The Lazy Man’s Guide To Sunday At Breakout

The Lazy Man’s Guide To Sunday At Breakout

And so here we come to it. The final day of BreakoutCon in Toronto. If this is your first discovery of my ongoing coverage of this awesome con, welcome and also where the fuck have you been? You can read Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking them links.

Today’s instalment does not involve running any games, playing any games, or even rolling dice, filling out character sheets… I don’t even think I opened a book on Sunday. Yet this final day became my favourite and it’s going to be a tradition I will keep up for any con I attend in the future (or at least whenever possible). Because I did jack shit on Sunday. I hung out with people. People I knew before Breakout and people I now know because of Breakout.

To be honest, this was my personal goal in attending. I’ve heard so many stories and connections established by fellow Ottawanians and podcast co-hosts, Jason Pitre (Spark) and Mark Richardson (Headspace), as they name drop infamous figures in the industry. “I remember Ken Hite once told me this joke…” “So I’m talking with John Wick and he’s showing me these early concept maps for 7th Sea…” Etcetera. If you’re picking up a jealousy in these words, then I wrote that correctly. Yeah, jealous. I wanted to meet other designers and publishers, talk shop, and otherwise get the opportunity to spend an entire day talking with people who shared the same passion and obsessive need to create games as myself.

And I was not disappointed.

Todd No Function Good No Coffee

Originally, I was scheduled to play Swords Without Master with its creator, Epidiah Ravichol, but he had to cancel due to an illness and wasn’t interested in starting the ultimate LARP of Pandemic. Rather than jump onto another game, I decided to take it easy and see what happens. So while I did miss out on meeting Epi and trying out Swords, the rest of the day made up for it.

Not to say this wasn’t a casual day of fucking off and drinking at the bar. In fact, now that I recall, I think I had one beer the entire weekend (and zero alcohol of any other kind). Huh. But anyways, Sunday morning was original intended to be a sleep-in day with the option to sign for a couple of last minute games in the afternoon. Instead, I found out about a free continental breakfast for the other con guests and so I dragged my sorry ass out of bed for that. Seems the ass dragging was very apparent when I showed up in the room because half of the folks in there immediately said, “Uh-oh!” and pointed to the coffee setup.

Being as chatty as I am not without a couple cups in me, it took a while to join in any conversations. Until Hamish Cameron (The Sprawl) and Dana Kubilus (CyberKittens) said hello from the other table and I snapped to attention. We shot the shit, they seemed to share my appreciation for letting the caffeine work its magic, and it was nice. I’ve heard a lot about both games and it’s always nice to have faces and pleasant experiences to go with titles. We were later joined by one of my numerous OGP co-hosts, Joshua Kitz (Simple Superheroes), and tried to figure out just what the hell people from Ottawa are called. The day was off to an excellent start and while our time was brief, it was nice to meet them and find other people to discuss matters like sleeping on a dead man’s mattress. (Yeah, you had to be there.)

Once everyone had to move on and start their games, I had enjoyed the idea of just hanging out with these designers so much that I moved straight into the lounge (see this series’ first post for that setup) and simply made myself available. Even to the point of applying Jason Morningstar’s open chair approach: you simply try to make sure there’s always a chair pushed away from the table to entice and encourage others to sit with you. Damn effective and highly recommended.

Look, Ma, I’m Mingling!

There are three purposes to this post. First, to serve as a permanent record of the experience once my mind eventually turns to poo. (P.S. If you are Future Me reading this and you’re not aware of the fact that you have memory problems, this is your moment of truth. If none of this sounds familiar, it’s official. You got your memory from your mother’s side of the family.) Second, to help showcase the impressive talent this con was able to collect in its second year. Third, to brag. Hey, when I stop to think about how long it’s taken me to get to a point where I’m an invited guest at a con I’ve never been to before, I think I get to earn a little bragging rights. Hmm, I wonder if this means I have to drop out of The Imposters project now. What do you think, Josh?

To keep things simple (or as simple as can in the third “chapter” of a blog post), I had the pleasure of sharing a table with these new comrades-in-arms. Due to the public nature of a creator’s work and the fact that they have either publicly stated they would be at Breakout or were publicly listed on the con’s Guest page, I’m only listing some of the people I got to hang with on Sunday. Those excluded have not been forgotten (unless it’s Future Me now and in which case you’ve likely gone the way of my car keys).

  • Chris Challice (Vanagard)
  • Fraser Simons (The Veil)
  • Jason Pitre (Sig, Posthuman Pathways)
  • Mark Richardson (Headspace) and his family
  • Fraser Ronald (who is currently kickstarting Sword’s Edge… ahem)
  • Chris Sniezak and Bob Emerson of the Misdirected Mark Podcast (and friends)
  • Andrew Medeiros (Urban Shadows, The Watch, and 72.3% of all PbtA games on the market)
  • Derek Gour (creator of possibly one of my favourite card games, Hope Inhumanity)
  • Corey Reid (Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island)
  • Joshua Kitz (Simple Superheroes)

Despite the awesomeness and inclusion of everything else at Breakout, this is what made it special for me. This is what I like doing and it was so great to sit around and talk shop with other people who felt like they had hacked their way into this event and some who are already legendary figures in the industry (and especially turned out to be really easy going and approachable). This is the day that made the whole weekend worth it.

Now you’ll notice a serious lack of women’s names in the list above and that’s not because there were none there. There were none who approached the table I was sitting at and joined in. Check out the Guest list for Breakout, they were there. Was it because there was a table full of dudes and they didn’t feel like joining in despite my efforts to keep an open table? Perhaps. So I’m going to say this now and mark it as a goal for next year: I want to meet with a more diverse crowd of designers. Right now I’m in this small, immediate bubble and I want it to get bigger. Consider yourself warned, RPG designers of alternate genders and backgrounds. I’m coming to get you.

Um, in the whole, “Wow, it’d really be great to meet you and talk about design” kinda way. Sheesh, seems the awkward teenager never truly goes away, does it?

In Stores Now

One more thing before I go and prepare to wrap up this trilogy. I sold book to a physical retail store! Thanks to Fraser Ronald for literally tracking me down and dragging me into the room to meet with 401 Games in Toronto because now they have four physical copies of ScreenPlay on their shelves. Virtual too. Oops, wait, now it’s three copies. This was another added benefit and one I did not expect so preparations are already underway to ensure I can deal with retailers again at the drop of a hat.

Time To Wrap It Up…

After nearly 5000 words and three individual posts, I think it’s safe to say my experience at Breakout was a rousing success and all I’ve heard from anyone there during and post-con was praise and full-on joy. It was also really nice to have a con with these kinds of meetups without crossing the border. Plus, after sales at both the Breakout Indie Store and 401 Games, the entire weekend only cost me $160. Kind of a no-brainer that I’ll be back again and again. And again and again. And I recommend you do so too.

I want to give my immense thanks to Kate, Rachelle, Rob, and all the volunteers there for doing a fantastic job. It’s really helped set the bar for what I want to help accomplish with Cangames (taking place in Ottawa this May long weekend – plug!) and what I will expect from any con in the future. If there was one quick and easy way to define my time at Breakout (really, after 5000 words?), it would be “a definitive moment in my career.” After this weekend, I don’t feel like a hack hoping my work would be noticed. I know feel like a hack who stands a chance at being noticed.

Baby steps, people. Confidence doesn’t just fall out of the sky.


Rollin’ Bones at Breakout

Rollin’ Bones at Breakout

297513138_origYou thought I was done talking about BreakoutCon 2017? Foolish mortals, we’ve only just begun because now it’s time to talk about the main reason for going: running my games!

Come on, Broken Ruler Games at Breakout. It’s a match made in heaven. And oh was it ever.

I ran four games in total: two playtests of High Plains Samurai, one for Ironbound, and one trip down memory lane as I ran some Killshot for the first time in a couple years. Let’s review them one-by-one-by-one-by-one, shall we?

High Plains Samurai


Oooh, baby. I ran two playtests of High Plains Samurai this weekend, one on Friday night and the second the next morning. To give you the perfect indication of how well it went on Friday night, I was running off nothing more than adrenaline and childish glee. Saturday’s game went so well my brain forgot it was suffering from a migraine.

To be specific, “playtests” might not apply because there weren’t any mechanics or discussions, roses & thorns kind of stuff, afterwards… we were too busy trying to cram in as much mayhem and over-the-top action before time was up. Yet the mere fact that everyone caught onto the mechanics and latched onto the premise with so much vigour and insanity was enough to tell me what I needed to hear this weekend. This game works. Fuck me, does it work.

The main concern I’ve had with HPS compared to ScreenPlay (and it’s various offshoots, including Ironbound, also played this weekend) is building potentials, a term for using the breadth of your character’s description to determine the dice you roll. Each character is assigned a number of potentials with a maximum dice value, Defence value, and the number of details you can apply to your description. If you incorporate the maximum number of details into your description as allowed by your chosen potential, then you roll the max dice value. Come up short in your details and the dice value drops. Basically, the more, the merrier. It was something that didn’t test well during ScreenPlay because it felt too cumbersome to suit that particular style of play, but it worked out well for HPS. All ten of my players embraced it, even if there were times when they found themselves short; they either added on another to build it to the max or agreed to a lower dice value. What hasn’t happened yet (and to my recollection remains that way in the soon-t0-release recordings for Comic Strip AP podcast) is a group using various martial arts flourishes and stunts as details to max out their potential. This is something I have to work on building into the game through sample plays.

The best way to demonstrate how well these games went is to provide you with but a handful of moments from both games.

  • A barbarian from Khar’tep wielded a two-handed longsword that suddenly turned into a chainsaw sword, then it was a flaming sword, only to attempt spraying ice before a complication kinda broke it.
  • Another barbarian (played by The Veil‘s Fraser Simons) fought off a young woman with flowing red hair that could extend out to 15 ft. and grapple her enemies. Oh, and this was after he landed on the back of the train’s dining car, causing it to heave upwards and come crashing down on one of the train’s guards.
  • A samurai from Monsoon used his super speed to zip his way through the Caravan, slicing and dicing as he went, appearing as nothing more than a metallic line weaving through the parade of Mad Max-style vehicles tailing the train.
  • Rather than use an innate qi power, a Raw Apprentice engineer from Rust had instead crafted a glove that was the source of his ability to manipulate metal.
  • As the Salvation (aka “the train”) went off a cliff with most of our intrepid heroes still on board, it launched a series of countermeasure harpoons to hook onto both sides of a massive chasm and hold it suspended 500 ft. in the air.

There were even other designers and attendees who asked me about HPS over the weekend, which was… whoa! While I’m a little taken aback by the lack of playtest surveys to date, the word is definitely starting to spread and that’s a huge start going into May’s Kickstarter. Needless to say, I’m very happy with how everything turned out this past weekend.

As a bonus, I got to not only finally meet the last third of the Accidental Survivors podcast, Rob, but run the game for Rob and Chris. DVD bonus feature: Chris played in a very early concept of the system a couple years ago and that one bombed, so it was rewarding for him to finally see how it was fixed and held up nicely to what may have been an equal amount of insanity. Based on the feedback HPS received that night, this game is Accidental Survivor approved. (It has to be, seeing as the first third of the show, Fraser, is actually part of the Development Team.)

Ironbound (or How I Had To X-Card A 14-Year Old Kid)

IronboundCover_web_April2016A lighter game of the ScreenPlay system took place Saturday afternoon and also featured Accidental Chris. Honestly, he was the only one who signed up, so it looked like I was going to have to tweak a story about five intrepid magick hunters into a solo story. When two last minute sign-ups joined us, I was still in a tweaking mood. Yeah, yeah, we could hunt the same witch as before, but I was in the mood to mix it up for my own sake.

Very easy to do with this group. One player (note to self: start paying attention and remembering names of all your players) established a motivation to find his ex-lover who turned out to be a witch/warlock. A-ha! Seeing as I brought a printed copy of the Ironbound supplement, The Blessed and the Damned, there were a couple extra baddies to throw their way and so I mixed up the afternoon killing spree to a hunt for the Raven Queen, a polymorphing witch who shared a mountain with two other magick users. If time permitted, we’d perform a triple bypass on magick users. We definitely did not have enough time.

Even with the lighter rules and focused setting, this game still got crazy and was loads of fun. Not High Plains Samurai crazy, but in its own way. Running all these games has really provided me with a better concept on how to approach ScreenPlay con games and I’ll be applying those lessons to the next draft of the HPS playtest (hopefully later this month, once I get caught up on other matters).

Oh, you want to hear about how I used the X-Card. I, the GM. First off, let me tell you about how important the X-Card is to Breakout organizers. When you first arrive to receive your badges and other particulars, you have to explain to either Rob, Rachelle, or Kate (aka the Three Organizateers) how it works. No explain-y good, no GM-y for you. I then make a point of telling my players to hold it up and wave it like a flag if they feel it necessary simply because I might get caught up in the game or whatever I’m describing to notice. And boy oh boy did I end up waving that thing around like we were surrendering to the British.

We had a young lad in our game and I’m going to say he was 14. He did great, very imaginative, and took to the concept of the Arcanist (the true authority on magick countermeasures) like gravy to turkey. When the Raven Queen was thoroughly giving the Ironbound a right thrashing, this kid asked to look at the printed copy of the game and caught something on the cover. Take a look at the bottom right, the text box next to that figure casting magick.


This kid took that idea and decided to only way to defeat the Raven Queen was to fall into a crack in the floor she had opened, land inside a vat of blood (his call), and drink it all “to gain all the magick in the world.” Cool! And then he pushed that envelope with his next description. “I rise up through the crack, hovering. I’m naked and completely covered in blood.

Naked? 14 years old?!! While the other Writers were waving their hands and asking, “Why do you have to be naked?” I grabbed that X-Card and called for a rewrite. “I don’t think we’re allowed to be in the room when you say the word naked,” I told him. “Let’s keep you covered in blood, but you’re wearing pants.” We actually laughed about it because it was a case of this kid getting really caught up in the moment and even after he apologized profusely for going too far, all was forgiven when he told me the idea came from the cover. All good and it definitely made for a memorable moment at the whole convention. Now I have a story to tell on how important the X-Card is to everyone at the table, including the GM.


KillShot-Logo_v1There’s something refreshing about starting off a con wild and zany then finishing it off with gritty and grounded. The last game I ran on Saturday (and at Breakout in general) was my pride and joy, Killshot. Yep, assassinations on a Saturday night. This game only featured the two players who signed up very early on in pre-registration and that was another relief. To be honest, Killshot works better with a small number of players and seeing as we were playing “Retribution,” the quick-start job, it was a nice fit.

It’s also a huge kick when you have a player who is sweet and incredibly personable in person suddenly say things like, “I’ll just walk up to the guy and beat the shit out of him, if I have to.” Awesome! It was a nice relaxing game, but also one where I discovered just because you create a game doesn’t mean you can recall the rules after a long absence. Not that anything went wrong, but I definitely needed to refresh myself with Killshot a little more the next time I decide to run it.

This was a nice… dare I say, pleasant… game of Killshot to wind out the marathon GMing session. I definitely pushed myself that day and battled through a nasty migraine, sure, yet this was another accomplishment I wasn’t sure was possible. Now I know that when I’m having a great time at a con, I can rock the day as a GM. Two thumbs up and a pat on my own back were definitely in order.

On The Next Instalment of Breakout 2017…

Yeah, this series is taking a bit longer than expected but my goal is to wrap it up this week. My next post may not sound exciting at first because… well, I didn’t play or run a damn thing. I hung out with people all day. But who I got to hang out with was definitely what made Breakout such a huge success. Plus I sold physical copies to a store! That’s next time.


I Went To Breakout And All I Have To Show For It Was A Fucking Awesome Time

I Went To Breakout And All I Have To Show For It Was A Fucking Awesome Time

297513138_origHey, what can I say? I wanted a headline that was catchy and bang on accurate.

This past weekend was a 3-day extravaganza known as BreakoutCon in Toronto and I’m proud to say I was there for all three days. Proud and so happy to have gone for so many reasons, excited that I had an opportunity to meet so many great designers, playtest High Plains Samurai, run some of my older games (including Killshot, which hasn’t been done for maybe two years), and otherwise hang out with some great friends both new and original. In fact, you should know it was an amazing experience I have to share in great detail because I’m posting something on the blog. You know that only happens when a G+ post simply won’t cut it.

As much as I could ramble on in so many ways about the entire experience, it might be easier on all of us if I simply post a single aspect of the experience one day at a time. But I want to make something perfectly clear to give everyone a heads up on the overall theme of these posts. BreakoutCon was awesome and I will be back! It’s also a highly recommended con to attend if Toronto in March is in your radar. Seriously. Consider it.

Let’s break this down, shall we? Troy, drop a beat.

A Quest To Break Barriers As Well As Breakout

I went to Breakout for three reasons. One, it was a chance to playtest HPS and network with other industry professionals without crossing the border. Two, it came highly recommended from my fellow Ottawa Game Publishers hosts, especially Fraser Ronald. Third, I was an invited guest. That means regardless of how far down the totem pole I was from the other guests, I was on that pole. (I know that doesn’t sound right in some ways, but let’s just stick with it and move on, shall we?)

Buuuuuuut… it’s in Toronto. And we chose to drive. Oh yeah, I’ve never really tested myself in a con situation for three straight days, let alone run games all day with the likely scenario of doing so with only a few hours sleep. As excited as I was to attend, there were some legit hurdles to overcome. Driving on the busiest highway in the North America in Canada’s largest city, not fuzzing out in the middle of the con (or a game, for that matter), and generally not freaking out at the con. Add to that leaving my wife behind with a toddler for a whole weekend. This was huge because I wasn’t comfortable leaving for an entire weekend plus change. It was a bit presumptuous. When I happened to mention Breakout to the missus, her immediate response was, “You should go. It’s obviously important to you and something you have to do. Besides, it’s your birthday that weekend. Go kick some ass.” You’re right, she’s awesome.

At that time, I was knee deep getting High Plains Samurai ready for playtest and had targeted March as a launch date for the Kickstarter (or at least that was the plan at the time). Using Breakout as the launchpad would be ideal and a valid excuse for me to go. Plus I could (hopefully) sell enough games to cover enough costs to make it worthwhile and split the rest with anyone else going. There were less and less cons in the way (save for the big ones above). Yet the pros were enough for me to say, “Fuck you, cons!” Besides, there’s no suspense here, I went. Obviously, duh-doy!

Yep, that’s Highway 401 alright.

The driving issue was really the most pressing. There’s a lot of cars going really fast in the 401 and while my PTSD behind the wheel is mostly under control, it had never been put to the test. So I did the responsible thing and made sure everyone else in the car knew what was going on and that I would need to drive and it would need to be my Jeep. It was a control thing. But if it became too much, someone else would have to take over. Someone would have to navigate and be on the ball with that GPS. I would swear at drivers, never get aggressive, but something sudden and unexpected at high speeds could be a problem. I could physically react and avoid the problem, it was a matter of how I would react mentally. Despite all that, it felt time to handle them and cross that barrier.

This became more of an issue since the chimney fire a couple months ago. Since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve been having flashbacks or anything (there’s still no memory to flash back to) but fire is suddenly a serious concern. I haven’t been sleeping as well knowing the wood stove has a fire going and have been literally pacing when we start a fire for the first time each day. But I drove. Both ways. No issues. The Holiday Inn at Yorkdale that hosted Breakout is literally right off the highway and within five minutes of getting off the highway, we’re in the parking lot. Lickety split, quick as shit. Now that it’s done and over, I have no more excuses about driving anywhere. Other than simply not wanting to, but that’s healthy.

Oh, yeah. That’s right. There was one other personal/mental health issue I was trying to conquer but kinda ended up going about it a stalker-y way, looking back at it. Note to self: walking around with a subtitle on your name badge that reads, “I accept all hugs” is quite possibly super creepy. But I was. Why? Because my parents never hugged me enough as a child. No, I’m serious. I’ve become very aware of my sensitivity to physical contact, particularly with hugs. That’s why I cry (or at least tear up) very easily when someone hugs me. Hugs aren’t allergies, so my thought was the best way to get rid of that kind of reaction was through exposure. More hugs = less tears, right? At least one of the con organizers and Mama Bear to the Toronto gaming community, Kate Bullock, got it and made sure I didn’t leave TO without one. Or two. (To see Kate in action is to truly think of her as the woman who practically raised all the kids in her neighbourhood – kind and firm. She welcomed you with open arms and she only needed one or two firm words to get you to stop when you broke one of her rules.)

Sleeping Arrangements

A promotional photo for the Holiday Inn at Yorkdale, home of BreakoutCon 2017.

The whole con is located at the Holiday Inn at Yorkdale. By the way, remind me later on to tell you about the problem with trying to feed yourself in Yorkdale area later on. They actually made a movie about our story, you may have seen it. Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Not this post, but another one will share that story. For now, the hotel.

Having a convention inside the hotel while staying at said hotel is so ideal, I cannot imagine any other way of doing it. You never have to leave the building for anything. Except food. There’s a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a small convenience store inside, but don’t count on the restaurant being timely with food or drinks. Especially not food. Kid you not, I had to wait close to an hour for fish and chips on Friday evening. Going out for grub gets only marginally easier, as you’ll find out in a future post.

The hotel itself was quite decent and the rates we paid as convention attendees were very reasonable, all things considering. As someone who works at a hotel/ski resort, I can tell you some of the small perks found at this Holiday Inn (including auto checkout) make a big difference. There were other perks (not big, but perks nonetheless) gained by signing up for their rewards membership, not even as a long-standing member or anything. Sleeping wise (yes, there was some sleeping), two-thirds of us slept well with myself and Fraser in the Not So Much side and Eric from Cangames in the Yes, Just Fine side. While I have yet to total up my expenses for the weekend at the time of this writing, I figure all told it cost me $200 for the weekend split mostly three ways (including gas, but not including food). And that’s not including book sales. Oh, yes, Breakout sells your books for you when you’re an industry guest. Another topic for an upcoming post.

Overall, I was quite happy with our accommodations and even the restaurant ended up working out as a central hub for others I did know at the con (including Jason Pitre, Mark Richardson, Joshua Kitz, and a couple others) and those I would come to meet and chat over the coming three days. Shall I name drop? Fuck yeah, because it was awesome to meet all of them. Fraser Simons (my Sunday afternoon compadre), Chris Sniezak and Bob Everson from the Misdirected Mark podcast (big fan!), Andrew Medeiros (he seemed to be recognized by a few people there), Chris Chalice, Derek Gour, plus others who do not publish their name for a living. When you end up spending that many hours hanging out between games, having to wait for drinks doesn’t seem that bad.

Tempting Fate in the Sunken Empire

Sunken Empire by Emily Griggs

Ok, ok, let’s at least address one game. When it came down to it, I really only played one game. To be honest, I actually only played one game and I’m very happy it was Emily Griggs’ Sunken Empire. I’ve read Fate Core and never had a chance to play so when this one popped up for Friday afternoon and happened to also be run by a fellow Ottawantonianite (see what I mean, Hamish, we can’t make up our minds on what to call ourselves), I jumped at it. Emily and I have only met briefly when we shared a panel at Capital Gaming Expo one year but I’m also a fan of her Game Chef designs (especially Rest, now available on DriveThruRPG – you go ahead and buy it, I’ll wait here). She did not disappoint. With three inexperienced Fate players in her group (this guy included), she made it easy to handle the learning curve and deal with the adventure rather than the mechanics.

Sunken Empire (also on DriveThru) is a steampunk Victorian-inspired setting where we mucked up the planet much sooner than the course currently set for Mother Earth and humans became forced to live underwater. Aside from giving me a chance to speak only in a really thick Cockney accent with gibberish words that sounded British, love, the way she addressed the treasure hunt itself as a character in the game is quite clever. Yes. Quite. The hunt has values exactly like a character and you basically cause stress and complications to the hunt at the end of each scene by choosing which action/roll lead to the scene’s success more than any others. The moment’s leading character makes that same roll again versus the treasure hunt to determine what, if any, stress the hunt will take. Basically, when the hunt can no longer hide its secrets because you’ve picked away at it long enough, the sunken treasure is found. It’s a nifty approach and worked very well for this game. A fun game that now makes me an experienced Fate player. Another box checked!

On The Next Episode: 24 Hours of GMing

From two playtests of High Plains Samurai to a journey back to where it all began (the second time… or maybe the third when you think about it… unless we count that time… never mind, it’s been two years since I ran Killshot and that’s what else I ran), I’ll delve into the insanity at the tables for the second chapter of this trilogy.

Scene of the Crime (A Live Action Roleplaying Idea)

Scene of the Crime (A Live Action Roleplaying Idea)

One of the dozen or so podcasts I listen to is Backstory, hosted by Ottawanian/Ottawatonian/Ottawan… someone from Ottawa… Alex Roberts. It’s a great interview podcast with engaging conversations beyond those of other shows I’ve heard in the past. But this post is not just to provide kudos to Alex for doing such a great job. The vast majority of her show involves LARPs (live action roleplaying) and while I’ve never taken part in one (unless you count those goofy improv warm-up exercises or activities I tried out in drama camp when I was 10), the show has provided me with insights and brainstorms for new games.

The latest one that’s really stuck in my head involves players taking on the role of crime scene investigators in a LARP currently drafted as “Scene of the Crime.” Because my LARPing experience is non-existant, I’m worried this may strike the wrong chord or end up lacking in some of the key elements that would make a LARP. That’s why I’m posting my random thoughts/core notes here and posting them for feedback so be sure to comment and let me know what works and what’s missing.

  • One player is the corpse and will spend the game lying on the floor/sitting in a chair being all corpse-y. This player may be the host or the host may be an “invisible” player hanging in the background answering question and positioning cards as needed.
  • All other players are the crime scene investigators (CSIs) and are marked by wearing gloves. So long as they wear gloves (of any kind), they can investigate the scene and touch anything in the room, including cards (see below).
  • There is a crime scene limited to a single room where the LARP is played. The crime scene adapts to the actual room. For example, if you’re playing in someone’s living room, that’s the crime scene. If it’s a conference room at a convention, that’s the crime scene.
  • The CSIs must complete their investigation in the crime scene within a strict time limit (anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour).
  • Customized flash cards are used in play to represent clues. All cards are determined in advance by the host. There are three types of cards in play during the investigation:
    • Red cards display immediate and obvious clues noticeable to the untrained eye and are typically used to represent causes of death or large pieces of evidence. They can include wounds, shattered windows, etc. Up to 3 red cards are set out before the investigators enter the room.
    • Blue cards provide detailed information available to the investigators after asking a triggering question related to a red card. For example, asking if any of a victim’s wounds indicate defensive wounds (caused by raising their hands to try and block a knife) can reveal a blue card if such a card exists. For every 1 red card, there can be up to 3 blue cards. Blue cards can lead to other aspects of the crime scene and reveal new green cards. They can also reveal additional clues in the room and can also be hidden in the crime scene for physical discovery by the investigators (such as finding a bullet casing under a table).
    • Green cards are additional clues accessed when investigators discover a blue card providing crucial information from coroners and lab tests done outside of the crime scene. Just like blue cards, revealing a green card comes from asking the right question but CSIs must use two blue cards to frame the question. For example, if there is a blue card indicating a bullet casing by the office door and another blue card showing that door’s locked was picked, CSIs can ask the question if there are any fingerprints on the doorknob. Only green cards are used to formulate proper theories on how the crime occurred and possible suspects.
  • Using the information obtained by the green cards after the time limit expires, the CSIs can now piece together what they learned and present their impression on how the murder happened and any possible suspects.

Notice how this does not mean solving the murder but offering enough information for homicide detectives to talk to the suspects and lean on them with enough pressure. As I write this, it seems fairly obvious to include additional scenes for the players to take on the role of homicide detectives, suspects, and more with the investigation phase feeding them information on how to play out the rest of the game. But this is where my thoughts come to a screeching halt.

What are your thoughts on this so far? Yay or nay?

Game Review Round Robin #1: Hollyworld

Game Review Round Robin #1: Hollyworld

What is this strange feeling? It’s something I haven’t felt in close to 11 months, as if a major project has been lifted off my shoulders and there’s suddenly time to do things other than think about one project.

Someone hug me, I’m scared.

So to slowly wean myself off the game design drug, perhaps now would be a good time to get into the Game Review Round Robin. What is GRRR? Oh crap, hold on, it’s been so long I have to look it up. Oh yeah, it’s an initiative within the Indie+ Discussion Community on Google+ to help other game designers get some much needed feedback and public attention to their upcoming projects. Basically like an addiction support group for other tabletop designers who may also yearn for the day when they can finally take time to remember the sky is blue, water is wet and they only have a few days until a new idea eats away at their sanity.

Speaking of eating away at one’s sanity… Hollyworld! by Adam Ultraberg. Imagine a game based on The Player where people with ego issues work behind the scenes and in front of the camera to make the next great motion picture. It’s my first entry out of five total mini-reviews and while I’m very intrigued by the entire concept of it, fairness dictates an ignorance to the overall mechanics of Hollyworld! and the Apocalypse World engine powering it. I know the basics from an elevator pitch aspect of the rules, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I could run it with that information.

The copy of Hollyworld! I read is a very basic premise, more of a revision draft showcasing what makes this rendition stand out from the original source material and while I’m not entirely sure how all of it comes into play there’s great reason to find it an intriguing concept of play. Maybe it’s tugging on the aspiring filmmaker in me, but something about developing your movie by simultaneously portraying the politics behind the scenes sounds like it can have a major impact on the movie itself.

Many of the alterations in Hollyworld! help facilitate this storyline, particularly how harm is changed to stress. All types of people involved in moviemaking suffer stress and it can catch up to them for devastating results, including ones that can end your career. It’s an interesting twist on hit points but as “career points.” More stress can mean you start acting irrationally (something like Christian Bale’s infamous tirade on the set of Terminator 4: What The Fuck Was That?) and need to take time off to rest and let the press forget the unfortunate incident or the studio gives you the boot and your career is washed up.

The stats reflect the nature of this particular personality type seeking fame and fortune under the stars: Real, Fake, Endurance, Connected and Notoriety. And the moves appear to be less about your intent behind the action as they are about the overall goal of the attempt, which is something I’ve heard is a problem with some new AW players. There’s also the roles, ranging from Mr. Manager (an agent who can pass on their +Fake to a client) to the Talent (with an option to use the family acting name to turn a 6- to a 7-9 and still gain experience) to the Sentinel (like a union rep, who can create three rules for members of their organization to follow in exchange for benefits/protection) helping to flesh out this world of phonies. Holden Caufield would have a field day with this game.

The version provided to me is definitely a work in progress and I’m curious to see what the final result looks like… unless some jack-assed producer blows the budget on high priced hookers and blow. Then we’ll just have to wait until someone brushes the dust off the script like Terry Gilliam’s long gestating Don Quixote movie. Until that movie poster goes up at your local online gaming store, keep your eyes open for Hollyworld!


Exceptions To The Rule

Exceptions To The Rule
 Wow. How long has it been since new words were added to this blog? August, eh? Suffice it to say that’s far too long and it’s up to me to do something about that. The latter half of 2015 was indeed very busy with the majority of my available writing time going into ScreenPlay (oops, there’s another link again). Now that we’re into a new year, one of my resolutions is to start writing more often and to branch out my topics, projects, even formats. Stretch my limits, expand my horizons, all that stuff. Something I used to write a lot about during my long absence from gainful employment was game mechanics (anyone remember my Under The Hood series on Roleplayers Chronicle?) – that sounds like a good place to start.

While taking a couple of weeks away from game design and other forays during the holidays, I’ve been catching up on some reading. One is a return to Joe Abercrombie’s first novel, The Blade Itself, and the rest are various indie games downloaded over the past few weeks. One of those downloads brought me to today’s topic and to avoid any appearance of negativity towards this particular game, of which there is truly none, I’m not going to mention it by name. (The game itself puts a nice Don’t Rest Your Head kind of spin on your traditional dungeon crawling RPG and let’s just leave it as that.)

[While I want to ensure there’s no impression of a negative review of this aforementioned game, it dawned on me just before publishing this post that the least I can do is provide a link. Take a look at it right here. While I may have issues with how the mechanics are handled, the concept is incredibly intriguing.]

All games work off a solid foundation of rules typically known as mechanics. While there may be many expansions and variables within those mechanics, all RPGs work on a core set from which all others operate. Sometimes – actually most times, it seems – games insert an additional or variant sub-rule for unique actions or situations in the game. They work off the core rules, but have been tweaked enough that they do not follow them exactly. I call these rule exceptions.

Grappling With Exceptions

Allow me to explain using D&D as it is perhaps the biggest culprit for this common design feature. Whenever you roll dice in D&D, it’s against a static number (either Armor Class or Difficulty Class), except whenever you enter a grapple with another character or a few select examples. In those cases, you make opposed rolls with the higher roll declaring a winner. This is what I mean by rule exceptions. There’s a firmly set rule to always roll for success against a firm target except in a couple of unique moments. Then you determine success another way. Actually, in a very different way. Rather than working off a solid point of probability, you’re now rolling dice and hope for the best because your opposition is also randomly determined by an equal force: another d20. Modifiers and the like will either help or hinder your cause, but the basic chances of success now vary greatly.

Allow me to clarify something here. When I talk about rule exceptions, I’m almost exclusively talking about resolution mechanics. Character options create exceptions all the time, so do modifiers when you think about them. For this, I’m referring to the granddaddy of all RPG engines: the means by which you determine the success, failure and/or results of a dice roll.

On the surface, there’s nothing truly wrong with rule exceptions. They demonstrate variety and a robust presentation of game mechanics to cover a wide range of possibilities, showcasing how characters can interact with the setting and other characters through more than just flat, repetitive attack rolls. It makes sense for characters to actively roll against an opponent during a wrestling match. But it also makes sense for the same characters to actively dodge oncoming sword blows and leap away from the fire using more than a static defence number, so why couldn’t the opposed roll become the norm? Whenever I see a rule exception, I wonder why the mechanics had to change to suit a particular moment. Is it because the core game mechanics can’t handle grappling and needed modifications? Does that make the game “broken” or is this exception actually an extension of the core mechanics?

In my early days of roleplaying, I liked these exceptions because they offered a break from the rinse/lather/repeat style of most mechanics. Much in the same way I enjoyed playing the thief in AD&D; it provided a chance to do something a little different with the dice and roll percentiles over just THAC0. Picking locks, climbing, and stealth became more than unique skills, they operated under their own rules. Something truly appropriate for the thief, a rebel amongst all the D&D heroes. When all of that transitioned into the game’s 3rd edition and those thief abilities became part of the complete skills mechanics everyone made use of (rogues were simply better at skills than the other classes), I did pout a little bit. Now I support the decision wholeheartedly because it maintains a core means of application for everyone. No rule exceptions for skills.

A Time And A Place For Everything

Larger, more complex games can get away with these exceptions because of their genre (and I don’t mean fantasy, science fiction, or anything else setting based). In game design, the style of mechanics is a genre all to itself. Don’t believe me? Look at the OSR movement and how they create an “old school feel” with modern twists. While many of these games apply mechanics similar to 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons, Castles & Crusades, and other classic RPGs, they are not bound by them. Dungeon Crawl Classics is a game I would say embraces the OSR genre because it abides by one of the basic fundamentals of old school RPGs: character die, baby!

Having mechanics where you roll higher values for success one minute and lower values the next are part of that mechanical genre. They feature complex combat options, skill-based abilities, weapon values affecting initiative and damage and optional rules for those seeking “realistic” battles. Indie games, such as those using Fate and Cortex+, are founded on simplicity and a core mechanic capable of handling every possible action and outcome in the game. How you roll to attack is the same as how you charm that lonely drunk at the bar or hide in shadows as the guards approach with guns drawn. Yes, there are points you can spend to bend the rules and accomplish unique feats but in these games rules exceptions stand out as possible first draft errors that required a revised approach or else they created a major gap in playtesting. Or maybe that’s just me.

When I worked on Killshot, my goal was to avoid rule exceptions at all costs. In fact, the entire basis for the Optional System powering that game was that all conflict resolution was based on opposed rolls, perhaps the most common rule exception of them all. Even something that would normally involve a static target number in other games would be an opposed roll for mine. I even provided an explanation for this mechanic: there are so many variables and uncertainties in the real world that anything can happen to sudden cause you to swerve out of control in a high speed chase. The engine could sudden stall, a pothole in the road sends you spinning, other cars get in your way and slow you down… the possibilities for complications are endless. By setting all dice-based challenges to opposed rolls, the degree of tension was ramped up because even the simplest of actions could suddenly become impossible. Best to apply your skills and prepare for anything to go wrong because when you break the law, one screw-up could land you in jail for the rest of your life.

Rule exceptions are inevitable sometimes and it could be open to interpretation. And like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with them and millions of people incorporate them into games every day. But ask yourself when you’re designing that next great RPG… can my core resolution mechanic handle every situation without creating an exception? The result may surprise you.

Reviewing Hope Inhumanity

Reviewing Hope Inhumanity

I’d like to start off this particular post with a little local pride. While I don’t exactly live in Ottawa anymore, I’m part of what’s geographically known as the Ottawa Valley, so it still counts. Within our region of the world, we have an impressive collection of tabletop game designers I wish I discovered much sooner than I did, but there’s nothing to change the flow of time. Or maybe there is… or was. Either way, this can easily get out of hand. Needless to say, I know them now and one of them has notched a rather nice accomplishment to his credit. Let’s all mentally clap our hands together for Jason Pitre and his ENnies Judges Spotlight award for Posthuman Pathways, which he’ll be receiving at GenCon at the end of the month. 

Now, to the task at hand. But it’s related, so not like I’ve really strayed off course because this game I’m about to review for you is from another Ottawa designer named Derek Gour. Late last year, his card game, Hope Inhumanity, came into my radar before I had a chance to meet Derek and before I knew he was a giant’s stone throw away from me. The premise of his game is simple, yet impressively complex: you and your fellow players are a ragtag band of survivors who have barely coped with a nameless apocalypse and must make the journey cross country to find new shelter. The game itself does not invoke roleplaying, but there’s nothing to stop you should you wish to go in that direction because what Hope Inhumanity does is create random hardships for randomly created characters with established deep connections. It takes what is truly horrific about popular post-apocalypse stories like Walking Dead and gives it the edge many people can miss: the humanity of the main characters against the horrors of depravity and destruction.

A sample of Hope Inhumanity’s cards, as shown on its DriveThruRPG page.

Your characters are created by drawing 3 Trait cards, providing you with personality quirks and benefits that could pull your ass out of the fire or deflect harm in someone else’s direction. The key to playing Hope Inhumanity is that while your Humanity is the key to your survival, that doesn’t mean everyone will do until others as they would do unto you. Each character is connected with one other character based on a random draw from the Relationship deck and assigned to the player on your left, all of whom create a form of dependency/camaraderie that can also work against connections with other characters. From there, players take turns across five rounds drawing Scene cards to discover what fateful events must be confronted along the way. These Scene cards are broken down into terrains (a handy tool if your group is looking to tell a story to go with your game, as was the case with our group): Coastal, Mountainous, Urban, Wilderness, and Any Terrain. Each one presents its own trials and tribulations and helps to craft the tale of your intrepid, beleaguered band. Some of these encounters can be avoided, some must be confronted, but all of them are designed to challenge morality and how well a scene plays out can determine if your group receives an Asset card to aid you (or the group) along the way.

What I loved about playing this game when I gave it a shot at CanGames (and picked up a copy, I might add too) were the multiple times when at least half of the group were morally unsure about the choice laid out before them. There’s only one stat to this game, Humanity, and it’s measured in five 6-sided dice when you begin your journey. Whenever an event is going down, anyone who wants to deal with it chooses how much of their Humanity they’re willing to risk and the direness of the situation determines how many successes the group needs (ranging from 1 to 5, with a success counting as any dice rolling a 4, 5, or 6). Success provides a reward, failure dishes out punishment (sometimes in the form of damage, to which you can only suffer it twice before dying, or hunger, which also works on a three-strikes-and-your-out policy), even refusing to participate can lead to the occasional boon or bane. Sometimes it pays to stay out of trouble, other times it can make things worse for you… but you keep your Humanity for later.

This game is really sharp and I had a blast playing it with complete strangers, so I could only imagine how much fun it would be with friends. The mechanics works hand-in-hand with the concept and creates a truly visceral experience without the need for complex rules or heavy-handed efforts to engage the players. And there’s no telling what can happen. In our first attempt, we were all killed by Dawn of the Dead-style marauders who took over a shopping mall… on the second turn. (We set a very undesired record, apparently.) For the second try, my character and my son died on the second-to-last turn before the rest of the group made it to safety because of our bond as father and son. You could literally devise an entire episodic series around the events drawn from a game of Hope Inhumanity and that’s what I love about this game.

Seriously, check it out for yourself. If you’re one of those types who like to see a review summed up with a star count, I’m going with 4 out of 5 stars for Hope Inhumanity. You can buy a POD copy from all DriveThruRPG sites and I know that Derek is working on an expansion right now, so stay frosty for that.

You can discover more local creators like Derek and Jason through our informal G+ community, the Ottawa Tabletop Game Designers. Or Tabletop North, as I’m thinking of calling it.