Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Back from Alaska

Nothing role-playing related today. Just wanted to report that I've returned from my trip to Alaska. That's me above, with Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background. I'm on the road to Talkeetna, and will shortly take a flight to Denali and land on one of its glaciers.

And that's the plane, of course. It was a truly incredible trip. And I now have a deep appreciation for what -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34.4 degrees to you metric folks) feels like.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Technique: The Art of Listening

Role-playing games are social games. It is by talking to each othersharing our imagined contentthat we establish the environment of the game.

Anything that is not shared, obviously, does not become part of the collective experience of the game. That doesn't mean that things you keep to yourself aren't important, or that they don't contribute to how you portray or even feel about your character. But unless you share what your character is feeling or thinking, others in the group can't pick up on it and act upon it. Nor are they going to be able to fully appreciate your character's actions taken as a result of those feelings or thoughts.

All that is a roundabout way of getting to what I consider to be the most essential, foundational skill in role-playing: listening. And yes, you're right. That's not such a deep observation. But sometimes it's helpful to review the fundamentals. In fact, I'm bringing this subject up because I needed the review.

What gets your fellow players jazzed about their characters? What sorts of conflict or bits of setting or color get them excited? What sorts of situations get the GM to turn it up to 11? Also, what sorts of things make your fellow players tune out? Being aware of these things is the first step toward helping your group achieve amazing play consistently.

Whether you're a GM or one of the other players, do your best to focus on the other people at the table and what gets them excited. If you can keep a running tally in your head, great. If not, make a note of it. I find that I need to make notes if there are more than four players other than myself.

Use those notes as you play. When it's your turn to do something, try to ensure that your actions activate the interests of at least one other person in your notes (or your running mental tally). And, of course, do your best to avoid actions that will cause others to tune out.

Simple, right? If you've got any tips or tricks to aid this process, please share!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Return to Action and Profiling

Welcome back. It’s been a while. With my life slightly less hectic now that my company’s office has moved—following a nearly 10-month acquisition and integration process—I’ve decided to revisit the Well and see if anyone’s still stopping by.

I’m hoping to get up a few things on some new topics in the next few days. In the meantime, assuming anyone is still stopping by, I’d like to do a little profiling to talk about what we’re playing and how our experiences are going.

Here are the questions:
  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where in the world are you?
  3. What have you played recently? With whom did you play and where?
  4. What’s been your best gaming experience recently? Why?
  5. What’s been your most problematic or least satisfying gaming experience recently? Why?
  6. What gaming are you looking forward to in the near future?
  7. Name one thing your group does that you think could help others make their gaming better.

And naturally, I’ll start.
1. What’s your name?
Thor Olavsrud

2. Where in the world are you?
New York City

3. What have you played recently? With whom did you play and where?
This is gonna be a long one! In the interest of some brevity, I’m going to leave out Dreamation last month, though I’ll note that I played in Judd’s 1st Quest wolves game, Mike Miller’s Mutant Academy scenario for his excellent game, With Great Power, a playtest of Kevin Allen jr.’s work-in-progress, Sweet Agatha, and John Wick’s Wilderness of Mirrors.

So here we go:
The Monday group has continued its extremely fun Burning THAC0 game, a Burning Wheel game that consciously seeks to embrace all the wonderful tropes of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. For nostalgia’s sake, the game is set in Mystara, in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Our characters have just returned from an expedition to the Isle of Dread, and I have managed to make the grandmaster of villainy, Bargle the Infamous, my wizard’s nemesis. All I can say is, “Die Bargle, Die!”

This group’s core consists of Anthony (the GM), Rich, Pete and myself. Luke has recently become a regular member, and Jared now makes cameos when he’s in town. We play in a conference room of our local Public Television affiliate, Thirteen, which Pete works for.

The Thursday group has been experimenting with Weapons of the Gods, which we’ve been quite excited about. We may get back to it in the near future, but we have some other games on the agenda first. We played a wonderful session of Dogs in the Vineyard last Thursday. It’s been more than a year since half of us played Vincent’s little gem, but it still produces consistently wonderful experiences. My Dog is perched on the precipice between being a force for good and becoming a cult leader and sorcerer himself.

This group’s core consists of John, Drozdal, Mayuran, Alexander and myself. Jon has made a cameo in the past and is more than welcome to return at anytime. Alexander has been out the past month or so dealing with visa issues, but that’s resolved now and he should be back soon. We play in the conference room of Nettwerk Music Group, which John works for.

The Sunday group has taken a break from its usual Earthsea-inspired Burning Wheel game (which Mayuran GMs) while Alexander has been out, so instead we’ve done a short Burning Wolves campaign, using the Great Wolves lifepaths from Burning Wheel’s Monster Burner. Our pack of Spirit Hunter wolves had to deal with the encroachment of the mad forest god as he sought to conquer the god of the mountain. We had numerous tussles with fox god, bear god, moose god, night god and fire god, as well as confrontations with other Great Wolf packs and ravens. Let me tell you, entering a Duel of Wits with a mountain is a scary proposition! This game came to a conclusion on Sunday, with four of the six player characters killed in the godswar. We all found ourselves interested in pursuing another game in the world.

This group’s core consists of Mayuran, Drozdal, Alexander, Luke and myself. With Alexander out, the roster for the Wolves game was actually Mayuran, Drozdal, Luke (as the GM), Danny, Chris, Rich and myself. We play at Game Headquarters, in Luke’s room.

4. What’s been your best gaming experience recently? Why?
It’s my poll, so I’ll cheat a little bit and list two.

First up is the entirety of the Burning THAC0 experience, rather than a specific thing. Burning THAC0 gaming has a lower intensity than most of my other gaming. It is intended to be a fun, casual romp, with lots of nostalgic references to old D&D experiences. We unabashedly game situations, make off-topic pop culture jokes, and kill things and take their stuff. Our teamwork is fun. There’s a lot to be said for the beer-and-pretzels experience.

Second up is the setting we created for the Burning Wolves game. When we sat down to burn our characters, Luke grabbed an Ilocano-English dictionary to use. We named our characters from it. We also named our relationships and our territories from it. When new NPCs (usually gods) were brought in with Circles, we named them with it. Luke drew a little map of our territories with all the names on it. Horut the Mountain towered over our territory, Daga. Balat the Forest sent his trees and grasses to war against Daga. Karayan the River brought us water to quench our thirst, and was in turn the child of Horut and Yelo the Ice. Aguma the Maker, with his lantern and axe, was allied with Balat, or was he? Agradam the Night made us shiver with terror, while Soro the Fox tricked us over and over and Manaketa the Bear gave us no end of trouble. Bukig the Moose bade us hide from our troubles. Our pups, Uken, Bato and Tiniteg gave us hope. Fellow great wolves Immalsa, Nasaglat, Cayanga, Abaken, Bison, etc., were our rivals and mates.

As these names grew around the things we created, the world really took shape in our imaginations. These places and characters grew organically over the course of the six sessions of the game and really gave the place a unique flavor and character.

5. What’s been your most problematic or least satisfying gaming experience recently? Why?
Interestingly enough, the Burning Wolves game is also my answer for this one and I’ve been struggling to answer why for several weeks. I think it comes down to this: I really cared about the subject of the game. I’m fascinated by wolves: their biology and physiology, their behavior, their pack structure and hierarchy, their hunting strategies, their ability to communicate with each other, etc.

I think it all stems from an account in Barry Lopez’s book, Of Wolves and Men, in which he relates how the pack he followed fed an elderly female that was no longer capable of hunting. Lopez noted the possibility that she had some sort of knowledge that was useful to the pack, and which justified their efforts to feed her. That always resonated with me.

I really wanted to see that stuff take shape in a game, and I pushed for this game. But gaming is a cooperative endeavor, and it’s not realistic to assume that everyone in your group is going to care about the things that you care about to the same degree. I wanted a game that really focused on stuff like pack mentality, pack community, and the communal effort to survive and raise pups. I noted that I wasn’t interested in seeing the game turn into “Man vs. Nature,” with “good” wolves trying to defend pristine Nature against “evil” men. I wasn’t interested in anthropomorphizing these creatures; I wanted them to feel like real wolves.

But there were six other people at the table with me, and they all had their own ideas. That’s fine. In fact, that’s how it should be. But because I really cared about that stuff, I was unwilling to give very much ground in those areas during play, even when it became clear that the rest of the players didn’t really care.

Gaming will never be satisfying if you’re not willing to give ground and allow other people to change your vision. In the end, the problem with the game and the reason it was unsatisfying was me. I was too attached to the subject matter.

6. What gaming are you looking forward to in the near future?
I’m looking forward to a number of games. Starting Wednesday, our friend Bob comes to town for a week from Boston. Between Wednesday and Sunday, we are going to burn a world and characters in Burning Empires and play through an entire phase. We’ll World Burn and Character Burn on Wednesday, play sessions Thursday night and Friday night, and marathon sessions on Saturday and Sunday. I expect it will be grueling! But also fun!

On Friday, the Gotham Gaming Guild returns, and we’ll set the stage for a 6-session run of a Burning Wheel game about Ronin from Hell. I hope to play a Yamabushi spirit-binder aiming to send the demons back where they came from. It should be a blast.

After I return from a trip to Alaska next week, the Thursday group is going to take Ralph Mazza’s work-in-progress, Robots & Rapiers, out for a spin!

7. Name one thing your group does that you think could help others make their gaming better.
It’s all about naming. See my answer to question 4, as well as Technique: The Magic of Yevaud’s Name.

Ok. That’s me. What about you?