Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview for HOP- Von

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

Next up, I interview the person most like myself on the internet: a person who loves all kinds of games; adores strange games solely for their unique attractions and not to be "cool"; a person who looks at things and asks questions, a person who carries on all kinds of good discussion with everyone. Ladies and gents, I give you my smarter, wittier, more literate, beardier self: Von.

This is not Von. (Note the lack of beard!) 

L: I know you generally run games rather than play them. What draws you to want to GM a game? What sorts of games resonate most with you?  

V: Well, there are two main factors that draw me to GM a particular game.  The first is 'what I can get players for' - you gotta pick something that people are interested in playing, and there's no point forcing people to play in a game that they're not interested in.  The second is 'what I feel like running', and that tends to be influenced by what I've read or seen recently.  If I've been researching a particular period for work, for instance, I tend towards games that suit that period.  For a few weeks I did a lot of intense reading about Byzantium that got me thinking about long-term historical gaming, hence Dark Ages Vampire.  Recently I've been reading a lot about the history of magic and it's putting me in an Ars Magica kind of mood.  But if I watch Star Wars after work one day, I'll be hunting out the Rogue Trader books...

L: I'm very curious as to what's popular RPG wise in your area currently. Do you happen to know? 

V: Hmm.  Pathfinder.  Pathfindery Pathfinding where Paths are Found.  There's a lot of that about.  Seems to mostly be pretty generic whatever-kind-of-fantasy-D&D-3.5-was-by-the-end stuff.  d20 Star Wars is pretty popular and I think there's a Dark Heresy group lurking in the back room of my local games club (www.dudleydarklords.co.uk).  And then there's me sitting around running Vampire or Call of Cthulhu or Advanced Fighting Fantasy or whatever _isn't_ popular.  Someone should. 

The games that resonate most with me are the ones with context, I suppose - the ones which wear their inspiration on their sleeves and are geared towards a particular kind of game/story/experience/setting.  Games where the mechanics support the game's style (Mage, for instance - has a metric shitload of rules, but they lend it that sort of arcane, complex, struggle-to-master, every-spell-feels-like-an-effort feel) and don't get in the way of it, too (like trying to do swashbuckling adventure in D&D 3.5, cf. http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1235).

L: So, do you agree that "Mechanics that get in the way of a group's way to tell a story are inherently awful" ?

V: I try not to bring 'telling stories' into it, to be honest; an RPG isn't a conventional narrative and I think that bringing 'storytelling' into it forces an authority and a teleology onto it that's not suitable for something that belongs to everyone involved.  I do plan my games but more in the 'this is what the antagonists would do if the protagonists weren't there' kind of way, the kind of way that's designed to have the players exercise their agency and change things.

For me it's all about the group's way to play a game.  Mechanics that bog down play by being obtuse and hard to parse are inherently awful.  Mechanics that force a game to be played in a particular way, a way that's faithful to the game's source material and cultural context, are inherently good but limit the game's appeal.  Mechanics that allow a game to be played in whatever way the group feels like playing this week are inherently good but can lead to an unfocused potboiler game without any real resonance.  It all comes down to what kind of game experience people want.  I don't think anyone wants to be sitting there for half an hour trying to work out the rules for triggering an attack of opportunity while initiating a grapple on someone who's in the middle of casting a spell... 

Been thinking about this some more and I've worked out what my problem is.

It's not about 'telling' stories.  'Telling' implies that there's someone with the authority to tell and someone else who needs to be told.

It's about _making_ stories.

I know it's a semantic quibble, but semantics are important.  The words we wrap around a thing shape and guide our ideas about it, and we're never going to get away from the GM-as-frustrated-novelist view unless we start using a vocabulary that leads us away from it.

You seem to believe in a holistic view of games- that it's a rare thing that a single person or thing is the reason a game isn't working. What's your process of solving problems when things go wrong? Or does it depend on the thing and the game?

I believe in a holistic view of everything. People are too quick to find ONE THING with which to define everything about a situation or person or thing, and I don't think the world works like that - just because we think in terms of lines and centres and stories doesn't mean it's not a rhizome.

The main thing I do is take a lot of feedback, and give a lot - discuss what went wrong and what caused it to go wrong and how it could be stopped from going wrong again. And, sometimes, say "no, I can't talk about it, I'm too cross now, give me an hour for the angry-chemicals to metabolise." Structured conversations - lots of careful going-over things, checking and reformulating. 

I get a lot of funny looks, though, from people who are just not used to thinking about things like that, not taking ownership of their game-time. Especially roleplayers, who are all "why do you want to know what we like, we don't want fanservice, you're the GM, it's your game" - and I'm all "yah, but if I run something you hate, you don't play, and I sit on my own in the dark every night." That's basically it. I talk about what people don't like and I try not to inflict that on them, and I'd rather let something fall over and do something else than struggle through something that's supposed to be fun but isn't.

What sorts of things go wrong for you? 

Well. With my long-term RPGs, there tends to be One Session, about four or five into a game, where things just grrrriiinnnd and nothing much happens and everyone feels vaguely unfulfilled. It's the transition from the way I start games, which is very "go here do this experience the setting and system and explore your options" to the way I actually like to run them, which is "no, you set the agenda, and the world adapts to what you're doing and where you're going." A lot of the time we end up retconning that session, deciding which bits actually happened and assuming that's all that happened.

What else... well, from my point of view, sometimes I'll realise that an NPC is just boring, boring to play and boring to use and with no role or distinctive voice, but because they're close to a PC I can't just shuffle them off into the background. Fortunately, mine are harsh worlds where NPCs can and frequently do kill each other, often in response to something players did or to spark them off on doing something. So that's less of a problem and more of an opportunity.

Sometimes I can't play because the spaces I have available are shared with people who don't want to play games but don't want to leave games alone to be played. That's something I don't know how to do anything about - I won't throw someone out of a space we both have the right to use, but I really can't stand kibitzers, especially ones who are either passing judgement on the whole game, or playing without playing - giving hints and asking questions but not actually, you know, involving themselves.

In wargames, the only thing that's "wrong" is a non-game where all one person does is push their toys across the table for all of two turns and then lose without really getting to do anything. That's not a game because it's not a challenge - it fails Crawford's dichotomy test before you get near the level of its being a game or not.

What is your greatest success, and your biggest failure in gaming terms? 

Umm, biggest success would be Bastille Day, I think. http://kaptainvon.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/the-musical-method/ The players involved still talk about that one, whole years later. And it started a whole Mage campaign because they didn't want to just leave their characters there, and that campaign turned into one of the best I've ever run.

Biggest failure would be any of those wargaming armies I've had in the last few years that I've bought and ended up hating and selling off within a couple of months. Waste of time, waste of money, a run of disappointments.

Do you believe in villains? Or are your games more "the players vs the world" sorts of affairs? 

I don't believe in villains, or in heroes in the same sense that the word's sometimes used - I like it in the classical Greek sense, the hero as extreme, larger-than-life in every way, too big for the world to hold, rather than as necessarily a good person. 

There are definitely antagonists to the players but they tend to be player-made... like, in my Dark Ages game (sorry, here I go again), there's one NPC who they've been suspicious of since he showed up, and rightly so - but while he's definitely Not On Their Side, he's not as Not On Their Side as other vampires out there, so I'm playing that up, running him as an unpleasant but not totally moustache-twirlingly-evil type, who might actually be trying to make the best of a bad situation. I don't decide who the enemy is - I let the players make their own enemies, and the 'plot' is always evolving out of what they do to find it out.

You mentioned to me previously that one-shots are your kryptonite. Why is this? 

Well. Part of it's the circumstances in which they tend to be run, at parties and conventions and generally for people you don't know. I like being able to put together a group dynamic, knowing that so-and-so plays well with such-and-such and while he doesn't like the same things as her they play off each other well. Can't do that with people you've only just met.

I'm less uncomfortable with them in established groups, but then... the thing is, I run quite an emergent, reactive kind of game, where the world is built with a sort of thematic richness and narrative potential to it but the nitty-gritty details emerge in response to what players want and do. The one-off seems to require that you have more of an idea of what's going on in advance, or risk having a session that sort of ends on a flat note because the plot had only just started taking shape when everyone went home. Mind you, my best sessions ever have been one-offs! I suppose in an ongoing game there's a chance to recover from a bad session, discuss and deal with and salvage it, while a bad one off is just there, irredeemable. A good premade adventure goes a long way, though. We Be Goblins! is ace no matter what, 'cause it's goblins.

You kind of have a man-crush on Zak. What is it about his way of thinking that appeals to you?  Who else in the blogging 'verse do you like, and why?

Do I? I suppose I link to his stuff a lot because 
a) it's accessible - because he runs for a lot of people who aren't gamers or geeks or grognards but are just there because they're curious, he has to interest people who have never played before, may never play again, and don't have that sort of inherent interest in the genre of games or the kind of conversations had by people who do, and
b) because he's a very visual and very 'whatever works' person who filters everything into D&D, and I'm a very textual and very academic-rigour person who's never really gotten into D&D, so... it's contrast, really. It's a way of playing and thinking about games that wouldn't have sprung to my mind, and I prefer drawing on people who think differently to me than surrounding myself with people who do think like me. Plus we both think life's too short for tedious nerd fights.

Who else... well, if he hasn't quit this week, I really like Kent's stuff (somekingskent.blogspot.com). He's like the anti-Zak - very literary, takes forever to put things together, and makes sure they fit, and I don't think he'd object to being described as elitist (maybe 'meritocratic' is a better fit, actually). And he's a mathematician, so that's another alien way of thinking. I think I'd rather play in his game than Zak's, for what it's worth, just because that high-minded, labour of love, thespianic, twelve-hour-session sort of game isn't something you get to play every week.

Who else... Porky is brilliant, I love his mad thoughts. He's that notion of holistic gameplay taken to its logical extreme. Nothing is specific, everything feeds into everything else and can feed into anything else. Mike Brandt, because he's made NOVA inclusive in the right way - acknowledging that you can't put everyone through the same wringer, but you can put a whole bunch of wringers in the same washroom and have people share their experiences once they've hit the other side, as it were. James S and SinSynn, just for sheer volume of clever comments and interesting questions, and Ratshag, who does Need More Rage, because you can't tell me WoW is a bad thing when you look at some of the fiction he's been putting out and all the times he's had. You and Dave I have a lot of respect for for going out and giving the storeowner's perspective on things, too - I like transparency and honesty and knowing the way things are rather than speculating. I could go on forever with this 'un. I have lots of blog-crushes. Too many for a blogroll, to be honest...

How many miniature games do you own figures for?

Six, at the moment. 40K, WFB, Warmachine (not Hordes though), Malifaux, Mordheim (sort of implicit in WFB really) and Blood Bowl. I want to try a historical at some point, if I can find a decent Fourth Crusade one.

How many MtG decks do you have? Favorite color? Why? 

Just two. Favourite colour... black for sure. I'm so cheap for undead - you know how SinSynn is with aliens? That's me and undead. I'm just quieter about it. I like the horde/control/everything's-a-resource playstyle too, although I think if I were taking the game more seriously I don't think I'd play mono-anything.


  1. It's true, I am not a sweet-as Sisters tattoo - although I am commonly found on a lady's arm.

    I'll get an ego if you keep saying nice things about me, y'know. I still think you're more socially aware and generally nicer than me, anyway. And you have a more realistic sense of industry than my "let it all fall down and go back to blokes in sheds again, it's more interesting that way" inclinations.

  2. Unsurprisingly I think in the same way on a lot of this - on the people in their sheds too. More sheds. The holistic, collaborative and social aspects go especially deep and there's a lot for us still to tease out, and I might even go further on the 'making stories' qualification and say 'finding stories'. I probably blushed a deep pink at one point in there as well...