The fun that is Questlandia

I got Questlandia from a Bundle of Holding a little while back, and I decided to run it for a one-shot adventure for a series while I get my group back into gaming after a long hiatus. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

I described Questlandia to my group as “Annalise as designed by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan,” because Questlandia ends after three rounds, as opposed to Annalise’s glacial progression through discovery of all things vampiric. But play-wise, they’re somewhat similar; both involve an “active player” roleplaying a scene until a conflict that gets resolved with dice, then it’s another player’s turn.

Questlandia also has tighter mechanics, too. Each player has responsibility for a particular part of the game world, so the players don’t get whipsawed by plot twists in a round-robin; if you’re not the player who answers questions about the country’s religion, you can’t suddenly make it a front for a spider demon cult. I found it helpful to have someone be “secretary” for the group; I kept telling that person, after something was said, “write that down, that’s canon.” Everything is generated in a communal style so no one is left at the end having to rectify everyone else’s continuity.

We got through two rounds of three in three hours, with various chit-chat, and it played as follows:

We generated a fantasy nation of wookie-like people obsessed with social control and run by wizards (a “Wizz-ocracy” in game terms) who were also slowly dying out but clung to their power. The country was on an island slowly sinking into the ocean, but that was less troublesome to most players than the oppressive government; most goals were about overthrowing the government, except for one traditionalist who wanted to preserve it, and my player, who was interested in keeping the island from sinking.

As play went on, opposition to the wizz-ocracy grew as events caused the wizards to draw more of the wealth into the upper class. Also there was something about a doomsday machine, a prophesied child, a secret policeman-turned-love interest, and the traditionalist player got her puppet candidate elected mayor of the country’s capital city. Fun was had by all.

Shadowrun and the Invisible Bridge

First things first: Bundle of Holding is once again offering its Ars Magica Fifth Edition deal. You can also still by Shadowrun Fourth Edition from them for another 9 days. I strongly recommend considering either; they’re both deals where you get enough sourcebooks for a campaign for the price of one core rulebook.

So, back to Shadowrun, which I bought last week and am still pondering. Fourth Edition’s rules are way less clunky, but having digested the material more fully, I think the biggest problem I have with the setting is that it assumes that, without a lot of work from the gamemaster, that you’re going to be a mercenary illegal immigrant in a U.S. megalopolis. Any trip to glistening corporate Japan or the jungles of the Amazon are just temporary gigs your undocumented slum-dwelling sellsword gets to pay the bills; at the end of the day, you’re back in Seattle or Dallas or Chicago or Boston in a crap apartment cleaning your smartlinked automatic shotgun for the next meet with the “Mr. Johnson.”

Having said that, the “I am a rootless armed drifter” kind of story works better for me not in the setting they have, but in another. I’d throw out the entire setting fiction (the year 2070, Dunzelkahn the dragon, the VITAS plague, the “crash of ’64,” south Florida seceding from the already-seceded Confederate states into the Caribbean League) and set it in an “alternate universe past” America of the 1970’s.

I just read Rick Perlstein’s social history of the 1976 presidential primaries The Invisible Bridge, and one of the really interesting things Perlstein points out is how chaotic the years 1972-1976 were for the people who lived through them. The Symbionese Liberation Army was active, as were dozens of other militant groups on left and right. America was discovering that the FBI and CIA were spying on or trying to kill nearly everyone. There was a meat shortage followed by an oil shock. 1974 saw over 80 terrorist bombings.

In short, drop elves and cybernetics in, and the only thing that changes about the 1970’s is people have more to be afraid of.

Dystopias and Johnny Dollar

So, thanks to Bundle of Holding, once the download finishes over my “I am too cheap to pay for cable and FIOS doesn’t serve my area” DSL connection, I will be the proud owner of Shadowrun 4th Edition. I’m familiar with the third edition, which I found required too many of the wrong kinds of dice at the wrong times, but was otherwise okay.

However, as I look over the rules, I feel that, like Eclipse Phase recently, I want to do a “freelance insurance investigator” campaign, as in the old radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or the anime Master Keaton. I like Johnny Dollar for the theme better, because he had the “action packed expense account” which makes justifying the expenses to your client at the end half the fun (“N¥3505 for one hundred HEAP 7.62mm rifle rounds, because Renraku’s private security attempted to actively dissuade a witness from discussing the events surrounding the loss”).

I think part of this is that I’m not a teenager playing RPGs anymore, and roleplaying a street samurai (the unaffiliated mercenaries of Shadowrun) who is living in a crappy apartment scraping together odd jobs to pay the bills has lost its luster. It’s somewhat like my immediate post-college career, but with the ability to shoot people. Don’t really want to go back to that. At least have a regular idea where your clients come from and a veneer of respectability, as opposed to, “some guy will pay you next month’s rent, half upfront, to transport this mysteriously squirming duffel bag across town; don’t open it and especially don’t fall in love with the red-haired elf inside.” Which of course you do and do, and then the next adventure is failing some other super-sketch job to pay the bills but at least you can fence the machine guns you stole off those dead security guards for rent money. Repeat every four weeks. And the elf girl left you because you sleep on an inflatable mattress that smells like industrial cleaner and random people keep kicking in your door and spraying the place with automatic weapons fire every couple of weeks, the latter she might have tolerated if you just had enough cash to invest in some real cotton sheets and a new mattress.

The other thing that appeals to me about insurance investigation is that I find a lot of Shadowrun’s backstory to cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief right there at the gaming table (e.g., breaking into uncontrollable laughter upon hearing about the parts of America ruled by elves). In order to run a “sandbox” style of campaign, for example dealing with social justice in Seattle, getting to know all the different communities and their melange of species and religious beliefs, etc., you have to be able to reconcile the setting with your imagination. As I’ve posted about Eclipse Phase and its use of terrorism and hypercorporations, for me this requires a lot of “patching” holes in the fiction where I say, “hey, I read news about law and international relations all day, and things just don’t work like that, even if cybernetic elves and nature spirits are involved.

Directing the campaign to a specific type of story — in this case, detective style insurance investigation — allows me to just gloss over it with a layer of noir. Something went wrong. Someone else stands to benefit. Should they?

With that level of understandable, real world focus, it doesn’t matter if you’re investigating the supposedly accidental breakage of a dragon’s psychic crystal throne or the murder of an orc who knew too much at a corporation named after a word picked out of a Japanese 101 textbook.

An aside: seriously, RPG designers of the late 1980’s: could you not have noticed that basically all real-life zaibatsu have family names with some form of industry attached or Anglicized names (e.g. Panasonic, formerly Matsushita Electric Industrial Company)? It’s way more likely to have Japanese bad guy companies named “Fujida Heavy Industries” or “Takeda Consumer Biochemicals” or “Futuro” than “Shiawase” (“good fortune”).

The dragons and orcs and plugging into the Matrix is how the story gets done, but isn’t the story itself. It’s a story I want to tell more than the one the setting wants me to tell.

Annalise – First two rounds

Met up with my group and ran the introductions and first foundation round of Annalise today. It was a slower start than expected, but the game is promising.

First, of course, everyone had to get on board with what was going on. One of the things about Annalise is that no one’s the “one” game master, but everyone takes turns, and some people really got tied up in knots about that, having not gamemastered before. It required a lot of prompting for people not to tell the whole story, or to make the story go somewhere. Once people got into the swing of it, it started working out.

The next issue, which still needs to be worked out, is that people weren’t claiming enough. In Annalise, you get extra points by “claiming” people, places, or things that you want to repeat in the story, and using the points while weaving the claim into the story to manipulate dice rolls. I warned them that this could be a problem like Our Last Best Hope, where you might not have enough story points to make it okay to the end, but people I think don’t yet realize the raw power of claims. I went last in the round, and I owned the heck out of a die-rolling challenge using points off my claims, so hopefully for the next session people will get it.

As far as I can tell, no too-crazy secrets. You know I was worried.

Annalise – Trying Not To Hijack the Game

So, hoping to get a session of Annalise together with my group (if I can corral those cats). Looking over the rules again, I’m trying to figure out how to avoid defining characters in a way that blows up the game.

For those of you who haven’t just spent a couple hours reading and re-reading the rules, Annalise is a round-robin storytelling RPG about a vampire (either literal or metaphorical). Everyone plays a character, and everyone takes a turn as a sort-of-gamemaster.

Mechanically, everyone has two stats. There’s vulnerability, a statement of a weak point in the character’s personality. When this drops to zero, the character risks becoming a servant of the vampire. The other stat is the secret, a fact that the character hides from everyone else in the game until an appropriately dramatic moment or when the stat drops to zero. Each of these stats pay for “satellite traits” which enable the real business of conflict resolution in the game.

However, you don’t get to pick your own secret. Everyone writes down two and then you pick from a stack. This gives everyone a chance to basically derail what everyone else is doing from the get-go if there isn’t an appropriate discussion of what sort of game we’re all expecting, you can end up with characters with all the following secrets:

  • “I can read minds.”
  • “I am a serial killer.”
  • “My foster parents locked me in a box for days when I was bad.”
  • “I am a space alien.”

And then we’re all over the place with our storytelling, like those old stories we wrote paragraph by paragraph on paper, leaving only the last sentence of each paragraph for the next person. I don’t think that’s going to be as much fun to play.

So, I’m going to, during the strongly recommended pre-game prep where all the players tell the other players not to do things that squick them out, try to get everyone on the same page.

If I have space aliens and superpowers in my gothic horror anyway, I’ll let you know.

Nobilis kvetch – Temporality

So, after spending a bunch of time tooling around with Nobilis, I’ve realized a major hurdle to the kind of deity-level campaign I want to run:

Linear time.

I was really hoping the “being a fundamental element of the universe” thing would stretch into fun rules about time and existence, but no. Like any other RPG, time runs in a straight line. Nobilis is basically set up like any other RPG, except your characters are “powers.”

What do I mean by non-linear time?

Fundamentally, that you don’t have to wake up tomorrow. You could wake up yesterday, next week, at the birth of the universe, or a billion years from now.

This might require specialized mechanics so that you can’t “re-roll” everything you don’t do successfully, even after leveling up. But it would allow for amazing kinds of adventures, where the basic tenets of existence are malleable.

The game would be like a never-ending denoument to a Bill and Ted movie, where changing the past and the future simultaneously are the key to moving ahead.

If I get bored with all 800 of my other creative projects, I might try to make that RPG. I think it would have a Chrononauts-style aspect that the history of the universe relevant to the characters is laid out on cards, but those cards change as the universe itself is changed.