Hey there. I realize things have been quiet here. But I’ve been busy.
Anyway, got a delivery today and wanted to share. Enjoy!
This post took a bit more time to put together than I expected. This is largely because it sidles up alongside some issues that are, in one way or another, sensitive. There has been quite a bit of discussion about gender issues in the greater gaming community (and I include both tabletop and video games in that).
My intention with these posts is not to push a particular agenda, but instead to discuss a realization that came to me as I was doing some development for the new edition of Earthdawn, and how that can be extended for any kind of world-building. Here’s that realization, as best I can sum it up:
The awareness of issues and experiences outside my own can lead to a richer setting.
This may seem kind of “world building 101.” However, it can be good to look at the basics, because the obvious isn’t always… well… obvious. Part of this also plays into that “controversial” issue of privilege. It can be all too easy for a creator to make the assumption that their own experience is all there is — especially when that experience is the societal “default”.
Awareness of other perspectives, and the difficulties that can be faced by those who fall outside the norm (in one way or another) are valuable for multiple reasons. It allows a creator a more varied creative palette to draw on. It can expand the potential audience for a work by offering characters and perspectives that speak to a greater variety of individuals. It can also avoid the problem of tone-deaf treatment of sensitive issues — especially ones that are widespread among certain segments of the audience.
I want to go into this by way of example, largely driven by the question:
“What if the Shivalahala Syrtis expresses as male after kaissa?”
There are a lot of consequences and knock-on effects of that question. T’skrang society is matriarchal, and has been for as long as anybody is aware. Setting aside the underlying magic of the ancestral memories that get passed down the leadership chain, how would this society react to having this traditionally female leadership position being held by a male?
The other thing is trying to avoid broad-brush ‘everybody reacts the same way’ stereotyping. People (even semi-aquatic saurian people) are varied, and different people will have different reactions.
That said, we are looking at a pretty significant potential change to the fabric of t’skrang society. There are those who will accept it without batting an eye, while others could have visceral reactions against it.
To draw a parallel from present day, one of the most visible cases of gender division is the “blue aisle” versus the “pink aisle” in toy stores. Back in August, Target stores took steps to remove gender-based signage in their toy department. The move brought both acclaim and anger.
Even issues beyond gender equality and representation can be looked at for insight into the way people behave. The political landscape here in the United States has been divisive, antagonistic, and fiercely tribal. Gun control. Gay marriage. Taxes and business regulation.
Understanding those with a different point of view can help enhance a setting. It allows you to create authentic, fleshed-out characters rather than two-dimensional cutouts. There is a place for those, but if that’s all you have your world will be flat.
One other advantage to this awareness and ability to appropriately present different points of view — especially if you’re looking to expand beyond the work you create for your own group — is a setting with multiple points of view allows for varied stories to be told, and doesn’t needlessly exclude people because they don’t see a way for them to fit.
There is one more aspect I want to address, which will wait for final part of this series. Hopefully it doesn’t take as long as this one.
I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks working on wrapping up the setting chapter for the Gamemaster’s Guide for Earthdawn, summarizing what has (and has not) changed with the time jump. Part of this has involved going back to material published for earlier editions, looking at the situation at that time, and deciding what might have changed on both a large and small scale.
This has actually been pretty fun, in a “What if?” sense.
In the course of this, I realized there was one decision I would need to make that if not handled appropriately could have… troublesome repercussions from a gender politics standpoint (especially with regard to issues around matters of trans identity and exclusion).
For the sake of the uninitiated, I’m going to give you a big ol’ data dump of setting information to set things up here.
The t’skrang are a race of semi-aquatic lizard folk in the Earthdawn setting, they are generally a boisterous and exuberant people, with a culture that revolves around feats of daring, courage, and storytelling (with a healthy dose of tall-tale exaggeration thrown in to enhance the teller’s role in the story).
T’skrang have a matriarchal society, led by a lahala, the eldest female in the clan/extended family. This is more than a ceremonial or political position. Through a magical ritual, the lahala is granted the collective memories and knowledge of all prior lahalas from the line. Of course, this has the potential for complications if the lahala dies before the ritual is performed (not passing on the memories), or is corrupted by a Horror (and therefore passes that taint along with the memories — a factor that will come into play shortly).
As additional bit of necessary detail, t’skrang are born (hatched, actually) without a biological sex. It is not until puberty — which the t’skrang call kaissa, that the child’s biological sex is expressed.
All of this is lead-up to a bit of setting detail in the Earthdawn game. Many t’skrang settlements are part of a larger community called an aropagoi, or “Great House”, led by a shivalahala (“lahala of lahalas”) with the same sort of racial memory tradition. The shivalahala of House Syrtis — one of these aropagoi — is known as “The Prophetess” and provides guidance to those who undergo a pilgrimage to meet with her.
One of the prior holders of the title was affected by a Horror’s curse, and the subsequent shivalahala’s have all been unstable and gradually gone insane. In a radical break from tradition, the most recent t’skrang granted the honor was a seven-year-old child. It appears that the change has stabilized the mental health issues otherwise plaguing the position, as the child has displayed a wisdom and restraint that had been lacking for a while. However, there are those (in setting) who wonder what will happen when if the child expresses as male after kaissa.
For the fourth edition of Earthdawn, I decided to advance the timeline by a few years. As I said earlier, this means I need to look at the way things were, and decide how (or if) they would change. I was working on the aropagoi and realized — after doing some math — that the shivalahala Syrtis would undergo kaissa in the time between the prior edition and the new one.
So a decision needs to be made. Thinking about the matter, it turns out not to be straightforward, if I want to be aware of and sensitive to matters of real-world gender politics and social issues.
Let me be clear, I am not upset by this in the least, or cursing the “evil conspiracy of social justice warriors” for making this a question with interesting implications. As a straight white male, the increased awareness of social justice issues (especially in the RPG industry) has brought to light things that I would likely have been blind to just a few short years ago.
That is a good thing.
This post is already longer than I intended, so I’m going to close it out here for now and do a follow-up to explore some of the issues and implications that have come to mind over the last few days this thing has been bouncing around in my head.
So I wrapped up my last entry in this series saying that I was gong to look at success and failure in convention games.
On reflection, I’m finding it hard to get a handle on this topic. To begin with, how do we define success and failure? Is it a success if the characters fail at their assigned task, but the players have a good time? What about the reverse, where the characters achieve their goal but the players ended up with a mediocre experience?
Clearly this is a subject where we need to define our terms and narrow our focus.
I think, first and foremost, the enjoyment of the players needs to be a high priority. This is true with RPGs in general, but I think it is especially true at a convention game. You have a limited time, and it isn’t unusual to be an ambassador for the game you’re running; many people use conventions as an opportunity to play new games. A bad experience at the table can turn somebody off a game for a long time.
With that goal in mind, how do you ensure the players enjoy themselves? This is a murky area, since everybody enjoys different things when it comes to RPGs. At your home table, you generally have the luxury of knowing your players and knowing what scratches their itch (so to speak). At a convention, not so much. Your scenario should, in general, have elements that appeal to a broad spectrum of play styles. There have been thousands of words dedicated to different play styles, and I’m not going to rehash them here, but generally speaking you want to have a mix of combat, role-playing, and exploration scenes. You should also be prepared and flexible enough to expand and improvise scenes based on what the players are responding to.
Personally, I view tabletop RPGs more as interactive fiction, with the player characters as the protagonists and heroes of the story. Given the type of fiction I prefer, I want the PCs to succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or that there won’t be setbacks, or that they won’t need to pay some price for success. But ultimately I would much rather see the heroes succeed than feel.
No doubt there is some amount of transference going on because success is one of the largest factors that determine my enjoyment when I am playing.
I find, however, that I approach convention games a little bit differently. Failure — overall, actual failure is an option I am willing to have on the table. Two of the three scenarios I ran at GenCon — Pilgrimage and Into the Deeps — end with a climactic fight that could, if things go badly, result in the death of all the player characters. In fact, one of the sessions of Pilgrimage all but one of the PCs did end up dead. The last retreated so that he could let others know what was going on and, perhaps, bring back reinforcements. So… success, but at a pretty high cost, and failure was a real possibility.
But this kind of ending can work and result in an enjoyable experience for the players — as long as it doesn’t feel cheap. In a one-shot there is not the same level of investment in the character as a player avatar. It is a more… singular experience, and much more traditional narrative forms like movies or books can have a kind of catharsis.
So that’s the large scale. What about the smaller scale — success or failure of an individual scene or encounter? I talked about this a little bit in my earlier posts, where each scene should have different ways to resolve the primary conflict. Personally, I hate having an early encounter short circuits a scenario. It isn’t fun for me as a player, and isn’t much fun for me as a gamemaster. Multiple exit routes from an encounter can help keep this from happening. But just as the large scale can have degrees of success, so can the individual encounters.
I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the notion of success or failure is to adopt an idea I have come across in relation to writing more traditional fiction (and improv theatre). Don’t set things up so that failure shuts down your scenario. Instead, failure should introduce complications that make it more difficult to complete the mission, increase the stakes, or make things more complicated in interesting ways. If the characters fail but the players feel that they could have succeeded if things had fallen a bit more in their favor — accumulated failure instead of instant failure — then I think you’ve hit the mark.
We take a break from our current series to make an announcement. This actually happened at GenCon, but I could only talk about it now.
I have been offered, and I accepted, the Line Developer position for Earthdawn.
This means that I will be in charge of the direction and development of the game line, creative and otherwise. I will also be the public face of the Earthdawn game line on web fora and the like.
This is a big deal. I am excited, and a little nervous.
In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.
While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.
I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.
All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.
What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.
This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.
I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing. Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.
The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.
(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)
Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.
Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.
(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)
That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.
This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.
In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).
There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).
Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.
Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.
That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!
I am sitting back at the house, relaxing after the first day of Gencon. I started by getting up at the crack of dawn so that I could get my stuff together and get over to the ICC for the early admission. Since I’m officially working the con under an exhibitor’s badge, this gave me a chance to do a quick visit to a couple of the booths before I had to head over to run my games for the day.
I scored the one thing I wanted to grab at the convention — a copy of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. I did not drop the extra cash to get the special ($100) or deluxe ($200) editions. I’m a fan of the game, but can’t justify spending that kind of money on a game that isn’t going to do more than sit on my shelf.
Then it was over to the RPG room in the ICC where I had two sessions to run. First up was Into the Deeps, where I had 5 players, a couple of which had never played Earthdawn before. I think it was a successful session, though I think it is a little exposition heavy at one point. If I had done a bit more prep, I would probably look at having handouts or something a bit more tangible.
The other session was Two Houses, Alike In Dignity. Only two registered players showed up (despite the game being sold out). My wife happened to stop by very early on, and sat in to provide a third. I think the game was successful, though it ran short (it was scheduled until 6, and we wrapped up around 4).
I think I will do a bit more in-depth after-action report of the different scenarios after the con is over. This will give me a chance to see if tweaks I make for the second time I run the game makes a difference, and give a little bit of analysis on what makes a good con game (at least from my point of view and experience).
Last night was my first night running a tabletop game in… three years? It has all faded into the B.C. mists — the time “Before Children”.
Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. I did try running a D&D (third edition) game at one point, and we didn’t get more than a session or two into it.
This was my first time running Earthdawn in about three years.
Boy was I rusty.
I think the session went well, all things considered. I kicked things off with a group of ork bandits attacking an inn which the PCs had to defend. Nobody died (well, none of the player characters… maybe I’m losing my touch), though it was a tough fight and the two melee heavy-hitters came away with a bunch of damage and a wound each.
I am reminded, however, how I do not like brand new characters in the Earthdawn system. The mechanics with low steps can get kind of frustrating if the dice happen to be going against you. This is made even tougher in the first session, when players do not have much karma to help offset the low average numbers. Armor is also pretty powerful at low circles, because armor defeating hits are rare, and the average damage can have a hard time getting through chain mail and shield — even the troll Swordmaster with his two-handed axe was having trouble doing significant damage.
Still, we had fun, and it is good to be behind the screen again.