May 8th, 2005

Tea-drinker par excellence

More games I like to play

Having dealt with some of the more traditional kinds of games, here are two of my favourites from the New School, octaNe and My Life with Master. But first, a short diversion into what I mean by New School. I suppose it's similar in some ways to the Hogshead New Style range: Baron Munchausen, Pantheon, De Profundis, Puppetland and to a lesser extent the game/critique that is Violence. Both deconstruct our expectations of what a roleplaying game is, although New Style if anything took this further than many New School games.

So what am I calling the New School? These are games such as Sorcerer, Universalis, Dust Devils and Capes. Generally self-published small print run games that challenge the usual notions of roleplaying games. These usual notions of roleplaying are that the GM sets up the background, writes a plot and the players interact with this plot in a bid to solve the mystery or advance their characters.

New School games are also very focussed on delivering a specific experience. Old School D&D for example does not say what kind of fantasy game you will be playing. It could be the dark horror of Clark Ashton Smith, the fun investigations of Martin Scott or the fascistic misogyny of Gor. New School games on the other hand, generally have rules that encourage a particular kind of game, such as taglines in Dying Earth encouraging witty banter or "the horror revealed" in My Life with Master enhancing the general sense of impending doom.

Most commercial computer roleplaying are still at the Old School stage although the success of the more socially orientated MUDs has lead to some more character-driven influences in some MMORPGs. Or at least, some of the players have carved out niches in these games where they can play character driven games even though these are not generally supported by the rules (the rules typically just deal with how to hit things and take their stuff).

Many of the New School game writers have had some experience of the Forge. This has lead to a focus on narrative games and changing the GM-player relationship as the main ways of changing the rules of the game.

Narrative games are usually held to mean games focussed on a premise, usually some kind of moral dilemma such as 'what will you sacrifice to save the planet'. These can be created by the GM as an umbrella for the game or each character can have a different premise. There is then some mechanic in the game, such as Humanity in Sorcerer, that represents how each character is measuring up to the challenge set by the premise. This is how SAN in Call of Cthulhu works, although that was never expressed as a "narrative meta-mechanic".

Other such games employ the more usual sense of "narrative" and focus on the story that is created in play. This generally means that rather than the resolving individual actions as they occur, there is some mechanic for resolving at a larger scale such as an entire scene. There is often some mechanic for deciding on who has "narrative control" and can narrate the outcome of a scene. This can be just a simple dice role (InSpectres) or even involve a complicated bidding process (Capes or Hero Wars). These games tend not to have the same taxonomy of skills that exist in Old School games but settle for a small set more focussed on what the game is trying to deliver by way of experience. Capes for example focusses on what powers your heroes have, and what kind of person they are. Straighaway you can see that this sets up the Spiderman/Buffy dilemma of great power and great responisibility.

Looking at the relationship between player and GM, some critics have gone as far as to say that the GM is almost an evil presence in the game, taking any power away from the players and, in mainstream games, reducing players to acting out the GMs fantasies. This is possibly the case with some individual GMs but doesn't really describe the design intent of any of the games I've played. Nevertheless, this kind of analysis of power relations (dare I mention Foucault?) has lead to interesting developments in the way games are run. Some games such as Capes have done away with the GM entirely, reducing the game to a series of conflicts set up by the players. In others such as Universalis, it seems as if every player is a GM who bids to control parts of the game. There are many examples between these two extremes where the power to decide on what happens next is shared in some way between the player and the GM.

So after the preamble (and yes, this is probably a future article for Places to Go, People to Be hence the some over-egging for a livejournal) what about those two I mentioned earlier on.

3. octaNe
octaNe is a triumph of focussed design. The book strongly situates the action in the background of post-apocalyptic trash-culture America, gives 45(!) character templates and even a list of what music you should be playing during your games. There are four possible modes of play from psychotronic to Cinema Vérité. After just a quick read you really know what the game is about. It's also about monkeys, Jared being of the fully justified belief that everything can be made better with the addition of monkeys. Finally it's only $10 in pdf.

The rules are very light. Players roll 3d6 for narrative control of a scene. Only the top dice counts. On a 5 or 6, the player has control, on a 1 or 2 it's the GM. In between indicates some shared control. There is a hazard mechanism that indicates whether less dice are counted or not. Hazards are entirely determined by the GM through the narrative.

So what's the fuss all about?

Because players have control over the narrative rather than resolution of the individual tasks that make up each conflict in the narrative, they can do things that are not available to players in Old School games. Not only can they attempt to resolve conflicts through task success but they can also do it through failure.

That's right.

Players can describe how their character has failed in order that the story is better. They can also do other interesting things like changing the course of the narrative, insert their own conflicts and characters and foreshadow future events.

In fact, it's very important in octaNe that players embrace the full range of narrative opportunities because there is nothing quite so dull as a story in which everything goes well all the time. I've not been a player yet but as a GM I've found that the usual role of plot construction takes up much less of your time. Or at least, you have to approach it in a very differet way because players have much more plot control. What you find yourself doing is trying to keep track of all the elements that the players introduce (link to player creativity articles here) and making sure that they get carried forward in the narrative. The other main role for the GM is to frame scenes quite aggresively so that players are in little doubt that a conflict is looming that needs to be resolved. Actually, once players have got the hang of this, there's not so much need to be so aggressive. Players are quite capable of creating their own conflicts.

So, it's a whole new gaming experience that demands much from the players and the GM with the latter required to think on his feet much more so than for Old School games. And that's why I like it.

4. My Life with Master
My Life with Master (MLwM) is a game that redefined roleplaying. It's that innovative. Each player has a character who is a minion of an evil and sadictic master who is played by the GM. The default setting is Gothic Bavaria a la Frankenstein. The master sends the minions out on errands into the village and they in turn try to break his yoke by making connections with the villagers.

Because this is a narrative game, generation of the characters and the Master is done through cooperation with the players. This mutual compromise ensures that everyone has a character that fits with the theme for the game and that the Master is suitable for the minions.

In what is a departure from most games, players take it in turn to resolve their scenes. These are framed by the GM to advance the narrative. This means that the GM should take account of the choices the player made during character generation and involve these in the scene as well as being sadistic towards the characters. The resolution system is very simple. There are only three ways of resolving a scene, these are violence, villany or making a connection to a villager. Success or failure is decided by dice but what this means in the context of the game is narrated by the GM or players.

Why MLwM scores is that the ways of resolving a scene characters are kept simple but by allowing narration of the outcome from very loose categories there is plenty of narrative freedom within the focus of the game (i.e. destruction of the master). As long as everyone is on board with the theme then you can even quite easily mess around with it a bit to produce scenarios for special occasions. I've run My Life with Santa at Xmas and My Life with Tony Blair on the same day as a General Election.