Next Tuesday I’ve been given the honour of kicking off Sheffield-based investigative storytellers Overlap’s pilot season of events, where I’ll be giving a talk on what storytellers can learn from story games. I’m equal parts excited and terrified, as I’ve never done anything like this before yet it’s a great opportunity to talk to an audience about something (relatively) new yet fascinating.

I’ll be talking about what story games and roleplaying games are and how they’re a form of storytelling in their own right. I’ll be looking at a variety of different games, showcasing just how wide a range of topics they address, from the world of boxing in Contenders to child soldiers in Grey Ranks. And I’ll also be talking about some of the techniques used in story games, such as series creation in Primetime Adventures and situation creation in Fiasco, and what storytellers in other mediums can learn.

I do hope people will be intrigued enough to come along! Here are the details for anyone in the Sheffield area next week. And for those of you who can’t make it, I’m sure there’ll be a variety of multimedia online soon after.

Setting is characters, the rest is just color. Figure out how to express what you want from the period through the people.

- Rob Donoghue

That’s what Rob Donoghue posted over on twitter a while back in a discussion about historical settings and I’m kinda conflicted about it. I was trained as a historian, so I can see both sides – I appreciate how historical characters, traditionally kings but in recent times more common folk, are great at providing a lens through which we can examine an era. Conversely, I dig the historical events and setting themselves – the battles, as it were, or the colour as Rob puts it. To me, they’re more than just flavour, they are the setting.

Yet it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of a setting, providing the readers with tons of needless details in the hope that you’ll bring the setting alive, but in reality running the risk of burying any sense of flavour or interest they might have had.But of course it’s possible to go too far the other way, instead of providing a setting overview just providing a series of character descriptions and hoping readers can infer what they need to for the biographies. I think the right mix will vary from game to game – to me games like Polaris and Hot War get it right, providing enough setting to spark my own imagination, and enough characters to give me an idea what to do with that setting.

Looking at the game I’m currently working on, Lost Days of Memories & Madness, I can see room for both styles. Consider these two takes on the same piece of background, about what happened to all the dragons. First up, battle style:

Here be Dragons

The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. As mighty as the dragons were individually, they were few number and overpowered by the armies of the elves. Those rare creatures that still live are as shadows of their former selves, broken and bound by elven magic to serve as steed or pet, their memories of past glories long since stolen by the elves. But it is whispered that, somewhere in the hidden corners of the world, true dragons still live. For the memories of such a beast – full of simmering rage long harboured – to be harvested would be a treasure highly prized indeed.

And now from a ‘king’ perspective:

Kesar, the Last Dragon

The once-noble creatures known as dragons were perhaps the first victims of elven conquest, for these great reptiles were no less arrogant and independent than the elves themselves and neither race would bow to the other. Kesar is the last of his kind, saved from a life of slavery by the draconic magic that changed him from dragon to elf, allowing him to bide his time and plot his revenge from within the Eternal Court. That the elven memories that crowd his mind alongside his own threaten to drive him to madness is of no concern to Kesar – his thirst for revenge drove him insane long ago.

Now, both pieces have their own advantages and disadvantages. For me, I think the former just edges it, giving me a glimpse at the world and allowing me to fill in the blanks myself. The second piece offers me the same glimpse, but I find a little too focused, a little too ‘zoomed-in.’ In focusing the lens through the eyes of a single character, there’s the danger of it just saying something about that character, not the setting he inhabits.

Which do you prefer? Are you more a fan of ‘kings’ or ‘battles’ when it comes to background? And what settings have got that balance just right?

It was UK Games Expo last weekend, one of the UK’s newest and best games conventions, already up there with Furnace, Conception, Indiecon and Dragonmeet in my top 5 UK cons. I was there as part of the smallpress rpg booth, which this year comprised the Collective Endeavour and our Finnish friends, Arkenstone Publishing and we had a very good con, introducing all sorts of quirky games to all sorts of quirky gamers.

I was meant to be running a new Dead of Night scenario, Djinn, but a lack of players saw it remain in my bag. So I thought I’d post about the premise here all the same.

“Five friends, stuck in the middle of nowhere.
A mysterious relic, a treasure lost to the ages.
An ancient spirit, powerful and vengeful.
Five wishes, one apiece, immeasurably powerful.
What’s the harm in making one? It’s just a wish, after all…”

Of course, the monster of the piece is the djinn, the action taking place 10 years after the wish as the genie comes back to collect his due. The scenario is designed to pitch the characters against one another as much as the monster as cracks appear in the victim’s picture-perfect lives and they scramble to save their own skins. A lot of the set-up is player-driven, based on 5 questions answered during character creation (as suggested by the awesome Scott Dorward):

  1. What is your greatest regret/missed opportunity?
  2. What is the most important thing in the world?
  3. What (or who) would you be prepared to sacrifice in order to save yourself/your way of life?
  4. What are you most afraid of?
  5. What is the one thing that you never want others to find out about?

The players then have a hand in authoring their characters, their wishes and new lives, and then me and the djinn get to come along to kick it all over.

I was thinking about writing it up today and connections began to emerge with another unpublished scenario, Grendel, Alaska, not just with the close-knit community unravelling with the appearance of the monster, but also the mythological/legendary origins of the monster. I’ve got another scenario idea kicking around with a similar theme (something to do with sirens and temptation), and am pondering bundling all these modern updates of mythological monsters together as a little supplement.

Would anyone be interested in such a thing?

Or should that read Old Games?

Awesome artist and games designer Keith Senkowski uploaded some art I commissioned 4 or 5 years ago a couple of months back, along with the comment that it was for “a role-playing game that will never see the light of day.” I’ve got to admit, that stung a little, not least because, in my head at least, one day I still hoped that Six Bullets for Vengeance would still see the light of day.

But how realistic is that hope? I’ve not touched the game in over a year, and even then that was just a bit of tidying up of the text. Six Bullets saw a fair amount of playtesting 18 months ago, when Rick Evans (aka Indie Pete) and the Pompey Crew ran the hell out of it, but this came crashing to a halt when fellow Collective Endeavour-ites Joe Prince and Gregor Hutton gave it a good beating and pointed out some of the fundamental flaws that I’d been too blind to. It went into the metaphorical draw, and hasn’t come out again since.

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Perhaps I should have held off on this morning’s blog post about presenting background, as this afternoon Jeremy Keller has expanded on the notion of Transmissions by bringing the goods to the table and showing us an actual Transmission. A thing laden with promise, I’m sure you’ll agree, pulsing with ideas just ready to be used in the pursuit of story.

A while back I thought a little about how best to present background as part of a roleplaying game and I wanted to revisit that topic with some fresh ideas.

Something Jeremy Keller posted a few weeks back as part of his design thoughts struck a chord with me and is potentially the missing piece of the puzzle that I’ve been looking for – how best to present background and get the players to buy into that.

With regard to his latest game, Technoir, Jeremy talks about the role of Transmissions, which are self-contained capsules of information regarding different aspects of the setting (chiefly different cities), principally as a means to generate plot ideas for the GM. This got me thinking – what if these capsules not only delivered plot ideas for the GM, but also in-game background for the players to easily digest?

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It’s probably appropriate that I’ve taken so long to post a link to his blog post, but the always-enjoyable Rob Barker finally posted up his three-part commentary on Furnace 2010, including an actual play report of the game of Dead of Night: Bad Signal that I ran that is far more elegant and descriptive than anything I can muster up so long after the event.

And once you’re done reading that, make sure you check out his other roleplaying game-related writings, including his dabbling with the choose-your-own-adventure adaptation of the classic arcade side-scroller, R-Type, not to mention his astute write-up of the Primetime Adventures series I started over in Sheffield a month or two back.