Monday, 4 February 2013

Storygames Ahoy!

This weekend we have been playing a trio of storygames. I have the Admirals at Black Armada to thank for my general introduction to their new school / indie / prepless / GMless hippy games, but it’s still unfamiliar territory.


As I mentioned in the comments here I don’t think I’ve found a Nordic game or a concept that I didn’t like.

Archipelago is free. It is a “game of epic stories” about heroes and their inexorable journey towards their destiny. It’s now in it’s third edition, and for a free game with a minimalist page count it’s absolutely stunning to read. Lovely black and white art, a nice section at the back with the Resolution Cards (also used in Itras By, apparently) and generally good pagenation in an iPad-friendly size.

The author conceived the game as a way to tell stories in Earthsea, but it works for any world. Of course you need to agree on a world you’re familiar with. We couldn’t. Many of the proposals weren’t familiar enough to all the players, and the ones that were (Buffy was considered) were vetoed. Instead, we created our own.

This proved to be more fun than actually playing (for me at least). World creation is not what Archipelago is about per se–there is a single page on Defining a New Setting with a rudimentary workflow:

  1. Choose genre
  2. Choose themes (e.g. culture, geography, magic), assign one to each player
  3. Draw a map on a big piece of paper
  4. Choose at least 5 locations, name and describe them 

Unfortunately we didn’t follow this approach (which to be fair is more implied than explicit in the book), and instead decided on New York for our magical post-apocalyptic setting, then argued whether there were bridges over or just tunnels under the Hudson River and other details. After four hours we had at least created a world, but it might have gone much more quickly if we’d done themes before map.

The character creation requires thinking about extraordinary characters with great destinies ahead. Regardless of power level they will be at the centre of events. They have relationships to other characters, locations or events; at least two PCs must be connected via this third party. That means there’s no direct relationship between PCs. Relationship building is another collaborative effort for this reason.

Next we generated our destinies. Other players each anonymously write a destiny for a given character, and that player then selects the one they like best. This part feels like a fun party game (as in you guess who wrote the most provocative, interesting destiny). A quote towards the end of the book tells you to “be bold when writing destiny points for other players” as if there’s a risk of players writing weak destinies. That certainly wasn’t a problem.

Then we started play, and it went downhill from there.

To be fair, we didn’t have enough time after faffing with the world and our characters to play more than one round of scenes, meaning we got nowhere near our stated destinites. However I found the structure we followed–and on later reading it, the structure given in the book–just wasn’t enough to drive us towards an exciting story.

A scene is directed by the player controlling the in-spotlight character. Their actions are narrated and they bring in other players to play NPCs, describe detail, provide advice on features (magic, culture, etc) and so on. The other players also get to use “ritual phrases” that challenge the story, such as “try a different way” if they feel a piece of narration is incongruous to the shared story. If you take it seriously (as I expect those dour Scandinavians do) I guess it can produce challenging but coherent storytelling; the trouble is when you release a ritual phrase like “harder!” on a gaggle of hysterical Brits, the results are inevitable.

Scenes are introduced by each player with an objective–and interaction, overcoming an obstacle, and so on. The problem I have is that this almost never gives rise to a cliffhanger because the scene is supposed to achieve some sort of closure. Our host argued that a player can choose to end on a cliffhanger, but since the player is always in control of their scene they can’t be surprised by someone else saying “cut!” in the middle of a life-or-death situation. If the player is driving the scene towards closure, an abrupt stop in the middle of that scene is the opposite of the normal procedure, and tricky to judge. Using Hamlet’s Hit Points‘ terminology, this inevitably gives rise mostly procedural beats and few drama beats.

But what struck me about Archipelago was not the metagame, nor the directorial style of play. It was the way I’m stewarding my “PC”, but I’m treating him as an NPC with an agenda. When I bring in other players to play “NPCs” to fill scene roles they are reacting to my character with an agenda; their behaviour is more PC-like than my character’s. In other words, it’s an almost complete inversion of our accepted roleplaying dynamics.

This game displayed what is probably the number one issue for all story games; the supporting players knowing what the narrating player expects of them at the point they are drawn into the scene. There’s no off-narration negotiation; all the player has to go on is the scene objective at the start. Probably this is intended to throw in surprises to the narrator as they use the other players as wild cards in their scene, but unless the group is intimately knowledgable of each other’s preferences and communicating at peak, this won’t happen.

The single biggest issue I had was the relationships. With no direct PC-PC relationship, players can drift around their sandbox and never encounter each other, each pursuing their own plot thread. This I assume is deliberate since one player can’t narrate another player.

Overall I wasn’t sure what to make of Archipelago. It’s a great concept, but is it even a game? I considered how it might be used to provide a behind-the-scenes look at political interactions as a backdrop for a traditional game, but even then it’s a bit diffuse to be useful to me. Possibly we set our boundaries too wide when we drew our map in the first place, giving this sense of individuals adrift in setting, rather than as essential moving parts in a story engine. 

A Taste For Murder

This is Graham Walmsley’s prepless, GMless storygame of murder in a 1930’s country manor for 4-6 people (though you can play with more). 

Where Archipelago is diffuse and very open, ATFM is absolutely watertight. There is no latitude to negotiate location (one player wanted to set a scene in their club in London, which won’t happen), there are no opportunities to bring in speaking characters other than the players (you assume there are servants etc. but they never speak) and crucially all of the relationships are directly character to character.

Character creation involves a bit of negotiation, since relationship descriptors must match each other where they appear on both party’s sheets. The descriptors go beyond simple family or employer-employee relationships and need to include some active part of that relationship–such as “I will inherit the estate from him” or “she beats me” or “we are lovers”. All of these are essential for constructing motive for murder in the later stages of the game.

This relationship mechanism includes influence, which is a number of dice allocated to that relationship. Players get six dice total to distribute, and these dice are always in play–they can be won or lost from other players as various side scenes are played out, but the total number of dice remains.

The structure makes use of a group scene to draw the characters together, from where the various side scenes happen in turn. When everyone has taken a turn at inviting another PC into a side scene, the round finishes and begins again. During the side scenes one party attempts to influence (or later investigate) the other. This is the “roleplaying” aspect of the game although it’s not really roleplaying–there is only one outcome which is an influence attempt leading to a dice-based challenge. The only thing either side can do to skew events in their favour is to try to win the Black and White Dice, which are tied to certain emotions. When the influence attempt is made conversation stops, and the other players decide who deserves which die based on their thespian efforts.

Act one contains two full rounds after which someone is killed. This is determined by secret ballot. The Victim then takes the role of Inspector Chapel–a character who must investigate and cannot influence or be influenced. Investigation is mechanically the same as influence, but the outcome is revealing detail on suspect records. Once a character has three lines filled in on their suspect record, they become a murder suspect. Once two characters have become suspects we move to the Denoument where Inspector Chapel gets to outline the case and the suspects make a final challenge, following which the loser gets clapped in irons and manhandled into the back of a black maria.

I made a mistake with how dice challenges are made, assuming it was a contest between the two characters invovled in the scene. It’s not. Anyone with influence over the character being influenced rolls dice against them, and the player with the highest score–in scene or external observer–chooses whether the influence (or investigation) succeeds or not. In other words the dice are intentionally stacked against the person being influenced or investigated, and while that might not matter for influence once investigation happens all of the other players have a vested interest in making investigations succeed and revealing more of the suspects dark secret (if only to see more blood on the walls).

A couple of other important points emerged. One was the effect of conversation. Even with the slightly silly mechanics it still feels like a narrow-field roleplaying scene, but the side-scenes are reliant on some give and take between the players. Since I was “hosting” (i.e. reading out the rules) I decided to run the very first side scene–and since my relationship with the other character was abusive, I started out by clipping them around the ear before making my demands. Their (reasonable) response was not to wait for me to speak but to begin shouting and make it impossible for me to attempt to influence because I couldn’t get a word in–making it almost impossible for me to seize the black or white dice.

Also I felt that we’d negotiated an abusive relationship but when we came to play it out, they unilaterally changed the relationship by resisting. The rationale was that they’d been away to London and had a new perspective and grown some backbone–but it was effectively the same as having a “we are lovers” relationship only for one side to announce “no, we ended that months ago” in the conversation. Relationships need to be static and a statement of fact, and side scenes are not a psychodrama where game-changing stuff can be made up simply by roleplaying. This is not how we are used to playing our games, however. (It doesn’t really matter, since there’s not much “strategy” in choosing a side scene–no-one’s actually cheated if a misunderstanding about a relationship happens, since the influence remains the same). 

Overall the side scenes are amusing thespian events with one aim only–to weaken one side’s influence over the other, and therefore make them more susceptable to investigation and suspicion and drive the game towards a conclusion. They’re a way of shuffling the influence dice around the table.

Like Archipelago, ATFM has mechanisms for slowing the game down, but none for speeding it up. Towards then end the group scenes were silent as we’d completely run out of amusing smalltalk (I was a bit drunk by then). But unlike Archipelago I can see myself playing this game again, and next time it will hopefully go faster.

Mostly our post-game analysis consisted of arguing whether Sir Ian McKellan would manage to game the system unfairly on account of always winning the black and white dice. Various inducements involving blood orange jelly were made towards Sir Ian and Graham Walmsley on twitter for a play session to test the theory. We remain hopeful…

When The Dark Is Gone

The game is free from the Black Armada, written by Admiral Frax. It concerns a therapy session for adults who, as children, travelled to a fantasy world and who as adults have actualy mental disorders that threaten their life and family.

Several variants have been proposed in our social network, some sensible, some not so sensible. My contribution was When The Orcs Are Gone, to do with retired dungeoneers who are wealthy but with deep-rooted mental problems based on their past professions. Sounds familiar?

Having both played and discussed this game with the designer I know that just wouldn’t work. WTDIG relies on a real-world approach to therapy and mental illness; furthermore it requires ambiguity on whether the fantasy world actually exists. Though you can expect most of the participants to agree that yes, the fantasy world did exist, there are no objective measures to verify that. It’s all in their head.

WTDIG treats mental illness very seriously. It’s intentionally dark and intentionally treats the therapy process with respect. It also allows the players to veto certain themes in advance (like mutilation, or other triggers for player’s phobias). Thereafter character generation includes the collaborative relationship building that’s present in Archipelago and ATFM although with some twists–these relationships are a bit more three-dimensional and involve betrayals, hurts and dark secrets. All of the characters know each other, and have a shared memory of an event in the fantasy world as well as some descriptive keywords or phrases (“Dark Woods”, “David’s Coronation”, “The Weather Was All Wrong”) which are also developed collaboratively.

The game is designed to enable a two-hour group therapy session. There’s no steering mechanism beyond the time limit and the therapist occasionally asking leading questions (otherwise they keep to the background as much as possible).  There’s no stated objective other than to have the therapy session; fixing the characters isn’t an objective, nor is exposition of the shared world, though both can happen. In our game very little of the world was uncovered and no-one was fixed, with one character remaining in denial throughout.

What then is the point of this game?

Frax has previously attested that conversation and generating emotion for its own sake is a valid goal that is seperate from the Threefold model. This game is a proof of concept. Even though no real narrative has been generated (aside from the fragments of shared history) and no external challenges have been overcome, characters have been changed through conversation.

This game includes both elements of shared world-building and psychodrama and avoids gaming staples of overcoming external obstacles. Some have interpreted it as not a roleplaying game, which is starting to be a popular argument in some corners of the internet. Yet everything I was doing in WTDIG was from an in-character point of view, including the imagining and building on fantasy world details and interacting with other characters. I’ve played freeform LARPs with exactly the same dynamics.

Anyway, Frax calls it a roleplaying game. That’s all.

WTDIG has a defined time limit–two hours, framed by opening and closing questions from the Therapist, so at least you know it’s going to be short. That does constrain the number of PCs–we played with five, which was slightly too many as it limited participation time per player. The defined timing and the lack of pressure to get to a defined point made the game more worthwhile, not less.

Final Words


p>Three very different games with both roleplaying and collaborative elements that are lumped under the category of “hippy games”. Archipelago is freeform creation of narrative; ATFM is a gamist’s game masquerading as a narrative game; WTDIG doesn’t fit any of the threefold definitions and proves that other gaming goals and priorities can and do exist.

With such different approaches and goals, the underlying structure present in all three is relationships. Relationships (with mechanistic properties if possible) are also essential for some commercial freeform games if only to encourage the players to talk with one another.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013


A few years ago I went on a leadership course. It was a strange and challenging experience that certainly altered my view on life and people forever.

It consisted of a number of lectures and team-building exercises (with a bunch of strangers). It was not the sort of course where you get a handy ring binder at the end; no-one took notes when the lectures were delivered. Even so I can remember the content of most of them, which is pretty remarkable retention.

The number one concept that remains is the idea of tiers of communication. I don’t think I’ve seen this anywhere else (so if a reader can identify the theory, I’d be grateful).


Base is the bare minimum of communication you must do to get by. Facts are irrefutable observations. Once you go into the realm of Opinions you start to risk offending someone by talking to them. Showing them Feelings exposes you to even greater risk–but at the same time there is a better overall understanding. It all comes together in Peak communication, the optimum and complete form.

I like models, and this is one of the most useful I’ve encountered. It’s easy to observe and test. Colleagues who only communicate with smalltalk can become wrong-footed when you suddenly move to expressing opinions. The main example we got was greeting someone with “how are you?” and being answered with a cheery “fine!” despite the fact they were limping. Once you move to “actually, I’m in a lot of pain” you’ve automatically moved into an uncomfortable space of statement of fact (or even feelings). You’ve put a foot on the communication ladder.

I’ve been suffering with the misery of sciatica for two weeks now. This is why it’s 4am and I’m standing up to write a blog post waiting for the painkillers to start working, when I should be asleep.

So when colleagues ask me “how are you?” I reply honestly. It’s clear they didn’t want to know; they’d rather get away. I tend to let them off pretty quickly by changing the subject.

One chap asked me how I was and I did just that. He nodded politely and made to disappear. Then as we were parting, he said

“I’ll pray for you”.

I know he’s a Christian, but even so–he’s taken more risk than I did in that conversation by leaping into the realm of Opinion (and if he was sincere, Feeling) about his personal religion.

I don’t have much more to say about that. I guess I could talk about how in gaming we should strive towards peak communication between characters by taking risks, stating Opinions and displaying Feelings of our characters. But, the main thing I’m thinking about now is how deeply those statements intrude into the thoughts of others, particularly a secular heathen like myself.

I also think about how much less they would matter if spoken in a Christian community, where prayer is taken for granted. In that context, they’re a statement of Fact. But they’re still an expression of Feeling, maybe even Peak communication. As people become more alike, do you go up the scale or down?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

20 Questions for Everway

Let’s think of a general case for character creation. There are two approaches: qualitative, and quantitative.

In the quantitative approach, you generate some absolute numbers (randomly or by point-buy) and apply them to your character sheet according to what competencies you want your PC to have. Min/maxers, OSR players, and anyone thinking of generating a functional character to fill a niche in a party might take this approach.

In the qualitative approach, you start by thinking of the character you’re going to play, and what they’re good and bad at. Effete gothic artsy types might take this approach.

Of course this is gross stereotyping; it’s a guiding preference, nothing more1 and real people sit somewhere between the two poles. Anyway it doesn’t matter which end you started from or why; at some point in the process you’ll incorporate the elements from the other end and the result is a functional character. Hurrah!

I like RPG theory, but I don’t think it’s half as useful as identifying preference. Preference is what drives the GM’s customers–our players.2

I like Everway because it does character generation in a very simple but open way. I think whichever end of the preference scale a player begins at, they are encouraged towards the middle. The qualitatives–players who like to start with cards and images, as the book suggests–shouldn’t have a problem translating that to Elemental bias. The quantitatives have it even easier–they choose  their Elemental skill set then structure their identity around it. It’s all pretty transparent.


I mentioned previously the one job a system must do is bring the PC to life. Now, as much as I love Everway it is not a granular system; it’s almost cartoonish in its application of four stats to define a hero. Much of the nuance of Everway PCs comes from the fortune cards picked as Virtue, Fault and Fate, the images the player selects, etc. The qualitatives will be satisfied; what about those literal-minded quantitatives?

Elemental Identity

The hero’s identity, their ability to influence the game world, is not just about the strongest element. It’s about priority given to the elements.

  • The element they ranked highest is the area they want the highest level of competency. More to the point, they want their competency acknowledged by the game world, players and GM. It defines the PC.
  • The second-highest element is not just a secondary competency; it’s also a modifier to the primary element. It also forms a key part of the PC’s identity.
  • The third-ranked (second lowest) element is the least important. It’s something the player doesn’t want to be a deficiency, but it’s not strong enough to make it a factor in play. It’s the second cheapest wine in the restaurant.
  • The lowest priority element is the real concern. It’s either a compromise (i.e. the player accepts a weakness, and de-emphasises it) or it’s a conscious expression of weakness that becomes a roleplay motif.

I imagined the City Accelerator using a four-axis system because people identify with the number four (including of course its elemental connotations). That’s a system of convenience designed to sort the high value from the low value detail and get the most from the city design–so by definition, you pay attention to the two highest priorities, and just ignore the others. That approach works for Everway characters, too.

The question then is how does the second highest rated element influence the behaviour and identity of the highest rated element? Since I’ve been banging on about combat in Everway, I’ll use the example of a fighter. With the highest priority in Fire, how do the other elements modify the character?

Let’s consider a rudimentary map, with Fire at the centre (as the highest priority):

Element Diagram

Now consider how the player might see their character, depending on which element is the second-highest priority:

Element Diagram  Fighter

Some of these labels suggest how your fighter goes about fighting; others suggest history, a mental state, or a vocation.

Now consider how your fighter goes about fighting:

Element Diagram  How

This is more focused on the act of combat. Some words will strongly affect the outcome in certain circumstances; others have absolutely nothing to do with the act itself, but could determine how the PC deals with the outcome (e.g. “Code”, “Empathy”). 

Both of these are important for how a player sees their character, and how they present themselves when doing certain actions.

The goal here isn’t to teach experienced roleplayers to suck eggs–they know how to answer all these questions and present a solid, three dimensional character. I’m suggesting a way for the GM to invite the players to talk about their characters and present them as not only I am, but also I do.

There are 20 questions here to encourage thought about a character. There are five per element. To answer, consider how a dominant element might affect your action. For the questions where the character is strong in that element, the secondary element might come into play. For others, the character’s strongest element might dominate–but if it doesn’t, why not?

Fire questions

  1. How would I ride a horse?
  2. How would I climb a hill?
  3. What sport would I play?
  4. What musical instrument would I play?
  5. How do I fight?

Air questions

  1. How would I address a crowd?
  2. How would I solve a puzzle?
  3. How would I stop an argument?
  4. How would I communicate if I didn’t know someone’s language?
  5. How do I look for information?

Water questions

  1. How would I attract the opposite (or same) sex?
  2. How would I sing a song?
  3. What’s the first thing I look for or notice in a room?
  4. What do I like to read?
  5. What pet do I keep?

Earth questions 

  1. How would I move a large object?
  2. How would I cook a meal?
  3. How would I go on a long journey?
  4. How would I build my house?
  5. How do I make money?


p>If you want to create new questions, why not adopt the spirit of the Everway vision cards? If the player has generated imagery, use it to inspire questions (because the player probably already has answers).


1. And if you think about it, the first decision a D&D player makes is “what class do I want?” which is a qualitative choice.

  1. I strongly believe this. I do not subscribe to the notion that the referee is simply “another player with a stewarding role”. We GM, we get adulation from our players, it strokes our egos. We should treat our players as customers.