November 30, 2011

Dragonmeet Panel Audio

The fine, rugose folks at Yog Radio have kindly supplied to a waiting public a surprisingly clear audio recording of the “Ken and Robin and Simon Talk About Stuff” panel from Dragonmeet 2011. Hear us discuss new Pelgrane hotness, flintpunk, the deceptive allure of a GUMSHOE compendium, the psychology of the point spend, and more.

Also, check out Paul of Cthulhu’s interview with Ken and Simon.

November 29, 2011

In Which I Accidentally Survive

Check out the latest edition of the Accidental Survivors podcast, wherein I am interviewed about DramaSystem, tailoring RPG design to the material, the differences between gaming work and fiction, and the genesis of projects from GURPS Fantasy II to GUMSHOE, and more. We wrap with a discussion of Aki Kaurismaki, Werner Herzog, and 3D cave paintings.

Put it in your ears!

November 28, 2011

See P. XX

In a burst of understandable pre-Dragonmeet zeal, High Pelgrane Simon Rogers dropped the latest issue of the See P. XX on American Thanksgiving, an event many of you surely missed on account of turkey-induced torpor. Said zeal provoked him to unleash a veritable floodgate's worth of columns by your humble correspondent:

  • How to do costly successes with GUMSHOE's information-gathering mechanic

  • How the game's ability to get information into character hands makes mysteries richer

  • Plus a round-up of GUMSHOE GM troubleshooting

Is that all? Of course not! We get some Ashen Stars actual play, Will Hindmarch's intro to the new GUMSHOE game he's doing for Evil Hat, and a WWII Trail of Cthulhu setting from Michael Daumen. As always Simon updates us on the progress of myriad projects, And the Black Book GUMSHOE character generator makes its debut.

Go there now!

November 27, 2011

Dragon Met, Despite Planned Service Disruptions

LONDON  — Never mind local authorities’ scheme to add a puzzling extra dimension to Ken and Robin’s tube journey to Kensington High Street with a shutdown of the Circle line. Once more we triumphantly descended upon Kensington Town Hall to chat, sign autographs, and generally hold court. Dragonmeet is an event that bubbles along nicely at its maximum current capacity. It could perhaps grow by renting a bigger facility—or for that matter, more space in its present venue—but this is central London we’re talking, so that’s prohibitively expensive. Keeping the participation at about 600 attendees lends it a sense of a comfy reassembly of the tribe. I saw many familiar faces and in certain instances successfully connected them to their familiar names.

Speaking of facility limits, I took part in only one panel this year, a Q&A formatted round-up of all matters Pelgrane. I talked DramaSystem, the potential pitfalls of a GUMSHOE compendium, and how to get your players to key into investigative spends. Simon tantalized the crowd with two potential blockbuster Trail of Cthulhu supplements from Ken. Both aroused palpable booklust, with Pulp China scoring a clear edge over Southern Gothic. Assuming that Paul of Cthulhu’s sacrifices to the audio gods were all in good order, a recording of this talk should become available in the proper fullness of time.

As always, Dragonmeeters, it was a pleasure to catch up with you, and I hope for the continuance of this developing tradition.

November 26, 2011

A Clan Gathered For Conquest

LONDON – Last night there was feasting, both by the hard-bitten peoples of the craggy Southlands, and by the assembled Pelgranistas playing them in a rousing game of Hillfolk. One group got more sticky toffee pudding than the other.

This was my first time grappling with the one-shot format for the game, which in general is tuned for extended play. I wondered how much intervention on my part would be required to make it work in this format and decided to play it by ear. As is its wont, the game subtly did our work for us, creating a dynamic that escalated naturally into a climactic struggle over clan leadership. The session will help enormously in writing the convention run section of the final rule book. It also has me thinking that the way the current manuscript suggests kicking off the series is too interventionist, and that the players may be better left to their own devices.

Speaking of which, it’s time to navigate a partially closed tube system on an eerily balmy late November London weekend, and hie ourselves to Dragonmeet. Looking forward to a fine gathering of another wild clan—though perhaps without quite so much iron age sturm und drang.

November 23, 2011

Premise Concealment and the Overvaluation of Secrecy

D&D’s status as the progenitor of roleplaying as we know it has sometimes led RPGers to overvalue certain of its elements. Or rather, to adopt in their entirety bits that absolutely apply to the core activity of D&D but don’t automatically translate to all others.

For example, the baseline assumption has always been that you roll to see if you get information because that works really well in a game where you’re going down into dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Should you fail to detect a secret door, you can always find another door to bash down instead. If you don’t find the treasure hidden in the hollow in the portico, them’s the breaks.

This assumption doesn’t carry over into a game where the core activity is solving a mystery of whatever stripe. It leads to the bottlenecks and workarounds GUMSHOE was designed to eliminate.

Secrecy in general works splendidly in D&D. In the old school days, you had the mystique of the map, which the GM has hidden in front of them, and which the players must painstakingly strive to replicate. The physical process of making the map marks the group’s collective progress in killing the monsters and taking their stuff. The world in general is a giant question mark, which you whittle away at by exploring.

This has led us to overvalue secrecy in general. One extreme manifestation comes with the campaign that withholds even its premise from the group. The GM tells you only to create modern-day, more or less ordinary characters. When you show up to play, you learn, as your characters discover their true situation, what the core activity of the game is.

If you have fun running or playing under this set-up, I’m sure not going to tell you that you’re not. However, you might want to ask yourself how much of that fun occurs due to this arrangement, and how much comes in spite of it.

First, let’s face it. Once you’ve been around the block, the surprise isn’t so surprising anymore. Your players know the premise, mostly. They’re almost invariably signing up for a survival horror game—perhaps with aliens, fellow survivors or mundane soldiers in place of the default supernatural entities. If not, you’re playing a superhero game in which they all develop powers during the first sessions. Even when players are truly surprised, the benefit lasts only for a chunk of the first session, while the costs linger for the remainder of the series.

Second, by separating the core activity from character creation, this style of play reduces collaboration and shifts the narrative burden onto the GM. The GM must keep the plot machinery constantly turning to keep his random cast of PCs engaged, rather than inviting players to suggest their own compelling, personal reasons to take part in the core activity. For a dominant GM and passive players, the withheld premise may work out fine. With one or more resistant/defensive players, you'll get turtling. When you’re lucky, active players improvise connections to the core activity on the fly, back-engineering the decisions they would have made when conceiving their characters. Otherwise they may discover that their PCs frustrate them, leading them to ditch them in favor of replacements tailored for the now-revealed campaign premise.

November 22, 2011

Back To Browning

Unless they’re also paying attention to what’s being marketed to the art house crowd, fans of horror cinema may not have Pedro Almodovar’s latest, The Skin I Live In, on their radar screens. Nonetheless, you may see no film more deeply steeped in the horror tradition this year. Almodovar has in the past channeled such filmmakers as Douglas Sirk and George Cukor. Here he goes to the well of Tod Browning for a tale of obsession, madness, and body distortion. Insane scientist Antonio Banderas, abetted by his suspiciously loyal maid, keeps captive the beautiful subject of a forbidden medical experiment. If you doubt the Browning connection, Exhibit A is the fact that he wanted to shoot the film as a black and white silent. Exhibit B is the secondary villain who shows up wearing a tiger costume.

In North America Almodovar is sometimes seen as as a lighter filmmaker than he is, because we embrace his sunniest works, like Volver and Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Most of his films take a darker tone and take place in a world where passion spills over into sexual menace. His 1986 film Matador, for example, plays as the giallo Luis Buñuel might have imagined.

The Skin I Live In is a compelling exercise in the outre and highly recommended to film-going horroristas.

November 21, 2011

Beer Knowledge Me (London Edition)

As previously and thrillingly recounted in these blog pages, I recently underwent a hopsy conversion on the road to somewhere or other and now find myself a liker of beer.

As likewise announced, this weekend I will once again be jetting to the reserved yet splendid embrace of London, England, for the Dragonmeet convention and related Pelgrane summitry.

A visit to the Pelgrane’s nest largely concerns itself with the free flow of wine, a tradition with which one would be a fool to tamper. But let’s say, for the sake of hypotheticality, that I at some point wind up in a pub. You also, by remarkable coincidence, happen to be in this fine establishment and are either an English enjoyer of beers or an enjoyer of English beers.

If I’m having what you’re having, what am I having?

November 17, 2011

The Three Reveals of Gen Con Meet the Three Updates of November

Hey, Robin, you may be asking, what’s up with those three projects you announced in August? Here’s a progress report. All are looking more winter ‘11-’12 than fall ‘11 at this point. In an event unparalleled in human history, it has transpired that certain elements of a project take longer than initially thought.

I’ve been talking about Hillfolk / DramaSystem a lot in these blog pages. The manuscript is now in great shape for outside playtest. Given the upcoming Christmas rush, it may make more sense to punt this to 2012. Simon Rogers and I have been discussing, and will soon be revealing our crowdfunding approach.

Kenneth Hite has kindly agreed to write the foreword to my book of King in Yellow-inspired fiction, New Tales of the Yellow Sign. The project awaits the moment when he can squeeze this valued and volunteered effort into his fraught schedule.

Speaking of matters Hitean, the third item, the “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, awaits the design of a companion site. We have lovely illustrations in hand from a certain acclaimed and Muskrat-adjacent cartoonist, and a rough sketch of how we want it to look.

So all are still moving ahead. I’ll keep you apprised on each as developments develop.

November 16, 2011

Deceit and DramaSystem

Commenter Carl, over at my See P. XX intro to DramaSystem, asks about the role deceit plays in the game. Is there a mechanism to ensure that characters who are deceived act accordingly?

It depends on whether the interaction is procedural or dramatic. In the first instance, it occurs in pursuit of a pragmatic goal, free of emotional content, with a minor, GM-run character we don’t much care about. In this case you can con the character and he’ll act as if conned.

In general deceit occurs in DramaSystem because the core interactions mimic drama in fiction, which in turn is a condensed version of the way we behave toward one another in real life. One person seeks an emotional payoff from another, and in the process may choose to lie, dissemble, or hoodwink. If you’re playing a dramatic scene, you can make the choice to act as if the character is deceived, or not. Unlike Skulduggery / Dying Earth, the system does not force you to be fooled. This is because the character who acts on false information belongs more to the melodrama than the drama. Drama is about choices; deceit robs characters of true choices. Deceived characters work in drama when they are, perhaps subconsciously, choosing to be lied to. When Lear buys Regan and Goneril’s flattery and rejects Cordelia’s frankness, he is, on one level, fooled. But really he’s allowing himself to be gulled, because he’s petitioning them for ego gratification and wants to get it. In the DramaSystem version of this scene, Lear’s player decides to act as if fooled—he isn’t required to do it by a die roll.

If deception belongs to melodrama, its equivalent in drama is self-deception.

November 15, 2011

A Shout-Out (With Errata)

The gang at the Pulp Gamer podcast tackle Mutant City Blues, GUMSHOE and much more in episode 192. Jason dropped the linked, explicable super powers of the default game setting in favor of the Marvel universe’s jam-packed cavalcade of weirdness, and still got the premise to work.

As I point you to the episode, I do have to pipe up with a small correction. There’s a touch of mis-speaking in the segment, giving the impression that you have to pay investigative points to get core clues in GUMSHOE. Readers familiar with the game already know that investigative point spends only occur to get cool but tangential information or other tangible benefits. Core clues are always available without a spend, fulfilling the game’s purpose of eliminating investigative logjams.

November 11, 2011

Embracing Blow-Off Day

If discipline is the writer’s best friend in any field, it is as crucial in the neo-pulp realm of gaming and genre fiction as a shotgun is during a zombie apocalypse. To make a living on a modest word rate, you can’t let time tick by while you wait for inspiration to strike. You have to sit your butt in the chair and make it happen. If that requires rituals, routines or caffeine to get your brain activity jumpstarted, so be it.

That’s true almost every day. But I’ve found one circumstance where the brain’s demand for a blow-off day must be honored. At the midpoint in any novel, I invariably find that the creative engine goes completely AWOL for a day. I can’t predict exactly when that day will come, except that it will be somewhere around the middle of the first draft. The outlined scene might seem perfectly right and ready to be laid down in prose. I might be riding on the best possible night’s sleep, be in a positive place in my exercise regimen, and otherwise as physically ready as I get. But still the usual uphill battle to get down the first couple of hundred words never leaves the mire. The slogging just gets worse.

I used to try to power through, annoyed by my sudden failure of discipline. Now I realize that the sustained concentration required for a novel demands this rest stop. I have embraced blow-off day. Recognizing it when it comes, and giving my brain the day off, is as much part of the craft and discipline as any other part of the process.

A single-author roleplaying game, like Ashen Stars, is certainly longer than a genre-sized novel. But it entails enough task-switching to keep the creative wheels greased without calling a one-day strike. The starship combat chapter requires different muscles than the GM advice chapter, while the scenario represents yet another change of pace. A long fiction work draws from the same well, day after day.

My blow-off day on my current, unannounced novel came on Friday. I saw that it was coming and headed downtown to check out the delightful new Aki Kaurismaki movie, Le Havre. When I got back to the manuscript on Monday I had my flow back. Also, I saw a great scene that ought to have gone before the one that was stopping me short.

You can’t go lateral as an excuse not to work. But sometimes, in order to work, you have to go lateral.

November 10, 2011

Grimm Tidings

Where Mutant City Blues nerdtropes the police procedural by mashing it up with the superhero genre, the new NBC series Grimm does the same thing with a dose of urban fantasy. In the premise-establishing first episode, police detective Nick Burckhardt discovers that he’s a hereditary fighter of evil creatures obliquely referenced in fairy tales. With his partner Hank Griffin and acerbic new wolfman pal Eddie Monroe, he investigates mysteries involving his ancestral foes.

In GUMSHOE terms, Nick clearly has a bespoke investigative ability called Grimm Sight, a sort of supernatural version of Bullshit Detector that allows him to detect people who are disguised supernatural beings, but only when they’re under stress.

Over the course of the first two episodes, we’ve also seen the following abilities provide additional insight, or act as core clues bringing on new scenes:

Nick: Cop Talk, Forensic Psychology, Inspiration, Reassurance

Hank: Anthropology, Data Retrieval, Evidence Collection, Research

Eddie: Occult Studies

In the case of Hank’s Anthropology, we see the classic justification for a needed ability that seems outside the character conception. Down-to-earth cop Hank, after identifying an exotic tribal artifact, explains to his partner that his second wife was an anthropologist.

After two episodes, it’s hard to guess if the series will make good on its early potential as a fun blend of recognizable formulas. I am however looking forward to seeing what else is on these guys’ character sheets.

November 09, 2011


Sarah Darkmagic brings to gamerdom an ongoing discussion highlighting the ambient level of misogynistic rage women encounter when they make themselves known on the Internet.

It would be nice to believe that the sense of community we feel at gaming events, and the hobby’s aura of relative innocence, protect us from having to deal with predators, creeps and abusers. Really the surprise is that we don’t have it worse. Gaming, providing as it does a structured form of personal interaction, has always offered a haven to folks flummoxed by social demands others take for granted. They certainly aren’t the only gaming constituency. Most graduate from this phase, sometimes with the help of a lot of d20s, and move on with their lives.

But among the socially marginalized, there is a smaller slice still who are that way for a reason—because they’re so emotionally stunted, frustrated and consumed with bitterness that they can only reach out by lashing out. We can’t be welcoming to the shy and gloriously eccentric without also drawing in a certain percentage of the truly messed-up.

Hate mail is nothing new, but the net lends verbal assault a global audience and one-touch convenience. My assumption is that this hate impulse is more or less the same, no matter who’s being targeted. The hate junkie types the most vicious stuff he can think of. When it’s a man going after a woman, the language of sexual menace is only too readily at hand. Does it matter that some of these losers are moved to hate by their inability to connect with women in real life, while others some conduct their harassment in a calculating and impersonal way?

It would, I guess, if this were a problem solvable through exhortation, peer pressure, or other forms of social suasion. But hate junkies have already exempted themselves from the social grid, or have never managed to get onto it in the first place. I imagine that a surprising number are closet cases: able to show apparent empathy in their day-to-day dealings, but turning into covert, touch-typing Mr. Hydes with the blinds drawn and the computer booted up.

Misogynistic harassment, like other outflows of hate addiction, is the vengeance of the emotionally marginalized. We can speak up to offer solidarity and support to those subjected to it. I just wish that awareness campaigns, formal or otherwise, stood a chance of getting through to those who spew the stuff.

November 07, 2011

Essential Elements of a Player Character

A question over the transom from blog reader The Cosmic Goose:

When you sit down to create a new character, be it for a story or game, what aspects do you consider core to that character’s persona? Its emotional and spiritual, so to speak: the place from which the character moves, that influences their choices and decision making process? Background is certainly a part of this, but I find that its almost an afterthought. Background tells you why the character is the way he is, but not the more basic question of what or who he is. This is all from a gaming perspective, of course.

As the truism goes, Cosmic, character is action. We experience a character through what he does and, to a lesser extent (in forms that allow for interior monologue) thinks.

So to create an interesting gaming character you have to have some sense, broadly speaking, of what he is going to do. This is why it is so crucial for an RPG to come with a built-in default activity: exploring the spaceways, rectifying paradoxes in the timeline, solving eldritch mysteries, or killing monsters and taking their stuff. If your GM hasn’t clarified what your character will be doing, find out before you create him.

(An older school of roleplaying would have it that the willingness to undermine the game’s core activity represents true dedication to characterization. This “my character wouldn’t do that” syndrome came about for a particular set of historical reasons I may talk about later, but by now has clearly established itself as dysfunctional.)

So, knowing what your character is going to do, find as compelling, unique and urgent a reason to have him do that as you can. In certain GUMSHOE games, this is hardcoded into the character creation system as the character’s Drive, allowing you to grab a core motivation off the shelf. For other games you'll need to create one.

Then work outward from there, developing the backstory that adds detail and perhaps an origin to the Drive. Everything from his appearance to his gear to his special powers can arise out of this.

This covers you for the procedural narratives that are roleplaying’s bread and butter. For dramatic characters, stay tuned for my upcoming DramaSystem, as seen in its debut game, Hillfolk.

November 04, 2011

Dragonmeet 2011

With less than a month to go before London’s ever-delightful Dragonmeet convention, I am behooved to confirm that I will once more be in attendance. Thanks to the beneficence of Pelgrane Press and its magic spreadsheet, not only I but my esteemed colleague Kenneth Hite will once more descend, Oyster Cards in hand, on one of our favorite cities, to regale attendees with our wit, charm, and signatures. Those of you who’d held off making plans pending this news can now breathe easy and see us there. Amid all the other lovely folks and fun games, of course.

Dragonmeet takes place on Nov 26th, unfolding once again in the slightly chill bosom of Kensington Town Hall.

November 03, 2011

Dramatic Poles of the Walking Dead

At first glance, the survival horror cable series “The Walking Dead” would seem clearly procedural, devoted as it is to the efforts of a small band of people to tough out a zombie apocalypse. Certainly, many of its most memorable scenes pit characters against practical problems: finding a missing party member, snagging needed medical supplies, and the ever-popular hiding from undead. To run it in DramaSystem, you’d need to up the lethality level, replacing, for example, the rule that characters only die with their players’ consent.

Despite its emphasis on the procedural, it is also a dramatic show. As the second season gets underway, we can identify the dramatic poles of its key ensemble. You might peg them differently, but here’s what I’m seeing:

Rick: heroism or doubt?

Shane: altruism or selfishness?

Dale: wise old man or old man?

Andrea: survival or suicide?

Rick’s wife Lori has been written as mostly a foil for Rick and, to some extent, Shane. We tend to see her acting as the opposing force telling other characters not to do what they’re considering. Hopefully we’ll see her drawn as more of an individual, with her own clear and consistent poles, as the series progresses.

The redneck bad-ass Daryl at this point appears to be, in DramaSystem terms, a GM-controlled supporting character. His purpose is to provide relief by being an enjoyable rock of confidence, in contrast to Rick’s doubt and Shane’s concealed dark side.

Shane’s poles are turning out to be very familiar in both gaming and fiction. He shares them with Rick Blaine of Casablanca (as seen in Hamlet's Hit Points) and two characters from the in-house Hillfolk series. I expect to see them appear a lot as DramaSystem rolls out to the public.

November 01, 2011

Vampire Disappoints Area Man

At the risk of a pterodactylian reminiscence, I will now look back to an era before the YouTubes, prior to torrenting and VOD and even the humble VHS. (Though not so many years before the latter...)

Like many a monster-loving kid, my main school in cinematic horror was Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. One could hope for the afternoon movies from the Buffalo TV stations to roll around to kaiju flicks or go on a Harryhausen jag, but to learn the cultdom’s deep classics you had to consult its newsprint pages. I remember in particular a still from 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, with Bela Lugosi in Dracula outfit, accompanied by a white-clad, crazy-haired she-vamp. The text breathlessly extolled the rarity of this item, if nothing more. That only enhanced the coolness of the image. It was near impossible to see, so it must be great! And the movie was by Tod Browning, an extra point in its favor.

Flash forward * ahem harummph * years. Mark of the Vampire has been on DVD for a while now, as part of a collection of early horror rarities. I finally catch it on TCM. And you know what’s coming...’s utterly terrible!

To spoiler-alert a 76-year old dud, the first two acts are a charmingly clumsy elaboration on the Dracula structure, with a supremely hammy Lionel Barrymore taking on Van Helsing duties, and a larger-than-previous coven of bloodsuckers preying on our ingenue. Then comes the twist, in which the monstrous doings are revealed as a hoax. Almost all of the characters but one are party to a righteous Scooby Doo-ing, in which a faked vampire infestation provokes a murder suspect to give himself away. Here the rational explanation is way more implausible than the supernatural one.

It’s not the first time I built up an expectation for a work of art that fizzled when confronted with the real thing, but it’s doubtless the longest chronological gap between hope and reality.

Consider this your invitation to share your experiences of building up to a letdown.