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.