UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: December 2012

Saturday, 29 December 2012

New Tools & Old Friends

This week, featuring the Western Christmas celebration and a visit to my inlaws' home, has left me with quite a bit of pondering time.

 It was during this period that I noticed some of my old problems raising their heads again. And I've been lucky enough to find some new solutions... or, at least, some new tools.

Downtime Temptations

The reoccurring theme of this blog would be the nature of the butterfly GM. This is the GM who, ever attracted to new shiny things, finds it hard to maintain a long-term focus on any one RPG campaign or project. It has been my own problem throughout my life.

Christmas always provides the biggest time of temptation for the butterfly GM because it is the one time of the year that the group almost always ends up unable to play. This year has been no different but, for once, it has not been due to my own flutterings. 

This year the Christmas break has been down to the players: one in Aus, one on heavier-than-usual shifts at work, and two others who have been either away or celebrating with other friendship groups on the Friday night. With only one or two players per session available we've opted to park the gaming.  

Yet... it's never that simple.

With no need to prep a game for more than a month, I've not done any prep. And not doing prep has led me to lose the mojo and routine of working on the setting. As a butterfly, I've been allowed to flutter off elsewhere. Flutter I have.

Getting Back On Board

Yesterday was crunch-time for me. One of the benefits of having some time to reflect has been my ability to recognise that Plan A for RPG Prep, as talked about back when I discovered "Never Unprepared", has not worked out great.

Two problems hit my ability to prep: the first is the sheer volume of work that I deal with as a teacher, both in and out of the classroom, which leads me to being wiped ("tired") most evenings; the second problem has been the fact that the tools I was using to prep were too rigid.

BEING WIPED means that the evening hour of prep during weekdays has not been happening. Instead, to be frank, I've been either in bed or simply enjoying low-energy entertainment (like TV). My expectations of some medium-creativity in the evenings have proven completely false; I simply don't have the energy or desire to "work" after finishing the marking pile. I need to change prep from "work" to "fun".

POOR TOOLS sounds like a poor excuse, but it's actually a big part of the problem. Using only two things, iPad's Index Cards app for brainstorming and  MS OneNote for the rest, has proven too inflexible. 

The electronic Index Cards are quite good for a one-off brainstorming session but it becomes odd when having to create new files for each brainstorm done; in short, it has become muddled. This makes it harder to select good ideas.

OneNote is great for the documentation phase of  prep but has been too cumbersome for the conceptual phase. Without clear conceptualisation the process of writing an adventure bogs down and becomes "too much work". To make documentation fun it has to contain less thinking ("work"), which comes from good conceptualisation.


For the Rolemaster Mykenaea campaign I've over-hauled the prep process and created a Plan B. It has been important to remind myself that this is a process, not a failure. The system is evolving to suit my own tastes and needs, not broken.

Thus... for brainstorming and capturing ideas I am going to dust off Evernote and give it a whirl. Adding a simple daily task, framed as the question, "Any ideas for RPGs to note down?", to my planner has already helped me to keep prodding the creative juices for ideas. Evernote is accessible anywhere for me, as the app is on my iPad and my smartphone.

For conceptualisation, I am going to try and work with a flowchart. Trialling the iPad app "Grafio", I am setting myself the task of producing a "draft flow diagram of the session" before I set to the documentation phase. This should help me to visualise my ideas and forces the conceptual process in the creation of the diagram.

Finally, to aid my daily documentation phase, I have re-framed my "write the adventure by this date" task as a series of daily short tasks entitled, "Draft some more Friday Night Roleplay session notes". This lighter, more open-ended task feels less like work; "some" works for me better than having to do it all by a set date.

The documentation task appears on weekdays only but allows me to pick the time of day to suit mood / energy levels. I am also setting myself the internal goal to write 3 times a week, instead of setting myself up to fail by expecting 5 sessions of writing in the week. Over the two-week prep cycle I should produce enough notes for the 3-5 encounters we typically handle in a session.

Oh, and so you know it hasn't been forgotten, the review phase (which works fine) is on the day before the session to allow for any last-minute changes.

Speaking of Tools...

I had the additional fortune of organising the first online RPG set-up sessions with two old buddies over this past fortnight. Using the miracle that is Google+ Hangouts we have hooked up two chats and begun to conceptualise the SF setting mentioned in the last post

The two new tools, namely Hangouts (with webcams) and the Fate Core System, has allowed three old friends to hook up and begin gaming again... after a 10+ year hiatus. This is, frankly, marvellous!

The reoccurring conversation, however, has been us marvelling at how new technology has made it possible for a guy in England to run a live RPG session for two other gamers, one in Japan and one in the USA. We have 2 spaces at the "table" too, so it's entirely possible that we will eventually get a full-size group working online. Frankly, this is amazing to me.

So... there's the way the cookie is crumbling this Christmas: I have found the energy and means to re-invigorate the home Rolemaster campaign whilst, through the miracle of technology, start a second project online.

Game on, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, 22 December 2012

No FATE But What We Make

Pledge to support FATE Core
(image used without permission)
No, this is not a Terminator homage. Actually it's a post about what is exciting me mightily about the FATE RPG system.

For those of you who don't know, FATE is a FUDGE-derivative RPG system which is currently in the throes of a Kickstarter campaign for the latest (and greatest!) edition: FATE Core (by Evil Hat's +Rob Donoghue and +Fred Hicks). BUT... that's not all!

Another FATE-based game, the excellent Nova Praxis (written by +Mike McConnell), has also recently been funded via Kickstarter. This is an awesome Trans-humanist setting and has been long gestating in the mind of the author.

It's the combination of the two releases that's particularly exciting me.


Those who know me best are aware that I am somewhat addicted to collecting and reading RPG systems. So it was that, several years back, I first came across FATE. To be honest, I wasn't impressed at the time: the "skill pyramid" and the narrative style of play didn't fit with my own approach to roleplaying back then.

Over time, however, I kept bumping into FATE. There was Spirit of the Century. Next was The Dresden Files. More recently there was Diaspora. And Strands of Fate. We even played that last one... used it to introduce my Dark Reich setting to the Friday Night Group.

A couple of months ago +Mike McConnell started the Nova Praxis Kickstarter and, frankly, he hooked me to FATE. When the funding was completed, Mike released the Beta Playtest to the supportive fans. Yesterday he released a second update. It's good stuff... very, very good.

But that's not all. Hot on the heels of McConnell's product has come Evil Hat's FATE Core. It's this last product that, as I began to collaborate on our new SF setting, got me thinking that I'm fated to play it.

What's so good?

I liked FUDGE way back when, before the turn of the century. I liked it because, at least for me, it was the first narrative game that made sense to me. Most of all I liked the use of descriptive terms to quantify things: your hero is a Good Fighter, not a fighter with Fighting 12 (or whatever).

FATE is narrative gaming all grown-up and mature. Descriptive play is to the fore and the FUDGE-dice are rolled. Yet... it adds the wondrous dynamics of "Aspects":
Aspects are phrases that describe some significant detail about a character. They are the reasons why your character matters, why we’re interested in seeing your character in the game. Aspects can cover a wide range of elements, such as personality or descriptive traits, beliefs, relationships, issues and problems, or anything else that helps us invest in the character as a person, rather than just a collection of stats. 
Aspects come into play in conjunction with fate points. When your aspects benefit you, you can spend fate points to invoke that aspect for a bonus. When your aspects complicate your character’s life, you can gain fate points back—this is called accepting a compel.
(FATE Core, Kickstarter Preview Dec 4th) 

Aspects define pretty much everything in the game, from heroes to terrain features. It's an immensely simple idea and a very powerful application of simplicity.

For me, I get the freedom of narrative writing and creating whatever I want, however I want it to be, while being able to connect to the game system in a quick and easy manner.

Blending FATE

Today I realised that I have lots of FATE tools in my box. 

We are building an SF setting, which in itself is exciting. To help, however, we have FATE Core to get us started. But that's not all... 

We have Diaspora to inspire the creation of a sector of space. We have Nova Praxis to inspire technology and the futuristic feel of humanity. And we have The Dresden Files to fuel our magick. 

We actually also have the excellent Strands of Fate (and Strands of Power) to help us model the various amazing powers and abilities that might be present in the future. 

In short, we are not short of tools. Just short of spare time to pick them up and use them. The future, it seems, is filled with FATE. All I need to do now is accept it.

Game on!

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Sunday, 16 December 2012

DreadBall: A Review

36 hours or so have passed since I got my mitts on the new "DreadBall" board game and I thought a few comments were in order.

What is DreadBall?

It's a game. A boardgame. A game using miniatures, a board, dice, cards and counters. 

It's fun, fast and quite easy to pick up. 

It's a sports game:
DreadBall is the most popular sport ever devised, and the revenues it generates are vast. Corporations fall over each other to sponsor new teams and ever more splendid new arenas, knowing that their investments will return many times over. Teams pay huge sums for new players, hiring exotic aliens and even former enemies to liven the spectacle and amuse the fans.
Oh, and it's not BloodBowl. (See -->here<-- for why.)

You can find out more here: http://dreadball.com/whatisdreadball

Any Good?

Yeah, pretty good. I've had only a couple of niggles, which isn't too bad.

Niggles first, I found the Veer-Myn models excruciatingly hard to get to glue together - most especially the arms on the oddly-posed crouched Strikers - but as all the other three teams (Humans, Orx & Goblins, Forgefathers) were a doddle, I can forgive it. I also found the absence of a statement of what constitutes a successful Pass action distracting... but I imagine it's simply a one success requirement. Finally, I wish my acrylic counters were actually in red and white, like the pic on the Mantic sales site, instead of all being see through acrylic which is hard to differentiate.

Niggles aside, the game is nicely made and well-presented. As a Kickstarter supporter, I have a few extras straight-away - like the acrylic counters, two extra teams and loads of Most Valuable Player (MVP) models.  The board is sturdy and the models quite nicely sculpted (excepting those odd Veer-Myn Strikers with the low pose). The book is very clearly written and quite easy to follow.

How's It Play?

Well, I've had a quick solo run-through. I hope to persuade the Missus to play a game over the next day or two, but until I can run it with another human (like at the school club on Tuesday), a solo report will have to do. Sad, eh? 

It  plays well. Quick, clear and easy to learn. 

I like the way the score fluctuates up and down between the players on a spectrum from 7 to zero to 7. I like the fact that many actions require opposed dice rolls which would (in a non-solo situation) involve both players all through each person's turn (called a "Rush"). I like the totally different feel of the game as a futuristic sporting event, not a clone or adaptation of an existing sport.

The card deck is a big plus. It adds lots to the game and covers a lot of mechanics with the flip of a card. Wanna move the Ref? Flip a card, read the top-left number for how many hexes. Making a Fan Check? Flip a card, read the bottom line for the Cheers. Need a random Player as a target? Flip a card, read the right-hand line of numbers to select the unfortunate sportsperson. 

It's easy to memorise your team stats. It's easy to remember the basic rules. It seems quite well-balanced despite some seriously different teams. 

There are MVPs, rules for leagues and all that jazz. I can see me running a league at school for the kids. They just need a team and a roster sheet. With teams retailing at £14.99 each (8 players), it's a snap to get them into the game... assuming they like it.


I am just itching to play a game, to be honest. A real game. You know, versus a human. 
That'll be the proof of the pudding: can I get other players to try it? 

Barriers are the mental assumptions people make, like "oh, it's just a BloodBowl clone, right?" Wrong!

DreadBall is a cool, unique game and I am itching to play it.

Game on?

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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Unboxing DreadBall

Imagine my excitement to receive the boxed game, "DreadBall" (by Mantic) last night. This is me unboxing the beast and taking a quick look.

Dodgy camera work aside, it's kinda fun.

How many times do I say, "Cool"?!

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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Collaboration 101

This week has seen some positive and clear progress on the SF setting that I've been posting about on and off over the last month or so. The setting is now under collaborative production with the first pair of players and, frankly, we're pretty excited about the basics we've thrashed out already. If you're new to this thread, check out the previous articles starting with Recurring Themes in SF.

Planning a new campaign, to be played online with friends all across the world, has thrown up a number of new challenges and exciting opportunities. 

This post is a way to help me organise my thoughts and propose a number of cool possibilities. So... here goes with the madness...


First of all, there is serious power in collaboration. 

This idea began to really surface a couple of years ago for me as a pushed-for-time GM running the regular home-based Friday Night Roleplay group. In short, I was hopeful that my players would be willing to join me in co-creating a setting and running games in it. 

There have been serious barriers to this aim, not least of which has been my reluctance to let go of the traditional GM control role. I always wants things to fit my own vision of things, even when players suggest cool innovations, and end up cherry-picking things rather than really listening to player wants.

That said, the other major barriers are two-fold: the players aren't used to collaboration and the systems don't always accommodate it either.

Players don't usually expect to be creatively involved, at least not my players. They are ok with thinking up a hero and, perhaps, tacking on a background slug. They just want to get on with playing, however, and don't want to spend precious session time chatting about setting design... and the rest of the time they are busy with work and life. This is a barrier to the collaborative idea.

Systems assume GM control. At least, the systems we prefer do... you know, the simulationist style games we prefer. In fact, even the narrative style games tend to assume a strong Narrator. I realised this fact only this week as I began to read the FATE Core .PDF (available from the Kickstarter campaign page). 

Why do systems place barriers to collaborative setting design? Well, imagine you want to build the setting I'm proposing using Traveller or GURPS or a similar system; you will be writing crunchy conversion rules for equipment pretty quickly, as well as adapting character traits for the players to choose from. Using Traveller I might need to adapt the Career tables; for GURPS I need to tell them which Advantages are available. Sure, they can help with this... except, who wants to spend games night working through lists of game traits?

No, collaboration has to be built into the game experience from the word go. That's why HeroQuest and FATE have been appealing strongly to me for this project.

Collaborative Approaches

The first step is to take a narrative approach. Ditch the system choice and start by engaging the players in the project. In this case, two guys have shown interest; one is seriously excited about collaborating on the setting, the other is (so far) wanting to show up and play.

Step One for me was to get email chatter bounced to a forum, so we could talk online and keep the thread clear and open. This has, in just a week, generated the basic assumptions and background for the setting - raw, rough and ready to use.

Step Two has been to find a wiki space so that we can record the "canon" of the setting as we create it. Wiki implies collaboration from the word go. It's private, so that we can mess around and not feel that we have an audience yet, but can be made open if we feel we have something to share.

Step Three has been to realise that we can use any system we choose... and that this depends on the style of game we want to play.

Trans-System Setting?

Some settings are hard-wired into the rules that support them. Or, put another way, game designers build a system to play in a particular setting. Examples are games like World of Darkness or Star Wars. With time and popularity these systems can be stripped out of the setting and made multi-genre, but they always taste the flavour of their original form.

Other settings are looser and fit the form. Mykenaea, for instance, has been built for use with Rolemaster. It is flavoured by the system now, most notably in the way that magic works. If I wanted to run Mykenaea with another system I'd need to either model the same magic system or accept a major shift in the setting. D&D does this to settings too. 

This new setting, however, can be trans-system in nature. In other words, it will demand that the system be adapted to suit the setting. Depending on the style of game I want to play then I will use a different style of system.

For loose and high-octane adventure I am tempted to play with FATE or HeroQuest. These model cinematic / narrative styles and suit heroes who are dealing with televisable stories. For more serious and simulationist tales, however, I might choose Traveller5. All of these systems, however, will need to be adapted to fit the setting... not the other way around.

What's My Point?

Well... my point is that the creative fun of the setting is the heart of the collaboration. It's vital to get the setting roughed-out and into play quickly. Thus, the players can be engaged in quick sketching of the setting and then moved towards active play, filling in details as we play, to maintain interest. 

The setting will evolve and grow in play. I'm not going to spend weeks writing alone and hoping that my players will like the outcome. That was how I worked on Mykovnia... and that way is hard work and might lead to a living campaign. Without ongoing interest, however, it is prone to running out of steam if I ever run out of steam.

This setting will evolve and grow to meet player needs. They know that they have a stake in everything the setting offers from Day 1. They will be encouraged to add details and suggestions to the setting as play progresses... and we'll simply record and organise the notes. 

If a player wants to take off on a side-track and detail something they are interested in, who am I to stop them? No, as Narrator, I'll just read and digest the ideas into the campaign as it evolves.

Overall, the setting is a group property. It exists for the entertainment of the group. It is created and maintained by the group for the duration of play. If play continues, it will grow and evolve. 

No matter what, however, the setting cannot become a slave to a system. It's the other way around: the system must deliver on the type of game the setting demands.

Game on!

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Saturday, 1 December 2012

Rediscovering Glorantha

The cover of the current edition of the book.
The first RPG that I ever read and played was the boxed edition of RuneQuest, upon which box was the image of a female warrior having her shield torn asunder by the teeth of a large lizard-like creature. This is an image that, for me, was formative in my learning to roleplay. It was also, of course, an image from Glorantha.

Glorantha is the mythic fantasy world of Greg Stafford which was largely associated with the RuneQuest brand. Of course, all these years on, Glorantha is now under license to Moon Design Publications and supported by both the new edition of RuneQuest (which I still need to finish reading) and HeroQuest.

It is in this latter form that I have re-discovered my love for place.


Glorantha is, to but it simply, inspiring. As fantasy settings go it is the only one besides Middle-earth that is as fully realised and completely believable. It is a raw and visceral world, a mythical world... a place of many wonders.

Glorantha is also so detailed that, for me at least, it always seemed too much work to understand it. Until now.

The mood and style of the world, with its weird Ducks and Apple Lane, has been (I now realise) a large part of the inspiration for my own dark world of Mykovnia.

So what?

Well... it's been a long time since I allowed myself the time and bother to read another fantasy setting. Yet, reading the excellent 'Sartar' sourcebook from Moon Design, I've felt myself drawn back into the wondrous world that is Glorantha.

There is something about the idea of creating a hero from scratch, including designing their clan, using narrative tools such as HeroQuest's excellent Sartar questionnaire, that really peaks my interest.

The sheer richness of the narrative, the inclusion of a ready-made campaign arc, and the overwhelming depth of a setting that has been around gaming circles since 1966 is just... intoxicating.

I'd dearly love to either run or (even better, perhaps) play in a Gloranthan saga. I'm just so glad that I've taken the shrink-wrap off those books I bought two or so years ago and finally read them. I'm also excited by the new Kickstarter for the Guide to Glorantha!

Game on!

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