Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why -- or why not -- use the Apocalypse World system?

I love games that use the Apocalypse World system. At Metatopia I playtested a bunch of AW-bsed games, ranging from relatively straightforward transpositions of the mechanics into new scenarios, to wildly creative reimaginings of the system. It's my go-to system for a more traditional* game.

So when I design a game, it's worth asking why I am, or am not, using the AW system as my basis. The two games I brought to Metatopia make a good illustration of this, since one is AW and the other is not.

My AW game, tentatively titled "Get Ready to Rock," is about a band on tour. It was inspired in part by some sessions of the "Touring Rock Band" and "Touring Rock Band 2" Fiasco playsets -- so I know that you can tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell without AW mechanics. And my use of AW started in part simply from noticing the similarity between the name "Apocalypse World" and the name of the show "Metalocalypse" (another key inspiration). But the game has progressed and worked because the AW system does certain things that are useful for the kind of stories I want the game to produce.

First, one of the key drivers of the game is the tension between the cohesion necessary to play music together, versus the clash of egos that arises when a band hits the big time. This is supported in part by some of the base AW mechanics. The use of differentiated playbooks geared to different roles in the story helps to model both the complementary differences that make a band work (made obvious in the formulas used by music executives constructing boy bands and supergroups), as well as the different directions that each member's personality will tug the band in. I also borrowed the "strings" mechanic pretty directly from Monsterhearts (which I regard as the paradigm of an AW game, perhaps even more so than AW itself) as a way of intensifying the need to make complicated choices that implicate your fellow band members. I also implemented one innovation which followed smoothly from the AW base: the band as an entity has its own playbook, separate from the players' individual ones, with its own set of stats, its own harm track, and moves that can only be done by the band as a whole.

Second, I wanted the game to motivate the characters to make bad decisions and get themselves into trouble. This is not a game where the GM dreams up a set of challenges that the players then work to overcome -- instead, the characters' own actions should get twisted to draw them further into complicated situations and force them to make difficult choices. The aforementioned strings are an obvious way to do this, and I enhance their role in the game to allow players to make things complicated for each other. But even more importantly, the "partial success" mechanic in AW leads directly to complications. Having clearly structured "moves" means that players are confronted with tough choices and a framework for complicating their own lives when they roll anything less than a 10.

On the other hand, I think there are good reasons that Laser Kittens is not an AW game. For this game I developed my own system, based on bidding cards from two standard poker decks. There are several aspects of the gameplay that I wanted, which would be difficult to model using an AW basis.

First, Laser Kittens is a game with a rotating GM. Now, I know there are GM-less AW games out there, so it's not an impossibility. But it doesn't follow easily, because there is a tension between the player-level decisions involved in bidding to GM a scene, versus the character-level actions of using your playbook's moves. Bidding for the GM role would have required a separate mechanic, whereas my original system was able to seamlessly merge the mechanics for picking a GM with the mechanics for resolving conflicts within a scene.

Second, I wanted to model the chaos of kitten life. While much emphasis is placed on the partial success mechanics of AW, ultimately characters in an AW-based game are more or less in control of what they're doing, within known parameters of probability. On the other hand, kittens are not in control -- they have limited knowledge and limited control over their own bodies. The card-bidding mechanic of Laser Kittens generates a good deal of chaos. (I had one playtester tell me that she had more fun when she selected her bid entirely at random, rather than trying to purposefully choose a good card.) Moreover, bidding from a fixed set of cards encourages players to deliberately invite failure by spending bad cards, both as a way of refreshing their hand and as a storytelling end in itself. This is something that can't be done with a dice-based system, where each roll is uncontrollable and statistically independent of each other roll.

Third, there are the lasers. I'm planning a longer post about how I developed the laser mechanic, so for the moment I'll suffice it to say that nothing in the standard AW toolkit allows for modeling some of the key characteristics of lasers in the game. Specifically, lasers (unlike character moves in an AW game) 1) build up "pressure" over time until they're forced to go off, and 2) have success/failure levels that can be progressively learned about, and adjusted, during the power-up period.

That being said, translating what Laser Kittens has become into an AW-based system is an interesting challenge, and a potential stretch goal for Kickstarter!

*I know some people regard AW games as super indie. But to me, "traditional" encompasses any game in which there is a distinction between GM and players, and in which each player controls a character whose abilities are defined by a set of "stats and powers."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fate Accelerated: The Apple Pie Party caucuses

I've played exactly one session of Fate, but since it's such a popular system, I wanted to try running a Fate Accelerated game. Here's a sketch of the scenario I put together -- the Apple Pie Party caucuses.

Eccentric billionaire doorknob magnate Lester O'Malley is fed up with the two-party system. He founded the Apple Pie Party to try to give some normal people who are not career politicians a chance at breaking the Democratic-Republican stranglehold on the presidency. He has promised to bankroll the presidential campaign of whichever candidate wins the Apple Pie Party's primaries, starting with the Iowa caucuses. But the big parties are nervous that the Apple Pie candidate could be a spoiler, and they'll do whatever it takes to stop them.

Players begin by writing down an unusual policy stance (such as "ban all corn and corn products," "blow up the moon," or "a pot in every chicken") on slips of paper. These are then shuffled and handed out, to give each player the germ of a character. Each character starts with four aspects:

  1. A high concept (usually a personality trait + job before running for president, such as "lecherous wizard," "clairvoyant steelworker," or "bankrupt tractor salesperson", though there were some wackier ones like "12 opossums in a human suit")
  2. A trouble (the scandal or skeleton in the closet that could bring down their campaign)
  3. Two policy positions -- the one you were randomly allocated, and one more you make up for yourself.
For this game, I did partial pregens, creating high concepts, two relevant stunts for each, and scores on approaches. (Stunts included things like an infinite campaign war chest, a bonus to actions done while riding a tractor, and a bonus when helping someone in the same Hogwarts house) Players filled in their policy positions as well as names and descriptions.

The game proceeds through four scenes. A poll is released at the end of each scene, indicating the candidates' relative standing as determined by the GM.:

  1. The Iowa State Fair, where the candidates are introduced to the public by O'Malley and do some campaigning while eating fried things on sticks.
  2. A televised debate. In the first round of the debate, each candidate answers a question from a viewer submitted via Twitter. In the second round, each candidate can challenge another candidate with a question.
  3. Tom Harkin's steak fry -- another chance for some open-ended campaigning. (For time reasons, we skipped this one.)
  4. The Iowa caucuses.

Overall, the game ran pretty well. The candidates united on the issue of destroying the moon, while arguing over who was secretly or not-so-secretly an animal in a human disguise. Their primary challenges were the NPC APP candidate Nimlock the Barbarian (campaigning on a platform of slaughtering all carbon-based life forms), and Des Moines Register lead political reporter Barbara Anderson, who was clearly in the bag for Ted Cruz. Two things need more work:

  • The polls. I just impressionistically adjusted candidates' standing based on whether I thought their actions were appealing to the public. If I run this again, I would want to come up with a clearer mechanism for gaining or losing votes, as well as rewards and penalties for candidates' standing in the polls.
  • The final vote at the caucuses. In this game, I assigned each candidate a rating between 2 and 4 depending on their final poll standing, then had them roll their dice and add the result to their rating. Thye could spend Fate points to re-roll. If I ran it again, I would want to flesh out the caucuses as a scene, with all of the arguing and re-allocating of votes that goes on at the real Democratic Party caucuses in Iowa. (The GOP caucuses are much more sedate and primary-like.)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

It's the most wonderful time of the year! (or where to find us at Gen Con)

So, in one week, the magic known as Gen Con will be in full swing. Glittercats will be there in full force!

We will again be part of the Indie Game Developers Network booth (#734 in the ICC, right next door to IPR). As always, Bunny Money Gunny will be available, for all your competitive bunny strategy needs. We will also be running and talking about Laser Kittens: Tales from Knoll Street School for Wayward Kittens. The most exciting new for this year is - the newest game in our arsenal, The Fool's Journey, will be available!

The Fool's Journey is a storytelling game based on a deck of tarot cards. Nine of the Major Arcana cards form a story waiting to be told. Bid against the other players to rearrage the cards into the story you want. Then use the cards as prompts to tell the tale of the Fool (or another character).

Try the game with different tarot decks for different stories and different experiences. There is no end to the stories waiting in The Fool's Journey.

All you need to play is this instruction book, two to four players, and any deck of tarot cards.

We are so excited to finally bring this game to y'all and can't wait to hear what stories you can come up with!


Wednesday, 7/29

IGDN Social 6-9 pm at Loughmiller's. 
Come meet members of IGDN and start off the con right.

Thursday, 7/30

Cheyenne - Chill 10am-2pm,  IGDN Game Room (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
                   How to Hack Your Favorite Fandom into an RPG Panel 3-4pm (Crowne Plaza Grand Central Ballroom A/B)
                   Veronica Monsterhearts 6-10pm - Contessa Game Room (ICC : 123--124)

Stentor - IGDN Game Room HQ Table 10am-1:30pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               Laser Kittens 2-6pm, IGDN Game Room (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               Laser Kittens or Fiasco 6-8pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)

Friday, 7/31

Cheyenne - IGDN Game Room HQ Table 10am-1:30pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
                   Chill 2-6pm (JW Marriott, room 306)
                   IGDN Game Room HQ Table 6-8pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)

Stentor - Laser Kittens 10am-2pm, IGDN Game Room (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               IGDN Game Room HQ Table 6-8pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               Laser Kittens or Fiasco 8-10pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)
               Laser Kittens or Fiasco 10-12pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)

Saturday, 8/1

Cheyenne - Glittercats Demo at IGDN Booth 12-2pm (#734)
                   Laser Kittens 2-6pm, IGDN Game Room (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)

Stentor -  IGDN Game Room HQ Table 10am-1:30pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               Laser Kittens or Dread 2-6pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)
               Laser Kittens or Dread 8-12pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)

Sunday, 8/2

Cheyenne - Glittercats Demo at IGDN Booth 10am-12pm (#734)
                   Laser Kittens 12-4pm, IGDN Game Room (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)         

Stentor -  IGDN Game Room HQ Table 10am-1:30pm (Downtown Marriott ballroom 7)
               Laser Kittens or Fiasco 2-4pm, Games on Demand (Downtown Mariott ballroom 6)

Please feel free to stop by anything we're running a table or demoing. We would love to see you! If you didn't get into any of our games, you can always try and stop by with generics.

Can't wait to see everyone there!  

Friday, June 12, 2015

Chey's Origins Roundup

So, Origins 2015 did not go according to plan.

I had been booked to run 3 games of Growling Door Games' Chill - 3rd Edition. Thursday morning came and I got to run that morning's game - which went well. There were only 3 players so it went by pretty fast. The characters were able to get almost all of the clues available to them, met one NPC a day earlier than expected - they were supposed to find dead the next afternoon. They ended up saving a total of 4 NPC's that could have died and ended up intercepting the creature. AND there was a most wonderful quote of the con:

Me: You find dead bees all over the back yard.
Player: Do they appear to have been strangled??

The rest of the day consisted of demoing for Glittercats and then an IGDN dinner, which by the end of I had completely lost my voice.

Friday consisted of me having to back out of my Chill game,  going to Urgent Care (I ended up with an infection in my throat that would have taken my voice no matter what I was doing), getting meds and sleeping a lot. We did manage to get a small group together in the Big Bar on 2 to play Writey Drawey, a favorite game of mine in which you really don't need to talk.

Saturday, my husband Chris and I wandered the dealer's hall and made a few purchases. He bought me King of New York, which I've been eyeing since it was released. We also picked up Exploding Cows and Pairs, since everyone always needs more party games. Chris also picked up Cosmic Patrol since he would really like to play more games where you roll D20's.

I did also pop in the see a bit of the morning session of Laser Kittens that Stentor ran and it made my heart grow 3 sizes.

That evening, I had just enough of a voice coming back to be able to head to Games on Demand and get to play The Warren. Our story was set in a major city park similar to Central Park and it was a great time. I ended up playing a matronly bunny who was change adverse. It was a great time and just what I needed.

Sunday, I finally got to work the booth some more and get to hug a lot of people that I enjoy seeing at cons.

Overall, it was still a really good con. I got to see our first RPG being enjoyed by several players and makes me really happy the Laser Kittens is going over so well. I can't wait to get to run it myself at Gen Con.

Also, I really want to come up with a story telling game in which no one talks. I missed out on lots of opportunity to game at the con and so I kinda want to be proactive and make a game myself.

All in all, a good con that makes me super excited for Gen Con.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stentor's Origins Roundup

I'm back from a super-successful Origins and battling a bit of con crud. Here's a roundup of what I was up to:

Sales: We had Bunny Money Gunny for sale at the IGDN booth. I don't have the final numbers, but it was pretty clear that this game sells when Cheyenne is demoing it.

Purchases: I kept it light this year. I picked up The Quiet Year for my own enjoyment, and a copy of the Fate Accelerated book and a bunch of Fate dice for use in my Economic Geography class this fall.

Played: We'll start with the games I ran -- three sessions of Laser Kittens.

I've got extensive notes, and I'll try doing a longer writeup of each later. For now, I'll just give summaries.

Game 1: This session began with Professor Julius administering the Cat Oath to all of the kittens. They spent some time learning about the ethics of laser use, then had to face a midterm exam in which they were attacked by a mysterious black cat. Luckily, it turned out to be Professor Siren's doppelganger, as she had the "two two two" laser.

Game 2: The kittens dedicated themselves to getting human Joe in trouble. Since they couldn't get up the stairs to his room on their own, they summoned a herd of emus (using the "zoo zoo zoo" laser) and rode them. One kitten had a terrifying prophetic vision of a post-apocalyptic future if they killed Joe (using her "view view view" laser), and so another kitten decided to simply erase Joe from history as if he had never existed (using the "shoo shoo shoo" laser).

Game 3: The kittens were on a mission to attack the neighbors' dog. Concerned that the rabbits in the house were helping the humans to steal the kittens' poops (and thus their powers), the kittens invaded the rabbits' secret lair behind the paneling. A battle ensued, which ended in victory for the cats when all of the rabbits were teleported (using the "shoo shoo shoo" laser) into the neighbors' house, which got the dog in trouble as he was blamed for the sudden appearance of a bunch of bloodied rabbits.

Since there was so much interest in Laser Kittens, I never got to run the other game on my menu, Dread: Dinosaur Edition. You can grab the character questionnaires here if you'd like to try running it yourself.

The first game run by someone else that I played was Microscope. We created the story of the encounter and ensuing war between Earth and the Uktar, an insectoid alien species, told from the Uktar's point of view. We had political intrigue, the rise of an Uktar-worshipping cult, and the eventual development of Uktar-human hybrids.

Next, I played a game of The Warren. I've run this game before, but this was my first time as a player. Our game was set in ancient Egypt, and we had established our warren on a small island in the river to protect ourselves from the desert hares. However, the humans had built a dam to divert river water for irrigation, making it possible for the hares to invade. My character had to bait the River God (a giant crocodile) into attacking and smashing the dam in order to save the warren.

The last game I played was A Single Man in Possession of a Good Fortune, a hack of Kagematsu set in regency-era England. This is not a setting I would have chosen if my options weren't so limited by the time I got to the front of the line at Games on Demand, but it was incredibly fun. In our game, we were three daughters and their governess of the head British official in Bombay. We had to win over the new governor who had been sent to replace our ailing father so that he would protect the city against a French invasion.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It's the day of the Con, y'all!

Hey there everyone, it's that time of year! Origins Game Fair starts tomorrow in Columbus, Ohio. Origins is personally one of my favorite cons and it will be great to get to see so many awesome faces. Here's what we'll be up to this weekend.

Stentor will be running games at Games on Demand. 

Thursday, 6/4 - 9am-1pm
Friday, 6/5 - 9am-1pm
Saturday, 6/6 - 9am-1pm

Here's a peak at what he will offer on his menu:

Laser Kittens: Tales from Knoll Street School for Wayward Kittens! We are finally bringing GC's first RPG to Origins. 

And Dread: Dinosaur Edition!

Both are awesome games and I can't wait to hear about how things go.

As for me, I will be manning the IGDN booth (#520) in the afternoons and running demos from 4-6.

If you do see me at the booth or around in general, and would like to see a sneak peak at our newest title, The Fool's Journey, ask! We've created a fun parlor storytelling game that uses Tarot Cards to shape the story! We're really excited about this one and it will be available come Gen Con.

I am also running 3 games of Growling Door Games' newest title, Chill - Third Edition!

Thursday, 6/4 - 10am-2pm
Friday, 6/5 - 10am-2pm
Saturday, 6/6 - 10am-2pm

Can't wait to see y'all there!


Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Warren, Session 2: Go the Rabbitohs!

Second session of The Warren! The previous session ended on a big cliffhanger, but I went ahead and let everyone pick another character move. They were:

  • Belladonna: Outran the Black Rabbit
  • Veggie-mite: Ace in the Hole
  • Thump-tor: Thumper
  • Muddy: Swift Runner

The session begins with all of the rabbits realizing that the cane toads had hopped off with the gun. Thump-tor and Veggie-mite resist panic over this turn of events, though Belladonna is a bit freaked out by it. After discussing the situation, the PCs as well as Ash and Dusty decide they needed to go tell the Queen about the cane toads' new power.

Buck-tor allows all of the group in to see the Queen, who usually doesn't see visitors. She is a very large rabbit, with pure gray fur. She speaks with a weak voice and is unable to sit up on her bed of straw. Muddy takes the lead in explaining what had happened. The Queen is upset, and tells them that human weapons are cursed because humans use them to hunt rabbits. She declares that everyone who had touched the gun would be banished from the warren. Muddy had, of course, already admitted to holding the gun, and had implicated Ash and Dusty. Thump-tor and Veggie-mite truthfully deny having used the gun, but Belladonna has to speak plainly to convince the Queen that she hadn't held it. Buck-tor then escorts the three outcasts away from the warren.

Once outside the warren, Ash and Dusty decide they needed to steal the gun back from the toads, in order to redeem themselves and protect the warren. They tell Muddy that if he helps them, they would forgive him for trying to steal the gun. The three rabbits trail the toads to a swampy area near a stream. Muddy tries to sneak up on the toads to see what they ware doing. He spies a large group of toads confronting a smaller group, one of whom is holding the gun in its mouth with its tongue around the trigger. The toads spot Muddy's ears sticking out of the weeds. Muddy is able to bolt back to Ash and Dusty and warn them about the large group of toads. The three of them then bolt away, and hear the toads begin to fight behind them. During the toads' fight, the gun fires.

Back at the warren, the remaining PCs decide that they needed to lead the remaining rabbits to a new place. They decide to try to get to Flopsy's homeland on the other side of the River Jordan. Veggie-mite speaks plainly to the warren and convinces them all of the plan. The only rabbits who decided not to go along are Buck-tor and Hop-tor (the latter being a Knight Emeritus of Moloch), who both feel that their place is to stay and defend their Queen until the last. Veggie-mite tries to convince the Queen to come with them, but she says she is too weak to travel. But she gives her blessing to Veggie-mite and the litter she would soon give birth to.

The warren packs up and sets out for the river. They send a young squire of the Knights of Moloch, known as Bran-squee, to find the outcasts and invite them to join the new warren. But the outcasts had already decided to make their own way to the river, and so Bran-squee could not find them. That night, both parties have to dig shelters and resist panic caused by the hoots of owls in the woods.

The next day, Muddy, Ash, and Dusty reach the river first. They see a bridge with lots of car traffic upstream, and an island in the river downstream. Various trash lies along the river, including a plastic bag bearing a picture of lettuce but filled only with black slime. Dusty deems this a bad omen, so Muddy uses Strong to push an old truck tire down the beach a bit so that it would form a shelter while they wait for the others.

The rest of the warren comes onto the edge of the river just upstream of the tire. When Muddy pokes his head up to see them, he also sees a human fishing in the river near the bridge. This human is wearing a red and green shirt with a white rabbit on it. Muddy decides that this human must be a servant of Moloch. When the fisherman begins to approach the rabbits, Thump-tor successfully resists panic, but Veggie-mite does not -- leading her to lose control. She freezes, and the man scoops her up in a fishing net. As he goes to take her back to his car, Thump-tor bites him in the foot, then again on the hand when he reaches down to grab the offending rabbit (custom moves on Strong). The man throws Thump-tor and Veggie-mite in a big metal tackle box and latches the lid. Muddy sees a sticker on the man's car with the same white rabbit, so he decides to sneak in and ride along. The man gets in and drives away with three rabbits in the back seat.

Belladonna, meanwhile, had resisted panic at the man's approach, then decided to head into the water to get away. She also resists panic at the wide river, but is not as successful at swimming (custom move on Strong). She, along with Ash and Dusty, is swept downstream and washes up on the island that they had seen. Coming out of the water, they are confronted by three cane toads. In broken rabbitish, one of the toads identifies itself as a member of the Slimy clan. He explains that they share a common enemy, as the Warty Clan had stolen the Slimy Clan's land just like they were trying to do to the rabbits. He says that the Slimy Clan has acquired a powerful weapon that he calls the Slayer, but it is out of ammunition. If the rabbits will help the Slimy Clan get more ammunition for the Slayer, the toads will help them cross the river.

Dusy and Ash are unsure about this deal, but Belladonna speaks plainly to them. They agree to accept the deal, but only if Belladonna takes the first ride on toad-back across the river.

The car carrying the other three PCs eventually stops at a house. Muddy sneaks into a hidden corner of the car while the man opens the back door and picks up the box containing the other two rabbits, then bolts out before the door is closed. The man takes the tackle box over to a chicken wire hutch that is attached to the side of a shed, and puts Thump-tor and Veggie-mite in it. The hutch is several feet off the ground, and has a wooden nest box located inside the shed itself. He gives them some lettuce, then leaves in the car. When Thump-tor pays attention to the hutch he comes up blank, but Veggie-mite recognizes the smell in the hutch as having a familiar resonance.

The two caged rabbits offer Muddy some lettuce to do some scouting around. After paying attention to the surrounding area, he reports that the shed islocated behind a medium-sized one-story house and next to a sizeable vegetable garden. The shed itself has a door that is old and cracked enough for a rabbit to slip inside. In the shed are a variety of garden tools, a metal tank with a picture of a crossed-out cane toad on it, and up on a work bench, some cardboard boxes with pictures of a gun on them.

Meanwhile, Belladonna, Ash, Dusty, and the three cane toads have crossed the river and come to a road. The first toad who tries to cross is flattened by a car. Belladonna resists panic, but is less successful when she attempts to bolt across the road. She is clipped by a car and takes a scar, giving up her "Engineer" move.

The toads and rabbits make their way to a house where the toads believe some ammunition can be found -- which turns out to be the same house where the other rabbits are. Muddy resists panic and Belladonna explains the deal she made with the toads. They realize that the boxes Muddy saw in the shed are ammunition boxes. Thump-tor goes into the nest box and uses his strength to break the top off the box so that he can get out of the cage and into the shed. In doing so, he takes a scar and can no longer sneak. He uses his strength again to move the tank close to the workbench, allowing him to get up onto it and knock a bunch of the boxes of ammunition onto the floor.

At this point the man returns, accompanied by his 8-year-old daughter. All of the PCs resist panic. The man picks Veggie-mite out of the hutch and hands her to the girl, then grabs Muddy as well. Belladonna is able to sneak away, while Thump-tor bolts. Seeing the mess that Thump-tor made in the shed, he gathers up all of the ammunition and brings it inside, along with the two rabbits.

Inside, the girl sits down with Veggie-mite to watch TV. On the screen, she sees a bunch of humans wearing shirts with the white rabbit on them, ramming themselves repeatedly into another group of humans. It turns out that the man was just a big supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby team!

Meanwhile, Belladonna pays attention to the outside of the house, discovering that there is a good place to hide near the door that will allow her to run inside quickly when someone opens the door. As she waits for her chance to do so, Veggie-mite decides to birth a litter of 6 kits. The girl is alarmed, and the man finds a shoebox to nest the babies in. He takes the babies and their mom and shuts them in a guest room in the house.

The man leaves to get supplies to take care of the babies, which provides Belladonna with her opportunity to sneak into the house. She hides from the girl (who is now holding Muddy), while signalling to Muddy to ask where the man put the ammunition. Muddy points out the cabinet in the living room where it was locked up. Belladonna moves down the hallway and finds the room where Veggie-mite has been put. They agree that Veggie-mite will scream, creating a distraction so that Belladonna can chew through the window screen to let Thump-tor and the two toads into the house. They do so.

Returning, the man sees the two toads hopping in through the hole in the window screen. He runs to the shed and grabs the tank of toad poison. Inside, Thump-tor uses his strength to bust open the cabinet, spilling bullets everywhere. Each of the toads grabs a big mouthful of bullets and hops back out through the screen. Belladonna uses her swiftness to dive through the window and throw herself in front of the poison spray, protecting the toads at the cost of her own life. (Or so it seems, as she can Outrun the Black Rabbit). Thump-tor, meanwhile, attacks the man again and gives him a good bite on the foot (as he has exchanged his fishing waders for thongs).

The man is now thoroughly fed up with rabbits. He tosses Belladonna's apparent corpse into the bushes, then grabs the box of Veggie-mite's babies and does likewise. veggie-mite and Muddy bolt out of the house. As they do so, they are met by Bran-squee. He explains that he has just come from the warren, where the Warty Clan has injured Buck-tor and collapsed the entrance, seemingly trapping Buck-tor, Hop-tor, and the Queen inside to slowly starve.

In the bushes, they agree on a plan. Thump-tor will remain with Belladonna's body to hold a vigil over it before he buries her. Muddy has decided he likes the comforts of life with humans, so he will work his way down the street until he finds a home that will accept him (thereby retiring the character). And Veggie-mite will return to the warren with the toads. Ash, Dusty, and Bran-squee will help her carry the babies.

Arriving back at the warren, they meet up with several other members of the Slimy Clan, including one who has the gun. They load the gun, and the Slimy Clan takes aim at the Warty Clan. The gun kills several toads and drives the others off. But in the process a shot mortally wounds Buck-tor, who along with Hop-tor made a sneak assault on the toads from the warren's secret back entrance. With the toads gone, the other rabbits bring Veggie-mite in to see the Queen just before she passes away, handing over leadership to Veggie-mite.

Days later, Thump-tor returns to the warren to resume his post as Knight of Moloch, along side Bran-squee (who has been promoted to Bran-tor, a full Knight). The other rabbits from the warren have also returned. After being left in a shallow grave, Belladonna revives, and decides to join the Slimy Clan as an honorary cane toad.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Warren: Bunnies and Cane Toads

I had the opportunity to playtest The Warren, a Powered by the Apocalypse game based on one of my favorite books, Watership Down. Our group consisted of myself, two adults, a 16-year-old, and a 10-year-old.

The only instruction I gave the group about the setting was that I wanted the game to be set in Australia. Based on my questions, the players decided that the warren is a fairly small one. It is run as a theocracy, ruled by the priests of Moloch -- the god of the underworld and plentiful food. It was founded by Flopsy, a house rabbit whose humans watched a lot of religious programming such as "The 700 Club." The warren is small and has few allies because of its obnoxious proselytizing, but it is blessed with plentiful food. The current head priestess, Dairy Queen, is very elderly and rarely leaves her room.

Our Player Characters were:

  • Thump-tor: A Knight of Moloch, one of the warren's enforcers. Character move: Dead Eyes
  • Veggie-mite: One of the priestesses of Moloch. Character move: Circles of Life (Cane Toads)
  • Belladonna: A clever inventor rabbit. Character move: Engineer
  • Muddy: An easily excited rabbit with a special love for lettuce. Character move: Squirmy.

I did a lite version of the Ganakagok setup rules to flesh out the setting. Each player added a location to the map of the warren and its surroundings, and an NPC that they had some relationship with. This got us a large food storage room and a back door on the warren, and the people's house where Flopsy came from, which is separated from the warren's territory by a river the rabbits call "Jordan."

Our NPCs were:

  • The warren's leader, the elderly priestess Dairy Queen
  • Buck-tor, the other Knight of Moloch
  • Ash, a charismatic young rabbit who is littermates with Muddy
  • Dusty, Belladonna's littermate who often helps her with her investigations

When our story begins, the PCs, along with NPCs Ash and Dusty, are out feeding in a meadow north of the warren. As they graze, they hear some noise from just over the ridge. Thump-tor Pays Attention with his hearing, but hears nothing. Muddy also Pays Attention, with his smell, and smells cane toads! Cane toads are bad news for rabbits, so he runs back toward the warren along with Ash. Veggie-mite tells the others that the cane toads are friends of the warren. They have a secret trade relationship with the warren, supplying toad poison (used by the priests as a hallucinogen in rituals) in exchange for food. Belladonna Pays Attention and determines that Veggie-mite is telling the truth.

The four remaining rabbits peek over the ridge and see that there are 20 cane toads marching by -- many more than they have ever seen before. All three get partial successes at Resisting Panic. Veggie-mite doesn't recognize any of the toads. Nevertheless, she calls out to them. They see the rabbits and quickly surround them. Belladonna decides to Bolt, and makes it away before the toads get her.

The toad leader identifies herself as Hopper and demands to know what the rabbits are doing on their land. Veggie-mite asks about the trade agreement between the rabbits and toads. Hopper replies that that agreement was made with the Slimy Clan, who are now slaves -- and the rabbits will likewise be made slaves. Veggie-mite Speaks Plainly to them to try to convince them to back down. They offer her a deal -- if the Queen will meet Hopper in the meadow in one week and officially sign over the northern half of the warren's territory to the toads, they will allow the food-for-drugs deal to resume. Veggie-mite agrees in order to get the toads to let them go.

Muddy gets back to the warren and meets Buck-tor, who is on guard duty. He starts talking about cane toads. Buck-tor panics, thinking the toads have gotten inside the warren, and orders everyone to evacuate -- the opposite of Muddy's intent. Muddy Speaks Plainly to get him to calm down. Just then, Belladonna arrives. They all go to talk to the Queen about the cane toads. Buck-tor has to duck behind the curtain covering the Queen's room to wake her up several times, but they eventually get their message across. The Queen replies that the toads are friends of the warren and there is nothing to be afraid of.

The next day, Ash calls a meeting of the whole warren to decide what to do about the cane toads. Veggie-mite Speaks Plainly to spread a rumor that the Queen has had a vision that everything will work out fine. Muddy Pays Attention to discover that the rumor is false. He encourages Ash to not buy into it. Ash agrees, and announces his own plan: the rabbits have been living infear of the toads for too long. It's time to attack! He brings Dusty onto the stage to show off his latest discovery. Dusty holds up a strange metal object that he found, and explains that the humans call it a "gun." He insists that he has researched it thoroughly, and the gun will give the rabbits the power to destroy the toads. Belladonna realizes this is why Dusty hasn't been around much the last few days, and it explains the loud "bang" everyone heard the previous day. Veggie-mite Pays Attention and discovers that Dusty doesn't quite understand everything about the gun, despite his claims.

Veggie-mite proposes an alternative plan: The rabbits should abandon the warren and move back across the Jordan River to the homeland of Flopsy.

As the meeting breaks up, with most rabbits uncertain what to do, the PCs meet to discuss what to do about Ash and Dusty's gun plan. Muddy wants to run off to try to talk to Ash (as he feels betrayed by his littermate), but Thump-tor sits on him. Muddy fails to Struggle free. They decide that they can't let the gun be used, as it might hurt a rabbit or cause an all-out war. They plan to steal it and bury it somewhere.

That night, they send Belladonna into the room where Dusty and Ash are sleeping. She attempts to Sneak the gun away from Dusty, but he wakes up and demands to know what she's doing. She convinces him that she just wants a chance to try the gun for herself. They agree to meet in the meadow the next morning for a gun practice session, before Ash and Dusty lead their supporters in an assault on the toads.

The next morning, our PCs are approaching the meadow when they hear a loud bang. Muddy and Belladonna successfully Resist Panic, but Veggie-mite and Thump-tor lose it and let out a scream. Belladonna Pays Attention and discovers that Ash and Dusty heard the screams but didn't know what they were. So she rushes up to the meadow to claim credit for having screamed, while the other three successfully Sneak into the bushes to wait for their chance to help steal the gun.

Dusty demonstrates the gun, holding it to his chest and pulling the "activation lever" with his paw. He shoots an apple that Ash had set up on the other side of the meadow, turning it into applesauce. Then he helps Belladonna hold and aim the gun. She successfully Resists Panic at holding such a powerful object in her paws. She attempts to aim the gun wrong (custom move on Strong), but fails and hits the apple perfectly. The recoil causes her to drop the gun, and Ash and Dusty pull her over toward the target to show her how good she did.

Muddy takes this opportunity to Bolt into the meadow and grab the gun. Veggie-mite and Thump-tor also bolt in to try to run interference on Ash and Dusty. Muddy successfully picks up the gun (custom move on Strong, because he's a runt) and Bolts from the meadow carrying it.

Thump-tor successfully stops Dusty and Ash from pursuing Muddy (custom move on Strong). Veggie-mite tries to Speak Plainly to them to convince them that going after the toads with the gun is a bad idea, but fails. She ends up leaving them with the impression that the priesthood intends to use the gun itself, to keep the younger rabbits from getting the glory. Thump-tor tries to Pay Attention to the conversation, but it all goes over his head -- just politics mumbo-jumbo. Instead he just sits on Ash (custom move on Strong) to keep him from pursuing Muddy. Belladonna Speaks Plainly to Dusty, and convinces him that she'll retrieve the gun and return it to him.

On his way back past the warren carrying the gun, Muddy encounters a group of five cane toads. He is unsuccessful at Resisting Panic, so he drops the gun and it goes off. Thump-tor and Veggie-mite successfully Resist Panic at the unexpected gunshot, but Belladonna (on her way to find Muddy) does not, and dives into a bush.

The noise attracts the toads, who converge on Muddy. He Bolts, getting away and hiding alongside Belladonna, but leaving the gun behind. Our session ended with Belladonna and Muddy watching the cane toads pick up the gun and carry it away.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On knowing when *not* to design a game

I have a strong tendency to appreciate things by doing them. Almost from the moment I started playing RPGs and modern board games, I was thinking about how I'd design my own games. Likewise, I've done lots of art and dabbled extensively in writing music and novels. My brain moves easily from "this thing is cool" to "I want to figure out how to make one."

This impulse was brought up short today by reading an announcement of a game jam on the subject of "rentpunk." Rentpunk is the organizers' term for a proposed genre of art dealing with the experience of economic precariousness -- hustling for jobs, not knowing where your next decent meal is coming from, etc.
I was super excited about the idea of rentpunk games. I think the experience of economic precariousness is too often ignored and glossed over or obfuscated by convenient cliches. I have a number of people close to me who have lived that life -- enough that I nod along vigorously every time I read an article about what it's really like to be poor.
Social Stratification in the United States poster
Because I am a nerd, I have hanging in my bedroom the "Social Stratification in the United States" poster (1998 edition) that came with my Sociology textbook in college. I was unreasonably excited to discover that they have just come out with an updated 2014 edition.
But what I don't have is personal, first-hand experience with poverty and financial instability. I grew up in a comfortably middle-class household. I got awesome scholarships for college. Now I'm a tenured professor backed by a powerful statewide union. Though I may complain about the state government's attacks on public higher ed, this is literally the most secure job situation it's possible to have in 2015. I have a steady salary that puts my household at the national median income. My freelance work, while it has caused me plenty of sleepless nights lately, is a fun bonus that lets me go out to eat more often, not something that I rely on to live.

So for that reason I cannot, and should not, create a rentpunk game. What would for others be an empowering expression of their experiences would for me be exploitative and voyeuristic. I would be literally playing around with other people's difficult experiences for my own amusement and career advancement. I have to restrain my excitement about the idea, and my passion about the issues faced by others, and redirect it into something other than writing my own game about being poor. (I should stress that the game jam organizers themselves never make any statement suggesting anyone ought not to participate. This post is all my own inference about what I think is the right way for someone in my position to approach this issue. So if you're inclined to whine about not being "allowed" to make a certain kind of game, direct that at me, not them.)

That doesn't mean that I (or other securely middle-class people) am destined to make games that reinforce class inequality. (Or that straight people's games are inevitably heteronormative, etc.) I can work to make sure my games are free of class bias and welcoming to the experiences of people who have more precarious economic situations -- indeed, I'm morally obligated to do so. To do that I'll have to learn a lot from people who have that background. But I can't, and shouldn't, make games that are specifically about an experience that is real but not mine. I can de-center class privilege (or heterosexuality, or maleness, or whiteness, etc) without centering poverty (or LGBTQ-ness, or femaleness, or blackness/Latinoness/Asianness etc). Not because the latter is wrong (indeed, it's essential), but rather because the latter is not my place.

So I can appreciate and promote rentpunk without making rentpunk. And I'm very excited to see what the participants in the jam come up with.