Gaming Code Phrases

I don’t know about you folks, but my gaming groups have developed their own little lexicon of phraseology that gets used across most of the games we play. These are little things that started either as passing comments or jokes, and evolved firstly into in-jokes, and later into phrases that are shorthand for some pretty complex ideas. We use them now, often without thinking, in place of discussions of these ideas, because they relate to events and situations that have become part of our collected gaming history.

And some of them are kinda funny, so I thought I’d share them, and what they mean to us, and even what I remember about their origins.

Here goes.

“Arrangements are made.”

This is actually paraphrased from a Terry Pratchett novel. The orginal quote is, “Arrangements, presumably, are made.” It’s used as a wonderful dodge to avoid answering the question of how all the water that flows over the Rim of the Discworld gets back into the Discworld’s water cycle.

It came into our gaming vernacular during the year-long Amber campaign that almost killed me. I fell back on using it to deal with the issue of time distortion and conservation of momentum in Trump communication and transport, and soon found I was using it to gloss over holes in the ideas of n-dimensional physics that having infinite shadows to play in gives rise to. Really, I think the only phrase I uttered more often during the Amber game was, “You bastards.”

Now, it’s used by all of us as a code phrase that roughly means both “I’m being fantastical and creative, so stop asking questions” and “You’re paying attention to the wrong things; you can safely ignore this.”

“You’re an elf that uses magic.”

During one long-running campaign, one of my players got into a phase where he kept asking me questions about the physics of my D&D world, and getting frustrated by the fact that the rules and my world didn’t accurately reflect some real-world physics. I think, but cannot recall for sure, that both combustion and falling were involved, and he was looking to apply a little real-world logic to some of his abilities to get a boost out of them. When I told him that it wouldn’t work in the game, and he countered with a real-world argument, I used the above phrase. In fact, I had to do it a couple of times before the point was made.

Now, as then, it means, “So, you accept that your character is a magical being/superhero/creature of the night with strange and mystical abilities, but you can’t choke down the idea that unicorns are real/villains keep escaping from prison/priests can hold you at bay with a cross?” We use it to warn each other when our debates and ideas are straying too far from the accepted tropes of the game world.

“Get ’em!”

Not just a battle cry, though that’s how it started out in the game. Over the course of the game, it became the primary tactic of the group upon encountering anything even vaguely threatening or unexpected.

As it spread out of the game, though, it sort of evolved into the signal that people were overthinking something, or wasting time, or just that people were starting to get bored with things. Now, the cry of “Get ’em!” serves to tell everyone that enough dithering has gone on, and something exciting should ensue.

“I catch her and throw her back.”

There’s an entire gaming war story behind this one. Suffice it to say that it occurred in our Amber game, completely derailed my plot, left me speechless for several minutes, almost killed the character being thrown, and stands as a shining moment in play.

Now, it’s the signal that something is both completely unexpected and devilishly successful.

Thank you, Weyland.

“Two hundred feet tall with an army.”

This is something that existed among some of my players before I began gaming with them, as a holdover from a previous game they had played. In that long-ago game, so the sages relate, there was a villain that the party did not kill all the way somehow. And later he came back to get them. And he was bigger and badder. And so they killed him again, and this time they went out of the way to make sure they destroyed every last bit of him, because they were afraid he’d come back (all together now) “two hundred feet tall with an army.”

This phrase is our warning that we’re leaving something undone, or a loose thread hasn’t been resolved.


So, that’s my list, off the top of my head. If any of my gaming group has any to add, please feel free. Also, if anyone else wants to share similar stuff from their groups, I’d be very interested to read it.

In other words, comment below.

Brockford House Postmortem

Yeah, they all died.

**WARNING** This post is contains spoilers for The Brockford House, a scenario that I pulled out of the 4th Edition Call of Cthulhu rulebook.

To fill out the adventure, I created some investigation that the characters could do before heading to the house. This included a couple of notes in books about the superstitions of the area, emphasizing that it was considered bad luck to stay on certain islands overnight, and tracing that back to the legends of the native people of the area. It also included a number of news articles outlining the history of the man who had built the house some 25 years earlier, and the horrible fate that befell him and his family.

The investigators dug up these clues, and decided to go interview folks in the town and some surviving Penobscot tribesmen to see if they could get any more information. What they got led them to believe that there was some sort of evil monster(s) that only came out at night and would kill anyone outside on the specified islands, one of which was the site of the Brockford house.

So, they paid one of the locals to ferry them out to the island, with the plan to stay overnight and sort things out. They brought some things with them for protection: salt, bibles, silver pentacles, etc. Nothing that would actually have any effect on mythos creatures. Strangely, to my mind, no one tried to buy any extra weapons or explosives, despite the fact that at least one of the players kept complaining about the fact that his doctor character only had his scalpel to defend himself with. (The characters were all pregens.)

They explored the island, and found a spot where there were hand- and footholds carved in the side of the rock leading down to a little smugglers’ bay, but the tide was in, so they weren’t able to climb down to check it out. After scouting the exterior, they moved to the interior. They found the room where the sacrifices had been chained up, and spotted the weird deer heads on the walls, and even found the hidden books. They looked at these last briefly, but didn’t want to take the time (or risk the SAN) reading them.

In the basement, they found and smashed open the hidden trap door, and climbed down into the room with the altar. There, they discovered the stairs down into the caves, and proceeded downwards. Once down, they wiggled through the stalactites and stalagmites into the open area, then got cold feet because it was getting near sunset, so they went upstairs and barricaded themselves in one of the guest rooms.

That’s when they took the time to read the books, and became somewhat rattled.

Now, at this point, it was closing in on 1:00 AM in the real world, so I cut to the chase. Rather than roll the random chance to see if the Deep Ones came upstairs to investigate the broken trap door, I just decided that they would. With successful listen checks, the characters heard the boxes they had piled on top of the trap door getting pushed aside, so they decided to set up a barricade and firing position at the top of the stairs. Moving around the furniture let the Deep Ones know that their prey was on the top floor, so up they came.

There followed a nasty battle, as two of the characters tried to hold the barricade while the other two went for more furniture to pile at the top of the stairs. When that didn’t seem to be working well, they ran back to join their companions, in time to help the two badly-wounded characters back into their original room. One of the characters went mad at that point and threw herself out of the window to her death on the rocks below. Another had his head slapped off his shoulders by a Deep One’s claws. The last two, armed only with a sword cane and a scalpel, were quickly overwhelmed and died, leaving one more mystery for the owner of the house.

It wasn’t all one-sided, though. They did manage to put down four of the Deep Ones before they died.

Some observations on the game:

  • Bad rolls gathering information makes for a boring and discouraging game.
  • Too many avenues of investigation, and surprising (to me) decisions by the characters as to what to investigate, led to a much later start at the house, so I wasn’t able to stretch out the on-site stuff as much as I would have liked.
  • As a Cthulhu one-shot, everyone assumed they were doomed from the start. That may have led to the actual doom, as they figured nothing they could do would change that.

When it was over, one of the players made an interesting comment. He said, “It was a fun game, but I was never scared.”

I hadn’t realized that he expected to be, or thought he should be.

I mean, when you play D&D, and your character gets hit by a sword, you don’t expect the player to bleed, right? He just plays his character as if the character were bleeding.

By the same measure, I don’t expect players to be scared during horror games. Tense, yes. Worried for their characters, sure, if it’s not a one-shot. Cautious, you bet. Even creeped out a bit. But scared? Nope.

Their characters, on the other hand, should be played as if they were scared.

And that may be one of the reasons some people don’t like horror games. They like playing heroes, people who overcome their fear and triumph over adversity. It’s why Vampire: The Masquerade morphed into a superheroes-with-fangs game. In horror movies and literature and games, the genre expects a certain type of response from characters: desperate, gibbering, uncontrolled fear.

And if you don’t like playing that kind of character, then horror games aren’t going to cut it for you.

My two cents on the question.

Anyway, everyone had fun, despite the TPK. We’re going to try the Trail of Cthulhu rules in a couple of weeks.

The Thrill of Cthulhu

Tomorrow night, I’m running a Call of Cthulhu one-shot for a group of friends.

It’s going to be interesting; I’ve got four or five people coming to play, and only the tentative fifth player has any deep experience with the game. Two of the others have played a bit, one has played other games but never this one, and one is very new to gaming, her only experience being the Dresden Files RPG playtest. That means I really want to show off what Call of Cthulhu has to offer as a game.

Picking the scenario turned out to be tougher than I thought. I was planning on running The Haunting, which is sort of the default intro scenario that’s been published in (I’m pretty sure) every edition of the rules. Unfortunately, one of the players has just enough memory of it to make that not feasible. So, I was stuck looking through all my Call of Cthulhu books, trying to find something that would work. For it to be a good one-shot intro scenario, I felt it needed the following elements:

  • Research. If the characters don’t have the opportunity to look around libraries and newspaper morgues and interview people, it’s not an archetypal Cthulhu adventure.
  • Investigation. If the characters don’t have a strange place or event to nose around in, then what’s the adventure?
  • Danger. Come on, it’s a one-shot! There’s got to be a real chance of disaster.
  • Mythos elements. There’s got to be some mythos magic, and a mythos threat, to really show that this is Cthulhu, not just a random horror game.
  • One session. We’ve got to be able to wrap it up in a single evening.

So, I dug through all my old books, trying to find something that fit all the criteria, and came up with The House on Stratford Lane, from an old issue of The Unspeakable Oath. It didn’t quite fit all the criteria, not having much in the way of research and having a chance that no mythos threat materializes, but it was pretty good, and all the Pagan Publishing Cthulhu stuff is interesting and well-written.

Which gave me an idea; I should ask Scott Glancy, president of Pagan Publishing, for his suggestion of a scenario. See, I spend GenCon every year working the Pagan Publishing booth with Scott, so I know he knows about good Cthulhu adventures. Last year, I even got to playtest a scenario involving a WWI German airship, and something nasty brought back from an archaeological dig.

He gave me a number of good suggestions, and even pointed me to the relevant message threads on, but the one that stuck out was The Brockford House. I had to dig out my old 4th Edition rulebook to find the scenario, but it had everything except the research. That’s the one I picked.

So, for the past few days, I’ve been building a research section for the game, and developing props for the game. Because, as any CoC player knows, it’s all about the handouts. And making neat props for games is just a lot of fun – having a newspaper clipping or page from an ancient tome that looks like a newspaper clipping or page from an ancient tome really increases player immersion in the experience and suspension of disbelief.

I’ve been aided in prop making by the good folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, most specifically by their Prop and Font CD. I’ve been using it to put together newspaper clippings and some pages from… other sources.

Here’s a little tip about aging paper for games that I picked up back when I was studying drama at University: soak the paper in cold tea for about 15-20 minutes, then dry it flat. If you want a ragged, distressed sort of edge to the paper, tear it while it’s soaking wet – it gives you a much more worn, interesting looking edge to the page. Do this after writing or printing on it. That’s important.

A lot of you probably already knew that, but maybe it’ll be useful for someone.

Anyway, I’m all excited about the game tomorrow night. I think it’ll be fun. And after we play this one-shot, I’m going to test-drive the Trail of Cthulhu rules with the intro scneario provided.

I’ll let you know how things go.

The Bribe(TM)

So, what do you do if you want to make sure that your players produce a little bit of character background?

I want my players’ characters to be tied into the game world. I want them to have home towns, family, and reasons for doing what they do. It gives me handles for writing adventures that will appeal to them and hook them in, and it lets me give certain characters a little bit of the spotlight when needed by pulling in something from their backstory.

Some players will automatically write up a complete history for their character. Sometimes it’ll be multiple pages, with great detail, family trees, accounts of first love and best friends, and all the secret tragedies of their lives. They do this as a matter of course, in an attempt to solidify their characters before play begins. I tend to fall into this category.

Others come up with a name, then sit back with an exhausted sigh, glad all the heavy lifting’s done.

And, as gamers get older and develop outside lives and families and jobs and interests, some start out to be the first kind, but wind up being the second kind.

What to do?

The first thing I tried was to make three pages of character background mandatory: if you want to play in my game, you’ve got to write three pages of background for your character.

Bad idea.

See, I’m a word-whore. I’m a technical writer by profession. I’ll write a thousand words about what I had for breakfast. I toss off three-page backgrounds in my sleep. So, three pages is nothing to me.

Three pages is a lot to some people, though. And when I made it mandatory, I got people promising to get it to me and never delivering. I got players deciding not to play in my game, because they’d have to write the background. Worse, I got people deciding not to play in my game because their significant other didn’t want to play because of having to write the background.

Not the effect I was looking for, at all.

So, I decided to steal from Amber. Say what I will about Amber, there’s a ton of good ideas in the game.

In Amber, you can make contributions to the game in order to get extra points to build your characters. This is a rather stunning idea because:

  1. The contributions are OUTSIDE of play. Things like recording quotes, bringing snacks, creating stories and art, etc.
  2. The reward is MECHANICAL. You actually get stuff that helps your character in the game.
  3. It is VOLUNTARY. No one has to make a contribution.
  4. It is SEDUCTIVE. Almost everyone winds up making a contribution. Certainly everyone in the game I ran did.

And so I instituted The Bribe(TM)*.

I did not require background from my characters anymore, except for some very basic things demanded by the system (Race and class in D&D, the phases in SotC and DFRPG, etc.) Instead, I offer some game benefit for each page of background they give me, up to a maximum (usually three). They can give me more, but the benefits top out at the maximum.

Sometimes, I make special requests, such as having a short list of questions that must be answered in the background, or asking them to create a little bit of the world outside their character. In cases like this, I usually set the minimum amount of material at a half-page. Format doesn’t matter; full prose is fine, bullet lists are fine; hell, if they want to write it in a series of sonnets, I’m good with that.

So far, in the games where I’ve used this (most of the games I run, that is), everyone has gone for the full bribe. Even the people who hate writing up background.

To use the Bribe(TM) most effectively, I’ve found the following considerations useful:

  • Make the reward significant. If the reward is an extra bonus to an attribute, the players will go for it. If it’s a healing potion, they probably won’t. It’s got to be something that will make a difference throughout play.
  • Give them options. Give them a number of options of things that count towards the Bribe(TM). Let them pick from a list of rewards.
  • Make them choose. If you’ve got a list of rewards, limit the number of times they can take a given reward. I usually say that you can choose each item only once.
  • Not all rewards need to be equal. The first time I used this in a D&D game, the rewards were +2 to a single stat, an extra feat, and a masterwork item. The first two rewards are pretty tempting, but the third one is only useful until magic items start cropping up**. Still, everyone wound up with a masterwork item because, if you’ve written two pages of background, you might as well write a third, even if the reward isn’t as cool.
  • Be aware that you are changing the power of the starting characters. Adjust the challenges accordingly, or they’re just going to dance through the adventures. This will follow them throughout the game, so bear it in mind. Just toughen up the opposition a little.
  • Use the stuff they give you. Show them that it’s valued and appreciated, and incorporate it into the game. DO NOT use it to smack them down, but DO use it to personalize things. This is a tough balancing act, but pay attention to how your players react to things to find the sweet spot.
  • Set a deadline. Do not start play until you have all the Bribes(TM) delivered to you, or take away the rewards from the late folks. You can return the rewards later, once the Bribes(TM) are complete, but make sure that only people who complete the Bribe(TM) get the rewards. Otherwise, you wind up with the same discrepancy in material I started this whole mess with.

Give it a try with the next game you start. Hell, you don’t have to wait that long; easy enough to drop it into an ongoing campaign, and give the players the rewards to improve their characters.

Just a little something that I’ve found useful.

*I added the (TM) later, after I decided that it worked, the players liked it, and the other GMs in our group started using it. Standard question when talking about creating characters for a new game is, “What’s the Bribe(TM)?”

**This was not actually the case in that campaign, because of some house rules on weapons acquiring enchantment based on the heroic deeds they were used for, but anyway…

It Is Accomplished: The End of Broken Chains

Seven years ago, I started running a D&D campaign with the brand new D&D 3.0 system, called Broken Chains. I wrote a 90,000 word game world, and designed a campaign arc with a beginning, middle, and end. From the very beginning, it was created to be a finite campaign, with a storyline that ran through the entire thing, and an actual, planned ending.

Last night, it ended.

And I think it ended well.

I was worried about how to wrap it up in a satisfying manner for the players, all of whom had devoted years of their lives to playing their characters and contributing to the game. I didn’t want it to just fade away, nor did I want to force it into my vision of what the appropriate ending was. After all this time, I needed it to end in a way that worked for me, and that worked for them. They had to feel that the story was over, and it was okay to walk away from their characters.

I think we’ve all run or played in campaigns that didn’t end the way we wanted them to. Sometimes, that’s fine, if the ending is still satisfying, or if an unsatisfying game just dies under its own weight. The latter situation is far from ideal, but sometimes you just have to shoot a sick dog. I’m willing to bet that a number of us have had campaigns end in ways that are deeply unsatisfying, either because they fade away, or the ending that comes doesn’t work for us.

I really, really didn’t want that for this game. We’d all spent too much time in this world, with this story, to let it end in a way that was unworthy of all the good stuff that had gone before.

I thought about this for a long time. I literally agonized over it. After all the work we’d put in, I wanted the ending to be perfect. And I couldn’t figure out a way to do that.

I knew what the final confrontation was going to be: helping a small group of ancient heroes from the dawn of the current age of the world finally defeat a proto-god that was rising to depose the God and Goddess who had given birth to the world. I had stats for everything worked out, and it was going to be a tough, tough fight. But that’s the way it should be, because this was for all the marbles. And I kept having these horrible visions of dice, and how they can turn on you and betray all the careful story building you’ve done.

Finally, I decided to do the last session narratively, without dice.

This was a huge step for me, because I tend to hate diceless games. I ran an Amber game for a time, and it was a nightmare for me as a GM, though it produced some of the greatest roleplaying I have ever been privileged to be part of.

My main complaint about Amber is that its system pretty much isn’t one. I felt that there just wasn’t enough to the game to support me as GM, to give me the tools to build and adjudicate play sessions well. I know that people with disagree with me, but that’s the way I feel. Maybe one day I’ll devote a post to my philosophy of game system as storytelling toolbox, but not today.

Anyway, I knew that, if I was going to go diceless, I needed to build in some sort of structure. So, here’s what I did:

  1. I got a piece of graph paper and wrote out a list of possible outcomes, everything from the slaying of the big bad, to the deaths of the heroes, the shattering of the world, the deaths of gods, the destruction of magic, etc. Some were positive, some were negative, and some were simply collateral damage that might occur.
  2. Beside each of the outcomes, I outlined a number of empty boxes commensurate with how hard I wanted it to be for that outcome to be achieved. So, for the death of the big bad, I outlined 20 boxes, while for the death of each individual PC, I outlined 6 boxes.
  3. I gave each player 6 poker chips to use as narrative interrupts, and I gave myself 12. By spending a poker chip, a player could forestall and interfere with the narrative of the enemy, or assist an ally. I could do the same with my 12 chips.
  4. I explained to the players that I would describe a scene, and then go around in a circle to let everyone describe the actions of their characters. When they did something that advanced one of the outcomes on my sheet (which I didn’t show them), I would mark off a box beside that outcome. If it affected multiple outcomes, I would mark a box beside each. When all the boxes beside an outcome were filled in, that outcome was accomplished.
  5. I told them that they were in the Godtime, and not to be worried about mechanics or what was on their character sheets, but to stay true to their characters, and do the kinds of things they would want to be told for millennia, and written down in holy texts, and discussed by anthropologists, and turned into action movies.
  6. I also told them that they could, at any time, decide that their character would make an heroic sacrifice, dying to achieve an important end, and that would trump pretty much anything else.

And that’s the way we ran it.

It took a little while for them to get into the spirit of it; it was hard to explain exactly the kind of thing I was looking for without influencing them too much. I needed the encounter to reflect what they wanted, not what I wanted.

It worked.

They destroyed the big bad in very unexpected ways, first splitting the composite 5-in-1 deity into it’s individual parts, slaying three parts of it, forcing one part to bow to their mastery, and allowing the final part to try to redeem herself.

They almost killed the Father, god of the sky and sun, by calling on too much of his power. They did kill six saints by invoking their power in the battle.

They destroyed magic utterly.

They broke the protective bubble between their world and the multiverse, allowing controlled planar travel for the first time in the history of the world.

They saved the heroes that had held the godling at bay, though just barely and only through sacrifice.

And at the end of things, when they had fulfilled the prophecies of the Weirds and become the Redeemers of the Land, Mother Earth and Father Sky passed their power to the characters to dispose of as they wished.

I wasn’t sure what the characters would do then. They could have elevated some of the surviving saints to godhood, or given it to the near-god hero who had held the 5-in-1 godling in check for 15,000 years, or they could pass the power to others, or they could take it on themselves.

In the end, after some interesting roleplaying debate over the decision, they decided to take on the mantles of gods themselves.

We finished the evening with them ordering their pantheon, describing their focus as gods, deciding on their objectives and values, rebuilding magic and psionics, and establishing their relationship with other beings of power in the world. And then we collectively described the new world a thousand years down the road.

It was a good world. Not perfect, but a good world.

And we closed the curtain on the game.

I think it was a good ending.

My thanks to all the players, past and present, who helped to make this experience one to remember. Chris, Penny, and Clint made it all the way through; Erik left but returned; and Michael and Sandy gave us a good start, but couldn’t stay with us to the end.

It has been a pleasure to share this world and game with you.

Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall
I gently rise and softly call
Goodnight, and joy be with you all

No Roles – Board and Card Games

A friend of mine dropped off a new board game with me tonight. He bought it, but he doesn’t have time to work through the rules and figure out how to play so that he can teach the rest of us, so he’s leaving that to me.

I don’t mind. I like board games. And card games. They’re a fun diversion when you want to game, but you can’t get the whole group together for an RPG, or you don’t want to devote the energy to an RPG, or you have non-RPG-players in the group, or you just want something different.

It got me thinking about board and card games that I like, and why I like them. Here are three of my favourites:

Arkham Horror

This is probably the most popular game in my collection. It has a great mix of strategy, random surprises, and truly fiendish challenges. It also gets played less than it’s popularity would seem to indicate; it’s a long game, it takes a long time to set up, and it takes a long time to put away.

Especially the way we play, with all three supplements.

It also looks rather intimidating to newcomers. Having said that, it’s really a pretty simple game, once you get the basics down. The turn sequence is easy to pick up on, and the rest is just reading the cards and rolling the dice. We played a couple of weeks ago, with a player who was completely new to the game, and she picked it up pretty fast.

Co-operation rules in this game – if you don’t work together, you lose. Talking to each other, parceling out tasks, and carrying them out is central to victory.

It also does a nice job of capturing some of the feel of the source material, with horrific monsters, impending doom, rampant insanity, and the advent of an Elder God to worry about.

It’s not perfect, though. The aforementioned set-up and pack-up time (I’ve got it down to about 20 minutes each, which is not bad for over a thousand different pieces) is a barrier: I don’t set up for less than two other players, because it’s just too much work. Play time is also a factor; I’ve finished a game in under an hour, but that was really a fluke. Generally, I figure on about 5-6 hours for a complete game. That’s long. And in the last game, we found a nasty little quirk with one of the characters that makes her pretty much invulnerable as she spirals down in madness and maimings.

One thing we found was very useful for speeding play was to have one person, who is also playing a character, act as a sort of referee and timekeeper, calling the different phases and keeping everyone on task.

Still, every time we play, everyone has a blast. It’s worth the effort and time, but not every day.

Fury of Dracula

This is another fun game from Fantasy Flight. And every game we play, my friend Clint and I are amazed once again at the complex, delicate balance of the thing. It works best with five players: four hunters and one Dracula, and it really comes down to a question of strategy and skill between the two sides.

I’ve run the game as a demo at stores and conventions, and I’ve seen how easy it is to set Dracula up for a loss just by placing him in a sub-optimal starting position. But even the optimal starting positions don’t make his victory a lock. Using his powers, choosing his route, timing his attacks, placing his traps, all these things are vital to his success.

On the other side of the table, the hunters have their own strengths. Each has his or her own special ability which, when used wisely and creatively, can really turn the game around.

Dracula’s hidden movement system is beautiful, and is one of the interesting balance items. So is the order of player turns, the arrangement of event cards, the mix of cities and their locations on the board, and the mix of encounters Dracula can play with. In fact, everything about the game contributes to the game balance in interesting ways. From a design perspective, the game is beautiful.

It also generally plays in under two hours, and sets up and tears down in a total of about twelve minutes, which makes it good for a spur of the moment game.

The one thing that seems a little out of place in the game is that there are a couple of event cards that come up randomly that give a big, big boost to one side or the other. Now, the balance between the two sides with these cards is fairly equal, but it seems like a real blow when Dracula gets to relocate for free, breaking his trail on you, or the hunters get to reveal Dracula’s current location.

The only other downside is the combat system is a little convoluted and arcane. Until you play through it a couple of times, it doesn’t make much sense. Once you’ve got it down, though, it’s slick and interesting.

Still, a fun game.

Deluxe Illuminati

If you don’t know this game, I’ve really gotta ask you what you’re doing reading a blog primarily devoted to gaming.

Illuminati’s been around for decades, and is one of those nasty little games that just grabs you and hooks you. Play is generally quick, schemes abound, and backstabbing is pretty much required. Everyone loves it, everyone gets into it, and everyone gangs up on me.

Every time.

And still, I love it.

When you throw in the expansion sets, the game gets pretty strange, but that’s what you want with this game. Finding out that the Boy Sprouts are a front for the Colombian Cocaine Growers, who are controlled by the UFOs just makes too much sense some times.

What’s great about the game? All the groups, the mechanics to let you mess with other players, the good-natured betrayals, the quick changes of fortune, and the mass of deals struck and rejected.

What’s not so great about the game? Well, some of the cards are kind of dated now. And everyone gangs up on me.

Every time.

But I’m not bitter.

Anyway, it’s a great game. You should be playing it.

And there you have it. I’m going to talk about a few more games I like next time. Check back.

We’re All In This Together

**Warning** The following post is a lot more rambling than a lot of my other posts. Caveat Lector.

Lately, I’ve become enamoured of co-operative world-building for games.

As an idea, anyway.

I’ve been reading Mortal Coil, and listening to the That’s How We Roll podcasts about building the setting for Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints. When my friend Clint started his new D&D campaign, he threw it open for the players to create chunks of the setting. And that was fun.

My long-running D&D campaign is wrapping up next weekend, and another game I run is going to be wrapping up in a few (3-4) months, so I’m starting to think about the next game. And I’m toying with the idea of building the world collaboratively.

I’m torn, though.

Here are the pros, as far as I’m concerned:

  • Real buy-in from the characters. If they make something up, they’re going to care about it.
  • Ideas I could never have come up with. Other people are going to think of things I never would have, and that’s going to create a world with a different flavour than I would have on my own.
  • It shows me, as GM, where the players want the focus of the game far better than just getting them to tell me.
  • The players will have a better knowledge of the world they created than if I create something on my own and expect them to read it. ‘Cause I know that some of them won’t.

Here are the cons:

  • I’ve got to live with the results, even if I don’t like them.
  • Fewer surprises for the players.
  • Players need to make a bigger up-front investment of participation than they may be used to. They have to want to do it.
  • Some may create more than others.
  • I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out.

In the middle is the question of verisimilitude: Which way makes the most real-feeling setting? The one with the single, unified vision or the one with the wider range of input? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I probably won’t until after I try the collaborative method. Maybe not even then.

Different approaches address the issues in different ways. Mortal Coil uses a co-operative set-up of a Theme Document to set the generalities, and then a chip-buy process in game to add facts during play. With the resource-based way to add facts, it means that each player has the same ability to influence the world, and those who jump in first wind up with less ability to jump in later.

The question method used in the Faith, Faces, and Fingerprints makes sure that each player (including the GM) is forced to contribute a certain amount. This gets everyone’s input, but it can put some players on the spot, and it means that certain players may not want to take part.

In my friend’s game, he threw out a large number of pieces that we could take and flesh out, if we wanted, and provided some rewards to encourage us to do so. This led to pretty much everyone doing at least a little creation centred around our characters, though some did more and some did less.

I think that it’s fairly necessary to come to a collaborative session with a foundation to build from; Mortal Coil builds this with the Theme Document, while in the other two examples, the GM brought the basics and others embellished. Clint had a much more solid world built, leaving a number of niches to the players, while the Evil Hat folks had much less of a filled-in structure to start with.

Of course, depending on the rules set you use, you may find some of the particulars of the setting dictated by the rules. If you’re building for D&D, you either fit in all the D&D stuff, or you have to explain why it’s not there to (or with) the players. A more open rules set, like FATE or Mortal Coil, lets you build the rest of the game on top of the setting, without having to worry so much about that.

I’m greatly enamoured of the Mortal Coil world-building, but I absolutely hate the resolution mechanic. If I were to marry the world design with FATE, possibly using FATE points in place of Magic Tokens, it might work. The one downside to the Mortal Coil world system is that it’s hard, really hard, for the GM to prep anything before the setting building, because there’s nothing to work with yet.

On the other hand, if you design too much of the setting, and the campaign story, before hand, it limits the meaningful input for the players. So, another dichotomy to resolve.

We did some collaborative setting building in our DFRPG playtest, producing Magical Winnipeg. It was quite a success, though we did it mostly by e-mail, with me collating and parsing all the input.

We’ve also really embraced collaborative character creation, in pretty much all our games, to make sure the character types work well together, and decide why we’re together, and to help each other with our ideas and concepts.

I realize that the right way to create a campaign is whatever way produces a fun game. I know I can build the standard kind of campaign and have it work. Now, I’m toying with the idea of building a collaborative setting to see how that works out.

I dunno, though.

Any input from you folks would be welcome. What do you find good/bad about collaborative setting design? What methods do you use? How much of a foundation do you start with? What rules sets do you game with? How does it work, or not? Talk to me.

“I’m Sorry, But That’s What My Character Would Do.”

Good god, I’ve come to dread that sentence in games.

Most of you recognize it, right? The cry of the dedicated roleplayer when a character choice causes problems.

“I have to be true to the character.”

No matter what the cost. That’s what being a true roleplayer is all about right?

Once upon a time, I would have agreed with that. But after several years (Hell, who am I kidding? After nearly three decades!) of gaming, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

Let’s look at the evolution of me as a gamer, because I’m going to assume I’m pretty typical for gamers in my age bracket. Yeah, that’s a big assumption, but I’m trying to make a point here. How about we suspend judgment for a bit, and just go along for the ride?

When I started gaming, back in high school, it was all about the hack ‘n’ slash. Kill things, take their stuff, repeat until you collapse. It was fun, and I still run one of those games today for a group of beer-and-pretzel gamers.

But after a while, I wanted something more out of gaming. In the heady days of the ’80s, I delved into more and more complex systems, looking for more realistic simulations. While this held my interest, the more complex rules meant I had more problems finding people to play with.

So, things turned around again with the publication of Vampire: The Masquerade. Simple system, strong emphasis on storytelling and characterization. And that’s the way I went. Right into the heart of being a completely dedicated true character roleplayer.

And that’s where the problems came in.

See, another character in the game did something that infuriated my character, and passed it off as, “Sorry, but that’s what my character would do.” This led to my character (who was a bit of a prick, truth to tell) retaliating in petty little ways. And her character would retaliate. And so on.

By the time the campaign wrapped up, we had been playing the last several years with the GM and the other players and even us going through these bizarre contortions to get the entire party together in the same place, or working on the same problem. When really, they should have killed each other off long before.

I swear to God, it was like the A-Team. Every week, you wonder how they’re going to get Mr. T on the airplane, and the methods get crazier and stupider.

And here’s my point:

It’s a game.

You’re there to play. With other people. Who also want to have fun.

Now, I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t play their characters, or that the experience shouldn’t be immersive, but you gotta keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is for everyone to have fun.


Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this the past couple of days.

I’ve started playing in a new D&D campaign with my group, and one of the players is the one who played the character that my character feuded with all through the Vampire campaign. Saturday night, we butted heads again, our characters pushing each others’ buttons, and getting into a situation where, for a while there, I thought that I was going to have to retire my character or face a repeat of the whole Vampire campaign.

(“C’mon, BA, just drink the milk. We didn’t drug it this week!”)

But I made my character make a gesture of conciliation to her character. Then she sent me some e-mail the next day, saying, “Let’s figure out how to make this work between our characters so that we don’t go down that road again.”

And you know what? We did.

Over the course of a few e-mail exchanges, we turned a potentially disasterous encounter into a bonding experience for our characters.


We communicated. We explained where we were each coming from in playing our characters the way we had. And then we did a few in-character conversations via e-mail. And now, our characters are closer and more loyal to each other than they were before the incident. They respect and understand each other more. And they’ve each grown in interesting ways.

Notice I said that the characters have grown, not that the characters have changed. Nothing about how we see our characters has been invalidated; if anything the whole experience really reinforced our concepts. But they’ve expanded and deepened, in ways that work.

We met each other half-way, and turned what could have been a really souring experience into a positive one. I can’t wait for the next session.

So, I’ve come to see the cry of, “But that’s what my character would do!” as a bit of a selfish grab for the spotlight. It only gets said when the culprit has brought a problem into the gaming experience. Notice I didn’t say, “Into the game.” Complications from character actions in-game are fine. But the phrase is usually only trotted out when there’s a real impact on the fun for the players or GM.

It’s a lame excuse.

Be true to your character, but be truer to your friends in the real world. You’re there to have fun, and so are they. Keep that in mind when you make choices for your character, and consider what the impact will be on the play experience for the rest of the people sitting around the living room with you. Roleplaying is a co-operative endeavour; make sure you do your part to make it fun for everyone.

And when problems crop up, as they will, as they did for Penny and I on Saturday, work it out. Communicate. Compromise. Co-operate. If you meet each other half-way, you can turn a potential problem into a real nice moment for both characters.

And now I’m getting down off my soapbox.

Game On VI: The Final Friday Game


We rejoin our intrepid heroes outside the Legislature, having followed their now-functioning magical compass to the building after leaving Mad Cowz territory. The compass has stopped working again, and is just spinning in circles*, so they can’t get a good pinpoint on their quarry, the warlock Demissie. There follows some discussion about whether to go in immediately, or to wait until after nightfall, when the civilians will have cleared out.

In the end, they decide that it’s too dangerous to wait, and need to go in now. But how to bring all their hardware with them past the metal detectors and sheriff’s deputies guarding the entry? After significant debate, they decide that Rowan will veil herself and carry the weapons in, after the other three have already entered. This works fine, but shorts out the metal detectors and crashes the computer at the security station because of the magical interference. Not a huge deal, but enough to make the characters nervous.

They meet down in the washrooms in the basement, near the cafeteria, and gear up. Rowan tells them that the building was constructed according to mystical principles, and lays out a few of the big ones – the giant statue to Hermes on roof, the sacrificial star pit, the main stairs with three sets of thirteen risers, the statues of Hermaphroditus, the use of the golden ratio in the structure, the statue of Moses with horns…** They decide, based on what they know of Demissie and his flavour of magic, that the most likely place to find him is in the star chamber with the Hermaphroditic pillars at the bottom of the sacrifice pit.

They don’t find any sign of him down there, but Gerhardt notices that the urns by the pillars have been moved slightly, and people seem to avoid walking through the centre of the star. They do some more investigating, but don’t find anything else of note, and start attracting the attention of one of the security guards when Rowan starts moving the urns around.

Faced with this, Rowan decides to risk using the Sight. She finds a bench near the wall, sits down, and opens her third eye. She sees the place as an ancient temple to the power of Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-Great God of Magic, and manifesting the union of the male and female, divine and mortal, in the form of Hermaphroditus. She also sees a tortured ghost, wrapped in barbed chains, bound to each of the twelve pillars in the place, and magic gathering at a bloodstained altar in the centre of the star, presided over by a dark, malevolent shadow.

She closes her third eye and blasts at the centre of the star, deducing that the black shadow she saw was Demissie. Unfortunately, her blast isn’t powerful enough to break the veil and ward that have been set up. Demissie responds with a mental attack, sending the shrieking ghosts he has slain into her head, and rattling her a fair bit.

Taking his cue from Rowan’s attack, Legion launches himself at the middle of the star, but is blocked by the ward, formed out of tortured, bound spirits, which wrenches at his brain. Gerhardt uses his kinetomancy to smash all the urns, thinking to break the circle that way, and Elaine starts clearing the civilians and security guards from the room.

Rowan, already very taxed by the magic she’s been throwing around, pulls out all the stops and tears away the wards and barriers around Demissie, revealing him and his small table of ritual implements in the middle of the room. He responds by loosing the twelve bound ghosts and sending him at the heroes. Gerhardt tries to topple the pillars of the room to break up the magical flows, but loses control of his kinetomancy, sending a destructive pulse of force out in a broad splash rather than a focused blast. This topples a couple fo the pillars, splits the marble floor, and tosses everyone around a bit.

Legion and Elaine make short work of Demissie once his defenses are down, and Rowan drives herself almost to collapse banishing the ghosts. The threat ended, our valiant heroes run for the hills before the security guards get it together enough to detain them.

And they all lived happily ever after, because it’s just a playtest.


  • While there are detailed rules in the playtest package for hexing equipment, they’re pretty involved. The author suggests instead to just wing it, which I did, and it worked fine.
  • After three sessions, the two spellcasters were getting pretty good at figuring out how to do off-the-cuff magic, including tapping into the power of the Hermetic Temple to power their stuff.
  • The minion system from Spirit of the Century works nicely for things like the twelve ghosts attacking our heroes in a very cinematic vein, but I’m not sure it’s got the entirely right feel for the books. Then again, I sure wouldn’t want to run the final battle from Summer Knight or the zombie-stomp from Dead Beat without it.

So, those are the six playtest sessions done. I’m taking a bit of a break from Dresden Files now; just writing up a report for Evil Hat, and then taking a breather. Six sessions over three weeks is a lot, and I need to put it aside to avoid burnout. Besides, I’ve been pushing a number of other games in our group off the schedule for this one, and we need to get back to them.

Having said that, my group has expressed interest in a continuing game, so we will be back again.

And I’m probably going to start talking about the other games I run or play in on this blog, so you may find something of interest.

Don’t be strangers.


*Thanks to Demissie sensing the destruction of the decoy doll and throwing up a veil.

** All of which are real.

Game On V: The Last Monday Game


We pick up back in Assiniboine Forest, just after nightfall, in the killing cold, after killing another ogre. Christian and Paul have a heart-to-heart about how Christian’s a FRIGGIN’ GHOUL! While this is going on, Anne spots shapes moving in the shadows, surrounding our heroes.

Paul conjures some light, catching all the wyldfae in their furs, feathers, and beads stalking through the dark winter forest. They freeze for a moment, then Crazy Tomcomes in and extends the invitation of the Bramble King to join him at his court for an audience, as Christian had requested. They agree, and follow the fae company to a mound of brush in the middle of the forest, and through a stone doorway into the Bramble King’s hall. Along the way, Anne warns the others about the dangers of faerie food and drink, and how fae cannot lie or break a promise.

It’s a cross between a faerie mound and a native lodge, with a huge central fire-pit and blankets and tapestries hanging on the wall. There are scores of fae inside, dancing, drinking, and eating, and they all go silent when the characters enter. Crazy Tom announces them to the Bramble King, a two-foot-tall, porcupine-like little man seated on an antler throne on a little dais carried around by a troll. He invites them to sit with him around a sumptuous feast, which none of them touch.

The war council doesn’t go very well. None of the four wish to pledge themselves to serve the Bramble King (except Lucky, but he doesn’t want to swear anything until he hears the reciprocal pledge), and the Bramble King doesn’t seem to want to offer anything unless the oaths are made. He even tempts Anne with a cure for her sister, but she doesn’t trust him enough to bite. Finally, the Bramble King sees that he’s not getting anywhere, calls them all cowards, and vanishes along with his court and hall, leaving our heroes sitting in the snow and dark.

Now they’re pissed.

They retire to Archangel Fireworks to talk about their options and to load up on supplies. They decide that they’re not going to walk away from a battle between the faeries, internal matter or no, and that they really want to show up the Bramble King. So, they go off to First Folio to see if Artemis Black has a copy of the Unseelie Accords and the Covenant of the Consecration of the Two Waters. The Unseelie Accords fill roughly a hundred volumes, too much for them to get through in one night, so they go looking through the Covenant to see if they can find a loophole.

And find it they do. The actions of the Winter Court constitute an external invasion against the Assiniboine Ramble, one of the protected powers of the Consecration of the Two Waters, and the mortal casualties show that the engagement is spilling over onto other protected parties. With the proper invocation and sacrifice, it is possible to gain the blessing of the Two Waters to act as champions and intercede in the matter.

With that idea, everyone goes and gets some money for the sacrifice, warm clothes, and weapons, and they all meet at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. Out on the ice at the confluence, Paul conducts the ritual sacrifice and asks for the blessing of the spirits. He gets it, and uses his Sight to confirm that the Two Waters spirits are pleased.

Then it’s back once more to Assiniboine Forest in the cold and dark, to the closed portal to the Nevernever. Paul tears it open with only minor problems for him and his companions, and they troop through into the stronghold of the Winter Court noble leading the attack. After a desperate run through the snow while being chased by rimehounds, they get to the lodge of the noble, and demand entry. When the doormen are a bit too slow to respond, Christian takes the decision out of their hands, and the door off its hinges.

Inside, after a little conversation, they are faced by a very angry Sidhe noble and his two ogre guardsmen. Things go rapidly to hell, and Lucky winds up putting a bullet through the noble’s forehead with the single shot he manages to get off before his gun stops working*. In the ensuing astonished pause, Christian pops the head off one of the ogres, and Paul demands that the Winter Court leave off its invasion in the name of the spirits of the Two Waters.

With the fae thus cowed, our heroes beat a hasty retreat back to the mortal world and warmth. The cold snap breaks, and each of them receive an amulet from the Bramble King. Three of them reject the gift, but Lucky seeks out the Bramble King and pledges himself to his service**.

And everyone lived happily ever after***.


  • It is incredibly fun to GM conversations with the fae. I made it a game to see how few of their questions I could answer, shifting the topic, responding with questions, and turning to new people to speak to. Throw in a few straight answers to keep ’em guessing, and it’s a hoot.
  • Nothing moves a story forward like a pissed-off PC.

* I believe he spent five Fate Points on that little trick.

**No mechanics on that, because it happened essentially out of game.

***But only because this was the last playtest session.