Sunday, September 10, 2006

Game Review: "Panty Explosion"

Atarashii Games’ Panty Explosion by Matt Schlotte and Jake Richmond is a “Psychic Schoolgirl Adventure Game.” The book is 94 pages plus character sheet (designed like a student’s permanent record), with front and back covers by co-designer Jake Richmond, who provides all of the game’s art.

First thing’s first. What’s up with the title? “Panty Explosion” sounds at first like a distasteful joke. But what Richmond and Schlotte seem to have been going for is the weird phrasing and mis-translation that often happens back and forth between Japanese and English. It conveys a sense of self-awareness and pop-culture sensibility for the game, once it’s clear that the title is about whacky for whacky’s sake, and that it’s not actually sketchy when you get to reading the book.
The layout gives lined paper background to the text, iconography in layout as well as other elements emphasizing the Japanese Schoolgirl aspect of the game, including little drawings of cats and scribbles like “Yumi <3 Toyo.” Panty Explosion is designed to do one thing and one thing only—Psychic Japanese Schoolgirls. The amount to which you focus on the psychic element and how much that influences the story is left open, but most of the game’s information and the game’s construction is oriented towards the schoolgirl side.

In Panty Explosion, the players portray Japanese schoolgirls in junior high and high school, one or more of whom (but not all, the book recommends) are psychic, and therefore draw the attention of various demons, a catch-all term for supernatural and non-supernatural antagonists arrayed against the schoolgirls.

Student Creation and Dice Mechanics
Since Panty Explosion is very strongly character-focused, student creation takes great prominence in the book. When creating your student, cultural elements specific to Japanese schoolgirls inform the character’s traits. Blood Type is regarded as a personality indicator in Japan, and therefore it will provide traits just as will your character’s birth month, determining their Zodiac animal. Traits in Panty Explosion are prose traits, ex: “Tall for her age” or “Captain of the Kendo team”
The attributes known to many through Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, the five elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Void) referred to as the Godai throughout the book. The Godai are the primary attributes, each representing the student’s capability in the area governed by the element. A student strong in Earth is more likely to have the ability to succeed when she is using her physical strength or stubbornness. Students choose 1 element as their strength and one as their weakness. The strength gets a rating of 5, the weakness gets a rating of one, and the other three fill in with 4, 3, and 2 dice in any order of the player’s choosing.
These dice represent the pool the student can call upon in conflicts, and the degree to which the student can impact a situation through the different approaches. If a player uses all three of his student’s Fire dice to kick a demon, that player will not be able to use Fire-type actions (attacking with force of words or physical might, straightforward aggressive action).

Traits are chosen in five areas: Blood Type, Zodiac, Godai, Friends and Family, and Hobbies. Traits come into play by increasing the die-type that the player rolls for the student. If a student that would normally roll d8s could bring in a trait, her roll would use d10s instead. (Panty Explosion uses 6, 8, 10 and 12-sided dice).
The size of dice a student normally uses in conflict is determined by her popularity. Players vote at the beginning of each session and each school day in the story, with one vote per player for most popular and least popular. The least popular girl rolls d6s, the most popular rolls d10s, and everyone else rolls d8s. Psychic girls, since they’re weird and creepy cannot be the most popular. A die succeeds on 5 or more, so popularity ends up being very important in how easy it is for a student to succeed.
Each student also chooses a best friend and a rival. Character A can be Character B’s Best friend, but Character B can consider Character A to be her rival. The rival is still a friend, but the student envies or dislikes them in some way which becomes explored in the game. In resolution, if an action is successful, it is described by the player of your student’s Best Friend, if it fails, resolution is described by the Rival.

The students who are psychic have access to two powers, Levitation and Make Heads Explode. These are fairly broad in their application, based on the character’s desires. Making Heads Explode is hard to control, but isn’t always fatal. Each power can be used with three of the five Godai.

Each student has a personal agenda, which can be anything from ‘prove to my class that I’m not as dumb as I seem’ to ‘keep my father at his dead-end job so I can stay in my school.’ These agendas should be attainable but worth struggling for. They will help shape the story that the players tell in the game.

Running the Game
The player who provides the Demon, the school, and the non-player-student characters is called the Superintendent. Information on scene framing, demon creation, and storytelling is provided, with a major focus on helping the players explore the lives of Japanese schoolgirls in a demon-infested world. Scenes are described as being comprised of the five elements of the Godai, to break things down for ease of construction.

Superintendents are instructed to include student’s personal agendas in the story that is constructed for the students, so that they are engaged on a personal level as well as the plot level.

The Demon of the story need not be an oni or other creature out of Japanese legend, it can just as easily be a government organization trying to get its clutches on the group’s psychic(s), or an abusive teacher. The demon is the primary antagonist of the story. The demon gets more powerful as the psychic uses her powers, and is more powerful for each agenda left unresolved when the students confront it. The Superintendent is advised to split the demon’s dice up between multiple encounters to provide several instances of conflict rather than just having the demon sweep in and kill all the students. Scenario construction is also broken down by element, as scene construction.

Examples of monster demons are given, and one third of the book is devoted to setting details to constructing a game for Japanese schoolgirls, with information about religion, hobbies, districts of Tokyo, cram schools, and more. Even if you don’t use the system to play the game it’s preparing you for, if you’re looking to do a game set in school in Japan, this game provides invaluable information and advice for story construction.

Panty Explosion sets itself up to do one thing, and it seems like it would do it very very well. The book is focused like a laser, filled with suggestions on how to tell the stories of Japanese schoolgirls balancing between life and monster-fighting, the thematics supported from the setting description to the rules and back again.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Role-Players, Players of RPGs, and Fun For Others

So, John Wick talked about 'Good Role-Players vs. Good Players' over here:

My friend puts some of his thoughts about the issue and related deals here:

I responded there, but I'm also putting it here, to bring in more people to the conversation and spin off a bit.

I've had a love-hate relationship with Wick's ideas and games since my early involvement with L5R. I haven't read Mamet either (or if I have, it was a tiny little bit that didn't stick with me much), but I do think that his division does illuminate a possibly interesting thing to talk about:

Which is the different ways that players can enrich the experience of the RPG, for themselves and for others.

When I'm playing, I can focus on engaging with my character, trying to be very 'deep' in the character so that I as an actor am transparant to the character and the action of the narrative. This is the 'What could/would/should I (Character) do here?' Actor Stance.

I can also focus as a player on the story level, thinking about what things I can do as a player to use my character to make the game more interesting for other characters, which engages other characters, or maybe I create a scene/situation which other players engage with. This is more like the Author Stance.

I can make the game more fun for myself using both stances. I love the 'flow' experience of being fully 'in' a character that I dissapear into him/her.

I also love taking a look at the whole picture and making a decision that will engage other players, move the story forward, even at the expense of my own character's position/status.

I can also make the game more fun for others, but that depends on what values of 'fun' the other players are looking for.

If they want to see a player be soo fully in their character that they can look over at me on the tip of my seat, tapping the table because my character is nervous, shouting at one of his friends when he learns that their leader is to be executed on Demon TV, then I can make the game more fun for them by role-playing my character.

If they want to have their characters pushed or pulled into a new situation , if they're sitting in a chair thinking IC and then OOC "I'm so bored. I have nothing do to" and I make plot for them, or engage them directly, then I can make the game more fun for them, like if I'm stupid enough to steal a potent McGuffin from a demonically empowered Auctioneer and a demon, I can give them something to do instantly. I have to try to suss out what the different players and characters would want to be in the game to engage them on either or both of those levels (character or player).

[Actual Play] Exalted: The Gates of Heaven, Game Three

The third session was, fortunately, the best one yet, surprising considering the difficulties we had.

Everyone arrived on time save for the player of Dusk Sky Lover, who was in training for his new job that week, and had to drive to and from Terre Haute every day. (Terre Haute being a town north and west of Bloomington, a not-insignificant drive). We were unable to raise him past 7-o-clock, so we decided to go ahead and start playing, after I made sure all of the XP and administrative stuff had been taken care of. I’m once again glad that I decided to give XP in this game, as it’s letting the players round out their characters and prepare themselves for the challenges at the end of the game. The big social scene of the session hinged on a Charm the Zenith acquired just that session.

When we last left our Solar heroes, they had just defeated the assassination squad sent after them by Uncomprimising Zu, leader of the Bronze Faction of the Sidereals. They had gained the service of Blue Silk Xia, one of the former assassins who survived the fight and pleaded for his life.

They started out by talking more with Xia as Serene Guardian continued along the way to the Jade Pleasure Dome. We got a bit out of sequence here, as there was some shifting back and forth of time frames, involving speaking with Xia a day after the fight in the park, the arrival of Swift Jie (the Gold Faction Sidereal) as per their requests, and such. It didn’t prove to be that big of a problem, especially since working on the fly, I realized that there were only a couple things that were guaranteed to happen before they got to the Jade Pleasure Dome, those being as follows:

1) They’d need to find a way into the Dome.
2) Uncomprimising Zu would confront them to bar their entrance.

Everything else would be up to them. I hinted towards the necessity of gathering support for their bid against the Games of Divinity, which they pleased me by picking up and running with. Sure, I was doing some leading or poking and prodding along the way, but the form was all them.

After talking with Xia and Jie, they decided to hold an audience at an ampitheatre near the Jade Pleasure dome and invite the Gods friendly to their cause, important Gods who were neutral, and some who opposed meddling with the Games of Divinity, but not that many, and the ones who opposed less fervently.

Originally, it was going to just be Vajra (the Zenith) who was going to do the talking, to try to sway the gods to their side, whip up morale, and see about turning the tide in heaven. As they were planning, I hinted that it might be good if all of them spoke, all five members of the Perfect Circle, representatives of each caste. They jumped on it, which made me very happy, and then set to making up their own speaking order, taking my little request (because I wanted to keep all of the players engaged and give some space for each of them to be social as their characters, do the Lawgiver thing) and ran with it. Somewhere in here, Dusk Sky Lover’s player arrived, thankfully, so that we could really get going. They decided to have Dusk Sky Lover speak first, as Eclipses are the messengers, of the liminal times and places, and so on. I should have written this AP report earlier, as I don’t remember their awesome tag-team speech as well as I should have. They all brainstormed and team-wrote the speeches, helping each other think things through before the actual performance/scene occurred. I got to sit back and watch them go, which was a very rewarding experience, one of the best GMing experiences I’ve had in a while, being able to provide a tiny bit of input and have my players give me more than I could have asked for.

So Dusk’s player starts out with this Arkansas kind of accent, which he hadn’t used for the character before, but just kind of slipped out. He commented on the accent, and then just let it be, going for a speaking method not dissimilar to the ‘Simple Southern Gentleman’ approach that is stereotypical of some lawyers in media. He introduced the group, and called for their attention in the troubling times.

Kaimana the Twilight went next, describing a world on the brink of eternal night, the fact that the time to act had come.

Next came Dahn the Night caste, representing the shift from Twilight to the darkness plaguing the world. She talked about the Deathlords, the Yozi, the Fair Folk, and all of the other dangers facing the world, threatening to destroy Creation should things go unchecked.

Lanar, Chosen of Dawn spoke about the Circle’s achievements, the ways in which they had driven back the darkness and stuck against the foes of Creation. She referred back to their shared backstory (the backstory that we just kind of declared, since we skipped ahead to the beginning of this story) fighting the Locust Crusade, redeeming Dahn from the Black Exaltation, defeating the Mask of Winters, The Boddhisatva Anointed by Dark Water, and so on.

Finally, Vajra, Zenith Caste Priestess of the Unconquered Sun, proclaimed their objectives in Yu-Shan, to set right the Games of Divinity and restore the proper Celestial Bureaucracy so that Creation could be set right once more, calling out to the gods to resume their duties and break the cycle of addiction.

I had Lanar, Dahn, Dusk Sky Lover and Kaimana roll Presence + Whatever relevant social trait they wanted (I included Wits because a player asked, and I felt like being nice). Their successes became bonus dice to Vajra’s roll, which totaled out at 42 dice, after their group social combat stunt, which I rated 3-dice, because it rocked my world. I’m really lucky to have players who can deliver a speech that actually sounds good and not just some hasty crap thrown together to push through to the next fight scene.

Vajra ended up with 19 successes, less than average, but still, an insane amount of fu. They swayed more than half of the crowd, and another quarter talking with some of the gods individually, which I had them do in summary rather than one-by-one discussion with each individual god (because the notion of playing out twenty different one-on-one discussions bored me, and I wanted to get moving so we’d have time for the confrontation). They each gave their specific approaches to convincing people, rolled for results, then I gave them the final description of the results of the day’s efforts, more than seventy percent of the 100 gods in attendance swearing to the circle’s cause.

Which means when they arrived at the Jade Pleasure Dome, they had an army. Which is good, because The Uncomprimising Zu was waiting for them with an army of his own, leading to a big throwdown. I’d spoken of Zu as a ‘midboss,’ calling upon Final-Fantasy-esque terminology, so the players already knew that they’d be dealing with Zu before the end of the game. I also like to think that I did a decent job of making Zu despicable in a short time frame, so that the players were excited to get to lay the smackdown.

I statted Zu out more thoroughly than I had any other antagonists, thought wasn’t quite a full charactersheet, since he was only making one mechanics-using appearance. I decided to have them fighting him and his Elemental Dragon censor bodyguard/attendant, while the rest of the battle raged around them. I explained that they’d only have to worry about Zu, but that they could engage with the rest of the fight if they wanted to do stunting or anything else special. That way I could have a huge battle without having to drag out the Mass Combat rules and get my group conversant with a whole new set of rules that we’d only use once. I’m fairly happy with the results, as it let us focus on the confrontation with Zu, but hopefully kept the scale of the conflict so they felt like they were less 5 heroes all alone and more that they were the leaders fighting a Romance of the Three Kingdoms/Dynasty Warriors style duel against the enemy general.

I modeled Zu off of the wizened Kung Fu Tyrant, mostly drawing inspiration from Conquer from Storm Riders and some from The Bride With White Hair/Swordsman 2. Very Wuxia. He had all of Violet Bier of Shadows Style and most all of the Charcoal March of Spiders Style, a Siderial Martial Art (for those of you who don’t know Exalted, that means Ultimate Kung Fu).

Zu gave a villainy speech, which the PCs responded to from their perch in the mouth of the Serene Guardian of Southern Stone, then joined battle.

Zu was riding a dragon, but when you’re playing Exalted, that’s no big deal. Dusk Sky Lover and Dahn went for the dragon, and got Zu down off onto the ground. Vajra and LAnar engaged him on the ground, while Kaimana stayed up in Serene Guardian’s mouth to play long-range-spellcaster. They had the brilliant idea of just having Serene Guardian close his mouth when Zu attacked them as a group, which I loved and declared a perfect defense, though it did damage the Alchemical’s armor, cracking his teeth.

I gave Zu enough multiple-attack-y ness to be able to trouble the group, while making sure that he was eminently beatable. Rather than track Essence expenditure for him, I just made the more expensive Charms into (useable X times per battle), and just checked them off as he used them, marking on the text document I had running on my laptop (which was also my game prep document).

Zu fought barehanded, but I gave him Perfected Kata Bracers and FX for ranged ‘essence’ punches, just ‘cause. It let him threaten Kaimana even in the Alchemical’s mouth. I made sure to let each of the players bust out their big kung fu at least once so they could do awesome things, like Dusk Sky Lover jumping under the dragon, changing his ‘down’ so he could blow the hell out of the dragon’s guts, like Dahn using her ‘step through shadows’ power to go right after the dragon, and so on. LAnar drew out most of Zu’s perfect defense uses, with her unrelenting flurries with huge dice pools. And, slow though it may be, Kaimana got to bust loose with Flying Guillotine spell, and ended the fight with a Technique Mirror use of Zu’s insano counterattack charm, which let her punch his heart out from a hundred feet up.

I love Exalted.

The session ended with the surrender of the forces that had been under Zu, and giant-size Celestial Lions opening the huge double-doors of the Jade Pleasure Dome, the circle getting teleported inside in a flash of white. To Be Continued, which proved to be a good tantalizing hook.

The players were much more comfortable with the combat system this time around, from Join Battle to ticks to comboing and dice pools, so the combat went pretty smoothly. Overall, it was a great game, despite the difficulties of having one player show up late (beyond his control, so no blame there. Job comes first, yo). In any other game, that was more long-term, I would have been fine with waiting and just having the game go slower, or calling off for a night. But this last game is the last Wednesday night I have in town, so we needed to be able to finish, which we should be able to do.

Next session, a friend will be rolling film on the game so I can refer back to it for my thesis. And the circle faces the temptation and danger of the Games of Divinity, their actions determining the fate of the universe.

Friday, August 25, 2006

[Actual Play] Exalted: The Gates of Heaven, Game Two

First, please go back and check my first Actual Play post for more background info. This one is where I start to try to tackle things on more of a ‘what interesting is going on in this game here?’ kind of way.

So why am I doing this? Well, I’m writing a thesis on RPGs, so I want to get used to analyzing games I’ve run/been in, and I also want to develop the ability to talk about them with people, especially communities like, Story Games, and the Forge, using the ‘Actual Play’ model.

The Players
The players all know one another from the live-action Changeling game that runs in town, and I’ve known all of the players for at least two years, though I spent last year in Oregon rather than Bloomington. The players are in their early to mid (late?) twenties, all residing in Bloomington. I’ve gamed with all of them before, though most I’ve only LARPed with.

I have in my group a Seamstress by night/Manager at a Telemarketing center by day (female), (playing Kaimana), a (female) Art major and game store employee (playing Dahn), a (female) anthropology/folklore PhD student published fantasy author who also studies RPGs (playing Vajra), a (male) independent ‘Rouge’ scholar/occasional bank employee now working for the same telemarketing firm (playing Dusk Sky Lover) and a (female) folklore PhD student/belly dancer who is very new to tabletopping (playing Lanar). That for those of you at home is four female players and one male player, with a similar gender balance in the party. This is the largest proportion of female players I’ve had in a game that I’ve run, which is cool, but I can’t say it’s specifically affected the way I run the game. I’m honestly fine with this. I’d run the game the same way with four men and one women, really, as I believe the way I run games leaves room for people to enjoy themselves and explore topics without feeling self-conscious due to gender expectations. Definitely no cooties-fear here, folks. And this consideration is worth having, considering that Lanar’s player works fairly extensively with gender theory, and I’ve been making my own forays along those lines.

For completeness’ sake, I’m a early-twenties (male) Folklorist grad student/tango dancer/speculative fiction writer (as of yet unpublished).

Game Summary
Before we started playing, we went over XP and the PCs tried to figure out what few things they really needed to pick up before the end of the game, since in a four-shot, they were only getting XP three times (I could award 1 million XP after the last game, but what does it matter?) At first, I had pondered not awarding XP at all, since it was a short-run game, and it would cut out some effort of having to deal with the difference in costs (geometric vs. arithmetic, etc.), but as one of my players said, and I agree, only once you get into a game will you realize what things your character should have, what you should have taken, especially in a larger-than-starting points package where players get to build up some aspects of their character and then realize they neglected something essential.

This is more a problem, I think, with games that have big complicated chargen like D&D or WW games or HERO or something, but it can happen in any game, since I know at least for me, I have a better idea of who my character is once I’ve played them some. This is part of why I like the idea of preludes when you can do them, especially in a focused way like Dogs in the Vineyard does it.

One of my players had to work until 9:30 (our game runs from 7:00 to 11:00), so I decided to go with my impulse to have this be the segway game, more setup than big payoff, since the payoff should come at the end anyways. In fact, I didn’t do much prep for the game, but I did use the little bit which I had prepared.

Partially as an experiment, and partially to address comments by my players that we ‘sidled’ into IC RP at the start of the first session, once XP had been handled, I moved directly into setting the scence.

And by directly, I mean, (possibly paraphrased) “It’s the middle of the night, there’s a dead Sidereal on the floor in your room. What are you doing?” which certainly threw some of my players off. One of them specifically said that the shift was abrupt. High-Speed Keying, yo! Bateson in the hizzie! (Gregory Bateson being the scholar who put forward the idea of ‘keying’ as the mode of shifting from one frame of performance/life to another. “Once upon a time” is way to do ‘keying’ verbally.)

The other part was the fact that we called the last game kind of abruptly due to time considerations, since several of the players work early in the morning. They wrapped up the scene, with the Zenith cremating the body after the group decided it would be better to not tell the Celestial Lions about the confrontation, keeping things on the down-low.

From there, they got their license for Serene Guardian, who was able to join them rather than the group having to go back to the edge of Yu-Shan. I described some about moving through Yu-Shan, brought back the Celestial Lions, who in this game have been conceived as kind of diva-like, being very cat-like in the vanity/I’m very purposeful, of course! kind of way, mostly from the players finding my original portrayal of the Lions very amusing in that way, so I’ve rolled with it. It’s their game.

This actually gets at my personal GM philosophy. I run games because I think that the people I’m playing with can put together a great story, and its like I’m the host. It is a party, after all, right? I’ve got ideas of what kind of stuff we’ve got set up, but I’d rather flow with their desires.

However, I certainly utilized narrative control to set up the scenes I had planned. I said there was a big park around, which would be a good place to set Serene Guardian down for the night. The first scene I led this to was the introduction of Swift Jie, a Gold Faction Sidereal, the ones who opposed the killing of the Solars in the first age, and have been working to re-instate the Solars as the rightful rulers of creation. Understandably, the characters were nervous about Jie, since just twoish scenes/days previous, a group of Sidereals attacked the group without any indication. Jie explained his desire to help, and eventually swore an oath with Dusk Sky Lover, the Eclipse, that he would serve the circle in their efforts as long as they kept doing what they said they were doing. I’m pleased that they were suspicious and didn’t just read a ‘oh, look, friendly NPC!’ flag. Especially since the next scene was on the other side of the Sidereal extreme.
I experimented with a bit of firm framing and fiat to say that the party were down in the park in the evening. I described the bushes, and the trees, with the trees in the forest as giant-sized bonsai trees, with gods coming to the garden to trim their personal trees, and as a sign of status to show off to other gods, one of the billions of ways the gods play their status games. And then…the Sidereals showed up. The four living assassins from the attempt last game, as well as six Celestial Lions, and an elder Sidereal riding a Lesser Elemental Dragon.

The elder Sidereal, Uncomprimising Zu, is my Mid-Boss for the game. I wanted to put a face on the Bronze Faction, so I decided to include my world’s leader of the Bronze faction as the antagonist for the middle of the game, short though it may be. Zu showed up and basically tore into the PCs, talking about how the Solars were going to destroy creation, how removing the Solars was the only reasonable response. He talked about the horrible things Vajra’s previous incarnation had done, and generally was, well, uncompromising. Some select quotes from the conversation.

Uncompromising Zu: "The Uncompromising Zu is never wrong!"

Regarding the Sidereal ambush . . .when Unrelenting Zu (Uncomprimising’s son) died.
Uncompromising Zu: "He was acting on my orders."
Vajra: "So you sent your son to murder us."
Lanar: "So you sent your son to his death."

This after Zu chided Lanar for not having snappy comebacks. I <3 my players. Vajra’s player talked about how Zu was trying to goad them into attacking so the Celstial Lions would take the Sidereal’s side in the conflict. Mostly, I just wanted to introduce Zu as a despicable villain.

With good argument, they managed to get Zu to budge first. He shouted for the hit squad to take the PCs out, then flew off, as such bosses often do.

Then, combat! I had the siddies using one Elemental Dragon style each, with the Fire-stylist being the guy who died. Since the first combat got cut a bit short, I wanted to be sure to let the group get the combat-y bits sorted out so we could have smoother combat later on in the finale, so that the combat takes up less of the game’s time, leaving room for dramatic RP.

The players, despite most of them being tired or sick or having had crappy days, did a fantastic job of stepping up with great descriptive combat. The combat started pretty dicey for the PCs, with the Water-stylist bearing Lanar’s Infinite Melee Flurries fairly untouched, being outnumbered by Lions (though I had Dahn, whose player had yet to arrive, holding off half of them off on her own), and, well, me knowing the Exalted combat system better than them and being ruthless in my attacks to make the combat real, or at least threatening.

The Earth-stylist was nearly untouchable, and the Wood-stylist was 1 success away from outright killing Kaimana, using the charm at the top of the form. Fortunately I did in fact roll 1 less success than I needed to kill the character. The tide of combat turned, however, when Vajra used Shockwave Technique to knockback the ‘I’m surrounded by huge earth armor’ Earth-stylist into the Wood-stylist, succeeding enough to just plain kill her. Squish. I narrated the Wood-stylists horrible crunchy death.

Dusk Sky Lover had the Air-stylist on the ropes, eventually shooting down the tree behind him and dropping said tree on the Sidereal, snapping his left arm off. Lanar took out the Water stylist with a with a two-attack narration involving spiked poi, flippy bits and snapped neck/backs, earning (by consensus from the other players) the first 3-die stunt of the game.

Kaimana played smart, going on the defensive once the Celestial lions pressed the attack. In violent disregard for the rules, I decided that one of the Lion’s nails would shoot out and become housecat-sized mini-Celestial Lions. As she was a Twilight, her anima banner prevented damage from the ones that did hit, leading to her watery anima washing two of the lions away, leading to tiny golden wet-cat Lions looking very pathetic. Good comedy moment mixed in with the violent fight-y bits. Dahn’s player arrived in here, and was caught up on the action as we cooled down from the fight.

The group finished off the other Sidereals, then converged on the Air-stylist, who was on the brink of death, pleading for his life. I RPed him on the fly, and in good solar fashion, they Social-Charmed him into serving them, with his stipulation that he wouldn’t have to hurt any other Sidereals.

The PCs came out of the game up two Sidereal allies, knowing who their primary antagonist in the Bronze Faction is, and next week, they get to find a way into the Jade Pleasure Dome to set right the gods.

It’s great to be back in the saddle, both as an ST and just in playing tabletop games regularly after having been engaged with gaming only on the academic angle. One of my players is very new to tabletopping, but has been doing a good job of using the advantages of the tabletop form in the combat-y bits. Next time, I want to shoot for more opportunities for the PCs to interact with one another before I send them up against the various bads, and try to draw out more participation from everyone before the big extended Kung-fu sequence at the finale with the Three-Stage Boss-Fight and corresponding soundtrack! Because if any game encourages me to have a Final-Fantasy Style Three-Stage Boss-Fight, it’s Exalted.

So, what about the theory? I’ve got actual play, which means I have the necessary material to talk about all the backstage stuff, right? And as one who studies RPGs as an academic and likes thinking about the underlying stuff, it’ll be fun to do anyways.

I think that I did a fairly decent straightforward job of setting up the framework of the game and taking people’s creative desires into account. I’m not a huge fan of forefronting creative agenda classifications, though I did try to feel out what kind of fun the players wanted from how they designed their characters.

The subject matter of the game (going to Yu-Shan to correct the defunct Celestial Bureaucracy) was picked by the players, though I was the one who did the recruiting of the players and who said ‘I want to do a short-term epic Mythic-y Exalted game.’ I like to think that my approach was much the same as a director or producer who went ‘I want to do a movie with mythic-y drama and kung fu, lemme go get some good actor/storytellers and see what we can do together!’ I was just as ready to run a Fight-the-Deathlord game as a Work-for-the-Deathlord game as a Fight-the-Alchemical game as the one I’m actually running. I pushed to get the players and put forward the basic framework, but I hope that I was leaving enough space for the players to play the game they wanted, if not pull on a mechanical level, at least give-and-take on the social level.

I’ve got more agendas going on here than just a game. I want Actual Play material for my thesis about role-playing games. I’m trying to have our last game video-taped so I can go back to it and study the kinds of things I can’t be paying attention to when I’m running a game, even if I were to be running a fully-written module. For starters, I don’t like modules anymore, really, and also, I prefer to be the ‘seat of my pants’ kind of storyteller, at least for short term games.

So far, I’ve been impressed with the player’s RPing, as they’re up to the standards I expected of them from their LARP experience, but there’s been less PC-PC interaction than maybe there would be in other games. Vajra has been particularly active, and has dropped into the leader-ish role, speaking more than others, at least to Uncomprimising Zu. That went both ways, since when she was the one giving me a strong response, I kept speaking towards her, occasionally making a swipe at the other PCs.

The biggest hurdle we’ve faced, I think, is the system, and by that, I mean that we didn’t all know Exalted 2E before playing, so there’s been a learning curve mixed in with the game that ideally, I’d have taken care of before the game. But I wanted these players more for their storytelling ability than their familiarity with the system, and it’s worked out so far. Like I said, I’m hoping that everyone will be comfortable with the system by the time we get to the climax of the (short) game.

System Considerations
This brings me back to rules drift/omission, which got discussed some at the Story Games thread that linked to the first game. (thread here:

Here’s a breakdown of what we’re doing differently:

1) No attunement cost for artifacts. – Mostly because I forgot to tell them about said costs.
2) Combos for free (w/Willpower cost, still) – As long as they follow the Charm construction rules, it’s all good. – Because it’s a short-term game, and I think it’s cooler if they can just do stuff. My ‘Say yes’ philosophy again.
3) I’m mostly ignoring social combat unless someone asks for it. – I haven’t spent the time to integrate social combat and physical combat as well as I’d like. I told them they can flurry social attacks in with physical attacks if they want. This may come up in the next couple games more.
4) I’ve ignored some of the more intricate combat-y bits. When someone wanted to do a knockdown, I just docked them 2 dice and told them to roll.

Most of this is for simplicity’s sake, since it’s a short-term game and not everyone knew Exalted before starting. And plus, I wouldn’t use all of the rules even in a longer-term game. I’m much too much a fan of letting the system be my safety net when we can’t do things on our own, at least past the basic resolution mechanic. I like rules, especially rules tailored to the setting and the game. But I seldom need encumbrance rules and things of that nature. It’s not my style. I’m looking forward to playing more of the games designed with the intent of providing nice solid rules for exactly what you need them for that get out of your way all of the rest of the time. My players were somewhat frustrated with the complexity of the combat system, with Excellencies and Infinite Masteries and all, but I blame most of that on ‘new system adjustment’ rather than ‘Exalted is a bad system’

More on my choices for using Exalted is available in the 1st session post.

Additional analysis will become reasonable as the game goes on and concludes, and I think most of what I’ll be able to look at is how people portray characters that are supposed to already know one another without having played through that familiarity, and how to keep pace in a short term game run mostly improv-style while responding to more firm objectives of making sure the players get to be cool in the way they’re hoping to, as well as getting a good opportunity to role-play the way they like, and what happens when a cinematic-combat-loving Storyteller runs a game with players who range greatly in predisposition towards big improv-described combat.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

[Actual Play] Exalted: The Gates of Heaven

Here's my report on the short-term Exalted 2nd Edition game I'm running for some friends and as research for my thesis.

"I just ran my first Exalted game. I’d played Exalted twice before, one campaign that went about seven games, another that went two or so games. I’ve been a huge fan of Exalted since it was released, disappearing into my room for three days as I devoured the book cover to cover before emerging full of geekiness.

My stance on Exalted is this: Exalted is a game that tells me right off that I should say ‘Yes!’ to my players when they ask for...most anything. I was reminded of this in the chargen session when my players asked questions like ‘Can I take over Paragon?’ ‘Can I have a living robot manse?’ and ‘Can I have the spirit of my dead lover in a hearthstone on my flaming poi fighting chains?’ And for me to be able to say ‘yes’ without reservation.

Since I’m going back to Oregon for school next month, this has to be a short-term
game. Rather than beginning a group with starting characters who are awesome by most game’s standards, able to take on armies or overthrow small countries—I decided to go towards the other end and said to my players, ‘Ok, here’s the world—here are the big crazy epic things you could do if you wanted.’ The list I gave them included the following: Fighting the Deathlord Mask of Winters and his decaying juggernaut-fortress and army of the dead as he marches on Lookshy (or aiding him); Battling the Mesoamerican-flavored Cyborg Exalted and strip-mining invaders from a pocket universe; Storming the Gates of Heaven to attend to the corrupted Celestial Bureaucracy. They decided on the latter, and thus, made characters to go to Yu-Shan and deal with the divinely addictive Games of Divinity. I gave them 100 bonus points to make their characters instead of the standard 15, so they could go up to Essence 5. We’re using Second Edition, and I’ve got all of the books available.

My characters are as such:
Lanar -- Southern-born woman of Harborhead and Chosen of the Dawn. She fights with Fire Chains (Lightning Chains with fire instead of lightning, natch). Her lover died the day of Lanar’s exaltation, and since then, she has searched for a way to bring Crimson Cinnabar back to life.
Vajra – Chosen of Zenith and ruler of Paragon after overthrowing the Perfect. Ascetic devoted ruler who bears the Ring of the Deliberative and wishes to set right the injustice in Heaven.
Kaimana – Chosen of Twilight and native of the Western islands. Sorceress of the Solar Circle and ruler of Onyx after evicting its deathlord (Silver Prince).
Dahn – Chosen of Night and redeemed Abyssal Exalt. Former servant of The Mask of Winters, she was redeemed by the other members of the circle while fighting against the invading Alchemicals. As the player of my Zenith said, gleefully,: ‘So we just took one of the other campaign options and made it into our backstory?’ Indeed.
Dusk Sky Lover – Chosen of Eclipse – whose concept is ‘Autocthonian Hooker Cowboy’ – he’s got a beamklaive, a plasma tongue repeater, and as we decided today, they’re actually one and the same. Because—why not? It’s Exalted and he has crazy Alchemical tech he got from the City-Manse Dahn took over, which was The Lap, a city built onto the lap of a immense Buddha-like statue.

I re-scaled the universe so that Essence 6 is the overall max, and thus, Essence 5 is sufficient for my circle to challenge Primordials and the Unconquered Sun and such.

Today, I started them off by giving the origin myth of the world, as it is known, and presented the problem of the corrupt celestial bureaucracy. After a quick roll, I gave Kaimana the information to get them started.

1) You need a high-powered spirit’s favor/escort to get into Yu-Shan, unless you’re an Eclipse on official business (but they can’t bring others with them).
2) The Games of Divinity are held in the Jade Pleasure dome, all the way across Yu-Shan from the gate they have access to (in/under the Lap).
3) They’ll need support in the celestial bureaucracy to make this all happen.
4) The gate to Yu-Shan wasn’t big enough to fit the Serene Guardian of Southern Stone, the alchemical manse/exalt which Dahn used as her palace/fortress.

From there, they decided to go get god’s favors. My players were awesome in coming up with their own contacts among the gods. Lanar said she was in high favor with Aegis, goddess of defense and guardswomen/men, and got her favor which would allow them to get into Yu-Shan. Vajra, Dahn, and Lanar went out into the desert to contact Gen Chu, goddess of the southern dunes, and then on a long journey south towards Gem to contact Mirage, god of Deserts. Each step of the way, I had the various gods give tidbits of info, rather than having only one of them infodump on the PCs. Dusk Sky Lover went on an epic opium bender to contact Burning Feather, Lady of Intoxicants, and got mucho information after seducing her with his l33t Alchemical Fu of ‘Lookit me, I have 7 Appearance!’. Kaimana’s player riffed off the ‘Exalted Name generator’ name she’d gotten and went to speak with the Lord of the Indigo Waves in his undersea palace made of waves upon waves deep in a crevasse northeast off the coast of Onyx. I threw a few wrenches into the mix as the PCs made pledges and found out that if they were to try to destroy the games of divinity, they’d lose a lot of support, so they decided to try to change them or find a way to get the gods off their WoW addiction (since in my game, MMORPGs are the principle metaphor I’m using for the Games.

After they’d done all their contact-ifying, they made ready to go to Yu-Shan! Cool narration about waves out of the inner sea and weird water-based space distortion, they popped into Yu-Shan in the mouth of Serene Guardian, their own Personal Voltron. They’re greeted by the drama queen Celestial Lions, who inform them that they have to get clearance to have Serene Guardian in Yu-Shan, which requires going to the bureau of Movement and Celestial Conveyance, which is several day’s travel into the Australia-sized city.

The circle picks up some minor god servants of the unemployed gods bumming around, and Dusk Sky Lover gets to use Bureaucracy-fu on the form, dueling with the red tape thrown out by Burdensome Dedication to Inane Paperwork, the censor they were dealing with at the Bureau.

The last thing we did in the session was an intro to combat, courtesy of a middle-of-the-night ambush by a circle of Sidereal Assassins. Kaimana and Lanar both had ‘save vs. surprise charms’ and were up to fight the siddies off and wake the rest of the party. Most all of the players got really into the Exalted style of combat, describing anima banners and stunting and getting into the kung-fu-ish-ness of it all, getting to bust out their inner munchkins while not sacrificing their love of good storytelling. Dusk Sky Lover used his ‘I change my personal gravity’ charm and walked up the wall backwards as he fought, then jumped ‘up’ from the ceiling to attack, while Kaimana flipped out with whip-fu, Vajra pounded heads with Perfected Kata Bracers and Solar Hero form, Dahn used her ‘bleeding bitches’ specialty with her Abyssal shadow-blade and Lanar unleashed Infinite Melee Mastery.
We ran out of time, so we wrapped it up, deciding that they killed one of the siddies, which prompted the others to ‘bamf’ out.

The game’s going really well so far, with less of the ‘err, what do we do, who are these people?’ uneasiness of most first games, probably from the effort we put into establishing the characters, their backstory, the objectives, and the relationships before we started the game. I’m glad that I have three more sessions, because it lets me get a decent buildup to the Ultimate Throwdown with the Games of Divinity themselves. I’m proud of my players for making the leap to the necessary strategy without me having to feed them too much info. Or at least, I didn’t think I was leading them along to much.

I’m also glad that we don’t have any players who are slaves to system, because I find that Exalted’s rules are more than I need for playing, which leads to me just ignoring chunks of the rules when they’re not useful to me.
Next week: Allies and Waylays.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Thesis Underway

The great school monster destroyed my prolificness on this blog, which barely got started before it went away.

Well, it's summer, and I'm doing my M.A. Thesis research this summer, so I intend to be more productive on this blog, and will be in blogland more, rather than just Drama-filled Livejournal. (Though my personal journal is more usually filled with random geekdom and angsting over various crushes than any real Drama. Anywho).

For my Folklore of Subcultures and Folklore Fieldwork classes, I did a combined Fieldwork assignment, working with an Exalted group here in Eugene that meets at Evolution Gaming. It's a neat store, the best FLGS in town that I've found.

My nominal focus was on RPGs as a form of community building/maintaining. It turned out to be much more spastic and all over the place, since it had to fufill two classes requirements.

I deal with Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style,

Paul Hodkinson's Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture, as well as both of the big scholarly books on RPGs, (Gary Alan Fine's 1983 Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds and Daniel Mackay's 2001 The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art) as well as Henry Jenkin's idea of fans as "textual poachers" (meaning that they steal texts and characters and put them to their own use, like writing fanfic, fan art, etc. It's un-sanctioned, and does things with the texts or characters that defies authorial control).

I attempted to extend the metaphor of "textual poachers" to include RPG-ers who are really doing their own thing, with home-brew settings and rules, but still engage with genres like SF, Horror, etc. The idea there is that RPG-ers can be "genre farmers" or "genre cultivators" More will be done with this later.

I think for my overall thesis, I'd like to focus on the creative/performative process itself, to focus on examining and describing the details of the form, analyzing them with Bauman, Briggs, Bakhtin, and people who focus on verbal art and genre, as well as bringing in some theory about acting from a Theatre standpoint, especially stuff on improv. This will all of course involve ethnography and getting gamer's perspectives on these matters, since one man talking to the wind is not my style of scholarship when it comes to gaming. I can rant all I want about RPGing by myself, but what I say holds more credence, I think, if I've got people backing me up. I'm also planning to do an article on gender in role-playing, which I can start brainstorming about here on the blog before I get into ethnographic work. And I'd love to get input from you hypothetical blog readers, as well.

In other news: I miss gaming. I'm really looking forward to getting to actually play rather than just talking and writing about gaming. Perhaps an Exalted modern game, perhaps a short game of Promethean (longer if I'm staying in Bloomington next year), and some good Changeling gaming. I'd really love to get in on a superhero game, but I'll be jazzed as heck if I can play the Star Wars and Rythfar games I was in last summer.

Back to the Monkey House.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

GNS, Vampires, and Academics' Role

I've been reading a fair amount of RPG theory over the last week. Between doing research for and writing my annotated bibliography and readings on the side, I've taken my first real dive into Forge RPG theory. I re-read the GNS Manifesto, so to speak, learned about the Big Model (Ie GNS version 2.0, maybe 3.0. It's not my model, I'm not its keeper).

GNS, for those as don't know, is Ron Edwards' (game designer and co-founder/operator of The Forge) breakdown of differing 'creative agendas' in role-playing. G is for Gamism, a creative agenda which privilidges the Game in Role-Playing Game, where players work for more l33t powarz for their characters, to 'beat' the scenario, and maybe even the other players. Power-Gamers/Twinks would be examples of people with 'Gamist' creative agendas. N is for Narrativism, where telling a story is privilidged over all else. Players collaborate more closely with one another and the GM to make the story being told as entertaining to the people involved as possible. S is for Simulationism, where genre emulation and immersion are privilidged, where players 'explore' aspects of the setting or their characters or the system of the game, etc.

It's far from a perfect model, and I have issues with some of the declarations he makes in the various GNS/Big Model essays (Especially The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast), but the ideas of GNS have helped make sense of why it is that Vampire tends to just not work for me. Vampire as it is often played, especially LARP, is too Gamist in its orientation, in the competition for political/physical/mystical powar!!!1, and the version of Simulationism that is strongest in the game (Exploration of Setting and Character) are not things I'm terribly interested in. I as a player don't really want to explore the inner life of a parasitic goth wastrel, nor the (IMHO) slightly pretentious angsty world of the kindred.

After reading some of the Forge stuff and thinking back on Robin Law's “The Hidden Art: Slouching towards a Critical Framework for RPGs,” I've solidly changed my perspective on RPG studies in academia. It's not that gaming needs Academics to come in and clarify all the terms so that the Real Theory and studies can begin, more like it's my (and other RPG-studying academics') responsibility to read and understand the wealth of emic analysis which has already been happening for decades and then, afterward, bring academic critical tools to the table and open up some things to illuminate or take another perspective on things, and to study what the emic theorizing says about gamer's valuation and relationship to gaming.

Which means that I've got a crapload of reading to go back and do, just from the Forge alone, and on top of that, all the gaming theory blogs that are worth reading and whatever essays out of INTER*ACTION/Interactive Fantasy that I can dig up.

Fortunately, I love gaming. A lot. And I also love theory. Not THEORY in the Big-Headed elitist kind of way, but theory from the level of functionality, structure, aesthetics, and that kind of stuff. The RPG equivalent of looking under the hood and/or shop talk among actors talking about the craft of performance.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Welcome to the Monkey House

In light of the reorganization of the Forge RPG theory forums and as an expression of my dedication to the field, I've decided to carve out a chunk of cyberspace to post my rantings and ruminations about RPGs, their theory, their academic study, and whatever randomnicity manages to sneak its way in.

My Background: I am a first-year graduate student at the University of Oregon, getting my Master's in Folklore. I have been role-playing for twelve years (since fourth grade, folks), and worked four and a half years at my FLGS in Bloomington, Indiana. Over those years, role-playing has been a formative and important part of my life. I decided to make the study of RPGs and the role-playing subculture(s) a focus of my academic orientation, in part as a way to spread awareness of the hobby and because I realized I could get away with writing about things I loved, and thought it would be a whole lot more fun to me than studying the folksongs of a nearly extinct East African ethnic group.

Chops: I've already presented a paper about role-playing games at an academic conference, that being "Can I Get Change For That Plot Twist?: Dramatic Currency for Communal Narrative Shaping in Role-Playing Games." Gotta love those long and formulaic academic paper titles, it's true. It was all about what I dubbed 'dramatic currency' mechanics, those along the lines of 7th Sea's Drama Dice, Buffy/Angel's Drama Points, Serenity's Plot Points, and so on, talking about how the existence and use of those mechanics re-worked the location and distribution of power and authority in dictating the course of the narrative in role-playing games. In a longer version of the paper (hopefully to be published in a book on RPG theory), I'm going to be talking about the relationship of 'dramatic currency' to games that are labeled 'cinematic' and what that says about the aesthetics of role-playing with those games.

The Journey of a Thousand Blogs Begins With a Single Keystroke.