Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Orccon 2014 and what it has taught me about the RPG hobby

It’s time to look back at another great convention. I am pleased to say that despite a handful of challenges, Orccon 2014 was a great success with over 1800 attendees and I hope that everyone who attended had a great time and took advantage of the wide variety of games and events available.  I am not going to go into any of the nuts and bolts of RPGs at Orccon, but what I want to do is go into some thoughts about the games I played and what I learned about our hobby.

I had the pleasure of having two special guests at Orccon this year. John Wick was here running his Houses of the Blooded LARP along with Wicked Fantasy and playtests of his new project Wield. I also had Todd VanHooser showing his Adventures Under the Laughing Moon RPG, based on his Laughing Moon Chronicles. Although, not as a special guest, +Mike Olson was here play-testing his wonderful Thrilling Fate game based on Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars a character from the Thrilling Adventure Hour.

James A. Forest interviews John Wick at Orccon 2014

I sat in on Todd and Mikes games and had an opportunity to talk to John and in so doing I came away with some interesting new perspectives and ideas. Not only did I learn some new ways to look at RPG systems but I also came away with a different way to look at success, failure and the way we come to determine these results in games.

I also had the opportunity to run two sessions of Shadowrun 5th edition through the Catalyst organized play model they called “Missions”. This was a unique opportunity for me since I had never had the chance to see any organized play from the GM perspective. I had played in some Pathfinder Society and RPGA games but never had the chance to see what that is like from the other side of the screen.

John Wick and Todd VanHooser, are polar opposites when it comes to RPG design. I have known John and his work for quite some time and actually witnessed a lot of his process in producing Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea. This guy is obsessed with roleplaying in the best possible way. I think of him as an innovator and a unique creative force. As such, his games are quirky and thought provoking in ways that you rarely see from more mainstream RPGs. His current success is a game called Houses of the Blooded as well as its systemic derivative, a samurai RPG named Blood and Honor.

These games work on the basic premise that failure is as dramatic as success and the system should guide you in sharing the narrative choice of success and failure. This is achieved by giving the player a choice to succeed or fail by making a roll and the GM the ability to choose between success and failure if the roll is failed. This allows players to “choose to fail” if it is more dramatically appropriate.

As a narrative choice, John describes this as “failing forward” or giving the player the ability to advance a plot by failing. The example he brought forth in the video above is Indiana Jones. In these films we constantly see Indie fail, but the consequences of those failures provided excitement, drama and tension. When he failed to determine the correct weight of the gold statue, it resulted in one of the most memorable scenes in film as Indiana had to rush to escape a giant rolling boulder.

This kind of perspective on storytelling is exactly the kind of thing that I have come to expect from John and it has given me much to think about when it comes to how players and GMs can collaborate in telling a story. Accepting defeat can certainly be counter intuitive to traditional play, but to introduce a mechanic where a player is encouraged to choose failure is even more of a departure from the norm.

Interestingly, my first experience with something like this was in a game of L5R, which was also written by John Wick. In samurai fiction, it is common for characters to exhibit a great deal of sacrifice in service to their lords. In my very first non-playtest game of L5R I had a character intentionally loose a duel in order to preserve face for his lord and his friend. I intentionally chose to take the lowest dice in my result for the roll in order to serve the goals of my intended narrative.

Todd VanHooser’s game, Laughing Moon is based on the fantasy world described in his novels, the Laughing Moon Chronicles. Here, we have a game that is designed to represent a set narrative and mythology. Although Laughing Moon’s mechanics play very similarly to any Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy game, the main draw is the incredibly rich world which it is designed to portray. The beautifully illustrated books make this world come to life in its vivid depictions of the lands, people and unique myth of the Laughing Moon Chronicles.

After talking to John about his games, going over to Todd’s two tables in Open Gaming was quite a shift. There is a large divide between John’s approach to RPG design and Todd’s. John is a game designer first. He is all about creating systems to tell compelling stories and creating interesting characters. Todd on the other hand, is an author first. He has a distinct vision for his fiction and designed a game around simulating the action within that fiction. Todd’s rules are more rigid and give the players less agency than in something like Houses of the Blooded. That is not to say that there is no mechanic for player agency in Laughing Moon, which there is, but it is definitely not the focus of the system. Houses of the Blooded is a game is designed to collaboratively create story outcomes, while Under a Laughing Moon is designed to create a physical framework to determine the outcome of various choices and random results within a set reality. What we are looking at here is two basic perspectives on how people develop RPGs which are both valid but different.

This brings me to Mike Olson’s Thrilling Fate game featuring Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars. Here Mike brings a unique perspective on creating a game that is designed to work within an already established narrative style. In Thrilling Fate, players are given the opportunity to work inside a rich fictional world, but are given tools designed to guide them in interpreting the characters style but not necessarily their substance.

Thrilling Fate is a stripped down version of the FATE Core or Accelerated models. It is so stripped down in fact that it’s hardly recognizable as a FATE game. The main mechanic of “Aspects” is the same, but just about everything else is different. The most distinctive difference is something called a "Cue".

In Thrilling Fate a Cue is an action or behavior that is typical and integral to the character. It's a characterization that is emblematic of a characters style or behavior. Whenever a player chooses use a Cue by following its suggested behavior, the player refreshes an Aspect and may invoke it at any future time. Did I mention that a player starts with all his Aspects exhausted at the beginning of the game and has to use Cues to open them up for play? Yep, that's right partner. You better get to acting like your name is Sparks Nevada or your in for a world of hurt.

Here Mike has created a mechanic that not only incentivizes but guides players into playing a character. Cue's give a player a good idea about how a character acts and clues us in on typical behaviors for the character. This creates a system that can allow practically anyone to play just about any character and stay relatively true to his/her nature. It's a game that promotes player agency AND creates a game built around a particular fiction.

Now that I have gone through what I played, let's talk about what I ran. I ran Shadowrun 5th edition for the Catalyst Demo Team. I did this like iron GM style since my first game ran long so it was basically 9 hours of Shadowrun straight with nothing but a measly smoke break. This was the first time I have ever run games for any kind of organized play and I would like to thank the Catalyst Game Labs for fast tracking my application so I could run these games at the last minute.

Here is what I came away with from this experience. I love running games for people that are excited about gaming. I had some people who drove in from as far as Barstow to play SR and everyone was totally engaged in the game. Thanks folks, you are awesome.

Lastly, I learned that I am not a fan of the way adventures are written for these kinds of games. I understand that it's difficult to put any nuance in a game that is supposed to be played in a number of different places by a great many people with the same measurable metrics and results. It has to be almost impossible to make an adventure that isn't a straight railroad and still meet all these criteria.

I have already written a review of Shadowrun 5th edition, but now that I have had a few more games under my belt its time for an update. Which will be forthcoming, but for now I bid you good gaming!