Stones Under Yetzin

For the last few months, I’ve been GMing a GURPS campaign (that was originally a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st-edition campaign, in turn built upon a mixture of commercially published and homegrown modules, including, in turn, an AD&D module…) for a few friends.

So far, it’s included such gems as a player-written poem in a fictional language, another player’s drawing of the most-cinematic action sequence they’ve experienced so far… and the opportunity, during a play session that coincided with a player’s birthday, to explain the layout of a ruined tower by presenting them with a cake baked into the shape of the terrain.

Cake shaped sort-of like The Lone Tower.
“So we’re… here?” asked a player, jabbing with his finger at the cream-filled section of the tower at which he was standing.

If you’re interested in what we’ve been up to, the campaign has it’s own blog where you can read about the adventures of Newman, Bret, Lythil, Keru, and (the late) Sir Bea.

But mostly I wanted to make this post so that I had a point of context in case I ever get around to open-sourcing some of the digital tools I’ve been developing to help streamline our play sessions. For example, most of our battle maps and exploration are presented on a ‘board’ comprised of a flat screen monitor stripped of its stand and laid on its back, connected via the web to a tool that allows me to show, hide, or adapt parts of it from my laptop or mobile phone. Player stats, health, and cash, as well as the date, time, position of the sun as well as the phases of the moons are similarly tracked and are available via any player’s mobile phone at any time.

Players fight a basilisk across a paper RPG map.
A rare instance of us using a paper-based battle map. Despite the fact that we play in-person, we’ve used digital tools to save table space!

These kinds of tools have been popular for ‘long-distance’/Internet roleplaying for years, but I think there’s a lot of potential in locally-linked, tabletop-enhancing (rather than replacing) tools that deliver some of the same benefit to the (superior, in my opinion) experience of ‘proper’ face-to-face adventure gaming. Now, at least, when I tell you for example about some software I wrote to help calculate the position of the sun in the sky of a fictional world, you’ll have a clue why I would do such a thing in the first place.

Etiquette

On Tuesday last week, Ruth and I went to Etiquette, an unusual (and at least a little experimental) theatrical experience at the Oxford Playhouse. I say “theatrical experience”, because while there were certainly elements to the evening that could be considered to be reminiscent of more-conventional theatre, it was far more like not going to see a play than it was like doing so.

Dan arrives, sits down, and puts his headphones on.

The event takes place in a café. And I mean that literally… I’m not just setting the scene; although many of the scenes also take place in a café. This is actually a cafe, with a handful of other participants, sat in pairs at their respective tables, and a majority of people who are just everyday folks out for a drink or a sandwich.

We were shown to our table and invited to sit. On the table were a collection of objects – glasses of water, a pipette, stage blood, two plastic figurines (one man, one woman), a ball of white tack, some chalk, a book, some notepaper, some blank cards… and a pair of MP3 players with headphones. We were instructed to put on the headphones. Simultaneously, the MP3 players were started.

Ruth begins to receive her instructions.

From there on, we followed the instructions given over the earpieces. My role was that of an older man, a self-described philosopher. Ruth played a prostitute, which lead to at least a little embarrassment on her part when she was required to say, “I am a prostitute,” in a crowded café. It’s easy to feel acutely self-conscious when you’re relaying what you’re told in a pair of headphones out loud. You know that feeling that you get when you realise that you’re singing along to the music you’re listening to, in public? It’s a little bit like that, but instead of music, you’re spouting out-of-context nonsense.

The inner 'stage' - the table between us - on which a second, inner, story is told, through the medium of miniatures and chalk.

It’s not just dialogue, though; it’s also stage direction, motivation, and prompts to inspire emotion. Some of the story is told in a very abstract way: early on, Ruth’s and my characters had agreed to meet in a house on a hill, near a tree. Ruth laid her hand out on the table, on which she had, under previous instruction, drawn a square and a dot on the heel of her palm. I was told to examine the shape of the “landscape” of her hand, and try drip water from my pipette, from as high as I could reach, onto it. Simultaneously, her character – already in the house (the square) – was told that it had begun to rain, and she heard the sound of a storm beginning through her headphones.

Throughout the course of the event, we each took on a variety of roles: as characters in our own play, as directors of a “play” performed on our table using the props we had to hand, as the audience to both of the above, and even as parts of the scenery.

The story itself… was okay. It felt like it was lacking something. It wasn’t bad, and it certainly took advantage of the space and technology it required, but it was perhaps trying to say a little bit too much in a little bit too short a time. But the medium? That whole “scripted, but you don’t get to read ahead”, headphones-acting? That’s kind-of cool and exciting. I’ve got the urge to try to write something similar myself (perhaps for a cast of five or six). Although first, I’ve got a murder mystery to finish writing!

Spirit of the Century

A couple of weeks ago, the other Earthlings and I played our very first game of Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the FATE system (which in turn draws elements from the FUDGE system, and in particular, the FUDGE dice). Are you following me so far?

Four sets of FUDGE/FATE dice. Each die is labelled with 2 “blank”, 2 “minus” and 2 “plus” sides, and all four are rolled to obtain a result between -4 and +4, on a probability bell-curve trending towards 0. Neat.

Spirit of the Century is set in the “pulp novel” era of the 1920s, in the optimistic period between the two world wars. The player characters play pulp-style heroes: the learned professor, the adventurous archaeologist, the daring pilot, all of those tropes of the era. Science, or – as it should be put – Science! is king, and there’s no telling what fantastic and terrifying secrets are about to be unleashed upon the world. Tell you what… let me just show you the cover for the sourcebook:

Yes; that’s a gorilla flying a biplane away from a stricken zeppelin, fighting a masked hero. Meanwhile, a female mechanic clambers under the fuselage and man wearing a jetpack pulls alongside, guns blazing.

Everything you need to know about the game is right in that picture, right there.

The character generation mechanism is different from most RPGs; even other fluffy, anti-min/max-ey ones. All player characters (for reasons relevant to the mythos) were born on 1st January 1901, so the first part of character creation is explaining what they did during their childhood. The second part is about explaining what they did during the Great War. During each of these (and every subsequent step), the character will gain two “aspects”, which they’ll later use for or against their feats in a way not-too-dissimilar from the PDQ System (which may be familiar to those of you who’ve played Ninja Burger 2nd Edition).

The third chapter of character generation involves telling your character’s own story – their first adventure – in the style of a pulp novel. The back of the character sheet will actually end up with a “blurb” on it, summarising the plot of their novel. Then things get complicated. In the fourth and fifth chapters, each character will co-star in the novels of randomly-selected other player characters. This can involve a little bit of re-writing, as stories are bent in order to fit around the ideas of the players, but it serves an important purpose: it gives groups of player characters a collaborative backstory. “Remember the time that we fought off Professor Mechk’s evil robot army?”

Johnny Sparks is a character of my creation.

That’s exactly what Johnny Sparks did in “Johnny Sparks and the Robot Army”. When Professor Mechk released his evil robot army on the streets of New York City, Johnny Sparks – government-sponsored whizkid – knew he had to act. With his old friend Jack Brewood (and Jack’s network of black market contacts), he acquired the parts to build a weapon powered by lightning itself. Then, alongside Mafia child and expert pugilist Michael Leone, he fought his way up the Empire State Building to Mechk’s control centre. While Michael duelled with Mechk, Johnny channeled the powers of the heavens into the gigantic robot brainwave transmitter at the top of the tower, sending it into overload. As the tower-top base melted down and exploded, Michael and Johnny abseiled rapidly down the side to safety.

And so they have a history, you see! And some “aspects” for it: Johnny got “Master of Storms” from his lightning-based research and “With thanks to Jack” for his friend’s support. Meanwhile Jack got “On Johnny’s wavelength” to represent the fact that he’s one of the few people who can follow Johnny’s strange and aspie-ish thought patterns.

Beer, crisps, and roleplaying. What more does an Earthling need?

In our first play session, Michael Leone (Paul), Jack Brewood (JTA), and Anna Midnight (Ruth) found themselves in a race to rescue aviator Charles Lindbergh from the evil Captain Hookshot and his blimp-riding pirates. Hookshot hoped to use the kidnap of Lindbergh as leverage to get his hands on some of Thomas Edison‘s secret research, which he hoped would allow him to gain a stranglehold on the world’s aluminium supply, which was only just beginning to be produced in meaningful quantities. So began an epic boat (and seaplane) chase across the Atlantic to mysterious Barnett Island, a fight through the pirates’ slave camp and bauxite mines, a Mexican-stand-off aboard a zeppelin full of explosives, and a high-speed escape from an erupting volcanic island.

Highlights included:

  • Jack’s afraid of flying, so while the others arrived for the first scenes of the adventure by seaplane, Jack trundled well behind in a cruiser. As a result, he completely missed the kidnapping.
  • When Hookshot was first kidnapping Edison, his attempt was foiled when Ana threw a cutlass at him, severing the grapple he had tied to the scientist.
  • Michael’s a badass at barehand combat. When he wasn’t flinging wild dogs into trees, he was generally found crushing the skulls of pirates into one another.
  • Spirit of the Century encourages a particular mechanism for “player-generated content”. This was exemplified wonderfully by Jack’s observation that he “read once that there was a tribal whaling camp on an island near here, called Ingleshtat.” He paid a FATE point and made an Academics roll, but because I wouldn’t tell him the target of the roll he only knew that he’d “done well”, and not that he’d “done well enough.” He and the other player characters weren’t sure that his knowledge was accurate until they reached the island (and thankfully found that he was right). Similarly, the motivation for the kidnapping wasn’t about aluminium until one of the players speculated that it might be.
  • Ana Midnight’s spectacularly failed attempt at stealth, as she crept via a creaky door into a building full of armed guards. Also, Jack’s fabulous rescue attempt, as he dived and rolled into the building, firing his pistol as he went, while Michael climbed up the zeppelin’s boarding tower, leading to…
  • The tense (and, surprisingly, combat-free… barely!) stand-off and negotiation aboard Hookshot’s zeppelin, towards the end of the story.

There’s a lot of potential for a lot of fun in this game, and we’ll be sure to play it again sometime soon.

Busy Days

[this post was damaged during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004, and it has not been possible to recover it]

[this post was partially recovered on 12 October 2018]

Yay! I won an eBay auction for a copy of Everyway. For £4! Yay! Winner! Now all I need are some friends, some paper, some pencils, and no dice.

In other good news, I solved a really nasty Project: Jukebox bug.

And finally: I’ve been spending way too long (when I should be revising) in Second Life. I’m currently working on trying to build the game world’s first Bluetooth-like short-range radio system, but while building prototypes I seem to have come up with a great espionage/surviellance device (i.e. a bug). It works really well. I’ve spent the afternoon listening in on people’s conversations. I intend to sell my bugging device for L$100 ($L = Linden Dollars, the currency of this virtual world), and then, when I’ve cornered the market, start selling a de-bugging device that can detect bug usage for L$500. I am one of those people, I have decided, whom; if I ran an anti-virus company, I would write viruses to ensure that people still needed my products.

I have one exam left. The …