IS THIS REAL LIFE? NO, IT’S JUST FANTASY – CHECK YOUR CRUSADES AT THE DOOR

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands. In the future, this note will append all articles. 

 

Many of us, I dare say even most of us, indulge in role-playing games as a cheap and effective form of escapism. Whether it is crowding around a dilapidated table with far too much caffeine and crunchy goodness, or getting dressed to the nines on a Saturday night to go hang out at a planetarium or a VFW hall, we make the conscious choice to go be someone else for a few hours out of our busy lives.

 

So, you’ve decided to go be someone else. Groovy. You have your character sheet, your costume, and your desire to go wreak havoc. Did you remember to NOT pack your pet social agenda?

 

Every character should have something they believe in, something they are willing to fight for or about. It makes them more real and believable, more a person and less a collection of dots on a page. True Neutral characters (using the Gygaxian alignment system) are really hard to play and even harder to identify with. The key is choosing the right motivating force to maximize enjoyment for the player group, not just to get your own personal rocks off.

motivation

What is your motivation?

Around a gaming table or at a LARP venue is not the place for your day-to-day crusades.

No matter what your personal vendetta-against-the-world is, it doesn’t need to impinge on anyone else’s enjoyment of the game unless it is in character and contributes something to the shared story as a whole.character-sheet

A character that is nothing more than dots on a sheet with an axe to grind and an agenda to forward is not fun to play with. Beliefs, crusades, convictions, or interests squished together with XP dots should not, and more to the point, do not, a character make. That’s a basis of a character that is waiting to be fleshed out.

Immersion is also known as “suspension of disbelief” and is crucial to the role-playing experience. Intentionally interjecting out of character concerns into a scene or genre where they are not applicable is a very good way to break that suspension, and this is an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in these contentious and socially-charged modern nights.

 

Let me explain that a little bit. If I am sitting down and playing a half-elf rogue with chaotic evil alignment, in a high fantasy setting, that half-elf rogue is not going to give a flying goblin’s damn about third-wave feminism.

 

A three-thousand year old vampire is going to be either incredibly confused by, amused by, or completely blasé towards the entire concept of gender fluidity. (Especially if they know any Tzimisce.) Worthy of consideration is the fact that various cultures and societies have wildly varying definitions of gender and societal norms than the Western/Western European cultures that many RPGs are based upon, particularly if you are looking backwards in history and taking a static view from the time of the vampire’s creation.

 

annie_kenney_and_christabel_pankhurst

Allow me to present a positive example of bringing a modern crusade into game in an appropriate and entertaining fashion.

There is a young lady in Underground Theater who played a relatively young vampire (under 100 years old, I believe) whose character, in life, was a passionate suffragette and enthusiastic patriot. It was entirely in character for her to bring up feminist perspective and interpretations of events. That was an AMAZING character who spawned a TON of interesting IC interactions, because seeing her talk about women’s rights to a two-thousand-year-old Roman Centurion was really something else. She also enthusiastically called out the Elders who advocated for monarchy over democracy. It was fantastic!

 

I have also seen an entire game grind to a halt because of what I have termed the “weather report” phenomenon.  Presented for your edification:

 

Character A: Hey, B, have you seen the weather for tomorrow? I need to know what kind of gear to bring.

 

Character B: Well, as a *insert adjective indicating some aspect of identity* person, I think it’s going to rain.

 

Now, unless that adjective indicating some aspect of their identity is something that is actually germane to the conversation, i.e., a meteorologist or a druid, that adds nothing to the conversation and just slaps the other participant in the face.

 

Scene: Three Werewolves outside of a pack meeting, casually discussing plans for taking down a Black Spiral Dancer hive.

black-furies

Character A: Hey, B, what do you think the weather is going to do tomorrow? I need to know what kind of gear to bring.

Character B: Well, as a gender-fluid Black Fury Metis, I think it is going to rain. We should be ready to get muddy.

Character C: He just asked you for the weather report, dude.

Character B: And as a gender-fluid Black Fury Metis, I gave him the weather report.

 

Players A and C walk away from Player B, who congratulates themselves on raising consciousness or some such thing, completely ignorant of the fact that they may have alienated Players A and C by waving that banner constantly. End Scene.

 

This is a slightly altered version of a real conversation that I have seen happen more than once.

 

A key point to consider: You can alienate characters all day, every day. The key thing will be to not alienate players, since players are the lifeblood of a game. This may be a good time to step aside, out of character, and do a temperature check to make sure that context isn’t becoming blurred. A quick aside, less than thirty seconds, can smooth a lot of ruffled feathers.

 

As shown in the first example, there are ways to wave your banners effectively and without breaking immersion – you just have to build your character’s backstory in such a way that that particular issue becomes prevalent without beating people over the head with it. It requires a lot of thought and consideration, which should deepen the player’s insight into their character and make them even more believable and real.

 

The second example is almost belligerent in its emphasis on the snowflake aspect, which does tend to be alienating if that is the only aspect of the character that really comes into play. No one is going to remember that Black Fury as the one who took down a BSD on their own; the player has forced that one aspect of their character to be the primary one.

 

As a whole, I have never met a more inclusive, welcoming group  of people than the LARPing community – hell, increasing inclusivity is the entire purpose of this blog – but every single one of us is a human with a stressful life, political and sociopolitical opinions, differing experiences, differing preferences, and our own demons in the dark places of our minds. Our games are our escapes from the pressures of the modern world, not an additional platform for our personal agendas.

 

I despise using the term “safe space”, because I don’t like what it has been corrupted into, but the role-playing world should be a relatively safe space for BOTH ends of the spectrum. If you are a plain vanilla person, go to church every Sunday, drink cheap mass-produced beer and think that Disturbed is Satanic metal because of their album covers, you go right ahead and do and think those things. If you are an alphabet-identifying peacock of a screaming nihilist Norwegian death-metal fan who only drinks the blood of unborn ponies during your Zarathustrian rituals, that’s your gig.

 

(INB4 angry emails/comments: obviously these examples are two wildly different ends of a spectrum that doesn’t encompass every single person. It’s called hyperbole. Carry on.)

 

The vanilla person doesn’t need to have to constantly hear about how delicious the pony blood is, and the peacock doesn’t need to hear about how to make America great again. The likelihood of changing anyone’s opinion, in ANY context, not only gaming, is incredibly diminished when one’s main tactic is a full frontal assault.

 

cell-phoneNow, if a young Gangrel is trying to convince a very old Ventrue that cellphones really aren’t tiny magic boxes that show pictures and have people’s voices coming out of them, that’s fantastic (and an interesting commentary on the Luddite-ism of the generational gap). If a male Toreador is regaling the Court with stories of how he was really Louis XVI’s secret lover, and all the effort and rigamarole they had to go through just to get five minutes alone together without being under suspicion, that’s even better (and can draw attention to the fact that gay famous people did, in fact, exist in history and had to take great pains to hide their sexuality, so the modern reality of open acceptance is really awesome).

 

If you are playing a character who is from a culture that is markedly different from mainstream modern nights, do a little research (or a lot of research) into that culture so you can deepen their character and your presentation of them and their culture. This will likely involve finding out some rather nasty things by modern standards, like objectification of women, slave trading, oppressive social structures, and the like. Don’t flinch from this, but use it to inform your characters. Did they enthusiastically participate in these societal norms, or did they overtly or covertly resist them? Especially in horror-based genres, like Vampire or Werewolf, it is not rational or believable to have all the characters be white hats/good guys. Sometimes, you have to accept that you were likely a bastard/bitch who profited from or enjoyed the subjugation of others. This is a mature and healthy understanding of the difference between our actual selves and our characters.

 

“But I really want to raise awareness of X issue! It is a Thing! It is what I believe!”

 

That’s fantastic. Game is not the place for it. Don’t inflict that on the other characters, especially if it is not relevant to the genre or storyline. If you want to convince people to look at an issue differently, talk to them as player-to-player, ideally in a relaxed social setting. Don’t force a character to be a mouthpiece for your pet project.

 

Make friends with the other players (scary prospect, I know, but you’ll be okay, I promise) and spread your message that way. I guarantee you’ll get better results.

 

In closing, make an effort to truly differentiate yourself as a player from yourself as a character, remember Wheaton’s Law, and learn to check your banners at the door – but it’s perfectly fine to pick up a few more. 

 

Georgia is a fervent convert to being a gamer, having come to the gaming world later than most. She is a diehard World of Warcraft player, an enthusiastic Vampire: the Masquerade LARPer, and a neophyte player of Exalted, 3rd Edition. The game that solidified her love of tabletop games was a legendary Star Wars: Saga Edition game that consumed most of her life for three years and provided an introduction to her husband. When she is not throwing dice or murdering pixels, she is often found working on her urban fantasy novel, cooking anything that does not resist being thrown into the pot, and attempting to make a living as a freelance editor. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and feline overlords. She can be contacted through Facebook via her page, In Exquisite Detail.

THE FUTURE OF DARKNESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH WHITE WOLF PUBLISHING

white_wolf_publishingThe staff at White Wolf were willing to do an interview with the staff of columnists here at Keep On The Heathlands. Some of the following questions reference discussions had at The 25th Anniversary Grand Masquerade event in New Orleans over the Labor Day Weekend. Videos to the Keynote and the Q&A are now available to give context for anyone reading this interview. We want to thank White Wolf for taking the time to do this interview. Our staff are huge fans of the World of Darkness and other games created by White Wolf over the years. 

We’ve seen a lot of commentary regarding the White Wolf Keynote at The Grand Masquerade – specifically around the statements made regarding the content presented within the World of Darkness and the call for games and communities to not censor various topics with a broad brush. Would you be willing to share exactly what was said, as well as the follow-up statements that were made during the beginning of the Q&A session at The Grand Masquerade?


dhaunaeDhaunae De Vir (Manager of Availability – Business Development):
Of course. We have just released the full-length video for the keynote and the Q&A at The Grand Masquerade. Additionally, I would like to reiterate once more that no clubs were targeted at the keynote, that we do not intend to meddle in fan clubs management, and that we fully support the idea that game spaces should be safe for everyone.

With the One World of Darkness, it seems like cross genre play will be integrated from the beginning. How do you anticipate having this work?


martinMartin Ericsson (Lead Storyteller and Brand Architect):
 We’re imagining a world where the shadows are shrinking. The awakened monsters have always brushed shoulders, but the vastly different art direction and surface tonality (not to mention the slightly messy rules) of the different game lines have made crossovers run a risk of being a bit campy. This time we try to place them all in our own world, in dangerous and fascinating places where their rising conflicts makes WoD’s mysteries, political themes and menacing horror come to the forefront. For example, we are developing Werewolf in close parallel to Vampire, hoping to make the most of the tension between the cold corporate predation of the Camarilla elite and the just but oh-so uncontrollable just war of the Garou Nation. The games will be perfectly standalone, but still manage to link up in specific ways. We’re not imagining a game made for multi-creature parties, rather set them up as perfect antagonists and philosophical counterpoints, as well as rivals for the fate of humanity in desperate times.

What, if any, less explored books, supplements, or ideas from the original game lines are you planning to bring back or explore deeper in the One World of Darkness?

Martin: There are many early books that deserve to be updated to contemporary times and get hooked into the development of the metaplot, a lot of great but underused ideas that popped up in fiction anthologies have also caught my eye. To name some personal impulses: ”Shoah: Charnel Houses of Europe” and ”Gypsies” (Should be called something like “Opre Roma!”) could use new editions in our age, as the horrors of the fear of the Other is again on the rise in Europe. I read a lot about the Ashirra and Middle Eastern WoD for obvious reasons. I think a lot of greatness is found in books like ”Love Beyond Death” and ”Ghouls – Fatal Addiction” and you’ll probably see us inspired by stories where the supernatural meets the mortal world a lot more. Also, Dark Ages of all kinds! Holy shit, there’s a lot of treasures there. I also love the first and second edition of Mummy…

One World of Darkness

White Wolf has talked about increasing and supporting diversity of thought, and identity, at the same time, you are not shying away from using role-playing to explore the darkness in the One World of Darkness. Can you tell us how you are planning to address both of these?

Dhaunae: We are going to give voice to groups that did not have a voice before. This means some topics might be revisited from a different point of view, and some new topics that were never considered before that are relevant to these new voices will be brought up. I personally think it will be thought-provoking to see what darkness means for these new voices, and what dark topics they consider interesting and appropriate to talk about. It might be something that we never thought about before, it might be an eye-opener, and it might even be helpful to understand other human beings better by walking on someone else’s shoes.

At the same time, when exploring dark topics, everyone should be free to choose what experiences and what level of intensity they want to be exposed to and participate in. If some topics are not interesting or if the subject matter is too harsh, there should always be the possibility to opt-out. I want to clarify when I say “too harsh”, I don’t necessarily mean rape. We are role-players, and our imagination is vast and ever-growing.

Martin: Write about what you know! We will continue to represent all ethnicities and the legends of the whole world as basis for our creatures and we will make sure to do it with less rose-tinted goggles and prejudice than maybe done before and really do our best to have people with relevant experiences writing about it.
lore-of-the-clans

Martin mentioned at Grand Masquerade that he sees the World of Darkness in a similar light to important literature. This may tie into the previous question as well, how do you see the World of Darkness having a literature like impact on players, storytellers, and other consumers of WoD related media?

Martin: WoD has always dealt with the most difficult questions in life, from the unflinching exploration of addiction, loss of self-control, transgressive and inhuman morality in Vampire, the price of violent activism and the lure of heroic fascism in Werewolf, lost vulnerable souls on the brink in Changeling, dealing with our fear of death in Wraith as well as constantly challenging and smartly transgressive expressions of sex, love, death, toxic relationships, depression, class and gender inequalities, monsters as metaphors for personal insecurities, exploration of insanity and all the other worthy themes of great culture. Personally, I think these issues were handled best in early supplements, but the desire to mean something to players and readers, with loaded themes and moods is a core part of the setting. We want WoD to be the thinking person’s fictional universe, where the questions ”what is this is real” and ”what important questions can we ask” constantly guide us. With an eye to social justice issues we shine a light in the darkest places and assume monstrous perspectives on the real world to learn more about it and ourselves. In practice it also means working with excellent writers and be obsessive about artistic quality.

 

sfwa

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America organization recently changed their membership rules to include game writers. As this gap between game writers and speculative fiction writers shrinks (around the world), what value do you see in integrating game writing into the broader writing/publishing industry?


tobias
Tobias (CEO White Wolf): Isn’t it about time that cultures around larps, RPGs and similar forms of entertainment finally get the credit they deserve? Look at the impact World of Darkness had on the modern vampire and werewolf myth today established in numerous film, television and other forms of entertainment. This is serious work by great authors and we do appreciate and applaud the recognition of it.

White Wolf has talked about moving the emphasis of the World of Darkness to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia due to the previous focus being in North America. Has there been any discussion about what process you’ll use to determine who to provide a license to write content for other underrepresented parts of the world, such as Central and South America, or Australia?

Tobias: About moving the emphasis, there is an unfortunate misunderstanding there, so I am very happy to elaborate and clarify that. What we have said is that we will now include stories and perspectives from the rest of the world, which means adding more but definitely does not mean to lessen then number or importance of products or stories taking place in North America. We are not slicing the pie differently, we are making a new much bigger pie. At The Grand Masquerade we announced that our distributor in South Korea have written a Seoul By Night book* which they will publish, and I think that is a great example of how to create content that is relevant to the specific audiences. Have people who knows about the actual place and cultures to write about it.

We are constantly searching for and being approached by talented people from all over the world who want to do amazing things with our IPs including Russia, the Middle East, and Africa to the places you mention in your question. We are working actively to increase our number of content creators all over the world as well as keeping the strong core markets filled with new, relevant and exciting content.

*Random Editor Burst of Excitement: THIS SOUNDS AMAZING!

The World of Darkness setting was brought to video games with mixed results. Do you have any ideas on how to successfully bring the WoD setting to this medium, and what sort of games are you considering developing?

bloodlines

We’ll wait while you reinstall it.

Tobias: Bloodlines from Activision is still played and patched 12 years after its release, which I think is pretty amazing. Personally, I have spent well over 20 years in the computer games industry so what I bring to the table is the network and profound understanding of that industry. By presenting the IP and our vision for World of Darkness at various game industry trade shows and events around the world, in addition to travelling and visiting game developers and publishers, we have already received  unbelievably positive and enthusiastic responses.

Our goal is to find computer game developers and publishers who can do fantastic games for various genres and platforms. Our goal in the next few years is to eventually release games on a yearly basis. I see no limit to what kind of games might be produced, the World of Darkness lends itself too many genres and cross promotional opportunities. For example, at The Grand Masquerade one of our partners EarPlay showcased a voice controlled choose-your-own-adventure game based on the Orpheus property. Isn’t that cool?

How can we, as fans, support and encourage White Wolf moving forward?

Dhaunae: We share a common goal, we can work together, and I think that is beautiful. I am a long-time World of Darkness fan myself, and I know what it feels like not to know what White Wolf’s next move will be. If it will be something that I will applaud, or if it will be something that will hurt me. So I would say trust is crucial here. We would ask you to trust that we at White Wolf really want the best for World of Darkness and its fans. We might make mistakes down the road, because we are human, but we are working like crazy and very enthusiastically to take World of Darkness to the place it very much deserves. In order for trust to happen, good communication is essential, so please feel free to contact us: write us e-mails, talk to us at events… We do want to know what you think.

jp

Admin Josh Heath as Jean-Pierre at The Grand Masquerade

In some rare occasions, the path forward to get to this fantastic place with

World of Darkness might not seem logical from the outside, and we might not be in a position to disclose all the information just yet. We hope that, by then, we will have gained your trust.

Other than that, keep doing what you are doing. We trust you and think you are also doing your best to make World of Darkness a great hobby.

Martin: Let your black flag fly. With so many exciting things around the corner, this is a good time to talk to people
about why we need a smart and grown-up horror universe as a part of the geek-cultural landscape next to lighter adventure-style fare like Star Wars and Marvel. Come meet us at cons, run that game you’ve been thinking about for years and send us the very best thing you’ve written, drawn, etched, carved or sung about the dark world. Army of the Abandoned; the time has come to rise! Blood and Souls!

Considering the joint statement from US based LARP fan groups, would you like to address how you will be working with those groups on the issue of player safety? 

Tobias: Player safety is naturally absolute key to any business, no one should have to feel unsafe at an events. We don’t organize events ourselves but in our contracts we do our best to set the level for what we consider is required by our partners in terms of quality.  But contracts aside, we always talk with our partners about how they can ensure the best possible experience at their events.

What we did our best to message at The Grand Masquerade was that even though our world is dark and mirrors all kinds of really heavy topics it is important that when larping or participating in any our products, that people do it on the level they think is ok and safe for them. We are also absolutely behind the fan groups playing our games in a way that fits their individual preferences. I mean, how could you possibly have it any other way?

We do our very best to work closely with our event licensees, and we will as originally planned from the start eleven months ago get into the nitty gritty with our fan clubs very soon. We had great initial meetings with the fan clubs at The Grand Masquerade and look forward to working with them in the future as we now have the resources available to focus on that.

But in specific as to what we can do, I think the best use of White Wolf as a licensor (except setting a clear level in our contracts as to what is acceptable and what is not) is as a coordinator between the different LARP licensees and the fan clubs to make sure they share their experiences and best practices regarding safety and consent and all other aspects of participatory entertainment. In the end it is them who deal with the players on a daily basis, and it’s our responsibility is to support them as much as possible and to help make what they do easier. The goal is to have the best possible and enjoyable events set in the World of Darkness.

 

Final Editor Comments
We believe White Wolf takes a positive stance here. They are dedicated to shining a reflective light on our reality to ensure that we recognize the darkness in our own lives and create methods to change or eliminate that darkness. Safety of players is supported, at the same time as encouraging a deep investigation into human behavior, identity, and action that is as beneficial as great literature. Please reach out to us or White Wolf if you have any questions or concerns. 

 

 

 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

social-contract

 

So you and your friends have decided to try out this “RPG” thing.  Your groups want to give it a try and see what all the buzz is about. Before you go diving in, there are some steps that, as a group, you all must take into account.  When deciding on a new game I recommend that 5 questions need to be addressed and answered. They are as follows:

 

 

 

1)  What is the time frame we are all willing to put into the game?

2) Where will the game be played and who will host the game?

3) What game will the group run?

4) Who will be running the game if a Game Master (GM) is needed?

5) Are there any topics or themes that are to be off limits in the roleplaying setting?

 

Each of these will be covered in a future article over the next few weeks.

Don’t worry!  I will give examples of the discussions, in italics, that should be taking place for a satisfying gaming experience to be had by all.  I also highly recommend reading over Josh’s excellent entry on using gaming as a form of dialog. That Blog Article touches on many ideas that I feel are also central to this thing I call the Social Contract.

 

1) What is the time frame we are all willing to put into the game?

clock

The first thing you need to decide is how much time your group is willing to set aside for a game. I start with this question as it sets the stage for the rest of the questions to come.  This helps to set expectations.  Everyone involved will be aware what time requirements will be required in order to take part in the game, either as a player or a GM.  Once the time factor is decided, there are three sub questions with regards to time frame. These are as follows:

 

 

1a) How many days per week/month will the group meet to play the game?

2a) How long is each session going to last?

3a) How long will the story run for i.e short arc vs. campaign?

Looking at that first sub question: How many days a week/month will the group meet to play the game? Sure it sounds silly but it’s one that must be noted. For 99.999% of groups this will be easy to determine based on schedules and other commitments.

For example, I have a few ongoing groups and these groups meet not only on different days of the week but also with different frequency.  One of these groups meets every Thursday in person.  Another one of my groups meets every other Saturday via Skype.  The point is different groups with different agreements and expectations of when and how often they will meet.

Now we know when we will meet.  How long can we meet for?  This is important for many different reasons.  The main one being making sure that the GM running the game has enough content prepared and ready to fill the agreed timeframe.

There is a ratio I use to determine how many hours I like a session to last depending on the number of players. I will go into that in a later entry. For now just understand that your GM will spend time out of game putting together the story.

That is if a GM is needed. Just wait I will get to that under the “what game will the group run” question.

While the timeframe for how long each session will last is important for the GM, it also helps the players.  For me it lets me know who many scenes I  can expect to be in or be center stage for.  This is another topic which I will touch on in a later entry but, a player should have at least one scene highlighting her or his character.  From a standpoint of length of each session this means that one can roughly determine how long your scene will last.  This can help to keep the story moving along and prevent players from monopolizing both scenes and time.

Now we know when we will meet and how long each session will last. What is the time frame for the game we are playing? How long will this story last?  This is important because life has a tendency to interfere with gaming. Some groups like to do a series of one shot games (think of these like a sketch comedy show, that always uses the same actors, but in different roles each episode), others a mini-campaign of 6 or 7  game sessions (this is like a television mini-series) and still others like massive year-spanning campaigns (an example of this would be an hour long Drama’s entire series production run).

What will work best for your group is part of the contract, for example, your group decides to dedicate your free time once a week for 4 to 5 hours per session, what is the end date for this particular game?

I have played in plenty of one shot style games where a whole story is told in one session. On the extreme opposite of this I ran a decade-long Vampire: the Requiem game that started from the time the main 1st edition book was released in 2004, and ended in 2014. … yes we met weekly.

Both of the above examples show two very different games in terms of length of story.  Knowing how long that story will go on for will help in deciding what the group as a whole can commit to.

With regards to the Vampire game mentioned above I had plenty of people who shied away from it because it was both daunting to them and they didn’t want to commit to something like that in terms of length.

Also, knowing the length of each story or campaign allows the possibility for players to rotate who runs the game as GM.

For example, both my Thursday and Saturday groups mentioned above rotate between GM’s. Once one story is finished another GM will step up and run a game. Each campaign runs about 5 or 6 months on average. This for us helps with a few things; one, no one person gets burnt out on running and never getting to play, and two, it allows us to try many different and diverse games.

Make sure everyone is okay with both the frequency and length of the game.  Yes, you will need to be willing to make compromises; so make sure those diplomacy stats are high and not used as a dump stat.

In recap, we have an understanding so far of what frequency we’ll be meeting and how long the game we are going to run shall last. With one big question out of the way we can tackle the next one:

Where are we doing this thing at anyway?

Where indeed?

That I shall cover next week…

 

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

LARP & THE DISBELIEF DEFICIENCY

A first level witch was my first character in the Forever’s Destiny LARP, and the first character of any LARP I had made. Until then I had just attended the first few events, was playing monsters, trying to understand the ropes, and getting a feel for the atmosphere of gamers in the middle of the English countryside. There I was, not quite the “starry-eyed youth” discovering a new environment, but still excited by all that was going on around me. One evening, I was with everyone at the High Table, the communal dinner event in the main site cabin, listening to the high-level players. I overheard someone mention that yeah, they’d just come back from a trip to Hell.

I was surprised to hear someone mention that trip so casually. Hell is a big deal in mythologies that have it; whenever we hear the name, we know to imagine horrors and suffering beyond our wildest imaginations (assuming Judeo-Christian beliefs, which are common in role-playing games). But there they were, a player just blurting out the reality of their character. A tiny bit of the suspension of disbelief was burned away.

That event was not the only time I witnessed this kind of situation. Years later, in World of Darkness LARPs, the same thing happened multiple times. For example, I noticed a recurring theme of Werewolf characters, at higher ranks, talking about going to the extremely dangerous realms Erebus, Flux, Malfeas, etc as if they were taking a trip to the local grocery store.

Demon reading a book.

I dubbed these kinds of situation the “Hell and Back Syndrome”: phenomena of traditional gaming where players – often new – have their suspension of disbelief shattered due to others treating the fantastic as mundane. For a while, I considered it disrespectful on the part of players to do that. “Why would you ruin the game for newcomers?” I asked myself. “Why don’t the game staff enforce the rarity of rare events, use more descriptive language, tone down the times they funnel players into higher-level areas?”

As some of you reading this will understand, once you play for long enough, it stops being that simple.

Being an active participant in gaming culture leads to these accomplishments:

  • Learning the general forms and concepts that most games rely on
  • Acquiring familiarity and competence with the systems one uses
  • Becoming more intimate with the world one’s character is a part of
  • Navigating the social spaces formed around the above

In these accomplishments, I believe that we find another failing of LARP. All of the above are skills to be mastered, and much like outside of games, mastery often brings boredom. Unlike some non-gaming skills, though, there are definite ceilings. Once you know a system like the back of your hand, there isn’t anything more to learn. Game settings can be relatively static once established, and it’s possible to see an end to the things you can know. For those people who want to try something new, they may find themselves stymied by the shared world of LARP, where the settings has to be enforced for the sake of balance and consistency among all players. Before you know it – BAM! You’re burnt out, the fantastic becomes mundane, and we hit the Hell and Back Syndrome.

Talking GentlemenTabletop RPGs don’t sidestep all these problems, but benefit from organizing games around a single group of people. Navigating smaller social spaces affords a greater flexibility in how game sessions develop: fewer people are needed for consensus. There’s irony in a big draw of LARP – the social aspect, – being one of its bigger problems to tackle.

Particularly in LARP, we have a shared responsibility to make gaming enjoyable. If you run into these situations, a few strategies might help.

If other people are spoiling the setting, talk to them, preferably outside of live game time. Communication is the cornerstone of just about any social experience. There’s no need to be hostile, and it might lead to better role-play in general. You may also want to talk to the people running the game. They may be able to employ strategies to help other players, and may need to see if they’re contributing.

When it’s you doing it, it might be burnout. Treat it that way: take a break, switch games, discuss your issues with staff, or all the above. Yes, even if you’re staff yourself – you’re not doing yourself or other people favors running a game in a bad mental state. I’m pretty sure I’ve been a part of the problem by now (and if I haven’t, it’ll happen some time in the future). Years in LARP have bred familiarity, and occasional burnout.

It’s by no means the end of the world for LARP to have issues with the spoiling of players’ sense of disbelief, but it’s one of the reasons I look towards other, less math-driven, more story-focused, game systems these days. Maybe I’m seeing the consequence of system-driven gaming in the USA compared to, say, Nordic LARP. More flexibility, and fewer systems, could make LARP more enjoyable over sustainable periods, for a lot of people. Why not bring the flexibility of free-form acting to more events, and seek out tabletop gaming for more math-heavy fun?

ONE METHOD TO USE GAMING AS A FORM OF DIALOGUE

One of the goals of Reach-Out Roleplaying Games is to encourage cross-cultural dialogue using gaming as a venue. What exactly do I mean by that though?

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WHAT IS DIALOGUE?

Dialogue is a method of semi-formal to formal discussion surrounding difficult topics. Dialogue is often facilitated by a neutral or semi-neutral party to help the participants in dialogue understand and respect one another. Dialogue is not debate, the goal of the discussion is not for anyone to win or lose, though understanding and perhaps acceptance of another viewpoint is a potential benefit of dialogue. In a lot of ways, dialogue is very similar to table-top gaming already. You have a Game Master who facilitates a world-building discussion and shared story. Dialogue is about understanding each other’s stories, lives, and circumstances.

I was hired to host a dialogue at American University during my first semester of Graduate School, and part of my sales pitch was that I had run so many games over the years. Game Mastering or Storytelling is a really similar skill-set. You have to arbitrate the discussion, you have to give everyone a chance to contribute, and you have to be able to ask follow-up questions to get to the heart of what a person is looking to say. This is part of why I think gaming can be used in a dialogue to deepen that process.

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Dialogue as a process is usually used to deal with heavy issues. For example, dialogue is used to bring Jewish and Muslim families together to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Most games are not overtly designed to talk about heavy ideas, but they can. Imagine getting a group of people from the same conflict above together in a gaming session. Instead of having them discuss the conflict over land that they are familiar with, you could develop a story that shows two groups of fantasy creatures fighting over shared space. You don’t want to be too ham-fisted about that, but if you mirror some elements of the shared experience participants are familiar with, you may be able to open eyes that didn’t see such parallels before.

HOW TO DESIGN A CHRONICLE FOR DIALOGUE PURPOSES

Normally dialogue happens over a series of discussions. Sometimes these are in chunks over a few short days or a weekend, and sometimes they are split over a series of weeks. For example, the dialogue I ran occurred over 7 weeks. This is a good time frame for a 7 game storyline; imagine sessions running for 4-5 hours each week. During a dialogue session, you would create a theme or series of specific questions to ask during that session. For our gaming method, you are replicating a similar process by outlining what sort of events you’d like to have occur in each episode/session/game.

Create 80% complete pre-generated characters. As the game master this gives you some more control over what sort of skills, powers, abilities, or interests each character will have. That allows you to plan the story more effectively. At the same time, you want the players to invest some of themselves into the characters. Depending on the game you are creating this 80/20 rule will look a bit different, but you want to ensure you give the players just enough customization to matter and you don’t want to overwhelm them with a GURPS level character creation either.

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Set a topic, and recruit players that are interested in addressing the topic you are going to use. You want to design your story to address some of the real-world elements you are working into the dialogue. For example, you want to host a dialogue session on racial tension in the United States? Cool, first thing you want to do is recruit players willing to dialogue over this issue, try and create a diverse group, and then incorporate concepts of race relations into your chronicle design. There are a lot of ways to do this. If you are playing a fantasy game, having two actually different game races in conflict may seem a bit too heavy handed. At the same time, discussing tensions between Dwarves and Elves might work perfectly for the story you want to tell. Balance it; find the right elements that fit your goals. The Eberron setting for D&D has some effective interpretations of Goblins as an underprivileged group. Games like Urban Shadows allow for modern fantasy investigations into concepts that would be good to dialogue with as well. The goal here is to address a topic your players want to investigate and weave it into your story.

At the same time as you are designing your chronicle, you would want to plan for and develop a short ground rules and debrief before and after each gaming session. The ground rules let you as the game master/facilitator establish what the group understands about dialogue, gaming, and lets you set some ground rules for how you will interact with one another. No swearing, no shouting, are good examples, as well as dice should be rolled on the table, and perhaps no chips at the table. (That is a mix of dialogue and gaming rules I’ve instituted over the years at different times) From the rules, you have a framework to hold your players accountable during the game and after during the debrief sessions. You may want to either hold the debrief at a different time, or set-aside an hour or two at the end of every game to work through it. This debrief will help the players internalize the concepts they dealt with in-character, it may help them either notice or eliminate negative bleed, or it might help them identify positive bleed. Bleed is a concept normally discussed in LARP, but also can be experienced at the table. Using role-playing as a dialogue method, you’ll likely see more bleed than usual.

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From a gaming perspective you want the sessions to be interesting, engaging, and fun. From the dialogue perspective you want the sessions to be deep, and dive into topics that might be sensitive. This requires you actively engage your players for feedback and approval throughout the session. Every player should know what they are getting into. Trigger warnings are beneficial prior to sessions, as are methods of leaving a scene. There are some methods that are used in Nordic LARPS that could be useful to adopt. Around a table, with smaller groups, it should be easier to do verbal check-ins to ensure that players are comfortable with the game. If not, stop. Consent and collaboration are important to the process.

Sample Questions to Ask During Debrief

How is the game going so far? Do you have any questions?
Do you have questions about how your character is acting in relation to others?
Are you comfortable with the items the story is addressing?

Do you want to discuss any actions taken by a player that occurred in-character?

Is anyone concerned with IC or OOC action taken by anyone?

Are there aspects of the game you want to play more of?

This is an early model of this type of gaming as dialogue model. If you have questions, ideas, suggestions, or would like to provide feedback I am more than open to discussing this idea further.

Josh is the Admin@KeepontheHeathlands, he’s got a degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University. 

THE STORYPATH SYSTEM IS AWESOME: BACK SCION’S KICKSTARTER!

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Image by Onyx Path Publishing

KICKSTARTER LIVE NOW

Scion is a game that puts the players in the role of descendants of Gods. This is a game of cinematic story, fast moving and epic.  From ‘lowly’ heroes, to demi-gods, and eventually reaching godhood, characters in Scion strive for apotheosis while battling the reawakened Titans. In the original game, there were 6 Pantheons, and in the 2nd edition there will be 10. There is potential for further options as well in later books.

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Thor

Aesir – The Norse Gods

Deva – The Hindu Gods, Kami – The Japanese Gods

Manitouk – The Algonquian Gods

Netjer – The Egyptian Gods

Orisha – The Yoruban Gods

Shen – The Chinese Gods

Teotl – The Aztec Gods

Theoi – The Greek and Roman Gods

Tuatha de Dannan – The Irish Gods

 

Each of these Pantheons is connected through the power of a shared Story, a Fate that connects them with one another. Their offspring, the Scions, are not all direct descendants in the 2nd Edition, but they will be connected through this supernatural Fate that binds them. Some of you who are familiar with the Proto Indo-European diasporic root nature of some of these pantheons may wonder why they aren’t the same beings? (PIE or GTFO). The game defines them as Incarnations that exist separately from one another, they have a different existence, perhaps your characters might rise to become a different Incarnation of a similar god? So how does is this going to work?

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About a month ago, the Storypath System Preview was released by Onyx Path Publishing and I’ve been perusing the PDF for a few weeks. I then got a copy of the preview in beautiful printed form while I was at Grand Masquerade. This new system is going to be used for both Trinity Aeon and Scion, and though I am way more excited for the return of the Trinity Universe… Scion looks amazing as well.  For anyone that was previously familiar with Scion, the Storypath system makes some adjustments that seem like they seriously enhance and evoke the style and themes of Scion. The first thing to notice in the System Preview is the Core Mechanic.

core-mechanic

Borrowed from the Storypath System Preview

The Core Mechanic should be familiar to anyone that has played a White Wolf game, but it has changed a bit. That bit of change makes for a very cinematic dice mechanic. You roll a dice pool of d10’s, Attribute + Skill (familiar so far), 8’s and higher are successes (7’s for Novas and Demigods). Now, here is the adjustment: you have a target amount of successes for your action. The preview shows 3, if you fail, but don’t botch you receive a consolation which is an action that drives the story even if it wasn’t what you intended. If you succeed by getting the exact amount of successes, then you do what you wanted to, and if you get more you get to add Stunts to what you were trying to do. Very cinematic, very story driven, very modern game design that encourages failing forward and cinematic success.

200px-docsavageThis Core Mechanic has waves throughout the rest of the basic system. If you fail, but don’t botch, you collect Momentum, which you can save up to use Skill Tricks. These are cool cinematic effects that a character can add to their action. The diving two-footed kick while shooting down a row of bad guys? That’s probably a Skill Trick that cost some Momentum to pull off. The Storypath system is designed to be flexible for scale though, if you want to play Superman 4-color style Super’s you can do that, or you can play gritty detective tales that evoke The Shadow, or Doc Savage.

Here is something about the Storypath System that actually I might be more excited about than I should be. Initiative. Initiative is something I’ve struggled with in most games. It feels clunky no matter how you do it, but I think the Storypath System has something fun that will make it stand out. First, your Initiative is based on the Attribute + Skill pool you plan to use in that first round. This stops the dumping of stats into Wits and Dexterity that we’ve seen in earlier systems based on similar rules. Then it gets fun, the player that goes first, chooses the next player in initiative order, that player chooses the next person, and so on down the line. This encourages some collaboration, and talking about what each person will be doing. The last person to go, is the first person to go in the next round, and so on until the combat is over. Pretty cool, I’d have to play this a few times to see if it is better than what I’m used to, but it sounds better on the surface.

There are a few other neat mechanics presented in the Storypath System Preview, and I recommend checking it out, it’s free. Now, what isn’t free, but you should be excited about anyway, is that Scion 2nd Edition is having a Kickstarter that is LIVE NOW. So, you might be asking why that is exciting? You read to this point, so I’m assuming you at least have some interest in role-playing games… if you don’t… welcome to the site?

It is exciting because Scion is a great game, and the Storypath System is going to breathe new life into great games that I don’t think have got their due from the gaming community at large. Scion is well designed and interesting, and Trinity Aeon is one of the greatest worlds I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell stories within. Are you ready to begin an epic journey? Will you make your story last? Will you become a Legend, a new great Myth?

Josh runs this site and would love to talk to you about games. Email him at admin@keepontheheathlands.com

4 WAYS TO EFFECTIVELY USE THE HUMANITY ROAD/PATH/RULES IN VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE

Content Originally Appeared at High Level Games

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Vampire: The Masquerade is a horror game; even if every game played isn’t about horror, the fact you are playing an undead parasite on the side of humanity is something that is horrific. That being said, the humanity/road/path rules have not always been cut and dry and that makes things a little difficult to use them effectively. In most of the VtM games I’ve played, most storytellers have ignored the rules or used them sparingly. I don’t think any of them disagreed with the concept, but they did get frustrated with remembering the hierarchy of sins and understanding when and how a roll should be made. Some also understood the horror side of the game, but didn’t want every session to be about the brooding horror and so they would sideline these rules to focus on other awesome aspects of the game world.

Here is a short list of things I think help make the rules easy to use.

1) Make your players learn the rules too.
I know that the Storyteller should know the rules, but this is one of the rules that your players will need to spend some time with. Your players should learn what the hierarchy of sins looks like and why it exists. You should take 10 minutes to talk about what the Path Rating each player has really means. If it is high, why and how will that impact their role-playing are great questions for them to consider. Also, discuss the basic purpose of Conscience/Conviction, Self-Control/Instinct, and Courage. Players need to read this section of the book a few times, and don’t be afraid to start a session with a short-refresher training. Encourage your players to ask for appropriate checks. If they are thinking about draining a human because that person made their character angry, encourage the player to roll a Self-Control check to see if they follow-through, particularly if they have a high Humanity rating. If the players start suggesting such rolls for themselves then you are headed in the right direction.

2) Oh, if I go down in Humanity I can kill everything!
Sure. Let your players do this if that is the direction they think their characters would head. Then make them regret it. Remind them of the power of their Beast. Describe scenes to them differently; focus on the primal hunger inside them by making even basic human interactions a game of fight or flight. If they had an activity their character loved doing, find ways to make them realize that activity no longer holds appeal. Try adding Beast Traits, or other physical markers of their separation from humanity. I’m not talking about doing this every time they lose a dot of Humanity, but it is a good thing to add in every now and then to make the transition down into wassail worse for the character.

3) How about I switch to a path/road then?
Again, sure… then remind the character that such a transition takes time, not only time, but a true role-playing dedication to acting inhuman. Paths are alternative worldviews created by Cainites to help them try and reconcile their base natures with the Beast. The Path of Night does not simply allow for a player to act “evil” at will. Adhering to that path requires a dedication to thinking as that character, making choices that would fit a philosophy in line with that Path. For characters on a path or road (depending on which rule-set you are using) that player must spend the time reading about that path. I recommend that player also create a sub-set of rules alongside the hierarchy of sins. This rule-set are parameters of how their character understands the Path/Road and how that affects their behavior.

4) Know when to Roll and when to Role-Play
In my experience, most WoD players know when to role-play their Path/Road/Humanity rating, but very few know when they should be rolling their virtues or rolling their path rating. This is in some-ways a recap of number 1 on this list, but it is focused more on the ST. Know when you should let your players role-play out a loss of humanity or regain it without rolls. If you think a roll is justified to make the decision the player is making stick, do it. This applies to path rating as much as it does to Self-Control. If a player on the Path of the Beast needs to roll Instinct to see if they chase after prey, even if that prey is inside Elysium, ask yourself if a role or a roll is the best way to handle that situation. I’ve personally seen Courage rolled the most, because I think most players and storytellers can get their minds around fear and a roll to see if they are affected by supernatural or ‘natural’ derived fear.  Self-Control and Conscience are very similar, find times they are appropriate and story-driven to force rolls, and then encourage effective role-playing of the effects.

It can be awesome to role-play vampires as supernatural heroes, but you are missing something special about Vampire: The Masquerade when you do so. VtM is a horror game for a reason, darkness lurks behind every human action, and the creatures that lurk in that darkness are truly monsters. Don’t make every game depressing, but don’t be afraid to drive home the inhumanity of your characters every now and then.

MORPHOLOGICAL FREEDOM IN THREE EASY STEPS

Genetic engineering is one of the oldest human technologies dating back some 15,000 years.  Yes, you read that correctly; I hope. Mesolithic was the era and the descendants of the wolves to first scavenge off the refuse of human communities were the target.  While the exact series of events are debated, the fact is, around that time some bloodlines of wolves became accustomed to humans and eating what humans provided, overcoming one of the most crucial barriers between “wild” and “domesticated”, the acceptance of humans as the provider of food.  Once this happened, the breeding of wolves into dogs and the hundreds of varieties that we know today really took off and arguably the most successful partnership between two species began.  

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From Joyfuldogs.Uk

The modern golden and sweet corn was engineered from a grass, yep, grass, called teosinte in the Americas about 7,000 years ago.  The modern corn plant couldn’t possibly survive on it’s own in the wild and is a decidedly vulnerable and ill-fitted for survival plant.  Think about it, ever seen corn in the wild?  This plant however has become a centerpiece of our diets and our industries; the debate as to whether this should be the case won’t be addressed here but is something you should look into.  Seriously; educate yourselves, people!  

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Starting an article focused on morphological freedom; the freedom of sapient species to alter and change their physical bodies as they see fit to do so; with dogs and corn may seem a bit odd.  These two facts establish a baseline of fact; the human race has been modifying other species of both plant and animal persuasions for millennia and getting upset because we’re more efficient at it now won’t change what is an expression of our fundamental nature; adaption.  Except we’re not adapting ourselves, we’re adapting everything around us.  This is the seed that has grown into the fear and loathing of human modification and postnatal physiological alteration; that’s a fancy way of saying gender reassignment surgery.  

Oh my people, you’ve stepped into it now as the trap snaps shut with Eclipse Phase, transhumanism, and a current politically hot issue coming right at you, so let’s do this.  The idea of changing our bodies brings out more resistance in humans than the idea of altering ourselves mentally if the prevalence of mind-altering drugs both legal and illegal is any indicator.  Why is this the case?  Primal instinct.  Our sentience and sapience is a new edition to this gene code carrying transport that is our bodies and seemingly we have far less of a reaction to adjusting our mental performance while the idea of transgender makes the skin crawl up your spine.*(Editor’s Note, thankfully, not everyone has such a reaction.)  As a note the reaction your baser instincts have doesn’t make you a bad person; what you choose to do with that reaction determines the kind of person you are.  

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The history of Eclipse Phase doesn’t record when the first political shots were fired in the battle for morphological freedom, but if it’s the same as our own reality then I can understand the desire to hide that it was over bathroom usage.  The result of that inevitable war is the rampant morphological freedom to be found in the game books as the selection of bodies or “morphs” continues to expand.  This continuing growth of selection makes absolute sense from all angles; the Hypercorps would offer varieties of the same morph, much like a modern car lot would offer a selection of the same model with small adjustments and modifications which would create a multitude of choices, never mind the cosmetic choices.  Would you like a body with cat eyes?  Perhaps you’d care to see that model in the neon pink fur?  We used a sea coral gene line to create the fluorescing effect in the fur which actually has a cellular nature similar to fish scales but we were able to maintain that soft RealFr™ feel.  Let’s discuss terms; lease or buy?

inevitable

Because why buy when you know you’ll want to replace that body after a few years when you become bored with it?  Or the new model arrives with gecko pads for an incredible climbing experience?  The advertising would feature a neon pink cat like morph dangling from the cliff face of Olympus Mons while Roar by Katy Perry plays in the background.  Also, consider that manufacturers wouldn’t build these bodies to last knowing that you’ll want a new one, whether a year later or ten, and Posthuman Studios has acknowledged this beautifully with the Planned Obsolescence trait. While most commonly associated with the Ruster morph, this should be a trait we see in almost all high performance morphs, especially those sold by Hypercorps.  The same logic that powers the light bulb industry would most definitely power the morph manufacturing sector.  While a morph that lasts a hundred years with minimal effort can be manufactured there isn’t a profit in a consumer base that’s only shopping on a centennial basis and so the corporations continue to their religion of profit in all things.  So surely the anarchist outer system filled with free-thinkers, post-scarcity economics, and readily available means of production have created an environment where a single body can last and is more importantly socially acceptable and even encouraged?  

If you squint you can see Katy Perry

If you squint you can see Katy Perry

Unlikely, friend; as the ever expanding need for new experiences in the face of eternity will fuel a constant desire and even need to upgrade, expand, alter.  There’s little difference between the scum barge filled with sapients changing bodies in a constant desire for new experiences and the kids purchasing the latest iPhone because it’s the latest.  They’re both craving the new, the different, and to feel they belong to a group not like any other.  The consumer mentality is a weakness of humanity and doesn’t dissolve into the background because there aren’t corporations to take advantage of it.  While the books of Eclipse Phase and the adherents of transhumanist thinking would have you believe that “mom & pop” and “grass roots” would be the best descriptions of their post-scarcity economy, the reality is the scarce resource in a post-scarcity economy would become reduced down to fundamentals; time and knowledge.  The specialized skills and services and techniques used in the production of goods would become the most highly valued part of any exchange.  The reputation system in Eclipse Phase demonstrates that beautifully and, if anything, is simpler than what would be the reality.  

The technological level painted by Posthuman Studios doesn’t allow for subsistence economics or desperate survival in the face of unavailable staples like food or water; the technological level presented means that all basic and necessary survival items, like food or water, are readily available to all.  In order to make a setting where getting your next meal is important you would have to remove the technological level and this has an impact on economics as well.  The skill of a talented chef is more valuable than the ingredients they are working with.  What is important to the chef however is a bit different; more knowledge to increase his own skills, a more productive morph, better enhancements for tracking the goings on of the kitchen, better multi-tasking software.  The economy would become a series of specialists offering valuable one-of-a-kind items and mass produced boring items of dubious quality.  For the first time, quality would overpower quantity as the primary motivator of profit and nothing would be more valuable and profitable than morphs.  A product that is literally the experience of life with the additions of improving quality of skill and performance in the areas most profitable to the owner has no analogue in our modern day; the value cannot be calculated.

This is real...

This is real…

The transhumanist philosophy uses morphological freedom as a supporting pillar, a primary tenet of the philosophy.  While there’s this seeming assumption about medical advancements that will defeat aging, overcome cancer, and prevent all illness there’s seems this underlying drive, need, for true morphic freedom.  There are a number of hurdles and concerns to be overcome for this to come to pass.  Our minds operate with our bodies, our minds rely on the chemical messages and sensory data of our birth bodies and sends commands with so much ease to our various organs because both body and mind grew together.  A process that creates a vast amount of integration, a perfect homeostasis between mind and body which is the result of and part of the process of our evolution.  In essence we would need to learn every trick that evolution has developed through trial and error over hundreds of millennia in order to fulfill the transhumanist desire and we’ve only just barely begun.  The technological underpinnings for such ease of transference of an adult mind are mysterious and distant and Eclipse Phase doesn’t focus on the technology and instead focuses on how the human subject is reacting to something. That is something Posthuman does very well; bringing the focus back to the human face.

The face of that human and in fact all of humanity in the Eclipse Phase universe is one constantly shifting between the wildly variable morphs that have become available.  The societies that cover the solar system are where those who refuse to change their bodies are the strange and the weird, a far cry from the modern world where the idea of gender has created so much furor that you can hardly hear the few reasonable adults speaking.  This is the ideological battle that’s commencing with the modern age as the first skirmish and Eclipse Phase as one possible outcome.  There are centuries yet before we even come close to the morphological freedom that Eclipse Phase enjoys, if it’s even possible, but the potential for such is grandly done in Eclipse Phase.

 

Next time we’re bring neural programming, morph engineering, and the endless human need to meddle together and talking about uplifting non-sapient species.  Yeah, ethics!

reprotech

  Ewwwww…gross.

Justin has been playing, running, and designing games since he was 14.  He enjoys reading, writing, eating, and sleeping.  He also enjoys a good think but not too often as he’s very heat sensitive and doesn’t want his brain to boil over.

Invisible Sun, a Study in the Tension Between Accessibility in Price and Design

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Life is a pure flame, and we live by an Invisible Sun within us. – Sir Thomas Browne

The quote above is credited by Monte Cook games as an inspirational source for their new game Invisible Sun.  Invisible Sun is a highly experimental RPG that includes elements of board gaming, formalized rules for downtime sessions, and rules for engaging players with different playstyles in a variety of ways.  The board game elements bring a tactile experience that has been less prevalent in RPGs since the industry moved away from the miniature figure and occasional terrain inclusion of yesteryear.  The board game elements also allow more complex role playing systems like multiple percentage roles for determining randomized effects to be handled though simple dynamics like drawing cards from a deck.  The game includes a beautiful resin statue meant to display cards that impact game play so everyone can see them, and the first stretch goal was a spell and artifact grimoire that includes spell cards for every spell in the book.

When I first saw the kickstarter for Invisible Sun I was at first excited, then disappointed, then excited all over again.  It took me a while to figure out exactly how I felt about this whole RP experiment. The problem is the lowest pledge reward is $197.  Yes, you read that right.  One hundred and ninety seven dollars, and that pledge level doesn’t include the majority of the stretch goal material.  For the past several years I have been increasingly concerned about the trends in game development that make it difficult to bring new players into the hobby.  Some of these issues are related to how difficult it can be to dive into modern role playing games with any kind of mental processing challenges.  I started thinking about these issues in earnest largely because of the first post on this blog, which focuses on the challenges of role playing with memory issues.  Other barriers to role playing are purely financial, which is an increasing problem in the 20teens.  The books just seem to be getting larger and larger, with each edition being more expensive than the last. With a few exceptions we have not really seen any tools to break these games down into more systematically manageable, and affordable pieces.

Comparison of the most recent Vampire the Masquerade LARP and Tabletop books to the most most recent editions released from the original White Wolf era

Comparison of the most recent Vampire the Masquerade LARP and Tabletop books to the most most recent editions released from the original White Wolf era.  The modern books here are the thinner basic print quality.

The one fairly high profile aid designed to streamline the process of juggling rules mid session are the spell cards Wizards of the Coast published as part of the D&D 5th Edition line.  In the last year I’ve seen a few companies follow WotC’s lead on spell card inspired products, and at this year’s GenCon I saw a few companies experimenting with tools and game design that break away from the tables, charts, and expansive RP tomes that currently dominate the gaming market. Those experiments were not the norm though.  The majority of what I saw at GenCon still leaned towards heavy, ornate, leatherette bound special editions with little in the way of gaming aids.  Even a few small indie publishers were still defaulting to this format, despite not having an established brand to back up their price point.  When gaming aids were available they were generally being produced by third party companies for extravagant prices.

So when I saw Invisible Sun announced I was phenomenally excited, and when I saw the price the day the kickstarter went live my heart fell.  Several people expressed concerns about the price in the kickstarter comments.  The game devs responded, saying that this was a premium product, and that part of why they are aiming for such a luxury experience is that their last few game products were specifically targeted at affordability, so they felt like this was a good time to aim for a different segment of the role playing market.

I decided to check and see what “affordable” really meant.  I was incredibly surprised to find the Numenera Player’s Guide pdf was only $7.99 and a hard copy was only $19.99.  This book is advertised as including all the rules necessary for a player to make a character, and generally get up to speed on the setting and core rules.  I haven’t seen a price point like that on a major game line since the 90’s, and being primarily a World of Darkness player I’m used to the go whole game or go home design philosphy.  It was very refreshing to see a product priced and designed for players who know they will never need GM materials.  After seeing this I decided to go back to the Invisible Sun kickstarter and take a second look at what was being sold for that $197. As it turns out that price tag covers a lot of game material, and it left me wondering how that actually stacked up to what it takes to get started with a traditional role playing game.

As a baseline I decided to compare the Invisible Sun box to the price point for running a decent Dungeons and Dragons 5th Ed. campaign.  I’m not counting the D&D startup boxes, because they really only give you enough to decide if you want to purchase the rest of the game.  Assuming you need at least 1 Player’s Guide, 1 Dungeon Master’s Guide, and either 1 campaign book, or the Monster Manual if you’re going to create your own campaign, your initial book investment would be $150 MSRP (I know Amazon is less, but let’s assume you want to support your local game store).  A basic Chessex Dice set is $4.  So we’re right around $154 with no game aids.  If we add in a wet erase mat, a few miniatures, the Arcane spell cards and 1 set of healer class spell cards we overshoot that $197 initial purchase cost handily.  Given what is included in the Invisible Sun Black Box this seems like a reasonable comparison.

Just to make sure D&D wasn’t a one off example, I looked at some of Onyx Path/White Wolf’s products.  The World of Darkness 20th Anniversary core books cost between $50 for a relatively moderate quality print on demand text to $115 for a premium print on demand copy of Mage the Ascension 20th Anniversary, and are not available with free shipping or any kind of Amazon discount.  Chronicles of Darkness has a similar price point since you need the core rule book as well as one of the specific game texts such as Vampire the Requiem or Beast the Primordial to really run a full chronicle.  While that may seem to provide a slightly more affordable point of entry than D&D to run a reasonable World of Darkness game, you generally need more than one copy of the book as during combat players often spend a lot of time hunting down exact rules for their actions so they are prepared on their turn.  There are spell cards available for some of the games in the Chronicles of Darkness lines, but not all of them.  A comment on a recent Onyx Path blog indicates they are going to begin to release similar products for the World of Darkness 20th Anniversary line, but these cards are not yet available.  So at many tables multiple 500+ page tomes are a necessity, as are far more dice than are ever needed for Dungeons and Dragons.  Again, we have very rapidly overshot the $197 price point of Invisible Sun, and we have far fewer game aids available to help make the play experience more accessible.

The primary problem with the Invisible Sun model is that with other properties players will likely pick up the extra dice, copies of the player’s guides, spell cards etc. for themselves.  With Invisible Sun everything is wrapped up in a single product, and while Monte Cook Games has encouraged players to split the price, generally people are going to be less likely to do that if they don’t own the fruits of their expenditure, and no collector is going to be comfortable breaking up an Invisible Sun Black Box.  There is now a player kit priced at $36 thanks as an Invisible Sun stretch goal, but that is an additional expense.  It doesn’t help mitigate the initial $197 hit.  Ultimately the game is incredibly well priced for what is included, and breaks much needed ground on accessible game design, but is less financially accessible than most games on the market because all of the expense is front loaded in a single purchase.

When all was said and done I did end up funding Invisible Sun.  I am still frustrated that the 15 year old me that bought his first copy of Vampire the Dark Ages after much scrimping and saving would have a difficult time investing in my favorite properties today, and would certainly not be able to make the dive into Invisible Sun. However, I am also aware that by the time I was done with high school I had spent well over $197 on my World of Darkness collection, and it was in many ways a less comprehensive assortment of role playing resources than what is included in the Invisible Sun Black Box.  I also remember far too many games with players who ended up leaving the hobby behind because navigating arcane texts, and tables filled with endless numbers kept them from truly enjoying the process of role playing.

Invisible Sun may not open role playing to a new generation of 15 year old geeks waiting in the wings of their local gaming stores, but it unquestionably breaks ground on making role playing games a more accessible experience. As long as Monte Cook is focusing on creating products at all price points, the innovations that work in Invisible Sun have a very real chance of making their way into more affordable game lines.  Hopefully over time these innovations will spread well beyond the scope of Monte Cook’s games and find their way into a variety of role playing products across the industry.  We can do more to make games that everyone can easily enjoy, and despite the sticker shock I honestly believe Invisible Sun is only the beginning of a trend in thinking about game design in radically new and elegantly accessible ways.

REVIEW OF HUNTER THE VIGIL

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I have always loved tales of the supernatural and many a night have been spent reading horror novels or sitting wrapped in a blanket before the TV watching old black and white horror movies. One of the staples of such books and movies are the monster hunter; from professional vampire killers like Van Helsing or some poor man or woman who are thrown into the world of the dark and paranormal in search of the monster that stole their lover. If we expand beyond the black and white movies we have technological ghost hunters, like Ghostbusters, to government agents investigating strange cases, as per the X-Files. Monster hunters have always been fascinating to me as they are the David that stand against Goliath, from medieval tales to modern computer games they are the last hope for the lost and the innocent and they fight an uphill battle against the creatures of the night.

 

The very first book I read for classic World of Darkness was the original Hunters Hunted and I loved it, as such my joy was great when White Wolf in 1999 published Hunter the Reckoning, probably my favorite of the classic World of Darkness games outside of the big three. However while Reckoning is a good game there was always something missing from it, for me. In Reckoning you play men and women who themselves have powerful supernatural abilities and easily rival the critters they fight against, as such it lacks the feeling of frailty and danger I always got from watching my black and white heroes hunt vampires in old wind-filled castle ruins. In 2008 though came the game Hunter the Vigil for new World of Darkness, recently renamed Chronicles of Darkness and while I will not say it is better than Reckoning, I will say it is closer to the stereotypical monster hunters who have nothing but their wits and a few knacks to take on the legions of evil and protect mankind.

 

SETTING AND CONCEPT

 

Hunter the Vigil is set in a dark version of our own world where supernatural beings such as werewolves and vampires are real. The game has the players take on the role of monster hunters who risk their lives, minds and frequently souls, to hunt and kill the creatures of the night. Some take on the paranormal critters alone, while others join groups and orders, and all have their own reasons for beginning their vigil; from devil worshipers that hunt supernatural creatures to steal their power to Catholic exorcists out to save souls in the name of God. Within this game you can create all types of characters, from a X-Files type mystery game, to wacky urban fantasy like Ghostbusters, and deep personal horror stories of loss and pain. In all the stories though, one thing stands clear, there are monsters out there and they are all faster and stronger than you are, your chances for survival are small and yet you and others that take up the Vigil might be the only hope humanity have left.

 

HUNTER ORGANIZATIONS AS A GM (ST) TOOL

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One of the things I really appreciate in Hunter the Vigil is the plethora of organizations and groups the player character can belong to. In this game White Wolf dropped the five plus five system they had used for earlier games and instead introduced a tier system that allows ST’s to customize the level of support and equipment available to the campaign’s fearless troupe of player characters. From nothing at all with tier-one characters who have only their specific cell of monster hunters to rely on, to tier-three where the group has world-spanning organizations at their back and might be able to call in an air raid on some poor vampire’s resting place. With the support of such an order though comes responsibility and just as while the Compacts and Conspiracies, which the hunter organizations are called, might back the player characters up in their missions they will also demand loyalty and nail errant hunters to the wall for failure.

 

The Compacts and Conspiracies system is actually a very nice touch as not only does it allow you to customize the power level of your game but also allows you to customize the tone. There are conspiracies that really are a vast private army so you can get more or less a military campaign story and then you have the typical religious hunters that go after monsters with crosses and holy water. One downside is that these organizations do not always play well together, scientists that try to nab monsters to conduct experiments in the name of progress might not go well with the before mentioned typical Hammer horror vampire hunter so the game does require that the group sit down and decide together what sort of game they want and what organizations will be used. But, if this is done then this game offers vast possibilities for a unique monster hunting experience.

 

SIMPLE SYSTEM, PERHAPS TOO SIMPLE…

 

I do not know how much there is to say about Hunter the Vigil’s system as this game has yet to get a Chronicles of Darkness second edition. It uses the Chronicles of Darkness version of the Storytellers system. The basics are rather simple, you have nine attributes, which are the core aspects of your character, these mark out how strong he is or how smart she is, these stats go from one to five with one being as bad as it gets and five being world class. Further, you have a number of skills, which also go from one to five and you simply combine the two stats most suited for what the character is trying to do and roll that many dice, all die that land on an eight or over are a success and the number of successes determine how well you succeed. There is some more nuance and you also have various equipment and powers in this game called Endowments, as well as ways to customize your character with things called Merits and Flaws, but the above is the basic mechanism for rolls in this game.

 

Now the simplicity of Hunter’s system carries with it both benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side it is far easier to focus on the narrative during an intense scene when you do not have to drag out a calculator and do more math than a collage level final exam to figure out if you managed to push your bible into that damned vampire’s mouth before he made you lunch, or if you managed to dodge that pesky sorcerer’s blast of fire and now are ready to pump her full of lead, but at the same time the simplicity means there is not much in the way of nuance. The dancer with 5 in Dexterity and a first aid class giving him 1 in Medicine have just as much chance to pull off surgery as the old ace surgeon with 1 in Dexterity and 5 in Medicine, which can be annoying at times. However, with an ST that puts the logic of the game world before the numbers on the dice the Storyteller system works pretty well and it is fast, even in a scene with a lot of actions and many characters involved. The game never gets bogged down with dice rolling which allows for the story to flow smoothly and the tale being told to always be the central aspect. Which is the goal of any World of Darkness, or in this case Chronicles of Darkness, game.

 

ENDOWMENTS, WHAT MAKES VIGIL DIFFERENT FROM EARLIER HUNTER THE RECKONING

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Hunters are not defenseless in Hunter the Vigil however, they do have so called Endowments, little tweaks and powers that might just give them that little extra they need to survive, but this is far more like Abraham Van Helsing’s charms and prayers, than Buffy’s super strength and agility.

 

Endowments can be anything from minor magic powers to science fiction style weapons to strange artifacts. My first Hunter the Vigil character, Pilar, had a magic spindle with unbreakable thread which could then be used to secure a monster once caught, the drawback…for there is always a price, was that the thread was spun out of her own life force. And that was it, that was all Pilar had to defend herself against the things that go bump in the night.

I personally think that the Endowment system is the best part of Hunter the Vigil as it makes sure your character is not helpless against the creatures he or she is risking their lives to take down but at the same time they do not overpower the hunter. The game is still about regular humans vs the horrors that stalk mankind, and as such the game will include far more research, planning and trying to figure out how to take the monsters down than a heads on confrontation that is not likely to end well for the hunters, and to me that is what a game about monster hunting is supposed to be.

 

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO PLAY?

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Here is where Hunter the Vigil has a bit of an issue. New World of Darkness was originally based around buying one core book and then the various games in the series were templates to add to this core system. This meant you needed the New World of Darkness Core book. (Not the new Chronicles of Darkness ones that is the second edition and we have no new edition of Hunter just yet though converting it to the new rules should not be that hard.) Then you will need Hunter the Vigil’s core book and preferably either the core book that deals with whatever critter your hunters will be going after or at least the supplement for Hunter concerning that type of monster. That means that if you want to start playing Hunter the Vigil and have none of the new World of Darkness books then you need to acquire three books to get what you need to get going and that can get expensive, unfortunately White Wolf continue with this method of publishing Chronicles of Darkness, which if anyone is confused by the two terms are the second edition of new World of Darkness, so the problem will not go away anytime soon. If you have some of the books in question or have been playing another game of the line though, then picking up Hunter the Vigil is well worth it if you enjoy stories of monster hunting that are like old 1950’s horror movies or shows like the X-Files.

 

CONCLUSION:

 

I could say a lot more about this game but with a limited amount of space I think I will keep it to saying that a lot of fun can be had with this game. The system is simple but fast, the setting is pretty good, though as with all the Chronicles of Darkness entries I am left with the same feeling as I read though the core books, good…awesome game, but what do I do with it. There are few plot hooks ingrained into the books themselves. I would not say this is the best of the Chronicles of Darkness games but it is a good tool to create a fun game of monster hunting.

 

The core book as with all the games of the same line are a beautiful, hardbound tome with beautiful art that draws you into the setting, the same with most of the supplements for this game. Hunter the Vigil is currently out of print but it can still be found fairly easily and hopefully a second edition is right around the corner, so start your Vigil, and venture into the dark, dangerous streets of Chronicles of Darkness, it is well worth it.

Anja is a woman from Norway. She has been interested in gaming most of her life. She lives with her husband and cat. She enjoys making characters and writing fan-fiction, erotic fiction, and small pieces about Neo-Paganism.