Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Gaming: Campaign Skeletons

 After my 'favourite games' post I started to think about the various things I could run and, more importantly, what I wanted to run. These are my initial 'sketches' where I start working out what I could do with the games I've chosen, potential problems and flavours. 

I've no idea which of them will fly, but intend to work the ideas a little bit before settling on one to 'push' to see if I can find another group. They're a bit rough and ready at the moment but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Gaming Stuff

Notes on Terminology

Mode – the setup of the campaign overall, which I divide into three categories.
Epic – one long story
Chronicle – short stories that build into a single story
Mission – single stories

Campaign Ideas

Victoriana: Small Shadows

Mode: Mission/Chronicle
Location: London initially, thereafter travelling; I especially want the characters to travel to India
Tone: Mystery, slight tinges of horror

What it is: Working in association with Ms Scarlet Pevensie, a consulting detective, the PCs initially undertake work from her, as she recovers from a riding accident. They discover crimes, intrigues and conspiracies woven into the otherwise respectable world of London society before their work takes them elsewhere; first out into the country and then out into the wide world.

Heavy emphasis on investigations, on the nature of the world as strange and upon the various moving parts of Empire.

Possible Plots:
·         A serial killer in the East End, who is really hunting a demon possessed girl.
·         A spy who is stealing state secrets to sell to the Prussian Confederacy
·         An auction where a rare grimoire is up for sale – PCs must verify its existence and recover it for the Guild.
·         A ghost at the Opera, can the PCs exorcise it in time for the first performance to go on?
·         A werewolf is on the run in Cannock Chase, the PCs are brought in to hunt it down.

Potential Issues: Mission based play is ‘bitty’ and so there would need to be a focus for each arc and lots of linking back to the other adventures in order to build a narrative. Also, want to avoid it getting too ‘shadowrunny’ and allow the game to have its own, distinct identity.

Key Terms: Detectives, Scandal, Conspiracy, Crime, Espionage

Leagues of Adventure: Brave New World

Mode: Epic/Chronicle
Location: Paris initially, thereafter worldwide
Tone: Larger than Life/ steampulp

What it is: Beginning in Paris during the World’s Science Fair the PCs are drawn into a web of intrigue and mad science that threatens to topple the world’s order. The focus here is global, after the initial parts in Paris, fighting science masterminds with an agenda for the future; though there will be diversions into smaller areas to deal with the PCs own obligations and the clubs that they’re members of.

Lots of travel, lots of club related stuff and exploration, discovery and peril

Potential Issues: The tone might start to grate if it becomes too ‘jolly hockey sticks’. Also it might collapse under its own weight so that would have to be handled carefully.

Possible Plots:
·         Spies working at the Fair, who are kidnapping scientists
·         A globe map with strange sites marked, allowing the players to guide play.
·         The city of Ayesha in Africa
·         A friend asks the PCs to find a friend, a military officer whose gone native in the Hindu Kush… one Colonel Moran.

Key Terms: Mad Science, Conspiracy, Strange Locales, Espionage

Werewolf the Forsaken: Concrete Jungle

Mode: Chronicle/Mission
Location: Paris
Tone: Low Down Urban Fantasy with horror tinges

What it is: The great beast (Idigam) that coiled in the heart of Paris has fallen, defeated in a rare alliance between the Uratha tribes. In the wake of their victory, old rivalries and feuds are beginning to rear their heads as the city is carved up into territories. The PCs are part of a small pack, who have claimed a chunk of the city (allowing the players to pick) and who have to tame their new territory, reclaiming it from the spirits that have run amok for too long. They must deal with the threats within and without and make their turf a better place.

A war against the spirits, against the Pure, against each other.

Possible Plots:
·         The rats – Beshilu gnawing at the Gauntlet
·         A serial killer who’s urged by spirits
·         A spirit market where the spirits of commerce buy and sell anything that comes their way. They steal something from the PCs to sell
·         Lost treasure – the Pure are hunting for an heirloom, something they lost before the Idigam moved in.

Potential Issues: The game might be limited – being territory bound, it relies on buy in at the start in the form of players picking/defining their territory.

Key Terms: Reclamation, Territory, Taming the Spirits,

Vampire the Requiem: Bloody Crowns

Mode: Chronicle/Mission
Location: Paris
Tone: Gothic

What it is: In the wake of a strange event, wherein all the members of the Lancea et Sanctum disappeared from the city (including the Prince), Paris has been left in disarray. The old territories have been broken as vampires seek to grab new lands left open by the sudden evacuation. Politically the city has fractured into two courts, one ruled by a Nosferatu Prince the other by a Council of Elders. Elsewhere, something stalks the streets, and unwary vampires die in mysterious circumstances, and echoes of the past stir, ready to step into the night once more.

It’s a game of blood, chance and death on Paris’ streets.

Possible Plots:
·         Theatre des Vampires – the PCs uncover an old group of vampires, bound in torpor – they’re monsters who, if woken, will delight in running rampage (perhaps a more grown up version of a Belial’s Brood coterie?)
·         The mystery of what the thing killing vampires actually is
·         Turf dispute, neighbouring coterie decides that they want the PCs patch.

Potential Issues: Selling ‘Gothic’ as a style/thing. Might be too adult in content and I need to check if the ideas presented here would work within Requiem.

Key Terms: Territory, History, Mystery, Memory,

Yggdrasil: Long Winter

Mode: Epic
Location: Scandia, generally
Tone: Fantasy history, played straight.

What it is: Spring has come to Scandia and the PCs are on one of the first ships out of the port of Klepp, travelling north in search of work and trade. What they find instead is blood, death and stories of raiders. What is the source of the attacks, what does it have to do with the Jotun and their prophecy? Where will the PCs discover the truth about the Daughter of the Norns? What secrets does their home community hold and where can they go to learn the truth?

And will they ever learn to like fermented herring?

Possible Plots:
·         Searching for a lost child
·         Winter Wolves – hanging around too long and needing to be slain for the good of the city.
·         The city watch/guards have turned to extortion to ensure protection – the PCs must help the local artisans.
·         The local Skald has annoyed the Jarl, how can he get back into his good books?
·         The Jarl’s uncle has arranged for his nephew’s wife to be given a ‘medicinal tonic’, it actually

Potential Issues: Selling the ‘historical’ nature of the game and creating that atmosphere, combat (as this looks to be the only game with a serious focus there).

Key Terms: Norns, Nine Worlds, Shadows, Intrigue, Honour, Monsters

The Strange: Strange Horizons

Mode: All three, for preference
Location; Earth, the Strange Network
Tone: Mixed, but with a core of modern day SF

What it is: A strange drug has started to appear on the streets of L.A., a narcotic that seems to originate from somewhere other than Earth. The Estate scramble a team to investigate, little knowing that they will discover something dark and dangerous; something that comes from the Dark Energy Network. Sooner or later the PCs have to leave Earth and head out into the worlds out in the Strange…

·         Possible Plots:
·         The drug bust
·         A creature from between worlds breaks in – bug hunt through a crowded area (shopping mall?)
·         Into another world – pursuing a fugitive scientist
·         The Quiet Cabal start to pry into a biotech company’s findings, as they’re on the verge of finding something interesting and dangerous.

Potential Issues: Potential to be too weird?

Key Terms: Exploration, Peril, Lost, Honour, Monsters

Mage the Ascension 20th Anniversary: City of Eyes

Mode: All Three
Location: London
Tone: Urban Fantasy/Horror

What it is: Set in the dirty streets of London, as the city undergoes a transformation. The streets are being taken away from the people, rising costs and greedy oligarchs force the people out. The Syndicate and New World Order plot from their lairs in Canary Wharf and Whitehall, building their shining city where everything is measured, everything is watched. The other Conventions are dragged along in their wake, their science yoked to the dreams of money and politics. In the shadows, the Traditions still fight, but do they have a foothold in a city that is increasingly one of mirrors and measurements?

Possible Plots:
·         The pupils at a school on special measures are behaving oddly, they don’t play, they don’t gossip. They’re polite and respectful… an adult’s idea of what model children should be, in fact. What’s caused the change?
·         A local mage has gone off the map, and the Chantry is getting worried – PCs are tasked to investigate but can they handle the rigours of another mage’s descent into Twilight?
·         Something is stalking women on the Underground, using its knowledge of the Tube as a weapon to avoid detection. When a dead woman’s body turns up with a sigil carved into her forehead the mages have to do something or risk their world becoming a little too sharply into focus.
·         The PCs are approached by a Man in Black who wants their aid in stopping something the Technocracy is doing; can they trust him, or is he leading them into a trap?
·         A haunting turns into something far more sinister as an Umbrood starts to build a group of puppeted humans to further its own agenda.

Potential Issues: Magic system, might be a bit bleak, selling the world.

Key Terms: Ascension, Mystery, Struggle

Rocket Age: Ignition

Mode: Epic/Chronicle (long story but with clearly defined arcs)
Location: Solar System/Mars
Tone: Exploration/wonder/classic slipstream

What it is: A new figure has emerged on Mars, a prophet, a rebel leader. Styling himself ‘the Speaker’ (and rather akin to Muad’ib from Dune – which I imagine I’ve mispelt) he is uniting the various kinds of Martian into a force that aims to overthrow the ruling elite and throw the ‘outlanders’ off world. As revolution spreads across the planet, and the system, what can be done to stop it and will it affect Earth?

Possible Plots:
·         A Europan Ambassador is assassinated, can the murder be solved and the killer brought to justice before the Europans react?
·         A group of smugglers are transporting weapons for the Speaker’s soldiers when the PCs stumble onto them, what do they do?
·         An Earthling agent contacts the party, asking for passage off world, when they’re safely in space, one of the party notices something about him; a strange mark on his body… which supposedly only the Speaker has. Has the rebellion and the overthrow been nothing more than an Earthling attempt to stage a coup on Mars?

Potential Issues: Keeping the tone right, keeping the players interested, making the arcs interesting without letting them drag, allowing the scope for lots of exploration of the solar system without losing focus. I think this might need another long term plot too, to give players choice.

Key Terms: Revolution, Disguises

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Gaming: Five Games I Love

I've ended up writing a lot of fairly critical stuff about gaming and very little that celebrates the hobby. I thought I'd talk about five games I really like and what makes me like them so much.

Vampire: the Masquerade: This isn't the first game I played but it is the game that made me interested in
gaming. The fact that it was set in our world, or a close facsimile rather than some sort of never-never land meant it felt like the kind of thing that could happen outside my window, that it mattered (there’s a reason my first adventure – it was too short to be a Chronicle – was set in Coventry and featured Setites trying to get revenge for the way the Iraq super gun affair had gone down; the idea that the World of Darkness could be fuelled by what you read in the news was cool). The political nature of Kindred society and the ever shifting sands they build their society on was something that, as someone who'd studied politics at A Level and was undertaking it at degree level, I found intensely interesting. The struggle not to become a monster, which the game sort of supports through its mechanics, adds an interesting dimension if only because characters are bumped into a world beyond money - cash is a useful tool, but for the Kindred it isn't the be all and end all. You can do perfectly well as a vampire without an AmEx gold card (even if Clan Ventrue will tell you different). A thread I saw recently suggested that vampires could just buy blood, which is interesting but how do you earn the money to pay for it? A nocturnal existence means you're shut out of a lot of the human world, even if that's not as iron clad a rule as it might have been in the Dark Ages setting. Add an aesthetic and soundtrack that I liked and I was more or less sold on the whole package. It remains the game I've played most over the years, almost to the point where I lost interest in it in the past, but it always draws me back.

The setting is rich and even though some of the clans and bloodlines are a bit silly, I mean the Daughters of Cacophony seem positively ridiculous don't they? The setup of the war between the Camarilla and the Sabbat, rooted in a conflict that in any other situation would seem ridiculous, feels so wonderfully gothic.  The game doesn't flinch from the rigors of age and the wearing down of sanity as vampires become elders. There are no shining examples here, only lesser many shades of grey and perversity stalks the best vampire: the Beast twists everything and makes it a weapon in its desire to be free. That's interesting to me, where another level of power and a shinier magic sword fail to fascinate.

As time's gone on, I find myself looking the books Onyx Path are publishing for the 20th anniversary edition and I feel the old itch returning, but I want to push into new territory. I want to actually play with the idea of Jyhad and how it's conducted, the low level warfare and two faced espionage that the Sabbat and Camarilla engage in. I find myself interested too, in the ongoing mythology of Caine and the Cainite Heresy, the Book of Nod and the religious fervour that stalks the setting. The clash between deniers and believers is rich with possibilities for plot and story.

Favourite Clans: Nosferatu, Brujah, Ventrue and Toreador (yes I’m conflicted, why do you ask?)

Mage: the Ascension:
 Another World of Darkness game, one which my liking of the Invisibles comics spurred me
onto love, even if the magic system sometimes made me wonder what the hell the writers were smoking when they wrote it. It became one of my guilty pleasures as it never seemed to go exactly right and it was hard to persuade people to play, but the ideas that writers like Phil Brucato embedded in the game crackled and shone, spurring me onto keep loving it no matter how many times games crashed and burned. It was the mixture of these things, coupled with the question, 'are the the things we're told are beneficial, actually good for us?' This philosophical element really clicks for me, confirming that Mage is a game for people who think, something that I guess the magic system really drove at too.

Another thing I liked about the game was the 'backstage pass' they offered, playing a Mage meant you could get into the Umbra, the Dark Umbra, the High Umbra and play on Earth. I imagine you could even trot off to Arcadia too if you wanted.  It felt very open and easy, perhaps too much so given that Revised edition made it much harder to get into the Umbra with the Avatar Storm. But the fact that you could fight the Wyrm or deal with vampires or wraiths felt like you could genuinely meddle in anything and exploit the other game lines in a way that often didn't feel feasible with the other World of Darkness games.

The game also has a pleasing mutability, you can take bits of it and emphasise them, then turn around for another Chronicle and focus on something else entirely. In one game the Traditions could be in the right and the Technocrats fascist controllers who do nothing but oppress the masses; in another the Technocracy are the only things preventing the world falling to superstition and rampaging demons. Both are valid viewpoints, something I really like.

I find myself impatiently waiting for the 20th anniversary edition, just to read it and see what changes have been made, because if Mage stands for anything, it’s change.

Favourite Traditions/Conventions: Hollow Ones, Cult of Ecstasy (I still want to play a Cult of Ecstasy tattooist and body modification enthusiast), New World Order.

SLA Industries: A game that in some ways I'm surprised I like now, given the relentless mission based nature of
the game's default set up (the BPN, or Blue Print News, is central to the way the game runs and it is hard to envisage it without them). It’s also a solid ‘gear fetish’ game with bigger, better armour, guns and weapons dangled like carrots in front of the players, inciting them to play the game that SLA Industries wants them to (this is the first time I’ve seen it as a game within a game… but I think the analogy holds up).

Nonetheless there's something about the dark streets of Mort City and its torrential rain that still appeals to me. I think in part it's that I like the fact that you're working for the Man, trying to make it through the corporate politics and the treachery that riddles the corporation. It had shades of cyberpunk games but I like the fact that you're working for the big company rather being some sort of rebel (whose rebellion seems to involve propping up the very system you oppose). The fact that the people you work for are, by and large, responsible for every screwed up thing on the planet sold it to me too. It added a certain drama, that of people who discover too much, but rather than going mad, discover that they’ve become part of the problem; they’re too committed to back out, too tainted to rebel without something nasty happening.

That’s a powerful narrative, one you don’t often see in gaming and SLA owned it, completely and utterly.

Favourite Race/Training Package: Wraith Raiders and Scouting (for some reason) or Ebons and Investigation and Interrogation.

Atomic Highway: I have a love for post apocalypse books and films, you’ve probably spotted that from the blog.
Atomic Highway is one of my favourite post apoc genres, and one of the few titles where I wish there were more books. One of the thing I like about it is that the world isn’t exactly laid out, instead you get a lot of building blocks that you can make your own, a world where the PCs are set at the great American dustbowl would work just as well as one where a community clings to a few oil rig platforms in an increasingly hostile sea.

Atomic Highway is one of the games I’ve only ever run, not played, and one where I found a smaller game more fulfilling than a large one. I found it worked really well regardless of numbers, but my preference is just for smaller groups. This is one of the few times you’ll hear me talk about system, because I really like the V6 system. It’s light without feeling ephemeral and has a pleasing heft to it that keeps it interesting. The idea that skill levels are used to ‘top up’ dice rolls is pretty sweet and it remains about the only game I’ve played where the Action Points were mostly used to fend off wounds rather than do anything else. Oddly I find that quite fun, it suggests a serious combat system rather than the usual ‘nibbling, war of attrition’ combat consists of. I also liked the fact that mutations weren’t just treated as extra powers and the more you had the less human you appeared –it chimed nicely with things like the Chrysalids by John Wyndham. It felt very real and supported the idea that mutations were a bad thing, and that few people would just wave a hand and accept someone who has a prehensile tongue. At the same time the lack of a super defined setting means that you’re free to set up a mutant church of ‘Jesus Christ, Apocalypse Survivor’ as much as you are something more puritan. The flexibility the game offers is great.

Also, stupidly, I can accept the various tropes and clichés that stalk fantasy games far more easily in post apocalypse than I do in actual fantasy games. You want an ancient vault that’s populated by degenerate troglodytes who survive by abducting people and using them for slave labour? That’s no problem… but weirdly turn the bad guys into Orcs and I’m going to at least raise an eyebrow and feel uncomfortable.

Would Like to Play: A Remnant Scientist, Savage Road Warrior

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: I must admit that this was tied for fifth place with Victoriana and Call of Cthulhu, but WFRP edged into the lead because I have fond memories of playing in my friend Phil’s game for a number of
years. Warhammer’s fantasy setting feels real to me, in a way that Waterdeep et al never did, perhaps because it has a fairly strong historical background. The Empire is pretty much the Holy Roman Empire plus fantasy elements and the structures in it have that grounded feeling that a bit of research can provide. It also, somehow, manages to feel dynamic, as if the world is changing rather than being set in aspic and polished by the game writers, who are too frightened to alter anything. The presence of Tzeentch and Nurgle alone mean that change is a theme for the game, and the Renaissance style setting actually takes into account the growth of cities, which gives it another boost.

Beyond that it’s a very British game, one that feels like class and race are more than cosmetic options and like the Wild West doesn’t really get a look in. It also feels quite dirty, caked in mud and grime. I remember Phil worrying because we always defaulted to drinking booze, simply because there was no way we were drinking the water… it isn’t that kind of world. Beyond that it’s rowdy and fun, races are presented in a more rounded fashion than in D&D, Iron Kingdoms or the various Savage Worlds fantasy games I’ve looked at and a sort of good natured bickering felt like it was natural.

Whilst I don't think I'd go back to the game now, I definitely have good memories of the first two parts of the game (again, group size and commitment plays a part here and the first two arcs were marked by players' willingness to lean in and accept the world as it was written rather than being silly about it). 

Bubbling Under

These are the other three that I love, but which don't quite make the top of the list.
Call of Cthulhu: The granddaddy of horror games, this is too much of a classic not to attract my attention, but I haven't played enough of it to love it. There's a nice simplicity to the way it works in both setting and system, and enough flexibility to keep it fresh (even if that means you run the risk of 'monster of the week'.
Victoriana: A fusion of fantasy and steampunk, Victoriana wins a place in my heart because of its attitude, its one of the only steampunk games that actually takes class into account. It does read a little like a Shadowrun with a top hat and a crinoline on but that's just about permissable, somehow.
Werewolf: the Apocalypse: A grand guignol of a game, almost the text book on last stands and weird shamanism, this is another game I know more from reading than playing but there's something about the way it's set up that I love. Again, this is because of the politics inherent to it, not just the machinations of the tribe but the way it meshes with the real world, with environmentalism, abandoned industries and people.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Gaming: Limitations

I've spoken a lot of analytical stuff about gaming lately and feel as if I'm going around in a bit of a spiral, heading towards a kill or cure situation where I either embrace the hobby fully again, or walk away and don't come back (for far too many reasons to go into here).

One reason for this is that I've become increasingly aware of the hobby's limitations. Gaming, for me, always seemed to be an activity that was ripe with possibilities; something where you could do anything if you set your mind to it, whether that was neighbourhood defenders, small traders on a star ship; military squads or navigating the corridors of power. It is only lately that I've come to the conclusion that, in fact, the space that gaming and games can exist in is pretty small; occasionally cripplingly small. The hobby is beset with limitations and barriers that come from all sorts of directions, groups, styles and the nature of the past time itself. Let me clear here that I’m largely talk about mainstream games, rather than skirting the indie edge. I know there are games out there that do different things, and take often radically different perspectives on what’s possible even if the bulk of the hobby often seems to be content to swim in Dungeons and Dragons’ wake.

Let's start with the human element, which is to say that any gaming takes place against the limitations of time, personality and commitment. Most gaming groups operate on a basis of the GM suggesting things to play and players either saying yay or nay. Most players, that I've encountered anyway, are unwilling to get involved in the business of deciding what to play beyond exercising some sort of veto. So a suggestion that a group plays a Suicide Squad style game is unlikely to be met with an 'It's a nice idea but couldn't we play that style of game without being criminals'. A response of 'we don’t want that' is far more likely. This tendency to root games in one person's imagination is a liability, as most of us tend to plough a single furrow and without players inputting in a general sense before a game begins, you're almost doomed to a railroad before you've done character generation. GMs aren't mind readers and they'll naturally default to what they know. For instance, I love spy stories; give me half a chance and that's what you'll get, skulduggery, dead letter drops, spying on bad guys and double crosses. I hate dungeon crawling and combat, so I'm always going to shy away from that sort of thing, unless someone says to me ‘we don’t want to playSHIELD agents but we could maybe play a lower level Avengers set up where the groups like Hydra or AIM are as much a danger as Ultron is.'

There’s a temptation to say the players can be left to voice their opinions later on, that they won’t know what their characters want until they’ve got to know them. Realistically this has an element of bunk to it. Player Characters seldom evolve so far away from their players that the player is left wondering what their characters will desire and in the main it is the player’s needs that dominate and should be catered to. There is a danger too in leaving the discussion about what goes into the game until a later date, because by that point many players will have slipped into their natural modes too and may be causing problems. As the old saw goes, you can’t fix an out of game problem with an in game solution. You need everyone on the same page and that’s best achieved by talking things out before you start and not assuming that people can read your mind.

This not being telepaths thing is a two way street, as I’ve learned to my cost.

When games actually start you'll find that some players are enthusiastic to play, but operate in a very limited frame of what can be done, committed as they are to being a big damn hero, a bad ass; or collecting every power up there is in the game, or to something else. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does at least make them consistent, but it naturally sets a limitation on what you can achieve in game. You can't run a delicate political drama with a group who have turned up to smash alien robots or vice versa. Or rather you can, but you're going to end up with a group of unhappy campers. Different genres can also be something of a challenge, I recall running a session of 7th Sea with a group that didn’t grasp the idea that in swashbuckling films death is a rarity, and a superhero game with players who openly chafed at the idea that death was off the table. I’ve even encountered players who felt the Masquerade in Vampire was pointless and there was no point maintaining it. Personally I now struggle with the idea that a dragon could run a mega-corp, simply because the idea seems so ridiculous. These are stumbling blocks and there’s often no way around them, even if they don’t affect too much in the game: one voice of disbelief can prevent everyone else suspending theirs.

Players' styles also influence where the game focuses its attention in terms of what games do, and this start to affect what can happen at the table because of the amount of time actions can take. Combat can eat an entire session of game up and have room for afters, whereas the way the vast majority of RPGs are written favours a swift, almost ‘and let’s move on’ tone to resolutions that focus almost anywhere else. To use a comics analogy, the traditional design of RPGs often creates ‘fight books’; combat drives the action forward and is the central engine for the adventure.

Then too there's the issue of time outside the game; the last group I was in had a number of people whose jobs meant they couldn't turn up for every session and the group adapted accordingly, focusing on mission based games and eventually stumbling over the paradox of insisting on a particular play style but also wanting something different. Obviously the amount of time that players could commit created a limitation to the experience GMs could offer and in the end for two of us it proved to be a sticking point: we walked. At the time the idea that neither of us had considered the options of email updates, something I suspect may not have worked, as the group was locked into a 'turn up and play' style which often precludes any form of involvement or even contact away from the table. I flirted briefly with using Obsidian Portal, but in the end it seemed too much work, and when Eve tried it after I left the group, it was met with a large amount of indifference by the members of the group who were most committed to the turn up and play style of gaming.

Games are very much shaped by what players bring to the table, the White Wolf essays I read in the 1990s about how the players control the game far more than the GM does, have more than a ring of truth to them. Even one player not buying into what you’re trying to put down on the table can throw the whole thing off. You may not be able to run a game with a serious theme or mood, if a player wants to relax and blow off steam. You may not want to wade through a sea of pop culture references just because you've called an NPC 'Edmund', and you may not want the inevitable Blackadder jokes that follow, but the chances are you'll get them regardless. Creating atmosphere is hard, even with the most willing group and there are too many doodads and toys to create distractions now; mobile phones are such a distraction that I’m considering a blanket policy to having them turned off during play, or at least turned down to silent.

Moving on, let’s consider the issue of game style more deeply. There are two elements to this, a player aspect and a publishing or writing aspect. In terms of player style it’s pretty obvious that some will only ever clash. If we take Robin Laws' play styles from Robin's Laws of Good Games Mastering, we have the Casual Gamer, the Storyteller, the Butt Kicker, the Character Actor, the Tactician, the Specialist and the Power Gamer. These cluster about the various axis we can identify as present in gaming, roleplaying, tactical play, action and acting. We can map them to specific points, with Storytellers and Characters Actors sitting along the roleplaying axis, as opposed to Butt Kickers and Power Gamers aligning to the action one.

In reality most gamers cross between styles; I've known a specialist who was also a casual gamer and a tactician who was a butt kicker as well. I fall into an unholy melange of storyteller, character actor and specialist (knowledge based characters) and tend to end up playing faces, professors and archaeologists given half the chance. Referring to the types that Laws defines, we do stumble over the truth that not every style is compatible. Many don’t mix up well at all, put a Tactician and a Storyteller in the same group and their natural desires, one for strategy and small, documentable threats in order to reap maximum profit for minimum risk, the other for something that feels dramatic and stirring and, well, like something you’d get in a novel or film, are hardly going to get along. So much of what we depend on for entertainment clashes with common sense; how many times have you watched a film saying ‘don’t do that, that’s where the murderer is’? But that’s part of the appeal, for me at least, whereas a session of heavy duty planning just gets dull.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on these of course, most people are likely to be happy as long as they get some sort of time in the spotlight. Your Storyteller player might well be bored during the long combats, but throw in a neat twist as a reward and you’ll keep them interested; whilst a Power Gamer might be mollified if an intense negotiation leads to them getting a new upgrade. The downside is you’re not really sitting back and letting the players run the show, which is what a lot of current gaming philosophy drives toward. In order to keep everyone involved you have to intervene and push towards a spotlighting style, giving all your players a chance to shine.

It’s true to say that most games are designed with a particular play experience in mind, even if that experience is trudging through a labyrinth looking for treasure, or aping a television show. It also would be true to say that some games fail in this regard; no matter how fond I am of Vampire the Masquerade, it fails to reinforce the theme of degeneration into being a monster and more resembles an urban fantasy superhero game (which is probably one of the reasons it was so popular). Obviously the way a game is written is going to place limits on what you can do. The original Vampire, and indeed the original World of Darkness games in general, was pretty unfocused and open but more modern games often draw a line to underscore their themes: consider the way Golden Sky Stories focuses on peaceful solutions to the extent that violence will ruin your long term goals, or that the Gumshoe games focus on investigative play. In the case of licensed RPGs, the One Ring obliquely draws on the journey that was so embedded in Tolkien’s work, spinning it out into the game.

This brings me to the issue of gaming’s structure. Take a look at the examples at the top of the blog, they seem pretty varied don’t they? But in fact they’re all set about small groups, tactics and engagement with a wider world. Even within a larger structure you’re defaulting to the ‘team’ rather than anything else. Roleplaying excels at this level, and perhaps as a result it defaults to it, but the focus on small scale squads does create a barrier to running games that are more focused on individual action or large scale groups. This is one reason Noir games are pretty rare, the genre is too focused on solo action and it makes it hard to connect characters into a group. On the other side, large scale games are difficult because the focus on individual characters means you can’t really flip over to play a wide scale agency or army unless you’re incorporating a war game or strategy computer game into what you’re doing (which brings to mind Knights of the Dinner Table with their sweet based battlefield, way back in Bag Wars). So the examples won't actually differ that much, and where they do it will likely be in the nature of their flavour rather than anything more significant. This of course creates an issue for game designers, how do you set something enough apart to feel fresh, whilst adhering to the nature of the hobby?

The answer is that many don’t, not really, and we end up with many games that hedge about a common ground. There’s more choice and variation in system than there is in the settings that they support.

Games are also reactive, players seldom choose to set the agenda even if a game has been bedded in and is in full bloom. Typical plots will set up an event and push the player characters to set out to right wrongs, seldom do they actively try to find trouble or look to alter the world, city or region. This creates a strange situation in games where it feels natural to let PCs establish power bases of their own and work to build their influence. Even where agency is possible, the nature of many groups will leave a lot of gamers waiting for the next dollop of plot. Ironically these players will often be the most hostile towards the game developing beyond a very basic level, uniting two levels of limitation, human and structural.

This is why, after a while, roleplaying settings start to look the same, the small tactics model is expected; it’s become the standard, as have all those things I’ve railed against in other pieces, the large numbers of monsters, the clichéd conspiracies and false economics. There’s a tiny space in which you can set a roleplaying game and have it succeed. Whether or not that’s desirable is a matter of opinion: I’ve reached the point where it chafes a bit and I long for more diversity, but your mileage may vary.

Beyond that, the reactive nature of games means that players are limited in what they can do. Most RPGs are structured about four active actions, fighting, talking, running away and ‘stealing things’. The first three are the only ways players can generally deal with encounters – that robot legion can be fought, bargained with or fled from. They aren’t going to respond well to flower arranging or feng shui. Whilst a lot of games will have knowledge skills and so on lore and knowledge are passive, even research is dealt with in a ‘time passes’ fashion, whereas the four active skills are where the main focus of games will rest. As a result players are limited in what they can have their characters do, far from having the run of the universe they're stuck in a trench. The star ship becomes an adventure delivery system, just a way to move the characters around with the occasional foray in to 'Out of Gas' territory when the ship become the focus of the plot.

This can be a boon of course, it creates certainty and allows players to know what’s expected of them, setting up accessibility. It sets boundaries to keep games from exceeding their scope and becoming unfocused, something that tolls the death knell of any roleplaying campaign, no matter what campaign model you adopt. The hobby remains a social one, the focus on a group or squad mean you don’t spin off into the complications that trying to play ‘the team that never meets’, to steal the Seven Soldiers of Victory tagline, or something similar would create. Nor do you risk the casual attitude towards characters that might arise from being part of a huge organisation without a single character to focus upon. That attention on one character still provides a human touch, even if a lot of the time we’re only relying on them to resist the slings and arrows of misfortune, whether that’s a supervillain’s magnetic powers or the mind breaking effects of looking at something from the Weird Dimension.

There is no denying, however, that it creates a conservative paradigm of play, one that is reactive and which does not encourage players to become partners in the process; leaving them as consumers in a very real sense, they consume the game, effecting it only through their characters’ actions. This is pretty far from what I want at present (though bear in mind my perfect game would probably start with a blank piece of paper and everyone at the table putting down three things they wanted, followed by a discussion of how everything fits together and how to square the various elements from ‘robot legions’ to ‘the valley of magical unicorns’ and retain internal consistency).

To draw a conclusion, I think it’s fair to say that the hobby is conservative in many ways and that it operates in a small area, but there are reasons for it doing so. The key is to balance what you do, make your game accessible to everyone and do the best you can to keep the game fresh.