Night Witches – preparing the squadron


Progress on painting up the Po-2s for Night Witches.

Night Witches

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Night Witches – Characters

The Characters

MaryamJr. Lt. Maryam Bakradze

Playbook:  Pidgeon

Current Role:  Leader

Uniform:  regulation

Body:  strong

Hands:  steady

Home Town:  Kharkov

Writes to:  sister Sonya

Skill:  0

Guts:  +1

Luck:  -1

Regard:  none


Sgt. Valentina Malinovskaya

Playbook:  Raven

Current Role:  Protector

Gender:  Female

Uniform:  Flyer’s

Body:  Angular

Face:  Handsome

Home Town:  Moscow

Writes to:  Boris Mednikov

Skill:  +1

Guts:  -1

Luck:  +2

Regard –

Trust Oksana Boykova



Sgt. Svetlana “Sveta” Demidova

Playbook:  Sparrow

Role:  Misanthrope

Gender:  Female

Uniform: Ill-fitting

Body:  Willowy

Eyes:  Cold

Hometown:  Verkhoyansk

Writes to:  no one

Skill:  0

Guts:  -1

Luck:  +2

Regard –

Hate Valentina Malinovskaya

OksanaSgt Oksana Boykova

Playbook:  Hawk

Current Role:  Dreamer

Gender:  Female

Uniform:  Regulation

Body:  Lanky

Eyes:  Calm

Home Town:  Collective Farm #505 (Ukraine)

Writes to:  son, Maksim

Skill:  0

Guts:  0

Luck:  +1

Regard –

Respect Elena Teremova

Admire Valentina Malinovskaya


3370428271_1c71252f86Sgt. Elena Teremova

Playbook:  Owl

Current Role:  Adventurer

Gender:  Female

Uniform:  tattered

Body:  small

Face:  Serious

Hometown:  Vladivostok

Writes to:  Dr. Burov

Skill:  +2

Guts:  0

Luck:  -1

Regard –

Resents Valentina Malinovskaya



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Motobushido: actual play and review


This –

If this piece of Rick Marcks art from the game doesn’t interest you in this gem, then walk away now because nothing in the rest of this article will do it.

Motobushido is the motorcycle samurai roleplaying game.  Written by Nathanael Phillip Cole, it is described as “a game about really sweet duels between really badass samurai who ride really awesome motorcycles.” according to the back cover blurb.

The back cover blurb does not lie.

In Motobushido you take on the role of a member of a motorcycle pack formed by ex-soldiers at the end of a devastating war.  Each character type holds a specific position within the pack with well-defined responsibilities within a rigid hierarchy.  Players must balance their character’s responsibilities and duties within the pack with their own needs and desires, and the dynamic tension between pack and individual is one of the big drivers for the game’s plot.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into the mechanics of the game - you can get the text version here for “pay what you want” and it does a much better job of explaining the rules than I could.  But a brief overview is in order, if only to understand the rest of the review.

The game is 105 pages, not counting the character sheet.  It is divided into three main sections:

  • Section I:  Motobushi.  An overview of the game and how to set it up and play it.
  • Section II:  Proper Ways to Die.  More detailed information on how to create characters and resolve conflicts
  • Section II:  Sensei.  Information on how to run a Motobushido game.  Includes a short scenario.

(I recommend springing for the color print edition, primarily because of the previously mentioned Rick Marcks color art which graces the interior and front cover.  The B&W interior art is also good, but the color art is the stuff to knock a player’s socks off, and will do more towards selling the game to your play group than any sort of verbal explanation.)

Resolution is done using a deck of cards, and there are two major resolution mechanics.  Gambits are a way to resolve issues in which there is some doubt about the outcome, but simple failure may not be a particularly interesting option.  Duels are the more complex resolution system, for times when the conflict has high drama value and the stakes matter.  Duels are not necessarily violent, and can include poetry contests, persuasion attempts, motorcycle stunt competitions, complex seductions, and, yes, attempts to kill one another with weapons.  The mechanic is surprisingly rich for such a simple game, and during a duel players will have to weigh the benefits gained by winning not only with the risks associated with failure, but the possibilities of escalation or of doing something dishonorable during the course of the conflict.  Learning when to concede and when to push a duel to its limit is a skill that both players and GMs will have to learn in the course of play.

Instead of Hit Points, measuring their physical resistance to damage, characters have Stains, which represent how much damage/dishonor the character’s spirit can take,  Those who behave dishonorably will eventually face karmic retribution rather than death – though don’t mistake this for one of those games where characters can’t die.  They surely can.

Motobushido is very much a storytelling game, and is as much about the characters alliances and conflicts with one another as it is about their interactions with the outside world.  Expect considerable internal drama and make sure that everyone at the table knows that this is not one of those games where everyone is buddy-buddy and there is no squabbling.


I ran a one-shot of Motobushido at Endgame in Oakland.  I advertised for four players, but was actually willing to take five.  In preparing for the game I made copies of all the pregen characters (which can be found here) and practiced the Duel system a few times to get familiar with it. (thanks to my wife Sophie for helping with that).

In the interest of saving time, I made the decision to pregenerate the pack’s resources, and skip the First Founding.  In retrospect I certainly had sufficient time to run through the First Founding (which establishes information about the nature of the Pack and teaches players the rules) and perhaps I should have, but pregenerating the pack certainly saved us some time that the group put to good use.  The set-up for the scenario was a simple one – the pack had suffered a difficult year fighting the War Pigs, a rival pack.  Ultimately they were victorious, but at a high cost – the Morale of the pack was high, but their Sustenance (food/money) and Operations (gas/spare parts) Resources were dangerously low.  Nevertheless, one of the pack traditions was to travel dangerous mountain roads in winter to visit the shrine to their founder, Kawasaki Sensei, and spend three days praying at the shrine, performing feats of bravery on their bikes, and offering sacrifices to the spirit of their founder.

I had a full table of five players, who eventually selected the following pregen templates

  1. The Taicho – leader of the Pack (I made it a requirement that someone HAD to play the Taicho.  All of the players were sensibly reluctant to put themselves in the bullseye, but one player eventually volunteered and was brilliant!)
  2. The Shigakka – the Pack historian, keeper of their mon, enforcer of traditions, traditional Pack second in duels, and adviser to the Taicho.
  3. The Kusawake – scout for the Pack, and something of a loner.  Often riding apart from the pack to scout the trail
  4. The Migi Ude – sword of the Taicho, the enforcer, the person who does the dirty work for the Pack so that the Taicho’s hands are clean.
  5. The Shinmai – the prospect, not a member of the Pack, who gets all the crappy (as opposed to dirty) jobs that nobody else wants to do

I found that it took about 30 minutes to get organized, get Pack templates selected, and give an idea about the setting and a very rough idea about the system.  At that point I took them through Step 6 of character creation – Sacrifices and Deeds.  I highly recommend you do this because the past sacrifices and deeds that the players come up with at the table to get each character each of their starting three Deeds will be far more interesting and dynamic, and make for a much better web of relationships than anything you as GM could put down on paper beforehand, and the results of 15 minutes brainstorming will write half of your game – maybe more – for you while you watch with glee and take notes.  If you are playing with a group of strangers you should be ready to step in just in case someone steps on a trigger for another player, but in our group it didn’t happen.

Once the character deeds were determined and everyone knew who was playing what, it was time to get into the game.  The Taicho planned the ride up to the shrine (and nearby village), the Kusawake scouted the way, and off we went with the throttle wide open.

Everyone grasped the Gambit rules immediately, but it took longer for the players, and myself, to appreciate the subtleties built into Duel rules.  While at first they appear to be a simple “high card wins” mechanic there are subtleties built into the system that make it considerably more robust and tactical.  It is worth noting that most, if not all characters have abilities that allow them to modify their play of the Duel rules, so duels between characters can look and feel very different depending on which archetypes are competing.  There are also rules for Seconds and for group Duels, which add further complexity and depth.  As if that wasn’t enough, Duels can escalate, leading to choices about whether to strategically concede and give up little, or push the Duel to a higher level and potentially give up a lot or even get killed.

We had several good duels during our game, but two were particularly notable.  The first wasa duel of words between the Shigakka and his former sensei, who lived in the village.  The Shigakka was attempting to get information, and the sensei was trying not to give it.  There was a lot of back-and-forth card play, with myself and the player exchanging verbal barbs as each card hit the table.  Things began to escalate and it was clear that the exchange might soon lead to more trouble than either wanted, until some good card play at the last minute managed to defuse the contest with no winner and stains on anyone’s honor.  The second was a motorcycle competition between the Taicho and the Migi Ude before the shrine of their founder to honor him with their skill.  This proved to be a protracted conflict because both characters were skilled riders on good bikes, and each had a Second.  Card play again went back and forth, though both players were careful not to let the conflict escalate.  Both players also made use of their characters special abilities and the contest held the attention of all the players at the table until in the end the Taicho managed to eke out a victory.  We all noted that had the Taicho’s player made a few different decisions about card play, he would in fact have lost the duel, and I had to laugh when the Migi Ude used one of his abilities to pass the Stains he received for losing on to the Taicho’s Second (who had provided the card that enabled the Taicho to win).

The big climax of the game came when the War Pigs rode into the area and demanded that the Pack give up the village.  In exchange the War Pigs promised to allow visits to the shrine of the founder, but warned that should the Pack not agree to their demands they would destroy the shrine.  Things wound up with the Taicho dueling his opposite number from the War Pigs, being mortally wounded, and the Kusawake putting an arrow into the War Pigs Taicho in response.  With his dying breath the Taicho commanded that the Shinmai be promoted into the Pack, and later the group found that the Taicho’s bike had appeared as part of the shrine to the founder.

Overall I found the game quite simple and satisfying to run, and the players seemed to have a great time.  I found the rules to be well-written both in terms of comprehensibility and of flavor.  Everything in this game directs both the players and the Sensei towards running a pack of post-apocalyptic samurai motorcycle bandits, and since this is exactly what the game sets out to do I judge it a great success!


Here are a few minor issues that those running Motobushido, particularly as a one-shot at a convention or event, should bear in mind.

1)  My game ran 7 hours including a lunch break.  In retrospect I think I would have had time to go through the First Founding with the players, but this is something I would recommend cutting if you are running in a four-hour time slot.

2)  A handout describing the various options and consequences of Duels would be extremely helpful to teaching the system to new players.  There is this handout available, but the outcomes don’t always match the outcomes from the rulebook so some editing is in order.  If you want to be particularly impressive, put the outcome results on the other side so players have a better idea of what they are risking when they escalate.

3)  The pregenerated characters are not always complete.  All of them are missing a description of at least one of their techniques, and a couple are missing more.  I solved this problem by making one-page handout covering their various powers and techniques and would recommend this to anyone who is running the game as a one-shot.

(You can find my sheets here – Motobushido)

4)  All of the templates are Rank 1.  For a one-shot it might be useful and interesting to promote characters to Rank 2, or even have some mixed ranks to indicate the varying experience of the pack.  This doesn’t have to be the obvious “Taicho is high rank, everyone else is lower, Shinmai is lowest” hierarchy.  You can set up very interesting pack dynamics if, for example, the Taicho is Rank 2 while the Shinmai is Rank 4.  Why would this be?  Have the pack Taicho been dying so fast that there hasn’t been time to promote or confirm the Shinmai?  Adding some additional ranks to the character templates would also make them a bit more interesting and dynamic, as the Rank 1 abilities are mostly pretty minor.

5)  Weapon techniques – one of the things that disappointed the players a bit was the lack of techniques specific to each type of weapon.  While the templates do all contain differing techniques, the rules made the weapon types feel a little too generic as Rank 1.  Expanding weapon techniques would be a useful addition if there was ever a supplement or expansion.

6)  I found the character sheet for Motobushido to be high in aesthetic value (it’s very pretty) but poor in the ability to record and access information.  Particularly page 2, which spends half it’s content on Rank pyramids but gives the player very little information about their techniques.


A few things to think about when you are setting up your Motobushido game.

Understanding what the needs and drives of the various character templates are is important, because they intersect.  There is some very good material about this in the rulebook.  Characters fill various roles in the pack hierarchy, but they are interdependent.  For example, the Migi Ude (enforcer) thrives on doing the dirty deeds of the pack so the Taicho can keep his hands clean and the wrath of the pack can be directed at the Migi Ude instead.  Everyone needs to understand and buy into this.  It becomes the responsibility of the Taicho to supply dirty deeds for the Migi Ude to do, and the responsibility of other members of the pack to be outraged or angry at the Migi Ude because of them.

You also need to decide whether or not you are going to require someone to be the Taicho.  The pack is a hierarchy, and someone will be in charge, no matter what – you can get interesting results by playing a game without a Taicho (either with or without the Taicho NPCed) but someone is going to be at the top of the pack hierarchy regardless.  It’s worth noting that in Chanbarra it can be perfectly legitimate to have the clever Shinmai as the de facto leader behind the scenes of a pack of warriors.  The reason that it is important to have someone in charge is that certain character types don’t work quite right unless someone is the leader, and you may need to stretch some character definitions a bit if there is no Taicho.

Don’t overplan the scenario.  Think of locations for your game as miniature sandboxes (or perhaps off-road areas where your characters can ride their bikes at high speed over difficult terrain).  Let them romp about as they like – trouble will find them no matter where they go or what they do.

I set aside some time in the game specifically to let PCs go after one another, settle grudges, etc. and I was explicit about it.  This led to some of the more intense drama of the game and made for a lot of fun.  Remember that a duel can be any sort of competition, and most of the time the outcome isn’t going to be death unless the players want that, so feel free to let the passions flow and encourage PCs to follow their grudges as well as their honor.


This game is a gem.  I am quite surprised that it has not generated more buzz in the gaming community, because the mechanics are simple and yet rich, the concept is brilliant, and the art is fantastic.  The text-only version is “Pay what you want” which means that it is within the means of any gamer to own it, and it is a lot of fun to play and a lot of fun to GM.  I recommend it as a one-shot or convention event for a group (and I think a campaign would be a lot of fun too, though I haven’t actually run that).

Go forth!
Start your engines
and play





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The Myth of the Myth of Play Balance

TLDR:  play balance in roleplaying games is possible, and desirable.  But the definition of play balance is different in roleplaying games and in competitive games.


The topic of game balance in roleplaying has been a hot and sometimes contentious one.  I thought I would give my views on the matter.


It is important in any sort of competitive game that there be some sort of game balance.  By “competitive game” I mean any game where there is a winner and a loser – chess, Advanced Squad Leader, Magic: the Gathering, Rails Across America, and Quelf are all competitive games, and even cooperative games such as Pandemic and Sentinels of the Multiverse qualify here, because even though players are working together against the game system, they can still either win or lose.  “Game Balance” encompasses two qualities – 1) there is a reasonable chance that any side can win at the beginning of the game, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining who wins.

It is very difficult to make a game perfectly balanced.  Even the venerable chess is biased in favor of the player who moves first.  It is even more difficult to balance a game that contains random elements such as dice rolls or card draws.  So the important thing here is “reasonable”.  It is rare to find a player who likes to lose, so finding players to participate in a competitive game with a great deal of bias  is less likely to be successful.

Roleplaying Group by JustaBlink


Roleplaying games are different from competitive games because in roleplaying games there is no winner*.  Competitive games typically have some sort of victory conditions that dictate how and when the game ends – take Bastogne, accumulate X points, eliminate all the opponents, drop the ring in the volcano.  Once the conditions for victory are met, the game is over, the participants shake hands around the table, and the game goes back in the box.

In roleplaying games, there are usually no victory conditions that end the game because the objective of the game is not to win, but to tell a good story.  Once Bastogne is taken, once the opponents are eliminated, once the ring is dropped in the volcano the game doesn’t end, but instead simply moves on to another plot or storyline.


Broadly speaking, roleplaying games and competitive games are the same in two ways.  First, as recreational activities one of the big incentives for anyone to play them is having fun.  People play both competitive games and roleplaying games in order to enjoy themselves and have a good time that they share with friends.  While the definition of what constitutes fun varies considerably – hence the wide variety of both competitive and roleplaying games available – people play board games in order to have fun and people play roleplaying games for the same reason.

Second, both rely on rules to define the framework of the activity.  These rules act as a boilerplate contract between the participants defining what they can and cannot do within the game environment.  They serve to focus and guide the participants in how they have fun within the context of the game.  The definitions of “fun” are different in competitive games and roleplaying games so the framework of rules will be different and have differing goals, but in the end “having fun” is what it is all about in both cases.


If the purpose of roleplaying games is to tell good stories, then “balance” in roleplaying games has, like competitive games, two components – 1) to give all the participants a reasonable chance of telling good stories, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining the quality of the stories told.

Because roleplaying games are about telling stories, because players play roleplaying games in order to tell good stories and gamemasters oversee roleplaying games in order to facilitate good storytelling, at the very core of any roleplaying game there should be an assumption that every participant in the game should have a reasonable chance of telling good stories.  In fact, participants should have a reasonable chance of telling not one but three good stories simultaneously –

1)  The story of their character

2)  The story of the interactions between some or all of the other player-characters

3)  The story of the overarching plot which concerns all the characters

These three types of stories, interwoven with each other and with the stories of the other player-characters, form the narrative element that makes roleplaying different than competitive gaming.  A game without stories is not a roleplaying game.  Conversely, a game WITH stories is a roleplaying game, even if the narrative element is grafted onto a game that normally doesn’t have one.  Want to play “Chutes and Ladders” as a narrative campaign?  It’s possible if the players agree to add narrative elements.

Being successful at it, however, requires that the players agree what narrative elements to add and how to add them.  And that is precisely where game balance comes in.


In roleplaying games, game balance is a far more nebulous concept than in competitive games because the objective is less defined.  If friends sit down to play Virgin Queen, a brief glance at the back of the game box should be enough to give everyone a good idea what they are doing, if not precisely how.  On the other hand, if friends sit down to play the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, they will initially have considerably less idea of what they will be doing within the game, aside from playing characters in a quasi-oriental(ish) setting.  The game “world” of Virgin Queen is relatively small and defined; the world of “Legend of the Five Rings” is large and nebulous.  This is because “Legend of the Five Rings” is designed to be a game for telling stories, and the authors made a design choice to allow for a rich and broad “sandbox” for play groups to use.  Most roleplaying games take this approach to their setting (though see “The Mountain Witch” for a counter-example of a very defined setting) because the designers want the eventual participants to have a wide range of choices  within their game for what sort of stories they tell.

Large “sandbox” game settings provide ample opportunity to tell many types of story successfully, but at a cost in terms of play balance.  Because the variety of stories that can be told within the setting is so broad, and the types of character available are consequently so varied, greater effort is required on the part of the participants to tell provide an environment in which they can all tell good stories about and with their characters.  As an example, it is more difficult to tell interesting stories about a Nezumi (“ratling”) warrior if the game is set in the Imperial Court and all the other characters are courtiers, and more difficult to tell stories involving an effete Crane courtier if the game is set on the Kaiu Wall and all the other characters are Nezumi warriors.  I don’t mean to imply that such stories are impossible, but they will take additional effort on the part of all the participants to pull off, and have a greater risk of stretching an individual character concept past the breaking point at which it becomes more trouble and effort for participants to tell good stories involving that character than the amount of fun derived from the experience.

Game balance in a roleplaying game is also dynamic, unlike game balance in competitive games which is largely static.  In competitive games the game balance elements are built in – in the “Game of Thrones” board game you have a number of factions representing the various Houses, all of them trying to achieve a specific objective in order to win.  Within the game environment each faction has a reasonable chance of winning, and the skill of each player is an important component in deciding who wins.  All this is set out in the rulebook and the participants need give it little thought.  In the “A Song of Ice and Fire” rpg, however, many of the factors which will make for a balanced game (and remember, “balanced” in this context means “game in which the participants can tell good stories” ) are left up to the participants to decide for themselves.

The three big factors involved with balancing an RPG game are 1) agreement by the participants about the stories they want to tell, 2) the rules system being used, 3) the setting.  I’ll discuss them in reverse order


The setting in a roleplaying game is the most basic, boilerplate frame on which to build good stories.  It provides a the answers to a large number of important questions such as “what genre are we playing?”, “what does the world look like?” and often “what sort of characters can we play?” (and related to that, “what sort of stories can we tell most easily?”).  If a game group is using “7th Sea” as a setting, all the participants know from the beginning that they are telling swashbuckling stories in a quasi-European setting and that they have options for telling stories in one or more of the various nations of the setting but they will not be telling stories about Space Marines or sentient mice.

Deciding on the game setting is extremely important for any roleplaying group – far more-so than for competitive gaming, and especially for on-going campaigns.  If one participant is less than thrilled with the setting of a given competitive game then they can lobby for something different the next time the group meets, but in roleplaying agreeing to a particular setting may constrain a participant to stories they aren’t terribly interested in for months or years.


Rules provide for a second level framework on which to hang stories.  They are important for two reasons.  First is that they help further define which stories are easy to tell and which stories are hard to tell.  Dungeons and Dragons is a good game system for telling stories about characters who grow from relative obscurity to great power, and Champions is a good system for telling stories about superheroes.  Spycraft is a good game for telling spy stories in which equipment matters, and Wilderness of Mirrors is a good game for telling spy stories where it doesn’t.  Rules systems help refine the choices in storytelling opportunities and technique.

Second, and related somewhat, rules help define how conflicts are resolved, and how randomness and uncertainty are added into the game.  A characteristic of the roleplaying experience is that there is an element of uncertainty in the storytelling which allows the participants to be surprised about the outcome, and particularly the outcome of a conflict.  Different rules systems allow for varying amounts of randomness in the storytelling and emphasize or deemphasize certain types of conflict.  Pathfinder, for example, has a large number of rules for controlling the random elements of combat and magic use, and relatively few for controlling the random element of social interactions.  Because of this, the stories told in Pathfinder will likely spend more time with fighting than social interaction.


I saved this one for last because it is the most important, but many roleplaying games don’t put it enough emphasis on it.  Roleplaying is inherently cooperative, unlike most competitive games (cooperative games being an exception – and yes I know the nomenclature is confusing.  Just remember that a competitive game is one where the goal is to have fun by winning, whether against the other players or the game system).  Because of this, it is important for all participants in a roleplaying game to decide for themselves what makes for the best storytelling experience for everyone.  My feeling is that this is the single biggest factor in deciding whether a given roleplaying game succeeds or fails in providing fun for the participants, and also one of the areas that participants are most likely to gloss over or rush through.

Older roleplaying games had a focused and similar approach to game balance and the participants.  One participant was assigned to be the primary storyteller and given primary responsibility for all the story elements that did not involve the direct actions of the other participants characters.  Other participants built characters using specific packages for their character’s race, character class, etc. to define the character.  The types of stories that each individual participant wanted to tell were implicit in the type of character they designed – fighter characters were all about telling stories of fighting, wizard characters were all about telling stories of magic, etc.

Newer roleplaying games have shifted away from this focused approach and give participants more freedom to focus on the telling of stories.  Often they involve taking some of the responsibilities away from the primary storyteller and making them a group responsibility or having multiple participants serve as the primary storyteller in rotation.

Often the primary storyteller is given considerably greater power to add or subtract story elements or decide on the direction of the story.  This is fine so long as everyone agrees to it, as attested by the success of games like D&D and Pathfinder.  But it is important to point out here that roleplaying has moved far, far away from the days and the rules systems that require this to be the case, and that participants now have a wide variety of options in terms of what stories to tell and how to tell them.



Balancing a roleplaying game is a multi-stage, iterative process.  For game designers, who get first crack at it, it involves looking at the setting, the rules generally, and the types of characters that can be created, and asking “Do all the types of characters allowed in this game have a reasonable chance of having good stories told about them somewhere in the setting?”  This doesn’t mean that every single character type necessarily has to have a reasonable chance of generating good stories in every single corner of the game setting.  But it DOES mean that character types should have rough equivalency.  There should not be character types that are blatantly more powerful than others to the point that the overshadow the stories that other characters can tell.  The more randomness there is in character creation, the more likely this is to happen, so there needs to be balance not only between character types and within character types to make certain that the fighter who rolls poorly for stats has as much of a chance of telling good stories as the fighter who rolls really well.  Even within games that use a point-buy system, there needs to be some sort of rough equivalence in the power of build point spent on X vs Y.  So, for example, in a spy game if the skill “Shooting” costs one point per level and the skill “Play Piano” costs three points per level, warning bells should go off.  Shooting is a much more versatile and useful skill in most spy games than playing a piano, and that should be reflected in the relative costs.  If the game system charges more for “Play Piano” than “Shooting” most participants will get the message that the game system is actively discouraging stories in which people spend a lot of time playing the piano.  And if that’s the case, why put it in at all?  In the original Pendragon there was no stealth skill for the simple reason that knights don’t sneak.  Did that limit the sorts of stories that could be told?  Yes.  But placing a framework on the sorts of stories that can be told is part of what a system and setting are all about.

The next step comes when the game is purchased and gets floated as an idea within a particular roleplaying group.  At this point everything is up to the participants.  As individuals and as a group they need to look over the game – the rules, the setting, the sorts of characters that can be created, the sorts of characters that they are inspired to create both individually and as a group, and decide if the game works for everyone.  Not just the majority of the participants – everyone.  If there is even one person that the game doesn’t work well for, that person shouldn’t play.  And since most roleplaying groups consist of friends, making the decision to put a game ahead of social interaction with a friend is almost invariably a bad idea.

By the time the system and setting have been decided on, there are probably already some ideas about stories percolating within the group of participants and these should be scrutinized to make certain that they make for good stories that are exciting for at least a couple of the participants and not squicky to anyone.  If the participants include one who is going to take on primary storytelling duties, that participant should ideally be enthusiastic about all the story ideas, because stories that the storyteller is not excited about are unlikely to be good stories.  WRITE DOWN GOOD STORY IDEAS!  Make sure they are preserved.

Once these story ideas are preserved, the participants should create characters.  As with system and setting, this should be a collaborative effort among all the participants, and everyone should be sensitive to what makes for good stories about the other participants characters, and what good stories can be told about their interaction.  In many, but not all systems there are clues about what sort of stories a particular participant is interested in buried in the character creation process (flaws and virtues, character class, race, and choice of skills are all good indicators) but again participants must be on board with these stories for everyone to have a reasonable chance of good storytelling.  Again, write down the story ideas in order to make sure they are preserved.

At the end of character creation, the group should have a big list of stories that they want to tell.  Make up a sheet for each participant who has a character, and list stories under the following three headers

1)  The story of a participant’s character

2)  The story, or stories of the interactions between the participant’s character and the characters of other participants

3)  The story of how the participant’s character interacts with the metaplot, if any.

If there are story ideas left over, put them on a separate sheet.  Make copies for each participant, make another copy to stick in a binder, and last but not least make a copy and put it online.  THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE GROUP’S CAMPAIGN BIBLE.  It serves the same general purpose as the rules booklet of a competitive game – to define how the participants are going to play the game in order to have fun.  In a competitive game the rules define how to win.  In the Campaign Bible the rules define what sort of stories the participants consider to be the best, so that the group as a whole can work towards telling them.

The final step in play balancing involves coming to a different understanding of what system rules and setting are in a roleplaying game as compared to a competitive game.  In a competitive game, it is common for the participants to add their own minor variations of the rules – “house rules” to the game in order to make the game more interesting or balanced.  Such rules are often even added in by the original designers (though they are usually referred to as “optional rules”).  If the participants feel that the 20th Maine needs to arrive a turn earlier or the Starks need and extra infantry unit or that White needs to give up a Knight in order for the game to be more fun, then typically they just go ahead and make the change.  Roleplaying games have, or should have, the same sort of within-group balancing mechanism that the participants can use to help improve the fun of the game.  Any time that the written rules or setting of a roleplaying game interfere with the stories listed in the campaign bible, THE RULES AND/OR SETTING SHOULD GIVE WAY TO THE STORY.  The Campaign Bible should always be considered primary, the rules and even the setting secondary.


Roleplaying games, like competitive games, can be balanced, but it is a differing, more dynamic sort of balance.  It comes from the freedom of the participants to tell stories that interest them through the medium of roleplaying, and it is balanced by making sure that everyone has a reasonable chance to tell interesting stories involving their character, interactions with the characters of the other participants, and interaction with the metaplot.  Factors such as the relative power level of characters and bias in favor of certain types of stories by rules systems and settings can make the job of the participants easier, and thus contribute to play balance, but should always, always be of less importance than the stories themselves.  Stories, as a collaborative effort by the participants, should always be the primary focus, and all other factors should be subservient to them.


*This observation is written at the beginning of 99% of roleplaying games, usually under a heading like “What is a roleplaying game?”  Someday really soon I am going to have a rant on why game writers should STOP PUTTING THIS IN THEIR GAMES but for now if you really need a basic explanation of what “no winner” means, open any RPG.

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BIG BAD CON 2014 – PART III (Sunday)

When I woke up, I was pretty sure I was dead.  After all the energy of all the games in the last two days, and after not getting to sleep until something like 3:00 am, all I really wanted to do was just snuggle back under the covers and go back to sleep, preferably with a nice, warm wife.

But the nice, warm wife had a Firefly game to run, so I staggered and crashed around the room, managed to make coffee, managed to get something to eat, and once again toddled off – this time bleary and barely sentient – to go to another game.


I was crashing Sophie’s game again, so again I sat politely and waited for other players to make their choices before I made mine, though I was secretly hoping to play Mal (to the point that I seriously considered giving my my scruples and calling dibs).  Sometimes virtue can in fact be rewarded, because when the others had chosen, there was Mal, still on the table, just looking up at me all manly and Captainy!

I confess I had some misgivings about the Cortex system.  The original “Serenity” put out by Margaret Weiss Productions had been a dim and dismal affair IMHO, and though I had liked Marvel Superheroes I had also found it a tough game to understand.  Grabbing Mal was therefor something of an act of faith – I knew that if I was playing Mal I was going to be in a leadership role, and that was going to put some requirements on me to care for the ship and crew.  One of the things I noticed right off on the character sheet was that one of Mal’s big abilities was to give another character an extra d10 if that character was following his orders by spending a Plot Point.  “Aha!” I thought to myself and suddenly knew my role in the game.

I was going to be the party cleric, making other people look good by boosting their dice pools.  This was quite successful and really funny too!

Early on in the game, Kaylee accidentally managed to jam her parasol point-first into the shoulder of a thug.  From then on when Kaylee got into combat I always tried to give her an extra d10.  I also played up Kaylee’s ferocity to our opposition – the “you think I’m trouble?  You don’t want to get HER riled!” sort of thing.  It was really fun, and Kaylee actually managed to lay out a couple of thugs this way, which made it even more fun.

Everyone did a fantastic job playing their characters and it was clear that everyone was a big fan of the show.  The person playing Jayne was in particularly fine form, and I don’t think I will ever be able to go into someplace posh without thinking “Hey, free mints” again.

An important lesson that was reinforced for me in this game – be a fan of the players, not only when you are the GM but when you are a player.  It is easy to get so focused on the character that you are playing that you forget about the other characters (and that’s OK to a certain extent – as a player your primary task is to play your character, not someone else’s).  But if you can get past that, and look for opportunities for your character to help other characters look cool, man you will set yourself up for some incredible roleplaying!

SUNDAY LUNCH – limited selection

There was a schawarma and falafel truck in the parking lot for lunch, but by the time we got there it was out of almost everything (though not schawarma, which was what I wanted).  During the afternoon I overheard several other attendees talking about how the truck ran out of almost everything, and the wait was very long (40 minutes in some cases).  Not sure exactly what the problem was with this particular vendor but it was disappointing to hear after the good service of the previous days.


Cunning Cat Caper2Sophie had been planning on attending my Cat game in the afternoon, but while we were waiting for food Karen Twelves persuaded her to join a different game instead.  I was disappointed, but it turned out to be for the best because honestly I was running out of steam by the time I sat down to game.  Fortunately for me, my players were not.

I think the most enthusiastic bunch of players I had for the entire convention were the players for my Cat game.  They were full of cat stories and were totally in the cat mindset.  One player actually had a drawing she had made of the cat she wanted to play.  I had pregens, each with their own picture, but how could I say “no” to that?  My only regret now is that I didn’t give her a Fate Point for it, but as I said I was running low on steam.

I had a scenario planned out, but with Sophie not attending I was able to borrow some set locations and villain stats from a previous game I had run, which was nice.  The cats had an epic adventure finding out who had stolen Mr. Stinky’s smell, and thwarting a rat bane spirit who was attempting to destroy the neighborhood cats.  Players did awesome stuff and were extremely cattish, which added to the fun.  Another great game, and a wonderful conclusion to Big Bad Con.


No, not the game.

We hit the road pretty quickly after the Cat game broke up.  Sophie and I were both tired and we were a bit worried that if we took the time to circle the convention saying goodbye to everyone we would be another hour getting out of the convention.  So if we missed you, or didn’t say goodbye to you – to everyone who was in a game with me, as well as those of you from previous years, thank you for another great Big Bad Con.  It was memorable and fun and uplifting.  See you next year!





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BIG BAD CON 2014 – Part II (Saturday)

Woke up this morning to a living nightmare – we (meaning “I”) had forgotten the French press!  NO!  DEAR SWEET LORD NO!

As a slight mitigation, we (meaning “I”) had remembered the milk, the cocoa, and the whipped cream, and as the room had one of those dinky little coffee making machines, we were able to adulterate the rather dismal dinky-little-coffee-making-machine coffee to something resembling potability.

By the time I was up and moving around, Sophie had already been to a seminar on the state of the gaming industry, hobnobbed with game designer deities, and put Luke Crane in his place during the question-and-answer period.  I made sure to give her extra cream and cocoa.

Sophie had an Improv workshop to go to in the morning, and I had more GoD duty, so after our coffee and some blueberry bread and fruit, off we went.


Things started slowly in the GoD room Saturday morning, as they often do.  Players trickled in, bleary-eyed but eager.  The first couple of players at the table decided to play Omega Zone and so we got down to character creation.

Normally I prefer to run convention games with pregenerated characters, but Omega Zone is an exception.  Since the game has a card-based character generation system, I can just flip a few cards at players and bang!  Instant characters.  I do wish that the game had listed the approaches in the same order they are listed in FAE so players wouldn’t have to transpose, but that isn’t a fatal flaw.  But I digress.

The party kicked ass in this game.  Everyone was good, everyone understood the importance of “Create Advantage” and everyone chipped in and had their moment.  I generated a scenario more or less at random from the plot cards, and handed out random pieces of gear and sub-plots, and everyone had a heck of a time.  I even mutated the characters once just to show off that aspect of the card deck (everyone seemed pleased except the player who had his talking cat turn into a talking lobster – but he got better).

It’s really fun to see players cut loose in a big game sandbox, which is what these players did.  With the semi-random sub-plot cards popping up to keep things interesting, it was a lively, inventive, and fun adventure .


Lunch today came from a food truck.

One of the only difficulties with the location of Big Bad Con is that food is a bit far and inconvenient.  The solution:  food trucks!  Today’s food truck offered thai food, which I am not precisely enthusiastic about – but I got a couple of spring rolls and Sophie got some curry, and we both enjoyed our meals.

Food trucks = good idea.  More conventions should have them (though I would guess that hotels will be understandably reluctant to have gamers avoiding their $20.00 hamburgers).

SATURDAY AFTERNOON:  Tien Xia – Never Pick the Ranger!

Saturday afternoon I played in Sophie’s Tien Xia game, which is a setting for FATE Core.  I was a party crasher for this one, taking one of the secret spots that Sophie doesn’t put up for prereg (yes, I do the same for her), so I sat back and let others choose between the various pregens and took what was left.  What was left was a fighter and a ranger (or more accurately a noble warrior and a wild woman of the forest).

Normally I would have taken the fighter in a heartbeat, and after the Pathfinder game of a couple of weeks back I had severe reservations about taking the ranger.  “Never take the ranger” has always seemed prudent for one-shots because the wildernessy ranger skills are so often wasted on dungeon crawls and in cities.  Nevertheless I took the ranger because, well, sometimes you just have to stretch.

In terms of my theory, the character was exactly the way I thought it would be – loaded down with aspects, stunts, and techniques that were completely useless in the city where the adventure took place (they all had provisos like “When in the wilderness….”).  I was briefly miffed and briefly kicked myself for not following my own guidelines.  But then I settled in and just had some plain, old-fashioned fun.  The players I was playing with were top notch (as always), and the plot elements flowed smoothly from start to finish.  There was much Wuxizing and leaping and punching and kicking and such.  I got to play a fate point to look exactly like the Princess of the Moon Faire in order to impersonate her (leading to lots of hilarious scenes where other PCs dressed up the wild woman and did her hair – WORST.  MOON PRINCESS.  EVER!) and got to do some cool martial arts maneuvers with my Forest Snake technique, including blowing a whole bunch of Fate points and advantages on a strike that drained the tainted black blood from the Moon Champion and disrupted the spell holding her captive.  I highly recommend Tien Xia as a supplement, and Sophie as a GM for it!

SATURDAY EVENING:  Bulldogs! – Saying “Yes”

There was a last minute cancellation the week before the convention, and Sean Nittner put out a call for GMs to fill in.  Like a crazy man, I volunteered, and so found myself running Bulldogs!.  Bulldogs! is a science fiction setting for FATE Core.  It’s a bit over the top and not meant to be taken too seriously.  Because time was short, I grabbed a whole bunch of pregen scenarios and decided “well, I’ll just run one, and if there is time I will run a second, and then a third.”

My players, it turned out, focused on one idea above all others – “Deliver the cargo, get paid.”  Many of the published scenarios have various plot hooks designed to lead players further into the scenario, past the “sign here – thank you!”.  No.  Once we got to that stage the scenario was OVER!

It was absolutely hilarious.

Now it is time for my one amusing anecdote of the convention.  Bear with me.

About halfway through the game a woman stopped by the table – a friend of one of the other players.  I still had a spot left, so I asked if she wanted to play.  She told me that she didn’t because she didn’t like FATE, but I gave her the spiel about Bulldogs!, her friend encouraged her to try it again, and everyone else at the table was welcoming so she sat down.  The character she got was a big, honkin’ Dolome roustabout with high Physique.  A little while later the party was involved in a firefight on the ground with a bunch of Templars, who started launching anti-ship missiles at the ship.  I rolled really well for one hit and declared that one of the missiles was sailing directly into the cargo bay where several members of the party, including the Dolome, were standing.  The woman looked at her character sheet and saw that she had a stunt called “Take the Hit” and announced “I’m going to use that to take the hit from the missile.”

What to do?

I knew full well that the missile, scaled up to do damage to vehicles instead of characters, would be doing enough damage to the character to impose some massive consequences – the kind that would carry through the rest of the evening.  I ALSO knew that this was a seriously cool moment for the character.

So I let it happen AND I scaled the damage down a bit so the character wasn’t crippled for the rest of the game.

What did I get for this?  An entire table full of people waving their arms and yelling “WOO HOO!” and “YEAH!” and a singed Dolome.

Say “Yes” to the players.  I’m telling you.

Anecdote over.

The party wound up not touching the “Help the slave revolt” plotline, stealing the combat robot instead of delivering it, never even bothering to check the cargo crate containing the kidnapped little girl, and turning the noble who tried to bribe them to help his escape in to the Barracado Pirates.  But everyone had FUN!  The Urseminite fell in love with the combat bot and wound up having tea parties for it.  The cargo officer was stealing everything not nailed down.  It was classic Bulldogs!

By the end of the game my sides hurt I had been laughing so much.  It was a really great experience.  The best moment came when the woman who played the Dolome said to me “You have redeemed FATE for me!”  I was so proud.

Fred Hicks – I did you a solid, man.  ^_^

SATURDAY NIGHT – Sleepless in Oakland

Despite the fact that the bed was nice and comfortable, and I was dead tired, I COULD NOT GET TO SLEEP.  It took me until after 3:00 am to finally fall asleep.  I worried (during that time I wasn’t sleeping) how that was going to affect me tomorrow.


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BIG BAD CON 2014 – Part I (Friday)

Once again this year Sophie and I attended Big Bad Con, and I thought I would give a brief recap (in three parts)

FRIDAY AFTERNOON GoD DUTY:  Puppetland and Fiasco.

I love Games on Demand.  It is a far, far better concept than plain old vanilla open gaming, and one that I think every gaming convention in the known universe should adapt because it just bloody well works.  Particularly for conventions like BBC, where regular game registration is done ahead of time via the internet, and the whole schedule is filled up within 5 minutes of registration opening, assuring that there are plenty of games available for people who didn’t happen to have that particular 5-minute time slot in their lives empty enough to spend it hitting “refresh” 10,000 times.  Games are ready in advance, there are signs up, and people just need to walk into the room and take a quick glance at what’s available.


I have this strange proclivity for wanting to run little-known, unusual, or out-of-print game systems at conventions.  Part of this is contrariness, and part of it I attribute to seeing endless lists of D&D games at previous conventions and wanting to give convention goers a choice.  So for Games on Demand I brought four games – Puppetland, Omega Zone, my own Brotherhood of the Rail, and a couple of Fiasco playsets as a safety net.

I’ll be mentioning this a lot during the next few posts, but I have to say that BBC players are fantastic!  I love them!  I sat at the table, some players sat down, and away we went like a whirlwind.  My group of players decided to tackle Puppetland, and they were good!  I had one player who had only been roleplaying a few months, but it didn’t matter – the enthusiasm and creativity bubbling around the table took on a life of its own immediately.  I was riding a tiger, hanging on for dear life just to keep the plot up to the characters and having the time of my life!

For those of you who don’t know it, Puppetland is a purely narrative game – what you say is what you say.  Players speak in the first person (“I throw the candy at the nutcracker!”) and the GM in the third person (“Huggins flung the hard candy at the Nutcracker, smashing it’s wooden jaw!”)  It took a little practice, but everyone picked up their narrative manner quickly and in short order the group had crossed the Lake of Milk and Cookies, rescued an endangered puppet from the Nutcrackers, been betrayed by the pirate Captain Ruddypants, defeated him and convinced him to help them, snuck into Puppetown, defeated two of Punch’s boys, and rescued the pirate puppet crew of the Good Ship Rootbeer Float!  Wowee!

After that breathtaking game we tackled the “Dragonslayers”.  I only had one player who had ever played Fiasco before, so the game followed the predictable “new player” trajectory, with players being a bit tentative at first while they tried to figure the system out in the first act, and then – having figured it out the second round of Act I – going at the game premise like bloodthirsty cannibals during Act II.  We had brilliant scenes like one character running off with the treasure, pursued by one of the dwarves, and dropping coins behind him that the miserly dwarf was compelled to stop and pick up…  followed closely by the scene in which a party of low level adventurers intercepted the trail of coins and began following, increasing in level every time they picked up some more money.  The game ended in the predictable way – with one character being eaten by the cannibalistic purple lizard men, another one being mugged by the party of adventurerers with a wand of level draining and being reduced to first level again, one character retiring from adventuring as a drunken, broken husk, and the “quiet” player making off with the vast majority of the gold and success.  Win once again!

During this time Sophie was off running a game of Atomic Robo.  I’ll link to that once she has her tale written up.

FRIDAY EVENING:  Everway, the game I was afraid of

I was apprehensive about my Everway game, that I was running on Friday evening.  Not sure exactly why it was Everway that I chose to be fretful about, but it appears to be in my nature to have to fret about something, and I suppose it was better that I fretted about Everway than the game I was going to run on Sunday afternoon, so at least I could get the fretting out of the way early.

Everway is another one of those very narrative games, and I had planned on making it super narrative by limiting the use of card deck resolution to times that seemed highly dramatically appropriate.  I also decided to go more sandboxy than I usually do in a convention game, so instead of writing a bunch of notes up, I pulled some cards that I liked out of the deck, strung a few of them together into the idea for a plot (along with a quick draw from the tarot deck), put some others aside for visuals and for some minor encounters to throw in if the pace of the game dragged and I needed to throw in something exciting, and just trusted to my players to do the rest

And they did.  And it was glorious to watch. to facilitate, to be a part of.

This was my one “serious” game of the weekend, and took the form of an investigation.  And investigations always get a bit pokey at some point or another.  But it was Friday – everyone was enthusiastic enough and had sufficiently high energy to carry the game over the less dramatically thrilling part.  The players gave good thought to problems, worked through some ethical dilemmas, rescued a child, assisted the Unity Mages, defeated the Thieves of Essence, won the Unity Rose, and were off to defeat Alurax (well, that last is definitely a story for another day).

FRIDAY NIGHT:  The Hotel Room

We had a hotel room at the convention for the first time this year, and it was quite nice – large, comfy bed, little tiny refrigerator, and most importantly it was not a 40 minute drive away in the middle of the night.  Convention experience – plus 1,000 points!

FRIDAY:  Lessons Learned

Once again I learned the lesson of really being a fan of your players, and saying “yes” to them.  I’m going to save my prime example of this until tomorrow so I don’t beat on it endlessly, but there were a couple of times that I had a choice between saying “no” to a player and sticking with the system and rules, or saying “yes” and letting the player do something kickass, and I was well served by saying “yes.”

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Big Bad Con 2014 – the short form

I got 28 hours of gaming out of this year’s Big Bad Con.  I’ll discuss it more later but here is the brief rundown –


Friday afternoon – ran Puppetland and Fiasco.  Puppetland was hilarious and Fiasco was, well, Fiasco (we used “Dragonslayers”)

Friday evening – ram Everway.  Great players, fun game.

Saturday morning – ran Omega Zone.  Hilarity ensued.

Saturday afternoon – played in Sophie’s game of Tien Xia.  Kicked ass.

Saturday evening – ran Bulldogs.  Laughed so hard my sides ached.

Sunday morning – played in Sophie’s Firefly game as Mal.  Did Captainy stuff.

Sunday evening – ran Cat for Fate Accelerated.  Rodents suffered.

All in all – ran 20 hours of games, and played in 8.  I know of no other convention where you can pack that much gaming into so short a period.

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Fed Up With Gamergate



OK, I have had it with Gamergate discussions.

I understand that you may not like Anita Sarkeesian. You may think that some of Zoe Quinn’s personal choices were not to your liking.




Tell it to the effing hand.

This stopped being about any of that stuff, or about pro and con arguments about feminism in gaming, when critics began THREATENING TO RAPE AND MURDER PEOPLE AND BLOW UP AUDITORIUMS. That argument is done. Over. Finis. The period has been added to the discussion and it is full stop, move along to the next paragraph. The end.

In the future I am not going to put up with any sort of wishy washy “This is terrible and no one should have to have this happen, BUT….” I don’t care what the “but” is. There’s no equivocating on this issue. There’s no justifying, explaining, or rationalizing. People who threaten the lives of Anita Sarkeesian, who post private photos of Zoe Quinn, who for-the-love-of-god threaten massacres rather than let them speak are WRONG. They are scum, dirtbags, terrorists, vile and hateful individuals. And if you can’t say that without also feeling the need to post your critique of Sarkeesian or Quinn or the others – SHOVE THE FUCK OFF.

You aren’t a supporter.

You aren’t a sympathizer.

You aren’t helping.

You’re just a sleazy little dirtbag trying to slip a dagger into these women on the sly by flying a false flag.

Piss off.

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Because of a last-minute cancellation, I volunteered to run “Bulldogs” at BigBadCon this weekend, in addition to my other games.  I just finished making up the character pregens and thought I would put them up.


Candy Razzle, Ship’s Attorney

Gun, Ship’s Security Consultant

Hamilcar Prioc, Ship’s Roustabout

Gearhead, Ship’s Maintenance Droid

Splurb – Loss Mitigation Consultant

Wilhelmina Pax – Executive Officer

The ship

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