Thursday, 25 December 2014

Introducing the Playbooks [DctW]

This is part of a series for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

We all know that playbooks are one of Beyond the Wall’s USPs (at least, for a traditional OSR game).

Reiterating earlier comments, this is what a good playbook should do for kicking off the game:

  1. It’s a mini Mythic Cycle for that character; it creates a whole backstory for them in minutes
  2. It’s open enough that the players can make connections between the relationships in different playbooks and use those to give a picture of the Village (or in this case, the College)
  3. It’s based on a class, but the title is a concept (e.g. Young Woodsman, Heir to a Legend, etc.)
  4. It provides all the mechanics a player needs to generate their character, as well as the plot behind them.

Revisiting the Playbook Cycle

For DctW the premise of the original Playbook Cycle is unchanged: before the game begins each character has gone through their own little cycle of personal development, which includes

  • the Ordinary World
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • the Road of Trials
  • the Ordeal
  • a Reward

Playbook Cycle

The core playbooks of BtW assume the same kind of Ordinary World for all characters, with these central questions tackling the fundamentals of the PC’s early life — family and early childhood. The structure is the same in DctW (at least for most characters) with a central focus of Wyverley College.

Just as characters in a regular BtW game are young people on the cusp of adulthood, Wyverley characters (with some exceptions) are not far from graduation. By default they’ve just entered the Sixth Form. Almost all characters have been sent away by their families from an early age to Wyverley and inducted into the First Form (between 5 and 10).

The four common tables are:

  1. Early childhood: what was your relationship with your parents before they sent you away to boarding school?
  2. Arrival at Wyverley: how did you distinguish yourself among the other first-formers?
  3. Learning: what is your best subject?
  4. Other people: the other PCs are your best friends, but you also formed a significant relationship with another person. Who was that, and what was the basis of the relationship?

Common Playbook Tables (pdf document) — this is an early draft of some sample tables.

Introducing Relationships

Characters will have four key Relationships that arise from the playbooks. These are:

  1. Family. The character was sent away to boarding school at an early age; while they may visit their parents regularly, any interaction they have with their parents will mostly happen in downtime.
  2. The Mentor. This is the NPC who has set the character on their path, taught them the skills that set them apart from the others, and otherwise given them encouragement. In some playbooks the Mentor figure isn’t a person but an ideal, or a connection to a place. That’s OK. What matters is in times of crisis, the examples the Mentor has given are what the character reaches for to steady their resolve.
  3. The Party. These are the player characters, who have been best friends with one another since childhood. Of those PCs will have helped the character through an Ordeal.
  4. A significant person in Wyverley. This could be another student, a teacher, or another person. Like the relationship with the Family this can be an adversarial relationship. This interaction should feature regularly in the Domestic Phase of the game (see later).

All Relationships have Basis, which is one of the six attributes. Since these relationships are developed randomly, that basis may fall on a strong attribute or a weak one. This has no impact on the adventuring portion of a game — it only indicates what kind of relationship the character has. If the attribute is high the PC may be proactive or dominant in the relationship (e.g. they may be someone the NPC looks up to). If the attribute is low, the PC may be subordinate or the relationship may hilight a flaw. This will be discussed further in its own section.

Blurb for the nine playbooks

Finally, here are the outlines of the various playbooks.

Note that while several of these playbooks have grand names that suggest powerful destinies and high fantasy adventure, this game is supposed to be (at least initially) a low fantasy game. This is a starting point for the characters, and who knows what they will do later in life. Think of it as being not the story about the Abhorsen, just a story about an Abhorsen-in-waiting.

Students from the Old Kingdom

The Abhorsen-in-waiting
This character is born to the Abhorsen line; able to walk in Death and keep a delicate balance between the Charter and Free Magic necromancy.

The Royal Berserk
They are one of the Royal line of the Old Kingdom, and posessed of a great rage that can consume them but also give them great physical and mental resistance.

The Charter Mage
Many of Wyverley’s scholars learn Charter Magic, but this character comes from a line of Charter Mages and excels at her craft.

The Necromancer’s Get
Somewhere in the bloodline of this character was a Free Magic practitioner; this is the dirty secret of character’s family, and it has manifested in this character. Like the Abhorsen they have the Death Sight. Why were they sent away — was it to remove further influence to the character, or to protect the family from the shame?

The Sightless Clayr
The sight does not always come to the Clayr, and they must find other vocations. Normally such sightless Clayr are given other duties in their stronghold in the Glacier, but you have been sent far away. What is the reason?

Students from Ancelstierre Families

The Heir
You’re from a powerful Ancelstierran family with connections to the government. Great things are expected of you when you return to Corvere after your Northern education.

The Wyverley Scholar
You’re from an unremarkable Southern family; just another girl sent away to learn manners in Wyverley’s famous College. But in your time here, you’ve developed a deep, almost spiritual connection with the place itself — and you probably know more than anyone else about the College and the surrounding area. You can’t think of ever leaving.

Non-Humans

The Sending
You look like a real girl. You attend classes, you learn, and you eat, drink and sleep like a real girl. But look closely and people will see that you’re not a human at all — you’re a solid thing, composed of intricate layers of Charter marks swimming over your skin. You know you’re not a real person. Where did you come from, and why are you here?

The Cat
Whyverley has always had its Cat. The Cat goes where it wants, and makes friends with whomever it pleases. It wears a little collar around its neck with a tiny little bell on it… oh, and it talks.

Locals

The Boy In The Woods
There’s a local boy who can be found in the woods at the edge of Wyverley’s grounds. He seems to live by foraging and begging the kitchen for leftovers, and for some reason the cook can’t resist him. He knows the secret places around the land, and the old stories that go with them.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Death comes to Wyverley: (not) Bowing to Authority

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a Garth Nix / Abhorsen inspired playset for Beyond the Wall. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

The temptation to yield to authority is a potential roadblock for BtW games. At some point the players will think “hey! We’re just kids, we shouldn’t be going out doing these dangerous things! Surely there are older, more experienced adults in the village?” It makes sense that someone older in the village will take charge — but if that happens the PCs will be benched while older and wiser villagers take up the quest.

In the vanilla Beyond The Wall game the map is a blank page, ready to be filled in by the players and GM as the group develops the playbooks; thanks to that, it’s easy to imagine the village is isolated in a lawless countryside, and that the PCs are the ones who will go out adventuring on behalf of their community.

Once you establish notions of nearby civilisation – which we are, since Garth Nix’ world implies 20th Century technology and communication, local and national government — suspending disbelief becomes harder. If there really were zombies rampaging through the farmlands near Wyverley and Bain, surely someone in government would do something about it?

Here are some reasons why the PCs are still relevant in this situation:

The Adults Are Busy (or Far Away)

This actually falls into three different categories:

  1. The adults are dealing with other things right now
  2. The adults are too far away to be contacted in time
  3. The adults don’t believe the characters.

Of these three, the second one — distance as a barrier — is credible, and it works with the local geography, too. The Wall is 40 miles north, so would require quite a journey to summon aid from the soldiers garrisoned there. Furthermore the area is not densely populated, being mostly rural.

Having the adults deal with more pressing matters is another way; whether the matters are of merit (those soldiers are fighting a full-scale incursion from across the Wall) or just a brush off (two lorry loads of paperclips just arrived and need to be sorted) this can work. However I would be wary of inventing trivial reasons for the adults not listening, least it become a case of them just not believing the PCs.

It’s possible that some people just won’t believe the characters; however this is not in keeping with the fiction. One thing I like about Sabriel is the way she can lead others, as shown in her interactions with the soldiers on the Wall. In general soldiers, locals and administration of Wyverley College are not ignorant of what’s going on in the Old Kingdom, and should be taking mention of a necromancer or Free Magic being on the loose very seriously. That’s not to say there aren’t green recruits who are yet to see action, or pencil-pushers in Corvere who believe the Charter is just superstition… but people in the North will tend to wake up pretty quickly, or become food for the Dead.

As well as taking notice of characters, soldiers and other authority figures definitely don’t bench the protagonists when alerted to the danger; quite the reverse, they often look to the principals for leadership. Earning respect from the community and getting recognition should be part of character growth in any BtW game, so if a PC steps up to the plate and offers to lead, let them.

There’s Only One Magistrix

The adults believe the PCs, but if there aren’t enough Charter mages to cover the area, it will fall to the PCs to pitch in anyway. The adults become a potential resource for the PCs, offering aid and equipment where directed.

Wyverley certainly has more than one teacher — and a whole lot of students — versed in magic and personal combat. Since the PCs will be sixth-formers they will tend to be the most experienced of the student body anyway, and well-suited to lead their peers.

The notion of a limited number of competent (magic weilding, hero-caliber) NPCs in the area should also reinforce the idea that the PCs themselves are extraordinary, and are the kinds of poeple that others will look to in a crisis.

Someone Else Will Deal With It

The locals aren’t ignorant of the dangers of living near the wall, but they are realistic about what they can do against the Dead. They will reasonably expect local organisations to act on their behalf, under the notion that they aren’t equipped to deal with the threat or otherwise cannot put themselves or their dependents at risk.

Just as authority figures shouldn’t be patronising to the PCs, the local farming community shouldn’t be either ignorant or cannon fodder. They will also take the PCs seriously (at least, the older community members will). But they’re unlikely to take action against the Dead, when fleeing is a viable option.

The GM will decide how much the locals actually know and understand about the magical nature of the landscape. Whatever they do know, the prime motivator of the locals will be survival of themselves and their families.

Ancelstierre Expects

And finally, Wyverley College should impress upon the PCs the idea that they are remarkable, and expected to grow into persons of significance. Taking personal initiative and going on adventures should be acknowledged and rewarded (if not actively encouraged). The way this should be rewarded will be covered in the Experience and Growth section.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

iPad 2 and iOS 8: How to fix the slowdown

This is a public service announcement. If you love your iPad2 as I do (all those tasty, tasty game PDFs) but after updating to iOS8 found that it now has the responsiveness of a brick, here’s what you can do:

  1. Reset the network by going to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings. This will clear out all the networks and passwords remembered on your device (you do know at least your home WiFi password, don’t you?)
  2. Turn off WiFi Networking by going Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Wifi Networking and set it to Off.
  3. Reduce animations by going Settings > General > Accessibilty > Reduce Motion and set it to On.

I don’t know which of these had the biggest effect; I suspect the first one. iPad is now perfectly usable now, when previously browsing was impossible and even typing was a painful experience. YMMV, of course.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Death Comes To Wyverley: On Gender

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a Garth Nix / Abhorsen inspired playset for Beyond the Wall. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

There are nine playbooks in Death Comes To Wyverley. Not all of them need to be female, and a couple aren’t even human. However since Wyverley college is an all-female boarding school and many PCs will be students, the party is likely to be mostly young women.

More importantly the administration and teachers of Wyverley college are (almost) all female. Since we’re approximating Wyveryley College to the village in a “vanilla” Beyond the Wall game, Wyverley is a self-governing entity with its own hierarchy and responsibilities to students and staff. The position of governer lies with Mrs. Umbrade, the Headmistress. Two other teachers are mentioned — Miss Greenwood the Magistrix, and Miss Prionte, the Etiquette Instructor.

What about the world outside? At first glance gender roles Ancelstierre appear similar to early 20th century southern England, given the segregation of boys and girls in schools (note that Prince Sameth attended Somersby, which isn’t on Mogget’s map). We don’t see a lot of the country south of the Wall; it does seem that the soldiers guarding the Perimeter are predominantly male, but we don’t get long enough with them to properly tell. Certainly we can argue that Ancelstierre’s implied early 20th century mores are there (as a literary device) to provide contrast to the Old Kingdom’s more egalitarian attitudes to gender roles, e.g. Clariel and her mother Jaciel.

The women of Wyverley do receive a rounded education not only in Literature and Etiquette but also Magic, Science and Fighting Arts. This is partly because some of the young women will be daughters of Old Kingdom families where magic is actually relevant and useful. At the same time daughters of Ancelstierre must be attending the college, and Wyverley is an opportunity to subvert these gender roles in an alternate 20th century setting. We should note however that the women of Wyverley, as well as many of Garth Nix’ principle characters are all in priviledged positions; even if the rich families of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom do intend their daughters to be educated in this manner and take up important positions later in life, it says nothing for the gender division for the rest of society on either side of the Wall.

A final remark about gender portrayal in this series: note that Sendings and Free Magic creatures are essentially without gender, but they do identify as male or female — the Disreputable Dog and Az are both “female” magical creatures, for example. This should be a consideration for a GM building adventures.

Like any Beyond the Wall game, the Village is defined and the Outside is there to be explored. Therefore the only certain point to make here is that Wyverley College is a matriarchy, and the various relationships arising from the Playbooks will reflect this. Beyond the Walls of Wyverley College the world should be a mystery.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

EU VAT and the Consumer

I don’t really do politics here.

What I do is write about RPGs and other things that interest me. And while a portion of that is about theory and design of games, a good portion — at least when this blog started — is just about things I like to consume.

So this piece is about me as a consumer. Yes, it’s slightly political, but only because politics are getting in the way of my decisions about what I can and can’t consume.

VAT MOSS and Digital Sales

A lot of what I consume these days comes in digital form — without that I’d be unable to sample many, many games and ebooks from other countries. I’m a believer in the digital marketplace.

I’m also a believer in the small press, indie RPG and ebook scene. It’s easier than ever to write your own game, put it into a pdf and just sell it. That’s a great thing — not only are individuals wholly in control of their own creative content, they don’t have to content with logistical issues of printing and shipping.

(Some day I may be one of those small press publishers, but for now I’m just noodling about, writing drafts and enjoying other people’s content.)

Now, from Jan 1st 2015 there will be a change in the EU law that means VAT is levied at the country where the buyer is, not the seller. This is a measure to prevent big corporations like Amazon paying low VAT rates by locating themselves in member states with low VAT rates. Unfortunately it’s likely to have a devastating effect on small businesses who sell electronic goods. Not only could it affect the VAT threshold in the UK requiring registration, it also would require sellers to keep two identifying pieces of information from each customer they serve — identifying the country where the customer was when the purchase was made — securely for 10 years, on an EU-based server. Furthermore the measures that the HMRC think will help sole-traders — selling on platforms — not only divert profits from sole traders to those intermediaries (e.g. Amazon, the irony), but may not even be compliant or willing to comply.

There’s more information in various places. There’s a UK Facebook group, a Change.org petition directed at Vince Cable and another one directed at Pierre Moscovici, and several other great articles about why #VATMOSS is going to be a #VATMESS:

I’m sorry I don’t have time to curate them all, but they should be easy to find if you look. Last but important link is this survey:

http://euvataction.org/take-action-now/complete-the-survey/

I don’t have a digital business, but if you do, please look at it.

But anyway. Let’s set aside the concerns of the small business owner, even though I really feel for all my creative friends who are being affected by this mess. Let’s ignore the effects on the culture of creator owned and sold works, even though they’re my kind of people. Let’s just think about me, the consumer. What does this mean?

It means less choice. Projects never seeing the light of day. People unable to make a living doing creative stuff, therefore having to do much less of it in their spare time while they do a “real job” during the day. All because it’s so confusing and such an administrative burden that, for the individual creator, the joy at creating and selling their own work becomes ever so slightly less than the massive inconvenience they suffer to get it out to the public.

I’m not saying it will definitely be this bad. But there are people considering stopping digital sales at the start of next year because of the uncertainty around compliance and the fear of fines from EU states. Whether it’s because the administrative burden is real or just that this issue has been badly communicated, we’ve already lost out.

That’s why I’m boosting the signal here. I expect the handful of people who read this blog are going to be consumers like me, so you need to know. And you should support the creative people around you.

EU Flag

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Death Comes to Wyverley: When The North Wind Blows

This is the first of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a Garth Nix / Abhorsen inspired playset for Beyond the Wall. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

When the North Wind Blows

PDF (including tables) available here

Wyverley College lies close to the Wall at the very north of Ancelstierre. While technology (specifically early 20th century technology) exists in this country, that technology is at odds with Magic. Whenever the wind blows from the north it carries the air of magic from the other side of the Wall, and plays havoc with technology. There’s a good chance that these devices just won’t work at all.

“Technology” includes:

  • firearms
  • electric lighting and appliances
  • engines of all kinds — generators, motor cars, etc.

Wyverley college and other settlements in the area are well prepared for this and make use of paraffin lamps and candles for lighting, oil and wood for heat and cooking and animals for transport. That’s not to say technology isn’t common — just people have a low expectation of it working reliably all the time. Attitudes to technology will be mixed — while the local economy will be dependent on goods transport and communications, there will be plenty of people alive who remember a time (perhaps only a couple of decades ago) when technology was not nearly as necessary.

Effect of the North Wind on Technology

Whenever a technological device is carried near the wall, first check the Wind Direction table. Randomly roll or pick the most likely direction for the season.

If a North Wind is blowing, the person trying to use the device should make a Save vs. Polymorph; on a pass the device works, otherwise it doesn’t. Roll at the point the character tries to use the device.

As well as making technology less likely to work, a north wind also has potential to make magic more potent or easier to cast. Consult the table for the effect on Cantrip difficulty, Spell potency or Ritual time to cast.

If technology is such a bother…

So technology is unreliable. Why bother with it at all?

Here are some areas where, despite its unreliability, technology still represents a significant benefit (and can affect the environment during adventures):

  1. Lighting. Without widespread electrical street lighting, viewing distances will be worse. If any Dead or Free Magic being manages to pass through the Wall they will tend to roam at night — and poor lighting will make surprise and ambushes more likely. When the electric lights fail, it’s time to bring out the candles and lanterns.
  2. Transport. While horses can be used for riding and commerce, it’s generally harder to get the resources required to the local area than with vehicles, and slower to travel. Also buses and cars may break down in the middle of nowhere.
  3. Communications. A failure in the telephone lines means the area may be cut off from local government further south, and even people in the vicinity. This also applies to telegrams. A postal service will still be reliable, as will physical messengers — but this will delay the communication significantly.
  4. Firearms. I don’t think the soldiers on the Wall really expect their firearms to work. But when they do work they’re going to be easier to use with a higher rate of fire and better portability than historical weapons.

Note that there are Charter spells that do a similar service to these technological devices, but they are generally works of powerful Charter mages — not the young students of Wyverley, who are only learning. Also magic has the inconvenience of being only available where the caster is. While magic can overcome many issues it’s just not widespread enough to address the day-to-day needs of local life.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ribbon Drive playlist 2: ‘Dreamscapes and drugscapes’

White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane

Sister Janet, Tori Amos
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BCmb0elVJo

Hiawatha, Laurie Anderson

Wandering Star, Portishead

Night Terror, Laura Marling

Glass, Bat for Lashes

As the world falls down, David Bowie

Dear Jessie, Madonna

Tonight we fly, Divine Comedy

Dreaming, Goldfrapp

Book of dreams, Suzanne Vega

Flickers, London Grammar

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Ribbon Drive: Perfect Match

My playlist from the last session…

Alt-J / Breezeblocks

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVeMiVU77wo&w=560&h=315]

Thom Yorke / Analyse

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YasYmeGw5uw&w=560&h=315]

UNKLE (with Black Angels) / Natural Selection

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QEvXGF4jYc&w=420&h=315]

Sparks / I Married A Martian

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtcTwAWl2uc&w=420&h=315]

Tubeway Army / Jo The Waiter

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkN-hzGY72Y&w=420&h=315]

David Bowie / Always Crashing In The Same Car

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv7Y7F-Q2KE&w=420&h=315]

Radiohead / Creep

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFkzRNyygfk&w=420&h=315]

Beck / Ramona

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIuB56pbYMs&w=560&h=315]

Divine Comedy / Party Fears Two

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPTEOpOb844&w=560&h=315]

LCD Soundsystem / Someone great

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwoLACv_srQ&w=560&h=315]

Pink Floyd / Wish You Were Here

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmHWBo46iow&w=560&h=315]

Queens Of The Stone Age / Long Slow Goodbye

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fab38UaAuZA&w=420&h=315]

RPG Spotlight: Fiasco / Ribbon Drive

Since last month’s post I’ve managed to cross two games off my immediate wish list (and it looks like we’ll be playing both Kingdom and Apocalypse World in the near future, so things are progressing nicely)

Fiasco and Ribbon Drive are pretty similar procedurally, but with some differences that I think are interesting and significant — so I’m going to talk about them here.

Let’s talk about the similarities first:

  • Both are GMless, improv-driven games
  • Both revolve around scenes which are framed by one player and resolved by the group in a freeform manner
  • Both sell themselves primarily by reference to cinema — Coen brothers for Fiasco, road movies for Ribbon Drive
  • Both are often called “storygames” on the premise that successive scenes will gradually resolve into a narrative with some kind of conclusion.

I’ll run over my summary of both games first. If you know them, skip ahead to the Comparisons section.

Fiasco

Fiasco is the original poster child of the Indie prepless, GMless, pick-up-and-play RPG scene, endorsed by Wil Wheaton, and now in it’s eighth printing (as of June 2014).

Fiasco

The game is all about setting up a tenuous set of circumstances and then causing trouble. Characters are built entirely from their Relationships with one another, and each relationship focuses on a detail — a Need, an Object or a Location. All generated by random tables, meaning the game really can be zero prep.

This is not what we’re used to. Yes, the characters have individual identities which will be negotiated during the set-up phase, but there are no stats, nothing to tell us how one character might be superior or inferior to another. The resolution of scenes, for good or bad, is a binary choice. When your turn for a scene comes around you may either frame a scene for your own character and leave the outcome up to your friends, or get them to frame it for you but choose your own outcome. That’s it.

This is a game that pushes players to act now and make those acts significant. We only have two scenes each during the first act, and another two during the second. Additionally we’re encouraged to build in the details from our relationships rather than introduce new elements, to keep the focus on the same set of details. Halfway through there’s the Tilt, the thing that changes the landscape — betrayal, mayhem, uncovering dark secrets. At the end there’s the Aftermath.

The actual mechanism is beautiful: two white and two black dice per player get placed in the centre, rolled and selected for the initial relationships, then get used as currency through the game as scenes are resolved by selecting a black or white die (bad or good outcome) and giving it to the person whose PC is in focus for the scene. During the Tilt and Aftermath the totals are rolled with white subtracted from black. When half the dice in the middle have been doled out, that’s the halfway point and the cue for the Tilt.

Despite this beauty, I found the game hard to engage with. Scenes need to resolve, and therefore they need to be set up with cues as to what the conflict is — and more than once we found ourselves with a freeform scene with no obvious good or bad outcome. Negotiating the terms of the conflict up front (what’s at stake, what does each participant want) was the way to achieve a strong resolution, obvious when you think about it — but the need to do this is not totally clear from the game text.

This isn’t the first time I’ve found Jason Morningstar’s books to be a little vague when it comes to scene framing — I recall we had an identical experience when playing Durance. But actually Ribbon Drive suffers from a similar lack of specificity. Fiasco, to its credit, does have good examples that imply the style of play expected.

Fiasco reinforces my view that there’s a tacit component to understanding many of these storygames — some experience beyond the text of the game as written. This information is somewhere, I’m sure — it’s in the www.story-games.com boards and the cliques of convention goers and G+ threads, being passed from person to person almost as an oral tradition. To break into that you either need to be initiated by someone, or infer the framing process based on trad gaming experience, and muddle through until it works.

This is no different from all the different stripes of traditional gaming, it’s just the blind spots are in different places. Mostly it just reinforces just how hard it is to talk about exactly how we play, whichever part of the roleplaying subculture we find ourselves in. I do think that once the art of scene framing is learned there’s a big payoff in terms of bringing that back into traditional GMing, and games like these end up exercising muscles we don’t use often. That’s a good thing.

Ribbon Drive

Avery McDaldno’s Ribbon Drive is about road trips and personal journeys, all set to music. The need for mixtapes (and I’m going to call them tapes from now on, even though we’re a streaming household and my cassette deck is in storage) means it’s not fully prepless, although we tend to be the sort of people who have mixes “just lying around”.

Ribbon_Drive

Everyone must bring a themed mix along, with the lyrics to the first two songs printed out. The first thing we do is pick one at random (out of a hat for us) and listen in silence to the first track. McDaldno reckons this part is quite difficult, but we wondered if that wasn’t a consequence of convention play with strangers. If you’re playing with old friends — especially friends who share a passion for the playlist — it’s no big deal.

The road trip comes out of the first mix, including the briefest outline of the party and the reason for the trip. The second song gives the party substance; we take lyrics and turn them into Traits and Futures. Traits are (unsurprisingly) things that define what the PC can do or how they behave, and Futures are what the character expects or hopes to happen (and phrased as a statement, not a question). Both of these attributes should come out in the freeform roleplaying during scenes.

After playing Fiasco where characters are completely defined by the relationships they have with others, this approach felt a little more natural; characters are developed in isolation after agreeing on a central premise, which is pretty much how I would go about preparing for a one-off game.

Then the third track plays, and we’re on our trip. The first person to speak frames the first scene, everyone pitches in as appropriate (as Author, Actor or Director) and at some point someone says “cut!”. The advice on resolving scenes is even more scant than Fiasco, but at the same time I felt there was less pressure to incorporate all the details — I was mainly responsible for bringing my own Traits and Futures to the surface. In Fiasco I felt hemmed-in by the details, but here I felt the opposite — like I could let go and just freeform it, taking cues from the music-as-the-road.

While there’s no details to include and no little pile of dice to work through, we did feel obliged to bring Obstacles into play. If an Obstacle comes along (proposed by the last person to speak in a scene) and no-one can beat it with a Trait, a Detour happens: the mix is changed for a new one, and the next scene happens immediately. This is all well and good except we were so wrapped up in the trip itself that most of the time we forgot obstacles entirely. Reading other accounts of play I don’t think this is out of the ordinary.

Ultimately it’s the Futures that we’re driving towards. But whereas Fiasco’s end conditions are clear-cut — once the dice have been distributed, it’s time to find out just how awful the Aftermath is — Ribbon Drive’s Futures are uncertain. This is both a blessing and a curse. We did question whether we were spending too much time noodling about and not expressing our own Futures as much as we should.

We did break one rule, although I’m struggling to work out what the consequences were. We talked about how long it would take us to get to our destination, and decided we were only a few hours away. That may have changed the end conditions from resolving Futures and letting go to a more mission-based outcome. The actual effect was minimal but I wonder if it would have broken the game had we had that conversation earlier. Still, it was an in-character conversation, so legitimate.

Comparisons

Much as the two games are different from our traditional approach, they have some fundamental differences that shape my feelings about them, too. This is what I could identify:

  1. Fiasco’s play boundaries — coming back to the details — are well defined and (if you allow them to be) constraining. Ribbon Drive boundaries are almost nonexistant — because the constraint is on the possible future, not the journey itself.
  2. In Fiasco the players take joint responsibility to incorporate the elements of all relationships as much as they are able; and in Ribbon Drive the players are similarly advised to keep an eye on each other’s Traits and Futures (to make sure they get brought into play). In the end though I think it’s possible to play Ribbon Drive focused only on ones’ own Traits, and that’s just not possible with Fiasco’s relationship structure.
  3. Less pressure to resolve each and every scene with a significant conclusion in Ribbon Drive compared to Fiasco.

What about comparisons with traditional roleplaying games?

Fiasco is so radically different from D&D that no real comparison can be made. On the other hand comparing Ribbon Drive with a minimalist system like Everway makes a lot more sense. Both use a small number of descriptive traits, and both use some notion of uncertain destiny which is (at least partly) under the control of the player. Everway even uses media inspiration — in the form of art cards — to generate character.

Maybe this is why Ribbon Drive feels particularly comfortable. In fact the way we tend to play has a lot in common with Ribbon Drive’s freeform approach, including spontaneous invention of facts and events (with GM permission, of course).

Final Words

T reckons we’d managed to squeeze every last drop of goodness from our very first Ribbon Drive, while we have yet to hit Fiasco’s peak. That’s a fair statement; certainly I don’t think our next session of RD will be better, just different. At the same time while I definitely feel I should play Fiasco again, it’s the next session of Ribbon Drive that I’m looking forward to.

A lot of this is to do with the ritual and joy of creating a mixtape, and our play group are that target audience. While Fiasco is a game I like well enough to play again, Ribbon Drive has been love at first sight.