Far Space

Almost a year after my last big LARP experience (The Climb, played with basically the same group), we got together to try out a new project called Far Space by Christian Griffen. The print-on-demand website describes it thus:

This game is a Live Action Roleplay scenario based around escape-room-inspired problem solving challenges in which the fate of individual characters and the ship as a whole depends on the choices that the players make. 

Far Space game description

I was immediately intrigued by the bridge simulator/ship in crisis vibe of the game. I’m a huge fan of any game that really wrestles with life aboard a vessel, be it a submarine, spaceship, or airship so I knew this was something I wanted to try. I’m also a fan of escape room-style puzzles and resource management, so that was a bonus when I found out what gameplay was going to be like.

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History, Lorebuilding, and Growing with Your Game

Most traditional rpgs* land somewhere along a line from “make it up as you go” to “pages of defined lore and backstory,” tending toward the latter in how the game runs at the table. For some groups, exploring the lore and its deeper implications and keeping up with the wider campaign world is part of the fun of the game. For players who have read the novels and GMs who have taken extensive notes on the people and places who will be turning up, that’s their brand of fun. If that’s you, I’m not necessarily talking to you right now. However, I think the following ideas might help you reach some of your fellow players who think of that kind of prep as something akin to homework.

The wider-world approach runs into some tight corners when it comes to character history and the fear of “getting it wrong.” Let’s say you want to play a Crane bushi who fought on the Wall as part of a diplomatic exchange between clans. (I know enough buzzwords to make a sentence. Take this for the example it is intended to be) Players with greater knowledge could object to what era that exchange is appropriate, whether or not it’s something that could happen, and the wider repercussions given the particulars of your game or setting. Similarly, the Emperor and Darth Vader potentially had some secret apprentices (especially under the old EU), one of whom might be unaccounted for in official settings for a PC or NPC backstory. But if everything grinds to a halt while Wookieepedia is consulted, then the plotline may be abandoned before anyone gets invested. But by trying to be thorough about background lore, you run the risk of eliminating every storyline that’s not already a part of the setting, leaving your players side characters in their own campaign as “canon” heroes sort out the big events.

As an alternative, consider a living history that can be revealed as you play. Summarize the important elements your campaign will make use of and get the campaign started from there. Feel free to bait some story hooks with existing lore to give your players a reason to get or stay invested in the published setting, but introduce elements when and how you can to invite a deeper study of the world. This way, it’s not homework front-loaded at the beginning of the campaign but an unfolding story with layers for everyone. Even the deep loredivers will appreciate getting to experience it firsthand, especially if you can sneak up on a Big Moment and place them in the thick of it.

Some ways to incorporate your expanding worldbuilding is to borrow cues from video games or other rpgs. For example, consider borrowing a page from the Assassin’s Creed series with the Villa Auditore: a homebase with room for incremental improvements, home to NPCs who can deliver new information, housing secrets (and possibly an entrance to some level-appropriate challenges). By getting your party to invest in the community, they put down some roots and shed some of their adventure capitalist/cut-throat opportunist tendencies. By staying in one place while they develop their home base, you can go deeper into that region’s specifics and tie those reveals to the history of their location, making the history of your world personal. 

Another route to deepening connections is having equipment and background elements grow with your characters. The disposability of most equipment is fine, but what about the pieces you just can’t part with? Inigo Montoya is not about to ditch his father’s masterpiece just because he found a vorpal +2 rapier. What if these weapons have opportunities to “level up” with your party, at the same rate that new equipment would be bestowed upon them? Maybe the ritual to imbue the weapon with holy energy can only happen on a particular auspicious day, or the reagent that must be sacrificed in the process is plot-rare and difficult to produce. This lets you develop new information about original equipment (“Who knew that there was still ancestral magic bound up in [this item]?”) or learn more about the specific history and magic of treasured items and tie it in with your larger world. Players might jump at the opportunity to power a trusted weapon or spell focus up instead of tossing one of the few constants of their adventuring career in preference of the new shiny bauble. This approach shares DNA with Thread Items in Earthdawn, and is explored/adapted further in my Razors of the Demon Barber for D&D 5E.

These concrete elements can tie into character backstory, integrate into local and world history, and give what came before a way to influence what comes next. If there’s interest, we can discuss what these sorts of elements would look like with particular game systems, so comment here or take it to Twitter.

*For the purposes of these examples, I’m assuming a pre-written world along the lines of Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, or Battletech. In terms of worldbuilding and lore, there’s a wiki of existing content as opposed to player input. 

Nexus: As Above, So Below

I have perhaps alluded to my first rpg system, Nexus, in previous posts. It was a universal RPG with stats derived from Legend of the Five Rings and point-based traits like Tri-Stat. It lasted a summer before getting supplanted by Savage Worlds as a ruleset for me, but the setting itself lives on in all of my games. It also features heavily in my greater design philosophy, so this is as good a time as any to address some of my long-range goals.

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The Climb (Bully Pulpit Games)

Last weekend’s gaming also brought me to The Climb, an “American-style LARP” by Jason Morningstar that bills itself thus on their website:

THE CLIMB is a short, six-person, live-action game about an expedition to a virgin peak in the Himalayas. The game requires six players, a large quiet space, and should take 2-3 hours to play. There is no Game Master, but you’ll need one player to organize and facilitate. The premise is an illegal summiting attempt on a mountain in Bhutan (which is a real thing in that real place)

The story puts six climbers at Camp Three, battened down against a significant storm that would make climbing suicide. The players wait for a break in the storm (which is either timed by a player or cued off the soundtrack which features howling winds and Chinese weather reports) and have to determine which three members of the expedition will attempt the summit when the time comes. But in practice, that’s not such an easy thing to negotiate…

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Rider’s Last Rites

One of the great benefits of community, both online and in person, is they provide you with information about new games and opportunity to actually play them. By expanding my circle online I’m hearing about more projects than just word-of-mouth, and by diving deep into the one-off world I discussed last time my friends and I keep trying games. This weekend saw us trying out two new ones, one of which is Bully Pulpit’s The Climb (which I’ll get to next time) and Sidney Icarus’s Rider’s Last Rites.

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CUT TO: Stealing the Language of Film for Tabletop Gaming

Roleplaying games are distributed in book format (until someone invents an all podcast-and-YouTube-video distribution method), and has as its reference points prominent literary progenitors: Lord of the Rings, Dune, Neuromancer, Starship Troopers. But just as common, we talk about games in terms of film tropes and our games draw from film and television: the Matrix, Firefly, Star Wars, and Star Trek. A lot of jokes and memes have been written lately about “what if X was an rpg campaign?” What if the reverse was true?

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Midwest GameFest, Pt. 8 (Protocol)

This game was the biggest surprise of the convention for me. It’s one of those titles that I kept hearing about and my friends kept saying “You need to play Protocol.” I signed up for it as my last session of the con and a friend of mine who has backed the Kickstarters brought her collection to choose from.

Each scenario is packaged as a separate “game”, sharing common rules and materials. Character creation is very free-form, with some suggested roles in the module to get you started. You draw from a deck of cards to establish motivation and relationships to other characters (and for the scenario we ran, our relationship to the primary NPC). Once you’ve settled some setting assumptions, you’re ready to play. Setup takes 15 to 20 minutes, which is great for a zero-prep improv thing. more “Midwest GameFest, Pt. 8 (Protocol)”

Midwest GameFest, Pt. 7 (Dread)

It’s become a tradition at local gaming conventions that my friend Matt runs his Dread game in the Sunday morning slot. It’s traditionally kind of dead the morning of the last day, what with everyone having been up so late the previous couple days. I got lucky this time and Daylight Saving came through just after our Soth game and blessed us with another hour of sleep.

The twist this year was Matt adapted a Dark Heresy adventure he ran a long time ago for Dread, building an atmosphere of danger and inevitability to our exploring a derelict warship and following on the heels of a dangerous daemon. It was a blended team of Inquisitors racing against the clock to retrieve an Imperial artifact and save this ship in On a Collision Course with Destinymore “Midwest GameFest, Pt. 7 (Dread)”

Midwest GameFest 2018, P. 6 (Soth)

Who doesn’t love a good cult ritual? There’s something comforting about knowing right where to stand, what to wear, who to stab and when. This game blends the steadfast surety of a Lovecraftian doomsday cult with the madcap shenanigans of a Coen Brothers film. It’s Call of Cthulhu meets Fiasco in Soth, a game by Steve Hickey.

Our party was up for a wild time. By this point in the convention, each of us had played together a time or two, so the “getting to know you” phase of con friendship was well underway. I like to think that contributed to just how absurd most of this ended up…  more “Midwest GameFest 2018, P. 6 (Soth)”

Midwest GameFest 2018, Pt. 5 (Untamed Suburbia)

This is an exciting one for me. I haven’t gone much beyond re-skinning a thing or working within someone else’s framework, be it Savage Worlds, Fate, or some horror one-shot, in some time. And while yet another Apocalypse World hack may feel like a re-skin, my goal for Untamed Suburbia is to design a game that does something new for me: take a core idea from conception to fruition intact. I’ve pondered a number of projects over the years (one about school kids as an Encyclopedia Brown meets Bruce Colville supernatural adventure series, or something that scales out a bit like Reign as has you playing both PCs at ground level and the major players in the setting working behind the scenes at the same time), but none of them quite landed. There are notes, but few of them got the nudge they needed.

When I started talking about Untamed Suburbia, folks were interested. The opportunity to play animals, not anthropomorphic or magical or talking animals, but animals: four feet, eat off the ground, sleep in a nest animals as PCs resonated with folks. I have wanted to do a card-based selection for character creation for a little while and this seemed like a good time to put it together. So notes became a short rulebook became cards became a session at Midwest Gamefest!

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