In my last post, I mentioned that my friend has written a monster-hunting storygame modelled after For the Queen and Chasing the Ace. This week, I’d like to share a piece of what we’ve been writing together. This is the second game with this group, so naturally we’ve begun to explore a team with looser, more complicated ties to each other.
Prior to this scene the crew lost Joey, a key leader and unifier, during a ferocious faceoff with a catoblepas. Blaming herself for the loss, Kira, our resident werewolf just tore out of Joey’s wake into the night. While half the team chases after her, my character, a stone devil named Abrehex Fel, has other plans. He’s joined by our mercenary diviner Balaam, and Hamor, the diviner’s Great Dane.
♥J You believe the crew would be dead without you. Why?
Balaam watches Abrehex’s clawed hands flash too quickly over the map. A low growl from Hamor, but Balaam squeezes tightly against the harness. “How many idiots does it take to track the wolf? She can’t be har—“
Alright well here we are, 2021; we’ve made it out of the frying pan at least. I’m a sucker for the new year, and will take any excuse to recenter and recollect.
My aim is to look back at the past year and gather the fun moments and the new curiosities I want to carry forward. 2020 was a major year for me, and a lot of that journey did not make it to the blog space. In a way this is a chance for me to circle the wagons and capture the good parts.
As I write this however, it is a dark moment on a dark journey. I hope you’ll forgive me for trying to keep my own torch lit as, together, we search for the path ahead.
I had the opportunity to join a streamed campaign this year on Encounter Roleplay. It was my first time streaming and became an exciting way for me to leap into a new form among a supportive crew of gamers and storytellers. Getting to join the cast of The Wall was honestly one of my biggest wins of the year, and fills me with such joy and gratitude. This campaign was part of an ongoing shared universe between several A Song of Ice and Fire games, and while I play only a small part in that larger story, my running joke has been to claim that I am the Rachel McAdams to their MCU.
I returned to Encounter Roleplay later in the summer, for a second game, this time playing Star Trek Adventures from Modiphius. This was a sponsored campaign to showcase the new Klingon corebook of the 2d20 system. If it’s possible, I came into this game even more green than my first one, having very little points of reference for Star Trek. Luckily the rest of the players were rockstars and took the lead splendidly. Fun fact: this was also my first campaign that received fan art, so that’s an exciting little achievement unlocked.
Thanks to my GMs Charlie and Ravyn, and all my fellow players for making it so easy for me to jump into their sandboxes and start building.
This year also gave me the raw studio hours to put out some critical original work. On the gaming side, I put together a little hack, a frankenstein of Mutant Crawl Classics and Apocalypse World, strongly spurred by my Disney+ laced nostalgia for saturday morning cartoons. When the test campaign for that wound down, I launched “Playtest Tuesday” with friend and fool Mark Kennedy and now have first drafts for like six other back burner games, most of them exquisitely terrible ideas.
In performance, Iris and I put out a silly video that captures exactly the type of reckless goofball work we want to make. It took so much time and energy to finish, but gave back so much more once we knew we had made people laugh. We also taught our first workshop together outside of Philly and are now gearing up for a coast-to-coast caravan of clowning once the world reopens.
Thanks to the party of players: Ashley, Josh, Mark, Tenara, Tom, Mark again, and of course the crucial co-conspirator, Iris.
New Coping Strategies
Setting down the creator lens for a second, I also had a great year just to play. Like a lot of folks, I turned to games and rpgs during the pandemic. I was lucky that I was already part of a longtime online game in March, so as everything else had to shut down or move online it was a very specific comfort that this outlet of fellowship and escapism remained constant. I’ve mentioned in another post how enormously grounding my play-by-post game of Chasing the Ace turned out to be. It got me really excited about writing fiction again and gave me a new flavor of collaboration to play with. Most exciting to me is that it also inspired one of my co-author’s to create their own For the Queen game of modern monster hunters!
I have to give a plug for one more piece of timber in my 2020 liferaft. Every Sunday night at 9et Judge James and his daughter Judge Evie go live on Twitch for a fun little broadcast about their week in gaming. They answer audience questions, they do silly voices, they talk about goings on in their lives both fictional and all too real. All year they’ve been a delightfully random and earnest reminder that another week had gone by and somehow we were still in this thing. Their efforts to make a little space each week for the fun and frivolous has been so clutch and charming to me, and it’s still a highlight of most of my weeks.
Thanks to the whole 493rd: Brian, Greg, still Mark, and Riley with reinforcements from Zack, Evie and James
On a final, overly personal note to this overly personal post, my games and performance had more reach this year than ever before in my life. My folks watched me play a Klingon, and my sister mocked me in twitch chat. It was like a big deal for me. If you’re here now, and you were part of the play in 2020, thank you so much for helping make laughter and stories together. Looking forward to finding a new way out of darkness in the year ahead.
The weekend before restaurants closed in Philadelphia, I had skipped the subway and was walking to work, thinking about how things were going to be pretty weird for the next few... well weeks I thought. It was a rare moment in my life when I genuinely knew that what I needed was more distraction. I reached out to my DnD friends, looking to set up a play-by-post game for a steady drip of roleplaying in the coming chaos. It’d be too dramatic to say that it was a life-saver, but I’m in the mood to be too dramatic. We decided on a For the Queen game, and I was excited to give Z. W. Garth’s mecha melodrama Chasing the Ace a try. In two months of self-prescribed escapism, my friends and I collaborated on a 40,000 word story that still fills me with pride and gratitude to my wingmates. Today I want to share a small excerpt from the story we made together:
♥2 What was the moment you swore to follow the Ace?
Finding myself between shifting schedules, but still looking for games to play, and I thought some of you folks might be able to relate. With that in mind, today I want to pitch you my absolute favorite one-shot role-playing game, Mission: Accomplished! Mission: Accomplished! by Jeff Stormer is an RPG of super-spies and office meetings inspired by shows like Archer, The Venture Brothers, and Better Off Ted. It’s a rules-light, player-driven game of collaborative storytelling with an outlandish backdrop of top-secret espionage and overbearing office policies. Sessions run about 2 hours (including coffee break), require little to no preparation, and are perfect for new players or new GMs. Honestly, if you’ve never run a fiction-forward game, or never felt comfortable running something like Blades in the Dark or Dungeon World, I sincerely recommend giving Mission: Accomplished a shot.
What to Expect
In Mission: Accomplished, players take on the role of international super-spies returning back to HQ after completing their mission. The job wasn’t done well, but fortunately the job was well, done. Mission Control (played by the GM) wants to get to the bottom of what went wrong, but more importantly who they’re going to pin the blame on. The action of the game plays out in unreliable retellings of what each of the characters witnessed or can attest to, all while racking up Commendations and Citations from Mission Control.
Character creation is swift and lighthearted, and the scenario is built collaboratively so each player knows what sort of stakes are at play for the story that’s about to unfold. The joy of the game comes from a back-and-forth of throwing folks under the bus and covering your own ass, with just enough frivolous hypocrisy to keep it all in good fun.
Why I Love this Game
Disclaimer: games are art, and the only difference between art and craft is whether someone can spend far too much time analyzing it, so that is exactly what I intend to do.
I often describe Mission: Accomplished as anti-cynical, and it’s the game’s best quality. Let me highlight some of Jeff Stormer’s text to demonstrate what I’m talking about. One of the things you define when you make your character is your Specialty:
I love the phrase “spectacularly competent.” It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me, there’s something to it. There’s a certain “disaster OC” style in role-playing games that is in vogue right now, probably because it’s unquestionably fun as hell. There’s nothing better than getting together a rag-tag group of fictional friends who are totally in over their heads and can’t action economy their way out of a paper bag, and believe me there is plenty of room for that kind of play in Mission: Accomplished! This game gets it. It also gets that sometimes, that style of play is a way to wallow in our own fears and failures, to mock them, sure, but ultimately cling to them as the only story we allow ourselves to tell. Not today villains. This game demands that you embrace your success as well. In Mission: Accomplished! you’ve already won the game, the objectives were met. It’s not about the GM making it harder for you to succeed. This isn’t a game of struggle, this is a game of stunning victory, and inside of that it mocks how much our modern world is trying to stop us from shining. This game believes that you can be the best there is at what you do, and that you are always valuable to the team. Some of the best sessions involve taking a character with a very mundane contribution and discovering how they are ultimately the star that we needed to get the job done.
Running the Game
This game, simple as it is, asks you to cultivate a path of curiosity that will help you when you go to run more complex, intricate games. The players give you everything that happens, so you have to develop the skill of following their leads, and that sort of GM listening is going to be a great tool to deploy in other systems. The rules are simple, but the story is complicated, and learning how to get the players to untangle that together is a great path to better collaboration in other games..
What I Recommend
The best time to play this game is as a break or a pallet cleanser for a long-running group. I’ve also ran it as a convention game, and find that there’s enough heart and joy subtly built in to make this a fine game to get a bit of inter-party conflict among a less-familiar table as well.
The game plays well online, and if it’s not too real or too soon, I’m sure you have plenty of virtual meeting horror stories to reenact. As fun as it is to take jabs at the digital delirium we’re dealing with, I think this game most wants to be played in person with absolutely too many loose leaf sheets of office expectations and mission details. That sort of tactile chaos seems like a fun expression of so much of what this game does well.
One last thing before you get back to gaming, as part of the Itch Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, Mission: Accomplished might be the best game you didn’t know you already own!
PAX Unplugged is mere days away so here’s a quick primer to capture my approach to the con as well as some of the events where you might run into me.
Last year, PAXU was my first full con experience and it was an overwhelming weekend. PAX Unplugged illuminates how massive and wide-ranging the tabletop hobby is. I went looking to play some fun indie RPGs like Masks and Monsterhearts 2, and realized that those offerings are a small slice of what’s available among the board games, card games, LARP, mainstream RPGs, panels, and products. It’s easy to get bowled over by the amount of options and not know where to find the games you seek.
I had great luck last year stumbling into games, and by the end of the third day I felt like the spiderweb was finally starting to make sense. Here’s what I learned:
In the last post we looked at Kingdom and Fiasco for some different approaches to world building. We moved away from geography to look at relationships and communities. I mentioned that during your creative process it might be valuable to establish some objective realities that the characters know about their world. Alternatively, it might be more valuable to get some specifically charged locations brewing to jump right into more dramatic themes.
Today we’re going back to the conversation I had with Mark Kennedy (@echolocated) to look at the mapmaking process that he used in a recent rehearsal for an upcoming original performance. We’ll see some carryover from the games that we’ve looked at but also elements that are entirely his design. Mark’s approach is exciting, and I’m grateful that he’s been kind enough to let me share some of it with you. His rehearsal shows us ways that theatrical devices can explode our worldbuilding, and ways that the process changes when we put people up on their feet.
Welcome back to my map series! Maps have been a huge part of the way I play games ever since my dad ran me through my first dungeon, but they’re rarely part of a theatrical process.
Part 1 talks about what maps can add to a rehearsal room, and Part 2 looks at The Perilous Wilds as a process for mapmaking with your ensemble. Today we’re looking at some other games for a different way to think about locations as seeds for drama.
The Perilous Wilds is securely cemented in the assumptions of fantasy and adventure. It allows us to create an expansive world with new, intriguing places to discover. But what if we’re making a piece that’s more interested in one location and how the different characters relate to that place? What about stories where we’re less interested in the physical geography and more interested in the community and relationships. For that we’re going to use Kingdom and Fiasco and explore locations without a physical map.
Kingdom is a game by Ben Robbins published by Lame Mage Productions. It explores the journey and machinations of a single community or organization. The Kingdom might be defined within a space: a town, a city, a store; but it might also just be defined by the people who are part of it. In this game, we play individuals whose relationships, encounters, and exchanges impact the fate of the entire Kingdom. Theatrically, that’s an exciting framework to create a story.
In Kingdom we’re following a community or an organization, understanding the decisions it faces (Kingdom calls these crossroads) and the threats at play. In The Perilous Wilds, you’ve probably already picked your characters before you make the map, but in Kingdom you define locations before building characters. This means you’re thinking of locations that are important to the community at large, places where people gather or places they avoid. Before we get into the who’s who, we think of the locations where things happen, where are decisions made? Where are minds changed? Where are secrets revealed? This doesn’t create a geographic map in the same way as The Perilous Wilds, instead you create a list of locations that are tied to the undercurrent of the themes and decisions of your community.In a theater of “everything matters,” this is a great starting place.
Once we move into creating characters for Kingdom, we’ll come back to the list of locations to choose two that our character might be found in. I enjoy the challenge of finding one location where the character is comfortable, and a second one where they might be caught off guard. We’ll also use the list of locations to determine where to set scenes. The rules allow you to make up new locations as necessary, but I love the creative restriction of trying to stay true to the original list.
For an even narrower use of locations we move to Fiasco by Jason Morningstar published by Bully Pulpit Games. Fiasco is certainly the most dramatic use of location. Locations in Fiasco are always connected to a central relationship between two characters. Mechanically, each Relationship in Fiasco has a single Detail, which can be a Location or an Object or Need. This means that form the beginning locations are sparse but highly leveraged. Hinging the location so tightly to the characters creates a chain between them which likely will create its own drama. This means that we don’t need to try and be clever or inventive at the beginning, we can open up our writing to be mundane and impulsive.
Fiasco gives some guidelines for a great Location:
Fiasco offers a great note for play too, “If you’re looking for a place to have a scene happen, scan around for existing Locations. If somebody cared enough to author the Chicken Hut out by the interstate, it ought to be a hub of in-game activity.” For me this echoes why a mapmaking process can be so useful in the rehearsal room. It gives us a way to make concrete proposals that start to give a flavor or theme or tone to our piece but still leave open tons of freedom to discover characters, plot, and themes. A town with a Chicken Hut out by the interstate is going to have a different feel from the one with Eyck’s Tack, Harness, and Stable across the tracks. They’re going to smell different, taste different, and have a different atmosphere. On the other hand, if you’re ensemble decides they really want to explore a one-horse town, that still gives you the freedom to bring a horse dealer to the table.
What’s really fun about Fiasco is it’s built to highlight one location, which is going to help us a lot once we put this on stage. It doesn’t mean that there’s only one location in the piece, or that other places aren’t important. It just gives a clue that something is definitely going to go down in this spot, there’s something that exists here or is going to happen here that probably can’t happen anywhere else.
We’ve gone a journey here from a game that define entire landscapes to a game where the pot boils over in one specific spot. As we shrink the map smaller and smaller down, at each step the locations become a bit more personal and connected to the characters. In your process I encourage you to think of the level of familiarity that’s most exciting for the theme or style of story that you’re looking to create.
This series provides some tools to think of your story through the lens of the map that it occupies. We’re cooking up new ideas about how to think of the space of an entire play, the scope that it occupies and how to use “where” to learn more about the characters or create creative inconveniences. How do your characters think about the world of the play, what details are important to them, and what true information is it useful to establish from the beginning.
Last time I talked about why mapmaking is an exciting tool to use in a devising room and what it can shift about the way that we normally make theatre. Today we’re going to look at how we do it. I thought this post was going to be the conclusion of the map series, but I have more games I want to talk about in future posts, so stay tuned.
My favorite mapmaking resource from tabletop is a gorgeous little book called The Perilous Wilds by Jason Lutes. It’s a supplement for Dungeon World that expands the scope of a dungeon-delving game to craft and explore a fantastical world. Dungeon World traditionally focuses on the characters and their relationships, building the rest of the game out from there, but The Perilous Wilds gives us an approach for making a whole world together. This book has a special place in my heart because it uses a lot of the methods that I was using in Skills & Scars to build a map with the audience.
A few weeks ago my friend Mark (@echolocated) reached out asking to pick my brain about mapmaking activities for a rehearsal plan built around creating space. He had played a couple different games with me where we made maps together, and he was curious about using those approaches to create a shared world with his ensemble. I was super excited about the prompt because games and theatre both define spaces and I thought there might be some cool interactions between the two. Today we’re going to look at developing maps and shared locations and get into why this is a great tool for devised theatre work.
It’s Fringe Season in Philadelphia! For the next three weekends the city will be drenched in culture and creativity. Performances take place all over the city and the best of them stretch the boundaries of what we think is possible in the theater. This guide is a list of shows that I’m excited about because they’re diving into the intersection between games and performance. Some of these pieces and their creators are very well known to me; others are complete mysteries. All of them catch some curiosity of mine around presenting theatre in new ways that create investment and agency for the audience.