Always/Never/Now and Upcoming Conventions!

I’ve just returned from a trip to LA, where I tested Phoenix out on a group of friends. Most of the survived the experience. I’m going to write more about Phoenix later in the week, but I thought I’d tell you where I’m going to be in the next few weeks so you have a chance to see it for yourself. Let me know if you’ll be at any of these!

Friday, October 4th – Sunday, October 6th I’ll be at GENRECON in Guelph, Ontario. Friday night I’ll be playing Gloom & showing off the new expansion, Unquiet Dead. Saturday I’ll be running Eberron, playtesting Phoenix, and taking part in a few panels & a QA session.

Friday, October 11th – Sunday, October 13th I’ll be at G.A.M.E. in Springfield, Missouri. Friday evening I’m doing two hours of Q&A, and then I’m running Eberron and testing Phoenix on Saturday. There’s a theme here!

Saturday, October 19th – Sunday, October 20th I’ll be at GEEKGIRLCON in Seattle, Washington. Jennifer Ellis, Phoenix co-designer Dan Garrison, and I will have a demo table where we’ll be playingPhoenix, Gloom, and whatever else we feel like.

But wait! There’s more! Saturday, October 26th I’ll be playing Doom and Gloom at GUARDIAN GAMES in Portland, Oregon. Come by and try out Unquiet Dead and The Doom That Came To Atlantic City!

In addition to playtesting Phoenix last weekend, I had an opportunity to play IN a game… Will Hindmarch’s Always/Never/Now. I’ll let Will describe the game himself…

You were the best. Underground, cyberpunk street samurai, burglars and breakers, agents of a mysterious spymaster with half a name, zero history, and a plan. He made the missions and you carried them out. You were the go-to crew for high-stakes break-ins, dangerous ops, and impossible escapes. You fought the megacorps, the tyrants, the killers—all for the sake of making a better future, of beating the Technocrats at their own game of shaping tomorrow. You always won, never quit, lived in the now. 

Until, eleven years ago, he disappeared…

Now he’s back—back in trouble—and it’s up to you to save him and maybe, along the way, change the world.

Always/Never/Now is a self-contained campaign, a cyberpunk saga that plays out in thirteen scenes. It is built around six characters that are provided with the campaign, and derives much of its mechanics from John Harper’s excellent Lady Blackbird. A few of the things I love about the system:

  • Every character has its own path to success. If I’m playing the comic-relief con artist, I get XP when I tell people a lie and they believe me; when I make players laugh; and when I escape from a bad situation. Unlike many games, where the best way for a blacksmith to become a better blacksmith is to kill a goblin, here I get better by doing the things that define my character.
  • Often, one or more of these keys apply to the players, not just the characters. The “leader” character gets XP if other players follow a plan he comes up with. So it’s not just arbitrarily stated that he’s the leader; it’s up to him to BE such a good leader that everyone chooses to follow his plans (and actually, there’s two characters with this key, so there’s competition for the role!). The first time I played A/N/N was just after playing a bard in another game. In that game it didn’t really make any difference if I was entertaining. As the con artist in A/N/N, I got experience when I got the PLAYERS to laugh – which meant being entertaining wasn’t just a color choice, it was something worth working at. Essentially, it helped blur the lines between character and player, and made me really feel like I WAS the character.
  • The system has many elements that encourage players to develop the story behind their actions. As con artist Alex, if I wanted to bluff someone, I could just roll a single die. But I also had a list of tags, and for each tag I worked into the description of my action, I got an extra die. So how could “cash” play into the scene? What about “That Smile”, or “Something Like Sincerity”? Determining which tags applied made a challenge more than just a roll; it got me thinking about the scene.

Some people might balk at the fact that the adventure uses pregenerated characters. There’s a lot of reasons for this. The six characters are a well-balanced, versatile team. Will’s put a lot of thought into their capabilities and tags. More than that, they each have a role in the story – and as the saga unfolds, you really get to know them. One fun twist is that each character has a number of flashback scenes that can be sprinkled through the story – glimpses of the characters’ lives before the spymaster disappeared (and a technique Will and I wrote about in 2004 in Friends of the Dragon for Feng Shui). There’s lots of room to make these characters your own. For example, Alex the con man is described as having tried to launch a “failed street food business.” When I played Alex, I decided this was Faux Pho – a diet vegan Vietnamese option for “when you want a taste that’s almost like food.” In this last session, John Rogers decided Alex was backing Happy FunCo Space Pizza And Sushi, and invented an elaborate story about people’s nostalgia for a failed moon colony that he hoped would drive business his way.

It’s a different sort of experience from creating your own story from scratch. But it’s like reading a good book or watching a movie. The characters help DEFINE the world and draw you into it. Combined with the keys (which encouraged you to act like the character) and the way that your abilities also encourage you to think about the character, it’s easy to get attached to this crew. After playing for just four hours, one of the players in the last session said that it was “one of those incredible moments in an RPG where you feel like you’re going to cry, because you’re so invested in the story.”

Anyhow, I could rave on for a few more hours about how awesome this game is, but why don’t you see for yourself? The PDF is available right now, for the amazing price of WHATEVER YOU WANT TO PAY FOR IT. If you enjoy cyberpunk, it’s worth reading just for the ideas. And if you have a chance to play it, well, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years. Of course, I had the advantage of having a Will Hindmarch in the box to run it – but Will or not, it’s definitely worth a look.

Six Questions: Will Hindmarch

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My guest this week is designer WILL HINDMARCH. He does an excellent job of covering his career at his website. In short, he is a writer, gamer designer, and extremely clever person. Over the years we have collaborated on a number of things. We worked together on the Feng Shui sourcebook Friends of the Dragon, which may (absolutely no guarantees) be one of the first places where flashbacks are suggested as an RPG story mechanic. Years later Will invited me to take part in his anthology The Bones: Us and Our Dice. Later still I had a chance to play in his cyberpunk adventure Always/Never/Now, which was one of the most entertaining roleplaying experiences I can recall. This doesn’t begin to touch on the scope of his work… like I said, check his bio. And now, let’s get to the questions!

Who are you? Please answer in exactly five words. 

Writer, designer, gamer, mooncalf? Word.

What have you done over the last decade?

Not enough. Since 2002, either on staff or as a freelancer, I’ve put a fingerprint on something like 100+ publications, mostly in the game sector, and it still feels like I’m lagging behind prized contemporaries and luminaries.

In the past decade, I’ve gotten married, moved from city to city a few times, and learned a lot about writing, design, development, and production from some of the gaming hobby’s most-skilled people. I’ve achieved a few long-term goals from my past but I have a lot more still waiting to be realized. I’ve sailed on the surface and I’ve scraped the bottom of the sea, but at least I’m still here, chasing new goals. Advance, setback, pirouette, onward.

The big thing that I’ve done in the past ten years and get to know some of my favorite game designers, writers, and other creative folk in a way that goes beyond fan mail or a handshake. I count myself incredibly lucky for the company I’m allowed to keep. I’m surrounded by intimidating talents and wonderful hearts and cunning minds and while I haven’t yet made the mark (or all the games and books) that I so desperately wanted to make by this point, I am better primed to do those things now than I was before. I remain hopeful, most days.

Always, Never, or Now?

I wish the answer was “always.” I fear the answer is “never.” I know it isn’t “now.”

What’s your favorite game you didn’t create?

Tricky, this one. I have created a number of games close to zero. Most of my work has been on other people’s games, expansions, and supplements. Vexing.

Truth is, I am near-sighted when it comes to favorites—my favorite game is often the one that I am obsessed with in the moment, so not only does my favoritism juke and weave, it often doubles back and leads me through the woods to familiar groves after years away. Which is to say, I don’t know. I’ve singled out Castle Falkenstein as an answer to this question a few times, but there have been times when my favorite game was Wraith: The Oblivion, the Saga system (whether it’s powering fantastical or super-heroic roleplaying), and I’m plainly a sucker for the confluence of mechanics that make up Lady Blackbird. I’ve been playing a whole lot of 7 Wonders for the last year or so, too; I admire that game rather a lot.

But my favorite game? It’s probably Thief: The Dark Project. That’s the most engaged and captivated I have ever been in actual play, and I was engaged and captivated something close to my maximum amount by that game. It builds a terrific world, tells a great tale, features wonderful characterization and mechanics, and is probably the most frightening game I have ever played.

If you were trapped on a desert island, what three dice would you take?

Probably 2d6 and 1d10. I can play a whole lot of my favorite RPGs with the sweet curve of 2d6 and the nice simple determination of a single ten-sider. Plus, if I can tally in the sand or make tick-marks on the tree(s), I can track successes and play all manner of great games calling for more dice. The sand will become a record of adventure, grooved all over with the scrap measurements of play, maybe even gridded out with a simple board for tracking coconut goblins and sea-smoothed stones standing in for bold adventurers.

When the sailors finally row up to rescue us, I’ll hold up my finger and be like, “Let’s just finish this round to see if we can save the lost treasure.”

What’s one of your favorite ways to set the mood when you’re running an RPG?

Music. I use a lot of tricks and techniques, from small talk to cadence to lighting, but music is one of my favorites because it’s like getting a whole secondary channel of mood and information into the play space. I can say one thing and let the music support or confound those words and create a situation or atmosphere that much more nuanced than I could do with just words alone. I’ve written a fair bit about this and hope to write more. A lot of what I do with music at the game table is intuitive but I’m eager to externalize it as actionable advice one day.