My Brave Sparrow


Back in October, we visited my aunt and uncle in Maine. This would be the second time that my daughter, now five years old, would visit them – out on the Maine coast at Tenant’s Harbor. The last time we were there, a couple of years ago, one of the places we visited was Marshall Point. It is ridiculously beautiful, as much of the Maine coast is, featuring plenty of ocean spray and stones and a lighthouse, as well as a museum that has never been open when we were there.

What I remember most from that first visit two years ago is that for two hours, my daughter just ran around squealing with delight. It was clearly her favorite place on Earth. Something about the sea, and cold wind, just sets her off.

I was glad to see that, on our next visit two years later, her joy remained. But the last couple of years have had some hard bits for us as a family, and five is a long way from three. At first, she was really hesitant. She wanted to hold hands on the stony trails down to the water. It took some convincing to get her to walk with me out to the lighthouse itself. She had just learned how to identify poison ivy from our traipsing out behind our house, and there was a lot there to avoid, which made her nervous. It was wonderful, but I definitely had to lead the way.

While we were on that trip, I had printed out some interesting indie games to read through while on vacation. One of those games was Brave Sparrow, a fascinating little game by Avery Alder of Buried Without Ceremony. It is designed as an alternate reality experience. In brief, you are a sparrow, but you have forgotten who you are and how to fly. So you have to find your wings again. You gather feathers, and then you go and seek out numinous experiences in beautiful places, and see whether you can re-attach your feathers in order to fly again.

Specifically, one goes on missions. To count as a mission, you must take a risk, and act with courage in a place of beauty.

This game was on my mind on our second trip to Marhsall Point. I was proud of my daughter, because I know that it took a lot of courage to follow me around in a place she probably only barely remembered. And I’m learning that kids go through ups and downs with everything, including fearfulness.

Our second visit was entirely different. Her adventure meter had apparently refilled, and the tide had gone out. Not only were we clambering over sea-wet stones, but we were naming and claiming them: Baby Snail Island; S Island (featuring a stone that once had a compass etched into it, but only the S for South remained). She chose her own path, and took risks, and led the way. She was agile, and confidently chose the best way from rock to rock, navigating obstacles and stopping when she was stuck.

She acted with courage, again, in a place of beauty. My heart was filled, and so was hers, I think. She even inspired her grandma to clamber around on the stones with us.

I’m not sure what to write, here, but I’d made a note to write something, so here it is three months later.

I remember thinking, this is about the best thing I can ever do as a dad. Be with her while she acts with courage in a place of beauty.

My brave sparrow.


Gaming Geeks Unite! DriveThru RPG Pakistan Flood Relief

It’s the talk of the Interwebs – DriveThru RPG is offering a bundle of PDF products, the sale of which will go to support Doctors Without Borders and the victims of the recent massive Pakistan flood.

Just glancing down the list of products makes it clear that this is an unbelievable amount of gaming goodness for the listed price of $25.  Even if it wasn’t philanthropy, it would be a hell of a deal.

This isn’t just a load of inexpensive peripherals – there are plenty of full games like Contenders, Don’t Rest Your Head, Dragon Warriors, Exalted Second Edition, Fear Itself, Hot War, Icons, Spycraft 2.0, Starblazer Adventures, Time and Temp, Wild Talents 2nd Edition

A total value of $730 altogether.  For $25!

The Lumpley Games PDF Library

Ever wanted to main-line awesome directly into your veins?

It’s never been this accessible before.

$25 for PDFs of Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, kill puppies for satan, In a Wicked Age, Mechaton, and Poison’d.  That’s…$4.17 per game.

Stop what you are doing and buy Vincent Baker’s games.


Thanks to gifts I’ve recently received, I am now the proud owner of:

and the one I’m probably most excited about, Brennan Taylor’s new game
Between them, I am prepared to be excited, humbled and inspired. With any luck, I can also convince some people to play with me!

Ashcan Review Part 1: How We Came to Live Here

I’ve been reading through Brennan Taylor’s ashcan of How We Came to Live Here, which he has posted for download. This is fortunate, because this year conventions aren’t happening, so I unfortunately won’t be able to get any of these ashcans in person.

I have long been of the opinion, particularly after doing my undergraduate work in religious studies, that the vast majority of rpg magic systems are horrendously awful. Magic is basically nothing more than someone else’s religion. So often, magic systems are put out there which are entirely devoid of color and particularity, or their color and particularity are completely arbitrary and uninteresting.

I thought of this persona rant while reading How We Came to Live Here because it is so incredibly strong in this area for a lot of reasons, the most important of which might be that the magic system he presents is not a magic system at all – it is a life system. Unbelieveable! That what amounts to “magic” would just be people’s beliefs about how the world works and how they interact with that world and with each other! This is one of the only instances in fantasy in general, and in rpgs in particular, when the magic system has been anywhere near as interesting as the religions and occult practices here on planet Earth. ::Applause:: Like a good anthropologist, Taylor gives us an inside view of this culture which is different from, well, my culture at least, as well as his – an inside view which is affirmative. These things are true because they are true for the People. What you’re sort of swept into is this holistic system of life that is presented, where supernatural and mundane things are all caught up in the same over-arching system.

In effect, I think, a good “magic system” is one where there is not any “magic” at all, if by “magic” you mean something separate from the life of a particular people at a particular time. It always bothers me when Elves and Orcs approach magic like Enlightenment philosophers, relegating everything to its hermetically-sealed category, casting spells that have no real meaning in their lives, which aren’t based in anything important, which are essentially flashy-but-arbitrary shortcuts.

In contrast, the strength of HWCtLH in this regard comes from Brenna’s stated goal of representing, faithfully, a fantasy setting that is based on a culture that is not his own – that of the southwest American natives whom he lived near growing up and whose beliefs and practices he also studied in college. He describes his game as a king of fantasy setting for the Anasazi people rather than for northern Europeans. I think it is this change in viewpoint that enables him to make this excellent presentation of a “magic system” that is actually interesting and evocative, even compelling.

I will try to put together a playtest of this game. Right now, I’m jealously trying to finish Parsec so that I can move on with the lessons I’ve learned from my first foray into rpg publishing, and I’m also running a Spirit of Eberron game, but hopefully I can put something together so that I can give him some more concrete feedback on this game.

I can’t speak about the mechanics of the game so far – they seem like they’ll work on paper, but I’ll have to put that playtest together to actually figure them out. But I’m loving reading this book for its own sake, which hasn’t happened in a long time for me when it comes to rpg books. You can really tell that this is a labor of love, something that Taylor feels passionate about. It shows through even in his relatively simple, straightforward text. I look forward to test-driving it.

This was Part 1 – Part 2 will come when, and if, I get to run the game. Even if I don’t, I’ll probably have more to say about how I think it’ll work when dice hit table…

The Keys to a Great Game…

…are great players, preparation and buy-in.

This realization comes from three sources – listening to a lot of actual play recordings, the end of our Heroes of Karia Vitalus campaign Friday, and trying to run a D&D game for 7 middle-schoolers Saturday.

Actual Play Recordings

I’ve been surprised with, in honesty, how boring some of these recordings have been. Part of the problem is that indie games tend to be pickup games, so you’re listening to people who have very little investment in the story or in their characters, and who possibly have not played together before. But even when I listen to an established group playing, there just isn’t much there a lot of the time.

I think that this is because of a lack of buy-in. If you’ve just picked up a story game, very little preparation has gone into things – and it shows. A lot of story games are powerful ways to produce story now (whatever that is, I still probably don’t get it) but they do this at the expense of preparation, or story before. It means that the story you’re creating is just being pulled out of thin air, and even with a great system that churns out conflicts, it is still a story out of thin air. It lacks depth and interconnectivity.

And then there are these pauses as dice are rolled to find out what happens next. The dice rattle on the table, and then someone starts interpreting what’s happened. Its almost like the dice are playing the game with themselves, and the players are translating. Its really weird to listen to, being someone who mostly plays “traditional” games.

(In experience, Mortal Coil can avoid this problem to a degree because the players create the world and the rules that govern magic together, meaning once they’ve done this, they’ve bought into the setting to some degree already. There are probably other indie games that address this in some way, but I think the point still stands.)

Heroes of Karia Vitalus

Holy shit this was a good game, a good campaign, that ended with a bang. There are a lot of reasons it was so good, but I can narrow them down to good players and incredible buy-in. You can have a good GM and a good storyline and still have a game fall sort of flat, but good players, perhaps more accurately, a good group overall, will make magic out of any kind of garbage they pick up.

I’m going to talk more about Karia in the future, but I wanted to mention the buy-in. Half of the 100+ NPCs were made by the players in the game. Loads of scenes and conflicts and stories were created entirely by the players. A lot of this happened on the Heroes of Karia Vitalus blog, and more of it happened in-game.

A weakness of most story games, I think, is that this depth of buy-in is impossible if you just sat down to play with maybe a sentence of story worked out ahead of time. This limits how good the game will be, in my opinion. To be powerful, a story has to be nestled in a system of stories, in a larger story that contains it. It has to be part of what I think I’ll call a storysystem of interlocking characters, scenes, conflicts, history and future, breadth and depth. No way around it – this kind of storysystem requires preparation.

You might be able to get around this requirement if you are playing in an established setting that everyone is familiar with, but I still think it would take preparation to connect your story with the larger setting-story. And even if it doesn’t, because you’re in an established setting, a lot of the preparation work has been done for you.

D&D Game for Middle-Schoolers

In this case, all I really had going for me was preparation. They buy-in was close to nil and the players varied from enthusiastic to completely unfamiliar with D&D. Even the ones who said they’d played before looked blankly at me when I said things like “make an attack roll” or “make a Reflex save”.

This was a great example of system mattering a lot. Knowing that I didn’t have a strong group of players and had no buy-in to start with, it would have been a great situation for a story game. I’m thinking The Prince’s Kingdom, for example – but I was brought in to run D&D, so that’s what I had to do. (I had a lot of experiences that night of D&D’s rules actively killing the fun).

Part of having great players is having a strong group template and social contract at the table. We had a group template of sorts – I pre-created characters who all had relationships with each other and had different pieces of a mystery/puzzle that the game revolved around. But there was no social contract. The players were all there with completely different agendas and modes of play and priorities.

I’d love to have been able to watch them play D&D on their own before I ran a game, but I had to come in blind, so even my preparation, the only strength I had, didn’t get me very far because you have to know the players you are preparing for.

In Conclusion (for now)

Great players: who like to make the game more fun for each other, who move from stance to stance easily as the game allows, who know the system and who have a strong group template and social contract at the table

Preparation: the night’s story is connected to a storysystem that has a past, a future, breadth and depth before the game even begins. This doesn’t have to be all the GM’s job, but it needs to be there

Buy-in: there need to be ways that the players are invested in their characters and in the setting as well. It has to matter to them what happens and why. They should be participating in creating the story and the storysystem together as the game progresses – people buy into stories involving characters and situations they helped create. I prefer, in this case, if the dice serve the players, rather than the other way around…

I can already see I’ll need to unpack this in the future, but this was just on my mind.

A Dearth of Middle-Earth

I remember playing ICE’s old game, Middle-Earth Roleplaying, or MERP, and trying to make it fit into the style and feel of the books. Rolemaster wasn’t a system that lent itself to “Tolkienian” adventure, really, but it did a slightly better job than D&D, and the book was well-researched. The supplements and modues were also well done for the time. It was a good example of when setting fits even though rules don’t.

I remember my deep disappointment with Decipher’s Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. It also was an example of well-done setting material combined with a blatant D&D/D20 ripoff as far as the system was concerned. So, again, you have a mediocre/unsuited system dressed in Tolkienian drag.

For a while I was following Song of Arda, an attempt at a free Middle-Earth RPG that was available online for a few years. It has since disappeared before being completed, because it was an attempt at representing the feel of the books through system, rather than just setting description.

Burning Wheel is clearly based on Middle-Earth…in some ways. But it still leans toward the generalized medieval fantasy RPG – which is fine, because it isn’t liscenced or anything, and it does a hell of a better job than ICE or Decipher did system-wise. The problem with BW is that if you want a rules-lite system, this ain’t it. Also, you still have to adapt it for Middle-Earth, and making new lifepaths for your characters is a time-consuming process. (Much of the work has been done by others on their boards, but still…)

This is probably a problem I’ll just have to solve myself. Now that I’ve thought about it, its going to be in there, along with all of these other designs floating around. Hopefully it won’t distract me. If I do come up with anything, I’ll probably just distribute it for free online. We’ll see.

What would you want to see in a game system designed for Middle-Earth?