I recently had the privilege to attend a presentation given by Orion Black (@dungeoncommander on twitter) on Circle Theory, while I was at Orcacon 2020. While I wasn’t able to stay for the practice portion of the presentation due to some noise sensitivity issues, I did learn quite a bit, and as soon as I was able, I sat down to “diagram out” my own upcoming game, Brinkwood: The Blood of Tyrants using Circle Theory.
It is my belief that one strength of Circle Theory is in illustrating to the designer where the most important intersections of their game lie, and which mechanics are essential, and which may be perhaps removed from a design in order to “focus” it better.
When I was a lot younger, I watched a documentary, the thesis of which stuck with me for a long time after. It was about a young woman, a teenager, who had inherited a vast sum of money when her wealthy parents had died. The documentary was focused on her life, the circumstances of her parents demise, but none of those details stuck with me. What stuck with me was something the young woman was quoted as saying:
“I wish there was no money. All my money does is cause problems. If there was no money, there would be no problems.”
When I first heard this, I rebelled against it. What entitlement! To have been handed the world on a platter and to want to give it back. Or at least say that you do.
But as I grew, I got more leftist and more radical. And ironically, I found myself agreeing with this rich girl more and more. After all, don’t I believe that life’s problems flow from the existence of money?
After reading some recent twitter threads about people trying to get started in the TTRPG space, how others can benefit from the knowledge of old-timers, and just thinking about my own experiences in tabletop, I decided to talk a bit about how I hire people to work on my own RPGs.
When I sat down to read “The Wild Hunt” by Samantha Marie Ketcham Seguinte, I was thinking about doing a twitter read-through of it, as I typically do with shorter games or even longer ones I want to highlight. But something about it defied the type of writing I usually do for my read-throughs. Typically, I try to break a game into it’s component parts, circling certain segments and trying to create some narrative on how they build into each-other. But for “The Wild Hunt”, such an approach seemed inappropriate. It’s not as if there’s nothing to highlight, far from it. But each piece links together very intricately. It seemed like to focus on any tree would be to miss the proverbial forest.
That said, I am in murky waters here, as I’m really going to extrapolate my own meaning from the game, rather than trying to discover the mechanics that underpin it in order to create what I think was the designers’ goal. So be aware, in trying to understand the forest that is “The Wild Hunt”, I’m looking through my own set of eyes.
Every so often on twitter, as I scroll through the #ttrpg tag, I see a certain type of tweet. It’s always from an account with a game-studio-sounding name I’ve never heard of, something like Darkwood Games or Blathersplotch Studios. In the tweet, they announce an exciting new UNIVERSAL table-top roleplaying system! Finally! A system that puts YOU in control! You can do whatever you want with it! Be a pirate! Or a space captain! Or (insert third generic genre here)!
It always breaks my heart a little to see these posts, maybe straggling along with one or two likes. I add my own little heart icon, because hey, buck-up champ. We all deserve a shot, right?
In re-reading this Alexandrian article, I was struck by the idea of the “toolkit.” In the context of the article, they are designed as the tools that the villain uses to thwart the goals of the party. These are the sources of conflict, and, by my estimation, roughly analogous to the sort of go-to obstacles a villain (and therefore a GM) can throw at the players. The article divides the tools into toolkits into categories of personnel, equipment, physical locations, and information.
There’s a trend in nerd culture or fandom to attribute moral failings to the things we don’t like. It’s not enough for something to be not our cup of tea, or bad, it must also be harmful, destructive, problematic, etc. And to be sure, there is a great deal of harmful, destructive, and problematic stuff in fan culture and media. I bring it up only because that is what I don’t, in this case, want to do for some of the games (or types of games) I talk about generally here. I don’t think these games are morally corrosive or even necessarily bad. I’ve enjoyed a few, in specific circumstances. They just, generally, lie firmly on the “not my cup of tea” end of the spectrum, and I’d like to talk about why.
I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. Or the apocalypse either, for that matter. In my mind, it’s usually portrayed as wish-fulfillment of the worst sort. Everything has gone to hell, things are awful, but hey, you made it through unscathed. And look at all the zombies, raiders, or insert-other-here, just begging for a violent comeuppance. There are the occasional vague gestures towards to how “terrible” things are, and how bad you should feel for enjoying this consequence-free land of violence and pain, but it always rings a bit hollow to me. At least Day of the Dead was honest about it.
For it’s part, Mutants in the Night harkens back to the sentiment and message of Night of the Living Dead more than Mad Max. Your protagonist might be trapped by zombies, but at the end of the day, it’s racist cops that eventually put you in the ground.
Hello there! Let’s talk about Other Worlds. Other Worlds is a writing series I’m going to try doing more of on this blog. My aim will be to offer critique and analysis of indie tabletop RPGs that I don’t see getting a lot of attention. Now, there’s new TTRPGs every day, so analyzing them all would be literally impossible. So instead, I’m going to try to go in-depth on games that have ideas or mechanics that are personally interesting to me.
This is NOT intended to be a review series, and the goal with these essays isn’t to convince you to buy / not buy a given product. Instead, I’ll be trying to focus on what games do well and what interesting ideas they bring to the table. I’ll be focused on what’s in the text of the games, not what I think “should” have been written in or expanded on.
Anyways, that’s what’s up. Hope you enjoy!
CW: References to fictional violence towards women
I played in a game recently that got me thinking about character backgrounds, in particular the ways GMs use them after the players have created them. As any GM will tell you, a well-written backstory can be a real boon to the GM and the story, as it allows them to “tie in” elements of their story with the PC’s backstory, thus fostering engagement and a feeling of mutual ownership over the narrative.
However, it isn’t always sunshine and roses. Today I want to talk about where a GM’s mining of a player’s backstory can go wrong.