February 28, 2012

The Once and Future Vice-President

A Ripped From the History Books scenario premise for Trail of Cthulhu

It is 1936. Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, hailed for his New Deal innovations, is easily the most mystical of cabinet secretary in US history. A self-proclaimed spiritual seeker of Theosophist bent, he openly connects his occult beliefs to his liberal politics. He even convinced fellow mason Franklin Roosevelt to pluck the Great Seal, with its eye and pyramid design, from obscurity to a new spot on the back of the dollar bill.

Neither man knows it yet, but in four years Wallace will become Vice-President. Someone who does know this is the New England dowser and sorcerer Eliphas Haslam, who has learned to perceive non-linear time. Using spells of soul migration acquired from Joseph Curwen, the terminally cancer-ridden Haslam aims to possess a new body before his old one dies.

Both he, Wallace and at least one of the PCs are on the guest list of a seeker’s conference outside Arkham. The action begins when a car crashes into a telephone pole outside the resort hotel where the conference is convening. Haslam, the sole passenger, is dead inside the car—but impossibly, seems to have been dead for hours!

The horrible truth is that Haslam managed to anchor his soul in his dead body long enough to reach the conference and migrate his soul to another of the guests. (The spell only works on hosts who have opened themselves to occult perception—which includes not only every participant at the conference, but any PC with a rating in Occult or Cthulhu Mythos.) He’d hoped to take Wallace’s body, so he could ride it to the coming Vice-Presidency, then kill Roosevelt and become President. But, despite the setback, the weekend is young, Wallace is still at hand, and Haslam may yet body-hop his way to the White House.

February 27, 2012

Core Book Structure

Or, How To Design RPGs the Robin Laws Way (Part Five of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

Having determined the core activity and design throughline, I outline, and thus structure, the book. I ask myself first of all if either of the fundamental elements call for a nonstandard structure. If not, I start with a chapter order arising from the idea of a core activity. A roleplaying game is about the characters and what they do. Ergo, the book should start with character generation. Often this entails the provision of enough context about the setting to make decisions about the characters players are designing. So I likely kick off with a quick overview of the world, universe or what have you. The rest of the first section of the book follows the step-by-step of character generation. Into this process I try to build mirrors of the design throughline: the listed decisions, and the order in which you make them, arises from the core subject matter and emotional experience of the game. HeroQuest wants you think of your characters as part of a narrative and so (among alternate choices) asks you to start with a 100-word prose description of your character. DramaSystem focuses on drama and so asks you to first establish your role in relationship to other characters and the two opposing poles that will drive your actions. GUMSHOE privileges investigation over other activities and so presents the investigative abilities before the general ones.

Subsets of character generation then appear, from most to least important, from universal to those germane to only certain character types. Almost every designer does this, whether they articulate it this way or in some other manner they find intuitive.

After this come the core rules, which enable you to understand the stuff you've just written on your character sheet. For complex resolution systems an introductory precis may appear up top, with more detail later on, so that players understand enough to make good decisions.

After this I usually cover the setting material, because it's more fun to read, and perhaps more specific to the game, than explanatory material like GM support and play style advice. The further into a book I get, the less I expect players, rather than the GM, to grapple with its contents.

Then, if the game uses them, comes the sample adventure. Given the choice I try for as complete an example as possible. I look on the sample scenario as an extended play style example and setter of expectations. My feeling is that a truncated or perfunctory scenario that merely tries to teach you the rules is a missed opportunity at best and actively misleading at worst.

Last come the appendices, reference sheets, and other bits of useful support material that aren't part of the body of the book per se.

Whether you order things like I do or not, the careful thought you pour into this question may not matter. A certain percentage of people jump around in roleplaying games to find the bits that most interest them, and then fill in the gaps. But even as they do so, they likely notice the structure and, subliminally if nothing else, learn what you're telling them from your placement order.

February 24, 2012

Momentum, With or Without Fiery Motorcycles

Okay, so I was stoked for a Neveldine / Taylor take on Ghost Rider. Here’s how to enjoy Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Wait for DVD or another fast-forwardable medium. Skip every moment, except for those in which a) something is on fire or b) Nicolas Cage is delivering lines (voice over not included.)

The goal of Johnny Blaze, like so many Marvel heroes, is to stop being the character we’ve signed up to see. He becomes a tag-a-long in his own movie, with the weirdo priest Moreau, played by Idris Elba, supplying most of the motivation. For a movie patterned on Terminator 2, in which the hero has to stop the devil from capturing a child, there’s way too much explanation going on. In other words, the script, apparently cut down from a much more elaborate version predating the original film, sadly leaves the duck in.

It’s still way better than the first one, low bar that this may be. The action is agreeably gonzo and there are some great gags. For additional entertainment value, imagine that this Johnny Blaze is not the guy from the first movie, but rather a cursed version of the Cage character from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Hey, they both went out with Eva Mendes.

I bring this up not to slag the movie, but to look to the lesson in narrative construction it provides. Films, action flicks in particular, live and die not only on the content of the set pieces, but on the momentum between scenes. Whether they build in one direction, or converge from two or more, it’s the way the scenes connect that keep us engaged.

This doesn’t apply only to films featuring flaming skull-headed vigilantes. The genius of Citizen Kane, and the  propulsion it sustains despite its achronological story order, derives from the brilliance of its scene transitions.

Here lies a key distinction between movies and roleplaying sessions. In the latter, players value freedom of choice and action over momentum. They want to control the pace, often stopping to slow it down so they can go back and add interstitial action a screenwriter would cut to elide. For the GM, the trick is to ensure that the action moves a median pace that splits the difference between methodical players and those who prefer to keep it moving.

February 22, 2012

Leaving the Duck In

In their book How To Write Movies for Fun and Profit, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon explain why so many Hollywood movies quote, suck donkey balls, unquote. Studio pictures notoriously cycle through writers as execs quest for the chimerical ideal balance between elements that will draw in audiences, leaving those who greenlit them unfired. As projects go through draft after draft, characters and concepts accrete to the screenplay. When a film feels like an unrealized mishmash, it’s because those elements survived to the shooting script, when though the moments they were meant to support didn’t, and are now nowhere to be seen.

The example they cite concerns the for tough-guy-meets-kids comedy, The Pacifier, which, when they first worked on it, was meant to star Jackie Chan. In their version, Jackie brings the children a live duck. Their faces light up in excitement. Jackie gets out his meat cleaver, ready to cut off the duck’s head, to prepare it for dinner. The children, being westerners, react in horror. So that's why The Pacifier prominently features a pet duck. Except that Chan dropped out of the project, which ultimately starred Vin Diesel. The meat cleaver gag got cut, because it made no sense with a non-Asian actor.

But the duck stayed in the movie.

We can extrapolate this into a saying, which we can mutter knowingly to one another as we depart in disappointment from a film that obviously lost its coherence during development hell.

“Wow, that one sure left the duck in.”

February 21, 2012

The Classical Monster No One Wants To Fight

A common project of the AD&D days was the scouring of classical and world mythology for creatures that might be statted up and sent off to duke it out with dungeon-exploring adventuring parties. Some imaginary beasties, it transpires, are more equal than others. No death could be more honorable than that faced by characters falling before a chimera, basilisk or hydra—especially if temporary. Other classical creatures, like the peryton, seem like candidates for a monster reboot. It’s especially embarrassing to be killed by a creature that is likely not classical at all, but a recondite joke of Jorge Luis Borges’.

The divide between the purely mythical creature and mistaken belief about real animals also blurs the picture. Linnaeus, as he systematized taxonomy in the 18th century, still accepted the mermaid as a likely animal, if not a hybrid of woman and fish.

Earlier still, Aristotle’s confusion over the identity of the European buffalo led him to record the existence of one creature no one wants in a roleplaying bestiary, even though it’s totally clear what its attack form would be. This animal was given various names, including the catoblepas, and confused for an entire menagerie of creatures. Here’s the animal Aristotle assigns to one such name.

Aristotle described the bonasus as being capable of “projecting its excrement to a distance of eight yards…the excrement is so pungent that the hair of hunting dogs is burnt off by it.”

– from Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Despite the delight of twelve year old boys everywhere—or rather, because of it—the poor, imaginary bonasus never made it to the pages of a Monster Manual. And doubtless never will. Among the deaths too horrible to contemplate, demise by bonasus ranks humiliatingly high on the list.

February 17, 2012

Top Ten Movies 2011

With Oscar season barreling down upon us, it occurs to me that I haven’t yet posted my 2011 Top Ten Movies list. I was thinking I’d get out and catch a last few likely candidates, but, as always, they will have to go sit in the asterisk pile.

  1. The Tree of Life

  2. Poetry

  3. 13 Assassins

  4. Drive

  5. Incendies

  6. Hugo

  7. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

  8. Into the Abyss

  9. The Trip

  10. House of Pleasures

Foreign-language and indie titles led my list this year. Because the rolling—that’s how I do it. I was going to link to the obscurer picks, but hey, you have the same Google I do. Most of these are already on disc. My highest-ranked blockbuster would be X-Men: First Class, coming in at #13.

Might have made the list if I’d seen them: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Moneyball.

Film festival screenings still pending theatrical release are not included, but may pop up on the 2012 list. Some of these I saw at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, although they came out last year. As always, because I live in a great film town and know how to pick films I’ll probably like, I dub 2011 a good year for film. I have 43 films on my 2011 list and would recommend thirty of them.

February 15, 2012

In Defense of the Whiff Factor

The pacing of roleplaying sessions improves when the GM follows a simple principle: never ask for a roll if failure would lead to a dead end or other uninteresting result. This principle appears in various guises in GUMSHOE, HeroQuest, and the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.

Sometimes though, as in this recent discussion of what the DNDNext team might profitably nick from GUMSHOE, it becomes important to distinguish between an uninteresting result and a setback that makes the player unhappy.

Specifically, the so-called “whiff factor”, or prospect of rolling during combat and missing, is unrelated to the null result issue. Swinging and missing represents a loss for the player. In a mainline roleplaying game, the number of actions you can take in the course of a fight acts as an uber-resource. When you use them successfully, you whittle down your opponent’s supply of another resource, usually hit points. (Or free slots on a wound track, or whatever.) When you roll and miss an opponent, something has definitely happened—you’ve fallen behind, losing a chance to score.

Likewise, a shot on goal in a hockey game never leads to a null result. The player either scores, or has lost a chance to score, a resource the dynamic of the game works to restrict. In either case, the emotional crescendo becomes apparent in the stands. If the player scores, his team cheers. If he misses, the defending goalie’s team cheers.

Criticism may be leveled at a combat system where characters fail too often, dragging out the fight and undercutting the players’ sense of vicarious competence. But that’s a matter of striking a satisfying balance between success and failure, not of eliminating non-events.

A system may try to overcome its whiff factor by granting consolation prizes to players, in which they deal a lot of damage on a success and a smaller quantity on a failure. The question to ask here is whether that’s blunting the emotional rollercoaster of success and failure, or merely putting a new coat of paint on a skewed ratio between the two.

February 14, 2012

Informational Rescue

A Ripped From the Headlines Scenario Premise for Ashen Stars

As this article reveals, the conversion of mortgages into complex financial instruments did more than provoke the 2008 global financial meltdown. The data-tracking process used to spin fragments of mortgages off into a tradeable derivative—creating a sort of mortgage slurry, if you will—now makes it impossible to determine whether homeowners, banks, investors, or anyone at all really owns certain real-world property. A nebulously owned property can’t be used as collateral, undermining a key value of everyday finance.

Speaking of slicing and dicing, this springboards a scenario that perfectly fits the Ashen Stars setting, where information loss has been one of the prices paid by a former stellar utopia torn at the seams by recent warfare.

Unlike most planets of the Combine, the synthculture planet Trump’s World practiced 20th century capitalism –albeit in idealized, tourist-park form—even before the Mohilar War. Private ownership of property underpinned this historical reenactment economy. Now info-saboteurs have struck at the heart of the system, scrambling the worldwide property database. The PCs are hired to track down the McGuffin on which the entire economy rests—the single accurate copy of the pre-disaster real estate registry. Complicating the mission: plenty of Trump’s World moguls want the database back up—after they get a chance to fiddle with it, just a little…

February 13, 2012

Why A Core Activity Is Not a Straightjacket

How To Design Games the Robin Laws Way

(Part Four of Several; see part one for introduction and disclaimer)

In the last installment of How To Design Games the Robin Laws way, I mentioned off-handedly that D&D is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff, and that this determines the way it approaches certain sub-systems, like Perception. Another game, which has a different core activity or design throughline, might do these things differently—as GUMSHOE does.

The idea that D&D is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff provoked some consternation. Gamers who are used to having their tastes slagged because they like D&D may be used to thinking of this as a slam*. Perish the thought! Without this clear, simple, escapist core activity, and D&D’s focus on it, we wouldn’t have a roleplaying hobby today. Nor would we have a huge swath of the video games that exist now. The phenomenal success of Warcraft, Skyrim and the like testify to the ongoing popularity of this core activity.

Nor does this mean that D&D can only be played as a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. Because it is a roleplaying game—in some sectors, still the default roleplaying game—you can completely set aside that core activity, so that your D&D becomes a game about meeting people and learning their secrets. Or building your own power bloc as you whittle down those of your adversaries. Or of mapping dungeons and running away from monsters.

But it’s much easier to establish your alternate core activity if the one provided as a baseline is readily apparent and strongly realized. If told that they can do anything in a game, players get stumped. If told they can do X, they may do X, or they may decide to do Y instead. The presentation of a choice, even if that choice is rejected, orients players and allows them to test their desires against the expectations the game presents.

Because so many people know it and are comfortable with its assumptions, D&D is more likely than later games to be used in service of an alternate core activity. One of 4e’s strengths, its coherence and focus, became a stumbling block when some player constituencies found it hard to reconfigure to an alternate core activity. From this you might conclude that the platonic ideal D&D gets people playing with its entertaining and straightforward hook, but also remains elastic enough so that groups can decide to abandon that hook in favor of something else.

Newer games don’t face the burden of having to serve as default RPG and can afford to err in the direction of too much focus on the core activity. But, like D&D, they can’t do without one.


*Others raised semantic objections to the term killing. Because we all know there are tons of games out there in which the hardbitten adventurers mostly tickle the monsters and take their stuff.

February 09, 2012

Scene Study: Luck

With DramaSystem now out for playtest and wending its way toward crowdfunding, I’m kicking off a new occasional feature. In Scene Study, we look at dramatic scenes from other narrative forms, see how they tick, and look for lessons we can apply when playing Hillfolk, or roleplaying games in general.

The new David Milch / Michael Mann HBO series Luck follows an ensemble cast of race track habitues, from trainers to jockeys to owners to degenerate gamblers in pursuit of diverse agendas, all of which depend on the titular quality.

In episode two, freshly paroled gangland figure Chester Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and his right-hand man Gus (Dennis Farina), recap events of the recent past while on a car ride. Gus drives, with Chester in the back. In Hamlet's Hit Points terms, the scene acts as a reveal. It tells us what both men already know about the events that led Chester to prison, and which motivate the revenge he’s now plotting against Mike, the confederate who let him take the rap for him.

On paper, you’re never supposed to write a scene in which two characters reveal information they already know. On screen, this plays as a transcendent acting duet, with the music of Milch’s stylized dialogue perfectly executed by two great actors.

It’s also a dramatic scene, in which Gus, the petitioner, seeks for something other than the facts. They are the pretext for something deeper. He’s drawing out the account of why Chester let himself take the fall to answer a question for himself. What he really wants from Chester is reassurance, a staple dramatic goal that often arises in Hillfolk games. He wants to know that they’re doing the right thing, that he shouldn't have killed the other guy, as Gus was willing to do.

Chester grants Gus his petition. By conceding that Mike would never have done the same for him if their positions were reversed, Chester shows Gus that he understands the situation. Reassured, Gus accepts the matter as closed. In a DramaSystem game, Chester’s player would earn a game currency called a drama token as reward for having satisfied the petitioner’s emotional need.

The scene shows that low-key interactions can be just as memorable as the higher-stakes confrontations that appear around them. No great heat passes between the two men. They remain cordial throughout, and Chester winds up giving Gus what he wants. The moment affirms the tightness of their friendship. A compelling scene needn’t turn on heated conflict. Here the answering of an audience question supplies all the interest we need to care about their exchange, to enjoy hearing these two guys talk.

February 08, 2012

Latest Update of the Yellow Sign

For these past few months a mantle of quiet has settled on New Tales of the Yellow Sign, the collection of weird tales that will serve as my trial venture into ebook self-publishing. If the search terms section on my traffic stats is to believed, you, the Internet, have been anxiously looking for an update on this project for a while now. So here it is.

On Monday morning I found a delightful surprise in my inbox: the foreword to the book, written by master of mythos erudition Kenneth Hite. Entitled “I Pray God May Curse The Writer: Robert W. Chambers and Robin D. Laws” it is at once a lovely piece of writing, an incisive exploration of the stories and their horror pedigrees, and a source of great chuffedness around these parts. As Ken says:

All of these New Tales of the Yellow Sign orbit lost Carcosa, black star points poked through the white scrim of consensus reality by the force of Chambers’ book. But each swings past on its own trajectory, a mix of styles and concerns in counterpoint to Chambers’ unified “Gallic studio atmosphere” of the Yellow Decade. Each story launches itself in fugue from one (or more) of Chambers’ originals, passages that Laws plays adagio or largo on different instruments, plays for modern dancers and not Victorian wallflowers.

With this chip off Ken’s busy schedule gratefully in hand, I’m now ready to move forward. Next steps: a solid, professional proofreading, and finalizing the cover. Jerome Huguenin, the illustrator and graphic designer responsible for the distinct visual presentations of The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and Ashen Stars, has created a beautifully creepy modern take on the pallid mask image central to Robert Chambers’ King in Yellow mythology. Now we’re hashing out title treatment, with an eye to the punishingly small 88 x 135 size book images display on the Amazon website. It’s much like designing a postage stamp. If you zip over to Amazon or any similar book site, you'll quickly note the covers that work in that format and those that resolve into a blur.

I look forward to sharing our process with you as we shoot for the former and shrink from the latter.

February 07, 2012

Ashen Stars Combat Options

The Jan/Feb See P. XX includes, among previously mentioned goodies, additional combat options for Ashen Stars. Start with this consideration of suppression fire as it applies to non-lethal beam weapons. Then move onto a collection of optional butt-kicking rules adapted to Ashen Stars from the Esoterror Fact Book. Add extra space opera flavor to them with a series of viroware enhancements.

Or start with the zine page for a cornucopia of columns, updates, announcements, and at least one cannibal conspiracy.

February 03, 2012

Five Keys To Punchier Prose

Although I’m not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I’ve been able to see certain issues crop up in the work of multiple authors. This process has improved not only those books, but my own work. It’s easier to see problematic material in someone else’s draft than in your own. Manuscript review has also crystallized my thoughts on how GUMSHOE, and particularly its scenarios, might be refined and better presented.

Continue reading at See P. XX…

Or jump to the See P. XX Jan/Feb zine page for a cornucopia of columns, updates, announcements, and at least one cannibal conspiracy.

February 02, 2012

Hillfolk Now Open For Playtesting

After months of teasing here on the blog and in sundry precincts of the gamersphere, Pelgrane Press and I are now soliciting outside playtest reports for Hillfolk, the first DramaSystem game. Hillfolk features the saga of iron age raiders struggling to protect and enrich their clan at a time of clashing empires. DramaSystem fosters a dynamic between players and GM allowing them to collectively create a compelling, serial story of emotional need and personal conflict.

Its features:

Long term story play. DramaSystem arises from the story games school of roleplaying game design, which privileges the exploration of narrative over other design goals, such as strategic decision-making, tactical butt-kicking, or the simulation of imaginary environments. Story games typically focus on delivering a fun and challenging one-time story that wraps up in a single sitting. DramaSystem shines in long-term play, in which a group unfolds an improvised narrative over an extended period, during which they come to relate to the characters as they would to the protagonists of their favorite ongoing television drama.

Easier to GM: Unlike some justly acclaimed story games, DramaSystem retains the role of Game Moderator, a participant apart from the rest who guides action and pacing and provides necessary rules interpretations. In this it is more like a mainstream or traditional roleplaying game. However, its events are entirely created in the moment, sparing the GM the usual lengthy prep work required by those games.

Harder to GM: Where GMs in traditional games have nearly unlimited power to shape the narrative by determining the obstacles PCs face, DramaSystem doles out their interventions in measured quantities. That makes the effort of pushing the story in the direction you want more of a challenge, with game-like tactical elements. Working within the limitations becomes part of the fun. You can never predict the outcome of any episode, giving you a sense of surprise and suspense you don’t get in games granting you near omnipotence.

Click the tag for previous Hillfolk / DramaSystem posts. Here’s an early actual play report.

My main goal for this playtest is to learn how much of the game is already on the page, and how much additional guidance and exegesis the text requires.

To participate, please contact Beth Lewis at Pelgrane.

We’ll be launching a crowd-funded campaign to fund the project next month.

February 01, 2012


Those of you who like their formalist art films punctuated by bouts of vicious hand-to-hand combat are advised to hie themselves to Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as a private contractor at the cross-section of crime and espionage who embarks on a mission of vengeance after her employer and ex-lover (Ewan McGregor) sets her up for a hit. Like many of Soderbergh’s genre pieces, its classical narrative acts as a framework for giddy stylistic exploration.

The dusty, desaturated color palette and score by David Holmes recall a 70s that never was. A sonically muted firefight on the streets of Barcelona presents a fresh take on the gun battle. Like any action director of note, he goes wide for the fight sequences, allowing us to see the choreography. It draws on the MMA style in an opened-up way that isn’t just grapples, balancing realism with bone-crunching impact.

For an obvious source of inspiration, see Jon Boorman’s classic revenge drama Point Blank, with Lee Marvin. Soderbergh appears on the commentary track in conversation, raising it above the default back-patting to a master class in atmospheric crime drama.

Today, rather than trying to teach fighters how to act, we tend to see actors trained to fight. Roles that might once have gone to Steven Seagal now go to Liam Neeson. In that light Carano represents a bit of a throwback. She’s not super-expressive as an actress, even after extensive post-production manipulation of her vocal track. But she does have presence, and unmistakable plausibility as a bad-ass, even in the non-combat sequences. In that she’s a throwback to Bronson and van Damme.

See it for its own hyper-cool virtues, and for the atmospheric inspiration it might lend your Night’s Black Agents series.