Some of the episodes and lessons are silly, or simple, typical children's tv fare. The episode where they realize they all saw the same rainbow (actually a rainboom, don't ask) as children is cute and all, but "Friends share a special connection, sometimes even before they meet" is more sentimental BS than a real lesson to carry close to your heart. My favorite episodes, though, are the ones where I think the show is going to veer off into that most horrible of sins, a broken aesop, and then surprises me by really committing to their lesson. Take a recent episode, "The Mysterious Mare Do Well."

In this episode, hot-blooded pegasus Rainbow Dash, widely regarded as the most awesome of the Mane Cast, makes a habit of using her incredible flying skills to help other ponies in Ponyville. After a few dramatic feats, she notices that she's getting cheers and a big fan club, and it goes to her head. She starts milking it, showing off and leading her own cheers. Her friends start to get frustrated with her showboating.

Enter Mare Do Well, a mysterious masked superhero who seems to come out of nowhere and manages to outdo Rainbow Dash in a few successive crises. Mare Do Well seems to be stronger, faster; she can fly just as well, and do unicorn magic on top of all of it. The town's adulation shifts to Mare Do Well, and Rainbow Dash makes it worse with her grandstanding for attention, which the other ponies find more and more annoying.

Mare Do Well's identity is, of course, a complete non-mystery, especially as she starts revealing more and more different skills: all of Rainbow Dash's friends are wearing the mask at different times, solving problems perfectly suited to their own particular skills. I started to doubt the episode at this point, for two reasons. First, Rainbow Dash is a really cool, strong character, and I hate to see her take it on the chin over and over. Second, I was dreading the inevitable reveal, where her friends take off their masks and totally humiliate Rainbow Dash in the name of "helping her learn," i.e. cutting her down to size.

I should have had more faith. There is a scene where the ponies gently hint to Rainbow that maybe there's something she can learn from Mare Do Well's anonymous heroism, but it's not carried too far. In the end, Rainbow learns their identities because she chases down Pinkie Pie and tears off her mask, not because the other ponies reveal themselves to teach her a lesson. Once she realizes that they are her rival, her friends do share a lesson with her, eventually summed up as "It's great to be good at something, but it's important to act with grace and humility." The difference is in motivation.

See, the ponies didn't plan for Rainbow Dash to learn who they were so that she'd learn she wasn't better than them; their only plan was to set a good example for her to follow, and to do some anonymous good deeds in the process. They get excited about their own personal contributions to the plan, but without asking for praise. As they explain their motivations to her, they affirm three separate times that she should be proud of her abilities ("Of course we want you to be a hero!" "It's natural to celebrate your accomplishments," and "It's great to be really good at something,"). They just wanted her to realize, from Mare Do Well's example, that she had gone a little bit overboard with her own hype. It's not a complicated lesson, but the sincerity with which it's delivered, with no meanness of judgement on any of the characters' part, really sells it in a way that I think is pretty unique to this iteration of My Little Ponies.

For the record: the pony I admire the most is Applejack, and the pony I find the most entertaining is Rarity, but my favorite pony is definitely Fluttershy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cross Posting Fun

My friend Alexa posted an article about a Comic-Con panel here, responding (as I believe) to this article here. This is my response to her, posted on the comments on her post.

Hey Alexa,

I wasn't at the panel so I don't necessarily feel able to comment on the appropriateness (or not) of Jacques-BellĂȘtete's comments or drawing, but I know you're in part responding to the article on this panel on Kotaku which detected an undercurrent of sexism in what he said and what he drew, so if some of my points seem a little out of left field it's because I'm responding in that context.

I agree that idealized and exaggerated characters aren't unique to games, and I certainly agree that looking at beautiful people is one of the wonderful draws of visual media like video games or film and television. That said, I think you're drawing a bit of a false dichotomy here; I don't think the issue is really, "to show breasts or not." The issue is that there's a tendency in video games, which Jacques-BellĂȘtete seems to be following, to always sexualize female characters and not male characters.

When I say sexualize I don't just mean "make a character sexy as opposed to not sexy," as there clearly are sexy male characters. The issue is in how a character's sex appeal is presented to the player. Take your example of Commander (John) Shepard as a sexy male character. Fair enough. But Shepard is sexy without us ever getting an ass shot, or a crotch shot, or a close-up of his mostly naked chest. Actually, that's one of the things that makes Commander (Jane) Shepard so incredibly cool: she has all the same camera angles and animations as Broshep, so none of them are designed to show off her tits or ass. How often do you see that, a female action hero who's ass is never emphasized once? Now turn it around: how often do you see a male action hero who's ass is at any point emphasized?

The issue I see isn't "Why do you draw women looking so hot?" Nobody has a problem with that. The issue I see is, "Why do you only draw women looking hot while you draw men doing tons of other stuff too?" All too often the main criteria for female character design - in video games and in other media - is "Is she beautiful? Do I want to sleep with her?" Whereas the main criteria for male character design is "Does this design express what's important about the character?"

Monday, September 12, 2011

Foolish Villains

I've been watching early X-Files episodes after having been put in an alien frame of mind by Incident At Owl Lake. They're pretty good. The writing is taut, and the performances - especially Gillian Andersen, who, by the way, I must admit is much hotter than I realized when I was seven - do a good job of completing the fairly sketchy characters.

I just watched the episode "E.B.E.," where Mulder and Scully track a truck they think the conspiracy is using to ship alien technology. There's a scene in the beginning where the truck driver is being held by local law enforcement. They think they have him right where they want him, but then the sheriff walks in, releases the prisoner, and basically chases them off. He (the sheriff) is terrified of something and desperate for them to leave; as Mulder remarks in the next scene, "someone got to him." I.e., the conspiracy came and threatened him in some awful way - we'll kill your family, you'll lose your job, we'll release these incriminating photos, whatever - and coerced him into releasing the truck driver and being discourteous to our heroes.

Ok, think about it for a second: what kind of way is that to run a conspiracy?

We're talking about a sheriff. He's probably a democratically-elected, meaning he's a prominent man in his community, good reputation, knows lots of people. He has powers of arrest and investigation, more than a passing familiarity with the law, experience investigating crimes. He's been trained to fire a gun and probably has some slight expertise with hand-to-hand fighting as well. He has a staff that is probably, unless he's a notably bad boss, pretty loyal. All in all, while he may be tiddlywinks in the global scheme of things, he's not somebody you want to mess with on his own turf. Is it really worth picking a fight with him, if you're a conspiracy that operates under conditions of absolute secrecy?

Yes, absolutely, with sufficient resources you could bring this man down. You could blackmail his staff, smear him in the press, bring down official trouble from some oversight committee, whatever. I'm sure these are things that the global conspiracy is capable of. But really, is it worth anybody's time? Do they want to pay some highly skilled individual a hefty sum to do all of this delicate work (which must all be done, remember, in such a way that it's impossible to prove that somebody set out to do it)? It just doesn't seem like a good use of resources, even given relatively vast resources.

Besides which, if you threaten the sheriff, haven't you already blown it? Best case scenario, he folds, your truck full of alien technology moves on, Mulder and Scully are frustrated, great. But now the sheriff knows there's some kind of conspiracy. You just turned a skeptic into the believer. He doesn't know the details, he doesn't know what was in a truck, but he knows, and he believes. He now distrusts all of the organs of control you're trying to rule the world with - the military, the government, etc., - and to one degree or another, he's going to pass that on to the people around him.

So what an incompetent conspiracy! They don't know how to go about their business! What were they thinking?

Well, the thing is, that apparent incompetence does two things: it drives the plot, obviously, but it also informs the world. Because this is a world where this is a big conspiracy and Scully and Mulder have a chance of finding out about it.

This is a subtle point about the Masquerade. I'm used to media that take the inviolability of the Masquerade for granted, like Vampire. This becomes a bit of a joke in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in fact, the idea that no matter what insane thing happens the general populace bumbles around and either fails to notice or makes up lame excuses (my favorite moment of this is in the first episode, when Cordelia says about a horde of attacking vampires, "they were an ugly way of looking. And Buffy, like, knew them!") But in the X Files, the masquerade is not inviolable. There's a conspiracy, and they're creepy and they have vast resources, but they screw up, and Scully and Mulder could expose them.

Basically, in the X Files, the Masquerade is an antagonist, rather than an aspect of the setting - and as antagonists, they desperately to be fallible. They need to do dumb stuff like pressure the sheriff. As a setting element, the masquerade should be absolute, because it allows the story to function, but as a "character," not so much.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Yes and No in RPGs

When we were still young in the ways of Lady Blackbird, a good friend of mine decided to use its remarkable and flexible system to run a genre dear to his heart: cyberpunk. He crafted characters with interlocking keys and traits to form a lean, mean heist team, came up with a starting scenario, and we gleeful players set forth to take the world by storm. I played Zero Cool, resident netrunner and annoying kid criminal extraordinaire. We played this game for a few sessions and definitely had some good times, but the game eventually trailed off, and we haven't come back to it since.

The game didn't work for a few reasons - one of which was that we were trying to play with more people than usual, always a tricky adjustment - but the one I want to discuss today  is about system and genre. Cyberpunk stories are about a grossly unfair world, in which the haves dictate to the have-nots by dint of technology, capital and brute force, and criminality is the last best hope of freedom. It's about a society, in short, which says No at every turn. In contrast, Lady Blackbird is a system which jubilantly cries Yes! Yes!

A simple example from play: one of our characters was an artificial being equipped with an unspecified number of gadgets and attachments. At one point, we had caused a stampede in a crowded dance club. Most of us flowed with the crowd; the artificial being had drawn a lot of attention and needed a quicker exit, so his player triumphantly declared that he fired his onboard rockets and escaped up into the air. The players laughed at the audacity of the world-building and cheered at the sheer style of the exit; our GM, though, hesitated. The advice Lady Blackbird gives for GMs is to say yes or roll the dice. Personal rockets just weren't part of his conception of the universe, though. Cyberpunk can fall anywhere on a broad spectrum, and his concept was of a gritty universe without any of the trappings of far-flung SF. The player had found something that he couldn't say Yes to; it was an awkward moment of conflict that took several minutes for us to resolve and put a damper on the whole session.

LB wasn't the right system for the story we were trying to tell. The story was too much about the characters being told No, and finding a way around it, but the whole time the rules were telling us Yes, telling us we could try this or that and it would work - and when that spirit collided with the fiction, it wasn't a pretty picture.

Today some members of my group were discussing the idea of "vanity projects" for each of us, games that would let each play the perfect character for us. It started as a joke but it quickly produced some interesting ideas (I now eagerly await a noir game in which I'll get to play the femme fatale). One of the things that got the ball rolling was one player wishing she could play a pony, and it occurred to me that LB might be perfect for a Friendship Is Magic roleplay. You have keys to model the virtues, faults and relationships so essential to the show (yes I've watched it),  and secrets for the ponies' magic abilities. Most of all, the tags and traits system is perfect for telling the players Yes just as the show says Yes to its characters. Yes, you can kick clouds out of the way! Yes, you know a spell to find gemstones! Yes, you can scold that dragon into behaving! The one problem I'm having is building in the one big No you'd need - a way to stop violence from ever coming up as a solution. The ponies do sometimes resort to violence, but in the world of the show it never solves things in a lasting way.

Conversely, I've seen attempts to model ponies in terms of say, Dungeons and Dragons. That seems like a project that's doomed to failure, because even if you model all of the things happen in the show and convince the players that their objective is not to kill goblins to get treasure, the system is still telling them No at every point - No, your Kick Clouds extraordinary ability doesn't let you ride on lightning, No, you don't have a "Travel to the moon" spell in your spellbook, No, your Diplomacy roll was too low to make friends with the roc.

So No systems - Dungeons and Dragons, say, or (one that's been on my mind lately) Fudge, aren't great for every story - but they're perfect for a project like my friend's cyberpunk game. If we'd been playing Fudge, he'd have been able to say, "Where's the rocket on your character sheet?" and that would have been the end of it, and everyone would have been happy. He'd have been secure knowing that he could create the universe he'd envisioned, and we would have gone back to our heist-planning and chaos-creation driven in the knowledge that we were bringing down the kind of society that prevented robots from having personal rockets.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is really pretty sweet.

I could talk about Deus Ex: Human Revolution forever and a day - that's one reason you haven't seen a lot of updates recently, in fact. Maybe I should channel some of that here.

For the moment let's leave aside the story and theme; why not? I'll tell you all about who I think the most dangerous person at Sarif Industries is (hint: not visibly augmented) at a later date. I'll just say that I created a conspiracy flow chart for this game, and I can connect elements of the US government to both sides of the augmentation conflict. So there.

Let's have a few words about gameplay experience. Bioware makes all my favorite video games, and while they've made some serious strides with, say, Mass Effect 2, historically they are not known for games with what we call excellent gameplay, but games with excellent narrative and characterization. That's what I love about them. None of my favorite ME memories are about "Oh, that fight with such and such." Not that there aren't great fights, especially in the second game! Garrus' recruitment mission comes to mind. But on some level, the fights for me are always something you have to do to get to the next conversation or twist in the narrative. There's a moment in Mass Effect where (SPOILER ALERT!) you have to choose which of two major characters will die. That is probably my all-time favorite moment in gaming. I was floored, I couldn't handle it. I think I may have dropped the controller. Not that you don't get sadistic choice moments in other games, but I had never gotten one with characters I was so invested in. Neither (SPOILER ALERT!) Kaidan or Ashley is a red shirt given a line about their sweetheart back home so you get some emotional payoff when you avenge them; these are serious, mature, likeable people who have been given literally hours of characterization.

Those are the moments I live for. I may dig that new gun, but ultimately what I want is story content, characters experiencing drama and letting me experience comedy.

Human Revolution is turning that somewhat on its ear. I love the story, don't get me wrong, and I could probably spend ten minutes telling you my thoughts on Tai Yung Medical and Picus News (there's a but there, and it's reflected in the fact that I just mentioned two factions rather than two characters, but that's another tangent), The gameplay, though, is for once really making the experience. I think the first story I told my girlfriend about the game - she loves Mass Effect 2 and both Dragon Ages, but doesn't play many other games - was how I used some crates to build a platform I could use to jump across a courtyard - and there was something on the other side. This game rewards innovation and exploration at every turn, and not in that annoying, spend-fifty-hours-of-your-life-looking-up-the-location-of-every-secret-item-in-an-FAQ way - if you poke into a dark corner, there's probably something cool there for you. At the very least, they'll toss some experience your way, and sometimes you find a new path that lets you complete an objective in a completely different way.

You should play Deus Ex.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Incident At Owl Lake with Andre Kruppa

I attended the Open Gaming Convention, OGC, up in Nashua, New Hampshire this weekend. I learned a lot from the experience, trying out different games, seeing players with a variety of styles, and getting to play with skilled, experienced GMs. I played two games with variants of the Fudge system, and enjoyed both of them, and I'll definitely be checking Fudge out in the future.

As I said, there's a lot to think about, but the main thing I want to get down right away is a little bit about the last game that I played at OGC, "Incident At Owl Lake," run by one Andre Kruppa (check out his website at This was a horror game using Fudge. It had many virtues; one of them was - I don't want to use the loaded term 'immersion', so instead I'll say - engagement. The game was extremely engaging from start to finish. It created an atmosphere like no game I've ever seen. Andre used any number of tricks to achieve that effect, but I want to mention the two big ones: presentation and... let's say refrain.

  • Presentaion
    This game had more technical effects than some plays I've been in.  Unlike every other game at OGC, we played in a smaller private room instead of the hotel's ballroom. There were no other games going on, no random bystanders strolling by and looking over our shoulders, no random chatter floating through the room. In fact, the lights in the room were off; we saw by the theatrical lighting Andre had installed, or, when that was off in dark scenes, by the flashlights he'd laid out on the table.Yes, the lights would go out when our characters were in the dark; they'd take on a reddish glow when we were by the campfire; at other times, they'd turn a bright white or a cool green, as appropriate to our increasingly freaky situation. One of the simplest and coolest things Andre did with the lights was a quick bright flash whenever a gun was fired.

    There was also sound, beginning with some period music as Andre explained the rules and we chose characters. The whole game was punctuated by great ambient music cued up by Andre on the fly as appropriate to the scene. I swear, some sequences he must have timed out, because he would get to the big climax of a piece of description just at the moment the music swelled...

    The theatrical lighting and the elaborate, well-chosen sound were the biggest items under presentation, but there were other factors as well; every player was equipped with a number of play aids including writing paper, setting information and laminated cards for tracking health and to help adjudicate rolls. There was water and candy available on the table. Even the use of the quick, intuitive Fudge system enhanced the presentation; from the system on up, everything was laid out for us so that we could focus on the game and Andre's great effects, instead of worrying about taking notes or going foraging for water.

    Andre himself completed the presentation, in a lot of little ways. He was always serious and attentive and always, always kept the game moving. There were a lot of little touches that added to the feeling in the air, but perhaps the most important was his request at the beginning that we stay in character and refrain from asides. That little request was unique at OGC for me and it made all the difference.
  • RepetitionThis game made use of long blocks of prepared text. This made me wary at first; when it became clear that certain blocks were going to be repeated over and over again - they related to characters' internal experience upon seeing something unnatural for the first time - I got warier. I guess I've come to associate prepared text with laziness, with wooden readings of bland committee-written description. I didn't need to worry in this case; the writing was evocative, the reading smooth and spirited. The repetition - even of quite lengthy bits of text - far from getting boring actually became one of my favorite bits, a defining aspect of the game. Part of the point was the eerie similarity between each characters' experience and memory. By chance, my character was the last one to experience anything that triggered one of these blocks of text, and when the time came I was excited for it, even thought I'd heard the same long description read out twice before. It felt like an initiation, and I wanted badly to become an initiate. Andre read the text for my character with the same energy as he'd read it before - he even threw in a quick modification that applied specifically to my character.

    The repetition, combined with the excellent presentation, gave the whole game a solemn, significant, ritual feel that I found engrossing.
I don't know quite how to describe the effect of the presentation and repetition on me and on the play experience. I'm tempted to use words like "transported" or "ecstatic" to signify being brought outside myself, but that's not quite right. It was still decidedly a problem-solving exercise, which meant I was thinking about the game and studying my character sheet the entire time. Other people even moreso; I'd say to majority of the players spent most of their time in "pawn stance," role-playing a few quick asides or one-liners while mostly staying laser-focused on getting through our objectives. I was personally moving back and forth between pawn, author and actor throughout the session. Melissa, the one person I knew at the table, is an actor stance kind of gal and the two of us had a number of what felt like dramatic asides in the middle of the action-adventure-horror plotline.

"Focused" is a word you could apply to the whole game, which was another part of why it was so successful. I'm a huge fan of in-character cross-talk: while the gamemaster is running a scene with Cyrus Vance interrogating a prisoner, Naomi and Kale's players are quietly role-playing a scene together - the conversation Naomi and Kale are having outside the interrogation room, say. It's a way to stay engaged while your character isn't acting and too explore the characters more, always a priority in my group. In "Incident," that didn't happen. I tried once, and the player I was trying to engage politely shushed me with a nod to Andre. He was quite right; this game followed the GM's attention like a film camera. Whatever Andre was paying attention to was what took over our shared imaginative space, completely. That meant there were long stretches where I had nothing to do, which is never ideal for me as a player, but on the whole I didn't mind, because what was going on elsewhere was always fascinating. I'm not sure exactly why it worked so well. I guess it was probably part of maintaining the "ritual" feel; community is part of ritual, I suppose, so being creatively together at all times may be important. It also kept Andre in tight control of the game world, which was a necessary aspect of the experience, for sure.

 One bit of oddness was that there were a few in-character reasons to keep the party split up, but no reward for doing so. Nothing very interesting ever happened to people who stayed behind. The most problematic section of the game for me came when we (foolishly, of course) split the party in the second half. Three of us invaded a mysterious, dangerous place while the rest of us waited outside. The male characters were trying to protect the female characters, from the horrors of this place (very in character, as the game took place in the 50s), and my doctor wanted to stay with an afflicted patient. This left those of us left behind with nothing to do while a lengthy combat ensued - made especially painful because it quickly became clear we should never have split the party, and the lads were being taken apart, but we had no in-character knowledge of it. Admittedly, though, "don't split the party" is such a basic notion I guess that we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple part 2: Pilgrims Get In Trouble!

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Even though I'm discussing the ways it didn't work for my group here, I still love the game and recommend you check it out!

So, like I said, I love Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, But, when my group tried it out the response from the other players - there's no GM in Do, so I can't say "my" players - was only so-so. They didn't dislike it, they seemed to have some fun, but I could tell they weren't 100% invested as we were playing, and at the end of the first letter when I hopefully asked if they wanted to do another there was an awkward silence, and then we watched a movie. So, beautiful game, I had fun... what went wrong here?

First is expectations. I spent some time describing this game to everyone before we played, but I don't think I got across quite what it is, and it's very different from what we've done in the past. One player later said to me that she thought the reason it wasn't a huge success was that everyone expected a role-playing game, and Do isn't a role-playing game. Now, I don't know what Daniel Solis would say about that. In the introduction, Do calls itself a "storytelling game," which I think is an answer to the question that means something in the context of GNS theory, but doesn't mean anything to me.  I'm inclined to think that it is a role-playing game, but didn't meet everyone's expectations for what playing a role-playing game is like.

In the past we've played Vampire and Lady Blackbird, games with very fluid procedures. Everyone at the table can speak at any time, or have their character attempt an action at any time. In practice there's a bottleneck in the form of a GM, so procedures are created on the fly: "Ok, so Little gets the better of the intruder in the club. Now, what is Cal doing outside?" is basically the same as saying "Little's turn is over, now it's Cal's turn," but it's a procedure created specially for the current situation and discarded as soon as, say, Cal joins Little in the club. In Vampire, things get more concrete during combat, but we're honestly fudging even that quite a bit by using one contested roll to model combat, etc. Do has very strict procedures - it's my turn now, and not yours, and because it's my turn I do specific things and you do other things.

This strict procedure does two things: it lets you play without having a GM to play traffic cop (about which more below) and it creates a certain kind of narrative output. When we played Lady Blackbird, narrative output for a scene was anything I said to the players and anything they said to me, and also the two in-character side conversation other players were having, and the one-liner a character threw in "in passing" as the player went to get another beer from the fridge. The output was a lot more dense than, say, a film, where one thing is happening at any given moment. In Do, narrative output is one, maybe two sentences per turn, and each sentence has one of two topics: how the pilgrims helps or how the pilgrim gets in trouble. Output is very spare, much less dense than film, like calligraphy or a Dr. Seuss book (I hope these analogies to other mediums are making some kind of sense). I think I see a lot of good reasons for the enforcement of that low output: besides being an interesting gameplay constraint on its own, it's thematically consistent with Do's inspirations (i.e. Buddhism, or children's literature). But I think my players, used to going crazy and fleshing out a world in a great many words, may have felt stifled.

The other big thing, of course, is the lack of a GM. I know for a fact that a hell of a lot of ink has been spilled on the role of a GM in play, and I don't necessarily want to get into that now. Right or wrong, though, I'm not necessarily a minimalist GM. "Lazy," or whatever, perhaps, but not minimalist. The way play has organically worked itself out in for my group could be termed as "player roles, GM describes." Naomi's player says she's trying to kill Lord Mandrake, Snargle's player says he's trying to stop her, they both roll and then I (the GM) say what happens based on who rolls better. I know that's considered strange in some circles, and I know in other circles it would beconsidered strange that there's an alternative to that, so whatever. My point is, I take a lot of responsibility for authorial control, for saying, "Here's what you should be imagining" at the table. Then, for Do, I turned around and said, "Do players are ruled by their play procedures, not their game masters! Be free and play!" And I've heard from at least one player that they didn't like that, that they wanted to be a persona in the world and definitely NOT take responsibility for the world at large.1

So, to wrap it up: Do is awesome. Maybe it's not for every group, and maybe it's not for my group, because maybe some groups (my group) need things like fluid play procedure and a strong GM. People are different from each other sometimes? Wow! Don't say you didn't learn anything today.

In any event, I haven't decided decisively that Do won't work for my group; nobody wanted to press on to a second letter the first night we played, but everyone was game for trying again with a better understanding of what they were getting into. If we do, I'll let you know.

1. I take this as vindication of my identification of my players as mostly simulationists. Except for th one narrativist. Any guesses who unexpectedly shot a major NPC in our Lady Blackbird game?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

I've decided to split this post about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple in two, because it's getting too damn long. First (here) I'm going to tell you a little about the game, why I was drawn to it and why I like it and what happened in our first session. Then in another post, I'm going to get into some details about why I'm not sure it's the right game for my group.That's going to get kind of theoretical. I may get in-depth about "procedure."

So scheduling for our ongoing Vampire game has proven utterly impossible this last month for my group. Between vacations, work, and other activities (one of us is in a play, another is in a barbershop chorus, etc., etc., etc.) there's literally not a single day all of us are free through - I think we've determined at this point - August 14 (and we haven't met since something like the first week of July). I have a wandering eye where games are concerned, however, and it tells me that this is not a problem but an opportunity, a chance to meet in the interim with whoever is available and try out any game or setting that meets my fancy. Last Friday, that meant Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

I'm a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon, not the movie, as devotees now must constantly point out), so Do - a storytelling game about superpowered adolescent adventurers helping people and getting in trouble in a whacky multiverse where anything is possible - was an enticing option. The rulebook itself is a thing of beauty, and I say this as somebody who owns it as a .pdf. The art, the layout and design, the in-universe letters that provide Pilgrims with their adventures, these are lovely things that make you want to play the game. The rules have a certain beauty to them as well, if that makes any sense. Two of them are "Pilgrims Fly Away" and "Pilgrims Grow Up," and these (with a little more explanation) are fundamental to how the game is played! I mean, I ask you.

The basic mechanic is this. Each pilgrim has a way that they help and a way that they get in trouble. My pilgrim, Yellow Clock, helped by being organized and got in trouble by being too cheerful. Each individual "session" of Do is based on a letter the pilgrims have which is a request for help from somebody in the wide, whacky multiverse they live in. The letter we attempted, one of the silliest and simplest, was about a tiny world that had been swallowed by a whale. The letter explains the situation in narrative terms, and also provides goal words for the pilgrims.

The players take turns. When it's my turn, I am the storyteller, and I can write a sentence about how my pilgrim helps someone (anyone - myself, another pilgrim, the letter-writer, someone else on the letter-writer's world, whomever, as long as my action makes the situation better). However, the way that I help has to be my way of helping. Then the other players, who on my turn are called the troublemakers, write a sentence about how my pilgrim gets into trouble, based on the way that I've said my pilgrim gets in trouble. In each sentence - mine and the troublemakers - you can use a goal word from the letter. At the end of the game, if you've used all the goal words, you get a "parade ending" - the problem is solved and the pilgrims go merrily off on to the next world. Otherwise, they get a "pitchforks ending" and are chased off in ignominy.

So example time: Yellow Clock, on my first turn, helped Melanie, the little girl living on the little planet inside the whale, get her house ready for the journey out of the whale. But, the troublemakers decided, my cheerful presence put her in such a good mood that she went off to play, and I ended up following her around picking up after her. Silly, yes, but sweet, I think, which is what I was looking for from Do. Some of the letters are a good deal less silly, though some whackiness will probably come in to any letter as the pilgrims stretch to make their ways of helping relevant to different situations.

Now there's a good deal more to the game: it's randomized so that not every turn is the same - sometimes you help but don't get in trouble, sometimes you get in trouble but can't help. And once you're in trouble, you can only help yourself, and you can't use a goal word when you help. And so on, there are a few wrinkles, and some fun stuff to do at the end of every letter as well. But that's the core: write a sentence to help, write a sentence about trouble, use goal words.The neat thing that takes a moment to realize is that the goal word mechanic actually enforces narrative structure. In my first turn, there's no reason I can't write a sentence that solves the letter-writer's main problem and end it, "...and they all lived happily ever after." But now everybody's going to have to write some weird, awkward sentences to hit all of the other goal words.

So, all of that I love. I find it delightful. And I loved it in play, as well. Like I said, silly, but sweet, which is just what I wanted.

I'll close with a brief "transcript" of our game.

First, our characters were:
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf
The exact nature of their "trouble" and "help" is left for the reader to determine. Remember, their objective was to free a young girl named Melanie whose world had been swallowed by a whale.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge convinces the whale to open his mouth by explaining that it has mistakenly swallowed a small planet.
  • The whale is so alarmed by Burly Bridge's forceful explanation that it throws its mouth open and swallows him!
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock flies through the whale's blowhole to help Melanie get organized for leaving the whale
  • But he puts her in such a good mood that Melanie can't focus, and he winds up following her around cleaning up after her.
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg feeds cookies to the whale - but to a whale, that's a dire insult!
  • Pilgrim Slouch Egg is so interested to learn of whale society that she placates the whale with her rapt attention and concerned questions.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well builds a pulley system to fix everyone's problems, but the reciprocal force pushes him into the trees and he gets tangled up.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well sees Melanie's cat in the trees and gives him a treat, and the cat repays him by clawing at the ropes and freeing him.
  • Pilgrims Whistling Wolf dons snorkeling gear and uses echo echo location to find and rescue Burly Bridge from the digestive tract of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf notices someone else the whale ate - another Pilgrim in the digestive tract who needs saving!
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge harnesses the cat to the planet and convinces it to pull the planet out of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock develops an incredible child-care itinerary that keeps Melanie happily occupied. 
  • But Yellow Clock makes the whale so happy that it begins to sing, shaking the house so much that Yellow Clock must dive into a door frame to steady himself and the house. 
At that point, we'd used all the goal words and earned a "parades" ending. Here's our epilogue:

  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg's conversation with the whale ends with the whale deciding to return to the whale homeland (plus she learns all about whales and gets all Melanie's cookies!).
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well spends the remainder of his time in the whale playing with Melanie's cat, and learning the value of small things like string.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf finds herself extremely lost in the digestive tract of the whale with the other pilgrim, where she stays until the whale hiccups them up - but she happily fell in love with her new companion and now boyfriend under the stars of the whale's belly.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge spent a few days impressing Melanie with his feats of strength, eventually leading him to knock down a wall in her house which he had to repair. 
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock made a complete schedule of educational, healthy, and fun activities for Melanie, so she'll have plenty to do once the Pilgrim's leave.
Next time, some caveats about my particular group's experience with this very cool game.

Monday, July 25, 2011

I'm re-reading The Hobbit.

I had some time to kill the other day and I had left my novel (Soul Music by Terry Pratchett, if you must know) at home, so I borrowed my friend's copy of the Two Towers to read for a half hour or so. Now, I haven't read the Lord of the Rings since I was a teenager. I flipped to one of my favorite passages - the arrival of Aragorn, with Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf - in Edoras, and Gandalf's confrontation with Grima Wormtongue. It' a great section and it reminded me that Tolkien is actually a wonderful writer as well as a great storyteller. The thing that impressed me the most, though, was the treatment of objects.
By Soni Alcorn-Hender and not from the film.

I've always been interested in the portrayal of physical objects in writing, though I'm not sure I could easily explain why. I think it must have something to do with showing rather than telling: objects are important to people in all sorts of ways, so a good author can use them to establish some cool things about a character in an indirect way 1. I had forgotten how good Tolkien is at investing his world with meaning through the objects in it. The exact passage I picked up reading is the one where the party members have to hand over their weapons to the guard at Theoden's door, and the significance of that simple action to the characters is incredible.

The scene goes like this: Legolas gives up his weapons immediately, but Hama the Rohirrim is afraid to even handle them due to their elven origin. Aragorn almost comes to blows with Hama over handing over Anduril, the sword that symbolizes his royal ancestry - but he relents at Gandalf's urging. Gimli is willing to give up his axe only after Aragorn gives up Anduril. Gandalf gives up the priceless enchanted sword Glamdring without a protest but refuses to surrender his simple wooden staff - which, of course, he needs to do magic. Hama takes a long look at Gandalf and decides to let him keep the staff, even knowing what he can do with it, because his instincts tell him that these strangers have good intentions.

And that right there tells you practically everything, doesn't it? Legolas accepts the inevitable with grace; Aragorn's sword, the symbol of his heritage, is almost more important to him than that mission, but he's willing to put it aside for Gandalf. Gimli backs Aragorn up doggedly, keeping his weapon while Aragorn keeps his but willingly surrendering it when his comrade does. Gandalf knows that weapons won't help persuade Theoden and gives his up eagerly, but he refuses to give up the more subtle tool. And Hama, who the reader has never heard of before this page? You (the reader) learn that he's a simple man, because he's unnerved by elves. You learn that he's brave and loyal, because he's willing to stand up to Aragorn and Gimli to follow his orders. You feel, rather than learn, that he's a good man, because like you, he trusts Gandalf. And Tolkien communicates all of this without saying any of it in the space of one page, through skillful use of the physical objects that his characters value.

Anyway, after that little taste, I've picked up The Hobbit for the first time in over a decade. Again, I'd forgotten how very good it is, and once again I've been very impressed by the use of objects to inform character. The thirteen dwarves, barging in on Bilbo at tea time, are first characterized by their hoods and their food and drink orders. Balin wants beer, Thorin red wine. Bombur wants pork pie. The dwarves have gold and silver buckles, and some carry tools, but nobody carries a weapon. All these little details tell you so much about about the individual dwarves, as well as their corporate identity: the gold and silver tell you their well-off, but the lack of weapons and armor get across the idea that they're in exile, wandering private citizens however prosperous.

Anyway, it's pretty awesome. Any other examples you can think of?

1. Someday I'll have to talk about objects in William Gibson's work, which is one of my favorite topics (Case from Neuromancer has a vague feeling the shiny shuriken he buys is important, but he never uses or even remembers it... whereas Cayce from Pattern Recognition has visceral and genuinely precognitive reactions to everyday objects with brand labels. There's something important in the contrast, if I could put my finger on what).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lady Blackbird, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love my players

There are a lot of things I could say about my current group’s inaugural game, Lady Blackbird. The way the mechanics organically created tight bonds between the characters in play, the way the players could talk among themselves for a half hour at a time without needing my input, I could go on and on. But I want to zoom way in on a major moment for me as the GM,  a moment that that created the plot of the game without my prior thought or input.
The Owl, by John Harper

Lady Blackbird is a game by John Harper, with a simple concept. There are five pre-generated characters. The action begins in media res: the eponymous Lady Blackbird has run away from her stately home in the Empire and hired a crew of smugglers and their skyship, the Owl, to take her to her great love, the pirate Uriah Flint. The Owl has been captured by an imperial cruiser, and all the players are in the brig. It’s only a matter of time before the imperials realize who they’ve captured, send Lady Blackbird home, and send the smugglers to trial. From there, with no further knowledge of the setting or the figures involved (like Uriah Flint, for instance), you just go. The players make up details about their characters as they come up, you make up details about the people they meet and the situations they get into, and everyone has fun. It’s a great play experience, suitable for a quick one-shot or a longer campaign, and it requires practically no preparation on anybody’s part whatsoever. You should check it out now, seriously.

Anyway, we were way past the brig of the imperial cruiser and had created, together, a complicated political thriller of a plot with a dash of romance on the side. The private army of the imperial House Twilight had infiltrated the lawless region of the Sky known as the Remnant in order to eliminate Uriah Flint. "Why" was a little mysterious until the characters discovered that Uriah had partnered with a rogue member of the Imperial house, Princess Sophie.

Princess Sophie was an idea I had after the characters started to make some real progress towards finding Flint. Obviously they couldn’t just meet Uriah, shake hands, drop off Lady Blackbird for a happy ending, and fly away into the sunset, so I introduced the idea that Uriah had another woman with him. Actually, it developed over time that he had an Imperial princess with him and was holding off an Imperial fleet to keep her. The imperials seemed to regard her as a prisoner, but all signs pointed to her being a willing guest… leading our Lady Blackbird to suspect the worst. But when the party finally met Sophie, she wasn’t a passionate lover or a heroic figure . She was actually a bit unimpressive, a bit of a milksop.  

It turned out that she was an idealist: she wanted the end of imperial expansion and war and piracy. Uriah Flint wanted to unite all the disparate factions opposed to the Empire (and each other) into one power bloc, and he’d approached her as a partner to lend him legitimacy when he made the transition from “pirate” to “civic official,” and to try to make a lasting peace with the Empire possible. She was playing out of her league and she knew it - she didn't really have a good answer to 'But how do you know Uriah's not just using you?' - but she was committed to making the Sky a better place and this was the path she’d chosen to do it.

If you can’t tell, I was very fond of Sophie. I put a lot of me into her; I loved that she lacked the heroic skill and killer instincts of most figures in our game, PC and NPC, but was still trying her best to change the world. I was proud of the dilemma she posed for our Lady Blackbird, who now had to deal with a sort-of rival rival with good intentions and no way of defending herself. Then, one of the characters snuck out of her room, snuck and fast-talked through Uriah’s base, and shot Sophie through the heart.

Yeesh. That caught me off-guard. I didn’t know what to do. Sophie was like, my favorite character in the game, whom I had assumed would be critical in the endgame. I didn’t have any firm plans about her fate, but I figured her presence would shape all of the conflicts from here on out. She was an important figure in the world – a war was literally being fought because her. My mind started racing about how I could save her. Uriah rushes in at the last minute? Unexpected imperial attack? Bullet proof vest?

But I decided in the moment that that would be disrespecting the spirit of the game, and Sophie fell down dead and that was it. Best call I could have made, because it was that murder that shaped every conflict for the rest of the game. The character had made some effort to cover her tracks, but she’d made slips, and the other characters figured out what had happened, as did Uriah Flint. The imperials figured it out too, and when the characters realized that the imperials had figured it out, that opened the door for a desperate Trojan Horse operation on the imperial flagship and a confrontation with Sophie’s sister…

So the point of this story, and the biggest lesson I learned from Lady Blackbird, is not to plan. Have a starting point ready, and from there ride the wave as your players start bouncing around and making choices. This is not some grand new discovery that I expect to set the world on fire. It's actually a very common RPG style, and whole games have been built around it - Lady Blackbird itself, for one, or Apocalypse World. It's very new to me, though. I grew up on White Wolf products from the old World of Darkness that advocated tightly scripted plots. I used to make those, when I first started gaming in high school, and I always found them frustrating, and I think they were frustrating for my players too, because there was always this feeling we were struggling to get through something and it wasn't going very well. Most games fizzled out before their time just because I couldn't plan them out up until the end.
I think that this new style - "riding the wave," making things up, reacting to player input, whatever you want to call it - is the right fit for me. Now I'm trying to practice it as much as possible - starting with my current Vampire game.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vampire Music

There's a certain set of songs that have become a part of how I visualize and understand the world of my Vampire game. Having gotten to know the players a little, I started thinking of themes for them. I came up with the below list and then, like you do, found the tracks on youtube and sent my players the playlist, and I thought I'd share that here as well.

Quick liner notes:
  1. Kiss Kiss Kiss - Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Cal + Viv's theme)
  2. Can You See The Light - Butterfly Boucher (Beckett's Theme, disregard weird AMV)
  3. Little Mouth - Sleater-Kinney (Little's Theme) (Seriously, that's the name of the song)
  4. Adventure - Be Your Own Pet (Brain's Theme)
  5. Rock 'N' Roll - The Sounds (Viv's Theme)
  6. Date With the Night - Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Cal's Theme)
  7. Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong, But... - Arctic Monkeys (Credits Theme)
I'm not by nature a very musical person, but with the help of Pandora I've started using music to help me feel and conceptualize the world of a game. Pandora has some very sharp limitations - any playlist eventually settles into a rut and you hear your own personal top 40 playing over and over again, for one thing - but I love it as a tool for discovering new songs and artists.

For instance, I'd heard this song by Butterfly Boucher years ago, and when something reminded me of it I made a Pandora station off of it. That led me to this band called Magneta Lane, who are a fair amount louder and fiercer than Butterfly Boucher. Magneta Lane had exactly the sort of feel I wanted for the mythical Vampire: the Requiem game that was always in my head: rocking but emotional, loud but melodic. So I built a whole Pandora station off of them and honed it over the course of about six months. It provided me with most of the tracks above. Check it out.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vampire session!

We played our second session – first “mainstage” session – of Vampire: the Requiem last night. On the whole it was definitely a big success, and everybody had a lot of fun. I still think I made some mistakes that I can improve upon, but the overall objective of having a good night with my friends was met.

Long long accounting of what went down below. My big notes for myself are to remember to use the atrocity rules to full effect - I was good about polling the group for if they thought new atrocity dice were warranted, but I don't think I ever asked anyone to throw in atrocity dice in place of their regular dice pool. Also, most of the combat that took place was not important enough to merit a full blow-by-blow, so I think I'll read up on the simplified combat rules in Danse Macabre for a more "indy feel.".

A quick note about Danse Macabre: it's probably my favorite "crunchy" Vampire supplement ever. I love the clanbooks as an experience, but Danse Macabre has done the most to change the way I approach Vampire. The idea of tiers inspired my current game in certain ways; even though the players are at the "default" antediluvian tier, the tiers section of Danse unpacked some of the basic concepts of Vampire for me in a very useful way. I also love the atrocity system as a replacement for humanity and the hierarchy of sins, and the simplified combat rules saved my bacon when one ultimately unimportant scuffle threatened to drag out indefinitely with most of the players just looking on.

Danse Macabre is nominated for an Enny at the moment; I think I may just navigate right over and vote for it, in fact.

Long actual play follows:

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vampire: the Requiem game - first session

So I effing love effing Vampire: the Requiem to pieces. Someday I'll have to get into why - which will involve figuring out why, probably - but for now I'll just tell you I've loved this game for a long time and never really played it. I'm writing about Vampire now because I'm playing it again. We had our first session two weekends ago! We're playing again tomorrow night!

I'm playing with what I guess you could call my role-playing group. They're all close friends with varying degrees and types of role-playing experience. I had wanted to role-play and to run a game for a while, and through various circumstances it emerged they each had an interest in playing one. Our first game was an amazing run of Lady Blackbird. I will always be grateful to John Harper, designer of Lady Blackbird, for that wonderful experience, so thank you, John.  I'll talk about it sometime.

Everyone was so kind to humor my desire to run a Requiem game as well. Two things about Lady Blackbird: it uses pregenerated character, and setting creation is a part of the game (as the politically-correct goblin Snargle or the gigantic gems known as heartstones needed to navigate the Remnant from our game attest). So, playing Requiem provided two challenges for my players they hadn't needed to tackle before: creating their own characters and dealing with an existing setting. 

Read more after the break.

1st Post


I'm David Rogers, a 20-something from Boston. I love games of all kinds and stories of all kinds, and I love where the two intersect. I love plays, movies, books, video games, and especially role-playing games. They all have their own quirks and advantages. I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Generally all that thinking goes pouring out my ear and into nothing. I'm trying to make it stop doing that.

I'm going to speak mainly about those things I mentioned up top - plays, movies, books, videogames, and roleplaying games. I'm going to tell you my experiences with them, what I think about the ones I see, what I'm reading/seeing/playing/doing, and I'm going to tell you why and what I think about it. I may also talk about other things - what's going on, people I know, events, etc., but only if I think there may be something of interest to you in them.

Principles to which I'm trying to adhere:
1. Do it.
2. Learn while doing it.
3. Be concise. Don't blah blah blah.
4. Have a purpose.
5. Be good. Be my best.
6. But actually, just do it.

Thanks for reading - till next time.