Indie in Bielefeld

I’m sitting at home, having just returned from the regular gaming meetup in Bielefeld. While I did pack but not play Dusk City Outlaws, I did get to play two other games: The Skeletons by Jason Morningstar and Thorny Games' Dialect.

Both games are very much focused on story and emotions, less about high adventures, so this meetup has again been very much thematic for me. (There was a DSA 4.1 game that I was invited to, but, let’s say, even though I like the GM a lot, this isn't my cup of tea.)

So, what are these things about?

The Skeletons has the players all gather as undead guardians of a hidden tomb. The game asks them to map out the tomb together, to come up with the little details that give it a history.

And then watches on, as there are repeated incursions into the sacred stillness. Grave robbers, adventurers, monsters and others seek out the tomb, and the skeletons have to deal with them, rediscovering their own identities and memories while doing so.

A very fun game, but we sadly did not unlock it’s full potential. One reason was that the game got constantly interrupted, so we couldn’t really establish a flow. None of the interruptions were malicious (we got cake, new arrivals at the meetup wanted to say hi, and of course everything got paused when the infant kid of one of the players got carried in with a very nasty bruise on the forehead.), but a game that tries very much to evoke a feeling of loneliness and time passing suffers greatly from that.

The other was a result of this being our first time to play this game: The tomb we made was small. Basically one big room with just one corridor entering it. That way the skeletal guardians confronted each and every incursion in basically just one short encounter, not allowing for a lot of roleplay in those moments.

On top of that, I realized the actual point one probably should drive at only after the game ended, so the players felt a lack of agency. Discovering and making use of ones own personality should be much more important.

Still, I recommend this game a lot.

Dialect is a meta‐game, similar to Microscope, but instead of a deep history, this game has you develop a language. It comes in a rather thick hardcover, gorgeously illustrated and also hands you a bunch of cards with prompts. All of this enables you to form a tightly knitted group that has somehow isolated themselves from the rest of society — and thus forms their own language.

We had a merry band of gentleman thieves in early 19th century Hamburg that surely but slowly moved towards their downfall. In that time we invented slang that defines our marks, our celebrations and our hierarchy and actions. We saw how words slowly took on different, meaner definitions, as we moved from high stake cons to simply robbing and murdering people.

The phrase „before the cellar“, which we used to have as a code to reference our lofty gentlemanly standards became a curseword and then evolved into „to cellar someone“, a euphemism for plain murder. In the end, the cellar was all we had, and when our fearless leader walked up to the hangmans noose, her last words were „no one sings in the cellar“, refusing to give up her partners in crime.

A great game, one that I cannot wait to play again.

Playing at an open table

Harald runs his bi-weekly game in a slightly unusual fashion. It is an open table where he runs for whoever shows up. That in itself isn’t that unusual and the West Marshes style of running a campaign is based on a similar foundation.

The difference is that he treats the constant exchange of players and characters as a single continuous group. That means that if last week Clara, River and Amy break into the Holy Temple of Om, and this week Clara, Rose and Jack turn up at the game, the game starts with all three having just broken into the temple and are now facing the Dire Weresheep Guards.

But what about River and Amy?“ you ask. „And where did Rose and Jack suddenly turn up from?“

And to this, Haralds game group will answer: „What? uh.. we don’t care!“

The solution is that we treat this as just a cutting mistake in a B‐Movie. As long as the plot continues and is overall kept intact, we’re fine. So, we ended last week entering the temple and this week starts with the first confrontation inside the temple. Everything is fine. As long as no one draws attention to the fact that there are suddenly swapped‐out characters, no one really notices.

The other main reason this works is what kind of game we play at this table: There is no prepared epic campaign where we follow a carefully crafted set of settings and obstacles. Instead, Harald throws us into any one of the dozens of adventure modules he has collected over time and watches our characters try to cope with them, even if they are widely out of our level.

Then he takes whatever exit we take and uses it to throw us right into the next adventure. Example: When we decided to open a portal to escape the Servants of the Cinder Queen, that portal opened to the Broodmother Skyfortress. After having explored the fortress and finally managed to make it sort‐of‐land, we had to blindly jump from the anchor chain found ourselves on top of a structure on the Misty Isles of the Elk.

At the game table, none of this felt out of place. Harald cleverly chose the Cthonic Codex and a very rules‐light interpretation of the Adventure Fantasy Game as the base setting, and it works surprisingly well as scaffolding to hold up and connect all the different and slightly weird set‐pieces we visit. Things do not get boring, but stay mostly consistent, as Harald does keep track of when we change things in places or set something in motion that might have a world‐changing effect later on.

No, this isn’t something to play if you want to watch your character with their three friends evolve over 20 levels and find out how they save the kingdom. But if you want to have regular fun that still connects to a story worth re‐telling, this approach is worth a try.

That incel nonsense…

At some point I will write a lengthy explanation why prohibiting private cars in inner cities will become an inevitability. All the green folks will rejoice over all the newfound clean air and all and will conveniently ignore that it was the dreaded fear of terror that finally brought this to us.

This is not that explanation, it’s about something else: „Incels“ — People, specifically men who blame their lack of romantic involvement, specifically the lack of sex, on women. And then maybe drive trucks into people.

Matthew Graybosch on Google+ put my general opinion of those into pretty clear words:

As such, I’m about to lay some harsh fucking truth on you: if you’re truly involuntarily celibate, you deserve it.

But that is only my general opinion. Because, as usual, I also have a more specific one:

Every cluster of teenage kids will have a few kids that sit on the sides, not truly belonging to the main group. That happens, it’s highly regrettable, but it just happens. And if the broader culture where these kids live in puts a high value on being sporty, good looking, attractive, the kids on the sides will be what we commonly refer to as „the nerds“

I was one of those as a kid. Not truly outcast, but a bit on the fringe. Enough so that when a former classmate was talking to her kid about bullying she decided to contact me to get some „inside info“, because after 30 years, I was still stuck in her head as „the (slightly) outside one“.

I also distinctly remember a time when puberty acne, being awkward and ‚the computer nerd‘ while also seeing the surfer guy getting the attraction from all the right girls, let me briefly believe I might end up that way.

Privately.

In my own head.

Without having a word for it. Because, frankly, there was no 4chan or reddit or whatever where I could safely express that stupid idea and then end up in an echo chamber where I would reinforce that rough idea into a solid belief system.

Instead, after a few months of teenage angst and wallowing in private self‐pity, I eventually worked up the courage and asked that girl I fancied out for a movie. A few weeks later, the concept of me staying a virgin forever involuntarily was thrown to the ash heap of history.

Enough confession time, what is the point I want to make here?

I think that „incels“ are truly a creation of the internet, combined with the toxic concept of maleness . Without having that place to mutually reassure themselves in that stupid concept, looking at what they see „how things should be“ in media, they wouldn’t be able to construct that bubble for themselves. And without that bubble they would have a chance to get happier.

Brotopia, which I’m currently reading, points the very same thing out, although in a different frame:

When minorities are forced to self‐identify as minorities, their performance suffers. Sociologists even have a name for this: stereotype threat.

Incels“ are a very tragic example of a group of people that wished themselves into being a minority and then reaped all the negative effects that came with that.

The frightening thought is that a lot of those of us who nowadays look at them with scorn might have fallen into the same trap, if the tools of today would have been available to us.

Horror in Bielefeld

I spent the last weekend at a semi‐regular gaming meetup. The beauty of this thing is that while it does host more than a few dozen people, but all of them are invited known persons. Friends and family one could say.

Blechpirat and me usually use this gathering to playtest the more different games we find. This time, the candidates were Ten Candles and Bluebeard's Bride. (And then there was a Dresden Files game that was full of vengeful pirate ghosts, so the horror theme was thoroughly observed :) )

Both, Ten Candles and Bluebeard’s Bride are games where the characters can’t really win. Even more so than a Cthulhu game, where the PCs usually are at least able to avert the apocalypse for now. Both of these games will end badly, period.

Ten Candles says so very clear on the tin: When the last of the ten candles on the table is extinguished, all characters will die, no way out of it. This is a game that tries to tell a story of hope and light in the face of utter darkness and hopelessness. And it does so quite well, at least most of the time. The player characters are stranded in a sea of darkness, clinging to the light that promises survival.

The titular ten candles are actually lit on the game table. One by one they will get extinguished whenever the players fail on a dice roll. If that happens, the current scene is ended and the narrator cuts to the next one, made bleaker and less hopeful by that failed roll. But the players get to narrate facts for the next scene, one for each candle still burning. These facts can be positive, but they don’t have to…

Apart from the gimmick with the actual candles on the table, the game offers a really interesting mechanic: During character creation, you create a small stack of traits and moments. Each of these is written on a small piece of paper, and these are then actually stacked on top of each other.

Literally burning one of these will give you a small bonus, but you can only burn the one that is right on top of the stack. So the order you stack these becomes important during gameplay.

Pro‐tip: If you prep for the game, hand out papers that include the prompts and the mechanic that kicks in when burning. It’s something that is easily forgotten or confused during gameplay and having it right there will surely help.

The other thing to realise, especially for the person running the game, is that at some point, most tests the players roll will fail. And failing a test will not only progress the game by ending the scene, but also make the next one even harder. So choose the moments for these tests wisely, otherwise your game will speed up towards the end on autopilot during the last four candles or so.

But those are miner nitpicks: If you like to buy in to the „everyone will die“ premise, Ten Candles is a very fine and quite atmospheric game. And even scenes that got cut short within the first 20 seconds managed to convey a good sense of bleak dread and despair, precisely by being cut off before any real hope can surface. One example of our session was when the drifting yacht briefly bumped onto the pylon of an oil rig, only to drift away into the darkness right away…

Bluebeard’s Bride is quite another kind of horror. It is more personal, even intimate. Instead of several people, the players each pick one aspect of the Brides personality. During character creation they establish how the Bride thinks and feels and the narrator (called Groundskeeper by the game) is encouraged to mine these things, to use them against the Bride.

It is described as „feminine horror“, and it does indeed focus heavily on themes that are stereotypically feminine: How to cope with societies body standards, views on sexuality or body autonomy. Yes, these are sexist themes, but the point is to come to grips with that sexism, to see unfairness of it escalate into horror.

As Ten Candles, this is also a game where most of the story and challenges have to be created ad hoc during gameplay. And as the aim is to tailor these parts to the players, to address the things that make them shiver, I find it even more challenging with Bluebeard’s Bride to do so. It helps if one has a collection of set pieces at hand and the rulebook gives you plenty of examples and prompts.

Personally, I found it surprisingly hard to populate Bluebeard’s mansion with NPCs. The rooms were easy, but adding people into that creepy room, people that add to it instead of taking attention away was.. difficult. In the end, there was about a handful of them scattered through the house. As a result, the players didn’t get to make some of the moves, simply because there were less people to interact with.

Still, the game gives excellent prompts to add horror to basically any aspect of the setting and I got to see the players shiver a lot.