Archive for December, 2005

I Digress: Lions on the Precipice

December 26, 2005

Lions is wacky, GM-less Dogs in the Vineyard for 3 pairs of players, which can be couples, friends, whatever. But it’s fairly important that each player has a pre-established, fuctional relationship with the other person in their pair. It’s less important that the pairs know each other well, but that helps too.

Each pair will be portraying a single Ghost Lion, so there will be 3 Ghost Lion characters for each play group. There may occasionally be scenes in which two or even all of the Ghost Lions appear together, but, most of the time, they will be operating independently. In a given scene, the 6 players will represent:

1. The Spirit of the Lion/Lioness [Insert Name]
2. The Flesh of the Hunter/Huntress [Insert Name]
3. Wanderer Woman
4. One Twin
5. Lion Keeper
6. The King of Life

Lions names are questions, such as the lioness Where Do The Elk Go? or the lion Why Do Birds Sing?

Human names are answers, such as the hunter Across The Mountains or the huntress Forgotten Sorrow.

Each of the player roles has a general goal/purpose in the game, as follows:

1. The Lion Spirit = Death
2. The Human Flesh = Life
3. Wanderer Woman = Tradition
4. One Twin = Reciprocity
5. Lion Keeper = Dynamism
6. King of Life = ?

The King of Life (a.k.a. the Judeo-Christian-Islamic-Mormon God) is something I’m trying to figure out. It would make sense for him to be “Life,” but it would be ironic and cool for him to be something else entirely. I thought about making him more complex and contradictory, giving him precepts such as:

A. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matt 10:35)

B. You alone we worship, and to you alone turn for help (Qur’an 1:4)

C. Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man.” (G. Thom 7)

D. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18)

E. …and because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish! (1 Nephi 1:14)

One of the interesting parts of the game is that the King of Life gives great power to those who follow him, but joining the King means giving up everything that you know. Plus, the King is pretty antithetical to the Ghost Lions and their mission, so he often serves as a foil and convenient target. I especially love the quote from Thomas, which is 100% perfect for this game. The King is totally about empowering the Flesh against the Lion, which, in his view, is a demon that needs to be expelled. While Lion Keeper wants the Ghost Lions to create a dynamic, empowering tension between the Human Flesh and Lion Spirit, the King of Life wants to seperate one from the other, banishing the lion half away forever. And, the great thing is, like Dogs the game itself offers no moral judgement on either. The King of Life can indeed become the salvation of struggling Ghost Lions, or he can be their worst enemy, but that’s all up to the players.

Wanderer Woman is the sage who convinced the People to give up their great cities on the plains and return to hunting and gathering. The People are going to be strongly based on the Hopi, who formerly inhabited the great cliff cities (such as Mesa Verde and others), but abandoned them long before Europeans and Euro-Americans arrived in those areas. Her teachings are about the seperation of sacred powers (female from male, human from the spirits, human and animal, etc.).

One Twin is the greatest hunter of the People. He teaches about reciprocity between the human/animal and human/spirit worlds and the close connections between the sacred powers.

Lion Keeper was never human, but the greatest of lions and their spirit guardian. He sends the lions down from the mountain to punish the People and just to shake things up. He gets bored easily.

The Three and the King of Life don’t necessarily get along. Wanderer Woman and One Twin are the heroes of the People and get annoyed when Lion Keeper or the King threaten them or their way of life. There are tensions between Wanderer Woman and One Twin as well, since one teaches seperation while the other teaches connection. Sometimes the Three unite against the King, to protect the People and the Old Ways. Sometimes they cut deals to get what they want.

The core of play, though, is the conflict between the two halves of the Ghost Lion, the dead Lion Spirit and the Flesh’s memory of life. Both players representing the Ghost Lion call on the same pile of traits and can use them for contradictory choices.

More later.

Vesperteen Playtest Doc, Part 2 (Draft)

December 22, 2005

Quick Push update: I finally heard back from Emily and John Kim about my edits of their articles, so we’re moving rapidly forward again. Finished layout tweaks on John’s article last night and jiggled a few things that Emily wanted tweaked. Now it’s time to finish Eero’s, so by the time Shreyas gets back from India I’m ready to nail the final pieces down. Woohoo! Accomplishing things means I have the excuse to write more about Vesperteen. Here goes:


So last time I said that character creation happens during this big Truth or Dare game. It’s true.

The Vesperteen character sheet looks something like THIS (it’s an older version, but it works). To begin, players only fill out the first two boxes for NAME and SEX.

Then, for starting 6th Grade characters, roll 1d6. This is the amount of sin the character starts out with, 1-6. Nobody comes in untainted. There will also be guidelines for rolling up older or more experienced (in the true meaning of the word) characters, but let’s not deal with those quite yet.

Look at the bottom of the sheet, where it says TRUTH OR DARE. This is how we apportion your starting sin, fill out the rest of the character sheet, and create a general character concept. It works like this:

Pick a player to go first. You can do this by rolling dice or just pointing at someone or getting a volunteer. Whatever.

The first player gets asked “Truth or Dare?” by another player.

If the first player selects “Truth,” they get asked an appropriate uncomfortable, sin-related question, such as “What’s the most embarassing thing you’ve ever done?” or “If you could sleep with anyone, who would it be and why?” or “Who would you kill?” Then, the player has to tell a short story or anaecdote (perform a single scene, basically) that addresses the question. Once the scene is over, the player and the rest of the group determine which sin the story demonstrated and the player fills in a corresponding dot in their SINS.

If the player selects “Dare,” then the group consults with each other and comes up with something to dare the character to do (preferably something slightly sinful), which the character must then attempt in a short scene performed with the help of the other players, who take the roles of any needed NPCs and arbitrate any conflicts (the rules for all this will come later). Note that the deed will not necessarily be accomplished, but the character must try or at least try to get out of it. Note that dares could include things that wouldn’t normally be possible in a slumber party Truth or Dare game, such as mouthing off to a teacher, skipping school to smoke pot behind the bleachers, or making out with an adult. As with Truth Scenes, once the Dare Scene is over, the player, along with the rest of the group, decides which sin best applies and fills in that dot in their SINS.

The TRUTH OR DARE section is the place where you keep track of your Truth and Dare Scenes as they happen. Mark T or D, depending on which you decide, and then give a short, one line summery of what you did in each scene, such as “Made out with Emily’s 27yo aunt, Jessica.”

Note that there are 7 lines in the TRUTH OR DARE box, and you will only have up to 6 points of sin, starting out. What do you do with the other lines?

Instead of having a Truth or Dare Scene about a specific sin, you can also have a scene about one of the other boxes on the character sheet: DATE OF BIRTH, RACE, PARENTS, SIBLINGS, GRADE/STANDING, or (on the new sheet) class BACKGROUND. These scenes can be related to the box content in any number of ways. Maybe you could have a Truth Scene about encountering racism for the first time (RACE). Maybe you could be Dared to pick a fight with someone much older than you (DATE OF BIRTH). Maybe you can tell the Truth about your parents messy divorce (PARENTS) or talk about the worst birthday you ever had (DATE OF BIRTH). The options are really open ended.

[Note: I’m also considering allowing initial scenes that create starting SELF investments, but this might be too much. We’ll talk about SELF later.]

In any case, by the end of the Truth or Dare game, you should have all your sins filled in, have gone through 7 scenes each, and have filled out all the question boxes on your sheet (you can definitely gain sin and fill out a box thanks to a single scene). This will probably take most of the first session, since you’ll be teaching everyone the rules as you go and running 7 short scenes per player.

The interesting thing is, when you learn to make your character, you’re also learning how to play the game. In the next installment, I’ll talk about how scene framing and such is handled in Vesperteen and show that Truth Scenes are the equivilent of Day Scenes (in which the PC’s player serves as their own GM, basically) while Dare Scenes are the equivilent of Night Scenes (in which the other players basically jump your character and force them into uncomfortable situations).

See you then.

Vesperteen Playtest Doc, Part 1 (Draft)

December 19, 2005

I’ve gotten my thoughts mostly straight on this, so I figured I might as well type it up, since I was needing a break from Push-related work.


The first thing the group needs to do is to collaborate on filling out the SCHOOL/COMMUNITY CHART, which provides some basic guidelines for the setting of the game. The characters will all be affiliated with the same school, which is some sort of secondary school (i.e. middle or high school) embedded in the greater community, which can be a town, a neighborhood, a borough of a larger city, or whatever else the players think is appropriate. The example chart depicts East Stapleton High School, which is located in the medium-sized town of Stapleton, South Carolina. The example is somewhat based on the school and community in the book/film, Friday Night Lights.

Each school and community is characterized by its SELF and its preferred way of indulging in each of the Seven Deadly Sins (ENVY, GLUTTONY, GREED, LUST, PRIDE, SLOTH, WRATH). A school or community’s SELF is composed of three core values that give the student body or community residents their overall character as a group. For instance, East Stapleton High’s students are known for partying, misbehaving, and winning the state championship in football, while the overall community is known for its church-going, patriotic, and well-mannered citizenry. The tension between the school and community’s core values is intentional, since what teenagers like to do is seldom the same as what their parents, teachers, and older members of the community would wish for them. However, the town is not without its own problems, since both the school and community have their own preferred brands of sin. Stapleton, for example, is apparently a glutton for racism.

If necessary, the group might find it interesting to also collaborate on a chart for other significant schools and communities in the area, especially if one or more of them are rivals or sworn enemies of their own. Is there a posh, expensive prep school or military academy just 15 miles up the highway from Stapleton?

It is a significant event if either the school or the community ends up having to change any of the information on its sheet due to events in play. If, after a session or two, the players feel like the overall character of the school or community is not how it is described on the chart, they should feel free to make the descriptions more appriate. However, if the town changes, due to development or people moving in or out, that should be noted on the chart. Likewise with the school. [More town/community development rules may be developed later, in playtesting.]

After the school and community has been created, the players next need to collaborate on the SQUICK CHART, which sets the boundaries and stakes for the characters’ indulgance in various sins. Sin and the characters’ intentional or unintentional submission to its dark power is one of the major themes of the game. However, different players will have varying degrees of comfort in what they’re willing to deal with in play, especially when it comes to graphic or disturbing sexuality and violence. The Squick Chart attempts to create a set of compromises, establishing guidelines to help prevent play from becoming harmful, abusive, or dangerous.

Vesperteen is, to a large extent, about allowing others to lead you into situations where you, the player, are uncomfortable, much like the game Truth or Dare, which many of us played as adolescents. The Squick Chart, then, is about how you, the players, feel about roleplaying the various sins and not about how your characters will feel about them. Your characters might think hand-holding and exposed ankles are naughty. This, actually, is why the group fills out the Squick Chart before you make characters.

The example Squick Chart gives you a basic idea of what you’re going to do. You have to come up with an appropriate sinful act for each level (1-6) of each sin. The designations given for each number provide a general guideline. Level 1 is a Lapse, 2 is a Weakness, 3 – Indulgance, 4 – Revelry, 5 – Monstrosity, and 6 – Abomination. If one or more people in your group is unwilling to roleplay the situations or acts required for a certain sin level (the higher levels of Lust and Wrath are likely to be common concerns), cross that level out. If a player is willing to have those actions happen in the game, but “off-screen” after a “fade to black” or other technique that shields the details, draw a box around that level.

Note that the Squick Charts of two different groups are likely to be very different, since it all depends on the qualms and expectations of the individuals involved. It’s very important, to promote safer play (just like with sex, there is no guarantee of completely safe play), for the group to reexamine the chart regularly, to make sure people are okay with it and to do this whenever someone leaves or enters the group, since the group dynamic may change. Additionally, the Squick Chart is also closely tied into the overall style of the game. If you’re modeling play off of Volcano High School or some wacky anime show, the sins involved are likely to be somewhat different. “Slaughter your rival’s entire family, to the third generation” might be an appropriate sin, in such a game. Likewise with a game based on Harry Potter.

With those steps completed, you’re finally ready to begin play, which starts with a game of Truth or Dare. Don’t fret that you don’t have a character yet. By the end of Truth or Dare, you will.

[To be continued…]

Push Preface (Draft)

December 17, 2005

This is not what I had in mind.

Push began as a column for RPGnet, a more practical, hands-on sequel to my discussion of aesthetics in The Fine Art of Roleplaying (2003).

But this was soon interrupted by another project; Chris Lehrich and I decided to co-edit a roleplaying handbook. The resulting volume would attempt to describe, discuss, and theorize about all the various and sundry ways in which people roleplay.

The handbook project, in turn, fizzled. Wanting to try my hand at a more modest undertaking, I imagined a progressive design journal, published as often as we could manage, modeled after several notable ancestors:

    McSweeney’s: Dave Eggers is a post-modern Kerouac with delusions of grandeur. Aside from writing the quirky, self-conscious, and bestselling memoir-of-young-adulthood, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he also founded Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal originally intended for pieces too odd, experimental, or emo for traditional publications. The result is something akin to She-Ra and Salman Rushdie co-hosting an NPR program, but in book form. Brilliant.

    Flight: Kazu Kabuishi edits an annual anthology of all new, full-color comics written and illustrated by Canadians, art school kids, and 20-somethings (sometimes all three at the same time). Flight continues to build a following, gaining the attention of comics readers of all stripes (superheroes, indie, manga, webcomics) as well as people who are not normally comics fans. It did this by just being really good.

    Beyond Role and Play: The largest roleplaying convention among the Nordic countries is called, in various languages, Knutpunkt (Swedish), Knudepunkt (Danish), Knutepunkt (Norwegian), and Solmukohta (Finnish). Each year, the roaming convention produces a book of articles on roleplaying, and 2004’s volume was Beyond Role and Play: Tools, Toys and Theory for Harnessing the Imagination, edited by Markus Montola and Jaakko Stenros. Once I got my hands on a copy, the pieces began to come together.

    Daedalus: Matt Snyder is my hero and, also, the creator of Dust Devils and Nine Worlds. Daedalus is his periodic PDF ‘zine, devoted to publishing whatever’s been submitted since the last issue (woohoo!). Matt proved that a regular publication about independent roleplaying and progressive roleplaying thought was both possible and strongly needed. Push is forever in his debt.

If you want to know what Push is about, check out one of these other publications. You’ll be glad you did. Or just continue reading this book. It starts with Emily’s piece, which is awesome.

Give us your lost, your broken, your people yearning to be free. And, assuming they like roleplaying, we’ll try to give them some prospective on where we are and where we’re going.

Enjoy.
Jonathan

Vesperteen Collage

December 6, 2005

So I said I was making the Vesperteen cover myself, by hand. Well, I’m like 60% there. Still got a few major decisions to make and some changes I’m considering, but it might end up looking something like this (in black and white, because most of the major decisions involve color choices):

And before Clinton and Ben (or anyone else) gets on my case about it, yeah, I know I need to finish the playtest document. Thanks. Art and design is just how I relax from all the other stresses in my life, so it tends to get finished first.

EDIT: The first person I showed this to thought the central figures were a frog (: Guess I still have some work to do…

The Current State of Things

December 5, 2005

I thought it might be important to begin with a summery of my current projects. Here they are, in order of priority:

Push vol. 1

Push is a progressive roleplaying journal which I plan to publish annually. The first volume will tentatively be out January 2006, since it’ll take me the rest of December to finish up editing, layout, and the running contributor commentary that will appear beside the main text. The first volume will include pieces by Emily Care Boss (“Collaborative Roleplaying”), John H. Kim (“Immersive Story Methods”), Shreyas Sampat (“Mridangam”), Eero Tuovinen (“Against the Geek, Choice”), and myself (“Introduction: Negotiated Spaces”). It could possibly include contributions from Clinton R. Nixon and Gary Pratt as well. A few others have signed on to look over the text or provide guest commentary, including Ben Lehman, Rich Forest, Lisa Padol, and Thomas Robertson. The cover art is by Clio Chiang.

Volume 1 will be available as a PDF, direct from me, and a POD softcover through Lulu. Profits will be divided evenly among the main contributors, who can choose to keep or donate them as they will. Once the first volume is out, I’ll begin inviting interested parties to propose pieces for Volume 2.

Vesperteen

Vesperteen (a game about sin, teenagers, and monsters) started as a pseudo-sequel to Jason Blair’s Little Fears (a game about sin, children, and monsters), but it quickly turned into something much more involved. I immediately discovered that Jason’s original mechanics, or even a variant of them, would not provide the kinds of play opportunities that I was interested in creating. I wanted to make a game that was actually frightening, one which would allow the players to consensually scare or unnerve each other but also a game which would ensure that play was reasonably safe, preventing most opportunities for abusive or dangerous behavior. As a result, while Little Fears provides strong inspiration for Vesperteen, they are two very different games.

Vesperteen is not about the monster that’s going to get you, but the monster you’re scared of becoming. No one wants to remain a victim. And, while, sin is a path to power and respect, by indulging in sin you risk transforming into someone you barely recognize. How do you walk the fine line between being strong, seizing you potential, standing up for yourself, and, on the other hand, falling victim to power’s seductive ways, becoming as corrupt as the bullies, vicious social queens, and monsters that torment you? It’s that age old question: what are you willing to do to get what you want?

Systematically, Vesperteen is clearly inspired by other Forge games, but attempts to push things a bit further. There is no GM. Before play begins, the group collaborates on a chart which determines what levels of each sin the group is willing to explore. They also create a community, school, the protagonists, and notable minor characters. Play is divided into Day and Evening Phases. During the Day Phase, you, the player, take the lead in determining what happens to your character. Once the sun sets, however, the other players plot secretly together and then create scenes and situations for your character to deal with. During the Evening Phase, the other players are encouraged to really go after you, pushing you with challanging scenes and situations that you’re not totally comfortable in, limiting your choices and forcing you to make difficult decisions.

Vesperteen is going to take some serious time and effort to put together. The layout for the book is going to combine digital and physical methods. Each page is going to be first created by hand, as a mixed media piece, which will then be scanned and have text placed on top (so that the text can later be edited, if necessary). I’ve already begun on what may end up being the cover. The mechanics and such have mostly been worked out, but there are still a few details that I need to nail down before serious playtesting can begin. And Push needs to be out before I can focus on that.

Lions on the Precipice

This is my reworking of Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. I want to create a game about the Mountain People, but I suspect, as with Vesperteen that this will end up playing rather differently than Dogs does. First of all, Ghost Lions travel alone, which means it’ll either be a single-protagonist game or the protagonists’ individual stories will reflect and comment on each other, thematically (which would take some work to set up).

The back cover text goes like this (credit to Vincent for the original, Vampire-influence text):

The Great Sky King
is angry with the People.

They have grown weak,
dependent on the Strangers
for guns, supplies, & alcohol.

The spirits have chosen you
to rectify the People’s actions,
reinvigorate the Old Ways,
& eliminate evil influences.

You stand in between tradition
and desperation.

You stand in between the People
and their own self-destruction.

You stand in between,
for you are no longer of the living.

You are a Ghost Lion.

Lions on the Precipice.

Roleplaying the Spirits’ Emmisaries
in a West that never quite was.

Fingers on the Firmament

This is a game I promised Shreyas. The problem is, it might not be suitable for a game. It’s about people reaching up into the night sky and yanking on stars, propelling themselves out into that big, empty void. And it’s about the type of community (yes, community) that forms when you’re all alone amid the blackness and so is everyone you meet (or, more likely, don’t meet). Heavily influenced by the setting (but not the mechanics) of Aetherco’s Continuum.

Nine Suns Must Fall, Arthouse Wuxia, Children of the Revolution

Three short games about China which I may never finish. If I do, they’ll probably see independent publication in Push or as an anthology.

The Storypunk Project

This is the big, rock-your-socks, roleplaying-will-never-be-the-same game. If you want to a hint of what it might look like, search the Forge’s Indie Game Design forum for earlier versions and related ideas, which have been called “Quixote & Coyote,” “Storypunk,” “Facedance,” and “Humble Mythologies.” It was also called, briefly, “Beneath This Facade,” but I don’t think I ever posted about it under that name. I have no clue what this game might end up being called. I was considering “When the Forms Exhaust Their Variety” (a quote from Calvino’s Invisible Cities) and “Scheherazade Unbound,” but it’ll probably change another 12 times before then.

The game will be about masks and layers of masks, masks under masks. It’s a game about identity and creating your identity by performing different character roles and retaining bits and pieces of every character you’ve been. It’s a roleplaying game about roleplaying, basically (for another roleplaying game about roleplaying, see Rebecca Borgstrom’s Exalted: The Fair Folk, which was originally called “Graceful, Wicked Masks” for a reason).

This game is a long way off. I’m not capable of writing it yet. But one day…

Two Sisters

December 4, 2005

It’s time to get serious again.

The era in which progressive, indie roleplaying was virtually synonymous with The Forge is rapidly coming to an end. The era of The Forge Disapora & Friends begins.

This is the beginning of the end. Make no mistake, traditional hobby roleplaying in the style of Dungeons & Dragons and its successors will continue indefinitely. However, there are multiple offshoots of roleplaying that are quickly becoming something that bears less and less resemblance to D&D, becoming something that may not even be roleplaying.

Roleplaying is great stuff, yes. But what roleplaying is becoming is even more exciting. Personally, I’m going to do everything I can to help this process along. Progress on the first volume of Push continues every day and I’m just itching to begin putting Vesperteen, my first major game, together.

This blog is intended to be an aid and a public record, offering a more personal and focused space than the group blog 20×20 Room, where I post most of my public thoughts. My ideal is something between Vincent’s anyway and Shreyas’ raven swallows the sun, mixing carefully crafted bits of theory and design with excerpts of creative works in progress. Everything here will be written intentionally. No stream-of-consciousness blogging. Nothing unrelated to roleplaying and its future. If you want that other stuff, read my LiveJournal.

My muses are the two sisters: Scheherazade, the teller of stories, and Dunyazade, who listens. May we all learn to do both better. In a nutshell, that’s what this is all about.