Levels game event report

26 April, 2009 at 8:26 pm (actual play, roleplaying) (, , , )

This Saturday and Sunday there was a small and poorly advertised game event in Jyväskylä; it was called Levels. There was plenty of electronic games, some boardgames and some roleplaying folk. Naturally, I spent almost all of my time with the rpg people.

It is notable that Arkenstone clearly dominated the roleplaying side of the event, mostly because nobody else really demoed or explained games. Arkenstone translates and imports indie roleplaying games (mostly in the sense of being connected to the Forge scene) and sells them onwards. All three Tuovinen brothers were there (Eero has a blog, others do not, to my knowledge), as was Sami Koponen (who has a blog in Finnish). There is, or at least was, this stereotype about obnoxious Forge people relentlessly mocking traditional games and players thereof. I must say that I understand where it comes from, though I can’t be sure how serious the attitude was, as the aforementioned personalities have a tendency towards the theatrical. (Video footage of them would sell, I say.)

This said, most of the event time was spending playing games or talking about them. Namely, I told why one certain to-be-published fantasy project tentatively called Bliaron will be problematic; namely, Northern Realms will be publishing their homebrew fantasy setting and rules set. They have a website mostly in Finnish. I posted some criticism on their forums; the response has thus far been good and remarkably fast. Olorin (whose blog is in English) was also involved in the discussions.

I also roleplayed. First was a playtest of some Finnish rpg that I don’t really remember, while second was Solar system with wuxia themes. The second game was especially entertaining. I’m somewhat poor player, though, for few reasons. The first is that I am fundamentally a very shy creature. The second is that I have lots of experience in running games but fairly little in playing them; when game mastering, what I do is to throw interesting situations at people and see what they do and make sure that they bump into each other or just play a world as I see it, arbitrating the actions of the characters. Neither of these styles really works when playing, so I have to struggle to be properly involved. (It somewhat worked in the second game, but utterly failed in the first one due to one player’s strong personality and optimised character and very aggressive play, further adjusted by my suboptimal character who could not resist that character effectively.)

One remarkable thing about the way Tuovinen brothers and Koponen play in is the cinematic descriptions and concepts they use in play. They actively refer to the audience (“your character doesn’t notice this, but the audience clearly sees that the animal/god/Cernunnos is utterly mad and contradicts itself”), pronounce judgements as audience (“as a member of audience I say that your character is total sociopath”) and refer to angles of filming, lighting and other visual tricks. My background and interest is firmly rooted in books, so it was strange. There was also this style of play where one advocates for one’s character. It does not mean simply what is best for the character’s well-being; I think it is more tied to the character’s protagonism or something. The concept is not clear to me. I’d appreciate if someone explained the concept further or offered links to that effect.

I also bought some fudge dice, so now the Shadow of yesterday/Solar system is an option. It appeals to me for several reasons, including fairly light and customisable rules that are still robust and the way it elegantly handles different cultures and shifting character motivations.

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Links: story hour and theory

24 April, 2009 at 7:22 pm (game design, rpg theory) ()

Usually I have little patience for what I call “D&D fiction”, unless I am involved in creating it when playing. There’s an exception, which is a story hour on Enworld. The relevant threads are indexed and PDFified at League of imaginary heroes. They are actually well-written to the point of being engaging. There’s the occasional bit of 3rd edition D&D spell name cascade, since high level D&D includes mages with plenty of spells. Bruce recommended the story hour as a contrasting opinion on my piece regarding war being boring to roleplay through. About that: Most of the story focuses on characters that are, in some way, above war; the fights are nasty, brutish and short (to the extent that is possible with modern D&D), at least from descriptions.

Vincent Baker has been writing about rpg theory; what I get out of it is a new perspective on fiction affecting play. A perspective from the Forge theory point of view, to be more precise. Threads, in order: Fistfight, 3 resolution systems, scale, depth, clouds dice, cloud-to-cloud, moment of judgement, dice and cloud and finally GM fiat. Callan also posted something related. The conversation may continue there or elsewhere; it is supposedly related to old school gaming in some way. The latest linked Baker’s post shows some of that. Almost. Edit: Another post by Vincent and Callan, both of them highly recommended. Second edit: A podcast and a post at Deeper in the Game.

Kalle Bergman has also been writing on rpg theory (series is titled Towards a new paradigm for rpg design), but in Swedish, which is somewhat inconvenient (I can read and write a bit of Swedish, but Kalle does not use elementary vocabulary). The Google translations to English are not completely abysmal, although it understands leken (play, definitive form) as deck and makes the text awkward to read, as naive translations always do. By “not completely abysmal” I mean that even the English text is sort of readable most of the time.  The first post references Huizinga’s Homo ludens and reminds me of something I’ve written before. Links: Första (and English translation for convenience), andra, tredje post. I might comment on them later, should I manage to understand all of them. (The first one I’ve read, and it certainly is interesting).

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Developing characters in play

10 April, 2009 at 9:33 pm (game design, game mastering) (, )

I’m a big fan of starting with fairly sketchy characters (and world) and letting them develop in actual play. Sometimes it works well, sometimes less so. There is one phenomenon that causes a sort of disconnect. The phenomenon is that of pulling out skills or equipment out of thin air or non-defined backgrounds, and doing this exactly when having that skill would be convenient.

To clarify, the problem is not that this is abusive or makes challenges too easy. If merely having a skill is sufficient to make a challenge null, it was poorly designed to start with. Abusive use is likewise a nonproblem.

The problem is that it strains credibility it feels abusive, even when it is not. As a friend said, a set of lockpicks will not simply materialise out of nothing. Still, this sort of thing seemingly happens all the time in whatever media one prefers to consume.

So, a potential solution I’ll be experimenting with: Equipment and skills and so one must be foreshadowed in a different scene before they can be brought to play. This may be the character telling about some related events, or buying equipment (naturally), or player narrating that the character is oiling the daggers he usually keeps hidden.

As a bonus, if there’s a gun in the first scene, someone might very well use it later. Chekov is not assured to be happy, but some movement towards that direction is achieved, I reckon.

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Music in games

1 April, 2009 at 1:53 pm (game mastering)

For some games I’ve been using background music in games. I generally don’t want to fiddle with computer while gaming, so optimally I construct a playlist that the computer can play in the background as we happily roleplay. The problem, of course, is finding or building suitable playlists. Luckily, one of my friend is pretty good at finding suitable background music, even if he prefers fairly epic music.


Mood and so on are the normal cited benefits of background music. I also use it as an improvisational tool: A significant change in the tone of background music is a good cue for making similar change in gameplay. Works as long as the music doesn’t change dramatically too often.


Arcana and Dargaard are great for dark and fairly ambient background music. Darkwave is the genre, I think, but I’m not expert on those. There is chanting, melodic music and rarely singing.

Ambient in general is fairly usable; for example, check Dreamstate.

Of course, sometimes someone else has done all the work and you can simply play it. Last.fm is free for some time still, hence it can be used. The best bet is to find a suitable tag or user who listens to very specific music.

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