Guess Who’s Coming to Donner?

Arctic Adventurers

I had a little discussion with my friend Kevin a while back on Livejournal about the place that “challenge” has in role-playing games, story games, and the like. It’s a discussion that comes up a fair amount, and Nathan took a good stab at it. I’d like to make some parallel coments.

This article grew out of that discussion. In it, he said that he was rummaging around the D&D 3.5 books to see if they still even talk about “roleplaying”. They do, a little. I challenged him that roleplaying (defined by another friend on his Lj as “giving your character a personality”) was contrary to the rules of D&D, and that you don’t need two big, hardbound books to tell you to use GM fiat for that stuff. But there are games that concentrate on that stuff, like Dogs and PTA.

He said,

But with Dogs in the Vineyard, I felt the same squishiness [as I felt in PTA]. Arbitrary amount of equipment + dice for all of it = bring in a truckload of equipment, then concoct hare-brained uses for it in-game. Better dice for big things = everything big. Add two together = my character’s Big 2d6 Hair. It still felt like the only thing holding back my character was me.

This is the perfect example of this kind of thing. See, it’s hard to find equipment that works in social situations in Dogs, plus guns automatically give you an extra die. But! Those things Kevin mentioned aren’t solutions… they’re bait! You’ve got a little girl who won’t take you to see her brother, who you know is doing grievous wrong and he’s gonna kill someone if you don’t find him. You gonna shoot her?

Let’s make some hypothetical games!
Now, let’s consider the picture at the top of this post. This is a bunch of people who traveled to the North Pole. Now, imagine a couple of ways of making a game about that situation.

1: Will they survive? In this game, we’ve got a couple of different things in opposition to us. There’s the cold, there are polar bears, and there’s a diminishing storage of supplies. These are inputs into the challenge of survival. Maybe we’ve got a list of things that can go wrong and it’s one player’s job to make life really hard, but we guarantee that the explorers can get to the North Pole and back to tell the tale. The game is played by husbanding supplies, taking risks, and planning properly.

When the supplies run out, all members of the expedition who haven’t already died, die. If they survive the experience, they get rewards. Let’s say those turn back around, so next time they’re more likely to succeed. So they have a reason to call it quits, count their blessings on their seven remaining fingers, and try again next year (which is, to say, next week on Game Night).

In summary, our goal here is to properly manage our supplies so that we can deal with the unexpected in the form of challenges made up by another player, likely a GM figure.

2: What will they do to survive? This is a different game, though the situation is the same:a bunch of explorers are going to the North Pole, but our resources, rather than representing your sleeping bags and Power Bars, are the psychological characteristics of the protagonists. In this game, you don’t win by surviving. You win by accomplishing goals you’ve set out for your character: “I want Julie to fall in love with me.” or “I want to kill Bill, that motherfucker, for Julie loving him.”

Perhaps we can even posit that we know that the party will not survive. This will end in snow blindness, murder, and cannibalism.

Furthermore, when your character dies, you don’t lose your ability to affect the story: the more you’ve affected other characters, the more say you have in what they do. Maybe you put this idea in their heads about eating Dave because he’s weak and fatty and holding us back, and they killed you for it… but you can have these dice to roll if you eat my corpse. And if you ate mine, what’s the objection to eating Dave?

In summary, our goal here is to follow up on stuff we care about as people. Moral stuff, emotional stuff.

Let’s compare.

The fictional events of these two games might wind up being exactly the same. That’s entirely possible. What’s different is the intention the players have when sitting down and whether they can use the rules of these games to get what they want. A lot of people might enjoy playing both games. I would. But here’s the thing: you can’t do both at once. If I’m playing to survive, get experience, and try again next time, and your character’s going apeshit and fucking my girlfriend and hitting me on the head with a rock while I’m sleeping and trying to eat my buddy, I’m gonna be annoyed. It’s going to be, why… it’ll be like we’re playing different games!

Likewise, if I’m thinking about our relationship, and putting dice into “You don’t deserve Julie” and you’re not giving me the opposition I need, I’ll be similarly peeved. Cuz you’re thinking, “I’m already carrying 78 pounds of gear (and suffering a -3 to all rolls because of it), and Joshua’s character has to carry the tent and 2 pounds of food, so I’m not gonna engage with his crazy shit.”

At the Forge, we call these Creative Agendas and there are three of them. These two that I’ve mentioned are called Gamism and Narrativism. The third is called Simulationism and has to do with replicating Buffy or Star Wars or My Big Binder of Fantasy Stuff in play. The reason these have been identified is because these are the things that someone wants out of play in a given game. They are not identities: I love playing Agon (which supports Gamist play) and I love playing Shock: (which supports Narrativist play). These are things I like, but they are not things that I am.

So when I sit down to play a game, I don’t want any mystery about what Agenda is being supported. D&D, GURPS, Cyberpunk, Agon, and even Fudge, don’t support a Narrativist agenda, so I don’t want to address theme while I’m playing those games. I want clear rules where the clever application of them is rewarded. Likewise, I don’t look to Dogs in the Vineyard, Prime Time Adventures, Shock:, or Breaking the Ice to prove to myself and my friends how awesome I am strategically and tactically. There may be shared elements, to be sure: a sympathetic character in a game of Agon, or figuring out how to get as many dice as I can on the table in Dogs. But these are techniques used to make play move on a moment-to-moment basis. They don’t address my Agenda at the time.

What does this mean for this week’s game?

Talk with your players and figure out what they want. Do you want character drama? That means the players are working with a Narrativist agenda this week. Does one guy want to explore a hero’s youth and what made him become a hero, but everyone else wants to slay dragons, already? It looks like you’ve got two separate potential agendas here. Maybe this week we’re playing Agon and next week we’re playing Hero’s Banner. But don’t make that guy try to tell his story by using combat rules, and don’t make everyone else play out a teenage drama when they want to be one-upping each other in bloody asskickedness. For Jebus’ sake, play different games. Don’t shoehorn one into the other. Here, I’ll say it again in its own paragraph:

Don’t use a system that doesn’t support the creative agenda of the players. Those players are flexible people; they like lots of different things. Discuss it, agree on something (and probably agree to play something else next), and play the game that does what you want to do tonight.

Getting What You Want

1937 Stamp

Hooray! I’ve finally gotten to the bottom of my Shock: shipments! That means that you should have your game in the next couple of days at the longest if you live in the US, or in a week or so if you live in Europe. If you live in rural Scandinavia or Australia, it may take a bit longer.

Enjoy your games, everyone. I look forward to feedback.

Oh, and please check the Errata before playing. There’s a really important rule that I can’t find in the book for the life of me.

The Road Up

Elevator

After getting Burt Rutan to finally get his spacecraft flying after dropping hints for a decade, the X-Prize organization is turning its all-enabling gaze to the Space Elevator. What’s interesting about this is not just the ambient interest in the Space Elevator and its nature as a bridge to the rest of the universe; this is citizen space exploration. “Space is a place, not a program,” as they say.

Imagine a world where these things are all over the place. Where taking an elevator to space is like a cruise, where manufacturing is done in orbit and you can just go up there and check out the facilities, where the Moon is a matter of time, not billions of dollars, away.

This is the universe next door.

The Ten Top Science Fiction Movies that Never Existed

Revenge of the Jedi

This is a funny and pointed article about the sad state of science fiction movies today. It talks to a great extent about how cynical and ignorant concerns took over the artistic concerns of movies that were never made but should have been, or were made much weaker than their conception would have indicated.

It’s a bit like sex.

Rudy Rucker sticks out his lip.

Rudy Rucker, author of the first science fiction book I read that featured sex and drugs, has started a new fiction blog called Flurb. Quoth the man, “Flurbbing is a bit like sex, and a bit like blending things together, an apt word for the off-kilter strange tales I hope to be printing here.”

It’s fun, Rucker-style stuff. Kooky stories about sentient math and psylocybes. I’ve only read the first story, Elves of the Subdimensions, and it’s just what I’d hope for.

It sounds like he’s going for a quarterly publication. I look forward to a steady stream of weird. Now, if only Chairman Bruce would get back to writing science fiction, too.

Sharing Soapboxes

Soapbox cars

Hooray! My new forum is up and running! It serves several functions:

1: It’s a place where I can provide support for my games in a different way than my Forge Forum does.

2: It’s a place to discuss book design for game designers. I want your book to look good. I want you to make a thing of beauty, and I want you to be able to charge what you need to charge to do it. Let’s discuss. Joshua Bishop-Roby, Luke Crane, Matts Wilson and Snyder, I greatly appreciate your input.

3: This is a big one for me: it’s a place to share science fiction you’ve written for critique, analysis, and enjoyment. Some of it will be directly inspired by Shock: and some of it won’t. But as long as your fiction’s concerned with the social, human aspects of science fiction, it will fit there nicely. Ben Lehman’s agreed to help me with moderation and he’s put up some rules there for submissions.

I’m really excited about #3 there. I got no less than three inquiries about publishing an anthology of Shock: based stories in the last day, and now I’m holding you responsible for your interest. This is the world of independent media; you want something, you make it. Rob, Justin, and Mike, when you put up an idea like this, you own it. I’m holding you responsible. Write something and make this be.

There’s a place over there for putting up works in progress for critique, and another for discussion of the ideas in your fiction.

To some extent, this is a lead-in to a possible anthology of stories. I make absolutely no promises as to whether I’m going to actually make that project fly, and I’m certainly not promising that I’ll put your fiction in the eventual and purely hypothetical anthology. But I also make no claims to your work’s ownership. You own it; it’s just my server it’s living on. Should I want your piece in the volume, we’ll negotiate whatever we can when it’s time for that.

In the meantime, consider it a zine in the punk rock sense; make something with me that’s good. Trade cassettes here for a while until you create Wax Trax, and I’ll provide the mixing board in the loft.

By the way: I’m new to Vanilla, the software this forum’s running on. If you can help me out here and there, that would be awesome. Kitkowski, I’m looking in your direction. Nixon, my wall-eye is looking in yours.

Collecting Myself

I have a lot to talk about from GenCon, but I was only home for two days before having to take off again, and my computer’s been fuxx0rd, so hold on and I’ll get back to posting in a day or two!

Preparing to Tile My Bathroom

Joshua A.C. Newman signs and numbers the pre-ordered copies of Shock: Social Science Fiction

Those of you who requested so in the last post are getting your copies of Shock: mailed tomorrow morning before I leave for GenCon. Pictured above is me signing and numbering the pre-orders (and, given the look on my face, trying to figure out who I missed). A lot of people I expect to see at GenCon, so I’m bringing your pre-signed copies along. Don’t pester Brennan, though, if you’ve pre-ordered a copy; only I know which Michael the books go to, for instance. I mean, pester him if you want to buy another copy, but not for your signed and numbered pre-ordered copy.

In other news, I saw Vincent’s Mechaton books today. I love its tone. The instructions are all questions and answers. He’ll be selling the rules for $7 and a kit with a bunch of mecha for like $45 (I don’t remember exactly).

I built a new mecha just for GenCon. It’s badass. It gets Yellows from its command flags. I’m pleased about that. You wanna see it, you better come play with us.

70 lbs. of Orange Squares

Shock spines

70 lbs. of orange squares just showed up on my doorstep. I’m really frickin’ happy with them. Really happy. If you’d like your copy sent out before GenCon, drop me a line. I may be able to send some out on Monday! Otherwise, you’ll have to wait a week to get them from me or through IPR. Also, if you want to order one from me now for shipping on Monday, even if you didn’t pre-order, order away!

Kwaidan: kwaidone!

Kwaidan cover

The first supplement for The Mountain Witch will be at GenCon this year, Kwaidan: Tales of Ghostly Japan. It’s a collection of Lafcadio Hearn’s stories and poetry edited by Timothy Walters Kleinert with book design by me. You could consider it an extended bestiary for The Mountain Witch, which is how Timothy considers it. I’m very happy with the way the book turned out, in no small part due to the extraordinary cover illustration by W. Don Flores, whose work graces the pages of the game itself.

It’ll be available at GenCon at the Forge booth, #1237, alongside The Mountain Witch, Shock:, Under the Bed, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Princes’ Kingdom, The Shadow of Yesterday, and lots of other good stuff (that, unlike these, I don’t have my fingers in). Come visit us, play some demos, and pick up some creator-owned games!